31 October, 2011

Tolkien: Does He Matter?

Joseph at Ironical Coincidings published this post the other day, discussing what it means to "Inherit Tolkien". He pointed out that he's moved away in some respects from his youthful affiliation with Tolkien, and mentioned towards the end that I seemed to have done likewise, asking for my input on what I had done with the old, pipe-smoking, armchair-loving linguist. It's a question that I found very interesting; partly because Joseph seemed to be suggesting that the two options for what to do with him are either to relegate him to the children's bookshelf (not something I'd think appropriate) or to interpret him in a way compatible with modernity. This second possibility could be read two ways: either it means finding a justification for Tolkien's work within the aesthetic criteria of literary modernism (in which case, I think one would need to look for a third solution), or showing that Tolkien was in fact responding to concerns of the modern world, though he found it necessary to move into the realm of fantasy to formulate his response. It's that latter possibility that I agree with, to some extent. It does leave out part of the truth: Tolkien started the story primarily as a way to indulge his hobby of language-creation, not so much to "send a message" or "address" anything; that came along naturally when he started to craft the story.

Anyway, the question is pertinent also to this blog in the sense that, as Joseph points out, it was started with Tolkien and his friends as the primary inspiration: just look at its name. So I'm copying the response I posted on his blog and reproducing it here. Despite the fact that it's a bit jumbled at times, it does, I think, give a bit of insight into how Tolkien can still be an "inspiration" years after discussion of his work fell by the wayside.

See Joseph's second post in the series for background for my occasional references to Gene Wolfe.

My attempt at an answer:
It’s interesting that you bring this up when you do, because I had begun to notice how far I’d moved from the original focus of my blog about two months ago. Accordingly, the updated “look” of the site dropped the Tolkien photo, which seemed a bit out of keeping with the content, and replaced it with a non-author specific photo: just a bunch of bookshelves from the tiny used bookstore in my hometown. Even the place where that photo was taken reflects my shift in focus…you mention T.S. Eliot as having supplanted Tolkien in my consciousness, which in a literary-critical sense is true, but even my initially strictly-New-Critical focus on literature has expanded to be more like cultural criticism than anything else. Not that I like the way most cultural criticism is done, but I was getting rather sick of thinking about literature in a vacuum, which (pure) New Criticism would have you do.
Questions about literature in my blog have been overshadowed by questions about the relationship between geographical places, their history, the culture of the people there, and in turn the relationship between the sum of those aspects and the sum of those found in completely different geographical areas. I’m beginning–and this is kind of natural, given that I’m over here studying “Belgian” literature and finding that the first question that needs to be asked is “Is there a Belgian literature?” Or even, “Is there any such thing, really, as a Belgian?”
When considering this shift, I'm not sure myself if it’s permanent, or simply a stage informed by my previous ideas about literature. But whether a permanent shift or a temporary stage, the fact that it’s “informed” by my earlier ideas is unquestionable. Which brings me back to Tolkien.
I, like you, was introduced to Tolkien at an early age: my dad read us the Hobbit when I was five; I had finished the trilogy by the time I was about eight. And I’m indebted to the fellow on several levels. For one thing, finishing the trilogy taught me that I could read “grown-up” literature. Without having crossed that threshold chez Tolkien, I wouldn’t have read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, or Bleak House, or Crime and Punishment, or any of the other classics I devoured well before high school. So in a sense, reading “serious literature” had its roots in Tolkien, though even that far back it was fairly obvious that Tolkien wasn’t “serious” in the sense that a lot of that other literature was. I did consider him an important literary figure, but that was more for his translations of Beowulf and Sir Gawain, his linguistic skills, and his encouragement of Nordic mythology–one reason I’d object to what Wolfe says is that I think Tolkien considered himself an “heir” of Dante only in the sense that he was Catholic–aesthetically, it was always the Beowulf-type story that attracted him.
But honestly, I’m not entirely ready to put Tolkien on trial to see whether his work can be called “great literature”. I always conceived of it as doing something very consciously different than the mainstream of literature, and I don’t mind that. He wasn’t a writer, primarily; not friends with Hemingway or Woolf or any of those. He was just a linguist who could tell a darn good story. Whatever literary critics will make of Tolkien, the fact remains that he is much more widely and passionately read than Woolf or Faulkner or Hemingway. As great and innovative as all of them are, they are difficult to read. Maybe not for an English major, who’s accustomed to reading difficult things, but honestly, for the average person, Faulkner or Woolf are not going to be fun, rewarding reads. Now, I know that Eliot can be accused of this excessive difficulty as well (and the accusation is true to an extent), but I’m 100% in agreement with his essays calling for a literature that’s more accessible to the public (“Marie Lloyd” is one I can think of off the top of my head).
Tolkien is accessible to the public. Tolkien tells a good story. Tolkien also in my view, for what it’s worth, is not so much trying to return to the Middle Ages, as Gene Wolfe suggests, as he is using the setting to make his emphasis on heroism, sacrifice, and redemptive suffering seem natural. He was aware enough of his time to understand that after WWI, a turn to fantasy was the only way to make “discredited” heroic virtue real again. That might not get him into the anthologies, but that hardly discredits his work as juvenile, in my opinion.
Regarding Tolkien’s influence on me. I would say that he’s neither been relegated to the children’s bookshelf, for the reasons above, nor do I find it necessary to map his solutions more closely to modernity than I’ve already done. He’s not offering a “modern” point of view; he’s offering a timeless solution to some of the deepest questions plaguing modern man…and if he doesn’t treat the modernist question of “well, how can we tell what’s real anyway”….well, he’s careful enough to make it all fiction, which actually makes it much more realistic than presenting the same ideas in a realist medium. (Although, it would admittedly be interesting to look more closely at the use of mythical models by Eliot, Joyce, Northrop Frye, etc, though that’s not the most fashionable thing to do in lit crit just now.)
What I’ve taken from Tolkien is a very basic framework for understanding what literature is and what sorts of problems the post-enlightenment, post-world wars world is facing. Sure, it’s a framework that’s not purely Tolkienian, given how often its been modified by other writers, and the fact that Tolkien certainly was not all I read when I started my blog at seventeen. But here are some of its most important points:
A.) Mythical resonances make great literature. You don’t need everything to be fantasy or theology, talking about gods or God, to find these. Look at the lighthouse in Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”; the symbol of the “accursed family” in Faulkner; the return to Greek mythology around WWII in France. You need things in literature that resonate with meaning for more than just the author. Successful literature can’t be wholly subjective; it’s got to call on images and master-plots and characters that the audience can identify with. The difference between fantasy and “realism” is actually rather blurred here: in some ways, fantasy seems to be different mostly in its willingness to forefront the symbol or master-plot (and then jettison “realism” altogether to make that move more palatable to the modern audience) while the realists seek to camouflage the same things so that they do not strike us as unrealistic.
B.) Culture matters. Friendship matters. Two things to which our society pays extravagant lip-service, but which it really doesn’t understand. What does it mean to be “rooted” in a place? What does it mean to be a friend? Those are questions of which I first became aware through Tolkien’s work, and they are still very explicitly at the center of my writing, both on the blog and off.
C.) Good literature is a good story. The biggest reason that the contemporary lit crit circles put me in such a state of ennui just now is simply that they all seem to have forgotten this. And since growing up on Tolkien (and Dickens and Austen, and the Brontes and Lewis and so forth) I can’t forget it. It’s why, even now, I hold myself to the rule of “no criticism on the first reading” unless it’s a school text and I’m forced to do so. I see absolutely no reason why one should go on about the aesthetic merits of a text unless one has first shown that the story is excellent. And if the story is excellent, the text is worth something, in my opinion. Maybe it’s not the most innovative of books; maybe the characters (as in Dickens) are stock figures; maybe the line of reasoning behind some of the Bronte’s plots is occasionally fragile. But they’re all darn good stories. You can figure out that the modernists are good storytellers after you’ve read a lot of their work and understand the type of story they’re trying to tell. Appreciation of their aesthetic innovations, comes however, for me at least, only after I appreciate the story. The reason Tolkien is so much more popular than the modernists is evident though: he tells a fantastic story that does not rely so heavily on the reader’s capacity to sit down, struggle through 200 difficult pages, go back, read it again, and then finally appreciate it. Aesthetically innovative or not, excessively “fantastical” or not, his books are admirable in that respect at least.

30 October, 2011

Legalism in America and a few of its Ramifications

I'm not going to start ranting about the woes of the American legal system; I think it's pretty good, that the level of professionalism of those involved in genuine criminal cases is generally good and that things like what happened over in Italy to Amanda Knox (basically a case of police officers saying "we knew she did it...we didn't need any proof" and then fabricating some extremely bad "evidence" and a lurid, sensationalist story that captured the imaginations of the jury) don't happen too often here. Sure, there are injustices in US criminal cases, but people are human, right? Can't condemn the system for a few peoples' abuses.

That's criminal law though. I mean, for violent crimes and such--I don't know all the technical terminology. What gets to me in America, however, is the legalism of the system, a trait which allows people to be made into criminals for really doing nothing at all. The extremely problematic and well-known litigiousness of  many Americans can essentially be reduced to people exploiting the letter of the law in order to make huge profits for themselves. Possibly worse though is the way civic liberties can be violated (especially in public schools) simply because there's a legal loophole giving paranoid, antagonistic, or simply lazy officials or private individuals the opportunity to target individuals who have done nothing morally wrong at all--or in some cases something minorly wrong, but certainly not meriting the severity of the punishment.

Some examples from the past few years:

  1. TSA: Everyone knows about this one. Not quite the same issue that I'm pointing to in this post, but annoying enough to merit a mention. Even if everyone out there has heard all the proof. Let's also point out that what it has in common with the above is the way it makes non-criminals appear criminal. Every person who chooses to travel by plane is a suspected terrorist. Right. What would the reaction be if the police force started treating everyone as a murder suspect? Searching, strip-searching and questioning and so forth just because "oh, well, you might be a criminal."? Sounds a little bit totalitarian, no? And what makes it worse is that TSA tactics really don't even work:
    1. The no-fly list:  This wouldn't be a bad idea--it would actually be extremely efficient if Israel's record is anything to go by--if we had the intelligence to back it up. As it is, naming dead people, ex-Marines, and failing to distinguish between actual suspects and five-year-olds who have the same name is not going to get you very far. It notably failed to mention the "Underwear bomber," Abdulmutallab, whose father even contacted US intelligence officials twice to warn them about his son's extremism. Faisal Shahzad, who attempted the car bombing in NYC, was actually on the no-fly list, but no one at the airport bothered to check it. Lot of good that's going to do. 
    2. Full body scanners: A.) they don't work; B.) they don't work; C.) according to Israeli security experts, they don't work; D.) while it is debatable how much harm the radiation you're exposed to in one of those machines does to the human person, I, and I assume many others as well, would like a little more reassurance that our health isn't one of the many things that can be sacrificed so that we don't die in a terrorist attack. Hmm...terrorism or cancer? Which one is more scary? Which is more likely? Regardless of whether it's unproven that the scanners do cause health problems, it's importantly unproven that they don't. Like with so many other things we've been exposing the American population to for years, we probably won't know until at least two decades from now. 
    3. Alternative searches are just nasty. And if a terrorist can dupe the scanners, which of them is going to opt for one of those anyway?
  2.   Schools--the "Zero Tolerance" policy: Sure, violence in schools is bad. Tragic. But is it really better to run your school in a state of such paranoia that students can be arrested and traumatized for carrying a plastic butter knife? And the police force will just go along with this? 
    1. Some examples: Wow, yes, I definitely would be able to kill an entire school with a plastic butter knife. At least a steak knife is more plausible. Though what a ten-year-old girl could do with it, I'm not sure.  Carrying 11 pills of ibuprofen to school is also apparently a criminal offense. Americans also really like strip searching, it seems! This sample is small because I don't want to go overboard with links.  Search google news to get lots more interesting stories. 
    2. Creative writing. This one deserves a sub-category of it's own. Yes, it sounds like a great idea to give your students a free-writing exercise, tell them to write about whatever they want, not to censor anything, and then have them arrested when their writing is "disturbing." Or wait...maybe the real purpose was to try to identify potential threats...in which case it makes a lot of sense. It's happened at least three times: one; two; three. 
  3. Stupid laws: So, did you know that you can be arrested for owning a sharpie? Like this student and this man?  Ok, sure, the man was an ex-graffiti artist, and I don't like graffiti. But the key work is "ex". He had since become a professional artist. Using.... markers, stickers, wheatpaste posters, art prints, a copy of  the Los Angeles Times, and a computer. Which is apparently enough to get you raided. Or how about ridiculous royalties? Like when Ascap started demanding that the Girl Scouts pay for singing campfire songs...apparently that's considered a public performance. Given the quality of most campfire singing, you can be pretty sure that they're not worried about the public performance issue so much as missing out on a chance to squeeze a few more bucks out of people.  Watch out if you decide to sing Happy Birthday in public...that's copyrighted too, so technically you can only sing it in "small groups of family members".
  4. This last one is tragic. I don't really understand what this Northern Virginia cop was trying to accomplish, but the way things went makes him sound either like a real-life, not-so-funny Dwight Schrute, or someone pursuing a personal vendetta. Basically, he heard this guy, Sal Culosi, betting with his friends on a college football game while at a bar. The stakes were relatively low; on the order of about $50 or so. What was the detective's response? Befriend Culosi, talk him over the course of time into raising the stakes to $2000, and then bring charges against him for running an "illegal gambling operation" (the stakes need to be at least $2000 for it to become illegal). So you have a detective seeing a guy doing something harmless and legal with his friends. The detective deliberately incites the man to cross the line and do something illegal (which the man most likely didn't even know was illegal--who knows stuff like that?), just so he can bring charges against him. Not already bad enough? He has the house raided by a Swat team. In the process of the raid he shoots Culosi. Culosi was completely unarmed by all accounts; what's saving the detective from prosecution is the claim that the shooting was an "accident"--plus the North Virginian blue wall, which is apparently as bad as I've been told it is in NY. Forensic investigation suggested that the account of the "accident" is untenable. But we don't listen to things like that, do we? Not when the guy who got shot was a dangerous criminal who liked betting on football games with his friends...Come on people, what is this? Are the blue laws back or something? And I still don't understand how the inciting thing is not a problem. Generally it would be pretty bad for a police officer or detective to go up to someone he suspected of violent tendencies and incite them to murder, just so he could have an excuse for arresting them. Or am I crazy?
Now, as much as incidents like these upset me, I have no idea how to respond to them, beyond observing that they have in common a certain legalism that makes random people into unintentional criminals. Identifying the roots and suggesting a solution is far beyond my capacities, since I have no professional knowledge of law at all. Is the root problem inherent in the legal system itself? Is it the fault of the way people manipulate the legal system? Is it due to the contemporary American weakness for "safety at all costs" (very destructive of freedom, to be sure), or more to our increasing tendency to substitute legality for morality, to live by the letter of the law and not by the spirit? And regarding that last suggestion, could one even turn the focus to the "spirit of the law" without ultimately destroying law and order unless society were almost impossibly virtuous?

On the other hand, I'm well aware that it's things like this, the "sensational" cases, that get reported, giving the general public a much bleaker view of the legal system than is probably appropriate. Moreover, these student arrests and Ascap demands don't usually hold up in court. Which is a comfort. The injustices that get perpetrated by the legal system in the long term tend to be the much more tolerable ones that exonerate someone who's obviously guilty ( O.J., Casey Anthony) rather than those which inter an innocent person for four years, like they can apparently do in Italy.

Problems with Writing

The problem with keeping a blog is that there's so much to write about. And choosing between topics can become so overwhelming that one just doesn't write at all. And then there's the fact that if I'm not at the computer, thinking with the keyboard, so to speak, I'm probably not going to write anything out at all. I've been figuring out recently that I really do write primarily to clarify my own thoughts. And so, suppose I have some really interesting idea about the relationship between the dream-world neoplatonism of the symbolists and the French reaction against naturalism...well, it's most likely that I'll have thought about it to my heart's content while attending lecture, or in between class, or on the fifty-minute tram ride back to my apartment. At that point, why write it down? It's become rather boring, and there are plenty of new things to read and think about. Writing would be (or so it seems in that state) superfluous, almost a waste of time.

There's another problem too. One that usually interferes with my intentions to write a "series", such as my so-far two part discussion of the development of European nationalism. Unless one writes out all the parts very quickly, one will almost inevitably read, hear, or think of something that complicates the predicted thesis. Such as Turkey. Or the Middle East in general. Now I really, really, really want to talk about Arab Spring in relation to the birth of nationalism, but I have to reluctantly admit that currently I know very little about the area's historical background. You know, Ottoman Empire, but not much more. So I'll have to confine myself to making oblique references suggesting connections and/or differences between what's going on there and what happened in the mid-1800s in eastern Europe.

On the other hand, I'm encouraged to start up that series again by the fact that all of my suppositions about the development of nationalism in France and England were 100% supported by the most recent lecture I attended. So I feel as though I'm somewhere near the right track, at least.

Now though, I'd rather give a few travel updates for those of my relatives who are actually probably a lot more interested in what I'm doing than in questions of the nature of the nation-state. And then perhaps finally answer Joseph's question at Ironical Coincidings--something I've been putting off along with the rest of my blogging for a few days. (Yay for long and boring IR readings! --Not Irving Renaissance...international relations.)

24 October, 2011

On Friendship

This article, another from the Stanford Enclyclopedia of Philosophy, is worth a read. Friendship is one of those things that Americans seem to have a terrible time understanding. The media portrayal of friendships is weak, to state matters kindly. (I'm about to generalize unabashedly, but here goes.) If friendship is portrayed at all in the movies, you can count on its being: 1.) in a comedy--how many times do close friendships actually matter, if they appear at all, in drama? 2.) of the following varieties:
  1. the female "best friend" who either exists only to support the main character (friendship of utility? usually seems so)
  2. the female "best friend who suddenly becomes worst enemy"-again, one suspects that the "friendship" the two characters had was only ever a friendship of utility, given how quickly it dissolves and how reluctant each one is to make any compromises that would affect her own self-interest
  3. the male "best friend" who is almost universally a bumbling idiot, and who seems to exist only to spur the main character on to ever more extreme acts of bumbling idiocy.
  4. the sidekick: sometimes a comedy figure, sometimes an action movie character: occurs in three major types: yes-man, comic relief, or slightly-inferior-to-the-main-character fighter.
 In all four types, whatever sappy message may be stuck on the end of some of the comedies about "the real meaning of friendship", the message of the story (so often different from that sappy closing message, which is probably why that latter seems so very sappy) is that friendship is a combination of Aristotle's friendship-for-pleasure (I have fun with them) and friendship-of-utility (I can use this person to get something for myself). Both are deficient forms of friendship in which the self comes before the other. The difficulty is that in a culture of instant gratification, it's hard to comprehend of an attachment to another that is based upon concern for that other's well being, and their similarly unselfish concern for yours. (The degree to which a more long-term type of "wise" self-interest comes into that sort of friendship is one that philosophers may well debate, but which I am inclined to believe will vary depending of the characters of the people involved.)

Which, then, leads right into the observation that friendship, as well as all other types of human relationships (parent-child, husband-wife, sibling-sibling, etc) are "hot topics" in popular media to the extent that they provide the filmmakers/songwriters/etc to talk about sex. Human sexuality is the very opposite of a bad thing (see Pope John Paul, in case you're one of the very few people reading this blog who might be unaware of the Theology of the Body). But a culture that singles that out as the only real indicator of the value of human relationships is missing not only a huge range of human emotion, but the crux of what makes sexuality itself important.

Sex is something you can "get," as is more than obvious from contemporary slang. And in an obsessively consumerist culture, everything revolves around this notion of "getting"--whether it be things, "likes" on facebook, "views" of profiles, or sex. But that obsession in turn makes it very difficult, if not eventually impossible--and again, this is no matter how many times we've heard the unconvincing platitudes at the ends of movies--to conceive of a relationship based on giving. Look again at that list of "friend-types" above. What do they all have in common? They all get the main character something:  the trusty side-kick who helps the action hero win again (and who makes him look good by virtue of those slightly inferior skills); the comic side-kick, who again, makes the hero look good in comparison--usually for the benefit of the romantic interest; the female best friend is usually "best" insofar as she helps the lead to "get" the guy; the "worst enemy" usually becomes such because the two have become rivals for the same guy. You get the picture.

The ability to direct one's attention outwards, toward others and their interests, is crucial to maintaining friendships, family relationships, and, yes, even marriage--because it doesn't stop at the wedding, whatever the traditional rom-com story arc would make us think. And until you have a culture that recognizes that, it's likely that deep friendship in media will be confined to the margins of Indie films. The disturbing thing is that our culture is to such a large extent formed by the media that even in the most counter-cultural of venues (my undergraduate institution, and others about which I've heard stories) it is perhaps a rarer thing and more vulnerable to the ups and downs of self-interested "drama" than could be hoped.

I do have one last comment that is unrelated to the rest of the post: the discussion of the "Shared activity" criterion for friendship is particularly interesting now, when the internet is making communication over long distances increasingly easy. One wonders about the possibility of sustaining old friendships via email, facebook, even (still) letter writing. What is the sort of "shared activity" that would allow this to be the case? Talking is obviously the primary one, but when looking at the origins of friendships, they tend to come about through a much more concrete shared experience--of going to similar classes or spending free time together, or even sharing a rather unpleasant experience (like, oh, maybe getting stuck without a flight in Barcelona and needing to be in Rome by the next day). And they are strengthened by further experiences like these more than they are by, say, just sitting around and talking. Is the ability share pictures, reminisce, chat, skype, even--via status updates and such--share vicariously in a friend's day, enough to sustain a deep friendship over thousands of miles and several years? Not really sure about that one. Probably depends largely, as so many things do, on individual determination.

Update:  Here's a quote that actually addresses my above question, though it doesn't answer it, of course. It's helpful to include "moral and intellectual activities" in the "shared activities" category. They certainly continue to be valid over a distance, though there's still the question of to what extent the absent friend can continue to be as influential in encouraging these--one of the many, many possible pitfalls of social media's facilitation of the temptation to create a fictional, "better" self.

"Cooper's Aristotle claims that the sort of shared activity characteristic of friendship is essential to one's being able engage in the sort of activities characteristic of living well “continuously” and “with pleasure and interest” (310). Such activities include moral and intellectual activities, activities in which it is often difficult to sustain interest without being tempted to act otherwise. Friendship, and the shared values and shared activities it essentially involves, is needed to reinforce our intellectual and practical understanding of such activities as worthwhile in spite of their difficulty and the ever present possibility that our interest in pursuing them will flag. Consequently, the shared activity of friendship is partly constitutive of human flourishing."

23 October, 2011

Between Empire and Anarchy: In Current Events

Not part of my original plan for this rather informal series, but I just came across this article from Foreign Policy magazine, and thought it deserved posting. It's disturbing, if not at all unexpected, to see violence against Christians and other non-Islamist minorities on the rise in the Middle East during all the recent turmoil. It's not like it hasn't been happening in Iraq for years. But what's interesting in the article with respect to the question of Empire vs. Anarchy is pretty obvious: Traub gives a bit of overview of the situation's historical background. The line of "progress" since the 1800s has essentially been from  the weakening of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of nationalism, and now to what is essentially anarchy (or at least very disorganized civil war) in much of the Middle East. Nationalism is still strong in the area, as one can see in countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc. But the problem, not the first of its kind in history, but particularly widespread today, is that "nationalism" becomes sectarianism and sects break up into smaller sects and suddenly you have a madhouse with everyone fighting for power.

I'm inclined to think that to some extent this is always a danger with nationalism. People unite into a "nation" and then begin to question whether they all really belong to it or if say, this branch of that ethnic group can really ever "belong". What I'm getting at is the idea that within the nationalist impulse, or rather, the nation-creating impulse (since nationalism in countries that already have a strong sense of national identity is, rather obviously, a different affair), can easily slip into the impulse to keep dividing and dividing along ever-finer political, ethnic, religious, etc lines. And eventually you have anarchy. Which, certainly, is not necessarily violent. But you have only to look at the Middle East (or Africa, or parts of Eastern Europe, or parts of South America, some further back in history than others) to see that violence is far too often both the means and the result of this infinite splintering.

22 October, 2011

Existentialism and Materialism--a few preminary notes

These paragraphs on existentialism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are quite interesting. Rather pertinent to my investigation of the links between materialism and existentialism, those being the intellectual-historical bookends, so to speak, of the fascinating series of highly neo-Platonic or Aristotelean intellectual movements from Romanticism to Modernism. (Yes, I'm very aware that materialism/scientific rationalism was also contemporary with all the movements from Romanticism to Modernism, but I'm considering it as most importantly a "predecessor" to all of them, since all of those movements can essentially be reduced to different ways of responding to materialism.) The last sentence is particularly relevant to my investigations along these lines.

"Sartre's slogan—“existence precedes essence”—may serve to introduce what is most distinctive of existentialism, namely, the idea that no general, non-formal account of what it means to be human can be given, since that meaning is decided in and through existing itself. Existence is “self-making-in-a-situation” (Fackenheim 1961:37). In contrast to other entities, whose essential properties are fixed by the kind of entities they are, what is essential to a human being—what makes her who she is—is not fixed by her type but by what she makes of herself, who she becomes. The fundamental contribution of existential thought lies in the idea that one's identity is constituted neither by nature nor by culture, since to “exist” is precisely to constitute such an identity. It is in light of this idea that key existential notions such as facticity, transcendence (project), alienation, and authenticity must be understood.
At first, it seems hard to understand how one can say much about existence as such. Traditionally, philosophers have connected the concept of existence with that of essence in such a way that the former signifies merely the instantiation of the latter. If “essence” designates what a thing is and “existence” that it is, it follows that what is intelligible about any given thing, what can be thought about it, will belong to its essence. It is from essence in this sense—say, human being as rational animal or imago Dei—that ancient philosophy drew its prescriptions for an individual's way of life, its estimation of the meaning and value of existence. Having an essence meant that human beings could be placed within a larger whole, a kosmos, that provided the standard for human flourishing. Modern philosophy retained this framework even as it abandoned the idea of a “natural place” for man in the face of the scientific picture of an infinite, labyrinthine universe. In what looks like a proto-existential move, Descartes rejected the traditional essential definitions of man in favor of a radical, first-person reflection on his own existence, the “I am.” Nevertheless, he quickly reinstated the old model by characterizing his existence as that of a substance determined by an essential property, “thinking.” In contrast, Heidegger proposes that “I” am “an entity whose what [essence] is precisely to be and nothing but to be” (Heidegger 1985:110; 1962:67). Such an entity's existing cannot, therefore, be thought as the instantiation of an essence, and consequently what it means to be such an entity cannot be determined by appeal to pre-given frameworks or systems—whether scientific, historical, or philosophical."

21 October, 2011

Between Empire and Anarchy, part I: the birth of the Nation-state in France and England

In America, we tend to be rightly suspicious of both emperors and anarchists. Empires make us, consciously or not, remember Great Britain and our struggle for independence. Anarchy was the bogeyman of the Founding Fathers; fear of chaos and the Hobbsean state of nature motivated the writing of the Federalist Papers; it encouraged the North go to war in the 1860s. Honestly, whatever end of the political spectrum you come from, it's pretty easy to agree that both these alternatives are undesirable. I mean, sure, there are extremists on both sides, but your average person won't be in agreement with them.

What's fairly interesting, then, particularly in the context of the History of Eastern Europe class I'm taking currently, is to watch the rather delicate play between the two extremes as the concept of nationhood enters the cultural consciousness of Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. To be more accurate, I should note that the concept of Nationhood was already strong in England and France. But by the 1800s, that had been developing for almost 400 years in those two countries.

Actually, I'm going to allow myself to be sidetracked from the topic of Eastern Europe for a while to give a brief overview of that development, since it's interesting, and what's more, it helps to clarify what precisely is so different about conceiving of oneself as belonging to a nation--despite the fact that these two developed into nations by uniting somewhat disparate social/cultural entities whereas the nascent nationalism of Eastern European cultures tended to be a movement of separation from a larger, monolithic empire. From my perspective, which I believe is a fairly orthodox one in this regard, the concept of nationalism in both Britain and France has its roots in the Hundred Years War of 1337-1453, but more specifically in the Lancastrian (for Britain) and post-Jeanne d'Arc (for France) phases which occurred around 1415-1429 and 1429-1453 respectively.

Since Americans (if they are lucky) generally only know Shakespeare's version of the war, which pretty much involves Merry Old England as the Hummer rolling over the French barricade of sticks, let me point out that the war was A.) essentially a stalemate for about 85 years, and B.) it was more of a feudal quarrel for most of this time than anything: many whom we would today consider "ethnic" Englishmen had holdings in France and were fighting on the side of the French, and "ethnic" Frenchmen with lands in certain places were fighting on the "side" of the English--if you can even call them "sides" per se, given how fluid the divide was. In other words, France, insofar as it existed, was evenly matched with England, insofar as that existed. Things began to change when Henry V came to the throne (and of course, if you were to talk to the English, Henry V was the Hundred Years War). Not satisfied, like his predecessors, with conducting an interminable struggle for a bit of feudal land, Henry was determined to Be King. Of everything. Even if it meant breaking French inheritance laws--because of course, the fellow had no legal  right whatsoever to the French throne; just a lot of hubris and a talent for military things. He went ahead and defied the Pope's ban on longbows (oh wait, that's right, that's why the French weren't using longbows...not because they were stupid, because you could be excommunicated for it [note: most people will claim that this was only the case for crossbows, but if you read an actual history book, rather than just the internet, that misperception is corrected. Cf. for instance Joseph Priestly's General History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2]; also note that the charge up the hill at Agincourt was not as stupid as it sounds, because the plate armour of the French knights really couldn't be penetrated by longbow arrows. Which claim is borne out by the fact that the best-armoured knights in the front lines actually had a high survival rate; the problem came when the unforeseen rainstorm caused their horses to get bogged down and they couldn't advance and take care of the archers--essentially unopposed, the English archers were then able to slaughter the less-well-defended French common soldiers.). He had the strength of personality to unify the rather fractious, individualistic English nobles, and the intelligence (as Bismarck and other nation-creators after him would) to realize that finding a common enemy is the best way to preserve unity under a single ruling authority. The next step was to assert his legitimacy by allying himself with various European powers, the most important of whom was the Duke of Burgundy, who, being a fractious noble himself, was quite happy help prevent the French king from gaining the same kind of power over his vassals. After winning several dramatic victories, Henry went ahead and tried (again) to legitimize his claim to the throne by marrying the king's daughter and forcing the king (who was insane, incidentally) to disinherit the Dauphin. The idea being that Henry's heirs would inherit France, which is still illegal, because French law did not allow inheritance through the female line...one of those things having its roots in too many early medieval civil wars. The illegality was compounded by the fact that the Dauphin (eventually Charles VII) wasn't really illegitimate.

So on the English side we see the emergence of a single strong leader, the unification of often-divided vassals in a newly-mythologized struggle against a common enemy, and corresponding phenomenal success. What was going on in France? Well, after Charles V, who was actually quite successful during the earlier stages of the war, even if he was still conducting it like a feudal conflict, died, his son Charles VI inherited. Which makes the latter's reign about concurrent with that of Henry. In sharp contrast to Henry, however, Charles VI was anything but a strong leader capable of unifying feudal France and presenting a serious threat to Henry's endeavors...I mean, really, the fellow was legitimately insane. So insane that from he would spend days believing he was made of glass and taking precautions to prevent himself from breaking. The strongest of the nobles were in either partial or all-out rebellion throughout much of his reign, among them the Duke of Burgundy, (of course), the Duke of Berry, and the Duke of Orléans. As we've already seen, the lack of unity among the nobles made it easy for Henry V to court the alliance of the Duke of Burgundy. And the rest of this stage of the struggle was carried on essentially without any single authority directing the French armies, and in the face of an enemy that was very much on the same page and who had their hearts (thanks to Henry's inspiration) set on a concrete, undisputed goal.

Charles the Mad died in 1422 and there was chaos in France for seven years as the very young Dauphin tentatively claimed the throne, not even sure himself any more whether he was his father's son.

And lo God hath sent His messengers to a thirteen-year-old girl, saying: "These English are getting too big for their britches, and their habit of using longbows just isn't fair. Plus they're all gonna go Protestant in a generation or two and if French universities become English universities, where are the English going to get their Jesuit martyrs from? And I don't think the world wants to have to put up with the Royaume-Uni of Angleterre. There are some things I just can't let happen." So, when she was seventeen (seventeen!), she sneaked away from home, picked the Dauphin out of a crowd despite his being in disguise, assured him that he was legitimate, and inspired an exhausted army to an enthusiastic defense of France. And against all odds, they won. Drove the nasty English right out.

Of course, a lot more was involved with bringing both countries to the point of being modern nation-states. Each one would experience a Golden Age during which its wealth would increase enormously and its influence spread throughout the known world, and for both this age would be centered on the reign of a particularly strong, charismatic, intelligent monarch whose foremost political concern was to make England more English and France more French--think Elizabeth I and Louis XIV.

But the background of the Hundred Years War is crucial. Its historical events show how the nation is born: it requires a leadership strong enough to transcend internal divisions and to turn individuals loosely connected by geography and (perhaps) by language into a people. Moreover, the war was for both nations a defining moment of that "common past which was to reflect the common destiny " (as Miroslav Hroch puts it) of the people. Strong leadership can only get a country so far; it's dependent upon the availability of leaders, who are usually only around for a relatively brief time. It's what the leaders lead the people to do that makes the average person identify himself as French or English or any other nationality: it's the common history that is developed and that pours over into arts and folklore and culture. So you have Shakespeare and his "histories" telling the English what makes them English; you have the memory of Jeanne d'Arc, her rehabilitation, her beatification, her canonization reminding Frenchmen right up through the 20th century of what it "means"  to be French. And once it starts this cultural self-identification is addictive. You have the English looking back to find out more about who they are and what unites them into a single people: they rediscover (and exaggerate) the Saxons' struggle with the Normans, the Britons' struggle with the Romans, and so on. The French do the same and find Charlemagne, The Song of Roland, the crusaders, Louis IX, the old title of "Defender of the Church".

One can find countless more examples of this national self-discovery, and much could be said about the way that the "Glorious" monarchs Elizabeth and Louis would manipulate this national image in order to drive the people to a new ideal of "greatness". But that would take ages. And this serves well enough as a model and point of comparison for the next part of my discussion, which will look at how the nations of Eastern Europe would follow (or depart from) the British and French models during the 1800s.

20 October, 2011

A note on the Phenomenon of Civil War

As distinct from the American Civil War, but very much related to it. This is a short passage from one of the texts I'm reading for my Security Studies and Conflict Analysis class, and it's a nice theoretical expression of one of the points I've been trying to make regarding the American Civil War; essentially that war in general, here civil war, is a much more complicated affair than, say, an evil, greedy North trying to destroy the beautiful way of life that was the South.

In "The Ontology of Political Violence" Stathis Kalyvas argues:

"Civil wars are typically described as binary conflicts, classified and understood on the basis of what is perceived to be their overarching issue dimension or cleavage: we thus speak of ideological, ethnic, religious, or class wars. Likewise, we label political actors in ethnic civil wars as ethnic actors, the violence of ethnic wars as ethnic violence, and so on. Yet such characterization turns out to be trickier than anticipated, because civil wars usually entail a perplexing combination of identities and actions.
Consider the following description of the American War of Independence in South Carolina: “There came with the true patriots a host of false friends and plunderers. And this was true of both sides in this terrible struggle. The outlaw Whig and the outlaw Tory, or rather the outlaws who were pretended Whigs and Tories as the occasion served, were laying waste the country almost as much as those who were fighting for the one side or the other.” Years later, Abraham Lincoln described the Civil War in the American West as a situation in which “murders for old grudges, and murders for pelf, proceed under any cloak that will best cover for the occasion.”
The Chinese Civil War was often fought by diverse and shifting coalitions of bandits and local militias; for a long time, the Communists were for the bandits “only one of several possible allies or temporary patrons.” In Manchuria, for instance, it was extremely difficult to differentiate between members of the Anti-Japanese Resistance and bandits because moving from one to another was very common: it is estimated that 140,000 of a total 300,000 resistance members had a bandit background. Common criminals were also used extensively during the Cultural Revolution. The determinants of violence in the province of Antioquia during the Colombian Violencia were “far more complex than any innate, unavoidable differences between monolithic groups of Liberals and Conservatives—the traditional explanation for la Violencia—might suggest”; in fact, “the point of la Violencia, even in supposed areas of ‘traditional settlement’ where partisan objectives were the guiding force behind armed insurrection, is that it was multifaceted and ambiguous, that politics and economic considerations can never be considered as discrete forces."
In short, ambiguity is endemic to civil wars; this turns their characterization into a quest for an ever-deeper “real” nature, presumably hidden underneath misleading facades—an exercise akin to uncovering Russian dolls. Thus, it is often argued that religious wars are really about class, or class wars are really about ethnicity, or ethnic wars are only about greed and looting, and so on. The difficulty of characterizing civil wars is a conceptual problem rather than one of measurement. If anything, the more detailed the facts, the bigger the difficulty in establishing the “true” motives and issues on the ground, as Paul Brass has nicely shown in the case of ethnic riots in India. An alternative is to recognize, instead, that the motives underlying action in civil war are inherently complex and ambiguous."

18 October, 2011

Apollinaire Again

Happened upon the guy's tomb while wandering around Paris. It was in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where  dozens of famous people are buried.

12 October, 2011

And speaking of Apollinaire...

Incidentally, Apollinaire's pictorial poems rarely consisted of just the "concrete" (shaped) part, though from the way they're described and quoted, you'd think the shaped part of the poem was the whole thing. For instance, the concrete poem below that begins "Tant d'explosifs sur le point..." is actually itself only the opening of  a longer poem called "Du coton dans les oreilles" (something like "cotton in your ears"). Much of the poem is fairly conventional in form, if still difficult. He continues to explore the possibilities that print offers to verse by, say, using larger font to signify "words" of the bugle call, or by surrounding the words "Les cenobites tranquilles" with a sort of frame, as though what the dugout is called informally among the soldiers were a physical label. 

On the whole, the concrete poems are much easier to understand in context, so it's a bit annoying that on Wikipedia (of course) and such those parts are presented on their own, as though each were the entirety of the poem in which it's found.

It's also annoying that if he's known in English at all it's as "the concrete poems guy" when he also wrote many very traditionally-formed poems (though again, they are difficult). In fact, I get the impression (though I haven't counted)  that these are actually the majority in Calligrammes. 

 Here's a lovely example of one of these more traditional ones. The assonance and gentleness of the rhyme are features almost un-reproduceable in English; only Frost and Wilbur really come close.

Un oiseau chante

    Un oiseau chante ne sais où
    C'est je crois ton âme qui veille
    Parmi tous les soldats d'un sou
    Et l'oiseau charme mon oreille

    Écoute il chante tendrement
    Je ne sais pas sur quelle branche
    Et partout il va me charmant
    Nuit et jour semaine et dimanche

    Mais que dire de cet oiseau
    Que dire des métamorphoses
    De l'âme en chant dans l'arbrisseau
    Du cœur en ciel du ciel en roses

    L'oiseau des soldats c'est l'amour
    Et mon amour c'est une fille
    La rose est moins parfaite et pour
    Moi seul l'oiseau bleu s'égosille

    Oiseau bleu comme le cœur bleu
    De mon amour au cœur céleste
    Ton chant si doux répète-le
    À la mitrailleuse funeste

    Qui chaque à l'horizon et puis
    Sont-ce les astres que l'on sème
    Ainsi vont les jours et les nuits
    Amour bleu comme est le cœur même

11 October, 2011

Trench poetry: another approach

One of the poets who's vaguely (very vaguely) associated with the French symbolist movement, Guillaume Apollinaire, had a rather different approach to trench poetry. (He died at the end of the war, from a combination of wounds and influenza.) He, unlike many trench poets, was a professional writer very much at  the forefront of technical experimentation. Like Mallarmé (that most symbolist of symbolists), he was fascinated by the materiality of language, by the question of what new horizons are opened to poetry by the fact that it's now something primarily encountered on the page. That's a change tacitly recognized by the development of free verse, in which line breaks become something seen more than heard. But he really pushes the limits of the "poetry as visual art" in his Calligrammes, in which he's playing with spatial relationships of words and the possibility of reading poems along multiple axes: usually there is one "direction" you can follow in order to get a fairly grammatically cohesive poem, but the mid-word line breaks or alignments of grammatically-separated words spatially side-by-side compels the reader to consider every element constituting the poem with renewed attention. It's certainly--though I've by no means devoted much attention to Apollinaire's work--another way of being "difficult" in the Modernist sense. The poems that directly refer to the war, such as the ones below (really, most of Calligrammes) also feature that secondary type of difficulty associated with the "derangement of the senses" (as Rimbaud would have put it) and disillusionment with a government that seems less sympathetic than the allemand in the opposing trenches.

Incidentally, Guillaume Apollinaire lived in Belgium for a while as a young man. Long enough to master the Wallonian dialect and write a few poems in it. Rather neat.