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Has Anyone Read "The Kindly Ones"?

by Maryb2004 Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 12:50:54 PM EST

There used to be a big independent bookstore located right across the street from my office building.  Among other things, it had a cafe that served coffee, pastries and light sandwiches at lunchtime.  I used to walk across the street for lunch at least twice a week.  Sometimes I would go with other people but often I would go by myself. I would often run into other people I worked with while standing in line to pick up a sandwich and we'd grab a table together to eat before we wandered off separately to check out our favorite sections of the store.

One day there was a table of about six of us who had run into each other by chance.  We ended up in an animated discussion of a review we had all read in the New York Times Book Review.  It turned out that none of us had read the book in question or had any interest in reading the book in question.  But we had a fantastic discussion about the review. We laughingly said that we should start a lunchtime book club in which we only discussed well written book reviews.

I was thinking about this as I've been reading reviews of Jonathan Littel's The Kindly Ones, which I have not read nor do I particularly want to read.  Littel's novel, written in French, was recently translated into English.  It is a fictional memoir of Dr. Maximillian Aue, a former Nazi officer who observed and engaged in the atrocities of the Nazi regime. It also tells his individual story in which he murders his mother and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister.


While highly acclaimed in Europe, winning prestigious awards, it was also subject to much criticism.  The very idea of telling a story of the holocaust from the perspective of a Nazi simply offends some people.  Others were offended by what they call the "pornographic" nature of the sections dealing with Aue's personal life.

As the Waterstones Books Quarterly says:

Despite the massive (and, admittedly, unexpected) commercial success of the book, it has divided critical opinion, being vilified and exalted in equal measure. While some critics have compared the novel to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Littell has been disparaged elsewhere as ‘a pornographer of violence’, and has been criticised for his graphic descriptions of incestuous sexual fantasy and the protagonist’s apparent obsession with his bodily functions. It has to be said that this novel is definitely not for the faint-hearted or easily offended.

Now it is coming to the English speaking world.  In the first review I read, in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani panned the novel.  But I didn't take it very seriously because Kakutani's review mostly seemed concerned with pointing out that her view was better than all of those other people in the world who have said that this is a novel worth reading.  She begins the review by listing all the prizes the novel has won and then she belittles them: 

The novel’s gushing fans, however, seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, “The Kindly Ones” — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.

Yes, all of those other people in the world were ... mistaken.  How simple.

She concludes:

Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust (“through aesthetic principles or stylization,” he contended, “the unimaginable ordeal” is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims”), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that “in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,” we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as “a staggering triumph.”

So there.

Last week a second New York Times review by David Gates was published, also not recommending the novel: "When you get this far into a novel, you should be able to tell whether something’s intentionally preposterous; but in this book, apparently a middlebrow historical epic gone willfully weird, it’s hard to trust that the author knows what he’s doing."  But at least Gates gave Littel credit for trying something big, but failing.  Littel, perhaps, bit off more than he could chew:

While “The Kindly Ones” may have a Nabokovian narrator — obscurantist in his erudition, hyperspecialized in his sexual tastes — its exhaustively researched historicity and documentarian realism clearly derive from “War and Peace.” It would take a writer of unimaginable genius to work these opposed tendencies into a coherent whole — and Tolstoy himself might have thought twice before trying to write fiction about the Holocaust. (Though, being Tolstoy, he would eventually have rolled up his sleeves anyhow.)

This review was a little more to my taste because I don't see the point in condemning a work without trying to figure out what the author was trying to do.   On the other hand, Gates didn't try very hard, asking questions but then just "supposing" answers: "What does Littell hope to reveal with what Aue calls these “infantile obscenities”? I suppose we’re to connect this compulsion for self-completion with his indifference to the mass murders in which he’s complicit, but such peculiarity hardly seems necessary."  My immediate thought was, then maybe the "peculiarity" was put there for another purpose?

As usual, I found the foreign press more interesting.  The Times of London gave it a pretty good review while implying that anyone who really wants to enjoy it ought to read it in the original French.  Some of us might even infer from the review that even the English translation could have been better if it had only been ... English: "This Anglo-American translation, which is certainly faithful, cannot quite capture the stunning use of language in the French original, in which harsh-sounding German ranks and technical terms strike the ear like the crack of a whip."   Anglo-American translation.  Hmmmm.

Interestingly, Littel is an American who has lived in France for years and he decided to write this novel in French.  He did not, however do the translation.   

The Times did acknowledge the controversies over this novel:

The book has caused a furious controversy. This is hardly surprising since in the past 25 years the Holocaust has become a sacred subject, mistakenly separated from and elevated above the Second World War itself. Some critics have argued that humanising one of the oppressors creates a form of empathy, if not sympathy. But I cannot understand how anybody could sympathise with Aue by the end of this book. Littell, a Jew, rightly believes that the prime duty of a writer as well as a historian is to understand. He has succeeded in putting himself inside the tortured mind of his character.

Aue's own sexual narcissism and perverse fixations with graphic scenes of degradation, to say nothing of a scatalogical leitmotif, has prompted accusations that the book constitutes a form of Nazi pornography. Yet it is a far cry from the crass SS orgies of Visconti's The Damned. Aue is completely obsessed by his twin sister, with whom he developed an incestuous relationship at puberty. There are mysterious details, such as the twice-mentioned fact that Aue is circumcised. Littell refuses to explain, saying that he himself is not sure what they signify, but that they felt essential when he wrote them: a form of symbolic logic that is intuitive and completely unplanned. As an author, he feels that it is up to the readers to analyse as they see fit. It is not the job of the novelist to explain his own work.

The review in The Globe and Mail was even more analytical, while not raving about the novel:

...The Kindly Ones is a work of art and it brings to its subject things only art can. To begin with, although it is ostensibly about the Shoah told from the side of a German soldier, it is actually a long meditation on transgression and the limits of the human imagination. Max Aue is homosexual, incestuous, matricidal. He is obsessed with feces, sperm and blood. Everything about him is about crossing a line. Why?

In order to rethink where our lines actually are, to think through what "limits" mean: moral limits, aesthetic limits, sexual limits. The great act of the imagination here is not only the imagining of what it would be like to be a Nazi (and, as Littell is a Jew, this is already a sacred act), it is also in trying to push the imagination to its furthest limits and, in doing so, to reaffirm limits, to reaffirm humanity. That is: It's only from outside of town that one knows where and what "town" is.

It was not until I read Daniel Mendelsohn's extremely well written analysis in The New York Review of Books that I wished that the "Book Review Book Club" existed so that we could discuss it. 

Mendelsohn calls it an ambitious, serious novel and believes it worthy of serious treatment (implying that so far it hasn't received serious treatment from the English language press). According to Mendelsohn, to understand the novel we must understand Littel's ambitions - we must try to understand what Littel was trying to accomplish.   

The key to these ambitions lies in the complex resonances of the novel's title. Bienveillantes is the French rendering of the classical Greek word Eumenides : the "well-meaning" or "kindly" ones, the ritual appellation rather hopefully used to designate the awful supernatural beings far better known to us as the Erinyes, or Furies. In Aeschylus' Oresteia—a work that Littell's novel repeatedly invokes, from the protagonist's casual reference to his closest friend as his "Pylades" to large plot elements, not the least of which is his murder of his mother and her second husband—the hero Orestes is pursued by these awful, slavering, dog-faced creatures, whose province is the punishment of kin murder, after he kills his mother, Clytemnestra, in a divinely ordained retribution for her murder of Orestes' father, Agamemnon. (Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in order to win favorable winds for his fleet's journey to Troy.)

The heart of the trilogy is in fact a competition between the claims of vengeance and the claims of justice: not for nothing does its climax, in the third play, take the form of a trial scene. For Eumenides ends with Orestes being acquitted by a newly instituted formal court of law, a result that enrages the Furies, who are finally appeased with a promise that they will henceforth no longer be reviled bogies but rather incorporated into the life of the Athenian state and given a new home beneath the Acropolis. In accordance with their new, rather domesticated status, their name gets prettified, too: instead of the dreadful Furies they will henceforth be known as Eumenides, "the kindly ones." And yet it is hard not to feel that this ostensibly happy ending has disturbing overtones: How tame, really, do we think these superficially redubbed Furies will be?

To name a literary work after the third play in Aeschylus' trilogy, then, is to invoke, with extreme self-consciousness, two related themes: one having to do with civilization in general, and the other with human nature. The former concerns justice, its nature and uses: how it is instituted, and then executed, how much it conflicts with, regulates, and possibly appeases the more primitive thirst for vengeance, which it is meant to supersede. The latter concerns the unsettling way in which, beneath even the most pleasant, "kindly" exteriors, dark and potentially violent forces lurk. Neither, needless to say, is restricted to Greek tragedy, or classical civilization; if anything, both are intimately connected to the main preoccupation of Littell's novel, the German program of extermination during World War II.

Mendelsohn then spends the next few pages working through the novel to see how Littel succeeds.  He breaks the essay down into parts and first looks at the story of Aue as the "human brother" who, in the course of war, does inhuman actions by his own free will.  In the next part he examines Aue's personal story and spends much time analyzing Littel's structure in terms of the story of Orestes,  not only the Aeschylus version but as the classical story was later used by Jean Paul Sartre.

Littell's insistence on developing the fantastical, the grotesque, and the motif of extreme sexual excess that grow out of his Orestes theme is clearly the result of a choice; and he himself has carefully planted clues about the meaning, and the justification, of that choice, one that has little to do with the Holocaust per se, or with novelizing history, and everything to do with something very French and very literary.

Exactly halfway through The Kindly Ones, Aue finds himself in Paris—this is in 1943, the trip at the end of which he will go to the South and murder his mother—and, while strolling among the stalls of the bouquinistes, picks up a volume of essays by Maurice Blanchot (an author whom Littell has studied seriously and who, by a nice coincidence, has been recently translated by Ms. Mandell, the translator of The Kindly Ones). Inevitably, Aue is very much taken with an essay that he vaguely describes as being about a play by Sartre on the Orestes theme: the volume in question, then, must be Blanchot's 1943 collection Faux Pas, which, in a section called "From Anguish to Language," contains the essay "The Myth of Orestes," and the Sartre drama in question is Les Mouches, which was first produced in 1943. Aue says little about the essay, apart from paraphrasing its point that Sartre "used the figure of the unfortunate matricide to develop his ideas on man's freedom in crime; Blanchot judged it harshly, and I could only approve."

Sartre's play has famous connections to the Occupation and the moral dilemmas of France: in it, Orestes returns home to Argos to find a corrupted city and, indeed, a corrupted cosmos; he learns from Zeus himself that the gods themselves are unjust, a discovery that renders absurd his, or anyone's, wishful yearnings for a life uncomplicated by moral anguish, indeed for a life in which one could simply be a person like any other person, a "human brother."

Where Mendelsohn differs from many other reviewers is in his belief that the "pornographical" sections are not gratuitous or unnecessary, but are absolutely necessary to Littel's vision of what he is trying to achieve.

And so, rather than using the graphic details of violence and sex simply (and naively) to shock his reader in a superficial way, the violence, the "pornography of violence" even, are consciously evoked, given their baroquely nightmarish details, in order to heighten the "impression of the sacrilegious"—not to somehow defend Aue because he is outside of morality, but to show us, horribly, what a life outside of morality looks, feels, sounds, and smells like. The "pornographic" material is not a shallow symbol of Max's evil (a puritanical reading, if anything): it is, rather, Littell completing Sartre's unfinished task, "pushing the abjection far enough," struggling to show "impiety against real piety"—the "piety," in this case, being our own conventional pruderies and expectations of what a novel about Nazis might look like.

In this sense, The Kindly Ones places itself squarely within the tradition of a "literature of transgression," especially the French lineage that descends from the Marquis de Sade and the Comte de Lautréamont to Octave Mirbeau and Georges Bataille. Particularly in the elaborate sexual fantasies, the teenage sex between siblings, the coprophilia and incest themes, it is hard not to feel the influence, above all, of Bataille, to whose signature work, Histoire de l'Oeil, in which a violently detached eye becomes a sexual fetish used with great inventiveness, Littell seems to allude more than once in scenes of eyes popping out of crushed or exploded heads. I think that Littell might say that precisely because we are by now inured to representations of Nazi evil in literature and especially in film, he needs to break new taboos in order to make us think about evil, about a life lived in evil and a mind unsentimentally willing, even eager, to accept the ramifications of that choice.

This is a marvelous essay.  It led to all kinds of thoughts. Was this a novel that could only be appreciated in Europe where the remnants of classical education still exist?  Or does the commercial success of the novel in Europe speak less to the presence of a classical education than to the timelessness of the ancient Greek stories?   Or was the commercial success so grounded in the lingering fascination with the war in the former battlegrounds of that war that it will not translate to untouched American soil?  Or does it simply say something about the choices made by newspaper publishers with respect to who gets to review a book and get it published in the New York Times.  And an even more basic question:  Is it no wonder we have very few novels of ideas in our time when there seem to be so few persons who have the background necessary to understand those ideas?  

In any event, it didn't make me want to read the novel.  But I do encourage everyone to read Mendelsohn's essay.

Display:
I posted this elsewhere but it occurred to me that some of you may have read this novel in the original French and would have opinions.   So in the spirit of Jerome's request that we all participate more, I'm cross posting it here.  

Should I read it?

by Maryb2004 on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 12:52:08 PM EST
I can't tel you, I have it, but haven't read it. Maybe I should, and reading your report may convince me to do so.

I haven't read it because I felt that this book was unecessarily violent. I feel that the character of a violent nazi out of moral world has become a myth in its turn, that people are far to easily rejecting the nazi out of humanity where I'm convinced that the distance is very slight, and that the effort to avoid a new nazi ideology to raise must be important.

by Xavier in Paris on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 01:10:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, if you do read it I'd be interested in your thoughts.

One reason I'm not leaning toward reading it is that violence in novels affects me as if I've actually seen it in real life.  I've been known to have nightmares.  I suspect I might from this novel.

by Maryb2004 on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:36:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yesterday, I dinned at a friend's and we talked about the book!
She read it and encourages me to do so. She liked the first part most, and found the last part a bit far fetched, in the sense that she felt the author wanted to distance himself and the reader from the character by turning him into the most violent man.

She didn't take in the stuff about Oreste and so on, and dismissed it as a bit artificial. I think she would have preferred the book to stay on the line: "this is a normal guy and he's committing horrors, what about you?"

by Xavier in Paris on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 09:18:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
How perfect!  She seems to agree with some of the reviewers who thought the first part worked better than the second part.  It doesn't sound like she was so horrified by the second part that she stopped reading though.  Which is good to know.

If you end up reading it let me know.

by Maryb2004 on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 10:27:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ET could develop a new line of reviewing reviews of book reviews of books that no one has read!  Certainly your review of reviews is very interesting, but I couldn't imagine myself wading through a 900 page book made up of gruesome violence and sexual fantasies and practices.  The apparent link between Nazism, fascism, some forms of religious fundamentalism and sexual repression and perversion has always fascinated me, but not to the point of wanting to actually read a lot of it.

The argument seems to be that the point of the book is to demonstrate where you can end up if the conventions of civilisation are allowed to be broken, and that you can only understand the point of those conventions if you stand outside them and view them from the outside.  Certainly it is part of the role of an artist to stand outside conventionality - and to an extent debunk it.  This book appears to argue that the alternative can be even worse.  

But what are the origins of such sexual perversity?  What is the evolutionary advantage of such aspects of human nature?  Is it a self-destructive evolutionary dead end, a disorder present only in some, or a characteristic innate in all of us avoided only by the moral choices we make?

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:15:09 PM EST
PS - Perhaps I could suggest a new genre of Book reviews:
Reviews of books which haven't actually been written, but which the reviewers think ought ot be!

I cold suggest:

Peer to Peer Finance by Lord Christopher Cook
The Anglo Disease and its treament by Jerome de Paris
How not to shut the fuck up by Frank Schnittger

etc.  Entries on a postcard please

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:27:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Brilliant.

[said in voice of James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio.]

"Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms." -Dostoevsky

by poemless on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:35:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Less work would be to simply write the blurb for the book cover for such fictional works ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:49:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Aren't they all written by marketing execs who haven't read the book anyway?

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:08:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The ones I know about (never done one myself) are based on a brief from the editor/s, if the blurb is generic (i.e. unsigned. The editor/s presumably have read the book. They might even write the blurb themselves to save money. More money goes into cover design.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:17:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The marketing execs still around in publishing have higher-level tasks than writing blurbs. Usually the editor will commit the blurb. Or an intern.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:50:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Frank Schnittger:
Lord Christopher Cook ?

Well, I gave yer a 4 anyway you Fenian so and so....

...must be a hangover from Cromwell, or something...

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:54:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And I thought your model for Peer to Peer Finance was the House of Lords...

(enter Sven stage left with some peerless comments...)

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:59:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
im sure he'll Duke out of this one.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:14:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Earl have you know that I'm short of material on this one...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:16:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I didn't really think you'd raise the white banner(ette)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:22:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't want to suffer a jet crash

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:24:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Viscount you come up with something, already?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:22:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well if you want to make a Knight of it.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:26:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You've garter be kidding ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:28:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm going to call for a trip to the Star Chamber for you two.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:29:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is that the Upper or Lower House?

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:32:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thistle be one that sends you for an early Bath ;)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:33:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
'Showerhead Revisited'

OK - I have to be off now. Night all.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:35:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Getting prickly are we?

notes from no w here
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:35:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well I won't be dragon this one out.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:38:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No - that's hassock-based, Citizen Cook has been talking asset-based.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:15:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Those are all good questions, I'm especially struck by your question on the evolutionary advantage.  But I have no answers.

This is an interesting point too:  Certainly it is part of the role of an artist to stand outside conventionality - and to an extent debunk it.  This book appears to argue that the alternative can be even worse.

It might depend on for whom the art is being created.  Certainly at times in history the patron has commissioned art that praised the conventional.  I'm thinking of religious art but maybe also the art of David?

by Maryb2004 on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:41:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The fine art of patronage has now been taken over by the galleristes. These artists still praise the conventional. To find artists who stand outside conventionality you have to look elsewhere, post-Warhol.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:54:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dominance and submission have obvious survival value. So does incest. So does violence.

So we're not really talking about anything more exciting than very explicit Social Darwinism.

It's one of the more frustrating ironies of 'literature' at the moment that it seems to be impossible to be noticed and taken seriously unless you pile on the Grand Guignol. If there's no rape, no castration, no exploding heads and flying body parts, it's no longer 'proper' literature. Even the supposedly restrained and moderated middle classes seem to thrive on these vicarious thrills.

So I don't agree with the last reviewer - there's actually nothing transgressive about writing a violent and perverted book in a culture which devours violence and perversion.

What would be more transgressive - and much more of a literary challenge - would be a book which glorified horrific virtues like kindness, civility and empathy, without destroying them or undermining them, or making them look boring and trite.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 02:57:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
ThatBritGuy:
Dominance and submission have obvious survival value. So does incest. So does violence.

If I might ask the obvious, how do these enhance the survival prospects for the human species?

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:14:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For the species - not so much. For specific individuals with specific genes, the benefits would be obvious, surely?

That's the big problem with Social Darwinism - you can assume that individuals are more important than the group as a whole. But behaviours which increase individual genetic success can still drive the group as a whole over a cliff.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:34:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But if I understand Darwinian evolutionary theory correctly, it's all about those individuals/genomes who are best adapted to the environment having the greatest survival value - either through reproducing more, protecting their young better, or producing better adapted offspring. How does incest meet that criterion?

Dominance/submission might lead to more stable status hierarchies and thus lesser intra-clan violence, but a propensity to violence per se seems to me to have less and less survival value as population densities increase.

notes from no w here

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 03:54:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Within a generation, i.e. without reproduction, social behaviour can be, as TBG says, based on maximum benefit for the individual or group.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:20:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, isn't this recent tendency "pile on the Grand Guignol" regrettable. Thank goodness you don't find any of that lurid stuff in, say, the Iliad, Greek drama, or Shakespeare, the Jacobeans - full of "kindness and civility" they were, Sturm und Drang, the Gothic novel, Dickens, Dada, the Surrealists.  


much more of a literary challenge - would be a book which glorified horrific virtues like kindness, civility and empathy, without destroying them or undermining them, or making them look boring and trite.

Yes, bring back Jane Austen and while we're at it, no more f!*@ing Gordon Ramsey or Alan Sugar on TV, and let's have news that won't upset the children :-)

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 11:20:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice work, Maryb2004. I still don't think I'll read Littell, but your review of reviews is good. BTW, I think the best writing on the Holocaust (that I have read, at least) is Primo Levi's accounts of his own experience. I tend to agree with Adorno that fiction should keep its distance.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 04:00:04 PM EST
I can't believe I missed this book for a class I'm currently teaching. The class is titled, ATROCITY EXHIBITION, after the JG Ballard book.

We're mainly concerned with aesthetic depictions of atrocities, and we've been covering a lot of ground of harrowing events in history.

The debate over Littel is a bit tired as it's presented in the mass media. We've been through this before. Kakutani also misrepresents Adorno's dictum on art and Auschwitz. For Adorno, it's humanism that has failed, and his point is not about representing the so-called unrepresentable. It's about what happens when art loses its best prop: humanism. That's why Auschwitz deals art a death blow. He's stating the case, not admonishing those who would attempt to represent atrocity in art.

Some background about this well-trodden debate against Littel (wasn't there a book in Germany recently published called BABYFUCKER?): JM Coetzee in ELIZABETH COSTELLO has an axe to grind about another novel of Nazis, Paul West's LAST HOURS OF STAUFFENBERG which depicts the executions of the plotters to kill Hitler. West focuses in particular on how torturous and long the executions were, on the fact that they were filmed, on the fact that Hitler and pals had a movie night out, and they liked the film so much that it became standard fare for incoming Nazi cadets. The cadets themselves wretched and didn't like it so much, and subsequently all copies were destroyed. Some who had seen the film remarked on the accoutrements used (highly inventive) and also the fact that cigars and cognac were part of Hitler's movie night out. West uses these facts to great effect since the executions, and the aesthetic surrounding them, are shown in detail. In the Costello book, Coetzee's protagonist rails against West for venturing into a dark cellar that humanity would be better off avoiding, lest we be altered by the experience, become inured to it. Coetzee is really angered by West's embellishments which take away the dignity of those murdered. West responded in this fashion in the "Atlantic Monthly" and I find his response an excellent one for Kakutani:

A writer must exercise his or her freedoms  forcefully: for instance, not only picking up the stink of mothballs and celery from the hangman but also tracking him home to sausages and dumplings, cuddly kiddies and torpid Frau. And his habit of talking back to the newspaper. And the split heels from his diabetes. To pile on the detail is only to summon down to earth the vision of complexity, of contraries, in which humans abound. Readers who clearly separate Good from Evil have more trouble when confronting the muddled monster of the individual. And who, if not the novelist or the biographer, is to educate the race about its fearful asymmetries?...[In] a 1986 essay from The New York Times Book Review, "Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa," Coetzee depicts the novelist as excluded from the torture chamber and therefore obliged to imagine what goes on there. He mentions the indignant work of several South African novelists but strikes deep when he speaks of cruelty out of control, implying not only the control of the torturers but also the writer's sense that imagination itself gets out of control as well, to the extent that the imaginer begins to relish his own impromptus. Beyond that lies a satanic limbo in which, as Costello maintains, the artist becomes a sadist, follows Sade, and then it's up to the artist (or the critics) to separate the mauve glories of pain from the lip-smacking of conscienceless brutes. Coetzee in this vein is fascinating, because he knows how to relate the novels of Mongane Serote, Alex La Guma, and Nadine Gordimer to what he calls "the ambit of moral judgment." For my money, though, as I enter the arena of myth after life as a taxpaying novelist, we have all only just scraped the surface of what might seem a horrendous problem: starting out to denounce horror, yet, in the end, accepting it for its own sake, because it further reveals the unique license of human creative power. No matter how gross the outcome, it will be better to paddle around in its dark miasma than to ban it. So long as men are vile, so can art be too, and maybe even after.

That's it, from West. He's noticed our most horrible atrocities have an aesthetic element. Earlier in his career he was blasted for presenting a Japanese officer's coprophagy teacup ritual in exquisite detail, but the ritual itself exists.

The death camps had an aesthetic element, these unimaginable places were pre-planned and designed. A firing squad is one thing. But what do you call the tent of the undead, as I call it, where those beyond saving were left to waste? It had its function in the camps. Terence Des Pres' SURVIVOR is another book that takes on these issues, and Des Pres finds that despite the logic that one should remain silent about these atrocities, witnesses nonetheless have given remarkably consistent, brutally factual witness accounts of their experiences. Oddly enough, they are always told in the first person plural. Des Pres sees these accounts and even fictions of those events as valuable.

The most illuminating part of the semester has been in considering Paul Celan's poem TODESFUGE which seems to violate Adorno's warning, though a close reading of the poem shows that what seem to be metaphors in the poem ("black milk") are actually literal descriptions of camp survivor experiences. Celan explores the surreal nature of the camps, and the poem is also harrowing in the sense that the killings were accompanied by demands for song and dance.

Our class has considered the current show BODY EXHIBITION which is going on all over the world, a science exhibit which purports to educate the public on human anatomy. Instead, what you get, is cadavers with their flesh shredded in remarkably beautiful cuts, with striking poses. The class also discussed the chapter on public executions versus private punishment in Foucault's DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH (a chapter which makes the case that with humane punishment, we have reconceived the body, no longer a site of physical punishment but instead a site for surveillance). We've read Bolano's new book 2666 which is about the unsolved serial murders of over 400 young Mexican women in the city of Juarez. The book depicts more than a hundred of these murders in forensic detail. It's brutal, and leaves one numb. Everyone wants to forget about it. Finally we're currently onto Ballard's book, and he seems the only one who puts this all to rights in fiction, since he is highly capable of finding new contexts which give depth to these atrocity exhibitions, as we call them in class.

I would not, personally, dismiss Littel's book out of hand.

by Upstate NY on Mon Mar 9th, 2009 at 11:22:20 PM EST
Thanks for such a thoughtful comment!  Especially your insights on Adorno.  I didn't like Kakutani's review at all because I didn't see how you could take a novel that had won accolades when published in another language and not only dismiss the novel itself but also dismiss all the people who heaped accolades on it as being simply mistaken.  So I'm a bit glad to hear that she got something wrong.

Your class sounds interesting but a bit horrifying.  But the idea that the death camps had an aestetic element because they were, in fact, designed, had never occurred to me.  Thanks for expounding.  Don't feel bad you didn't know about novel - it is just hitting the shelves now.   I've been thinking about 2666 and I'm not sure I can bring myself to read that either.  But I'm thinking about it.

by Maryb2004 on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 10:32:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"The death camps had an aesthetic element, these unimaginable places were pre-planned and designed."

That's stretching the sense of "aesthetic" until it ceases to have much use, except to distinguish the natural from the man-made, or even just conceived. Is a sewer necessarily "aesthetic" just because it's planned?  Cf.:


In summary, we have rejected two theses about the relationship between aesthetics and practical function, namely the reduction and independence theses. Aesthetic value is neither fully reducible to practical function nor completely independent of it. Instead we have defended a thesis of aesthetic duality, according to which objects with practical functions can be aesthetically appraised both under descriptions that refer to these practical functions and under descriptions not doing so. Finally, we have defended the contributory thesis according to which satisfaction of functional requirements in most cases contributes positively to aesthetic value. Hence, some support can be found for aesthetic functionalism, but only for a very weak form of it.

http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=324

Also I don't know why you describe the camps as "unimaginable" - one of the points raised is surely that the human imagination is capable of terrible as well as wonderful things, and where imagination might fail, we have a lot of history of torture, persecution and mass slaughter to fall back on. e.g.:


The chronicle of Ibn al-Qalanisi states the Jewish defenders sought refuge in their synagogue, but the "Franks burned it over their heads", killing everyone inside.[7] The Crusaders circled the flaming building while singing "Christ, We Adore Thee!".
...
The Gesta Francorum states some people managed to escape the siege unharmed. Its anonymous author wrote, "When the pagans had been overcome, our men seized great numbers, both men and women, either killing them or keeping them captive, as they wished."[10] Later it is written, "[Our leaders] also ordered all the Saracen dead to be cast outside because of the great stench, since the whole city was filled with their corpses; and so the living Saracens dragged the dead before the exits of the gates and arranged them in heaps, as if they were houses. No one ever saw or heard of such slaughter of pagan people, for funeral pyres were formed from them like pyramids, and no one knows their number except God alone."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(1099)




Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 06:38:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not stretching it at all. I can go on and on about the death camps, the protocols, the rituals, the tents, etc. Many of the sites I'm referring to were far from simply functional creations in the camps. If you read Des Pres' SURVIVOR you'll find such "inventions" on every page. And I would say that the designs in the Shoah cannot be simply compared to any other atrocity from the past.

As I wrote in the post you're responding to, Paul Celan's poem references a series of practices that were completely unnecessary but which only had aesthetic value for the Nazis. I also referenced Paul West's references to a teatime ritual which was practically a heightened form of aesthetics.

I'm also not sure why you linked to that site on definitions of aesthetics, as though I don't know what the word means.

by Upstate NY on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 10:11:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What you said was: "The death camps had an aesthetic element, these unimaginable places were pre-planned and designed."

Maryb said: "But the idea that the death camps had an aestetic element because they were, in fact, designed, had never occurred to me." - and you didn't comment on that. Again the mere fact that they were designed doesn't mean that therefore they had an aesthetic element. Your clarification now that there were additional features which had an "aesthetic element" is a less radical point.

"I'm also not sure why you linked to that site on definitions of aesthetics, as though I don't know what the word means."

If you read the quotation and even look at the article you'll see that it's not merely offering a standard definition of "aesthetic," but discussing the ancient and quite recent debates specifically involving the issue of whether something has aesthetic value simply by fulfilling a certain function - the radical view you seemed to be adopting.

"And I would say that the designs in the Shoah cannot be simply compared to any other atrocity from the past."

Of course they can be "compared" - which allows one the option of saying that nothing before it comes close. I'm on this side of the "uniqueness argument," or the view that it is "unimaginable":


On the other side, however, the argument seems no less convincing. For if the Holocaust were indeed unique, so that we could not understand it, two things follow. First, we could not learn from it and try thereby to prevent anything like it recurring; and it takes a remarkable optimism to be sure that nothing like it can ever happen again, an optimism curiously at odds with the pessimism about the nature of human beings associated with the uniqueness thesis. Second, we cannot do justice to the past, to the people who suffered those horrors: for it is a prerequisite of doing someone justice that one understand what they did and what was done and what happened to them.

http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/default.asp?channel_id=2188&editorial_id=10143

Cf.:


In his 2000 book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, scholar and critic Norman Finkelstein convincingly argues three general points. First, since the 1967 war and Israel's military alliance with the United States, the Nazi holocaust-a historical event-has become the Holocaust, a narrow and ideologically-driven Zionist interpretation of that genocide that has been used to justify Israeli and American policies, and aggrandize Jewish-American elites in the halls of power. Second, and concurrently since 1967, a Holocaust literature has evolved apart from credible historical scholarship about the Nazi holocaust, the former which is without scholarly merit and is often fraudulent. Holocaust  literature, most notably that of Elie Wiesel, has propagated specious notions of the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust  and the eternal nature of anti-Semitism, both of which serve to silence criticism of Israel.
...

The fascination of Holocaust  Industry workers with the alleged uniqueness of Nazi inhumanity has led them to discount the inhumanity that is characteristic of all armies whose soldiers have been socialized in racist cultures, and desensitized by the violence inherent in military culture during war and occupation. While it may be a long way from Abu Ghraib to Auschwitz, it is also a long way from West Virginia to Abu Ghraib. But American and Israeli torture is rationalized and its cultural and institutional basis dismissed.

http://www.counterpunch.org/green03192005.html



Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 12:41:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Just as an FYI, I teach Literary Theory for PhD students at a research 1 university in the USA. We're heavily engaged in questions of aesthetics. That you read so much into one sentence in a diary and sought fit to educate me on the meaning of the term (in fact, I found that link you cited to be a rather pedestrian definition of the term) is what I responded to. We can get into an endless pedantic argument if you pick on each sentence in a blog in this fashion, seeking to define each term, when the very terms themselves are highly contested.

This isn't the place for a conversation like this, perhaps, though I'd love to see the definition in that link applied to something like the Bonaventure building in Los Angeles, where functionality (or dysfunctionality) is inextricably linked with the aesthetic sensibilities of the architects. We can argue all day about that. The point is, the Nazis took an aesthetic approach to the design of many sites in the concentration camps.

by Upstate NY on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 02:30:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As it happens I taught at a similar institution in London.

I didn't read so much into the sentence, it seems I read the same as Maryb did, as I pointed out. Maybe you should consider the possibility that it was a bit misleading.

In relation to the article I cited, and given some of the stuff you have previously cited, perhaps by "pedestrian" you mean "readily comprehensible". But, since you cite your credentials, its appropriate to note his, and also to note how they relate to your  example of the Bonaventure building:


Sven Ove Hansson is professor in philosophy and
Head of the Department of Philosophy and the History
of Technology, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.
He is editor-in-chief of Theoria and member of the editorial board of the Journal of Philosphical Logic.

http://www.infra.kth.se/~soh/sohpub.htm

"... when the very terms themselves are highly contested."

 Yes, and the article discussed a particular debate in aesthetics. I don't know why you think discussion of this is irrelevant here, when we are discussing a novel and its possible aesthetic merits and when you raise the issue of the aesthetics of the camps themselves - and now do so again. This claim would come as a surprise to many people, perhaps to many former inmates, so it seems worth noting some different and debated senses of "aesthetic" in relation to function.


I'd love to see the definition in that link applied to something like the Bonaventure building in Los Angeles, where functionality (or dysfunctionality) is inextricably linked with the aesthetic sensibilities of the architects.

Had you read the article you'd have seen how it applied. For example he discusses this view before developing his own thesis:


Muthesius was also eager to point out that beauty and function are not contradictory; it is possible to combine the two.[12] He even claimed that engineers who deny having any artistic ambitions in their work may nevertheless be unconsciously, instinctively, influenced by aesthetic criteria.

"It can however be assumed that even the engineer who claims not to aim at a pleasing design will be unconsciously influenced by the formal [= aesthetic] laws. He is after all a man like others. This is why there are beautiful civil engineering works, in addition to the ugly ones."

Had you read my last comment a bit more carefully you'd have noted that I'd pointed out that what I quoted was not merely a definition, but the conclusion of a discussion, in which he put forward a "thesis", one which applies your example:

Finally, we have defended the contributory thesis according to which satisfaction of functional requirements in most cases contributes positively to aesthetic value. Hence, some support can be found for aesthetic functionalism, but only for a very weak form of it.

ibid



Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 05:14:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sigh.

Did you see how much I packed into that one blog post?

I was trying to stay on topic instead of hijacking the thread.

Are we really to get into a discussion here of aesthetics? Is that the case? Because if so, I would note that Hanssen's use of the term is limited for me; in general, the term is useful far beyond the brand of philosophy Hanssen specializes in. We all know the debates and the arguments between continental theorists and the logicians who oppose them.

In the USA right now, aethetics is once again on the rise in both cultural theory and literary theory cicles, but it has little to do with the tradition Hanssen is writing in.

WJT Mitchell, for instance, in Critical Inquiry has brought it back as a subject integral to literary and cultural studies, and Brian Massumi takes it up through Deleuze & Guattari, see here: http://books.google.com/books?id=0ig3x1ggKGMC&dq=brian+massumi+expression&printsec=frontcove r&source=bl&ots=NxN9uKalxS&sig=Rhs6Hz3ywYZF6Q17-pehRk3G9hk&hl=en&ei=aDa4SZfAKqGb twfmn-yyCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPR34,M1

Clearly, Cultural and Literary Theory are in another tradition, following from Adorno and Benjamin onward.

I don't think it would come at all as a surprise to many people the statement that aesthetic principles were involved in the design of the concentration camps. In fact, there are famous studies and research devoted to that thesis, from Lyotard to Levinas to Jeffrey Nealon and Derrida. Especially Levinas. It's not like anything I've written here is radical or new.

by Upstate NY on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 06:14:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As for the last two cites, they represent a simplistic misunderstanding of Adorno's arguments. He's not arguing that the Holocaust is a singular event and that therefore it is unrepresentable. The force of Adorno's critique is that the Holocaust represents the end of a kind of thinking, namely metaphysics, and that it can't be recuperated by a context that relies on metaphysics. As I stated above, that's the nature of Adorno's warning and admonition.

As for Finkelstein, his concerns are with the Holocaust industry and the exploitation of the event, which is quite different from Des Pres' concerns. Des Pres's study looks at witness accounts, and he notes that in his research of atrocities including genocides, the witness testimony from the death camps is consistently different from all other genocides. he even differentiates between the murders of those in the death camps with those of Jews, for instance, in the ghettoes or elsewhere. The details are ultraspecific and singular, and the best he could find to compare the death camps to was the Gulag.

by Upstate NY on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 02:38:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The quotations aren't supposed to relate to Adorno, but rather (and rather obviously) to YOUR claims that the camps were "unimaginable" and "I would say that the designs in the Shoah cannot be simply compared to any other atrocity from the past" - i.e. supporting the "uniqueness argument".  

Hence the relevance of first quotation and the second point made by Green about Finkelstein:


Second, and concurrently since 1967, [Finkelstein argues that] a Holocaust literature has evolved apart from credible historical scholarship about the Nazi holocaust, the former which is without scholarly merit and is often fraudulent. Holocaust  literature, most notably that of Elie Wiesel, has propagated specious notions of the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust  and the eternal nature of anti-Semitism, both of which serve to silence criticism of Israel.

http://www.counterpunch.org/green03192005.html



Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 05:32:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll say this again. Finkelstein is saying Wiesel's literature propagated some notions which aided the Holocaust industry. If he's saying that Wiesel's intent was to make propagate such notions, then this is a bit like accusing Nietzsche of being a Nazi. Of course the Shoah was unique, in many many ways. How ca anyone deny that?

Second, I wrote "unimaginable" to characterize the Holocaust, and you jump on and dissect what was simply a term of common usage to react to the horror of the event. Yes, the Shoah was unimaginable PRIOR to it happening. The key question: unimaginable for who?

by Upstate NY on Wed Mar 11th, 2009 at 06:19:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]

I'll say this again. Finkelstein is saying Wiesel's literature propagated some notions which aided the Holocaust industry. If he's saying that Wiesel's intent was to make [?] propagate such notions, then this is a bit like accusing Nietzsche of being a Nazi.

This is a very bad analogy, Nietzsche died long before the Nazis came to power and was opposed to anti-semitism (for example that of Wagner). Wiesel is still around and, Finkelstein argues, indeed propogates notions which aid the Holocaust industry, viz. the uniqueness argument, see below.


 Of course the Shoah was unique, in many many ways. How ca anyone deny that?

Most things are unique in some ways, a blade of grass has a spatial and temporal location, but most people would not say that each blade of grass is unique in any significant way. The uniqueness argument with regard to the Holocaust is not merely that it was unique in taking place in the 1940s, etc. - but unique in a much more significant way, the view which Finkelstein and others disgree with - see below.


Second, I wrote "unimaginable" to characterize the Holocaust, and you jump on and dissect what was simply a term of common usage to react to the horror of the event. Yes, the Shoah was unimaginable PRIOR to it happening. The key question: unimaginable for who?

How can we know whether or not it was "imaginable" or not prior to it happening ? Given the historical record of barbarity up to then, e.g. during the Crusades, various religious wars, etc., the increaseed scale of slaughter in WWI, with the industrialization of war, I don't think it was at all unimaginable. But the key point is that it evidently was not unimaginable, the Nazis not only imagined it, they carried it out.

Finkelstein:


In chapter 2, I critically scrutinize the central dogmas of Holocaust ideology: (1) The Holocaust marks a categorically unique event, and (2) The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational, eternal Gentile hatred of Jews. The main proponent of the "uniqueness" doctrine is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel, The Holocaust "leads into darkness," "negates all answers," "defies both knowledge and description," and so forth. Such formulations obscure more than they illuminate. The "uniqueness" doctrine, although intellectually stifling and morally discreditable (the suffering of non-Jewish victims "cannot compare"), persists on account of its political utility. Unique suffering confers unique entitlement.

http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=3&ar=36

Professor Sznaider maintains that The Holocaust marks a unique historical event, but one which nonetheless serves as an important signpost against future genocides. To buttress this claim, he cites Elie Wiesel, who both espouses the uniqueness of The Holocaust and personally intervenes to avert potential genocides. Yet one is hard pressed to name a single example where Wiesel's invocation of The Holocaust didn't serve US statecraft, or a single example where Wiesel's invocation of The Holocaust served the victims of US statecraft. Thus Wiesel invoked The Holocaust for Cambodia post-1975 under the Khmer Rouge but not Cambodia pre-1975 under American bombs; for the Miskito Indians under the Sandinistas, but not for Nicaragua under Somoza or Nicaragua under American attack. In the case of the Mayan Indians of Guatemala, Wiesel refused to protest against ongoing genocide even in private.

http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=3&ar=29



Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Fri Mar 13th, 2009 at 02:09:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You've read one book by Finkelstein. Read anything else on this?

Ever reda Adorno on this? Levinas? Derrida? Let's not talk about the Holocaust Industry. They never do.

They see the Shoah's singularity in a variety of other ways. I've only emphasized this multiple times in this diary: they write of the end of humanism, the end of metaphysics, at Auschwitz especially.

I don't even know what your argument about unimaginable means. When someone says, "unimaginable," of course the are using it to mean a thing that was previously not imagined. What are you saying?

by Upstate NY on Fri Mar 13th, 2009 at 10:06:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"You need to read some more books by the big names in 'continental theory' which I prefer" might work with students, it doesn't work with me. In fact I haven't read Finkelstein's book, there's no need to in order to grasp his main arguments, and, with the plethora of material in his web site, much of the relevant detail is readily available.

I'm no more impressed by grandiose pronouncements about the supposed "end of metephysics" than I am by Wiesel's absurd and self-defeating claims. Some philosophers are soldiering on with metaphysics:

The essays that discuss "analytic" and "continental" in general terms by and large strongly favor "continental." They also regard analytic philosophy as having ended sometime well before 1970... The remarkable turn to pre-critical, pre-Kantian metaphysical speculation that now flourishes among "analytic" philosophers is not mentioned.

http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=1450

But it's not only some "analytic" philosophers who reject the claim that there has been an "end of metaphysics":

Here of course we see the refreshing courage of Deleuze and Guattari -- and that of Alliez -- in ignoring all qualms about the "end of metapaphysics"

http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=3701

Rajchman ... points out that Deleuze considered the end of metaphysics to be "tiresome blather" (21); that he was not interested in "deconstructing" or undoing identity (57); that he had no time for the stylistic and typographical density of post-structural textuality (117); and, perhaps most importantly, that Deleuze was not at all taken by the idea of postmodernism.

Rajchman makes most of the above points with a brevity that doesn't lend itself to ongoing discussion or deliberation. His approach is to brush the cliches and generalities aside in order to let Deleuze take us in new directions. As he says in the introduction, this book simply wont "work for those minds that are already settled, already classified, armed with the now increasingly useless maps of 'postmodernism', 'poststructuralism', or the old continental-analytic divide" (5).

http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/reviews/rev1002/szbr14a.html

In fact Adorno does not support the "end of metaphysics" "blather":

In the last lectures, Adorno's attention switches to the question of the relevance of metaphysics today, particularly after the Holocaust. He finds in metaphysical experiences, which transcend rational discourse without lapsing into irrationalism, a last precarious refuge of the humane truth to which his own thought always aspired.

Metaphysics Concept and Problems

Theodor W. Adorno Edited by Rolf Tiedemann Translated by Edmund Jephcott

http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=1781

Why should one drop talk of the Holocaust industry? The argument is that the uniqueness argument, and the related "end of metaphysics" claim, are key elements in propagating the Holocaust industry.


I don't even know what your argument about unimaginable means. When someone says, "unimaginable," of course the are using it to mean a thing that was previously not imagined. What are you saying?

I'm sorry you have yet have yet more problems with reading (as with your repeated misreading of the Hanssen quoatation), my argument was quite straight-forward - especially compared to the obscurantist "arguments" of Massumi, which, bizarrely, you recommend (see my specific response, later).

You seem to be simply confusing "unimaginable" and "unimagined". The former is a much more general claim and another of the claims supporting the uniqueness argument.

Just try reading my argument again, and then providing some arguments of your own, or relevant ones from the "continental theorists" you prefer, but ones which are actually arguments rather than mere assertions.

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 10:46:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"What is Philosophy?" is the CENTRAL text which explores the ends of metaphysics??!!!! That's the key text for the entire discussion. Now, we have the statement that this text instead questions the end when it in fact ANNOUNCES it. Too funny.

I never said you should read those books on deconstruction. I said HAVE YO READ THEM?? Because in those books aesthetics is used differently than in your limited definition.

Alliez is clearly involved in trying to elevate his mentor's thinking as somehow beyond the current, a classic academic pissing match, whereas people who are not so invested in such personal supremacy, people like Brian Massumi and Jeffrey Nealon, see Deleuze and Guattari in terms of their correspondent thought with the likes of Foucault and Derrida. Even Foucault, in the pissing match circles, is considered to be famously at odds with Derrida, but scholars such as Judith Butler eschew the "Qui es mas macho?" wars and work through the both of them.

As for Adorno, his dictum on Auschwitz at its heart is about the death of the concept of humanism, so that characterization by Tiedmann about the last refuge for humanism is funny, considering that, for Adorno (and these are his words), humanism is over at Auschwitz.

How is the end of metaphysics related to the Holocaust Industry at all??!!

by Upstate NY on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 11:58:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A little more.

First you ask me to engage in some discourse, but your characterization of things as "blather" or "obscurantist" leave little for discourse. One could begin with, what's blathery about the blather, or obscure about the obscure? How else to respond if not beginning there?

But, about "What is Philosophy?" It is the book which sets the limits of philosophy in the very title, the introduction, the conclusion. In fact, the English title "What is Philosophy" is a poor translation from the French which emphasizes the subject, philosophy, over the concept.  The intellectual forebears in the book are often mentioned, namely Nietszche and Maurice Blanchot. The project of the book, in Deleuze and Guattari's words: "The plane of philosophy is prephilosophical as we consider it independently of the concepts that come to occupy it, but nonphilosophy is found where the plane confronts chaos. Philosophy needs a nonphilosophy that comprehends it; it needs a nonphilosophical comprehension just as art needs nonart and science needs nonscience."

And from that statement, they BEGIN talking about the end of philosophy--which for them is also part and parcel a question of the limits of metaphysics. They rail against universals throughout the book, they quote Nietzsche often in terms of his ideas about the creation of concepts ("constructs on a plane)." No book that I know of argues better about the ends of philosophy than "What is philosophy." I'm not sure what Alliez's position is but I do know that Deleuze, at least, was friends with Derrida, and before Deleuze died they were going to put out a book together on these very discussions.

Here's what Derrida had to say:

There is too much to say, yes, about the time I was given, along with so many others of my "generation," to share with Deleuze; about the good fortune I had of thinking thanks to him, by thinking of him. Since the beginning, all of his books (but first of all Nietzsche, Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense) have been for me not only, of course, provocations to think, but, each time, the unsettling, very unsettling experience - so unsettling - of a proximity or a near total affinity in the "theses." As regards the "theses" (but the word doesn't fit) and particularly the thesis concerning a difference that is not reducible to dialectical opposition, a difference "more profound" than a contradiction (Difference and Repetition), a difference in the joyfully repeated affirmation ("yes, yes"), the taking into account of the simulacrum, Deleuze remains no doubt the one to whom I have always considered myself closest among all of this "generation."

One might note that Derrida probably stole a lot of his response to Austin from Deleuze's "Difference & Repetition." These are key terms of the debate, and Deleuze was there first.

I'll also note that in the analysis of the Alliez book, the reviewer Protevi describes Alliez as saying Deleuze and Guattari are engaged in a polemic against analytic philosophy. Clearly, if Alliez frames this in his book, he's experiencing some anxiety of influence, since the book then can be thought of as a polemic against analytic and continental philosophy (and obviously against logicians too who see their work in scientific terms). So, I guess D&G are just singular philosophers, with no parallels.

Protevi goes on to say that in D&G's critique of post-phenomenology, they do not mention Derrida. All the good, Protevi says, since there is no positive construction in Derrida.

If you're going to cite someone, at least cite someone who has read Derrida. Derrida isn't mentioned in D&G's critique of post-phenomenology because he doesn't come from those circles. Second, anyone who says there is no positive construction in Derrida hasn't understood Derrida. Third, why is he pairing Levinas with Derrida? The same school? Levinas was a humanist! You can't quote people who haven't the faintest clue about that which they are speaking on.

by Upstate NY on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 12:42:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: "I never read the books I review; it biases one so." But he was being ironic rather than suggesting it as the basis for a literary discussion group :-)

But then we're in a "3 minute culture" - so here we are, not even reading reviews, but the review of reviews Maryb provided - what a "kindly one" :-). Maybe it's another of these Anglo diseases :-)


What are we thinking of?

Gardening and cooking, mostly. True, we British were never that keen on fine minds and big ideas, but is the intellectual in mortal danger?

... The last intellectual spotted raising his head recklessly above the parapet of cultural populism was Michael Ignatieff. For a brief period in the late Eighties and early Nineties the writer and critic waged a one-man campaign on television against what he termed the 'three-minute culture'. The most bruising conflict (for the viewer) of his mini-war was a late-night discussion programme called Voices. It featured Ignatieff, some guest egg-head who occasionally was not George Steiner, and a Turkish carpet hanging meaningfully on the minimalist backdrop. Audience figures were so low they failed to register. Those who saw Voices even now feel compelled to share their experience, like veterans of a long-forgotten but harrowing battle, with the tiny collection of fellow witnesses - or survivors.

It was significant that Ignatieff was an outsider, a foreigner, a Canadian, and thus not so restrained by the thought of appearing pretentious or absurd. In France, of course, programmes like Voices air on peak-time television. And, for better or worse, intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy are as celebrated as TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver are here. Say what you like about Lévy - whose contribution to philosophy is perhaps of the kind that once led Wittgenstein to warn his fellow thinkers never to try to 'shit higher than your arse' - he has no fear of pretentiousness.

You can trace the difference of attitudes back to the French Revolution, and even before, when libertarian philosophers such as Rousseau were viewed here as amoral lunatics. Back in 1948 Orwell wrote: 'I have maintained from the start that [Jean-Paul] Sartre is a bag of wind, though possibly when it comes to Existentialism, which I don't profess to understand, it may not be so.'

Orwell's stance reveals the discomfort that French intellectualism has traditionally provoked this side of the Channel. On the one hand he is dismissive of the obfuscation, on the other slightly intimidated by the possibility that, underneath all the Gallic verbosity, there might just be something to it. Ideas make the British nervous, while in contrast the French appear all too ready to promote them beyond the niggling restraints of reality. There is a story, which may not be apocryphal, that during a high-level meeting between American and French civil servants, the French responded to an American initiative by saying: 'We can see that it works in practice. But will it work in theory?'

Andrew Anthony, The Observer, Sunday 8 July 2001

Now, when is that next café philo ? Then it will be time for another hour of late night TV with Gallic intellos on "Ce soir ou jamais" :-)

Are you reading this Jerome - we're not all knocking the French - really :-)

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 10:58:46 AM EST
'We can see that it works in practice. But will it work in theory?'

I feel that's an excellent line to use on free-market economists circa, say, 2000.

Works in practice, but not in theory, and eventually the theory will catch up to the practice.

by Upstate NY on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 11:30:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Heh.   I'm staying out of any Jerome-baiting :)

Although this is starting to bring back memories of the Garrison Keillor discussion.

by Maryb2004 on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 12:06:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rousseau, libertarian philosopher ?!?

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 04:37:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 Care to elaborate - well, would ya - punk?  Oh, so sorry - saw Clint Eastwood's Grand Torino last night - and the old boy is still kicking ass - but with enhanced understanding of difference and the other. Maybe I should do a review of the reviews and save any of you tempted to see it the trouble :-)  

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 05:40:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ideas make the British nervous

<no comment>

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 03:08:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So any Britons Should avoid Philosophy at all costs?

Why didn't someone tell me before I got the degree? ;)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 03:21:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No. You just have to get accustomed to be permanently nervous...

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 03:35:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When I went to register with the local doctor and told him I was to be there for 4 years, he said 'Ah going to study Philosophy'? and I said yes, so he then said 'At some point in your course you will go mad. don't worry about it, it happens to everyone, come and see us and we'll sort it out'.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Tue Mar 17th, 2009 at 03:43:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It was discussed on Newsnight review (from 8:15). you might find their ideas interesting.

One reivew I read seemed to address the difficulties many have head on,; that the first half of the book conditions you to expect this is about the banality of horror, the way that ordinary "moral" people are brought to commit atrocity as a just, even necessary, act. He makes himself so "normal" that you can empathetically put yourself into his shoes, but just at the point where you can feel as he does, the narrative goes berzerk and behaves in a way that totally severs the reader from being able to make that "there but for the grace of God go I" connection.

So those who have been reading in that frame spend the next half of the book trying to make sense of it based on that impression.

The problem here is that, if Mendelsohn is correct, and I have no idea having neither read the book nor suficient familiarity with greek mythology to make such connections as he identifies, the only way to really grasp the book is to read it allegorically from the very first. A difficult feat when the narrative is obviously too easy to misinterpret.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 02:23:36 PM EST
Thanks very much Helen, that was interesting.  It's interesting how different people see what Littel was trying to do.  

Mendelsohn also says that the novel doesn't work BECAUSE the success of the Orestein part undermines the first part of the novel.  So maybe it isn't possible to read it allegorically from the first.  

by Maryb2004 on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 04:02:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Intersting discussion, thanks. I didn't know about this book, but I'll look into it.

And in the six-degrees-of-separation way of the world, I'm pretty sure someone I knew back when was the novelist's uncle. A long time foreign correspondent, now gone, alas. Great writer and terrific person.

by Mnemosyne on Tue Mar 10th, 2009 at 08:47:54 PM EST


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