“City of Saints and Madmen” (“COSAM”) not only explores a world of New Weird author’s Jeff VanderMeer’s creation, it gives a...moreSome Fantastic Metafiction
“City of Saints and Madmen” (“COSAM”) not only explores a world of New Weird author’s Jeff VanderMeer’s creation, it gives a detailed insight into the method of his creativity.
It’s not just a fantasy novel, but a highly accessible and rewarding exercise in metafiction.
It’s a composite of works: short stories or perhaps novellas, fictional notes, fragments of drafts, reminders, observations, word sketches, drawings, illustrations, doodles, dream diary entries, the history of the fantastic city Ambergris, a family history of the Hoegbottons, a scientific monograph about giant freshwater squid, art criticism, little magazine articles, records of disputes between rival historians and critics, transcripts of witness statements, psychiatric reports, coded messages, correspondence, even a glossary, and footnotes.
In a word, artifacts. Or arty facts. Two words.
Pictures at an Exhibition
VanderMeer is an exhibitionist, he is so incredibly, no, fantastically, talented, and these bits and pieces are the pictures at his exhibition.
The most analogous experience I have had is “Nick Cave: The Exhibition”, a collection of personal possessions, notebooks, drawings, posters, photos, objet d’art and ephemera.
While the apparent object of both artists was something else (a novel, song lyrics and music), both collections or anthologies add up to a snapshot or a mirror image of the soul of the artist, which in turn is a mirror turned around and focused on our souls.
In the works of Jeff VanderMeer and Nick Cave, you can find almost anything you need to know about your self.
That is, if your world can accommodate a little Philip K. Dick or Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace in it.
The Juxtaposition of the Elements
"What remains obscure, even to those of us who knew him, is how and why [Martin] Lake managed the extraordinary transformation from pleasing but facile collages and acrylics, to the luminous oils—both fantastical and dark, moody and playful—that would come to define both the artist and Ambergris."
“COSAM” is an assemblage or collage of disparate elements that VanderMeer works into something luminous.
For me, a simple juxtaposition is not enough. You don’t sit two or more characters together, unless you expect some chemical reaction to occur and your expectation is satisfied.
This is the Way the World is Built
I tend to allow an author like David Mitchell to get away with loose or almost thread-bare connections.
VanderMeer doesn’t need the same sense of forgiveness.
His elements are all more overtly connected to the theme of Ambergris, a city that doesn’t seem to be as developed as the modern world, but still doesn’t seem to resemble any city from the past, apart from aspects of the Byzantine Empire.
This is VanderMeer’s way of world-building.
Clearly, there are different styles, subject matter and perspectives. However, what is important is the accretion of detail. We readers can synthesise it into an understanding of his world.
In a sense, what is important here is not so much a hero and their journey, but the comprehension of a world, and perhaps the manner in which and extent to which it consists of saints and madmen.
From Prosaic to Mosaic
For me, therefore, it's like a painting or mosaic that takes shape by the construction of discrete sections on the canvas or board, without needing to have a chronological order or a narrative imposed over the subject matter.
This, too, is the defence against any argument that there is too much or that it is sloppy or excessive or repetitive.
I'm prepared to let VanderMeer paint his painting or assemble his mosaic the way he wants to.
Also, I'll let him choose the sheer physical size of his canvas or board. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to building worlds.
The Illumination of the Psyche
"Lake ’s tones are, as Venturi has noted, ‘resonant rather than bright, and the light contained in them is not so much a physical as a psychological illumination.’"
Within the fantasy genre, the novel shines a light on desire, love, imagination and fantasy.
It originated one night in 1993, when VanderMeer awoke envisaging a scene from the novel with “super-heated intensity”, as if in “a vision or waking dream”.
It was like he had a key that could open a locked door and “found an entire fantastical city in my head”.
While he draws the cityscape with precision, he also draws its emotional landscape with expressionist accuracy.
I Desire Your Love
At the heart of the scene in VanderMeer’s head was a man’s desire for a woman he sees sitting in a window, the basis of what became the first story, “Dravid in Love”.
It explores just how much desire, lust and love occur within the head of the Subject, regardless of the existence, knowledge, awareness, consent or encouragement of the Object.
Somebody who convinces themselves that they are in love can build a whole fantasy world around their love, without any real participation by the second character.
In a sense, desire and lust can make us imagine that we are in love.
In VanderMeer’s eyes, desire influences and distorts our perception. It can result in an illusion or self-delusion.
Our gaze can turn us into madmen.
In contrast, two of the characters with whom VanderMeer seems to have the greatest sympathy are blind, possibly because they cannot physically see in order to be deluded.
Perhaps they (and only they) are the saints.
I Interpret You
VanderMeer extends the concept to interpretation in "The Transformation of Martin Lake", a story that consists of art criticism, on the one hand, where the critic draws inferences about the motivation of the artist, while, on the other hand, a separate narrative strand reveals what their true motivation was.
Just as a man can sit in front of a woman in a window and draw particular inferences, a critic can sit in front of an art work and believe that they understand its origin, intent or effect.
They can then perpetuate their interpretation as definitive, regardless of its truth.
Again, VanderMeer suggests that we should not rely on just one view to establish the truth of the matter.
Perhaps, there can be no truth in a story told by or in the first person, unless it is verified by the second person.
We are, all of us, unreliable narrators.
My Darkness and I
These tendencies occur within relatively normal behavior, but they can also constitute either neurotic or psychotic behavior.
The problem is accentuated when the person is an artist.
Their role is to build a credible world where these forces and tensions are at play.
In VanderMeer’s words:
"...the world has to be metaphorically and metaphysically interesting, which means you can’t be too consistent. Everything can’t be tidy and pat, and it should be in flux—it should be, in a way, alive. Above all else, to be interesting, a fantastical city should be a reflection of the writer’s obsessions and subconscious impulses."
Writers have to objectify their obsessions and impulses, and then give life to them.
In the process, they shift them from inside to outside their self. They create an Other.
Then they begin to struggle and wrestle with the Other.
One of VanderMeer’s characters describes the Other as “the Darkness”, which then takes on the form of a manta ray.
We now have a situation where a person, an artist must effectively struggle with a lethal marine life form.
I Wouldn’t Miss This for Squids
VanderMeer doesn’t just use manta rays, elsewhere the antagonists are squids and mushrooms.
Whatever their form, they represent the aggressive, threatening Other, the Alien, the Aggressor, the part of our Selves that threatens to undermine and destroy us.
In VanderMeer's imagined world, perhaps the Id is a Squid.
A Disremembrance of Things Past
So with all this delusion and darkness, bad and traumatic things can and do happen.
If we do bad things, we will feel guilt or remorse, and we will want to relieve or assuage our guilt.
We don’t always deal with it by penance, sometimes we deny our actions and attempt to obliterate them from our memory.
However, often, the subconscious works against us by resurrecting our guilt in our dreams and nightmares.
"The Strange Case of X"
Most of the above subject matter draws attention to the self-consciousness and sub-consciousness of everyday living.
VanderMeer explores the implications for writing (and, by extension, reading) in the most metafictional story, "The Strange Case of X".
Whether or not “X” is an alter ego, he has written works with the same titles as components of COSAM.
He also seems to have committed a crime for which he has been charged and exonerated by a jury, which believed his “story”. Now he is being interviewed to establish his sanity.
His defence is that the alleged crime happened only in Ambergris, a fictitious world, not in “real life”.
This world took over his life for many years, as readers demanded more and more material about Ambergris, but now he has ceased to believe in it.
X tries to escape the burden and the guilt by denial.
Imagine My Amazement
Paradoxically, VanderMeer perpetuates the fiction by writing the story, a story within a story, a disturbing spiral from which the reader eventually has to extract their own mind.
This is easier said than done. Thus, the novel starts with a gaze and ends with a maze.
There is no escape. You have to return to or remain in the world of Ambergris. It is our cage. And we can either sing or scream.
Whatever, VanderMeer has created a novel and a world that are "both fantastical and dark, moody and playful".
I can relate to that.
"’All writers write,’ he whispered. ‘All writers edit,’ he muttered. ‘All writers have a little darkness in them,’ he sobbed. ‘All writers must sometimes destroy their creations,’ he shouted.
"But only one writer has a darkness that cannot be destroyed, he thought to himself as he clutched his wife to him and kissed her and sought comfort in her, for she was the most precious thing in his life and he was afraid—afraid of loss, afraid of the darkness, and, most of all, afraid of himself."
"I will not believe in hallucinations."
The Ways of Love
When if Some times The ways Of love Do not Seem just, It's oft Because They are Just the Product Of some Fancy, Projected On the Object Of your Lonely Unsuspecting Love, Sitting In a Window, Up above, In some Castle Of your Construction, Imagined But still Alone, Sadly, Because Not shared Or real Or true.
The Blindness of Irene
I see your beauty. I'm blessed you, though blind, can feel Mine with your fingers.
"I'm going to the darklands To talk in rhyme With my chaotic soul As sure as life means nothing And all things end in nothing And heaven I think Is too close to hell I want to move, I want to go I want to go Oh something won't let me Go to the place Where the darklands are And I awake from dreams To a scary world of screams And heaven I think Is too close to hell."
The Professor:"If you don't read 'Phenomenology of Spirit' in German, you will never understand Hegel, let alone Zizek."
DJ Ian:"But I don't read German...OK, I will get myself a big fucking dictionary...Then I will get back to reading Zizek as soon as possible. All of my reading schedule is dedicated to reading Zizek for the next three years."
The Professor:I trust you're going to read Zizek in Slovenian?
THE INTERPLAY OF UNDERSTANDING AND CRITICISM:
"It is not the worst reader who provides the book with disrespectful notes in the margin."
Theodor W. Adorno
A PREFACE TO A CRITIQUE OF THE PHENOMENOLOGY:
Hegel has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and popularity at various times over the last 80 years.
Much of the philosophy that appeals to me personally couldn't have been achieved except on the shoulders of this giant.
Some of this later philosophy endorses aspects of Hegel, some rebels against it, some adapts it.
Reading this work was part of an exercise in understanding why. What insights did he have, and why do they appeal?
Ironically, it seems that we are now supposed to admire him not just for his insights, but for the avowed errors in his philosophy.
Of course, it is possible to admire someone for their near misses, how they almost climbed Mount Everest, but died trying.
However, to assert that Hegel continues to be relevant now, precisely and primarily because we are still making the same errors that he made in his time (in his case, at least, out of a certain delusion of grandeur), that we share his errors and flaws, is hardly a solid foundation for an argument that his philosophy achieved any unique truth or version of the truth or approach to the truth.
It simply acknowledges his humanity and susceptibility. He is more a point of departure than a point of arrival or destination.
So if Hegel is just roadkill on the highway to Absolute Truth, let's just admit it, get back on the bus and resume the rest of this long, strange, and apparently endless trip.
Gallantry Without a Citation
You have to wonder whether, in many cases, the appeal and embrace of Hegel's philosophy derives from his use of language, just as much as the concepts.
To this end, I've tried to approach reading Hegel from both a philosophical and a literary point of view.
From a literary point of view, Hegel is a terrible writer whose work can be distilled down to some occasionally great sentences and phrases and/or some more than occasionally great ideas. (I'll try to enunciate them later in this review or elsewhere.)
The extent to which these ideas are Hegel's ideas or unique to him or just a response to or tweaking of the ideas of others before him is for historians of philosophy to judge.
Hegel's work itself doesn't expressly acknowledge or cite his sources or the arguments to which he is responding.
It's like an enthusiastic undergraduate term paper completed under pressure of a self-imposed deadline (the imminent battle of Jena and conquest of Prussia). By the time pen meets paper, the 36-year old Hegel has managed to convince himself that they are his ideas, so that ultimately he neglects to fess up to his inspiration. Ultimately, like the embrace of his acolytes, his work is a triumph of assertion.
Of course, that doesn't mean that it is without merit. The 21st century reader just has to do a lot of sifting. And the comprehension of Hegel is just as needing and deserving of annotation and secondary material as Joyce and Pynchon.
When They Begin the Beguine
At an individual sentence level, Hegel is not always difficult, just mostly. He seems to throw multiple sentences at the reader, without necessarily communicating or effectively helping readers understand the sequence of his arguments. When it comes to Hegel's sentences, the difficulty results from the untamed collective, not the disciplined individual.
Still, within the rush or barrage of sentences, some sentences and phrases inevitably stand out. The quality of these sentences, or their pregnancy, occasionally, with a meaning that is hard to divine, are the source of much of his appeal (if you dig that kind of thing). Indeed, it helps Hegel's case that they are so difficult to divine. Like God, it is not for us to fully comprehend his ways or his words. We are just supposed to trust them both. They appeal to our credulity and need to believe.
Many of Hegel's sentences and phrases sound good, even if at first, let's be totally honest, you don't really know what they mean, like "Begin the Beguine"...and, yes, the one that most appeals to me personally, "the Negation of the Negation" (which once it's grabbed you, will never let go).
"A very simple process, which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand as soon as it is stripped of the veil of mystery in which it was enveloped by the old idealist philosophy."
I'm still stripping.
The Negation of the Negation is cool. Hegel's Epistemology is, well, epistemological. The rest is pretty suspect. I think. I'm still thinking. Well, trying to think. I think.
INVENTION PART I
The American Hegel Industry wasn't invented when I went to college, so I'm going to have to call on early DC Comic Hegel for a little help...
DJ IAN VS. DC COMIC HEGEL
God Makes Sense, If You Can Believe It
1. And so God took a part of his mind and his soul,
2. And where there was nothing, he made Man.
3. And he gave part of his mind and soul to Man,
4. And, lo and behold, Man did verily exist.
5. Still, though God had lost a part, he was still whole.
6. And while Man had gained a part, he too was whole.
7. And God and Man together made a whole.
8. And where there should have been two wholes, there was only one.
9. Man ascended to his feet, and looked around,
10. But there was no thing for him to see.
11. So God made other Life for Man,
12. And Man had Objects to look at and eat and desire.
13. Each Object contained a little part of God.
14. And when Man looked at an Object, he saw a part of God.
15. And that part of God was also a part of Man,
16. So when Man looked at an Object, he also saw himself.
17. Thus it was that Man was at one with the Object,
18. And Man was at one with God.
19. And verily Man understood this.
20. And so it was that Man made sense.
21. Out of what God had given him.
In Which God, Enraged, Goes Forth, Consumes and Returns [A Jena Fragment in Hegel's Own Words]
"1. God, become Nature, has spread himself out in the splendor and the mute periodicity of his formations,
2. Becomes aware of the expansion, of lost punctuality and is engaged by it.
3. The fury is the forming, the gathering together into the empty point.
4. Finding himself as such, his essence pours out into the restlessness and inquietude of infinity,
5. Where there is no present,
6. But a wild sallying forth beyond a boundary always reinstated as fast as it is transcended.
7. This rage, in that it is a going forth, is the destruction of Nature.
8. The going beyond the formations of Nature is in effect likewise an absolute falling back into the self, a focal return.
9. In doing this, God, in his rage, consumes his formations.
10. Your whole extended kingdom must pass through this middle-point, this focality;
11. And by this your limbs are crushed and your flesh mashed into liquidity."
GRATUITOUS ADVICE AVAILABLE FOR THE FREE
Some Gratuitous Advice, from Earl Bertie Russell
"The worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise!"
Some More Gratuitous Advice, This Time from Zizek
"One is thus tempted to say, 'Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted Hegel. The point [however] is to change him.'"
Some More Gratuitous Advice, This Time from GoodReads
To understand and appreciate Hegel, it helps if you pretend that you're God.
HEY! WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?
Safeguarding the System
Hegel purports to construct a system of philosophy that is both comprehensive and self-contained.
Hegel and his adherents guard it preciously. [Forgive me, if I refer to Hegel and his adherents interchangeably.] As a result, it's difficult to criticise the System, without evoking responses that you haven't really read or understood Hegel or that you have inaccurately paraphrased him.
To be honest, I think any reader has to proceed regardless, if you're going to make the effort to read Hegel at all.
An Invitation to Heretics
Even if you sympathise with Hegel, like any dogmatist, he invites or attracts heresy. No purpose is served by agreeing or disagreeing with every tenet of his philosophy willy-nilly. There's no point in setting out to be an acolyte or an apostate. Readers should feel free to dismantle the System and save what they can. After all, this is what the Young, Left Hegelians did in the wake of his death.
Detection or Invention?
One problem with Hegel is that he pretends that his System is a detection of what is present in nature, that it is the result of discovery, not the product of invention on his part.
As a result, it purports to be factual and real. If you disagree with it, then supposedly you are flying in the face of reality.
This rhetorical strategy is disingenuous. Of course, he created his System, no matter how much of it is based on or modified from the work of earlier philosophers. Of course, we have the right to submit it to scrutiny, to attempt to prove it right or wrong.
If Hegel pretends that he deduced his philosophy from first principles, then he is not being truthful. If he pretends that he discovered a method in the workings of nature and history, but reckons that he does not apply that method or any method in his own philosophy, then he is playing with semantics.
An Aversion to Critique
Hegel is just trying to make his subjective pronouncements critique-proof or un-critiquable. A reasonable enough goal, if it is confined to enhancing the robustness of his own pronouncements, but you can't deny readers the right to attempt a critique. That is one way guaranteed to alienate an audience, to split a following and push potential advocates away. Which is what happened, inevitably, after his death.
What I mean by this is that I don't accept that Hegel arrived at all aspects of his philosophy after a process of deduction. [Not that I'm saying anybody could have achieved this.]
On Having Faith in the System
I don't disagree with Hegel's attack on Empiricism, for example. However, to the extent that he asserts that Consciousness is part of Spirit, a God, then I don't accept that he has necessarily proven the existence of God or that the Spirit of God plays a role in the process of individual human thought or reason. Thus, it seems that Hegel's System, which I assume is supposed to be rational, is built on an act of faith in the belief of God.
I accept that social, rather than spiritual or religious, factors play such a role. For example, I accept that we differentiate between objects, partly if not wholly based on our capacity for language. Language is a social construct. I don't necessarily accept that it is intrinsically spiritual. I also don't want to embrace any ideas that approximate to some hyped-up politico-cultural concept of Volk or the People.
I suspect that Hegel started his philosophical deliberations with a religious-based preconception, in particular, a belief in a monotheistic God, and that he integrated it into his philosophy.
On Questioning the System
To the extent that Hegel's System is a hierarchy that works its way up to the pinnacle of God, there are a number of questions that I, an Atheist, feel should be asked:
Does the entire System fall, if you don't believe in God?
Alternatively, is his System modular and severable, so that you can salvage parts that appeal to you? If the latter, which parts? And to what extent are those parts solely attributable to Hegel? Are they equally components of other philosophies, whether pre-Hegelian or post-Hegelian?
To some extent, my way of approaching and questioning Hegel might owe a lot to the approach of those Left Hegelians who happened to be Atheist.
In the absence of a belief in God, it must also take into account the approach of more materialist philosophies like those of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels (and subsequent Marxists).
Spirit Made Flesh
Of course, an atheist has to accept the possibility that Hegel might be right in believing that there is a Christian God (in his case, Lutheran), and that everything else potentially follows.
If it turns out that monotheism is right, then Hegel's philosophy seems to come close to a belief that all of Nature derives from God and that humanity, in particular, is Spirit made Flesh. Presumably, Nature is also Spirit made material.
Working backwards or upwards from Flesh, the ultimate destination must therefore be Spirit (even if Flesh is preserved).
I'll leave open for the moment whether Spirit might actually be any more than Energy. Hegel certainly regards it as the repository of Absolute Knowledge. Thus, it seems that, for him, it must be conscious and intelligent. It also appears to transcend each individual, even though it embraces every individual. It is a composite or unity of differences or opposites.
Fear of Contradiction
For me, what seems to sit at the heart of Hegel's philosophy is contradiction. This is the contradiction between different objects, whether consciousnesses or not.
For each of us, for each Subject, every other consciousness or thing is an Object, one that contradicts us. Just as I am me, I am not you, and I am not it, that object.
In my mind, this is simply a recognition of difference. Practically and socially, I don't see these observations as the foundation of opposition, conflict or contradiction.
I don't know whether this is a matter of translation. However, I witness a lot of conflict and antagonism between Subject and Object in Hegel. I haven't yet worked out why difference is not enough.
In other words, why isn't it enough that perception and language allow us to differentiate between things, consciousnesses, Subjects and Objects?
Why isn't it enough that language is a social system of signs that enable us to identify, think about and discuss difference.
Why is it somehow implicit that this Object exists at the expense of this Subject or Object? Why is everything "set against" everything else in perpetual contradiction?
Are two strawberry plants in a garden really opposed to each other? Do they battle each other for nutrients? Is their ostensible rivalry really such a big issue in their life? Are two rocks sitting at the bottom of a stream any different?
Consciousness and Consciousness 030914
It's possible that some or all of the contradiction happens within the consciousness or mind.
Consciousness detects the outside world of nature, grasps it and drags it into the mind. The Subject consumes or ingests the Object, where it begins to relate to or play with it. It's almost as if the mind is an enormous database of images and responses that are preserved intact. They are ingested, but not digested or integrated into something new and different.
It's possible that the dialectic doesn't posit a synthesis because within the database both thesis and antithesis continue to exist. Subject to illness, loss of memory and death, nothing in the mind ceases to exist.
Self-consciousness is the awareness that this process is occurring. However, Hegel also regards self-consciousness as desire itself.
The Hegelian Paradox: From the Inquisitorial to the Inquisitional
The ultimate Hegelian Paradox is that the Philosophy is based on contradiction, yet the Philosopher [and his acolytes] will brook no argument.
The System is founded on the adversarial, yet disagreement is heresy (even if the Philosophy by its very nature seems to invite or attract heresy).
Similarly, it is reluctant to accept that a rational philosophical process or method is being utilised. It is enough to look, seek and ask questions. The answers are there waiting for us to find them. Truth and understanding will result from the only method that is necessary, an inquisitorial process. If you ask [God], you will be answered [by God, if not reason].
Still, the normal outcome of an inquisitorial process is a decision. In Hegel's Philosophy, it is not a human decision, but a divine revelation. Once revealed, it can't be questioned. It can only be respected, observed and enforced.
Hence, as is the case with all heretics, the sectarian non-believer attracts the attention of the Inquisition.
Hence, Hegel embraces both the Inquisitorial and the Inquisitional, having constructed both a System and an Institution.
It's up to us to determine whether to take a vow to Hegel or whether simply to do good.
This is a summary of Emma Goldman's views on Anarchism in her own words.
The philosophy of a new social order...moreWhat Anarchism Really Stands For
This is a summary of Emma Goldman's views on Anarchism in her own words.
The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.
The new social order rests, of course, on the materialistic basis of life; but while all Anarchists agree that the main evil today is an economic one, they maintain that the solution of that evil can be brought about only through the consideration of every phase of life, — individual, as well as the collective; the internal, as well as the external phases.
Harmony of Individual and Society
Anarchism is therefore the teacher of the unity of life; not merely in nature, but in man.
There is no conflict between the individual and the social instincts, any more than there is between the heart and the lungs: the one the receptacle of a precious life essence, the other the repository of the element that keeps the essence pure and strong.
The individual and social instincts, — the one a most potent factor for individual endeavor, for growth, aspiration, self-realization; the other an equally potent factor for mutual helpfulness and social well-being.
It is the philosophy of the sovereignty of the individual. It is the theory of social harmony.
Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination.
Anarchism is the great liberator of man from the phantoms that have held him captive; it is the arbiter and pacifier of the two forces for individual and social harmony.
To accomplish that unity, Anarchism has declared war on the pernicious influences which have so far prevented the harmonious blending of individual and social instincts, the individual and society.
Religion! How it dominates man’s mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul.
God is everything, man is nothing, says religion. But out of that nothing God has created a kingdom so despotic, so tyrannical, so cruel, so terribly exacting that naught but gloom and tears and blood have ruled the world since gods began. Anarchism rouses man to rebellion against this black monster.
Break your mental fetters, says Anarchism to man, for not until you think and judge for yourself will you get rid of the dominion of darkness, the greatest obstacle to all progress.
Property, the dominion of man’s needs, the denial of the right to satisfy his needs.
Man is being robbed not merely of the products of his labor, but of the power of free initiative, of originality, and the interest in, or desire for, the things he is making.
Anarchism cannot but repudiate such a method of production: its goal is the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual.
Real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in.
Oscar Wilde defines a perfect personality as "one who develops under perfect conditions, who is not wounded, maimed, or in danger."
A perfect personality, then, is only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work.
Anarchism, however, also recognizes the right of the individual, or numbers of individuals, to arrange at all times for other forms of work, in harmony with their tastes and desires.
Such free display of human energy being possible only under complete individual and social freedom, Anarchism directs its forces against the third and greatest foe of all social equality; namely, the State, organized authority, or statutory law, — the dominion of human conduct.
Just as religion has fettered the human mind, and as property, or the monopoly of things, has subdued and stifled man’s needs, so has the State enslaved his spirit, dictating every phase of conduct.
"All government in essence," says Emerson, "is tyranny."
It matters not whether it is government by divine right or majority rule. In every instance its aim is the absolute subordination of the individual.
Therefore Bakunin repudiates the State as synonymous with the surrender of the liberty of the individual or small minorities, — the destruction of social relationship, the curtailment, or complete denial even, of life itself, for its own aggrandizement.
The State is the altar of political freedom and, like the religious altar; it is maintained for the purpose of human sacrifice.
In destroying government and statutory laws, Anarchism proposes to rescue the self-respect and independence of the individual from all restraint and invasion by authority.
Only in freedom can man grow to his full stature. Only in freedom will he learn to think and move, and give the very best in him. Only in freedom will he realize the true force of the social bonds which knit men together, and which are the true foundation of a normal social life.
Anarchism aims to strip labor of its deadening, dulling aspect, of its gloom and compulsion. It aims to make work an instrument of joy, of strength, of color, of real harmony, so that the poorest sort of a man should find in work both recreation and hope.
But what about human nature? Can it be changed? And if not, will it endure under Anarchism?
Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.
Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government.
Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.
Objection: Anarchism is impractical, though a beautiful ideal.
A practical scheme, says Oscar Wilde, is either one already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under the existing conditions; but it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to, and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.
The true criterion of the practical, therefore, is not whether the latter can keep intact the wrong or foolish; rather is it whether the scheme has vitality enough to leave the stagnant waters of the old, and build, as well as sustain, new life.
Violence and Destruction Objection
Objection: Anarchism stands for violence and destruction, hence it must be repudiated as vile and dangerous.
Destruction and violence! How is the ordinary man to know that the most violent element in society is ignorance; that its power of destruction is the very thing Anarchism is combating?
As to methods. Anarchism is not, as some may suppose, a theory of the future to be realized through divine inspiration. It is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions.
The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances.
Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual.
Spirit of Revolt
Anarchism does not stand for military drill and uniformity; it does, however, stand for the spirit of revolt, in whatever form, against everything that hinders human growth.
What does the history of parliamentarism show? Nothing but failure and defeat, not even a single reform to ameliorate the economic and social stress of the people.
Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social, and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man.
Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for "men who are men, and who have a bone in their backs which you cannot pass your hand through."
Universal suffrage itself owes its existence to direct action. If not for the spirit of rebellion, of the defiance on the part of the American revolutionary fathers, their posterity would still wear the King’s coat.
Direct action, having proven effective along economic lines, is equally potent in the environment of the individual. There a hundred forces encroach upon his being, and only persistent resistance to them will finally set him free.
Direct action against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism.
Will it not lead to a revolution? Indeed, it will.
No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.(less)
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remem...more"A Little Quiet Fun At My Own Expense"
The waiter set a glass down on the table in front of me. It was my sixth drink in an hour. I couldn’t even remember ordering it. I drank it. It seemed like the right thing to do. The waiter watched me put down the empty glass. “Another shot?” he asked. I nodded. “You’ll have to pay for this one.” I looked around the room in search of my benefactor. I saw her first, sitting alone at a nearby table, then I saw her legs. They didn’t look like any legs I had seen before. Then they moved. She could see I was watching them. She crossed her legs, and I hoped to die, but not straight away. She reached into her handbag and withdrew a packet of cigarettes. She flipped it open and put one in her mouth. Her lips glistened the whole time. Then she fumbled around in her bag for a lighter. She returned the bag to the chair beside her, empty-handed. She looked at me. I shrugged. I had given up smoking since my last novel, only I hadn’t told my author. There was much I hadn’t confided in him. The time had come to make some changes in my life. I didn’t move. I watched her mind working. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I wasn't sure whether she was my type. “Well…” She paused. She was improvising. It wasn’t something she was normally expected to do. My author usually made our decisions for us. “If you won’t light my cigarette, will you at least kiss me?” I ambled over to her table and sat down. But first she had another request:“Stop looking at my legs.” I did as I was told. I was hoping the effort would be rewarded. She returned her cigarette to the pack and put it back in her bag. I looked into her eyes. I could see nothing unless you want to count lust, or was that just a projection on my part? I wondered what she saw in my eyes. The same? I moved closer to her, and had another look. I clasped my hands around her face. Then I pulled her closer and kissed her. She licked her lips, inquisitively. “Christian Dior?” She asked. “Of course,” I replied. Her lips embarked on the most direct path towards mine. “Kiss me harder.” I did. She slipped her hand inside my blouse and squeezed my breast. Maybe I could like her after all. (less)
Some friends whose opinions I value highly have rated it three to four stars.
The prose is both economical and accessible.
It substitutes a young woman for Christ in the myth that God's son died for our sins.
Um, I can't think of anything else.
A Bar Graph of the Stars
Most of the reviews I've done since joining GR have been of books I regard as part of my personal canon.
As a result, the average rating has been high, so much so that friends have questioned whether I can write a negative review.
I hope this will suffice.
Why No More Stars?
So why no more stars for this work?
Firstly, I don't regard it as a work of metafiction, just because it inserts a woman into Christ's robes.
There needs to be some level of literary inventiveness over and above that.
Secondly, when Christ is inserted into this symbolic structure, his suffering is designed to highlight the magnitude and selflessness of God the Father's forgiveness.
We can accept Christ's suffering, because we know it is functional in the grand design behind the Christian vision.
Dodeca does not purport to be a part of the Holy Trinity or the Holy Quaternity, for that matter.
There is no obvious tie of her suffering to God's forgiveness or anyone else's, for that matter.
As a result, I found the focus on her suffering, which is primarily of a sexual nature, prurient and voyeuristic and degrading.
There was no sublimation of her travails into a universal theme or a message that parallels the Christ myth.
For me, it never lifted itself up from an exercise in what more offence could be heaped on this relative innocent.
It was like selecting the most offensive 84 pages of the Marquis de Sade, stripping it of any merit, literary or philosophical or otherwise, and offering it for our delectation in some neon-lit window in Amsterdam.
Is there some deep and meaningful significance in the concept of a dodecahedron?
I do know that the only positive male character is called Hedron, so that if you accept the posibility of a Holy Duality, then you might get a Dodecahedron out of the amalgam of their names.
But, honestly, so what?
Doing the Maths
A dodecahedron is a three-dimensional polyhedron with 12 equal faces, each of which is a regular pentagon.
If you sit it on one face, then there is a parallel face at the top, and two sets of five faces, one on top of the other, so that the faces are assembled 1-5-5-1.
Plato described the dodecahedron as the fifth classical element or platonic solid.
It has been speculated that the dodecahedron is the quintessence of the universe and the basis of the Zodiac.
Some suggest that Plato used the word "quintessence" himself in the sense that the dodecahedron was the fundamental building block of the entire universe.
As far as I can tell, the word did not exist until much later in the early fifteenth century.
The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the word is a "loan-translation" of the Greek "pempte ousia", which means "fifth being" or "fifth essence".
Later, the Romans translated the Greek into the expression "quinta essentia", which the French translated as "quinte essence" before it entered the English language as "quintessence".
So, Plato could not have used the term "quintessence" in the manner in which we have come to understand it (which originated in the 1580's).
Therefore, you have to question the broader significance of the dodecahedron.
Does the fact that there are 84 pages in the book have any significance?
Mathematically, 84 is a product of the numerals 3, 4 and 7 (the latter of which is the sum of the previous two, and the product of 3 and 4 is 12).
I thought I’d be on a sure bet, but if you assess the polarization by GR rating...morePolarised Lenses
No novel polarizes opinion like “Lolita”.
True or false?
I thought I’d be on a sure bet, but if you assess the polarization by GR ratings details, this statement is wrong.
Its average rating is about 3.8. 86% of readers like it (a rating of three, four or five). 34% rate it five, 29% four, while only 5% rate it one.
I was going to contrast it with “American Psycho”. How’s this:
Its average rating is about 3.77. 86% of readers like it. 30% rate it five, 34% four, while only 5% rate it one. (The main difference is that the four and five star ratings are more or less reversed.)
What about “Ulysses”?
Its average rating is about 3.77. 82% of readers like it. 36% rate it five, 24% four, while 8% rate it one.
So I’ll recast my proposition: those who love “Lolita” adore it, those who hate it, vehemently hate it.
Usually for moral, rather than aesthetic, reasons.
The question is: why?
I thought “Chasing Lolita” might have the answers.
It came recommended by Paul Bryant, a GR friend who is knowledgeable about these things.
Paul’s and my opinions about “Lolita” and “American Psycho” (but not “Ulysses”) diverge.
However, I assumed that, if Paul liked “Chasing Lolita”, it must at least argue the case for and against “Lolita” as well as Paul is able to.
Instead, I found it to be a second-rate, almost pseudo-intellectual enterprise.
Admittedly, I learned a few facts that I didn’t know (Vickers usually refers to them as “factoids”), although I probably would have known them, if I had already read the works in his very limited bibliography.
My biggest gripe is that you can’t detect a subtle reading of the novel, whether pro or con.
It doesn’t reflect an aesthetic response to the work as literature.
It wants to capture the sense of scandal in the public response to it, whether or not people had read it (or seen any of the films based on it).
It is mediocre and tabloid in tone. It is the work of a hack, a hired gun. (I was going to say “workmanlike”, but that would insult the working class.)
Maybe Vickers can smell a controversy, but he reveals no passion of his own, and he doesn’t do justice to the passions of others.
He plays it safe. He doesn’t want to alienate anyone. The most important thing for him is that you buy the book, regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, regardless of whether you intend to read it, as long as you give him your money.
Ultimately, by trying to please everybody, Vickers pleases nobody.
He’s like the first person to write a biography of a writer. It’s good that somebody bothered, but usually it doesn’t take long for somebody or something more distinguished to arrive.
All Chase and No Catch
What annoys me most is the way the book has been presented to us.
The title “Chasing Lolita” is racy, as if he or we are “pursuing” the character herself, not “investigating” her innermost secrets (which it fails to do anyway).
The book plays on the reader’s prurience, without satisfying either erotic or intellectual curiosity.
The less said about it, the better.
Take Me to Your Lolita
I think there are three general responses to “Lolita” as a literary work.
One, which is mine, is that every aspect of human behavior is a legitimate subject matter of art.
To write about something, does not imply endorsement of the moral stance, nor does it imply that the author has some first-hand experience (i.e., the suggestion that Nabokov himself must have been a paedophile).
The other two responses reflect the way you feel about the character, Lolita.
You can see her as an innocent victim of a paedophile, and sympathise with her, so much so that you think her story should never have been told.
She is a symptom of the premature sexualisation of children, and the whole issue of children’s sexuality and awareness of sexual behavior must be swept under the carpet, even in a novel intended for mature adults.
Alternatively, while not approving Humbert Humbert in any way, you can treat her as a sexually precocious brat who deserves no sympathy.
For those who have never read the novel, the last interpretation seems to be the one that prevails.
The very word “Lolita” has become shorthand for adolescent girls who “prey” on men’s libidos, as if the men are somehow innocent and vulnerable and not in control of their sexuality.
“It wasn’t my fault, she made me do it.”
She’s jailbait of the most cynical and calculating kind.
As if all girls aren’t equally deserving of protection from men who would prey on them, for the very reason that they are children.
Part of Nabokov’s genius is that “Lolita” is actually Humbert’s story, and he tells it his way.
The Lolita that we get to know is his creation, although in reality both Humbert and Lolita are obviously Nabokov’s creations.
However, we the audience see Lolita with Humbert’s eyes.
This puts us in an uncomfortable position.
Do we empathise with Humbert, because we see things from his point of view?
Are we compromised or criminally implicated as accessories, because we see and do what he does?
Do we take his honesty for granted, because he is the first person narrator who is effectively us?
Do we distance and protect ourselves from these moral dilemmas by treating him as an unreliable narrator?
These are the sorts of question I was hoping Vickers would at least ask.
The converse of the way Nabokov tells Humbert’s story is that we can’t know Lolita’s story.
She doesn’t speak a lot. To the extent that she does, Humbert summarises or paraphrases her.
We don’t know what words are on her lips or in her mind. We don’t know what she thinks about her plight. We witness her solely as object, and not as subject.
We don’t know how much to sympathise with her, even though a natural temptation is to relate to her as the victim.
On the other hand, there is a temptation for both Lolita and reader to empathise with Humbert in a perverse version of Stockholm Syndrome.
Ultimately, the whole form and content of the story conspires against the person, the child that is Lolita.
She is the one person in the novel who is most deserving of sympathy, yet she is the one who has been most demonized in popular culture.
The Premature Sexualisation of Children
What I find most disgusting is the people for whom Lolita is a cause (the crusade against premature sexualisation of children), yet at heart there is no personal sympathy for this one example.
It’s as if Lolita had to fall, had to suffer, so that others might be saved. She is a lost cause, better focus on the plight of others. We can talk her down, as if she were a real tart, and we can use her name to demonize others. It’s OK, she’s only a fictional character anyway, as if real girls aren’t hurt, when they in turn get labeled “Lolita”.
While I don’t condone the sexual abuse of children, I feel quite strongly that other aspects of premature sexualisation are equally deserving of condemnation, e.g., placing three and four year old girls in beauty pageants and grooming them for a lifetime of the presentation of self as an object of beauty, rather than as a fully-rounded person of intelligence, social functionality, energy and charm.
As long as girls and women present themselves solely as objects of beauty and adornment, there will be men who cannot react to them in any other way.
This social definition of beauty and sexual attraction is what really interests me about the novel.
It’s very easy to judge Humbert solely as a paedophile and to assume that his sex drive is solely dictated by the desire to possess and defile a girl’s childhood and innocence.
I think society has to make a genuine scientific attempt to understand the motivation of Humbert, if not paedophiles generally, as an objective sexual aesthetic that just happens to be taboo in our society in this age.
Humbert describes his love of Lolita in terms of aesthetics, as well as an attempt to relive his unconsummated early childhood relationship with Annabel Leigh.
It is too glib to treat Humbert as disingenuous and an unreliable narrator.
That just avoids the real issue.
So much of our culture is concerned with the polarity between youth and age, innocence and experience, naivety and wisdom, ugliness and beauty.
These dichotomies are the immediate context of sexuality, yet we understand so little about them.
As a result, we are condemned to perpetuate ignorance and guilt and lack of personal, social and sexual fulfillment.
Not only is it important that science investigate this subject matter, it’s vital that art be able to portray and explore motivations and options (whether transgressive or not) openly and honestly and creatively. (less)
"The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short."
"It does not seem to me possible to take t...moreA Novel Epigram
The author, B.S. Johnson:
"The novel should now try simply to be Funny, Brutalist, and Short."
"It does not seem to me possible to take this novel much further. I’m sorry."
Ain’t that the truth.
The Zany Prankster
This novel is Funny, Brutalist, and Short. (Only a little longer than this review actually.)
It takes a simple person, an industrious pilgrim, Christie Malry, and it tells you the truth about him, his place in the world and his progress through it.
Unlike most people, he doesn't necessarily like what he sees, so he does something about it, albeit with his author’s hands or the hands his author supplied him.
He is a prankster, a hoaxster, a subversive, a revolutionary, an urban guerilla, who despises the pious mouthings and hypocrisy of society and religion.
He establishes a personal ledger, containing debits and credits, representing injustices and offences (balanced by appropriate compensation), so he can call society and religion to account.
Notwithstanding the advice of his mother (a sceptic, if not an agnostic or atheist), the expectation is that the ledger will be consulted on the day of reckoning, and justice will be done. Though in the meantime, just in case, Christie does his own reconciliation or reckoning, and takes justice into his own author-supplied hands.
In a way, the novel becomes a piece of metafiction that enables the author, via his character, to rage against the machine.
However, for all the Biblical and Accounting framework, the novel is one of the most humorous and affectionate novels I have ever read.
It is the product of a genius, a metaphorical bomb-maker with a deceptively simple, but explosive message that baffles and mucks about with the establishment, while amusing us zany hipsters.
It is a tragedy that the author did not live to see its publication or to add to his legacy.
It is our duty to ensure that people who care learn of its existence, read it, laugh, love and think.
A Weighty and Inelegant Piece of Dialectic
This is what Christie’s mother has to say about the day of reckoning:
"We fondly believe that there is going to be a reckoning, a day upon which all injustices are evened out...but we are wrong…we shall die untidily…in a mess, most things unresolved, unreckoned, reflecting that it is all chaos.
"Even if we understand that all is chaos, the understanding itself represents a denial of chaos, and must therefore be an illusion."
To the extent that this is a caution against tolerating injustice in the hope of heavenly justice and redemption, it is the equivalent of the existentialist messages (for they are different) of Camus and Sartre, only it’s delivered in an almost offhand, wry, humorous way.
Sexual love sustains Christie during his pilgrimage.
He started life as an idealistic boy who was very fond of his cat and was not afraid to tell his mother:
"I do love pussy."
At age 28, he meets the love of his life, and the two of them are perfectly happy (“well, this is fiction, is it not?")
Guys, has anyone ever said this to you:
"I don’t know why I love you so much…but I do, mystery man."
Has your girlfriend ever said to her mother in front of you:
"We must go now, Old Mum, Sunday’s the only day we have for a really long fuck."
And is this not true love:
"The Shrike loved Christie. Then Christie loved the Shrike. Then they both loved each other, on the carpet in front of her gas fire."
Christie, I’d like to ask you about your names. First name: Christie, surname: Malry.
My parents gave them to me.
Yes, both of them, separately. Well, B.S. Johnson really. The author. He gave my first name to my mother, and she gave it to me. He gave my surname to my father, and he gave it to me.
OK, I was really thinking about the metaphorical significance of your first and last names.
What could be more significant than that they are my names?
Well, Christie might be derived from "Christ". And "Malry" might be derived from "mal", the French word for evil or bad or wrong. So your name might literally represent a war between good and evil? A heavenly dialectic between God and Devilry? Outside the institution of the Church. Diabolical as it might sound.
Don’t be ridiculous.
I don’t know why my producer exhumed you.
I am the body. I am the resurrection.
I overcome evil with good.
Don’t be ridiculous. You’re mucking us about.
Is this interview finished? Can I go back to being dead now?
B.S. Johnson was born on 5 February, 1933, the same year as my father was born.
My father was an accountant in a bank. He wasn’t happy unless the ledgers balanced at the end of the day. A penny out was not good enough. Everybody stayed behind, until debit and credit matched. Only then could he go to the pub.
My father had a sense of humour, which I inherited. So did one of my brothers.
My father died when he was 55 and I was 30, 15 years after B.S. Johnson, so he didn’t get to laugh at all of my jokes. Only the early funny ones. Both of them.
Thanks, Dad. I did enjoy making you laugh for a few short years.(less)
You Mustn't Remember This (From the Cutting Room Floor)
It is dark in Rick's apartment. It's so hot he's left the windows open. The fans are turning at...moreYou Mustn't Remember This (From the Cutting Room Floor)
It is dark in Rick's apartment. It's so hot he's left the windows open. The fans are turning at full speed. There is still no relief. He feels like his chest is about to explode. Maybe he should take Sam's advice and see the doctor (who after all is a regular customer, as is everyone of means in Casablanca). He hears the sound of liquor pouring into a glass. Is he dreaming? He smells orange zest. Is it Grand Marnier? He realises he has woken with an erection. The weight moves from his chest. Maybe he doesn't have to worry about the doctor after all. An ice-cold, liquid, orange-scented opening descends along his penis. The lips appear to part and what seems like half a glass of liqueur showers over his genitals and pubic hair. He reaches over and turns on his bedside lamp. His gaze locates a perfectly formed vulva right in front of his face and two thighs either side of his chest. They look familiar, but he can't quite name the person to whom they belong. "Rick?" He recognises the Scandinavian accent immediately."Yes..Ilsa?" She sobs out, "Say it once, Rick...say it for old time's sake." He wonders whether this is about the letters of transit and is just about to deny Ilsa's request, when she leans back and sits on his face. When she rises again, she repeats, "Say it, Rick". His gaze returns to what, later, Lacan would think of as "l'origine du monde". He hesitates, then he recites the words like an actor, "Here's looking at you kid." Ilse sits back on his face and says, "Thank you, Rick...You can take another photo, if you like."(less)
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
What we now call Economics was once, at the time of Marx, called Political Economy.
One of the majo...more A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
What we now call Economics was once, at the time of Marx, called Political Economy.
One of the major achievements of this book is to reveal just how much political philosophy sits behind Economics, and vice versa.
The book is written from the perspective of the Left. Well, a Left.
It reflects a reasonable level of economic literacy. It acknowledges past errors on the part of both the author and the Left, and seeks to remedy them. In the words of one of the titles of the book, it seeks to remove illusions and debunk myths.
I approached the book with several motives and biases. Would it be consistent with my existing values? If not, would it help me to understand, reconsider or change them? If it was consistent, would it help other people to understand and/or embrace such values? Would it persuade or enhance the thinking of people on the Left? Would it persuade or enhance the thinking of people on the Right?
Some Critical Criteria
The book isn’t so much concerned with the comparative assessment of two or more economic systems (e.g., Capitalism and Democratic Socialism).
It’s more concerned with the basis upon which today’s version of Capitalism can be justified or criticised and, if it needs to be finessed to accommodate various political objectives, what are the economic consequences of such attempts to finesse it.
It made me ask, by what standards should we measure and assess the success or efficiency of any particular type of Economy?
I’d start off by suggesting two socio-economic goals:
• 100% employment (for those who want it); and
• a minimum subsistence wage.
Six Things I Like about this Book
#1 The basic concept of the book is the debunking of six Right Wing myths and six Left Wing myths about Capitalism.
#2 The book recognises that Capitalism in some form or other is here to stay, that it isn’t about to collapse because of internal contradictions, and that the prospects of a permanent revolution (whether Communist or Anarchist) are infinitesimal.
#3 The express goal of the book is to improve the arguments of the Left.
#4 The book recognises the importance of Economics to Politics.
#5 It seeks to find a common ground between the Left and the Right based on solid Economics.
#6 It wants to make Left-oriented socio-economic programs more economically effective and efficient (and therefore acceptable to traditional supporters of the Right).
Six Things I Don’t Like about this Book
#1 It’s been published under two separate titles: “Economics Without Illusions” and “Filthy Lucre”. The latter signals a skepticism about Capitalism and reduces the potential audience for the ideas in the book.
#2 It’s been published under two separate sub-titles: “Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism” and “Economics for Those Who Hate Capitalism”.
#3 There’s a fair amount of subjectivity in the essays. Statements or theories with which Heath disagrees are described as obviously erroneous, mistaken or fallacious.
#4 Each essay is quite diverse and could have been broken into several separate essays. The six plus six format started to dictate the method of exposition, to its detriment.
#5 The lack of sub-headings detracted from the clarity and direction of a fairly difficult, technical and abstract subject matter.
#6 I question the book’s ability to persuade a dyed in the wool Capitalist. To some extent, the book preaches to the converted, if indeed it can change the mindset of modern Left-wing, Anarchist or Green supporters.
12 Observations about Capitalism
Below are some personal thoughts on Capitalism prompted by a reading of the book.
#1 Selfishness or "Greed is Good"
Capitalism opposes State intervention in the market. One way or another, it believes that the market can operate effectively for the common good without regulation by the State.
The market consists of individual people or entities acting, working, consuming, producing, trading or exchanging in their own interests. All of the participants act selfishly, arguably greedily, although they don’t have to act solely this way.
Capitalism as a political philosophy isn’t concerned about the selfishness or greed of the individual participant. It believes that across the economy as a whole the net result of individual selfishness or greed benefits society in the most effective and efficient way.
There is an averaging process at work. As long as on average it works, Capitalism is good for society. The net effect of all of this selfishness is the common good.
It doesn’t matter that 20%, 40% or 50% suffer for the benefit of the rest. Any individual suffering is collateral damage that is justified by the common good. The suffering of the minority is justified by the benefit of the mean (i.e., the average). The mean, alright. It’s but a short journey to a destination where 80% suffer for the benefit of 20%.
Thus, the battle between Capitalism and Socialism is a battle between averaging and equalisation.
Capitalism describes the achievement of the common good by the market as the work of an invisible, almost divine, hand. The outcome is good and wise, even though it wasn’t deliberately planned. In fact, planning is viewed as counter-productive and futile. The divine hand can achieve a better outcome than an office full of public servants and computer simulations.
Heath actually concedes that:
"Historically…the way that Capitalism simulates socialist planning has been far more successful than any actual socialist system. The primary reason is that ‘socialist planners’ cannot be trusted to make the hard decisions that socialist planners are supposed to make."
Any attempt to plan a different outcome is regarded as more deleterious to society as a whole.
#2 Human Nature
Capitalism believes that selfishness is natural and legitimate.
Adam Smith wrote that, when a man acts in his own interest, “he frequently promotes [the interest] of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
At this level, there is a trust in human nature, a desire not to interfere in its natural processes.
On the other hand, when attempts are made to change how the market or Capitalism operate, the Capitalist argument is that human nature becomes a negative. There is a moral hazard that human beings will attempt to exploit the State-imposed system for their own advantage. They will be lazy, unmotivated and deceitful. It doesn’t matter that the same humans, the same human nature, the same character traits occur under laissez-faire Capitalism, as long as the average is for the common good. There is no recognition that the human nature of the few might make no material negative difference to the common good. If 10% abuse the welfare system, does it undermine the effectiveness of the 90%?
We are asked to accept human nature in producers, but not in consumers.
#3 The Market
The blind faith in the market and the invisible hand falls down when it comes to competitive behavior.
Selfishness means that no business wants to lose market share to a competitor, none wants to make a loss, none wants to be wound up.
As a result, the natural tendency of a business or of human nature is to be defensive. People lie, cheat, defraud, exploit, undercut, overcharge, misrepresent, overpromise and underdeliver. They abuse positions of power, they abuse monopolies, they form cartels, they collude, they conspire against the public.
These consequences of human nature under Capitalism, which are denied by its advocates, have to be countered by legislative initiatives of the State. The market has to be forced to be honest.
The human nature of Capitalists cannot be trusted to run the market honestly or effectively. The market cannot operate legitimately or perfectly in the absence of the State.
The market, left to its own devices, will not only prejudice consumers, but other competitors.
The very failure of the market invites and legitimates the intervention of the State. If Capitalists were as virtuous as their apologists proclaim, there would be no need for the State.
The market has nobody to blame but the human nature of participants in the market.
One problem with State intervention is getting it right. The nature and extent of the intervention should be no more than is necessary to honour the promise of a perfect market.
#4 The Goal of Full Employment
The primary goal of Capitalism is not necessarily to employ people. That is a by-product of what Capitalism does. If it could better achieve its primary goal (making more capital) without employing people, then it would and does do so (e.g., by the use of machines).
Thus, if we assess Capitalism by whether it achieves full employment (one of my socio-economic criteria), then we are judging it by an outcome rather than a goal. It shouldn’t really surprise us that it will never get a mark of 100% in this test.
#5 The Effect of Competition on Prices
In the same way, I don’t think that it is necessarily a goal of Capitalism to reduce prices payable by consumers. This is an outcome of one aspect of competition.
The natural tendency of Capitalism (built into the human nature of a capitalist) is to charge whatever price you can get away with, whatever people are prepared to pay.
Thus, an unrestricted monopoly will inflate its prices, unless some restraint is imposed by the market or the State or people simply refuse to buy their product.
The more there is effective competition, the greater the commercial pressure to reduce prices (or differentiate in terms of quality).
The more we save money on some products (through lower prices), the more we have to spend on additional products.
We still spend the same amount of money, only we spend it on a greater diversity of products and capitalists. As a result, a greater diversity of people are employed in the process. However, because the amount of money being spent remains the same, the wages of each employee across the diversity of employers might be reduced.
#6 The Effect of Competition on Wages
One aspect of pricing is the relative abundance or scarcity of the input. The more scarce it is, the higher the price.
People who want work are theoretically abundant. Because full employment is not a goal, people and employees are treated like any other input. The abundance of potential employees reduces wages.
Unemployment is Capitalism’s way of reminding us that we are abundant. It can maintain that it can’t employ us all. If we all want a job, then we will all have to drop our wages. In a sense, the same amount of money has been allocated to the same wages bill. We can either have unemployment and higher wages, or full employment and lower wages.
If the goal of Capitalism was full employment, it would go about things in a different way.
Heath tells an apocryphal story about an engineer who witnessed Chinese workers building a dam with picks and shovels. He asked why they didn’t use equipment. The response was that this would destroy many jobs. The engineer said:
"I thought you were interested in building a dam. If it’s more jobs you want, why don’t you have your men use spoons instead of shovels?"
#7 The Price of Goods and Services
Prices are determined by an attempt to recover the cost of inputs and a projected profit.
Let’s say that a corporation wishes to sell its entire inventory for $100M.
The composition of this total price might be:
• $250M rent, infrastructure and capital costs;
• $250M material input;
• $250M labour; and
• $250M projected profit.
Thus, the aim is to make a 25% profit.
The problem is that the strategy will always come under pressure when the corporation encounters competition. If it doesn’t drop its prices, it incurs the risk that it won’t meet its sales projections. If this happens, it mightn’t meet its profit projections.
The question is what happens if the shareholders and management don’t want the shareholders’ dividends (their profit share) to drop? If it is to remain constant, then one of the other three inputs in our determination of the price has to be reduced.
Of the three inputs, two are supplied by other Capitalists, one is supplied by the workforce. There is often less bargaining power with the other Capitalists. They want to maintain their pricing, and might even have entered into medium-to-long term supply contracts (property leases, loan agreements, supply agreements that guarantee the price of their goods or services).
Thus, Capitalists insulate themselves from the risks, and the burden of cost-cutting falls to workers. You either have to reduce your individual wages or some of you will lose your jobs.
#8 Minimum Wages
Capitalists can deal with this challenge far more easily by dropping wages or sacking staff, because employees negotiate their wages and working conditions on an individual basis. They have little bargaining power with the corporation. They certainly don’t have the same bargaining power that other Capitalists have.
One way they try to increase their bargaining power is to leverage their collective power through membership of a trade union. However, Capitalism despises this challenge to their bargaining power.
The other way to get a fair wage is for the State to legislate a minimum wage. This works against the logic of Capitalism’s desire to let market competition determine relative wages. However, in a way, it achieves the same level of insulation as the input of other Capitalists into the price mechanism have achieved.
Naturally, Capitalists argue that, if there is a minimum wage, they won’t be able to employ as many people. Therefore, a minimum wage will result in greater unemployment.
Remember that the goal of Capitalism is not necessarily to achieve full employment. The problem of unemployment is somebody else’s problem.
Of course, one other response to a minimum wage would be to reduce the proportion of one of the other inputs into price to compensate. A one percent increase in wages could be offset by a one percent reduction in profit. However, this is out of the question. It interferes with the primary goal of Capitalism, which is to generate more capital from the capital we already have.
Whose problem, exactly, is unemployment? Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the employee that there aren’t enough jobs to go around? Are you a useless piece of shit because Ayn Rand’s Objectivist acolytes want to throw you on the scrap heap?
The Social Welfare State deals with the issue by providing unemployment benefits. Perhaps this involves an element of empathy, altruism and charity that is bad for Capitalism or society as a whole.
However, the benefits all get spent on rent, groceries and other essentials, which are provided by Capitalism. Thus, the benefit is effectively a safety net for business. It just keeps the money flowing in the system.
Of course, the benefits are funded out of the taxes we all (including corporations) pay. Thus, collectively, we bear the financial burden of Capitalism’s failure to provide full employment.
Once again, the State remedies a failure of Capitalism (even though Capitalism declines responsibility for full employment).
#10 Production as a Joint Venture
Of the three inputs into price, two are external (often on contract), and only one (employees) is internal, even though they might be engaged on employment contracts.
Because they are internal to the corporation, most management still views the relationship as a master/servant relationship. There is rarely a sense in which the relationship is a joint venture aimed at jointly succeeding in the market.
Marx justified much of his theory of the internal contradictions of Capitalism and the inevitability of Revolution and Communism on the exploitation and alienation of workers that occurred/occurs under Capitalism.
I think this could be ameliorated, if the relationship was seen more as a joint venture, and the input of an employee given the same respect as the input of another Capitalist.
Many people on the Left regard profit with suspicion. They think it is a form of theft. Before property can be theft, there must be profit, which Marx regarded as the surplus value created by labour.
There has been much recent criticism of Marx’s theory of surplus value. However, it wasn’t unique to Marx at the time he espoused it, and all of its advocates have had to make room for greater understanding of pricing.
I think that profit is the product of all of the inputs mentioned in the price mix, even if the root cause of much Capital might have been somebody’s personal effort or labour. The thing is that, once capital exists, it wants to multiply. Capital wants to make more capital. It takes money to make money.
I don’t dispute the legitimacy of profit. I do, however, advocate different ways of sharing it around. It's perfectly acceptable for capital to earn an appropriate return of investment. Let’s say that is 20%. That 20% then becomes available for expenditure on goods and services, the suppliers of which employ people and pay taxes. So the profit goes around in the system.
However, if we set a target of 20% and achieve a superprofit of 25%, I think capitalists should be prepared to share some of the surplus with the people responsible for creating it. Arguably, this should be not just the management team, but the whole staff.
Thus, I think profit is necessary not just to compensate capital, but to incentivize and motivate the joint venturers (including staff).
Just as the Left has had to give up on the idea of a revolution, the Right has to give up on the abolition of the State. In fact, this is a reality that Capitalists, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists all have to recognise. It ain’t going to happen.
That doesn’t mean that the existence of the State is an excuse to squander taxpayers’ funds. There has to be clarity about what the State has to do, how it will do it most efficiently, how much it will cost and how it will be funded by taxation. A budget needs to be set, just as if we had established a corporation to carry out the task.
One of the many insights I got from Heath’s book is the view that the State is a consumer, but that it is effectively a mandatory collective consumer on our behalf. It buys things that Capitalism and we as individuals mightn’t have been able or prepared to produce or buy (e.g., roads, hospitals, police, health care). Hopefully, by buying collectively, it is able to leverage its bargaining power and buy so more cost-effectively. Heath writes far more eloquently and persuasively on this topic than I could in the space that I have allowed myself. His book deserves to be read for that reason alone.
Taxation is also a vehicle for achieving some redistribution of wealth. Heath argues convincingly that the State should not manipulate prices. Equally, it shouldn’t be too punitive in its taxation of Capitalism or those who make more money because, perhaps, they have displayed more initiative.
Personally, I don’t believe in achieving financial equality, especially by pulling the top income earners down to the level of everybody else (i.e., “leveling down”). However, I do advocate a progressive tax system, so that those who earn more money pay more taxes.
I also advocate a minimum wage, that would be at least enough for a subsistence standard of living for a couple with two children. The goal is to pull people up, rather than pull people down.(less)
My approach to reading Kant has been to focus on secondary material written about him, rather than material written by him.
Perhaps this reflects a fear of the difficulty of his concepts and prose. However, it leaves me vulnerable to the subjectivity of the secondary author.
What approach did they take? What did they focus on? What did they omit? Did they construe Kant through a subjective prism of their own? Did they interpret Kant only within the system of philosophy that he created or did they interpret him within the broader context of philosophy as a whole?
Stephan Körner, who was a Professor of Philosophy at the Univeristy of Bristol and at Yale, writes with a knowledge of Kant’s context, as well as views of his own. He is at pains to explain Kant’s philosophy clearly, while occasionally revealing a dry sense of humour.
I still found this a demanding read. While I did my best to understand the immediate subject matter, I found I had to explore its context more broadly, in order to understand why what I was reading was significant.
I’ve tried to draw inferences from what I’ve read. If they’re wrong, it’s my fault, not that of the author. This will not be my last disclaimer.
The Doors of Perception (A Priori and A Posteriori)
Just about any summary of Kant starts with an explanation of two terms that are used to differentiate types of Knowledge:
• A priori ("from the earlier") comes before and is therefore independent of Experience. A priori knowledge doesn’t depend on Experience for its validity. It derives from Reason.
• A posteriori ("from the later") comes after and therefore depends on Experience. A posteriori knowledge depends on Experience for its validity. It expresses an empirical fact. It does not derive from Reason alone.
My initial reaction? So what? Why should I care?
Heaven and Hell (The Great Debate)
To answer these questions, you have to appreciate that Kant was contributing to a debate between two types of philosophy concerning Metaphysics:
• Rationalism; and
Metaphysics can be loosely defined as the study of Being, Existence and Reality.
It is often construed as meaning "beyond" or "above" physics or the material.
While this is a misconstruction of the literal etymology of the word, it might help me to express my next point.
Rationalism regards Reason as the main source of knowledge. Truth can only be determined by intellectual or deductive means, not sensory means. Knowledge or truth is therefore a priori.
To the extent that Metaphysics is a product of Reason, it might stand beyond or above the physical or material world.
In contrast, Empiricism regards Sensory Experience and Evidence as the main source of knowledge. It derives from interaction with the physical or material world.
In Which Kant is Awakened by David Hume
The Scottish Empiricist philosopher, David Hume, was most skeptical about the Rationalist influence on Metaphysics.
He asserted that Metaphysics is "not properly a science" and that, like natural science, "the only solid foundation for [the science of human nature] must be laid on experience and observation".
Hume explicitly questioned the role of Reason as the source of knowledge and truth, and therefore the foundation of traditional Metaphysics.
Kant found fault with both Rationalism and Empiricism. He attempted to cherry pick what he regarded as the best aspects of each approach and construct a composite critical philosophy that avoided the flaws of both approaches.
By doing so in an extremely methodical manner, he hoped to revive and rehabilitate Metaphysics, as well as vindicating its credibility as a robust branch of science.
Yet, Kant famously gave Hume credit for awakening him from his "dogmatic slumber".
Analytic and Synthetic Propositions
Kant also distinguished between Analytic and Synthetic Propositions or Judgements.
He applied the distinction to Propositions that consisted of a Subject and a Predicate.
An Analytic Proposition can be proved by resort to Logic or Reason alone (i.e., without resort to Experience).
For example, the Proposition "All bachelors are unmarried" is true by definition. Linguistically, the word "bachelor" "contains" the word or concept "unmarried". It is not necessary to test the truth of the Proposition by Experience or Experiment in order to establish its truth.
In contrast, the truth of a Synthetic Proposition such as "All married men are unhappy" cannot be established by Logic or Reason alone. It would be necessary to resort to Experience or Experiment, and even then it would be hoped that it is not true, at least in all circumstances.
Four Types of Proposition
Kant then joins these four terms to create four distinct combinations:
• analytic a priori;
• synthetic a priori;
• analytic a posteriori;
• synthetic a posteriori.
The first exists wholly within the realm of Logic or Reason, the fourth within the realm of Experience.
The third theoretically requires both Logic and Experience to prove its truth, which Kant considers to be self-contradictory. If it is true as a matter of Logic, it is not necessary to resort to Experience to establish its truth.
Synthetic A Priori Propositions
Kant then focuses on the second combination of "Synthetic A Priori" Propositions.
Körner uses the proposition "5 + 7 = 12" to illustrate the concept.
Kant argues that the truth of this proposition is not dependent on Experience and is therefore a priori.
It is synthetic in the sense that the meaning of the predicate "12" is not intrinsically contained in or implied by the subject "5 + 7". The predicate or answer 12 is the result of a mathematical process that applies outside the framework of the sentence or proposition itself.
The truth of "Synthetic A Priori" Propositions does not result from the internal logic or linguistics of the Proposition or from being tested by Experiment or Experience.
As a result, by elimination, I infer that their truth derives from some mental apparatus of the mind (such as the mathematical process in the above equation).
Thus, Kant has asserted or proved that truth or knowledge can derive not just from Experience, but from the mind or Reason.
As a result, he has effectively refuted a primary assertion of Empiricism. However, he didn’t reject the whole of Empiricism or embrace the whole of Rationalism. Instead, he steered a middle ground between the two.
This achievement was vital to Kant because he argued that "Synthetic A Priori" Propositions are the essence of Metaphysics. They were the vehicle by which he rehabilitated Metaphysics.
The Relationship with the Outside World
Kant’s reasoning opened up scope to analyse how the mind thinks about or relates to objects in the outside world.
Kant differentiated between three cognitive faculties of the mind (or Cognition):
• Judgement; and
Kant accepts that objects in the material world exist and are empirically real. However, he speaks of objects being "given" to us via our senses. We then process what we sense and perceive:
"By means of sense, objects are given to us, and sense alone provides us with perceptions."
Our senses are the source of information or data about objects. Our minds "perceive" what we have "sensed". However, Perception is a passive process.
Having perceived an object, our mind sets about understanding it, which is an active process of Thinking or "Judgement".
We do this by applying concepts or "Categories" of "Pure Understanding", which are characteristics or "Presentations" of objects in general (as opposed to particulars of an actual object that we have sensed and perceived).
The "Categories" are not abstracted from perception. They are not just the product of objects. They are the product of our minds. They are characteristics or presentations (which are given, remembered and combined perceptual data). The Categories are "transcendental", because they transcend individual objects and are a condition of knowledge of all objects. Collectively, they are forms or ways of seeing, like spectacles, which our minds superimpose over the top of what we perceive.
When we apply a Category to an actual object (e.g., an elephant), we connect or unify or contract many presentations or characteristics (a "manifold") into the concept or Category.
If it "fits" or coordinates, the unification results in us understanding that we have seen. In a way, in our example, our mind registers an elephant:
"Connection is the representation of the synthetic unity of the manifold."
Reason is the source of the concepts and principles that allow us to make Judgements. Reason defines the formal conditions of truth. In a way, it sits above Judgements and is the arbiter of truth in all Judgements.
Space and Time
Kant considers that space and time are not properties or characteristics of objects in the outside world, but are contributed by the mind of the perceiving subject.
Again, they are like the spectacles through which we perceive the outside world. We can’t remove our spectacles. We can only see objects through the subjective framework of space and time.
Therefore, we can never see objects as they are "in themselves". We change them by seeing them. The world is moulded in the process of our apprehension of it. However, the appearances of objects are not mere illusions. We can differentiate between what perceptions are real and what are illusions, just as a Realist can.
Kant is, therefore, not strictly an Idealist or a Subjectivist.
Cognition, Pleasure and Desire
Kant also differentiated between three faculties of the mind as a whole:
• Pleasure and Pain; and
As illustrated above, the application of the Categories is an essential part of the cognitive process.
The faculty of Desire is the capacity to "do or to refrain from doing as one pleases".
If it involves a consciousness of what actions are necessary to achieve an object, it involves a Choice.
If there is no such consciousness, it involves a Wish.
The subject matter of Desire (e.g., what pleases us in particular and what choices are available to us) is determined within our Reason and is described as an act of Will.
Having determined the nature of our Desire and how to attain it, Pleasure and Pain are determined by the extent to which our actions attain the object of our Desire. Pleasure is the achievement of a purpose.
We are free, if our Will can cause our object to be attained, without ourselves being caused to do so (e.g., by duty or force).
In the context of Aesthetic Judgements, Kant sees pleasure as deriving from beauty, which is a result of a Judgement that an object is beautiful. The pleasure derives from the compliance of the object with concepts of form. There is a harmony of object and formal concepts.
Good Will Hunting (Duty, Will, Morality and Religion)
Kant used the above analysis of Cognition to set out a critical philosophy of "Pure Reason".
When he applies a similar analysis to Moral Philosophy or Ethics, he refers to it as a critical philosophy of "Practical Reason".
Kant uses the term Will in relation to Desire, but it is also essential to an understanding of his Moral Philosophy.
Will involves the choice of action required to achieve a Desire or Object.
Not every action or choice is morally good. Kant uses the term "Good Will" to describe morally good conduct or a morally good person.
Any decision made by a Good Will must be determined by the Moral Law or Duty and for the sake of complying with the Moral Law in its own right. It is not done in order to achieve a subjective Desire or Pleasure or to be seen to be Virtuous. Moral Law is a limitation on Desire. Good Will requires a perception of and compliance with Duty.
Kant defines this Duty as the "Categorical Imperative", to "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction."
The Imperative must not be determined by its potential application in any particular conditions or to any particular person. It must be universal in application, hence the moral authority of the Law or Imperative.
It’s important that this definition of Good Will does not resort to God or Religion for its essence or its authority:
"Morality needs the idea neither of another being above man for man to recognise his duty, nor of another motive apart from the Law for him to fulfil his Duty...Morality thus needs religion in no way for morality’s sake, but is by virtue of the pure practical reason self-sufficient."
This doesn’t mean that Kant didn’t believe in God or that he did not purport to believe in God.
He does not purport to prove the existence of God by means of Pure Reason. Instead, he relies on Practical or Moral Reason, in effect to declare God "the Ideal of Pure Reason":
"We ought to endeavour to promote the highest good (which therefore must be possible). Therefore we must postulate the existence of a cause of the whole of nature, which is different from nature, and which contains the ground…of the exact proportionateness of happiness and morality."
According to Körner, Kant believes that God is such a cause and that "his argument is that the highest good is not realisable unless God exists". In other words, "man can promote the highest good only if God exists."
Facts, Opinion and Faith
I can’t say I understand this, but I wonder whether the argument proceeds like this: "God is the highest Good; the highest Good exists; therefore, God exists."
Anyway, the precise logical proof of the existence of God doesn’t really matter to me.
I believe it is a matter of faith, not logic, and that Kant was expressly working in the realm of "rational faith".
Ultimately, what he created was a coherent and robust system for analyzing three types of Knowledge:
• Matters of Fact;
• Matters of Opinion (including Aesthetics); and
• Matters of Faith.
Kant Help Falling in Love with You
So what did I get out of this venture?
I wanted to overcome my apprehension about reading Kant.
I wanted to obtain and elucidate a simplistic overview of Kant’s basic ideas, both to help me and to hopefully help you.
I wanted to understand why many see Kant as responsible for a Copernican Revolution in Philosophy.
I wanted to lay the foundation for an appreciation of the influence of Kant’s analysis of Understanding, Judgement, Reason, Desire, Pleasure, Morality and Faith on Hegel and Continental Philosophers.
My journey with Kant isn't finished. However, if nothing else, I think I've overcome my apprehension, and I'm ready to read on.
This is the End of Our Elaborate Plans, My Friend
If you’ve read this far, thank you.
Körner ends his book with the hope that:
"...my exposition, brief and inadequate as in the nature of the case it has had to be, has not greatly misrepresented the thought of a very great thinker."
I would like to amplify this wish in relation to the thoughts expressed in my review, because they are briefer, more inadequate and infinitely less informed than either Kant’s or Körner’s.