Friday, January 30, 2009

Simple Pleasures

Truly, the internet is a wonderful thing. In this post (via), this comment:

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Pride and Prejudice (or Pride and Practical Reason). It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good will must be in possession of the only thing that is good without qualification.

Ben Wolfson, whoever you are, you're a kind of God.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

But So They Were

On weird ways that institutions leave their mark, this, appropriately enough from here, I liked.

On Being Hard

J. G. Ballard, in the more recent novels, I think made a living out of a kind of rather virulent reactionary politics: the recurrent thought seems to be that there is no political solution to the problem of violence, that any attempt to solve that problem simply displaces and even excerbates it. The plots take place against a backdrop of vaguely leftist concerns, it's true - the gated communities of a moneyed leisure class - but what is crucial is not that that shapes the members of that class: it rather liberates them, allows them to do what they've always (really: it's the really that gives it away) wanted to, which is experience the visceral thrill of exercising brutal, sadistic power. The insistence that humans are fallen, cannot but revert to bloody type is doubly obssessed with violence; both in that it insists that violence is inevitable, as if peaceful societies have never existed, and in its own self-image, as able to bear truths others dare not face, engaged in a kind of masochistic proof of its strength. As with Houellebecq, there must be a suspicion that there's an explanation in Ballard's personal history: a childhood in the cantonment in Shanghai and an internment camp must mark you in certain ways. What they don't do, as Ballard seems to think judging by his autobiography, is function as adequate models for what societies are generally like: contrary to what all kinds of saloon bar philosophers may think, people aren't really like what they're like under great stress; the whole point of being under great stress is that it's not how you normally are.

Not everyone is a psychopath, whatever Ballard may say: that's how we're able, in the end, to distinguish psychopaths from everyone else. Saying so might even border on the psychopathic itself: if the total failure of empathy is definitional of psychopathy, then an inability to see the motivations of others as other than brute data, as having a lived history which give them content and meaning, could be a kind of psychopathy. There's a kind of liberal piety which plays into this, though, where everything good is morally costless, where political conflict gets erased, and so generates the temptation to bring it back, bubbling up through the gaps all orders must leave somewhere. Regretting, as Obama's appointment to head to C.I.A. does here (via), that a majority of a given public do not believe in a absolutely exceptionless prohibition on torture, totally setting aside any questions about what tradeoffs you are prepared to make, does that. It invites the machismo of ticking bomb cases, when what you want is this (via), notes on the economy of torture, of its politics: thinking that the prohibition exists in a vacuum allows that exceptions to it might to, when our reasons for the prohibition are importantly to do with the fact that torture does not happen in a vacuum; it needs torturers, equipment, places and times for the equipment to be used, information that it confirms and that verifies it, and so on. I suppose then it is that kind of pious liberal that Ballard thought of himself educating in Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, who thinks of goodness without a (real) history, as just how people are. Notice, though, that his posturing suffers from exactly the same flaw: it is stripped of its institutional context. People aren't usually evil because that's the way they're doomed to be; they're terrible because they ended up that way. Even Hobbes saw that; Ballard can't.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Like A Daydream, Or A Fever

Apparently the little author biographies of Justin Cartwright's novels used to contain a not-so subtle dig at his ex-wife: he lives in London, sometimes with his children. In The Song Before It Is Sung, he only lives in London, which is perhaps for the best. You can well imagine why his wife might have left him; the book concerns Conrad Senior, a somewhat self-absorbed man in early middle age who is using the bequest of an old professor's letters to a German friend executed by the Nazis as an excuse for doing not very much other than think rather vague thoughts about the grand sweep of history, swan about in London, and have pretty women - including his wife when she comes to divide up the marital goods having had quite enough of this extended adolescence - f*ck him at the drop of a hat. The women are ciphers, nagging shrews melting into his arms as he passive-aggressively refuses to engage with them or empty-headed wantons whose short skirts and drug use are indicative of their sexual licence. Even Senior himself is something of an empty vessel, not much more than a vehicle for the author's persistent equation of objectivity in morality with teleology in history: as if because we must give up on the idea of ineluctable progress we must give up on the idea of must.

Although the book has its moments - the scene where Senior meets the cameraman who filmed the execution of the German in Berlin is really rather well done, and there are some nicely catty asides - there are some passages which practically beg to be taken out and shot. There's a meditation on Grosz's remark that his work was a reaction to commanders in the field painting in blood that works itself up to the full height of imagining Hitler, the former art student, as the modern master of the genre. Or the observation, after a rather self-satisfied, condescending little list of the relevant features - illegal immigrant cabbies, hookers, greasy fast-food joints, and any number of stereotypes out of central casting - that metropolitan railway stations are a bit seedy; no shit, Sherlock. The prose is often just lazy: I suppose it thinks of itself as having the wonderful economy of someone like William Gibson, but it hasn't got anything like the self-control, the precision of Gibson's careful accumulation of exact detail; it just doesn't think carefully enough. This isn't just evidenced in the banal vignettes collapsing under the weight of meaning they're supposed to be bearing but in the theme: using a heroic good German to try and make a barely even sophomoric point about how Hegel said some crazy shit once and then, like magic, there were Nazis and everything else terrible in the world and so we should all be relativists, since what was so terrible about the Nazis was that they believed in objective morality and not that they started the bloodiest war the world has ever seen and murdered millions. Or something.

Anyway, don't bother. Or with Howard Jacobson: a less funny Philip Roth, with much more portension. What you should bother with is I Am Cuba, a hallucinatory, black and white propaganda film made by a Soviet director about the run-up to Castro's revolution in the mid-sixties. The white looks burned on to the camera, like anything not actually black the director pointed it at was sodium blazing away under an inevitably cloudless sky, so that sugar cane fields look like they're full of brilliant incandescent triffids and a crowd marching down monumental steps into water-cannon like innocents claiming their birthright and walking into heaven. That doesn't do it justice: it's full of mad, looping takes, framing characters from above and below, against hillsides, brightly-light shop windows, collonades, burning over-turned cars. It's so alive, so eager. I liked it much more than a kind of companion piece at least in subject matter, The Battle Of Algiers, which I saw a while ago but seemed to me to have no heart at all and to be very pleased with its achievement of that pitilessness, as if that was precisely the attitude one ought to adopt to violent rebellion. I Am Cuba was so much more human, was not just attempting to be a document of retrospective historical inevitability, if it was even attempting that, but to give life to those living through that inevitability.