December 2009

2009 12 31
Recently read: Remembrance of Things Past

Posted by in: Books

Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past

Proust’s project in Remembrance of Things Past (also known, more recently and accurately, as In Search of Lost Time) is, as he puts it in the last sentence of the work, to attempt “to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted one which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary prolonged past measure—for simultaneously, like giants plunged into the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days—in the dimension of Time.” One and the same person can, at different points in his or her life, occupy different social circles, ranks, families, ways of life, and so on. The project of exploring these differences requires Proust to painstakingly recreate the social worlds of his childhood, of a period before his birth, as well as the social world that coincided with his young adulthood and then his middle age, and to follow a number of characters through those periods.

Proust pursues this all in an astonishingly long-winded way—3294 pages in my edition. One of Proust’s several rejection letters read famously, “I may be dead from the neck up, but I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” I believe the reviewer was referring to the Overture which opens Swann’s Way, the first novel in the series. If so, it’s actually more like fifty pages. There are a number of dinner parties in the book. The shortest is about the length of a decent sized novella. The longest of these dinner parties seemed to me to last well over 200 pages: almost every word, every glance, from every participant recounted, meditated upon, digressed from. Long twisting sentences, paragraphs that stretch three pages, an epiphany that stretches over the last 200 or so pages—Proust can go on and on.

So, if you haven’t tried it, is worth it? It’s hard to say. 3294 pages is about 100 hours of reading, give or take a few dozen hours. You could read a lot of awesome books in 100 hours. I had to repeatedly resist the temptation to pick up something else just to take a break, since I knew that if I lost my momentum, I would probably not finish (as happened to me about ten years earlier when I only got a few hundred pages in). Don’t be mad at me if you waste a bunch of time trying to like the book. For what it’s worth, though, I found ROTP one of the most remarkable books I have ever read in my life. And for all the frustration I felt with it (on which more below), when I turned the last page I had already decided that I would read it again, and possibly again after that.

In part what is so amazing about ROTP is that Proust is able to capture in the most minute detail what it is like to be a conscious human being. The momentary, fragmentary thoughts that flit in and out of our consciousness a hundred times in an hour while we’re occupied with other things, or simply lying in bed letting our minds wander, and that are forgotten almost as soon as they’ve passed—Proust is able to slow time down in his narrative, to capture these thoughts, and to set them out carefully for our inspection, connecting them with other thoughts and connecting, and connecting, until we start to sense the outlines of a vast set of interconnected associations standing behind consciousness and shaping it in more or less subtle ways. I’ve simply never come across anything like this before—not like this, not with such care, and fidelity and assurance.

Because ROTP is about time in the way I described above, the subject of Proust’s reflections is usually only obliquely time. As he traces different lives, especially his own, through different periods, to which are attached very different social stations, sensibilities, and preferences, the narrator has a great deal of time to reflect on the preoccupations of those lives. Since Marcel, the narrator, is given to obsessive jealousy, this preoccupation becomes one of the great secondary themes of the novel. I would guess that somewhere around a third of ROTP is taken up with this theme, also counting the obsessive jealousy of Charles Swann concerning his lover Odette, which prefigures in significant ways the narrator’s own jealousy concerning his lover Albertine.

Personally, I find obsessive jealousy a pretty boring theme. I’m not an especially jealous person. I never really understood Othello either. Worse even than boredom with this theme is the fact that Marcel seems incapable of genuinely loving (at least as I can recognize it) the object of his obsessive jealousy, who, when she isn’t the occasion for spasms of jealousy, actually bores the crap out of him. And no wonder. For all his incredible powers of perception into his own mental states, and for all the acuity that allows him to see through Albertine’s dishonesty, Marcel seems deeply uninterested in her as a human being, in really attempting to see the world through her eyes.

So, this is a pretty serious problem for the novel as a whole: Marcel is a cold fish with a boring preoccupation and a tendency to go on about it at great length. And that coldness extends through the entire novel. There are very few moments of genuine human warmth in those three thousand odd pages. Nor do I think this is a case in which Marcel Proust, the writer, is wiser than his narrator, Marcel, or his own novel. There seems to be something deeply stunted in the novel’s view of the capacities of human beings for genuine love, friendship and affection.

So it was tough going at some points. But I found in the end that what is remarkable and, as far as I can tell, utterly unique, in ROTP outweighed what was frustrating, repellent, or boring in it. So, as long as it was, I hope at some point in the future to spend a few hundred more hours in Proust’s company.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 12 29
Recently read: Two books on philosophy and children

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Gareth B. Matthews. Philosophy and the Young Child

Gareth B. Matthews. Dialogues with Children

Gareth B. Matthews is a professional philosopher well-known for his work on Ancient and Medieval philosophy. He has also had a long-standing (and often related) interest in pedagogy. These two books of his on philosophy and children, both from the early 1980s, are wonderful, and deserve a much wider audience than they probably currently enjoy.

Neither book aims to offer a “how-to” for engaging children in philosophical dialogue, though they are brimming with examples. One of their main virtues, besides simply offering clear accounts of interesting philosophical issues, is the spirit in which they approach philosophical conversation with children. Here is a nice statement of Matthews’ approach, from Philosophy and the Young Child:

The combination of assets and liabilities that an adult brings to a philosophical encounter with a child makes for a very special relationship. The adult has a better command of the language than the child and, latently at least, a surer command of the concepts expressed in the language. It is the child, however, who has fresh eyes and ears for perplexity and incongruity. Children also have, typically, a degree of candor and spontaneity that is difficult for an adult to match. Because each party has something important to contribute, the inquiry can easily become a genuinely joint venture, something otherwise quite rare in encounters between adults and children.

In the wrong hands, it’s easy to imagine this slipping into an unrealistic, naive or romantic view of children, and indeed, without further discussion, it’s exactly what I would have imagined. But it’s very clear from the dialogues that he produces that Matthews really does succeed in pulling off some wonderful conversations.

Both books are also interesting because they offer a forceful challenge to prior work (Piaget is a special target) on children, philosophy and cognitive development. Matthews argues that researchers are often too quick to try to cram interesting questions and thoughts into unhelpful developmental stages, often misunderstanding the relevant philosophical issues along the way. Chapter 4 (“Piaget”) of Philosophy and the Young Child is especially focused on this issue, and it’s refreshing to see a philosophically sophisticated defense of a child’s end of a conversation with the famous psychologist.

Although Matthews’ focus throughout both of these books is the young child, educators at any level could read them with profit. They’re informed by a genuine love of interesting philosophical questions, and I could imagine myself dipping into them for inspiration as I planned a first year introduction to philosophy class, just as readily as I will in fact be dipping into them again when I am thinking about philosophy with my (due in April) son, when he is old enough to talk philosophy with his Dad.

Howls of outrage (3)

2009 12 27
Sixty one wins for Abdulmutallab

Posted by in: The "War on Terror"

That asshole who tried to blow up a plane with his exploding pants may have failed to actually blow up the plane, but he certainly succeeded in adding an incredible amount of inconvenience to the already absurd process of getting on a plane. Yoon and I flew from Toronto to NYC today. After clearing security, we were all required to go through a second, and much more intensive, layer of screening before boarding the plane. Every single passenger was thoroughly frisked. Every single pocket was gone through. No one could use the washroom or stand up on the flight or put a jacket or a sweater on his or her lap.

There were about sixty passengers on the plane. That’s sixty wins for Abdulmutallab that I personally witnessed, out of tens of thousands past, present and future. Actually, it’s sixty one, if you count the moron in front of us in line who started grumbling about “Goddamn Muslims.”

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2009 12 22
Recently read: Academic Graffiti

Posted by in: Books, Poetry

W.H. Auden, with drawings by Filippo Sanjust. Academic Graffiti

This book only takes 15 or 20 minutes to skim through, even at a leisurely pace, but if you’re a pointy-head, it’s probably still worth a trip to the library for it. A clerihew is, so I’m told, “a whimsical four-line biographical poem . . . The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB.” This book contains sixty-one clerihews of Auden’s. E.g.,

Disiderius Erasmus
Always avoided chiasmus,
But grew addicted as time wore on
To oxymoron.

Auden takes aim at some familiar names—Aquinas, Beethoven, Blake, Robert Browning—and some unfamiliar ones. I admit that some of the poems went right over my head, even when I recognized the name:

Robert Browning
Immediately stopped frowning
And started to blush,
When fawned on by Flush.

Did you know that Elizabeth Barrett had a dog named “Flush”? I didn’t, and this dog was even the subject of a fictional autobiography by Virginia Woolf (!).

Anyway, good for a laugh or two.

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2009 12 09
Walzer on Afghanistan

The other day, Commenter DC mentioned this Michael Walzer piece on Afghanistan. One line in it was irritating enough to rouse me to write a letter to Dissent this morning:

Re: Is Obama’s War in Afghanistan Just?

In support of his position on Afghanistan, Michael Walzer remarks, “I also think that most of these people [that is, Afghans] would agree (they should be asked).” I would like to second Walzer’s proposal that Afghans be asked what they think. If any organization had bothered to conduct opinion polling in Afghanistan, Walzer might have been able to discover its results with a search engine, thirty seconds of spare time, and just a smidgen of curiosity. It is a shame that Walzer was forced instead to speculate about a matter of real importance to his position.

Howls of outrage (7)

2009 12 07
Recently read: Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Posted by in: Books, children, Psychology

Lise Eliot. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain is about gender differences and their causes. The main outlines of the book can be summarized fairly quickly: Much popular journalism about gender differences is really awful. Journalists often present the conclusions of poorly designed studies about gender differences as fact; misrepresent good studies; or represent good studies well, but without noting the existence of conflicting evidence in the scientific literature. Eliot, a professor of neuroscience, is able to pick her way through this terrain in a surer way. She examines the biological roots of the predispositions that do tend to differ in males and females, pausing frequently to discuss the scientific evidence supporting her claims. The differences are sometimes real. But Eliot argues that they’re often much smaller than you would think on the basis of popular reporting.

Small original differences, however, can lead to large gaps at the end of a process of development, partly because of the influence of culture, and partly because real innate dispositions, even weak ones, shape behaviour. The remarkable plasticity of the developing brain means that spending a lot of time engaged in certain kinds of activities shapes further development along the same lines. A slight predisposition to engage in games that are especially effective at developing a facility with spatial concepts, for example, can have a big influence on performance in math class years later.

Boys and girls can be disadvantaged in different ways by this, since it leads many individuals of each sex to under-develop important cognitive and emotional skills at a time in their lives when their brains are most able to absorb new skills. The good news, however, is that parents and teachers can intervene in all sorts of ways to correct for this. Eliot’s eminently sensible goal is adults who have a decent blend of traits that are stereotypical for each sex: assertiveness, empathy, etc. Her book has good practical advice about this, and an interesting, readable discussion of the science underpinning those recommendations.

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2009 12 06
Recently read: Like Life

Posted by in: Books

Lorrie Moore. Like Life

This collection brings together eight short stories by Moore that appeared in various publications during the 1980s. They’re a pleasure to read: crisply written, well-observed pieces, mostly in a minor key, though with some genuinely funny moments. Moore saves her best lines for her characters, who often sound funny and insightful without ever arousing the suspicion that they’re being used as a mouthpiece for the author.

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2009 12 05
Rashid on Obama on Afghanistan

I thought Obama’s recent speech on Afghanistan was pretty stinky. As I skimmed through it, grumbling to myself, I wondered what Ahmed Rashid would make of it. Answer here, and very much worth reading.

In the lead up to Obama’s decision about what to do about Afghanistan I had drawn some faint comfort from the story that he had supposedly rejected all four of the plans presented to him, and sent his advisors back to the drawing board. I always had the impression that one of the things that made Bush such a wretched decider-in-Chief was that he tended to select only from the options presented to him by his advisors, since he lacked the imagination and the background knowledge to force them to rethink the options they presented to him.

But so much for Obama’s ability to free himself from the conventional wisdom here. His speech was such a disappointment, not just because the arguments were lousy, but because they so clearly failed to really engage the concerns of those of us who feel that an Afghanistan surge isn’t going to help (as Rashid’s post makes very clear). Really engaging the concerns of the other side is the sort of thing that Obama often does very well, so the failure to do it in this case is all the more striking. This makes me worried not just about the decision he’s making, but the process of decision-making that’s getting him there.

I’m not implacably opposed to any sort of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, so long as it’s got a clear exit date. But I don’t see any realistic prospect for success there. I don’t know what most proponents even mean when they talk about success in this context. Even when I do, I really don’t see how the benefits of hanging around (militarily) outweigh the costs, either for the U.S. or for Afghanistan.

I don’t even understand most of the time what people mean when they talk about “the Taliban.” The Taliban movement which consolidated control over a large part of Afghanistan prior to September, 2001, and which was led by Mullah Omar, no longer exists. It has not really existed for years now. Scattered remnants of the original crew remain, but not in a coherent form as a political movement. When people speak now about the Taliban it isn’t clear whether they mean to refer to this original movement, to some remnant of it, to plain old organized crime groups, to disaffected Pashtun nationalists, to disaffected Afghans of any ethnic or religious background, or to something else altogether.

I think this ambiguity is often the result of honest confusion, but it’s worth noting how very useful it is to proponents of the war. The original Taliban movement makes a rhetorically persuasive target. They gave shelter and support to people who attacked us! How could we go wrong making war against them? But when the target morphs into, say, some ill-defined and shifting group of disaffected Pashtun nationalists whose main enemy is the sharing of power with other ethnic groups in the country—well that represents a much less feasible and clearly defined target.

In any case, I think the appropriate response when someone starts talking about “the Taliban” in Afghanistan is to say “Who?

Howls of outrage (7)