Edmund Wilson on Marxism


I have just re-read, for the first time in decades, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station — which, it appears, NYRB Classics has allowed to go out of print, which is nearly a tragedy. It is a truly remarkable book — it is difficult to imagine anyone of our own time (least of all a journalist) handling ideas with such assurance and such verve, seeing in them the kind of drama that we typically associate with action heroes. The structure, the pacing, the style — all are superb. Perhaps the best thing about the book is how it centers itself on Karl Marx himself, bookended by predecessors (Proudhon, Robert Owen) and successors (Lenin, Trotsky). As a portrait of Marx it has not, to my knowledge, been equalled.

Wilson’s Freudianism, though essentially wrong, is actually quite helpful to him in understanding the Marxists, because, as he rightly points out, the great deficiency of most Marxist analyses of society is their oversimplified picture of human motivation. There’s even a passage where Wilson seems to be anticipating the rise of modern behavioral psychology and especially the role it plays in understanding of economic behavior. ”Prices are the results of situations much more complex than any of these formulas, and complicated by psychological factors which economists seldom take into account.… Let us note the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx. It is the shortcoming of economists in general that each one understands as a rule only one or two human motivations; psychology and economics have never yet got together in such a way as really to supplement one another” (294, 295).

On the psychology of Marx himself Wilson is especially acute. After tracing Marx’s lifelong near-poverty, and his struggles to provide for his family, and his embarrassment when one of his daughters had to hire herself out as a governess, and his constant dependence on his friend Engels to keep the Marxes out of the poor house — Engels, who worked as a manager in a factory owned by his arch-capitalist father — Wilson writes:

Such is the trauma of which the anguish and the defiance reverberate through Das Kapital. To point it out is not to detract from the authority of Marx’s work. On the contrary, in history as in other fields of writing, the importance of a book depends, not merely on the breadth of the view and the amount of information that has gone into it, but on the depths from which it has been drawn. The great crucial books of human thought – outside what are called the exact sciences, and perhaps something of the sort is true even here – always render articulate the results of fundamental new experiences to which human beings have had to adjust to themselves. Das Kapital is such a book. Marx has found in his personal experience the key to the larger experience of society, and identifies himself with that society. His trauma reflects itself in Das Kapital as the trauma of mankind under industrialism; and only so sore and angry a spirit, so ill at ease in the world, could have recognized and seen into the causes of the wholesale mutilation of humanity, the grand collisions, the uncomprehended convulsions, to which that age of great profits was doomed. (311-312) 

That is an extraordinarily rich and provocative reflection.

One final point, only tangential to Wilson’s narrative: he is also very good on the ways in which a conviction that one is on “the right side of history” compromises one’s ethics:

History, then, is a being with a definite point of view in any given period. It has a morality which admits of no appeal and which decrees that the exterminators of the Commune shall be regarded as wrong forever. Knowing best – knowing, that is, that we are right – we may allow ourselves to exaggerate and simplify. At such a moment the Marxism of Marx himself — and how much more often and more widely in the case of his less scrupulous disciples — departs from the rigorous method proposed by “scientific socialism.” (283)

Yep. I see it every day.

empire and critique

Many years ago I wrote an essay on the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in which I looked at what I believed to be a neglected element of his novels: their critique of the Igbo society they describe. 
One of the most-quoted passages in his work comes from his autobiographical essay, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” because it is there that he describes his discovery of his literary calling: “At the university I read some appalling novels about Africa (including Joyce Cary’s much praised Mister Johnson) and decided that the story we had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else no matter how gifted or well intentioned.” And so he was set upon a path: “Although I did not set about it consciously in that solemn way, I now know that my first book, Things Fall Apart, was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son.” 
But Achebe was a prodigal who had not really chosen to walk apart from his people: that choice was made by his father, who had become a Christian as a young man and, with the zeal common to the new convert, set himself quite apart from the culture he had grown up in. (When Achebe was a boy his father forbade him to eat with non-Christians in their town.) Achebe may have decided to come back towards the world that his father had rejected, but he did not simply despise his father’s choice, and had a sympathetic understanding of what drove him to it. In Things Fall Apart, one of the characters, a boy named Nwoye, is a portrait of Achebe’s father, and he is drawn to Christianity because he sees it as offering an alternative to some of the practices of his society that seem to him cruel — for instance, the belief that twin babies are evil and must be left to die.
Achebe discusses this very matter in that same autobiographical essay, though this passage is almost never quoted: 

And in fairness we should add that there was more than naked opportunism in the defection of many to the new religion. For in some ways and in certain circumstances it stood firmly on the side of humane behavior. It said, for instance, that twins were not evil and must no longer be abandoned in the forest to die. Think what that would have done for that unhappy woman whose heart torn to shreds at every birth could now hold on precariously to a new hope. 

Achebe wants to honor the integrity and the beauty of the culture his father set himself against — but not at the price of denying or even obscuring its flaws. This is a particularly powerful theme in Arrow of God, which I believe to be the best of Achebe’s novels, where a priest and clan leader called Ezeulu insists that white Europeans have come to be dominant because they have not been resisted: 

Let me ask you one question. Who brought the white man here? Was it Ezeulu? . . . How many white men went in the party that destroyed Abame? Do you know? Five…. Five. Now have you ever heard that five people — even if their heads reached the sky — could overrun a whole clan? Impossible. With all their power and magic white men would not have overrun entire Olu and Igbo if we did not help them. Who showed them the way to Abame? They were not born there; how then did they find the way? We showed them and are still showing them. So let nobody come to me now and complain that the white man did this and did that. The man who brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit. 

Ezeulu is not wholly right about this — but he is not wholly wrong either, and Achebe shows quite clearly that the other clan leaders unwisely neglect his counsel — seeking their own individual prestige rather than the good of the clan as a whole — which furthers the division of the people. 
So that’s what my essay is about: Achebe as not just a celebrant but an interpreter and critic of Igbo traditional culture — his elevation of “humane behavior” as the standard by which the Igbo people and the English imperialists alike should be judged.
I had a lot of trouble getting it published. (Eventually it ended up in this book.) I sent it out to several journals, and each time the peer reviewers made more-or-less the same reply: You can’t say that. My argument, one claimed, is “profoundly offensive.” Another said that the world didn’t need another “justification of the colonial enterprise.” I thought to myself: I’m not saying these things about the flaws or blind spots of traditional Igbo culture, Achebe is saying them. But I suppose my sin was pointing out what any decent person would have passed over in discreet silence. 
I recalled this experience when I read this post by Nigel Biggar about the response he has received to his claim that the moral legacy of colonialism is a mixed one. Rhetorical Leninism once more: Biggar’s claim makes him indistinguishable from Cecil Rhodes or for that matter Colonel Reginald Dyer. One must deal in moral absolutes or be absolutely damned. But if we’re truly to learn from history we need to be able to see more than what our predecessors got wrong. Most human beings — and all cultures without exception — are mixed bags. Chinua Achebe understood that. 

Enough said on that. But another thing nags at me: I don’t understand why Biggar thought that the best response to his critics on social media was to report them to their bosses. I guess this is the New Normal — maybe especially in the U.K.? I saw a comment the other day (can’t remember who said it) that whenever anyone in the U.K. says something on Twitter that’s even slightly controversial someone else reports them to their local police: “Hey, this person obviously needs to be arrested.” But I don’t like it. And when well-established academics do it it’s far less seemly than when woke students try to call down administrators on noncompliant professors or fellow students. Trying to get someone in job trouble for incivility doesn’t seem very … civil. 

accommodation and perversion

I wrote recently that I see world-building in SF and fantasy as coming in two chief varieties, the speculative and the meticulous, and that those varieties offer different kinds of literary interest and pleasure. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea falls on the speculative end of the spectrum, Tolkien on the meticulous end. Here’s another binary: the accommodating and the perverse.

The distinction applies to all kinds of writing, but I think it especially evident in SF or fantasy or any other kind of writing that evades the constraints of standard-issue realistic fiction. The accommodating writer is one who is content to work within the common shapes of story, the expected arcs and structures of human tale-telling throughout history and across cultures, while the perverse writer suspects those arcs and structures and strives to avoid or subvert them when possible. (So when I recently called Adam Roberts “perverse” I was describing, not criticizing. I think Adam’s fiction is very usefully perverse.)

It strikes me that these two binaries may usefully be juxtaposed to each other. These are distinctions of degree, not kind, so some Cartesian plotting is required, thus:

I’m not sure that I’ve placed any of these texts with precision, but it’s a start. Most of them will be familiar to most of my readers, but perhaps not China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. I was tempted to identify Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series as strongly meticulous and strongly perverse but then decided that both of those designations are potentially misleading. I’ve also been re-reading Thomas Pynchon lately, and was tempted to mark Gravity’s Rainbow as strongly speculative and off-the-chart perverse, but that needs more thought also.

I’m happy to entertain any corrections or suggestions in the comments below.


Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (Wikimedia)

Suzanne Berne on Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by Viviane Forrester:

But it’s Leonard who gets dragged in front of the firing squad. Not only did he encourage Bell’s patronizing portrayal of Virginia; according to Forrester, he was also responsible for his wife’s only true psychotic episode, and probably helped usher her toward suicide. These accusations are fierce and emphatic: Leonard projected his own neuroses and his own frigidity onto Woolf (he had a horror of beginner sex and found most women’s bodies “extraordinarily ugly”). He married her strictly to get out of Ceylon, where he was in the British Foreign Service and where he had fallen into a suicidal depression. (He hated both the place and the position, though he pretended later to have thrown over a fabulous career for Virginia.) Without medical corroboration, he decreed that she was too unbalanced to have children, triggering her legendary mental breakdown immediately after their honeymoon. Then he held the threat of institutionalization over her, coercing her into a secluded country lifestyle that suited him but isolated and disheartened her, while using his marriage as entrée to an aristocratic, intellectual world that, as “a penniless Jew” from the professional class — just barely out of a shopkeeper’s apron — he could not have otherwise hoped to join.

This excerpt from Forrester’s book confirms Berne’s description of Forrester’s attack on Leonard Woolf.

When, in March of 1941, Woolf decided to take her own life, here is the heart-wrenching letter she left for Leonard:


I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

Forrester quotes that last line in her book (p. 203) and offers one line of commentary on it: “What was Virginia Woolf denied? Respect.”

What counts as denying someone respect? Offhand, I’d say that if I believed that I understood the emotional life and intimate relationships of a great artist I had never met, and who died before I came of age, better than she understood them herself … that would be denying her respect.

readerly triage

In the first five pages of The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters says that media are

  • “devices of information”
  • “agencies of order”
  • “constitutive parts of … our ecological and economic systems”
  • “vessels and environments”
  • “containers of possibility that anchor our existence”
  • “vehicles that carry and communicate meaning”
  • “the means by which meaning is communicated”
  • “infrastructures of data and control”
  • “enabling environments that provide habitats for diverse forms of life”
  • “civilizational ordering devices”

It’s obvious that these definitions, while sometimes complementary, are also sometimes fundamentally incompatible: a device that is also a vessel that is also an anchor….

So I set the book down and thought for a while. Then I picked it up again, and thumbed through it. I saw some pages about clocks and sundials, and some others about clouds (the clouds of the book’s title, I presume), and some others about Google. The pages on timekeeping looked good, but I’ve read a number of books about timekeeping already. I couldn’t tell, at a brief glance, about the others.

I looked at those opening pages again. Three possibilities presented themselves to me. The first is that Peters is a demanding, allusive writer who works not by some ploddingly systematic outline but rather by a Shandean association of ideas. The second is that he actually has a logical outline but prefers, either for aesthetic reasons or because he values esoteric writing, to obscure it and to allow his readers to figure out the structure for themselves. The third is that his thinking is simply disorganized and incoherent.

Some of the best books I have ever read — fiction and nonfiction alike — have been governed (or “governed”) by Shandean procedure: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; but that style demands a great deal of readers, and when it fails it fails catastrophically. I have been exhilarated by a few Shandean books; I have been infuriated by a great many that attempt that style without success. The same is true for works (Joyce’s Ulysses is the paradigmatic example) that are highly ordered but hide their organizational principles.

When you’re trying to decide what to read you do a (formal or informal) risk/reward analysis. You think about how much time and attention you’re being asked to invest in this text; you estimate the rewards you’re likely to get in a best-case and in a worst-case scenario. I did all that and put Peters’s book aside.

Mark Greif and Mrs. Turpin

I’ve written a review of Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man for Books and Culture, but it won’t appear for a few months. I think Greif has written a very important, deeply researched, extremely intelligent, and greatly flawed book. I want to take a few minutes here to expand on something I say in the review about its flaws but could not develop fully there.

There I write, “Greif’s belief that religion is on its way out leads him to be less than scrupulous in his research on Christian thinkers and writers, so in dealing with Christian intellectuals, he is never on firm ground — his knowledge is spotty and skimpy, and his readings of Flannery O’Connor are quite uninformed by the necessary theological context. But unlike many academics of our time, he understands that Christian writers matter to the discourse of man, and for this he deserves commendation.”

The culmination of Greif’s chapter on O’Connor is a reading of what may be her greatest story, “Revelation.” I am going to seriously spoil that story here, so if you haven’t read it, please do so before proceeding with this blog post.

Okay? All set?

The story narrates a series of revelations to one Mrs. Ruby Turpin, but here is the culminating one:

At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

About this passage Greif writes,

Now, one can read this as the usual O’Connor moment of grace or action of mercy. Even the just will have “their virtues … burned away” in the last judgment. I think, rather, the change here is that there are just people, unillusioned, dignified to the end. And even up to the last, order is maintained. “[A]ccountable as they had always been for good order” is simply not ironic; where other inversions obtain (“white-trash … clean,” “black niggers in white robes”), the ordinary righteous whites are straightforward and “on key.” 

From the option to turn readers away from the worry about man, O’Connor’s last major work turns back to a vision of social order that matters more in the climax of the story than the moment in which human vanity is burned away.

There’s no gentle way to put this: Greif has misunderstood this story about as badly as it is possible to misunderstand a story. And he misunderstands it because he simply doesn’t know the biblical and theological context.

Let’s start with Greif’s belief that Mrs. Turpin and people like here are “just” — that is, righteous — people. This is to accept her at her self-valuation, and the entire point of the story is to undermine, to destroy, that self-valuation. “Revelation” is straightforwardly and openly a midrash on, nearly a retelling of, Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. Just as the Pharisee cries out, “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican,” so Mrs. Turpin cries out,

“If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, “it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” she cried aloud. 

The book struck her directly over her left eye.

(In a stroke of comical over-explicitness, the book is thrown by a young woman named Mary Grace. Get it? Mary? Grace?) Like the Pharisee, Mrs. Turpin is utterly pleased with herself, satisfied in every respect, but justifies her self-satisfaction by casting it as gratitude towards God. Her constant mental theme, as she sits in the doctor’s waiting room, is her superiority to the “white-trash woman” who shares the waiting room with her. So one of the most laugh-out-loud funny but also morally incisive moments in the whole story comes when Mary Grace has been restrained and is being taken away to a hospital: “‘I thank Gawd,’ the white-trash woman said fervently, ‘I ain’t a lunatic.’”

In the sections on hope in the Summa — Flannery O’Connor’s standard nighttime reading, as Greif knows — Thomas Aquinas sees the Pharisaical attitude as an embrace of the status comprehensor, a belief that one has spiritually arrived. The proud person therefore shares with the despairing person the trait of motionlessness. (“In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.”) The properly hopeful person, on the other hand, is the homo viator, the wayfarer, the one who is still on the road, the one who knows that she has not arrived, the one who sustains herself with the simple prayer of the tax-collector: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

This is why the final vision Mrs. Turpin receives is not, as Greif declares, one of the Last Judgment but rather one of souls on pilgrimage: the pilgrimage that begins in this world and in Catholic teaching continues, for the redeemed, into Purgatory. (Mrs. Turpin can be said to receive a vision of the Last Judgment only in Kafka’s sense of the term: “It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by this name. It is, in fact, a kind of summary court in perpetual session.”) It is noteworthy that Greif slips up and speaks of the “moment in which human vanity is burned away,” when O’Connor says it is the virtues of Mrs. Turpin and her kind that must be burnt — or what they think of as their virtues — what they would appeal to as justifying them in the eyes of men and the eyes of God: “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” What they must learn, and what they will learn, eventually, is that good order and common sense and respectable behavior and singing on key count for nothing in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven — in fact, less than nothing.

Greif speaks of people like Mrs. Turpin as “unillusioned,” but this gets it backwards: they are under one of the most powerful illusions of all — that God cares about respectability and will credit the respectable with righteousness. (This is the same illusion that Kierkegaard raged against for most of his career.) Note that Mrs. Turpin is not wrong to think that she is respectable and does stand for “good order”: in that sense Greif is correct to see that the description is not ironic. Her error is to believe that to God any of that matters. It is precisely because this illusion is so pernicious that Mrs. Turpin and those like her bring up the rear of the pilgrimage — far behind the “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” who understand that to sing on key in this situation is to miss the point rather spectacularly — and make it into the Kingdom by the skin of their teeth; it is precisely because this illusion is so powerful that they persist in it even as their virtues are being burned away.

You don’t have to know Aquinas to understand all this; but you probably do have to know the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. As our cultural elites lose even the most elementary biblical literacy, this is going to happen more and more often: reading the Bible-saturated literature of the past and missing, not secondary and trivial illusions, but the entire point of stories and novels and plays and poems, and for that matter paintings and sculptures and musical compositions. The artistic past of the West will become incomprehensible, but — and this is the scary thing — no one will know that they’re misreading. Gross errors will be passed down from teacher to student, from scholar to reader, and it is difficult to imagine circumstances arising in which they can be corrected.


I’m reading the first volume of David Bromwich’s projected two-volume intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, and it’s fantastic. A magnificent piece of scholarship, about which I hope to have more to say. But in my typically perverse way, I’m going to devote this post to a disagreement — though not to be ornery, I promise. I have a constructive point to make.

One of the chief purposes of Bromwich’s book, it seems to me, is to rescue Burke from those who praise him, especially conservatives. (“No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism” — no serious historian, though I fear that serious historians are defined as those who don’t say that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism.) So any of Burke’s statements that might confirm a conservative or generally traditionalist reading get some careful scrutiny from Bromwich, which in general is, I think, a good thing: conventional wisdom should always get doubled scrutiny.

But what about Burke’s religious beliefs? Here’s a noteworthy passage from Bromwich’s “Introduction”: 

Replying once to a question about his religious beliefs, Burke said he was a Christian “much from conviction; more from affection.” The remark is open to various readings. I take it to imply that for him, ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct. 

Try though I might, I can see absolutely nothing in Burke’s statement to warrant Bromwich’s inference. Burke doesn’t say anything there about trust, about ordinary feelings, about moral conduct or the grounds thereof. In fact, if you look at the original letter (in Volume VI of The Correspondence of Edmund Burke), he’s not even describing his own beliefs per se: the complete sentence is “I am attached to Christianity at large, much from conviction; more from affection.” The context is reflection on the denominational divisions among Christians, something an Irishman could scarcely not have thought about. And Burke’s point is, quite obviously I think, that his “attachment” to Christianity — something distinct from belief in its teachings — is supported in two ways: first by rational conviction, and second, and to a greater degree, through the testimony of his affections. It is a statement about the grounds of attachment, not about the foundations of moral conduct. 

So why does Bromwich read it the way he does? It seems to be a pre-emptive strike against any claim that Burke’s Christian convictions are essential to his thought. If there is a “sufficient groundwork” for morals outside the framework of Christian teaching, then Christian teaching can be largely set aside in an intellectual biography of Burke, even if it provides a “correlative” to beliefs held on other grounds. 

Yet Bromwich concludes his Introduction by quoting another passage from Burke’s letters that seems to cast doubt on this dismissal of Christianity. To a young woman who had protested against his prosecution of the East India Company for its maltreatment of Indians, Burke wrote, “I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces, but who are images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.” Though Bromwich seems not to notice, Burke is grounding his political action in the Christian and Jewish teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God: even the darkest-skinned people “are images of the great Pattern.” It is his conviction of the universal imago Dei that drives Burke’s attempts to bring gross injustice before the judgment of the Law. 

I think that in this case Bromwich fails to see the importance of Christianity to Burke because he is not especially interested in it himself; whereas I see the importance of it because I am both interested in and knowledgable about the subject. Among other things, this incident should be a reminder of how our own inclinations, our own biases, can lead us to shape writers and thinkers we love in our own image. Though I think I have shown that on this one matter Bromwich has misread Burke and I have read him correctly, if I were to write an intellectual biography of Burke I would run a significant danger of over-emphasizing his Christianity. If I were going to write a really first-rate book about Burke I would always need to be on guard against that tendency. 

Similarly, Edward Mendelson and I have had many conversations over the years about W. H. Auden’s religious beliefs and thoughts, and while we agree on much, we sometimes don’t — and when we differ, almost invariably my reading of Auden bends towards my theological inclinations, while Edward’s reading bends towards his. (Oddly enough, the fact that Edward knows five times more about Auden than I ever will does not incline me to defer to his judgment in these matters.)   

E. B. White once wrote, “All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright” — a lovely line, but it’s not how you’re born, it’s how you discipline yourself that counts. Pulling yourself towards the perpendicular you know you’ll never quite reach requires a constant struggle. I would like to say that I achieve such constancy; but I don’t. 

beyond snark and smarm

Just a brief couple of comments on the whole snark-vs.-smarm Ultimate Revenge Cage Match that was kicked off by Tom Scocca in this article:

One: Scocca’s way of distinguishing between snark and smarm is completely incoherent. “Smarm,” he says, “would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?” Smarm is about avoiding the hard work of honest criticism in order to cultivate an atmosphere of positive reinforcement, like the one Isaac Fitzgerald says he wants to cultivate at Buzzfeed. And yet when people are nice at all to Edward Snowden, when they’re deeply critical of him, when they say “Edward Snowden is an unstable, sensation-seeking narcissist” and “Edward Snowden is a traitor” — well, it turns out that for Scocca that’s smarm too. So smarm, I guess, is being nice to people Tom Scocca thinks you ought to be mean to and being mean to people he thinks you ought to be nice to.

Two: Incoherent though Scocca’s portrait of smarm is, it’s having the effect of further solidifying an already common and utterly pernicious idea, which is that the critic must choose between being “nice” and being “snarky.” Thus Malcolm Gladwell responds to Scocca by arguing, in effect, that given such a choice it’s better to be nice than to be snarky:

What defines our era, after all, is not really the insistence of those in authority that we all behave properly and politely. It is defined, instead, by the institutionalization of satire. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” and, yes, Gawker have emerged, all proceeding on the assumption that the sardonic, comic tone permits a kind of honesty in public discourse that would not be possible otherwise. This is the orthodoxy Scocca is so anxious to defend. He needn’t worry. For the moment, we are all quite happy to sink giggling into the sea.

But what if neither snark nor smarm is adequate to the critical task?

Almost a hundred years ago Rebecca West wrote of “the duty of harsh criticism” in a period that suffered from “the vice of amiability”:

The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance. For instance, there is the tradition of unreadability which the governing classes have imposed on the more learned departments of literature, such as biography and history. We must rebel against the formidable army of Englishmen who have achieved the difficult task of becoming men of letters without having written anything. They throw up platitudinous inaugural addresses like wormcasts, they edit the letters of the unprotected dead, and chew once more the more masticated portions of history; and every line they write perpetuates the pompous tradition of eighteenth century “book English” and dissociates more thoroughly the ideas of history and originality of thought. We must dispel this unlawful assembly of peers and privy councillors round the wellhead of scholarship with kindly but abusive, and, in cases of extreme academic refinement, coarse criticism.

And more than two thousand years before West the writer of Ecclesiasticus taught us the other pole of our duty:

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.

Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:

Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:

Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:

Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:

All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.

Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.

Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.

Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.

The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.

To praise (unstintingly) what is praiseworthy, and to expose (charitably but firmly and even, when necessary, harshly) what is false and what leads people astray: these are indispensable functions of criticism.

I want to believe

Returning to the subject of today’s earlier post: The authors of that study write this in summation:

Statistical findings, said Heuser, made us realize that genres are icebergs: with a visible portion floating above the water, and a much larger part hidden below, and extending to unknown depths. Realizing that these depths exist; that they can be systematically explored; and that they may lead to a multi-dimensional reconceptualization of genre: such, we think, are solid findings of our research.

Nothing this vague counts as “solid findings.” What does it mean to say that a genre is like an iceberg? What are those “parts” that are below the surface? What sorts of actions would count as “exploring those depths”? What would be the difference between “systematically” exploring those depths and doing so non-systematically? What would a “reconceptualization” of genre look like? Would that be different than a mere adjustment in our generic definitions? What would be the difference between a “multi-dimensional reconceptualization of genre” and a unidimensional one?
The rhetoric here is very inflated, but if there is substance to the ideas I cannot see it. I would like to be able to see it. Like Agent Mulder, I want to believe — but these guys aren’t making it easy for me.

doing things with computers

This is the kind of thing I just don’t understand the value or use of:

This paper is the report of a study conducted by five people – four at Stanford, and one at the University of Wisconsin — which tried to establish whether computer-generated algorithms could “recognize” literary genres. You take David Copperfield, run it through a program without any human input – “unsupervised”, as the expression goes – and … can the program figure out whether it’s a gothic novel or a Bildungsroman? The answer is, fundamentally, Yes: but a Yes with so many complications that make it necessary to look at the entire process of our study. These are new methods we are using, and with new methods the process is almost as important as the results.

So human beings, over a period of centuries, read many, many books and come up with heuristic schemes to classify them — identify various genres, that is to say, “kinds,” kinship groups. Then those human beings specify the features they see as necessary to the various kinds, write complex programs containing instructions for discerning those features, and run those programs on computers . . . to see how well (or badly) computers can replicate what human beings have already done?

I don’t get it. Shouldn’t we be striving to get computers to do things that human beings can’t do, or can’t do as well? The primary value I see in this project is that it could be a conceptually clarifying thing to be forced to specify the features we see as intrinsic to genres. But in that case the existence of programmable computers becomes just a prompt, and one accidental, not essential, to the enterprise of thinking more clearly and precisely.