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Monday, July 31, 2006

Suez deux?

It’s been two weeks now since I returned to the U.S., and as you may have noticed, I haven’t yet said anything substantive on this blog about the crisis in the Middle East.  My initial impression—which I mentioned briefly on my return—was that Israel’s response to these latest provocations was disproportionate, profoundly counterproductive, and morally illegitimate.  But “disproportionate,” as you may know, is a dirty word on some wings of the way-further-left, where you can find people who are willing to deny that Israel has any right of response—or, perhaps, any right to exist—at all.  This circumspect, progressive-left blog doesn’t go there, and like Eric Kirk, will not join the British ultraleft in their little chants of “we are all Hezbollah now” and George Galloway in shouting “I am here to glorify the resistance, Hezbollah.  I am here to glorify the leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.” I actually believe Israel has a right to respond to provocations, and I actually condemn the hurling of rockets into Israeli towns and cities (especially by organizations that were supposed to disarm years ago! —but now we know why they didn’t: “[Sheikh Naim] Qassem, a founding member of Hezbollah . . . admitted Hezbollah had been preparing for conflict since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000”).  But I will join thousands of critics to my left and even a couple hundred liberals a bit to my right in remarking on the fact that there is almost no place in American public life for principled criticism of Israel—not even among the most progressive elected Democrats, not even under circumstances as extreme as these.  Think about it: people talk about Social Security as the “third rail” of American politics.  Hah.  If you’re an elected official or a think-tank fellow, you can talk about dismantling Social Security in this country, and people might oppose you or criticize you, but you won’t provoke a national scandal, and you certainly won’t lose your job.  About Israel, however, there is no leeway whatsoever—and, accordingly, there is no opposition party.  The first Democrat who stands up and says that Israel is behaving like a rogue nation, escalating a long-simmering, low-level conflict into a possible cataclysm, will be linked to Mel Gibson.  Or—almost as bad—George Galloway.  In the meantime, Congressional Democrats will either line up behind Bush—or just slightly to his right.

It is for moments like these, dear friends, that we have blogs.  Over the past two weeks, Billmon has outdone himself, and if you haven’t checked him out lately, go right ahead and do so now.  (I’ve been reading him daily and thinking, but no one needs me to chime in when we already have Billmon.  Mr. Billmon!  We need you!  Don’t ever leave us again!  Please!  We promise to patronize the Whiskey Bar every day, or until our livers finally give out!) Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber kicked off an instructive discussion of war crimes. Digby has been pondering the consequences of the dangerous combination of disastrous U.S.-Israeli political isolation combined with disastrous U.S.-Israeli military stalemates, and tristero has looked searchingly into John Podhoretz’s heart of darkness.  And as for the liberal blogs that have a bit of crossover with liberal magazines, that young Mr. Yglesias turned in a fine essay the other day:

It’s usually best in the American context to keep one’s criticisms of Israel polite and measured, but there are times when it’s better to be blunt in the hopes of achieving clarity. Israel’s current war in Lebanon is strategically blinkered and morally obtuse. . . .

In the years between Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the current crisis, Hezbollah was known, now and again, to fire off a rocket or two in Israel’s direction. Primarily, however, the organization directed its energies at Lebanese domestic politics. Indeed, even the occasional rocket attack is best understood as having been undertaken for domestic consumption. The nominal rationale for Hezbollah being allowed to maintain a militia while other Lebanese factions were not was the struggle against Israel. Therefore, it was necessary to launch a notional attack or two to prove that the group was still in the fight. These attacks were, morally speaking, despicable—the targeting of civilians with no possibility of achieving any legitimate war aims. They were not, however, a large problem in practice for the state of Israel. Efforts to root out Hezbollah rocketeers by force have made Israelis civilians much less safe than they were before.

The cross-border raid to capture Israeli soldiers was, of course, another matter. But here Israel had options. If they wanted their soldiers back, they could have traded some Hezbollah captives for them. If they wanted to act tough in the face of threats, they could have refused to negotiate and mounted a smallish, well-targeted retaliatory strike that would have garnered significant international support. Instead, Israel chose to escalate a low-intensity border conflict that posed no serious threat to its security into a much larger-scale battle it can’t possibly win—one that will only harden anti-Israeli sentiments in its neighbor to the north. . . .

Israel and its friends abroad need to face reality—the problem that needs solving is the Palestinian problem. Were Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians resolved, other challenges like Hezbollah would soon melt away. The idea of firing rockets into Israeli towns would appear absurd. Iran and Syria would have nothing to gain from supporting groups that behaved in that manner. Arab public opinion would no longer applaud the firing of rockets at random into Israeli cities. . . .

This, rather than hearty bromides of encouragement and solidarity, is what Israel needs to hear from its American friends right now.

Not bad for a “liberal” publication.  Though, again, don’t expect this kind of thing to filter up to elected Democrats, who can’t manage even the “polite and measured” version of criticism.

So in this context, “disproportionate” is not necessarily a bad word.  And I’ll stand by “profoundly counterproductive,” too—at least if you take into consideration the support of every single Arab state, together with 87 percent of the Lebanese population, for Hezbollah’s campaign against Israel.

According to a poll released by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, 87 percent of Lebanese support Hizbullah’s fight with Israel, a rise of 29 percent on a similar poll conducted in February. More striking, however, is the level of support for Hizbullah’s resistance from non-Shiite communities. Eighty percent of Christians polled supported Hizbullah along with 80 percent of Druze and 89 percent of Sunnis.

Well, so much for that Washington Post headline of July 14, “Attacks Could Erode Faction’s Support.” If indeed Israel was trying to get Lebanon to abjure Hezbollah, then its campaign seems to have been as successful a PR strategy as was Dick Cheney’s tragedy-or-farce “2002 diplomacy tour,” which tried to drum up support in the Arab world for the invasion of Iraq, and which promptly produced a statement of Arab solidarity against the invasion of Iraq.  And “morally illegitimate?” Opinions differ on what constitutes moral legitimacy under these circumstances, of course, but this weekend’s bombing of sleeping refugees, many of them children, is about as indefensible as indefensible gets.  (Update:  via LGM, a searing post from Jonathan Edelstein.) And then there’s bombing a UN observation post, not to mention forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, and killing a fair number of them in the process.  So I’m going to stick with my original description, at least for now.

But there are two things I’d like to add.  The first is that I did not expect Hezbollah’s resistance to be quite so . . . resilient.  I thought this would be a political disaster for the region and a humanitarian disaster for Lebanon, but I did not imagine that it would also be a strategic disaster for Israel. 

The second is that I was probably wrong to say that there is no braking system in place.  In one sense that’s true, because the U.S. has clearly green-lighted the “kill them all” option, and the wingnuts have begun to debate whether we made a mistake in not killing enough Sunni men between 15 and 35 in the course of our noble quest to liberate Iraq.  A bunch of dead children, bombed in their sleep, and our government can’t even demand a cease-fire.  (But let’s not overlook Condi Rice’s very first diplomatic triumph:  getting Israel to announce a 48-hour suspension of air strikes.  Oops, wait a sec . . . It turns out that “despite Israel’s announcement of 48-hour suspension of aerial strikes, bombs continued to fall across Lebanon, albeit at a slower pace and at more limited targets than earlier in the offensive.” Well, Secretary Rice, congratulations on that much.)

But in another sense, there is a braking system out there.  It’s a dangerous one: it basically involves pulling the emergency cord and possibly derailing the train.  Though it does not involve the Rapture.

Last Thursday, Digby wrote:

This is a very dangerous moment for the world. The US is showing over and over again that it is immmoral and incompetent. That is the kind of thing that leads ambitious, crazy or stupid people to miscalculate and set disasterous events in motion. The neocons have destroyed America’s carefully nurtured mystique by seeking to flex its muscles for the sake of flexing them. What a mistake. This country is much, much weaker today because of it and the world is paying the price. At some point I have to imagine that we are going to be paying it too. Big Time.

And I thought, paying the price . . . paying the price . . . hmmm, I seem to remember something along these lines. . . .

Ah, yes.  Four years ago, in the pages of the Nation, William Greider wrote about paying the price, and he meant it literally:

The imperial ambitions of the Bush Administration, post-9/11, are founded on quicksand and are eventually sure to founder, but for fundamental reasons not currently under discussion. . . .  The US financial position is rapidly deteriorating, due mainly to America’s persistent and growing trade deficit. US ambitions to run the world, in other words, are heavily mortgaged. Like any debtor who borrows more year after year with no plausible way to reverse the trend’ a nation sinking deeper into debt enters into an adverse power relationship with its creditors-greater and greater dependency.

These creditors are both private investors and governments from Europe and Asia; now none of them have any incentive to disrupt their lopsided relationship with the super-powerful leader of the world. After all, it works for them: Their exports have unfettered access to the largest consumer market in the world, producing trade surpluses and gaining greater market share. Their capital, meanwhile, reaps good returns on the loans and investments in the American economy. But history suggests that with sufficient provocation, the creditor nations will eventually assert their leverage over the United States, however reluctantly. That critical juncture is likely to arrive either because the American debt burden has become so great that additional lending would be too risky or because the creditor nations want to jerk Washington’s chain, perhaps to head off reckless new adventures. Either way, it will be a humbling moment for American triumphalism. . . .

The threatening implications are seldom discussed with any clarity or candor, but the numbers are not secret. The US economy’s net foreign indebtedness-the accumulation of two decades of running larger and larger trade deficits-will reach nearly 25 percent of US GDP this year, or roughly $2.5 trillion. Fifteen years ago, it was zero. Before America’s net balance of foreign assets turned negative, in 1988, the United States was a creditor nation itself, investing and lending vast capital to others, always more than it borrowed. Now the trend line looks most alarming. If the deficits persist around the current level of $400 billion a year or grow larger, the total US indebtedness should reach $3.5 trillion in three years or so. Within a decade, it would total 50 percent of GDP. Instead of facing this darkening prospect, Bush and team regularly dismiss the worldviews of these creditor nations and lecture them condescendingly on our superior qualities. Any profligate debtor who insults his banker is unwise, to put it mildly. . . .

Instead of reformulating global governance to share power and burdens more broadly, a multipolar system that matches the economic reality, America still acts as if it runs things—alone. And America pays dearly for the privilege, both through its bloated military spending and by accepting the lopsided trade deficits. Both are implicitly regarded in Washington as the burdens of leadership—defending the world against terrorism on any frontier, upholding the global trading system by serving as “buyer of last resort” for other nations’ exports. . . .

British power was fundamentally eclipsed in 1914, but the United States provided the financial nurture to keep it upright, as a kind of dummy leader in world affairs, until after World War II. Washington decisively pulled the plug in 1956, when Britain (along with France and Israel) invaded Egypt to capture the nationalized Suez Canal. It was the last gasp of British colonialism, and Washington disapproved. By withholding an IMF loan to London, the United States crashed the pound, forced Britain to withdraw from war and its prime minister to resign in disgrace. The Brits were finally relieved of their delusions. . . .

The Bush warriors’ reckless American unilateralism can only hasten the day when the creditors conclude that they must assert their leverage over us, perhaps in order to defend peace and stability in the world. How will Americans react when they discover that “U-S-A” is a lot less muscular than they were led to believe? Assuming Americans do not really yearn to become latter-day Roman legions, many people may be relieved to learn the truth. Stripped of imperial illusions, this country could concentrate on building a different, more promising society at home. But while we can hope that the transition ahead will be gradual and without national humiliation, it’s more plausible that America’s brave new imperialists will plunge ahead blindly, until one day they encounter their own intense reckoning with the bookkeepers.

It’s a shame Greider ends on such a bizarrely upbeat note: Americans are stripped of their illusions and become better people for it.  Not bloody likely, my friend!  To gauge just by this past month’s histrionics on the right, some Americans will be stripped of their illusions of omnipotence and they will respond by insisting that the people who brought you Abu Ghraib failed only in that they were too nice.

Anyway, the parallel isn’t exact.  Our creditors do not stand in relation to us as we stood in relation to the British in 1956, and any attempt to pull the plug on us will have severe ramifications for every other financial market around the globe.  It would be a terrible mess.  One of these days, though, someone is going to decide it will be less of a mess than the alternative of letting a bunch of crazed neocons drive the world right over the cliff.

In the meantime, if you have a moment, please consider donating to the UN relief effort in Lebanon.

Posted by Michael on 07/31 at 01:33 PM
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Friday, July 28, 2006

ABF Friday:  Jamie edition!

So I missed two days of posting.  I’m all right, just a bit tired after spending all Tuesday on Beckett, all Wednesday catching up with my ordinary work, and all Thursday watching CNN on the Middle East.  I have to say their Rapture coverage is some of the most thorough I’ve ever seen on the secular media.  I especially appreciated their advice that incipient Rapturees should dress warmly.  It sounds counterintuitive in late July, but sure enough, in their ascent through the upper layers of the atmosphere the Elect will be getting quite chilly, so it’s only sensible to bring along a down comforter and an extra pair of socks just in case.


Tuesday night the cast of Beatlemania came to town, as they do every summer.  It’s one of the highlights of Jamie’s summer, for reasons you can imagine.  But we missed it!  We completely blew it!  We didn’t even know it was going on!  And when Jamie saw the coverage in Wednesday morning’s newspaper, you can bet he was crestfallen. 

But we had good news for him. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were supposed to play the Crowbar, which was practically State College’s only venue for visiting Bands of Stature.  But the Crowbar closed, possibly because it was run by the same evil consortium that owns four or five local restaurants of stunning mediocrity; we look forward to visiting the new Slop ‘n’ Stew that will take its place, unless of course it turns into yet another t-shirt emporium.  However, some enterprising soul booked Ted Leo at the open-air Tussey Mountain Amphitheater instead, about five miles from here, and the gig was scheduled for this past Wednesday night.  Now, who likes Ted Leo in this house?  Well, Nick most of all, and he heard about them first.  And me and Janet.  And Jamie too!  His favorite song is “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone,” from Hearts of Oak, but he likes a few from Shake the Sheets too.  So Ted Leo promised to be Fun for the Whole Family!

Nick told us that the promoters needed about 250 people to show up if they were to break even.  They didn’t get half that: instead, a sparse and strangely subdued crowd of about 100 gathered to hear Ted Leo play a generous set of about fifteen songs, plus five more in a mini-set encore.  Six or seven new tunes were hauled out; half of them sounded great, and the other half, as Mr. Leo himself noted, still need a bit of work.  Leo was winsome and mordantly funny, and the band was crisp.  The evening was blissfully cool, and though we were sorry that the good people of the State College area hadn’t quite done the band justice, we had to admit it was great to be standing only a few yards from the stage on a nice summer night.

But this post is not about Ted Leo.  It’s not even about the Rapture.  It’s about Jamie.

Nick hung with his friends to the left of the stage; Janet and I were on the other side.  Jamie did not stand with his parents, of course.  He took up a position on the right edge of the front row and did his very own Jamie thing, alternating between mild thrashing (ramping it up to moderate thrashing for “Rude Boys,” which, to Jamie’s delight, came early in the set) and watching the band intently with arms folded.  You know, like pretty much every other teenager.

OK, so he played with someone’s hat for a few minutes, until Janet told him that it was “completely inappropriate” to do so.  But still, Jamie is so cool, just about as cool as his older brother.  And so I dedicate this Arbitrary But Fun Friday to Jamie, because there are so many cool things about him that I can’t decide which is coolest.  Apart from the Ted Leo thing, which is fairly traditional adolescent-male alt.rock cool:

___ He is utterly free of any form of racial prejudice, and he is particularly intrigued by African-American history.  Though I’m not sure he “gets” slavery (for what sane person can?), he has always been curious about African-American leaders who fought for civil rights (and he certainly understands the principle that all children should be able to attend the same school).  At one point last month, on our way through a box store, he insisted that we buy a placemat with pictures of all 43 U.S. Presidents, and after he got through reading everyone’s names and listing their home states, he asked me which ones were good for African-Americans.  Well, that narrowed things down in a hurry!  Good question, Jamie.

___ He loves more forms of animal life than most people are aware of, and he’s always game for learning more.  Habitat, diet, means of reproduction, salient characteristics, you name it.  He’s a shark fanatic and a marine specialist, yes, but he can also get excited by sitatungas, bison, sparrows, salamanders, crocodiles, eagles, jellyfish, baboons, and snakes (on planes and off). “Is that an emu?” I asked him as we stopped at Clyde Peeling’s Reptileland on our way back from Syracuse.  “Yes,” he replied.  “It’s related to the ostrich.” Though he doesn’t have quite the same enthusiasm for plants, being somewhat kingdomcentric and all, his fascination with animals is a genuine intellectual curiosity, and it shows no sign of letting up.

___ His intellectual curiosity is also the reason he loves to travel.  He initially resisted going to France this year on the grounds that we’d been there before; he suggested we go to Germany.  He also wants to go to Japan, China, and New Zealand (for starters).  He’s quite good at geography, but for him it’s not just a question of maps and capitals; he knows that the planet is populated by a dazzling variety of people (some of whom are not wholly devoted to slaughtering each other, though the Slaughtering Party just happens to be in the ascendant), and if he had his way he would meet them all, just to find out what they’re like and what they eat and how they talk.

___ He did his best to speak some French in France.  This fact, together with his knowledge of the world’s geography, makes him a most atypical—and very cool—American traveler.  Jamie took French in seventh grade, and though that little experiment wasn’t so successful as to get him producing French sentences on his own, he did master the days of the week, the months of the year, the numbers up to 60, and an armload of basic vocabulary words.  The fruits of his labor became clearest in the grocery stores, where he was able to see the names of products (including fruits) and had much fun reading them aloud as he walked through the aisles.  Although this made him irrationally exuberant at times, greeting strange people and chattering too loudly, it also inspired him to address the woman at the cheese counter politely, and to say, with my prompting, nous voudrions du fromage de chèvre, s’il vous plait. Jamie knew what he was doing:  he loves goat cheese.  Which is also cool.

___ Though he spurns most fruits (except tomatoes) and vegetables (except lettuce and red peppers), he is far more willing to try strange foods than I was at fourteen.  He has been a fan of Indian food for the past five years, and welcomes Viet-Thai and Korean dishes as well.  One of these days I have to take him to a good churrascuria.  He would love that.  In Fayence he agreed to try escargot, and did not rebel even when he was told what escargot means.  He also tried paté and mussels and a bit of carrot salad.  And he loves Orangina and rich black olives, too.

___ He likes Ted Leo.  But I already said that.

I’ve told him all these things many times, usually when I put him to bed at night.  But I thought I’d set them down here, for future reference and for the benefit of his many Internet friends.  And, of course, for the benefit of all those people who foolishly think of Down syndrome as something akin to polio or Alzheimer’s or Tay-Sachs—namely, a regrettable intraspecies variation whose elimination would be an unqualified good.  For I can honestly say that even though I can’t figure out which cool thing about Jamie is the very coolest, I would be very happy indeed if the world contained more people like him.

Posted by Michael on 07/28 at 07:50 AM
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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Godot, table for one

OK, here it is, the post some of you thought would never arrive.  Sorry about the delay!  I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now, but didn’t start writing it down ‘til this afternoon.  And it took me all afternoon, so there.

On July 6, my second day in Dublin (after seeing the Yeats exhibit in the National Library), Janet said, “I’ll take Jamie to the café for breakfast, and you can go check out the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College.” Janet advised me that I should arrive promptly at 9:30 when the doors open, because the Book of Kells is quite popular among students, tour groups, graphic designers, and the International Ninth-Century Illustrated Manuscript Society.  And I had my own reasons to check out the Book of Kells, not least of which was the fact that when I was a senior at Regis High School in 1977-78, I helped to paint an enormous version of the front page of the Gospel of John for the gymnasium of St. Ignatius Loyola across the street.  You know, Jesuits think that this kind of thing intimidates visiting basketball teams, and they’re usually right.


The Book of Kells just happened to be on exhibit right down the street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that year, but the crowds were so intense that I barely caught a glimpse of the manuscript itself.  So I was especially grateful to get a second chance, nearly thirty years later.

But lo!  When I arrived at Trinity College, the doors were closed and would remain closed (so we were told) until 11.  Janet and Jamie were planning to meet me at 11 to go to the Dublin Zoo, and of course in this foreign land we had no cell phone contact with each other, so I was stuck with 90 minutes to kill on a chilly Dublin morning.  Fortunately, I was in Dublin!  Did I mention that yet?  And that meant that I was surrounded by all manner of cool things to see, in all manner of media.  So I simply walked a few blocks to the National Gallery, where, as Janet had informed me, there was an exhibit titled “Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Paintings.”

The exhibit itself was like a dream of fair to middling women, consisting mostly of paintings that had drawn Beckett’s sustained attention for one reason or another (he spent entire days in the National Gallery in his youth) and, a bit later on, art inspired by or related to his own work.  I wanted especially to see the Bram van Velde paintings that inspired Beckett’s short essay, “Three Dialogues” (the interlocutor in these dialogues is Georges Duthuit).  That’s the piece to which legions of Beckett critics turn when they’re looking for Statements About Art That Are Really Commentaries On Beckett’s Own Work, such as this bit on Tal Coat:

B. – The only thing disturbed by the revolutionaries Matisse and Tal Coat is a certain order on the plane of the feasible.

D. – What other plane can there be for the maker?

B. – Logically none.  Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.

D. – And preferring what?

B. – The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.

D. – But that is a violently extreme and personal point of view, of no help to us in the matter of Tal Coat.

B. –

D. – Perhaps that is enough for today.

You just gotta love B.’s final contribution to that conversation.  Which, together with the “nothing to express” bit, pretty much encapsulates Godot, Endgame, The Unnamable, How It Is (Comment C’est), The Lost Ones, All That Fall, and maybe even Krapp’s Last Tape as well, together with everything else in the postwar Beckett canon, except for the really funny parts.

The dialogue on van Velde includes these nuggets:

B. – Others have felt that art is not necessarily expression.  But the numerous attempts made to make painting independent of its occasion have only succeeded in enlarging its repertory.  I suggest that van Velde is the first whose painting is bereft, rid if you prefer, of occasion in every shape and form, ideal as well as material, and the first whose hands have not been tied by the certitude that expression is an impossible act.

D. – But might it not be suggested, even by one tolerant of this fantastic theory, that the occasion of this painting is his predicament, and that it is expressive of the impossibility to express?

B. – No more ingenious method could be devised for restoring him, safe and sound, to the bosom of Saint Luke.

The terms of this little exchange will be recapitulated, in different form, in Theodor Adorno’s famous essay “Trying to Understand Endgame,” which argues (if I so may reduce it for the purposes of reconciling the aliment to its manner of dispatch) that it is a mistake to make a “meaning” out of the meaninglessness of Endgame, because “understanding it can mean nothing other than understanding its incomprehensibility, or concretely reconstructing its meaning structure—that it has none.” Adorno’s complaint about existentialism (which underwrites his reading of Beckett, whom he sees as a fellow traveler in this regard) is that it actually rehabilitates meaninglessness, in a sophomoric “alors!  ze meaning is zat zere is no meaning!” kind of way.  And it is hard for criticism of art and literature to take this argument on board properly, you know, precisely because so much of it is invested in the hermeneutic enterprise of deciphering meaning(s), intended and otherwise.

Back to Sam, talking to Georges:

The history of painting, here we go again, is the history of its attempts to escape from this sense of failure, by means of more authentic, more ample, less exclusive relations between representer and representee. . . .  My case, since I am in the dock, is that van Velde is the first to desist from this kind of estheticized automatism, the first to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.

The claim that van Velde is the first to abandon the “occasion” of painting (the object, the aliment, the donneé) is silly, because you could speak about almost any abstract artist in this way.  But you see, no doubt, how handy these remarks are as glosses on Beckett himself.  And if you want to read more, you can pick up a copy of Disjecta, which also includes Beckett’s very early essay on Joyce, “Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce” (actually, ridiculously early—the precocious lad was all of 23) as well as excerpts from “Dream of Fair to Middling Women.”

Anyway, I tooled around the exhibit in a state of mild pleasure for about half an hour, and stopped to hear the audio accompaniment to Jack Yeats’s 1942 painting, “Two Travellers,” which looks like this . . .


. . . and which the exhibition cannily links to the opening pages of Molloy, which contain a description of two travelers meeting (and the fine line, “they looked alike, but no more than others do”).  And that reminded me, in turn, that I’d been meaning to reread Murphy for many years, and why not stop and pick up a copy on my way back to meet Janet and Jamie at Trinity College?  It turned out that there is a little bookstore called “Books Upstairs” right across the street from Trinity, and they were happy to sell me a copy of Murphy and a copy of Beckett’s early collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.


Now for a detour into graduate school.  I first read Murphy in 1983, in a Modern Novels class taught by Daniel Albright.  I met Janet in that class, as it happened.  I thought she was cool.

However, we quickly learned that we had strikingly different tastes in literature.  We agreed on the brilliance of Yeats, of course.  But I tended toward the Beckett-Borges end of the late-modern early-postmodern spectrum, with its endless halls of mimesis mirrors and its twisted sense of humor, and she preferred literature that, oh, I don’t know, involved actual “people” doing actual “things.” If I had a lamentable weakness for pointless metafictional play, she had a lamentable weakness for Lawrence’s Women in Love, which, in the immortal words of Andy Bienen, our good grad-school friend and eventual co-writer of Boys Don’t Cry, “reads like someone put a pistol to Nietzsche’s head and forced him to write a Harlequin romance.” (The other problem with Lawrence, especially in that book, is that he just doesn’t trust you to read him: here, dammit! he says, this is what I mean!  why won’t you listen to me Birkin?  He is a genius, I tell you! And then Gudrun dances in front of a bunch of cows.) Janet suggested, at the time, that at the heart of the Beckett-Lawrence Impasse was a larger distinction between “dry” writing and “wet.” To date, this critical distinction has not drawn nearly the attention it deserves.  And as our lives gradually intertwined, she gave up some of her enthusiasm for the excessively wet, and I gave up some of my enthusiasm for the excessively dry, and we were married.  Now she teaches (among other things) women and the avant-garde, decadence, manifestoes, and things with twisted senses of humor, and she handles Women in Love with the appropriate protective outergear.  And I teach American literature, though I have to say these recent posts are reminding me that I used to do other things too.

I remained a Beckett partisan all through Albright’s Auden-Beckett Seminar of 1984, partly because no one else wanted the job and partly because Beckett is really very, very funny.  I don’t know why everyone forgets this, in the midst of all his expressions that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.  In Molloy, for example, you can find

the pretty quietist Pater, Our Father who art no more in heaven than on earth or in hell, I neither want nor desire that thy name be hallowed, thou knowest best what suits thee, etc.  The middle and the end are very pretty.

-- which is a good deal funnier (in my humble opinion) than that other writer’s much more famous “nada” routine.  And although Adorno wouldn’t say so, parts of Endgame are downright knee-slappin’ and rib-ticklin’:

HAMM: Nature has forgotten us.

CLOV: There’s no more nature.

HAMM: No more nature!  You exaggerate.

CLOV: In the vicinity.

HAMM: But we breathe, we change!  We lose our hair, our teeth!  Our bloom!  Our ideals!

CLOV: Then she hasn’t forgotten us.

HAMM: But you say there is none.

CLOV: (sadly): No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.

HAMM: We do what we can.

CLOV: We shouldn’t.


HAMM : You’re a bit of all right, aren’t you?

And then there’s Clov with the telescope:

CLOV: Things are livening up.

(He gets up on ladder, raises the telescope, lets it fall.)

I did it on purpose.

(He gets down, picks up the telescope, turns it on auditorium.)

I see . . . a multitude . . . in transports . . . of joy.


That’s what I call a magnifier.

The last line would not be harmed by being delivered in a Groucho Marx voice.

And Murphy is widely acknowledged to be one of the funniest things in the Beckett oeuvre.  So funny, in fact, that when Janet and I shared a pint in that Sandycove pub the next day (you remember, when Jamie snapped this picture), we took turns opening the book to random pages, reading aloud, and making each other laugh, much to Jamie’s delight.  For who could resist lines like

Murphy had lately studied under a man in Cork called Neary.  This man, at that time, could stop his heart more or less whenever he liked and keep it stopped, within reasonable limits, for as long as he liked.  This rare faculty, acquired after years of application somewhere north of the Nerbudda, he exercised frugally, reserving it for situations irksome beyond endurance, as when he wanted a drink and could not get one, or fell among Gaels and could not escape, or felt the pangs of hopeless sexual inclination.

Or this?

How different it had been on the riverside, when the barges had waved, the funnel bowed, the tug and barge sang, yes to her.  Or had they meant no?  The distinction was so nice.

Or this?

For an Irish girl Miss Counihan was quite exceptionally anthropoid.

Or this?

Some days later he was taken up for begging without singing and given ten days.

There’s even a deft little one-sentence parody of Lawrence (perhaps even Birkin himself!), when Murphy cries, “My God, how I hate the charVenus and her sausage and mash sex.” And the exchanges between Wylie and Neary are priceless, particularly this one:

“Do not quibble,” said Neary harshly.  “You saved my life.  Now palliate it.”

“I greatly fear,” said Wylie, “that the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation.  For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse.  The horse leech’s daughter is a closed system.  Her quantum of wantum cannot vary.”

Finally, for those of you who have not read the novel (and my household now has four copies—perhaps we’ll give one away to the five millionth visitor to this site), don’t miss the thrilling game of chess between Murphy and Mr. Endon.  It is a classic all by itself.

But before I finished Murphy, late the next week somewhere in the south of France, a shocking thing had happened (that’s the final sentence of chapter five, for those of you keeping score at home): I had turned against it.  I was no longer convinced that any of us should care what happens to Murphy (and he does meet an early and inexplicable end, and his remains are treated in a most unfortunate manner), and I began to want to read literature that, oh, I don’t know, involves actual “people” doing actual “things.” At one point Beckett writes,

All the puppets in this book whinge sooner or later, except Murphy, who is not a puppet.

And I thought, yes, very well, but you know, André Gide managed to pull off this kind of puppetry in Lafcadio’s Adventures (Les Caves du Vatican) and The Counterfeiters (Les Faux-Monnayeurs), and still write novels of considerable emotional power.  (The image of men stationed at the ends of lifeboats to cut off the hands of people who, in trying to save themselves, would capsize the boat. . . .) Beckett, by contrast, is just gaming.  Some of it is good fun, as when he relays various characters’ tales—“Celia’s account, expurgated, accelerated, improved and reduced, of how she came to have to speak of Murphy, gives the following”—and has other characters comment unkindly on the results: “‘But I beseech you,’ said Mr. Kelly, ‘be less beastly circumstantial.  The junction for example of Edith Grove, Cremorne Road and Stadium Street, is indifferent to me.  Get up to your man.’” But some of it is a bit tedious, like “the above passage is carefully calculated to deprave the cultivated reader,” and some of it, like “MMM stood suddenly for music, MUSIC, MUSIC, in brilliant, brevier, and canon, or some such typographical scream, if the gentle compositor would be so friendly,” stands as, well, part of the nothing new on which Murphy’s sun perpetually shines.

I began to think I was getting old and tired.  Nearly 45 now, and have I wearied of the verbal play that delighted me in my youth, so much so that I want only good stories about recognizable people?  I thought of the Säure Bummer - Gustav Schlabone debate over the relative merits of Rossini and Beethoven in Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Gustav mocks Rossini fans:

“Why doesn’t anybody go to concerts anymore?  You think it’s because of the war?  Oh no, I’ll tell you why, old man—because the halls are full of people like you! Stuffed full!  Half asleep, nodding and smiling, farting through their dentures, hawking and spitting into paper bags, dreaming up ever more ingenious plots against their children—not just their own, but other people’s children too!  just sitting around, at the concert with all these other snow-topped old rascals, just a nice background murmur of wheezing, belching, intestinal gurgles, scratching, sucking, croaking, an entire opera house crammed full of them right up to standing room, they’re doddering in the aisles, hanging off the tops of the highest balconies, and you know what they’re all listening to, Säure?  eh?  They’re all listening to Rossini!  Sitting there drooling away to some medley of predictable little tunes, leaning forward elbows on knees muttering, ‘C’mon, c’mon then Rossini, let’s get all this pretentious fanfare stuff out of the way, let’s get on to the real good tunes!’”

Now, I didn’t turn completely against Murphy, mind you.  (And for the record, Säure Bummer does have a few rejoinders, chief among which is, “a person feels good listening to Rossini.  All you feel like listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland.  Ode to Joy indeed.  The man didn’t even have a sense of humor, I tell you.”) I will continue to sing its praises in a qualified fashion, as I have here.  I know its place in literary history, and I know that Beckett was deliberately taking aim (wicked aim, at that) at the already-calcified tradition of Enormous Modernist Characters, both of the Stephen and Bloom variety (whose inner lives are so finely wrought and complex that the narration of a single day takes hundreds of pages) and of the Kurtz and Gatsby variety (whose mysterious elusiveness renders them renderable only by eloquent yet compromised participant-observers who somehow manage to survive to bring us the tale).  Those puppets (Neary, Wylie, Celia, Miss Counihan) may be puppets, but they’re puppets for a reason, and they’re treated quite differently than is Murphy, about whom Beckett claimed to have written with a “mixture of compassion, patience, mockery and ‘tat twam asi’ . . . with the sympathy going so far and no further (then losing patience) as in the short statement of his mind’s fantasy on itself” (this from a 1936 letter to Thomas McGreevy, also reproduced in Disjecta).  What’s more, a little playful narrative self-consciousness isn’t a bad thing at all, at all.  Nor is that distinctly Irish madness in the literature-of-ideas vein that also gives us the likes of Flann O’Brien.  So don’t get me wrong.  I may be middle-aged, and I may be increasingly impatient with certain kinds of narrative noodling, but I’m not going over to the Other Side just yet.  They’ll have to put a pistol to my head before I reread Women in Love.

But the point remains that Beckett was a fair to middling novelist . . . and a simply amazing, groundbreaking playwright.  For all kinds of reasons, the theater proved more congenial than did the novel to his curious mixture of whimsy and rigor, his facility with bringing some of the drier strains of Western philosophy together with the work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.  And as I say in an aside in What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, I think his influence on French poststructuralism—on Derrida, Lyotard, and Baudrillard especially—has been underestimated.  I suggested this kind of obliquely about ten years ago, when I remarked that the debt of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins to Lyotard (which is profound) could be rendered by way of Beckett, like so:

HAMM:  What is the relation of the subject to the nation-state?

CLOV:  There’s no more nation-state.

HAMM:  No more nation-state!  You exaggerate.

CLOV:  And no subject, either.

HAMM:  So what is there to keep us here?

CLOV:  The dialogue.

People who have better reading knowledge of French than I (for Beckett wrote his late works in French, then translated them back into English) might disagree with this little intuition of mine.  But I toss it out anyway, for what it’s worth.  Whereas with regard to Beckett’s influence on Harold Pinter and thousands of other living playwrights, there is nothing more that can be said.

Nothing more!  I exaggerate.  We can’t go on, we’ll go on.

Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 04:39 PM
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One more thing while I’m working away on my Beckett post (which I will begin writing real soon, I promise).

In the wake of the smear campaign that may or may not have cost Juan Cole a position at Yale, the Chronicle of Higher Education asks:

Can Blogging Derail Your Career?

(They’ve generously made the forum free to nonsubscribers.  You can click on it right there.)

Seven bloggers respond, including the humble and almost preternaturally shy owner of this here blog.  I am curious, I admit, about whether blogging might derail other people’s careers, because—after all—people sometimes say the strangest things on blogs, and when they. . . .

Oh, wait a second.  The Chronicle was asking me whether blogging could derail my career.  Dang, I completely missed that part.  Funny—it just never occurred to me.

Gulp!  Well, on the off chance that any of my colleages in academe are reading this (and if you are, why are you wasting your precious time?  get back to work!), I hope you’ll note that despite yesterday’s horrible gaffe, this blog is usually quite free of typographical errors.  And that I hardly ever use cuss words, like The Big Lebowski does.  And that this blog is heartily endorsed by Krusty the Clown.

Anyway, some of the forum contributions are quite wonderful.  Daniel Drezner sounds a properly cautionary note:

Blogs and prestigious university appointments do not mix terribly well. That is because top departments are profoundly risk-averse when it comes to senior hires. In some ways, that caution is sensible—hiring a senior professor is the equivalent of signing a baseball player to a lifetime contract without any ability to release or trade him. In such a situation, even small doubts about an individual become magnified.

The trouble with blogs is that they seem designed to provoke easy doubts. Blogs are an outlet for unexpurgated, unreviewed, and occasionally unprofessional musings. What makes them worth reading can also make them prone to error. Any honest scholar-blogger—myself included—could acknowledge a post or two that they would like to have back. At a place like Yale, one bad blog post can erase a lot of good will very quickly.

There are other risks. At Chicago, I found that some of my colleagues overestimated the time and effort I put into my blog—which led them to overestimate lost opportunities for scholarship. Other colleagues maintained that they never read blogs—and yet, without fail, they come into my office once every two weeks to talk about a post of mine. Today’s senior faculty members look at blogs the way a previous generation of academics looked at television—as a guilty, tawdry pleasure that should not be talked about in respectable circles.

Brad DeLong counters with a different calibration of risks and rewards:

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world—both the academic and the broader worlds—and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university’s long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university’s public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.

A great university has faculty members who do a great many things—teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are “research,” public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.

I do worry sometimes about being part of the Internets face of my fine university, even though (just for the record) this skittish blog has no infrastructural relation to Penn State, not even a hyperlink from my official faculty web page.  It’s just one of the things I do in my spare time, like freelance writing and ice hockey and softball and golf and polo and amateur Very Large Array radio astronomy.  But it hadn’t even occurred to me to try to impress my dean!  I guess when you have Krusty’s endorsement (as I do, see above), you’re basically freed from all such distractions.

Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s contribution reminds us that the immediacy of blogs can be a very good thing:

The blogosphere is an excellent vehicle for the kind of intellectual ascendancy [Cole] has achieved. Dozens of important intellectual and academic blogs are being written for a wide public—and they are clearly being read, influencing the agenda, if not the content, of debate in the mainstream news media. In his informed discussions of the Middle East and Islam, Cole has shown us how to use blogs effectively and authoritatively, and how to use them as outlets for issues that are changing too quickly to leave to academic publication. In his defense of his own record and reputation against right-wing attacks, he has shown us how to protect ourselves against cheap shots and low blows.

And Erin O’Connor says that we shouldn’t deplore energetic debate:

Much ink and many pixels have been expended deploring the energy with which Cole’s candidacy was debated. But we should welcome such debate, and we should meet it with more. There is no threat to academic freedom in vigorous public discussion. There is only freedom itself.

For as Kris Kristofferson once wrote, “freedom’s just another word for a nationally-coordinated right-wing smear campaign against a prominent scholar of the Middle East.”

Best of all, Juan Cole responds.  He opens with

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic’s career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about “careers,” the tenured among us least of all.

and closes with

Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a “career”? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.

Ahhh.  To the weary among us, that’s better than a double espresso.  Thanks, Professor Cole, for the reminder—and for all you do.

As they say on blogs (and only on blogs), read the whole thing (Althouse and Instapundit are there too).

Oh, and while we’re blogging about the Chronicle of Higher Education and blogging, this bit from the Little Professor is hilarious.

Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 11:01 AM
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Monday, July 24, 2006

One percent doctrine


It has come to my attention that there is a one percent chance that former Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko got to the young Richard Cheney in 1974 and re-programmed him to destroy the United States from within.  Apparently there is a one percent chance that Cheney has been carrying out this mission ever since.

What are our options?

Posted by Michael on 07/24 at 02:51 PM
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Thanks for the memories

Today was supposed to be Beckett Day on this blog, but we interrupt our brief foray into Irish Literature Blogging to bring you this important Lieberman Bulletin.  From yesterday’s Hartford Courant, the words of Irving Stolberg, two-time speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives:

[O]n the two biggest issues of our times, he is dead wrong.

His blind support of the Iraq war, begun illegally and a continuing catastrophe, is monstrous.

And his defense of an incompetent president, a vice president who fits the dictionary definition of fascism and an extremist administration that has perpetrated torture, illegal eavesdropping and a general shredding of the Constitution is insulting to the people who elected him in the first place.

Now, I assume you’ve already heard of this editorial, because Mr. Atrios (hat tip) mentioned it yesterday.  I just wanted to chime in and say that any day on which Dick Cheney is referred to as “a vice president who fits the dictionary definition of fascism” in an American newspaper is a good day for the forces of light.

But it should also remind us of one of Weepin’ Joe’s odious moments in the spotlight.  It’s a minor item in the Lieberman Canon of truly odious public moments, but a telling one.  From his October 2000 vice-presidential debate with the guy who fits the dictionary definition of fascism:

LIEBERMAN: I think if you asked most people in America today that famous question that Ronald Reagan asked, “Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?” Most people would say yes. I’m pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you’re better off than you were eight years ago, too.

CHENEY: I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it. (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE)

MODERATOR: This question is to you.

LIEBERMAN: I can see my wife and I think she’s saying, “I think he should go out into the private sector.”

CHENEY: I’ll help you do that, Joe.

The government had nothing to do with it? Mother of Moloch, Senator Lieberman, the guy opposite you wasn’t a crafty software entrepreneur or a independent mousetrap salesman.  He was an executive of Halliburton, for cryin’ out loud.  The guy had spent eight years swelling Halliburton’s coffers (and his own estate) by means of oily federal contracts so generous that one is compelled to wonder whether the recipients of state handouts do not, after all, experience a profound personal moral decay.  I mean, this was what they call an easy opening.  And you couldn’t challenge Cheney to his face, and point out that the government had everything to do with his “success”?

And speaking of swollen coffers and moral decay, the metonymic Lieberman skid just keeps on skiddin’.  First, swollen coffers: this seems like a good time to remember those dark days of 2002, when those of us who care about such things were insisting that there should be no more “Enron Democrats” in the party.  For Holy Joe was the Enronniest of them all, as George Mundstock patriotically noted this past July 4:

more than anybody else in America, Joe Lieberman is responsible for some of the worst corporate abuses during the recent tech bubble and for the current growing options backdating scandal. The Connecticut media has noted this, but not the national media, and it is real important. In short, in 1993, Lieberman saved amazingly bad accounting for when a company pays an executive with stock options instead of cash. This caused options to flourish. Options make an executive more concerned with short-term fluctuations in her company’s stock price than in running the company well. Disaster resulted.

Hat tip on this one to Brad DeLong, who always cares about such things.

Second, moral decay:


About a decade ago, a few years before he became the Democratic party’s most fearless and outspoken critic of oral sex in the White House, Righteous Joe teamed up with Dolores Umbridge Lynne Cheney to found this fine organization, notable most recently for its Horowitz-with-a-human-face report, “How Many Ward Churchills?” (the short answer to which is conveniently provided on page 2, in the subsection titled “Ward Churchill is Everywhere.” Yes, Ward Churchill is now Elvis.  Who knew?) It’s not quite fair to say that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Lieberman and his good friends the Cheneys, but it’s entirely fair to call Lieberman a first-rate Cheney Enabler who’s repeatedly gone above and beyond the call to forge “bipartisan coalitions” with the culture-war right and the kleptocapitalist right.

So thanks for all your hard work over the years, Joe!  Here’s hoping you get re-acquainted with the private sector real soon.

Posted by Michael on 07/24 at 12:07 PM
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