I've read criticisms that this book is too insular (boring) and that the writing comes from a very specific, privileged sort of place. I think that th...moreI've read criticisms that this book is too insular (boring) and that the writing comes from a very specific, privileged sort of place. I think that this criticism is unimaginative. So long as there is a depth of emotional intelligence, it's possible to be moved by fictional character who aren't just like ourselves, and whose lives may be relatively boring compared with the improbable creations of many other authors on offer. Tomine's low-key writing is observant and ecomonical - just as in his earlier collection of "short stories," Sleepwalk. The lead character, Ben Tanaka, is sympathetic but deeply flawed. What makes the story so rewarding is that none of the supporting cast can give an authoritative voice to what exactly he must fix, since they are so animated by their own flaws to a lesser degree. The story leaves a lot of judgement unsaid, and it rewards a sympathetic investment in the admittedly "whiny," all-too-ordinary lives of the protagonist and his small circle of friends. The critics tend towards a blanket dismissal of any problems in life which are too bourgeois or what have you, in view of the misery of the less privileged, but however noble this outlook is, it unfairly steamrolls well-crafted and intelligently observed works of modern realism like this one. Self pity, I agree, is unsympathetic but one of the strengths of Shortcomings is its thoughtful style of self-deprecation, and its subtle, everyday drama.(less)
I picked up a lesser known Orwell novel (sold 2000 copies on first pressing), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I think it's ripe for reappraisal - writ...moreI picked up a lesser known Orwell novel (sold 2000 copies on first pressing), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I think it's ripe for reappraisal - written during the depression, it follows the downfall of Gordon Comstock, like Orwell a "lower upper middle class" public school boy with no money and few contacts in the literary world he feigns to belong to. His only friend is a socialist upper class editor of a poetry journal (who is, to Comstock's chagrin, always offering the penniless poet money) and the only things which maintain his pride are his girlfriend of two years (who won't have sex with him), his 40shilling a week job, his one published book of poetry "Mice," occasional visits to literary parties of dim prestige, and his potted aspidistra (symbolic of all middle class aspiration).
The character is a terrifying portrait of self-hatred, obviously semi-autobiographical, specifically of the self-pity of those just outside of the elite." Parallels could be drawn to the situation of many graduates such as myself who realise that, after all, the world doesn't owe them a living. Gordon both hates his books who have made him who he is, yet has in them his only comfort, and the only mark of his shattered self-worth: describing his interactions with proud patrons of high-brow literature, he sarcastically calls this sort of talk "the freemasonry of highbrows."
The book repeatedly dwells upon Gordon's tedious but understandable obsession with money. He pretentiously claims to have "declared war on money," whilst still being unable to think about anything but his lack of it. He once refused to "sell out" by accepting a job in the advertising industry and secretly (never explicitly said) hates himself for it. He believes that being poor is more than being cold and malnourished, if you were brought up to imagine yourself as better:
pg39 Gran'pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exerted a powerful influence. In life he was a tough old scoundrel. He plundered the proletariat and the foreigner of the fifty thousand pounds, he built himself a redbrick mansion as durable as a pyramid, and he begot twelve children, of whom eleven survived. pg43 Since [today] the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby, it was considered necessary to waste huge sums on gordon's "education". What a fearful thing it is, the incubus of "education"! It means that in order to send his son to the right kind of school (that is, a public school or an imitation of one) a middle-class man is obliged to live for years on end in a style that would be scorned by a jobbing plumber. pg166 Something deep below made the stone street shiver. The tube train, sliding through middle earth. He had a vision of London, of the western world; he saw a thousand million slaves toiling and grovelling about the throne of money. The earth is ploughed, ships sail, miners sweat in dripping tunnels underground, clerks hurry for the eight-fifteen with fear of the boss eating at their vitals. And even in bed with their wives they tremble and obey. Obey whom? The money-priesthood, the pink-faced masters of the world. The Upper Crust. A welter of sleek young rabbits in thousand-guinea motor cars, of golfing stockbrokers and cosmopolitan financiers, ofChancery lawyers and fashionable Nancy boys, of bankers, newspaper peers, novelists of all four sexes, American pugilists, lady aviators, film stars, bishops, titled poets and Chicago gorillas.
Gordon enjoys scorning civilisation in a highbrow, fashionably Modernist way, but realizes eventually that this too is a shrinking comfort:
pg92 Ravelston murmured agreement, with a curious air of guilt. And now they were off upon their favourite subject - Gordon's favourite subject, anyway; the futility, the bloodiness, the deathliness ofm odern life. They never met without talking for at least half an hour in this vein. But it always made Ravelston feel rather uncomfortable. In way, of course, he knew - it was precisely this that Antichrist [his journal] existed to point out - that life under a decaying capitalism is deathly and meaningless. But this knowledge was only theoretical. You can't really feel that kind of thing when your income is eight hundred a year. "Oh well it's merely a temporary phenomenon. Capitalism is in its last phase. I doubt whether it's worth worrying about." pg99 "This is all b------s that we've been talking. All this talk we make - we're only objectifying our own feelings. It's all dictated by what we've got in our pockets. I go up and down London saying it's a city of the dead, and our civilisation's dying, and I wish war would break out, and God knows what; and all it means is that my wages are two quid a week and I wish they were five.
Maybe that last line could be updated to "13k and I wish it were 30k."
The upper class is represented satirically in the form of Ravelston, the editor, and his girlfriend Hermione. Ravelston's kind is fairly represented as open-hearted, generous but dim, and he is troubled by the complacent views of the rest of his class. In a way he is as impotent as Gordon, only living a more pampered life:
pg108 "Philip, why do you have to live in such a dreadful way?" "But I don't live in a dreadful way." "Yes you do. Pretending you're poor when you're not, and living in that pokey flat with no servants, and going about with all these beastly people." "What beastly people?" "Oh, people like this poet friend of yours. All those people who write for your paper. They only do it to cadge from you. Of course I know you're a Socialist. So am I. I mean we're all Socialists nowadays. But I don't see why you have to give all your money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a Socialist and have a good time, you know." "Hermione dear, please don't call them the lower classes!" "Why not? They are the lower classes, aren't they?" "It's such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can't you?" "The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same." "You oughtn't say that kind of thing," he protested weakly. "Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you like the lower classes." "Of course I like them." She lay quiet, content to argue no longer, her arms round him, like a sleepy siren. The woman-scent breathed out of her, a powerful wordless argument against all altruism and justice.
The book is strikingly relevant to those in a similar position today, and the differences are interesting for historical reasons. Gordon is a public school boy but not a graduate - today people in his position would be graduates but not public school boys. Gordon makes less than today's minimum wage in a book shop which today would be the equivalent of a huge Odeon or even a smutty video shop. Gordon's fight to stay relevant in the literary world is very similar to some people's desire to make networking connections in the "creative industries" these days. Gordon fights for the integrity he feels he deserves by virtue of his apparent high-mindedness, when in reality the best life he could hope for was offered to him in the form of a surrender of all integrity: a job in advertising. Today, advertising is seen as a noble and creative career pursuit, where all the smartest and most talented artist minds of our generation head.
Orwell is influenced by Miller, but writes with less purple language and pays attention to the menial suffering and status-obsession which eludes Miller's self-portrait in Paris. Shades of The Road to Wigan Pier are prescient when Gordon sees a tramp on a park bench, but looks past it, preferring to dwell where "real sympathy" is deserved: for those just at the edge of the Haves, and not with the desolute Have-Nots. In fact Gordon finds a deluded comfort in the idea of falling absolutely into the Have-Nots, where no one would expect any better of him (until they heard his accent).(less)
A heartwrenching and thematically rich novel telling the tragic life of the mixed race laborer, bootlegger, and later fugitive, Joe Christmas. It is s...moreA heartwrenching and thematically rich novel telling the tragic life of the mixed race laborer, bootlegger, and later fugitive, Joe Christmas. It is set in the Southern slums of the early twentieth century; familiar to anyone who has read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The novel's most striking feature is that it is told mostly from the point of view of third persons, whose droll Southern cynicism relates the terrible events of the plot as apathetic gossip. This dispiriting but tense tale condemns this false assuredness of conviction that such gossip embodies. In a couplet of wisdom, Faulkner writes:
Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. [p.91]
The anti-hero, Joe Christmas, has his bleak future shaped by not one, but sequentially two religiously fanatical father figures. The second (adopted) father, McEachern, discovers him with his lover at the dance hall, having disobeyed his tight strictures:
'Away, Jezebel!' he said. His voice thundered, into the shocked silence, the shocked surrounding faces beneath the kerosene lamps, into the ceased music, into the peaceful moonlit night of young summer. 'Away, harlot!'
Perhaps it did not seem to him that he had been moving fast nor that his voice was loud. Very likely he seemed to himself to be standing just and rocklike and with neither haste nor anger while on all sides the sluttishness of weak human men seethed in a long sigh of terror about the actual representative of the wrathful and retributive Throne. Perhaps they were not even his hands which struck at the face of the youth whom he had nurtured and sheltered and clothed from a child, and perhaps when the face ducked the blow and came up again it was not the face of that child. But he could not have been surprised at that, since it was not that child's face which he was concerned with: it was the face of Satan, which he knew as well. And when, staring at the face, he walked steadily toward it with his hand still raised, very likely he walked toward it in the furious and dreamlike exaltation of a martyr who has already been absolved, into the descending chair which Joe swung at his head, and into nothingness. Perhaps the nothingness astonished him a little, but not much, and not for long.
Then to Joe it all rushed away, roaring, dying, leaving him in the centre of the floor, the shattered chair clutched in his hand, looking down at his adopted father. McEachern lay on his back. He looked quite peaceful now. He appeared to sleep: bluntheaded, indomitable even in repose, even the blood on his forehead peaceful and quiet. [p.154]
In a Faulknerian sentence, towards the end of the novel, Faulkner describes the waves of bystanders - the bystanders who have also collectively revealed the events of the plot - who gather as the pushover, Byron Bunch, surveys the outside scene of Joe Christmas's trial:
From the shallow, flagged terrace the stone columns rose, arching, weathered, stained with generations of casual tobacco. Beneath them, steady and constant and with a grave purposelessness countrymen in overalls moved (and with here and there, standing motionless or talking to one another from the sides of their mouths, some youngish men[:] townsmen, some of whom Byron knew as clerks and young lawyers and even merchants, who had a generally identical authoritative air, like policemen in disguise and not especially caring if the disguise hid the policeman or not), with almost the air of monks in a cloister, speaking quietly amongst themselves of money and crops, looking quietly now and then upward at the ceiling beyond which the Grand Jury was preparing behind locked doors to take the life of a man whom few of them had ever seen to know, for having taken the life of a woman whom even fewer of them had known to see. [p.312]
The story ends with some optimism: Faulkner has us momentarily believe he will bring all these characters to the same lonely destruction, but gives us just the slightest relief with a very moving final callback to the tale's beginning. This optimism comes at a cost, however, re the fate of Byron Bunch. Perhaps Faulkner is telling us here that happiness is only measured by the final balance of exploitations.(less)
He told me about using improted chinese labor like cattle to build the westand of breeding negroes and working them to death in the...morereview in progress
He told me about using improted chinese labor like cattle to build the westand of breeding negroes and working them to death in the south. Of their torture. of john brown and nat turner. of thomas paine, whose atheism made him an embararassment to the leaders of the american revolution. I heard about the framing of tom mooney and the execution of joe hill, and all the maimed and dead labor heroes of the early labor movement. the incredibly brutal fate of anyone who tried to help the worker. he described to me the working conditions and wages of the steel-workers, and coal miners, in the days before the unions - how men would be crippled for life or buried alive beacuse their owners were so busy draining every last penny from their work that they wouldn't even put the most primitive safety measures into effect. He told me about the Henry Ford and Harry Bennett's goons and the sit-down strikes, and the Depression which came like a blight over capitalist America at the same time Socialist Russia was feeding ever one of her citizens and providing each of them a fair share of the country's wealth. He told me about Sacco and Vanzetti. About the Scottsboro boys. He ran up and down history like a pianist playing his scales. Reading to me the facts and figures of economic exploitation, of slavery in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Putting together all the historic injustices and showing me the pattern and how everything that had happened was inevitable according to the Marxian analysis. Putting it all together. Everything was accounted for: even my comic books which he studied with me, teaching me to recognise and isolate the insidious stereotypes of yellow villains, Semitic villains, Russian villains. Even the function of public games like baseball. What its real purpose was. The economic class of baseball fans. Why they needed baseball. What would happen to the game if people had enough money, enough freedom. I listened becasue that was the price I paid for his attention. "And it's still going on, Dannny," a famous remark. "In today's newspaper it's still going on. Right outside the door of this house it's going on. In this house." [p35
I have an idea for a an aritcle. If I write it maybe I can sell it and see my name in print. The idea is the dynamics of radical thinking. Witheachcycle of radical thought there is a stage of genuine creative excitement during which the connections are made. The radical discovers connections between available data and the root of responsibility. Finally he connects everything. Nothing is left outside the connections. At this point society becomes bored with the radical. Fully connected in his characterization it has achieved the counterinsurgent rationale that alllows it to destroy him. The radical is given the occasion for one last discovery - the connection between society and his death. After the radical is dead his early music haunts his persecutors. And the liberals use this to achieve power. I have searched and searched for one story from history that is invulnerable to radical interpretation. I mean, it is harder than it sounds and if you think not then give it a try. [p.140]
Burning at the stake. A practice knwon to all European nations until the 19th century. Clerical fondness for. Known also to Indians of North America. Used into the 20th Century only in the American South, often with castration. Performed on lower classes. No accident that Joan of Arc, burned at the stake, was a peasant.
Explore the history of corporal punishment as a class distinction. There is always exemption for the designated upper class of a society. In England, highborn nobles were never drawn and quartered. In Russia only serfs were flogged. For the saem or similar crime, the upper class received relatively painless and non-humiliating punishment. If death, swift death. Never desecration. Where it is necessary for one reason or another to apply the torturous practice to the upper-class victim, certain rituals of transvaluation are performed which expel him from his class before he is executed . Religious excommunication, tribal excommunication. An infidel or an enemy, like a slave, can be executed with abandon. [p.129
Technology is the making of metaphors from the natural world. Flight is the metaphor of air, wheels are the metaphor of water. food is the metaphor of earth. The metaphor of fire is electricity. [p.224
I really enjoyed this. The book's main problems with the emerging direction of digital history are neatly divided into three broad issues: those negat...moreI really enjoyed this. The book's main problems with the emerging direction of digital history are neatly divided into three broad issues: those negatively affecting 1). Individuality, 2). Standards of expression, and 3). fair standards in commerce.
Lanier on what he sees as a flourishing of artistic endeavor via commercial distribution:
One effect of the so-called "free" way of thinking is that it could eventually force anyone who wants to survive on the basis of mental activity to enter into some sort of legal or political fortress - or become a pet of a wealthy patron - in order to be protected from the rapacious hive mind. What "free" really means is that artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers will have to cloak themselves withtin stodgy institutions.
We forget what a wonder, what a breath of fresh air it has been to have creative people make their way in the world of commmerce instead of patronage. Patrons gave us Bach and Michaelangelo, but it's unlikely patrons would have given us Vladimir Nabokov, The Beatles, or Stanley Kubrick [p.86]
Lanier's strongest arguments (and so the most frightening predictions) are those which concern the future of creative people who are increasingly expected to allow their digitised products to be spread for free. Lanier says how the gratis/libre ambiguity has been abused to make "freedom of information" into an sense of entitlement. He sees the guilt-free dismissal of royalties as an essential de-valuing of worthy creative work. For any pirate who puts a principled value on quality culture, his arguments ought to give pause. His instruction to "see where the money goes" leads to a conclusion that we, in championing "freedom of information" are not allowing artists to live dignified, comfortable, middle-class lives, but inflating the coffers of service providers and advertising rates for people who exploit, uncompensated, the hard work of artists.(less)
This is book with complex qualities. The narrative tricks you into sympathising with feelings that it later tears down as navel-gazing pomposity, and...moreThis is book with complex qualities. The narrative tricks you into sympathising with feelings that it later tears down as navel-gazing pomposity, and once it's built a feeling of optimism in you it continues to makes you feel deluded for your credulity.
It's a carefully structured story, claiming to be a manuscript left unpublished by an unemployed lodger; the retired, divorced scholar, Henry Haller. It is prefaced by the account of the son of the houseowner, who presents a vague picture of a man only met in casual acquaintance before he fled without a trace; an intellectual, quirky, polite, a drinker, a smoker, indoorsy. The manuscript itself is a stylised but journal-like story of his stay in the town. The first 'part' largely concerns his feelings of depression and philisophical dissatisfaction after nearly 50 years of living, alongside accounts of his aimless journies out to town. He explicitly tells us about his dreams, but even in his awakened state his accounts are dreamlike and infeasible, at times clearly the product of an insane mind.
Haller tells people his name is The Steppenwolf, an alter ego that represents his most self-destructive, unsocial thoughts. Conincidentally, one day he comes to acquire a book called 'A Treatise on The Steppenwolf'. The short text is a philosophical pamphlet that at first seems to vindicate Haller's most hateful conclusions regarding the average man through his own intellectual alienation; addressing Haller by name and echoing his philosophy of wild/civilised duality; but the text's attitude turns halfway through. It proceeds to accuse the aforementioned philosphy of self-serving egotism, and mock his view of age and personality as simplistic. Following his discovering of this strange document, he meets with an old friend, a professor, and burning this bridge spectacularly, Haller begins to contempalte suicide. So scared of his razor, he refuses to return home, staying in a bar in town. There he meets a free-spirited and aloof young woman, Hermine.
Haller's obsession with his own intellectual misery becomes replaced with a growing obsession with Hermine and her bohemian circle of friends, who challenge his aging sensibilities and tutor him in new, more youthful pleasures like dance, sex, drugs and jazz. As the book builds to its climax reality begins to merge with surreal symbols of time, personality, jealousy, aesthetics and violence, and events already described are cast into doubt. You find yourself returning in mind to the preface to anchor the story to some sense of reality, but at the same time Haller's rich flights of fantasy are so though-provoking that it's not clear which is the illustration of the other - a dreamy representation of some grim reality, or a fictional cast that represent Haller's internal aruments over his own nature.
The book is summarily about the pains of overbearing thought. It's outlook is more complex than the kind of self-pitying, glam-cynicism that Colin Wilson trumpets in The Outsider, however, as if any conclusion can be solidly made from the poetic jumble of images, dialogue and situation, it is that Hesse ridicules the sort of intellectual ludditedom that Haller often embodies. I don't feel like the ending should be taken as an inevitable and moral consequence of the thoughts and feelings that Haller indulges in, but the feeling remains that the root of his problems lie in his reluctance to learn from experience, rather than living his life through books and thought. The "manuscript"'s gradual disassociation from the everyday into free-flowing, associative imagery echoes a poignant metaphor that Haller himself makes to the landlady's son in the preface, quoting from an unnamed book of the philosopher Novalis:
'This is very good too, very good', he said, 'listen to this: "A man should be proud of suffering. All suffering is a reminder of our high estate." [Very] fine! Eighty years before Nietzsche. But that is not the sentence I meant. Wait a moment, here I have it. This: "Most men will not swim before they are able to." Isn't it witty? Naturally, they won't swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for water. And naturally they won't think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what's more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.' (p.21)