Regrets In Reading

Shane Eide

2-4-2019

Chomsky and Foucault

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Buy The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature

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.

Conversations With James Joyce

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Buy Conversations With James Joyce

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 by Saul Bellow

Henderson The Rain King

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!’

Books and Education

To hear people speak of children’s education today! One will often hear a complacent parent saying, ‘Oh well, as long as they’re reading something.’ This is not much different from saying, ‘Oh well, as long as they’re watching some television program.’ People who haven’t read enough are often too reverent of books. Since the beginning of the time that books were first being written, there is not a year that goes by where it can be said that less books are being written than the year before. The world is overfull of books.

With this truth in mind, many types have developed. There exists one type of person who never reads and wouldn’t care to. Another type doesn’t read and always regrets he didn’t get started on it, believing that perhaps when he has more time and when circumstances are just right he may pick it up in the future.

Another type reads for the same reason he watches television. The only distinction between his reading and his television watching is that his reading provides him with enviable opportunities to tell his peers that he ‘reads a lot’ or ‘enjoys reading.’

There exists a type who reads what is taught at university and trusts that the university’s professors have access to a line of knowledge that categorizes thinkers and writers by level of importance. The type who makes up the ‘university reader’ may be cleverer than his fellow classmates who merely adopt the opinions of their favorite professors. The university reader intuits much larger prejudices that have greater, historical implications and aligns his agreement with those. Certain literary patriarchal successions will find their home in the university reader’s mind and he’ll be able to tell you what relationship these many writers have with one another and how that leads up to where we are today. The even cleverer amongst this group will be able to recognize opposite strains of thought in a literary succession belonging to a different school of thought. He may even be able to tell you why he thinks it’s wrong. The university reader is, above all, a surrogate for different historical narratives in conflict. At his very best, he realizes this about himself.

There exists another type among autodidacts. This type of reader consumes so much text and so often that his mind is a poster-board for everything that has ever been thought in the world before him. Among the types, this is the one who is in the most danger of thinking someone else’s thoughts rather than his own. Even that which passes for originality is always suspect, for he has collected so many strong impressions, has remembered so many passions, that that which is most interesting or seems like it ought to be true is true to him. This is the only type who can be accused of reading too much. He is the one who would benefit from a book-fast. For his whole psychology to renew itself, he needs time to sort his thoughts, dissimulate certain information or maybe forget a great deal of that which cannot possibly mean anything to what he finds most valuable about his own soul.

This type does not often benefit from a peer who will recognize this and say as much. The peers of this type will all too often admire the dark circles under his eyes, his disorganization and stacks of open books, his many complete and incompleted projects, his canceled appointments and lack of sleep. Though this type might be rare as it is, even among this type it is rare to find one who makes the leap from eccentric autodidact to free-thinker (to use an unfortunate, much over-used phrase).

The Chapter

Whether read on scrolls, leaves, pages, napkins or computer screens, every reader needs to take a break now and again. Perhaps, before the art of punctuation was invented, the ancient readers approached texts intuitively and paused where it suited them. Perhaps they were bad at this and that’s why punctuation was invented.

A period is a nice place to take a breath. But what about stopping for the night? Bookmarks only work to an extent. Chapters are much more congenial, showing that the writer is in agreement with the reader and that the book must, at some point, be set on the nightstand and the light shut off (depending on the kind of reader you are—Some people blaze bleary-eyed through a book and come out the other side of the morning tired at work or school or gym).

But are chapters not a little tyrannical, too? It is by them that the author tells you how to read the book. But then, one could argue, punctuation does much the same. Language tells us how to think just as thoughts tell us how to speak.

The chapter, as a convention, seems to arise precisely from the means by which the book is published. In the nineteenth century, it was common for books to be published in journals. It was conducive to the medium that one chapter fit easily within the binding. It was usually meant to be consumed in one sitting like a television show today.

How does one chapter a book? How does one break a chapter up? Titles of chapters varied. You could do like Dickens and go with a simple Chapter One or Chapter 1. Or, simply, One. The minimalism of 1 has its appeal; it forces fewer presuppositions on the text. The more ambitious writers title their chapters like poets do poems. The latter-period Dostoyevsky resorted to the comical habit of titling chapters things like

Chapter 17

“You lie!”

in which a character, at some point in the chapter, utters the phrase, ‘You lie!’

Dostoyevsky in particular, along with a great many others of the journal-driven variety, wrote books featuring dozens and dozens of short chapters whose breaks would, by today’s breaking standards, seem wholly arbitrary. Every once in a while, the cliffhanger would take effect and an unexpected guest would walk into the room. The next chapter would immediately feature a description of the unexpected guest’s face or some exciting news he had to offer. Then other chapters would simply find their place between two pieces of dialogue, as if to trick the reader into a sort of maieutic excitement.

With Beckett and Joyce, we reach an immensely unjournalistic kind of novel. The chapters are books in themselves, written as though to be consumed in one sitting though this is often impossible.

A book like Gaddis’s JR,which plays with the theme of communication, is not split up by any chapters in the entirety of its 700 odd pages. Rather, the ‘breaks’ are densely written vignettes between bits of exhaustive dialogue which act as mechanisms to transition one scene and set of characters to another—the book being a series of literary French Scenes.

Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, though divided up more conventionally, is by no means conventionalwithin the chapter. In a chapter of this book, years might pass or days might pass, or perhaps a single meal which then turns into a meal months later. The second of two famous party scenes in the book runs to about 85 pages, making up the entirety of a chapter. Upon my second reading of the book, I realized with great amazement, after spending several hours on these 85 pages, that I was taking as much time on this party chapter as I would an actual party—a chapter written in real time.

For some writers, chapter breaks are merely something cumbersome to fit in. Certain long-winded writers of epics are always itching anxiously for the place they can finally end their thought so that they can go on to the next. For other writers, the chapter is a source of salvation—a means to switch first-person perspectives or a means to include a little aside or to issue a complete narrative rupture.

William T. Vollmann used fake chapters as a plot device in You Bright and Risen Angels by listing the names of unwritten chapters to give the reader an idea of what events take place after the actual book finishes.

The Adventures of Augie March allowed itself all the voluptuous tendencies of the old big European books to ruminate on some philosophical idea at the beginning and endings of its chapters, though the chapters themselves are quite long.

The Bible was chaptered and versed long after its writing. Perhaps writers who prefer to practice their craft off-the-cuff with no mind for cutting their work into marketable, bit-sized baby pieces would prefer the same for their own work.

Others make an art of it. Often, the structure of a book may be determined by the way its chapters come falling out of the book like cards with so many clues on them.Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship has a curious beginning. Several short chapters comprise one meal as Wilhelm tells his loved ones about his memories of puppeteeing with his peers as a child. These little pulsing spurts of story, broken up so frequently, were perhaps meant to act as a little selah in an introduction not labeled something so marketable, like ‘Prologue.’ It is asubterraneousintroduction, implied in the tone and pace of the text. As Goethe’s chapters get longer and longer, the fragmented story of puppeteering from the beginning suddenly struck me, while reading, as a strange memory, almost as though I was trying to recall a dream. I was able to recall all of the different, subtle shifts in perspective that this method of splicing awarded, which colored my view of the hero and how he acted for the longer stretches of text later in the book.

If pausing is also about reflection, it is little wonder that we impose a book-like structure to our own lives. How often, when speaking of changes, do we ‘open a new chapter?’ The forms of life and the condition of the universe have, perhaps, already planted the chapter-structure in our minds. Are the seasons not chapters? Are hours not scenes? Are our lives not stories from which we would like to take a break now and again so that we might reflect on what they mean before entering them again? Perhaps the similarity is a bit unfair. With life, we don’t have the luxury of re-reading any of the chapters.

Would You Pay to Create?

It is an encouraging time to be an artist. Social media has provided artists with many tools to promote themselves without the help of agents, publishers, stores and sales.

However, all of these things are fleeting and contingent. There are waves of these good times that come in different forms. At one point, mass-market paperbacks were a revolutionary way for publishers to save money. After a while, the trend shifted away from buying them and, for various other reasons, mass-market paperbacks were only a priority for certain kinds of books.

It's all in flux. Right now, things like Instagram are good for pictures, Smashwords and Amazon are good for ebooks and facebook seems to be beneficial to pretty much every kind of art.

The only problem is that these forms of media come with an ever-changing, strict set of rules which more favor art that is easily digestible. You might find yourself compromising your art in order to fit it into the package favored by a particular medium. After a while, these forms of media will fade away as things do. Maybe it'll take a while, but they won't be around forever.

I say this not to alarm you, but to encourage you to question what it is that causes you to create what you create. Do you create it because you think it is easy and will make you money, or do you create it because you love it? If you just want to make money, that's fine, but don't be surprised when you no longer can. Nothing lasts forever.

However, I would put this question to you. If you absolutely had to, would you pay money to create what you love creating? If the answer is yes, you're probably in the best position. That is not to say you should pay, but it gives you an idea of where you're heart is at. What length are you willing to go to do what you love? Would you create it even if there was a possibility no one would see it?

I don't say this in an attempt to make you isolate yourself from the world, but to keep you from getting discouraged. If anything, having an attitude of creation that comes from a love of the work will keep you coming back to the world even after what would be considered worldly ‘failure.'

Remember, even though these forms of media are contingent, you can adapt. Walt Whitman went door to door selling printed copies of Leaves of Grass. Instagram is great, but what if it's not around forever? Get a website and put up flyers for it where people can see your work. As a matter of fact, your website won't be around forever either. Set up a booth. Put out business cards. The only person who is going to stop you is yourself.

Smashwords and Amazon work great for getting digital copies of your book out, but what if they go bankrupt someday? You can weep, or you can take action. Get a website where you have your own digitally formatted copies of your work available. It will take more work, but it's what you love. Learn how to make books from the bottom up and try making a few of your own. Use a room in your house as an art gallery for your paintings. Have concerts in your back yard or someone else's.

These are all means of making your work available. Most artists would love to have major promotion for their work and that's wonderful. However, just be aware of the fact that all the avenues you could go through have a beginning and will also have an end. All those beginnings happened because someone decided to start out small and put the work in. Always remember that you can do the same. Artists always have many options. If you feel like options are few, create some new ones. Creating things is what artists do.