Monday, January 16, 2017

Free Will And Zola's Therese Raquin


I recently finished reading Zola's Therese Raquin, which was, among other things, a lurid, repetitive slog, but interesting and compelling too, so I kept at it.

There's a lot that can be said about it, but I'll just comment on one thing--Zola's delusion, sent forth in his Preface, which is, really, an Afterwords, written in response to criticism that his book is pornographic, that he's in effect conducting a scientific study of conflicting temperaments set in explosive situations. And his after-the-fact prefatory thesis is that morality is irrelevant to his project, that, in fact, it's outside it since his characters have no free will, their courses of action predetermined by the confluence of heredity and environment operating in the circumstances. 

This view is similar to Sam Harris's argument against free will in his The Illusion Of Free Will. Our actions are simply a series of links in a causal chain of events over which we never had or have any say. In fact, they occur in a zone and by factors that have zero to do with our say. And, so, as given by Harris's title, our certain sense that we are making willed choices is but an illusion, a false belief. Zola in his Preface says as much is his own terms. 

For example, and broad brushing the story with the broadest of  brushes, Therese by virtue of the her African/Algerian's mother's blood flowing through her is innately passionate and fiery but has repressed that due to the formative and stifling influence of Madame Raquin. Therese is repressed to the point of inhumanly squelched passivity. 

All that repression finds inescapable release when she meets Laurent, who Camille just happens to bump into and bring home. 

Laurent, drawn to her in virtue of his felt apprehension of her attraction to him, must have her as she must have him. And so, as they must, they have each other in a burning, insatiable, sexually compulsive affair until practical obstructions prevent their meeting. Their ardor burns in the denial of their flesh until they must murder Camille to put all obstruction aside. And they do. 

By their natures, however, their murder staunches their lust, the drive of which ineluctably becomes perverted in their mounting abuse of each other. That perversion takes a variety of turns, including sadomasochism in Laurent's constant beating of Therese at her purposeful goading him, and including an attempted escape into sheer degeneracy by each of them. Zola presents each perverse turn as inevitably flowing from the previous one until, as it must be, Therese and Laurent, unbeknownst to each other, independently decide to kill the other.   

Zola in his Preface says no moral judgment ought bear on their actions, that he lost himself in meticulously examining and dissecting them the way a doctor might lose any sense of the outside world in examining and dissecting a corpse. They are "human animals" whose animal natures he was intent on minutely disclosing through the means of his heavily and precisely detailed story. They have no souls, he says; they have no guilt. Guilt is an irrelevant category. Zola wants his novel to be, we might say, a simulated empiricist exercise in scientific determinism, what then came to be called naturalism in fiction.

But, I'd argue, Therese Raquin is incoherent in these terms. It's impossible to strip guilt out of the novel and have it make any sense. There's no other material way to account for the (over the top, repeated and repeated to a numbing fault) real and symbolic suffering, despair, occasional loss of sanity, pervading hallucinatory visions of Camille, mutual ongoing recrimination, mutually inflicted torture, terror, descent into degeneracy, sadomasochism, obsession and compulsion, nor account for the permanence of Camille's burning scar on Laurent's neck, nor for the imagery of burning and fevered flesh, nor of cages, vaults and imprisonment, let alone all the other ways Zola depicts Therese's and Laurent's suffering and infliction of such horrid suffering on each other.  

We need ask: why all this human suffering and horror if no guilt, if the characters' actions merely are the reflexive results of their natures and their environments in any contingent situation, as Zola has it in his Preface? 

My answer is that Zola is wrong, just as Sam Harris is wrong. 

Our "illusion" of free will is not a false belief. It is a shared order of subjective reality every bit as real as  material cause and effect. We live significantly with we make out of free will. We cannot hold a coherent conception of ourselves without it. We build ordered societies out of it. We erect vast and towering intellectual structures out of it. We feel it in ourselves so deeply as to lie to ourselves in denying its reality, so deeply as to escape into unsustainable, attenuated, inhuman  abstraction in denying its reality. And so, similarly, Therese Raquin read without having read Zola's afterwards Preface undoubtedly leads to our understanding of lacerating guilt for crime as a predominant theme in it.

After all, finally, and always, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Note On Charles Murray's Coming Apart


I just finished reading Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010

It was published in 2012,

Murray argues that elites now embody the "founding virtues," once attached to the American working class--religious faith, hard work, honesty and marriage. He says that a telling number of the white working class poor and the poor, about 30% of U.S. whites, have fallen away from these virtues and that they are crucial to what he calls the "American Project." 

The top 20% of whites, the top fifth, the best educated, with the best jobs, the highest incomes, have come on to the founding virtues. So, for Murray, at root, the great American inequality is cultural, and it's that that drives the other inequalities. 

So now, taking marriage for example, for the top 20%, Murray says the data show, divorce rates since the nineties have gone down, as has child bearing outside of marriage. But not so for the working poor and the poor: he says the data here show sky rocketing divorce, marital quality decrease and much higher unmarried child bearing. 

Same pattern for crime, religion and industriousness/work, according to Murray's data. 

While he's focused on white America, he argues that the data tell the same story for all of class riven America.

The American Project, he argues, depends on the strength of the founding virtues. Businesses flounder without industriousness. Correlatively the welfare state grows, which means the size and cost of government grows. With that, the key foundational premises of America, individual liberty, responsibility and self government shrink. 

Murray in answer to coming apart, among other things, exhorts the elite to preach what they embody, spread the word, so to say, rather than simply segregating and replicating themselves by their children absorbing the same virtues, getting better educations and jobs, and marrying amongst themselves.

For Murray, the failure to come together means coming more and more apart till the very bonds of consensus providing the social glue and legitimacy sustaining the nation will fray beyond repair.

While I see much that is telling in his argument, particularly the cultural diagnosis at its core, I find its conclusions faultily apocalyptic, his portrait unpersuasive as to the mass of Americans between the two book end quintiles. And, even if I'm wrong and Murray's dire vision is right, his central remedy of "preach what you practice" is, I think, pious, attenuated and a form of wishful thinking.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Ending Of Lear

For me, the play ends in unabated gloom and negation. Nearly everyone is dead save for Albany, Edgar ands Kent, and he's soon to be done, at least according to him. Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and Lear are toast as are Edmund and Gloucester. The good die, commingled in death with the louses, making it hard/impossible to see redemptive justice or indeed any justice at work. "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” I argue there is nothing redemptive in Lear, only, as I say, unabated gloom and negation. Furthering the negation in  "No, no, no": “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” (5.3.306–307). Lear dies with the slight, momentary fantasy that Cordelia will come back to life but that is but illusion, a false and harrowingly sad final hopelessness. For Edmund, Goneril and Regan, life only leads to twisted and perverse death that blasts what should be the bonds of family and love. The mass of death both on and off the stage at play's end evince only the tragedy of meaninglessness, a blank nihilistic vision of abject negation rooted in overweening evil married to cruel circumstance.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Means In King Lear "The Ripeness Is All"?


Ripening in womb a given here? Ripening in life is the acquisition of wisdom is how I take it. Lear journeyed from intemperate wrath to the wisdom of seeing how the world goes with no eyes. He followed the path set by Kent: 'See better Lear'. The eye  gouged Gloucester learned too see better without eyes. The ripening is akin to Hamlet's readiness. Lear's tragedy is that the new spiritual richness was ripped from him...without his ripening the tragic ending 


Is it ripening in a womb? Why? Going hence and coming hither, I've always thought might be bracket ends of birth and death with all of life as in between or might be separately or as lesser included the coming being and going of any particular moment. If any of those readings are possible where does ripeness--a peak of maturity, the peak of anything in relation to its best usage, something we typically think of for food that grows, a state before spoilage through aging past prime, and it also can suggest an overly rich pungency in the way the meaning of ripe in some instances blends in with over ripe--in any of these senses come into it? 

I had never thought of ripeness in the play as something like full or mature vision, the deepest seeing. And that has explicatory possibilities. I like it. But even with it, I have trouble inferring as a sheer matter of language the notion of the deepest vision from "ripeness," even as your reading does make sense of "is all." 

But a problem with this reading may be to ask: what is the spiritual richness Lear has gained? I would have thought it was the birth and growth in him of compassion, at feeling in himself the suffering of others. That would be a spiritual richness. But he has this before Cordelia is murdered. He is ready to go with her to some reclusive place and simply observe the folly and evil of court life from which they purposefully absent themselves. But then Cordelia is ripped from him, as you well say. And then he shouts to the universe, "No, no, no!" And what he experiences then, it's my view at least, is blasted negation. So what spiritual richness is this; and what does ripeness n any of its meanings, the deepest vision or a mature peak of something making it functionally prime or some other meaning, have to do with it? 

Now you may say I'm arguing on the basis of an idiosyncratic reading, and that's fair enough. But I can't see anything redemptive of the tragedy in what Lear finally understands or sees, if those words even are apt in describing the final mangled condition of his soul. I don't see ripeness as vision or as anytime else. I see only a broken, haunted, destroyed man. In a word, I see in him only nothing, only "No, no, no!" 

As for Hamlet's "the readiness is all," I wrote about that in what I wrote about Hamlet. But that's for another time and thread perhaps. Just to say, I don't see these "too alls" as much related.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Reading Of Gulliver's Travels


A Reading of Gulliver's Travels: 

I just finished rereading Gulliver's Travels ("GT") and a few bits of analysis right to hand on line.

I gather that the ending of the book is an interpretive challenge and has caused quite some literary debate. (I'm glad to be corrected if I'm wrong.)

I have a view of the ending that maybe can flower into a coherent interpretation of the whole. I have not seen my view mentioned though it may well have been asserted in all the annals of GT criticism. 

My argument in a nutshell is that Swift's vision in GT is ultimately tragic.

A jumping off point for my view is the description at book's end of Gulliver spending four hours each day in his stable speaking to/with his two horses, who he keeps,  feeds and cossets and puts to no labour.

That is madness. That is an estrangement from reality. While the moral nobility of the  Houyhnhnms may well justify Gulliver's desire to live with them until his death, that doesn't vitiate his final demented speaking with horses, who he imagines are speaking with him. 

There is, however, a thematically important limitation to the Houyhnhnms' pure rationality, a practical rationality to be sure, unlike the abstracted craziness of the Laputans, (puta Spanish for whore.) While the Houyhnhnms are perfection to Gulliver, and while he tries in futility to be like them, while they exemplify fellow/horse concern and benevolence, they are also stale, dull and obtuse. Their language is barren, unpoetic, purely functional; their sex lives mechanistic, functional and lifeless. 

Their ordered lives lack all vitality. Death is of no significance to them. They miss the very id energy that makes life hotly messy, tragically flawed and vitally rich. The  Houyhnhnms are all super ego, devoid of the play in human life of the vile and the great, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, so to say. In a nutshell they are, literally, inhuman.

In his encounter with their utopian virtue, Gulliver encounters the heart of darkness, man's rapacity, depredation, folly and illusion, man as Yahoo "with a tincture of rationality." He has this encounter when speaks of European ways with his  "Houyhnhnm master," before he is banished. In this encounter, perceiving he is but a Yahoo "with a tincture of rationality," a patina of it perhaps, he becomes estranged from his own humanity, the vestiges of good that abound in humans, such as the kindness of Don Pedro de Mendez, or the benign, compliant goodness of his own family, wife and children, whom he reviles as Yahoos. He cannot see that the Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland are to humans what humans are in morality and virtue to the Houyhnhnms. 

Gulliver, pliant, pliable, compliant, ready to stoop readily to what he sees as above him, is nearly always bowled over by what he admires. He has at least twice been ready to lay down his European life, his English bourgeois life, in order to live with the Struldbrugs before he learns the truth of them, and of course with the Houyhnhnms, until they banish him. 

And up until he voyages to Houyhnhnmland, he is able to navigate his way back to his ordinary English life subject to never being able to settle there for long. But after the Houyhnhnms, after his intellectual voyage to the heart of human darkness in comparison with the highest virtue of the Houyhnhnms, he is undone, his sanity overwhelmed. 

And so in his madness, in his inability to regain human perspective, to see prosaic human goodness, benevolence and kindness where it exists, he is reduced to letting his wife speak only briefly to him after five years, while he speaks with horses four hours a day in the illusion they converse with him. His peering into the heart of human darkness has a unbalanced him unbalanced, made him mad. 

So therefore, can't we say, and I argue, that Swift's vision in GT's is ultimately tragic, that we cannot confront the deepest truths of ourselves, as has Gulliver, without brooking madness, that, in another way of looking at it, as Wallace Stevens writes, 

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds?

Not what Stevens says, but what GT says, we must perforce be blind to what is worst about us, the deepest evil truth of ourselves, to be sane. We eke out such existence as we can amidst the folly, depredation, evil and illusion that humans live under in virtue of what they are. Gulliver's madness is the cost the truth of ourselves exacts.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Briefest Of Notes On Gulliver's Travels


I'm rounding the club house turn with Gulliver's Travels. He's back in England for a titch before he leaves for his fourth and final voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms.

Is there anyone who hasn't zoned out in parts while reading Swift's frequent descents into various lists and physical descriptions of things?

I've tended to.

But regardless, one of the ways I'm approaching this reading is try to trace as the book goes ahead how Gulliver himself changes. 

I thought that after he learns the scuzzy truths of apparently great personages and events of history in Glubbdubdrib: ..."I was chiefly disgusted with modern History"...he would be disabused of his reverence for the kings and lords he still meets. But in Luggnagg, and then Japan, he still shows that reverence for those in high and royal place.

I'll have to see how this aspect of things--changes in Gulliver--finally resolves itself in Part 4, concerning the Houyhnhnms.

As a p.s.: what Gulliver reveals of himself when first encountering the Struldbruggs and before he learns the awful truth of living forever is fascinating. 

He's ready all of a sudden to ditch his desire to get back to England and his family and is prepared to spend the rest of his life with whom he imagines the Struldbruggs to be in their eternal longevity. He thinks they must be the repository of th greatest learning and wisdom and he goes on about all the glorious good he could were he have the gift of eternal life. 

His idealistic, innocent naïveté is very apparent here.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Streamlining The Analysis of Walter Rostow On The Legality Of The Settlements

I've done this to try to get at the essence of Rostow's analysis for my own benefit and for such convenience as it has for you.  

In 2 parts 



1500 -- 1917 Palestine "P" part of Ottoman Empire.

After 1917 under British Mandate

On July 24, 1922, the League of Nations Council confirmed the Mandate.

The Mandate explicit that the Mandatory Power responsible effecting Balfour Declaration in favor of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, and League of Nations incorporation  formed part of the same international law that self-determination is a right. 

The Mandate espoused the facilitation of Jewish immigration encouraged Jewish settlement: "it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

In 1922 ratified in 1923 the League of Nations gave Britain the Mandate to administer Palestine, which required her to implement the Balfour Declaration, and undertake a “sacred trust of civilisation” to advance the welfare of the Palestinian people and guide them to independence

Article 80 of the UN Charter, known in 1945 as the “Palestine” Article, carried this body of international law forward to the UN Charter era.

In 1947, Britain asked the UN to consider the question of a future government in Palestine in light of Britain’s determination to withdraw as Mandatory Power in 1948

On November 29, 1947, UN GA passed Resolution 181 (II), which recommended to the Mandatory Power and to the Security Council the adoption of a partition plan for the remaining area of the Mandate (west of the Jordan River)...

Common perceptions notwithstanding, General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) was not and is not legally binding, both because of its language—it is recommendatory only—and because of the limited powers of the General Assembly under the UN Charter.

In 1949, Israel concluded armistice agreements with Syria, Egypt and Jordan. These agreements included as a common provision that the Armistice Demarcation Lines were agreed “without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or claims related thereto.”

Since 1949, despite several wars, UN resolutions, and endless argument about the relative merits of claims to the lands of the Mandate, the status of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem has never been resolved finally as a legal matter.

UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (November 22, 1967) and 338 (October 22, 1973) together constitute an authoritative UN decision on the principles to frame an Arab-Israeli peace settlement and remain the most important agreed framework for Arab-Israeli peace.

These resolutions reflect two facts, on the mind of governments of the day. The first, the Six-Day War of June 1967 was, for Israel, a lawful exercise of the inherent right of self-defense recognized in Article 51 of the UN Charter. 

As a result, Israel’s occupation of territory beyond the Armistice Lines was a result of aggression by its neighbors.

Second, governments determined not to repeat a mistake in 1956–57, when, under international pressure, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula without a peace agreement with Egypt. As President Johnson put it in 1967, “Nasser slit our throat from ear to ear” by reneging on the 1957 terms for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai."

Arguments for lawfulness:

1 Geneva Convention doesn't apply on the ground that, under Article 2, the Convention applies only to occupation of the “territory of a High Contracting Party.” No country has a recognized legal claim to the “occupied territories.” Consequently, they are not territories “of” any contracting party, and therefore the Convention does not apply to Jewish settlement. In making this argument, advocates of legality stress that the international community did not recognize Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank and that now Jordan has withdrawn its claim. 

2 Even if the Geneva Convention applies, it was not directed at the kind of activity undertaken by Israel. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention responded to the Nazi experience and is directed at transfers of large populations into occupied territories intended to colonize territories so as to endanger the economic situation or separate existence of the existing populations. Proponents of this view argue that the nature and extent of Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not threaten the native population and therefore would not violate the Geneva Convention even if it applied. 

4 There'a principe of into law that, where a prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully (in this case, Jordan), the state subsequently taking the territory in lawful exercise of self-defense has, against the unlawful prior holder, better title. This argument turns in part on the facts that led to the 1967 War and the conclusion that Israel acted in lawful self-defense against Egypt’s blockade, Syrian attacks and provocations, and other menacing actions. 

5 A fifth argument is based on the historical claim of Jews to live in Palestine. Proponents of this argument, which arguably is not a legal one, trace the history of the region back to biblical times and assert that the Jews have had a continuous presence in the area and have a superior historical right to it.

Finally, my own 2 cents.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 242

November 22, 1967

Following the June '67, Six-Day War, the situation in the Middle East was discussed by the UN General Assembly, which referred the issue to the Security Council. After lengthy discussion, a final draft for a Security Council resolution was presented by the British Ambassador, Lord Caradon, on November 22, 1967. It was adopted on the same day.
This resolution, numbered 242, established provisions and principles which, it was hoped, would lead to a solution of the conflict. Resolution 242 was to become the cornerstone of Middle East diplomatic efforts in the coming decades.

The Security Council,

Expressing its continuing concern with the grave situation in the Middle East,

Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security,

Emphasizing further that all Member States in their acceptance of the Charter of the United Nations have undertaken a commitment to act in accordance with Article 2 of the Charter,

Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:

Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;

Affirms further the necessity

For guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area;
For achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem;
For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones;

Requests the Secretary General to designate a Special Representative to proceed to the Middle East to establish and maintain contacts with the States concerned in order to promote agreement and assist efforts to achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement in accordance with the provisions and principles in this resolution;

Requests the Secretary-General to report to the Security Council on the progress of the efforts of the Special Representative as soon as possible.

Since the military withdrawal is from "territories," not "all territories," that Israel can stay on some of the territory must imply that who all the territories will go to is an open question. If it's an open question, then ownership is an open question. If so, one can't say definitively that it's all Palestinian land because if it was then the U.N. would have had no right to let Israel stay on some of it. How could it? If that is so, that unclarity, that proprietary open-endedness, demanding resolution by negotiation, ousts the clear applicability of Fourth Geneva Convention Article 49(6). That being so, who can say that Israel with all of its historic ties to the land cannot settle some of the lands, those settlements subject to ultimate resolution as was the case in Gaza, resolution in that case coming from its unilateral withdrawal, with the settlements dismantled?