Mr. Palomar is "a nervous man who lives in a frenzied and congested world...and to defend himself against the general neurasthenia...tries to keep his...moreMr. Palomar is "a nervous man who lives in a frenzied and congested world...and to defend himself against the general neurasthenia...tries to keep his sensations under control insofar as possible." The book is a series of short pieces that narrate Palomar's attempt to carefully observe his world, to screen out distractions in order to get a clear view of things. He begins by focusing on surfaces, but has trouble getting beyond them: "it's only after you have come to know the surface of things...that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible." Or, he has trouble staying focused on them, because he can only describe them to himself via language, and language is a snare that pulls you inexorably back into history, culture, the wider world. In a way, Calvino's preoccupations in Palomar are like David Foster Wallace's in his final, unfinished novel The Pale King--the stripping away of the self-consciously entertaining elements of fiction in an attempt to represent a character trying to achieve states of sustained concentration. (less)
If there’s one master meaning at the center of 2666 it probably has something to do with the insufficiency of art when confronted with the ineradicabi...moreIf there’s one master meaning at the center of 2666 it probably has something to do with the insufficiency of art when confronted with the ineradicability of evil and atrocity. And, beyond that, the degree to which aestheticism, on the part of both writers and readers, blinds one to injustice (even while parading it in front of our eyes in great and gory detail, as Bolaño does in 2666), or serves as compensation for one’s relative lack of power to fight against it.
Stacy D’Erasmo, writing in the New York Times Book Review, puts it this way:_“Among the many acid pleasures of the work of Roberto Bolaño…is his idea that culture, in particular literary culture, is a whore…The word has no national loyalty, no fundamental political bent; it’s a genie that can be summoned by any would-be master. Part of Bolaño’s genius is to ask, via ironies so sharp you can cut your hands on his pages, if we perhaps find a too-easy comfort in art, if we use it as anesthetic, excuse and hide-out in a world that is very busy doing very real things to very real human beings…”
While I wouldn’t dream of arguing that works of art have never done any good in the world, ultimately literature cannot be reduced to a species of activism. Art, at bottom, is not a form of social responsibility. Art has its own motivations, and those motivations are more dubious than we might suppose. Art sits as comfortably with injustice and atrocity as with enlightenment and empathy, and the creative impulse is driven as much by envy of, and competition with, one’s aesthetic precursors, as by a desire to correct the flaws of the “real world.”
It would be absurd to argue that art can never be a spur to activism. If you consider criticism a form of art, as I do, then Martin Luther King’s Letter From The Birmingham Jail is art just as surely as Picasso’s Guernica. And one has only to think of the role of music in the civil rights or anti-Apartheid movements to see how art can be used to clarify moral issues and promote a sense of solidarity. Art can be a powerful tool for creating and sustaining social movements. But in general I think art is equally likely to encourage an inwardness and a solitariness that chafes against the activist impulse–it encourages contemplation rather than action. The things a novel activates in its readers are mostly interior things: thoughts, speculations, ruminations, fine sentiments, satisfying expulsions of bile, but rarely revolution or social change. All art is, at least potentially, entertainment, a form of escapism.
2666 is a difficult novel in part because Bolaño, like many modernists, is at war with transparency. In part this may just be an example of what Cynthia Ozick describes as the modernist penchant for “radical alteration of modes of consciousness.” But one reason for shunning transparency is to fight against the techniques and tropes that make art appear to be a perfect mirror of life. We all know that, duh, literature is not life, but the whole point of transparency in prose is to create the illusion that it is, at least while you are immersed in it (for example John Gardner’s idea that fiction should create a “vivid and continuous dream”). It creates what Susan Sontag (I think) called “the effect of the real.” And, transparency helps promote the inwardness that blocks out the world, and that threatens to substitute literature for the world. I realize how problematic this is–the stuff that goes on inside our heads is as real, as materially substantial, as the stuff that happens outside of our heads, and literature effects real, material changes in consciousness, and all of our heads are linked together intersubjectively anyway. But perhaps the point of shunning transparency is to fight against the illusion that changes in sensibility are a substitute for action, or compensation for one’s relative inability to combat evil and injustice.
2666 is saturated with both a love for literature and a profound knowledge of its limitations. There’s a self-consciousness within the novel of how inadequate any novel is at spurring action and urging the moral life. 2666 is no different in this regard. It’s as much about Bolaño’s anxious attempt to pay homage to and transcend his literary antecedents as it is an altruistic attempt to open the reader’s eyes to injustice in the world. It’s both a refraction of recent events in Juarez and a self-sufficient aesthetic entity. It avoids psychological realism, and observes its characters from a discrete distance, precisely because it wants to focus attention on our outer lives, and make the point that the trap of art and culture, the trap of aestheticism, is to fool the aesthete into thinking that he’s a better person than he is by keeping his attention focused on the refined and elevated contents of his inner life, rather than looking at how inadequate his actions are in the face of the massive violence and injustice of the world.
This is, in my opinion, the great truth and the great flaw in 2666: On the one hand Bolaño makes us realize how beside the point art is in the face of evil and atrocity, and how it can become the handmaiden of both. He warns against the danger that we will use art and literature to so richly stock our inner selves that it will blind us to how passively complicit our outward lives often are. At the same time, by focusing on the worst atrocities–the Holocaust and the incredible violence in contemporary Mexico–he sets the stakes so high that he implicitly devalues any action one might take. The book posits evil and injustice as ineradicable features of the human condition. Well, they are. But that doesn’t mean that any action one might take to ameliorate their effects, however cosmically inadequate, is an exercise in futility. (less)
This book is a bit of a wasted opportunity. While not an official biography, Nadel had access to tons of people close to Cohen, and the book was “beni...moreThis book is a bit of a wasted opportunity. While not an official biography, Nadel had access to tons of people close to Cohen, and the book was “benignly tolerated” by Cohen himself. But the author apparently chose to ignore Cohen’s advice not to let “the facts get in the way of the truth.”
Nadel, a professor of English at the University of British Columbia, is clearly a fan, but he seems reluctant to own the material or to impose any kind of overarching interpretation on Cohen’s life and work. Despite Nadel's academic bona fides, the book doesn't rise to the level of a critical biography. There's inadequate effort devoted to contextualizing Cohen, and there are only feeble attempts to pass critical judgment on his work and career. Slogging through Various Positions’ lackluster prose, you wish either for a book by a fan who loves the music and isn't afraid to make an impassioned and unapologetic argument as to why, or by someone with little emotional connection to Cohen who can contextualize and dissect and get some real critical distance on the guy and his work. That said, the book does dutifully trudge through all facets of his career (up to his comeback in the early nineties), so you learn a lot of details about the songs and the life, but Nadel never succeeds in capturing the essence of the man. Any attempt to impose a single meaning on any individual life is inevitably a distortion, but a good biographer should at least take a stab at it. Instead, Nadel has given us the life of Leonard Cohen as one damn thing after another.
I suppose you could call Cosmicomics a species of science fiction. It's a series of riffs on various scientific factoids, and the central character, Q...moreI suppose you could call Cosmicomics a species of science fiction. It's a series of riffs on various scientific factoids, and the central character, Qfwfq, is a protean entity who’s been in existence since before the big bang, and who takes multiple forms as he narrates the various phases of cosmic evolution. But the pieces are very playful, and read more like folk tales or modern day creation myths than anything one would recognize as twentieth century Sci Fi.(less)
This short history of the postwar conservative mind focuses more on the style of presentation of postwar conservative ideas than on their substance. ...moreThis short history of the postwar conservative mind focuses more on the style of presentation of postwar conservative ideas than on their substance. It's weak as a history of conservative ideas and values, which Mattson defines as a commitment to religion/traditional values, free market capitalism, and an aggressive, expansionist military policy. For the most part ideas are just name checked and assigned to certain individuals. There's no in-depth analysis of conservative political philosophy. But he's very good on the mode of presentation of conservative ideas, and he does a good job of establishing continuity between contemporary blowhards like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, and earlier figures like William F Buckley.
One of the more provocative, if not entirely novel, claims in the book is the idea that it's contemporary conservatives, far more than liberals, who are the inheritors of the extremist, confrontational, Manichean politics of the 60's. This is perhaps most true of the "postmodern conservatives" that are ruling America today, but Mattson argues that this means of advancing conservative ideas actually begins with Buckley. Buckley, in "God and Man at Yale" and "McCarthy and His Enemies," and on Firing Line in its early years, presents himself as an outsider, an aristocratic populist, a tough-ass rebel speaking truth to the liberal power elite. He was perfectly comfortable using tactics of shock and outrage to get his message across, and he was perfectly willing to use pop and mass culture to do so.
The McCain campaign, which in ideology and tactics is arguably the culmination of the ideology/tactics of the George W Bush era, suggests that for the average Republican-leaning voter, and for members of the base and fellow travelers, an inchoate resentment of and disdain for a succession of invented caricatures of elitist liberals IS the SUBSTANCE of their politics. Its certainly true that the Republican party's ascendancy since the early 80's was not achieved by pushing innovative policy proposals designed to make government more efficient and effective. Its been built on weakening or dismantling existing structures (regulatory structures, various components of the welfare state) and rhetorically undermining the very legitimacy of government by casting government as the problem rather than the solution, whatever the problem may be. Yes, there have been cross-currents--conservative support for government enforcement of "traditional" morality, increased defense spending, support of government intervention to aid business, most recently in the massive bailout of the nation's financial giants--but the main thrust of conservative rhetoric and policy has been to argue for the dismantling of the regulatory/welfare state constructed during the New Deal and thereafter. Call me a cynic, but it seems like most positive policy ideas put forth by conservatives are just stalking horses for privatization, first steps in relieving government of any role or responsibility whatsoever for whatever the problem at hand is. As someone remarked recently, George Bush's 2004 proposal for "fixing" social security was designed to take both the social and the security out of the program.
One aspect of the marketing of conservatism that's long driven me crazy, and that Mattson doesn't really address, is that conservative ideas and policy proposals often aren't very conservative, at least not in any literal meaning of the term. I know that words are ultimately empty signifiers, and that they take on the content that's been pumped into them by history, but much of American politics takes place on the level of surface rhetoric, and Republicans get a lot of political mileage out of labeling radical policies as conservative.
Here's the thing: to the extent that conservatives are free market fundamentalists, they are the radicals. Conservatives, in a very important sense, are not very conservative. To the extent that they believe in the unfettered free market, they believe in structuring society in such a way as to promote the maximum amount of insecurity and social and economic upheaval. The market, after all, is totally unsentimental when it comes to existing ideas and values. As Marx famously said, capitalism is a revolutionary force causing all that is solid to melt into air. So, with the exception of traditional religion, its often conservatives who are promoting the more radical policies. They are not simply radicals in terms of style.
I guess you tie it all together this way: 1) conservatives promote a more disruptive and transformative economic policy--they seek to reduce, as much as possible, curbs on market activity 2) conservatives promote a more disruptive and transformative foreign policy--they want to remake the world in America's image by promoting democracy and free markets, and they are wiling to use military force to do so 3) at the same time, they want to preserve order at home, but they are allergic to government intervention, so, rhetorically at least, they promote socially conservative values as a way of managing the socially volatile effects of their economic policies.(less)
It feels more than a little strange to be reading and enjoying a book calling for the violent overthrow of capitalism and liberal democracy when my mo...moreIt feels more than a little strange to be reading and enjoying a book calling for the violent overthrow of capitalism and liberal democracy when my most fervent political hope of the moment is that Barack Obama will re-start the American economy by passing an effective stimulus bill, and humanize American capitalism by re-regulating big business and enacting some form of universal health care legislation. But I did enjoy the book and that is what Zizek is calling for here isn't it? Or is it?
The fact is he's a little cagey about that. On the one hand the book takes the idea that capitalism desperately needs to be abolished as its premise. There's no attempt to argue with those who believe that it really needs to be reformed, perhaps drastically so, but reformed nevertheless. Zizek takes it's irredeemability as a given, and for the most part he's preaching to a choir of readers who hold the same conviction. But this reader was left with some confusion as to just what he means by violence and just when it might be justified. And just what kind of society is to follow in its wake.
Zizek claims that there are two kinds of violence: objective and subjective. Counterintuitively, Zizek terms physical violence subjective violence, while objective violence is the set of invisible but nonetheless coercive social/cultural/political structures (norms, habits, laws, conventions etc.) that govern the way we think and act. All people, in other words, are subject to coercion, to "violence," all the time. All of us are forced, or strongly encouraged, to act and think a certain way "against our will," not in the sense that we consciously and openly object to the way things are, but because we are thrown into a world not of our own making, and are unable to imagine, much less bring into being, a radically different state of things. We can't see beyond the limits set by ideology, and indeed our very subjectivities (which are as fluid as they are fixed) are created and defined by ideology. Physical/subjective violence is just the tip of the iceberg. By declaring physical violence the only form of violence worthy of the name, ideology masks all the other more fundamental forms of coercion, of violence, that we are all subject to every moment of our lives.
So, in other words, Zizek defines violence quite broadly, and this does three things: 1) softens the readers resistance to his claim that violence is a legitimate, indeed necessary, political tactic 2) allows him to call lots of things violence that one wouldn't necessarily think of as violence--like "nonviolently" withdrawing consent from a given political regime and 3) blurs the line between nonviolent resistance and the kind of violence that leads to the direct loss of human life, or that has the taking of human life as one of its primary tactics (although, admittedly, classic forms of nonviolence rely on the willingness of their opponents to use violence as part of their political effectiveness).
If I'm reading him correctly (and I'm by no means sure I am, so someone correct me if I'm wrong), Zizek endorses "emancipatory" violence, by which he means violence that aims at "a radical upheaval of the basic social relations." He cites the terror that followed the French Revolution and the killings carried out by Che Guevara during and after the Cuban Revolution as acceptable instances of genuinely revolutionary violence. Hitler's and Stalin's killings, by contrast, do not qualify as revolutionary violence because they don't effect "a radical upheaval of the basic social relations" (though I think at one point he says that Stalin's forced collectivization was closer to genuine revolutionary violence than the terror that accompanied the Moscow show trials). At the same time he seems to argue that the most effective form of violence at the moment is some form of passive violence, some form of withdrawal of consent from the system. He cites the Saramago novel Seeing, where the majority of the citizens of a country cast blank ballots, creating a crisis of legitimacy. He quotes Lenin to the effect that the best thing to do is not to act but to hunker down and study, to "learn, learn and learn." The final paragraph of the book reads: "If one means by violence a radical upheaval of the basic social relations, then, crazy and tasteless as it may sound, the problem with historical monsters who slaughtered millions was that they were not violent enough. Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do."
How does one read this statement? Does it mean that if Hitler and Stalin had slaughtered millions AND effected a "radical upheaval of the basic social relations", then those deaths would be justified? Because, theoretically at least, one could abolish capitalism AND kill 6 million Jews. The two are not mutually exclusive. Or does it mean that more classically nonviolent means are a more effective form of "violence"?
There's lots of dazzling analysis in Zizek, but if one treats it as something more than just a politics of the academy, as a call to action of sorts, it becomes extremely problematic. The first and most obvious objection is that if the main criteria for the use of violence is that it aim at a "radical upheaval of the basic social relations", then violence deployed in the service of dystopian political aims is just as justifiable as violence deployed for laudable aims. Zizek argues that Hitler did not actually aim at a "radical upheaval of the basic social relations", but in principle there's no reason why one can't imagine a fundamentally reordered society based on white supremacy, or some other equally despicable ideology. This criteria is too value neutral about the society that is to follow.
Next, if everyone's psyche/self is fundamentally distorted by ideology, then everyone is both guilty and innocent at the same time. Zizek is fond of chiding leftists who believe that you can make a revolutionary omelette without breaking a few counterrevolutionary eggs. So he's a bit more honest than the revolutionary beautiful souls who believe you can have a total socio-economic transformation without some equivalent of the secret police. But if we are all more or less bamboozled by ideology all the time, it would be well nigh impossible to sort out the guilty from the innocent in any event.
Zizek seems to be striving for something more than a politics of the academy, but for a social democrat like me his writings are interesting as literature, but less than useful as a spur to political action. Maybe the best way to describe his appeal, to me at any rate, is that he is a useful person to think against. Personally I am morally committed to an extremely pragmatic politics focused on technocratic and incremental solutions to small and manageable problems. Or more sweeping solutions to not-so-small and manageable problems, as in the case of the current economic collapse, or larger injustices like botched wars of choice, or equal rights for gay people. I think the individual dignity and flourishing of ordinary people should be the main goal of governing, and that people ought to be able to decide for themselves what the conditions of their dignity and flourishing are (one way Zizek is useful is in exploring the psychological and ideological barriers to even imagining such conditions). And I think that too often political theorists of a certain stripe are intoxicated by ideas of total emancipation, and individual lives, and the modest expectations that govern them, get discounted in favor of totalizing visions of the good society. I enjoy reading Zizek, but I don't think I'd want him running the world.
On the other hand, what's probably more accurate is that when people like Zizek start running the world, they necessarily become pragmatists!(less)
The audience for this book--a memoir of the author's life as a writer and a marathon runner--is probably limited to distance runners who are Murakami...moreThe audience for this book--a memoir of the author's life as a writer and a marathon runner--is probably limited to distance runners who are Murakami fans. It’s not a bad book, but it doesn't begin to approach the power and mysteriousness of Murakami's fiction.
Part of the problem is that it shows up the weaknesses of Murakami’s writing style. He has a very low wattage, meandering, conversational narrative style. It's almost an absence of style. It’s not like, say, Richard Yates’ style in Revolutionary Road, which reads as totally transparent, but where the craft that went into creating the illusion of transparency gleams off of every word. Murakami's prose doesn't grab you by the lapels. Rather it gradually pulls you in, building to a cumulative effect that is absorbing and quite moving.
It also hints at and evokes a kind of metaphysical surround, a dimly perceived spiritual or metaphysical current flowing through ordinary events. For example the subtext of The Wind up Bird Chronicle is the spiritual aftereffects of the Japanese role in World War II.
This element is largely missing from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s not entirely absent. The passage about how Murakami was inspired to become a writer has some of these qualities—he’s sitting in the stands at a baseball game and suddenly the thought occurs to him, as far as the reader knows out of the blue of the afternoon sky, “I could write a novel.” One night soon thereafter he comes home late after closing the jazz club he owns, sits down and starts writing, and in short order finishes a novel. He mails the only copy of the manuscript to a literary competition and forgets about it, until he receives a letter informing him that he’s won a prize. This inspires him to keep writing. Coincidence is a big theme in Murakami, and the power and mystery of this tale comes from the way the random but ideal circumstances of the day seem to pull the conviction that he could write a novel from out of thin air. He then acts on it, without much expectation or much at stake. He seems to win the competition as much by chance as by destiny, and his subsequent career as a writer also seems fortuitous up to a point.
The other side of the story is the way he seizes the chance offered by fortune and works diligently to turn it to his advantage. This is where running comes in. Eventually he sells his jazz club and begins writing full time. Writing is a solitary and sedentary endeavor, and he soon begins to feel sluggish and starts putting on the pounds. So he starts running. Running becomes part of the means by which he totally commits himself to the craft of writing and the vocation of novelist. It helps instill the discipline and routine, and provides the physical stamina necessary to sustain a single writing project over a period of months or years.
But the problem with What I Talk About is that, while its not a self help book, it does frequently boil things down to life lessons that seem a bit banal (though not necessarily trivial, because banal as the are they are still good rules to live by). The vagueness and indirection that makes his fiction seem mysterious (and therefore absorbing) makes the prose here seem slack and uninspired, since it doesn't point to much of anything other than Murakami's desire to keep pounding the pavement and writing novels. (less)