Friday, April 18, 2014

the paradox of the stone and meg wolitzer

When Flaubert compared the artist to God, it naturally followed – as all who knew what Flaubert was up to understood – that theological ideas and paradoxes would be absorbed and re-oriented in the world of art.
I’ve been reading Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, which is a funny and depressing novel, and thinking of a paradox attirbuted to Aquinas entitled “the paradox of the stone”, or “the paradox of omnipotence.” The popular version goes like this: can God make a stone he can’t lift? Aquinas spoke of whether God could square the circle, and shows that this supposed limit on him omnipotence is no such thing. Others have tried to show the logical emptiness of the stone paradox. Still, for non-logicians, it is a rather compelling idea. Either God can’t make a stone he can’t life, in which case he is not omnipotent, or he can, in which case he is also not omnipotent.
Some paradoxes lead to logically useful devices in the world of logical theory, but I don’t think this one has.
However, in the world of the novel, the paradox is very illuminating. Restated, it would be: can a novelist create a fictional novelist greater than herself?
This question is tickled in various of Balzac’s novels. In many of them he tells us of genious musicians and sculptors, and we can accept these things, because we can accept descriptions of works that we can’t see or hear as part of the novelist’s licence. Things get much harder when we are told of a great writer. Lucien Rubempré is supposed to be a great poet, and Balzac even cites him – but Balzac is no Victor Hugo.
However, Balzac never wrote about a great novelist. Proust did. Proust neatly does an endrun around the omnipotence problem by making Marcel’s becoming a novelist the novel. It is, indeed, a great novel, but the story would not have worked if A la recherche was already completed – if the fictional Marcel was supposed to have written it already. It would be an entirely different novel, and hard to imagine, since we would have no reason to credit Marcel with being a great writer for a novel that remains, for us, unknown and fictitious.
The narrator of Wolitzer’s novel is the wife of a ‘great’ American novelist, Joe Castleman. It being the nature of greatness to attract prizes, the wife is accompanying her husband to Finland to receive some fictitious half a million dollar prize that is a semi-Nobel. The wife’s story, however, is an evil eyed portrait of  Joe – a poor father, a poor lover, a cheat, a slob, and all the rest. Wolitzer’s character has a voice like an Iris Owens character – scathingly funny. But the humor chops Joe down to the point that it is impossible to believe he is a great writer. This is finessed by hints that actually, Joe’s wife ghosts his material.
But it is here that the paradox kicks in, because although this is a good novel, it isn’t a great, Nobel prize winning novel. And in a sense Wolitzer has stuck herself with a narrator who is telling about how her work has won the semi-nobel prize. That is a huge burden to put a novel under. It seems, at the very least, immodest, since the inference is that the writer of the novel is telling us how good she is through her protagonist.
Ulysses nears this paradox too – if we take Stephen Daedalus to be James Joyce. But here’s the thing: Stephan Daedalus could never have written Ulysses. He is much too small. He doesn’t have the degree of imagination that would let him ‘into’ Leopold Bloom.  This is one of the ways out of the paradox, particularizing a character to the point that this character could not exist outside the pages of the novel, gazing in.
I don’t think that the paradox brings down Wolitzer’s novel – but it does put the weight of the book on the particulars instead of the structure. Since, however, Joan Castelman is essentially a comic narrator, she is not only allowed to create a stone that she can’t lift, but allowed to milk as much as she can from that ludicrous routine.

Perhaps this is what God does, too, with the paradox that Aquinas wrapped around his neck.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

doctor pangloss writes for the london review of books

It must have seemed natural to the editors of the London Review to ask Thomas Nagel, the author of The View from Nowhere, to review R. Jay Wallace’s The View from Here. The subtitle of Wallace’s book is On affirmation, attachment and the limits of regret, and from the account that Nagel gives of the book, it seems to be a book that does justice to its themes, which are at the intersection of philosophy and literature. It is a meaty subject, this of taking up the moral peculiarity of the line of fate of individuals and nations, and the way these lines are a mixture of the good and the atrocious. Wallace seems to think that it isn’t as though the atrocity could be subtracted from the good, but that they are dialectically interlocked. I happen to share that view. I was raised by white parents in the suburbs in the South in the 60s, when apartheid was beginning to crack, and I have long  realized that these facts in the background – both the apartheid that made enormous room for white people like my folks in the post-war years and the crumbling of apartheid that allowed Northern businesses to move into the south as it became a more normal part of the country – benefited me. So if I retrospectively affirm my life, I am confronted with the problem of what to do about these things, which I don’t want to affirm.  Do I opt for self-condemnation, or do I apologize for Jim Crow?
In a sense (not to be too grand about it), this is the kind of problem faced by Leibniz’s God. On the one hand, his perfection requires that he affirm himself perfectly, but on the other hand, the creation is full of atrocities, and the devil is abroad. To understand how to bridge this moral conundrum, Leibniz revamped the metaphysical discourse on possibility that had been built by the ancients and the medievals. He thought, in other word, that the greatest possible good was built into every appearance of evil, the paradigm case being, of course, the exercise of free will.
For this, he was satirized by Voltaire, who began his career on the side of a certain enlightenment view that claimed that atrocity and virtue could be radically separated, given the right social machinery, and who endit it deciding that, as nature itself was indifferent to human values and civilization was generally systematized brutality, interspersed with a few minuets, virtue, as a social thing, was a sham. In other words, the movement was between believing that we could build a world in which we regret nothing to believing that we could only build, if we were fortunate, tiny nests in which regret was held at bay – otherwise, history was a wash.
It is a little astonishing to me that Nagel’s review of Wallace’s book is written in the spirit of Dr. Pangloss, the character in Candide forever associated with the phrase ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’ It is important not to take this phrase too bluntly – it is not, even for Pangloss, true that all is the best, but merely that all serves the best, all is for it.  Voltaire’s satire did not wholly miss Leibniz’s point. To think that all is the best is to turn Pangloss into Babbit, the American booster. Nagel’s review alternates between Pangloss and Babbitry. He refuses to enter into the ‘view from regret’, treating it as an inducement to suicide rather than to reflection. In the spirit of the analytic philosopher, he treats dialectic as an undergraduate logical mistake. And so the interlocked nature of good and atrocity is something he doesn’t even attempt to refute.
Thus, when Wallace writes that his own place of work, the University of California at Berkeley, has benefited (and been complicit in) atrocity, asking whether, in reflecting about his own life, he should regret the existence of the institution, Nagel contradicts him in tones that remind  me of the owner of a used carlot bawling at a  new hire has conceded some fault to a potential buyer:
“Wallace teaches at Berkely, a public institution that makes enormous contributions to knowledge, both theoretical and practical, which benefit not only its members but the society of which it is a part and the world as a whole. To doubt that such institutions would exist in a just world seems to me pathologically pessimistic.”
The babbitry here was, to me, startling. “Society” and “world” are used as though these were not deeply divided entities, but wholes perfectly represented by the successful. It would have interested me what Nagel would have said if Wallace worked at, say, Duke. Would he celebrate Duke medical schools advances in the treatment of cancer, while explaining that this more than makes up for the cancers that were caused by the tobacco fortune upon which the school was founded? Sans doute. If I were to classify Nagel’s response to Wallace, it would be to call it a case of pathological optimism typical of the winners in the neo-liberal world.
Regret, I’d argue, is a politically charged mood, as well as an existential one.

I haven’t resolved the political consequences of the view from regret myself, and doubt I ever will, but I do see regret as an irreplaceable tool to understand how we got to where we are – how our histories unfolded. Without regret, history is dumb.   

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...