Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review -- HEART OF DARKNESS (and THE SECRET SHARER) by Joseph Conrad

"...Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly that there was a camp somewhere of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."
Images like this permeate the whole of Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness. First serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899, it tells the story of a certain Marlowe (probably the same Marlowe as featured in Lord Jim) who captained a steamboat on a river voyage somewhere in Africa (probably the Congo River we are given to infer). A stunning piece of imagery, Conrad explores the themes of imperialism and the innate blackness within the depths of the human soul in this brief yet heavy work. Conrad exerts an incredibly raw and pessimistic power over the reader throughout the novel. Its bleak tone is fitting for its grim subjects and themes. Conrad drew a great deal upon his own experiences as a captain of a river steamer in King Leopold's Belgian Congo in writing this book, and it feels more as if Marlowe is Conrad's mouthpiece through which he is venting the pessimism and pain of his experiences.

Heart of Darkness is about enlightenment. It is incredibly symbolic. It is also incredibly bleak and tinged with a sort of hopelessness regarding human nature and our ability to deceive ourselves. Conrad utilizes the technique of frame narrative--a story within a story, both told in first person. The nameless narrator recalls the tale once told to him by Marlowe during a friendly evening boating on the Thames. Throughout Marlowe's tale, the sun dips below the horizon shrouding the Thames in darkness.

The parallel should be obvious to anyone. The Thames is a mirror image of the Congo. Marlowe begins his tale by drawing the parallel between the African river and the Thames by describing Roman imperialism and exploitation of Britannia. Similarly to Rome, the Belgians have been carving into central Africa on an expedition of acquisition and exploitation, and outfit into which Marlowe signs.

The entire escapade is based on the acquisition of ivory. This luxury item appears to be the entire drive behind the colonization effort of the Congo region. That ivory is white contrasts it with the overall theme of darkness and shadow with which Marlowe shrouds his narrative. The ivory is acquired through death, obviously (death of the animal in specific, and the death of overworked native laborers in general), and this continues to build upon the entire concept of decay and entropy through exploitation.

The Europeans haven't simply walked into a backwards world, they've gone and turned the entire world upside-down for the Africans. Marlowe never comes out and says it, but it becomes clear to the reader that the indigenous peoples of the Congo have no concept of contractual obligation or legal binding. They agree to serve for a time, and some seem to stay on almost as slaves while others decide that they've had enough and wander off into the forests. The entire acquisition of ivory seems to be something beyond the ken of the natives, and is equally matched by the seemingly meaningless tasks (as even Marlowe observes) to which they are often assigned, or their rather simplistic and animistic view of their surroundings.
"He [Marlowe's engineer] ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this--that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and watched the glass fearfully..."
The forest produces and swallows natives like some sort of monstrous, primordial, Lovecraftian entity. Marlowe often describes the natives appearing from and disappearing into the jungle almost as if they are produced ex nihilo and sucked back into the nothingness that was before they briefly flickered to life to serve the jungle's purpose.

Darkness is the central theme of the book, and is paralleled by river journeys. Marlowe's journey into the Congo is forshadowed by the Romans' anecdotal venture up the Thames into savage, prehistoric Britannia. These voyages are metaphoric. Marlowe's voyage is as much inside of himself as it is external--the darkness of inner Africa is a reflection of the dark, sinister greed and tendency for self-deception that is natural to humankind. This savagery doesn't recognize barbarism or civilization, but is universal. Marlowe's passage along the river is also a sort of voyage into death and darkness of a different sort--a kind of trip along the River Styx. He journeys into the realm of the dead and returns to the world of the living forever changed and unable to see the living world with the same sort of foolish innocence as everyone else does.

I've deliberately held off on discussing Kurtz, because Kurtz is, by his very nature, a schizophrenic. He vacillates between being superhuman and messianic, and subhuman and brutal. The natives have come to fall beneath his spell and serve him unquestioningly, providing him with the ivory with which he supplies the Belgian company. His methods are a strange contradiction of absolute tyranny and an apparent desire to civilize and discipline the natives along European lines. He rules over them like a god, and they obey him unquestioningly, even when Marlowe and the station manager come to take his sickened, emaciated form on board the steamer to return him to Europe. Through it all, though, Kurtz is the most honest and straightforward character Marlowe encounters. Kurtz alone has his eyes fully open to reality. Not even the Russian Marlowe encounters, who acts as a sort of John the Baptist to Kurtz's Christ, is fully awakened to reality as Kurtz. Kurtz is also the most frustrated of the characters.

Marlowe (and by extension Conrad) is often described as being a racist for his prolific use of (nowadays) controversial racial epithets. But to view his use of this sort of terminology and its usage as directly analogous to similar terms used by racists in mid-20th century America would be anachronistic at best. Conrad wrote this novel at the very end of the 19th century, and in a much more European (and colonial) milieu, quite different in theme and mood from mid-20th century American culture. Indeed, once the reader can get past his/her own involuntary revulsion, it becomes quite clear that Marlowe's character has a far greater respect for the "savages" than for the white men. The "pilgrims" that he carries on his steamer are a fearful, bullying company that fires ineffectual volleys into the forest with their Winchester rifles. The exploited Africans are depicted as fully human, if incredibly different and difficult for Marlowe to comprehend. Yet by the end of the novella, Marlowe is quite alienated from white and civilized society, primarily due to their perfidy, duplicity, and wanton greed.

Marlowe also has a very strained relationship with women.
"It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if theyw ere to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over."
After his voyage into Africa, Marlowe's a distinctly changed man with a radically altered perception of reality. He experiences no small amount of frustration through his interactions with women because of this--19th century women, especially those of "respectable society" were essentially simpletons raised to live off of gossip and decadence and perpetually dwell in a fantasy world. Marlowe's encounter with Kurtz' Intended is perhaps the most straining and difficult social interaction he experiences in the entire book. Instead of being honest and truthful to her--which would have been cruel yet honorable--Marlowe instead opts to be "civilized" and duplicitous--he lies to her and tells her exactly what she wants to hear rather than shatter her delicate fantasy-world, knowing full-well that she'd never understand the truth nor why he would have had to speak it.

This draws the narrative into a sort of circle--Marlowe ends up where he began: civilized, unemployed, and on land in Europe. But his perception is changed--he now understands a much deeper truth and meaning. He's seen the heart of darkness that resides in every human soul, and he's met the one tragic figure who seemed to be trying to tame and channel that darkness into something constructive.

Heart of Darkness takes up a good 115 pages of the Bantam Classics volume I read. The remainder is devoted to 1912's 51-page-length short story, "The Secret Sharer." This story has a much more autobiographical function than Heart of Darkness, and through it, Conrad seems to be working through a lot of his own personal difficulties and memories having served as a captain on a ship. The story is much more straightforward, but is still a deep study of the effects of trust and mistrust on people in such a confined world as a ship at sea.

The unnamed captain encounters a man having escaped from another vessel, a former first mate who had killed a man for insolence and by doing so managed to save that ship. Nevertheless, the murder of necessity branded this man a homicide in the eyes of the perfidious crew. This man takes refuge with the captain and hides in his cabin, narrowly and repeatedly escaping the watchful eyes of the ship's steward and suspicious officers on board. The two characters, both young, one a new captain just recently raised to this commission, are almost mirror images of one-another, perhaps prompting the nameless captain's trust of the equally nameless refugee.

The two men's trust and bond is forged--they two are both strangers aboard the vessel, and the captain is as untrusted on his own ship (since he's so new) as the former first mate had been on his. They adapt their daily lives to the necessities of living (and hiding) on board the ship while the captain tries to devise a way to let the first mate escape to land and safety without compromising his own position.

Heart of Darkness and "The Secret Sharer" both have different styles of prose. Through Marlowe's narration, Conrad allows Heart of Darkness to descend into long soliloquies and soap-box moments. Marlowe demonstrates a penchant for waxing philosophical and employing a great deal of metaphor and simile.
"...I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comes too late--a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it be. ..."
Marlowe's digressions from the action and into contemplation usually run about one to one-and-a-half pages in length (this is but a part of a typical segment nearer the end of the story). In contrast, the nameless captain of "The Secret Sharer" does no such thing. He's much less descriptive, more terse and tense in his voice, and doesn't narrate with the same bitterness and cynicism that Marlowe possesses.

This ability to write in different voices, and consistently so throughout an entire story, is actually quite impressive. In Heart of Darkness, Marlowe's lengthy, bitter descriptiveness and dark tonality give the story a weighty character that is nicely contrasted by the boldness and tension of "The Secret Sharer." The former is a far more philosophical one, while the second possesses a much more immediate and personal emotionality.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Style A-
Substance A+
Overall A

"The Secret Sharer" by Joseph Conrad
Style B+
Substance A
Overall A-

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Golden vs. Silver Age Artwork: Larry Elmore

I love the artwork from Silver Age Dungeons & Dragons. And I don't particularly care much for the artwork of the previous periods. I'll be frank and unapologetic--I believe that the art of the so-called "Golden Age" of D&D was overly juvenile and simplistic. Granted, much of it was humorous, but it was quite possessed of that minimalism and cartoonish malleability that marked a great deal of the non-Frazetta fantasy artwork of the 1960s and 70s.

James Maliszewski over at Grognardia wrote in a recent post regarding some Golden Age-era artwork:
Yet, at the same time, there's a strange vibrancy to it. This is the same kind of crude charm I continue to find in the earliest products of the hobby, back before TSR was employing guys like Elmore and Caldwell to "professionalize" (aka blandify) the look of its books.
Now, he doesn't necessarily hate Elmore and Caldwell, as he clarifies in the comments section. Actually, he feels that Elmore was somewhat neutered by the industry standards that TSR required--and I agree! And yet, Elmore's mass of talent and ability still managed to shine through and bring a degree of realism to D&D art.

It's that realism that James seems to lament. He seems to prefer that cartoonish surreality and silly impossibility that is only three steps away from falling off cliffs or getting hit by anvils and shrugging it off after spending a few moments flopping around shaped like an accordion. The art often looked like the sort of thing a talented yet untrained kid in your senior year high school art class would whip out during a free period.

I mean, I must ask, what is so great about the art to the left? It is basic, simplistic, and barely characterizes anything. It demonstrates a very broad and basic understanding of arms and armor, as well as medieval clothing in general. To me, it is totally dead. Yeah, it looks cool for a high school notebook doodle. It's better than anything I, myself, am likely to produce. But I want more for my books. I get little inspiration from this sketch, and indeed, from sketches like it.

These pictures depict a narrative, but it is a relatively generic and uninspired narrative. A fighter and wizard face off against a demon. It is set against a featureless black backdrop. The demoness is on an elevated platform suggestive of a dais of some sort. A beast is ambushing the heroes from behind. It is, altogether, a typical mid-to-high level dungeon fight. The fighter's hand is contorted in some sort of overhand chop that lacks any and all grace, holding his shield before him. I find a lot of this stuff charming, simple, but not great. It's not evocative.

Perhaps the most iconic picture out of the first edition D&D books, "Emirikol the Chaotic" by Dave Trampier. This is yet another picture I find uninteresting. Because my artistic vocabulary is very limited (I'm not an art critic by any means) please bear with me as I try to elucidate what, exactly, I find disappointing with Trampier's work.

I guess because he's chaotic that means he's just going to ride through town blasting random people with magic missile. The town itself is bland and unauthentic in appearance. It doesn't look lived-in. It looks like a preliminary sketch or rough draft of something that, once refined, could have some depth. But looking at it as-is, I'm disappointed by its shortcomings. Basically, there's not enough detail. It appears overly generic. We have no real angles. The street doesn't wind, it is a straight line with almost no alleyways. We glimpse everything straight-on. Even the left-hand buildings are at too steep an angle to get a view of their interiors. The street itself, paved brick, lacks a sense of unevenness. The stones are unmortared. Everything is just too smooth and featureless. The buildings are bereft of shutters, awnings, cracks, nooks, planters, charms on the frames, or other accouterments that would lend a sense of realism and life to the scene beyond the motion of the characters, which is angular and wooden as opposed to fluid and graceful.

EDITING NOTE: Lord Gwydion of What a horrible night has just humbled me regarding "Emirikol the Chaotic." The street is actually based off of a real location in Rhodes, called the Street of the Knights. Yes, I am eating crow right now. Mmmm.... Tasty! (Follow this link for more information!)

"Unsurpassed in brilliance," Grognardia James says of Trampier's cover of the 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook. And I cannot help but disagree. The picture lacks a great many of the finer artistic points of depth and dimension. It's a simple foreground and background, with no middle-ground and no transition between the two. It's all profiles or straight-on. There's no sense of depth, no feeling of realism. It has atmosphere but it is tragically lacking in characterization. I find it, again, wholly uninspired.

See, I've been to ruins. I've been to ruins in Korea and Japan. I've pictures of the graves of the Kuroda daimyo from the 17th century and the remains of Fukuoka Castle, as well as photos of the ancient tombs of the Silla kings of Korean antiquity. When you get nice and close to the stones around Fukuoka castle (inner gate below and right), you can see their shape. They're unmortared, piled almost ashlar style. There are cracks in the edifice. Moss grows on some of the stones. Although barely a few centuries old, to this American, the site feels as though it is possessed of a hoary antiquity. Gazing at the tombs of the Kuroda lords of Hakata and Fukuoka from the Edo period (above, left), I cannot help but feel the weight of history. The ancient tombs of the Silla kings in Korea (above) are largely a tourist trap, these days, although it is not difficult to imagine them hundreds of years ago. Those men lived, fought, and died a thousand years and more before I was born, and reigned over a kingdom the size of my home state of New Jersey.

I'm not just tooting my own horn, here. I've seen the real thing, to an extent. And that makes my imagination fire up all that much more fiercely. So when I see a picture, I want it to evoke everything that a photograph can... and more. When I visit a historical site, I'm literally inspired to imagine. What did this site look like hundreds of years ago? What would this place be like if it was inhabited by monsters and strange guardians? What if I were an adventurer, garbed for exploration and girded for combat? What would my experience in this strange and wondrous place be like if magic were real? Sound cheesy? Yeah. That's not the only thing I think when I'm there. I spend a lot of time thinking more "professional" and historical thoughts. But the fantasies do run through my mind a bit. And sometimes, when I go to bed, I try to re-imagine my visit to these places on an Earth where magic worked and I wasn't just an English teacher and aspiring history professor.

That's where Larry Elmore comes in.

Elmore's work possesses everything that a lot of the older stuff lacks--vibrancy and realism. And it is the realism that gets the greatest amount of flack from Old School gamers, I feel.
His work back then shows a clarity and precision that was unique and nicely embodied the esthetic of the Silver Age, when "fantastic realism" was the style of the day. His figures looked real, as did the clothing they wore, the weapons they carried, and the environments they inhabited. He evoked an impression of "groundedness" that contrasted powerfully with the fever dream phantasmagoria of Otus and the dark density of Trampier, both of whom were examplars of an age that was passing, while Elmore was the spirit of the transition between Gold and Silver.
To be fair, Grognardia James isn't blasting Elmore for his realism. Instead, he's indicating that the realism is, for him, a bridge into an era in D&D where he feels the game left him, and therefore associates that sort of art with it. But, to me, it's that sort of realism that captured my imagination as a kid and convinced me that dragonslaying may just have been possible in the medieval era.

Let's take a look at a few of Elmore's pieces and see why I love them so much.

This piece, usually entitled "The Bloodstone Lands" online, is a great example of what I adore in Elmore's work. This picture is the opposite of everything I've seen in Golden Age art. It has a vast landscape, influenced by weather, to create an effect. You can feel the chill of the winter air, smell the pine scent of the forests, feel the heat coming from the horses. There's visual depth in the picture; the point-of-view isn't from a straight angle; there's grace and fluidity in the positions of the subjects as if Elmore caught them mid-motion. Most importantly, the picture carries an emotional response. Are we being challenged by a goblin outrider? Is he a scout or a herald come to treat with us?

Now compare that with this:

No, seriously, compare the two pictures. Really, really look at them. The sketch is straightforward, easy to grasp, contains a narrative that is immediately understood. The artistry involved in characterizing the figures is nowhere near as smooth. The fighter indeed appears clumsy and awkward swinging his sword. Elmore's picture was more ambiguous, more realistic, and had far, far more emotion and atmosphere. And more mystery.

Let me discuss just a few more pictures before closing.

Pictures like this make me think back to the Kuroda tombs in Hakata, Japan (see left-hand photograph above). In this picture, it appears a ranger or druid is keeping watch while a wizard transcribes information from a strange, undoubtedly ancient standing stone lost and forgotten in a deep forest. He is using magic to do so, and it is here where I feel Elmore actually grasps the arcane qualities of D&D magic like few others have ever done. The wizard sits in a circle, drawn with chalk, inscribed with strange runes and geometric figures. Green tendrils of magic reach from the circle to play among the curious glyphs inscribed upon the stone marker. The wizard, in a purely medieval haircut, hurriedly makes notes in his tome (perhaps copying a spell). Casting implements and spell components are strewn around him and his satchel lies half open, curious contents spilling forth. A female character, perhaps a druid, perhaps another wizard, gazes on, but it is clear that the man in the circle, clad in purple silken robes, is the focus of the picture and is the character that has the spotlight for this illustration.

Why does this remind me of the Kuroda tombs? Because I can just imagine those tombs as a thousand years old, instead of four hundred, inscribed with mysterious clues that the characters need to decipher in order to achieve their next goal. But I also love this picture because of Elmore's attention to detail. The magic circle, the inscription on the stone, the magic spellbook, the satchel's contents, the spell components, and the various odds-and-ends that hang from the belts of the ranger and the druid-girl all give them the feeling of having been real people with possessions and trinkets. Some of them undoubtedly carried sentimental value. Some of them helped define their cares and personalities. This helps me to define D&D because it helps me imagine what my character looks like, how he/she carries their equipment, where he/she keeps that equipment.

That attention to detail breathes life into otherwise desolate pages of a rulebook. The mechanics don't need to spring to reality only when you actually sit down to play. They can spring to life long before that! When you create your character, they can achieve the sort of vibrancy that Elmore gives them in his paintings.

Elmore's art is, for me, like a snapshot of a time or place that never was but should have been. Like my photographs of Fukuoka castle ruins, or the burial mounds of the ancient Silla kings, Elmore's paintings evoke a sense of things that had once been, places distant and times lost. They evoke a romance with history and myth and legend. And they exhibit the wear and tear of age. The photos are from real life, and show cracks and moss on the broken stones that had been beaten by the weather. So do the standing stones or jumbled ruins that Elmore paints. His subjects display the effects of time and age, whether they're landscapes, people, or buildings. There's a sense of reality there, and that sense of reality fuels my imagination as much as a photograph, and then some.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part Three

I've been trying to post at least one of these a month, but it gets pretty depressing, actually, considering I'm an incredible pessimist about the future of my country. Regardless, it is very fascinating, enlightening, and revealing to wade through de Tocqueville's philosophical and sociological treatise on American political life during the early 19th century.

Part One
Part Two

One of the major topics I discussed was the situation regarding the legal system and the overwhelming power that the police and the courts dangle over the heads of common citizens.

Centralization of Government, Centralization of Administration, and the Subjugation of the Individual
To return to some of those themes, I am reminded of some of my analysis regarding George Orwell's 1984, particularly regarding the culture of surveillance, the elimination of privacy, and the thought-police. The subversion of the system is painful--it was originally designed to protect us from a tyrannical government, and yet the judicial branch has grown to encompass the police and create a political faction that no one seems to really notice. It has a very direct and immediate impact on the lives of all Americans, unlike the distant mandarins in Washington, D.C. whom we elect. De Tocqueville characterized the agents of law enforcement as invisible because free citizens of a democratic polity have social obligations towards the legal system--obligations of which we have been stripped.

De Tocqueville draws a definite line between a centralized government and a centralized administration, and argues that, of the two, the centralized administration is by far the more dangerous. A centralized government with no central administration will tend to try to accumulate centralization of administration anyway. A centralized government concentrates authority, but without a similarly concentrated administration, the actual power to enforce its authority becomes more distributed, forcing the government to macro-manage instead of micro-manage. Such a micromanaging government, with undiluted power, inevitably isolates and subjugates the individual, just as we see in 1984.

An overcentralized government seems to destroy itself.

"The legislative bodies daily encroach upon the authority of the government, and their tendency... is to appropriate it entirely to themselves. The social power thus centralized is constantly changing hands, because it is subordinate to the power of the people. It often forgets the maxims of wisdom and foresight in the consciousness of its strength. Hence arises its danger. Its vigor, and not its impotence, will probably be the cause of its ultimate destruction."
Whence comes this vigor? From the tyranny of the masses (more on this later). De Tocqueville felt that the decentralization of administration during his tour of Jacksonian America was excessive, giving society the appearance of disorganization to a European visitor. But where the administrative arm was weak, the American populace picked up the slack. "I am persuaded, on the contrary, that, in this case, the collective strength of the citizens will always conduce more efficaciously to the public welfare than the authority of the government."

De Tocqueville's amazement that criminal investigation is a co-operative effort between the populace and the authorities is a testament to how the individual feels that he/she personally has an investment in the laws of the land. It illustrates one of his major points that the average American citizen feels himself enfranchised as a miniature legislator, with a certain stake in the law and an immediate desire to see it fulfilled.

"In no country in the world, do the citizens make such exertions for the common weal. I know of no people who have established schools so numerous and efficacious places of public worship better suited to the wants of the inhabitants, or roads kept in better repair."

In Jacksonian America, the individual wanted to pick up the slack for decentralized administration. That initiative was a testimony to the popular sentiment of authorship for the very government that was over the citizen. Government undertakings succeeded or failed through availability of popular support.
"The American republics have no standing armies to intimidate a discontented minority; but as no minority has as yet been reduced to declare open war, the necessity of an army has not been felt."
Here, indeed, I feel that de Tocqueville's observation is especially telling and painful. The United States now does, indeed, have a standing army. And yet, that army is not a tool of oppression. There is no gendarmerie in America. Indeed, that duty is done by the police. And what branch of government is it to which the police belong? Some might argue the executive, since their duty is to enforce the law, but that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, I would argue that their duty is not to enforce laws, but to accuse people of committing crimes. The entire criminal justice system is a fantastic system of administrative centralization. The United States government has delegated the authority to decide who is a criminal and how to punish them entirely to the "justice" apparatus.

The system is centralized per state, but the existence of a network of state judiciaries under the Supreme Court actually serves as a unifying factor. The court system isn't actually subservient to the popular whim, but to its own inertia. It is a leviathan--having accumulated more power than it should have, it sustains itself by creating criminals and investing itself into an entire strata of American society. Its shadow looms over every single American, especially when they turn the key in their automobile's ignition.

Indeed, we have now entered an era where the police are interpreting the law. As I argued in my previous post, the system does not exist to see justice done, but to see laws satisfied. Those are two radically different, and occasionally opposed, ideas. But the complacency of the American electorate permits this sort of tyrannical and terrorist paramilitary organization to instill us with fear, and through that fear, compel our obedience and servility.

The Tyranny of the Majority
The big theme that de Tocqueville wishes to hammer home is the threat of a tyranny of the majority. Through a unified and majority, the voices of minorities are suppressed.
“The most absolute sovereigns in Europe today are powerless to prevent certain thoughts hostile to their authority from silently circulating through their states and even within their courts. The same cannot be said of America: As long as the majority remains in doubt, people talk, but as soon as it makes up its mind once and for all, everyone falls silent…I know of no country where there is in general less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”
What is paradoxical about current American affairs is the major transition we've undergone. The majority has been cowed into silence, and radical fringe minority factions have the voice. This goes directly contrary to what de Tocqueville said about the lone dissenter: in contrast to the physical violence done to the body, the masses would instead excommunicate the hapless individual for dissenting from common opinion.

Some bloggers perceive that de Tocqueville is drastically wrong about our current political climate--that it is the loud and obnoxious radical groups that are actually the minority here. And while I would agree, I would also point out that, in my opinion, the issues they are up-in-arms about are actually smoke-and-mirrors. The general apathy and disgust that the average American seems to hold for politics is actually a reaction by the masses against this extremism. Oddly enough, the university system has guilted large swathes of the masses (but not all) into remorse for any attempted tyrannical oppression of dissenting opinion.

But nowhere is that brutal ostracism of the soul, which de Tocqueville describes so acutely, more apparent than in the American school system. Middle and high schools in the United States are often dominated by hierarchical systems based on popularity. While large numbers of students (especially in high school) may not care much for the "popular crowd," they still implicitly go along with the current out of apathy. Those who seek to "march to the beat of their own drummer" and follow activities, hobbies, or interests that are not popularly sanctioned, or who perform too well in their courses, find themselves outcasts.
" are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow-citizens, if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you, if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn."
De Tocqueville would not be so surprised or amazed, however, at how the majority seems to be so anti-tyrannical. Invective and hatred is poured upon the fringe groups through their own rivalries, but the silent majority stews in disgust, by-and-large. Most people find themselves leaning left- or right-of-center, and often are pulled into a faction by the polarities, but when you engage them as individuals, they often fail to prove themselves extremists.

Part of this is because it is a polar system. There are two opposing points on the spectrum that pull at the general populace, and it slowly and sluggishly vacillates between the two sentiments. But it is still caught between them. More radical or new ideas are often greatly resisted.

But the presence of counter-culture has actually weakened the tyranny of the majority as an active force. Counter-culture has allowed many fringe groups to have a voice, not just in society, but in politics. Counter-culture has generated art and great literature, where de Tocqueville had once lamented that we had no writers of genius because there could be no freedom of opinion.

What is most dangerous, actually, is the apathy of the majority. The fact that the majority is so willing to accept its culpability as an oppressive tyranny, it allows itself to be pulled around by the extremes. When the majority decides to sign away its freedoms, the minorities which wish to retain them will find they are stripped of their rights and their voice most violently. The decline in artistic value in much of American entertainment, coupled with the oppression of video games as an artistic medium, hint at the growing decline in the complexity and fortitude of the American character.

De Tocqueville attributed the small number of actual statesmen, compared to demagogues and bootlickers to the demos, to a growth in majority tyranny. He feared the debasement of the American character, and indeed, he would not be surprised by the devolution of American culture into a morass of consumerism. The omnipotence and omnipresence of the majority has taken the shape of a Lovecraftian entity, something amorphous, grasping, full of appetites and little else. It is like one massive mouth that must be fed, and so long as the warring factions keep it fat and happy, it will vote as they wish. What appears to be a conflict between various political ideologies is, actually, the result of a massive war for the opinion of a gigantic slothlike creature that has grown bloated and grotesque from glutting itself on consumerism and the empty calories of pop-culture. Politics are just another form of entertainment.

Thus, the legislature can pass laws that we no longer even know about. Thus, enormous bills, thousands of pages long due to rampant pork-barreling, can be passed by Congress and signed into law by a President, and we have no idea what they say--indeed, the Congress that passed them does not actually know what it was they passed, since the bill had been written by a committee in the first place.

And thus, the new shape of the tyranny of the masses. "If ever the free institutions of American are destroyed, that event may be attributed to the omnipotence of the majority." De Tocqueville may just be right. The minorities of which he speaks, those who are forced to resort to physical violence and who destabilize society, ushering in anarchy, are not those minorities we see on television and in the newspaper. They are minorities we've yet to see.

"Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued until it can be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit."

This apathy allows the legislature to ram through laws that no one understands. These laws then, in turn, give power to the police and judiciary that oppresses the people. The legislature, as de Tocqueville says, is the slave to the populace. But since the apathy of the populace is so potent, and they are so driven by base appetites, the authority of the fourth, and most powerful, branch of the government (the demos) goes unexercised.

I close with this following thought:

"Centralization easy succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue, and forget the deity it represents. Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides skilfully for the details of the social police; represses small disorders and petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy regularity in the conduct of affairs, which the heads of the administration are wont to call good order and public tranquility; in short, it excels in prevention, but not in action. Its force deserts it, when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the co-operation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed. Even whilst the centralized power, in its despair, invokes the assistance of the citizens, it says to them: 'You shall act just as I please, as much as I please, and in the direction which I please. You are to take charge of the details, without aspiring to guide the system; you are to work in darkness; and afterwards you may judge my work by its results.' These are not the conditions on which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait, and responsible for its acts, or (such as the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator, than a dependent actor, in schemes with which he is unacquainted." (Emphasis added by me.)

Such is the lot of the American citizen today--a passive spectator in schemes with which he is unacquainted.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Book Review -- A STORM OF SWORDS by George R.R. Martin

Backdropped against the torrential rains and falling leaves of a year-long autumn, the War of the Five Kings grinds to a halt and most of the plot threads are, if not resolved, then placed in a sort of stasis for the coming winter. George R. R. Martin closes the first part of his cycle with shocking brutality, bitter revelations, and broken promises--and its a stupendous and tragic vision of a war-torn medieval kingdom.

Martin follows his usual pattern in this novel. Whereas A Game of Thrones (review) detailed the events that lead up to (and caused) the War of the Five Kings, and A Clash of Kings (review) described the first half of the war, A Storm of Swords describes the final stages of the war after its turning-point at the Battle of the Blackwater. As in previous novels, each viewpoint character is given a specific story arc, and Martin draws them through a sequence of events which irrevocably change who and what they are by the end of the novel. Each story arc is a formative experience to his characters, and by the end of the novel, they have learned and grown as characters. Perhaps in A Storm of Swords we can see the most transition from Martin's perspective characters.

The book follows the viewpoints of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Davos Seaworth, and Samwell Tarly--a total of ten characters, as compared to eight in A Game of Thrones and nine in A Storm of Swords. What is especially exciting is we are given the perspective of Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, which goes an incredibly long way in illuminating his personality, motivation, and especially the reasoning behind the famous betrayal that earned him his moniker. A Storm of Swords is a lengthy 1,177 pages in length, but the plethora of points-of-view means that many of the main characters only get a few chapters (such as Davos and Samwell) while others get a great many (Jon, Arya, Tyrion, Sansa, and Jaime having the most chapters dedicated to them). Again, the action in the book is mainly divided between the main thrust of the war in the Riverlands, Daenerys' activities across the sea, and the wildling invasion against the Wall. Through it all, Martin slowly begins to reveal something sinister at work in the darkness of the cold northern wastes, ominously forshadowed by the onset of autumn and the promise of winter. Against this, a mysterious foreign deity, the Lord of Light, has begun to make its presence felt in Westeros.

Not all things are as they seem.

Martin has proven himself to be a master storyteller. I've written before that A Song of Ice and Fire is a primarily character-driven tale. Martin establishes situations around his characters that force them to change and grow as people--or die. This doesn't always mean they grow in good ways. By the end of the book, Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister may have embarked upon paths that will make them extremely brutal and callous individuals, for example.

Again, Martin's prose is quite plain and unassuming. It's not turgid, clinical, or florid. My only critique is that he has made a habit of spending too much time in flashbacks, ripping us from the current situation and into the past in a lengthy side-story. Although flashbacks are a useful technique, he uses them too often to recount long and lengthy sequences of events that had already taken place off-stage (or, perhaps, off-page), and it would be much simpler to just include those events as they happened as briefer, earlier chapters.

Many have said that A Clash of Kings was the high-point of the series. While I can understand what they mean, I don't necessarily agree. A Storm of Swords is a difficult book, but it is also much more complex. Its themes don't jump out at the reader quite so easily.

Weddings play a huge role in this novel, as does the backdrop of autumn. Throughout the novel, rains cause rivers to swell and become powerful barriers against the passage of armies. The marriages and childbirths that are featured throughout this book--each an event that is supposed to be joyous--is shrouded in pain and misery. A Storm of Swords is about pain and loss. It is about things falling apart. It is about lies and betrayal at the hands of those one had trusted most.

Autumn is symbolic of decay, death, and entropy. It is the season in which the warmth and life of summer begins to fade and harvests are collected. A Storm of Swords is a chronicle of the grim harvests that many reap as a result of their actions. Weddings, which usually take place in springtime, are held throughout this novel and their aspects are clouded with the decay and death that is foreshadowed by the approaching winter and the changing of the leaves. Life and death are in juxtaposition throughout this novel as well. The war of opposites, between the cold and the ice of the Others and the warmth and the light of R'hillor, the Lord of Light, is ironically marked with the use of sacrifice and undeath as a tool. Is Berric Dondarrion much different from the wights that the Others deploy throughout the novel? Childbirth, weddings, and funerals all are a mash of emotions and themes that aren't easy to untangle, and Martin challenges both the readers and his characters with events that spiral out of control, and by the end of the book, everything that the Starks and Lannisters have built seems to have fallen irreparably apart.

I can't be more specific without giving away too much of the story. Suffice it to say, Martin suffuses the pages of his novel with these themes. Betrayal and accusations of betrayal (as well as innocence) are ubiquitous. Vengeance is served, justice is dealt and abused, and many, many people die horrible deaths.

Nonetheless, this book is rife with spectacularly powerful scenes. The emotional weight they carry is stupendous. One of the highest points in the book for me was the duel between Gregor Clegane and Prince Oberyn Martell. Arya Stark earns the grudging respect of Sandor Clegane, but at the cost of her innocence and a piece of her humanity in an incredible scene in the taproom of an inn near the book's conclusion. The Night's Watch defend the Wall in a sequence of battles that can only exhilarate the reader, especially after the trauma of the other story-arcs. Robb Stark, the Young Wolf, the boy king who never lost a battle in the field and even took Jaime Lannister captive, makes a disastrous decision that has unspeakable consequences, all due to his youth and innocence. The horror and heartbreak of the Red Wedding and the fact that the reader knows that it is coming was one of the final and most difficult parts of the novel Martin had written.

In my opinion, through all the pain and suffering, betrayal and vengeance, Martin has actually topped his effort in A Clash of Kings, though I know many people will disagree with me. This book is more complex than its predecessors. Its themes are nowhere near as simple as A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Actions have consequences in this series, and Martin's characters are human and have human foibles. The author is unapologetic with the grittiness and realism of his world. This is not Tolkien's Middle-Earth, where all men are noble and good. Even the good guys make bad choices sometimes. Choices in A Song of Ice and Fire have always had repercussions, and, as Daenerys Targargyen learns throughout the book, responsibility for one's decisions must be taken, especially when the fate of thousands (maybe millions) of lives are placed in one's hands.

A Storm of Swords is the best novel yet in A Song of Ice and Fire. I'm currently awaiting the arrival of A Feast for Crows in the mail, and then I imagine I'll be eagerly anticipating A Dance with Dragons alongside the rest of Martin's fanbase.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Style B+
Substance A+
Overall A

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review -- 1984 by George Orwell

Orwell's dystopian novel has been largely defined (or perhaps, redefined) by this book, published hot on the heels of the Second World War and reflecting a somewhat prophetic pessimism for the future (a pessimism reflected in his essay, "Into the Whale," 1940). Not only that, it has had a profound effect on the English lexicon, having coined a large number of terms that are still in use today, including "Big Brother," "Room 101," "Thought Police," and "Newspeak," just to name a few.

On one occasion Stephen Colbert started screaming, "Do it to Julia!" when he found out skim milk had been mixed into his coffee instead of cream in one episode of the Colbert Report. Security cameras are synonymous with the sarcastic remark that "Big Brother is watching you." The novel has had a profound impact on Anglophonic culture, especially the American psyche.

Films such as THX 1138 and Brazil, and novels such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and V for Vendetta (the last one being a graphic novel) bear the marks of Orwell's vision of the totalitarian world to come.

Hot on the heels of my own ruminations upon Plato, I confronted one of his many and recent successors to the field of dystopian literature. Orwell creates a world of socialism come to England. Society is divided between the Party and the proles (shortened form of "proletariat"). The structure is reminiscent of many Western conceptions of Soviet government and state control during the Cold War, only taken to a very refined and effective extreme, harnessing advanced technology, industrial techniques, and psychology to keep 85% of the population complacent. The proles, however, are not the truly dangerous element--they're kept stupid and loutish. Rather, the Outer Party is where the most subversive elements are to be found. Orwell's IngSoc keeps its friends close and its (potential) enemies closer.

I cannot help but place this novel into a trinity of sorts alongside Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World. All three deal with totalitarian governments. All three describe how those governments keep their populations docile and controlled. And all three are radically different. In these comparisons, I see some weaknesses in Orwell's assumptions regarding how to keep a population submissive.

Primarily, I believe the way to keep people subdued and docile is to give them the very thing that THE BOOK (a text within a text) would deny them--leisure, tranquility, and plenty. The trick is to make them wholly and utterly dependent upon the government in order to provide these things. A friend once told me he'd happily sign his freedoms away in exchange for a holodeck like from Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is something I believe the United States has fallen into--a sort of totalitarianism of the corporation that has rendered the American populace complacent. Whereas Orwell's Party would deny the proles anything approaching comfort and leisure, the postmodern totalitarian regime would provide everything that the prole needs, while ensuring that his existence is dull, uneventful, unchallenging. In this regard, Bradbury and Huxley more correct than Orwell--remove intellectual stimulation, make people stupid, provide them with never-ending amusement and entertainment. Make them content. Keep them busy fighting traffic so that they can't muster the willpower to fight the Party. However, when the times of plenty are gone, and famine arrives (as it may well in the coming decades in the United States), the strict control measures of IngSoc and its ability to redirect the citizens' anger against enemies (both external and internal) may become more and more apparent.

Orwell was right about numerous things--the need for an enemy to hate for one. I've said it before, I'll say it again, the Democrats wouldn't have any unity whatsoever if it weren't for the Republican Party. They'd be at one-another's throats and the mudslinging, hate-filled race for the Democratic nomination is proof that Democrat constituents are a patchwork of mutually exclusive minorities with only the most tenuous common ground--the Republican Party.

Orwell is also right about Newspeak (nee Postmodern litcrit jargon), and how ambiguities can lead to the stifling of specific modes of thinking. I cannot help but consider Jacques Derrida sometimes. However, postmodern litcrit speak is in some manners, the exact opposite of Newspeak. However, the empty prattle of politicians these days, and their ability to fill the air with words while not truly saying anything of worth, is something that is most certainly reflected in Newspeak--especially the attribute of the language to render a politician incapable of saying the wrong thing--i.e. something that actually meant anything.

What is politically correct speech if not an attempt to control people's thoughts by controlling their language? At the very heart of this matter is thoughtcrime and the free will of an individual to harbor whatever thoughts and feelings are his own.

Doublethink, thinkpol, Ingsoc and Newspeak. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states how language plays an integral role in the way a society's people think. There have been movements to simplify and "dumb down" the English language in the United States before, although they've gotten little support. Over-reliance upon passive-voice in papers, articles, and other publications can cover omissions by removing the actor from a sentence. Orwell himself discussed this in his essay "Politics and the English Language."

Control of language is not the only component of the Party's program, but also the control of communication. In this age of highly centralized market control of communications, it is nearly impossible to escape the inherent media bias. The government doesn't even need to censor the information we acquire, the media does all of the gatekeeping for them. This has led to an institutional memory within American culture that is often erroneous. Falsified magazine articles earn Pulitzer Prizes and overtly biased films receive Academy Awards. What Orwell never realized is that the system polices itself, and the Proles allow it to do so--no Thinkpol is required.

So what are we given? Instead of Goldstein, produce a Klansman, a Teabagger, or a Creationist. Instead of Eastasia and Eurasia, show them Iraq or China. Make them think that they are fighting for freedom when they vote for somebody that was already picked for them. The media provides grist enough for the mill.

Yes, I'm a bit disgruntled and disbelieving about our current system. In my opinion, the entire totalitarian state is already here--has been since the 1970s, probably. This is why I'm plodding so depressingly slowly through de Tocqueville. However, everywhere you look in America, Big Brother is watching you. Most of us don't like to think about how nearly every move we make out of doors is recorded by a CCTV camera somewhere. They are mounted on traffic poles, the sides of buildings, within buildings--they're everywhere. And they never, ever seem to be there to protect you from the abuses of authority (especially since it is now illegal in many states to videotape the police).

To return to my assessment of 1984 and Newspeak, Orwell and postmodern literary criticism must ultimately come to blows. When four fingers are held up and Winston is told that the Party says there are five, the assumption is that reality is consensual. In a way, postmodernism asserts that through the denial of absolutes. Two and two make four regardless of whether you are black, white, Asian, gay or straight, making science and mathematics fields that transcend postmodern thought--something that they have been warring tooth and nail to overthrow. Magically, mystically, the Party in 1984 finds a way to overcome all that. If the Party wanted the sky to be green, everyone wouldn't just say it was green, they would convince themselves that it was green through doublethink.

1984 is also ultimately pessimistic about the human heart and the frailty and fragility of it. It is pessimistic regarding the inability of the human mind to withstand too much torture. It is a sad, hard look inside of us. We can be brainwashed, we can be convinced that the sky is green, that two and two make five, and we can make ourselves believe these things and be happy that we have no freedom.
  • Ignorance is strength.
  • Freedom is slavery.
  • War is peace.
These are, to us, oxymorons, but to the Party, they are ironies and little else.

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that a "post-human civilization" will essentially be totalitarian. If ethics are subjective, then that means that the most powerful people in society will determine what is right and wrong. This is strangely echoed in O'Brien's ill regard of Winston Smith's "humanity" when he makes him look in the mirror and witness his emaciated form.

What is important about 1984 isn't the prose or the diction. It is the scathing torment that Winston experiences throughout Part III. It is the fear that one must feel watching his mind erode and reality be rewritten. Orwell never attacked postmodernism directly--it was still in its nascent stages, and the likes of Derrida and Foucault had yet to explode upon the world and peddle their anti-thoughts. Heidegger wasn't much known beyond Germany yet. However, the seeds were being sown, and Orwell knew it. The book represents a flailing effort to spew vitriol and revulsion at what he saw that was only beginning to happen to the English language, to books and academia, to intelligence and thought. In that it is not quite coherent. It was written too early in the 20th century to capture all of the nuances of these trends, and it was written too late in Orwell's life (he died a year later) for it to have been more patient.

But that lack of patience gives it the roaring urgency that it needs. The book is grimy and gritty, not polished and smooth--this is because its world is grimy and gritty. Orwell is shaking his fist at Big Brother. Orwell is Winston, strapped in the bed, being told that two and two makes five, and he is refusing to believe it. The book, in this regard, is self-referential, I think. He doesn't know who Big Brother is, indeed, doesn't even know if Big Brother exists at all.

Indeed, this leads my to my final thought--that, in the midst of this self-reference, a kernel can be formed from the third part of the book, a kernel that reveals the shape of things, not to come, but as they were within Orwell's final days. The Party, O'Brien, Big Brother, they all represent the changes and shifts that Orwell saw taking place in the English language and in the intelligencia as he was dying. Winston may represent him, or more than him--the mid-level intellects. Winston is the grounded man, the person who sees reality for what it is, while the Inner Party, everyone else, are the new-wave of thinkers that were just beginning to creep out into the light, just beginning to venture forth into the literate world and ensconce themselves within the ivory towers of Europe. Whether Orwell realized this or not, I cannot say. He probably didn't see it for what it was at the time. He saw the symptoms and did his best to diagnose the illness and, in the absence of a cure, develop a vaccine of skepticism, rage, and refusal.

1984 by George Orwell
Style A
Substance A+
Overall A+

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Πλάτων and Πολιτεία

About a year ago, I reread Πολιτεία by Πλάτων (The Republic by Plato), and I have mulled over some thoughts and ideas that I want to discuss in regards to that epic work. It is a dialogue between Σωκράτης (Socrates) and several of his companions (some of whom are critics, others who are disciples or friends) regarding the happiest of men. This leads them to the idea that being just is being happy, which further leads them into the discussion of "what is justice" which then descends into the hypothetical creation of the "most just polity." All this is to demonstrate a) what justice is, and b) why the most just man is happiest (especially in comparison to several other archetypes). The centerpiece of the book is a thought-experiment: the creation of the hypothetical πόλις (polis), Kallipolis (i.e. "beautiful city"), which is an attempt to harmonize the individual with the city, a city which will produce the best, highest type of individual. Plato, in order to illustrate what is the happiest man, must illustrate that man who embodies ἀρετή (arete) of mind, body, spirit, and patriotism, must create an environment that will produce such an individual. That environment, Kallipolis, is the embodiment of ἀρετή for the πόλις.

When reading the book, one can see where Socrates ends and Plato begins. It's demonstrably obvious. Socrates was a man who asked questions in order to reduce things to base principles. In other words, he would ask questions until some sort of self-evident truth was revealed, or else invalidating discrepencies made any attempts at axiomatic statements pointless. However, Socrates behaves strongly out-of-character throughout this work, but most notably after the beginning of Book II, when the hypothetical "just city" is being conceptualized. This is Plato speaking through Socrates in axiomatic statements. Only Book I really feels like an actual Socratic dialogue, because it is the only one in which Socrates is really engaged in a debate, and it is the only one in which he asks questions.

The opening line, "I went down to the Piraeus," mirrors a descent into Hades made by Odysseus, a descent that would be made by many heroes and warriors throughout mythic and legendary literature. But Plato's descent is much more mundane, and concerned not with glory, wealth, immortality or the rescue of a deceased loved-one, but rather with the intellectual and the philosophical. And indeed, throughout this work, we are confronted with a great deal of dark delving into the inherent contradictions within the human spirit that make such discussions as the nature of justice and the idea of the happiest man futile. An ascent is made, halfway through the book, into the idea of the Forms and universals, before descending into the afterlife again, in a discussion in Book X.

An astute reader will pay attention to the characters and their names, and how Socrates treats them. Polemarchus, whose name means "warlord" or "general," is concerned with honor and duty. Glaucon, whose name invokes terms such as "shining" or "glittery" is concerned with gain and glory, whereas his brother, Adeimantus, is obsessed with wealth and material gain. Cephalus, the host and master of the house to which Socrates has been compelled to visit, is aged and representative of Athenian tradition. It is not surprising that Socrates ousts him from the conversation almost immediately, and Cephalus excuses himself, permitting the discussion group to operate beyond the boundaries of tradition and convention and to explore the outlandish, hypothetical, and outright weird.

The discussion in Book I is sparked by a question regarding the nature of justice (since they agree that the happiest man is a just man). Socrates' interlocutors make statements, to which Socrates responds with questions. These questions force his companions to refine their ideas, rethink them, and inevitably abandon them. Socrates' questioning leads them to inescapable conclusions that their ideas are self-contradictory, hypocritical, or illogical. In the end, no satisfactory definition of justice can be enunciated. So, instead of examining something from a microcosmic perspective (i.e. the just man), Socrates decides to examine justice from the perspective of a just πόλις.

As goes the ideal, or just, state, so will go the ideal man. This is a theme that recurs later in the book, where Socrates compares different governments with their analogous individuals, psychoanalyzing both the individual and, by extension, the government to which he is coupled.

Thus begins the erection of an imaginary πόλις, from the very ground up. The genesis of this state was the certainty of a sort of pre-Marxian idea of class-struggle between haves and have-nots which generates misery, strife, injustice, and corruption within men. The antidote to this class struggle is to create a society in which class is sort of a moot point, and society is organized as an αριστοκρατία (aristocracy) in the purest, most original sense, meaning "rule of the best" (analogous to the modern idea of a "meritocracy" perhaps). Plato seeks to eliminate all factionalism and conflict from his πόλις, and argues that the only way to do so is to produce the best sort of ruler that will be ultimately just. These best are obviously philosopher-kings, but before you can object to having the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche enthroned above you in all his hateful contrarian, Hobbesian splendor, Socrates and his fellows axiomatically (meaning Plato and his fellows) state that only certain types of thinkers are philosophers. How convenient!

So, what, exactly, is a philosopher? Well, obviously a just person, one that is raised and conditioned in an ideal environment that cultivates not only his justice, but also his temperance, bravery, and wisdom. The philosopher is the lover of wisdom (the very definition of philosophy in Greek, φιλοσοφία, is "love of wisdom"). The πόλις is compared to a ship and the philosopher-king as its captain (the origin of the "ship-of-state" metaphor). But perhaps most importantly, a philosopher who would be king must understand the existence of the Forms, and thus the allegory of the cave is born (more on this later).

And here Socrates begins to speak axiomatically (as Plato's mouthpiece, I would argue). He states that justice, in and of itself, is not a virtue that is native to a person but rather the result of a well-ordered soul. In almost Daoist fashion, Socrates believes that people should follow their natural inclinations, and thus, for Kallipolis, divides people into soldiers, producers, and rulers. If their souls are well-ordered, people will naturally gravitate toward whatever lifestyle best suits them. If the city is well-ordered, all people will be raised as per their natural inclination. To raise people as per their natural inclination, strict measures of control need to be in place to prevent the corruption of individuals. Socrates emphasizes the four cardinal virtues, and implies that in the just society, all people will naturally come to embody these principles. In other words, the just society is one that will properly raise and educate such individuals, surrounding them only by influences deemed good and just, and by forbidding all others. Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that Plato's Republic was the greatest educational manual ever written--the instruction and upbringing of the citizen of Kallipolis is at the very heart of the creation of a just society, and is the prime cause of all other aspects of the hypothetical πόλις's society and culture.

To preserve this society, as well as to preserve the meritocratic system of promotion and assignation of office, they create a repressive society in which many sorts of poetry, theater, and other art forms are banned from the πόλις, the reason for which is their tendency to corrupt with "untrue ideas" and "imitation." Here Plato grossly misunderstands (and misrepresents) the purpose of art, as well as its effect on the human psyche. He labels Homer as an imitator, because though Homer wrote about heroes, kings, wars, and governance, he himself did none of those things, thus invalidating himself. Plato states that Homer knew nothing of the realities of those subjects of his poems, and so, his value as a poet stands on tenuous ground. This is nonsense. Literature, poetry, and art do not exist to report truths of a tangible sort, and Plato of all men should know better after writing Books VI and VII (containing the idea of Agathon, the allegory of the cave, and theory of forms).

Nevertheless, Plato advocates the fabrication of an entire tradition, mythical cycle, and literary/poetical legacy in order to educate and serve as propaganda. Theology and mythology would have to be edited. Plato argues that the stories of the gods' misbehavior must be censored and bowdlerized in order to turn them into examples for the behavior of just citizens. The cultural heritage of the entire Greek people is called into question, and Plato deems a great deal of it unworthy and destructive.

Plato's programme for selection of philosopher-kings is predicated entirely upon their education, and a careful weeding-out of those who do not satisfy the prerequisite perceptions and skills. And here we return to exactly what the philosopher is. Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to illustrate the philosopher as the person who breaks free of the illusion and emerges into the sunlight.

This allegory Plato uses to illustrate how the average person is, like the prisoners, exposed only to a sort of "shadow reality," whereas the philosopher, through enlightenment and contemplation, approaches the capacity to perceive the Forms. Thus, knowledge of the Forms is a prerequisite to the possession of political power. The Forms represent abstract ideals for concrete realities that the everyday person can perceive. To Plato, however, these concrete realities are pale reflections of the abstract (and more "real") Forms. These Forms are the only things that can provide us with genuine knowledge, and not just guesses, theories, or supposition. Perhaps Plato requires this ability to perceive and understand the Forms for his philosopher-kings because the ruler must be able to perceive the Good and the Just, and attempt to turn his πόλις toward these Forms.

In the end, however, Plato's city is, at its heart, nihilistic. Justice becomes a non-entity. There is no injustice to which one can compare it, so as a virtue, justice is nullified. It ceases to be a characteristic altogether in its people. Adeimantus' objection to the city is that happiness does not exist, and Glaucon argues that the city has no glory or honor. The question as to whether this city is just is leveled against how natural it is, and then the discussion shifts to whether the city is even possible in the first place.

At least Plato understands that this πόλις cannot last forever. Indeed, what he describes would be absolutely impossible unless the philosopher-kings ruled with an iron fist. Plato dislikes democracy; although it is well-known that Socrates loved it, Plato uses his teacher's mouth to deride the institution. He sees liberty as giving license, a sort of blank check on behavior, leading to all sorts of vice and moral/social decay. He sees the factionalism and political conflict within democratic governments as antithetical to the sort of harmony that could produce a just man.

But to create the sort of "just society" Plato advocates would result in a puritanically repressive regime. History since Plato has been replete with those sort of societies that oppressed and repressed their populations in order to "preserve" things like "justice," "morality," and "truth." Although I agree with Plato a great deal on those three social virtues, I do not agree with his methods of creating the just society.

Plato's polity is about as realistically executable as communism or Confucianism--which is to say, it is impossible. Even on the city-state level, a population of about, say, 30,000 individuals, I'd venture to guess that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull off without purging and exile by a bloody revolution. And, as we know from God Emperor of Dune, in the words of Leto II, "All revolutions carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction."

There are, however, good things to be found within Plato's Republic. A love of justice, and the concept of the Good, the ideal Form of good and the ultimate form of knowledge. These are things that I share with Plato. Plato argues for the equality of men and women alike in his πόλις, and believes that no position should be denied them because of their gender. However, he fails to reckon with basic human nature on a number of levels, one of them being the need for love (sexual and familial). There is equality between the sexes, but intercourse is generally for the purpose of procreation in Kallipolis, partners are assigned, and any offspring are removed from their parents and raised by the state.

But perhaps Plato's polity is a satire, and we are all just too foolish to understand the contradiction between the ideal of the just society and the impossibility to imagine one without descending into a proto-fascist regime that nullifies the very meaning of justice. Perhaps that contradiction was Plato's entire point--the entire book is an expression of the futility in creating a just regime. Thus, we inevitably come full-circle--we are incapable of divining what is a just society, even when attempting to create the ideal πόλις. Ironically, this inability to perceive the Form of justice and the Form of the just πόλις, indicates how short we fall from Plato's ideal philosopher--the Form of the philosopher if you will.

The biggest disagreement I have with Plato's Kallipolis is simply this:
  • If a people must be made to be just and good, then they do not deserve the benefits of peace and prosperity, justice and truth, that they would possess, if they cannot achieve it through democratic means.
In other words, if a democracy decays and falls into injustice, corruption, and loses its virtue, it is the fault of the people (as well as the leaders), and therefore deserves to suffer. Plato's rule by philosopher-kings would create a just society, but by his own admission (see Book X especially), it cannot change the nature of humans from being what they are. It is little more than a band-aid. And the very justice of the society is its tragic flaw--it is unjust because it has removed the liberty of choice, and the ability to select the option of being just. Depressingly, since there can be no truly just state, perhaps it must follow that there can be no truly just man. This brings into question the very existence of the Forms and perhaps the universals can only exist as amorphous, ill-defined shapes within the shadowy recesses of our minds.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Book Reviews -- Asimov's FOUNDATION TRILOGY

It's been about two weeks since I've last posted. A lot has happened since then. I took a vacation in Fukuoka, Japan during the Korean holiday of 추석 (Chuseok). That put me out-of-touch for the better part of that week. I'm stumbling through Democracy in America, but I find de Tocqueville to be incredibly depressing, since I can't help but lament how much American culture has abandoned its original shape and principles in favor of consumerism. The return from Japan bummed me out a great deal. I am deeply in love with that country, which causes no end of consternation with my Korean and other non-Korean associates here, who take my indifference toward Korea to mean I hate it (which I don't).

So, I decided to revisit an old flame in order to raise my spirits--Isaac Asimov's original Foundation Trilogy.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, although chronologically starting earlier than Foundation itself, aren't nearly as interesting, and are mostly redactive set-ups for the stories in this book.

The book is basically a chronological collection of short stories that were first published separately in the early 1940s in Astounding Magazine. These segments were collected into a single volume by Gnome Press in 1951 and chart the first hundred-fifty years of the Foundation. The premise is simple--the 12,000 year-old Galactic Empire (cue "The Imperial March") is declining, and will gradually collapse, though no one realizes it at the time but Hari Seldon. The mathematical genius, though the science of psychohistory, predicts the future, and works out how to shorten the 30,000-year barbaric interregnum to a brief 1,000-year rise of a Second Empire. The kernel of that Empire is the Foundation.

Asimov's prose is without flair, but that isn't necessarily bad, and is, indeed, refreshing in these days of word-bloat. Orwell would never have complained about Asimov's brevity, in fact it would have been seen as a strength. And indeed it is. The pacing and terseness of prose is an effect of the medium of transmission--the pulps. Like Lovecraft and Howard in the decades previous, Asimov's early work was, for the most part, serialized in magazines. This created a need for rapid pacing and swift plot development. Thus, since word-space was at a premium, many of the futuristic features (clothes, devices, buildings, vehicles) largely go undescribed, leaving the details up to the reader's imagination. After being raised on the visuals of Star Wars and the many incarnations of Star Trek, I had very little trouble filling in the gaps.

Asimov's writing is, of course, dated. Computers do not exist in his interstellar universe, simply because, in 1941, when he was writing, the ENIAC hadn't even been built yet. IBM was still NCR--National Cash Register. Laser weapons don't exist, but instead "nuclear blasts" are aimed at enemies. Granted, nuclear tools are present, but they are incredibly small--cars, planes, even flashlights and refrigerators run on perfectly safe atomic energy. These features can be abrasive to the modern reader who cannot understand why the characters pore over microfilm projectors rather than just pulling up entire books on their PDAs, but I could get past it easily.

The stories' plots develop rapidly. Most of them can easily be read in 45-minutes to an hour (depending on how fast you read). Characters have a tendency to be somewhat flat, but Asimov doesn't have a great deal of leg-room in which to work--they are flat quite by necessity in my opinion. The dialogue is rather bland and unimaginative, I'll admit, and this is actually the greatest weakness of the stories, because most of the action occurs offstage. We'll see characters plotting a coup, for example, and then, in the following chapter, they'll be discussing how their coup was successful, but we never actually see the coup happen. I'm not certain why. But this is a primary feature of Asimov's story-telling, and it feels like I'm watching a Greek play and not reading a science-fiction story some of the time.

Granted, this is a feature of much science-fiction. Although Frank Herbert wrote an incredible story with Dune, he wrote very little about the actual battle fought against the Harkonnen. It is as if any author writing science-fiction before Star Wars either couldn't grasp the ability to describe space-warfare or ground combat effectively or excitingly, or they believed it was far to gauche to explain the grittier aspects of their universes. After Star Wars you see a vast difference in attitude towards futuristic warfare, especially from Kevin J. Anderson and Dan Simmons (see my previous posts on the Hyperion books).

What makes this book so incredible is the "high concept" that drives the entire story. Asimov explores the concept of psychohistory--the capacity to predict the movements of vast numbers of people. What is fascinating is how each crisis that arises was predicted by imperial mathematician Hari Seldon's psychohistory. The Foundation weathers its storms simply by "going with the grain." Historical forces basically drive the Foundation through its evolution from a single, insignificant planet into a major political force on the edge of the galaxy. Asimov's main character of the story isn't anything more than the big concept itself. How do individuals interact with this concept is also a question. Although Asimov doesn't spend a great deal of time on it, one has to wonder how much individual initiative and free will count throughout the stories' development. The individuals that act throughout the various crises that the Foundation finds itself in all seem to operate in an almost Daoist fashion--they kind of "go with the flow"--there is always an obvious solution to all of the problems and the characters simply behave as if there were a natural impetus drawing them and their Foundation toward that solution. Asimov is obviously not a proponent of "great actor history" and seems to believe that people are (deterministically) a product of their space and time.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
The first half of this book (about 90 pages) is the final death-throes of the Galactic Empire and their attempt to conquer the Foundation. And this is, perhaps, the most frustrating book to read.

On the upside, the book is full of intrigue and plotting. General Bel Riose is a believable military man who is as ruthless as he should be. We certainly get a feel, from the dialogue, for the different regional accents and dialects that have been developing during the past 200 years of Imperial disintegration. We also get the feel that the stories in Foundation are seen as history by the characters, who are, in many ways, scions of the first book's protagonists. Plans are hatched, and the ultimate victory of Seldon's Plan is ironic, but interesting. You have the definite feeling that history truly marches as Hari Seldon had plotted. The deeds of individuals are subsumed by psychohistory. Everything works out in such a way as to leave the reader somewhat satisfied regarding the historical inevitabilities that Seldon prepared. As an historian myself, I find this all fascinatingly reflective of structuralist views of history.

The second half is a bit longer and a bit better, and a major monkey-wrench is thrown into Seldon's Plan, and the reader is left wondering, How the heck is this going to turn out alright for the Foundation? This is good. The story in Part II is excellent, moves well, and has less off-stage action than the first. The characters are a bit more fleshed-out than in the first half, and the dialogue throughout this book is overall better than in Foundation. You can see how Asimov has been growing as a writer.

On the downside, again, there are no space battles. The entire book (both parts) are about war yet, disappointingly, action is described as having happened off-stage. In addition, I feel that the censors had a bit too much fun with one particularly foul-mouthed character, a professor with the penchant for saying, "unprintable" in place of any other "colorful adjective." I have a feeling that this was not the writer so much as the censor having a good time. In addition, transitions are handled horribly. There are no spaces between paragraphs when one scene ends and another begins. The reader is jerkily pulled from one situation to another perhaps minutes or hours later. This feature did not exist in Foundation, and it gives the book a slightly sloppy, not-quite-final-draft feel to it.

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
About a decade separates the last penstroke of this book from the first penstroke of The Psychohistorians, the opening story in Foundation, and the reader can see how far Asimov has come. Characters are far more dynamic and interesting in this book than in the previous volumes. Compared to other writers, however, Asimov's characters are still somewhat wooden in their behavior, with a few specific exceptions--and these exceptions do a lot in demonstrating Asimov's growth as a writer.

This book has even less action (as in, guns blazing) than the previous two. However, more things seem to be done on stage, as opposed to off, in this book and though it moves less it seems to pull the reader in a bit more. The bulk of the story is devoted to intrigue. If I were to compare this book to a film, it'd have to be Clerks, since the best parts are when characters are just sitting around talking to each other.

Asimov's dialogue develops the plot entirely, and carries it on it's shoulders. Dialogue is the key to this narrative. Asimov isn't interested in what is going on outside of the discussion room--indeed, the story reflects this. Gigantic space battles between fleets of warships are unimportant in the Grand Scheme of things. Interestingly, Asimov's narrative style and the elements of the story itself have finally achieved a sort of synthesis in this regard.

The dialogue serves to increase the tension and reveal what the characters are thinking--which ultimately revolve around the location of the Second Foundation and the reasoning behind all of their deductions. The book keeps you guessing. Just when you think you've found the Second Foundation, it turns out that they were one or two steps ahead of you and they have you all figured out.

Morality is ambiguous. I'm not certain if I really like the Second Foundationers, and can honestly see why the original Foundation might consider them a potential threat, although the two were originally supposed to work toward a single goal from "opposite ends of the galaxy."

The "big revelation" as to the location of the Second Foundation feels like Asimov painted himself into a corner. It just feels so forced, like he needed some enormous twist but was incapable of working it out in any way. Sure, the reasons and rationale behind the actual location of the Second Foundation do make sense, but it seems... well... stupid. Forced, as I had said earlier.

Nevertheless, this book is probably the most solid of the series and probably the most interesting one. Its pacing is good, things develop swiftly, and you definitely get a feel for the gigantic forces of history at work. All-in-all, a pretty solid book. But, still, like most of Asimov's novels, they are better read because of the uniqueness of his ideas rather than for the quality of his prose and the dynamism of his characters. And, believe-it-or-not, those ideas were better expressed in the original Foundation, despite his growth as a writer in this later book.

Style B-
Substance B
Overall B-

Foundation and Empire

Style C
Substance B-
Overall C+

Second Foundation
Style B-
Substance B-
Overall B-