22 December 2011

"Republicans for Revolution" by Mark Lilla in NYRB

Mark Lilla of Columbia has a great essay in the current New York Review of Books, eviscerating Corey Robin's history of conservatism in The Reactionary Mind and laying out a more clear-eyed view of the history and current state of the dichotomy of "liberal" and "conservative."

Liberal” and “conservative” first became labels for political tendencies in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, but the philosophical distinction between them was settled by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks in large part to Edmund Burke. After the Revolution, Burke argued that what really separated its partisans and opponents were not atheism and faith, or democracy and aristocracy, or even equality and hierarchy, but instead two very different understandings of human nature. Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is—to use a large word he wouldn’t—metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.
Check out the whole thing.


I've known for a while that the Foer family is ridiculously cool.  Franklin Foer was the editor of The New Republic for six years and one of their best writers, and remains an editor-at-large.  He has also written some great pieces for New York and Slate.  His brother is Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, the book that finished for me what Peter Singer's Animal Liberation started, and whose Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is being made into a new movie after the success of the adaptation of his Everything Is Illuminated.  Another brother is Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, an account of his experiences as a "Memory Champion" of competitive memorization.

But if that's not enough, there's now a new profile out in the NYT about their father, Albert A. Foer, a crusading anti-trust lawyer who has spent his life fighting monopolies and who recently managed to stymie AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile.

Goddamnit it, Foers!  Give some of the rest of us a chance!

17 December 2011

Sex and the City: Retrospective from a Latecomer

It's been impossible to be unaware of Sex and the City.  Even if you didn't watch the show on HBO, you inevitably heard about the surges of popularity for things like the nameplate necklaces (modeled after the protagonist's "Carrie" necklace).  But even more than that, Sex and the City was the show discussed around the water cooler, neatly arriving in 1998 just as Seinfeld ended its reign.  Even after the actual television program ended - after seven years of critical acclaim - two movies sustained the franchise's cultural relevance with great success.

But I'd never really watched it.

I was aware of the basics, of course, and I had seen a few episodes.  A New York columnist and her three friends try to balance love and their lives, etc.  It didn't seem so remarkable, and the segments I had watched were tedious.  I admit that I just chalked it up as a "chick thing," a short-sighted and stupid judgment.  Virtually every other television show is created and marketed for men, yet women look past that to see the real value behind the idiotic window-dressing.  Why should I think that Sex and the City, ostensibly designed to appeal to women, would be magically opaque?  Did I think that Carrie Bradshaw emitted testicle-destroying radiation or something?

Over the past few months, my wife and I have watched the entire series.  And it is good.

I'll start with the obvious: the theme of female empowerment.  Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha each approach modern feminism in their own way.  The artificial nature of their distinct paths is a little silly (they each have their own shtick), but only in the manner of all "wacky bunch of friends" shows.  Miranda is a vocal and sardonic working woman, Samantha is sexually liberated, Charlotte pursues traditional goals with a clear sense of her own worth and stature, and Carrie pursues a protagonist's muddled blend of the three extremes.

The less obvious is even more interesting.  Consider the fact that the girls have no apparent family and few other close friends.  Their closest bonds are with each other, a fact driven home partway through the series when they worry about ever finding a soulmate.  "We will be each other's soulmates," Carrie assures the others in the second season, as they hold hands.  The strength of their friendship, as performed for the audience, is derived in part from the lack of other social webs.  No parents, no siblings, and not even any friends from work.  They have each other, and the show emphasizes that by removing any competition.  It's intentional and clever.

Sex and the City has other carefully-designed elements, as well.  The first season's plots are all reflective of the larger growth experienced by the characters later in the series:  Carrie first becomes involved with Mr. Big but struggles over trying to resolve long-term happiness from short-term passion; Miranda dates sad-sack Scooter, a pleasant but unremarkable fellow whose steadiness appeals to her (a carbon copy of husband Steve); Samantha tries to work around her focus on sex to forge a real relationship, as with Smith later in the show; and Charlotte dates a commitment-minded man whose own ideals about the future don't mesh with her own, despite expectations.  The show's creator and writers had a plan with where they wanted to go, writ small during those first episodes in a way that's almost funny (Scooter and Steve are indistinguishable).

The satisfying nature of the show comes from striking a balance between meeting audience expectations and confounding them.  It's not fun to watch something completely predictable.  A character's development, the future of the plot, the setting - something has to be different.  Yet at the same time, it's uncomfortable to always be surprised and never get an anticipated pay-off.  In large part this is where Lost went wrong: when everything changes all the time and there don't seem to be any real rules, then it's hard to keep yourself oriented and know what is meaningful.  Sex and the City balanced these two needs of the audience.  For example, Charlotte does eventually find marital bliss and gives us that warm satisfaction, but in a way that is novel enough to be interesting.

There are flaws, of course.  The character of Carrie is the most prominent one.  It's hard to tell how deliberate is her appalling nature - did the writers intend for me to hate her?  (I doubt it.)

  • She is terribly, surprisingly self-centered.  If a conversation stops focusing on her, drifting to some other topic, she inevitably makes a rude comment or simply demands to be the center of attention again.  My wife began mocking this halfway through the second season, chanting "Me me me me me!" whenever Carrie interrupted another character or steered discussion back to her needs.
  • Carrie is not a very good friend, and is just a bad person in general.  Of course there are big things, like when she cheats on Aidan with a married man.  But every episode is also like a display of her essential thoughtlessness.  For example, near the end of the last season she invites her friends to meet her beau, and gay buddy Stanford is just delighted - until she tells him that he can't come. So why invite the girls in front of him?  Just to rub it in the face of a guy she consistently treats more like an accessory than a friend?
  • Given what we hear and see, she cannot possibly be a very good columnist.  This is hard to forget when a large part of the fifth season is devoted to her great success as a writer.  Nearly every column pivots on the phrase, "I had to wonder...", followed by the metaphor du jour ("...are all the good men taken?", "...can any woman have it all?").  That is not a formula for literary success.
The problematic protagonist aside, it's a great show both because of its importance and on its own merits.  If you haven't seen it, perhaps for the same reason as me, you are doing yourself a disservice.  I have seen it all, and I regret that it took me so long.  Luckily, I'm still not done: I still have two movies to get through.

15 December 2011

BTT: Character or Plot?

This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

What’s more important to you? Real, three-dimensional, fleshed-out fascinating characters? Or an amazing, page-turning plot? (Yes, I know, they are both important. But if you had to pick one as being more important than the other?
My brief reply is that when I think about some of the books I enjoy the most, such as A Confederacy of Dunces or Les Miserables, I realize that the attribute that I enjoy the most is not their plot (though it may be intricate or magnificent) but the amazing and full characters. This is not to say that plot is unimportant, but characters are vital.

Symbols in Literature

It has been common in many school classrooms for teachers to direct children to look through a story and find the symbols, selecting out colors or objects or expressions that are supposed to have greater meaning.  And when it is time for composition, it sometimes occurs that teachers direct children to insert some symbolism into their writing.  They might say, "But what is the meaning of the bowl of fruit on the table?  Fertility?"

This is not a good practice, and badly misunderstands the role and genesis of good symbolism.

Mary McCarthy, a sage of literature and an author in her own right, once found great offense in a student's attempt to cram symbols into an already-completed short story.  The student thought that her message had to be encoded into the thing, along the lines of "green curtains indicate envy."  McCarthy was astonished to realize that this view of symbolism was becoming increasingly common at the time (1954) and wrote an essay for Harper's that remains one of the best set of ideas on the subject.  An excerpt from her "Settling the Colonel's Hash":

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero. Jane Austen may know in a general way that Emma will marry Mr. Knightley in the end (the reader knows this too, as a matter of fact); the suspense for the author lies in the how, in the twists and turns of circumstance, waiting but as yet unknown, that will bring the consummation about. Hence, I would say to the student of writing that outlines, patterns, arrangements of symbols may have a certain usefulness at the outset for some kinds of minds, but in the end they will have to be scrapped. If the story does not contradict the outline, overrun the pattern, break the symbols, like an insurrection against authority, it is surely a still birth. The natural symbolism of reality has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.
The rest of the essay is very much worth your time.  McCarthy expertly picks apart the faulty approach that sees reading and writing symbolism as a procedure divorced from actual reading and writing, and proceeds to give a brilliant exegesis for a better way of thinking.  Symbolism is recognition and implementation of a pattern in a work that highlights, contradicts, or complements a theme of the text - not a special secret code, like the Victorian Language of Flowers.

McCarthy was not alone in thinking this way.  In 1963, a boy in San Diego, Bruce McAllister, got into an argument with his English teacher over her advocacy of the crude notions excoriated by McCarthy.  After publishing his first short story, he decided to settle the disagreement and began mailing off a questionnaire about symbolism to numerous famous writers, with such questions as "Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?"  Some big names wrote back, including John Updike, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, and Norman Mailer.  Almost universally, they avowed that they did not willfully insert symbols.  Only Ayn Rand differed, refusing to answer the questions at all and instead replying with a terse admonishment about terminology ("This is not a definition, it is not true - and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.")

Ernest Hemingway famously scorned deliberate symbolism, declaring about The Old Man and the Sea:

No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
 There are exceptions to these sorts of codes.  In her essay, McCarthy rightly notes the deliberate and obvious symbolism in Ulysses.  But this is an advanced and unusual thing, and no more suited for everyday use than the blank and unpunctuated verse of E.E. Cummings (not that such difficulty ever stopped a grade-school poet from abandoning rhyme at the earliest opportunity).  Hemingway, for example, did sometimes engage in acts of premeditated symbolism, as when Santiago (the titular Old Man) sees the sharks in the water:

"Ay," he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.
But I believe that the reason why all authors, Hemingway especially, decried the practice is not that they did not find it occasionally useful, but that it was part of a runaway trend that they couldn't help but find distasteful and offensive.  They didn't want to encourage a view of literature that reduced it to a game of hide-and-seek or an elaborate code.

That leads me to my conclusion: the literary technique of symbolism is like most other literary techniques.  Anyone can do them, but they are very difficult to do well, and are better achieved through an organic effort to just write the best you can.  Nor should a reader be trying to decrypt a story by identifying the meanings of colors or the bowl of fruit on the protagonist's table: instead, read the text and find the meaning and themes, and only afterwards try to work out the techniques that got you there.  That's symbolism done right.

09 December 2011

BTT: Mystery or Love Story?

This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

All things being equal, which would you prefer–a mystery? Or a love story?
"All things being equal" means an equally well-written book, so we're talking something like Love in the Time of Cholera, not The Vicar's Wife and Gordon the Stable-Boy's Rippling Stomach.  And on that basis, I have no preference.  And this is not the false elevation of the aloof, but just a raw lack of affection for either genre in and of themselves.  I am fond of very bad ideological books and high-concept science fiction, but I have simply no feelings about mysteries or romance.

01 December 2011

BTT: Mood Reading

This week's Booking Through Thursday asks:

Do you find that your mood affects the things you read? Like, if you’re in a bad mood, do you tend to indulge in reading that will support it or do you try to read things that will cheer you up? Do you pick different types of books on dreary, rainy days than you do on bright sunny ones?
For that matter, does your mood color what you’re reading, so that a funny book isn’t so funny or a serious one not so deep?
My book selection seldom depends on my mood.  Instead, I seek variety.  I like to alternate fiction and nonfiction, fluff and epic, Russian and American, and so on.  If I decide not to read the latest celebrity biography or a dense history, it's almost inevitably because I have read something similar recently and I just want to switch up.  There's probably some element of guilt involved... if I spend all Saturday giddily plowing through several volumes of pablum, I feel as though I've actively wasted my time.  Plus, bad books are like television: seductive and brain-destroying.

Naturally, my choices do affect my mood, but not very often.  I might put down something like The Life and Times of Michael K. or A Stolen Life, heave a heavy sigh, and comment, "Well, that was depressing"... but usually I'm smiling and humming again ten minutes later.