“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The birth of the age of reason out of the meditations of a feral child

Hayy ben Yazdhan is a philosophical story, in which the framing devise is a consideration of the relationship between the world, the senses and the mind from a Sufi point of view, leading – as it has lead in many a philosophical text, all the way up to Quine’s Word and Object – to a children’s story. The story in Word and Object gives a rough and ready behavioralist account of a child associating words to things. The story in HBY is a bit more complicated, and combines two themes that were much loved, centuries on, in the Enlightenment. One is of the isolated man – either Robinson Crusoe, physically separated from his fellows, or the man born blind, the aveugle-né, for whom speculation about shape and color was not so much metaphysical as existential, a way, as Ibn Thofail puts it, for the blind man to be able to walk through the city. However, the story of the marooned baby whose cries, heard by a female gazelle, induce her to go over and nurse him, is rather… bizarre. The bizarre part isn’t imaging our proto-Mowgli hanging out with the other gazelles, and noticing differences. The Disney cartoon part stops when Mother Gazelle dies. Here we leap from Disney to Psycho, by way of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. Our worldless gazelle raised boy does not know what death is. But he does know that something is wrong with the female gazelle. He knows that when his eyes are closed, or he puts his fingers in his ears, his sense of seeing and hearing is darkened. The unmoving female gazelle, he decides, has a similar problem on a more massive scale. Something is blocking her on the inside. So he decides to dissect her. He already has the idea that inside the body, this directing sense of senses must operate in some cavity – either in the head, or the chest, or the stomach. His hunch is that the directing sense must be in the center – thus, must be in the heart. With a sharp stone and some reeds that he has also sharpened, he opens up his mother, hoping that he can remove the obstruction that is causing her to act so funny. He is looking for something like a hand over her heart. First, he finds the lungs in the chest cavity. Then he finds the heart, but “it is covered by an extremely strong envelop.” Finally he cuts away enough of the lung and other obstructing tissue to get a good look at the naked heart, but he doesn’t see anything wrong.

Well, no matter how far our gazelle boy probes, he can’t find the obstruction or the sense organ he is looking for. Finally he decides that the thing that was there left. That the heart is the seat of the thing that was there, but that he is looking at, as it were, an empty house. And also, Ibn Thofail notes, the mother gazelle is beginning to stink. After watching a dead bird being buried by another bird, gazelle boy decides to do the same. Thus, he’s gone through cognitive science, anatomy, and the rudiments of civilization – before he’s even learned to speak! Pretty good for a marooned child.

The translation of the text into English by Simon Ockley, which is how Defoe knew about it, if he knew about it, can be read at your leisure here. Pococke’s Latin version is passed around in the 1680s. Ockley’s English version (“The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan”) comes out after the first edition of Locke’s Essay, in 1708

In 1719, Robinson Crusoe is published. In 1725, Wild Peter, the feral boy caught near Hamlin and shipped as a curiosity to England, was shown to the English court. In 1726, Defoe writes his Mere Nature Delineated, or a Body without a Soul. Being Observations upon the Young Forester lately brought to Town from Germany… And in 1731, the wild girl of Sogni was caught. From Locke to the marooned tabula rasa to the feral child, something might be going on here, some gnawing nighttime doppelganger of the Whig projector and bourgeois individual. Ho ho ho, the torches are burning low in the vault, the professor is growing incoherent and oddly hairy about the wrists, and the assistant has been riveted by the cry of wolves somewhere outside the crypt, which seem to be getting closer....

enlighten the troops - we have lost in Iraq and you are being played for suckers

LI has read, on many a liberal site, immediate complaints that whenever somebody prominent like Senator Harry Reid says we are losing the war, conservatives immediately claim that this damages the morale of the troops. Here’s Talking points memo getting indignant with CNN. The push back is always vaguely about supporting the troops.

Actually, I have no idea why liberals should complain about this. I fucking hope it damages the morale of the troops. I would hope that, eventually, the volunteer forces that trusted their country to use them wisely, instead of as an array of crash test dummies, would revolt. I hope they strike. I hope they increasingly refuse to serve. I hope they link up with the Iraqi population and say basta! We need to leave this country, and fuck our leadership and fuck yours for not making that possible, but increasingly putting us in a hole. I hope they have gone past discouraged to a righteous, revolutionary anger that would sweep away the whole sick and senile war culture machinery, disentangle us from the merchants of death, lead to a future in which America stops being an imperial power, unplugs our society and economy from war as our mainstay and guide, and faces the real environmental problems that will either kill us all or … vide bathroom Nietzsche … make us stronger. Stronger, that is, a loving, affectionate, cultured, hedonistic people – ah, just the kind of people who are everything the right hates: feminized, non-macho, caring, all of that shit.

Now, I doubt my hopes will be realized and I imagine discouragement comes out of the barrel of a mortar firing cannon more than a senator's speech. The soldiers, like the marks in a massive con game, are for the most part you, self-selected for their faith in a certain kind of patriarchal authority, and inclined to find targets for their anger that are shaped in the peckerwood superstitions that are undoing this country. I understand why that is so. But one hopes that someday, through that thick icing of crap that surrounds the war culture mindset, some piercing word will go, some realization not only that the Iraq war is lost but that it was unjust to begin with, continued with shameless and criminal negligence in order to extract the least amount of sacrifice from the coddled upper and upper middle class, was born in the vanity of a subpar golf pro president and the senile power wanderlust of his sidekick/bully/vp, and is being continued solely in order that the demented elite can postpone that inevitable moment when they lose face.

where's friday when you need him?

In one of the most famous, or at least one of the most written about, chapters of Capital I, THE FETISHISM OF COMMODITIES AND THE SECRET THEREOF, Marx makes a snarky detour through the Robinson Crusoe myths so dear to the classical economists of the 18th century.


The chapter deals with both the capitalist system and the sense-making that goes on within it – for, as a human system with human actors, it requires explanations to work. Marx has a bone to pick with those explanations – a complaint that allows us to catch a glimpse of the Wiccan Marx, who, like Michelet’s witches, has discovered the power of the negation of the negation, the power of saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards:

“Man’s reflections on the forms of social life, and consequently, also, his scientific analysis of those forms, take a course directly opposite to that of their actual historical development. He begins, post festum, with the results of the process of development ready to hand before him. The characters that stamp products as commodities, and whose establishment is a necessary preliminary to the circulation of commodities, have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life, before man seeks to decipher, not their historical character, for in his eyes they are immutable, but their meaning.”

As is evident from the chapter’s title, Marx is set on some good ol’ mythbreaking here. He trains his peeps on a myth that has jumped out of a novel into the popular consciousness – Robinson Crusoe. It is a brilliant move by our man Marx. The establishment of a system that depends on abstracting labor into the commodity form – the fictitious commodity, as Polanyi calls it – generates, at the same time, a justifying ideology of individualism. The bond between the system and the ideology is not accidental – as we said above, every human system has to explain itself. It won’t work, otherwise. Ideology, then, is a surface phenomena only the way skin is a surface phenomena – try living without it. Here are the two long grafs re Robinson Crusoe, which will take us to Robinson Crusoe’s predecessor in Hayy ben Yaqdhân, the boy raised by a gazelle on an uninhabited island. By various detours, we hope to then advance to feral children and, in particular, the Wild Girl of Sogny in future posts – and from there get to the European savage. An ambitious program which we will no doubt flub, like a muscle-challenged landlubber courting Olive Oyl with comb-music.

Here’s Mr. Marx
:

“Since Robinson Crusoe’s experiences are a favourite theme with political economists, let us take a look at him on his island. Moderate though he be, yet some few wants he has to satisfy, and must therefore do a little useful work of various sorts, such as making tools and furniture, taming goats, fishing and hunting. Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation. In spite of the variety of his work, he knows that his labour, whatever its form, is but the activity of one and the same Robinson, and consequently, that it consists of nothing but different modes of human labour. Necessity itself compels him to apportion his time accurately between his different kinds of work. Whether one kind occupies a greater space in his general activity than another, depends on the difficulties, greater or less as the case may be, to be overcome in attaining the useful effect aimed at. This our friend Robinson soon learns by experience, and having rescued a watch, ledger, and pen and ink from the wreck, commences, like a true-born Briton, to keep a set of books. His stock-book contains a list of the objects of utility that belong to him, of the operations necessary for their production; and lastly, of the labour time that definite quantities of those objects have, on an average, cost him. ….

Let us now transport ourselves from Robinson’s island bathed in light to the European middle ages shrouded in darkness. Here, instead of the independent man, we find everyone dependent, serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clergy. Personal dependence here characterises the social relations of production just as much as it does the other spheres of life organised on the basis of that production. But for the very reason that personal dependence forms the ground-work of society, there is no necessity for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind. Here the particular and natural form of labour, and not, as in a society based on production of commodities, its general abstract form is the immediate social form of labour. …”

Ah, and since I am quoting, let’s quote Karl Polanyi, from the chapter in the Great Transformation about fictitious commodities. Polanyi sets up a dialectically charged polarity between individualism and autarky that makes the boundary-marking in the Robinson Crusoe figure all the clearer:

“As a rule, the economic system was absorbed in the social system, and whatever principle of behavior predominated in the economy, the presence of the market pattern was found to be compatible with it. The principle of barter or exchange, which underlies this pattern, revealed no tendency to expand at the expense of the rest. Where markets were most highly developed, as under the mercantile system, they throve under the control of a centralized administration which fostered autarchy both in the household of the peasantry and in respect to national life. Regulation and markets, in effect, grew up together. The self-regulating market was unknown; indeed, the emergence of the idea of self-regulation was a complete reversal of the trend of development. “

Friday, April 20, 2007

idle fellows as I am





The Enlightenment has been subject to an odd and schematic misreading over the past ten years. The colonialist mentality that appears at the end of the period, and that takes a very sharp and harsh look at enlightenment figures has been moved backwards in time, and the sharp and harsh look well nigh forgot. This reading derives from taking Kant’s notion of the enlightenment as a sort of official goodhousekeeping seal on the whole enterprise, thus skipping over, specifically, the disagreements that were expressed with Kant’s whole philosophical stance by his contemporaries, such as Lichtenberg, and more generally, the reality of enlightenment literature and its preferred forms over the period from, say, the Glorious Revolution to the French Revolution. LI doesn’t want to get into Kant’s bent for universalist prescriptions here, but simply note how odd it is that no justification seems to be needed, lately, for reading the Enlightenment through Kant’s essay on the Enlightenment. We suspect that an essay of a certain length and clarity that can easily be taught and anthologized will have an effect on the teaching of intellectual history that it might not have had within intellectual history.

LI thinks that the lineaments of any particular past are deposited under other pasts – that our assumption that our current routines are somehow the end result of all past processes, and as such so easily projected backwards as to give us an inlet into the sort of secret rationality at work in the historical process, will bump up against too many accidents, disasters, contingencies and false images to be of use as a valid measure. It will soon be wrecked by facts. And even the starting point is jinxed – for, in fact, assumptions about our own times are provisional, limited, and subject to the massive and inescapable bias of vanity and p.o.v.

My own bias is to fish in the torrents of time for certain images – to try to describe their destinies – and to rescue their essential oddness. There is a nice phrase of John Aubrey’s, who ends his ‘brief life’ of the ‘celebrated beautie and courtizane”, Venetia Stanley, with a description of the monument her husband, Kenelm Digby, erected to her, which was looted during the English civil war. Aubrey writes:

“About 1676 or 5, as I was walking through Newgate-street, I sawe Dame Venetia’s bust standing at a stall at the Golden Crosse, a brasier’s shop. I perfectly remembered it, but the fire had gott-off the guilding: but taking notice of it to one that was with me, I could never see it afterwards exposed to the street. They melted it downe. How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am putt them down!”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Things about the Arabick influence on John Locke and Daniel Defoe my first year philo class never taught me

In messing around in the vaults – the vaults under the surface of history and literature, as per the posts of last week - LI recently came across an article that piqued our curiosity. The article, by G.A. Russell, claims that an eleventh century Arabic philosopher, Ibn Tufayl, influenced both John Locke and Daniel Defoe through a book of philosophy he wrote which contains a parable about a boy who was raised by a gazelle on a desert island. Hayy Ibn Yaqzān was translated by the remarkable Edward Pococke in 1671 into Latin. Pococke gave it the wonderful title, Philosophus Autodidactus.

Since the Paul Bermans of the world are so hot on the trail of fascism in the intellectual history backgrounding Al Qaeda, I think it is intriguing that an ‘Arabick’ tale could show up in the background of two writers who so shaped the conjunction of the early capitalist ethos and democratic political theory.

The story goes like this. Pococke, as Robert Irwin points out in his recent book on Orientalism, was England’s heaviest arabist in the 17th century, a time when the Koran was officially banned. Pococke learned his Persian, Turkish, Arabic and Hebrew in the Netherlands – that was where you go if you wanted an education, in the 17th century. Of course, you could attend courses at Cambridge taught by Isaac Newton, but few did, and of those, none understood what the hell he was talking about. Pococke proceeded to translate Arabic texts into the language of scholarship, Latin, and to introduce coffee into England – for which we are all pathetically grateful. We know that Robert Boyle and John Locke both read Philosophus Autodidactus.

So, that is what I read and it is one of those things where you go huh. But now, thanks to the wonders of Google Books, I was able to call up a copy of Hayy Ibn Yaqzān, in a French translation by Leon Gauthier. And looking through it, what to my wondering eyes doth appear but this passage, on page five:

“If you want a comparison that will make you clearly grasp the difference between the perception, such as it is understood by that sect [the Sufis] and the perception as others understand it, imagine a person born blind, endowed however with a happy natural temperament, with a lively and firm intelligence, a sure memory, a straight sprite, who grew up from the time he was an infant in a city where he never stopped learning, by means of the senses he did dispose of, to know the inhabitants individually, the numerous species of beings, living as well as non-living, there, the steets and sidestreets, the houses, the steps, in such a manner as to be able to cross the city without a guid, and to recognize immediately those he met; the colors alone would not be known to him except by the names they bore, and by certain definitions that designated them. Suppose that he had arrived at this point and suddenly, his eyes were opened, he recovered his view, and he crosses the entire city, making a tour of it. He would find no object different from the idea he had made of it; he would encounter nothing he didn’t recognize, he would find the colors conformable to the descriptions of them that had been given to him; and in this there would only be two new important things for him, one the consequence of the other: a clarity, a greater brightness, and a great voluptuousness.”

This is six hundred years before Locke, but any student of the early modern era would recognize, in this story, the heart of the Molyneux problem – introduced by Locke in his Essay on Humane Understanding in book 2, chapter 9, like this:

I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt. This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to consider how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, or help from them. And the rather, because this observing gentleman further adds, that "having, upon the occasion of my book, proposed this to divers very ingenious men, he hardly ever met with one that at first gave the answer to it which he thinks true, till by hearing his reasons they were convinced."

The problem has a long career. It was taken up by Berkeley, and many of the French philosophers. We see, in the man born blind who wanders about a city, the Molyneux problem by way of the Arabian Nights, with an ending that prefigures what Diderot will say in Lettre sur les aveugles.

Which I will go into tomorrow.

Is this the promis'd end? or image of that horror?

I think it is done. I think I have finished all that needs doing on my preface, and on correcting the text. Silja Graupe’s The Bashō of Economics will be coming out from Ontos Verlag next month. I think next month. Translated, with a preface, by Roger Gathman. I have seen the cover. I have seen the inner sheets. My preface needs a spot or two of editing, and oh Lord ... through bramble and brier I have finally come out, limping and panting but still alive! I have that Julie Andrews feeling, boys - buy me a fuckin drink!

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring…

Which grim and daring vessel I’m gonna be hyping as soon as it gets out. Tell your Ma, tell your Pa, tell your librarian: the revolution is now!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

the virginia tech massacre

Yesterday, LI just couldn’t leave the news from Virginia Tech alone. We were transfixed.

There’s a famous story in the Fourth book of the Republic. Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the soul and its vagaries, with the aim of trying to anatomize it. Socrates suggests that the soul is composed of a rational part and an irrational part. The irrational part, characteristically, desires – Socrates uses the example of the desire to drink. Thirst might not be irrational in itself, but it gains its power from the irrational part of the soul. However, that desires are not enacted immediately is, for Socrates, evidence that something - and Socrates tries to show that it is the other part of the soul, reason - impinges on the irrational part:

“S: And the forbidding principle is derived from reason, and that which bids and attracts proceeds from passion and disease?
G: Clearly.
S: Then we may fairly assume that they are two, and that they differ from one another; the one with which man reasons, we may call the rational principle of the soul, the other, with which he loves and hungers and thirsts and feels the flutterings of any other desire, may be termed the irrational or appetitive, the ally of sundry pleasures and satisfactions?
G: Yes, he said, we may fairly assume them to be different.
S: Then let us finally determine that there are two principles existing in the soul. And what of passion, or spirit? Is it a third, or akin to one of the preceding?
G: I should be inclined to say--akin to desire.
S: Well, I said, there is a story which I remember to have heard, and in which I put faith. The story is, that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.
G: I have heard the story myself, he said.
S:The moral of the tale is, that anger at times goes to war with desire, as though they were two distinct things.”

In the ancient world, the instruments of the senses were sometimes given character, as if they existed as persons in their own right. That famous saying of Jesus – “if thy eye offend thee, pluck it out” – comes out of this background. There is a deeper background in the Upanishads – as Paul Deussen writes:

In the beginning, Atman alone existed. He resolved to create the worlds and created as such the four spheres [the flood of the heavenly ocean; the light atom of space; earth as death; and the ur-water]… Further the Atman creates eight 'world-guardians', when he out of the ur-water brings forth the Parusa (ur-man the primeval man) and first creates out of mouth nose eyes ears skin heart navel and the generative organ the corresponding psychical organs (speech, in-breathing, sight, hearinghair, Manas, out-breath, semen) and out of these Agni, Vaya, Aditya, quarters of directions, plants, moon, death and water as world-guardians. But immediately, weakness overcomes these world-guardian gods.”

We pretend that we have escaped from this mythology, and we talk of the senses being “personified” – as though, on one side, there is the myth, the eye god, and on the other side there is rationality, the person. But the person will never lose the mythic caul with which he came into the world.

And so it is in the herky-jerky of that merger of media and murder yesterday. Depressingly but inevitably, the thing will be called a tragedy – for we have never devised another category for these outlier acts of beserker violence. And we want – for understandable reasons – to instill some dignity into the bloody spasm that ended so many lives that no aesthetic form can catch. The phrase from the Vietnam war – fragging – is much more appropriate. However, like a peculiarly fascinating film, LI can’t turn away his eyes. We all know Leontius’ peculiar discovery about himself, and what can we do? Well, we will turn the whole thing into the site of an argument of some kind – already Glenn Reynolds, with the boldfaced and thuggish stupidity that is his trademark, has suggested that if more students had been packing, the shooter would have shot fewer. Rather overlooking the fact that … oops, sorry. LI was about to address Reynolds as though he were making an argument.

It is the advantage of religion that it is prepared for these cases. The religious can say, (and do, all the time) my prayers are with you. As if praying were an activity, a form of work, a rolling up of the sleeves. If people said what they meant: I am going to say some words out loud, or think them, that relate to what I saw on tv – we would have a fairer sense of why the promise of ‘prayer’ is so infuriating to a non-believer. Myself, I am not such a non-believer – prayers, trances, spells, poems, equations, diagnosis, they are what we have.

Monday, April 16, 2007

the monument to a lack of a monument

LI was going to spend this week threading through the crimes of classical liberalism. Heavy emphasis, in other words, on the famine in Ireland, which served as a template for the series of famines in India.

This is how we were going to start: with that most familiar of strangers in a strange land, the Martian. If a Martian were to make a quick visit to D.C.’s National Mall, what information would he gather about the U.S.? He’d see that the U.S. had a pharaoh named George Washington; a great white father, Abraham Lincoln; that the U.S. was very concerned about the crimes of German history; and that some kind of disaster or war happened named Vietnam.

From our monuments, the Martian would never know that there was such a thing as a black American. And he would certainly never know that there was such a thing as slavery in the U.S.

It has long been a sort of joke that the American government is much happier exploring the horrors visited by Germany on the Jews than the horrors visited upon blacks by white plantation owners, some of whom wrote the original documents that founded these here states. However, going past the local issue, my moral is that the martian is us - we are in the position of the martian when we visit the past – or that part of the past that extends beyond the body of our memories, that extends beyond the memories of two or three generations. There is a history of the surface and a history of the vaults, and there no law that says that what happened in the vaults will be monumentalized on the surface. On the contrary, histories have a double purpose: to erect monuments and to create and communicate erasures. But those of us who are critical martians – moi, f’rinstance – have a perverse urge to counter this history, to take down the monuments and fill in the blanks. LI’s motive in throwing in our lot with the critical martians is simple: we are fated for blankhood. Poor, aberrant, marginal – what the fuck do we have to lose?

To give a small example of what we mean: David Gilmour, a very good historian, wrote a biography of Lord Curzon a few years ago. In the bio, he devotes four pages to the famine in India that occurred while Curzon was the Viceroy of India. He never, in this account, actually tells the reader how big the famine was. That is, he never mentions that it killed between 3 and 4 million people (as calculated by Arup Maharatna, quoted by Mike Davis in the Victorian Holocaust). Imagine a man writing a book about Stalin’s leadership in the thirties and simply skipping the famine in the Ukraine. It isn’t that this is Gilmour’s fault, of course – this is just how colonial history has come to be written. In 1930, though, the reach of generational memory would make such insouciance a little harder – and, indeed, the way the Bolsheviks responded to and used the famine in the Ukraine was very much influenced by the model provided by the British of seeing famines as providential genocides, mass murders by a Darwinian god that, luckily, were prefigured in the market – for after all, demand goes down when the demanders are dead – and so food prices, by the superbly beneficent invisible hand, go down too.

The conventions of telling the history of the British in India – at least, in the Anglosphere – are different from the conventions of telling the history of the Soviet Union. That the amount of food given to prisoners in the Gulags, and the amount of work they were required to do (which resulted in their mass deaths) matches the amount of food distributed by the British to starving Indians in the labor camps they set up, which was also directly linked to the amount of work they did – the British having the idea that a man weighing 70 pounds and eating, on the whole, a pound of rice a day really ought to be able to work at breaking rocks for nine hours a day – makes no difference in the difference with which the stories will be told. One is a crime of communism itself; the other is an unfortunate sideproduct of all the good the British brought to India – railroads, for instance, that could quickly and efficiently take rice away from India peasants and transport it to hungry Englishmen a world away; big canals into which mineral salts would leach, instead of the system of small, capillary irrigation canals that had maintained small landholders in India for centuries, and that the British regarded as impediment to the needful consolidation of agricultural properties.

So what I was going to do in some threads this week was tie together Classical liberalism and communism, not as opposites but as positions on a spectrum compounded, materially, of a system of production that both ideologies sought to encode – but that both, also, fully accepted.

But LI doesn’t know whether we have the energy to pursue this thread this week. We will see.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Natasha Wimmer

There are some who say that LI, underneath a surface pretentiousness, is just the kind of redneck who is going to end up sprawled in the gutter someday, another victim of cleaning fluid intox. But here’s some au contraire evidence! Readers may remember that LI threw a party for itself last December at the 7b bar. Among the attendees was the talented and beauteous Natasha Wimmer, who was coming off of translating Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. The Savage Detectives is the best novel of the year – I’m pretty confident that nothing this year is going to upset that statement.

And – abracadabra – here’s her book, gracing the front page – did I say front page – yes, front page of the Sunday New York Times! Reviewed by the Man, James Wood no less, who writes:

The pleasure we take in this, as readers of English, owes everything, of course, to the book's talented translator, Natasha Wimmer, who repeatedly finds inspired English solutions for what must be a fiendishly chatty and slangy novel.)


Alas, I can't say that James Wood really gets the novel, but I have that feeling about every Wood review I read. If I had been Sam Tannenhaus, I would have assigned the review to Eliot Weinberger, who would get the novel.

Shouts out to Natasha. My interview with her is on the Publisher Weekly site.

Now I’m going back to shooting up cleaning fluid.