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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee

What strikes me the most about this short collection of letters is how discreetly it came and went through the literary radars, and how little notice it received from reviewers.  I must admit that the entire volume strikes as (for the lack of a better term) fabricated, but this is something that is openly accepted on the dust-jacket summary of the book.  Paul Auster (the great, white Jewish one) approached J.M. Coetzee about engaging in open-ended letters, topics as varied as the open world and not limited to literary matters.  Thus begins a conversation between these two literary giants that is at once trivial as it is insightful.  I know, I know... the typical polite self-contradictory description used by many when they cannot commit themselves to make an assessment resembling either/or.  Yet, the more I read, the more engaged I became.  Rarely does one see a collection of letters of varied topics such as the nature of sports, incest in literature, death and living, parenthood, statistics, art, politics and history in the Middle East, etc.  I found many of the discussions trivial, yes, but the real revelatory moments more than made up for the investment.

What happens in collections of letters is that the reader 1) expects a long period of correspondence, and 2) correspondence that in some ways encapsulates the events of the day, at that time, as they are occurring.  My last experience with "the letters of..." was that of "The Collected Letters of James Wright," a book I often refer back to, looking randomly at underlined passages for their powerful content, and mere brutality of description.  I don't foresee myself the same with "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" but I am glad I got to read something new by Paul Auster (sorry, Mr Coetzee) because he's the one and only for me.  I don't engage in hero-worship, not in sports or politics or history, and certainly not in literary matters (with the aforementioned exception, of course).

One passage that struck me as perhaps the most important is that of Paul Auster explaining his reservations about electronic readers.  Auster is honest about being a technophobe, and at the same time not being against electronic readers due to the fact that they promote the act of reading, and anything that does that should be encouraged.  Where things go awry (and I confess that, as an opponent of electronic readers, I never looked at it this way) is the flexibility of the technology to "destroy" the impermeable, hard object.  Auster explains: "On the other hand, I do have certain fears. (Fears, by the way, already borne out by the destruction of the music business. How I miss browsing in record shops!) Amazon, which has so far cornered the market here, is selling books at too low a price, is in fact taking a loss with each book it sells in order to woo the public into buying the machines. One can foresee dire consequences in the long term: the collapse of publishing houses, the death of bookstores, a future in which every writer is his own publisher. As Jason Epstein pointed out in an article in the New York Review [of Books] some months ago, it is absolutely essential that our libraries be maintained, since they are the bedrock of civilization. If everything went digital, think of the possible mischief that could ensue. Erased texts, vanished texts, or, just as frightening, altered texts."  This last prediction was one I never thought about.  It is, indeed, frightening.  As for Epstein's plea about the libraries, the same thing goes.  I used to believe that libraries were exempt from the threat of electronic text/readers until I visited the newly restored main campus library at the undergraduate college I graduated from.  The library is not almost entirely stripped of books in the second and third floor.  There are all sorts of "reader friendly" areas but most people are engaged in the use of computers rather than the act of reading itself.  I was waiting for a friend who was attending a class at the time and went for a walk, an investigating journey to see what the library had been transformed to.  My shock was severe when I entered the third floor to notice all the periodicals (peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines) were gone, scanned in part and now available in micro-strip.  I cannot recount the hours I spent there as an undergraduate when, left alone on campus with nowhere to go during breaks, I would pick random bounded volumes of "Time Magazine" from the 1920s and just past the pages (as well as the hours).  The third floor currently houses a great number of pseudo-offices (more like encapsulated cubicles) for para-professionals offering tutoring services, and, housing support professionals with important sounding titles like "Assistant Director of Student Achievement."  But I digress.  Imagine an electronic text of "Moby-Dick" in which the thinly-veiled homo-erotic scene of Ishmael and Qeequeg tossing in bed at the Nantucket inn is turned explicit by someone with a hyper-sexual imagination bordering on the pornographic... or a "Crime and Punishment" where Raskolnikov is able to make it to America as a stowaway and works himself through the ranks of Wall Street and into American financial "respectability."  Hard to imagine that happening?  Really, just browse Wikipedia for an hour and see for yourself.

I don't expect to agree with Paul Auster on every topic.  Even with my admiration of his work, I know enough to separate the man from the artist.  I confess I find his excessive criticism of conservatism (here in America and in Israel) a bit on the simplistic side.  That is to say, at the point where the subject is broached, Auster sounds like a blind liberal, a person that as soon as the term "conservative" or "right-wing" is mentioned in conversation, all bets are off and the engagement on ad hominems and hasty generalizations of all sorts is fair game.  I hold that type of liberalism and conservatism at a distance.  I've been on both sides of the political spectrum, and find myself disgusted by both in ways that are both irreparable and final.  What I see happening in political discourse is painful (even more painful when it comes from someone as intelligent as Auster)... the whole idea that someone will find Fox News irritating, despicable, dishonest and nauseating but just as well find MSNBC the pinnacle of intelligence and decorum makes me weep in silence for the idiocy of this country.  I don't watch television and only collect news items from the international press.  The American press is a cesspool of misinformation and unethical brain-washing on both sides of the political spectrum.  Those who see evil at the mention of George W Bush are the same sheep who can find no fault with Barack Obama despite his many violations (many of which, the overseas use of drone, is far worse than Bush... but of course, I will be accused of being a victim of right-wing propaganda).  Nobody is perfect, but both sides are equally rotten.

J.M. Coetzee is an enigma to me.  I believe I've read a few of his essays but none of his books.  I am eagerly awaiting my next trip to the bookstore.  Certainly his most famous titles are in order.  If anyone could recommend a title to start off with, please let me know.  I am more than intrigued.  I find him sensible and deeply honest in all and any of the topics these two giants engage in in the course of their correspondence.

It's a short and almost predictable little book, but "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" will not disappoint.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism" by Ayn Rand

I have fallen into the habit of picking up books that are perhaps a bit on the out-dated side and yet finding myself unable to put them down.  I've always felt an intense responsibility to finish a book, even (and perhaps even more specially so) those that I know would yield little to my time investment. This was sort of the case with Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism."  The difficulty with this short little collection of essays (many of which are by Nathaniel Branden, the psychological theorist) is that while some of the ideas are outdated, many are frighteningly close to the current dilemma facing the United States today.  Whether political, social, civic or even religious, Rand touches on subject that are front and center to today's current events.  Of course, the initial reaction is to think that these subjects are so general in content that they transcend the span of 50 years, but upon closer inspection, this is not the case.

There is very little that can be called "general" about individual rights and the role of an either big or small government in the daily lives of citizens. Even after 50 years, Rand is insightful mainly because the universality (not generality) of the issues resonates beyond the construct of her age.  For example, Rand defines "Values" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep--virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.  The three cardinal rules of the Objectivist ethics--the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life--are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride."  She then moves on to describing/defining the idea in more detail: "Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.  Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work--pride is the result.  Rationality is man's basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues.  Man's basic vice, the source of his evils, is the act of unfocusing his mind, the suspension of his consciousness, which is not blindness but the refusal to see, not ignorance, but the refusal to know.  Irrationality  is the rejection of man's means of survival and, therefore, a commitment to a course of blind destruction; that which is anti-mind, is anti-life."  

Rand defines a complex system of ethical values (the Objectivist ethics) by clearly and systematically defining that which is NOT the values productive to men.  Whatever is based on a whim, on an emotion, and not based on a rational/logical premise is detrimental to humanity as a whole.  The modern concept of "altruism" is labeled by Rand as the major culprit.  The idea that men must sacrifice from their toil because of how it makes others (and himself) feel is unethical and down-right disgusting to her.  I do see the level of extremism that can be constructed from this idea, but it does hold when one applies the idea of purpose to it.  If I mean to help someone because I fear others might think me a brute for not doing so, or, worse, if I do help someone because of my own selfish interest to portray myself as a humanitarian, then I am not doing anyone service.  Ayn Rand takes it further, of course, in insisting that modern altruism is completely immoral and incompatible with human nature.  In that I see a great deal of truth, but I fear the hasty generalization renders the argument problematic.  She expands on the idea of "feel" versus "rational thinking:"  "Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or ate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.  If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer.  The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.  If a man desires and pursues contradictions--if he wants to have his cake and eat it, too--he disintegrates his consciousness; he turns his inner life into a civil war of blind forces engaged in dark, incoherent, pointless, meaningless conflicts (which, incidentally, is the inner state of most people today)."  All one has to do is look at the apologetic principles and ideas of political correctness today to concede the argument.  Rand, whether we like it or not, is right about most people leading their lives not so much based on a rational system of beliefs but rather they seem to go about making decisions based on how these decisions make them "feel."

Rand is quite concrete in her argument for individual rights.  She offers specifics about how a society either allows the government to dictate those rights, to change them at their whim for the sake of "greater goods."  The entire premise of a giant central government telling people what they can or cannot do invalidates the idea of guaranteed individual rights. Once again, whether I agree or not with Rand, I must yield the argument.  While it sounds simplistic enough, Rand offers specifics: "The necessary consequence of man's right to life is his right to self-defense.  In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.  All the reason which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.  If some "pacifist" society renounced the retaliatory use of force, it would be left helplessly at the mercy of the first thug who decided to be immoral.  Such a society would achieve the opposite of its intention: instead of abolishing evil, it would encourage it and reward it."  This passage resonates with today's argument by law-abiding citizens to "keep and bear arms."  We cannot outlaw all guns, collect them, destroy them... to think that thugs and criminals would line up to peacefully and willingly give up the tools of their trade is unrealistic and based on emotional nonsense.  By the same token, forcing a law-abiding citizen to surrender the means by which he defends his property and family is irresponsible by virtue of the previous sentence's premise.

Of course there is much more to Rand's little collection of essays (many of the finest ideas are also presented by Nathaniel Brand).  The last essay "The Argument from Intimidation" is a prime example of what passes today for political discourse in both Left and Right information outlets (MSNBC & Fox News, correspondingly).  We are at the end of what Ayn Rand warned 50 years ago.  With nearly all aspects of American life (social, civic, religious, individual/special group) reaching critical mass, every year we live in this collective blindness is another year from which we might not return to reason.

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