Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law

Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and RepresentationMourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation by Gillian Rose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a posthumous 1996 essay collection by the British philosopher, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 and is perhaps best known less for her philosophical corpus than for her stunning memoir, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995), which I mentioned in my personal canon. Of this book, the introduction and first chapter (“Athens and Jerusalem: a tale of three cities”) concern me most, as they elaborate both Rose’s criticism of contemporary philosophical and political thought and what she would put in its place.

In philosophy, Rose claims, we suffer from “despairing rationalism without reason” (her italics); this is what is popularly known as “post-modernism,” or the paradoxically rationalized discrediting of both reason (as a totalitarian and imperial force ruthlessly suppressing all diversity and plurality) and of the reasoning subject (as an effect of language or ideology). Politically, this refusal of reason leads to two divergent ideologies, both of which claim to abjure the power of the state (or, more expansively, the civic considered in Hegelian terms as “ethical life,” which can only be lived collectively) in the name of more potent and glamorous agencies: the (economic) individual or the (cultural) community.

For Rose, contemporary politics is a contest between libertarianism and communitarianism; the former is destructive of the civic because it refuses social constraints on individual economic choice, while the latter is destructive of the civic because it holds cultural particularism over collective deliberation. Yet, Rose claims, both ultimately empower the coercive force of the state even as they claim to diminish it, because they require the state to police threats generated by inequality to the libertarian order and those generated by cultural conflict to the communitarian order. Both presuppose modern rationalism—what Rose calls “legitimising domination as authority”—though they pretend to have surpassed it. Against their warring particularisms, she mounts a defense of political universalism:

Politics begins not when you organise to defend an individual or particular or local interest, but when you organise to further the ‘general’ interest within which your particular interest may be represented.

This was written over twenty years ago; I would update it with a stronger account of how these two tendencies embolden each other in a feedback loop, libertarian economics driving people deeper into communitarian cultural shelters until there is no common ground left (the late stage of which process I referred to as “the age of Trump” some four months before the U.S. election).

Rose advocates for a middle between libertarianism and communitarianism, but it is not political centrism, still less some cynical Third Way. Her key phrase is “the broken middle,” the space of inevitably imperfect negotiation and contestation where individual moral action and collective ethical practice takes place. Rose is a Hegelian, but not one for whom history is a neat narrative of progressively superior modes of order. Rather, for her, we are always involved in ethical action that mediates between the claims of reason and love. Contradiction is synthesized in action—hence her contempt for the refusals of action that she sees disfiguring postmodern philosophy (with its rejection of speculative reason) and postmodern politics (with its contempt for the civic).

Her brilliant essay on Athens and Jerusalem makes the point through a reading of Poussin’s painting, Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion. In the painting, the widow of a man executed by a tyrant surreptitiously gathers his proscribed ashes as the buildings of Megara rise in the distance. Rose paraphrases an interpretation of the painting that she rejects: love, in the form of the wife’s piety, is pitted against the imperialism of rationalism signified by the tyranny of the city. Here, rationalism is Athens and love is Jerusalem; the rejection of the former Rose understands as the hallmark of postmodernism. She dismisses this opposition as too facile and proposes in its place a more complex relation wherein we supplement both Athens and Jerusalem, reason and love, with a third city that guides our speculation and wandering:

The gathering of the ashes is a protest against arbitrary power; it is not a protest against power and law as such. To oppose anarchic, individual love or good to civil or public ill is to deny the third which gives meaning to both—this is the other meaning of the third city—the just city and just act, the just man and the just woman. In Poussin’s painting, this transcendent but mournable justice is configured, its absence given presence, in the architectural perspective which frames and focuses the enacted justice of the two women.

In other words, justice is the sublation of law and love, while the completion of mourning takes place in action—this latter as opposed (Rose is borrowing from Freud) to the unending, inactive, and isolating melancholia of the postmodernists.

Rose’s own politics, though, go largely unspecified. Most contemporary theorists who work in her Hegelian métier are far more forthrightly and sometimes even orthodoxly Marxist than she appears to be (I am thinking of Slavoj Žižek, Susan Buck-Morss, Timothy Brennan). She does defend Marx, together with Plato, at the beginning of the book; she advocates an “aporetic” reading of both thinkers rather than a “determinist” one. A determinist reading would see in their thought nothing but certain monumental and imperial concepts (the forms for Plato, the law of history for Marx), while a reading attentive to the aporias, or contradictions, in their thought would allow the difficulty and complexity—and thus the continued viability—of their works to stand. One imagines that she also prefers Marxism for its nuanced account of contradiction and conflict, as opposed to the moralism of anarchism. Marxism is the theory that only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house; that is what the dialectic means. When Rose argues so passionately against the abandonment of reason because of its instrumentalization in tyranny and genocide, she must have something like this in mind.

Several of this book’s chapters were beyond me, especially the central one on Jewish tradition wherein she argues against the idea of “the Jew as modernity’s sublime other” and for an interpretation of midrash as inherently political. A related piece on representations of the Holocaust makes a similar case against turning the Nazi genocide into a pious and sentimental myth rather than an object of self-implicating historical investigation and representation. Her example of bad Holocaust art is, unsurprisingly, Schindler’s List, which she sees as facile and sentimental; to it, she counterposes Primo Levi’s memoirs and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, among others, as narratives that force readers into morally disturbing crises of identification rather than leaving us at a complacent distance.

Rose is a fierce but sly polemicist. In one paragraph, she obliterates Richard Rorty without so much as mentioning his name:

One recent version of this separation of metaphysics from ethics understands itself as a ‘neo-pragmatics’. It deliberately eschews any theory of justice, for all such theories are said to be dependent on the metaphysics of objective truth independent of language. The pernicious holism of truth is attributed to the modern tradition whereby the theory of subjectivity, the theory of the freedom of the individual, is regarded as the basis of the possibility of collective freedom and justice. Cast as generally as this, the indictment of liberal metaphysics also applies to corporatist, and to revolutionary theories, and, in effect, to the overcoming of nihilism. In the place of this metaphysical tradition the ‘creation of self’ is to be explored independently of any theory of justice, which is thereby restricted to the vaporous ethics of ‘cruelty’ limitation, learnt from modem literature and not from analysis or philosophy. This separation of the self from any theoretical account of justice is advertised as a ‘neo-pragmatics’ for it claims to follow the contours of contingency and to avoid all and any structures of prejudged truth. Commitment to the ineluctable contingencies of language, self and community is presented as ‘ironism’ by contrast with liberal, metaphysical ‘rationalism’. ‘Ironism’, the celebration of the sheer promiscuity of all intellectual endeavour, depends on this opposition to any philosophical position which presupposes an independent reality to which its conceptuality aims to be in some sense adequate.

She devotes one whole essay to Derrida, whose tragic ethos she replies with Hegelian comedy, and one to a scorching polemic against Maurice Blanchot. She reads Blanchot as an ideologist of “passivity beyond passivity,” a refusal of action and language and a worship of a death whose meaninglessness has made it an inverted transcendence; against Blanchot, she calls for “activity beyond activity,” the constant labor of imagination, language, and representation in the broken middle where we reside. (Whether or not this is fair, I am not sure; I have barely read Blanchot and know him mainly from secondary sources, friendly [Gabriel Josipovici] or hostile [Richard Wolin]. As for Rorty and Derrida, I find her criticisms cogent, though there is perhaps more to be said for Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity than she allows.)

Rose’s thesis, in short, is that we must replace our passivity and nihilism with an activity oriented toward transcendent ends, with the understanding that there will always be a disparity between theory and practice. These disparities should not be taken as evidence that theory or practice are impossible; instead, they are what allow us to scrutinize and correct our actions in the light of both thought and experience. This is a difficult ethic to maintain, it should be said, though I sympathize with it, more from the point of view of aesthetics—why else would I continue to read and write novels, even after the novel is supposed to have died along with God and the subject?—than politics.

Rose, at the end of her life, converted to Anglican Christianity. It has been called a deathbed conversion, implying, I suppose, that it may not have happened had she not been dying. But I can just as easily think of it in the opposite way: who knows if she would have stopped there had she lived longer? Her unnamed third city of justice, synthesizing love and law, may have been a rather more traditional sublation of Athens and Jerusalem all along: Rome.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Paul Pope, 100%

100%100% by Paul Pope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synthesizing romance comics with the sexy global dystopias popular since the early 1980s, this 2005 graphic novel was aptly described by one Goodreads reviewer as “a cyberpunk Love, Actually.” 100% charts three love stories through a future New York City. It began as a set of linked short stories and is more episodic than heavily plotted, though Pope creates tension and emotion by rapidly cross-cutting between the three plots.

The action centers on a strip club where the women dance “gastro”—that is, they not only take off their clothes, but display to the throng a digital projection of their throbbing innards as well. A nomadic sex worker named Daisy gets a job there and ends up in a fraught and doomed relationship with the club’s dishwasher, John, a slumming former grad student in medieval literature. (John supplies the book’s title early on when in his inner monologue he vows to accept experience “come what may, one hundred percent.”)

Meanwhile, Strel, who also works in the club, has to deal with the absence and then the sudden return of her estranged husband, a boxer who “fights gastro” in the masculinist counterpoint to the spectacle the strip club offers. Strel has in the course of things introduced her artist cousin, Eloy, to her friend Kim, and the two begin to fall in love; they particularly bond over Eloy’s quixotic quest to get funding for his conceptual art project, about which more below.

Thematically, 100% celebrates the mysterious core of the individual—the thing that is loved in a love relationship—against all present and future attempts to know fully, much less to coerce, the self. The narrative shows both gastro stripping and gastro fighting to be cruel and inhumane, a mechanical substitution of technological exposure for genuine personal relations, one so brutalizing it leads to the grotesque violence of the fights and even murder:

We want to touch…we just can’t figure out how to do it. We lost the words for it. Then we forgot the question.

The novel begins, perhaps somewhat gratuitously, with the body of a murdered young woman, her upthrust bare leg resting on boxes labelled “whitemeat chick” and “breasts and thighs” in what Pope must have intended as a feminist protest against objectification rather than a somewhat tasteless, heavy-handed gesture (albeit one, admittedly, borrowed from feminist art).

Pope invokes the threat of murderous violence but it never comes to pass in the novel, because all of our main characters are struggling for love and art—struggles that, when pursued as such, make unnecessary and absurd any use of physical force. Daisy falls in love with John when he refuses to read the diary she left behind at the club, despite his temptation to do so; rather than seeking to expose her insides, to inspect ocularly her corpus, inside and out, he gets to know her through conversation and, eventually, lovemaking.

Allowing others their inner life, the space to cultivate their selves, is the essence of the ethic portrayed here. Whatever you think of Pope’s politics as a guide to policy—he is, or anyway was, a libertarian—this is its valuable and utopian ethical core. To recur to a theme running perhaps too insistently through my recent reviews, it may even be a more reliable ethic than the contemporary literati’s equally insistent appeals to empathy, which tend to imply everybody’s right to everybody else’s affectional innards through the medium of feeling—a right easily twisted by the powerful into imperial dominion over others, including the right to bombard or poison them, in the name of alleviating whatever real or imputed suffering the empath presumes to share with them.

As for art, it is the graphic novel’s subtext, while love is its text. Eloy needs to apply to a funding council made up of dire hipsters to finance his rather improbable art project: he proposes to set off 100 tea kettles, all whistling in the same key (“for one hundred percent sound”), to create a multisensory event of unity, a symphony. But the council demands, as a condition of funding, that he set off the kettles in different keys to create discord and disharmony: “A symphony! That’s not how the world is!” Pope here satirizes an art world that has so bureaucratized subversion that the only true subversion left is the bold and independent re-creation of beautiful forms—Pope’s aesthetic is less cyberpunk than a punk classicism.

Signaling awareness of tradition—there is an elaborate retelling of Tristan and Isolde in the middle of the book—as well as a fervid technological and futurological imagination, Pope nevertheless insists through his freehand style of gestural brushwork and his fluid storytelling, along with lyrical monologues and poetically compressed duets, on the right to art as a personal, handmade, and idealizing expression of the present moment. His polemic against an exhausted but dominant avant-garde establishment would amount to little if he could not provide a counterexample with his own work—and he does it beautifully.

The future in 100% is ostensibly dystopian—Pope implies that genetic advancements have gotten out of control, that war and militarization are omnipresent, and that an oppressive global government is in control (the libertarian artist pointedly shows U.N. currency, issued by “le banque du monde,” with Che Guevara’s face on it, while another subplot implicitly decries gun control as an abridgment even of the individual’s moral right to choose not to bear arms). As in much cyberpunk, the seeming dystopia is largely left off-stage so that the spotlight can fall on the vibrant anarchic bohemia growing in its niches: this, and perhaps its genre per se, is a belated modernist urban pastoral.

Like many modernists, Pope pits his own version of order against the chaos of a society run by and for those who care more for money and power than for love and glory. The modernists also tended to lift their vision beyond the nation and the ethnos, to see the possibility of new forms, new beauty, and new love in a cosmopolis on the horizon.

100% ends when one character wishes to flee New York; he hurls a dart at a map, promising to move wherever it lands. It lands on the spot on the map where he is standing, his own neighborhood: wherever you are right now is the beachhead of the new world. In the author bio at the end of this book, Pope’s goal is described as the creation of “world comics, 21st century comics, stories in the comics medium which can reach and speak to people everywhere.” Take out the specified century and the word “comics,” and you find an old dream—one that has never yet been realized.

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Crash, Libertarianism, and the Novel

Mark Lilla recently published an essay decrying what he describes as the libertarian dogma of our time, an unthinking adherence to “anything goes” in both culture and economics that has replaced fully-elaborated ideological systems like liberalism, communism, and the religious traditions:

The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes.

Lilla, on his tour through the liberal arts to note libertarianism’s absence as a properly-developed conceptual apparatus, strangely fails to mention aesthetics. Yet our libertarianism is perhaps an aesthetic disposition before anything else, one promoted on the strictly cultural side (i.e., apart from economics) in departments of English, French, and comparative literature far more than in philosophy or political science. Lilla’s use of the word “totalizing” should sound familiar to anyone educated in the former disciplines over the last three or four decades. Libertarian aesthetics in literary studies championed the death of the author, the slippage of the signifier, the movements of affect and of the body, the return of the repressed, the irruption of desire in language, and the emancipation of all those elements (femininity, madness, etc.) suppressed by the name/no of the father. Libertarian aesthetics—Theory—is the revenge of art upon the intellect.

The absence of the aesthetic in Lilla’s argument stood out to me because, when his essay was published, I was reading J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). Crash exemplifies the transgressive literature favored by libertarian literary theorists. Ballard’s novel is narrated by the teasingly-named James Ballard, who, following a car accident, enters a sexual underworld of auto-wreck fetishists centered on the erotically charismatic media-theorist-cum-daredevil Vaughan, “the nightmare angel of the expressways.”

Generically, the novel is pornographic: its every element is subordinated to the characters’ sexual desires and activities, all of them lushly described.  Its narrative moves along a sexual arc until its consummation, when the narrator fucks Vaughan just before the latter’s death in a car crash, a crash in which he’d meant to kill Elizabeth Taylor so as to enter both her and himself into the rolls of great historical smash-ups.

The novel’s mode is Decadent. Like Baudelaire, Swinburne, Huysmans, and Wilde before him, Ballard describes grotesque, illicit, disturbing events in a formally-controlled and gorgeous style.  Such a Decadent style elevates the repressed and ugly to the status of the beautiful and makes the beautiful in turn dependent on death, decay, and everything else civilization represses. Ballard writes prose as rich and memorable as anyone in his time; I quote a descriptive passage nearly at random:

Vaughan propped the cine-camera against the rim of the steering wheel. He lounged back, legs apart, one hand adjusting his heavy groin. The whiteness of his arms and chest, and the scars that marked his skin like my own, gave his body an unhealthy and metallic sheen, like the worn vinyl of the car interior. These apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking-light switches. Together they described an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire. The reflected light of Vaughan’s headlamps picked out a semi-circle of five scars that surrounded his right nipple, an outline prepared for a hand that would hold his breast.

In the lavatory of the casualty department I stood beside Vaughan at the urinal staffs. I looked down at his penis, wondering if this too was scarred. The glans, propped between his index and centre fingers, carried a sharp notch, like a canal for surplus semen or vinal mucus. What part of some crashing car had marked this penis, and in what marriage of his orgasm and a chromium instrument head? The terrifying excitements of this scar filled my mind as I followed Vaughan back to his car through the dispersing hospital visitors. Its slight lateral deflection, like the rake of the Lincoln’s windshield pillars, expressed all Vaughan’s oblique and obsessive passage through the open spaces of my mind.

Conceptually, the novel posits an incorporation of the omnipresent automobile into human desire, the desire for death as a final sexual consummation above all. Modern writers and thinkers from Blake to Lawrence attacked technology for suppressing natural human desire along with the rest of nature. For example, in E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the narrator objects to the encroachment of the automotive on London’s urban pastoral:

And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity. (qtd. here)

But Ballard continues a different tradition, or anti-tradition, that of F. T. Marinetti and the Futurists.  They saw technology and desire as partners in a rebellion against the intellect. The first Futurist manifesto begins when Marinetti and his cronies speed through the decaying Milan night spouting radical slogans in a fast car until it crashes due to the indolence of the unfuturistic populace:

“Let’s break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let’s give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!”

The words were scarcely out of my mouth when I spun my car around with the frenzy of a dog trying to bite its tail, and there, suddenly, were two cyclists coming towards me, shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments. Their stupid dilemma was blocking my way—Damn! Ouch!… I stopped short and to my disgust rolled over into a ditch with my wheels in the air…

O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse… When I came up—torn, filthy, and stinking—from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart!

The car is Marinetti’s chariot of absurd intensity. It allows him to abandon the merely human in an exaltation of speed and metal—it is the emblem of the libertarian emancipation of all suppressed desire. The merely human, on the other hand, is associated with the many supposed limitations of reason (“wobbling…like arguments”), of the body (“nourishing sludge”), and of non-European non-masculinity (“black breast”). But Marinetti in his self-annihilation by machine emerges from the matrix of reason and black femininity in a notably feminized and colonized position himself, invaginated and penetrated by the “white-hot iron” phallus of the future. In leaving behind human nature, he submits himself to a higher nature, moving toward its destructive climax in the intensity of the auto-wreck. The radical intellectual’s apotheosis is his end; he wins by losing all his riches in the machine of modernity, this “all” being the hallmark of the libertarianism Lilla (rightly or wrongly) perceives in neoliberal economics and sexually-revolutionary culture.

So Ballard pursues Marinetti’s theme, his characters willfully and pleasurably undergoing the machinic metamorphoses of sex, death, and twisted metal to escape from the weariness and boredom that a rationally-administered technological society would otherwise provoke. Like the Futurists, his characters find the exiled wilderness Forster lamented nowhere but in the machine’s own latent possibilities; the most modern forms of desire return us in orgasmic cataclysm to the womb/tomb of raw nature.

All of which brings me to the twofold question this novel invites: 1. why has Ballard chosen Forster’s literary form (the novel) over Marinetti’s (the essay-manifesto or the experimental poem)? 2. why is the novel of transgression, from Sade to Burroughs, always so boring?

Crash is the second Ballard novel I’ve read (whereas I’ve never made it through anything by Sade). The first was the earlier and explicitly science-fictional The Drowned World, in which a future earth, heated to jungle and desert by solar activity, impels a scientist on an atavistic journey backward through human development. My impression is that almost all of Ballard’s novels work this way: he provides some motivation or other for the gradual stripping of the human back to pre-rational intensity and desire. An artist rather than a theorist, Ballard seems both drawn to and repelled by the prospect of humanity’s vanishing into the maw of machine-nature; in interviews, he claimed to champion the Enlightenment and spoke like a cultural conservative, but his fiction evidences a real relish for unshackling desire until it destroys civilization and colonizes the planet.

My response to both Crash and The Drowned World was the same: I began with excitement, thrilled by Ballard’s conceptual radicalism and by his grotesque lyricism and deadpan humor, but then I gradually lost interest as the texts seemed almost mechanically to complete themselves, with little ideological conflict (because reason is a thin veneer on death-tending desire) or character development (because the self must regress to its animality) to provide the excitements traditionally offered by novels, even the most formally radical novels.

The novel seems a singularly inappropriate vehicle for libertarianism; it thrives on conflict and limitation, on the tensions between contradictory arguments, on the self that car-wrecks and climate-catastrophes would do away with. (Forster, incidentally, wrote about this problem in A Passage to India, when Mrs. Moore’s intimation of a vast nothingness behind reality in the Marabar Caves causes her to withdraw from human society.) This is why, contra Francine Prose and James Wood and other critics of Donna Tartt,* a great novel doesn’t need perfect, or even correct, prose. Nabokov was dismayed by the eminence of Dostoevsky, and everyone is dismayed by the eminence of Dreiser, but Dostoevsky and Dreiser depict with extraordinary power not only desire—on which alone the lyric poets may lavish their most glorious language—but also what challenges and frustrates desire, in the human psyche and in human institutions.  The novel nurtures argument and development; desire has always withered in its atmosphere before it could attain limitlessness.

Ballard has no interest in such novelistic traditionalism. On the one hand, I say more power to him. If this is a libertarian age, we need writers with the courage to show us how it feels, even if they have to spurn tradition. On the other hand, I think that Ballard, like Burroughs, may have been a victim of the novel’s hegemony in the twentieth century. Without much interest in character and conflict, they may have been better off writing prose poetry at a briefer length. Libertarian novels go on too long; desire unbound feeds and it fucks, but nobody can do those things all day.

*I haven’t read Donna Tartt; she could very well be as bad as her detractors say.  But I think the general point—that a great novel doesn’t need perfect, poetic prose—still stands.