Friday, April 29, 2005


Since Gillian Russell linked to these pages a few days ago, it is conceivable that people are reading them. This provides an unexpected opportunity to take stock.

What is the point of the essays that appear in this space? I still don't really know. But I do have an idea (an imperfect one, of course): I am trying to engage with philosophy as one of the humanities. So, when I write about philosophy here, I aim to be non-technical, less rigorous and hopefully more accessible than I am in my academic work. If I have "discipline envy", it is for the critical arts, not the natural sciences. (Thus, I ought to have been more trenchant, and less concessive, at the end of this post.)

As well as philosophy itself – the work and the profession – I would like to deal constructively with philosophical ideas in literary criticism and theory. (This was the point of reading Academic Instincts.) It is easy for philosophers to snipe at those who seem to be stepping on their turf: I will try not to do that, even when I am sceptical.

Coming attractions: a reading of Elaine Scarry's very pleasing book, On Beauty and Being Just; and some thoughts on love, too vague and ill-formed to venture in print. (There are risks to the lessening of rigour, and they may be apparent here.)

I seem to be posting once a week, on Mondays.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Laughter and the Twenty Million

Martin Amis is my favourite prose writer of the moment, in part because I could not imitate his moral ferocity, something present even when – especially when – he is dismayingly cynical.

His recent book, Koba the Dread, is not cynical. For someone used to the novels, this change of pace is quite affecting. Amis has written a furious and scalding history of Stalin's moral and physical slaughter of the Soviet people. It reads like something bashed out in haste: parenthetical remarks begin, leading into full stops, and new thoughts, only to return with confused punctuation to the main line of argument, as if Amis has been stung by a second-hand memory he has to express now before he can go on. The language is often more routine, less fully alive, than his other non-fiction. And this seems just.

One of his themes is humour, and the fact, as he believes, that we can make jokes about Stalin, but not about Hitler: "It seems that the Twenty Million will never command the sepulchral decorum of the Holocaust." I do not know if this is true. The book contains some anecdotes to support its point, but they do not amount to much. I also do not know what to make of the humour of the book itself – contradictory or emblematic? The following passage about Stalin is exemplary:
Accounts of the childhoods of the great historical monsters are always bathetic. Instead of saying something like "X was raised by crocodiles in a septic tank in Kuala Lumpur," they tell you about a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a house, a home.
It did not help that while reading Koba I watched a film of exceptional talent, Funny Bones, about the violence of comedy. The combined effect has been unsettling.

It is also unsettling to be reminded, in this vivid way, one reason why moral philosophers do not write about the moral tragedies of the last century: the task of doing so seriously is too painful and too hard, and as Bernard Williams remarked, here "one is likely to reveal the limitations and inadequacies of one's own perceptions more directly than in, at least, other parts of philosophy." Amis very bravely tackles the moral comparison of Hitler and Stalin. Conducted in the language of most contemporary moral philosophy, the topic might seem profane. In Amis, it is not.

Though he hates Stalin with a passion that is present on every page, his qualified verdict goes the other way:
The truth is that both of these stories are full of terrible news about what it is to be human. They arouse shame as well as outrage. And the shame is deeper in the case of Germany.
Amis doesn't say why, and he refuses philosophy here, pleading instead for us to "Listen to the body." But there is a reason for his insight, which runs deeper than the sometimes-argued contrast between Stalin's means and Hitler's ends. It is not about them as individuals, but what they did to the souls of other people: whether they were filled with hatred, or more forgivably, with fear.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Series of Unfortunate Remarks

It pains me to report that "Lemony Snicket" has published a mean review of the Modern Library's selected tales of H. P. Lovecraft.

After a bad beginning, which argues that it is impossible to read Lovecraft without a fit of giggles, he careens down the slippery slope of stylistic critique. But it is a cliché that Lovecraft's prose is pompous and ponderous, not something that needs to be proved with extensive quotation – four full paragraphs (out of fourteen) and many sentences besides.

Nor do we need more derision for Lovecraft's biologically challenged monstrosities: this has already been expressed, decisively, by Edmund Wilson, whose 1945 New Yorker piece, "Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" moans that "the only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art."

I used to be a Lovecraft junkie, and I sometimes still admit the fact. I would not want to defend my thirteen year old taste. But a serious response to Lovecraft must begin with the fact that he is not frightening (something for which Wilson cannot forgive him), that he writes badly (in a way), and that his characters are thin, and ask: what else is he trying to do?

It may be too simple to say that Lovecraft is not frightening. But he is not spine-chilling. Nor is it good to defend him, as Snicket does, by appeal to the lonely monomania of his narrators, which "accumulates a creepy minimalism" that is "very, very scary."
Taken as a whole, Lovecraft's work exhibits a hopeless isolation not unlike that of Samuel Beckett: lonely man after lonely man, wandering aimlessly through a shadowy city or holing up in rural emptiness, pursuing unspeakable secrets or being pursued by secret unspeakables, all to little avail and to no comfort.
This is the literary-critical equivalent of laughing at, not with. That one is freaked out by Lovecraft's narrators is not a compliment to him unless he meant them to be the locus of terror, which he did not.

It is even more inept to express disgust at Lovecraft's creatures (as both Snicket and Wilson are prone to do). We can see this in a passage quoted at length in the review.
They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membraneous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would ordinarily be.
Lovecraft's target here is the opposite of the eerie: it is the medical, or the zoological. The masterpiece of this is the extensive description of the Old Ones in At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft's best and most successful trope is to turn the supernatural into science, the violation of law into mere ignorance, and the gods into aliens.

Apart from its intrinsic charm, and its influence on science fiction (it is also the principal strategy of the X-files), the project of making the magical mundane is akin to the more respectable literary task of evoking the strangeness of the ordinary. Lovecraft offers an inverse of Martian poetry, but the effect of mystery and awe is to some extent the same – not because the aliens are often mystical or awesome, but because we are invited to see ourselves as aliens, too. That seems to me the point of the awful sentence that forms the real climax of At the Mountains of Madness: not Dyer's raving confrontation with a "shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles" but several pages earlier, when he remarks about the Old Ones,
Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Sucker Punched

Although I dislike boxing intensely, and was afraid that the ending would be too much for me, I finally saw the movie, Million Dollar Baby. It is atrociously powerful. For some reason, I began to cry only during the credits; and when I started, I thought I might never stop. (This led to some awkwardness, as people nudged by me along the aisle on their way out, and I continued to shake with tears.)

The performances are pitch perfect. And if it is all a bit routine for Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, it marks a considerable advance for Hilary Swank, who I last saw in her guise as The Next Karate Kid. (Her fighting skills have suffered a deterioration, however, at least in ingenuity.)

The film came very close to being a masterpiece. What got in the way, for me, was a sense of rupture between its parts. It felt like two films welded together: a story of persistence and ambition, and one about pity and principle. The question is: why deal with this material together? what is the principle of unity?

I don't mean to suggest that a narrative can have only one point. Nor do I mean that one needs to justify telling a story simply because it is sad. The emotional impact of art can sometimes feel "unearned" – as in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies but not here. My thought is rather that Million Dollar Baby lacks the necessity of great art: it has no answer to the questions posed above.

What makes this frustrating is that the movie could have given reasons for itself. The rupture lies in the fact that Maggie's paralysis is not just a consequence of the risks involved in what she has chosen to do, but of injustice and bad luck. She is hit from behind, after the bell, by the 'Blue Bear', a German ex-prostitute-turned-boxer (!) who routinely breaks the rules. This is a terrible misfortune, but it is basically meaningless. The injury is adventitious; it doesn't follow from anything. The effect is to make the close of the film seem both arbitrary – an examination of euthanasia tacked on to a female Rocky – and bitterly unfair.

The injury should simply have happened in a bout: just one of those things. The unifying theme that the movie almost has is the risk of living hopefully, and the courage it demands – both of which point, with something like inevitability, to death. That's what makes me cry at the end of the film: I cannot imagine being brave enough to go gentle into that good night.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Philosophical rigour

Continuing our series on professional anxieties... one of my favourite passages from Kant appears at the end of the B-Deduction:
I consider the division by numbered paragraphs as necessary up to this point, because thus far we have had to treat of the elementary concepts. We have now to give an account of their employment, and the exposition may therefore proceed in continuous fashion, without such numbering.

This is humbling to an extraordinary degree. What chance do we have to justify our conclusions, if, unlike the master, we cannot even justify our typsetting, or font?