Category: Contemporary Fiction

A Diminished Thing


Robert Frost’s sonnet, “The Oven Bird.”


There is a singer everyone has heard,

Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,

Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.

He says that leaves are old and that for flowers

Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past

When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.

He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds

But that he knows in singing not to sing.

The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.



The fit is hardly exact, but the phrase “what to make of a diminished thing” echoes in my head far too often these days.  The leftist dreams of a communist utopia died a slow and very painful death from 1920 to 1989.  But who would have predicted, as the Berlin Wall came down, that allegiance to and belief in “social democracy” would be on life support in 2020?  Among the kinds of intellectuals I hang around with, Elizabeth Warren is a sell-out and Bernie Sanders a tolerable compromise, but just barely.  All the talk—as in the novels I considered in the last post—is about the injustice and cruelty of capitalism, and the implacable racism of the United States.  That injustice and cruelty is endlessly documented; everywhere you scratch the surface, you find perfidy.  Corruption, betrayal, cover-ups, outright theft, and endless, ruthless exploitation. Even worse: the almost invisible “structural racism” that infects everything.  It all must go.  Only wiping the slate entirely clean will create a world we can affirm.

I can’t help but think that John Dewey nails it when he calls this kind of political rhetoric sentimental.  “[W]hen we take ends without regard to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).  No one is offering anything remotely like a blueprint for how to get from here to there.  We just get endless denunciations of here coupled with (in some cases) the vaguest gestures toward there.  Analyses of how fucked up everything is, coupled with stories of outrageous maltreatment, are a dime a dozen.

Recently there has been a revival of a cultural studies move familiar in the 1980s.  Basically the idea is to show that people are not passive victims and to celebrate their ways of resisting—or, if “resisting” is too strong a word, their way of surviving, of carving out a life under bad conditions.  Two fairly recent books, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015) and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019) exemplify this trend.  Tsing’s book is wonderful in every way, an exhilarating read for its introduction of the reader into a sub-culture far from the mainstream and for its intellectual force and clarity.  I found Hartman’s book a harder go.  Hartman works diligently to find the “beauty” in the “wayward” lives that she tries to reconstruct from very scanty historical traces.  Her subjects are black women in northern US cities between 1890 and 1915.  For me, the lives she describes are unutterably sad; I just can’t see the beauty as they are ground down by relentless racism and inescapable poverty.  Let me hasten to add that it is not Hartman’s job to make me feel good.  The point, instead, is that she aims to present these tales as providing some grounds for affirmation—and I just don’t find those grounds as I read her narratives.

I don’t want to try a full engagement with Tsing’s book here.  (I am late to this party; her book, like Hartman’s work, has been much celebrated.)  The very short summary: she tracks the matsutake mushroom from its being picked in Oregon, Finland, Japan, and China to its ending up as a treasured (and expensive) delicacy in Japan.  The ins-and-outs of this story, from the mushrooms own complicated biology (it cannot be cultivated by humans and only flourishes in “ruined” forests, ones that have been discombobulated by extensive logging) to the long human “supply chain” that renders the mushroom a commodity, offer Tsing the occasion to meditate on ecology, human migration, the US wars in Southeast Asia, and global neo-liberalism.

But for my purposes, I simply want to record that Tsing is interested in how people cope in the “ruins” that the contemporary world offers.  The “ruins” of decimated, over-logged forests.  The “ruins” of lives by the American war in Vietnam (spilling over into Laos and Cambodia).  The “ruins” of a neoliberal capitalism that has made traditional jobs (with security, benefits, a visible line of command) obsolete. The “ruin” of all narratives of progress, of all notions that technology or politics is moving us toward a batter future.

For Tsing, at least in this book, there is no idea that this ruination can be reversed, or that there are political models (like social democracy), that might address these hardships and try to ameliorate them. Only someone hopelessly naive or delusional would credit any notion of possible progress. Instead, we just need to be getting on with the hard task of finding a niche in the interstices of this cruel world, whose mechanisms of grinding people and the environment to ruin will continue unimpeded.  She isn’t even indulging some kind of 1960s dream of “dropping out.”  We are all in the belly of the whale, so whatever expedients can be adopted to make the best of it are to be celebrated.

Here is Tsing’s summation of her vision, the last paragraph before her epilogue:

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place.  The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment.  It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction.  Luckily there is company, human and not human.  We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscape—the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations.  We can still catch the scent of the latent commons—and the elusive autumn aroma” (282).

Back to autumn, to the oven-bird with its determination to sing even as summer fades away, and we are left with “a diminished thing.”

Futility and Despair

Like Tristram Shandy, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the things swirling in my head.  So much is going in—all the reading I am doing plus the daily gleanings from the web—that I have lots that feels like it needs to go out.  I keep falling behind.

However, it is not the futility of my getting it all down or despair over time’s finitude (and its resultant cruelty) that is my topic today.  The topic is contemporary art.

Nick and I had our second zoom conversation about John Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  Dewey argues (both in that book and in a chapter entitled “Qualitative Thought” in Philosophy and Civilization) that humans intuitively grasp situations in their “qualitative unity” before proceeding to any kind of analysis of the components of the situation.  He also (it seems to me, but Nick would disagree) appears to claim that situations actually possess that qualitative unity.  We have satisfactory or fulfilling experiences when we are best aligned with what the situation affords, or when we can work on what it affords to shape it to better suit our needs.  Art is important because it models this fulfilling alignment; it offers instances of creative interaction that brings “form” to the interaction, crafting the situation’s elements into “equilibrium” or “harmony.”

There are features of this view of what art does which, in fact, I find helpful to my ongoing desire to consider the connection between art and meaning.  But I am going to leave that aside for the moment in order to address a different point here—basically the observation that Dewey’s picture of art as stated in the previous paragraph seems utterly antithetical to much artistic practice since 1910.  (On or around 1910, Virginia Woolf told us, human nature changed.)

Much art—and most “high” or “serious” art—of the past 100 years has displayed the futility of all attempts to apprehend or craft “unity.”  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin” can be written over the portals of modern (and postmodern) art—an updated version of “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Dewey looks old-fashioned and naïve with his talk of unity and harmony.  Of course, that Dewey is old-fashioned and naïve is a standard critique.  Like Whitman, he lacks any idea of evil.

Many modern paintings are cluttered.  They are not “composed,” but scattered, with no clear pathway for the eye to follow, no “form” that brings all the elements into order.

But, for my primary example, I will take the contemporary “serious” novel.  Experimental fiction is pretty much dead, but those avant-garde narratives are all about fragmentation.  The same goes for avant-garde poetry.

More “realistic” fiction, it seems to me, comes in primarily two forms.  There are the domestic novels (think Julia Glass, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Franzen), rooted in upper middle-class life and its romantic and family problems.  Updated Updike and Cheever.

And there are the novels about social injustice.  These novels (interestingly enough) are, more often, than not “historical”—and tell the tale of how the downtrodden are trodden down, with the rich and powerful escaping scot free.  Colson Whitehead (I have pasted at the end of this post the relevant passages from a recent interview with him) sums it up: “the guilty escape punishment, the innocent suffer.”  This glum conclusion fits any number of novels by Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, James Welch, Edward P. Jones, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others; these victim tales appear to confirm Whitehead’s glum conclusion about “human nature” and the inevitable (?) “tendency” of the “powerful . . . to tyrannise and bully the weak.”  These novels are committed to witnessing, to telling the tales that the powerful would rather remain untold.  They can hardly be faulted for the desire to bring injustice to the light.  But they have nothing to offer beyond witness, beyond indignation.  They don’t imagine (because, it seems, they don’t believe in) any way to move beyond injustice.  Injustice is an old story that is bound to occur again and again.

I think these novels of despair come close to Nietzschean nihilism.  Nietzsche wants to enlist art in the difficult effort to “affirm” this life, even with all its imperfections.  Finding the grounds for affirmation is hardly easy, but giving into despair is, for Nietszche as much as for Christian orthodoxy, the ultimate sin.  For Nietzsche, the solution was the masochistic embrace of suffering, his amor fati.  But James Baldwin offers a different path; his story “Sonny’s Blues” displays his hope (his reliance) on love (a recurrent term in Baldwin) and on art to allow us to endure, perhaps even rise above, the inevitable suffering that life is going to deal out to us.

When talking about my frustration with these novels, Nick reminds me I am just repeating my desire for “liberal comedies.”  I want plots that move us toward more just, more humane societies.  Plots that imagine reform, melioration, in the right direction.  Steps toward a better world—an idea that fits not only with William James’ “meliorism,” but also with Dewey’s concrete account of adjustments to a situation.  The problem with despair is that it is too abstract; it insists that only a global transformation of the whole system (of “human nature”?) can do the job—and then hasn’t a clue about what steps might even be taken to get you closer to such a transformation.  It’s magical thinking, tied to an all or nothing vision.  Either we are living in hell or in heaven—and since it’s obvious we ain’t in heaven, we are clearly in the other place.

Among the non-realistic novelists the same despair is prevalent.  Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee have an equally bleak view of human nature and certainly don’t offer any vision of more just or desirable social arrangements.   In speculative fiction (David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood), some grand catastrophe does bring about the kind of complete transformation more realistic fictions don’t dare to imagine.  But those transformations only deliver a world even worse than the contemporary one.  When it comes to imagining an alternative society, it seems variants of the one offered by The Lord of the Flies is the best we can do.  Ursula LeGuin’s work offers a welcome exception to this generalization about imagined post-catastrophe futures.

There have been some “serious” realistic novels that have attempted to locate their characters in contemporary political/economic context (unlike the domestic novels I mentioned above).  Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December; Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens; John Lanchester, Capital; Joseph O’Neill, Netherland.  The first three are “ensemble” novels, tracking a variety of characters.  And those characters end up with a variety of outcomes—which does avoid the powerful/victim dichotomy of the witness novels.  These novels seem less driven by a need to indignantly call out injustice and more focused on the multiple ways people survive or fail to survive contemporary conditions.

O’Neill’s novel is interesting because it combines the domestic novels focus on family relations with the more sociological interests that drive its portrait of post-9/11 New York City.  Liberal comedy (from Shakespeare to Anthony Trollope to 1930s screwball films and beyond) often rests on a homology between the central couple whose endangered love relationship is the focus of the plot and a reformed society.  If the couple can successfully consummate their love that is because the society which thwarted them has been reformed in the course of the play/novel/film.  (This is basic C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye on the theory of comedy.)

From the start (as recognized by Walter Scott in his commentary on his own novel Waverly), the great problem faced by the “historical novel” (or by any novel attempting to portray individualized fictional characters caught up in events of historical significance) was to make the connection between the character’s eventual fate and what those events wrought.  That Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace is fitting; to be in the Napoleonic Wars would very likely lead one to death.  That was the impact those wars had on individuals.  But the novelist can hardly just march all his characters off to death.

How, then to align the fate of the characters who survive with the state that society reaches after the events of the novel?  The happy marriage of Pierre and Natasha is discontinuous with the reactionary course followed by the Russian state after 1815.  They escape into a separate peace—and that kind of escape (also enjoyed by Waverly in Scott’s novel) becomes the norm in most realistic novels, even the ones that import historical events and historical figures into their plots.  The battle of Culloden destroys Scottish Highland society, but Waverly gives the battle a miss and his life is not destroyed. In O’Neill’s Netherland, the protagonist saves his marriage precisely by renouncing the public world of New York City’s financial industry.  He can have one or the other, but not both.  The corruption of the financial world makes a genuine and sustainable romantic relationship impossible.  The primary character who remains behind in that world after the protagonist abandons it is doomed.

One way, then, to describe the lack of unity that prevails in “modern” art is precisely the ever-widening gulf between public and private.  We live utterly fragmented lives.  Domestic comedy abounds; we can imagine the joys and tribulations of family life and friendship.  We can even imagine the joys and tribulations of the workplace (Parks and Rec; Thirty Rock; The Office), but we can’t translate the comraderies, the necessary tolerances of how others annoy us, the ability to shrug off (even enjoy) differences and eccentricities, into the public sphere.

We can’t connect, as E. M. Forster urged us to do in Howard’s End.  Forster at least had the country house—a domestic space that carries a larger social import—for his effort to bridge the gap between public and private.  We have no apparent bridges of any sort.  We stand dismayed by the nastiness of our politics and the brutalities of our economic order, even as we carve out loves and friendships we can affirm.  No wonder our art is all about disconnection.

Nick’s way of describing modern art’s lack of unity was very different from mine.  He attributed it to art’s becoming more and more entangled in, focused on, its own institutions.  Going that route also highlights disconnection—but now the alienation of art from the “lifeworld” (to resurrect Habermas’ way of talking about this issue).  The idea in Habermas was that modernity tended to segregate various activities (the scientific/technical; the aesthetic; the economic; the scholarly) into relatively autonomous spheres (we could call them “professions,” although he does not) which end up mostly speaking to themselves—and hence divorced from the “lifeworld” (understood as the daily life of social intercourse and domestic relations).  Certainly, Dewey is all about re-integrating the aesthetic back into the ordinary; he wants the aesthetic and the ordinary to be continuous, even though (the topic for a future post) he still wants the aesthetic to be distinctive.

So what Nick is pointing out is that artists speak more and more only to other artists, other insiders.  The practice of art is increasingly self-referential in the sense that works are best understood in dialogue with previous works, with prevailing discussions in the field. This self-enclosure is mirrored by the creation of institutions specific to the practice, and to a primary desire to impress (communicate with) those positioned within the field.

This development of specific institutions and a set of recognized practitioners fragments art in two ways: one, no work can be a self-sufficient unity because it refers to, stands in relation to, other works.  (Dewey actually seems to accept this fact since he is adamant that the present always stands in relation to the past; but that acceptance does seem a problem for his insistence on the “qualitative unity” of a situation.)

Two, more crucially, the more any pursuit becomes closed off from the comprehension of outsiders (the less it engages in fruitful interchanges with different pursuits), the less likely we are to find bridges across the divides between pursuits—and the divide from the lifeworld.  We get here another version of the old Lukacs and Jameson diagnosis: we (and the fate of the novel since Tolstoy and George Eliot is one symptom of this fact) are less and less able to comprehend totality—where “comprehend” means not just “to understand,” but also to capture or contain within any aesthetic or intellectual form.  Fragmentation is the order of the day because unity is now, quite simply, beyond our capabilities.

I have a bit more to say on this topic.  But will stop here for today.

Here is the interview with Colson Whitehead.  I have given you about half of it—but pretty much all the substantive parts.  But here’s the link to the whole thing.

“It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”

He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”

For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.

He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”

Of Truth and Lies in the Digital Age

Colin Burrow has a thought-provoking essay (title: “Fiction and the Age of Lies”; link: in the most recent London Review of Books (Vol 42, No 4; 20 Feb 2020).

Two long passages (one that has introduces the key concept of the “algo-lie,” a lie that is targeted to the audience most likely to believe it via the by-now ubiquitous algorithms; the other passage a rebuke of Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, which I quoted a few posts back.)

“Political lies now tend to be something more than statements by individuals that are designed to mislead: they are partly generated by the desires and beliefs of the lie-ee. They can be algorithmically created to elicit a particular response from an audience that has been microtargeted, and is fed little drips of misinformation it is predisposed to believe. The guiding presumption of algo-lying is that human beings are as manipulable as white mice. The object is to develop a stimulus that provokes the desired behaviour. Send out the stimulus, irrespective of its truth or falsehood; keep sending. Provided the white mice are in a majority and they all head for the cheese it’s a victory. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is a lie that generates unpredictable side effects, like a loss of trust in institutions, or if the lies designed to appeal to the white mice so enrage the piebald mice that they start a civil war. It’s short-term outcomes that count.”

Middle England (2019) by Jonathan Coe (b. 1961) strikes me as a classic instance of this problem. It’s a Brexit novel which offers comforting stereotypes – the xenophobic former Birmingham car worker, the wonderful Lithuanian immigrant cleaner – while not having anything to say about the technologies that now influence and distort the opinions of those types. A little texting and emailing is the deepest Coe’s characters get into the world of social media. Fiction that recirculates perspectives on the present which correspond closely to a particular strand of print or electronic media isn’t doing the job fiction should do. It knows what its audience wants to hear, and says it. The problem is that it will therefore sound like lies to those who don’t want to believe it. If the main literary consequence of this latest age of lies is to identify the audience for serious fiction with a small group with mutually sustaining and more or less identical political attitudes then we all should be very afraid for the future of fiction.”

I don’t think much in the way of comment is needed.  Burrow has a touching faith that novels are supposed to help us out of our mess by providing a thick analysis of the ways we (and truth) are manipulated using the new digital tools.  He ends the essay with a call for the “great British technonovel of the 21st century” (the British nationalism here must be noted) and the very last sentence of the essay is “But if our present age of lies has one good consequence it would be that book,” as if a great novel would be sufficient consolation for the general woe. Or is that last sentence a joke?  It doesn’t read like one in context.

The Tree of Life

I have just finished reading Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory (Norton, 2018).  Powers is his own distinctive cross between a sci-fi writer and a realist.  His novels (of which I have read three or four) almost always center around an issue or a problem—and that problem is usually connected to a fairly new technological or scientific presence in our lives: DNA, computers, advanced “financial instruments.”  As with many sci-fi writers, his characters and his dialogue are often stilted, lacking the kind of psychological depth or witty interchanges (“witty” in the sense of clever, off-beat, unexpected rather than funny) that tend to hold my interest as a reader.  I find most sci-fi unreadable because too “thin” in character and language, while too wrapped up in elaborate explanations (that barely interest me) of the scientific/technological “set-up.” David Mitchell’s novels have the same downside for me as Powers’: too much scene setting and explanation, although Mitchell is a better stylist than Powers by far.

So is The Overstory Powers’ best novel?  Who knows?  It actually borrows its structure (somewhat) from Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, while the characters feel a tad less mechanical to me.  But I suspect that’s because the “big theme” (always the driving force of Powers’s novels) was much more compelling to me in this novel, with only Gain of the earlier ones holding my interest so successfully.

The big theme: how forests think (the title of a book that is clearly situated behind Powers’s work even though he does not acknowledge it, or any other sources.)  We are treated to a quasi-mystical panegyric to trees, while being given the recent scientific discoveries that trees communicate with one another; they do not live in accordance with the individualistic struggle for existence imagined by a certain version of Darwinian evolution, but (rather) exist within much larger eco-systems on which their survival and flourishing depend.  The novel’s overall message—hammered home repeatedly—is that humans are also part of that same eco-system—and that competition for the resources to sustain life as contrasted to cooperation to produce and maintain those resources can only lead to disaster.  Those disasters are not just ecological (climate change and depletion of things necessary to life), but also psychological.  The competitive, each against each, mentality is no way to live.

I am only fitfully susceptible to mystical calls to experience some kind of unity with nature.  I am perfectly willing to embrace rationalistic arguments that cooperation, rather than competition, is the golden road to flourishing.  And, given Powers’s deficiencies as a writer, I would not have predicted that the mysticism of his book would move me.  But it did.  That we—the human race, the prosperous West and its imitators, the American rugged individualists—are living crazy and crazy-making lives comes through loud and clear in the novel.  That the alternative is some kind of tree-hugging is less obvious to me most days—but seems a much more attractive way to go when reading this novel.

I have said Powers is a realist.  So his tree-huggers in the novel ultimately fail in their efforts to protect forests from logging.  The forces of the crazy world are too strong for the small minority who uphold the holistic vision.  But he does have an ace up his sleeve; after all, it is “life” itself that is dependent on interlocking systems of dependency. So he does seem to believe that, in the long run, the crazies will be defeated, that the forces of life will overwhelm the death-dealers.  Of course, how long that long run will be, and what the life of the planet will look like when the Anthropocene comes to an end (and human life with it?) is impossible to picture.

Life will prevail.  That is Powers’ faith—or assertion.  Is that enough?  I have also read recently an excellent book by Peter J. Woodford: The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2018).  Woodford makes the convincing argument that Nietzsche takes from Darwin the idea that “life” is a force that motivates and compels.  Human behavior is driven by “life,” by what life needs.  Humans, like other living creatures, are puppets of life, blindly driven to meet its demands.  “When we speak of values, we speak under the inspiration, under the optic of life; life itself forces us to establish values; when we establish values, life itself values through us” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols).


Here is Woodford’s fullest explanation of Nietzsche’s viewpoint:

“The concept that allows for the connection between the biological world, ethics, aesthetics, and religion is the concept of a teleological drive that defines living activity.  This drive is aimed at its own satisfaction and at obtaining the external conditions of its satisfaction. . . . Tragic drama reenacts the unrestricted, unsuppressed expression of [the] inexhaustible natural eros of life for itself. . . . Nietzsche conceived life as autotelic—that is, directed at itself as the source of its own satisfaction.  It was this autotelic nature of life that allowed Nietzsche to make the key move from description of a natural drive to discussion of the sources and criteria of ethical value and, further, to the project of a ‘revaluation of value’ that characterized his final writings.  Life desires itself, and only life itself is able to satisfy this desire.  So the affirmation of life captures what constitutes the genuine fulfillment, satisfaction, and flourishing of a biological entity.  Nietzsche’s appropriation of Darwinism transformed his recovery of tragedy into a project of recovering nature’s own basic affirmation of itself in a contemporary culture in which this affirmation appeared, to him at least, to be absent.  His project was thus inherently evaluative at the same time that it was a description of a principle that explained the nature and behavior of organic forms” (38).

Here’s my takeaway.  Both Powers and Nietzsche believe that they are describing the way that “life” operates.  Needless to say, they have very different visions of how life does its thing, with Powers seeing human competitiveness as a perverted deviation from the way life really works, while Nietzsche (at least at times) sees life as competition, as the struggle for power, all the way down.  (Cooperative schemes for Nietzsche are just subtle mechanisms to establish dominance—and submission to such schemes generates the sickness of ressentiment.)

What Wofford highlights is that this merger of the descriptive with the evaluative doesn’t really work.  How are we to prove that life is really this way when there are life forms that don’t act in the described way?  Competition and cooperation are both in play in the world.  What makes one “real life,” and the other some form of “perversion”?  Life, in other words, is a normative term, not a descriptive one.  Or, at the very least, there is no clean fact/value divide here; our biological descriptions are shot through and through with evaluation right from the start.  We could say that the most basic evaluative statement is that it is better to be alive than to be dead.  Which in Powers quickly morphs into the statement that it is better to be connected to other living beings within a system that generates a flourishing life, while in Nietzsche it becomes the statement that it is better to assume a way of living that gives fullest expression to life’s vital energies.

[An aside: the Nazis, arguably, were a death cult–and managed to get lots and lots of people to value death over life.  What started with dealing out death to the other guy fairly quickly moved into embracing one’s own death, not–it seems to me–in the mode of sacrifice but in the mode of universal destruction for its own sake.  A general auto de fe.]

In short, to say that life will always win out says nothing about how long “perversions” can persist or about what life actually looks like.  And the answer to the second question—what life looks like—will always be infected by evaluative wishes, with what the describer wants life to look like.

That conclusion leaves me with two issues.  The first is pushed hard by Wofford in his book.  “Life” (it would seem) cannot be the determiner of values; we humans (and Powers’ book makes a strong case that other living beings besides humans are in on this game) evaluate different forms of life in terms of other goods: flourishing, pleasure, equality/justice.  This is an argument against “naturalism.”  Life (or nature) is not going to dictate our values; we are going to reserve the right/ability to evaluate what life/nature throws at us.  Cancer and death are, apparently, natural, but that doesn’t mean we have to value them positively.

The second issue is my pragmatist, Promethean one.  To what extent can human activity shape what life is.  Nietzsche has always struck me as a borderline masochist.  For all his hysterical rhetoric of activity, he positions himself to accept whatever life dishes out.  Amor fati and all that.  But humans and other living creatures alter the natural environment all the time to better suit their needs and desires.  So “life” is plastic—and, hence, a moving target.  It may speak with a certain voice, but it is only one voice in an ensemble.  I have no doubt that it is a voice to which humans currently pay too little heed. But it is not a dictator, not a voice to which we owe blind submission.  That’s because 1) we evaluate what life/nature dishes out and 2) because we have powers on our side to shape the forms life takes.

Finally, all of this means that if humans are currently shaping life/nature in destructive, life-threatening ways, we cannot expect life itself to set us on a better course.  The trees may win in the long run—but we all remember what Keynes said about the long run.  In the meantime, the trees are dying and we may not be very far behind them.