I write on Vietnam War fiction in the New York Times by mattsteinglass
April 2, 2010, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Literature, Vietnam

I have a piece in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi. You can read it here.

If you can translate that, what can't you translate? by mattsteinglass
March 21, 2010, 9:38 pm
Filed under: Literature, Uncategorized

Jenny Davidson reminds me of Georges Perec’s novel “La Disparition”, translated by Gilbert Adair as “A Void”. The book doesn’t contain the letter “e”. This becomes thematic, with the protagonist trying to figure out what it is that seems to be missing in his life. Beautiful conceit: the reader knows what’s missing in the character’s universe, it’s blindingly obvious to us, but the character  can have no conception of it, and this comes to stand for our own relationship to what’s missing from our spiritual lives, which could be blindingly obvious to some hypothetical outside observer. In that way the audience-protagonist relationship works rather like “Memento”.

But the point here is that Gilbert Adair translated this from French to English. And it’s quite readable. Think of the challenge in every sentence. This gets back to my beef with people who too often claim that words, concepts or works of art are “untranslatable”. Certainly some are, but a lot of the time it’s just laziness and a desire to appear mysterious. I think Paul Bowles has a really good line about that sort of empty exoticism somewhere, but I can’t remember it.

The other 6 of the 10 books that influenced me most by mattsteinglass
March 20, 2010, 1:19 am
Filed under: Literature, Uncategorized

Got some more time, so I figured I’d finish it off.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. The first truly complete-feeling aeschatological fantasy. I think Tolkien has been enormously influential in shaping people’s subconscious assumptions about history and international relations, and not necessarily in a good way; a heroic epic approach to IR can be pretty dangerous. The main problem being that while Mordor was full of orcs, Iraq is full of people.

6. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Compare to #5 for interesting ideas about American triumphalism in the ’90s and ’00s. But Hegel is obviously more interesting than a narrow reading through the Fukuyama lens tends to indicate, and you do have to figure out some way to synthesize your idea of history with your idea of personal moral development if you want to think about politics as a moral enterprise at all.

7. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. I’m really glad I got to reread much of Bakhtin in my late 20s, because I don’t think I got it at all the first time around in college. It was much more powerful to think about how people’s statements emerge in a social process of response and constraint, rather than springing full-blown from the invisible monad of the individual imagination, after I’d been through the experience of having editors and an audience. Also, I reread Bakhtin in order to write an article for Lingua Franca, which was what drew me gradually into journalism. Again, pretty influential.

8. Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. I don’t think it’s his best book, but it has the most clearly formulated vision of America as either meaningless aporia or fiendish conspiracy. That Americans’ hunger for meaning plays itself out in that fashion is an insight I think remains central to my self-understanding of America.

9. Jane Austen, Emma. Guess what? People often don’t understand themselves very well, and their actions are driven by desires they themselves aren’t aware of. Freud explained this in the 20th century, but it’s ten times more powerful when Jane Austen shows you how it works, in an utterly convincing and sympathetic fashion, a hundred years earlier.

10. Chaos, James Gleick. I think this was my first introduction to the idea that even fairly simple systems can have complex and unpredictable behaviors, and that basically things in the world are likely to be vastly more complicated and perverse than you expect, so great big heroic interventions are usually unwise unless urgently necessary.

This has turned into a pretty weird list; I think that’s because much of what I’ve learned that was most influential didn’t come from books, but from magazine articles, movies, and, yes, blogs.

4 of the 10 books that influenced me most by mattsteinglass
March 19, 2010, 5:44 am
Filed under: Literature

Lists of the 10 books that most influenced you. People on the right are posting ‘em, people on the left are posting ‘em, I’m a hopelessly faddish so I decided I’d post one too. But I ran out of time. So here are four of them, anyway.

1. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. Everybody’s citing it, but you know, that’s the kind of book it is. I remember sitting in a waiting lounge at Dulles International Airport reading this and feeling like I was being personally eviscerated. I was in love for the first time and she was still somewhat involved with her previous boyfriend, who was a lot taller and more athletic than me; that may have had something to do with it. But the idea of examining the value of values, looking at them skeptically as things that had evolved historically for often brute-fact instrumental reasons (i.e. because a certain value was useful to the claims on power of a certain interest group), was incredibly compelling and ruthless. Once you’ve recognized this, you can’t — or shouldn’t — ever be able to uncritically embrace any kind of “first principles”, ever again, without thinking about who those “first principles” serve and whom they enslave.

2. Foucault, Discipline and Punish. This book fell out of favor by the late ’90s and is now back in favor, I think. Whatever. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found it extremely influential. Basically it did for my thinking about institutions and governance what Genealogy of Morals did for my thinking about values. As a side note, I’ve never understood why people who read Ayn Rand (whose work I’ve always found completely idiotic) are presumed to be more skeptical towards government than people who read Foucault. Foucault is far more brutal and uncompromising in his skepticism towards institutional and governmental motives and incentives. It’s just that, not being childishly naive, he also sees that we’re all formed by and imbricated in the institutions, and the brutal skepticism has to extend to individuals too.

3. Ayn Rand, Anthem. This is acquiring a narrative thread. Anyway, I read this on a bike trip through Cape Cod when I was 15, and found it so stupid and inferior (I’d read Animal Farm the week before) that it put me off Ayn Rand and any form of libertarianism forever. So I’d consider that pretty influential.

4. Neil Sheehan, A Bright and Shining Lie. But this is where I ran out of time, so you figure it out.

Literary theory actually enriches your reading experience by mattsteinglass
February 25, 2010, 9:17 pm
Filed under: Literature

Adam Kirsch has a really nice review of a new book by Elif Batuman, “The Possessed”, about her experiences in Russian literature grad school and studying abroad in Uzbekistan. The narrative aspects of the book sound like they pull off the difficult task of drawing life from the classic absurdist tropes of Eastern European literature without descending into patronizing  “in Soviet Russia, television watch you!” kitsch (a pitfall I think “Everything Is Illuminated” tumbled into, head over heels). But the most arresting part of Kirsch’s review touches on Batuman’s willingness to admit to something that’s practically taboo in mainstream American letters these days: a frank enthusiasm for Derrida.

What’s really unusual, and challenging, is Batuman’s praise of the most abstract kinds of literary theory.

It is conventional to talk about theorists—especially the dreaded French theorists—as if they were foes of the common reader, draining the reading experience of simple joy. But Batuman shows that, in her own life, the opposite has been true. When she first read Anna Karenina as a teenager, one of the things that struck her—as, after reading her, it must strike us—is the way Tolstoy readily recycles the names of characters: “Anna’s lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and half brother were both Sergei.” Batuman writes that this kind of casual repetition seemed “remarkable, surprising, and true to life.” Once she gets to graduate school, she finds that the work of Jacques Derrida helps her to understand why: “As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: it always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing. … The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual.”

This is a really strong turn for both Batuman and Kirsch to make. We’ve had a good 20 years now of an attitude towards academia and criticism in mainstream culture that basically amounts to rank anti-intellectualism. I think I first noticed how sick I was getting of that attitude a couple of months ago while reading a blog post by Scott Eric Kaufmann on “Mad Men” and realizing that he was getting some stuff out of the character of Don Draper that was extraordinarily deep. It was about three layers of reference more interesting than anything you’d read in the pages of Slate, and I suddenly remembered it had been about six years since I’d read criticism that benefited from that kind of competence in critical theory.

I don’t have that sort of competence; I opted not to go to grad school in Russian literature, and I’m happy I did. But Elif Batuman isn’t ridiculous to evaluate her emotional responses to the handsomest boy in her program through the filter of “Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire”; living your life as though intellectual interpretation counts is a way of taking life passionately and seriously. I don’t know what Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is, but I wish I did.

Andrew Sullivan's wild and crazy readers by mattsteinglass
January 29, 2010, 1:30 am
Filed under: Literature, Religion, Sexuality and Gender

Occasionally it’s nice to be reminded that out there in Christendom, there are still people capable of saying this kind of stuff:

The main sin is that masturbation (with minuscule exception) involves fantasy which is a distortion or absence of reality. In other words, it is a lie.

I expect that you know your fair share of the Bible, so it is a no-brainer about what Christianity from the beginning says about lies. They are unbecoming for the Christian because the Lord himself faced the truth of the ugliness and brokenness of life on this earth by hanging on the cross and we are called to be the same.

I, too, have read the occasional fantasy novel that felt like the author was just jerking off, and even some that felt like having nails driven through your palms. But I’d think even extremely literalist religious readers would hesitate to condemn an entire genre that includes, for example, C.S. Lewis.

Today's male novelists do write exuberant sex scenes, but mostly lesbian ones by mattsteinglass
January 10, 2010, 10:40 am
Filed under: Literature

Katie Roiphe’s terrific piece in last week’s NY Times Book Review on the relative lack of sexual exuberance in today’s young male novelists’ work was marred, I thought, only by its unfounded contention that nobody likes Philip Roth or John Updike anymore. (Roth’s most recent novel got terrible reviews, but apart from that I haven’t heard anyone maligning “Portnoy’s Complaint” or his extraordinary run of work in the 1990s and early Aughts; and the tone in most Updike references I read is pretty reverent.) Apart from that I think it was pretty solid. Basically, she thinks internalized feminist critiques of aggressive, polygynous male sexuality have turned today’s young male novelists into timid, conflicted Prufrocks:

In the early novels of Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the ’60s, with books like “An American Dream,” “Herzog,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Couples,” there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes — all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed…

But our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm”; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: “We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.”

It’s certainly true that men socialized in the feminist era are more conflicted about the idea of depicting their protagonists’ sexual exploits in triumphal language, or glorifying or romanticizing the outlandish wackiness of their libidos. And Roiphe is right that at its extreme, this self-censorship of politically incorrect male desire leads to Eggers’s ickily repressed moralistic scene, or to the crypto-Christianist sexual phobia of “Twilight”. [It occurs to me that "Twilight" is written by a woman. Duh.] It’s worth considering the extent to which male writers’ hesitancy about male sexual greed may edge them towards pretty dishonesty, or towards the safe cop-out of depicting their characters as nebbishes.

But here are a few things I thought of that may cast Roiphe’s point in a different light. The first is that the sexual revolution ultimately was confined to the unmarried. In the ’70s, when Updike and Roth were at the height of their powers, it wasn’t evident that this would be the case, but ultimately experiments in non-monogamous lifestyles in the US petered out. Many would have needed alternative economic arrangements to the nuclear family, which never materialized. Importantly, it turned out the vast majority of women just didn’t like socially sanctioned screwing around anywhere near as much as men did; it taking two to tango, this put the kibosh on a lot of the fun. And without any sense that society’s preferred arrangements for sexual affiliation might be profoundly changing, it’s very hard to sustain the kind of exploratory excitement that Roth, Bellows, Mailer and Updike put into their depictions of sexual experimentation.

Another point is that while many of the great libido novels of the ’60s are about the explosive experience of engaging in infidelity, we tend to remember fewer great ’60s libido novels as depicting the explosive experience of being cheated on. In fact, many of these novels do both; Bellows’s Herzog, at the opening of his eponymous novel, is lying in a hammock in the Berkshires calling himself crazy because he has just taken a gun to try to threaten his ex-wife and the man she ran off with. In this case, it is the wild and crazy experience of having your wife run off with your best friend that drives the madness and the emotional growth, made the more rich by the reader’s sense that our protagonist, sympathetic and insightful as he may be, richly deserved what he got.

But the most important way that the sexual revolution has influenced today’s writers is that it succeeded so well as to become banal, gross, obvious and commercially corrupt. Roiphe briefly touched on this in her piece, but I think it’s important to note that while this may be the moment of All the Sensitive Young Literary Men, it’s also the moment of the Bangbus. In 1969, Nathan Zuckerman celebrated his daring in whipping it out for all the world to see; in 2009, the guy doing that would be that creepy dude who invented Girls Gone Wild. Young writers today, if they’re avoiding this material, aren’t motivated only by a nice feminist upbringing; they’re motivated by trying to keep their brands distinct from those of widely accepted, commercially mainstream pornography and pornography-influenced advertising. Roiphe begins her piece with an anecdote about a friend hurling Roth’s latest novel into the trash can after reading an explicit MFF sex scene; she notes that the problem is that it fails as pornography. But the problem is also in part that pornography in 2009 is not what pornography was in 1969. Explicit sex scenes are now “transgressive” only in the most exhausted and empty conformist fashion, in the same way that football players believe themselves in some sense to be acting transgressively when they drink large quantities of beer. This is formulaic and de rigueur transgression. (Ross Douthat makes basically the same point.)

One member of Roiphe’s today’s-young-men roster who managed to do this kind of scene successfully and honestly, I thought, was Jonathan Franzen, with the sex scenes from the lesbian-awakening narrative in “The Corrections”. I am, obviously, not a lesbian, and for all I know those scenes were in fact quasi-pornographic fantasy. But they felt to me like a sincere, motivated and successful rendering of the obsessive crystal-meth alternate reality you spend your time in when you’re having new kinds of sex with someone you really, really, ever-increasingly, caution-to-the-winds dig. And, actually, I thought his depiction of the catastrophic teacher-student sexual narrative at the beginning of the novel, and its aftermath, were pretty spot-on as well, and can’t honestly be dismissed as wimpy. The sequences in which Chip circles all the letter “M”‘s in the newspaper and follows it up by masturbating onto a couch that still smells slightly of her were, I thought, appropriately Rothy. I also loved the jump-cut transformation of Miranda in Chip’s eyes from a ridiculous student in his section wearing a very uncool beret to an object of sexual mania.

But anyway, I did think it was interesting that the spot in the novel where Franzen felt free to depict transgressive extramarital sexual engagement as a liberating, uncontrollably irrational D.H. Lawrence-style voyage of the self was as part of the socially condoned (in liberal society, anyway) narrative of gay self-discovery. Which leads me to think that Roiphe is right that the moral strictures governing the depiction of sex, in general, are too tight for this generation of male writers, and that more guys need to start writing about the disgusting shit we’re actually thinking about. Though of course that would mostly just lead to a lot more depictions of lesbians.

Buddhism and Charles Stross and Julian Sanchez on persistent identity by mattsteinglass

I became aware via Andrew Sullivan that Julian Sanchez is having an argument with someone about immortality, or more specifically whether the idea that one’s identity doesn’t persist after death is a problem or not. In the course of his argument Sanchez notes a Douglas Adams passage about the Japanese conviction that a pagoda is still the “original” pagoda even if it’s been torn down and reconstructed many times. This brings me to two reference points in my current field of view: the Charles Stross book I’m reading, “Glasshouse”; and the Kim Lien Pagoda, a few blocks away on the far side of my village of Nghi Tam.


Kim Lien Pagoda dates from 1631, though extensive renovations were carried out in 1792. When we moved to the neighborhood in 2005 the interior of the pagoda felt heavy, medieval, antique and absolutely authentic. Last year the city tore it down, carefully, piece by piece. They’re going to improve it, rebuild it with a perfect copy in order to make it nice and clean for the 2010 celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. I expect all the bricks will be new, and that most of the timbers (particularly the carved ones) will be saved, though I fear those great old, imperfectly hewn columns may be replaced by more “perfect” ones with some kind of tacky finish.

Sanchez brings up the issue of the replaceability of “original” buildings in Buddhist traditions in the course of explaining why he feels no particular discomfort at the notion that his consciousness, embedded in his identity, is an artifact of the continuity of certain physical processes, and that once those processes are halted or dissipate, the identity will dissipate with it. The idea that identity must persist is, he thinks, partly a semantic confusion:

I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance.

So what if we did live in a world where split-brain disorders were common and Star Trek teleporters were literally on every street corner? That’s part of the premise of Charles Stross’s “Glasshouse”. We’re many centuries into the future, and two technologies that have existed since about the 22nd century are key: T-gates and A-gates. T-gates are teleportation wormholes, and they’re all over the place, such that neighborhoods can be non-contiguous in physical space from one room to the next, and you can pull a gun you’ve stored in another solar system out of a little T-gate in your pocket. More important, A-gates (or “assemblers”) can rapidly synthesize anything down to the subatomic level, including an exact copy of you, or an exact copy of you but with blue skin and four arms, or an exact copy of you but with the painful memory of your last marriage carefully excised. And widespread acceptance of the principle that an exact molecular copy is the same as the original means that people no longer die; if they’re killed, they’re quickly resurrected via their most recent “backup”; and they can go through profound transformations in their physical existence, including switching gender, or turning into an interstellar battle tank for a few decades. And memory surgery from one body to the next means you’re not necessarily exactly the same self you were before. All that’s necessary is that you voluntarily give full consent to whatever memory surgery you want to undergo, before you have yourself scanned, broken down and reassembled. The main task of society becomes the guarantee of identity, protection against identity theft, and firewalling against worms, which corrupt people’s identity from one copy to the next by infecting A-gates and inserting their code into the copies.

But is your fifty-third instantiation in the last hundred years, now a large “ortho” male rather than your previous delicate blue female with four arms, really you? Is that consciousness really the same consciousness? This question doesn’t even occur to the people living in this society; it’s an outmoded moral problem belonging to a different universe, like whether slaves have souls. There were, at one point, humans who resisted having themselves copied or reconstructed in A-gates, for philosophical or religious reasons, but those human societies died out long ago, because they were less powerful and attractive. All the humans now alive are the product of A-gates, they consider themselves to really be themselves, and they view the prospect of walking into an A-gate, having themselves annihilated and then reconstructed, with perfect equanimity, just as we view the prospect of falling asleep and waking up again.

This makes the experience of reading the novel rather intriguing, because you have to ask yourself, when the narrator goes into an A-gate and comes out again — sometimes as a person of the opposite sex, sometimes with his/her character altered, and so on — whether it’s still really the same narrator. But then you have to ask yourself what it is, when you’re reading any novel, that gives you the confidence from one chapter to the next that this is still a unitary person you’re listening to, or watching, apart from a narrative convention. That tension is brilliantly explored in William Gaddis’s first novel, “The Recognitions”, about an ultra-talented forger of oil paintings. Part of the tension for much of the novel comes from the hanging question of whether a particular painting is “real”, or the work of our protagonist; and then, cleverly, we find ourselves watching our protagonist himself only through other people’s eyes, until in the last few chapters a figure resembling him passes through the narrative, but there’s no reason to believe it’s actually him except that why else would we be hearing about this guy in this novel? So the question of a character’s integral identity is reduced to a narrative convention and to the will of the reader to believe that the character is an integral individual.

I would like to think that these kinds of questions really are integral to the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. But in fact whenever I’ve gone to a Buddhist sitting the issues raised have been vastly less interesting, and the music has mainly been intolerably bad. In any case, I do find the idea that our consciousnesses are not continuous or coherent somewhat disturbing, and I think it’d be nice to have a religion that treated the issue seriously; I don’t think it comes up much in Judaism anyway.

What Russian literature has to teach us about Guantanamo by mattsteinglass
June 16, 2009, 1:20 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Literature, Russia, United States

With at least a few of the Uighur detainees finally enjoying their well-earned freedom in the very civilized country of Bermuda, reflecting on Guantanamo is feeling at least slightly less morbid than it did for a long time. But during my visit to Finland I got back into Russian literature a little — basically, I dropped by a bookstore and picked up a couple of recent Russian novels for the first time in years — and that has prompted me to reflect once again that the relevant literary referent for the US’s merry adventures in torture and gulags comes from the land of the ice and snow. We’ve already covered Dostoevsky. Today let’s talk Victor Pelevin.

In Helsinki, I picked up Pelevin’s latest, entitled “П5: Прощальные песни политических пигмеев пиндостана,” or “P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan”. (The words for “farewell” and “song” begin with the letter P in Russian, so it’s five P-words in a row, hence the “P5″. The word for “five” also begins with P, extending the alliteration.) The book’s cover is fantastic — on the front, two kitschy fat-faced Chinese manga fairies in Disneyfied Central Asian outfits are embossed in red plastic and gold glitter; on the back is an image of a dead Teletubby with a bullet hole in his forehead, surrounded by a Hallmark wreath (again embossed with gold glitter) and the English legend “Forever Young”. The back cover boasts a banner line (in Russian) “The truth of life in every word!†”, while the cross — a cross, one notes, not an asterisk, with reference to the oleaginous ubiquity of Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Russia — sends us to a footnote at the bottom of the back cover: “This guarantee extends to each word, but does not apply to combinations of words in quantities of two or more, irrespective of parts of speech, components of sentences…” etc.

So far I’m still on Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Singing Karyatids,” which concerns a girl named Lena who is recruited with 11 others to stand for days at a time completely naked, stock-still, and covered with a green paste that makes them appear to be made of malachite, posing as a “karyatid” (the Greek female figures who hold up roofs in the neo-classical eclectic architecture that proliferated in Russia in the late 1800s) in a bunker 300 meters beneath Moscow, waiting for participants in orgies to ask them to sing or otherwise put them to use. Lena and the other girls are aided in this endeavor by doses of a muscle-freezing formula created by Soviet scientists in the 1980s to help snipers remain absolutely still. They are initially recruited by a fat cigar-smoking sleazeball named “Uncle Petya”, who then presents them for an inspirational speech by the real boss, a smooth and clean-cut athletic man in a dark grey suit, a “grey cardinal” (apparently in the KGB or FSB), who explains to them that their mission involves the national defense, and that “despite the superficial…ambiguity, shall we say, of your work, it is every bit as important as that of the sailors of the submarines that carry our country’s nuclear shield. Perhaps even more important — because war today is not what it was half a century ago, and is carried out with completely different means.”

I probably should have written the above paragraph the other way around, because what’s spectacular in Pelevin’s work here, as in his early novel “Omon-Ra”, is the bitter and hilarious contrast between patriotic ideological rhetoric and high technological jargon, and the humiliating and disgusting everyday reality of the human service activities undertaken in the service of these high goals and supposedly sophisticated machinery. In “Omon-Ra”, the hero is recruited into the Soviet unmanned space program only to find that it is not in fact unmanned, and that human volunteers are required to carry out the functions supposedly performed by robots before dying in the vacuum of space. In P5, the reader is equally gob-smacked and horrified both by the atavistic language of patriotic militarism employed by the “grey cardinal” and by the alternating tedium and exuberant sexual degradation of Lena’s actual work. Lena herself, seemingly, couldn’t care less about either one; she is utterly devoid of illusions about the nature of society and is happy to accept any legitimation for work that will earn her good money. The power of the writing comes from the contrast of the “grey cardinal’s” language — “it is a tremendous responsibility, but also a great honor” — and the comic treatment of Lena’s absurd work regimen, standing naked in an underground room, waiting for perversion.

So: Guantanamo. What was the language that echoed in those soldiers’ and interrogators’ heads, when they enlisted? What did they think they would be doing? Defending the nation from nihilistic murderers? Saving innocents? Fighting for democracy? Did they imagine they’d end up doing this by inserting a spider into a cardboard box in which a naked man was confined? By smearing ketchup on someone and pretending it was menstrual blood? By placing their underwear on his head? How did the rhetoric of justice spin itself down to these acts of petty, tedious, absurd cruelty?

It’s always been the Russians’ peculiar fortune to be able more quickly to perceive the gaps between the ideology we create to justify Western society, and the actual activities that constitute that society. In part that’s because in Russia, Western ideology has never fit well, and has tended to quickly collapse or be spun into a caricature of itself. In Russia, the “Washington consensus” rhetoric of privatization and the free market was warped into the absurdities of the oligarchs, just as the Marxist rhetoric of an earlier generation had been warped into the absurdities of Stalin’s show trials. The width of the gap between ideology and reality in Russia fueled the genius of Dostoevsky and, now, Pelevin. Unfortunately, the Russians seem to be so quick to perceive the absurdities of such ideologies that they are unable to take political principles seriously, and they repeatedly end up with societies in which a thin overlay of cynical ideology masks a politics and economy of pure unprincipled force.

That said, Victor Pelevin is fantastic, and everyone should read him.

Dostoevsky and Cheney, again by mattsteinglass
May 14, 2009, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Literature

I keep coming back to this sense that the narrative frame one needs to look at what happened with Cheney and torture policy is that of Dostoevsky. What are we seeing now with the conservative utilitarian argument for torture but a rehash of “The Grand Inquisitor” from the Brothers Karamazov, explaining the ironclad utilitarian case for re-crucifying Jesus? I noted earlier Raskolnikov’s disturbed rationalization of murder, driven by a confused combination of need, responsibility, and anti-humanist despair; his admiration for force, decisiveness and Napoleon resonate eerily with neo-con dismissal of the “evidence-based community”, their assertion they could make the world they wanted through sheer force of will.

And there’s a deep connection between Dostoevsky’s horror of the mechanical determinist worldview — the Underground Man’s world of “piano keys” and the “Crystal Palace” — and the fantasy of the all-seeing, all-knowing national security state, its computers data-mining every email and phone call, its streetcorner cameras, satellites and flying drones videotaping everything, everywhere. Because only in such a transparent and determinist world can utilitarian justifications for torture work. In the real world we live in, we know that nothing is predictable, and that the voice that whispers in your ear that it is just and morally necessary to torture the man in front of you — that you know with certainty that he is a terrorist, that he holds information that will save millions, that his life is less important than the lives of a thousand or a million, that the ends justify the means — is the voice of the Devil.


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