Tuesday, February 26, 2008

James MacMillan on "unthinking dogmatism"

The Spectator has published an article by the Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan which is a weakly argued diatribe against a so-called 'new cultural elite.' In the space of a few hundred words, MacMillan manages to give a rallying call for some old-time religion and weep crocodile tears for the passing of a glorious age of grand socialism, throwing in a few unexplained pops at the arts and education in the process, and ending on a hysterical claim about the 'deliberate dismantling of the family.' Phew. heady stuff. Let's examine this a bit more closely.

MacMillan begins by attacking the new-left elite:

A new generation appeared, whose interest seemed less in economic inequality and more in confronting the traditional values of people like my grandfather, whose beliefs had underpinned the very idea of social order.
This appears to be meant pejoratively, as though confronting the beliefs of a previous generation were somehow wrong. But how do we progress, unless we question? How does society advance? He goes on:

The Left, which had been shaped as much by the muscular Christianity of the 19th century as by anything else, was now being colonised by something very foreign indeed.
'Muscular' Christianity seems, to me, something very worthwhile confronting. What exactly is 'muscular' Christianity? MacMillan is a Roman Catholic so it will presumably embrace (although embrace is a word which suggests more sympathy than Catholicism traditionally musters) a hierarchical, authoritarian, joyless worldview that demotes love of humanity beneath adoration of a supernatural creation, that fetishises sin and leaves its adherents reeling in assumed guilt, that refuses to acknowledge, for example, such instinctual propensities as homosexuality, that forbids contraception or abortion and fails to understand the link between the two, that insists on keeping the world in some sort of moral and social time warp as dictated by an old man in Rome, that perpetuates its own moral superiority and promotes the sort of separatism that has seen my country (and his) blighted by bigotry and sectarianism for all of my life and for generations before me.

But I'm in danger of following MacMillan onto a demented ride on a personal hobby-horse, so I'll desist. Anyway, this is a far more interesting point:

I regret to say that the most eager acceptance of the new hectoring political puerilities are to be found in The Arts. This has its roots in Romanticism, of course, but a gradual systemisation of radical politics settled in the early 20th century.
What a curious couple of sentences. The first could have come from Rousseau – the Arts as dangerous manipulator of frail humanity, always preying on our curiosity and vanity and credulity. But then MacMillan blames all this on Romanticism, a movement which traces its roots back – of course – to the Savoyard Vicar himself, one M. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Perhaps MacMillan is conflating Romanticism and the Enlightenment?

Romantics were interested in human freedom, which should be expressed through life, philosophy, the arts. Many Romanticists, Rousseau himself, for example, were deeply religious, even devoutly Catholic. Blaming them for the debasement of the arts which leads to the corruption of humanity, which is essentially what MacMillan is suggesting here, is facile. But not as facile as the way, within a sentence, he manages to turn those pesky Romantics into 'Imagists, Vorticists, Futurists, Surrealists, Expressionists habitually declar[ing] their commitment to Revolution.' It's a breathtaking leap, that, from Hazlitt and Wordsworth to Marinetti and Breton.

So let's probe a bit further. What is it about the Arts that so alarms him? It's to do with a 'love of transgression,' apparently, which sounds fascinating. What does that mean? It is characterised by 'anti-bourgeois militancy,' he explains, amplifying this with the example of 'Harold Pinter's descent into infantilism every time he mentions the United States, or for that matter decides to write poetry.' Aside from the patent nonsense he next espouses that the art-establishment lauds rather than ridicules Pinter's poetry (I've never heard anyone say anything good about it, and am hardly alone in ripping it to shreds), how on Earth can one attempt to explain a 'love of transgression' by way of Harold Pinter's dismal war poetry? As a non-sequiteur it's right up there with suggesting Pinky and Perky caused the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Next, he turns his attention to 'arts criticism' (which he dismisses as a 'secular priesthood,' an oddly pejorative use of the religious office for a Roman Catholic arguing for religion and against atheism, but logic is an increasingly rare commodity in this article). He talks of a 'new cultural elite,' whose role is 'to attack the institutions and principles of our shared common life.' He goes further:

What we are seeing here is a cultural regime which adjudicates artists and their work on the basis of how they contribute to the remodelling, indeed the overthrow of society's core institutions and ethics.
Again, an arresting claim. Where's the evidence? He quotes the Guardian describing an introductory talk he gave to one of his performances as 'perilous.' In what way perilous, he asks, but does not do the Guardian the courtesy of going on to give their explanation. He leaves it hanging as an implicit rebuke, but a quote without context is merely an exercise in obfuscation. In attempting to prove or describe the 'new cultural elite' it achieves nothing.

In his next example he correctly trashes an idiotic statement from Lisa Goldman which is a lazy and puerile exercise in straw-man building. He is right to state that we should not assume that everything broadly to the right of the spectrum is of a muchness, and that therefore we should not caricature others' opinion thus. A useful lesson that MacMillan might profitably learn from himself.

Having managed only two examples of a 'new cultural elite', neither of which demonstrates how it uses its alleged powers to any malevolent intent, MacMillan concludes with another magnificent generalisation: 'There is a growing backlash against this bullying, hectoring and unthinking dogmatism.'

Bullying? Hectoring? Unthinking dogmatism? Let's remind ourselves of his evidence: The Guardian called him 'perilous.' Lisa Goldman gives a simplistic response to a query about a left-liberal consensus. That's it. Heaven help us when someone says something really nasty about him.

He moves on:

There is a growing resolve to confront a liberal establishment in the Arts, media and elsewhere, responsible for the systematic trashing of much that has been our common heritage, including authentic socialist values handed down from Keir Hardie and others.
Since he failed to give any evidence in the first place of the systematic trashing of our heritage, it was always going to be too much to expect him to provide evidence of the backlash either, so we just have to take this assertion at face value. Or not.

In his conclusion he tries to explain his anger in terms of being an ex-Socialist and a 'good' Catholic; he seeks to claim the mantle of old-fashioned socialism and assert the primacy of religion; he lambasts education, the media, the 'vulgarisation of society' and, (apropos nothing and introduced in the last act like the murderer in an Agatha Christie novel) the 'deliberate and planned dismantling of the family.'

All of this explains what is wrong with the article. It is completely muddle-headed. It is imprecise and unclear. MacMillan is clearly angry, clearly sees something which he regards as a threat to his way of life, but this diatribe is poorly focused, weakly argued and utterly confused. The frustrating thing is that I don't dismiss some of his ideas out of hand – I think he has a point about the appropriation of left-wing politics by idealogues whose allegiance is to their ideology and not to humanity; but he doesn't argue his case persuasively. He allows it to slip into the personal, he gives his own emotions too much intellectual weight, he allows his prejudices to colour his argument. It is unfortunate that a topic worthy of debate is given such shallow treatment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Zen and the matter of quality

More from Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, discussing quality and modern American (ie mid-seventies) technology:

stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized houses. Plastic stylized toysfor stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It's the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don't know where to start because no one has ever told them there's such a thing as Quality inthis world and it's real, not style.

Written in 1974, and possibly more valid today than then? Consider my post on this blog a couple of days ago about the Brits and their need to be observed all the time, to have the finest, the newest, the most expensive. It's the triumph of packaging over content, artifice over reality.

Pieter de Hooch in Delft

A couple of attempts, in Delft where he worked, to recapture the spirit of Pieter de Hooch's paintings, with his keyhole views of another world beyond the painting and with his layered spaces such as the view of windows through windows. The first two are of Oude Kerk in Delft. The last one is a view from a bar in Amsterdam onto Spuistraat.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Vermeer and Bosch

Looking at Vermeer's The Procuress the other day I was immediately struck by the image of the older man second from the left. I felt straight away that I recognised him, and then realised he came from Bosch's Christ Mocked (Crowning with thorns). Looking at it again, I see it is inverted so he's looking right instead of left, and the nose is a bit different, but the similarity of their expressions is striking.
The Bosch was painted in 1500 or thereabouts, the Vermeer in 1656. But it's not far from 's Hertogenbosch, where Bosch came from, and Vermeer's home in Delft. I wonder if Vermeer ever saw the Bosch?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Saul Bellow on Robbe-Grillet

Alain Robbe-Grillet has died at the age of 85.

I want to like the nouveau roman more than I actually do. It should be exciting, different, stimulating, but too often it feels stilted and, frankly, dull.

Saul Bellow, in his Nobel acceptance speech, quoted Robbe-Grillet:

The novel of characters belongs entirely in the past... Individuals have been wiped out… The exclusive cult of the 'human' has given way to a larger consciousness, one that is less anthropocentric.

Bellow countered: "Can it be that human beings are at a dead end?" He rounded on the intellectual community – "another group of mummies" – which had "laid down the law":
It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms… We must not make bosses of our intellectuals.

Although he conceded that "there is no reason why a novelist should not drop 'character' if the strategy stimulates him," Bellow was clear on the importance of character in his work:

A "character" has his own logic. He goes his way, one goes with him; he has some perceptions, one perceives them with him. You do him justice, you don't grind your axe. I have no axe to grind, one way or the other.

Straightforward facts

Came across this quote in Conrad's Heart of darkness:

For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long.
This rather put me in mind of Barthelme from An Indian Uprising:
"Some people," Miss R. said, "run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool."

It's an idea that is interesting me at present. I'm not sure where I'm going with this line of thought, but it is definitely working itself into something in my head. In the disconnected world I feel we all belong to, there is the certainty of fact but, as we understand more as a society, facts blur, become less tangible, less convincing. And modern culture, as I have discussed on this blog elsewhere, is anyway eschewing fact or knowledge or certainty for feeling and emotion and empathy. There is increasingly no nutlike word, no straightforward fact. Where does this leave us?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stephen Lukes on power

Stephen Lukes. Power: a radical review.


Lukes's 1974 study, Power: a radical view,[1] was in response to the ongoing debate in American political philosophy about whether their politics was dominated by a ruling elite or by pluralist democracy. Lukes broadened the debate and attempted to put it on a more practical footing by asking not only theoretical questions about power, but by considering how they could be answered empirically.

He contended that existing views – elitist and pluralist – all took too narrow a definition of power. in particular, picking up on his point about establishing empirical answers, he felt that not enough attention was paid to those latent aspects of power which are least suited to measurement. In analysing power, it is most important, he said, to consider those aspects which are less able to be observed.

One-dimensional view
Underlying his study he uses Dahl's [2] basic definition of power: A exercises power over B when he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. This model focuses on behaviour, decision making, key issues and observable conflict. In other words, it concentrates only on the overt wielding of power, that which is intentional and active and revealed through observable conflict in which the prevailing subjective interests of the political elite are revealed by policy preferences. This could be described as a one-dimensional view, and is broadly that of the pluralists. It describes how political power is conducted. But it does not reveal how the political agenda is controlled.

Two-dimensional view
Researchers like Bachrach and Baratz ,[3][4] take this much further. They say that Dahl's approach only takes account of concrete actions and decisions. In reality, however, power may or may not be used, and it may or may not even be evident. It is not purely intentional nor is it always active. Moreover, there is an element of non-decision making as well as decision making: power resides not only in the ability of A to force B to do something he would not otherwise do, but also in his ability to make choice impossible in the first place, by dictating what may or may not be discussed. Political debate can be confined to relatively unimportant issues. This was described by Schattschneider [5] as the 'mobilisation of bias' – the promotion of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others – where demands for change which are contrary to the interests of the ruling group are effectively removed from the political debate. Lukes describes Bachrach and Baratz's approach as a two-dimensional view, which focuses on decision making and control of the political agenda, issues and potential issues, and observable (including covert) conflict.

Three-dimensional view
Lukes says that even this does not go far enough because it does not allow for unobserved conflict. B's thoughts and beliefs may be shaped without him even being aware of it. There may be latent conflict – B is not fully aware of his own needs and cannot therefore articulate them, because the political debate has been shaped to prevent discussion of those needs. In such circumstances, then, conflict may not even exist – the use of manipulation and authority may obviate the need for it. This is a three-dimensional view. It allows a deeper analysis of power which is at once theoretical and empirical. As with the two-dimensional view it focuses on decision making and control of the political agenda, issues and potential issues, and observable (including covert) conflict. It also focuses, however, on the prevention of grievances. Where the two-dimensional view stated that non-decision making only arose when grievances were expunged from the political debate, Lukes argued a more insidious case, that B's perceptions and beliefs could be effectively shaped in such a way as to prevent the grievance from even being formed: in other words, B simply accepts the status quo as being in his interests because he has no evidence and no discourse to suggest otherwise.

The third dimension of power, therefore, could be summarised as the mobilisation of political power to ensure grievances do not enter the political debate and that conflict and issues are prevented from existing. It is, if you like, the prophylactic approach to power. It builds on previous conceptions of power which are based on the analysis of behaviour and outcomes, but ensures that the focus falls equally on those aspects which are less easily observable. By focusing on the unconscious shaping of an individual's thoughts and beliefs, the political elite can remain pre-eminent.

However, what Lukes fails to do successfully is declare exactly how he can evaluate what is, by definition, not there. If B is unaware of his better interests, how may this be measured? If power is manifested through inaction rather than action, how may this be measured? If power is, as Lukes asserts, on occasion exercised unconsciously, how may this be measured? Bachrach and Baratz have a patrician way of dealing with trifles such as the question of how to measure unmeasurables, saying they find the argument 'unimpressive,'[6] without explaining why or how it can be countered. Lukes takes this approach even further: he simply ignores the question.

[1] Stephen Lukes. Power: a radical view. London: MacMillan, 1974 (Expanded Second edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).
[2] Robert A. Dahl. Who governs? Democracry and power in an American city. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
[3] Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz. Two faces of power. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 56, No. 4. (Dec. 1962), pp. 947-952.
[4] Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz. Decisions and non-decisions: an analytical framework. The American Political Science Review. Vol. 57, No. 3, (Sep. 1963), pp. 632-642.
[5] E.E. Schattschneider. The semi-sovereign people: a realist’s view of democracy in America. Harcourt College Pub., 1975, p. 71
[6] Bachrach and Baratz. Decisions and non-decisions. Op. cit., p. 642.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Finding a voice

I was at a good amateur production of Abigail's Party last night. The acting all round was pretty decent and the pace was good: there are some moments in the play which rely on long, uncomfortable silences, and I guess, as an actor, full of nerves, it must be terribly tempting to rush the moment and lose the impact. They avoided this well.

One thing that struck me was the main character, Beverly. Because we know the Alison Steadman version so well it must be horribly difficult to do that role. She was truly extraordinary, she took over that character, made her live. How do you follow that? You don't. But, for all actors doing that role, it must be very hard not to - unintentionally - end up mimicking Alison Steadman. Her performance was so searing it is surely not impossible for some of it to seep into your interpretation of it. And so, last night, I could definitely see some of Alison Steadman on the stage, as well as Beverly.

This is a problem writers face, too: the unconscious mimicry of your favourite authors. I found, when I started writing, that virtually everything was in the voice of Oscar from The Tin Drum. Style, voice, even plot can be unconsciously carried into your own writing. It's not deliberate, it's not dishonest, it's just the inevitable leaching of your influences into your words.

But, unlike actors taking on a role made famous by someone else, there is something writers can do about it. Be brave. Be different. Find your own bloody voice, say what you want to say, not what Gunther Grass wanted to say.

What it comes down to is subject matter. Why are you a writer? Why are you writing what you write? What are you trying to say? Until you have even a vague idea of this, why are you bothering?

More Zen education

Another quote from Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. This one just reinforces the old John Stuart Mill line about teaching them to enquire not to mimic, but with a government as childishly intransigent on educational theory as this one, triangulation of a point may be the only way to get through to them:
Schools teach you to imitate. If you don't imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you As. Originality on the other hand could get you anything - from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

It's the last line that is so compelling, and so disturbing. Not only does the system stifle innovation, it punishes it. And this was written in America in the 70s. In Britiain in the 00s, with our demented testing regime and almost Maoist overworking of young children, the situation gets bleaker.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Zen and the art of education

Readers of this blog will know that I am a passionate devotee of learning, as opposed to education - the gleaning of knowledge, not the memorising of facts. This appealed to me, from Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance:

The real university... has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.
Just so. We so often, and so foolishly, mistake the concrete for the abstract, assume the shell to be the substance. I used to be a librarian and we had the same problem - after all, libraries are nothing other than informal universities - with people mistaking the building for the service and the books for knowledge. Books are only information: it takes a human brain to create knowledge.

Friday, February 08, 2008


Allegory "is the usual recourse of sterile minds"
Denis Diderot, Jacques the fatalist.

Perhaps so. Certainly, allegory is over-done, and too often done badly. You would think it hard to be didactic and allegorical at once, but so many manage it. Watership Down, for example, or absolutely anything to do with the "war on terror". But that's not the fault of allegory, that's the fault of satire: we've lost the ability to laugh at ourselves. We take ourselves too seriously.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Rousseau's conception of nature and civilization

Rousseau uses the development of the arts and sciences as a way of describing the fall of man from a "golden age" of a "state of nature". He explains:

When there is no effect, there is no cause to seek. But here [discussing the arts and science] the effect is certain, the depravity real, and our souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and arts toward perfection. [1]

Therefore, he has drawn a direct link between corruption and the arts and sciences. It seems to me, however, that although he talks of cause and effect, they are quite confused in this work. Powers, writing in 1962, quoted an unnamed American historian who noted:

serious students of [Rousseau's] political philosophy are in complete disagreement as to what he meant. [2]

And Hope Mason is just as blunt:

if we read the Discours without benefit of hindsight it is hard to discern any complete philosophy. [3]

Rousseau's basic point is straightforward: man is corrupt and the arts and sciences have played a role in that corruption. He states in the First Part:

So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature, and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men's breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people. [4]

This suggests that Rousseau believes arts and sciences make conformists of us all. He would go further and use the term 'slaves'. And it is the study of arts and sciences that causes us to be "mean, corrupt and miserable." [5] Therefore, he believes that arts and sciences corrupt morals and they are the direct cause of man’s downfall. In the Discourse, he specifically blames certain sciences:

Astronomy was born of superstition, eloquence of ambition, hatred, falsehood, and flattery; geometry of avarice; physics of an idle curiosity; and even moral philosophy of human pride. Thus the arts and sciences owe their birth to our vices; we should be less doubtful of their advantages, if they had sprung from our virtues. [6]

The arts also come in for criticism. Without "...useless writers and litterateurs… society would be more peaceful and morals less corrupt." [7]

Therefore, Rousseau is clearly making the point that arts and sciences have had a corrupting influence. They are explicitly the cause of corruption. But later he writes:

It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste. [8]

Now, it appears that luxury is the cause of corruption. Earlier, he wrote:

The waste of time is certainly a great evil; but still greater evils attend upon literature and the arts. One is luxury, produced like them by indolence and vanity. Luxury is seldom unattended by the arts and sciences; and they are always attended by luxury. [9]

This is a very curious passage, in which Rousseau seems to be arguing that both the arts and sciences and luxury are the product of indolence and vanity. Therefore, indolence and vanity now appear to be the cause of corruption, and the advancement of the arts and sciences the effect. Moreover, luxury is also described as being a corrupting influence on arts and sciences. It is therefore both cause and effect.

However, as Powers points out, there is a further contradiction. Rousseau believes that everything is radically dependent on politics. [10] Thus, "the arts and sciences and their relationship to morals could only be indirect." Powers goes on:

In his Discourse on the origins of inequality, he went to the root of the matter: the original difficulty was not the arts and sciences, but was the order of inequality, which they reflect and embellish. [11]

So now it appears that inequality, which is a by-product of politics and which is merely reflected and embellished by arts and sciences, is the cause of corruption.

At the root of this seeming confusion is Rousseau's contention that pride is the real cause of man's downfall. Everything else arises from that. Campbell and Scott note:

Human pride is the source of "all" human learning, and the cause of its corruption. [12]

They continue:

However beautiful the spectacle of the advancement of the sciences may be, Rousseau asks his readers to consider their deleterious effect upon public morals. [13]

And here, as always, Rousseau comes back to his view of civilisation and his central point, that man has fallen from his ideal state and become corrupted:

We cannot reflect on the morality of mankind without contemplating with pleasure the picture of the simplicity which prevailed in the earliest times. [14]

It is important to understand that Rousseau is not talking about a return to a golden age. He is not saying that the "state of nature" is an aspiration and it would be preferable for us to renounce our civilisation and our learning and our self-awareness. That is not possible: the fall has already happened and what has happened cannot be undone.

He says that in becoming civilised we have renounced freedom. Man is innately good, but civilisation forces him into badness. He states: "Nature made man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable." [15] Powers notes:

He believed that no human faculty was bad by nature. He did believe that amour de soi "is the only force which will make men act. Self-love (amour de soi) which is good and innate, degenerates into pride (amour propre), which is evil and which is acquired." Thus he believed that man, naturally good, becomes bad. [16]

What caused this degeneration of amour de soi into amour propre? Partly, of course, it is the arts and sciences. As Campbell and Scott note:

The sciences investigate the causes of natural phenomena traditionally attributed to divine power, and they corrupt morals by undermining the faith and public-spiritedness upon which Rousseau suggests popular virtue rests. "Science spreads and faith vanishes." The paradigmatic natural science in this regard is physics, which Rousseau specifically identifies as the product of "vain curiosity." [17]

Campbell and Scott also note:

[Rousseau's] remark that such individuals [those who should be allowed to study the sciences] must "feel the strength to walk alone" suggests that it is less their genius than their independence from popular trends and opinion that enables them to pursue the sciences without corruption. [18]

Thus, certain individuals may transcend the dangers of study, but only if they can stay true to their inner beliefs and not be swayed by vanity or pride – playing to the gallery or seeking to impress and become famous. Only a very few can do this. Rousseau concludes his Discourse by saying:

As for us, ordinary men, on whom Heaven has not been pleased to bestow such great talents; as we are not destined to reap such glory, let us remain in our obscurity... Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts. [19]

For most of us, we lost our chance to be free when man turned from his state of nature. This was inevitable. Shklar summarises Rousseau's position thus:

By nature men are freed, but left to their own devices they will inevitably enslave each other... the spontaneous march to inequality and oppression in which all men participate. [20]

But Rousseau still appeals to the noble savage in us all. "Let us leave to others the task of instructing mankind in their duty, and confine ourselves to the discharge of our own," he writes. [21]

There is in much of Rousseau's work this conflict between the personal and the public. He himself was fiercely independent. "First of all I want my friends to be my friends, and not my masters,"[22] he wrote. As Shklar notes, "in the end he concluded that his need for personal liberty was such that he was simply not made for civil society."[23] This is instructive, because it goes to the heart of the contradictions in Rousseau. He observed how mankind had to behave, because they had no alternative. To succeed, men conformed. They were motivated by self-interest. Essentially, man was a social animal, and social living led to inequality. Inequality led to pride, which corrupted man.

The noble citizen, however, which as Powers notes was Rousseau's ideal,[24] and not the unattainable noble savage, could live outside such pride and vanity, could withstand the pressures of society. This could only be done, however, because such people were capable of living in themselves. Powers describes Rousseau’s position thus:

The savage lives in himself, the sociable man always outside of himself, unable to live except in the opinions of others. [25]

Rousseau believed civilisation corrupted, and could only corrupt. The only way to avoid it was to seek a completely individual path, but few men were capable of this. The opportunity to create an ideal state of nature was lost and could not be regained.

1. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. p 123
2. Richard Howard Powers. Rousseau’s “useless science”: dilemma or paradox. French Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No 4. (Autumn 1962), p 450
3. John Hope Mason. Reading Rousseau’s First Discourse. Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 249, p 251
4. Discourse, p 120
5. Ibid, p 141
6. Ibid, p 130
7. Ibid, p. 131
8. Ibid, p 134
9. Ibid, p 132
10. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions.
11. Powers. Op. cit., p 459
12. Sally Howard Campbell and John T. Scott. Rousseau’s politic argument in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. American Journal of Political Science, vol 49, No 4. (Oct, 2005), p 822
13. Ibid., p824
14. Discourse. p 134
15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Dialogues. Paris; Gallimard, 1995 v 1 p 934
16. Powers. Op. cit., p 452
17. Campbell and Scott. Op. cit.., p 824
18. Ibid.
19. Discourse, p 142
20. Judith N. Shklar. Rousseau’s images of authority. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 58, No. 4 (dec 1964), p 919
21. Discourse, p 142
22. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Correspondence generale de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Paris, 1924-1932. Vol III, p 44
23. Shklar, op. cit., p 920
24. Powers. op. cit., p 467
25. Ibid, p 465

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Author or novel?

Still on the Independent feature (see below) in his interview with Johann Hari, Martin Amis also discusses his work at Manchester University with the creative writing course. Of this, he says:

All I do is teach great books, from the very authorial point of view; don’t identify with Mr Darcy or Elizabeth, identify with Jane Austen, that’s the way we sort of do it, which is the way you should do it anyway.

Hmm. I don't think I agree with that. That may be all very well from an education perspective, but I don't think that's any way to approach literature from a creative point of view. One of the reasons I loathe writers like John Banville or Will Self is that they're all over their work like the pox. You're not reading that novel, but "THEIR WORD". The author is all-important, the novel simply a vessel on which to float his (usually his) overweening ego. Look at me, look at my words, look at my grandiloquence, my grandness. Aren't I super?

Now, I suppose Amis is talking about the author from the point of view of their body of work, or the themes/ideas they customarily explore. In that case, okay, I can see his point. But I would still rather study a novel rather than a novelist.