Thursday, April 04, 2013

"Che": A Movie Review.

March 5, 2013 at 1:15 P.M. Alterations in spacing between paragraphs and other "errors" inserted overnight will now be corrected. Things must be getting difficult for Mr. Menendez. ("Menendez Consorts With Underage Prostitutes" and "Menendez Must Give Up the Gavel.") 

March 4, 2013 at 1:21 P.M. Hackers prevented me from making revisions of this text as part of the censorship effort from New Jersey's Right-wing Cuban-Americans. I will re-post the text in order to edit my work.

April 9, 2010 at 10:05 P.M. A letter was removed from a word in this essay that had been left alone for a while. I invite the reader to draw his or her own conclusions concerning the people doing these things and the state making their cybercrimes possible. ("Law and Ethics in the Soprano State.")

March 31, 2010 at 2:39 P.M. This essay has been reposted against an onslaught of cybercrime and harassments. I will do my best to keep up with "errors" inserted in the text by Cuban-American hackers from New Jersey and Florida. ("Miami's Cubanoids Protest AGAINST Peace!" and "Cubanazos Pose a Threat to National Security.")

Benicio del Toro, mysteriously, has not been recognized by the Golden Globes or Oscar nominations, so far. "Denials of earned recognition ..." Mr. del Toro is the winner of the Cannes Film Festival award for "Best Actor" and Spain's Goya award, also as "Best Actor," in Che.

Attacks on this essay and on all of my writings will be constant. Access to MSN is still obstructed as of 5:15 P.M. on February 27, 2009. Despite the success of my first book, approaching 7,000 hits (possibly, much more when these words are posted), my second book will not be sent to book sellers, even at my own expense.

I cannot post images at my sites, intrusions, viruses, obstructions are designed to frustrate my writing efforts. All of this takes place in a society ostensibly committed to freedom of speech and privacy for every person in the country and throughout the world. My requests for the truth concerning the tortures (including rapes) to which I have been subjected are ignored. Please see: http://www.FreePress.net and http://www.mediareform.org

How can persons in other countries believe that the United States of America is truly devoted to the cause of political freedom and expression for everyone when American dissidents are tortured and silenced, publicly, on a daily basis? ("Legal Ethics Today" and "Is America's Legal Ethics a Lie?")

I. "Che was the most complete human being of our age." (Jean-Paul Sartre)

I planned to see a new film based on the life of "Che" Guevara. Unfortunately, I may not be able to see the movie at this time. I expect that the film -- or an edited version of it -- will receive a wider circulation sometime in the Spring of 2009. I hope to see it then -- if not in a theater, then certainly in a DVD version, eventually.

Being unable to see this movie has fostered an interest in the life and writings of Che Guevara. I have decided to read Guevara's essays along with some biographical material. I will then write a commentary examining Guevara's mind and achievements. I have studied Guevara's work over the years. I plan to do so more seriously in the future.

After writing the foregoing paragraph, I did see the movie starring Benicio del Torro. I think it is a good movie with an epic quality, a film worthy of David Lean, which should have received greater recognition in the U.S. The cameos in Che are worth the cost of the DVD. An especially unexpected surprise was (I believe) Franka Potente (?) as "Tanya." Also, Matt Damon speaking flawless Spanish is not to be missed.

I thought it was the best cinematic treatment of Guevara's life and the events of the Cuban Revolution. Benicio del Toro was compelling and effective in the title role, whatever one may think of the person and events that inspired the film.

This is a movie about political romanticism and ideals, struggle and tragedy. The film suggests that meaning is essential to any life-project, which then requires each person to define commitments for which he or she will make the ultimate sacrifice. Che's final victory may have been the orchestration of his own death in such a manner as to advance his cause through the transformation of his life into a symbol for the world.

For me, aside from family loyalties and loves, there is the principle of human dignity and rights, including rights of expression, that are worth dying for -- because without those rights, we become something less than human. I will continue to write despite anticipated efforts to destroy these writings.

Fascism is always offended by intelligence and artistic beauty, even more by the independence of any individual's conscience in the continuing global struggle for social justice. I can respect a person's courage and sincerity without necessarily agreeing with his politics or opinions. Why not offer me -- and all others -- the same respect? ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

I will make it a point to seek out materials pertaining to the life and work of this man, whose ambiguous legacy inspires such continuous hostility from the same people, I believe, who are censoring and threatening me. I never met Guevara. I am not a Communist. However, I have "experienced" (there is no other word for it) harassment from the sort of persons who routinely demonize Guevara. At his worst, there is no way that "Che" could be as stupid or evil as these Cubanazos, whether Miami-based or Jersey tomatos.

I am a democratic socialist. Accordingly, this commentary is from the left of the political spectrum. I prefer the company of any opponent of the fascist "normality" that a strand of mainstream American culture crams down the throats of so-called "weirdos." I shudder to think of the progroms and concentration camps that would immediately emerge if these rabid and anti-intellectual Cubanoids were ever given political power anywhere. I am mortified at the thought that they have, in fact, been given (or stolen) political power in parts of the United States of America, like New Jersey or Florida.

My problem with many Cuban-Americans, whose politics happens to be different from mine, is that they seem not to understand the idea of toleration and rights to disagree. I am just as insistent on their freedom of expression to disagree with me, publicly, as I am to express my opinions. The essence of democracy is the right to disagree.

My feeling in reading about and studying the life of "Che" Guevara is that, as a devoted revolutionary who sought to change the world -- more than most, Guevara succeeded in the effort to do just that -- "Che" also felt the pull of ideas and was drawn to philosophy as an essential component of his revolutionary efforts.

Guevara read Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and many other philosophers, engaging in dialogues with Sartre and many leading intellectuals of the twentieth century.

I place the word "Che" in quotation marks because it is a nickname, a "Cubanism," based on affection for an Argentinian hero in the Cuban national pantheon. "Che" (the word means "what?" in Argentinian Spanish) is also used as a trivializing diminutive by the same bourgeois elements that seek to denigrate all progressive movements as childish or unrealistic, "unmanly" and "naive" -- these terms are applied to Guevara -- who would have laughed at them. ("Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me'" and "Roberto Unger's Revolutionary Legal Theory.")

"Che" is transformed into a patronizing epithet in some quarters. Hobbesian fascists are always suspicious of ideals or values that seek to elevate humanity. Right-wingers see human beings as beyond redemption, fallen, so that social meliorism is a waste of time.

An "error" was inserted in the previous sentence which is not found in earlier versions of this essay. I believe (along with Secretary Clinton and President Obama) that "we can always make things better." A British concern with decorum, for instance, is seen in this summary:

" ... properly [emphasis added] Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967). Argentinian Communist revolutionary leader. He graduated in medicine at the university of Buenos Aires (1953), then joined Fidel Castro's revolutionary movement in Mexico (1955), then played an important part in the Cuban revolution (1956-1959)" -- and beyond, as a symbol? -- "and afterwards held government posts under Castro."

Chambers Dictionary of Philosophy (Edinburgh: Chambers-Harrap, 1990), p. 637.

A t-shirt with the image of Guevara morphed into a "Planet of the Apes" creature is worn by some Cuban-Americans. "Che" as a term of affection is great; "Che" as an insult for a fallen fighter is unnecessary, whatever one may think of Guevara's politics and life. Save the insults for the living. Have the decency to deliver them face-to-face.

After twenty years of behind-the-back attacks against me, I am beginning to understand what Guevara must have felt. As I write these words, noise fills the room where I find myself struggling.

"The philosophers have only understood the world," Marx sighed, "the point however is to change it."

"Che" is among the first generation of revolutionary philosophers who appreciated that understandings of the world are also transformations of reality for billions of powerless people. This is especially true in a symbolic order and system of meanings that has become dynamic and fluid in ways unsuspected, even in "Che's" lifetime.

Malcolm X came to the same realization of his own global responsibility for persons of color in a world that deprives billions of people -- people, like me, who are silenced -- of meaningful self-images.

To be a "revolutionary" is a calling and responsibility that some persons cannot avoid, much as they would like to avoid that fate. Angela Davis and Assata Shakur fall into this category of persons called by history to play a role in political events. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and "Aaron Schwartz, Freedom, and American Law.")

There is no question that Guevara was at least twenty years ahead of everybody, except for a handful of thinkers during the fifties and sixties -- including Castro and Malcolm, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy -- in appreciating media not only as a weapon in political revolutions, but as the locus of political struggle and "meaning" for the future.

Our battle today for freedom must take place in a realm of images and meanings. Hence, Fidel's latest comments concerning the importance of ideas to the future of revolutionary struggle and prescient warnings about a possible nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea.

What real artists must do in postmodernist cultures is to bring about "revolutions in consciousness." This will remain true whatever you think of Fidel Castro. ("The 'Matrix': A Movie Review" and see Picasso's "Guernica.")

"Subjects of knowledge are embodied and practically engaged with the world, and the products of their thought bear ineradicable traces of their purposes and projects, passions and interests. In short, the epistemological and moral subject has been definitively decentered and the conception of reason linked to it irrevocably desublimated. Subjectivity and intentionality are not prior to, but a function of, forms of life and systems of language; they do not 'constitute' the world but are themselves elements of a linguistically disclosed world. [cinema?] ..."

Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. ix (Thomas McCarthy's "Introduction.")

May we refer to the dance of image and reality, Being and ideas as a "dialectic"? I believe that the term "dialectic" describes many realities today, including my writings at these blogs.

Guevara once said to Fidel that their friendship and discussion was a "dialectic."

There are many kinds of dialectic, including the "discussions" in which we find ourselves placed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The persons inserting "errors" in these writings have made it very clear that the language of civilized discourse is not one that they speak. These N.J. goons are "suicide bombers" and terrorists of the Internet. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and "What is it like to be censored in America?")

I welcome a "dialectic" with my Cuban counterparts that is respectful of equality and human dignity. If only New Jersey were capable of such a dialectic, so much human suffering could be avoided: Claire Heinrich & Lisa Fleischer, "$29.4 BILLION Budget Deal is Reached: Lawmakers Ease Blow to Poor and Disabled," in The Record, June 22, 2010, at p. A-1. (As a result of decades of massive theft of public money and other corruptions, poor and disabled residents of New Jersey will suffer more than all other sectors of society from essential budget cuts. This claim is more true today than ever before.)

Today's guerrilla fighter lives in the underbrush of televisual imagery and cinematic forms, Internet discussions and imagery -- hence, movies become a common discourse or language of politics and law, justice and interpersonal relations for the people who then become what Mao called: "the ocean in which revolutionary fish must swim":

"We have predicted that the war will be continental." Guevara writes: "This means that it will be protracted; it will have many fronts. ... It does not matter, so far as the final result is concerned, whether one or another movement is temporarily defeated. What is certain is the determination to struggle which ripens day by day, the consciousness of the necessity for revolutionary change, the certainty that it is possible."

"Che" concludes:

"This is a prediction. We make it with the conviction that history will prove us right. An analysis of the subjective and objective factors in America and in the imperialist world points to us the accuracy of these assertions based on the Second Declaration of Havana."

Guerilla Warfare: A Manual, pp. 90-91. ("The Arab Spring?")

Again:

"We socialists are freer because we are more complete; we are more complete because we are freer."

"Che" laughingly says, again, "this is called dialectics." Then,

"We will forge ourselves in daily action, [including aesthetic and political creativity,] creating a new man [and woman] with new technology."

Man and Socialism, p. 138.

It is because ideas, images, poetry and politics are properly feared that persons (like me) must be silenced or destroyed.

This concern with culture and humanistic Marxism, the power of ideas to shape and reflect material economic conditions -- which Guevara already perceived as increasingly fluid -- also expressed itself in his concern with the early idealistic Marx's logic in "The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844." (See Guevara's Biographical Introduction to Marx and Engels, p. 24.)

II. "Our freedom and its daily maintenance are paid for in blood and sacrifice." ("Che")

Guevara's response to the "Cubanazos" is found in a quotation from Marx reacting to the criticisms of his alleged lack of concern with money.

In an interview with Richard Goodwin, the U.S. special envoy for Latin America who finagled a box of excellent Cuban cigars from "Che" (at a time when they were prohibited under the embargo!), Guevara laughed, again, as he took the initiative by sitting on the floor, smoking "Romeo y Julietas" and "Montecristos" at the Plaza Hotel, I believe. Mr. Goodwin found it difficult to do the same in his expensive business suit from Brooks Brothers.

"Revolutionaries are more comfortable than imperialists." Che should have said to Goodwin, who kept the box of cigars (mysteriously emptied) in his living room in New York, refusing to think of himself as an "imperialist."

"If one chose to be an ox, one could of course turn one's back on the sufferings of mankind and look after one's own skin." Karl Marx said: "But I should really have regarded myself as 'impractical' if I had pegged out without completely finishing my book, at least in manuscript."

A Biographical Introduction to Marx and Engels, p. 46.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were always in debt up to their eyeballs. They were uninterested and oblivious as to how the next set of bills would be paid. Jefferson was unable to free his slaves not for lack of will, but because they provided the only security for creditors always threaning to take everything Jefferson owned, including Monticello. Jefferson's "slaves" may have been among his creditors and were certainly among his family members.

"Che's" struggle was to establish a new intellectual and political identity for Latin America, walking a high wire between U.S. power and the Communist block. It is the same struggle faced today by African intellectuals and Asians caught between China's new superpower status, India, and the West. The goal was always social justice, self-determination, socialism, and assertions of dignity for peasant populations and disenfrachised workers.

The U.S. decision to oppose this people's struggle -- while understandable as a reaction to nationalization of assets of U.S. nationals and corporations as well as human rights abuses following the revolution for which "Che" personally bears some blame -- was a great mistake.

The issues dividing Cuba and the U.S. were and ARE resolvable. Soviet influence could have been kept out of the new world with creative diplomacy and mutual understanding. We missed an opportunity. Let us not repeat the mistake today. ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

As a Palestinian in exile, Edward Said comments upon the revolutionary intellectual's challenge:

" ... the meaning of an effective intervention [in the public realm] has to rest on the intellectual's unbudgeable conviction in a concept of justice and fairness that allows for differences between nations and individuals, without at the same time assigning them to hidden hierarchies, preferences, evaluations. Everyone today professes a liberal language of equality and harmony for all. The problem for the intellectual is to bring these notions to bear on the actual situations where the gap between the profession of equality and justice, on the one hand, and the rather less edifying reality, on the other, is very great."

"Speaking Truth to Power," in Representations of the Intellectual, p. 94.

Fidel Castro's final assessment of "Che" Guevara -- Castro is rumored by "Cubanoids" to have betrayed "Che" to the CIA -- is filled with what is, clearly, genuine respect and affection:

"It is not easy to find a person with all the virtues that were combined in him. It is not easy for a person, spontaneously, to develop a personality like his. I would say that he is one of those men who are difficult to match and virtually impossible to surpass. But I would say that the example of men like him contributes to the appearance of men [and women] of the same caliber."

Castro, in "Che," p. 5. (See below.)

At the intersection of aesthetics, politics and religion is where Guevara found his interpretation of Marxism, as Critical Theory, providing a foundation for the romantic reinventing of the world by young revolutionaries everywhere. Many are taking up this challenge today in India:

"With this aesthetic utopia, which remained a point of orientation for Hegel and Marx, as well as for the Hegelian Marxist tradition down to Lukacs and Marcuse, Schiller conceived of art as the genuine embodiment of communicative reason. ["'The Reader': A Movie Review."] Of course, Kant's Critique of Judgment also provided an entry for a speculative Idealism that could not rest content with the Kantian differentiations between understanding and sense, freedom and necessity, mind and nature, because it perceived in precisely these distinctions the expression of dichotomies inherent in modern life-conditions. [Schiller] held on to the restricted significance of aesthetic judgment in order to make use of it for a philosophy of history. He thereby tacitly mixed the Kantian with the traditional concept of judgment, which in the Aristotelean [Thomistic] tradition (down to Hannah Arendt) never completely lost its connection with the political concept of common sense. So [Schiller] could conceive of art as primarily a form of communication and assign to it the task of bringing about harmony in society. ..."

Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. 48. (Schiller influenced Marx in his humanistic-aesthetic-idealistic stage.)

The sense of a "beautiful" quality in a life lived for others, for future generations enjoying greater freedom and peace, is "Che's" life-long motivation. Like Dr. King, "Che" arrived at a sense of transcendence -- achievement of what Hegel called, "a beautiful soul" -- that allowed him to see beyond his own death:

"Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear, and another hand reaches out to take our arms, and other men come forward to join in our funeral dirge with the chattering of machine guns and new calls for battle and for victory."

Che Guevara Speaks, p. 159. ("Would Jesus be a Christian?")

I am deeply saddened to discover new vandalisms of this essay and others as men and women in uniform continue to sacrifice their lives to protect our increasingly non-existent Constitutional freedoms. I will do my best to make all necessary corrections quickly after each deformation of the text. Spacing of the works listed below has also been affected. The names of some scholars have been altered as insults or threats.

Primary Sources: Writings by Guevara.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Marx & Engels: A Biographical Introduction (New York: London Press, 2008), entirety. http://www.oceanbooks.com.au/

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Our America and Theirs: Kennedy and The Alliance For Progress -- The Debate at Punta De Este (New York: Ocean Press, 2006), especially "Economics Cannot be Separated From Politics." http://www.oceanbooks.com.au/ ("Democracy is not compatible with financial oligarchy.")

Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Che Guevara Speaks (London & New York: Pathfinder, 1967), entirety. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, El Socialismo y el Hombre Nuevo (Madrid: Siglo Veintiuno, 1977), pp. 3-27.

Anthony Lane, "Che's Way," The New Yorker, January 19, 2009, p. 72. (The actual subheading of this "review" is "Scenes From a Revolution.") No fashion tips for well-dressed revolutionaries?

Fidel Castro, "Che Guevara," John Miller & Aaron Kennedi, eds., Revolution: Faces of Change (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000), pp. 3-7.

Supplemental Sources: Scholarship and Commentary.

Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage, 1996), entirety.

Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Random House, 1994), pp. 62-97 ("Narrative and Social Space" and "Jane Austen and Empire.")

Angela Davis, Autobiography (New York: International Publishers, 1974), entirety.

Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture (New York: Seven Stories, 2005), entirety. (The name of "Angela Davis" has been altered in a number of essays.)

Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), entirety, esp. pp. 45-50 ("Excursus on Schiller's 'Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.'")

Rick Roderick, Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), pp. 73-87.

Magnus Magnusson, ed., Chambers Biographical Dictionary (Edinburgh: Chambers-Harrap, 1990), p. 637.

Periodicals:

William Neuman, "Chavez Dies at 58 With Venezuela in Deep Turmoil," in The New York Times, March 6, 2013, at p. A1. (U.S. caught off guard in terms of the reaction to the death of President Chavez.)

William Neuman & Ginger Thompson, "A Leader's Cry In Venezuela: 'I am Chavez' -- U.S. Looking for Clues on Policy Position," in The New York Times, March 7, 2013, at p. A1. ("Aaron Schwartz, Freedom, and American Law." "Ginger Thompson" is a name used by the same persons using the byline "Manohla Dargis." "Menendez Consorts With Underage Prostitutes" and "Does Senator Menendez have mafia friends?")

Luiz Lula da Silva, "Latin America After Chavez," (Op-Ed) in The New York Times, March 7, 2013, at p. A27. (Op-Ed piece -- partly written by Fidel Castro, I believe -- expressing world opinion concerning Mr. Chavez.)

"Hugo Chavez," (Editorial) in The New York Times, March 7, 2013, at p. A26. ("Cubanazo" opinion concerning Chavez, probably written by Menendez and Rubio.)

Scott Shane, "C.I.A.'s History Poses a Hurdle for a Nominee," in The New York Times, March 7, 2013, at p. A1. (Torture, drone killings, targeted assassination without due process, illegal spying on Americans, and worse policies may result in criticisms of the new C.I.A. chief.)

Choe San-Hun & David E. Sanger, "U.S. Speeds Missile Defense to Guam After North Korea Bars South's Workers," in The New York Times, April 4, 2013, at p. A10. (Was Castro's prediction concerning the tensions and possible war on the Korean peninsula accurate?)

Claire Heininger & Lisa Fleischer, "$29.4 BILLION Budget Deal is Reached," in The Record, June 22, 2010, at p. A-1. (Years of mafia theft, corruption, protected child-porn and -prostitution will be paid for by the poor and disabled in New Jersey, who suffer most from lost public services in America's "Soprano State.")

Matt Friedman & Ben Horowitz, "Secret Sex-Emails Revealed in Stalker Case: Steammy Exchanges Between Assemblyman, Ex-Lobbyist Turn Up in Driveway," in The Star Ledger, March 26, 2013, at p. 1. (Joe Cryan, Democrat boss, becomes the subject of new "investigations." There is more to come in this matter.)

Azad Ahmed, "Taliban Attack In Afghanistan City, Killing Dozens," in The New York Times, April 4, 2013, at p. A1. (Iraq continues to implode and new hostilities arise in Pakistan.)

David Johnson, "Security Net Wraps Capital For Inaugural," The New York Times, January 15, 2009, p. A1.

William Glaberson, "Torture Acknowledgment Highlights Detainee Issue," The New York Times, January 15, 2009, p. A21. (A letter was deleted from this title by "Cubanoids." I have now corrected the inserted "error.")

Laurie Goodstein, "Religious Groups Seek Swift Ban From Obama on Torture," The New York Times, January 15, 2009, at p. A21.

John Leland, "Swindlers Find Growing Market in Foreclosures," The New York Times, January 15, 2009, p. A1.

David Segal & Alison Leigh Cowan, "Madoffs Shared Much; Question is How Much," The New York Times, January 15, 2009, A1. (No question mark in original headline -- irony?)

Relevant Posts:

Havana Nights and C.I.A. Tapes.

Fidel Castro's "History Will Absolve Me."

Cubanazos Pose a Threat to National Security!

Is Senator Bob "For" Human Rights?

Senator Bob Struggles To Find His Conscience.

Is Senator Menendez a Suspect in Mafia-Political M...

Senator Bob Loves Xanadu!

Senator Bob Says: "Xanadu and You Are Perfect Toge...

Senator Bob, the Babe, and the Big Bucks!

Does Senator Menendez Have Mafia Friends?





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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jonathan Franzen Wants to be Alone.

March 26, 2013 at 3:00 P.M. The essay that appears below was first published at this blog exactly on February 14, 2006. Due to all the computer warfare today, I can not say whether I will be able to return to these blogs tomorrow. I will struggle to continue writing, somewhere, on-line.

Images may be blocked and other "errors" will be inserted in my writings by hackers on a regular basis. The photo of Jonathan Franzen accompanying this essay is often blocked by N.J. hackers convinced that Mr. Franzen is a "Communist" as he does not shave every day. It is not true that Jonathan Franzen and Ernesto "Che" Guevara are the same person. This essay was posted years ago, but could not be revised or edited due to computer crime. I will keep my original copy of this essay with the date of first posting.

As I write this, more than ten years after commencing this blog and posting writings on-line, I experience daily cyberwars and censorship in opposition to my efforts to write from public computers. My home computer has been destroyed.

Jonathan Franzen, How to be Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux - Picador, 2002), $14.00.

Jonathan Franzen, Strong Motion (New York: Picador, 1992).

I. Who is Jonathan Franzen?

Jonathan Franzen is that semi-weird guy in your "Introduction to Philosophy" class in college. He sat in the back row, did not say much, looked as disheveled and distracted as you did, was always pleasant and non-judgmental about everything. Inevitably -- to everyone's surprise -- he wrote the best paper in the class at the end of the semester. At that point, it would occur to you that you should have been much friendlier to him, since there were obviously aspects to his personality beyond the dullness of his surface persona.

Franzen is probably a mild-mannered Clark Kent-type in what is laughingly called "The Real World" (not the one on MTV), but after entering the nearest phone booth (if they still exist), he emerges transformed, at least on the page -- so that one encounters if not exactly "Superman," then at least a much more interesting, discerning, and welcoming personality in his writings than one might have expected to find in such an unassuming guy. There is a refreshing duality and ambiguity about his literary voice, also strength and solidity. He surprises the reader, which is always good.

My guess is that Franzen has been underestimated his entire life. How fortunate for him that he has made the world -- or at least the ever-smaller reading public -- notice him after all. He manages to produce a clever or profound remark in the midst of a seemingly harmless and pleasant paragraph. Example:

"Elitism is the Achille's heel of every serious defense of art, an invitation to the poisoned arrows of populist rhetoric. The elitism of modern literature is, undeniably, a peculiar one -- an aristocracy of alienation, ..." (pp. 174-175.)

That's not bad for starters. Franzen is an "aristocrat of alienation." Me too.

Franzen is my exact contemporary, having been born in 1959. Along with youngster David Foster Wallace, who was born in 1962, and who was, thus, unable to drive a car until a full two years after Franzen and I became "gentlemen" of the road. Franzen is now touted as "The Great White Hope of American Literature." On the other hand, Foster Wallace is still able to drive, whereas I cannot; but then, things quickly tend to get repetitive and dull for me. I always feel a need to escape routines. If I were still driving, I would tend to regard the rules of the road as mere general guidelines to be interpreted liberally, rather than hard and fast rules. After all, what do the words "no parking at any time" really mean? What is "time"? What is "parking"? What is meant by "any"?

I am firmly and loyally committed for life to those few people that I love or admire. I should be "committed" you say? Likewise, I am sure. It is always people and relationships, not processes or routines -- certainly not organizations or rules as opposed to fundamental institutions -- that command my most profound devotion. One should be willing to die for what the country stands for, but not necessarily for the Division of Motor Vehicles -- or its rules. ("Law and Ethics in the Soprano State" and "New Jersey is the Home of the Living Dead.")

Those of us who read a lot of books are usually heard to complain that there are no great novelists anymore, that no member of my literary generation is as good as, say, Roth or Bellow, Mailer or Styron, Updike or Vidal. Franzen and Foster Wallace are not quite on the same level with those gentlemen -- not yet -- nor "on a par," as they say in golf, with Toni Morrison, Erica Jong (in my opinion) nor Mary MaCarthy at her "bitchiest" either; but they are still (for writers or Chinese buried eggs) relatively young. Both certainly have a good shot at reaching the same level of artistic achievement as their elders. True, the world has yet to encounter my first novel.

The loss of Foster-Wallace is something I have yet to come to terms with fully. I know that including Erica Jong in this list will be deemed controversial. Take another look at her work, then we can debate her merits as a writer. I think that she is a much better and more important writer than many people realize.

It is my intention to set aside rage at white middle class guys my age who get published, whereas equally or more talented others do not, so as to read both men's books, fairly, and provide my best comments. None of my anger has anything to do with writers like Franzen. Some of the people writing for The New York Times these days are semi-illiterates. Perhaps this was always true. In the past, however, genuine illiterates at the Times were assigned to write book reviews because it was assumed that they would do less harm that way. Today illiterate journalists even cover the news. This may explain the unforgettable prose of "Manohla Dargis." ("Manohla Dargis Strikes Again!")

An "error" was inserted in the foregoing paragraph, probably by Ms. Dargis or someone on her behalf. People who make a living by writing or who call themselves, for some mysterious reason, "journalists," should think twice about indulging in censorship. A truism among New Jersey lawyers -- crooked and uncrooked -- says: "What goes around comes around." Next week it may be The New York Times and Manohla Dargis getting payback for these dirty tricks. ("David Denby is Not Amused.")

The only person I once knew among the Jersey Boys, who was (and is) "connected" at the Times, remains a terrible writer and intellectually non-descript. Anyway, whatever injustices exist in American publishing -- or in society -- are not the fault of Franzen or Foster-Wallace. They get the benefit of the doubt from me, just like any other writers. ("Jay Romano and Conduct Unbecoming to the Judiciary in New Jersey.")

I begin by reading their non-fiction, then I will turn to their novels that I plan to study, along with several works by John Updike and lots of philosophical and critical essays, this summer. By September (notice that I am not specifying the year), I may convert to the dominant contemporary religious faith of America's white middle class, which is a pleasant or suburban form of atheism. "Whatever." Everybody is "spiritual" in Scarsdale, but not really into organized religion as distinct from unorganized adultery.

Franzen hints at a fondness for New York thrift stores and sports the regulation small, rectangular spectacles favored by downtown or uptown hipsters in New York (me too!), so he may be O.K. after all. None of us artsy-fartsy types like to shave every day. Franzen is no exception. We like to appear in public with the regulation stubble of the standard intellectual-hipster of a certain age, visibly burdened with sensitivity and nicotine stains, along with great depth of soul. Jonathan Franzen bears a strange similarity to "Sheldon Grosbart." ("Magician's Choice.")

Artsy-fartsy women are said to really "go" for such a studiously disheveled look, when it is combined with the haunting and manly fragance of the ninety-nine cent cologne that I purchase at my local discount store (better known as "Macho" cologne) and that also serves as a dandy toilet cleanser, even as it helps to unclog my drains. "Macho" cologne also serves as a convenient anti-freeze for your car engine.

Having read the essays in this collection, I am dismayed to admit that Franzen is indeed a good writer and that there is much that we agree on. (I will double-check just to make sure that I have not missed an acknowledgment or a footnote.) Worse, there are many ways in which we are frighteningly alike, not least in our readerly and writerly habits. I was hoping to dislike him, but I can't.

The literary persona that one encounters in Franzen's book is earnest, diligent, cool and relaxed in tone (something which is harder to achieve on the page than you may suppose), and his heart is in the right place. I have no idea what school he went to and I don't care. With someone who reads as much as he does, it doesn't matter. He will teach himself what he wants to know.

Franzen is mildly leftist in his political sympathies. He was saddened by the election of George W. Bush. People in the East Village -- I think he is now "movin' on up" to the East Side -- were heart-broken on election day and cannot figure out exactly who voted for Bush, since absolutely everyone in Alphabet City and on the Upper West Side (I am capitalizing to feed their self-importance) was against him. Lots of residents of these neighborhoods, excluding the Franzens of this world, tend to forget that there is an entire country beyond the borders of Manhattan. These are the people who often patronize me. ("Barack Obama and 'The New Yorker'" and "Skinny People Dressed in Black.")

I prefer the honest hostility of some Republicans to a pat on the head from such liberal morons. No, not Franzen. Any chance I get, I let them have it. I say this as someone who is more to the left than Franzen on most issues; though on a very few issues, I'm also more to the right. Franzen's one episode of public controversy concerns a decision not to have his book included with others favored by a television hostess, who created a reading club promoting, mostly, middle-brow novels for ordinary people to read. On the other hand, there were occasional surprises in the reading choices. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

I am a fan of anyone or anything that gets people reading. I'm also quite ordinary and a middle- to lowbrow -- so that if I publish my novel, eventually (which seems likely) -- and if a television personality is willing to recommend it to America, then I will kiss the ground that he or she walks on, happily consenting to interpreting the work in any way that people like. I will do so while standing on my head naked, if necessary. So much for integrity. My daughter will be graduating from college. She can use any money generated by the books that I write in the next few years to go to graduate school, somewhere. (NYU, all of you should burn in hell if you have denied anyone admission for political reasons or because of a bribe.)

If you're planning to insert "errors" in this essay, again, this would be a good time to do so. Maybe this will help: "Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me'" and "'Che': A Movie Review." ("Menendez Consorts With Underage Prostitutes" and "Does Senator Menendez have mafia friends?")

Franzen has a more rigid notion of integrity, however, and would not budge on this question of "cheapening" himself or his work, though he has gone back and forth since the incident occurred in an effort to find a tactful way to extricate himself from an unpleasant situation. The t.v. hostess eventually pulled Franzen's novel from her list anyway, then halted her reading club, only to start it again with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

Take that, Mr. Franzen. Neither Tolstoy (from the great beyond) nor his publisher (from the vicinity of Wall Street) had any objections to this. There were even offers to put the t.v. lady's picture on the cover, if necessary, though this never came to pass.

My favorite essays in this collection and the most important ones, I think, are: "Why Bother?" and "The Reader in Exile." For the remainder of this review, I will comment on the second of these two essays. This is only because it fits the limitations of this setting. I will conclude with my opinion of the author. In case I forget to mention it later, please READ Franzen's work. He is good and he will teach you things. Young writers -- even successful ones -- need money to keep writing. You can help by purchasing at least one copy of his book. And after you have paid for it, you will feel pretty stupid if you don't actually read it. So get a copy and read it. You won't regret it.

II. Is the reader in exile?

Franzen mentions giving away his television set. This is something which he probably regrets and which he has, by now, no doubt remedied. My guess is that he's got himself a new t.v. and a DVD player, too. No matter how much you love reading, it is simply impossible to understand or stay current with developments in American society -- something a writer must do -- no matter how inane (and/or insane) these developments may be, without a daily dose of television.

This is depressing when one considers that in a world of desperate hunger and warfare, most people in the U.S. are primarily concerned about such things as the "reality-t.v." show "Survivor," now in re-runs, and the Donald Trump "vehicle" entitled "The Apprentice," which may be a different kind of survivor show in a different "reality-t.v." world. Did you see "Lost"? How about "Glee"? "Grey's Anatomy"? "The Bible"?

It is interesting that the words "reality" and "T.V." are increasingly linked in a number of contexts. I think of "reality" and "television" as opposites. I once heard a customer at "The Gotham Book Mart" (one of the world's greatest bookstores) ask a salesperson whether she had the "cartoon network" on her cable service. The salesperson smiled and in a nice-but-very-snotty-bookish-Manhattan-way said: "It's all the cartoon network." ("Sinbad's Excellent New York Adventure.")

I love her for that oh-so writerly put-down. Television is the distorting lens in which we see our warped social reality in all of its absurdity and horror. It is simply indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand this time and place to look into that dark mirror. I mentioned Erica Jong earlier, here is a sample of the high quality of Jong's critical intelligence and of her elegant prose as she defends a different conception of the aesthetic experience:

"Art is always an energy exchange. The book, once opened, interacts with the mind of the reader to create an alchemical reaction [that is always unique]. Again and again, people have said to me in various ways: I was dying in the prison of myself and Henry Miller freed me and gave me new life. Henry Miller was a life-giver, a spiritual teacher, as much as he was a writer, and people turned to him and to his books, to be reminded in the prison of their days (as Auden would say) how to be free men and how to praise."

This paragraph appeared in 1993, when Jong fought against both politically correct "feminist" censors and religious fundamentalists in order to defend Henry Miller in her book The Devil at Large. Franzen writes:

"I understand my life in the context of Raskolnikov and Quentin Compson, not David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld. But the life I understand by way of books feels increasingly lonely. It has little to do with the mediascape that constitutes so many other people's present." (p. 165.)

I know exactly what you are saying, Jonathan. I grew up in an environment which was and is brutally hostile to the very idea of literary culture. A young man today in an urban setting, who may be African-American or Latino, or of immigrant stock -- whether Italian, Irish, Jewish or just blue collar -- finds himself in a world where toughness and unsentimentality is valued, usually by people who fail to realize that they are under the spell of Ernest Hemingway's conception of masculinity. To the extent that education is valued at all in such a setting, it is exclusively as training for a job in which you can make lots of money. One is told to be "practical" and not to bother with books or art, at all, nor with any other "bullshit for rich people."

This is an environment that brutalizes and disconfirms the values of sensitive and gifted young males as much (or more!) than those of young women of similar temperament (who will have different demons to struggle against), by demeaning artistic inclination in boys as "sissy stuff," that is, as visible proof of a lack of masculinity, thus adding to the injuries inflicted on the young and gullible -- of both or all genders -- through widespread and idiotic forms of sexism, often aided and abetted by women who should know better. The film Finding Forrester is a dramatization of the kind of thing of which I speak.

It may be difficult for suburbanites to grasp the point that being "intellectually inclined" is a category of guilt in some dark corners of urban America. I suppose the same pride in ignorance may characterize other segments of the society that I do not know, like The New Yorker magazine. My recent discovery of the writings of Judith Butler helps me to clarify my own thinking on this subject. Books, music and the visual arts are usually regarded in know-nothing corners of "masculine" blue collar America as ways for rich people to "show off" and/or to demonstrate that they are "better" than the rest of us, or so I was told, and certainly not as the kind of thing that anybody can really be interested in or enjoy for themselves because these things are so dull and -- this is the killer word -- "weird." God forbid that any of us should be "weird." ("Who Killed the Liberal Arts?" and "Nihilists in Disneyworld.")

I may be the only person who responded to a classmate's question in my ninth grade class: "Are you abnormal?" By saying, "I certainly hope so."

Anyone who is concerned with art or literature, and this was carefully explained to me, is "trying to be better" than everybody else and is probably (horrors!) "queer." Being heterosexual has never caused me to have second thoughts about my adolescent attitude that the sexual preferences of others are: (a) none of my business; and (b) not something I care very much about anyway. To each his (or her) own. Also, being heterosexual has never caused me to accept that sensitivity to beauty, love of the arts, and caring for those I love, or a fondness for "nurturing" children were forbidden to me, merely because I also happen to love action movies and some sports.

It may be a lack of imagination on my part that limits my sexual hunger to the desire for a woman, one woman in particular. After all, Woody Allen sensibly reminds us that "bisexuals have twice as good a chance of getting a date on Saturday night." ("What you will ...")

This social hostility to masculine "sensibility" (that is, sentiment and gentleness in men) continues to be the prevailing attitude in some places, notably in Hollywood, where men "Die Hardest" all the time. A smart young man keeps his artistic interests to himself, reading Wordsworth only with a flashlight under the covers. He engages in the occasional displays of adolescent violence, uses simple words, learns about sports and adopts the "hard guy" style. In college, this is known as the "frat guy" style. In law school or graduate school, one becomes a back slapper and beer drinker.

Politics in the U.S. is saturated with such "all-around" masculine guys, of all genders, who always lead me to wonder: Why do they feel such a need to prove their "normality"? Is this what voters really want? I doubt it. I think American middle-class "normality" is just plain weird. ("'The Stepford Wives': A Movie Review" and "'Dark Shadows': A Movie Review.")

After much unfortunate and pointless suffering, I have simply decided to say this is who I am: a heterosexual, scholarly reader and writer; valuing artistic beauty; singing Verdi arias in the shower; reciting Sonnets for a woman I love (embarassing her, I hope!); while still enjoying sports and action movies, as I say, not to mention junk food, and an "Updikean fondness for cunnilingus." (Gore Vidal's term for this delightful practice.)

These colorful interests are not mutually exclusive, as far as I am concerned, especially when coupled with a fondness for quantum physics and contemporary German philosophy, but are mutually reinforcing. Each may well require a certain art while yielding great and unique satisfactions. I try to avoid engaging in more than one of these activities at the same time. I also enjoy Opera and chess. ("Conversation on a Train" and "Metaphor is Mystery.")

As a teenager and into my early twenties, I was working out and getting physically stronger so as to fit into or just survive America's violent street culture, while studiously avoiding getting into trouble. Yet I was also discovering and loving, nineteenth century Romantic Opera, classic fiction by Dickens and Austen, the novels of Vidal, Roth, histories and biographies, Plato and Shakespeare. I was fourteen when I stayed up until three in the morning, fascinated by Olivier's "Hamlet" on the "Late, Late Show," which is now another relic of a pre-24 hour television culture. ("Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

Had I been foolish enough to discuss any of these interests and lived to tell the tale, I doubt that I would have survived the ostracism that would have followed. Learning, civilization, culture, books -- all fall into the category of things that are a "waste of time" in militant middle- to low-brow urban America. Money, on the other hand, is something that is not a waste of time. "Money talks," according to America's folk wisdom, "and bullshit either walks or goes into politics, law, or best of all, Hollywood." ("Senator Bob, the Babe, and the Big Bucks.")

The experience that is suddenly new to many young middle class writers, who were raised in homes where books mattered, of being deemed "irrelevant" is a familiar aspect of the lives of intellectually-minded minority group members -- male and female -- who discover a literary vocation early on, despite discouragement from family, friends, schools, and society as a whole.

"Latinos are not smart enough to be philosophers." "Maybe you're just too stupid to get it." Such statements -- sometimes in more subtle forms -- will become a regular aspect of one's life. They are uttered to the intellectually-inclined Latino by a woman in her fifties who attended a middle level university and is an advertising executive yanking down 100 big ones per year while working on her third divorce. I always avoid stereotyping people. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism" and "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

Daily explanations of things that one understands better than the explainers is the unhappy fate of the minority male in America. Well-meaning liberals presume to instruct us concerning matters that we know better than they do -- for example, the effects of social stigma on the development of an intellectual life -- then are reluctant to help us into print, but wish us to ease their social consciences by agreeing that "something should be done" so that more people with different perspectives are "heard." How about publishing my book you greedy bastards? ("What is it like to be plagiarized?" and "'Bridehead Revisited': A Movie Review.")

Persons who have read less -- much less -- than I have and who write less well will have an easier time getting into print than I will. ("Manohla Dargis Strikes Again!" and "Colin McGinn Explains Movies and Minds.")

Not only is this a matter of "knowing somebody" or politics, though such things do count, but it may be a result of the assumptions that editors will make on the basis of ethnicity or because of my refusal to adopt the jargon of our currently dominant ideology, which is a combination of psychobabble and policy wonk-style or social science nonsense, with some legalisms sprinkled over it all -- like sugar on a plum cake. ("John Banville's 'The Newton Letter'" and "Master and Commander.")

Originality, far from being a virtue, is an unforgivable fault among the politically correct undercover squads in journalism and literary circles or academia. Despite my best efforts, I am unable to find the person with whom I must have sex in order to be published, as I should be, though I am more than willing to "open my legs" to prove the point to one and all. (Happy, Manohla? "'The Reader': A Movie Review.")

Meanwhile, more books are published every Fall describing, in gruesome detail, just who got laid last summer in the Hamptons. My guess is that the people who claim that they did, didn't. Consider the autobiographical asides of James Baldwin, as an essayist, or the early life of Malcolm X, and ask yourself whether those books would be published by a mainstream publisher today. I doubt it.

Affluent people will not commiserate with you, Jonathan, when you comment on the appalling ignorance of those unenlightened souls who refuse to read Hemingway or Fitzgerald, let alone William Gaddis (for which I don't blame them, despite Gaddis's talent). The rich probably have not read these writers either. If you are African-American or Latino, however, then those same rich people -- who sometimes work for publishers -- may smile at your lack of realism for being interested in books at all, given who you are, or pat you on the head for "trying" to write, which is worse.

I have experienced such things. As a younger man, I was told things by so-called experts that continue to infuriate me. A young male is advised by street friends and family members that an interest in books is foolish and proof of the ultimate sin, in their eyes, effeminacy; but then, he is also told by authority figures -- even university professors! -- that the ambition to write or that the best things in the culture are "not for him," so that to suggest that frustration results is putting it mildly.

"Don't waste your time on philosophy?" Right, Diana? Violence, especially self-violence, is not unforeseeable in such circumstances -- and when violence does not occur, then it may be inferred that the young man who has avoided it has an indestructable appetite for learning, imagination and a genuine gift for the written word, not to mention a personality "issue" or two to deal with.

For such a not-so-young man, no one's hostile opinion and no amount hypocrisy or experience with oppression, which is real enough in parts of the U.S. (usually involving manipulations of the legal system), will deter him from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Inserting "errors" in my writings will only feed my hatred and pump me up more in going after you worthless lowlifes in Union City. ("Is Senator Menendez a Suspect in Mafia-Political Murder in New Jersey?" and "Is Union City, New Jersey Meyer Lansky's Whorehouse?")

Franzen juggles several books that he does not so much review as interrogate during the course of this fine essay. The first is entitled A Is for Ox, by the literary scholar Barry Sanders:

" ... who takes as his starting point two dismal trends: rising violence among youth and falling verbal SAT scores." (p. 165.)

Franzen shares the concern that "kids drop out of school and, in the worst case, join violent gangs of what Sanders calls 'post-illiterates.' It's his thesis that without literacy rooted in orality, there can be neither a self, as we understand it, nor self-consciousness." (p. 166.)

Franzen is unpersuaded by this plausible claim:

"The problem with Sanders' argument, as a killer, is that he has to finger too many culprits." (p. 166.)

Sanders blames television, the culture, but ultimately it is the loss of a literary culture and its replacement with electronic images that is doing enormous harm to these kids and it is difficult not to agree." (p. 166.)

This is true despite Nicholas Negroponte's apologia Being Digital, which Franzen treats with greater politeness than I would. The good-old American "niceness" that Franzen cannot avoid displaying sometimes gets the better of his critical faculties. Passion and outrage in a writer can be good things, compelling the reader to engage with the issues under discussion. It should be O.K. to say that someone like Negroponte may be a fine person, but is not living in the real world if he really believes in the digital utopia:

"Negroponte paints a tomorrow of talking toasters, smart refrigerators, and flavorized computers ('You will be able to buy a Larry King personality for your newspaper interface') that is Jetsons-like in its retention of today's suburban values." (p. 168.)

I will now draw the conclusion that Franzen is too polite to spell out. Nicholas Negroponte is simply mistaken. The future "sucks" for most people denied access to a first-rate education because people who cannot read very well will suffer from impoverished emotional lives with limited economic and social opportunities no matter how many gadgets they happen to have. They will also be much easier to manipulate by the powerful. ("What is Memory?" and "'Total Recall': A Movie Review.")

And here is Franzen's real complaint (and mine too), one that recurs in many of these essays in one form or another: "The truth is simple, if unpretty. The novel is dying because the consumer doesn't want it any more." (p. 171.)

Citing Birkets's The Gutenberg Elegies, a book which I read and liked, Franzen goes on to pronounce a fiery and defiant eulogy at the novel's funeral:

"The most original and far-seeing novelists of our own day not only accept the shadows but actively seek them. 'Everything in the culture argues against the novel,' Don De Lillo said in a Paris Review interview: 'This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation.' " (p. 177.)

Franzen goes on to make the point which justifies this collection:

"The modern idea of the oppositional writer is a long established tradition, and its modern variants have been around since at least the First World War, when Austrian satirist Karl Kraus described himself as the 'hopeless contrary' of the nexus of technology, media, and capital. Something that has taken longer to emerge, but is implicit in a work like The Gutenberg Elegies, is the idea of the oppositional reader. The paradox of literature's elitism is that it is purely self-selecting. Anyone who can read is free to be part of it." (p. 177.)

Some people receive a greater invitation and better training than others for literary life, Jonathan, but there is a great deal in what you say. Effort can make up for a lot, except that it sure feels as though the odds are against you from the start, if you are a poor street kid who wants to become a civilized human being, let alone a writer. Franzen concludes:

"The electronic apotheosis of mass culture has merely reconfirmed the elitism of literary reading, which was briefly obscured in the novel's heyday. I mourn the eclipse of the cultural authority that literature once possessed, and I rue the onset of an age so anxious that the pleasure of a text becomes difficult to sustain. I don't suppose that many other people will give away their TVs. I'm not sure that I'll last long myself without buying a new one. But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone." (p. 178.)

III. How to be alone.

Franzen seems unaware that his argument concerning the loss of the reader by the novel, or novelists, has been made before -- by Gore Vidal in the fifties and John Fowles in the sixties, and by many others since. Anyway, it is always important to consider the predicament of the novel and even more the dilemma of those who write and read them in this anti-literary age. Gore spells it out in The New York Times Book Review, August 5, 1956:

"After some three hundred years the novel in English has lost the general reader (or rather the general reader has lost the novel), and I propose that he will not again recover his old enthusiasm."

Vidal goes on to say:

"The fault, if it be a fault, is not the novelist's (I doubt if there ever have been so many interesting or talented writers as there are now working) but of the audience, an unpleasant accusation to make in a democracy where, ultimately, the taste of the majority is the measure of all things. Nevertheless, appalling education combined with clever new toys has distracted that large public which found pleasure in prose fictions. ..."

John Fowles comments for The London Times, in 1964:

"Why have I got it in for the novel? Because it has been shifted away from life, whatever, as Wittgenstein put it, is the case, these last fifty years. Circumstances have imposed this shift. It is not the novelists' fault. [All of the novelists agree that it is not the novelists' fault.] In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was at one remove from life. But since the advent of film and television and sound recording it is at two removes. The novel is now generally about things and events which the other forms of art describe rather better."

Solitude, privacy, silence are all becoming rare commodities in this noisy and dirty postmodern metropolis and society that we live in. We must struggle to preserve the precious space in which the thinker can think, the writer can write, the artist can fashion his or her artifacts, so that we may receive them and share in them together. We must hold on to the fragments of community provided by the "aesthetic encounters" within our anxious culture, when so many other forms of community and genuine social relations have been taken from us.

The following sentence appears in bold script in "The Week in Review," The New York Times, Sunday Edition, September 26, 2010, at p. 4: "It may be dangerous to try to locate the value of the work in the life of the artist -- or in their [sic.] morality."

Disagreement in number? How about this: " ... or in his or her morality." Preserving gender-neutrality or P.C. language does not preclude writers from doing their best to avoid such "errors." I will now commit the great sin of recommending a book by a Republican: Try William Simon's Paradigms Lost.

Right after the writer learns "how to be alone," he or she should remember that the purpose of solitary writing is to establish a lasting connection between writer and reader in the community of the text. Some day it will no longer be necessary to make use of such hideous locutions as "gender-neutrality." (No wonder they keep inserting "errors" in this essay.)

The only important purpose of being alone is to discover "how to be together." If you will keep writing, Jonathan, I will keep reading your work. Strong Motion is next. Maybe some day, you will read my work. Jonathan, you are terrific, but $27.95 for the hardcover is on the steep side. I will wait for Freedom to be in paperback.








Saturday, January 29, 2011

"The Rite": A Movie Review.

March 28, 2011 at 12:12 P.M. Spacing has been altered several times in this essay. As a result, I have been forced to use "quotation spacing" and to restore the appropriate spacing between paragraphs several times this morning. The delights of sadistic cruelty are always sexual for proponents. I am flattered.
March 27, 2011 at 11:58 A.M. A single word was deleted from a sentence since my previous review of this work. A society that indulges in this spectacle of sadistic cruelty and censorship, publicly, is in steep decline and has abandoned its values. I have corrected this inserted "error." I cannot say how many other writings have been altered or defaced overnight.

March 11, 2011 at 3:53 P.M. "Error" inserted overnight will now be corrected.
March 10, 2011 at 11:07 A.M. An alteration and inserted "error" was introduced into the text since my previous review of the work. I will now correct all newly inserted or re-inserted "errors."
March 2, 2011 at 11:17 A.M. This essay had been left alone for a while, but it was attacked overnight, alterations have defaced the text. I will do my best to correct these inserted "errors." ("Incoherence in 'The New York Times'" and "What is it like to be plagiarized?" then "Let's win one for the gipper.")
January 30, 2011 at 8:44 P.M. Another word was deleted from this essay since earlier this evening. I have now restored that word to the text. I have also corrected a number of essays which have been altered or vandalized today. Numerous intrusions into my computer from New Jersey or the Times (?) may have allowed for these developments. My security system has been disabled. ("S.L. Hurley on Beliefs and Reasons for Action.")
January 30, 2011 at 5:07 P.M. Additional "errors" inserted in this text since this morning will now be corrected. "Possessives" have been altered by a very sick person. I will do my best to keep up with the regular insertions of "errors" by a person with access to government technology in New Jersey. ("Is Senator Bob 'For' Human Rights?")
January 30, 2011 at 9:48 A.M. One letter was removed from a word overnight and a title was altered. Otherwise, there were fewer inserted "errors" than I expected. I am afraid that additional inserted "errors" must be expected, especially when a review is perceived as better than what appears in The New York Times.
"The Rite" (2011) Directed by Michael Hafstrom; written by Michael Petroni (bravo); suggested by the book by Matt Baglio; director of photography Ben Davis; edited by David Rosenbloom; music by Alex Heffes. Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Father Lucas -- Oscar worthy performance); Colin O'Donoghue (Michael Kovak); Alice Braga (Angeline); Ciaran Hinds (Father Xavier); Toby Jones (Father Mathew); Rutger Hauer (Istvan Kovak); Marta Gastini (Rosaria -- Oscar worthy debut!); and Maria Grazia Cuccinota (Aunt Andria).
I. "You cannot win without God."
I was fortunate to see "The Rite" on the evening of its New York premiere. The film is subtle and theologically interesting, drawing on important twentieth century meditations by Catholic thinkers concerning the mystery of evil. I am thinking especially of Thomas Merton, Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, as well as others, including John Paul, II.
Interestingly, the script writer is also responsible for the text in the Narnia movies based on C.S. Lewis' allegory of Christianity. Mr. Lewis was a devoted Christian, a protestant, whose concern with the problem of evil in theology is visible in works such as God in the Dock, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, but most especially in the film of his life where Anthony Hopkins portrayed Professor Lewis, Shadowlands.
In fact, "Shadowlands" -- the earthly realm of illusions and unreality is where we find ourselves in "The Rite" -- surrounded by a "cloud of unknowing." This identification is signalled for the audience in the name of the restaurant to which the leads are drawn: Il Sogno. ("The Dream.") The earthly life is a dream or an "unreal" striving for the ultimate meaning or purpose of our existence, in Christian teaching, which is unity with God or love.
It is love alone which defeats evil. The ability to love another person more than oneself (or as oneself) not merely brings us to God, but is God. More on this later. ("The Soldier and the Ballerina" and "Out of the Past.")
We begin our story with a young man who is directionless and skeptical, suffering from the disease of postmodernity -- nihilism, an embrace of the nothingness that we are. Hence, the constant rain and dreary conditions that externalize a Kierkegaardian despair that defines evil in the contemporary world. Augustine reminds us that the world is "all idle talk and play and nothingness."
The West's surrender to this nothingness was a source of suffering for the Russian Nobel laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart: A Commencement Address Delivered at Harvard University, June 8, 1978 (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 47-51, also for his predecessor Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings (London: Penguin, 1987), pp. 81-231. (Tolstoy's writings concerning the truth in religion and interpretations of the Gospel story are highly recommended.)
Michael Kovaks seeks to escape the life made available to him in his father's funeral parlor where he has mastered the art of embalming the dead (that's all of us who are non-believers and himself at the outset of this cinematic journey, corpses). Godless humanity is living in a "shadowland" of material consumption and meaningless sex, greed and will-to-power where everything is relative. The devil is the ultimate relativist and postmodernist (see Malcolm Bradbury's "Dr. Criminale") echoing Friedrich Nietzsche in this film: "God is dead!"
Michael decides to attend seminary classes to get an education without necessarily intending to join the priesthood, essentially finagling a higher education under false pretenses. But we are reminded that it is "God who has chosen you, Michael." The mere fact that we exist, according to Catholic teaching, suggests that we all have been chosen because our lives serve purposes that we see only through a glass darkly. Michael will become a priest. We will all do what we are here to do. For any one of us to take the life of another person, for example, is to assume a God-like prerogative to which we are not entitled. (''The Matrix': A Movie Review.")
The film becomes a work of Christian exhortation, instructing us against the "devil's deceptions and mendacity." The devil's greatest deception is to convince us not only that he does not exist, but that God is nonsense because love is "unreal." We are unworthy of God's love. We cannot love one another. If you accept this demeaning view of humanity as naked apes and nothing more, the devil wins. Yes, these film characters may be seen as metaphors and symbols. You do not have to be a religious believer to appreciate the scriptures or this movie:
" ... I think the demon's target is not the possessed; it is us ... the observers [audience members] ... every person in this house. [The movie theater.] And I think -- I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it is finally a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could could love us. ... "
William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist (New York: Harpertorch, 1971), pp. 352-353.
To know that "God loves us" is a way of stating in religious language that we are capable of loving others and deserve to be loved. On the other hand, if we accept that "God is dead" and if we are convinced that "God is not here, priest!" -- as the Hopkins' character says under possession -- then we must live in a world without ultimate hope or love. For this reason, Father Lucas (as the demon) says to Michael: "even your father could not love you." ("Is it rational to believe in God?")
Lovelessness is a state of utter despair. This so-called secular "life" ("there is no hope here!' says the devil, quoting Dante) is hell. Hell is a place without love or hope -- a land of total darkness and surrender to our fallen and worthless state -- as "sinners." Gilberto Garcia? It is curious to see two of our best actors -- George Clooney and Anthony Hopkins -- making similar spiritual journeys. If "God is love," then the absence of God is a world deprived of love. Such a loveless world is not one in which human beings can live happily. Indeed, any fully human life implies the existence of love or at least the capacity to love others.
Nothing pleases the evil person more than inducing a sense of despair or hopelessness in his or her victims, usually through communicating the futility of resistance to oppressive and unjust power. The constant insertions of "errors" may be concerned with this absurd notion that "resistance is futile." If a victim accepts that it is pointless to resist against evil uses of power, then he or she will certainly become a slave. This we must never do. We must never accept slavery, even death is preferable to slavery. (Compare "'The American': A Movie Review" with "'Michael Clayton': A Movie Review" then "The Rite" and "Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.")
In the era of Charlie Sheen, the concepts of sinfulness or excess must seem bizarre to audience members regarding this contest on-screen as a battle between heavenly powers. It is your inner struggle between forces of moral self-destruction as against self-realization that matters in Christianity and in this movie. Hence, the pull between psychiatry (which only takes us so far) and religion (which takes us to salvation). Art or politics may do the trick for you. The battle in the heavens depicted by John Milton in "Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained" is internal to the modern soul. (''Drawing Room Comedy': A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script" and "Faust in Manhattan.")
Sent to Rome to meet an experienced exorcist, Michael will learn through a confrontation with the undeniable reality of ultimate evil, the wisdom of this film which is -- at least, partly -- the work of religious believers. God is always where you are if you love deeply and want that love (i.e., presence); evil's "nothingness" disappears by comparison. Love is the torch that disperses the darkness. Compare and contrast L. William Countryman, "Love is a Phoenix," in Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality, and Friendship (London: Moorehouse, 2005), pp. 54-55 with Mary Midgley, "Selves and Shadows," in Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay (London & New York: Ava, 1984), pp. 113-131.
II. "Not believing in the devil will not protect you from him."
We live in a time that is -- like our alter ego on-screen, Michael -- deeply suspicious of mythology. We cannot read the texts of our ancient fathers and mothers, nor view them with respect as communications of the most profound wisdom which our ancestors possessed and sought to convey to their children. The language of archetypes is nearly lost to persons today. Even educated Americans display a level of cultural unawareness that constitutes what, I describe, as severe deprivation. ("Nihilists in Disneyworld.")
Americans suffer deeply from the poverty of the rich. This poverty is a misery of aesthetic capacity, loss of imaginative sympathy, shallowness and ignorance. I am distressed to say this because I am the father of a young person being inducted into this diminished intellectual culture. I am doing my best to provide a little extra education, despite my awareness of my all-too human limitations. There is no other explanation for the drivel published in once esteemed publications, like The New York Times. ("Manohla Dargis Strikes Again!")
Many of the brightest people in the world are in this country. We are among the richest people on the planet in genius, whether in the arts or sciences, but we are failing to communicate intellectual passions to the young or to beguile ordinary people into enjoying high culture. This failure is dangerous for America's future. ("Is this atheism's moment?")
There certainly is a love-story in this movie, but it has nothing to do with a romance between Michael and his guiding "angel" (Angeline played by Sonia Braga) who explains that he "cannot win without God." The New York Times reviewer got this detail wrong. Several other "errors" marred the evaluation by the reviewer. Linda Blair played the girl possessed by the devil in "The Exorcist" and not Mercedes McCambridge. Stephen Holden, "Giving the Devil His Possessive Due," in The New York Times, January 28, 2011, at p. C10. (This critique is another embarassing example of a reviewer failing to appreciate most of what is communicated in a good film.)
The real love depicted in "The Rite" is between the priest and his young charge, Philemon and his pupil, the knight and his squire -- together they slay the dragon of evil. Several Arthurian references are quite distinct and, again, may refer to Aslan the Lion who defeats the Evil Queen in Narnia. The images accompanying the lectures in Rome should be studied carefully. ("'I am Legend': A Movie Review.")
This rarely depicted love between teacher and student serves as the analogy to God's love for all of us "revealed" in Michael's (St. Michael against Lucifer) willingness to forgive his father's apathy and coldness, while accepting the death of his mother, thus restoring Michael's mature relationship with God:
"The modern age," Terry Eagleton writes, "has witnessed what one might call a transition from the soul to the psyche. Or, if one prefers, from theology to psychoanalysis. There are many senses in which the latter is a stand-in for the former. Both are narratives of human desire -- though for religious faith that desire can finally be consummated in the kingdom of God, whereas for psychoanalysis it must remain tragically unappeased. In this sense, psychoanalysis is the science of human discontent. But so, too, is theology. With Freud, repression and neurosis play the role of what Christians have traditionally known as original sin. In each case, human beings are seen as born in sickness. But they are not beyond redemption."
On Evil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 16-18.
Professor Eagleton, whose Catholic education is obvious, hits the nail on the head:
"Evil as I see it is indeed metaphysical, in the sense that it takes up an attitude toward being as such, not just toward this or that bit of it. Fundamentally, it wants to annihilate the lot of it. But this is not to suggest that it is necessarily supernatural, or that it lacks causality. Many things -- art and language, for example -- are more than just a reflex of their social circumstances, but this is not to say that they drop from the skies." Finally, "In the end, evil is indeed all about death -- but about the death of the evildoer as much as that of those he annihilates."
On Evil, pp. 16-18 (emphasis added).
The corpse laid out on the table emphasizes associations to the writings of T.S. Eliot. ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.") Suicides are persons who reject the gift of life. Evil is turning away from God through the inability to love, disdain for all of creation ("everything is shit"), abandonment of morality ("there is no good or evil"), loss of truth ("there is no truth"), and the worship of power, pleasure, manipulation and delight in the pain of others. This may be the moment to insert another "error" in this essay. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")
"A crowd flowed under London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many."
T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland," I. The Burial of the Dead, in John Wain, ed., The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 622. In an interview with William F. Buckley, Jr., Malcolm Muggeridge defined the modern world as the choice between "a clenched fist and an erect phallus." They may amount to the same thing, Mr. Muggeridge. I certainly prefer the latter to the former. ("What a Man's Gotta Do" and "America's Love of Violence.")
"It has long been abudantly clear to me that I was born into a dying, if not already dead civilization."
Malcolm Muggeridge, "A Part in Search of a Play," in Chronicles of Wasted Time: An Autobiography (Washington: Regnery, 1972), pp. 14-15 and Malcolm Muggeridge, "St. Augustine," in A Third Testament (New York: Ballantine, 1976), pp. 38-41. (" ... because it is God's will.") The "dying civilization" is Christendom. And yet, the "Gates of Hell shall not prevail against love." ("Is it rational to believe in God?" and "Pieta.")
Finding himself in this "Wasteland," Thomas Merton sought to understand phenomena like the Holocaust and neverending warfare because he understood that the monastery is also in the world, even as monks -- or all clergy -- are fallen or sinful men and women like other persons:
"And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them also as persons, to apprehend their pain as our own? Evidently this is not necessary for 'sanity' at all. It is a religious notion, a spiritual notion, a Christian notion. What business have we to equate 'sanity' with 'Christianity'? None at all, obviously. The worst error is to imagine that a Christian must try to be 'sane' like everybody else, that we belong in our kind of society. That we must be 'realistic' about it. [adjust!] We must develop a sane Christianity: and there have been plenty of sane Christians in the past. Torture is nothing new, is it? We ought to be able to rationalize a little brain washing, and genocide, and find a place for nuclear war, or at least for napalm bombs in our moral theology. ... Even Christians can shake off their sentimental prejudices about charity, and become 'sane' like Eichman. They can even cling to certain Christian formulas, and fit them into a Totalist ideology. Let them talk about justice, charity, love and the rest. These words have not stopped some sane men from acting very sanely and cleverly in the past. ..."
"A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichman," in The Non-Violent Alternative (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), p. 161.
Is this "adjustment" how a Jew becomes Mengele? Judaism's instruction that moral life is a struggle against human imperfection through acceptance of God's moral law, especially love for one another, makes "adjustment" to evil impossible for good Jews. A Jewish person can never accept evil for this is to reject the Covenant with God. An evil person cannot live a Jewish life, cannot live as a Jew, because evil committed against any other person is, in the deepest sense of the word, not kosher. ("Martin Buber and Diet Judaism" and "The Sleeping Prince.")
The priest must love the suffering victim of evil in order for any "exorcism" to succeed. In a sense, an actor "possessed" by a character, must identify -- or even love that dramatic character -- without judging the persona that he or she creates if the aesthetic experience is to become real or compelling for audience members. This is quite a challenge when playing someone profoundly evil or disturbed. This is to speak of Mr. Hopkins' genius and patience or generosity of spirit in creating this powerful illusion on screen. The devil -- or Adolf Eichman -- unwittingly, becomes a means of moral instruction and even a pathway to God. Good movies may be used as vehicles of moral instruction or therapy as well as aesthetic works. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow" and "Out of the Past" then "What you will" and "God is Texting Me!")
Literature has been described as "an imaginary garden with real toads in it." (Anne Sexton) Perhaps we are reminded in this movie that religious narratives are mythologies containing genuine wisdom and truth. In this movie, truth is conveyed through some very real-looking toads and scary horses and cats. All of these creatures have been associated in folklore with demons. Please refer to The Chronicles of Narnia and the proceedings of the Most Holy Inquisition.
Anthony Hopkins is not Father Lucas. However, like Father Lucas, Mr. Hopkins wishes us to learn from this "insubstantial pageant" ("The Rite") what is most real and worthy in our lives. Reality is not necessarily Oscar awards or fame and fortune -- for these things are also illusions, they are dream-like -- but it is the love that we give and receive for the few moments when we are here, in the audience, applauding stellar performances and welcoming the arrival of new actors who can thrill us. Every great artistic performance is an act of love. ("'Revolutionary Road': A Movie Review.")
The Times reviewer was under the impression that the film argues for psychiatry and against exorcism or the reality of evil. The exact opposite is true. This movie suggests that evil is real and that the protagonist has entered the struggle against the darkness in the world as a Catholic priest -- a task for which he was chosen after all -- only after discovering his own capacities for love and courage. ("'The Reader': A Movie Review.")
Marta Gastini almost steals this movie from the wily Mr. Hopkins. How exiting to wonder when we will next see Ms. Gastini's work. Mr. Hopkins will be playing Odin in the soon to be released film, "Thor." From a lowly priest to a god. Who needs an Oscar when you can be the king of Valhalla?
The foregoing sentence was altered through the insertion of a word not found in previous versions of this text. I am sure that much of what I have said in this review is confirmed by the experience of seeing the work damaged in this way as a result of a twisted kind of envy and hatred. If you are a religious person, please pray for the individuals capable of such malice. (See Bill Maher's "Religulous" and think of all that Mr. Maher is missing about religious experience for millions of people in America.)
"The Rite" is a B movie elevated to an A film by writing and acting that is outstanding.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Murderer is Murdered by Law.

December 19, 2010 at 7:00 P.M. Attacks against my computer have prevented me from "defragmenting" or "defragmentalizing" my hard discs (choose your favorite term). I will try again tomorrow to perform this action.
November 15, 2010 at 10:53 A.M. A single quotation mark was removed from this text since my previous review of the essay. I have now restored that quotation mark to the text.
John Schwartz, "Murderer Executed In Arizona," in The New York Times, October 28, 2010, at p. A16. Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song (New York: Warner Books, 1979).
... the Warden said, "Do you have anything you'd like to say?" and Gary looked up at the ceiling and hesitated, then said, "Let's do it." That was it. The most pronounced amount of courage, Vern decided, he'd ever seen, no quarter, no throatiness, right down the line. Gary had looked at Vern as he spoke.
"The state of Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan on Tuesday night after the Supreme Court lifted a lower court's injuction blocking the lethal injection." "Last-minute appeals for Mr. Landrigan, who was convicted of murder in 1990, focused on the origins of one of the drugs used in the state's three-drug execution protocol."
"Shortages of barbituates have led to delays in several states. The only domestic manufacturer approved by the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] to make sodium thiopental, the barbituate used in Arizona, suspended production of the drug a year ago."
"With no supplies coming from sources approved by the F.D.A." -- the F.D.A. is concerned about the safety of lethal injections? -- "Judge Roslyn O. Silver of Federal District Court in Arizona had demanded that the state provide information about the origins of its drug, in order to know whether there were risks of impurity or efficacy that could violate Mr. Lanigan's rights under the Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment." ("The Allegory of the Cave.")
The FDA will not approve just any drug that will kill you. In order for the FDA to give its "blessing," as it were, the lethal drug must kill you "nicely." Notice that this concern has nothing to do with the medications used to put someone to sleep before the lethal substance is administered. I recall an American general's response to criticisms of his methods in battle: "There is no nice way to kill people."
There is no potential increase in suffering for the victim to be executed regardless of the drugs used because the person will not be awake or conscious when the legally-sanctioned poison is administered. Evidently, the concern by the FDA is that an individual not be writhing on a stretcher (or convulsing) and providing an ugly spectacle for the good folks witnessing the death who may want to snap some pictures of the event. Refreshments may be served in Texas executions in the future. (See Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet in "The Life and Death of David Gale.")
"The state refused to detail in open court, the origins of the drug or the process used to obtain it, citing confidentiality laws, though officials said it had come from England. Thus 'the court is left to speculate,' Judge Silver wrote, 'whether the non-FDA approved drug will cause pain and suffering.' ..."
It is undisputed that the drug will cause death. The company that manufactures this lethal drug to be used in executions is British. The Brits have outlawed the death penalty, like all EU nations, but the owner of this company or primary stockholder is probably someone who has been knighted by the Queen.
"A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the order. After the full Ninth Circuit refused to rehear the case, the state appealed to the Supreme Court."
"In a one-page order issued Tuesday night" -- this decision must have been written by Justice Thomas -- "explaining the 5-to-4 vote to vacate Judge Silver's temporary restraining order, the Supreme Court stated that Judge Silver's reasoning was flawed because the case affirming the constitutionality of the three-drug execution method Baze v. Rees, [sic.] had a high standard of proof that an execution method would cause harm."
I think the Supreme Court of the United States of America should take judicial notice of the fact that execution methods are intended to and do in fact cause harm. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that execution methods often result in the execution of persons, i.e., in death or ultimate harm. (Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal.")
In a nation in which several jurisdictions still use hanging or firing squads as execution methods, where "mistakes" have resulted in MULTIPLE execution attempts of the same individuals, this concern as regards lethal injections seems a tad puzzling. I always suspected that Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito were bleeding heart liberals and fond of coddling criminals, but this squeamishness about execution methods is surprising from them.
"The Court stated that 'speculation' cannot substitute for evidence that the use of the drug is 'sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering.' ..."
What a relief. In other words, let us try the drugs from Britain and see what happens. This way it will not be necessary to "speculate" on whether they cause "needless suffering" or "serious illness" because we will be able to tell right away whether persons subjected to the drugs die quickly, quietly, efficiently as opposed to "suffering serious injury or illness."
I describe this U.S. Supreme Court decision as an example of what Lord Coke (pronounced "Cook") described as the "artificial reason of the law."

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Philippa Foot on Desires, Reasons, and Actions.

November 17, 2010 at 9:51 A.M. My deepest sympathy is extended to Congressman Charles Rangel (for whom I have voted more than once) whose frustrations and concerns at not being confronted with witnesses against him is something understandable. Mr. Rangel appears to be a victim -- along with several other African-American politicians -- of a Right-wing attack machine featuring many Cuban-American political figures that operates "behind-the-scenes." This is entirely apart from the merits or faults in Mr. Rangel's actions.

Mr. Rangel is accused of underpaying his taxes. Rangel then paid the necessary taxes with a penalty. If you wish to see real crime and unethical conduct, see "Law and Ethics in the Soprano State" and "New Jersey is the Home of the Living Dead." Jeffrey Toobin, A Vast Conspiracy (New York: Random House, 1999). (Where do anti-Clinton warriors go after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal? Miami.)


October 27, 2010 at 11:33 P.M. The General Assembly voted 180 to 2 (U.S. and Israel alone voting against the majority) to end the embargo against Cuba. I believe that this was the correct vote as a matter of human rights and international law. I hope that, some day, the U.S. will join the global community on this issue. I realize that by making this true statement I am risking my life and making further state-protected crimes against me, together with public censorship, inevitable. However, there are times when we must speak truth to power. ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba" and "Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.")

My support for Israel has not changed. I did not expect Israel to vote against the U.S. I still support sovereignty and peace for the Palestinian people. Although I disagree with the administration on the Cuba issue, I am highly supportive of Obama administration efforts to renew the peace talks in the Middle East. Despite the successes for Republicans in the interim elections there is still no viable alternative to Obama/Biden/Clinton on the Republican side. I wish to make it clear to readers, as I have on many prior occasions, that I have more in common with any Republican than with a nihilist. Violence is never a solution and must always be deplored, especially when the inocent suffer, as they usually do. ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "Nihilists in Disneyworld.")

October 26, 2010 at 5:01 P.M. "Errors" inserted since this morning will now be corrected. The goal of repetitive or induced frustrations and constant harassments is to generate an intemperate remark or violent reaction that proponents of these methods can point to in justification of their crimes. While I doubt that such tactics will work with me, I am sure that they have been used effectively against many people in many parts of the country, especially inmates and patients in institutions, in order to "control" persons or enslave "trouble makers." One responsibility of intellectuals in a democracy is to be "trouble makers," gadflies for the powerful who are held to account for their actions. Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship (New York & London: The New Press, 2003), pp. 47-50.

October 25, 2010 at 11:35 P.M. A new "error" mysteriously appeared in this essay which had been left alone for a few days. I have now corrected the inserted "error." On Wednesday (October 27, 2010), the UN will hear arguments concerning the US embargo against Cuba. Cuban-Americans who favor the embargo -- mostly for financial reasons, since many of them make money from the embargo -- will cause the US to be embarassed, again, by a losing vote. My support for ending the embargo may explain the sudden insertions of "errors" in several essays, including this one, together with increased computer crimes committed against me. ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

October 22, 2010 at 11:11 A.M. A number of obstacles created, I believe, by Cuban-American opponents of my views with political protection made it difficult for me to reach these blogs today. At any time I may be prevented from accessing the Internet. These writings may be defaced or destroyed. I will continue to struggle against these obstacles in order to write essays and short stories, plays and film scripts. If necessary, I will attempt to reach public computers later today. I have reason to believe that several of these writings are appearing in non-U.S. media. Like the famous "Big Mac," I am being globalized.

October 21, 2010 at 9:00 P.M. "Errors" were inserted in this essay, possibly by Cuban-American racists horrified at the prospect of a lecture by Professor Cornel West that is promoted, by me, here. I will make the necessary corrections. ("Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me'" and "Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.")

October 21, 2010 at 11:56 A.M. Several essays have been altered. I will try to make necessary corrections over the next few days. Among the works in which "errors" were inserted is "Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz." I believe that I have now corrected the alterations of that work. Professor Derrida was not a Communist. Jacques Derrida called for the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Among those echoing that call are Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro.

Friday, October 29, 2010 at 7:00 P.M. at "Harlem Stage - Aaron Davis Hall, 150 Convent Avenue at West 135th Street, Cornel West and Carl Dix in Dialogue: 'What Future for Our Youth?' Please be there. I will certainly be attending this discussion."

Naturally, a conflict now makes it impossible for me to attend this event. I will do my best to be in two places at once. I expect continuing defacements of this text in response to this posted notice. Revolution Books, 146 W. 26th Street, NY, NY and (212) 281-9240. http://www.harlemstage.org/ ($20.00 or $10.00 with student i.d.)

October 19, 2010 at 2:08 P.M. As part of the continuing psychological warfare and computer crime, my cable signal was blocked causing my computer to shut down in the midst of a security scan. I will do what I can to update my protection and continue to write despite these censorship and harassment efforts condoned by N.J. authorities. Continuing abuse of government power violates America's Constitution and insults the memory of the men and women who have died for our endangered freedoms. I will try, every day, to run a security scan of my computer. I will correct, every day, the "errors" inserted in my writings by New Jersey's hackers. ("What is it like to be tortured?" and "What is it like to be censored in America?")

Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), $9.00 at Strand Books.

Recently, I learned of the death of Philippa Foot. I am dismayed by the decline in numbers among first-rate philosophers -- especially women -- in the English-speaking world. Philosophy is in a bad way. There has never been a time when philosophy was not endangered. Philosophers are always predicting the imminent demise of their subject. Also, philosophers are always getting into trouble. We need philosophy to be "rescued" on a regular basis. This will require philosophers to get into trouble.

Why do I say this? Well, philosophy must be concerned to question the shibboleths of society. Philosophers must be skeptical and internationalist in their attitudes. Philosophy is not ideology. Philosophy is not necessarily "patriotic." Like science, philosophy is concerned with truth and ways of knowing truth, regardless of authority or prestige, power or wealth of would-be proponents of truth. Ideas are -- or should be -- examined on their merits, not on the basis of their proponents "influence." ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

Universities today are embarassed by philosophy. A tiny number of academics in elite universities soldier on, teaching the difficult techniques and scholarship to young persons, or "non-traditional" students, among whom there may be another David Hume or Baruch Spinoza, Mary Wollstonecraft or George Santayana. These brave souls in academia must endure the condescension of their colleagues in lofty areas -- such as industrial studies and marketing -- colleagues who teach "useful" subjects have little patience for this abstract discipline called "philosophy."

Philosophy, we are told, may be very nice but it is not useful or "practical." I disagree. I am sure that philosophy is among the most useful subjects a person can and should study, especially early in life. From the point of view of an observer, a marginal person in American society more amused than angered by the stupidity and insanity that seems more prevalent today than ever before, this absurd disdain for philosophy is also tragic because it translates into suffering for many people. The importance and meaning of suffering will be relevant to my substantive argument.

Many of our greatest errors today are philosophical blunders. We are going to bring "democracy" to Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, and we will teach people to "move on" from religion. Good luck in those efforts. Democracy is a philosophical concept of government dating from the ancient Greek world which may be impossible without the historical preconditions that societies must develop, usually painfully, that allow democracies to endure.

It is possible to call a government a "democracy" which is really another form of government, like dictatorship. Sadam Hussein called himself "President" and held "elections." I would not classify Hussein's Iraq as a democracy. Religion is an expression of the spiritual component in human nature which will express itself in other areas of life if it is denied in traditional religious forms. One can be a "religious" -- indeed, zealous -- atheist, a "believer" in non-belief and proselytizer, without joining a traditional religious organization of any kind or club of fellow non-believers. (Richard Dawkins?)

"A Spot of Bother."

Philippa R. Foot (1920-2010) may be one of the last members of a British generation that could refer to Hitler and Nazism as a "spot of bother" recalled from her youth. She was related to Grover Cleveland, one of the more obscure American presidents (deservedly, obscure) and Bernard Bosanquet, a distinguished idealist philosopher. Mrs. Foot was related by marriage to Michael Foot, a successful Labour politician and, if I recall correctly, a Prime Minister. I seem to remember that Mr. Foot was a leader in the effort to end the nuclear armaments race and a good socialist. My kind of guy.

Philippa Foot did not marry Michael Foot, as I always thought, but (I believe) she entered into conjugal bliss with Richard Foot, an historian. Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State (London: MacMillan, 1951). David Cameron has decided to cut the British budget in order to cope with a high deficit. Travel vouchers for members of Parliament will not be touched. Unhappily, the BBC fee will be frozen and there will be drastic reductions in programs and "services" offered by the network. I suggest to Brits that a second Civil War may be necessary. Where is today's Oliver Cromwell? Surely, the National Health Service is beyond these "shenanigans"?

Philippa Foot attended Oxford University with a witches' coven of fascinating and, often, beautiful as well as slightly mad British women at the mid-twentieth century high point of English-language philosophizing just before the great catastrophe struck. There is a delightful and charming tradition of British eccentrics, persons who seem to have emerged unscathed from the pages of Evelyn Waugh or Noel Coward. Mr. Coward was a house guest at my family's home in Havana, I am told, many years ago. Think of the dazzling wit and seductive charm of that great eccentric, Gordon Brown. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

One expects these women to traipse into a room holding a cigarette in a long filter in one hand and a martini glass in another, wearing an evening gown, a string of pearls, and roller skates -- like Boy George. Perhaps this is only a typical entrance for Kate Winslet or a slow and dull evening for Helena Bonham Carter. Naturally, these women may fit easily into my extended family. All of these women and most British philosophers write very well. Professor Foot (she eventually taught somewhere in California) is best known for defending a form of ethical objectivism and cognitivism:

"Best known for her work in moral philosophy, Professor Foot wrote two highly influential articles in the 1950s arguing against prescriptivism, the analysis of ethical belief and judgment propounded by R.M. Hare. In these papers ('Moral Arguments' (1958), 'Moral Beliefs' (1958), she argues that moral beliefs must concern traits and behaviour that are demonstrably beneficial or harmful to humans, and that what shall be regarded as beneficial or harmful is not a matter for human decision. [emphasis added] Moral beliefs cannot, therefore, be dependent on human decision. ... More recently her work has been concentrated on virtue theory [Aristotle, Aquinas, Elizabeth Anscombe,] and on the limits of utilitarianism. For many years a fellow of Sommerville College, Oxford, she has also held many posts in America."

Ted Hondereich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), at pp. 283-284. ("Bernard Williams and Identity.")

I mentioned the beguiling and curious British women who were Mrs. Foot's colleagues at Oxford University and in the philosophical profession. Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, later Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Warnock were among these women. There is a secret and shared experience among these fine ladies which has not been noted by comentators.

All of these brilliant women (with the possible exception of Ms. Anscombe who attended Oxford and mostly taught at a place called "Cambridge University") were tutored by Donald McKinnon at Oxford. All of them read F.H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality under McKinnon's supervision at about the same time. McKinnon guided them through the grand tradition of Western thought as the darkness approached England's shores. Several of the best philosophers in Britain during the post-war period happened to be women. They described these university intellectual experiences with McKinnon as among the most important in their lives. Mary Midgley, The Owl of Minerva: A Memoir (New York & London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 116-117:

"In the autumn of 1940 Iris and I were moved from our boring and cautious essay tutor to be taught philosophy for the rest of our time by that remarkable character Donald McKinnon. This was an enormous stroke of luck, without which I might well have drifted away from academic philosophy altogether. McKinnon is a kind of Oxford legend because of his eccentricity, but he was an amazingly good teacher. This was entirely a matter of his direct response in tutorials, not of his lectures or his writing. It was when he shared a question with a student that he drew on his enormous powers of intellectual digging." ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

Not every Oxford tutor and lecturer wished to teach a difficult subject like philosophy to "ladies." Many of the older dons were still displeased by the presence of women on campus during the twenties and thirties, even the forties. Donald McKinnon relished the prospect of tutorials with students he regarded (correctly) as among the finest at the university. As a result, Mr. McKinnon earned the distinction of having taught several of the best philosophical intellects of the century, women who have made outstanding contributions to philosophy, while also making a fine comment himself on developments in twentieth century ethical theory. D.M. McKinnon, A Study of Ethical Theory (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1957), pp. 61-121. (Yes, I have read works by all of these persons.)

Mrs. Foot felt lonely at Oxford until, during a period of illness, she was nursed back to health by Iris Murdoch who became a close friend for life. The loss of Iris Murdoch's first love, Frank Thompson, in the war is the unexplored and life-altering event in Murdoch's life that fits the pattern shared with so many of the greatest thinkers in the Western tradition. Ben-Ami Sharfstein, The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), at pp. 380-395.

I believe that the best tribute to any philosopher is what philosophers in other parts of the world would describe as a "dialectic," debate or discussion with a thinker's expressed views. This is my way of saying goodbye to Philippa Foot. I will focus on Mrs. Foot's essay "Reasons for Action and Desires." Peter Conradi, Iris Murdoch: A Life (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2001), at pp. 127-128.

"A Streetcar Named Desire."

Professor Foot's essay appeared as a review of Michael Woods, "Reasons for Actions and Desires," in Proceedings of the Aristotelean Society, Supplemental Volume (1972), no page number is given. Woods, like Philippa Foot, wishes to argue against the view that all reasons for action are reducible to "desires." Mrs. Foot concludes that Mr. Woods' arguments for rejecting this classical empiricist position that is usually associated with utilitarianism are inadequate even as she agrees with his substantive position.

Mr. Woods is closer to the truth than Mrs. Foot realizes when he insists that some actions are motivated by more than desires because they reflect aspects of our natures that have nothing to do with desires or happiness, narrowly understood, since our actions are or must often be concerned with human "flourishing." Mrs. Foot is not a hedonist nor does she define "happiness" as "the maximizing of desires." She is more of an Aristotelean and Bradleyean (teleologist) who regards happiness as concerned with "the full development of our human powers." This general philosophical position is shared with Elizabeth Anscombe.

"Full development" frequently has little to do with "happiness" in vulgar terms. As those unapologetically vulgar Americans say, "it ain't a barrel of laughs." ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.") What this means should become clearer from what follows.

"Happiness" -- as defined by Aristotle and Aquinas -- amounts to something like "human flourishing" or "self-realization" (F.H. Bradley), as I have noted, and has little to do with the maximizing of desires in the utilitarian tradition. Happiness is not about material possessions, necessarily, beyond the minimum required for human life nor is it, primarily, a result of satisfying strictly material desires or maximizing pleasures. Aristotle has been called, "the first socialist." This observation is sacriligious in America. ("Fidel Castro's 'History Will Absolve Me'" and "'The Constant Gardener': A Movie Review.")

"Eudaimonism teaches that the supreme help a man gives to others," David L. Norton writes, "subsists in his integrity and self-responsibility, and cannot be predicated upon the ruin of these. Thus our preliminary social excursion returns us to stand once again before an intractable personal integrity that constitutes the core of prescriptive eudaimonism."

Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), at pp. 14-15. (Communitarian socialism.)

The position that both of these philosophers, Foot and Wood, correctly reject has become conventional wisdom in America -- probably, also in Britain -- as one result of the triumph of social science thinking over what were once called the humanities. With the completion of a university degree in any of the traditional areas of the humanities or social sciences, law and psychology very much included, a young person today develops an attitude that is known in Europe as a "hermeneutic of suspicion." ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "Nihilists in Disneyworld.")

Love is really a desire for sex. Religious devotion is concealed will to power or hypocrisy. Politics is the hunger for power among politicians. At the bottom of all of our motivations to action -- post-Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche -- is desire or will to power, nothing more. Interestingly, the discussion between scholars and the place for this debate today is among psychologists who usually display a level of ignorance of the classical literature dealing with this controversy that would have been shocking in an unusually stupid undergraduate only a generation ago. Adam Phillips is a rare exception on this point. "On What We Need," in Equals (New York: Perseus, 2007), at pp. 118-143 and Andre Compte-Spontville, "Love," in A Short Treatise on the Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 222-290.

The concept of "fidelity" in love is a complex one in Christian and non-Christian thinking within the teleological tradition for a thinker -- like Ms. Anscombe -- who regarded her affection and closeness to Wittgenstein as a kind of non-marital love.

"Prudential reasons seem to provide the most obvious counter-examples to the thesis that all reasons for action depend on the agent's desires. By 'prudential reasons' I mean those having to do with the agent's interests. [emphasis added] There are of course problems about the limits of this class, but these need not concern us here. It will be enough to take some uncontroversial example of a prudential reason." (Foot, p. 149.)

Mrs Foot offers the example of a man who knows he will go hungry tomorrow unless he shops for food today. Under normal circumstances it would be inadequate or absurd to speak of a "desire" not to go hungry tomorrow. Temporal factors slide into the discussion. One may speak of an "interest" in good health and welfare or beliefs concerning the most likely steps necessary to bring about "optimum conditions" at such time as predictable desires arise. Desire and, indeed, interests are concepts twisted and turned to make views concerning what we "ought" to desire fit such ostensibly scientific and rational theories that claim not to be concerned with "oughts."

Much of the philosophical work of the twentieth century, especially in the UK, develops as philosophers struggle to escape the straightjacket of the fact/value distinction and divide, something Iris Murdoch managed to do in the fifties. Iris Murdoch, "Fact and Value," in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (London: Penguin, 1992), at pp. 25-57, then Iris Murdoch, "The Idea of Perfection," in The Sovereignty of Good (New York & London: Ark, 1980), at pp. 1-46.

Ideas defended in these works by Ms. Murdoch received their first articulation in works written during the fifties and sixties, such as Iris Murdoch's famous essay on Sartre which was the first in England dealing with this thinker's works. Elizabeth Anscombe also rejected the fact/value distinction from a Thomistic direction and in development of Wittgenstein's late views in his Philosophical Investigations. Discussions in terms of facts or arguments concerning values may be seen, in Wittgenstein's terms, as compatible or overlapping "language games." (Again: "A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

All forms of behaviorism are inadequate. Human flourishing is a meaningful term only in light of an understanding of human nature that makes fourishing universal for all persons as distinct from a matter of desire for any individual. The good of humanity is not and cannot be "all relative." What constitutes human flourishing or realization is an "objective" matter instantiated, to some degree, in every human life because it is the realization of our "natures":

"What we want here is a use of 'desire' which indicates a motivational direction and nothing more. ... Can wanting create a reason for acting? It seems that it cannot." (Foot, p. 149.)

We end by attributing a desire to the agent to act in a manner X when (and only when) the agent acts in a manner X. This seems a tiny bit circular. Unlike hampsters or squirrels, persons have "reason" and not only "desires" as that great philosopher William Shakespeare has taught us. Hence, we may desire without acting. Furthermore, we may take actions we deem necessary and good even when we do not desire either the outcome or the action. However, where the consequences of actions are foreseeable, we must be prepared to accept and deal with the likely moral implications of what we say and do. ("What is it like to be censored in America?" and "Manifesto for the Unfinished American Revolution.")

Unless the words "desire" and "interest" are elongated, like used chewing gum, to lose all of their normal meanings and flavors these realities of the human condition are inadequately accounted for in this excessively thin view of persons' motivational options that are reducible to behavior. Desire = action. Every action is only the expression of a desire. The key terms in this paragraph being "human condition" and "persons."

I am about to summarize a very Catholic understanding of these philosophical issues which is explicable in strictly secular terms that are shared with Jews and Muslims as well as ethical atheists. I appreciate the hostility to this insistence on human dignity, but I fail to understand the hatred of all that elevates humanity. Perhaps that hatred is on display in the attacks against these writings.

The phrases "human condition" and "human nature" are forbidden in contemporary academic discussions of these matters. We are animals with biological "desires" and needs, nothing more. In fact, I suggest that we are very special animals with biological needs and desires to be sure -- this is a point granted by Mrs. Foot -- but also with spiritual needs and aesthetic aspirations and, thus, a powerful directedness towards both beauty and goodness. We want both sex and eros. Indeed, these things (beauty and goodness) may be identical fulfilments of our human nature. Compare Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry (New York & London: Routledge, 2001), at pp. 19-69 with Charles Larmore, The Autonomy of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), at pp. 69-129. (A self-proclaimed anti-Kantian whose sub-rosa ideas of human nature seem to come from the Greeks and who is much less of an anti-Kantian than he realizes.)

Elizabeth Schellekens, a gifted young British philosopher and another of those annoyingly brilliant English women that are as common in the UK as the famous "rain in Spain that stays mainly on the plane," anticipates everything that I would say on this subject and several things that I would not have thought to say in a recent book entitled: Aesthetics & Morality (London: Continuum, 2007), at pp. 45-95. (I hate when women do that.)

A classic examination of the human nature controversy is Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (New York & London: Routledge, 1995), at pp. 42-49. ("Aristotelean and Kantian Beasts.")

We do not desire suffering, but we may welcome suffering as the price of remaining human, for example, by loving someone despite the pain involved in that love. We may not seek or want pain, even if we recognize that human dignity may require that we endure and live with pain, for the sake of others, with some forebearance and strength. The word "desire" will not do in this context. I revise this essay today, after defacements and attempts to destroy the work (I think) because it is good, recalling the sadness and strength of a man I knew as an adolescent who experienced what I am enduring now. That man's response to evil was pity. ("Stephen Hawking's Free Will is Determined" and "Pieta.")

Moral suffering and spiritual agony may be conducive to full human development, as persons, in mysterious ways that we do not fully understand, as is commitment to struggle. As Shakespeare has also taught us in King Lear, life probably will require all of us to "take upon us the mystery of things." ("William Shakespeare's Black Prince.")

It is in this sense of abdicating or violating his nature that a wicked or immoral man is irrational, a point missed by Professor Foot in her otherwise shrewd analysis. This profound wisdom is part of the mystery of the crucifix and other religious symbols, such as the Star of David at the Holocaust Museum placed near barbed wire from the camps. What is more, this insight that a wicked person surrenders his or her humanity is, partly, also derived from the Greeks. The idea is constitutive of the Jewish heritage of every person born into our Western civilization:

" ... the judaization of culture is culture's passing through the prism of moral-self-questioning. It can be so construed by virtue of two criteria proposed by the late Steven S. Schwartzchild: first, 'the primacy of Practical Reason,' the idea that human beings are moral agents before they are cognitive subjects [Aristotle, Maimonedes, Aquinas] and that logic, epistemology, and metaphysics are therefore the instruments of ethics; and second, the transcendence of the rational, the hypothesis that the ideal cannot be realized in the world of phenomena and 'that everything in the world is fallible and subject to critique.' ..."

Religious insight says that it is reason which discloses unavoidable mysteries (death, evil) and the need to struggle, eternally, for comprehension of all that may be incomprehensible in ultimate terms. Persons must endure a tragic component in life, according to Miguel Unamuno and Martin Buber because our languages (including the arts) always mean more than they say. We feel more than what we understand. We do much more than what we desire to do, usually with sinister and unintended effects:

" ... for Steiner tragedy is concerned with the blind working of fate alien to the Judaic sense of the world. By contrast, 'the Judaic spirit [exemplified in Job] is vehement in its conviction that the order of the universe and of man's estate is accessible to reason.'" Edith Wyshogrod, "The Mind of a Critical Moralist," in Nathan A. Scott, Jr. & Ronald A. Sharp, eds., Reading George Steiner (Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, 1994), at pp. 154-155. George Steiner, "Our Homeland the Text," in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996), at pp. 306-307. ("The sensibility of the Jew is, par excellance, the medium of the bitter struggle between life and thought ...")

Can there be a struggle between life and thought if all action is reducible to desires? Everything I do is a matter of what I want regardless of my nature, as a person, under such theories of desire. Thus, I have no need to "struggle" against my impulses, since such a struggle would also be reducible to my desires, making the theory ultimately incoherent. For a defense of reason as motivating actions, apart from desires, see Thomas Nagel's classic The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), at pp. 79-143. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

Like it or not, Jewishness is central to Christianity and all Western models of transcendence (psychoanalysis is only one such model) as well as ethics. Irrational is tantamount to inhuman in terms of moral awareness. If a person were to witness the slow dismerberment of a child and then discussed the event dispassionately or clinically -- especially if the child were his own offspring -- we would regard that behavior as evil or irrational in the extreme. Any individual displaying such heartless behavior would be regarded, rightly, as seriously disturbed due to his or her absence of emotional coloring or sense of moral "location." We would say that such a person fails to "appreciate" all that is happening.

In today's newspaper we find an account of David Tarloff whose "reason" for hacking to death a psychologist on the Upper East side is that he desired to be provided with deluxe accomodations in prison. I am sure that the person seeking to destroy my writings has a similar means-and- ends kind of rationale for his or her actions. Here we see a "desire" and selection of means that are highly likely to achieve the desired result or ends. Discussion of ends or the "goodness" of desires is placed beyond consideration by would-be scientific types as "subjective" and therefore not amenable to quantification or scientific discussion. Mr. Tarloff's actions were, arguably, entirely rational given his objectives from this Humean perspective. John Eligion, "In a Schizophrenic's Trial, Both Sides Agree," in The New York Times, October 18, 2010, at p. A31. ("Robot bombs?")

An "error" was inserted in the foregoing paragraph illustrating my observations in this essay. I have corrected this inserted "error." Perhaps it was Mr. Tarloff who committed this terrible computer crime?

I am reminded by Mr. Tarloff's shrewdness of Britain's publishers who are every bit as clever as this distinguished New Yorker, Mr. Tarloff. I am very interested in Howard Jacobson's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question (London: Bloomsbury, 2010). British publishers -- seeking to capitalize on the notoriety received by the novel -- have failed to provide sufficient copies of the book to many Manhattan bookstores where the novel has, mostly, sold out. More brilliantly, these astute business people have failed to provide copies of any of the authors' previous novels to Barnes & Noble bookstores. This is the roar of the British lion in 2010. (I finally managed to purchase the book in a single Barnes & Noble bookstore in exchange for $15.00 and my immortal soul.)

Again, a pure instrumental analysis in behaviorist terms of Mr. Tarloff's interesting project would lead to the conclusion that he acted "rationally" on the basis of his desires. David Hume would be compelled to agree based on his view that reason says nothing about what we should desire. For Hume, we are told, reason can only be concerned with means to desired ends because reason is the "slave of the passions." ("David Hume's Philosophical Romance.")

Immanuel Kant and other philosophers with a fondness for the quaint notion of transcendence and objective features of human nature ("transcendental ego") would object that the "ends" chosen by Mr. Tarloff are in violation of his full humanity and hence, irrational as well as evil. Interpretive rationality examines both means and ends for cogency in terms of proper or natural human life, or flourishing. Stuart Hampshire, Thought and Action (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), at pp. 280-281. (This is the Afterword added to the 1959 original of this classic study of intentionality.)

Rational human agency serves as a constraint on what may be accounted appropriate ends for persons. Accordingly, seeking to destroy the creative works of others would not be considered a moral end for a rational subject quite apart from whether the persons responsible for such evil can "get away with it." I am not a "means" to your political or other "ends." Neither are my family members "means" to your "ends." (Again: "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

I think the Kantian tradition is right on this issue. Mrs Foot roughly agrees based on the Aristotlean and Thomistic traditions within Christianity. Kantian Critical theory leads to both an acceptance of instrumental rationality in the practical sphere of politics or social life and interpretive rationality primarily in the aesthetic/spiritual spheres of human life because both are concerned with valid aspects of human-being-in-the-world-with-others. Please see one of the greatest essays in philosophy that I have ever read: Iris Murdoch, "On God and Good," in Existentialists and Mystics (London: Penguin, 1999), at pp. 337-362. ("William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.")

"We readily accept private affection [love] as giving reasons for action without the least hint of self-interest; why should a more extended fellow-feeling not do the same? If a man has that basic sense of identification with others that makes him care whether or not they live wretched lives," -- for example, care that others not be made to suffer by being deprived (unnnecessarily) of the presence of loved-ones in their lives -- "has he not the best possible reason for charitable action? And would it not be misrepresentation to speak of this as a charity dependent on the feelings and inclinations of the moment, since both public and private affections endure through periods of coldness, and lack of inclination never destroys the reason to act?" (Foot, p. 155.)

"Tea and Sympathy."


Mrs. Foot rightly acknowledged the difficulty of resolving the mysterious connection between reasons and actions. There were hints in her writings originating in those magical tutorials, I suspect, under the watchful eye of Professor McKinnon and the spell of F.H. Bradley, when she suggested that our capacity for identification with the other, care and concern as well as other "prudential' considerations -- "tea and sympathy" for those who suffer more than we do -- had something to do with explaining how it is that we can act for good reasons despite our desires.

What leads us to pity and hate genuinely evil conduct is precisely this immediate sense that the evil person has suffered a terrible loss of humanity or feeling, something hideous has come to resemble the ordinary and seemingly pleasant person we thought we knew. Jeffrey Dahmer is a good example of the phenomenon that I describe because Mr. Dahmer's bland unconcern with the effects of his actions was entirely sincere. The ultimate challenge for the Christian or just ethical person is to "love one's way through the darkness in the world." This demand for love means that we must feel what Mr. Dahmer will not feel for Mr. Dahmer's sake and for the sake of his victims.

We must be good persons in order to do good in the world. Mrs. Foot's life unfolded at a time when these value words had a powerful meaning in people's lives. They seem to matter much less today. (See the films "Atonement" and "Enigma.")

I once heard a famous British novelist -- who was not so famous then -- respond to a question concerning his placement of characers in a World War II setting. He said: "Things were more important then." There were consequences to every action and every second was freighted with meaning and value because it could well be one's last moment on earth. Yet it was also a time when few people -- despite the enormity of the sacrifice for an entire generation of young men and women -- questioned the need for this sacrifice or the importance of the task at hand. Please see Robert Harris, Enigma (New York: Ivy Books, 1995) and Ian McEwan, Atonement (New York & London: Anchor, 2001).

What many of these amazing people who resisted Hitler (especially when it looked hopeless) and their equally amazing American counterparts did not appreciate at the time -- although Iris Murdoch did come to this insight -- is that the evil they fought against and defeated then will always be with us. 9/11 was a reminder of this truth for everybody in this city. The bombings in the London underground railway system is another reminder of this sad truth.

I experience something like the equivalent of those bombings at these blogs every day. The goal for the persons damaging these writings and me, also for the terrorists killing innocent civilians anywhere is to intimidate law abiding persons into accepting their orders. I doubt that such a tactic will work in Britain or America. I also seriously doubt that anyone will intimidate or prevent me from writing to the best of my ability from some location in the city. Sadly, such criminals may be able to count corrupt officials among their "enablers." ("Time to End the Embargo Against Cuba.")

The experience of evil has a wonderfully cleansing aspect for survivors. When facing evil, we learn what matters. We discover things about ourselves. We appreciate what it means to love and live with dignity. Finally, we learn all that we can and will do without necessarily desiring our actions, but because we recognize that they are morally demanded of us or that there may be no other person who can perform the needed tasks, when life itself is on the line, as it was for so many persons on 9/11. As an example of the courage and dignity that I admire, I include Guillermo Farinas and Mumia Abu-Jamal, Liu Xiaobo and Angela Davis or Noam Chomsky.

This admiration has nothing to do with whether I agree with the opinions of any one of these persons. (For the opposite of what is admirable, see: "American Hypocrisy and Luis Posada Carriles.")

Despite the value found in this moral lesson, and the actions that we take every day because of what we have learned, few of us will "desire" the experience of having to make difficult or ultimate choices between desperate options. We look at our children and at all of those persons we love, then we do what must be done. This is one lesson that I have learned from Philippa Foot and a few other distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century.

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