Change, Violence, and Innocence

Two passages from two different novels by Salman Rushdie.

The first from Quichotte:

“After you were badly beaten, the essential part of you that made you a human being could come loose from the world, as if the self were a small boat and the rope mooring it to the dock slid off its cleats so that the dinghy drifted out helplessly into the middle of the pond; or as if a large vessel, a merchant ship, perhaps, began in the grip of a powerful current to drag its anchor and ran the risk of colliding with other ships or disastrously running aground.  He now understood that this loosening was perhaps not only physical but also ethical, that when violence was done to a person, then violence entered the range of what the person—previously peacable and law-abiding—afterwards included in the spectrum of what was possible.  It became an option” (339).

The psychology of violence, how it can be committed and why so many turn to it, has been a puzzle I have returned to again and again over the past forty years, without ever getting anything close to a solution that satisfied me.  That violence is contagious seems indisputable; that people become inured to violence is demonstrated by the behavior of soldiers in wartime; that much violence stems from an enraged self-righteousness also seems true.  But what has eluded me is how one commits the act itself—the plunging of the knife into another’s body, the pulling of the trigger of the gun whose barrel sits in one’s own mouth.  That seems non-human, which is perhaps why violence is often outsourced as bestial but also divine (Charles Taylor’s “numinous violence.”)  I don’t say Rushdie’s thought here is the answer, but it seems very shrewd to me, focusing in on the dehumanization that underlies the ability to act violently, while also highlighting the ways in which violence is done by those to whom violence has been done.  A curse handed down in various ways through time.

The second from Golden House:

“When I looked at the world beyond myself I saw my own moral weakness reflected in it. My parents had grown up in a fantasyland, the last generation in full employment, the last age of sex without fear, the last moment of politics without religion, but somehow their years in the fairy tale had grounded them, strengthened them, given them the conviction that by their own direct action they could change and improve the world, and allowed them to eat the apple of Eden, which gave them the knowledge of good and evil, without falling under the spell of the spiraling Jungle Book Kaa-eyes of the fatal trust-in-me Snake.  Whereas horror was spreading everywhere at high speed and we closed our eyes or appeased it” (188).

I always want to resist narratives of lost innocence—or of ancestors whose strength and virtues we cannot hope to reproduce. Lost innocence is in many ways the favorite American narrative, and it will play us as false as narratives about a lost greatness.  Yet Rushdie’s list of what we have lost resonates with me.  I graduated from college in 1974, into the gas crisis recession that started the ball rolling away from full employment and endless, inescapable precarity.  I turned 30 in 1983, just as AIDS appeared over the horizon and put an end to the promiscuity of the 1970s, my 20s.  And the emergence of the religious right in the Reagan triumphs of the 1980s was a shock to those of us who had assumed we lived in the secular world of the modern.  In short, the three things Rushdie lists were actual and momentous changes, registered (at least by me) in the moment.  The kind of thing that history throws at you—and you discover you are powerless to thwart. 

To discover one’s powerlessness is to lose a kind of innocent optimism, a faith that things can be made better.  But let’s not get carried away in either direction.  Life in 1955 America was terrible for blacks and gays, as J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy reigned.  That things in 2022 are better for blacks and gays is the result of hard, persistent political work.  We are never fully powerless, even if we are also never in the clear.  The forces of reaction are never annihilated.  The gains made yesterday can always be lost tomorrow.  The struggle is never decided once and for all in either direction.  2022 is better for gays and blacks than 1955, but in various ways worse than 2012.  

And it didn’t take the 1980s to teach us lessons in powerlessness.  The US waged a pointless and cruel war in Vietnam that millions of protesters were powerless to stop.  Nothing seemed capable of knocking the military-industrial complex off its keel, and the logic of doubling down on bad decisions, of not losing face, led the government to lie, spy on domestic dissenters, and pile violence upon violence.  History’s imperviousness to efforts to divert its floods coming at us from upriver is always ready to humble naïve political projects and hopes.

Still, it is important to note changes.  It is not just the same old same old.  Plus ça change and all that shrugging of the shoulders cynicism never has an accurate grasp of facts on the ground.  The terms of the struggle shift.  To take just one example: capitalism today is not the same as capitalism in 1955 or even 1990.  It is organized very differently, while the alignment of forces for and against various of its manifestations has also shifted dramatically.  Similarly, the obstacles blacks face in America today are very different from those they faced in 1955, and somewhat different from those faced in 1990.

So I think Rushdie does name three crucial things that did change in my lifetime, as someone who was just a bit too young to really live through the 60s (I was a freshman in high school in 1967), and for whom the 1970s and early 1980s were the truly formative years, the time of my coming into my own, picking my head up and actually getting a view of how this world I was entering was configured.  The loss of economic security was evident immediately in the way I and my classmates navigated the years after college.  No security assumed; it was going to be dog eat dog.  And the glee with which Reagan and his ilk embraced that inhuman and dehumanizing competition was appalling.  Especially when that cruelty was wrapped in the pieties of a Christianity that saw the sufferings of the poor as their just desert.

I was mostly a bystander to the promiscuity—both hetero- and homo- –of the 70s.  But a bystander in fairly close proximity to both of those worlds.  Some of its was tawdry, some of it exploitative (the abuse of unequal hierarchical relationships was rampant).  But there was also a joyousness that has been lost.  Not having sex always be a serious business has things to recommend it.  All the studies indicate that young people today (caught in the evermore insecure world of precarity) are having much less sex than my generation did at their age.  And I really can’t see that as a good thing.  Sex under the right conditions is one of the great goods of life.  It is a mark of our human perversity that we can also manage to turn it to evil so often and (apparently) so effortlessly.

When Rushdie’s narrator contemplates his parents’ faith that humans are moral and by striving can make a better world, he ends up demurring:

“And they were wrong.  The human race was savage, not moral.  I had lived in an enchanted garden but the savagery, the meaninglessness, the fury had come in over the walls and killed what I loved most” (152).

This is Rushdie’s valediction to a certain form of hopeful liberalism, a form he thinks was only made possible by the Trentes Glorieuses, those thirty halcyon years (ignoring Vietnam, Korea, and the violences of decolonization) in the West following the second World War. I, of course, still want to hold on to that hopeful liberalism, to its vision of a social democracy that does its utmost to deliver to all a life now reserved to the privileged.

Rushdie’s narrator’s viewpoint is echoed in one of the book’s epigraphs, which itself echoes the currently fashionable academic preoccupation with ways of living in the ruins.  The passage is taken from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.  The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up little habitats, to have new little hopes.  It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road to the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.  We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Giving in to a notion of a necessarily ruined world, about which we can do nothing except try to carve out a “little habitat,” a way to keep on keeping on, seems defeatist to me.  But forging such a separate peace is also deeply alluring since the general madness and cruelty are so relentless and so resistant to alteration.

Meaningful

It is hard, but not impossible, to disentangle the aesthetic from the meaningful.  Clearly, aestheticism tries to drive a hard boundary between what is aesthetic and what conveys meaning.  But since the aesthetic always entails a relationship between a perceiver and the thing perceived, it seems “natural” (i.e. to occur almost automatically and seemingly of its own accord, unwilled) to ascribe some significance to that relationship.  When the thing perceived it itself “natural” (i.e. not human made, but—for example—a mountain landscape), we get the kinds of “oceanic” sensations of harmony or of the self melting into the non-self that are associated with romanticism.  When the thing perceived is human made, an artifact, it is difficult not to view it as an act of communication.  This thing is offered or presented by one human to another—and we presume that the offering has some meaning, is thought of as being significant.

Meaning and significance are not exactly equivalent.  I can discern the meaning in a banal sentence, but deem it insignificant.  When the artist presents something to an audience, she (it would seem) is making an implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim of significance.  This is worth paying attention to.

On what grounds can that claim to significance, importance, be made?  Either the artist claims to have something important to say, some message we need to hear.  Or the artist is offering a valuable experience.  Now that word “valuable” has snuck in.  “Meaning” and “significance” are synonyms when they refer to sense (i.e. what does that sentence mean; what does that sentence signify); but then both words move from reference to the sense something (a sentence, an event) makes to intimations of “worth,” of importance, of value.  Something is meaningful as opposed to trivial or meaningless; something is significant as contrasted to not worth paying any mind. 

The aesthetic, then, seems pretty inevitably engaged in pointing to something or some event as worthy of our attention—and then has to justify that pointing in terms of importance or significance or meaningfulness.  It seems a very short leap from that kind of justification to making claims about what does or should hold value for us as humans beings living a life.  It seems difficult to avoid some kind of hierarchizing here.  These activities or these insights are valuable; they contribute to leading a good or worthwhile life.  Those activities and beliefs are, at best, a waste of time, or, at worst, pernicious. 

Yes, certain modern artists (although far less of them than one might suppose) wanted to get out of the value game.  But it was awfully hard to present your art work in a “take it or leave it” way, utterly and truly indifferent as to whether anyone found it worthy of attention.  A sense of grievance, a denunciation of the philistines, is much more common when the artist fails to find an audience.  People have bad taste, have a misguided sense of what is valuable and should be valued. 

I suspect that even as the arts were trying in the early 20th century to escape meaningfulness, to simply offer experiences that were their own end and carried no message, that the humanities were going in the opposite direction.  The humanities are devoted to uncovering the meanings of cultural artifacts and events.  This is partly because the humanities are an academic pursuit—and thus tied to models of knowledge that were developed in reference to the “hard” sciences.  Just as science should explain to us natural events, the humanities should explain cultural ones.

But, as people (like Dilthey) quickly noted, scientific explanations were causal.  It was not very clear how the explanations offered by the humanities could (or even should) be causal.  You could say that, as a communicative act, the art work causes the audience to receive a certain meaning.  And certainly that kind of approach to the problem of meaning has figured fairly prominently in the philosophy of language and in certain forms of literary theory.  So, for example, the philosophers struggle mightily with metaphor and irony because it undermines any kind of direct mapping of semantic sense to conveyed meaning.  And then someone like Wayne Booth, a literary theorist, comes along and tries to provide a list of the textual markers that allow us to see when irony is being deployed.  Vague terms like “tone,” “implication,” and “connotation” are trotted out—and interpretation (even when given a jargony, snazzy name like “hermeneutics”) quickly begins to seem too seat of the pants, too ad hoc, to really qualify as science.

The alternative is to try to explain how and why “interpretation” is different from “explanation.”  For starters, interpretation is not trying to explain how this thing we are perceiving was produced.  (There are other branches of humanistic inquiry that do try to answer that question.)  Interpretation is trying to suss out the meaning conveyed to the perceiver.  The movement, we might say, is forward not backwards.  The interest is not in the causes of this artistic artifact or event, but in its effects. 

I don’t want to get into the tangles of trying to differentiate “explanation” from “interpretation.”  This is mostly from cowardice.  I do think there is a methodological distinction to be drawn between the sciences and the humanities, but I have not been able to draw that distinction in a way that is even minimally plausible or satisfactory.  So I have nothing ready for prime time on that topic.

Instead, I want to end this post with two observations.  The first is that the humanities, I think, are always pulling art works back into the realm of the meaningful even in cases where the artists themselves are determined to escape the nets of meaning.  In such cases, the humanities will often then give us the meaning of the attempt to escape meaning.  And it is worth adding here that history is one of the humanities when it considers the effects of events as opposed to trying to trace the causes of events.  That history is pulled both toward causes and to effects is why it is often considered one of the social sciences.   But, then again, it would be silly to say the natural sciences don’t, at times, pay attention to effects as well as causes.  And, as I have already said, some branches of literary criticism (although not very prominent) do attend to causes.  So the difference here can’t be grounded on whether causes or effects is the focus.  (This is a taste of the muddle I am in about these things.) 

Instead, perhaps the key difference is meaningfulness itself.  The natural scientist tracing causes and effects of a natural process does not have to assign that process meaningfulness apart from what transpires.  But the humanities, it seems to me, always consider the further question: how is this event or object meaningful for some group of humans?  The “uptake” by some human community is almost always part of the humanities’ account of that event/artifact; that community’s paying attention to and its ways of elaborating, playing out, its relationship to the event/artifact and to the humans involved in the making of that event/artifact, is a central concern for the humanities.

The second point need not be belabored since I have already made it above.  It seems to me only a short step (and one almost impossible not to make) from considering the meanings that people have made of an event or an artifact to considering what things are or should be valuable.  At the very least, the humanities declare: this is what these people valued.  But to look at what they valued is to think about what can have value, and to consider what I value.  Furthermore, for many devotees of the humanities, that reflection on values is precisely what is valuable about novels, historical narratives, anthropological investigations. 

This interest in questions of value can be formal or substantive.  I think most teachers of literature (just to stick to that limited domain for the moment) pursue both.  They are committed to what usually gets called “critical thinking,” which means a mode of reflection on received ideas and values, a way of questioning them in order to examine what I will still believe after doing that reflecting.  The examined life and all that.  But literary works often advocate for specific substantive values: sympathy, justice, the alleviation of suffering and/or of inequalities (or, on the conservative side, reverence for tradition and established authority).  And teachers often choose to have students read works that promote values the teacher values. 

I don’t think the humanities can get out of the values business (even if some of the arts can).  There is no fact/value divide in the humanities—and, thus, the humanities are going to be embroiled in endless controversies so long as values themselves are a site of dispute.  You can’t, I believe, wipe clean the substantive bits of the humanities, leaving only a formal method that has no concrete implications.  As current controversies demonstrate, “critical thinking” and “open-mindedness” are themselves deemed threatening in certain quarters because they imply that various sacred cows are not sacred, are open to dissent.  Any approach that refuses to take things on authority is suspect. The arts may (although usually don’t) sidestep issues of authority by just saying this is one person’s take on things—and you can ignore it as you wish.  But the humanities don’t have that escape route; they are committed to the view that only things and beliefs that have been examined are worthy of authority and credence—and they, in their practice, are inevitably involved in considering what things/activities/beliefs about what is meaningful, what is valuable, one should adopt. Every formal methods, in other words, has substantive consequences, so formalism of any sort is never going to be value-free.

The Aesthetic

This will be the first in a long thread on the aesthetic.

I may be misreading Dom Lopes’ Being for Beauty, but I come away with a definition of the aesthetic that he, very likely, does not intend to offer.  To wit: the aesthetic is excellence in any human practice whatsoever.  We take pleasure in seeing something well done.  That super-competence is above and beyond functionality.  There are many ways to put the ball in the basket in a basketball game.  Some are workmanlike; they get the job done.  Other ways are surprising, graceful, acrobatic, have panache etc.  It’s those “extras” that are aesthetic.  We call someone an excellent musician or speaker or teacher when they do more than just deliver the goods.  They elicit a response that exceeds communicating to an audience the content of the deed or the recognition that the deed has achieved its intended outcome.  Mere effectiveness, functionality, is not aesthetic.

For starters, then, we should probably resist nominalization here.  “The aesthetic” is exactly the wrong phrasing.  Better to see the aesthetic in terms of adverbs (especially) and adjectives.  The aesthetic resides in how a thing is done, not in what is being done.  The nouns can take care of the what.  We use the adverbs and adjectives to qualify the nouns—which leads us directly to the common notion that the aesthetic has to do with qualities, not quantities, not with the bare facts, but with elaborated facts.  We enter the aesthetic when we take basic functions—eating, having sex, dressing, communicating—and make them elaborate.  We explore the various ways of doing something—and take pleasure in playing with the possibilities. 

Thus, from one point of view, the aesthetic is not cost-effective.  It asks us to expend more time and energy in doing something than is required to simply get the job done.  The aesthetic, this is hardly a new thought, is unnecessary.  From a utilitarian point of view, it looks frivolous.  There are even cases where a concern with style, with doing something in a way that will impress and please others (or oneself), detracts from achieving the practice’s goal.  The aesthetic is a luxury, one that always implies the existence of a surplus.  I have the time and energy to not drive directly to the goal in the most efficient manner possible.  There is always the hint of the aristocratic here, the supercilious manner that says I don’t have to take achievement of the goal all that seriously.  I am more invested in the presentation of the self in a certain stylish way than I am in vulgar achievement.  Wanting something, grasping for it, is déclassé.

Utilitarians, those relentless accountants of human life, are forever telling us we cannot afford the aesthetic.  Somewhere there is someone in desperate need and you are wasting precious resources on your frivolities.  This is basically Peter Singer’s argument.  How dare you spend $150 at a fancy restaurant when there are people starving?  Only in the utopian achievement of all of humanity’s basic needs could the aesthetic be justified.  The same basic puritanism is displayed in Thomas More’s Utopia, where the aesthetic is just about completely banished not only because the focus is on providing for everyone’s needs, but also because the display side of the aesthetic, its striving for excellence as a way to impress, threatens egalitarianism. 

There have generally been two ripostes to the utilitarian distrust of the aesthetic, both captured in familiar Shakespearean tag lines.  The first comes with Toby’s plea for “cakes and ale” in Twelfth Night.  What a dull world it would be if we never played, never elaborated, but stuck to doing our tasks with metronomic regularity and efficiency. All work, and no play . . .

The second is more grandiose, enunciated in Lear’s anguished “O, reason not the need.”  Here the aesthetic becomes the very ground of humanness.  “Man’s life is cheap as beasts’” if we are bound to needs, to the necessary.  From being elaborate play, the aesthetic gets transformed, in one giant leap, into the very space of freedom.  This line of thought is particularly potent in German philosophy, running from Kant and Schiller directly to Arendt and Marcuse (among many others).  For Schiller, the aesthetic is what makes us human, because it means we are not tied to the actual, to what today presents to and demands of us.  We are human because we can entertain possibilities, imagine futures, that transcend current circumstances.  The aesthetic is the realm of the virtual, of the unrealized imaginative, contrasted to what stands in front of us right now.  And it is precisely that ability to transcend the here and now that provides the freedom that, for him, is essential to being human, not animal. 

You can see what has happened here.  We have gone from the aesthetic being unnecessary, a playful elaboration of things that need to be done, to that unnecessity become the bedrock of the aesthetic’s becoming just about the most important thing about us as human beings.  Our very humanity is at stake.

I am uncomfortable with the swing from frivolity to the ground of humanness.  I find the frivolity position more plausible, but do think it neglects the fact that every culture we know of displays aesthetic elaborations.  That fact suggests there is some core of necessity in the aesthetic.  It is not ever dispensed with.  If it has no functional pay-off, then (paradoxically) the lack of functionality must be playing some role that humans cannot jettison.  On the other hand, trying to colonize imaginative endeavors that strive to creatively rewrite possible futures under the flag of the aesthetic looks like special pleading to me.  Humans exercise their imagination in all sorts of ways—including when they devise more efficient ways to do things as well as more elaborate ways to do them.  Our freedom (conceived as the effort to transcend necessities) is manifest in utilitarian endeavors as well as aesthetic ones.  The Wright brothers were utilitarians through and through.  They weren’t looking for style points; they were just trying to overcome what had been a necessity in human life until they came along: we were tied to the ground. 

Maybe that simply means we are not humans without imagination.  But it also seems a bad idea to trot out this whole notion of “humanness” at this point.  Better, it seems to me, just to talk about instances where imagination is deployed—and not be bound to some dubious claim that non-human animals lack imagination, or to insidious assertions that some non-imaginative humans aren’t fully human.  In other words, let’s just skip tying the activity of imagining to some status of being.

Returning to the aesthetic, and the extremes that arguing along the lines of necessity/freedom gets us into, I am inclined to want to shift the terms.  What happens if we think of the aesthetic under the general rubrics of experience and communication. On the experience side, aestheticization is way of ratcheting up intensity. That intensity can be one of pleasure—but pleasure seems way too blunt a term to capture the subtleties aesthetic elaboration can provide. Again, we are on familiar ground here.  The connoisseur or epicure is often suspect, especially to the puritanical utilitarian, because the intensity is excessive to function.  And some of the intense experiences the aesthetic offers have no apparent function at all except to provide that intensity. 

So maybe we haven’t escaped the necessity/freedom issue at all.  Certainly, aestheticists have always championed the freedom of doing something for its own sake, with no concern for a return on investment for the time and energy spent.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to talk of these things without slipping into economic metaphors?  Still, focusing on the range of experiences the aesthetic might offer does allow us to avoid talk of “humanness,” while affording a pluralism that lowers the stakes considerably.  We are not talking any longer of some sort of “freedom” that makes us human, or is necessary (sweet paradox) to living a full, satisfactory, or flourishing life.  Instead, we are just talking about a wide variety of intensities and pleasures that some people might pursue even if those same experiences leave others indifferent.  Why would the entomologist scorn the novelist—or vice versa?

 Aesthetic elaboration makes for more effective communication.  Making something intense, memorable, distinctive etc. are all ways of grabbing and focusing attention.  Elaboration, in other words, may not just be pleasing, but also serve to grease the movement of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and other content from one person to another.  I think those of us devoted to the arts—and committed to having the arts take up some space in any educational curriculum—are most often attached to the messages, the content, we see art works as attempting to convey.

This is a vexed topic.  Aestheticism had as its very goal to strip the arts of all content.  Art with a message is often condemned as tendentious and, thus, inferior.  But it seems simply wrong to dissociate the arts from either an attempt to provide an intense perceptual experience (an event) as in non-representational music or painting.  Or to provide a meditation on the meanings and feelings that certain kinds of experiences elicit.  The literary arts, to a very large extent, try to explore the complex ideas and emotions that surround various situations—complex ideas and emotions that direct namings (anger, love) do not adequately capture. The elaboration in these instances is in the service of more adequate representation of things that resist such representation.  That’s one reason metaphors and other figures of speech become so central to literary practice.  And that’s why literary works can often strive to evoke an emotion instead of try to describe or represent it.  I still think either strategy can be called an attempt at communication. 

I will end here for today.

Joan Didion

Dear Readers: Back after a very long hiatus, and with no promises that posting will be any more regular in the future than they have been in the recent past. But the tributes following Joan Didion’s recent death spurred me to the following reflection. As the post makes obvious, I found her authorial persona a bit much. My sense of her worldview is based primarily on the essays she would publish in the New York Review of Books on the culture/inner workings of Hollywood and of the American shenanigans in Central America and elsewhere.

The genre that best captures Joan Didion’s worldview is film noir.  She assigned herself the role of the tough, cynical but honest, detective; Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe.  The poor benighted souls driven by small-time greed and massive fear were accorded a measure of sympathy, but mostly deserved pity-inflected contempt.  The corrupt powers who pulled the strings behind the scenes were to be condemned as nefarious, but there was always a sneaking admiration for the grandeur of their schemes, the almost sublime scale of their desires.  That ambivalent attitude toward the powerful is one reason Didion slid so seamlessly from the political right to the left.  Her exposure, even condemnation, of the corrupt retained that slight hint of a desire to be one of their number.  And there was also the fact that the 1960s made it easy to trade in right-wing fantasies of communists in every cupboard for leftist obsessions (somewhat better founded) with the C.I.A., the Department of Defense’s funding of higher education, and corporate power along with bought politicians that did Big Business’s bidding.  “The Establishment” as con game, never showing the marks where the aces really were.  Didion offered to her readers the pleasure of being in the know, of joining the select few who knew the score.