Saturday, January 07, 2012

On Svevo's Zeno 1

V.S. Pritchett once wrote about the novelist’s knack of “showing how people live in one another’s lives.” This is not only a concise way of talking about what novelists do – it also points to a large economic fact, which is that people do live in one another’s lives. Surprisingly, economists are, for the most part, blind, or at least hesitant, about seeing this fact. They have even systematized this blindness and called it the ‘micro-foundations of the economy.’

Unfortunately, all too often novels, when they are considered from the aspect of economics, are considered to be free zones over which preconceived economic theories and ideas roam. But one can think of two other relations of the novel to economics – one is as a test of economic ideas, and the other is as a source of economic ideas. It might well be that the social interactions involving exchange, the symbolization of value, gifts, scarcity  – are rehearsed in a sophisticated way in certain novels to the extent that the economist should learn from the novel, rather than the other way around.

I’d like to put these consideration in the background  against which I am writing these notes about  Italo Svevo’s novel, Zeno’s Conscience.

Let’s begin with the novel’s premise. In a short note by Dr. S., Zeno’s journal is presented to the reader as an act of malice on the part of Dr. S., and a means of ‘catching’ his former partient. In other words, the novel begins with the breaking of a contract, that of privacy between the doctor and the patient. It begins outside the law, so to speak. Zeno’s own notion is that his memoirs are therapeutic, serving one end: to help him break the habit of smoking.

Thus, on the one hand, we have the broken contract to which the book owes its existence as a published object – and on the other, we have the desire to break a habit to which the book owes its existence in the mind of the narrator. 

Before I begin with the second form of the book’s existence, let’s look at what is implied in Doctor S.’s premise – that a book not only has an inward side of content, but an outward side that objectifies that content. The book is a product of writing. Writing creates an object. And objects are not, contra the economist’s grand model, all the same kind of commodity. If they take on the form of the commodity, they take on that form because their use value for people living in each other’s lives varies not just in terms of some original position in which a preference is expressed, but in the way that preference is lived with. For instance, there is addiction. There is routine.

As Svevo’s novel was translated into French, it began to be noticed in Italy. The poet Montale wrote an enthusiastic review that, to an extent, introduced the Italian intelligentsia to Svevo, this half German Triestian Jew, whose language, according to his English translator, William Weaver, seemed “flat, unaccented, even opaque.”

Svevo wrote Montale a rather extraordinary letter, expressing his thanks and correcting Montale’s assumption that Svevo was a modernist writer linked to Joyce and the literary schools of Paris.  Instead, Svevo took the view that writing was a form of performance and manufacture – and even a form of bad habit.

“I feel the need to tell you that I don’t believe that the difference between Conscience and the two preceeding novels should be searched for in the influence of the most modern literature. I was very unaware of that literature when I was writing, since after the failure of Senilita, I forbade myself literature. I even had a ruse to help myself from falling bak into it: I studied the violin and I conscretated to it, for twenty years, all my free time. I read a lot of Italian novels, and among the French, the greatest authors of our time. I know English, but not enough to easily read Ulysses, which I am now reading slowly with the help of a friend. As to Proust, I am now hurrying to to acquaint myself when, last year, Larbaud told me that in reading Senilita (which, like you, he loves especially), one thinks of that writer.

“It is true that Conscience is a  completely other kind of thing than the preceeding novels. But just think that it is an autobiography and not my own. Much less than Senilita. I put three year into writing it in my free moments. And I proceeded in this way: when I found myself alone, I tried to persuade myself I was Zeno. I walked like him, like him I smoked, and I stuck on my past all of thos of his adventures that resembled my own, for this sole reason: that the evocation of a personal adventure is a reconstruction that easily becomes an entirely new construction, when one succeeds in placing it in a new atmosphere. And it doesn’t lose so much the taste and value of a memory, no more than its sadness. I am sure that you understand me.” [Translated from Ecrits intimes, essais et lettres trans. by Marco Fusco, 1973]

For a reader of Zeno’s Conscience, this is a pretty astonishing letter, since it seems to be both a distancing from Zeno and a usurpation of his style of audacity – the peculiar audacity of the fool that we can see, as well, in the Jewish jokes that Freud loved, and in Kafka’s never-say-die men, who are continually scheming to get into the Castle.Remember, Kafka howled with laughter when he read his own stories to his friends, according to Brod.

In Svevo, that audacity takes the peculiar form of hypochondria and addiction – which are, in turn, exemplary forms of routine. Svevo even takes writing as an addiction that he prevents himself from falling back into by taking up another routine, one that he knows he is bad at – just as a recovering  alcoholic will take up cigarette smoking, and a cigarette smoker, gum.

This, of course, is a whole other dimension of revealed preference.


Monday, January 02, 2012

New year predictions for the moronic inferno, version 2012

Prediction is a doddle. Successful ones usually fall into two groups: the easy and the lucky. In human affairs, the easy are usually derived from the two great grifter principles: 1. there’s a sucker born every minute, and 2. never give a sucker an even break.  applying these as your two parameters can make you seem like a genius when the subject is a society like America, the con man’s paradise. As for the lucky, they are composed of guesses that are driven forward by some unguessed social pulsation. Prediction, in this case, gloms onto a phenomenon without glomming on to its cause, and thus loses its intellectual strength.

I think I can rely on the  grifter principle to predict that Mitt Romney will defeat Obama, and that Romney will face a strongly Republican house and a majority Republican senate. The problem here is that the same principles also give us an Obama win. However, the superstition that lightning never strikes twice in the same place gives the edge to Mitt.

Obama, however, will proudly pass onto Romney a plutocracy that is almost completely intact, save for the odd Maddoff casualty. 16 trillion dollars in emergency loans, at 1 percent or below, have saved the upper 1 percent for us all. We are, well, tearfully grateful, of course.

The bankruptcy of hopeyness cannot of course be laid completely at the President’s feet. In fact, all liberal-left parties in the West have rotted from the head. When they work and actually elect a leader, the leader and the party then engage in such clueless policy making as would puzzle the angels. Except, of course, those fallen angels who have read Marx.

The latter have notice that, in the course of the state sponsored well being spread out over the last sixty to seventy years, a certain political and business class has done extraordinarily well in both conservative and liberal-left parties. The elite in the latter face a problem that is intimately connected to their ascent to the rarified 1 percent group, for in effect, as their personal circumstances change, so do their interests. Interests are always a hermeneutic product, but hermeneutics is done on a social level as well as a subjective one. If the tissue of your social level is constructed from interactions with fellow citizens in the gated community and the habits that grow around the perks of great wealth, your relationship to a party base that is composed of much lesser mortals becomes one of a strained sympathy. The result of this has been a threefold splintering of left politics. Substantially, the party elite engages in the ‘nudgework’ of slowly unwinding and destroying the progressive legislation and institutions that were gained over the past one hundred some years. They aren’t elected to do this, of course – quite the opposite. But they do it because it is in their interest to do it, and they simply quietly project their interest upon the population as a whole and believe, often quite sincerely, that the population as a whole is just living a little too well and needs discipline. It never occurs to these denizens of the 1 percent that they are living too well – this is a thought that simply can’t get through the gate. The gated community is especially vigilant in suppressing such ideas.

However, in order to distract their constituencies, the party elite is ever alert to moral panics and sensational trivialities. This is the sum of their political art. And thus, as congressmen making ‘regulations’ for banks retire to become lobbyists for banks, or tax breaks for the wealthiest are somehow tantalizingly never closed, or emphasis shifts from immediate problems – massive and catastrophic levels of unemployment – to problems involving the tax burden on the 1 percent’s next generation – that terrible deficit! – massive distraction work is called for. And this involves the elite’s third political method, identity politics.

Two recent newspaper stories provide a little glimpse into the content and soul of the Obama era.
One was the recent contribution by his former economics advisor, Christina D. Romer, to a NYT roundup of economists for Year End reports was a cri de coeur of Obama-ism. It contained this gem:

“On the deficit, the big worry isn’t the current shortfall, which is projected to decline sharply as the economy recovers. Rather, it’s the long-run outlook. Over the next 20 to 30 years, rising health care costs and the retirement of the baby boomers are projected to cause deficits that make the current one look puny. At the rate we’re going, the United States would almost surely default on its debt one day. And like the costs of maintaining a home, the costs of dealing with our budget problems will only grow if we wait.
We already have a blueprint for a bipartisan solution. The Bowles-Simpson Commission hashed out a sensible plan of spending cuts, entitlement program reforms and revenue increases that would shave $4 trillion off the deficit over the next decade. It shares the pain of needed deficit reduction, while protecting the most vulnerable and maintaining investments in our future productivity. Congress should take up the commission’s recommendation the first day it returns in January."

Notice the bogus analogy to the house. Notice that the deficit is considered only from the side of government spending, and no notice is taken of the effect on growth if we ‘sensibly’ shave off the ability of the majority to retire in any type of comfort, educate themselves, receive health care, or even receive standard government services, which of course are all determinates of growth and affordability. The Bowles-Simpson commission, of course, never made any suggestions because it couldn’t ultimately agree on its ‘sensible’ cuts, but the country club set hears what it wants to hear, and what it heard was the joyous sound of an ultra-right Republican senator giving cover to an ultra-connected Democratic lawyer for screwing Democratic constituencies up the wazoo. This is Obama’s vaunted ‘socialism’. Alas, it ain’t socialism. It is rat poison, and its effects, so far, are predictable: it has killed the beast. The enthusiasm of the Obama people for Bowles Simpson is not the reason Obama will lose, but it is a symptom of the attitude that will lead to his loss: an astonishing callousness with regard to the biggest slump in employment in two generations, a blindness to the American middleclass’s plucking as its housing asset disappears into a murk of bad mortgages and illegal bank finagling, and a general disconnect from any issue whose explanation would displease the 1 percent, from global warming to the Gulf disaster.
Such, then, is the policy substance that makes President Nudge’s reign a curious mixture of elevated but robotic rhetoric and astonishingly boneheaded reactionary policy, sweetened around the edges with the occasional liberal approved appointment.
But a political regime doesn’t just live – or die - on policy substance (and substance abuse). Politics has a soul. Soul, in America, is the kind of work that has devolved upon celebrities, since nobody else has time for it. Here, one needs an ear to hear. One needs to read for symbols. And a beautiful symbol came down the pike this holiday season: the bio-pic of Thatcher, brought to you by the makers of Mamma Mia.
Meryl Streep, who stars as Maggie Thatcher, is giving interviews that are simply alight with the privileged world view of the 1 percent liberal. This is the end of one she gave the NYT:
““So did Margaret Thatcher. But that’s understandable. She couldn’t show weakness. Imagine what the men would have said.” She added: “In parts of England now it’s a transgression even to consider her as a human being. She’s that monster woman, the she-devil. For me the point of the film was to find the human side.” And though hardly a Tory, she said she vividly recalled the moment when Mrs. Thatcher came to power. “Just as I remember not voting for her, I remember sitting in my room at university when the radio announced that she had been asked to form a government, and I went ‘Yes!’ It felt like one for our team.”
Ms. Streep nodded and said: “I did the same thing. We all thought if it can happen in England, class bound, socially rigid, homophobic — if they can elect a female leader over there, then it’s just seconds away in America.””
Streep is old enough (as am I) to remember the beginning of the feminist movement in the 70s. Back then, the point was to destroy patriarchy. Now, of course, the point is to find women (one from “our team”) who can be leaders – the CEOs of tomorrow! This is a feminism neutered of its original purpose, and remade in the interest of ‘role models’ – that combination of fetishized hierarchy and moralism that is the wholly owned subsidiary of patriarchy. Where once feminists fought corporations on behalf of the millions of women who were victimized in the system that gave corporations outsized power, they now are supposed to fight to make sure those corporations are led by women who, in a triumph of the new, new feminism, have broken the glass ceiling and receiving the stock options and outsized salaries of their male counterparts. The liberal-left party in the U.S. has always had a bad conscious about class, but as class recedes as an issue that the elite takes at all seriously, it becomes what all things become that sink into the unconscious: a ghost. A specter, as Marx might say. Identity politics, haunted by that spector, becomes a compensatory activity, a form of pablum, rather than a revolutionary activity. The center not only holds, it freezes the moment of liberation, stuffs it full of windy truisms, and wheels it out on all occasions in order to keep the party – the political system that has been so good to the elite - going.  This is the way formerly liberal-left ideas, bereft of their former revolutionary context, are effortlessly assimilated to the great liberal country club that goes on to worry about the deficit and the bad habits of the lower classes. Thus, Maggie Thatcher, who unleashed a Hobbesian lifestyle on the majority of British women under the withered blessing of Hayek and General Pinochet, becomes a role model of female leadership. 
Jesus (and Susan B. Anthony) wept.  
And with that: have a happy new year!


The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...