David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: dostoevsky (page 2 of 2)

Carl Schmitt

Long Sunday has been running a series of posts on Carl Schmitt. I am not at all a fan or a student of Schmitt, and I am not intimately familiar with his work. From what I have read of his work, however, I believe there is far more to learn about politics and political philosophy in the 20th century from, for example, Karl Polanyi, Richard J. Bernstein, Joseph Schumpeter, Fernand Braudel, Randolph Bourne, Benedict Anderson, Leszek Kolakowski, Barrington Moore, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, and Robert Musil. Conveniently for me, these thinkers are all free of the Nazi baggage with which Schmitt is saddled. While I don’t plan to participate in the discussion, I do want to examine some of the axiomatic statements that have been made, especially around Schmitt’s Nazi involvement.

Whatever their differences, there is one undoubted similarity between Schmitt and the Left (I capitalize it to distinguish its doctrinaire manifestation from the all-encompassing anti-Bush, pro-competence anti-imperialism that passes for leftism in the United States these days, on which I hope we all agree): their anti-liberalism. As I said, I think Stanley Fish’s recent op-ed is one of the more concise statements of this position. Craig picks up this thread when he says:

Perhaps, then, the fascination with Schmitt qua Nazi has more to do with the aspirations of left politics than with any real danger – at least insofar as that danger is fascist. Thus, the point in such ‘critiques’ isn’t fascism, but rather those who do not have the common sense to be decent, complacent liberals.

I.e., people who are attacking Schmitt for being a Nazi are really attacking him because he threatens their complacent liberal world-view. This is also something of an old saw, recently enshrined more convincingly in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was in essence a vicious attack on those who would try to work within a rotten system to change it. It reminds me of those lyrics that Lester Bangs quotes in his review of Chicago at Carnegie Hall (probably his defining moment):

For the “preaching” vocal improvisition in the Fourth Movement of “It Better End Soon”–“We’ve gotta do it right / Within this system / Gonna take over / But within this system”–the They Got the Guns But We Got the Numbers Award.

But this is a conception of liberalism not as an ideology but as a class phenomenon, that of sheltered middle-class complicity. Interesting how the term “liberal” slides from being an ideology to that of a generalized accomplice, much as it has to the extreme right factions in this country: not liking Bush makes you a liberal. At any rate, I don’t think this criticism really flies, since there are plenty of non-Nazi anti-liberal thinkers who are being mostly ignored as well. (Herbert von Karajan was far more of a Nazi than Wilhelm Furtwangler, but I do not believe that Furtwangler is less famous than Karajan these days because he was a vastly better and more challenging conductor.) But I digress; this is more a matter of positioning.

Craig notes two black marks on Schmitt’s record:

1933 and 1945. These two years have overdetermined the subsequent reception of Carl Schmitt’s thought and influence. In 1933, as we all know, Schmitt joined the Nazi party; the same month as Martin Heidegger. In 1945, Schmitt was released from internment at Nuremberg, at which point he entered exile, never again to teach in West Germany or to hold an academic position.

Craig implies that this list covers all the big-ticket items, but it does not. To make a case for Schmitt, it would first be necessary to lay out a few other ignominious dates. October, 1936, when he declared to a convention of law professors that German law must be cleansed of the “Jewish spirit.” June, 1934, when he called Hitler’s “Long Knives” purges “the highest form of administrative justice.” September, 1936, when with much contemporary resonance, he defends the Inquisition (though not its methods of torture) as a model of justice, since it requires confessions before convictions. October, 1936 again, when he quoted Hitler: “In that I defend myself against the Jews, I struggle to do the work of the Lord.” And many of the months and years after the war in which he wrote in his journals such statements as “Jews remain Jews while Communists can improve themselves and change. The real enemy is the assimilated Jew.” Edmund Fawcett writes:

Unlike the involvement of Heidegger, who largely fell silent after early pro-Nazi encomiums, Schmitt’s engagement with Hitlerism was nevertheless lasting and open. He re-edited his publications, playing down references to Jewish or left-wing thinkers and adding anti-Semitic asides. In October 1936, he spoke at a conference on “German law in the fight against the Jewish intellect”, ending with Hitler’s words, “By fending off the Jew, I struggle for the work of the Lord”. After 1940, Schmitt lectured in Occupied Europe on Nazi legal and cultural policy.

[In his post-war journals] He derided returning exiles who “treasured their virtue like booty” and mocked the German historians who were trying to tell the truth about what had happened. Thomas Mann came in for special scorn, a hated symbol to Schmitt of high-bourgeois probity, whom he called “a reputable fraud”.

That’s not to mention 1938, in which Schmitt wrote that Jews sit around waiting for Christians to die in battle and “then eat the flesh of those killed and live off it” (The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes).

So by all means, attempt to distinguish Schmitt’s philosophy from his Nazi activities, but let’s not downplay the latter when attempting to explicate them.

Craig asks a couple of rhetorical follow-ups, which I think deserve answers. The questions are in italics.

Why, then, is Heidegger spared the assault that Schmitt has suffered? Insomuch as there can be a distinction, I too find Schmitt to have been a more vigorous Nazi and anti-semite than Heidegger (or even Celine), but I see little point in measuring sins. My answer would be that Heidegger has not been spared such an assault. In his well-written introduction to Heidegger, George Steiner looks unflinchingly at the problem of Heidegger’s Nazism and excuses nothing. Contrast it with Craig’s remarks.

What about others who were either sympathizers or full members of the party? What about them indeed? As always in life, justice was not done. People like Karajan got off far too lightly, while people like Klages and Baeumler were justly marginalized. De Man and Heidegger have suffered their share of trouble as well, as well they should. We should be more than troubled by these things.

Why is it acceptable for artists, such as Eliot and Pound, to have had fascist sympathies? Is it? The problem of fascist, anti-semitic or otherwise repellent sympathies plagues the histories of all disciplines. Pound forever will stand with Wyndham Lewis and Lord Haw-haw as one of the more nauseating British fascists. Kipling was a colonialist. Dostoevsky and Celine were anti-semites. So was Thomas Edison. Their beliefs are inscribed in their records and we read them with that knowledge.

What was so dangerous about Schmitt that he was interned at Nuremberg in preparation for trial and then prohibited an academic job after the war? I confess to not understanding this question, as this fate befell many (but not all) of those who had similar Nazi memberships and sympathies. Neither Germany seemed to want much to do with them. Some (let me bash on Karajan some more, for example) were unfairly rehabilitated.

Why does such a pariah, such a horrendous figure appeal so greatly to certain segments of the left? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

I do ultimately find the Left’s tolerance for Schmitt somewhat ironic. In a Leftist arts community where there has been a litmus test of whether one’s poetry helps to establish socialism in the world today, it’s hard to imagine a litmus test that Schmitt could ever pass. Personally, I find the work of disentangling his political philosophy from his Nazi viewpoints to be unrewarding and possibly futile. Personally, I simply find Heidegger to be a far more original thinker, and I spend my time worrying about his Nazi associations rather than Schmitt’s. There is much room for disagreement on these points, but we must at least be honest about the degree and mode of Schmitt’s Nazi involvement and respect critiques based on them inasmuch as they are factual, regardless of motive. And to those who would say that my distaste towards Schmitt owing to his Nazi views has anything in the least to do with his challenging of my complacent liberalism, I cry bullshit.

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

David Grossman: See Under: Love

This is a big book, and when I say big, I don’t mean in page count. It’s a modest 450 pages, but the scope of what Grossman tries to do here dwarfs longer works like Dostoevsky’s lesser works, Christina Stead’s novels, and even things like Cortazar’s Hopscotch. It is, I suppose, the sheer outsizedness of Grossman’s ambitions that renders See Under: Love simultaneously awe-inspiring and messy. Things like that have been said about other modern bookss like The Tin Drum and far too many Latin American novels (where outsized ambition is a stereotype, despite the meticulous focus of authors like Borges and Rulfo), but Grossman’s book is unique as far as I know in bringing the aggressiveness to a resolutely abstract peak. A noted expert on Israeli literature tells me that the book had a massive impact when first published in Israel in the mid-80s, because unlike the strict narratives of authors like Wiesel and Appelfeld, Grossman’s approach was out to contextualize the Holocaust in language and literature.

The book is divided strictly into four parts which are only loosely connected. Characters reappear between them, but in drastically different form. The main character is a child (third person) in the first section and an adult (first person) in the second, then recedes to a background third person narrator in the third section before disappearing altogether in the last. Maybe it will make more sense if I describe each segment:

1. Momik: A child, Momik, grows up in Israel in the 50s, born to Holocaust survivor parents. His parents will not speak about what they call “Over There,” and Momik comes to wonder about what he calls the Nazi Beast. He knows it’s present, but he senses it ignores him because he is not truly a Jew; a Jew is one who knows the story of “Over There.” He plots to take his grandfather, Anshel Wasserman, another surivor, into the cellar of his house to lure the Beast into showing itself. His grandfather tells him enough to send him into paroxysms of fear, from which he does not fully recover. Then his grandfather disappears.

2. Bruno: Momik is now an adult writer in the early 80s, and he’s fairly obsessed with Polish writer Bruno Schulz, a half-mystical, half-imagistic Jew who was shot during the war by an SS man. In “The Mythologization of Reality”, Schulz wrote:

At present we consider the word to be merely a shadow of reality, its reflection. But the reverse would be more accurate: reality is but a shadow of the word. Philosophy is really philology, the creative exploration of the word.

And likewise, Grossman presents a fantasia on Schulz’s life that ends with him not being shot, but escaping into the waters, where he communes with the fish. Momik eventually meets up with him, and Schulz takes him to a new world of a new language, one without violence, without the idea of violence. But it’s not what one would expect…

3. Wasserman: Momik is reconstructing a life of his grandfather, who in earlier years was the author of lovable juvenile adventure stories featuring the “Children of the Heart.” Wasserman comes to the camps, and the Nazis find that he cannot be killed; a direct bullet to the head doesn’t do it. They bring him to the camp commandant, Neigel, who makes a deal with Wasserman: Wasserman will tell him new stories, Scheherezade-style, of the Children of the Heart, and for each story, Neigel will attempt to kill Wasserman. So amidst mass death, Wasserman reinvents the Children of the Heart in the present day, in alternately nightmarish and surreal situations. Of particular interest, though not described here, is their parentage of a child named Kazik.

4. The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life: Structured as an alphabetical concordance, though not arbitrarily (there is some structural linearity to reading it from beginning to end), this section interweaves revelations about Kazik and the Wasserman/Neigel situation. Kazik, it turns out, is a child who lived an entire human life in less than 24 hours, whom the Children of the Heart prayed would “know nothing of war.” He grows up, has sex, takes a trip, and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Neigel’s wife leaves him, even though he had been attempting to use Wasserman’s stories, unattributed, to draw her back to him. Neigel too commits suicide. Wasserman lives.

There’s more, much, much more. Especially in the last section, Grossman throws out ideas and images so quickly that there is simply too much of an overload to assemble them into a conceptual structure for the book. I suspect this was consciously intended, for it fits with the themes of the book for the beautiful, focused prose of the first two sections (“Bruno” in particular is viscerally moving) to become more abstract and more incoherent as the subject matter comes to inhabit the Holocaust. It is a strange book where an underwater fantasy adventure with Bruno Schulz is more concrete than scenes in a concentration camp, but that is one of Grossman’s most distinctive achievements.

Four words to describe the novel: violence, love, language, memory. In the same way that Momik, in the first section, is alienated by his lack of memory of “Over There,” Kazik suffers in his lack of knowledge of war. The middle two sections, in turn, show language to be, inseparably, an equal conduit for love and violence. This is an absurd reduction of the novel, but since Grossman is very cagey about giving the reader any one place to start, and effectively gives the reader no place to end (the encyclopedia runs out of alphabetical entries, but that is hardly an ending), I constructed my own, and that is it.

To be continued…

Update: The aforementioned expert, Adriana, corrects me for misquoting her:

But the point that I was making when we talked (while measuring flour for a [sugar-free] peach cobbler) had to do specifically with the novel’s reception in Israel and how it compared to the Holocaust narrative of another Israeli author. Wiesel did not factor in that particular comparison. What distinguished See Under: Love was that Grossman was not a Holocaust survivor, and his novel attempted to imagine the Holocaust from the perspective of the second-generation, particularly (and this is a crucial distinction to keep in mind when reading the novel) the Israeli second-generation.

I admit full culpability for adding Wiesel to the equation, but the first-generation/second-generation distinction (which, to the best of my knowledge, I would agree is keenly apparent in the book) is not all that she mentioned. She also described the reception as also centered around the somewhat shocking experimentalism of the book in dealing with the Holocaust material, as well as its overt anti-narrative tendencies. While Appelfeld uses clearly allegorical and synecdochal techniques, his novels are fundamentally realistic and linear. Adriana says:

Appelfeld skillfully exploits the conventions of realism to create narratives that are deeply concerned with language, history, memory and the looming threat of their breakage.

But I would inquire further as to the difference between a novel that obeys the conventions of realism and a novel that is realistic. (What can realism be besides a convention?) I would point out as an ironic example Appelfeld’s novel The Immortal Bartfuss, where the titular adjective is used to denote his survival; meanwhile, Grossman imagines a truly immortal character in See Under: Love. This is not to deny Appelfeld’s stunning use of narrative ellipsis or his undermining of narrative expectation, but he inhabits realistic techniques thoroughly enough that I am willing to draw a line between him and Grossman. I would also ask where Amos Oz figures in this, since he falls in age between the two authors, and seems to stick to the realist paradigm. Even when uses an epistolary format in Black Box, the story remains quite linear and explicit.

Brett Bourbon: Finding a Replacement for the Soul

This is a strange one. Subtitled Mind and Meaning in Literature and Philosophy, this book comes as neither an inhabitant of a particular established field of study, nor as the cross-disciplinary generalizations of a well-known academic like Richard Rorty or Stanley Cavell. Its topic is how literature has something unique to contribute to metaphysical concerns, specifically something that cannot be obtained from philosophy. It’s very idiosyncratic, and while I’m not sure how anyone could agree with all or most of it, there should be more books like it.

The question considered, stated early on, is:

What does it mean to be a human person with our capacities and our fate? How could we answer such a question? Maybe with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the works of Aristotle, or Bach’s Mass in B Minor…Every answer to “What does it mean to be human?” is a restatement of another riddle. (20)

I take the question of meaning in human life to be metaphysical. There are extreme epistemological concerns that overlap with it, such as how such a meaning is communicated to others, how it is perceived, and our own sense of ourselves as humans to begin with. But where Wittgenstein (whose late work figures prominently in the book) would relegate these questions to a mystical status, Bourbon follows them in a comparatively concrete manner. When he says “meaning,” he constitutes it in a Heideggerian way: what does being human constitute that could not be constituted by a robot or a computer program? Here is how he describes this distinction:

To talk about seeing humans as machines, if by machine we mean as automata and thus as not human in the way that I am, or as machines in the same way that clocks and computers are, is not to see humans under some aspect or description. It is to understand human beings as not human. Human beings could cease to be human only if the world were not our world. (204)

The question of “seeing” is epistemological, but the metaphysics underpinning this passage are quite aggressive. There is some bootstrapping going on in the book, as though to assume that the question of human meaning is paramount to Da-sein, and that the path to an answer can be found through literature, and specifically, through “The various ways sentences and phrases lose sense.” I am sympathetic to this approach, but Bourbon goes after it with such single-mindedness that he will lose many along the way who do not agree with the centrality of his concerns.

One of his final conclusions–

The deformations of our variable relation to and participation in language are the only legitimate things that we can read through literature. (259)

–is less shocking in context simply because it flows so easily from
the strong opinions that have preceded it.

The significance of these topics are as a way of saving/replacing the authoritative voice, and how to preserve a method of meaning (as a human) in the absence of a definitive religion or other authority. This is presented as an ethical question as much as an ontological one. Where oracles once spoke with a particular type of intentionality that provided a foundational basis for truth, we now cannot fall back on such myths:

Our ethical judgments and their particular intentional content and concern lack a foundation that would include an intrinsic relation to their normative form. (46)

In other words, it is necessary to build a foundation for ethics that stands aside from the scientific, objective world–perhaps even the propositional world described by Russell and early Wittgenstein. There is an echo here of Levinas’s project to save morality, as well as Alasdair MacIntyre’s endorsement of Aristotle’s ethics. The difference is that it is far more deductive than even Levinas; from literature and “human meaning” will flow a river that picks up ethics downstream.

To be continued…

Galen Strawson and Narrativity

I was planning to summarize Galen Strawson’s arguments against narrativity in the Oct 15 issue of the TLS, but I’m blessed, because Peter Leithart has already done a sterling job presenting Strawson’s argument. The key idea, in Strawson’s words, is the opposition between diachronic (or continuous, or narrative) and episodic (or discontinuous, or non-narrative) perceptions of life:

The basic form of Diachronic self-experience (D) is that one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term Diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative. If one is Episodic (E), by contrast, one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular tendency to see their life in Narrative terms (the Episodic/Diachronic distinction is not the same as the Narrative/non-Narrative distinction, but there are marked correlations between them).

Strawson slides some of the terms around, but to keep things relatively simple, let’s consider that diachronics are inclined to build narratives around themselves and others over time, while episodics are disinclined to construct cognitive edifices that rely on the assumption of a constant body undergoing incremental change. The assumption is not intuitive for them. I have no problem instantly classifying myself as episodic, or in accepting the basic nature of the dichotomy. As Strawson says, it is not the default position in most literature, and one of the reasons reading Proust has been so revelatory has been his stance that a person at one moment is incapable of looking upon their memories, their past experiences, and their acquaintances with the same authentic eye that he or she possessed at any past point. This stance struck me as refreshingly honest and non-reductionistic, and went a ways towards justifying the book’s length. It occurs first with Swann and Odette:

Was not Swann conscious of this from his own experience, and was there not already in his lifetime–as it were a prefiguration of what was to happen after his death–a posthumous happiness in this marriage with Odette whom he had passionately loved–even if she had not attracted him at first sight–whom he had married when he no longer loved her, when the person who, in Swann, had so longed to live and so despaired of living all his life with Odette, when that person was dead?

This represents to me a more realistic and complex view of human experience than anything in Balzac or Fitzgerald. From Strawson, I would take it that my intuitions are not shared by many, and certainly not by fiction writers. Strawson’s diachronic writers are canonical, his episodic writers are idiosyncratic. Beyond that, I was gratified to see that of Strawson’s list of episodic writers–

Michel de Montaigne, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Laurence Sterne, Coleridge, Stendhal, Hazlitt, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Iris Murdoch (a strongly Episodic person who is a natural story-teller), A. J. Ayer, Bob Dylan.

–I felt favorably (sometimes extremely favorably) towards most of them, while of his list of diachronic writers–

Plato, St Augustine, Heidegger, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick O’Brian.

–I find Conrad, Greene, Waugh, and O’Brian extremely boring, and wouldn’t identify myself with any of the others, who I appreciate more in the role of philosophers of narrativity than when they are employers of it. Yet it’s amazing how, despite the disputable nature of the choices (wouldn’t Hegel have been a lot less controversial than Heidegger?), so many of the episodic writers are of special significance to me.

(I know people who would claim that Conrad, particular the Conrad of The Secret Agent, has a much more complicated view of character and choice than Strawson dismissively gives him. But I’ve never seen it myself.)

So whatever the debatable points of his taxonomy (and this being analytic philosophy, there are plenty of taxonomic points to debate), I think Strawson is on to something. Here is my personal experience with that something:

My great frustration with so much short fiction was not the narrative itself, but the function of change. There are stories that present a character in terrible, pure stasis and illuminates that stasis through assorted means, but the vast majority of stories end up with their characters some distance from where they started by means of some turning point event. This change is meant to stand out and mark a posthole in a character’s existence. But this assumes a backdrop not just of consistency, but of stasis itself.

After reading Proust, I came to believe that my frustration arose from the writer’s expedient mechanism of fixing the frame of reference so as to call out a moment of particular meaning or catharsis. I so often found this moment artificial, since the story would then assume an ever-extending future from thereon out with the reverberation from the story’s climax ringing down into the line. I was puzzled to run into other writers that thought of this approach not simply as natural for their characters, but for their views of themselves and others as well.

The modern American short story writer who I did feel the most identification with was Stephen Dixon, and in his endless variations on metaphysical possibility, hypothetical settings past and present for what is really a limited set of characters, he embodies something of what Strawson describes as episodic as much as any more experimental writer who has just thrown out the notion of realistic characters altogether. (Shoe gives some idea of his approach, though he requires a lot more space for the constant revisionism and moment-by-moment-ness of his style to take hold.) I wouldn’t describe it as “episodic,” but it is certainly anti-narrative in a way that owes a little to Laurence Sterne. Again, I have only my tastes to rely on, but Strawson’s framework is valuable for my own outlook if nothing more.

One last point that I couldn’t work in above. Strawson doesn’t mention Wittgenstein, probably because he tends to have the effect, like Kafka, of throwing a monkey wrench into whatever schema he’s inserted into. Wittgenstein might allow for the idea of a public narrative enshrined in language, but it would necessarily be cut off from one’s own idea of one’s self: a narrative that is not narrated. It’s entirely fitting then that Wittgenstein had no patience for most fiction save detective stories, with their objective descriptions of facts, flat characters, and galloping, punctuated plots.

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