Bullshit politics in literary criticism: an example from Deceit, Desire, and the Novel

I’m reading Rene Girard’s great book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961) and came to this:

Dostoyevsky [was] convinced [. . .] that Russian forms of experience were in advance of those in the West. Russia has passed, without any transitional period, from traditional and feudal structures to the most modern society. She has not known any bourgeois interregnum. Stendhal and Proust are the novelists of this interregnum. They occupy the upper regions of internal mediation, while Dostoyevsky occupies its lowest {Girard “Deceit”@44}.

By 1961, it was pretty damn obvious that Stalin had murdered millions of his own citizens in the 1920s and 1930s. It was pretty damn obvious that Russia was a totalitarian country, which I don’t really buy as a form of “the most modern society.” The political reality is simpler: Russian hasn’t really passed “from traditional and feudal structures.” It’s still a dictatorship, only this time it’s softer: Vladimir Putin doesn’t rule with an iron fist and direct gulags, but by co-opting putatively democratic institutions and controlling TV stations. Except for a period in the 1990s and perhaps the early 2000s, before Putin had completely solidified control, Russia was something other an autocracy or something close to it.

So a sentence like “Russia has passed, without any transitional period, from traditional and feudal structures to the most modern society” is about as wrong as one can get outside of the hard sciences, if a phrase like “most modern society” is to have any meaning at all. Given the choice between Russia and countries with “bourgeois interregnums” that manage not to murder their citizens, I’ll choose the latter any time. Most of the analysis in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is so good that I pass over the occasional gaffe like the one above, but it’s symptomatic of where literary criticism goes wrong, which most often happens when it touches politics or economics in a naive or uninformed way.

If you’re interested in this sort of criticism, read Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.

Edit: On the subject of Russia’s slide into autocracy, see also Russia’s Economy: Putin and the KGB State.

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them — Elif Batuman

I’ve been trying and failing to satisfactorily describe The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them to friends and failing to get across the book’s humor, which is unusually rich and deep. Whoever wrote the back cover blurb, with its weird melange of subject matters like a demented person’s shopping list, outdoes me:

If you’re going to read just one book about conference planning, Isaac Babel, Leo Tolstoy, boys’ leg contests, giant apes, Uzbek poetry, the life of the mind, and the resignation of the soul—seek no farther: this is the book for you!!!

It’s funnier still in Roz Chast’s handwriting. The humor, taken out of context, falls flat without the build up from earlier material, as Batuman describes situations that become jokes absurd academic setups involving the relatives of Isaac Babel or the relationship traumas experienced by our plucky, self-aware narrator. Actually, plucky isn’t a fair word: Batuman is deep, and not just because she reads a lot and lives a lot and finds ways to combine living and not living, as when she sees Don Quixote:

Don Quixote, I realized, had broken the binary of life and literature. He had lived life and read books; he lived life through books, generating an even better book. Foucault, meanwhile, broke my idea of literary theory: instead of reducing complexity and beauty, he had produced it. My interest in truth came only later, but beauty had already begun to draw me into the study of literature.

Except that Don Quixote pays for his broken binary with social opprobrium that he, wisely or not, doesn’t realize (or chooses not to realize), and his end on a deathbed leads to his famous renunciation of books of chivalry.

The life lived through books is, to some extent, the only kind of life we can have—or, alternately, we learn to lead our own lives through the narrative examples that others set for us, whether through their being or their stories. And we understand the stories of a single other person better by understanding the stories told by cultures better.

That last sentence is somewhat vague. Let me cite a comic example of someone utterly failing to do so:

While it’s true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can’t do that, what’s it good for? On those grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov’s ‘specifically Jewish alienation.’
‘Right,’ I finally said. ‘As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.’
He nodded: ‘So you see the problem.’

We moved from the high brow, about the power of literature and the reference to the “vale of tears,” to the very low brow, which entails virtually anything having to do with New Jersey, to the middle brow of self absorption. This is good stuff.

And if literature can’t render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness, maybe it’s still good for passing the time until death, or at least idle cocktail party chatter, or at least impressing potential sexual partners with literary repartee, assuming you find the right sort of partner. For Batuman, grad school is that sort of place, although she also dates a banker (it doesn’t work out), and one or two others I’ve forgotten.

There are other grad school jokes, which I have a special appreciate for because I’m in it, and those sometimes combine jokes about Russia (which are also common): “The title of this book is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s weirdest novel, The Demons, formerly translated as The Possessed, which narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways to my own experiences in graduate school.”

Batuman actually ends up in a remote, former Russian province, in the form of Uzbekistan, where a series of bureaucratic and financial snafus combined with questionable decision making lead her. During a tedious bit of orientation in preparation for going to Uzbekistan, Batuman leaves to find a hat. Despite the risk of death, maybe Batuman is better off in the Caucuses, thinking:

Somehow I ended up in an Urban Outfitters. All around me, girls were buying absolutely unwearable-looking clothes: sheer dresses with V-necks down to the navel; jeans measuring literally two inches from waist to crotch; rhinestone encrusted G-strings with no elasticity whatsoever. I found a hideous white ill-fitting sun hat, bought it, and fled to Barnes & Noble.

She’s not one of them; she’s one of us, which I can say merely because she agrees with me about airports and airplanes (“Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you.”) Compare that to one of my recent ruminations:

As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive.

But I’m less funny than Batuman, which is a good reason to read her, despite the improbability of her subject matter. Batuman’s language is wonderful too: she says that she’s going to Tashkent with “Dan… who was indescribably average in both appearance and demeanor, like some kind of composite sketch.” The comparison is fresh, describes Dan without describing him, and, more importantly, shows exactly how Batuman thinks of him, even if he has some kind of vibrant inner life not apparent on the surface. If so, alas, we get little indication of that inner life, which might be part of his problem, and the problem of many of those who don’t have adventures in Russian books—or any kind at all.

(Here’s a comment on The Possessed from the Literary Saloon.)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century — George Friedman

The Next 100 Years is fun because of its contrary, anti-conventional wisdom thinking about the shape of nations: instead of assuming the perpetual rise of China and India, the book sees internal weakness in both, as well as greater problems with a resurgent Russia and a nationalistic Turkey. Rather than focusing on current American battles with what Friedman calls “global jihadist,” which he argues are a passing trend in terms of their overall threat, it examines what a more assertive Russia might look like as it tries to expand its influence in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Immigration from Mexico and Latin America is unpopular in the United States today, that immigration might become desired by the late 2020s as industrialized countries age. The United States is a “young” and “barbaric” country using the definitions Friedman gives. And the list goes on.

The problem with The Next 100 Years is that almost every page also contains a wildly implausible assertion or historical reading. To pick one example: after an extended discussion of Russia’s geopolitical interests leading toward 2020, Friedman says that openings in southern Russia combined with a continued American presence in Afghanistan means that “If there were an army interested in invading, the Russian Federation is virtually indefensible.” By conventional metrics, this is true, but it ignores the thousands of nuclear weapons Russia might have. Such an analysis reads like someone planning military adventures in Europe in 1900: it so utterly miscalculates what kind of destruction would occur under its situations that it really doesn’t seem to understand the situation.

Elsewhere, in a specious discussion of the 50-year cycles of American history, Friedman talks about the cycle “From industrial cities to service suburbs,” along with the malaise of the 1970s. He doesn’t mention the Arab oil embargo, energy spikes, or our response to both—instead he focuses on tax policy. Friedman says that in the 1980s, “Reagan’s solution [to economic problems] was maintaing consumption while simultaneously increasing the amount of investment capital. He did so through ‘supply-side economics’: reducing taxes in order to stimulate investment.” But Friedman completely ignores the monetary policy side and Paul Volcker’s efforts to tame inflation (see here, here, and here for more on him). He also ignores the foreign currency issues regarding China, as described, for example, here.

On the war front, the introduction of The Next 100 Years says regarding World War II that “The United States simultaneously conquered and occupied Japan, almost as an afterthought to the European campaigns.” This a) ignores that Japan was the proximate cause of the United States’ entry to the war, b) ignores the enormous strain of fighting World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific, and c) ignores the hundreds of thousands of United States causalities in the Pacific. Calling it an “afterthought” seems wrong. In addition, Friedman writes that:

A country’s grand strategy is so deeply embedded in that nation’s DNA, and appears so natural and obvious, that politicians and generals are not always aware of it.

Funny: I’ve yet to see a country’s “DNA” expressed as a double-helix, and the idea of countries having completely describable characters seems overly limiting and simplistic in this sense.

Still, despite these kinds of problems, Friedman does an admirable if shaky job of refocusing on long-term trends; for example, he says that Vietnam and Iraq were and are, respectively, “merely isolated episodes in U.S. history, of little lasting importance—except to the Vietnamese and Iraqis.” In both cases (at least so far), it appears unlikely that the United States has been permanently hurt, and the great strengths the country possesses, like the universities and immigration that James Fallows writes about here, have not been affected in major ways.

Friedman ties together demographic trends, the status of women, the status of families, and international politics in novel, unusual ways, arguing (for example) that, for example, Osama bin Laden’s rants often include comments about family values and the status of women that indicate he, like Pat Robertson, is riled up about women being independent enough to choose partners, divorce, and so forth. Demographics power some of the major social and political tensions of our era, even when they’re masked by surface reasoning, much as the 100 Years’ War was putatively about the souls of Catholics and Protestants while actually being about the distribution of power and resources in Europe.

I haven’t said much about Friedman’s views about China because those views are so easily arguable. He thinks that China is riven by tensions between wealthy coastal cities and the poor interior, which might eventually tear the country apart again, and that China is heading towards major problems with bad debt, economic structural incoherence, and banking problems. Maybe: but it’s also possible that China will knit itself closer together through telecommunications, roads, and railroads, and that its central leadership is aware of the problems Friedman enumerates.

By the same token, Russia could collapse again around 2020, but one could construct an equally attractive alternative scenario. In his defense, Friedman says that he thinks the broad outlines he gives will be followed even if the specifics are wrong, and in the epilogue he says:

It might seem far-fetched to speculate that a rising Mexico will ultimately challenge American power, but I suspect that the world we are living in today would have seemed far-fetched to someone living at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’m sure the world of 2100 will seem “far-fetched” to someone from today, but the real question is, “far-fetched in what way?” The way Friedman describes, or some as-yet unforeseen way? I would bet more the latter, amusing though it is to anticipate the former. Too much is left out, including, notably, the threat of nuclear weapons and the possibility of global climate change. He says, however, that “My mission, as I see it, is to provide you with a sense of what the twenty-first century will look and feel like.” On this account he succeeds, provided that he changes the word “will” to “might.”

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815

I primarily read novels, along with other material about them, but once in a while something like The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 – 1815 comes along and engages me as few histories do. Two favorites are Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present (link goes to my post on Ravelstein) and Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. They, along with The Pursuit of Glory, share the unusual trait of making their subjects lively in a way that monographs and high school classes—at least the ones I read and took—too often don’t. All three have personality, which can’t be taught by graduate departments or journalism classes and separates good history books from the merely well-researched, constructed, and presented. You see the difference in a million places, like one where Blanning tells me something I didn’t know about a famous person: “More controversially, [Adam Smith] ventured the opinion that the benefit of a diet of potatoes could be witnessed in the impressive physiques of the labourers and prostitutes of London (‘the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions’) […]”. This is hardly essential for our understanding of the subject being discussed (agriculture), but it’s a deft way to give a concrete example of larger agricultural trends’ effect on the everyday. He gives numerous specific examples of grand ideas in action. In another showing of character, Blanning says about the growing professionalism of bureaucracies: “[…] nepotism, corruption, obstruction, incompetence—and all the other vices inseparable from public employment of any age—were certainly to be found.” Concise, witty, and true. Among other nonessential but amusing knowledge, we find that, “In France, even pornography was being published in Latin in 1650, but more than 90 per cent of all titles were in French in 1700, by which time Latin had ceased to be a living language.”

Summarizing a 500-page book that in turn summarizes more than 150 years of history is nearly impossible, but if one can discern a primary theme it is how long Europe took to recover from its descent into darkness after Rome. Ample references demonstrate the journey and changes—for example, the Languedoc Canal was called perhaps “[Europe’s] greatest [engineering work] since Roman days.” At least that took a mere 15 years of construction, as opposed to another large canal that required 38. And I thought, “hmmmm, sounds like the Big Dig,” a boondoggle that has become a joke in New England and the rest of the world. This isn’t the only resonance with today. Politically, the most obvious comparison between then and now is Russia, whose descent back into despotism has been covered by Slate, among many others. See, for example, here, here, and here. The “long” Eighteenth Century featured numerous despots, some better than others, when that mode of rule was virtually universal among city states. Russian politics are still trapped in pre-Twentieth Century modes, and the parallels between Blanning’s description of politics then kept bringing to mind Russia now. To give another example, “At the heart of Bonaparte’s success, therefore, was his ability to combine two apparently irreconcilable ideals: liberty and order. He managed this trick by giving the semblance of liberty but the reality of order.” The same is true of modern Russian, whose people were serfs, and effectively slaves, far longer than the people of any other nation, and in too many ways still are.

Like all historical parallels, however, the one I describe is imperfect. Unified countries in the modern sense of the word coalesced during the period Blanning covers. When he writes about the “people” of a country or empire during this time, he tries to define them by saying, “One possible way forward is not to seek what the people were but what they were not, and what they most obviously were not was part of the political establishment.” This formulation captures the nuances of the problems he is trying to describe. In the U.S., many if not most citizens still aren’t part of the political establishment, but by choice, while in Russia they aren’t and never really have been. Yet not very long ago by historical standards most of the West lived that way, drawing us back to the uncomfortable parallels Blanning brings out, of which Russia is only one. What The Pursuit of Glory most recalls is how big the changes have been in the way most people live, even if wider political and social currents still hold true from one era to the next.

In looking at these currents, Blanning offers two interpretations about the Eighteenth Century, one “‘progressive’ and ‘optimistic'” that examines the growth of science, the reduction of superstition, and increased literacy. It seems to have happened mostly on the individual and social level. The other he labels “‘conservative’ and ‘pessimistic,'” with land owners still controlling most countries, wars becoming tremendously expensive and damaging, and monarchs still controlling much of Europe. It seems to have happened mostly on the political and international level. Yet everything has a qualification, as when he writes that “The numerous international forces at work in early modern Europe […] were often powerful enough to deafen national voices.” Yet he qualifies that opinion when he says that nationalism had a long way to go before being tamed in Europe, and arguably has not entirely been. Choosing a progressive or conservative explanation says as much about the chooser as it does about the choice, and Blanning leans toward progressive. Regardless of interpretation, Blanning does a superb job in helping one understand the Eighteenth Century and how it leads to our time.

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