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Critic swallows book

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/05/2022 - 5:58pm in

The Sydney Book Review is my kind of book review. It’s online and free. Ever since I joined the blogging revolution in 2005 it’s seemed crazy to me that so many of our literary publications are locked up and sold (usually at a loss) in tiny subscriptions.*

So three cheers for the form of the Sydney Book Review. Alas I’ve only got about one cheer for its content. There’s a strong academic and left ideological overlay in both the selection of subjects and of reviews themselves. Neither need be problems. But I mean both in the bad sense. There’s rarely any joy in the reviews. They’re usually not well written and many are laden with the presumptions, preoccupations and jargon of the academy. Anyway, I usually peruse what’s on the menu and reading this review of Trent Dalton’s work gives me as good a way as any to illustrate my concerns.

The reviewer, who’s also the editor of the publication, announces that Dalton’s books need to be subjected to greater critical scrutiny. After all, they sell in the hundreds of thousands. So she gives it critical scrutiny. Good idea. My own ‘critical scrutiny’ for what it’s worth (not much) is that I listened to Dalton’s first blockbuster novel Boy Swallows Universe on Audible (in a very animated and wide-eyed narration) and loved it. Its exuberance shines through. I thought it was a ‘young adults’ book which is not to disparage it. And I didn’t feel patronised or that any dumbing down was going on. The author had previously won awards for features in the Courier Mail and was trying his hand at his first novel. And a rollicking good bit of magic(ish) realism it was too.

It’s about a kid who’s grown up in an abusive environment surrounded by ‘bad characters’ who gets himself into a big adventure and brings down a Mr Big of a crime syndicate. It’s a story of good triumphing over evil. The hero, Eli, and the author have a lot in common. Dalton came from the wrong side of the tracks.

However the reviewer wishes she was reviewing a different kind of book. Her main gripe is that she disagrees with what she takes to be its politics. Indeed she suggests, it’s a novel for Scott Morrison’s Australia (Ouch! I wouldn’t want to be the blogger for Scott Morrison’s Australia.). “Boy Swallows Universe was published just a few months before Morrison was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2018″ she offers as a confirmatory aside:

When Dalton waxes lyrical about ordinary readers, he sounds like he’s trying to distinguish them from a fantasy cohort of uptight critics. When he gets going about fan mail from tradies, he sounds like Scott Morrison.

Just think about that. Dalton says he writes for people like himself, and appreciates letters from tradies, and he’s likened to our Prime Minister and Gaslighter in Chief. Another passage:

Dalton’s people make their own luck; all the better if they’re autodidacts. Teachers are treated with scorn, none more so than goody two-shoes Mrs Birkbeck, the school counsellor in Boy Swallows Universe, who tries to intervene in the chaotic lives of Eli and August. The ideology of the novel harmonises with the songbook of News Limited: the state is an ineffective guardian of the poor and has no role to play in supporting social mobility or addressing structural disadvantage.

So Dalton is telling a story — as we’ll see it’s based on his own experience — but the reviewer wants it to be a representative story. In some sense, it has to be representative to succeed. It is representative of extraordinariness (isn’t that one of the main roles of fiction?). It’s just not demographically representative as judged by current social science. Further, the reviewer wants to take Dalton’s story as some kind of statement about who he votes for. It’s a few years since I listened to the book, so I could be wrong, but I don’t recall Dalton suggesting that “the state is an ineffective guardian of the poor and has no role to play in supporting social mobility or addressing structural disadvantage”.

My recollection is just that the novel does not chance its arm on that old chestnut of upper middle-class dinner parties “What is the proper role of government?”. If I’d had to guess I’d say that Dalton would vote Labor, but I might easily be wrong. But if I am then more reason for me to wonder if there’s anything in Dalton’s experience that might help me revise my own priors. I’ll certainly hazard a guess that he had more than one government-funded “ineffective guardian” in his time as one of the poor. Since she’s so interested in this aspect of the novel, perhaps the reviewer could take more interest in “ineffective guardians” of the poor and how governments serve them up again and again. You can still do that without denying governments a major role in ameliorating inequality and other aspects of our society when the subject comes up at a dinner party.

Here’s the most telling passage of the review:

It’s well known that Boy Swallows Universe draws on Dalton’s childhood experiences, that Dalton, like Eli Bell, found safe passage through a violent and traumatic childhood and became a journalist at News Limited. Dalton’s story is exceptional and Eli’s coming of age reads like a fairytale, not because of the supernatural embellishments, but because of its sheer unlikelihood. For certain readers, it is no doubt reassuring to learn of individuals who have overcome the obstacles of trauma, poverty and social marginalisation to attain the markers of middle-class success. This fairytale, in which a kid hauls himself up by his bootstraps through strength of will and character, relies on and reinforces pernicious and demonstrably untrue ideas about poverty and social marginalisation – namely, that it requires nothing more than effort to get out of it. There’s a mountain of empirical research that shows this proposition to be false.

Dalton’s people make their own luck; all the better if they’re autodidacts. Teachers are treated with scorn, none more so than goody two-shoes Mrs Birkbeck, the school counsellor in Boy Swallows Universe, who tries to intervene in the chaotic lives of Eli and August. The ideology of the novel harmonises with the songbook of News Limited: the state is an ineffective guardian of the poor and has no role to play in supporting social mobility or addressing structural disadvantage.

Well, my gob was truly smacked. First, the reviewer seems to think that the novelist’s task is to represent the findings of social science on structural inequality. I mean you could write a novel about Michelangelo producing the Pieta, the David and the Sistine Ceiling, but how many people are going to produce the greatest artworks in Christendom? The idea that a little boy could grow up and do that — I mean what are the odds? Would social science say that was representative of the reality of your average life in Renaissance Florence (I hear they had a lot of structural inequality back then)?

Second, my flabber was utterly ghasted at the way in which the reviewer quotes the author’s own life as no match for ’empirical research’.  How dare the author use his own survival and ultimate triumph over difficult circumstances as the basis of a fictionalised story of someone triumphing over difficult circumstances! A mountain of empirical research shows that the ‘proposition is false’.

‘Nuf said.

What’s the alternative I hear you cry. Well, most get grants from governments and/or are subsidised by universities and philanthropy, and most of the rest is a labour of love by various academics and writers around the traps. Many aren’t well paid, so it would be good to get them some money, but they usually get peanuts through these publications. And usually the physical publication barely pays for itself is a cost itself, especially when properly accounted for in all the management time spent on it. I suspect what drives the old fashioned model is a nostalgic guild mentality of those involved. It’s sad to watch those who fancy themselves as an intellectual vanguard being so slow to embrace the possibilities of new technology. But the Sydney Book Review’s editor is keen on the responsiveness and low cost of publishing online. So good on her.

A couple of

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/04/2022 - 8:56am in


Books, Literature

A couple of Free Little Libraries hanging out on dude’s front fences. Marrickville and Hurlstone Park.


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/04/2022 - 10:00pm in

For her project about the Artist—at least that’s what she was calling it for now, a project—Alice read all that she could find about his yearlong performance works before he renounced making art altogether. There was the year he locked himself in a cage. The year he punched a time clock every hour on the hour. The year he spent tied to another artist. ...

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Boris Pasternak in Spring

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/03/2022 - 11:00pm in

Boris Pasternak, a Jew by birth, chose to remain in Soviet Russia when the rest of his family, his famous father, painter and portraitist Leonid Pasternak including, had left, never to return....

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Scenes of the Crime

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 04/02/2022 - 1:00am in



John BanvilleJohn Banville; illustration by Lily Snowden-Fine

John Banville’s first novel, Nightspawn, published more than fifty years ago, is set in Greece, which was then ruled by a military junta. The Irish protagonist, Benjamin White, is asked, “As a visitor, Benjamin, what do you think of the situation here, I mean the political situation?” He shrugs: “I’m not a political animal.” In The Untouchable, published more than a quarter-century later, the narrator, Victor Maskell, is a version of the English art historian and Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt. When Maskell is being recruited by the KGB, he pretends to believe that the artist has “a clear political duty.” He later concludes that his real act of treason was his abandonment of “aesthetic purity in favour of an overtly political stance…. I am guilty of treachery, but in an artistic, not a political, sense.”

Banville’s own career has been a search for aesthetic purity, a long struggle not to betray the idea of the novel as an object in and for itself. Maskell (like Blunt) is obsessed by the paintings of Nicolas Poussin and insists that their wonder lies in their refusal to mean anything:

The fact is, of course, there is no meaning. Significance, yes; affects; authority; mystery—magic, if you wish—but no meaning. The figures in the Arcadia are not pointing to some fatuous parable about mortality and the soul and salvation; they simply are. Their meaning is that they are there. This is the fundamental fact of artistic creation, the putting in place of something where otherwise there would be nothing.

Banville’s characters are often mesmerized by paintings. The murderer Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence (1989) steals a seventeenth-century Dutch portrait of a woman and lavishes on her the imaginative sympathy he withholds from his victim. In The Blue Guitar (2015) the narrator, Oliver Orme, is a sometime painter, the aim of whose art is, as he puts it, the creation of “autonomous things, things to match the world’s things.” He longs to substitute art for reality, to create on canvas “not the world itself but the world as my mind rendered it.” When he allows too much reality to enter his life, he can no longer paint.

The crisis that overtakes the narrator of Banville’s delicious little masterpiece The Newton Letter (1982) is of a similar nature. He abandons the book he has been writing for years when he loses his “faith in the primacy of text” because “real people keep getting in the way now, objects, landscapes even.” In The Sea, for which Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005, the narrator, Max Morden, is writing (or rather, typically, failing to write) a big book on Pierre Bonnard, and the novel includes a fictional painter named Vaublin, whose name is almost an anagram for “Banville.” In these mocking self-portraits, these satiric alter egos, Banville expresses a desire that is no less potent for being impossible to fulfill: a wish that the novel could aspire to the transcendent condition of certain great paintings, could be only a pattern of exquisite sentences, owing nothing to history, to politics, to reality, even to meaning.

Or, indeed, to that other great encumbrance on aesthetic purity, the matter of Ireland. Banville, from the beginning, revolted against the Irishness of Irish writing, liberating himself not just from the convolutions of its politics but from the descriptive literature that relies on the sense of locality. His debut collection of stories, Long Lankin (1970), is conspicuous for its absences: no childhood memories, no family feuds, no Dublin streets or West of Ireland fields, no Catholic guilt or Protestant decay. The tone is wry, enigmatic—instinct with barely suppressed violence. The novel that made his international reputation in 1981—Kepler, a metafictional account of the seventeenth-century astronomer—is set in Prague, a city Banville had declined to visit, so that too much reality would not intrude on his freedom to invent it.

Banville’s aim was not to convince the reader of the truth of place and character and story, but rather to play with the knowing ways we invest our faith in fictions. “It may not have been like that, any of it,” admits the narrator Gabriel Godkin almost at the end of Birchwood (1973). “The scene of the crime was Geppetto’s toyshop up a narrow lane off Saint Swithin Street,” says Orme in The Blue Guitar, adding, “yes, these names, I know, I’m making them up as I go along.” “Spring came early that year,” declares Gabriel Swan, who tells his story in Mefisto (1986), “no, I’m wrong, it came late.”

Banville’s auto-chroniclers are usually, like their creator, pure fabulists. They are anti-historians. Irish history, when it does encroach on these novels, is just another grotesque fable. Birchwood is a brilliant burlesque of the Irish Big House novel, that peculiar genre set in the grand (though usually decaying) mansions of the Protestant landlord class. It turns even the most somber episode of Irish history—the Great Famine of the 1840s—into an extravaganza of awfulness so terrible that it topples over into grotesque humor:

Bands of savage-fanged hermaphrodites stalked the countryside at night killing and looting. Some said they ate their victims. These preposterous stories made us laugh…. We played with exaggeration as a means of keeping reality at bay.

So, for most of his career, did Banville.

And then came Benjamin Black, by name the opposite of the Benjamin White of Nightspawn. Banville invented the pseudonym Black in 2004, ironically just before his image as a votary of aesthetic purity received the endorsement of the Booker Prize. Black debuted with a thriller, Christine Falls, set in 1950s Dublin, the first of a continuing series featuring a dour, middle-aged alcoholic pathologist, Quirke (his first name is never mentioned). For a long time, Black was someone else: as his creator told The Guardian in 2014, he and Banville “are two completely different writers who have two completely different processes.”

But in 2020, when he published Snow, a thriller populated by some of the recurring figures from the Quirke novels, an even stranger thing happened: Black’s name on the cover was replaced by Banville’s own. With that novel, and then with the recent April in Spain, the “two completely different writers” agreed on a merger. Those opposites—the upholder of aesthetic purity and the purveyor of engrossing crime stories—have become, if not quite one and the same, then two sides of the same artistic persona. What has happened in this process is fascinating: Irish reality, which Banville kept at bay for so long and with such relentless energy of creation, has flooded through the dikes. Politics, history, place, and time will not be denied after all.

The divide between cerebral fable and thriller was never, in Banville’s work or in that of the writers who preceded him, absolute. Jorge Luis Borges played with the detective story. Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita are, in their own ways, crime novels. The second half of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy is narrated by a private eye, Moran. (“What was his name?” wonders one character about another in April in Spain, “Murphy? Molloy? Moran? He couldn’t remember.”) The protagonists of Banville’s non–Benjamin Black novels are often criminals: Maskell a traitor, Montgomery a murderer, Orme a kleptomaniac. All are, in some sense, also detectives seeking to unlock the mysteries of their own selves. The writer in The Newton Letter thinks of the scraps of memory that come to him as “at once commonplace and unique, like clues at the scene of a crime.”

Conversely, the Black/Banville thrillers don’t leave metafiction completely behind. “They always ended in gunplay, these plots, with bodies, much too neat and unrumpled, all over the place,” we read in the second of the Quirke novels, The Silver Swan (2008). The first full chapter of Snow begins with the almost parodic words “The body is in the library,” and the skeptical daughter of the house asks Strafford, the detective who has arrived to investigate, “Will you be calling us all together at dinnertime to explain the plot and reveal the killer’s name?” Strafford is well aware that the Agatha Christie mystery in which he finds himself is a thin cover for the absurd: “There was always the danger, in his job, of seeing things that weren’t there, of making a pattern where there wasn’t one. The policeman insists that there be a plot. However, life itself is plotless.”

Most importantly, the crime novels have their share of Banville’s distinctive inventiveness, his magical ability to forge similes that are at once startling and apt. In The Untouchable, for example, “Sodden sycamore leaves lolloped about the road like injured toads.” In The Sea, waves break on the shore “like a hem being turned endlessly by a sleepy seamstress.” In The Blue Guitar, the vapor rising from a teapot is “like a half-hearted genie trying and failing to materialise.” Raindrops fall on the road “like a corps of tiny ballet dancers.” This inability to stop considering how “everything is always like something else” is what Orme in that novel refers to as “this shiftingness I see in all things.”

The shiftingness of things recurs in the thrillers, like Banville’s artistic fingerprints left at the scene of the crime. Especially in the two most recent books, the voltage of the imagery is just as high as it is in the literary novels. In April in Spain, a prim character makes love “like a doctor searching for the source of an obscure malady.” In Snow, the molten wax spilled over the side of a candlestick is “like a frozen cascade of champagne.” The toe caps of a man’s highly polished brown shoes “gleamed in the firelight like chestnuts fresh out of their husks.” For the detective Strafford, as for Banville’s earlier narrators, “the dullest object could…flare into sudden significance, could throb in the sudden awareness of itself.” The policeman and the novelist share this wildly associative habit of mind in which everything is also something else, the ordinary perpetually on the brink of becoming numinous, the real tipping over into the surreal.

Yet these crime novels are also very different from Banville’s earlier work. They move more quickly. There is less pressure on the sentences. The solipsistic unreliable narrators are replaced by the cool omniscience of the invisible but authoritative author. Plot, however cleverly it is acknowledged to follow a set of well-known conventions, matters much more. Above all, the murder mystery posits at least one irreducible reality that must be accepted by both the characters and the reader: the dead body. Life may be plotless, but as Strafford has to remind himself in Snow, “a man had been murdered, and someone had murdered him. That much had happened.” The thriller must admit the actual. The mystery of things must be at least momentarily soluble.

It is telling that the dominant figure in these stories, Quirke, is a pathologist, first introduced in Christine Falls as a familiar of corpses: “It was not the dead that seemed to Quirke uncanny but the living.” For Banville’s thrillers are an autopsy on a dead society. Laid out on his dissecting table is Holy Catholic Ireland, a body politic very much alive for most of Banville’s life but now definitively deceased. The cause of death, as it’s traced in these stories, is a cruel incestuousness, both metaphorical and literal. In this anatomy of the Republic of Ireland in the 1950s, Church and State are in bed together, locked in illicit embrace. Physical incest itself is a recurrent driver of the plots. April in Spain and the novel to which it is a sequel, Elegy for April (2010), cut deep into a powerful political family, the Latimers, whose patriarch has abused his son before moving on to the title character, his daughter. And institutionalized terrorization of women and children weighs heavily on these novels. Banville, in opening up the matter of Ireland, has let in some very dark matter indeed.

Strafford reminds himself that “that much had happened,” and the same can be said of the real events that frame these plots. In both Christine Falls and Even the Dead (2015), Quirke and his collaborator, Inspector Hackett, trace killings back to a Catholic network that is selling to rich Americans, with the collusion of state authorities, babies born out of wedlock in Church-controlled institutions. The killings may be fictional, but there really was a large-scale trade in Irish babies (attractive to prospective American adoptive parents because they were white) run by Catholic organizations and silently supported by the government. It briefly became an international story in 1951 when the Hollywood star Jane Russell announced her intention “to fly to Dublin…to pick out a child.” But this did nothing to stop the practice, which continued for another twenty years.

Thrillers invariably unfold in a universe governed by hidden forces, where authority is corrupt and connected people conspire to suppress truths and make inquisitive individuals disappear. In this sense, the thriller is Platonic: there are mere appearances, but behind them are the eternal forms of pure power. Banville’s crime stories revel in this doubleness. In A Death in Summer (2011), a recurring character, Costigan, the fixer for a sinister Catholic outfit called the Knights of Saint Patrick, warns Quirke:

There are two distinct worlds, the world where everything seems grand and straightforward and simple—that’s the world that the majority of people live in, or at least imagine they live in—and then there’s the real world, where the real things go on.

In this crooked theocracy, the transcendent is just another form of thuggery.

What is most striking, however, is how little of this Banville needs to invent. There are, certainly, the usual exaggerations of the genre. In April in Spain, a government minister gets the most senior civil servant to hire a hit man to do away with the overly curious Quirke. Such things did not happen. But the system of watchfulness and control that Banville evokes so well, with its ability to make awkward facts vanish into obscurity—and awkward women and children vanish into hellish institutions—is no exaggeration. Hovering over everything in these novels is a figure who is given his real name, John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, who was one of the most powerful figures in the country between the 1930s and his retirement in 1972.

McQuaid most certainly existed—I once served as an altar boy for a solemn requiem Latin Mass he performed, and it was like being a peasant in the presence of a medieval monarch. He has been much written about by historians, but in Snow Banville, through a mesmerizing feat of imaginative necromancy, conjures him from the dead in all the understated glory of his unquestionable power. Because Strafford is investigating the murder of a priest, he is summoned by McQuaid. The encounter is superbly handled. Banville captures the way real authority is projected not by overt bullying but through a quiet assumption of obedience. McQuaid does not issue instructions to Strafford to cover up the true circumstances of the crime. He speaks softly:

The duty falls to some of us to calculate what is best for the congregation—forgive me, for the population, at large. As Mr. Eliot says—I’m sure you’re acquainted with his work?—“humankind cannot bear very much reality.” The social contract is a fragile document. Do you take my point, at all?

McQuaid is thus a character from an old Banville novel, trying to keep reality at bay.

The truth that must not be uttered is that the murdered priest, Father Tom Lawless, was not merely stabbed but castrated. Understanding why someone would have been driven to do that would open a door into the Church-run system of so-called industrial schools, where children whose parents could not care for them or who were deemed delinquent were incarcerated under the control of religious orders, notably the Christian Brothers. Father Tom, we learn, had been chaplain to one of those schools, which Banville calls Carricklea.

Here Banville achieves something that could only be done in fiction—telling the story of what went on in such places from the point of view of an unrepentant abuser. Without warning, Snow shifts back ten years to an interlude written in the voice of the now dead priest. Father Tom becomes one of Banville’s solipsistic first-person narrators, stylistically a version of Maskell or Orme or Montgomery. But the story he spins is no fable. It is a proud retailing of his systematic crimes against a boy. That boy is now a young man who works on the estate where the priest has been murdered. There is no great mystery about the connection between them and its place in the plot. What is remarkable, rather, is the way this passage takes us into the heart of a darkness that these thrillers have long been circling. Carricklea looms over the whole sequence of Quirke stories. Collectively, they form a kind of Big House novel, but the Big House in question is this nightmarish edifice where the Church’s absolute power was exercised in the physical and sexual abuse of defenseless children.

Carricklea is not an invention. Most Irish readers would recognize it as Letterfrack, the most notorious of the industrial schools, situated in the remote west of Ireland. Even as a child in Dublin, I knew that name. It was the place you could be sent if you were not good. It could not have functioned as such a warning if it were not known, at some level, to be a house of horrors. But this was never stated or specified. What went on there—a perpetual open season on the minds and bodies of children—was not fully acknowledged by the Irish state until well into this century. Arguably it has not yet been fully accepted imaginatively, in the sense of being absorbed into the general consciousness of contemporary Irish culture. Banville, whether or not he fully knew it at the beginning of his second life as a thriller writer, invented Benjamin Black—and Black invented Quirke—in order finally to be able to do precisely this.

The real twist in the Quirke books is not the whodunit revelations at the end. Carricklea is not an undiscovered country that the pathologist will be forced to enter if he is to understand the crimes he is investigating. It is already there, inside his head. For we learn early on, fifty pages into Christine Falls, that Quirke himself spent his early childhood in industrial schools, most of it in Carricklea. At first, this is peripheral biographical detail. But over the course of the novels, Carricklea pushes its way more and more insistently into the center.

Banville is writing, through Quirke, the kind of history that is the novelist’s proper concern—the history of a trauma that’s fully contained within the character he has invented. “As a child,” we are told in Holy Orders (2013), “Quirke had been abused, body and soul, by priests and brothers, at Carricklea, and other places before that.” It is not explicitly stated in the novels that this included sexual abuse, but it does not have to be. In A Death in Summer, Quirke visits an orphanage where the boys are being subjected to the depredations of a ring of well-connected pedophiles, and is struck by recognition:

He recalled too the boys sidling past in the corridors, their downcast eyes. How could he have missed what was plain to see, what his own experiences as a child in places like this should have taught him never to forget?

Where Banville’s artistry most reveals itself is in the reversal of his usual exuberance of association. Both for his characters and in the imagery of his novels, “everything is always like something else.” But for Quirke, and Quirke alone, everything is always like Carricklea. Morden in The Sea says, “The past beats inside me like a second heart,” and Quirke could say the same. He harbors “another version of him, a personality within a personality, malcontent, vindictive, ever ready to provoke, to which he gave the name ‘Carricklea.’” This second self can be awoken by anything and everything. In April in Spain, he becomes agitated when his wife is knitting:

“There was an old Christian Brother, in the place where I was,” Quirke said—he never spoke the name of Carricklea if he could avoid it. “His dentures were loose.”

“Oh, yes?”

“They used to make a sound just like that, just like you knitting.” The needles went still. She looked at him. He turned his eyes away from hers.

He is, in Holy Orders, even afraid of raindrops, because the odor of wet woolen clothing brings to mind “the smell of sheep his clothes gave off, which always reminded him of being at Sunday evening devotions in the chapel at Carricklea.” Merely descending the stairs at the hospital where he works ignites flashbacks:

He went down the big curving marble staircase, and as he did so he had, as always, the panicky yet not entirely unpleasant sensation of slowly submerging into some dim, soft, intangible element. He thought again of being a child at Carricklea and how when he was having his weekly bath and if there was no Christian Brother around to stop him he would let himself slide underneath the water until he was entirely submerged.

Clocks, dusty documents, woodchips, pencil shavings—there is nothing that cannot suck Quirke back into the secret history Ireland hid from itself for so long. He is, wherever he happens to be, always at a crime scene in which the most innocent objects are radioactive with the memory of violence and terror. The crime scene is the entire country. These thrillers have become not just an autopsy but an inquest into the abuse of the untrammeled power the country gave to the Church. It seems quite right that one of Ireland’s best writers has now given his own name to it. On the title pages of these books, Banville is saying, as Ireland as a whole must say: This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.

The post Scenes of the Crime appeared first on The New York Review of Books.

Historiography of the Enlightenment in The Dawn of Everything, Pt 2

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 03/02/2022 - 7:00am in

Kandiaronk: For my own part, I find it hard to see how you could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human, what species of creature, must Europeans be, that they have to be forced to do good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment? … 
    You have observed that we lack judges. What is the reason for that? Well, we never bring lawsuits against one another. And why do we never bring lawsuits? Well, because we made a decision neither to accept or make use of money. And why do we refuse to allow money into our communities? The reason is this: we are determined not to have laws – because, since the world was a world, our ancestors have been able to live contentedly without them.

Given that the Wendat most certainly did have a legal code, this might seem disingenuous on Kandiaronk’s part. By laws, however, he is clearly referring to laws of a coercive or punitive nature. He goes on to dissect the failings of the French legal system, dwelling particularly on judicial persecution, false testimony, torture, witchcraft accusations and differential justice for rich and poor. In conclusion, he swings back to his original observation: the whole apparatus of trying to force people to behave well would be unnecessary if France did not also maintain a contrary apparatus that encourages people to behave badly. That apparatus consisted of money, property rights and the resultant pursuit of material self-interest:

Kandiaronk: I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity,– of all the world’s worst behaviour. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false, and all because of money. In the light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as to look at silver?

For Europeans in 1703, this was heady stuff.---David Graeber & David Wengrow (2021) The Dawn of Everything, pp. 54-55

This is the second digression on The Dawn of Everything (here is the first); and here tweet impressions of each chapter (see here for links). When the book first appeared, David Bell (a historian of the French Enlightenment at Princeton) skewered the book for its misrepresentations of the French enlightenment, even going so far as to use "scholarly malpractice." Soon, this was followed by a generous and sensible, but at times critical review by Kwame Anthony Appiah in the New York Times. This review also strongly suggests that the characterization of Enlightenment thought is flawed. Meanwhile, Justin Smith (Paris), who arguably is the leading historian of early modern philosophy of my (now senior--shit times flies) generation, gave the book a very positive review (here). Smith notes, quite rightly that their achievement can be found in "their sympathetic plaidoyer for the singular reality of lives lived in the past, their commitment to the idea that these were real people, as weird and idiosyncratic and unfathomable by quantitative methods as you and I....It’s a weird thing to have to insist on: that there is something that it was like to be a member of the prehistoric leisure class, which is to say to have been a prehistoric human being." However, when he comes to their treatment of Lahontan's Dialogues avec le sauvage Adario, he expresses considerable skepticism about their insistence that 'Adario' just is expressing the views of the historical Kandiaronk (a Huron statesman).* I then read a critical (as of yet) unpublished review by Helen de Cruz (who among her specialities is an expert on the philosophy of anthropology and the cognitive sciences). 

As it happens the last few years, I have been reflecting a bit on the encounter of Europeans with the new world as reflected in early modern (political) philosophy. And so, before I say anything else, I think it is highly likely that European philosophy was shaped by the Jesuit Relations as Graeber and Wengrow suggest (p. 44ff), and that it makes a lot of sense to look for traces of (American) indigenous influence on European thought. Prompted by Ryan Hanley, my own focus has been on the Jesuit reports on China, but I noticed, while preparing this post, that Leibniz comments on Lahontas and 'Adario' in a letter from 1710, and does not treat him as fictional. (This letter is discussed in scholarship on Lahontas.) 

In various undergraduate courses, I teach Machiavelli's The Prince, which seems to have circulated as early as around 1513, but was published in 1532; I teach More's Utopia, which was first published in 1516, and I teach the Las Casas-Sepulveda (or The Valladolid) debate (1550–1551), centered on Las Casas' Defense of the Indians read at the Valladolid debate (and drawing on his earlier works). I mention these because they are very well known through the next few centuries; all of these texts are much earlier than Montaigne's Essays, which seems a common reference among Appiah, Smith, and Bell. Now, of these three works, The Prince is rather provincial. Even though it has quite a bit to say about Mediterranean politics, the Turkish barely register, and the other Islamic powers are ignored. It is a surprisingly Euro-centered book.

By contrast, More's Utopia is clearly responding to, and drawing on, another Florentine's adventures in the Americas, Amerigo Vespucci’s The Four Voyages. Utopia is important because, in passing, great civilizations of the Americas ("New Castille," that is, what we would call Peru) are mentioned in passing, "they came to towns, and cities, and to commonwealths, that were both happily governed and well peopled." And it is strongly implied that the locals have knowledge of navigation and astronomy (but lack a compass). In The Dawn of Everything, Utopia is mentioned in passing, as an exemplary work representing "civic prosperity and hierarchy," (p. 336) but little more. The fictional city that gives Utopia its name, is generally not treated as hierarchical because property is in common and money abolished (!), and it is in many respects rather egalitarian, but it does have a political hierarchy: in which the federation is governed by elected representatives.

In addition, the whole book, Utopia, is framed by a critique of the legal practices then current among Europeans (recall back in 2013). In fact, a stadial theory (with the Bible being the savage baseline!) is inscribed in this account! And the implication, as I noted a few years ago, is that the Europeans are the real savages (a point echoed by Montaigne and by eighteenth century legal reformers like Beccharia (recall) and Sophie de Grouchy). So, this precedes Kandiaronk's criticism by considerable  time. Now, some indigenous described in Utopia are treated as savages and ripe for colonialization, so I don't want to suggest More's book is unproblematic (recall here; here). 

Las Casas  was himself steeped in the Spanish conquest and control of the Americas. (By comparison, Justin Smith does mention Garcilaso de la Vega, who wrote a generation after Las Casas.) He wrote detailed histories of the conquest (and its brutalities), and echoing the work by some fellow Dominicans, he famously attacked the Aristotelian view of natural slavery (in which the indigenous were natural slaves), from the (more biblical) perspective of natural equality. Throughout his adult life he attacked the manner of Spanish rule, and as a bishop refused absolution to slave owners. Las Casas was very famous for the next few centuries. (Unfortunately, he is the originator of the idea -- which he later much regretted -- of importing African slaves to the Americas.)

Now, Las Casas' rival, Sepulveda invents (recall) the disastrous trope that the natives are inferior, and like backward children: *"If you know the customs and manners of different peoples, that the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults." This idea has a disastrous afterlife. In the Essay, Locke, who (alas) was rather invested in the colonial enterprise, frequently treats the savage mind as if a child's (see, especially, 1.2.27), and he suggests they don't think general propositions (1.2.12). The effect of this, and the tremendous influence of his anthropology, is -- as Chris Berry, Sandra Peart, and David Levy taught me--, that for some Enlightenment thinkers, it became natural to equate indigenous people with an earlier ('savage') age or stage of the development of the human species. It's this view that became influential among nineteenth century imperialists and their anthropological handmaidens, who draw on a contrast (which gets its most eloquent articulation, alas, in David Hume (recall here; recall here, drawing on Chirimuuta)) between civilization and savagery to justify conquest. Much of The Dawn of Everything is on the legacy of such views in anthropology and popular culture since.

But as plenty of scholars have noted, the Lockean anthropology, while influential, has notable critics including Adam Smith (recall, also with a passing comment on The Dawn of Everything) and Beattie (recall).  Hume and Smith both had stadial theories. But, as the previous sentence suggests, they have very different details. This is important because Graeber and Wengrow suggest -- and I was really fascinated and impressed by this -- that stadial theories are invented by Turgot (a contemporary of Smith) as a response to the "indigenous critique" (of the sort quoted at the top of this post), although presented by Madame de Graffigny in fictional form. And as the rightly suggest (p. 60), Turgot draws on what I have been calling a Lockean anthropology and so for him the earlier stages are vestiges of our earlier selves. (I think there is a direct influence of Locke on Turgot, but leave that aside.) This kind of thinking, inspired the earlier anthropologist mindset that studying indigenous types was kind of a window into our past (like the light of distant stars). But as I documented in my book, Smith's critique of this whole approach was well known in the nineteenth century (although some (recall) also treated him like a Lockean in these matters). While I am happy that Wengrow and Graeber are critical of the use that people like Pinker make of the Enlightenment, their own approach also flattens the intellectual landscape (and the intellectual roots of their own discipline).

Locke matters to the larger story in other way, and especially in light of the passage quoted above, but before we get there a brief detour with regard to  Las Casas, who is not mentioned in the book, but he is alluded to in the following passage:

Legal scholars in universities like Salamanca in Spain were not impressed by this expedient. At the same time, attempts to write off the inhabitants of the Americas as so utterly alien that they fell outside the bounds of humanity entirely, and could be treated literally like animals, also didn’t find much purchase. Even cannibals, the jurists noted, had governments, societies and laws, and were able to construct arguments to defend the justice of their (cannibalistic) social arrangements; therefore they were clearly humans, vested by God with powers of reason.
    The legal and philosophical question then became: what rights do human beings have simply by dint of being human – that is, what rights could they be said to have ‘naturally’, even if they existed in a State of Nature, innocent of the teachings of written philosophy and revealed religion, and without codified laws? The matter was hotly debated. We need not linger here on the exact formulae that natural law theorists came up with (suffice to say, they did allow that Americans had natural rights, but ended up justifying their conquest anyway, provided their subsequent treatment was not too violent or oppressive), but what is important, in this context, is that they opened a conceptual door. Writers like Thomas Hobbes, Hugo Grotius or John Locke could skip past the biblical narratives everyone used to start with, and begin instead with a question such as: what might humans have been like in a State of Nature, when all they had was their humanity? Each of these authors populated the State of Nature with what they took to be the simplest societies known in the Western Hemisphere, and thus they concluded that the original state of humanity was one of freedom and equality, for better or worse (Hobbes, for example, definitely felt it was worse). It’s important to stop here for a moment and consider why they came to this verdict – because it was by no means an obvious or inevitable conclusion.--The Dawn of Everything, pp. 32-33.**

But this story does no justice to the fact that people like Las Casas attributed genuine civilization to the Americans. And, in fact, when Suarez (in 1612), the greatest of the Salamanca school, develops his state of nature theory to justify a social contract (recall), his is ground in an account of the Fall, where political life originates in patriarchic clans (and this is by no means projected onto the Americas). So, the story that Graeber and Wengrow tell while not implausible skips a few steps. (In my own view it is more likely that Hobbes and Grotius are drawing on Book 3 of the Laws and Lucretius.)

So, Hobbes' choice, in chapter 13 of Leviathan, to project the state of nature on "many places of America" (not all) actually cries out for a better explanation. These Americans are treated as anarchist, but sadly find themselves in a war of all. But unlike the later Locke, Hobbes is a natural egalitarian and so his Americans are not children or idiots. For while they are savages, they "are not without some good Morall Sentences; also they have a little Arithmetick, to adde, and divide in Numbers not too great." (Chapter 46) It's true they not philosophers, but that's because, on his theory, the state of nature prevents the development of higher sciences.

So, where are we? There was a huge sixteenth discussion of the Americas in Europe. Thomas More's brother-in-law, John Rastell, has an interest in exploring Newfoundland (but the expedition ended near Ireland in a mutiny). It's a problem that this material has not been properly assimilated yet into scholarship of the Enlightenment (despite Pagden's efforts). And we see that from the start, that is the early sixteenth century, this is the occasion for stadial theories. But these are used to criticize the European (late Feudal) status quo.

I could stop here, but I want to offer a remark on the quoted passage from Lahontan. Kandiaronk's position is completely compatible with Locke's description of the state of nature in chapter 5 of the Second Treatise (1689). For Locke (recall) the invention of money facilitates accumulation of property (and of itself) (see sect 35-48), and the need for laws that can settle disputes (94). And then in section 49 he writes, "thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known." (That is an important contrast with More's account of the Utopian abolition of money.)

 I have no reason to doubt the words attributed to Kandiaronk are his. But the position was not wholly original. (Remember Locke's state of nature is actually rather pleasant; that's part of his criticism of Hobbes.) The difference being that Locke thinks the institution of money and property have beneficial outcomes that are endorsed, whereas Kandiaronk sees in them (what soon became known as Mandevillian) vices. That is to say Lahontan's readers could assimilate what they read to an already familiar position. In addition, while it is true that Lahontan's work influenced other Enlightenment books that used and perhaps drew indigenous critiques of Europe, Lahontan himself was not wholly original. He had been preceded by a somewhat mysterious and wildly popular work (recall) Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (L'Espion Turc), which was written from the perspective of a Turkish visitor to France. Of course, that work did not offer an indigenous critique, but an oriental(ist) one! And finally, Fenelon's The adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulisses (1699) was widely influential (and overshadowed Lahontan) and offered a potent attack on European hierarchies founded in luxury. But it projected the ideal into the remote (Greek) past. 

None of this amounts to a charge of scholarly malpractice. I learned quite a bit from their critical treatment of Enlightenment stuff. I would happily give the book to a nerdy kid wanting to be inspired by intellectuals taking on big problems. And, as a scholar, I am glad they have re-opened the debate over the influence of indigenous views on European intellectual life in such a provocative way. My suggestion is that this influence is real, but that it should be pushed back into the early sixteenth century. And that many of the tropes (both bad and noble) that shape debates since, actually can be found already there. 

Okay, let me stop here for now. And leave the question of why we are stuck now, for future occasion. 




*Here's his summing up: "Still, we are surely better off looking to Lahontan’s fictional Kondarionk, along with any other sources we can get our hands on, in order to come to as full a picture as possible of the “Columbian exchange of light”, of the full cultural impact in Europe of the encounter with Americans over the first 250 years or so, than we are simply dismissing a work such as this out of hands on the grounds that it is nothing more than an ideological construct and a sheer fantasy. We still need to know why and by what influences authors such as Lahontan came to have the fantasies they did, and it seems certain that Kondarionk, or someone like him, played a role in this history."

**Unfortunately, they cite 'Pagden 1986' in note 7 (on p. 533), but there is no Pagden 1986 in the bibliography (although three other works by Pagden are).

Literary Imperialism and Scenes of High Melodrama

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/02/2022 - 6:00am in

The term melodrama is a value judgment—and as such, it can be careless. ...

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Appiah Named Next President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 28/01/2022 - 7:00pm in

Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, has been elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The aim of the Academy, “an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers,” is “to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts.” It does so by, among other things, “administering over 70 awards and prizes, exhibiting art and manuscripts, funding performances of new works of musical theater, and purchasing artwork for donation to museums across the country.”

Professor Appiah is known for philosophical work spanning a range of topics in moral and political philosophy, philosophy of race, identity, and culture (and was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2011). He has also been recognized for his service in a variety of contexts to the philosophical profession (for which he won the Quinn Prize in 2020). Notably, Professor Appiah has been very active outside of academic philosophy, too, as the ethics columnist for The New York Times Magazine, as chair of the Man Booker Prize Committee, juror for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Pulitzer Prize (non-fiction), board chair of the American Council of Learned Societies, member of the Advisory Board for the United Nations Democracy Fund, and member of the New York Public Library Board, to name but a few examples.

Professor Appiah, who announced this news on Twitter, will succeed the current president, architect Billie Tsien, in February, and hold the position for a three-year term.


Poetry in remembrance of the Shoah

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 26/01/2022 - 1:27pm in



Theodor Adorno wrote that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." But there are good reasons not to agree with Adorno. There is a body of powerful, respectful, and penetrating poetry that has been written in reflection upon the Holocaust. And these works are another valid way for non-participants in the evils of the Holocaust to be brought to understand, respect, and reflect upon the suffering that occurred. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, "Babi Yar". Yevtushenko helps the reader to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wim Ramaker's powerful elegy for the thousands of Dutch Jews who departed from Westerbork in The Netherlands to the extermination camps of Poland is equally powerful. And Czesław Miłosz's poem "A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto" helps the reader to feel and think about the human loss and suffering that occurred in Warsaw and throughout Poland. Vasily Grossman was not a poet; but some of his passages in "Ukraine Without Jews" and "The Hell of Treblinka" are deeply poetic and expressive of a profound emotion that helps the reader to experience the depth of what has been lost. 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Kiev, Ukraine 
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
spat on,

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
'Beat the Yids. Save Russia!'
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
I know
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They're coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it's the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning grey.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The 'Internationale,' let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!

Westerbork, debarkation point for Dutch JewsWim RamakarSta een ogenblik stil: Monumentenboek 1940/1945The Netherlands
Who dares to raise his voice here?Departure point of a whole people:with known destination left for Auschwitz,Sobibor, Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Kosel ...
And nobody saved themTo be sure there was much waving when they passed byA gesture that always touched the deported deeplybut nobody shifted the point to life,or changed the track
Scores of trains have left from here,according to scheduleoften Tuesdays,exactly on time, because no one was allowed to die too late
Stand for a moment the point of departure and arrival have almost caught up with each otherHere left a whole people:more than one hundred and two thousand Jewish fellow citizens, children, mothers, fathers,fathers, mothers, childrenand also babies and those old of dayswere gassed, shot, burned alive,beaten to death, hangedwhile we waved
At last the rails are shiftedof sadness twistedand at the place where they were readied for their journeystand telescopesto amplify their silent whispering in the universeand to wave againwhen they wave.

A Poor Christian Looks at the GhettoCzesław MiłoszWarsaw, Poland
Bees build around red liver,Ants build around black bone.It has begun: the tearing, the trampling on silks,It has begun: the breaking of glass, wood, copper, nickel, silver, foamOf gypsum, iron sheets, violin strings, trumpets, leaves, balls, crystals.Poof! Phosphorescent fire from yellow wallsEngulfs animal and human hair.
Bees build around the honeycomb of lungs,Ants build around white bone.Torn is paper, rubber, linen, leather, flax,Fiber, fabrics, cellulose, snakeskin, wire.The roof and the wall collapse in flame and heat seizes the foundations.Now there is only the earth, sandy, trodden down,With one leafless tree.
Slowly, boring a tunnel, a guardian mole makes his way,With a small red lamp fastened to his forehead.He touches buried bodies, counts them, pushes on,He distinguishes human ashes by their luminous vapor,The ashes of each man by a different part of the spectrum.Bees build around a red trace.Ants build around the place left by my body.
I am afraid, so afraid of the guardian mole.He has swollen eyelids, like a PatriarchWho has sat much in the light of candlesReading the great book of the species.
What will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament,Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus?My broken body will deliver me to his sightAnd he will count me among the helpers of death:The uncircumcised.
Ukraine without JewsVasily GrossmanUkraine
When our forces enter the villages of Left-bank Ukraine under a volley of fire and the din of hand grenades, domestic geese rise up into the air. Flapping their enormous white wings, they circle above peasant huts, above lakes covered in water lilies, above fields and gardens.
There is something worrisome and strange in the heavy, arduous flight, and the sharp, alarming and sorrowful cries of these domestic birds. It is as if they are calling the soldiers of the Red Army to witness heartbreaking and frightening images of life, as if they are rejoicing at the arrival of our forces, simultaneously weeping with joy and lamenting, screaming of great losses, and of the tears and blood that have aged and salted the soil of Ukraine.
And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.
Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacteriology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty-year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.
The people have been murdered, trampled in the earth.

The Dispossessed (Spoilers), Pt 4.: on the limits of Anarchism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 15/01/2022 - 4:12am in

The second year I was in Elbow, I was worklister, the mill syndicate cut rations. People doing six hours in the plant got full rations just barely enough for that kind of work. People on half time got three-quarter rations. If they were sick or too weak to work, they got half. On half rations you couldn't get well. You couldn't get back to work. You might stay alive. I was supposed to put people on half rations, people that were already sick. I was working full time, eight, ten hours sometimes, desk work, so I got full rations: I earned them. I earned them by making lists of who should starve. The man s light eyes looked ahead into the dry light. Like you said, I was to count people.--From Ursula Le Guin (1974) The Dispossessed, p. 407 (page-number are from a 2002 adobe e-reader edition)

This post is the fourth in an open-ended series on Le Guin's The Dispossessed (see here for pt 1here for pt 2.; here for pt 3.).

It is commonly claimed that Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed offers a positive representation of a planet-wide anarchist society (on a planet Annares). This is no surprise because the narrative offers extensive details on the functioning of this society. In addition, Ursula Le Guin has herself invited this interpretation by adding a brief clarificatory note to one of her short stories, "The Day Before The Revolution." The story is about a day in the life of Odo, the intellectual visionary, the philosophical prophet, of Annares, where Odo's writing and her exemplary life function as the shared principles and touchstone of the anarchist program. This dedicatory note (recall) is "In memoriam Paul Goodman, 1911–1972" explicitly inserts the story into the history of anarchist theorizing mentioning ""early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman."*

In addition, the action of The Dispossessed, which centers on Shevek, is all about the tension (I almost wrote 'dialectic') between an ossified version of anarchism and anarchism as a perpetual work in progress. And so any flaws noted in Annares can charitably be interpreted as evidence of the need for the more dynamic understanding of anarchism "properly conceived," that "was a revolution, a permanent one, an ongoing process." (230) This Shevek attributes to what we may call true Odo-nism. And the narrative of The Dispossessed is itself plausibly understood as a narration of his growth from (recall) political "fool" (123) to this more mature understanding.

So far so good. And in what follows I do not want to deny that the representation of Anarres, a kind of Socratic political theory, is a major contribution to Anarchist thought. It is especially important because this is not an anarchism that turns its back on technology and goes back to nature: "they would not regress to pre-urban, pre-technological tribalism. They knew that their anarchism was the product of a very high civilization, of a complex diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology that could maintain high production and rapid transportation of goods." (124) But in what follows I suggest that Le Guin herself offers hints that there are limitations to Shevek's character (development) which might suggest more fatal flaws in Annares. After all the subtitle of the book is "An Ambiguous Utopia."

But first a relatively small point. So, there are two important features of the political economy of Anarres. First, their economy consists of cooperatives or syndics which are centrally coordinated from the top-down. Now unlike the economies familiar from the Soviet Union and its allied states, this is not a state capitalism. Anarres rejects property and money. Second, the economy has no mechanism to exchange surplus in one sector (say energy in which it is abundant) for needs in another section (say food). The second feature is a consequence of a kind of self-imposed autarky and political rejection of the mother planet, Urras, from which the revolutionaries were (self) exiled. Jointly, these two features make the economy of Anarres rather fragile, especially against famines in which all kinds of transportational and logistical bottle necks develop and in which starvation is a real possibility. In fact, at one point, during the famine Shevek becomes a locally important coordinator who literally decides the rations which might mean life and death for his community (see, especially, p. 407 quoted above).

Now, it's pretty clear that one of the side-effects or perhaps part of Shevek's mission to Urras is, in fact, the opening up of exchange of a commerce in ideas between Anarres and Urras. (And once on Urras he discovers a wider Hainish universe the possibilities of which are expanded by Shevek's intellectual breakthroughs and revealed to us in the last few chapters.) So, there is a sense in which the novel suggests that a truer Anarchism is open to the world/universe. And, so, perhaps this suggest that the limitations on the second feature might be overcome.

However, spatial distance might make planetary exchanges of commodities too slow and too costly to prevent famines. And Shevek's own approach (recall) is to promote nobly communism of knowledge, not trade. So it is by no means obvious that joining the league of worlds would be decisive on this score, and does not solve the coordination problems that are a consequence of central planning.

So, since there is no sign that Shevek is willing to promote the introduction of markets to solve the coordination problems that beset Anarres (and turn it into a more anarcho-capitalist society), it is by no means obvious that these can be solved. As an aside, it is worth noting that the (Hainish) League of Worlds seems loosely modeled on Kantian ideas as presented in Perpetual Peace. And Kant did think that such a League would need to be composed of commercial, trading republics. Some other time, I return to the Hainish League.

The other limitation of Anarres is that for all its egalitarian ethos, it has not, in fact, eliminated patriarchy. What I am about to discuss has long held me up writing about The Dispossessed. Shevek quietly presupposes and leans on women's labor of his scientist partner Tevek, who does menial tasks for him (see especially pp 488-489 and here paging of his manuscript). More important, Shevek sexually assaults the sister of one of his hosts on Urras, Vea. While the alcohol induced assault is very troubling by itself, it's his reaction once sober after that is, perhaps, especially jarring. While he feels humiliated, he never recognizes his own assault for what it is -- rather, he represents Vea as having betrayed him (355) -- and he rejects feeling any "guilt" (356) or shame, and this is crucial, nor does he seek any kind of atonement for it.

Now, that he rejects 'guilt' is no surprise because he has been taught to despise it. Guilt is associated with property, and in the consequentialist ethic of Anarres it's undoubtedly too backward-looking and too reminiscent of the kind of religions they have rejected. One can admire (recall) the cultivated, anticipatory "sensitivity" or sympathy (or empathy) with the pains and "suffering" of others that regulates behavior and mutual aid (393) among these anarchists, while still noticing that the absence of guilt and genuine atonement prevents forms of accountability worth having. They have norms that banish people from society (sending them to asylums), but nothing that allows people to -(ahh) own up to their wrongs to their victims, or themselves. 

And once one faces up to the significance of this sexual assault that Shevek simply sets aside, one notices that there is a structural undertone of always present violence on Anarres. Compared to the wars of the twentieth century, Anarres is quite pacific. But the book is literally book-ended by actual violence in chapter 1 and the threat of violence toward Shevek in the final chapter.  And while Shevek was still a comrade in good standing back home on Anarres, we see him in an unprovoked fist-fight with his near-name sake Shevet for no other reason that the near nominal identity causes a lot of mix-ups. (Shevet is the aggressor.) And once impartial bystanders decide that it would be a 'fair fight' (65) nobody intervenes to stop the punching despite the fact that this is an organicist society with an abundance of internal norm-enforcing social control. And after the fight a girl gives her body to him. 

Once one is willing to acknowledge that Anarres has more trouble than merely too much politics at the center, one sees that is very much a closed society of walls. This much Shevek himself diagnoses (with the help of his friends). But in so far as we are invited to reflect on the relentless forward looking ethic of Anarres, -- after he assaults Vea, Shevek wastes little time to engage in (a noble) political revolution -- we might well come to think that a society that is so incapable of registering harm done to each other may well be more rotten than just a certain amount of stasis in its cultural and social life. 

Again, this is manifested in troubled gender relations. Part of the political conflict that we are shown between Shevek and his friends with the more establishment critics, is also represented symbolically between his mother Rulag and his friend Bedap. And the reader can't help but wonder if the intensity of the conflict between mother and son isn't fueled by their mutual earlier personal rejection in accord with the anti-family norms of Anarres. The claims of family are treated as instance of property on Anarres, but this means that forms of what we might call natural sympathy are systematically suppressed or discouraged. 

And while one may well end up concluding that the anarchism of Anarres governed by true-Odonism in which a more robust openness to other perspectives may well be the best possible polity given the imperfections of human nature, Le Guin invites us to size up its true shortcomings carefully.+

*It's worth noting that in The Dawn of Everything, which will undoubtedly the most famous pro-anarchist tract of our times, David Graeber and David Wengrow mention Le Guin favorably on p.290 (although only quotes "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" explicitly).

+I thank my students who, in a period of five years in which I taught the book regularly, taught me to confront the implications of the sexual assault scene.