Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Price of Art

The price of a work of art is an index of pure, irrational desire; and nothing is more manipulable than desire. It is no accident that the immense fetishism which sustains the art market should have reached its peak—a delirium whose only historical parallel was the Dutch tulip mania of the seventeenth century—at the moment when the old purposes of art, the manifestation of myth and the articulation of social meaning, have largely been taken away from painting and sculpture by film, TV, and photography. Only when an object is useless can capitalism see it as priceless.
 - Robert Hughes, “Blue Chip Sublime,” (1978)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Past and Future

We who are Radicals often speak of the evils of a slavish and panic-stricken submission to the past.  But I think there is one thing meaner; a slavish and panic-stricken submission to the future.
 - G. K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News, February 22, 1908 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Gertrude Himmelfarb: Past and Present

Finished Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists by historian and neoconservative Gertrude Himmelfarb.  It’s an essay collection, and the pieces are hit and miss; some good, some bad, most in between.  I could try to provide a broad overview but that’s an exhausting prospect; so instead I think I’ll take them one by one.

“Leo Strauss: Ancients and Moderns” - The problem with being a politically committed writer such as Himmelfarb is that you wind up aligning with thinkers who often aren’t very good.  But because they’re on your side (or at least you think they are) you stick by them for the sake of the movement, or the cause, or the revolution, or the counter-revolution, etc.  It’s sort of like being the manager of a sports team; certain people are on the roster whether you like it or not and you’ve got to play them.  Well if you’re a neocon the number one piece of deadwood on your team is Leo Strauss.  Richard Rorty once commented that it’s a great day in a person’s intellectual development when they realize that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is total crap.  The same principle applies to Strauss.  It is a good day when one moves beyond him.  Yes, he was an outstanding scholar and Himmelfarb rightly celebrates the pure intellectual joy of reading him explicate a text.  But Strauss’s belief, derived from Plato, that philosophy unearths eternal human truths (truths which, it should be noted, Strauss and his neocon acolytes have never illuminated for us) is complete nonsense.  It won’t survive five minutes of critical thought.  One’s first encounter with Plato can be an exhilarating and head-turning experience.  That old Greek was the wiliest of intellectual seducers.  And when he first glances your way and bats his eyes at you (“How do you like my Realm of the Forms?” he coos), you may go a little gaga.  But you'll get over it.  Leo, though, never did.  He went completely gaga, and never broke free from the Platonic belief (or, more accurately, delusion) that only philosophers can disclose The Truth to us.  He believed in Plato, and to do so after two and a half millennia requires a special kind of stupid.

“William James: Once-Born and Twice-Born” -  A good piece.  Many of these chapters first appeared as articles in The Weekly Standard.  They deal with current events but Himmelfarb brings a welcome sense of historical perspective to the issue.  In general, she acquits herself well.  In this instance she contrasts the “militancy” of the so-called New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc.) with the nuanced and insightful stance toward religion put forward by William James.  If you’re a newly-minted conservative and would like to deepen your understanding of conservative principles and intellectual history in general, you will find this book very informative.  
Gertrude Himmelfarb

“Burke’s War on Terror, and Ours” - This one is just sad.  Burke has nothing of significance to say about the terrorism of ISIS.  French Jacobins and Islamic fundamentalist are very different creatures and their uses of terror are too dissimilar to enable a fruitful comparison.  In this case Himmelfarb is like the old mill horse who, when set free, just goes into the field and walks in a circle.  Prior to the rise of Islamic terrorists, the Communists were the big threat to the West. Among the simple-minded, and especially simple-minded right-wingers, the Commies of the 20th-century were easily conflated with the French revolutionaries of the 18th-century.  To criticize one was to criticize the other, and thus one was freed from the onerous task of having to do any work to understand either.  Reading Burke (or, more likely, reading of Burke) would help you understand the Soviet menace.  Now that the Communists are gone and Islamic terrorists are the threat, her instinct is to deploy Burke against them (“Release the Burken!” she cries).  This will not do.  

“Arnold’s Culture War - and Ours” - Well done.

“Bagehot’s Constitution - and Ours” - This one is also good.  She’ll have more to say about Bagehot below.

“Churchill’s Welfare State - and Ours” - A fascinating article about Winston Churchill’s brief time in the Liberal Party and his support of welfare-state legislation.  Opposing the legislation were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the Fabian Society.  Himmelfarb does not like the Webbs.  They irk her.  I can’t help but feel that a large part of that is simply one mandarin’s envy of another.  The Fabians, after all, were successful mandarins; they became part of the Labour party.  Neocons, on the other hand, saw their grand project bleed out in the desserts of Iraq; until it finally got stomped in the 2016 Republican primary.  But, nonetheless, one of the best essays in the collection.

“The Jewish Question - Then and Now” - Horrible.  An embarrassment, really.  In the wake of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, Himmelfarb sets out to examine the history of French anti-semitism.  She starts with that of the philosophes (Voltaire, Diderot, etc.) but then inexplicably moves over to Germany to discuss the anti-semitism of Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx.  Never mentioned in this survey of French anti-semitism: the Dreyfus Affair.  Then the piece ends as a paean to American exceptionalism.  A mess, a total mess.
Beatrice Webb

“Carlyle: Moralist and Immoralist” - Very good.

“Disraeli: Der Alte Jude” - This is good, too. But it does contain a factual error.  In this 2016 article, she claims that since Disraeli’s death in 1881 there hasn’t been a Jewish Prime Minister in Britain; David Cameron, PM from 2010 to 2016, was also Jewish.

“Cardinal Newman: Education and Christianity” - Brief and informative.  Wish it was longer.

“T.H. Huxley: Evolution and Ethics” - Highly informative.  Makes me want to go read her book on Darwin.

“Einstein: The Scientist as Pacifist” - Good overview of the physicist’s life.

“Trilling: The Moral Imagination, Properly Understood” - OK. 

“American Democracy and Its European Critics” - The best piece in the book.  Originally written in 1952, it surveys the generally hostile attitude towards the United States by various European writers.  Himmelfarb observes that the real target of the hostility is democracy.  In European countries
democracies are only on the surface.  In France and England democracy came as an afterthought, as a political veneer covering the social and cultural accretions of many generations of aristocracy.
American culture, she concedes, is popular culture; and when its artifacts - Coca-Cola, movies, Raymond Chandler novels, etc. - enter European culture it’s their popularity among the common people of Europe which upsets the gate-keepers of the continent.  And when the gate-keepers come to the US, their mental unhinging can be even more dramatic.  Of Charles Dickens, who visited the US twice and didn’t like it, she writes that he “was full of love for the common people until he came to meet them as rulers in their native habitat.”  Nice.

“Democratic Remedies for Democratic Disorders” - The worst piece in the book - hysterical, fearful, overwrought, mentally unhinged.  The year was 1998 and Himmelfarb sees the country falling apart at the seams.  Her evidence: crime rates, illiteracy, violence, drug addiction, welfare dependency, etc.  Sexual laxity seems to especially drive her into an apocalyptic froth.  To truly savor the late-90s right-wing dementedness of this article you should read it while listening to the “O Fortuna” section of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (which was undergoing something of a popular revival at the time).  The remedy?  A national revival of fundamentalist Christianity.  Pathetic.  This was a ludicrous idea in the late 90s; twenty years later it’s even more delusional.  If there’s one group in our society who’ve demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice their morals, ethics, and public virtue just to be near raw power it’s evangelical Christians.

Walter Bagehot
“Compassionate Conservatism” - A good piece on Adam Smith.

“Our Fourth of July and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee” - Very insightful.  Himmelfarb returns to Walter Bagehot in this piece and expounds upon his distinction between the “dignified” and the “efficient” parts of the British constitution.  In Bagehot’s view the Queen represents the former and the House of Commons the latter.  The “dignified” is the ideal which all citizens can support, it stands above politics; the “efficient” is the part that gets things done and is inherently political.  Himmelfarb notes that in the US it’s the Constitution which fulfills the function of the “dignified,” uniting people who are otherwise antagonistic when it comes to the “efficient” part of our government.       

“Victorian Values, Jewish Values” - Interesting and informative.  Who reappears in this article but Beatrice Webb.  This time, though, in a positive light.  Back in 1889 Webb contributed a chapter about the Jewish community in London’s East End to Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London.  Although not Jewish herself, Webb found much to admire in their society.  And Himmelfarb finds much to admire in Webb’s survey.  

“For the Love of Country: Civil Society and the State” - Not good.  More 1990s hand-wringing.

“From Postmodernism to Transgenderism” - She likes neither.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Democracy and the West

Democratic parliamentary government is a less efficient, and therefore a more wasteful, regime than oligarchic parliamentary government, and even a parliamentary oligarchy is inefficient and extravagant by comparison with a well-managed authoritarian regime.  Parliamentary government and, a fortiori, parliamentary government with a wide franchise, is a political extravagance that is a political hall-mark of already achieve power, wealth, and security.  It is a tax on these assets; it is not one of their sources.  Unlike the belief that science has been a source of Western power, the belief that democracy has been a source of Western power is a fallacy.  Democracy has been a Western amenity that Western power has brought within the West’s reach.
 - Arnold Toynbee, America and the World Revolution (1962)

Monday, March 12, 2018

Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem

Finished reading The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem yesterday.  This is the best book that I’ve read in years.  However, I’m not going to write a typical review for this book - in fact, I’m not really going to write a review at all.  There are two reasons for this.  First, a short review cannot even begin to do this book justice.  Second, the subjects dealt with in these letters are weighty - issues of identity, nationalism, the Holocaust, Zionism, the suicide of their mutual friend Walter Benjamin, the survival of the Jewish people - and I can’t help but feel that a post covering these somber issues would appear out of place, if not jarring, in a blog that covers arts and the normal run of books.  

However, I’m a reader; and when I come across a book this good I cannot keep it to myself.  I have to share it - even if only a little.  This correspondence (spanning 1939 to 1964) is more involving, powerful, and engrossing than most novels.  Arendt and Scholem were two of the greatest minds of the 20th-century but had something of an intellectual love/hate relationship.  The topics I mentioned above were not abstract to them, they were personal; at times the letters are full of anger, accusation, explanation, reconciliation, friendship, and affection.  Scholem and Arendt were both exceptionally good writers, and along with the big topics the letters are also full of humor and gossip (mostly directed against Frankfurt School members - Adorno, Horkheimer, etc. - whom they despised).  In short, this may very well be the greatest correspondence of the 20th-century and you owe it to yourself to read it.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Children and Monsters

Part of the reason that children are afraid of the dark may be that, in our entire evolutionary history up until just a moment ago, they never slept alone.  Instead, they nestled safely, protected by an adult - usually Mom.  In the enlightened West we stick them alone in a dark room, say goodnight, and have difficulty understanding why they’re sometimes upset.  It makes good evolutionary sense for children to have fantasies of scary monsters.  In a world stalked by lions and hyenas, such fantasies help prevent defenseless toddlers from wandering too far from their guardians.  How can this safety machinery be effective for a vigorous, curious young animal unless it delivers industrial-strength terror?  Those who are not afraid of monsters tend not to leave descendants.
 - Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1997)

Monday, March 05, 2018

Umberto Eco

Chronicles of a Liquid Society is a collection of essays by Umberto Eco which originally appeared in the Italian weekly L’Espresso between 2000 and his death in 2016.   They cover a lot of ground: literature, philosophy, cell phones, books, conspiracy theories, general stupidity, and other topics.  It’s an excellent book.  But before getting to that, a few words about me and Umberto Eco.

I’ve always wanted to like the works of Umberto Eco but until this volume I have not succeeded.  I got about half-way through The Name of the Rose and then gave up.  Its cleverness was enchanting and then tiresome.  Years later I tried Kant and the Platypus but it left me cold.  It didn’t seem insightful; Eco appeared to have difficulty getting to the point.  But perhaps I was too young to appreciate it.  Would I think differently now?  Maybe.  Perhaps the point of the book is not to get to the point but rather to explore the terrain and see what you find.  He seems like that kind of an intellectual.  One whose interests are broad and capacious, who cannot be confined to a narrow vision.  

To be candid, what I found most appealing about Umberto Eco, what kept me from giving up on him after all those years was his name.  It’s a wonderful name.  I like to say it.  And as with so many Italians names it is a pleasure merely to pronounce it: oom-behr-to-eh-ko.  If he had some prosaic run-of-the-mill name, like Mike Johnson or Todd Smith, I would probably have thrown his works aside without a second thought (or even a first one).  Very unfair, no doubt, but true.  
But luckily, this time around Eco and I have hit it off; writer has finally broken through to reader.  The format helped, each essay is only two or three pages long, sometimes briefer.  But it’s the tone of the writing that makes this book so enjoyable.  It’s light and conversational, yet thoughtful, engaging, and unpretentious; if he thinks that the TV show he watched last night is relevant to the topic, he’ll bring it in.  And sometimes the TV show is the topic (how he loves his crime dramas and the Italian version of Big Brother).  He never talks down to the reader.  

All of this is a nice change from standard US commentators.  American newspaper columnists are almost always talking at us and not to us.  And if the writer is an intellectual, or has pretensions to being one (David Brooks of The New York Times immediately comes to mind), then, like it or not, we’re in for a lecture/sermon.  Even worse is when they discard the lectern/pulpit and try to address us as “just folks”; then their patronization knows no bounds (“To understand ethics it’s best to begin with the works of Plato, a philosopher who lived in ancient Greece, which is a country and archipelago located in the Mediterranean, itself a large body of water…”)  There is none of this from Eco.  He is a true cosmopolitan.  It’s long been known that the people we call cosmopolitan usually feel at home everywhere except their actual home.  That’s not the case with Eco; he is very much at home in the world.

Here are just a few of the things he covers in this highly entertaining volume.

Eco loves books and has much to say about them.  Unlike most commentators he is confident that they are here to stay, and he observes that books are much more durable than electronic media which are always threatened by obsolescence - an obsolescence caused, frankly, by new electronic media.  Anything preserved on VHS is now inaccessible unless you have a VHS player, and even then the tapes got damaged and lost their visual quality after a few rewindings.  But the books you bought at that time are still readable.  DVDs are fine but won’t be much good when the DVD player becomes obsolete.  MP3s are not forever.  A few years ago I had need to get something transferred off 2 inch quad videotape - the type of thing you’d see in those huge metal rollers in the background of TV newsrooms in the 1960s.  After a few calls I learned that there was only one place - that’s right, just one - in the entire United States capable of transferring that tape to modern media.  Electronic media preserve, but they can also entomb.  The book, on the other hand, only preserves.    

On the topic of conspiracy theories Eco proposes that we use a “test of silence” to determine their probability.  For instance, if there were solid evidence that the Moon landing was faked, then we need to ask why the Russians didn’t bring it up to discredit the US’s accomplishment.  Their silence rebuts the theory.  And as for alleged conspiracies such as the 9/11-was-an-inside-job one, which, if true, would have required dozens to hundreds of active participants, the collective silence of all the “conspirators” undermines its credibility entirely.  Eco writes:
…if there’s a secret, there’s always a price at which someone will be prepared to reveal it.  A few hundred thousand dollars in publishing rights was enough to persuade a British Army officer to recount all he’d done in bed with Princess Diana, and if he’d done it with the princess’s mother-in-law, it would have been worth double the sum.  
And Eco can be quite funny.  After comparing Italy’s Big Brother to earlier popular entertainments like gladiator shows or carnival freaks, he observes:
All things being equal, Big Brother is more respectable, and not just because nobody dies.  The only risk to participants is psychological disturbance - no worse than what led them to take part in the broadcast.
Elsewhere he recounts “the Mafia is such an international phenomenon that several years ago in Moscow, my Russian translator was asked how you say ‘Mafia’ in Italian.” 

Eco meets with the Spanish writer Javier Marías and they get onto the topic of publicity.  Why, Eco wonders, are people so obsessed with being on television and with being YouTube sensations?  Even at the cost of great personal embarrassment people want to be famous.  Why this craving to be in the public eye endlessly?  Marías suggests that this is related to the decline in the belief in God.  In the past no matter how lowly or insignificant a person was, there was always the divine spectator who looked over you.  Your life was always before his eyes and was thus always meaningful, always significant.  Eco develops the theme:
Once this all-seeing Witness has gone, has been taken away, what remains?  All that’s left is the eye of society, the eye of the Other, before whom you must reveal yourself so as not to disappear into the black hole of anonymity, into the vortex of oblivion, even at the cost of choosing the role of village idiot who strips down to his underpants and dances on the pub table.  Appearance on the television screen is the only substitute for transcendence, and all in all it’s a satisfying substitute.
Part of what makes Eco’s attitude appealing, I believe, is a mind-set specific to his Italian background.  These newspaper articles chronicle a world in change, the liquid society of the title.  When confronting change, especially technological change, American writers tend to fall into two positions.  One is the angry denunciation, the jeremiad.  This new thing - Internet, TV, video games, Facebook, etc. - is horrible and will destroy America.  It will weaken us, society will fragment and we’ll stop bowling together, darkness will descend upon the land.  The second position is the that the new thing is amazing and awesome and heralds the dawn of a new age of progress and human happiness.  It will transform the world for good.  It's incredible!  And we all better get on board!  As an Italian - and a historically-minded one, too - Eco is unlikely to adopt either of these imbecilic positions.  Over the course of 2,500 years Italians have seen it all - empire, the barbarians, papal rule, kings, fascism, democracy, etc.  They know too much.  They’re not likely to fall for the prophet’s rage or the carnival barker’s promises.  Eco knows that life goes on even after the apocalypse and a great new dawn is usually just the dawn of a great new disillusionment.  Italians have lived through everything and, wisely, have faith in none of these grand pronouncements.  Instead they take the world as they find it and seek their happiness in real and tangible things - family, art, food, sex, and, of course, dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).

Thursday, March 01, 2018

To Be

To be is to be cornered.
 - E.M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (1971)