Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Constellation of Genius: 1922 by Kevin Jackson

by Levi Asher on Thursday, November 7, 2013 08:54 pm

1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.

Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.

Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.

The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.

It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.

Philosophy Weekend: Kierkegaard's Either-Or

by Levi Asher on Thursday, May 9, 2013 10:46 pm

The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.

The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.

Philosophy Weekend: Kant on Beauty

by Tim Hawken on Thursday, January 31, 2013 08:11 pm

(Today's blog post is by a guest philosopher, Tim Hawken, who lives in Western Australia and is the author of two novels, 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'. Tim holds a Bachelor of Arts from Deakins University with a triple major in Philosophy, Literature and Journalism.

The image of an Immanuel Kant tattoo is by Aron Dubois.)

Picture yourself walking into a bookstore with a friend. You pick a copy of Les Misérables off the shelf, party because of the shiny ‘movie edition’ cover, party because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about. Turning to a random page you read the quote:

When love has fused and mingled two beings in a sacred and angelic unity, the secret of life has been discovered so far as they are concerned; they are no longer anything more than the two boundaries of the same destiny; they are no longer anything but the two wings of the same spirit. Love, soar.

Stunned by the beauty of the words you read them out loud to your companion. He snorts in derision and picks up Ann Coulter's latest book. Running his fingers across the jacket photo, he says to you, without a hint of sarcasm: "Now, she’s beautiful."

Lautréamont, the Other

by Eamon Loingsigh on Monday, May 7, 2012 07:06 pm

(This introduction to a too-little-known French author is the Litkicks debut of Eamon Loingsigh, whose novella An Affair of Concoctions can be sampled here).

I didn’t come across Comte de Lautréamont right away. I found him only after a long search for the most furious literature I could find, and I suspect others don’t find him quickly either, if they find him at all.

As a disgruntled teen, mainstream writers like Stephen King and dusty fuddies like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stephens could not slake my brooding brain. Poe turned my head and Coleridge was my favorite Romantic in school, both with drug addictions and personality disorders that were sent desperately to the pen in order to relieve their burdens, financial or emotional. But when I found Bukowski and Kerouac and those who influenced them, I eventually bumped into Comte de Lautréamont, who quickly became even more interesting to me when I heard that translations abound in many languages, except English.

Lautreamont was born as Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846, and left it during a time of great turbulence. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, in the midst of the Argentinian-Uruguayan War, and he was raised by his father, a Uruguayan public official of French ancestry. He was sent to school in Paris, France at the age of thirteen. By seventeen he was known at his Lycée as a quick student, yet morbid and sardonic in humor. Memorizing the Romantic writers as well as Dante, Milton, Baudelaire and Racine, he soon decided to become a writer in order “to portray the pleasures of cruelty!”

Proust's Lost Time: Beyond The Madeleines

by Michael Norris on Monday, December 13, 2010 10:29 am

Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.

Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009

Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009

Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009

The Conformism of Postmodern Style

by Claudia Moscovici on Wednesday, September 1, 2010 03:51 pm

(Please welcome a second Litkicks appearance by Claudia Moscovici, who recently told us about her experience writing the novel Velvet Totalitarianism. Today she introduces the main idea behind her book Romanticism and Postromanticism, an art-related idea that resembles some of the theories I've recently heard about genres and literary fiction. Enjoy ... -- Levi)

Artistic freedom and aesthetic value are interrelated. Art that is not considered valuable by the artistic establishment -- art critics, museum curators and art historians -- doesn’t even get the chance to be evaluated by the public. Such art doesn’t make it to museums of contemporary art like the Guggenheim. It also doesn’t get discussed in the art sections of influential newspapers and art magazines. Analogously, literature that is not considered valuable by the publishing establishment -- literary agents, editors, publishers and critics -- doesn’t get a readership because it never makes it into print. (Granted, of course, the Internet has recently opened up possibilities to express more diverse points of view that didn’t exist before.)

So artistic freedom isn’t just about creating whatever one wants in the privacy of one’s home or studio without the fear of being arrested or shot for it. Although this basic freedom is very necessary, artistic freedom also entails a correlate liberty: namely, the public’s freedom to be exposed to a wide variety of artistic and literary styles. That way we can make our own choices and express our personal tastes. When there’s only one politician or political party to vote for on a ballot it generally means there’s no real freedom of choice in politics. When there’s only one artistic current or style displayed in museums of contemporary art it means there’s no real freedom of choice in art.

La Mancha, Espana: Where Cervantes' Knight Roamed

by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 17, 2010 02:27 pm

You folks did great this time -- not a single wrong guess! Indeed, the answer to yesterday's quiz question is the La Mancha region in Central Spain, north of Toledo and south of Madrid, where Miguel de Cervantes set his great comic novel Don Quixote.

Cervantes did not live in the La Mancha region himself, but he was born nearby in Central Spain and was certainly familiar with the area. A town called Cervantes can also be found in this vicinity, though I have not been able to figure out whether he was named for this town or it was named for him (if anybody knows, please fill us in). Some literary experts believe that he chose the La Mancha region as the home for his hero just so he could name him "Don Quixote de la Mancha" (this was apparently funny, as "mancha" meant "stain").

Detroit Housewife Writes Play

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, September 23, 2009 12:34 am

1. "Detroit Housewife Writes Play". That's how Joyce Carol Oates says she was received as a young beginning writer as she reminisced during a special event Monday night at the Smithsonian Institution. I've heard this writer speak before and in fact enjoyed it enough to want to hear her again (even though, to be honest, I haven't read a whole novel of hers since Black Water in 1992). This gathering found Ms. Oates in sharp and snappy form. She spoke of her stark one-room schoolhouse childhood, cited Lewis Carroll as her earliest literary influence, and charmingly called her interviewer "naive" for suggesting that she might ever allow her characters to tell her about themselves ("how," she asks, "would a character tell me anything?"). On a roll, Ms. Oates also scolded a questioner from the audience who asked if she'd met famous people such as US Presidents, telling him "perhaps there are more important people in the world than male Presidents for me to meet". As always, Ms. Oates' willowy manner and Pre-Raphaelite affect has a breathtaking impact on audiences, and the folks at the Freer Gallery ate her up. She should be in the movies -- she could win an Oscar. I still don't know, though, if I'll find the time to read her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven.

2. I think it's great that Oprah Winfrey has picked Uwem Akpan's Say You're One Of Them as her next influential Oprah's Book Club selection. She has made several brilliant choices over the years, and Say You're One Of Them (which was reviewed on LitKicks here) is a bleak, straightforward book with a strong and highly focused humanitarian message about political violence against children in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Gabon. I'm sure Oprah intends this book is to stand alongside Elie Wiesel's Night on the bookshelf. The author, a young Jesuit born in Nigeria who has traveled through Africa and the world, is as much an activist as an artist, and the book is short on ostentation and long on horrifying truth. A lot of people -- adults and children, often together, often huddling in their own homes -- get killed in this book, but the book is no thriller. Oprah has made an unusual and brave choice.

3. Somebody recently asked "Should literary blogs get political?" Yeah, well, I think we should. It's not like critical issues aren't at stake, like the health care debate, which I find myself following carefully these days. I strongly support a health care bill and a public option, I am 100% behind Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they deal with this difficult challenge, and I really like Will Ferrell's latest commentary on the whole thing.

Unto this Last: John Ruskin's Economic and Political Writings

by Michael Norris on Monday, September 1, 2008 11:02 pm

(19th-Century British art critic John Ruskin has made several appearances on LitKicks. Here, Michael Norris introduces us to a surprising side of Ruskin not widely known today: his economic and political essays. -- Levi)

John Ruskin was the most influential art critic in mid- to late-19th century England. Influenced by Romanticism, widely read during the Victorian and Edwardian ages, he published books about art (the voluminous Modern Painters), architecture (The Stones of Venice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture) and many other subjects. In total he published over 250 works. He influenced Tolstoy, Marcel Proust (who translated some of his works into French), and Mahatma Gandhi, among many and varied literary and political figures.

Today, Ruskin’s works are largely out of print or available in abridged versions only. However, one of his most enduring, and perhaps his best, books is still available: Unto This Last, not a book of criticism but rather a series of four essays on social theory. The name comes from the Parable of the Vineyard in the New Testament, where Christ says “take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last even as unto thee.”

Ruskin was deeply concerned about the plight of the working class of his time, who suffered under the harsh conditions of the Industrial Revolution. The classic writers of Political Economy, as the study of economics was known at the time, had published influential works on free-market capitalism. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations outlined the importance of the division of labor. J.S. Mill and David Ricardo published definitive works on Political Economy. The political economists theorized that economies were governed by laws of nature -- the law of supply and demand, and the law of self interest -- which could not be regulated by governments. The regrettable but inevitable side effect of these economic laws was that a certain amount of the population was destined to be poor. The role of government for the political economists was to set conditions favorable to the laws of self interest and supply and demand. The poor, on the other hand, were to be regulated by population control.

Ruskin found the ideas of these political economists abhorrent. He wrote the essays that comprise Unto This Last as a rebuttal in particular to J.S. Mill’s The Principals of Political Economy, the dominant argument for laissez-faire capitalism during Ruskin’s time. Ruskin published the essays as a series in a new magazine, “Cornhill”, which was edited by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Public reaction to the works was so negative that Thackeray had to limit Ruskin to only four essays. Ruskin, although a political conservative and an advocate of the free-market, was labelled a socialist and worse. He assembled the four essays into a book and arranged for its publication. Sales started slow at first but began to climb towards the end of the century. Unto This Last would eventually become one of his most widely read works.

Why should we read Ruskin today? He writes with a flowery, sometimes difficult style, often tending toward purple prose in his description of art. But when you get used to his style, his writing is forceful and in fact beautiful. Still, even once we accept and begin to enjoy his style, why do we want to read a nineteenth century critic who went up against political economy? Global free-market capitalism has won the argument hands down. Or has it?

In Unto this Last, Ruskin set out to define wealth, and then to show that wealth can only be acquired under certain moral conditions, such as honesty and justice. The first essay, titled “The Roots of Honor”, outlines the problems existing in the relations between the employer and the employed, and states that the employer must deal honorably with his employees. Ruskin then proposes one of his most controversial ideas: work should be paid at an equal rate for a given job. He says:

The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed and the bad workman unemployed.

This means that two workmen, one more able or reliable than the other, cannot be played against one another to reduce the final price of the work. In that case, one worker will be paid less than the fair price, the other will not work. More just, according to Ruskin, is to pay the superior worker the going rate for the job. The inferior worker will still not work. Why is this more just? In the first scenario, both workers suffer. But in Ruskin’s scenario, the worker awarded the job is paid a just wage and is happy. The other worker is unemployed, but the total effect of the transaction is better than the first scenario. What is Ruskin’s solution for the inferior worker who is unemployed? First, all workers are to be educated, at the expense of the state, so that they have, in theory, the same skill sets. Second, government should set up manufactories, which would supplement the goods produced by the private sector, and provide jobs for those workers who have lost out on bids for jobs. The government would assure the quality of the work. As for honourable dealings with workers, Ruskin states that a master of a manufactory “as he would treat his son, he is bound always to treat everyone of his men.”

The second essay is titled “The Veins of Wealth”. Here Ruskin attempts to define wealth and to offer an alternative to the ideals of Political Economy, which he bills as the science of getting rich. Ruskin points out that under the political economist’s system, getting rich is always at the expense of someone else:

... the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist’s sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.

Ruskin then provides some simple illustrations that show that the accumulation of riches on the part of one member of a small society to the detriment of the others has the effect of diminishing the wealth of the society as a whole. Wealth is therefore a matter of justice:

The whole question, respecting not only the advantage, but even the quality of national wealth, resolves itself finally into one of abstract justice.

Wealth, according to Ruskin, is not accumulated material goods, but “power over men”, specifically power over men’s labor. Raw materials, even gold, are worthless without the labor required to extract them from nature. Wealth, to be just, has to be accumulated under moral conditions. And since wealth is power over men, Ruskin proposes:

... the noble and the more in number are over whom it [ the state ] has the power, the greater the wealth.

And finally:

Perhaps is may even appear, after some consideration, that the persons themselves are the wealth.

National wealth is not built by a system of a few individuals getting rich at the expense of the many, but by the equitable sharing of riches among the greatest amount of citizens, and the bringing up of as many citizens as possible to the highest level possible in terms of education and intellect. Individual riches, as proposed by the political economists, are not beneficial to society as a whole, while just and honourable wealth is a benefit to all.

The third essay, “Qui Judicatis Terram” (“Who Judge on Earth”) deals with the idea of justice. To Ruskin, justice or injustice are inherent in all human economic transactions. Injustice in payment, in trade, in purchasing, puts the power exerted by wealth into one man’s hands, to the extreme detriment of the others in the transaction. But if the transaction is just, it has this effect:

The universal and constant action of justice […] is therefore to diminish the power of wealth, in the hands of one individual, over masses of men, and distribute it through a chain of men.

Ruskin then makes the statement wherein we see the result of just payment:

But the sufficient or just payment, distributed through a descending series of offices or grades of labour, gives each subordinated person fair and sufficient means of rising in the social scale, if he chooses to use them; and thus not only diminishes the immediate power of wealth, but removes the worse disabilities of poverty.

In other words, when men are treated and paid justly, we go from a society where the rich get richer and the poor poorer to a society where everyone has a chance to rise in economic status.

The fourth and final essay, “Ad Valorem” (“According to Value”) attempts to define value, wealth, price, and production in terms different than those proposed by the political economists. Value, in Ruskin’s terms, is that which leads to or supports life. Wealth is defined as “the possession of useful articles which we can use.” Mere possession or accumulation of objects is not wealth. Price is defined: “the quantity of labour given by the person desiring it [an object for sale], in order to obtain possession of it.” It should be pointed out that in industrialized societies, this labor is generally measured in money, not in kind. Finally, production is tied to consumption:

Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable, and the question for the nation is not how much labour it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and the aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption.

Ruskin then sums up his economic philosophy as follows:

THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.

Pretty words, you say. Attractive ideas. But didn’t we agree earlier that global free-market capitalism has won? We in the U.S. have embraced the philosophy of Ruskin’s nemeses, the political economists, and have gone along with the idea that supply and demand and self interest should and will drive the economy, and that life under this system is good.

In what Ruskin called exchange, the trading of goods and services such that the goods are bought at the cheapest price and sold at the dearest, there is a winner and a loser. If the rich CEO of a corporation succeeds in driving down the wages of his workers in a labor negotiation, the CEO and the corporation wins, the workers lose. It is a zero-sum game. You might argue that the workers are lucky to still have a job, but they have lost nevertheless. Rather than “rising in the social scale”, as in Ruskin’s idea of a just economic transaction, they are sliding back. With constant inflation, a slide back, even a small one, is bad. The fact is that the United States is becoming a nation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Let’s take the example of a company driving down wages by sending jobs offshore. This is a classic example of what Ruskin calls the unjust employer. The unjust employer bids two workers against each other until the pay for the job is reduced to its lowest terms. The man who does the job is ill-paid, and the other man is unemployed. The case of offshoring has an even more unjust effect. The workers in Asia and India, by reason of their economic situation, are so cheap that no bidding is necessary. The job automatically goes to the offshore worker, and the U.S. worker is unemployed. What if the U.S. worker were given the opportunity to bid against the Asian worker, to meet his competitor’s price, and secure the job? He would lose money, because the amount that he would be paid, that of the Asian worker, would be insufficient to cover his costs.

I submit that it is worthwhile to read Ruskin, because he foresaw the problems of free-market capitalism well ahead of his time, problems that are now becoming glaringly apparent. Since he foresaw the problems, perhaps we can apply his solutions to our current economy. The just wage is a particularly good place to start.

Ruskin was concerned with the wages of workers in factories. Some economists are already talking about an “hourglass economy” in the U.S., with a large number of highly paid executives and professionals at the top, a large number of low paid workers at the bottom, and the middle class occupying the thin portion in between. This is a disturbing trend for the U.S., which has traditionally prided itself on a large and prosperous middle class. Unbridled free-market capitalism may thus achieve its ends to the detriment of the many and the benefit of a few.

What can we do? Here is where “we the people” need government. As Ruskin argued, the government needs to reign in the capitalist economy, because nothing else can. The die-hard capitalists say that the market will resolve everything, but in fact it won’t. Capitalism left to its own devices is having devastatingly negative side effects: the creation of greenhouse gases, the steady erosion of wages, and the depletion of natural resources, to mention a few. Up until recently, the United States government had done a fairly good job in keeping capitalism in check, and protecting the citizenry from its excesses. The “trust busting” of Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt, and the creation of the EPA to limit pollution are examples where the government has stepped in to curb unrestrained capitalism for the benefit of the nation as a whole. Lately, the U. S. government has caved in to the interests of the corporations, but if things get back on track, the government can, for example, place a tax on jobs that are sent offshore. The tax would slow down the rate of offshoring, and the money collected could be used to re-train those workers who were unemployed due to their jobs leaving the U.S., or otherwise help them find new employment.

Ruskin, in his later years, actually used his own money to implement some of his ideas. He founded the Guild of Saint George, an organization whose members would run businesses that paid just wages and treated workers fairly, and donated 7000 pounds and a tithe of his income to it. Ruskin argued that factories should be run by water power rather than steam, as he was concerned with the ill effects of burning coal. His efforts influenced Pre-Raphaelite artist and critic William Morris, who helped found the Arts and Crafts movement, a forerunner of the socialist movement in Britain.

Perhaps our current so-called leaders would do well to read John Ruskin's too-often-ignored book of essays Unto This Last.

Some Dusty Old Stuff

by Levi Asher on Thursday, January 5, 2006 09:39 am

1. When I heard about the discovery of a long-lost Lord Byron poem, I immediately thought of The Aspern Papers, a great novella by Henry James about a scholar who learns that an ancient lady living with her neice in Venice was once the lover of romantic poet Jeffrey Aspern (who seems to have been based on Byron). She is guarding a trove of lost writings by the poet, and the scholar comes up with a grand scheme to insinuate himself into the household and gain access to the papers. Because it's a Henry James story, the scholar becomes unwittingly entangled in a pathetic and poignant romantic situation and the papers are forever lost.

Back in the real world, it seems the newly found poem was discovered by a librarian. There must be a juicy story hidden somewhere here, but nobody's telling.

2. Apparently 20 publishers and agents fell for an old trick and failed to accept or recognize a previously published, award-winning V. S. Naipaul novel. I like agent/blogger Miss Snark's spirited defense of her peers ("So we miss stuff. So fucking what."), but I'll go even further.

V. S. Naipaul is a boring author and I have never, ever, ever heard a real person speak with excitement about one of his books. I've cracked a couple open myself, and the stuff is instant sleep. Sure, he writes with dignity and precision, and according to Wikipedia he explores themes similar to those of Joseph Conrad. But people actually enjoy reading Joseph Conrad, and Naipaul has never mastered the art of captivating readers. The question isn't why 20 publishers and agents rejected his novel, but rather why so many literary awards get handed to a writer who is as dull as any college professor you ever met.

And, no, I don't care that he's Sir V. S. Naipaul, either. It takes more than gravitas and elegant prose to make a writer matter.


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