Books, Essays

Desdamerica: of the free and the brave

Reading Harold Bloom’s ‘Iago: The Strategies of Evil’ in the midst of 2020


Having known captivity, he had fought his way free…

Shakespeare


Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare’s Personalities series (long essays in book form focussed on one particular character of a play) often receive negative comments from reviewers (I won’t call it ‘criticism’ in this company, since these comments are not so elevated…) along the lines of: “All he’s doing is writing about what’s happening and quoting the play #whatevs.” And, yes: maybe so. But it’s not ‘all’ he is doing. I see these books functioning as a kind of fireside chat with the last great literary critic of the West about some of the inventions of the greatest writer in the Western tradition. Even when you read the Shakespeare passages, it’s like you are hearing the man recite them in his sandy voice, maybe sipping Merlot inbetween.


Othello asserts that he is an African prince…

Bloom

Reading this when I was reading this, about an older black man’s love and engagement with a younger white woman (and them being torn apart by a schemer for reasons it’s almost impossible to understand) while Black Lives Matter newscasts and videos and op-eds and photo-ops and symbolic gestures and killings-in-the-street and mouths mouthing so constantly bombarding me on every media source available and imagined … it contextualised the reading and, in particular, the flavour of Bloom’s sub-title: The Strategies of Evil. This old black culture and this young white one, this New World under that Old One. And how it could be undone … what strategies could undo it?


When devils will the blackest sins put on,

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,

As I do now.

Shakespeare


There is bad, and there is evil. Roderigo is bad. He wants Desdamerica for himself, and he’s prepared to act against what he understands to be right and moral; he is prepared to steal and lie and kill, but all to a purpose: a purpose he understands to be more important than that of being good, and his purpose remains the same and is understandable to us, even if we might loathe him for it. This is of a different order to Iago. But how do their strategies differ? Since Roderigo is bad only in his part, he is still part of a genuine moral universe, so his capacity to act and plan creatively is limited purely to a simple finite goal. He cannot invest fully. He even becomes chiefly an accomplice in his own efforts; he must be led and fed. Iago has no such bounds, and while he offers up motivations now and then for what he’s doing, it’s easy to think he’s just playing with us. His heavenly shows are just as convincing as his blackest sins. He can be believed-in, unlike Roderigo, who we can see right through.


Utter my thoughts? Why, say they are vile and false…

Shakespeare

Evil demands something more than just a goal that goes against a moral code. It demands destruction and denigration, so it revels most wildly in making the best and most beautful things fall in the most spectacular and ugly ways. And the more they shine out as something grand and unusual, the better; for destroying and denigrating such a thing is all the more grand. Othello and Desdamerica’s relationship is strikingly unusual and grand. There is something new and novel about it, powerful and also beautiful. So how to bring it undone?



First, you must gain trust, like a masthead news service has gained trust. Lay down some narrative bedrock. Ridicule any attacks upon it as conspiracy theories, made by wearers of tin foil hats … the whole nine yards. Admit your unworthiness. A Roderigo has no time for this, no stomach either. Evil has to be patient. As Bloom points out, Iago is Othello’s Ancient; a man he is convinced would rather die than see his master’s standard fall.


Think of the ancient as a doctor of the mind who seeks not to cure but to afflict.

Harold Bloom

The purpose of Iago’s reportage to his primary audience is constant affliction, in gathering intensity. Never let up on the pressure: report innuendos, doubt yourself (let your audience come to your defence) and keep on doubting even as you leave out everything that does not concern your project (remember to ridicule in equal turns); give poisons as medicines, but start with such a lesser dose that none can see the difference. And, slowly build upon it. The Old World can become easily jealous of the New World, all the Beauty it has built about it. Its monuments, on the page, in the ear, on the ground. Secure all insecurities, no matter how insignificant, and bend them to your will.



Haply, for I am black And have not those soft parts of conversation

That chamberers have…

Shakespeare

But in the end you will need to manufacture some kind of smoking-gun, as the clever people call it. Some kind of tactile device, a concrete object … perhaps a hankerchief, perhaps a YouTube video, and you must report on this in such a way that it can only be seen in such a way. And even if your own wife might come out against you and say, at one point, nay, this was not what … well, then, she must be ended, cancelled, dispatched with all due speed. For any accomplice to the hankerchief is the only way in which your evil can really be undone, or at least the most simple and least bloody way.


Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons,

Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,

But with a little act upon the blood

Burn like the mines of sulphur.

Shakespeare


Where can we place Cassio? Well, he loves Othello and he loves Desdamerica too, both in wholesome ways; but he is more easily a Desdamerican too, and he is white and good, just like her. He is the other side of Roderigo, also Desdamerican, but bent the other way. We can at best hope to be like Cassio, to realise our failures and work on them, to learn from the manipulations around us.


Iago—dramatist, director, and critic—instructs Othello that that is not the way to think about her.

Harold Bloom

Bloom likens Iago to a director or a stage manager of his own play, how he instructs the cast with consumate control, and his soliloquies are like he’s confiding in us, his co-conspirators. After all, we’re sitting there in the dark, passive, doing nothing, while the horror of this evil is played out. We are structurally complicit, then. He only spirals out of control, both suddenly and swiftly, through the reliance on the concrete object: the hankerchief. Did he even need this thing? Perhaps not… But evil is not content to always live in shadows. It must sometimes dare to live in light.


Othello: She turned to folly, and she was a whore.

Shakespeare

Thus, Iago weaponises Blackness against Desdamerica, against everything that is noble and good in Othello, and he only realises it too late. He is flung backward through the strategies of evil, without the tools to deal with them; even beyond the kind of Männerbund code he has lived with all his life on the battlefield. It was not only not useful to him, but used against him with consumate ease.


Iago remains the most dangerous of all villains, because his infernal intelligence throws us into despair.

Harold Bloom

And, of course, neither Shakespeare nor Bloom offer us any easy answers. Those that you most trust are those that can most work evil upon you? But those that we most trust are also those that can work the most good in league with us, beyond that which we can do ourselves, alone. This is hardly a simple morality play. At least we might be aware of the strategies of evil among us, and work to not be contribute to them … even if we think it for the Good.

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Books, Essays

I Can’t Bleed

Tom Wolfe’s Back To Blood in a post-Floyd world



…if the mutts start growling, snarling, and disemboweling one another with their teeth—celebrate the Diversity of it all and make sure the teeth get whitened.

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe

We lurch from the Virus crisis to the Race crisis (and maybe back and forth, back and forth; for how much longer, and to what end; and how much longer and to what end…) Early on in all of this, Camus’ The Plague (for obvious reasons of title and topic … but not much else) started moving some units in a locked down economy. Written as it was during the Nazi occupation of France, it maybe leant itself to a politicised Virus, which is something most people seemed to want from it; we looked back to it just as much as it demanded we look forward.

But after the Lurch to Race crisis … where go we for the novel du jour?

Tom Wolfe’s last novel Back to Blood is a good place to go.

Published in 2012, six years before the author’s death, it is connecting dots that lead us to May and June 2020. Michel Houellebecq is regularly pitched to us as the prophetic writer du jour, and Wolfe is normally the journalist, telling us how things were recently, but back then … that decade we just scraped through… But here, there is a warning built in. If meaning making collapses completely, then we will return to its most basic identifiable tribal form: blood. Back to blood. It’s a defence mechanism, a regression; the total eclipse of all values … bar one.


You will have a picture of mankind with all the rules removed. You will see Man’s behavior at the level of bonobos and baboons. And that’s where Man is headed! You will see the future out here in the middle of nowhere! You will have an extraordinary preview of the looming un-human, thoroughly animal, fate of Man!

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe

Two of the criminal events that drive the plot of the novel are chokings: and in both cases the victims are black (though neither is killed) and there is the threat of riots if these things are not handled in the … right way.

Wolfe remains at his most readable when he is in a reportage; his sentences smell like the streets. He can play with shade and make you feel a sea breeze off a page.



The whole place appeared snaggletoothed. The palms were limp and wan … the leaves bore puce-colored splotches. On the building’s facade the little iron balconettes and the aluminum frames for the sliding doors looked as if they were about to fall off and die in a pile.

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe

He becomes a little self-indulgent with style … but it is forgivable. Should (or could?) an editor have put him in a figure four leg lock over some of his experiments with punctuation and beat-movement sounds and pacing? Yeah, maybe… But where it needs to be breathless, there is no air; where you get time to breathe, there’s air enough for plenty. But, since we are already touching on French, there’s something Louis-Ferdinand Celine-like about how Wolfe plays with us; but while Celine was in Lyric Comedy, Wolfe is in a kind of Realist Lyricism.


Boys like this kid grow up instinctively realizing that language is an artifact, like a sword or a gun.

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe

In interviews, Wolfe talks about how he wanted to write his next book about immigration, and then he heard how Miami is the first American city to have been taken over politically by the people of a different country, who speak a different language: Cubans. And the Anglos and the Blacks and the Russians and the Haitians and the Mexicans etc etc etc are all the fractured minorities: a melting pot that just gets hotter and hotter … and nothing seems to melt. It’s just the heat, like Wolfe comes back to the heat in Miami, the sun, never waning, and you can’t help thinking about the sun in Camus’ more famous book too.


Oh, Nestor remembers very well! … in high school wrestling this was known as a “full nelson” … illegal because if you pressed down on the base of the skull, you might break your opponent’s neck …

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe


Our protagonist is a native born American, but from Cuban immigrant parents. His name is Nestor and the ancient Greek lineage of the name is overtly mentioned in the text at one point. This colours him in the guise of a thoughtful but boastful man who is wise, maybe, but also someone whose efforts of wisdom can lead to tragedy. It is a name for a man of action and a man who wants to be known as a man of action; but who often falls short despite all his capacities. We follow him in all his earnestness trying to be a good cop in bad situations, and we get the vain side of him, and we get the collapses into rage too. But then we get the way he is perceived from the mediums outside his control: the YouTube accounts and the Newspaper reports and it’s hard to not be sympathetic, despite the foibles. And, in the end, while he does the right thing by a person who has wronged him; in the last sentence, he also does the right thing by himself.


The concern was … riots.

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe


What does all this mean in a post-Floyd world, on the streets and on the page? Who gets to breathe? Who gets choked out? The BLM movement already existed when Wolfe wrote this novel, but there were no autonomous zones, or toppled statues, or critical mass of riots in the streets. And while Camus was certainly an Ideas-driven artist, Wolfe is more Story-driven … even if ideas come along naturally for the ride. He works through reportage, but it’s reportage of the New Journalism style, that he helped to coin; so it has a point of view driven into it, riveted to the story. And while the rivets do show, there’s no apology made for them. Nestor, for all his bluster, he chooses his tribe (as the term now goes) and he sticks to his guns; he remains a man-in-full, a theme Wolfe returns to. He doesn’t slip into the demand of Blood; he refuses to regress, even if he can’t understand why, or even what. And he rejects the demand of All or Nothing … he understands there are degrees within ideas about such things as Race and Identity and Good and even Evil. There’s a fundamental line in play about being both to thine own self true and recognising the other-than-oneself origin of being true.


“This thing’s like some kind of a panic, like a riot or something. People believe it—they think he’s a fucking martyr. If we say otherwise … then we’re trying to pull off some kind a cheap trick, some kind a cover-up.”

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe

Reviewers of the book back in 2012 seem to have felt that Wolfe was being too pessimistic about race relations in America, whereas, of course, it now seems like he was far too optimistic, if anything. They also appear to have a problem with his crudity, when he is using the crudity around him in the Miami and America of his day to demonstrate how corruptive it can be upon a group of people, or between individuals. And he doesn’t shy away from his illustrations; he uses broad brushstrokes in a perfectly legitimate way, and actually could be accused of showing too much restraint, if anything.



Alongside all of this, Wolfe constructs an interesting contemporary addendum to his Long Essay from 1975 called The Painted Word, a work of Art Criticism-criticism that ruffled a few feathers along the way. Things have moved on from purely abstract art to the e-arts and ‘no hands art’ where the person named as the artist of a work never actually touches the work; it’s all done by machine or programs based on concept. The legitimacy of this is deliciously challenged by contrasting it with hands-made art that-is-faked, but becomes less than worthless once it is known to be faked.


A hundred police officers, it looks like, trying to hold back a mob … a mob of dark faces, Negs and every shade of brown, Neg to tan, and in between … they’re yowling and howling,

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe

Can we breathe? Among all of this, is there enough air for us? For all of us? Yes, there is, Wolfe wants us to know from beyond his recent grave.

And while a novel can’t breathe, it still has life.

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Books, Essays

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A review of Love in the Time of Cholera (in the time of Coronavirus)



“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

Much has of course already been written about this astounding piece of literature; and it has been put upon unwilling students in World Literature classes around the English-speaking World. Both with good reason.  

The first thing I want to add to all that has gone before is this: if you cannot appreciate this novel, then you cannot yet read well; or, alternatively, you have chosen not to read well, which amounts to the same thing, in the end. The former is more palatable than the latter, because it implies that one day you may be able to read well enough, or that you are just the type of person that is not interested in reading well. Fine. You might be a great person. You might a great writer yourself. There are many many things you might do extremely well, and they might be far more practical and more fantastic than reading.  

As for the latter, there’s a chance that you might still come good, one day. The blinkers you have imposed upon yourself may be lifted. And I’m talking here about the many reviewers who have decided to not appreciate the book because of a moral imposition against actions of one particular fictional character in the story, as if there was some kind of encouragement in the story to be-like-him, or that is was advocating his behaviour; as opposed to creating a an all too terribly human tension between how you empathise and despise. I can’t understand how anyone reading this book could possibly read it that poorly, so I’m assuming it’s related to the importance of a Cause versus the reading of the book; in which case, I’d suggest you just stick to simpler literature and focus more on the Cause. You might do very well with your Cause, and achieve great things, and I might have great admiration for your achievements; but you cannot be taken seriously as a reader.  

You don’t get to have this both ways. 

One of the reasons I chose to read this book was in response to the Chinese Flu, the Cholera-of-the-moment (henceforth both shall be referred to as ‘the disease’, interchangeably). People have been reading Camus’ The Plague at a greater rate than normal for this reason, but I’ve read it several times in the past, and I have been meaning to get to Marquez’s Cholera since reading Solitude many years ago … and since all the problems caused in Victoria, Australia, when they put the novel on the HSC reading list. While Camus’ novel is much more actively disease-driven, and deals explicitly with methods of dealing with the disease, both works play with the sense of disease itself, using metaphor and the visceral in interplay with each other. 

Yarra Bend Park, Melbourne, Australia: 12/4/20, courtesy of X.T.

So I’m going to talk about it in terms of the disease that contextualises the story, and in terms of the disease that is contextualising us at the moment. Suffice to say that the book plays with structure masterfully while remaining highly readable; is beautiful in so many ways, both angelically and diabolically, because beauty has an infernal aspect too, its entropic capacity, and can destroy people as easily as create and augment them; and breaks every rule of good writing that you have heard of in the way that only pure genius can. 

By the time she finished unburdening herself, someone had turned off the moon. The boat moved ahead at its steady pace, one foot in front of the other: an immense, watchful animal. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

The disease, remains a peripheral ghost-like thing throughout the story. It emerges occasionally in the background of the action. Death is ever present, and represented in the story in many ways other than the disease, such as through the many civil wars going on, through crime and through sexual violence.  

“The war is in the mountains,” he said. “For as long as I can remember, they have killed us in the cities with decrees, not with bullets.” 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

The warfare is always somewhere else. It’s reported on. But death in the cities comes more by decree, through laws and statements. Each of these things can be accounted for as a kind of disease, and with decrees, it’s a social disease. The pressure of people as a group over the individual drive, which can be seen directly in the relationship choices of the three central protagonists. And we, in the cities with our disease now, we die by decree also: there are running totals of figures, graphs, pie charts … and then the curious cures that keep ramping up. For our own good we must… And now, further, we must… Pie charts change, columns on graphs go down, up and down, and the decrees keep coming. 

There was no one else: the woodcutters had abandoned their trails, fleeing the ferocity of the lords of the earth, fleeing the invisible cholera, fleeing the larval wars that governments were bent on hiding with distracted decrees. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

The economic collapse of the region despite all the advances that had been illustrated throughout the story is marked. But poverty too is a disease, and enough people have fallen under that flag in the region, caused by decree or not. There is maybe something of the nostalgic here, but there are also some quite concrete regressions also. Three conflicts are mentioned here, three forms of violence causing death: the bandits, the revolutionaries; the disease, that has no substance, that can’t be seen; and the legitimate power over the people. The first make demands, the third make decrees … the second is simply unseen, insubstantial, but also having the same effect. So, how to deal with it? 

From the time the cholera proclamation was issued, the local garrison shot a cannon from the fortress every quarter hour, day and night, in accordance with the local superstition that gunpowder purified the atmosphere. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

How quaint it seems, and how unscientific. The good doctor fights differently, of course. And methods come and methods go. The search for the cure, the remedy, the course of pills … the vaccine! Oh, now the vaccine. This is also a purifier. And the announcement that the vaccine is here, this is also a cannon shot from the social media fortress of Somewhere Inc. that will sound like a cannon across so many accounts. It’s a symbolic act of violence against the enemy, which of course is the disease, in case we need reminding, and the many decrees are part of the symptoms, the social symptoms, like pustules or warts. They may leave scars. 

For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies still floated by. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

…but she noted that none of them had the coup de grace in the back of the neck as they had at the time of the balloon. “That is true,” said the officer. “Even God improves His methods.” 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

Even after the disease has gone, and the violence of the bandits and the revolutionaries and the governments (interchangeably, depending on their fortunes) … even so, bodies are still floating in the river. These are the dead for which there have been no decrees, and the novel gives us nothing to explain them. The un-decree-ed dead. What disease must this be? Obviously, not a famous enough disease. Not notable through any decree. Not yet, at least. No-one provides us with a pie chart for these, so there is no protection. No flag to fly under. No cannon to fire.  

…although later the health authorities had obliged the doctors to sign death certificates that called the cases common dysentery. Besides, many times in the history of the river the yellow plague flag had been flown in order to evade taxes, or to avoid picking up an undesirable passenger, or to elude inopportune inspections. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

In the end, the disease becomes something to hide in. The disease is a defense. Not the actual disease of course, which remains just as deadly as before … and if not that disease, then another one, maybe a new strain of something already floating around, insubstantial; or maybe something manufactured in a lab somewhere in China. Who knows?  

After all, everyone knew that the time of cholera had not ended despite all the joyful statistics from the health officials. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

There are many different decrees on the subject, many more to come. But the trappings of the disease, the narrative of it, how the decrees can be used … all these social things become ways to break down and negotiate through other social problems, whether they be state-sanctioned murder, avoiding contact with the state, or even circumventing the social ramifications of a forbidden love, bad or good, approved-of or frowned-on. The morality of it becomes secondary.  

“The only disease my son ever had was cholera.” She had confused cholera with love, of course, long before her memory failed. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

He never had the disease, but he had had a terrible love, a disease-level love, something that diseased his life, and made him infectious to other people too. People died because of him. And he was responsible for that, though the sense-of-disease he experienced mitigated his sense of responsibility, just as it leant to him a strange sense of purpose, that in one place seems beautiful and in another seems terrible. He issued out so many decrees on the disease himself, so much writing writing writing … if he had had Twitter, the storm it might have caused. The commentary. The nay-sayers. The yay-sayers. 

“Death has no sense of the ridiculous.” 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

Social distancing becomes their only recourse, in the end. Self-isolation on the river, where the bodies keep floating up and down despite the decrees and because of the decrees. There’s a strange kind of manic horror in the quarantine where hiding behind the false flag of a true disease sends them. Is it a victory or a defeat? You can’t really know. The diagnosis is unclear enough, let alone the prognosis. The captain of the vessel is going mad.  

For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death. 

Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Edith Grossman) 

And maybe our disease is not this disease, but either way, it will go as it came. But the decrees will remain, though they might change form and shape. And bodies will still float down the river. Either way, we will keep up with the coming and going, even if we don’t know how.

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Books, Essays

Camus’ ‘The Plague’ in the age of the Viral Virus


…and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

Albert Camus


A plague before the 24 hour news cycle was a different animal to the uber-virus after it. The uber-virus is viral in ways the plagues were not; and the plagues more mortal and demanding. But there are some similarities too, and some of them quite visceral ones. The suggestion by the American Conservative Blog to read this book is a good one:

https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/reading-camus-the-plague/

Great literature always invites new contexts upon itself, and encloses them in unexpected ways. Just as the politics of Camus’ time collects around the politics of ours in equally unexpected ways … certainly in ways Camus (the artist) would have had trouble comprehending, as opposed to the art he produced.

Yes, Nazism influenced the writing of this story, Camus was living through it and resisting it, in his way; but it is not about it. This novel, published after ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and written during the sometimes hostile response to the book, begins what became to be known as Camus’ Cycle of Revolt (along with ‘The Rebel’ and the plays ‘L’état de siege’ and ‘Les justes’).  

It is of interest to note that one of the regular complaints regarding ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by both Camus’ contemporaries and thinkers today is that it is ‘…too abstract’ to be taken as a serious philosophical tract. Putting aside the fact that Camus never referred to it as a book of philosophy, but as a series of essays, the journalist in ‘The Plague’, Rambert, echoes these critics when he says to Rieux: ‘You’re using the language of reason, not of the heart; you live in a world of abstractions. To which Rieux later muses to himself:

Yes, an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities. Still, when abstraction sets to killing you, you’ve got to get busy with it.

Albert Camus

In this story, a city in North Africa, Oran, where Camus had lived for short amounts of time, becomes quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic and, later, pneumonic, plague. Lots of people are dying and everybody has to deal with it, in their way. We follow the responses most closely of a Doctor (Rieux), a journalist (Rambert), a writer (Grand), an intellectual [for want of a better word] (Tarrou), a priest (Paneloux) and a criminal (Cottard).

Also of note is the asthma patient that Rieux treats at key points in the narrative (in particular, right at the starts of the plague and right at the end. Why? Because his lung condition is mirroring Camus own (tuberculosis) ‘he required frequent treatments from Doctors, like Rieux’ and its important to note that Camus often considered himself on the verge of death due to his condition, mirroring the psychology of those living with the plague: to live with the knowledge of the threat of imminent and unavoidable death.

‘They’re coming out, they’re coming out…’ …the asthma patient says gleefully. And later, at the end, he poses an important rhetorical question that has been foreshadowed throughout the story: ‘But what does that mean, plague? Just life, no more than that.

And Tarrou, much later: ‘I had plague already, long before I came to this town.’

No, not Nazis, but life; but more specifically, life being brought into sharp focus, creating an awareness of it through an understanding that it ends. Being forced into exile by the plague, or not, the absurd conditions of life remain unaltered. It’s the awareness of the conditions that shifts through plague-caused exile: to be separated from the rest of the world, from love, from culture, etc; for it to be a part of your consciousness, and the consciousness of all the exiles around you; this is the plague. What does this do the people? It drives out Hope. It makes them live only in the past (through memories) and the present (through knowledge). The future no longer exists. Your illusions regarding your existence have flown. You have no peace.

This is the Plague; the awareness of the Absurd. And then, the only active option is revolt; even in the face of the unchangeable. And through this it’s possible, maybe not to be a saint, but to be a man.

It was only right that those whose desires are limited to man, and his humble yet formidable love, should enter, if only now and again, into their reward.

Albert Camus

How these characters come to terms with the plague and, thus, the Plague, forms the bulk of the story; and how they all, in different ways, follow Rieux’s lead and accept revolt, forms the work’s chief intellectual interest. Without wanting to give away serious plot points, think about this when one of them contracts both varieties of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—the first person ever to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: this is also an aesthetic achievement of the highest order, even in translation: the scene with the dying boy reaches the aching terrible narrative beauty of one of Camus greatest literary heroes, Dostoevsky.  But, indulge me in discussing some of these characters and how they played out in a kind of general sense, if you will…

Tarrou and Rieux have the most special relationship: the moment of respite they share swimming alone at night in the forbidden sea is memorable to both of them, and to the reader. Just before hand, in conversation with Rieux, Tarrou comes to his main point about his life:

‘It comes to this, Tarrou said almost casually, what interests me is learning how to become a saint.’

‘But you don’t believe in God.’

‘Exactly. Can one be a Saint without God?’

A little later on, Rieux finally responds:

‘But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man’.

‘Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.’

Seeking sainthood is its own variety of retreat from the plague, not revolt. It’s full acknowledgement that the plague is greater-than. While Tarrou obsesses over existential issues, and broad morality, in his efforts to not transmit the plague to others, he can’t help but do so anyway.

Paneloux (the priest) and Rieux clash on the other side of the plague. When Paneloux is introduced into the story, it is early days in the plague: people are seeking the solace of the Church, and he delivers his First Sermon, which is your typical this is Gods vengeance upon his misbehaving creation kind of fare. Rieux is unimpressed. However, he asks Paneloux to become involved in the Santization Groups  and he accepts, throwing himself into the actions of the revolt against the plague. After the death of the boy scene, there is a shift in his beliefs, and his Second Sermon follows that event. For those who have read The Brothers Karamazov…

(if you have not, what are you doing reading this? Stop it and go out and read this book instead… No, wait, there’s time, as long as you don’t have plague: finish my review first)

…this sermon could be read as how Aloysha should have responded to Ivan Karamazov when the death of innocents was put toward him as a reason to revolt against God (Book V, Ch. IV). Rieux summarises Ivan’s position nicely:And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.Instead of Aloysha’s quiet wishy-washy acceptance (coupled with his refusing to face the outcome of this acceptance)  a little like modern Western Christianity generally, Paneloux responds:Believe everything so as not to be forced to deny everything.They must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing.He’s not saying that you’re either for God or against Him, but that you’re either with God or without Him. It’s no good being with Him when without plague, and without when you are. Because then you are without him anyway.

Rambert is the lover who wants to run from the plague. But comes to his own absurd realization; Cottard finds the plague-stricken world better than the normal world; Grand, the writer, revolts with the rest of them, but his life remains disturbingly unaffected. He obsesses over his opening sentence, which hes been working on for years, mirroring Camus obsession with his book, which took him longer to write than any other. When Rieux gets a look at the full manuscript Grand is working on he notices that the bulk of the writing consisted of the same sentence written again and again with small variants.

In the end, even during the victory celebrations, the plagues there, laying dormant, never really gone, waiting, even on the bookshelves Read this book. Get the plague.

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Books

Tyll

by Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)



On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

This is a very clever book, a very mischievous book (appropriately) and a very mythic book (somewhat appropriately). The title implies that the book is about Till Eulenspiegel, a semi-mythical ideal-jester figure who may or may not have lived in the 14th century or so. He was a mixture of a kind of Shakespearean fool, slapstick comic, acrobat, circus performer, ribald pervert and shock jock. If you read the 16th century English translation of the German chapbook, it’s often difficult to work out where the gag actually lies, and how it is in anyway particularly notable, as opposed to just mean, nasty, brutish and shortly savage.

You belong to the travelling people, no one protects you, and when it rains, you have no roof. No home. No friends but others like you, who will not like you very much, because food is scarce. That is the price you pay to be free.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

Kehlmann points toward a disruption immediately by setting the book in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War (around a hundred years after the chapbook publication). He doesn’t care for the history of the figure, but more for the mythos. However, he begins the novel in a very traditional manner. He lulls you in. We get a described history, that crashes from view; followed by another described history that also slowly unravels…

And I can see what he’s doing here, and I can see his purpose … and it’s interesting, certainly. And his writing is powerful and often highly effective.

But…

I really wanted more Tyll. The parts of the novel that were more specifically about him (about 20% of the story) were when I was excited as a reader, as opposed to simply interested. When we got into long asides with the Princess Elizabeth (despite the lovely little bit with Shakespeare) and various other figures who encounter Tyll along the way (or maybe they didn’t) I must admit I would glance ahead to see when it was going to end, and if Tyll was going to show up again soon.

“To save time I have already written the chapter in Rome.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

And he does show up (at least in some form) regularly enough to keep you interested. And yes, he’s a mythic figure and so he’s being treated in this mythic clever way etc etc… And there’s a strong dare-I-say postmodern theme throughout the novel of how stories are all stories within stories etc and yes, that’s all been done before, but Kehlmann doesn’t push it on you in an unpleasant way at all. At one point, a person who witnesses a battle uses another account he read of a different battle to describe it, who used another account of a different battle again to describe that battle, by a man who had never witnessed a battle. And of course, we the reader know that Kehlmann has just described the original battle in the usual way we are used to having battles described to us in our era, about the horror and blood and fear and death … and he too has never witnessed one either etc etc. And this all smacks very nicely of Tyll-like trickery and chicanery etc etc.

But…

… I walked away dissatisfied. Is Kehlmann playing me for a fool? As the Reader, am I the King he has the right to mock? Again maybe…

But…

“In front of distinguished lords and ladies I always miss. Then they give more money.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

I gave it three stars on Amazon. It’s a 5 star story with a 1 star focus.

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Books

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

by Roger Scruton

The Necessity of Beauty: a book review


Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.

Roger Scruton

While the book is short, it is quite broad. Scruton has spent much more time on the notion of beauty than any other contemporary philosopher I know of. Beauty is not so admired, at least in the Academy. The study of aesthetics, beauty’s ugly sister, holds a little more attention, but not so much as it relates to beauty … more so as something to negate beauty, and to judge it an unnecessary extravagance of the privileged. And whereas it might be a privilege to be here, the state of being privileged is not a privilege to be anywhere; and part of the atonement probably has something to do with embracing ugliness.

Why is beauty so important to Scruton, in an age of opposition to it?

Partly because of the opposition, of course. But there’s certainly more to it than that. The burden of beauty is something essentially human, so to turn our back on it is to turn our back on humanity, what makes us human; and he doesn’t want this battle to be considered as simply a matter of taste, but he wants to fight this on the field of rational enquiry.

Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.

Roger Scruton

Getting something right, making something fit in—the fitting-ness of something—this is a cornerstone of Beauty for Scruton, as he drills down to some kind of objective essence, and also manages to highlight something from everyday lived experience, as opposed to the experience of what we might call High Art, for example.

When you pause to study the perfect form of a wildflower or the blended feathers of a bird, you experience an enhanced sense of belonging. A world that makes room for such things makes room for you.

Roger Scruton

Belonging-ness is a cornerstone of Scrutonian conservatism; wanting to position the things to conserve as the things that conserve us; and what conserves us has much to do with a sense of belonging. When articles of endeavour and observation become noticeable enough for our consideration to hold them up as singular and worthy of being held up, then we have a model for beauty.

…the look of something, when it becomes the object of intrinsic interest, accumulates meaning.

Roger Scruton

Naturally, Scruton’s two key concerns of architecture and music come into play, but he also covers such things as the silent experience of the novel. He moves through some historical models of how beauty has been appreciated, from the Platonic on, and he often returns to Kant’s lesser known works. Through this he contrasts natural beauty with presented beauty. There is beauty that appears to be un-learned, such as admiring a landscape, but this admiration still comes from a conscious human place. Just as there are degrees in beauty, there are degrees in our capacity to appreciate beauty in its varied forms.

Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favourite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot.

Roger Scruton

Beauty, when we encounter it, draws upon connections within us, and without us, with the others around us. That’s not to mean that everyone has the same taste, or that everyone maybe is capable of experiencing a particular article of beauty. Scruton uses the example of classical music and talks about the importance of aesthetic education in order to develop our senses in order to progress from the fitting-ness of a well-laid table setting to, maybe … eventually, someone like Bach. To be human is to be social, but, likewise, part of our becoming human is a socialisation process, a learning to be social, from birth.

But dissonance and conflict may also be fitting

Roger Scruton

Scruton wants to develop a fundamental difference between ugliness and beauty in terms of how beauty might be championed. As he points out, ugly is the new ‘beauty’—particularly in art, post-Duchamp. The problem for a Bohemian conservative, the tension, is that we want open expression and a lively avant-garde in the arts to live alongside the importance of examining and creatively preserving the canon of beauty in the field that has gone before: the après-garde.

Rules and precepts are there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty, whether the minimal beauty of everyday arrangements, or the higher beauties of art.

Roger Scruton

So a place must be made for challenging without repudiating. Dissonance and conflict can drive beauty, but it cannot overcome it. To overcome it is to become ugly; to under-come it is to fall into kitsch. And while 98% of the avant-garde might fall into these categories, we need it to happen so that the 2% that doesn’t can happen, which maybe wouldn’t otherwise. That is not to say that the 98% should be lauded … as they currently generally are.

Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity.

Roger Scruton

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people.

Roger Scruton

Finally, beauty is not just an add-on for Scruton, something for rich educated people to understand and experience. It’s communal. Which is part of the reason Scruton was so concerned with architecture, I imagine. I mean, I can avoid seeing the 98% by not going to modern art galleries, but I can’t avoid seeing the concrete and faded-green office block (and I mean ‘block’) on Komödienstraße after walking out mesmerised by the cathedral in Cologne.

Beauty gives us something to cling to among the general entropy of living. It does not have to be of the transcendental kind, but can equally be of the incidental kind. This is a rational and practical means by which to drive being inclusive (and actually using the word as a means of inclusion, as opposed to its more common antithetical meaning discursively). There is common ground in the truly beautiful. There is a ‘we’ in aesthetic delight.

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