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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Uncategorized

The Uses of Pessimism

In emergencies we must switch from consensus to command, from freedom to submission, and from the order of the market to the order of the plan.

Roger Scruton

If Roger Scruton was still alive today, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about this book, it would be:

“When, I wonder, does one know when it is right to adopt Fallacy in order to avoid the loss of Truth?”

And I suppose his answer might be something like this:

“When one no longer wonders.”

In this magnificent book—measured in tone, epic in scope, focussed in theme—Scruton makes his argument for civilization over tyranny. He’s in the kind of space that contemporary defenders of freedom of speech are in, whereby they are often told that this freedom does not correspond to a freedom from consequence. And there’s some truth to that … as long as it’s inconsequential consequence, like annoyance or unfriendliness; if the consequence is heavily consequential, such as loss of livelihood, assault, cancelation from society, imprisonment … right up to the Soviet bullet in the back of the neck, then, yes, it does imply a freedom from consequence, as without that, the freedom of speech becomes merely theoretical as opposed to practical.

But, even so, the onus of the argument has shifted to justifying freedom of speech—a self-evident good to those with a sense-of-common—as opposed to justifying not having freedom of speech. This involves on of Scruton’s identified fallacies, of which, more later…

The city is a community of neighbours who do not necessarily know each other, but whose obligations come from settlement.

Roger Scruton

But I came to this book (lovingly on the way to Scruton completion-ism) immediately after a book suggested to me by friends called “Bronze Age Mindset”: a book I lost patience with about a third of the way in. But it was an interesting thing to prelude Pessimism, because, while the authors of both books oppose what is now called ‘The Woke’ in contemporary society, they are also both poles apart in their response. Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) calls for a return to a mindset of the Axial Age that adopts the very fallacies that we crawled out from into the West; a zero-sum game life/death emergency mindset. While Scruton champions the development of agriculture as maybe the greatest achievement of mankind, BAP laments it as the descent into ‘bugmen’ status. While Scruton champions finally forgiveness and irony, BAP wishes for conflict and identifies irony as ‘faggotry’ (ironically, or otherwise). That such a thing as “Bronze Age Mindset” exists and is read if not widely but … AT ALL, is a testament to the degree at which the fallacies Scruton identifies have taken hold.

…we see the marks of the same transition – from wandering collectivities to free individuals, from clans and blood-brothers to law-abiding neighbours, from a life of emergencies to one of settled worship, in which the words and rituals are found to evoke the eternal, the reliable and the true.

Roger Scruton

The fallacies of Best Case Scenario, Zero Sum, Planning, Moving Spirit and Aggregation are mapped out beautifully, and for those who have heard Scruton speak, you can hear the timbre of his voice in your mind as you read… And he responds with a bottom up versus top down alternative, an ‘organic’ and ‘we’ approach (the ‘we’ First Person Plural) as opposed to the collective ‘I’. In this way, he contrasts the strawman argument of conservatism being essentially about individualism. The rights of the individual are important, of course, but only insofar as the individual is part of a group of other individuals who have shared interests in themselves as a group, past, present and future.

It’s ten years since this book was published, but it has matured like one of Scruton’s prized Burgundies. He admits at the beginning that his arguments are futile to those who live under the sign of one or more of the fallacies. In fact, to even point out any of these to the fallacious is to only, in general, further strengthen the hold it has on them. He is writing for those of us who do not, then. Are we perfect then? Are we so smart and the fallacious dumb? Does everything work out well for ‘we’ the holders of the great beacon of truth?

They accept the world and its imperfections, not because it cannot be improved, but because many of the improvements that matter are by-products of our cooperation rather than the goal of it.

Roger Scruton

Of course not. We have, in a sense, committed a terrible act, which Scruton compares to the first murder in the bible: we have killed our brother, we have turned our back on brotherhood and tribal alliances. Which of course makes us vulnerable to Believers outside of our agreed upon geography. ‘We’ have a land, a region, and an identification though this with others who we may not even know, but they are part of us within that agreement. And when disagreements occur, they are worked out on their individual merits and, in the future, reference is made to these solutions for further disagreement. There is not so much a top-down entity, God or god-like, but a grass roots negotiation process.

…when unreason triumphs, it does so in the name of reason.

Roger Scruton

Pessimism, as the title suggests, has its uses. And to be scrupulously pessimistic is one way to at least avoid falling into the destructive fallacies Scruton identifies. It is the unscrupulous optimist who is willing to destroy everything that social evolution has brought to us through tradition and careful community agreements etc. in the hope that by making everything crash down something so much better will emerge … despite the many lessons of history otherwise.

The fallacy here, of taking a retrospective view of something that has not yet happened, became an integral part of progressive thinking not only in politics but also in the arts.

Roger Scruton

Scruton also looks at art and architecture while considering the fallacy of the Moving Spirit. Reference to the Zeitgeist for persuasion. That you have to get-with-the-times-Daddio… This call comes up particularly during such things as referendums on gay marriage. Don’t be in the past. This is now. Think of how history will judge you. Etc. Zeitgeist literally means time-ghost, and it is as if the things is a ghost-like figure that can haunt all timeframes at once. It lives in the future, present and past.

The emphasis on originality is something that the bohemian could consider a good, but Scruton rightly points out the difference between an originality that still develops upon the grounding of human beauty, and the acts that are merely empty efforts at originality for its own sake. Because it is original it has value. The absurd recent situation with the banana taped to the wall of a gallery comes immediately to mind. Originality needs a framework, something to hang itself on, lest it be far worse than the derivative done well. Reaching for the original must be a concern for an artist, of course, but always within certain boundaries, just as humans live within their perceptive boundaries.

It involves an attitude of care – care towards institutions, customs and consensual solutions. It involves a recognition that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that we fulfill our task on earth if we look after the small corner that is ours, and take that ‘ours’ to heart.

Roger Scruton

Personal responsibility is a key theme in the face of the fallacies that surround us in the West. There is still much to hold on to. We sacrifice our regressive violent demands to master the world through forgiveness, in order to live with strangers as a ‘we’, and to live in the irony of being able to see what’s wrong with what’s wrong, just as much as what’s right.

From the culture of forgiveness springs the other habit that helps us to be at home in the society of strangers. This is irony, by which I mean the habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself.

Roger Scruton

Irony, in its full social form as alluded to here, n’est plus à la mode; it is something that we have lost touch with not because it was lost to us, far from it, but because it has become corrupted into a catabolic self-destructive urge; a cultural form of a death drive. I started writing this review before Chinese Flu really hit us here in Europe, but at the same time that Greece was fighting on its borders. The wondering time has finished, and this is a dark day for all of that. The correct form of Pessimism is breaking through in a strangely provocative way. There may be changes. They may last long.

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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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