Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault are described in this book by Fons Elders as ‘tunnellers through a mountain working at opposite sides of the same mountain with different tools, without even knowing if they are working in each other’s direction.’ Human Nature: Justice vs. Power is the title of the debate, which originally aired on Dutch television in 1971.
The title is taken from the stance that both men arrived at (or continued to entertain) into in the late stages of their careers. To reduce it to its simplest explanation—a job that the title of the book has already prepared us for—, Chomsky tends to think that some sense of justice is responsible for human nature while Foucault tends to think that programs of power play more into human behavior. One might be tempted to pin the whole occasion down to a manifestation of an ongoing war between foundationalism and hermeneutics, Chomsky being a likely tie to the former and Foucault a likely tie to the latter.
However, nothing between these two thinkers is ever quite that simple. As Chomsky continues on insisting that certain attributes of human language and creativity stem from fundamental biological properties, we start to gather that this insistence has more to do with a scientific need to push forward with a theory in order to see if it stands or falls in some provided context. This also gives Chomsky a chance to remain optimistic about the nature of man by postulating that some notion of justice or, at least, a notion of ‘better justice’ is what drives human nature.
This also gives him the opportunity to remain fairly constant through both subjects—creativity and politics. On the subject of creativity, Foucault seems to disagree with him very little or only in small ways, while remaining suspicious of the inherent logical movement of Chomsky’s assumptions. They split on Descartes and the mind, and the nuance of this split is representative of the paradigmic relationship that these two thinkers have with the subject matter.
The subject of politics is where Foucault is at his most rigorous. When asked why he is interested in politics, the most basic answer he can provide is that it would be far stranger for someone not to be interested in politics, at which point it would be justifiable to ask, ‘Well, damit, why the hell not?’ A self proclaimed ‘Nietzschean,’ Foucault’s specialty is in the genealogies and pedigrees of certain ideas and assumptions. Through socio-linguistic turns, through the intellectual extracts of different sets of phenomena and the inter-subjective dialogue possible between them through different texts, Foucault made a career out of constantly trying to step outside of the historical contexts in which we’re thrown and creating brand new narratives in such a way that they would read as though they were things hidden since the beginning of man.
The most fundamental disagreement happens late into the debate, in the political section, in which Foucault postulates, not without hesitation as though trying to avoid an impolite subject, that the notion of ‘justice’ was created and then perpetuated by oppressed classes as a justification for economic and political power. Chomsky defends justice as being sought as a network of basic human needs like love, decency, kindness and sympathy, whereas Foucault’s view of justice, Chomsky claims, is very specific to only certain political situations and doesn’t take into account instances like two countries going to war—One is left to choose one side, which reduces the objective to a level of basic human needs and the mutual striving of the citizens to achieve it for one another as well as themselves.
Often, Foucault, eager to escape essentialist trappings, always comes back to the subject of power as a means to clarify, though he does seem to rest there much the way Nietzsche did. However Foucault does deserve credit for defining Power along more complex lines than the Nietzschean idea of power as ‘the sensation of having overcome,’ or the force by which every set of phenomena can be reduced—‘will to power.’ Foucault takes it further by saying that power is not simply a way of measuring the ways in which the strong constrain the weak but that it can also be manifested through one culture’s influence of educational tools and medical practices. This turns Foucault around from what some have been tempted to call a pessimistic reading in favor of a cooperative project that coincides with that of Chomsky’s—to work on a more livable world for all.
The debate only takes up about a third of the book. It’s followed up by another great interview with Chomsky alone, in which he discusses American policy, Vietnam, McCarthyism, the crimes of the FBI and the climate of counter culture and how various revolutions developed. There’s one long and one short essay by Foucault and in them, he sets out on a mission to map, with vague hope, a better political future while on the other hand deconstructing basic terms and ideas like ‘justice,’ ‘man of justice,’ ‘shepherd,’ and ‘lawgiver.’
Though no real conclusion is reached between them (as one might expect), it is an interesting look at a very important project for humanity, even if the means to get there are a bit hazy.
The foreword to this edition of the book is determined to, at once, paint its author as a genius worthy of Joyce’s friendship and to divulge to us the most sensational instances of their meeting before we even get a chance to read about it ourselves.
Forgiving the clumsy beginning, we’re then introduced to a token of this particular genre whose most remarkable predecessor—and, surely, a direct model was Conversations with Goethe. Like Eckermann’s Goethe book, Arthur Power’s book is autobiographical in structure but slight on the ‘auto’ at just the instant when the star-artist arrives on the scene of our narrator’s life. At this point, minimal narration segues into a lot of lit-talk.
Though the forward by David Norris suggests that Mr. Powers is humbly portraying a younger, bohemian, ‘romantically-inclined’ version of himself in the shadow of a great genius, one can’t help but think that perhaps Mr. Powers thought, in fact, that he was the one best equipped to match wits with the great Joyce. After all, we’re only warned in the beginning by Powers, ‘My point of view has changed and coincides more with his, but such was it then, and as such I have left it.’ As close to Joyce’s mind as Powers’ mind might have become later, Powers never gives the reader any direct indication that he later disavowed his hatred of Ulysses. He preferred Joyce’s previous works which he thought were more ‘romantic’: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Joyce’s frequent defenses give us some of the most personal insights into the heart of one of the most important books of the twentieth century. Of the work of his latter period, he says,
The important thing is not what we write, but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously: everything is inclined to flux and change nowadays and modern literature, to be valid, must express that flux. InUlysses I tried to express the multiple variations which make up the social life of a city—its degradations and its exaltations. In other words, what we want to avoid is the classical, with its rigid structure and its emotional limitations. The mediaeval, in my opinion, had greater emotional fecundity than classicism, which is the art of the gentleman, and is now as out-of-date as gentlemen are, classicism in which the scents are only sweet, but I have preferred other smells.
And we get plenty of other smells. Not many other novels before or after Ulysses feature a prominent scene with its main character on the john.
Arthur’s experiences with Joyce are set almost entirely in his living room. Much of Joyce’s lifestyle is hardly surprising to read about. He hated all things bohemian. He didn’t like to go to parties and he didn’t feel comfortable around people.
His wit and black humor are reserved for one-on-one conversations (specifically with Powers in this case) as in one instant where Joyce tells the story of a late acquaintance. He was a fellow Irishman named Tuohy, who became jealous and antagonistic when Joyce became an international celebrity. He once annoyed Joyce by mock-clapping when he entered a room. When Joyce learned that Tuohy had committed suicide in America, Power’s tells us that Joyce ‘showed no emotion.’
—I am not surprised, he said. He nearly made me want to commit suicide too.
Unlike Conversations with Goethe, which is made up of warm, congenial insights into many subjects between friends, Conversations with James Joyce is made up almost entirely of literary arguments. It is impressive that Powers was able to honestly capture (to the best of his memory) the biting, sarcastic quips that Joyce reserved for the former’s favorite writers.
After pages of Joyce tearing apart the beloveds of western literature, it is refreshing to hear how much he appreciates Proust. In this book, however, Joyce’s appreciation of an artist is often traded for Power’s dislike of the same. ‘You should give him more patience,’ he tells Powers, ‘…certainly no one has taken modern psychology so far, or to such a fine point.’
When Powers asks if Joyce is interested in Dostoyevsky, he replies, ‘Of course.’ Dostoyevsky, in fact, earns a brief but high place of praise in this book, probably higher than most other names mentioned.
He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence.
The book ends abruptly on an unfortunate and sad, yet totally puzzling note—a rift in their friendship. What’s puzzling about this rift is that it is not only vague—having grown in the soil of Joyce’s ‘ill humour’ which came about one night over a meal—but that seems to rest almost entirely on a gross misinterpretation of a statement that Joyce made to lighten the mood.
When Joyce tells Powers about the birth of his grandson, Powers, ‘not being a family man who dotes on children,’ and who was ‘feeling very bitter at that time about the world in general,’ replies to Joyce with a passive, inconsiderate, ‘Is that all?’ When Joyce replies, heatedly, with, ‘It is the most important thing there is,’ Powers, rather than taking it to mean that family is incredibly important to Joyce, speculates to himself,
‘the most important thing there is’ meant that another Joyce had been born into the world. Even to this day, I am still in doubt, for Joyce’s estimation of merit would on occasion suddenly flare up to a point of madness.'
‘I cannot see what’s so important,’ Powers replies shamelessly. ‘It is something which happens to everyone, everywhere, all the time.’
The fact that Powers qualifies this callous statement by mentioning his not being a family man, by his irritation at Joyce’s alleged self-perception, and also by his unspoken agreement with Beckett of the world that ‘It had gone on long enough,’ leads one to assume that, inevitably, Powers was of the mind that his own position and attitude was justified. What would seem to be his apparent inability to read the situation years later, or at least, to see how it would appear to the common reader on paper, strikes this reader as a comical emotional blind spot.
The personal comedy gives way to sadness, however, as Powers rushes through their subsequent, brief meetings before Joyce’s death, which he hears about over the telephone. Thus, the book concludes,
It had not ended, but had lessened as so many friendships lessen when distance puts its cold hand between them, damped as they are by circumstances and time, and by differences of personality. A personality can fuse with another personality for a time, but when that time is over we gradually re-enter the Solitude of ourselves. Then all that remains is the memory of the fire which once warmed us both, and it is fragments of that memory which I have tried to reconstruct.
This memory reconstruction, this fragment, this already brief friendship, is the closest thing we have to discovering Joyce the man. But such is surely as Joyce would have preferred it: that he left behind, not traces of his life, but only his work.
Henderson the Rain King is a perfect example of why Saul Bellow is perhaps the most serious of comedic writers. His love of language flows through our restless, yearning narrator, Eugene Henderson, an aristocrat dissatisfied with life and forever chasing a voice inside of him screaming, ‘I want! I want! I want!’
Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard is, over all, an exemplary contribution to the very peculiar genre that is the biography of the philosopher.
One of the appeals of the English novel to Americans is its preoccupation with class distinctions. To an American, class distinctions are quite alien—no matter how real they may be subterraneously. Dickens depicted class with cartoonish humanity. C.S. Lewis depicted class with pious vulgarity. As the political and economic spectrum changed in England, the class system, as it happened everywhere, grew a bit complicated.
Martin Amis’s fiction is almost always a sort of love song to the complicated transition from old to new, good to bad and local to foreign. Success is the least thematically subtle of his catalogue.
Either Penguin was just trying to get what they felt to be an inevitable work ahead of them out of the way or their sole criteria for publishing something in the ‘classics’ series relies on a person’s fame. But Morrissey’s fame is of a peculiar sort. A blurb on the book jacket reads: ‘Most pop stars have to be dead before they reach the iconic status that Morrissey has reached in his lifetime,’ (a quote which is prefaced only by a peculiarly vacant ‘It has been said’). It seems that today, to utter something about Morrissey’s legend is to speak a platitude so over-said and annoyingly true that it almost reaches the hardly controversial realm of, ‘It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not.’
Whether one belongs to the lonely stereotype Smiths followers of the 80s who found some affinity with the flower donning, hearing-aid wearing singer, or the almost soccer-frenzied ultra macho Midas Touch madness of the fans flooding the arenas of his solo years, Morrissey has been loved by people in every corner of the globe and he has been loved by them very much for a long time.
The ‘Conversations With’ series has published a number of insightful, witty and sometimes disappointingly normal interviews with extraordinary figures. While some editions feel weighted with the worry of editors having threshed the fields of journo-sensationalism far and wide for just a dozen or less articles on a very non or anti-public figure, I’m sure they made a brief sigh of relief when they saw the huge catalogue of articles, interviews and TV spots to which John Wilson contributed throughout his career. But surely this relief was interrupted when the said editors furrowed their brows, wiped their sweaty foreheads and hyperventilated in the face of some deadline requiring them to pick only the very best of Burgess—hardly a throw-away afternoon task.
Other People is Amis at his most puzzle-like with structure. The book opens with a girl being told that she’s on her own now and to take care. She doesn’t remember anything before that. She names herself Mary in order to say something when people ask her who she is.
In his interview with The Paris Review, Roberto Calasso said the following:
I feel thought in general, and in particular what is unfortunately called “philosophy,” should lead a sort of clandestine life for a while, just to renew itself. By clandestine I mean concealed in stories, in anecdotes, in numerous forms that are not the form of the treatise. Then thought can biologically renew itself, as it were.
It would appear that Roberto Calasso’s own works set out to do just that. The 49 steps alluded to in the title of Calasso’s book refer to a sequence of meaning in the Talmud. Here, however, the sequence, or something like it, is used not on the Talmud but on the