Bertrand Russell's History consists of 76 Chapters, almost all under 20 pages.
Each Chapter contains a summary of one major philosopher's key a...moreOverview
Bertrand Russell's History consists of 76 Chapters, almost all under 20 pages.
Each Chapter contains a summary of one major philosopher's key arguments interlaced with criticism that reflects Russell's own priorities and perspectives.
In a sense, it is one philosopher judging the work of another.
We therefore need to exercise caution in relying on Russell's methodology, perspectives and conclusions.
Apart from this reservation, I actually really enjoy his style. He is very clear and seems to be quite worldly and amusing. I get the impression I might have enjoyed sitting next to him at a dinner party.
My Reading Project
As part of a broader reading project, I will read and review some individual Chapters in My Writings.
This isn’t so much a review of the collection of essays called "How to Be Alone", but some responses to one of the essays, "Why Bot...morePerchance to Bother
This isn’t so much a review of the collection of essays called "How to Be Alone", but some responses to one of the essays, "Why Bother?" (also known as "The Harpers Essay" or "Perchance to Dream").
I’ve probably read the essay in one form or another half-a-dozen times since it was first published in 1996. I have to admit that each time the experience has become less satisfactory.
The essay is 42 pages long. Franzen cut about 25% of the Harper’s Essay and changed its name.
Still, the essay reveals a mind in flux rather than a mind that had come to a persuasive conclusion.
There is nothing wrong with failing to come to a conclusion, as long as your liberty, life or limb don’t depend on one. However, reading the essay is like watching a saucepan boil and trying to attribute value to every bubble. The exercise could have been a lot shorter and more rewarding for the reader if, with the benefit of hindsight, Franzen had known what he wanted to say or where he wanted his journey to take him.
The essay starts with despair and ends with an inadequately defined embrace of community. In a way, he hints that his journey has taken him from perdition to salvation.
However, did it really, and if so, how did it do it?
His despair is described as a despair about the American novel. However, even this statement, his very first paragraph, comes across as disingenuous, because in the very next sentence, he reveals that he and his wife had recently separated. Later, they reconcile, separate again and eventually divorce. So the reader has to wonder to what extent his dissatisfaction with the state of the novel reflects the objective state of the novel, his inability to say what he wants to say in a novel of his own, or his unhappiness with his lot in life.
Was he just projecting his own despair onto the state of the novel? How narcissistic was he? (Or was he just being ironic?)
Perchance to Dream of Escape
Franzen’s initial response was to dream of escape: "I wanted to hide from America". The singular state of the novel is compounded in the united states of America. No matter where he tried to hide, he discovered no haven. He felt he needed to be alone. He needed to retreat to a monastery, not to recover or to prepare for some achievement, but to dream, self-indulgently, without the accountability that living in the real world insists on.
His vision comes to him as he reads the words of a character in Paula Fox’ novel, "Desperate Characters":
"God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside."
Franzen, in the midst of his state of despair, can be no worse and no better than society. His crumbling marriage is no different from the crumbling social order. Still, he manages to ask whether his distress derives from an internal sickness or the sickness of society. Does he blame himself or does he blame society? He doesn’t really answer the question, for he recognises in his approach the desire to connect the personal and the social.
He has equated the two in adversity and despair. The challenge is to connect them in prosperity.
From a Distance
The irony is that Franzen didn’t so much try to join society on its own terms, to become "one of them" or "one of us". He continued to relate to society, to them, to us, as a writer looking on it from a distance. The only compromise he considered was to move a step from dark and contrarian to "culturally engaged".
Society rewarded him with "the silence of irrelevance". He responded to its diffidence by wondering whether the slow work of writing and reading had become incompatible with the "hyperkinesis of modern life". He gets more depressed. He speculates that:
"...the novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read. Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?"
A Solitary Man
Franzen recognises that "the essence of fiction is solitary work". Then he realizes that the rest of society has also sought refuge in "an atomized privacy".
While we might embrace virtual communities as a remedy for our atomization, he tends to regard them as a symptom of infantilization, because our participation remains "terminable the instant the experience ceases to gratify the user". There is no genuine, robust community, if we indulge our desire to control, to dictate, to marginalise and to ostracise at will.
Franzen can’t even determine whether reading is the cure or the sickness:
"It’s hard to consider literature a medicine...when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream."
Franzen then describes a character in "Desperate Characters" in language that could equally be applied to many readers and non-readers alike:
"No matter how gorgeous and comic [their] torments are, and no matter how profoundly human [they appear] in light of those torments, a reader who loves [them] can’t help wondering whether perhaps treatment by a mental-health-care provider wouldn’t be the best course all round."
Novelist and Audience
Ironically, again, at this moment of suggestion that character, writer and reader might share an affliction, Franzen returns to the differential between novelist and audience. He looks at the question of audience from the outside, not from within.
He doesn’t stop to acknowledge that every time he reads something written by another writer (whether an author, journalist or reader), he is a member of an audience.
The Social Isolation of the Author and the Reader
The analysis of audience throws up the term "social isolate", the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone else. Some even become authors who are perceived as antisocial and are prone to living in exile or seclusion, either way not playing the game of publicity that can link author and audience.
His friend Shirley Brice Heath gets straight to the point:
"You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world."
Although he adds to this description the need to make money, or at least a subsistence living, it encapsulates some of the paradoxes of authorship.
The writer is essentially isolated, but needs to communicate.
The anomaly is that the object of the desire to communicate is not the audience, but the author’s own imaginary world. It is a personal construct, a self-contained product of the social isolate. No matter how much writers might feel their characters come alive, they don’t genuinely answer back, they don’t say or do anything without the author’s imprimatur.
While authors might not know the outcome of their work until they have written the last word, ultimately it is determined, if not predetermined by the author.
In contrast, Shirley Brice Heath defines "substantive works of fiction" in terms of "unpredictability": they help the reader "come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life".
Readers find in these works of fiction "the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically."
Yet again, Franzen differentiates between writer and reader. Each requires the other. Together, they can form one community, but they are a community of differences. They do not share a perspective, they have contrasting needs and opposite perspectives on the same need:
"Readers and writers are united in their need for solitude, in their pursuit of substance in a time of ever-increasing evanescence: in their reach inward, via print, for a way out of loneliness."
The Role of Isolation
Again, there are paradoxes in this neat statement.
It can be construed as asserting that solitude is a means to an end, the end being the pursuit of substance in life and society. On the other hand, it might be suggesting that solitude is an end, that the solitude of the reader can escape loneliness and attain contentment by virtue of the illusion that the writing which we read and our response is internal. We look inwards to escape loneliness, but not necessarily so that we can look outwards.
It’s almost as if Franzen would be content with a happy solipsist.
The Identity of DeLillo
As Franzen’s essay reaches its conclusion, he quotes a private correspondence with Don DeLillo, in which DeLillo wrote by way of encouragement of our depressed essayist:
"Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture, but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals."
In a postscript, DeLillo adds:
"If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end."
DeLillo’s script and postscript need each other to form a complete picture. The first passage is almost exclusively focused on the writer, while the second arguably focuses on the function of reading substantive fiction for the audience.
Perhaps DeLillo and Franzen both have in mind a benevolent didacticism. However, I think it’s a mistake if Franzen sees himself as having joined a community of like minds. All that he has managed to do is persuade himself that there is a legitimate reason for him to continue writing the type of novel he likes to write. The community he envisages is still differentiated between writers and readers. There is still a sense in which he believes that the reading of his fiction will give us, the audience, identity and character.
The Politics of Identity
Franzen doesn’t investigate the purposiveness of identity. There is still a sense in which identity is trapped within a solipsistic inner world of culture whereby authors slide trays of tasty morsels under the locked door of our prison.
I’d argue that, with a better sense of identity, we can interact with others better and do the things that life requires of us more effectively.
While writing might occasionally constitute "art for art’s sake", it doesn’t necessarily follow that reading does.
A reader reads something different to what the writer wrote. The reader’s reaction is not just the reciprocal of what the writer experienced or intended. It has the potential to launch a healthier, happier reader into the community of both family and society.
In other words, reading has the potential to remedy the isolation of the social isolate.
How to Be Social
I suspect that Franzen’s prognosis stops short of this remedy. He seems to be content with a mutual dependency between two social isolates, the writer and the reader. His conclusion might work for himself, the writer, but it stops short of what is required by the reader who wishes to play a full role in society.
Ultimately, Franzen instructs readers in how not be lonely, but is content to show us "how to be alone". He has simply moved the reader one step from "lonely" to "alone".
However, identity is of necessity social. Perhaps, the isolation of the reader needs to be seen as a means, not an end. Perhaps the role of writing and reading is not to sustain isolation, but to enhance the dynamic of society. Perhaps readers need equal guidance in “how to be social”.
My edition seems to be an early paperback edition that did not yet incorporate the 2002 essay, "Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books". I'll return to this essay later.(less)