Sunday, April 01, 2007

Review of Voltaire's Bastards

Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul (1993)

After reading John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire's Bastards twice through three years apart, I still find the book a disappointment even though I took some great ideas away from it.

In true eastern Canada liberal intellectual fashion, the book is far longer than it has to be. Saul seems unaware he employs the same abstractness he rallies against in so many chapters. Furthermore—and what I consider the worst transgression—is the feeling that Saul is often writing for the sake of writing, just to fill space. (This is most clearly seen in sections about novels, architecture, art, movie stars and pop culture.) He has a dangerous habit of making abstract and unprovable statements and then proceeding to argue from them.

Some ideas I will steal for future reference include his sharp analysis of the history of rational thought which, in his eyes, has become over time detached from morality. This detachment in turn has fuelled a monster where rationally and efficiently are good in-and-of-themselves, apart from their application. I appreciated Saul’s irreverent unraveling of the defense sector. I think he is partly correct about the creation of a bureaucratic class but his arguments are again bogged down by abstractness. I suggest the reader completely skip the chapter on economics as Noam Chomsky—love him or hate him—covers the same material in a readable straightforward nature with more humour and facts than John Ralston Saul.

Just to give one example of what I came across time and again while reading Voltaire's Bastards, Saul writes on page 582 about efficiency being applied to the democratic process. For years I have believed the same thing myself; applying efficiency to democracy (like electronic voting machines) can increase formal democracy but, in effect, roll back real democracy. I applaud John Ralston Saul for spotting this trend all the way back in 1993. However, in the same breath he concludes this is due to “the hypnotic effect which the idea for efficiency has on us.” If the reader goes back to the proceeding pages, one finds only philosophical gibberish. Saul depends too often in Voltaire's Bastards on the reader’s unflinching acceptance of his interpretation.

Between his sharp analysis and long-winded style this book comes out as average. It is probably best left to the questioning reader who wishes to take only the good ideas and the freedom to leave the rest.

(640 pages including notes)
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Rain with Spring Buds

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Review of Joe Gould's Secret

Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell (1964)

Years ago I first heard of Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell on CBC Radio. The way the panelists discussed the book - the way they described it - was striking enough for me to remember the title. Finding an actual copy of the book was difficult. I looked for a year and eventually broke down and, with the arrival of my Alberta Ralph Bucks (in 2006), decided to reach into the vault and just ordered it.

For most of his career Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker Magazine. Reflecting on Mitchell’s life, I believe he found his own version of paradise writing for the magazine because he stayed at the publication for decades. Hearing Joe Gould’s Secret’s innovative non-fiction concept described is what initially drew me to the work. The book consists of two articles, written by Mitchell, on the same personality, Joe Gould, over a span of twenty years (previously published in the New Yorker in 1942 and 1964 respectively).

The main subject, Joe Gould, is something of an enigma. He was a complete outsider. He was eccentric, such as claiming he could communicate with seagulls. He was very scruffy looking and probably looked older than he really was. (There is a great picture of him on the cover of my copy of the book.) While he was still alive he was a fixture in New York’s Greenwich as a sort of late-era bohemian. He lived in near poverty - often homeless - but somehow found enough to drink heavily. He lived off what he called “contributions to the Joe Gould Fund” given to him by his friends, enemies and random strangers. In all likely hood, Gould would vehemently challenged this short description of him on a variety of grounds. The single passion of his life, the mission which all his energy and funds were used with laser-like intensity, was a mysterious and monumental work entitled “The Oral History of Our Time.” To understand Gould is to understand his devotion to “The Oral History.” Gould envisioned the historical work to be a complete record of everything that was ever said. He searched his community for people to include in “The Oral History.” The work was all-consuming and it caused him great pain throughout his life. Supposedly the work, at the time of Mitchell’s first contact, was over nine million words long; according to Gould it was the longest unpublished work in existence. What is slowly revealed to Mitchell, and through him, to the reader, is that Gould madness was actually a serve - perhaps the most serve - case of writer’s block ever. This revelation fills the reader with many questions (why did he do it?) and mixed feelings (pity and contempt).

In Mitchell’s first profile of Gould in 1942, “Professor Sea Gull,” he manages to detach himself narratively to a larger degree than in his second profile of 1964, after which he had been part of Gould’s life for years and discovered that Gould was just continually writing the same thing over and over. I found Mitchell’s own voice in the second profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” very naïve and weak, as if he is not comfortable including himself in the story in such a personal way. To extend this point; while I think Mitchell genuinely had a meek character (which is an asset if trying to disappear into the background of a journalistic profile) it should be strongly noted that he did include himself in the profile - and Gould’s life - in a very personal way and therefore must have been profoundly moved by the entire episode.

Some general literary theories I have carried around are further confirmed by this book. I have argued in the past that if an author starts with a good story - and I argue thatJoe Gould’s Secret contains an excellent story - everything else falls in place; in effect the poetry of the story will write itself. Subjectivity still rules on this issue; from what I have described, one will inevitably come done where they will as to whether Gould’s life as told by Mitchell is a good story or not. I, however, find the story very appealing. My second point is that tragic stories contain more universal elements for all people unite around (see Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy). Humour is something that needs a strong cultural and temporal framework to work (certain caveats do apply). Everyone, no matter the time or place, recognizes tragedy. For example, I have always loved Shakespeare’s tragedies, they exist as extremely powerful stories because the themes resonate as strongly today as they did in Shakespeare’s time. With my next comment I may reveal my ignorance and low-birth but I have never found Shakespeare’s comedies particularly funny. Well written yes, but I never knew when to laugh. In any case, Joe Gould’s Secret follows this rough outline. Mitchell grabs the reader and together they watch Gould’s slow downward spiral.

Lastly and most importantly, I found the contrast between the two articles especially enjoyable. It is an excellent opportunity for the reader to discover elements about Joe Gould’s Secret that are not necessarily written. This factor makes reading Joe Gould’s Secret a very rewarding experience. The subtle differences between articles allow the reader to understand the intangible shifts in Mitchell’s relationship to Gould and is a very creative device with which to probe Gould’s character.

The book is not a period piece; it’s not a travelogue. Mitchell doesn’t have an agenda. He doesn’t connect the book to any larger themes. The book does not consist of deep technical psychoanalyses. Joe Gould’s Secret does succeeds in letting the reader draw their own conclusions. The book represents a excellent story - a tragedy at that - exceptionally told.

186 pages
Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Black Crows at Sunset in Black and White

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Monday, October 31, 2005

Review of Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

I bought a copy of Victor Hugo’s masterwork second hand in a Calgary bookstore on the recommendation of one my favorite university profs. Now having finished the book I have discovered it is worth a lot more; not only its material value, but the work’s insight into the human condition. Early on into reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables I knew I was going to love the book. My thoughts upon finishing the book were two—amazement and depression. Amazement at having not read this book sooner; and secondly, a depressed feeling that we will no longer see books attempt the breath and scope of Les Misérables; this ambitious caliber of author having disappeared from Earth and into history.

Even for someone that normally reads non-fiction, I found Les Misérables an exceedingly challenging read. The book was difficult, but finishing it was wholly fulfilling. It took me two months to read, which, I believe, is comparatively long for me (even including a move to Japan in there somewhere). The length of time needed to read Les Misérables should not be surprising—the book is an absolute tomb. My Penguin Classic paperback edition weights in at 1200+ pages. But I want to make clear; the size should not deter anyone from reading this book. Funny story: one time at a local restaurant (here in Hokkaido) I happen to bring Les Misérables with me to read, the owner of the establishment was surprised to learn I was reading a novel, having assumed what I had brought with me was a dictionary to study.

Assumptions aside, the length of the book is one of the main things I really admired about Hugo’s masterwork; even for such a huge book it is—throughout its entirety—well crafted. The length allows Hugo’s attempt of a wide and deep interpretation of the human condition flourish. I have always loved long novels. I find it insightful and engrossing to be able to follow characters’ development in detail; watching the careful play of fate and tracing the course of cause and effect.

Creativity seeps out of every sentence; leading the reader’s eye from one word to the next. The feeling that Hugo carefully choose every word continues throughout. Hugo furthermore uses the length to an advantage by offering detailed and inspiring descriptions of the history, places and people of the novel. Chapters are taken up in the description of the Battle of Waterloo and of Paris.

My impression of the work is that Hugo conceived of it from the top down. He imagined a chronicle of justice, redemption, death and freedom. Next came a visionary, inspiring plot and complex allegorical characters. Finally came his beautiful prose to unify the work. I can’t help but believe when he put pen to paper on the first pages of this novel he new exactly where it was going to end.

A word now about the central theme of social justice that Hugo attempts to give structure to in Les Misérables. Some may find the theme too forward and too preachy in the novel. I think this may stem from some readers’ perceptions or biases that anything at all can be about the wrongs Hugo addresses in Les Misérables. Though I can understand how the reader may perceive that Hugo is gaudily draping his main theme in Christmas lights, spelling out ‘this is the point!’, I do not agree. Personally, I found the theme quite subtle— but in a moment of honesty— I am naturally more accepting of such positions. One reason the theme works so well and subtly is that Hugo manages to create visceral relationships between the reader and his characters. We, the reader, can relate to the injustices that characters face and also feel their desire for justice and happiness.

The quote that follows is particularly representative of the over arching themes of social justice and freedom that Hugo plays with. It is from section v named “The world as seen from the top of the barricade” in chapter one entitled “War Within Four Walls” in part five of Les Misérables entitled “Jean Valjean”. The scene takes place on the barricade of Rue de La Chanvrerie in the Paris rebellion of June 1832… just before everyone dies… It is spoken nobly by Enjolras, one of the rebel leaders and sacrificial lambs, in his last diatribe for progress—and against meaningless death—from his position atop the barricade.

We have tamed the hydra, and its new name is the steamship; we have tamed the dragon, and it is the locomotive; we have not yet tamed the griffin, but we have captured it and its name is the balloon. On the day when this Promethean task is completed and man has finally harnessed to his will the ancient triple chimera of the hydra, the dragon, and the griffin he will be the master of fire, air, and water, and he will have become to the rest of the living Creation what the Gods of antiquity were to him. Have courage, citizens! We must go forward. But what are we aiming at? At government by knowledge, with the nature of things the only social force, natural law containing its penalties and sanctions within itself, and based on its evident truth: a dawn of truth corresponding to the laws of daylight. (page 1004)

But equality, citizens, does not mean that all plants must grow the same height—a society of tall grass and dwarf tress, a jostle of conflicting jealousies. It means, in civic terms, an equal outlet for all talents; in political terms, that all votes will carry the same weight; and in religious terms that all religions will enjoy equal rights. Equality has a means at its disposal—compulsory free education. The right to learn the alphabet, that is where we must start. Primary school made obligatory for everyone and secondary school available to everyone, that must be the law. And from those identical schools the egalitarian society will emerge. Yes, education! (page 1005)

We here affirm it, on this barricade. Whence should the cry of love proceed, if not from the sacrificial alter? Brothers, this is the meeting place of those who reflect and those who suffer. This barricade is not a matter of rubble and paving-stone; it is built of two components, of ideas and of suffering. Here wretchedness and idealism come together. Day embraces night and says to her, “I shall die with you, and you will be reborn with me.” It is of the embraces of despair that faith is born. Suffering brings death, but the idea brings immortality. That agony and immortality will be mingled and merged in one death. Brothers, we who die here will die in the radiance of the future. We go to a tomb flooded with the light of dawn. (page 1006)

It is clear to me that it is Hugo himself speaking these words and his meaning could not be clearer (to the reader). However, the work in its totality does not offer us such a straightforward answer. Les Misérables itself is an example of life’s complexity. Compare Enjolras’s last words to the lives of the main characters in Les Misérables. Hugo offers the reader a clear-cut example in Jean Valjean of the possibility of one changing—fundamentally—to become a force for good in the world. However, it is not Hugo’s fundamental position that such idealism is real or pragmatic. Javert, upon learning of Jean Valjean complete redemption and experiencing, for himself, Valjean’s forgiveness, is unable to rectify this transformation into his existing paradigm (of Justice) and simply self-destructs. Thénardier is a character rotten to the core and is also incapable of change in much the same way Javert is; he never changes. While personally I believe change for the better in absolutely anyone is possible (within several different modalities; [either suddenly or over a lifetime]). Characters that are unable to change in Hugo’s work represent reality rearing its ugly head into our shared vision of social change—and thus utopia—and our inability to overcome such a world. The themes of personal change represent the rich complexity of life that is fitting for a book of such scope. Here his work is more conscious of realism that of idealism.

Tension is a force in everyone’s life and, as such, makes for good literature. In Les Misérables Hugo offers us as a thread traced throughout the work of the opposing wills of Javert against Jean Valjean. Both characters have created powerful worldviews through shear will and if one should ever come in contact or opposition with the other, only one may survive while the other vaporizes. I found the way Hugo opposed these two character’s will a strong foreshadowing of the predictions of Nietzsche some thirty years later. The two characters do their deadly dance together throughout the entire book. It is clear that only one can truly exist even though neither is possible outside the work itself.

A word now about the translation of Les Misérables I read, since it should be clear that I did not read the work in its native language of French. Some may suggest I consider the purist perspective that the English version is a mere shadow of its original French counterpart. But I am not convinced nor am I a purist; I loved the book and respect the translation. There is no point in hiding this work behind obtuse and elitist arguments of purism, and I have trouble myself believing that Hugo would have wanted such a transcendental work to be locked and secluded a way in French. Hugo would have wanted the story to roam free and raise as many questions here today as it did in his own world of Paris 1862. In my skewed, idiosyncratic view of the world I applauded the translation of Norman Denny because of the fact I had to look up words, in my eye’s this is positive. Denny got enough of Hugo’s beautiful prose through to English that I would love to master French simply to re-read the book in its native language.

Les Misérables has become one of my favorite novels, and, in the same vein, one that I will some day read again. A word of warning against judging the novel against the musical. While the musical was alright; reading Hugo’s own words and following exactly his line of thought greatly increased the richness of the story for me. Reading Hugo’s interpretation of his contemporary French society leads to understanding Hugo’s conception of the nature of man; a riddle no less intriguing today then in Hugo’s own time. I will also always be appreciative of the work’s secondary functions after it’s read; that of a defensive anti-robbery device and door-stop.
Thursday, September 01, 2005

Random List

Post-modern analysis, pop Culture analysis, architecture, memtics, false dichotomies, democracy, economics, fragile open/pluristic societies.
Monday, August 15, 2005

Review of From Bauhaus to Our House

Upon recently finishing this book I decided it is time for me to review it and release the product into the depths of the Web. If I'm going to openly and honestly review Tom Wolfe's book I must first admit to the reader that I have read the book a total of eight times. One should easily glean my position on the book from this information; I loved it. It is among the best of what I would describe as non-academic academic writing. If anyone has even slightest interest in modern architecture's decent into post-modernism this book is a must read. The book ends in a short 143 pages and is written without the use of footnotes; wrapped in Wolfe's wit the book is very readable. The only possible caveat is that some readers may be lost in his obtuse references to past architects, but with my background in art history I found the book eminently engaging.

The book clearly lays out in a humorous manner why today we have such stark, post-apocalyptic cities. The book offers an insightful perspective of post-modernism from outside. An approach I admire. He proves you don't need fancy experts to have one's own perspective about the state of modern art. One can simply think critically for themselves and asert their perspectives. To listen to experts and academics is what got us here in the first place. Tom Wolfe's other book on the subject, "The Painted Word", makes an excellent companion to "From Bauhaus to Our House". Both dwell on the growing unruly complexity of post-modernism (in the sense that there is more writing to augment their works then actual building and painting). He does this all without denying that he, too, is a post-modernist. By definion simply a condintion of the era he is working in (IMO). He reiterates to the reader that while the more absurd aspects of post-modernism should most likely be rejected, or at least marginalized, one can still enjoy the creative aesthetic experience architecture offers the human spirit.
Thursday, July 28, 2005

Review of Dark Age Ahead

Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs has several points to make in her book Dark Age Ahead. She puts forth, in a short 241 pages, all her worries about the future (of civilization). The first chapter introduces the reader to Jacobs' conception of a dark age and her identification of five "pillars" of culture she believes are under attack by misunderstood modern pressures. The jeopardized institutions of culture are, as detailed by Jacobs;
  • Community and family
  • Higher education
  • The effective practice of science and science-based technology
  • taxes and governmental powers directly in touch with needs and possibilities
  • Self-policing by the learned professions
Her choice of topics is revealing. Why not list environmental degradation or voter disillusionment? Her argument, which I think is mostly right, is that if those five institutions above are functioning well then other societal problems can be quickly identified and easily solved.

Jacobs is probably best known in the urban studies field for her book The Death and Life of the Great American Cities (1963).
I especially liked her critique in chapter four of the non-science of traffic engineering and it is worth exploring in some detail. Basically, common sense tells us that an increase in the number of roads one builds can only lead to an increase in the number of cars on the roads. This has been empirically revealed in many studies and in time has become a generally accepted truism (of sorts). Jacobs argues that the reverse is also true. The institutional practice of traffic engineering does not recognize the established fact that if you then remove roads, traffic disappears. Jacobs does a better job than I can do in this space of detailing this line of reasoning. Ultimately the reader learns that to this day, traffic engineers are still taught arcane formulas that give the illusion of control over chaotic traffic. But her history in urban studies is strangely applied in chapter seven in a rather underwhelming piece about community architecture and dark ages. The connection was lost on me. One more note on Ms. Jacobs' style of thought, she is apt to makes large assumptions in her logic that I find lead to a weakening of her argument. I suspect this is due to her mistaking a value statement for an absolute. Even though I may even agree with the value statement, an attempt at objective reasoning should be tried.

For myself, I found the book very insightful. I enjoyed reading a slice of Canada's best non-fiction. This book should remind all Canadians that we are a source of strong and rigorous non-fiction writing in the world.

Published by Random House Canada (2004). 241 pages.