Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

WILLIAM GOLIDNG'S THE INHERITORS AN APPRECIATION CONCLUSION

Which brings us to William Golding's lovely novel, The Inheritors.  Golding [1911-1993] was an English novelist and poet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who is best known for his novel, Lord of the Flies.  The Inheritors is a short novel, only 213 pages in my PocketBooks paperback edition, which tells the tragic story of an encounter between a small band of Neanderthal and a group of Cro Magnon, from the point of view of the Neanderthal!  The genius of Golding's artistic creation lies in his ability to imagine the world as the Neanderthal experience it.
Golding conceives the Neanderthal thought processes as essentially visual and pictorial, rather than analytic or linear.  "There was too much to see and [Lok] became eyes again that registered and perhaps would later remember what now he was not aware of."  The Neanderthal share the pictures in their heads by a primitive form of telepathy, which considerably supplements their rudimentary speech.  They are able, in effect, to show one another the pictures they imagine, and thus to communicate plans of action or feelings.
The plot is quite simple.  The little band of six or seven Neanderthal have just welcomed a "new one," a baby, into the group.  The death of an old one or the birth of a new one are terribly important events for the little group, whose survival depends on maintaining some minimum number.  The old woman is the keeper of fire -- when the group travel from place to place, she embeds the glowing embers in moist clay, and then blows them into flame when they arrive.  [As Golding imagines the Neanderthal, the females are wiser and more responsible than the males, incidentally.  Just the opposite is true of the Cro Magnon, as he represents them.]  The Neanderthal encounter the Cro Magnon, who steal the new one, the baby.  With the Cro Magnon's vastly superior technology -- they use dugout canoes and bows and arrows -- the outcome is never in doubt.
The pleasure of the novel, for me at any rate, lies almost entirely in Golding's ability to conjure a plausible image of the thought processes of the Neanderthal.  They experience the world visually, sensorily.  They experience surfaces.  Thus, when they see the new people, the Cro Magnon, paddling their canoes, Golding's rendering of what they see goes like this:  "Someone dug noisily in the water, and the logs bumped."  At one point [I cannot find the passage], Lok sees one of the Cro Magnon hold a bent stick with a twig across it [a bow and arrow.]  Then a twig suddenly grows out of the tree next to his head.  It takes a moment for the reader to understand that the Cro Magnon has shot an arrow that has embedded itself in the tree next to, Lok's head.  But that is not the way Lok experiences it.
Much of the central part of the novel is taken up with the desperate and unsuccessful efforts of the Neanderthal to retrieve the stolen new one [who has been taken by a Cro Magnon woman who seems to have lost her own baby.]   Then abruptly, seventeen pages before the end of the novel, the narrative perspective shifts, and the remainder of the story is told from the point of view of the Cro Magnon, who load up their canoes and paddle off into the distance, leaving the Neanderthal literally, historically, evolutionarily, and narratively behind.
And there it is.  The Inheritors is a simple novel, exquisitely conceived and carried off, that upends our customary expectations and evaluations and suggests what has been lost in the dying out of the Neanderthal and the triumph of modern homo sapiens sapiens.  It is a quick read, and I think well worth the effort.  I recommend it strongly.  In a sense, it can be thought of as a prequel to Golding's much more famous Lord of the Flies.

Monday, January 30, 2012

WILLIAM GOLDING'S THE INHERITORS AN APPRECIATION PART ONE

A few explanatory words of a personal nature are necessary before I begin my discussion of The Inheritors.  When I was a boy, I was fascinated by the paleontological reports of the remains of early man and pre-human species.  A great deal is known now about the complex evolutionary lineages of hominid and pre-hominid species, in part as a consequence of sophisticated analyses of DNA remains in fossilized bones.  We know that hominids evolved first in Southern Africa, and migrated out of Africa into the Near East, Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and beyond in at least two separate waves of migration -- the first perhaps a million years ago or more, the second quite recently as geological time is measured, perhaps 100,000 years ago or less.  We know that there was some measure of interbreeding among the several hominid species, so that 3 or 4 percent of the DNA of modern homo sapiens sapiens comes from other hominid species.  
But none of this was known when I was a boy.  What science had, at that point, was some bones.  And one of the best collections of those old bones was to be found in the Museum of Natural History on the upper West Side of Manhattan.  There, in long glass-covered exhibit tables, were mandibles, crania, teeth, ulnae, and other odds and ends from the best-known of the "ape-men," homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthal Man [named for the Neander Valley in Germany], side by side with the quite different mandibles, crania, and whatnot of our true ancestors, Cro Magnon Man.  On Saturdays, I would take the subway to the museum and spend hours staring at the bones, consulting my little Handbook of Physical Anthropometry, written by Harry L. Shapiro, who was actually on the staff of the museum.  I became knowledgeable about ascending rami and sigmoid notches and zygomatic arches.  I learned that Neanderthal Man had a heavy bony orbital ridge [useful for keeping rain out of the eyes], and a brainpan as large as, or larger than, that of modern man.  I knew that he had heavy bones, capable of supporting powerful muscles, that he made stone tools, and had learned the use of fire.  I knew that he had managed to survive the series of ice ages and wild temperature swings that beset northern Europe over a period of several hundred thousand years, and that he seemed to have disappeared from the paleontological record some thirty or thirty-five thousand years ago.
Cro Magnon man, by contrast, was slender, gracile, with a lighter, less massive mandible, a slender ascending ramus, and a deeper sigmoid notch, and without the heavy oribital ridge.  Cro Magnon man had a more sophisticated toolkit, including an array of tools worked from bone.  He too had the use of fire, and in a number of caves in Southwest France and Spain had left astonishingly beautiful paintings of a variety of animals indigenous to the area.  Genetically, Cro Magnon man, it seems, is identical with modern human beings -- our true ancestors.  There really was not that much time, viewed paleontologically, between the remains of Cro Magnon man and the pyramids or the epics of Homer.
The message of the early paleontology was clear:  Cro Magnon were the good guys, and Neanderthal were the heavies.
Which brings us to William Golding's lovely novel, The Inheritors.  Golding [1911-1993] was an English novelist and poet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who is best known for his novel, Lord of the Flies.  The Inheritors, published in 1955, is a short novel, only 213 pages in my PocketBooks paperback edition, which tells the tragic story of an encounter between a small band of Neanderthal and a group of Cro Magnon, from the point of view of the Neanderthal!  In a genuine tour de force, Golding manages to create a believable portrait of a small band of Neanderthal from the inside, as it were.

THE THREAT OF AN ISRAELI ATTACK ON IRAN

I am well aware that uttering simple, obvious truths regarding the state of Israel will bring down on my head a firestorm of calumny.  So be it.  There is nothing at all that I can do to affect in the slightest the events unfolding in the Middle East, but so long as I presume to run a blog, I have an obligation at least to speak.  Accordingly, here are a few obvious truths:

1.  Israel is currently the dominant military power in the Middle East as a consequence of being the only nuclear-armed state in the entire region.  No state in the Middle East has the military power to destroy Israel;  Isreal has the military power to destroy any state in the Middle East.

2.  Iran seeks to acquire nuclear weapons.  In so doing, it threatens Israel's military hegemony.  If one sets aside Israel's carefully cultivated myth of victimhood, that is the real significance of Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons.  Iran seeks nuclear weapons in order to increase its influence in the region.  Israel is now threatening to launch a preemptive strike against Iran to degrade Iran's nuclear capability, thereby maintaining for a while longer its military hegemony in the region.

3.  For complex domestic reasons that involve both the American Jewish Lobby and the end-times religious fantasies of evangelical Christians, The United States government is prepared to support Israel's aggressive military adventures, even though those adventures are contrary to the national self-interest of the United States.

4.  Israel is an apartheid state.  It is currently the only nation state in the world that rules a large occupied population.  Israel is also a vibrant, lively, open democracy by any customary measure.  These two propositions are not in the slightest contradictory.  I can attest from personal observation that apartheid South Africa was far and away the liveliest, most open, most democratic society in Southern Africa -- for Whites.  I use the term of opprobrium "apartheid" advisedly.  The wall Israel has constructed, and the patchwork of territories into which it has forced the Palestinian people, is fully as oppressive, fully as dedicated to "separateness" [the meaning in Afrikaans of "apartheid"] as the South African system of pass control laws, influx control laws, townships, and bantustans.

5.  Israel's existence is not threatened, by Iran or by any other Middle Eastern state.  Israel's military hegemony in the region is threatened by Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons.  The United States has no national interest in maintaining Israel's military hegemony in the Middle East.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

BACK IN THE SADDLE

My five week long health crisis has taken me away from this blog more than I would have liked.  I think perhaps it is time to essay another "Appreciation."  Accordingly, tomorrrow I will initiate a brief discussion of William Golding's extraordinary novel, The Inheritors.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?

From Andrew Sullivan's blog:

"Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?" asked a perplexed Gingrich, to whom Dole bluntly explained: "Because it saves them time."

Friday, January 27, 2012

HOT OFF THE PRESSES

For gluttons for punishment, my entire three volume Memoir is now available on Box.net, edited and in one big file [the file is so big, it takes up almost as much memory as one photograph!]  Enjoy.

USEFUL LESSONS

I am back from the hospital, apparently in good shape.  I think that is enough about my physical condition, which is of the very greatest interest to me, and to a small circle of loved ones, and of very little interest to anyone else.  If I should die, I will sure to mention it on this blog.

Some while back, I observed that the Occupy Wall Street Movement has already won, since it has utterly changed the public conversation in America.  The brilliant polemical device of defining the fundamtnal issue as a struggle between the 1% and the 99% -- a definition that cannot, of course, withstand any sort of serious political and economic analysis -- has thrust into the public space the issue of income and wealth inequality and the consequent power inequality.  Precisely because the roots of this inequality lie so deeply embedded in the structure of capitalism, no laundry list of manageable reforms can address it.  The refusal of the OWS movement to formulate such a list is strategically brilliant, and infuriating to those in Washington who would just like to know "what they want" so that a palliative deal can be struck.

The success of the movement is astonishing when one reflects on how small it is.  I may be way off, but it seems to me that nation-wide there cannot have been many more than forty or fifty thousand active OWS participants.  Now, this is a nation of roughly 330,000,000, so the movement has involved maybe fifteen one thousandths of one percent of the population.  Any Sunday pro football game is probably watched by twice that many people in the stands. 

Recall the famous and very moving line from one of Obama's stump speeches in 2008:  "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."  He did not say "I am the one you have been waiting for," though that does seem to be what people heard.  Real change never comes from the top, for all that we on the left seem fatally inclined to look for saviors and leaders.  The biggest change in the public discourse of the past generation came from that half a hundred thousand men and women, or maybe even fewer, who acted without political leadership -- indeed, even without the usual leadership that popular movements most often produce.  All of the tactical devices of the Movement -- the People's Mike, the General Assembly, the demand for unanimity -- are deliberate anti-hierarchical manoeuvres.

These fifty thousand people, and they alone, have earned the right to say, "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Where will the OWS movement lead?  Only those who take part in it can say.  But their success stands as a lesson and a challenge to the rest of us.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

OFF TO THE HOSPITAL

Later this morning, I shall be admitted to UNC Memorial Hospital for a surgical procedure -- a pleural biopsy.  This is the doctors' last shot, I think, at figuring out what has been wrong with me.  If they cannot come up with a diagnosis, I plan to just go on living and let my body cure itself.  But I will be out of touch for a day or so.   The universe will scarcely notice, I imagine.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

MIDDLE CLASS -- SOME THOUGHTS

In my post on the roots of right wing ressentiment, I made a few passing remarks about the notion "middle class."  I should like to return to that subject and invite my readers to weigh in with their thoughts.  This is not a subject on which I consider myself any sort of expert, but it is important that it be subjected to some sort of critique.
As I have indicated in several of my tutorials, Classical Political Economy is erected on the premise that society is divided into several great economic classes whose interests are ungetoverably opposed:  the landed aristocracy, the entrepreneurs, and the workers, in the writings of Smith and Ricardo, the working class and the capitalist class in the writings of Marx.  All three writers define class in terms of the common relationship of a large social group to the means and processes of production.  Landed aristocrats own and control a scarce, irreproducible factor if production, viz. land;  entrepreneurs own and control capital, the tools and inputs into production as well as their money form;  the working class has no ownership of the means of production nor access to land, and hence in order to survive must sell its capacity for labor to those who wish to profit from its use.  This, in a nutshell, is the basic structure of a capitalist economy, and from it one can deduce the power relations and relations of exploitation among the three great classes of society.
Marx understood that this simple schema did not adequately capture the complexities of the capitalist economy at which he was looking, and it captures even less well the capitalist economy in which we now live.  In the first place, there is clearly a very big difference, on the one hand, between great industrial magnates who command vast stores of capital and employ [and exploit] thousands upon thousands of workers, and on the other hand petty commodity producers who are completely at the mercy of market forces, employ a handful of workers, and by and large serve as the managers of their own small businesses.
An adequate schema must also make some place for the financial capitalists who do not own or manage productive enterprises, either directly or indirectly, but instead engage in complex manipulations of the money supply and the system of credit on which the industrial capitalists rely for access to investment capital.  We all know that in recent decades, this segment of the capitalist class has ballooned in size and importance, taking on a more thoroughly internationalized form than any other capitalist sector.
It is also the case that Marx's relatively simple view of the structure of the working class has diverged farther and farther from the observed realities of modern capitalism.  First of all, the pyramidal wage structure, of which I have several written on this blog, calls into question the assumption that all workers are stand in the same relation of exploitation to their employers.  A good many years ago, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis published a very elegant little paper in which they worked out the mathematics of relative exploitation.  High paid workers, they argued, must be understood as simultaneously being exploited by their employers and also exploiting lower=paid workers.  This observation has important implications for any strategy of mobilization based on worker solidarity.
Max Weber was convinced that Marx's analysis of capitalism was inadequate in this regard, and sought to introduce an alternative mode of social analysis based on the concept of status.  Status, first of all, is essentially a subjective measure, not an objective measure.  Status measures the way in which a social group or individual is perceived by others in the society -- the degree of respect or deference it is accorded.  One's objective location in the social relations of production is certainly an important determination of status -- in this regard, Weber agreed with Marx.  But other factors play an equally important role in determining status -- educational attainments, position in a government bureaucracy, even religion or ethnicity in some societies. 
Out of Weber's work, later sociologists developed the notion of socio-economic status.  SES, as it came to be referred to, was conceived by them as a unidimensional index of the multi-dimensional factors shaping the perceived status and social position.  Thus, a high school teacher, who is an employee of a state or local government, making a good deal less than an industrial worker, might nevertheless have high SES because of the general social respect for educational attainments.  A self-employed medical doctor might have very high SES, despite commanding few if any means of production and earning less than a corporate manager.  Whereas a Marxian analysis of the class structure of a capitalist economy is, in a certain sense, objective, resting as it does on an analysis of the real relations of production in the economy, a sociological analysis of Socio-Economic Status is inevitably subjective, since it is a measure of people's attitudes.  Hence the central tool in the determination of SES is the public opinion survey.
The basic class divisions in a Marxian analysis are determined by the structure of the economy, and hence are not at all arbitrary.  But there are no objective fault lines marking the end of one Socio-Economic Status and the beginning of another.  Once the polling data is in, it is a matter of arbitrary choice where the sociologist draws his or her lines.  So, "high SES," "middling SES," and "low SES" are simply arbitrary marks on a one-dimensional index generated by polling data.  One can try to explain why the public ranks doctors higher than corporate managers, or bus drivers lower than WalMart store supervisors, despite the fact that corporate managers make more money on average than doctors and bus drivers earn more than WalMart store supervisors.  But it would literally be meaningless to say that the public is wrong about these matters, since the public's attitudes [or at least those of a statistically valid sample] are definitive of SES.
"Upper Class," "Upper Middle Class," "Middle Class," "Lower Middle Class," "Working Class," and "Underclass" are a confused mishmash of categories defined in part of family income, in part of Socio-Economic Status, in part by objective relation to the social relations of production ["Working Class"] and in part by an acknowledgement of the caste distinctions rooted in race that have always distorted American society and continue to do so today ["Underclass."]
It would take too long to try to describe, analyze, and describe the secular changes in the sets of categories with which Americans have described their class structure over the past century and more.  In the '50s and '60s, "Middle Class" came to mean, roughly, "owning one's own home, having a salary rather than a daily or weekly wage, able to send a child to college, whether one did or not, having enough disposable income after food, clothing, and shelter were paid for to permit vacations, discretionary spending on luxury items [TV sets, a car, even a second car, etc.], and -- as I have already made clear -- sharply distinguished geographically, culturally, economically, and in social status, from the Black or Hispanic Underclass.
It is in the context of this understanding that we must interpret the unceasing references to "the Middle Class" by politicians of both parties.  In effect, the Democratic Party has assumed sole ownership of the African-American vote, according "Middle Class" status to the most successful segment of the Black community.  The contest, currently being won by the Democrats, for the Hispanic vote is fought almost entirely over immigration policy.  And poor Whites are awarded honorary "Middle Class" status to distinguish them from people of color.
Before a bring these remarks to a close, it is worth putting a few numbers on the table.  The median household income for all households in 2011 was $49,445.  Remember -- this means that half of all U.S. households had annual income of less than that amount.  The median household income for Hispanic households was $37,759, and for African-American households, $32,068.  It may help to put these figures in context to point out that an African-American couple, both working forty hours a week, fifty two weeks a year, for the Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr, would have an annual household income of $30,160.  In short, this couple, working bottom of the barrel jobs, would be close to the median Black household.
The non-stop talk about The Middle Class, in effect, writes off more than a hundred million Americans as not worth thinking about.

Well, enough is enough.  Tomorrow I go into the hospital for one more diagnostic procedure -- a pleural biopsy, under anesthesia.  I invite your comments on these observations.

Monday, January 23, 2012

FREE, WHITE, AND TWENTY-ONE

Newt Gingrich's upset victory in South Carolina appears to have been made possible by his success in tapping into a deep, bitter, implacable sense of grievance and victimhood that afflicts a large segment of the Republican electorate in that state.  This permanent ressentiment was manifested in the eruptions of applause with which the debate audience greeted Gingrich's attack on moderator Juan Williams.  It found expression in their delight when Gingrich called Obama a "food stamp president."  And of course its steadiest manifestation is their hysterical hatred of and contempt for President Obama.  The principal appeal of Gingrich to this electorate seems to be rooted in their erotic fantasy that Gingrich would, in a debate with Obama, whip the President and put him in his place.
The sense of being insulted and injured is not new, of course.  It has long, deep roots.  The purpose of this blog post is to explore those roots and identify what I believe to be the real origin of the grievance that motivates so large a segment of the Republican electorate today.  As will become obvious, my explanation is little more than a suggestion, grounded in some historical realities.  But readers of this blog may find it to be of some interest.
Our story begins, as do so many of the stories of America, in the pre-Civil War institution of slavery.  Slavery was a fact of American society and economy north and south for several centuries -- one tends to forget that at one point New York City was home to more slaves than any other city in America.  But although slavery was widespread in the North, the northern economy was not a slave economy.  That is to say, slave labor was not the foundation of northern wealth.  The South, however, was a slave economy.  The tobacco, rice, and then cotton that made the ante-bellum South the wealthiest region of the United States rested firmly on slave labor.
It was far from the case that all white southerners owned slaves.  Healthy, adult Black men and women were an extremely valuable commodity in the southern slave markets, each one bringing more money than a northern white free worker could earn in a year.  Indeed, in his very valuable study of the economics of southern slavery, Branches Without Roots, Gerald Jaynes tells us that fully one half of the entire wealth of the South at the outbreak of the Civil War was in the form of slaves.
There were a great many poor whites trying to wrest some sort of living from the soil in the hollows and backwoods and upcountry reaches of the Southern states.  Jacqueline Jones, in her splendid book American Work, reports that in the period before the Civil War, the popular view among affluent Southern whites was that the slaves were good workers -- skilled, obedient, hard-working -- but that the poor whites were lazy, shiftless, and no account.  Within a generation after the end of the War, this attitude had flipped.  It was now the newly freed Blacks who were condemned as lazy and shiftless and the white workers who were lauded as reliable and industrious.
Poor as the rural whites were in the Old South, they had one cardinal fact that they could clutch to their bosoms, one balm for their troubled souls, and it was not the old time religion.  It was that THEY WERE NOT BLACK.  However they might be scorned and condescended to by the gentry in the big plantations, there was an entire large segment of the population that was permanently, unalterably below them in the caste system of the South.
There is an old American saying that was still current when I was a boy:  "I can do what I like.  I am free, White, and twenty-One!"  I am free -- I am not an indentured servant or a slave.  I am White -- I can never be a slave;  I am a citizen.  And I am twenty-one, I am an adult."  This was the proud boast of the poorest, most despised whites in an America with Black slaves.
At the end of the Civil War, everything changed.  Suddenly, that oppressed, enslaved, and despised caste of Black men and women was Free.  This created a situation that Whites found intolerable.  An entire system of socially, legally, and extra-legally enforced caste separations and oppressions had to be introduced to replace the easily recognizable status of Slave.  Thus were born the Black Codes and the system of Jim Crow.  If a legally free Black man walking on a sidewalk did not step into the gutter to make way for a White man or women, he risked a blow, a beating, or even death.  Before the war, white slave owners traveled by train with their slaves in the train car with them to attend to their needs and desires.  Now, legally free Black travelers were forced to ride in separate cars so as not to offend the tender sensibilities of well-born Whites.  Under slavery, Blacks drove carriages and they built and repaired them;  Blacks cooked the food of Whites, fed it to them, cleaned up their messes, wet-nursed their babies, bathed them, and did their hair.  After liberation, the sensibilities of White women were so easily offended by the mere presence of Black women that Black women were barred from serving as salesladies in department stores.
The hideous practice of lynching was entirely a post-bellum phenomenon.  In slavery times, a slave was worth a great deal of money, and a sensible owner would no more kill a slave than kill a horse or a mule.  The law records are full of cases in which one white man rented another white man's slave and, by beating him too harshly, returned him as damaged goods, giving rise to a lawsuit for the recovery of damages [to the white owner, of course, not to the slave!]
The strictly enforced caste system persisted through the end of the nineteenth century into the new twentieth century, through the First World, War and the Great Depression, and through the Second World War as well.  During all that long century, poor whites could console themselves with the thought, spoken or unspoken, that they were not at the bottom of the social and economic ladder because THEY WERE NOT BLACK.  In the great northern cities, housing discrimination, enforced by the Federal Government's policies as well as those of the states and localities, created large inner city ghettoes, in which Black Americans were forced to live by the covenants and housing discrimination in the rapidly expanding suburbs.
It was more or less at this time that a new and curious linguistic practice entered the public speech of America.  Ordinary White working class families began to be referred to, and increasingly referred to themselves, as "middle class."  Now "middle class" is itself a rather suspicious bastard sociological category.  It does not have the historical roots and deeper meaning of "petty bourgeoisie," which conveys the notion of shopkeepers and small business owners who, although owners of their means of production, are yet not the great geldbesitzeren or haute bourgeois who command the economic heights.  But it also does not merely mean "between rich and poor."  It does, in the American context, somewhat correspond to the old distinction between "suits" and "shirts" or "white collar" and "blue collar."  However, in the racially segregated America of the '50s and '60s, "middle class" clearly meant suburban, respectable, not living in an inner city ghetto.  It meant NOT BLACK. 
The Civil Rights Movement challenged the Black Codes, it challenged Jim Crow, it challenged the deeply embedded caste system of American society.  And it was successful!  I will yield to no one in my outrage at the discriminations that still afflict Black Americans, but I am old enough to recall what this country was like in the '40s and '50s, and that change has been dramatic, transformative, and irreversible.
We may celebrate this change as the greatest progressive victory of the twentieth century, but to a large number of Americans, the change has been devastating, incomprehensible, and hateful.  No longer can Whites at the bottom of the economic ladder console themselves, in the dark night of their souls, with the secret thought, AT LEAST I AM NOT BLACK. 
Now add to these thoughts the fact that even now, half a century after the GI Bill, only 30% of adult Americans 25 and older have college degrees.  For seventy percent of Americans, even such mediocre jobs as Elementary School teacher or WalMart store supervisor are closed to them because they do not have the college degree that the mass media comfortably assume is possessed by everyone who matters.
Into this world, stripped by the changes of the past half century of the comforting reassurance that at least I AM NOT BLACK, comes Barack Obama, who gets himself elected president in an election that not even a compliant Supreme Court can throw.  Obama is the ultimate uppity Nigger, made infinitely more unbearable by his easy manner and insufferable good humor.  By popular consensus, the President is the highest status person in America, regardless of politics.  It is, to a great many Americans, deeply, unacceptably, offensively cognitively dissonant to see a Black man in the White House.  It contradicts everything on which they have built whatever remains of their self-esteem.
Which brings me, at long last, to the question why so many right wing Republicans are prepared to throw their support to Gingrich, despite the polling evidence that he would stand no chance at all against Obama even in these terrible economic times.  The answer, I suggest, is that this is their last desperate effort to see Obama -- and by extension, all the other uppity Blacks -- get what is coming to him -- to see him humiliated on the public stage, before all America, by a smart White man who takes no crap and is not afraid to say what they all think.
Now, it goes without saying that this is a mad, hopeless, pathetic fantasy.  In the first place, Obama is smarter than Gingrich, and a good deal more knowledgeable.  Secondly, so long as you retain your cool, which Obama is a master at doing, you never are destroyed, wiped out, put in your place, in a debate.  That is simply not how Presidential debates work.  Gingrich's pseudo-historical call for "Lincoln Douglas Debates" between himself and Obama is even dumber.  Those debates consisted of a ninety-minute speech by one man followed by a thirty-minute rebuttal by the other.  Before the first statement was a third done all America would be watching re-runs of "Two and a Half Men."
But despised for their lack of education, mocked for their religion, deprived of the last-ditch self-defense that AT LEAST I AM NOT BLACK, large numbers of White Americans have a deep, ineradicable need to see the iconic Black man put in his place by a White hero.  And that need swamps all practical calculation, all tactical or strategic thinking, even mere self-preservation.  If Obama wins in November, especially against Gingrich, a cry of despair will rise up from certain corners of White America that only the Rapture can allay.  One almost wishes it for them, especially if they leave America to the rest of us, along with their dentures and prosthetic devices.

THANK YOU

Thank you all for your kind wishes and thoughts.  I shall try to return later today with some thoughts I have been [rather feverishly] turning over in my mind about the historical roots and meaning of the powerful sense of resentment and grievance on the right, and the reasons for their obsessive hatred of Obama.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

AN APOLOGY

I have been absent from this blog for a while, and I have also been very dilatory in responging to emails.  This post is a general apology.  I have just been through the worst five days of my life, and although life looks a good deal brighter now, I am still not able to function normally.

Last Wednesday, troubled by my inability to throw off what I thought was a bad flu, I went to the Same Day clinic at UNC Health Services, and was seen by a young Doctor Vance.  After listening to my heart and lungs, he ordered some blood work, an ekg, and a chest x-ray.  The blood work showed a slight anemia.  The ekg was normal.  But the chest x-ray revealed what is called a pleural effusion -- fluid in the bottom of my left lung.   The next morning, Thursday, I went to the Pulomonary Clinic of UNC Memorial Hospital, where a young specialist named Dr. Bice hooked me up to a variety of monitors and inserted a catheter into my lung, withdrawing 360 ml of fluid.  When he saw that the fluid was bloody, he said there was a 50% chance that I had lung cancer.  He said he would order a CT scan, while the lab examined the fluid.  My primary care physician, by phone, told me there was a 70% chance that I had stage 4 lung cancer, which is incurable.  He started talking to me about making my remaining time as qualitatively valuable as possible.

I was devastated.  I have spent my entire life protecting myself against stroke or heart attack by diet, exercise, and medication.  I had before me always the image of my father, who died at 79 of emphysema, obese, alcoholic, and a chain smoker.  I swore that I would not lead my final years as he had led his, and now it seemed I probably would not live even to be as old as he was when he died.

My entire world contracted sharply, so that it included only Susie, my two sons, my sister, and Susie's two sons, all of whom, especially Susie, were imm ediately supportive and helpful.  Nothing else -- politics, philosophy, my blog -- mattered at all.  I was numb -- not really with fear, but with a dead feeling.  I even lost four pounds rather rapidly, apparently because I was not eating very much.

I waited all day Thursday for a call setting up the CT scan.  On Friday, I called the pulmonary unit and was told that Dr. Bice had scheduled the scan for the following Friday!  I was outraged.  I desperately needed some definitive word on the cancer, even if it was, as I fully expected, bad news, so that I could start making plans to make sure that Susie would be taken care of.  I told the secretary who informed me abou the appoitment that that date was unacceptable.  She fussed a bit and said she had rescheduled it for Wednesday.  Not good enough, I said,  What about this afternoon [it was then about 3:45 p.m.]  Well, she allowed, she would have to transfer me to the Radiology lab.  Fine, I replied, do so.  The Radiology lab said they could take me right then.  By 4:00 p.m., Susie and I were sitting in Women's Hospital, where the Radiology lab is, waiting to be admitted.  By 4:15 p.m., we were in the basement, waiting to be called.  I had to wait for more than an  hour, but then I went in and had a CT scan "with contrast" [they inject a fluid through an IV, which makes it easier to see things on the scan.]  The med tech, who was very, very nice, told me that as an outpatient, I would be at the end of the line for reading the results, but that if my doctor called and asked, they would read the scan and give him the results.  I had already called Dr DeWalt's secretary, while I was waiting for the scan, asking her to send him an email requesting that he get the results.

The next morning, at 6 a.m., I sent DeWalt an email, repeating the request.  Later that monring, he called back.  It seems that he had not only the CT scan results but also the results of the tests on the fluids.  The results?  NO SIGN OF ANY TUMORS ON THE CT SCAN, AND NO SIGN OF ANY CANCER CELLS IN THE FLUID.  Dr. DeWalt said that they still did not know what was making me sick, and therefore cancer of some sort was still a possibility, but he agreed that stage 4 lung cancer seemed ruled out.  There was also no sign in the CT scan of a pulmonary embolism [blood clot], a secondary possibility they were considering.

If I had not insisted on having the CT scan immediately, I would still right now, and until next Friday, be living with a diagnosis of incurable terminal cancer.

I am sure all of you will understand that everything else -- emails, inquiries about the Paris apartment, politics -- has simply not been on my mind.

I don't know what is wrong with me.  I awoke this morning at 4:30 a.m. drenched in sweat.  My body is fighting something, but it will be a while before the doctors figure out what, if indeed they ever figure it out.

Monday, January 16, 2012

ERICH AUERBACH MIMESIS: AN APPRECIATION CONCLUSION

Well, several days have gone by during which I mostly huddled under the covers and tried to stop the shivering brought on by this implacable flu.  I think I am now sufficiently recovered to attempt the conclusion of my Appreciation of Mimesis.

The first passage of Chapter Two is an extended monologue placed by the author, Petronius, in the mouth of one of the guests at a feast being hosted by a parvenu businessman named Trimalchio.  The passage is gossipy, circumstantial, full of detail about the backgrounds, pretensions, successes and failures of the other guests seated around the table.  Very much in the manner to which we have become accustomed in modern novels, the speaker unconsciously reveals himself, and unintentionally places himself perfectly in the social and economic milieu of which the host, Trimalchio, is a prominent and successful example.  [Compare the way in which Becky Sharp reveals herself through her narration in Thackeray's Vanity Fair.]  The discourse is vulgar, chatty, and entirely interior to the scene the speaker is describing.  The following passage by Auerbach gives some sense of the thrust of his analysis:

"Petronius does not say:  This is so.  Instead he lets an 'I,' who is identical neither with himself nor yet with the feigned narrator Encolpius, turn the spotlight of his perception on the company at table -- a highly artful procedure in perspective, a sort of twofold mirroring, which I dare not say is unique in antique literature as it has come down to us, but which is most unusual there.  In outward form this procedure is certainly nothing new, for of course throughout antique literature characters speak of their experiences and impressions.  But nowhere, except in this passage by Petronius, do we have, on the one hand, the most intense subjectivity, which is even heightened by individuality of language, and, on the other hand, an objective intent -- for the aim is an objective description of the company at table, including the speaker, through a subjective procedure."

But, Auerbach argues, the convention of the separation of styles makes it impossible for an author like Petronius to discuss anything serious, let alone tragic, concerning the sorts of characters who are attending Trimalchio's feast.  They can only be the subject of comic portrayals, regardless of how accurate and penetrating Petronius' anatomization of their character flaws, aspirations, and social origins.  What is even more interesting, to my way of thinking, Auerbach notes that although the world portrayed by Petronius is in constant turmoil, with some getting rich quickly, others just as quickly losing their fortunes and falling to the status of slaves, it is, from the point of view of modern social and economic theory, a static world.  Individuals rise and fall, but Petronius has no sense of the deeper and longer acting social forces that might be transforming the entire social world, not merely the fortunes of this or that actor in that world. 

The same is true of the next passage Auerbach considers, a speech by a rebellious member of the Roman legions by the Roman historian Tacitus.  Because Tacitus is a great literary artist, the speech is powerful and effective as a set piece.   But although the occasion for the speech is a moment of the greatest uncertainty in the young Roman empire -- namely, the death of the first Emperor, Augustus [the speaker, Percennius, is protesting the low wages, long service, and harsh treatment meted out to the common soldiers in the legions] -- Tacitus has no sense of or interest in moving historical forces that may bring about changes in the Empire. 

After quoting two modern historians of ancient Rome, one of whom, Rostovtzeff, is one of my very favorite historiographers, Auerbach says:  "what (both statements) express goes back to the same peculiarity of the ancients' way of viewing things;  it does not see forces, it sees vices and virtues, successes and mistakes. ... an aristocratic reluctance to become involved with growth processes in the depths, for these processes are felt to be both vulgar and orgiastically lawless." 

What Petronius and Tacitus lack, in common with the other Greek and Roman writers of antiquity, Auerbach suggests, is the idea of historical forces moving beneath the surface, forces of which Trimalchio's dinner party or Percennius' rebellious speech are merely symptoms or expressions.  This is an idea with which we are now quite familiar, and in the novels of Stendhal or Tolstoi or indeed Austen, it finds expression either explicitly or by implication.  We might imagine that it would be necessary to jump across many centuries to find a passage that shows us far-reaching forces beginning to stir beneath the surface.  But Auerbach locates a passage contemporaneous with Petronius and Tacitus in which something very like this finds expression -- the passage in the Gospels in which the Apostle Peter thrice denies Jesus.  Jesus, you will recall, has been arrested, and his disciples have been allowed to slip away undetained.  But Peter follows Jesus and the officers to the high court, showing uncommon courage.  Once there, he is challenged several times to admit that he is one of Jesus' group, and three times he denies that he is.

As Auerbach makes clear, this is a situation that simply could not be satisfactorily rendered by Greek or Latin authors.  First of all, the participants -- Peter, a young woman who confronts him, the soldiers, indeed Jesus Himself -- are common people of the lowest social order, and the strict separation of styles forbids that anything tragic or momentous or of world-historical importance should be portrayed as involving them in any essential way.  As Auerbach rather nicely puts it, "viewed superficially the thing is a police action and its consequences;  it takes place entirely among everyday men and women of the common people;  anything of the sort would be thought in antique terms only as farce or comedy."  And yet, Peter's situation is of the most profound  significance possible.  What is more, this is the man on whom Jesus has chosen to found His church.  This is St. Peter, the first Pope, the man from whom flowed an institution that transformed first the Roman Empire and then all of the Western world.

There is much, much more in Auerbach's analysis of the passage that I simply do not have the space or the energy to capture.  But the central idea I want to leave you with is this:  The thoroughly modern sociological/historical idea of deep-moving long-running social, economic, and political movements that transform a society -- the idea on which Marx's theories are built, and that finds expression as well in the writings of every great modern social theorist -- find their first primitive powerful expression in these New Testament passages.  Originally, the transformations are metaphysical or theological, and are imposed from outside the social order by God -- the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection.  But the violation of the principle of the Separation of Styles, the presentation of subterranean movements among the common people that will eventually burst forth into world-historical significance, the literary and conceptual possibility of a thoroughly secular deployment of these same ideas in the works of Marx and others -- all of this is prefigured in the New Testament two thousand years ago.

Well, that, I think, is enough to pique your interest in Auerbach.  And that, after all, is the task of an Appreciation.

Friday, January 13, 2012

ERICH AUERBACH MIMESIS: AN APPRECIATION PART THREE

Auerbach invites us to contrast this with the terrifying story of God's commandment to sacrifice Isaac.  The previous Chapter, Genesis 21, tells the story of the miracle by which the seventy-year old Sarah conceives, and bears Abraham a son, Isaac.  This is not simply some story of domestic happiness.  It is through Isaac that God will fulfill his promise to Abraham to make him to be fruitful and to multiply.  Isaac is to be the son who founds a nation.
Genesis 22 begins abruptly and ominously. 
What on earth are we to make of this passage?  Absolutely nothing in the preceding has prepared us for it.  Auerbach's gloss is worth quoting at length [as is everything else in the book, alas.]  "Even this opening startles us when we come to it from Homer.  Where are the two speakers?  We are not told.  The reader, however, knows that they are not normally to be found together in one place on earth, that one of them, God, in order to speak to Abraham, must come from somewhere, must enter the earthly realm from unknown heights or depths.  Whence does he come, whence does he call to Abraham?  We are not told.  He does not come, like Zeus or Poseidon, from the Aethopians, where he has been enjoying a sacrificial feast.  Nor are we told anything of his reasons for tempting Abraham so terribly."  Note, the temptation is that Abraham, out of love for his only son, through whom the divine promise of multitudes will be fulfilled, might fail to obey God's command.  As Auerbach says at the conclusion of the paragraph from which I have been quoting, "The concept of God held by the Jews is less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things."

Like God, Abraham's position, his location, is unspecified.  Is he indoors, out of doors, alone, surrounded by his tribe?  It seems not to matter.  Nor are we given any details at all of the three day journey that brings him and his son to the place of sacrifice.  Both God and Abraham are multi-dimensional.  There is a foreground, what is presented in the story, and there are depths and complexities that cannot possibly be contained within any single account.  God, of course, is a transcendent figure only a part of which can ever be presented to man.  But Abraham too is more than merely a man with a son whom he loves.  Abraham is a prophet, the father of nations.  He plays a role in a metaphysical story that stretches from Creation to the End of Times. 

As Auerbach says, "the relation of the Elohist to the truth of his story remains a far more passionate and definite one than is Homer's relation.... The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical -- it excludes all other claims.  The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historical true reality -- it insists that it is the only true world, is destined for autocracy.... The Scripture stories do not, like Homer's, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us -- they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels."

There is much, much more in Auerbach's analysis of these two passages in his opening chapter, but this is enough, I hope, to convey some sense of the richness and power of his treatment of them.  Consider just the last point I quoted him as making.  Any fair minded reader, I think, must agree that Homer's work is far better crafted, as a literary work of art, than the rather abrupt, jumbled together, barely sketched in narratives of Genesis.  There are, to be sure, later Books of the Old Testament that achieve a higher level of literary art -- one thinks of Psalms, or The Book of Job, among others.  But the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, of Noah and his three sons, of the Tower of Babel, of Jacob and Esau [or of Cain and Abel] have the power to terrify us, to seize us by the scruff of the neck and shake us until we tremble, that nothing in Homer can match.

The key to Auerbach's analysis, he tells us in many different ways, is the relationship between the totally different conceptions of the structure of reality that underlie the two passages, and the language with which Homer and the Elohist tell their stories.  What is not said in the Genesis story is as significant as what is said in the Odyssey. 

As Auerbach proceeds, slowly and with enormous patience, through the entire sweep of the development of Western literature, we see the literary resources crafted by the writers of one era being carried forward and deployed in ever more complex fashion until, by the time he has reached the familiar terrain of the Nineteenth Century novel, we have some appreciation of how much lies beneath the surface in the novels of Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust [the last chapter.]

Tomorrow I shall turn to Chapter Two of Mimesis, in which Auerbach contrasts two passages from First Century A.D. Rome -- one by the comic author Petronius, the other by the great Roman historian Tacitus -- with a passage from the Gospels written at roughly the same time.  Once I have completed my account of what unfolds in that chapter, I shall leave off this hopeless task of trying to convey the many dimensions of Auerbach's great work, and leave it to you to explore the rest of it on your own.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

ERICH AUERBACH MIMESIS: AN APPRECIATION PART TWO

I shall begin with the first chapter of the book, in which we encounter many of the themes and insights that characterize Auerbach's work.  For the opening chapter, Auerbach chooses two very ancient texts, the first from the 8th century B.C., the other from the 6th century B.C.  The first text is the famous "recognition" scene from the Odyssey.  As you will recall [at least, I hope you will recall],  at the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus sets out with his followers to return to Ithaca and his wife and son, but for one reason and another, it takes him ten years to complete the journey.  He is presumed dead, and a number of suitors are vying for the hand of his widow, Penelope, and for Odysseus' wealth and position.  Odysseus shows up at his home disguised as a wanderer, and is put in charge of a servant who was, when he was young, his nurse.  She washes his feet and in a dramatic moment recognizes a scar on his leg as that of her old master, Odysseus.  Odysseus warns her to remain silent about her discovery for the moment so that he can study the interactions between his wife and the band of importunate suitors.
This passage is paired by Auerbach with an equally famous passage from Genesis 22:1 in which God speaks to Abraham and commands him to make a sacrifice of his only begotten son, Isaac.  [By the way, Kierkegaard has written an wonderful entire book about this story, but that is another matter.]  Abraham obeys, and sets out to the place of sacrifice with Isaac, but at the last moment, as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, he sees a ram caught in the bushes, and substitutes it for his son.
These are equally dramatic passages, but they are treated linguistically by their authors, Auerbach argues, in utterly different ways that reveal to us the completely different conceptions of reality of the Homeric Greeks and the Old Testament Hebrews.  It is very, very difficult to capture the subtlety and richness of Auerbach's discussion without resorting to endless lengthy quotes.  The central points of his analysis of the Homeric passage, as I understand him, are these:
The scene "is scrupulously externalized and narrated in leisurely fashion... Clearly outlined, brightly and uniformly illuminated, men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible."  One of the key notions here is expressed by the word "externalized."  We are these days [after the literary evolution that Mimesis is designed to explicate] accustomed to distinctions between the inner and outer, the visible and the hidden.  The motivations of a character -- her hopes, desires, fears, beliefs, anticipations, understandings and misunderstandings -- may all be communicated by hints and nods, with revealing turns of phrase, as much by what is not  said on the page as what is.  But all of this is foreign to Homer.  As Auerbach notes, even as Achilles and Hector fight to the death, they utter speeches that express their inner feelings.  The key to the Recognition scene, the "McGuffin" as stage buffs would call it, is the old scar on Odysseus' leg.  Once the maid, Euryclea, spots it, she knows that the stranger is her old master.  A modern author would not want to slow down the action, or release the tension, by devoting line after line to an explanation of the origin of the scar.  Either the modern author would prepare the way for the Recognition by inserting an account of the scar earlier in the text, so that the reader understands its significance instantaneously, or else such an author would leave the scar unexplained, relying on the reader to fill in the blanks.  But Homer, Auerbach notes, enters into a complete and unhurried account of the hunting expedition on which Odysseus acquired the scar.  The effect, deliberate, Auerbach is sure, is to drain the moment of its tension.  In a Homeric text, all is on the surface, all is fully realized, all is externalized.

A LION IN THE CAPITOL [SHAKESPEARE, JULIUS CAESAR ACT I SCENE 3]

One of the standard literary tropes for conveying a breach in the social order is a violation of the natural order -- a lion walking in the Capitol, in Julius Caesar, for example.  We are now witnessing a breach of the social order so violent, so unexpected, so incomprehensible that I fully expect to encounter lions lying down with lambs and peaches dropping from fig trees.  Deeply conservative Republicans have started attacking venture capitalism as Vulture Capitalism, taking large ad buys to tell piteous stories of ordinary men and women who lost their jobs as a consequence of the wealth-amassing actions of predatory investors.  I feel that to capitalize on this development, I must rush back into print my books on the thought of Karl Marx.  Surely, Lady Gaga will soon record The Internationale and The Wall Street Journal will launch a serialization of The Communist Manifesto.  If I had not tarnished my brand by announcing myself an anarchist as well as a Marxist, I could expect momentarily to be tapped for guest appearances on Fox News.

It is all very well to reply calmly that just as soon as the Republicans anoint Romney as their standard-bearer, they will cease this madness and return to celebrating "the free enterprise system," but as Dan Ackroyd can testify, it is not so easy to stuff the Pillsbury Doughboy back in his can once you have released him. 

I am going to resist the temptation to pontificate about these developments.  Maybe this is an unanticipated consequence of the Occupy Wall Street Movement;  perhaps the zeitgeist has finally aligned itself with the stars.  However that may be, the only thing to do in the short run is to relax and enjoy it.  You may not see its like again in your lifetime.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

ERICH AUERBACH MIMESIS: AN APPRECIATION PART ONE

Erich Auerbach (1892-1957) was a German Jew trained in the German philological tradition.  Forced to flee Germany, he spent the war years in Istanbul, where he wrote his greatest work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.  After the war, Auerbach came to the United States, where, from 1950 to his death, he was a professor at Yale.
Mimesis is a series of twenty chapters, organized chronologically, each of which is a separate essay, capable of standing alone.  Each essay begins with an extended passage [in the original followed by a translation] from a work of the Judeo-Christian Graeco-Roman literary tradition, which Auerbach then subjects to an intense linguistic, literary, and philosophical analysis.  The only exception to this pattern is in the earliest chapters, in which neither the Greek of the Odyssey, nor the Hebrew of the Old Testament nor the Aramaic of the New Testament is reproduced. In many, but not all, of the chapters, the initial passage is paired with a contrasting passage from the same period drawn from a very different literary/philological style.
The greatness of Mimesis is in the extraordinary detail of the several analyses, but there are certain overarching themes that it is good to be aware of as one reads through the book.  The first, and most important, theme is the connection between the purely syntactic linguistic resources of the language being used by the author of the passage under examination and the nature of social reality that the author seeks to capture and communicate.  Thus, for example, the extremely limited syntactic resources on which the author of the 12th century Chanson de Roland is able to draw results in [or perhaps, is paralleled by] the very blunt, un-nuanced representation of the motivation of Roland and the other characters of the Chanson.  [Although the text is 12th century, and reflects the Chivalric ideals of the time, it refers, of course, to events that took place much earlier.]  Two centuries later, when Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, he had available to him in early Italian extraordinarily rich syntactic devices that permitted him to capture the motivations and perceptions of a number of characters from different and even incompatible perspectives, all within the same sentences.  When I speak of "syntactic devices," I mean such things as subordinate clauses, if-then constructions, manipulations of tense to capture complex temporal relations, and so forth.
This general idea of the relation between linguistic structures and conceptions of social reality is central to the first chapter of my little book, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, and I think it is fair to say that I was drawing heavily on what I learned from Auerbach when I wrote it, for all that I do not explicitly credit him.  Drawing on the English Metaphysical Poets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries for inspiration, I argued that the rich use of irony and metaphor that distinguishes the early chapters of Capital were Marx's way of capturing the mystifications of social reality embodied in commodity production.  The idea was that since Marx believed that social reality is genuinely mystified, even for theorists like himself who have intellectually penetrated that mystification, he needed a language that could at one and the same time convey the persuasiveness of the social surfaces -- of equal exchange in a free market, of workers as legally free partners in a wage bargain with capitalists -- and yet also capture the underlying reality of exploitation and the crippling distortion of the humanity of the workers.  His highly inflected metaphors and endless literary references were not extraneous aesthetic embellishments of a story equally well capable of being told in plain English or German, but in fact the necessary literary devices for capturing the complex social reality.
A second theme that plays an important role, in the early chapters especially, is the distinction between high and low literary styles, paralleling the social distinctions of the milieu being represented.  All of us are familiar with this distinction from Shakespeare's plays, in which a scene of the most intense seriousness, involving well-born characters, is followed by a scene of comic buffoonery involving peasants or servants or common soldiers.  Auerbach demonstrates quite dramatically that one of the most powerful and revolutionary features of the texts of the New Testament is a mixture of high and low styles that would have been impossible either in the classical Greek literature or in the Roman literature of the first several centuries of this era.
In this Appreciation, it goes without saying that I shall not attempt to summarize, or even make reference to, all or most of the twenty essays.  Rather, I shall focus on several, drawn principally from earliest portion of the book, to convey something of the complexity and penetration of Auerbach's discussion.  As always, my goal is to entice you to seek out the book for yourselves.

BRIEF REPLIES TO COMMENTS

First things first.  Thank you all for your good wishes for my speedy recovery.  I think I have turned the corner, and later today I am going to try to launch the Mimesis Appreciation.

GT, I will certainly have a go at explaining my anarchism.  To be perfectly honest, that has not been at the center of my thoughts for half a century, but if Google is to be believed, it is, more than anything else, what I am known for, insofar as I am known at all.  Perhaps after I finish the Auerbach, I will tackle your questions.

I just bought, through Amazon.com, a comfortable plush backrest, so I have been sitting propped up in bed watching the chaos of the Republican primary contest.  Needless to say, life does not offer many idle pleasures quite like listening to Rick Perry condemning Mitt Romney for Vulture Capitalism.  One needs the talents of a Jonathan Swift married to the ideological sensibility of a Karl Marx to strike the right tone.

Monday, January 9, 2012

MAJOR SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY, FIRST ANNOUNCED HERE

When you are seventy-eight, it takes you longer to get over being sick.  Who knew?

When my natural animal spirits return, I think I shall start an Appreciation of Erich Auerbach;s great work, Mimesis

Thursday, January 5, 2012

FLATTENED

Forgive the lack of blog posts.  I have been battling a debilitating flu since returning from Paris two weeks ago.  It seems that when you are seventy-eight, you do not throw these things off as easily as when you are twenty-eight.  Who knew?

Monday, January 2, 2012

MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY

I have combined all the chapters of the three volumes of my Autobiography in a single file, which I am now slowly proof-reading and correcting.  This will take a while -- the bloody thing is eight hundred pages long -- but when I am finally finished, I shall post the entire file on box.net, so that anyone interested in it need not download a chapter at a time.

Meanwhile, I must get ready for a conference in Seattle at which I shall be speaking next week.  The conference is the third A. A. Berle Center conference, located in the law school of Seattle University, a Catholic university in Seattle.  Most of the twenty speakers are professors of law, and the theme of the conference -- hardly surprising considering the Berle connection -- is The Theory of the Firm.  Professor Charles O'Kelley, the Director of the Center, invited me to present my paper, "The Future of Socialism."  I shall be very interested to see what sort of reception it gets.  It will be a nice opportunity for Susie to see her son, Jon, his wife, and their two sons.  Jon helps to run an organization called The Children's Alliance that has for some years now been doing very effective advocacy work on behalf of children's needs and interests.  He also sits on the board of the local newspaper of Seattle's homeless.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

NEW YEAR'S DAY MUSINGS

I am not a great fan of New Year's Eves.  It is many years since I actually stayed awake long enough to welcome a new year in.  And the rare resolutions I do make, principally having to do with my weight, never coincide with a turnover in the calendar.  Indeed, as I explained in the first Chapter of Volume One of my Autobiography, a lifetime in the Academy has so shaped my perception of time that I understand the year to run from September to September, rather than from December to December.  Nevertheless, now that the maintenance of a blog is my principal occupation, I consider myself to have some responsibility to look back from January 1st and see whether I can identify anything in the past twelve months that is cause for hope,
For some time now, I have been taking a dour view of the prospects for social justice.  My paper, "The Future of Socialism," despite its cheery title, is in fact a rather bleak assessment of my lifelong hopes for a socialist world.  Like Herbert Marcuse in the Preface to One-Dimensional Man, I believe that useful social critique must arise out of actual progressive developments on the ground, and their absence in the past thirty or forty years has condemned me, Like Marcuse, to abstract intellectual analyses.
And yet, and yet -- there are developments in the past twelve months that suggest the possibility [I emphasize the possibility] of a rebirth of genuine progressive energies.  I have in mind first the eruption of massive progressive protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere to the truly appalling efforts by newly elected Republican governors to kill what little remains of collective bargaining rights and basic democratic voting protections.  There have been several dramatic victories -- the recall of two Republican state senators, the repeal of a newly enacted law.  More important than the content of these victories has been the discovery by hundreds of thousands of progressive Americans that they are not alone, and that by joining forces, they can alter the nation, however marginally.
But far more important still is the sudden, unexpected eruption of the Occupy movement.  This has the potential of being the most important political event in America of the past half century.  What makes the Occupy movement so powerful is precisely its lack of specific, identifiable legislative or administrative goals.  Unlike the protests in Wisconsin and Ohio,  unlike the anti-war movement of the late 60's and early 70's, unlike the movements for Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation, indeed even unlike the great Civil Rights Movement itself, the Occupy movement takes as its target a deep structural evil in American economy and society so fundamental that there is no plausible Congressional legislation that could address it successfully.  This is, I repeat, its strength, not its weakness.  The Occupy movement cannot be co-opted because to change the distribution of wealth and income in America would require nothing less than a socio-economic revolution.
It is easy for me to imagine a positive outcome of the Wisconsin and Ohio protests -- the recall of Governor Walker, the recapture of the State Legislatures.  But I cannot even imagine a believable positive outcome of the Occupy movement, short of a gut-wrenching change in the way the American economy is organized.  I have no idea at all whether the Occupy protestors understand this, and it is certainly way too soon to imagine the protests morphing into a political movement with identifiable goals.  But with a brilliant intuitive grasp of the underlying reality, the Occupiers resist either laying down a list of demands or allowing themselves to be recruited into a political campaign.
When one conjoins to these promising harbingers the extraordinary eruption of the Arab Spring across Northern Africa and into the Near and Middle East, it does seem that the calendar year 2011 gave us the first hope in a very long time of fundamental changes in world politics.  I think that ought to be enough to justify a sliver of optimism

A SAD END

In the end, there was nothing to be done.  It turned out that little Christmas Eve had a large, cancerous, inoperable tumor in her abdomen that had already spread to her lymph nodes.  On Friday, Susie and I spent some time with her, stroking her and talking to her, and then we took her to the vet, where very quickly and painlessly, as we stood there, she was put to sleep.

These past two days, when we return to our apartment, it seems barren and lonely.  It is not a large apartment -- 1500 square feet, more or less -- but she was, at her best, only ten pounds, and she took up very little space.  Indeed, truth to tell, we sometimes had to go searching for her to find where she had settled down -- under the bed, under a chest, in a closet, on a chair.

It is much too soon to think about getting another cat.  She was found up a tree in Amherst, Massachusetts, on Christmas Eve, seventeen years ago [hence the name].  We offered to look after her for the weekend, and she never left.

I understand that it is odd for two mature, sophisticated adults to lavish so much emotion on a little black and brown long-haired cat, but there it is.  We shall miss her greatly.