Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Re, Marxism and Political Correctness

I used what Wilson wrote about Marxism to infer that literary excellence cannot be made to order by a system (or an ism).  Wilson admired what Marx, Engels & Lenin said about literature.  But their followers in attempting to make a Party-Line System (as the American Communist Granville Hicks did) to guarantee great literature had  the opposite effect and not only that discouraged writers potentially capable of great literature from pursuing such a goal. 

Wilson was sympathetic to Marxism and the USSR until the Stalin Show Trials; which occurred in 1936 & 1937.  I previously said this essay was published in 1948 based on the copyright info in the front of my book (the Library of America), but Wikipedia says this essay was first appeared in 1938.  I’m inclined to think Wikipedia correct.  Wilson was contemptuous of the Literary “party line” mandated by Stalinism and Granville Hicks, but not of the views of Marx, Engels or Lenin.

No ism can mandate great literature.  The writer must be free to write whatever he wants, and if a writer has written something great (for “great” consider the classics or the lists appearing in Bloom’s The Western Canon), the greatness judges the critic, not the other way around.  Critics don’t make great literature.  If the critics are worthy of that title, they will recognize greatness when they see it. 

Wilson’s point back in 1938 can be seen as an apology for the direction Communism had taken Marxism on the subject of literature.  Marx, Engels and Lenin (Wilson tells us) knew better than to try and force Political Correctness down the throats of Russian artists, but Stalin hadn’t the sensitivity or cultural acumen to follow suit.  Stalin and the critics that answered to him, having the power, mandated political correctness and the result, Wilson tells us, was ludicrous.  Mandated Political Correctness didn’t produce great literature in Stalinist Russia nor the Third Reich.  It isn’t likely that it will do any better in 21st Century America. 

Marxism and Political Correctness

In 1946 Edmund Wilson published an essay entitled “Marxism and Literature.” It appeared in the collection entitled The Triple Thinkers. It is worth considering whether modern-American “Politically Correct” English professors are prone to errors similar to the ones Wilson criticizes. He writes, “. . . Marxism by itself can tell us nothing whatever about the goodness or badness of a work of art. A man may be an excellent Marxist, but if he lacks imagination and taste he will be unable to make the choice between a good and an inferior book both of which are ideologically unexceptionable.”

Wilson hastens to add that it is good to throw light on the origins and social significance of works of art. “The study of literature in its relation to society is as old as Herder – even Vico. Coleridge had flashes of insight into the connection between literary and social phenomena, as when he saw the Greek state in the Greek sentence and the individualism of the English in the short separate statements of Chaucer’s Prologue. . . But if Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky are worth listening to on the subject of books, it is not merely because they created Marxism, but also because they were capable of literary appreciation.”

Wilson writes that “Marx and Engels, unlike their followers, never attempted to furnish social-economic formulas by which the validity of works of art might be tested. They had grown up in the sunset of Goethe before the great age of German literature was over, and they had both set out in their youth to be poets; they responded to imaginative work, first of all, on its artistic merits.” Surely we should be doing the same thing today. We should first of all strive to appreciate imaginative work on its artistic merits. Secondarily we can study these imaginative works “in relation to society.”

Wilson warns, “. . . the man who tries to apply Marxist principles without real understanding of literature is liable to go horribly wrong. For one thing, it is usually true in works of the highest order that the purport is not a simple message, but a complex vision of things, which itself is not explicit but implicit; and the reader who does not grasp them artistically, but is merely looking for simple social morals, is certain to be hopelessly confused. Especially will he be confused if the author does draw an explicit moral which is the opposite of or has nothing to do with his real purport. Fredrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness . . . in warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to ‘remain hidden, the better it is for the work of art,’ says that Balzac, with his reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic ones. . . When Proust, in his wonderful chapter on the death of the novelist Bergotte, speaks of those moral obligations which impose themselves in spite of everything and which seem to come through to humanity from some source outside its wretched self (obligations ‘invisible only to fools . . .’), he is describing a kind of duty which he felt only in connection with the literary work which he performed in his dark and fetid room; yet he speaks for every moral, esthetic, or intellectual passion which holds the expediencies of the world in contempt.”

Wilson writes, “The Leftist critic with no literary competence is always trying to measure works of literature by tests which have no validity in that field.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Attacking Iran -- moral implications

My first note presented some controversies but didn’t take sides in order to imagine a time when all has been resolved, much as Fukuyama says that one day it will be.

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider both why we ought to attack Iran and why we should not. Matthew Kroenig argues (all the while considering the alternatives) that we should. Kroenig’s article, “Time to Attack Iran, Why a Strike is the least bad option” appears in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs. Matthew Kroenig is “Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. From July 2010 to July 2011, he was Special Adviser in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, responsible for defense strategy and policy on Iran.”

While you can’t read Kroenig’s article online, you can read opposing responses to it on the Foreign Affairs web site, e.g., http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137036/alexandre-debs-and-nuno-p-monteiro/the-flawed-logic-of-striking-iran

The controversy bears a resemblance to war vs. antiwar arguments prior to World War Two. Certain French Generals can in retrospect be seen to have gotten it right. France should have poured more money into defense. French leaders were arguing that France couldn’t afford to, just as there are those today arguing that we can’t afford to do anything about Iran. But in retrospect, if we go a short way up the mountain, we can look back at the cost to France and say without fear of disagreement, that the cost would have been far less to France if they had beefed up their military and dealt with Hitler in the early days of his violations of Germany’s post-WWI agreements. But France dithered as Hitler became stronger and stronger.

We in the U.S. are going to do one thing or the other. We are going to attack Iran or we are not, and we cannot know in advance which option will be the least expensive. Yes, we can say with the pre-WWII French leaders, the cost of arms is expensive, but will we after our opponent (in this case Iran) does whatever it is going to do, decide that we have made the right decision, and are taking all possible expenses into consideration? In France’s case it is clear that they did not make the right decision. If we do nothing will we have to say the same thing later on? Or will a new, mini-cold war, seem preferable and indeed have its benefits?

If we do nothing, as Kroenig argues, and Iran develops nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia is sure to want them as well. We are going to have to step up and either dole them out to Saudi Arabia and our other Middle-Eastern allies, or promise we will guard such states with permanently deployed ship-board and airborne nuclear weapons. It might in the long run cost far more to keep a fleet permanently in the region than it would be to knock out all or most of Iran’s nuclear capability in a single strike.

Do we have moral arguments for a preemptive strike against Iran? Iranian leaders have threatened Israel and Britain. Are these and similar threats sufficient to warrant a preemptive strike from a moral standpoint? A case can certainly be made. Iran engages in human-rights violations. Such violations are intrinsic to Islamic Fundamentalism. Iran is guilty of intolerance against non-Islamic religions and has vowed to destroy both Christianity and Judaism, especially the latter. Hitler voiced similar threats in his Mein Kampf, but they were discounted as meaningless bluster until he actually carried them out. Are we justified (or more importantly is Israel justified) in discounting the words of Ahmadinejad?

There will be many in the military who realize that more money will be pumped into weaponry and maintenance if we do not strike Iran preemptively and Iran is allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. A preemptive strike would use a minimum amount of weaponry during a limited time. But if we do not strike Iran preemptively and have instead to guard the region indefinitely with our war ships and planes, the Navy and Air Force will be assured of ongoing congressional support for new weaponry and military forces indefinitely.

In our Liberal Democracy there are many agendas besides the moral one that we might consider. And one can by no means assume that the current democratic president will be less likely to conduct a preemptive strike against Iran the Republican he defeated. One can imagine Obama’s advisors weighing the options and telling him that the voting public isn’t going to want to unseat him if he is in the midst of a military action – a strike against Iran at the right time might be the surest path to reelection.

Hermann Hesse, Iran, and the future

On page 50 of Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930, H. Stuart Hughes writes, “. . . despite the seriousness of their scholarship and the dignity of their personal situation, the German professors were the prisoners of their own exalted station. The public treated them with a respect and followed their abstract debates with a passionate interest that may strike us as a little short of miraculous, but, like most of the state government that employed them, it expected of its professors a thoroughly conformist attitude toward the national community. And the professors were not too loath to conform: some of them might criticize with violence the internal character of the regime, but in the realm of foreign policy virtually all remained within the nationalist frame. . . .”

In earlier times there were ample examples of Barons opposing Kings, but those working on a Baron’s land could not hope to oppose the Baron with equal impunity. It isn’t until we move forward into the era of Democracy that such an act becomes practical, that is, that a person can oppose their nation’s foreign policy and expect not to end up in jail or worse. Germany in the time-period Hughes is interested in wasn’t there yet. Hermann Hesse was “there” as an individual. He supported the war effort at the beginning of World War One, but nevertheless in 1914 wrote an essay entitled "O Friends, Not These Tones" ("O Freunde, nicht diese Töne") urging a recognition of Europe’s common heritage. Hughes describes Hesse as moving to Switzerland because he was disgusted by the growing militarism.”

We can assume along with Hughes that the militarism of Germany in the two World Wars was unjustifiable, but we cannot build a principle from that and apply it to all nations. France as we know was not nearly as militaristic during this period. We can read about France in Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years. It was deeply influenced by anarchistic and pacifistic arguments. While it was right for Hesse to oppose Germany’s militarism, the pacifists and anarchists who opposed French militarism were (and I suspect few would disagree with me here) wrong. Had the French been supporting their military at the time the German’s were building theirs, World War II could, many historians argue, have been nipped in the bud, that is, reduced to a minor altercation.

At this point I propose a simplistic principle: It is good to support just wars but not good to support unjust wars. I assume here the rejection of the pacifistic argument. Few who lived through the conclusions of that argument during the Vichy period in France would wish to live it again.

A more serious objection to this principle has to do with its definition: How do we go about distinguishing just wars from unjust wars? If we are heirs of the Enlightenment we can argue that wars for humanistic and “enlightened” reasons are more likely to be just than those which are not. But some consider themselves “heirs” and take a Marxist viewpoint. Others reject the Enlightenment and think all points of view equal. Therefore these latter argue, the tyrannies of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il must not be opposed militarily because all regimes, all governments, all people are equal.

In this, as in struggles of the past, the victor will get to write the histories. If Francis Fukuyama is correct and Liberal Democracy comprises the end of history then none of the objections from Socialists, anarchists, Islamists, Revolutionaries or any other political viewpoint will stand against it in the long run.

Moving up the mountain and standing above it all, if Fukuyama is proved right and every form of government opposing Liberal democracy is eventually converted; then in looking back at the various wars we fought or are about to fight, the arguments may hinge on whether it was better to fight a war or let matters play themselves out. We haven’t fought a war with Iran yet; so is it better for Liberal Democracies to fight against Iran and prevent them from using nuclear weapons, or is it better to let them have their weapons because in the long run they will become a Liberal Democracy and it won’t really matter what they do now? Think of Vietnam for comparison. Millions were killed during the war so those opposing the war could later say “I told you so.” But Millions of people were killed by the Communists after the war so those favoring the war could say “I told you so.” Since then Vietnam has been slowly mellowing. The day may come when historians write that nothing that went on during that war really mattered in the long run. Will it be possible to one day say that about Iran?

A difference between Vietnam and Iran is that the former admired Communism, a political philosophy that has been discredited in almost everyone’s eyes; while the latter is devoted to Shia Islam which is not likely to become discredited in a comparable way. Shia Islam has fought against Sunni Islam for hundreds of years. Perhaps they will fight against Liberal Democracy for as long? At the end of those hundreds of years (we are still sitting on our mountain) we may argue that we should have had a war in 2012 to deny them nuclear weapons. But if we do have that war, it may be (from our mountain perch) that some argue that it took a few hundred years longer but in the end Iran was just like Vietnam.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tom Hart and Reading Lists

Tom Hart (see http://web.me.com/tehart/Jurassic_Rants/Welcome.html ) wrote of reading (during retirement) the stuff he missed out on earlier, e.g, “. . . . stuff like Kant, Hegel, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Ariosto, Machiavelli, parts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and blogging about it. I'm also reading less pretentious stuff, mostly science fiction.”

In a sense I did what he is doing, but I did it earlier. I grew up having contempt for my many of my teachers which carried over into college; so I developed a “reading list” of books I wanted to read at the earliest opportunity, especially books rejected by professors I didn’t respect.

Tom writes of not liking the jobs he held and I sense a hint of Catholic guilt for not engaging in work with social benefits (although this could be my imagination). I can relate to this concern a bit, but I can’t really say that I hated working in engineering because I became good at it and enjoyed mastering matters I wasn’t educated for, but I was often more interested in completing the gaps in my education (the ones I was aware of) than my engineering assignments. I recall once, for example interesting a couple of fellow engineers in a slow reading of one of Ockham’s works.

Douglas, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing hired a lot of people educated in matters not directly related to engineering. I recall working with and debating a fellow named Cy Gallick who was working on his PhD in Geology. After he earned as much money as he was interested in he quit to complete his degree and find a job more to his liking. I recall another fellow who was educated in Economics. He hated engineering, but on the plus side fell in love with his boss’s secretary and went with her to live in Montana. “Bill,” I asked. “What will you do in Montana?” “Anything but this,” he said. “I don’t care. I’d rather work in a hardware store than do this.”

People educated in English seemed to last a bit longer. English was at the time considered to be the closest could get to a classic education; which would equip a graduate for any sort of work he was interested in. I had a great number of discussions and debates with Lee Griffith, a graduate of Duke University. He abandoned his education, I forget why, after getting an M.A. in English. His interest was Criticism, and since I was always writing poetry, he was always offering his opinion, but we also read and debated a lot of the same things. Lee could do the work well enough, but after a divorce, he drank a bit too much and lost interest in keeping his job. All of which is to say that I worked on my reading list during the time I worked as an engineer in aerospace and didn’t wait for retirement.

In recent years I have taken up a parallel concern. Perhaps we all know that ideas, climates of opinion, change from one generation to the next, but how can we put the accepted ideas of today in “proper perspective,” and, perhaps, avoid the foolishness that historians will see in us a hundred years from now? That is, can someone step back, figuratively step outside of the accepted “truths” of this age the way historians do with earlier periods? Impossible, historians will tell us – at least generally impossible because we can’t dredge up and set aside all the assumptions we were raised with. They are in us like a cancer that can’t be pulled out without killing us. That is generally true, but not entirely so else historians and social scientists would not be writing the books they do.

I have been rereading H. Stuart Hughes’ Consciousness and Society, The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. Hughes wrote this book in 1958. He didn’t set out to do quite what I described in the preceding paragraph. Instead he sought to determine the impact of some of the great thinkers of the preceding generation upon the generation in which he lived. Hughes conscientiously describes his own presuppositions: “In my own case, I might proffer the information that while I am American by nationality, my intellectual formation has been largely European. Originally it was Anglo-French: Cartesian logic, the common sense of Locke, the skepticism of Hume were already in the background of my education long before I had read a line of these philosophers. And I still fall most naturally into a ‘rationalistic’ way of thought. But an exposure to Germany and to the German idealist tradition came early enough in my life to effect a radical change in orientation. More recently I have been primarily concerned with Italy, and the tranquil persuasiveness of Croce has been ever with me.”

Ah, “Croce.” I never encountered him in college, or if I did he made no impression. After my first reading of Hughes’ book I purchased translations of Croce’s Theory of Aesthetic and History of Aesthetic, and while I have yet to read them, they have been added to my “list” which is getting longer rather than shorter.

In my quest to put our age into some sort of historical perspective, I have been interested in theorists, especially Fukuyama who have sought something similar. In reading Hughes treatment of the Positivists, he said that none (or few?) are thorough-going determinists; so what of Fukuyama? I don’t recall wondering about it before, but in picking up Hegel’s view that Capitalism (now Liberal Democracy) is to be the end of history, isn’t that rather deterministic of him? Fukuyama didn’t put matters in deterministic terms. Marx may have when he predicted Socialism to be the end of history, but Fukuyama was interested in following Kojeve in his criticism of Marx and his observation that while Marx may have turned Hegel on his head, events, especially the fall of the USSR in 1989, have set Hegel back on his feet. Perhaps one can make a deterministic inference from Fukuyama’s arguments, but I doubt that he himself would.

Another of the intellectuals Hughes will be discussing is Weber who gave us the “Protestant Work Ethic,” which bothered me a bit in aerospace because I finished my work more quickly than anticipated and as a consequence spent long periods reading such writers as Ockham.

And does the Protestant Work Ethic extend into retirement? Perhaps in earlier periods retirement was a matter of getting too sick and feeble to work any longer. What sort of perspective can we put Tom and me into: two retirees working on their book lists – and, sometimes, feeling guilty about it?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Urban's Scientology and Schpayer-Makov's Sherlock Holmes

The 26 January 2012 issue of the London Review of Books has two reviews that seem related.  The first is a review entitled “Religion, grrrr” by Rachel Aviv of Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion.  Urban, as all historians strive to be, is objective in his analysis of Scientology, too much so to suit Aviv.  “Urban takes no position on whether or not Scientology should qualify as a religion.  Also, “Urban avoids the controversies and crimes that have shaped Scientology’s public image – he doesn’t consider them part of his remit – but in leaving out details about the church’s more sordid traditions, he gives only an incomplete view of the afterlife of Hubbard’s ‘rather postmodern view of the self and of reality.”

“Urban details Hubbard’s obsession with surveillance, and attributes his paranoia to the influence of the Cold War. . .  But Hubbard suffered from paranoia before it became fashionable.  In the 1940s and 1950s he sent letters to the FBI, complaining that Communists were going to attack him, that Russians were stealing his work, that a stranger had broken into his apartment and given him a 100-volt electric shock.  ‘Appear mental,’ an FBI agent wrote on his file.  His paranoia created a world in which nothing was trivial.  The paranoid person ‘logically weaves all events, all persons, all chance remarks and happenings, into his system’, a character in Philip K. Dick’s story ‘Shell game’ explains.  Paranoia functioned as a religious worldview, and bound his followers into a community.”

Aviv tells us that “Hubbard told a group of doctoral students in Philadelphia in 1954 that his followers were more convinced of Scientology’s cosmology than he was.”  Hubbard is conscious of having created a cosmology, and is the paranoid truly mad if he realizes that he has created his own reality?  His followers on the other hand are not paranoid but have been convinced to accept Hubbard’s.  We hasten to call them naïve, dupes, fools, etc. but as Pragmatists we recognize that some of these followers derive benefit.  William Burroughs for example testified that Scientology had allowed him to “become a more imaginative writer.”  Burroughs later criticized Scientology not because it encouraged him to believe in his own reality but because “Scientology” had become “a model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties.  It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA.” 

Six pages after we leave Tom Cruise, John Travolta and the others who demonstrate that the acceptance of Hubbard’s cosmology has made them better at what they want to do, we find John Pemble’s “Gaslight and Fog,” a review of The Ascent of the detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England by Haia Shpayer-Makov.  Just as Hubbard’s followers believed more in the cosmology he created than he did; so did Doyle’s followers believe more in the world of Sherlock Holmes than he.  One gathers that Doyle didn’t believe in Holmes at all.  He wrote A Study in Scarlet as a pot-boiler because he needed the money, and Pemble tells us “It’s gone on boiling ever since.  We’ve had reprints, pastiches, parodies and adaptations galore.  Holmes migrates effortlessly between cultures and languages because, like Robinson Crusoe, he’s fiction that’s become myth.  ‘Fictions,’ according to Frank Kermode, ‘can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive.’”

To add credence to this fiction-becoming-myth hypothesis, Pemble tells us “The fictiveness of Sherlock Holmes was uncertain from the start.  The letters addressed to him sent to Conan Doyle for redirection, the landladies who wanted to keep house for him when he retired, the tourists who came to baker Street looking for his lodgings: these are more than mythical, they are legendary.  And addicts who know he’s fictive pretend that they don’t.  There’s a whole archive of mock research in pseudo-academic publications dedicated to his life and work.  In 1954, when the BBC broadcast a 100th-birthday tribute, the contributors all said they hoped he was listening. . . .”

Scientology allows its followers to work more effectively if they embrace the myth as reality.  The Holmes myth presents us with an intellectual who can solve all our social mysteries.  These are two major choices available to the Post-Christian who seeks to fill his void, a system that works, and a Guru that does. 

Those not willing to leave reality far enough behind to embrace fictive systems or heroes are faced with depressing alternatives.  Some of us might argue that neither Communism nor Fascism avoided fictiveness to any marked degree, but huge numbers embraced it and made it real in the same way that Scientology has become so for its followers.  Stalin and Hitler were as paranoid, and they believed in their fiction more single-mindedly than Hubbard did. 

Standing apart and skeptically striving to find “the truth” as Nietzsche did can drive us mad.  It is much better, the post-Christian tells himself, to accept some paranoid’s reality, preferably a benign one, but beggars can’t always be choosers:  The poor indeed we have with us, and their numbers are on the increase.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Warfare and photographic equipment

I have known people who collected or liked to use old guns, knives and cameras.  I have a neighbor, for example, who belongs to a black powder club.  Not only do they have shooting competitions, but they periodically dress up in Civil War or Frontier clothing.  A longing for earlier, less complicated times is understandable.  Also, to collect old weapons has always had its appeal, but there is considerable angst in the photographic world in regard to leaving beloved 35mm cameras and moving into the digital world.  There are still some diehards that refuse to move, but their numbers are dwindling.   Others acquire digital cameras and then feel guilty about them.  They long for the times when you had only 24 or 36 shots and needed to concentrate on making everyone count – sort of like the days when a father would send his son out to hunt squirrels with a single-shot 22, a handful of cartridges, and similar instructions.

In the battle at Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon and many of their officers made serious mistakes. The potentially critical analyst needs to be reminded that they had very little technology back then. Neither side had any way for spying on the enemy.  Wellington said, "All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I call 'guessing what is on the other side of the hill'."

Modern generals, don't need to guess what's on the other side of the hill. They can check satellite or drone images and see. This of course means that no modern general can ever prove himself to be as good as Wellington or Napoleon at guessing what's on the other side of the hill.

Shall we give up our modern technology, go back to film cameras in order to be purists, "guessing what's on the other side of the hill"? Modern military officers still read the details of Waterloo and second guess Wellington and Napoleon, but if there is a war and they are called to fight it they will use modern technology. The same may be true for most of us. It is nice to take down the old 35mm camera from time to time, but for the "business of life" we are going to use modern technology.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chris Huhne: a life sentence for speeding?


I was sleepily contemplating another cup of espresso before heading off to a morning hike when I read the startling news that Chris Huhne may face a life sentence for speeding.  I read several more articles and the circumstances became more and more reasonable.  Chris Huhne will probably not receive a life sentence in jail, but it is apparently legally possible for him to do so. 

One can imagine Huhne saying to himself “I am doing important things.  I can’t afford to lose my license.   So what harm can it do,” he continues to rationalize, “if my dear wife takes the blame for my speeding?”   I can understand such a rationalization.  If he is indeed doing important work for the government, he may lose his efficiency to some extent if he loses his license for speeding, especially as it was in the process (or nearly so) of conducting government business. 

All may have gone well and Huhne’s minor violation of British law and would have gone unnoticed except that Huhne decided to leave his wife for another woman.  Fall on your sword for me, dear wife, because I am rushing off to another woman’s arms seems altogether too arrogant, naïve, unrealistic and altogether deserving of a life sentence in British jail.  We lock self-destructive people away in various places to keep them from further hurting themselves, don’t we?