Late Work And Shying Away From Decay And Death

In ‘Late Francis Bacon: Spirit and Substance‘ Colm Tóibín writes:

It would be easy to imagine…that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was written toward the end of his life. In fact, it was written in 1911, when Mann was thirty-six. It is a young man’s book; its images of desire, decay, and death could not be so easily entertained by a writer facing into late or last work.

Tóibín does not make clear why we would imagine that Death in Venice “was written toward the end of [Mann’s] life” but be that as it may, of more interest here is the claim that an artist (of whatever stripe) would find it difficult to entertain “images of desire, decay, and death” in “late or last work.”

Tóibín has found himself making this claim, I suspect, as a way of pushing further the speculative query by Edward Said with which he opens this essay:

In his book On Late Style…Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?”….he also questions the very notion of late serenity:….What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders…the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion…the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime….these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities.

The obvious counterpoint to Tóibín’s claim is implicit in Said’s first query: as artists approach death, they, like other humans, find a new openness to the very idea of death and non-existence and the bodily decay that precedes it. An excellent example of this might be Roger Angell‘s essay ‘This Old Man’ which begins with the following lines:

Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

And so it goes on. Angell, of course, is writing an essay on old age; he is not working these images into his sports writing. What about other writers? I will rest content with another example: Phillip Roth, whose late work was replete with such ‘images’; he never  shied away from them. Comments with support or refutation for Tóibín’s claim welcome.

Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.

 

Reinhold Niebuhr On The Ethical Permissibility Of Political Violence

In reviewing Reinhold Niebuhr‘s Major Works on Religion and Politics, Adam Kirsch makes note of the following passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

If a season of violence can establish a just social system and can create the possibilities of its preservation, there is no purely ethical reason upon which violence and revolution can be ruled out.

Kirsch then goes on to note:

[B]y the end of the book, Niebuhr has retreated from [this position] somewhat. In theory violence might be justified, he argues, but in practice the American proletariat has no more chance of winning a revolutionary struggle than do American blacks. For both of these disinherited groups, Niebuhr concludes, confrontational nonviolence on the Gandhian model is the best course: “Non-violence is a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors.”

Here, Niebuhr argues that political violence is ethically permissible but, given a concrete socio-political situation like the American polity–one with its  particular material circumstances pertaining to matters like the power and reach of its law enforcement apparatus, the material deprivation of its underclasses, and the fragmented relationship between them–tactically inadvisable. This is an interesting and important concession and qualification–especially coming from someone like Niebuhr who, because of his status as a Christian theologian, might be imagined to have some predisposition to ruling out violence on ethical grounds.

For what Niebuhr has conceded here, of course, is that in a different socio-political context, political violence might well be tactically advisable. Perhaps the relevant oppressed classes are more politically united–they have been able to build alliances geared toward revolutionary action; perhaps they are better equipped in material terms–with access to mass media and communication and reliable means of economic support. (In the American context, access to ‘weaponry’ takes on a whole new meaning given the militarization of its law enforcement forces and the proliferation of privately owned guns.) Viewed in this fashion, Niebuhr’s views take on a far more pragmatic hue: Revolution and revolutionary violence is a political business; it aims to change the distribution of power in a particular polity; its advisability is a matter of strategy and tactics; nonviolence, in some contexts, may have more revolutionary potential; in yet others, violence may suggest itself as a better political strategy.

Because I have no prima facie case to make against violence as a political tactic per se, I unsurprisingly find myself in agreement with Niebuhr. Doing politics and achieving political ends requires a toolbox; the more varied its contents, the better, for they are more likely to accommodate a diversity of polities and material political contexts.  Those tools find their place in our bag of tricks according to how ‘well’ they work. This ‘wellness’ can be judged in several dimensions; perhaps violence will be judged inadvisable in some context–as above–precisely because it offers little to no chance of success or threatens to produce too many undesirable knock-on effects. Whatever the case may be, our evaluation of our political options proceeds on pragmatic grounds. So-called a priori, ‘foundational,’ ‘first principles’ arguments against our political tools have no place here.

Pigliucci And Shaw On The Allegedly Useful Reduction

Massimo Pigliucci critiques the uncritical reductionism that the conflation of philosophy and science brings in its wake, using as a jumping-off point, Tamsin Shaw’s essay in the New York Review of Books, which addresses psychologists’ claims “that human beings are not rational, but rather rationalizing, and that one of the things we rationalize most about is ethics.” Pigliucci notes that Shaw‘s targets “Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, Paul Bloom, Joshua Greene and a number of others….make the same kind of fundamental mistake [a category mistake], regardless of the quality of their empirical research.”

Pigliucci highlights Shaw’s critique of Joshua Greene’s claims that “neuroscientific data can test ethical theories, concluding that there is empirical evidence for utilitarianism.” Shaw had noted that:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology … Greene inferred … that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values … [But] the claim here is that personal factors are morally irrelevant, so the neural and psychological processes that track such factors in each person cannot be relied on to support moral propositions or guide moral decisions. Greene’s controversial philosophical claim is simply presupposed; it is in no way motivated by the findings of science. An understanding of the neural correlates of reasoning can tell us nothing about whether the outcome of this reasoning is justified.

At this point Pigliucci intervenes:

Let me interject here with my favorite analogy to explain why exactly Greene’s reasoning doesn’t hold up: mathematics. Imagine we subjected a number of individuals to fMRI scanning of their brain activity while they are in the process of tackling mathematical problems. I am positive that we would conclude the following…

There are certain areas, and not others, of the brain that lit up when a person is engaged with a mathematical problem.

There is probably variation in the human population for the level of activity, and possibly even the size or micro-anatomy, of these areas.

There is some sort of evolutionary psychological story that can be told for why the ability to carry out simple mathematical or abstract reasoning may have been adaptive in the Pleistocene (though it would be much harder to come up with a similar story that justifies the ability of some people to understand advanced math, or to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem).

But none of the above will tell us anything at all about whether the subjects in the experiment got the math right. Only a mathematician — not a neuroscientist, not an evolutionary psychologist — can tell us that.

Correct. Now imagine an ambitious neuroscientist who claims his science has really, really advanced, and indeed, imaging technology has improved so much that Pigliucci’s first premise above should be changed to:

There are certain areas, and not others, of the brain that lit up when a person is working out the correct solution to a particular mathematical problem.

So, contra Pigliucci’s claim above, neuroscience will tell us a great deal about whether the subjects in the experiment got the math right. Our funky imaging science and technology makes that possible now. At this stage, the triumphant reductionist says, “We’ve reduced the doing of mathematics to doing neuroscience; when you think you are doing mathematics, all that is happening is that a bunch of neurons are firing in the following patterns and particular parts of your brain are lighting up. We can now tell a evolutionary psychology story about why the ability to reason correctly may have been adaptive.”

But we may ask: Should the presence of such technology mean we should stop doing mathematics? Have we learned, as a result of such imaging studies, how to do mathematics correctly? We know that when our brains are in particular states, they can be interpreted as doing mathematical problems–‘this activity means you are doing a math problem in this fashion.’ A mathematician looks at proofs; a neuroscientist would look at the corresponding brain scans. We know when one corresponds to another. This is perhaps useful for comparing math-brain-states with poetry-brain-states but it won’t tell us how to write poetry or proofs for theorems. It does not tell us how humans would produce those proofs (or those brain states in their brains.) If a perverse neuroscientist were to suggest that the right way to do maths now would be to aim to put your brain into the states suggested by the imaging machines, we would note we already have a perfectly good of learning how to do good mathematics: learning from masters’ techniques, as found in books, journals, and notebooks.

In short, the reduction of a human activity–math–to its corresponding brain activity achieves precisely nothing when it comes to the doing of the activity. It aids our understanding of that activity in some regards–as in, how does its corresponding brain activity compare to other corresponding brain activities for other actions–and not in others. Some aspects of this reduction will strike us as perfectly pointless, given the antecedent accomplishments of mathematics and mathematicians.

Not all possible reduction is desirable or meaningful.

Richard Holmes On Biography’s ‘Physical Pursuit’ Of Its Subjects

In an essay describing his biographical work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes writes:

[A] biography is…a handshake….across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is an act of friendship.

It is a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open, on both sides of that endlessly mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.

Holmes bases this view of the work of the biographer on two claims about the art, the first one of which claims that:

[T]he serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.

Biography is a famously reviled literary genre–sometimes described as fantasy, sometimes intrusive voyeurism, sometimes ideologically motivated hatchet job. Holmes is right to describe it as being animated by an ‘endlessly mysterious question.’ (He is also perspicuous in describing it as a ‘handshake’ and an ‘act of friendship’ of sorts.) That question’s mystery–which becomes ever more prominent when we think about its unanswerability with respect to ourselves–does not make the attempt to answer it necessarily ignoble or ill-motivated. But it does bid us be circumspect in assessing how much of the biographer’s task is ever ‘complete.’

To acknowledge that difficulty note that Holmes adds a variety of physical emulation to the task of the biographer: we must be where our subject has been in order to assess what his experiences there might have been like, and thus evaluate what their contribution to his life’s work were. Thus the Nietzsche biographer must make the hike to Sils Maria and ascend the heights that surround it. There, perhaps, one might investigate what Nietzsche had in mind in his constant invocations of the ‘clean air’ he experienced there, and wonder about the sordid life he might have left behind. Because we are not disembodied intelligences, but rather embodied beings in constant interaction with our environments–physical, mental, and emotional–Holmes’ injunction is a wise one. The biographer who writes of Jack Kerouac without undertaking a long road-trip on American highways, and does not wonder about what effect the sights seen therein–big skies, the black asphalt stretching to the horizon, the lonely houses and farms, the lives of fellow travelers–could have had on an endlessly restless and fertile imagination is crippled, fatally, in his task.

But even as we set to work in this dimension, we realize how much is still hidden away from us, how much remains inaccessible. We are still left to play, unavoidably, with our speculations, distant third-person reports, and autobiographical confessions of dubious fidelity. Perhaps this is why Holmes concludes by describing biography as an ‘act of imaginative faith.’

Notes: This essay begins with what must be a distinctive entry to the ‘not-so-humblebrag’ genre:

By the time I had finished my eight-hundred-page biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1974, I was nearly thirty.

Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

Richard Ford On ‘Secular Redemption’

In his review of Richard Ford’Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book (Ecco, 2014) Michael Dirda quotes Ford as saying:

For me what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others liveable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I’d call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time spent on earth is not wasted.

The end of a year–another one that rapidly accelerated, nay, hurtled, to its closing–is as good time as any to think about how the creation of value is supposed to make our brief span of existence ‘meaningful’ and thus not ‘wasted.’ (I suspect the sin of ‘wasting time’ was invented after timepieces were, but that reflection is for another, er, time.) The first part of what Ford supposes human beings are ‘charged’ with is familiar: ‘make our lives and the lives of others as liveable[sic], as important, as charged as we possibly can.’ (These values  raise familiar puzzles about their grounding and meaning.) The second part is more interesting.

Here, Ford invokes first, the agencies of ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ and closes with ‘complicity.’ The first three are explicitly related to the ethics of love that are sometimes derived from the world’s great religious traditions. They suggest that our time on this planet is best spent loving and being loved; from those acts will follow all else. (If we are loved, we will be safe; if we feel safe, we will be not fearful or anxious; we will trust more and be more trustworthy; thus we will be less prone to hatred and distraction, ours, and that of others. And so on.) ‘Complicity’ has a slightly different flavor: we must collaborate. With others like us. On our life’s ‘projects’ and on theirs. Now, ‘complicit’ is usually used to indicate membership in a criminal conspiracy of some sort. What does its use here indicate?

I would venture that very often our life’s projects are ‘illegal’ in some sense or the other. They are not sanctioned; not approved; not permissible–custom, order, procedure, convention, norm, historical precedence must be violated. But we press on; we feel we can do no other. To do so we require collaborators; and the best place to find them is among those for whom we feel and experience and express the ‘affection, intimacy, closeness’ (and presumably trust) that Ford speaks of.

So the notion of secular redemption does two things here: it invokes a unavoidably groundless ethic of love (asking us perhaps to look at our most instinctual reactions of caring and wanting care), and then, in a more existential sense, as it commits us to projects uniquely and particularly of our own making, it also bids us ensure that we remember we cannot accomplish them alone. The only human essence here is one of love; all else remains to be determined. We make ourselves but with others.

Note: I have no idea what Richard Ford thinks ‘secular redemption’ means.