Friday, 16 March 2012

Book Review: The Naked Civil Servant

The Naked Civil ServantThe Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This should be required reading for students of politics, sociology, creative writing, journalism, twentieth century history,and philosophy. And probably a few others.

To a twenty-first century reader, Crisp initially feels like a caricature of a drag queen, with his made up face, gossipy tone, and outlandish fashion. But when you recall that he was born in 1908 and the book was originally published in 1968, you quickly understand that he was the forefather of the beloved stereotype of the bitchy gay best friend. I mean that with the greatest respect.

The pace of the book is quick, almost fleeting, but not flighty. He crams the first 2/3 of his long storied life into a very slim volumen, clipping along with what feels like carefree-ness, but which actually becomes exposed as clear-cut bohemianism--a conscious unconcern with convention that permeates Crisp's life all the way down to his everyday housekeeping. It's not that he doesn't think about cleaning; it's that he's thought about it and come to the conclusion that it's not worth his while. There are more exciting things to do, like dying his hair crimson.

There is a temptation to say that he can dye his hair and grow his nails long, etc. because doesn't care what observers think of him. This is false. He cares deeply, and he cultivates his image. He very much wants his appearance to convey that he is queer. He has no interest in hiding this fact, but a deep interest in advertising it, as he repeatedly tells employers and other well-meaning types when they ask why he insists on dressing flamboyantly. Brilliantly, when he starts to go gray, he stops dying his hair bright red (because he is accused of doing so to appear younger) and starts giving it a blue rinse. Thus he cannot be reproached for trying to hide the grays and at the same time, he preserves the public flaunting of the fact that he dyes his hair, which is the whole point for him.

The most compelling parts of the book have nothing to do with his early upbringing or other pop-psychological origin stories that make so many memoirs deeply boring (he mostly leaves this kind of claptrap out, mercifully). The deeply moving bits are those that relate to his personal autonomy, which barely exists. Because of his defiantly public queer identity and its sexual implications, people conclude that his body is in the public domain. There are many occasions when he is beaten for no reason other than wearing makeup or is groped in the street. But there are odd moments where the infringement on his person is decidely more tender, and at these moments, the incomprehension by society of his humanity is magnified.

There is a particularly beautiful and intensely creepy passage, following on the heels of an account of another public beating, where Crisp boards a bus and sits in front of a soldier. Abruptly, without any conversation about it, the soldier takes out a comb and starts gently combing Crisp’s hair. You feel an odd sorrow for the soldier at first, and then, without any prompting by Crisp, moral outrage and loathing that this man thinks he can just touch Crisp without permission. Crisp himself sits perfectly still until the ordeal is over. He doesn’t give any reasons why he doesn’t move, but the reader can instantly understand that the soldier has asserted an oppressive dominance by assuming consent, or rather by assuming no need for consent. Not to get hyperbolic, but the mind can’t help making an instant connection with slavery and subjugation of women through old marriage laws.

Yes, yes, it’s all very topical in the current political climate. But for me personally, this dragged up memories of university years. I particularly recall groups of students wearing T-shirts with slogans like, “Stop looking at my chest” emblazoned across the chest, and the pettiness of this compared with actual bodily infringement. I felt then, and feel now more than ever, how simplistically aggrieved these students felt, without understanding (and for many of them, without desiring to understand) what a violation of personhood really means (meant?) in an institutionalized way. I’m not sure making them read Crisp would help; I think possibly it is a developmental stage to be endured by college students. Some people never require it and some never graduate from it.

In any case, read this. Aside from being interesting and moving, it is hilarious. There are occasional paragraphs that get bogged down in sentimentality, but they are few.

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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Angel's Game Review

The Angel's GameThe Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just shy of excellent. For as many books as there are whose setting is inconsquential or invented as representations of a concept (like Hardy's Wessex), there are as many for which the setting is not just the setting but an integral character (eg Dicken's London). This book takes the reader into a marvelously gothic Barcelona in between the World Wars, where vice and survival are so entwined, one cannot achieve one without battling the other. Ruiz Zafon's descriptions of the city and its architecture create a new horror, where the buildings themselves are alive and leering down from above. David Martin's tower mansion is as much a character in the story as any of the humans. It's spindly and hulking, secretive, mysterious, foul. The thought of the characters, even the damned ones, sleeping there is enough to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. There is a vague whiff of The Master and Margarita about this story, but without the playfulness.

Where it falls short:
It's heavy-handed in its condemnation of religion - there isn't as much nuance here as a truly great novel would employ and which I think Ruiz Zafon thinks he put in.

David skulks away into hiding without notifying the proper authorities after witnessing death after death after death. Too many for any plausibility. And yet he wonders why he is under suspicion. This is bizarre. Surely he should want to confide in SOMEONE, even if not the detective and his muscle.

There is no resolution over David's novel, nor any cohesive understanding of its commission or the mystery of Andreas Corelli (ie is he a figment of David's imagination / conscience or an actual supernatural entity?). In fact, the ending feels very much like Ruiz Zafon reached a point where he forgot why he was writing or like he had a concept but not an outline when he started writing. It doesn't end up going anywhere.

Lastly, and this is minor but highly annoying. David takes Lux Aeterna out of the book cemetery, charged with protecting it at all costs. And then he throws it into the fire with no consequences at all. Why have this mysterious secret society with mystical rules and magical bookshevlves, if nothing happens when the rules are broken? He even returns there at the end of the book and is welcomed. This annoyed me no end!

Ruiz Zafon obviously has an excellent imagination. He needs to corral it and not rely on publisher's deadlines.

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Friday, 13 January 2012

In Which I Am Dragged Kicking & Screaming into the Right-Left Debate Again

Although I don't touch much on politics in this blog (possibly I burnt myself out writing endlessly about it at Tufts), occasionally an article is published elsewhere that has the dangerous dual qualities of being infuriatingly dimwitted or misinformed and published in a respected journal, and so I can't help myself. Someone must be made aware, and dear reader, I fear that someone is you.

Today, I read one of the day's highlighted articles from Arts & Letters Daily. The article is from A&LD's parent, The Chronicle of Higher Education -- a reputable periodical, certainly. One that can often be relied on to publish thoughtful articles from the spectrum of political beliefs. They have, however, published an absurd article, The Conservative Mind, which purports to inform...everyone?...about how a conservative thinks.

Straight off the bat, I'd like to make it clear that the article is not an attack on the Republican party. If it were, I could probably deal with it, even if it was mostly wrong. The reason for that is that the Republican party, like the Democrat party and the Green party and the Communist party and all the other parties, has a party line. It's got a foundation of beliefs and values that it makes public and upon which its actors act. Conservatism is not a political party. It does not have an established platform. It counts among its numbers a vast array of people who vote in all directions. To write a book (of which this article is an excerpt) attempting to explain the conservative mind is like trying to write about the happy mind. It's meaningless, even though we all have a rough idea of happiness.

I should also explain that this is not a neurological study of the differences between brain scans of those who self identify on the left and right. It daren't touch on anything resembling scientific thought. It is a cartoonishly marxist dissertation on the definition of conservatism, and is deeply, tragically wrong about so very much. I can hardly believe that the CHE (abbreviation hilarious, but I'm willing to concede probably unintentional) would bother publishing something like this. It sounds like it was written by a college freshman who has just finished the first day of lectures. It's all grandiose black-and-white ideas. Do grown-ups really think this way about the world's problems?? Some do, apparently.

Now it's no secret that I used to write for the "journal of conservative thought" at Tufts. But I can't recall ever using that designation in conversation. It was also called "Tufts' Voice of Reason," which I did. I'm no Republican. I tend to vote Libertarian, which falls into the conservative camp because it is based on what conservatives believe are the founding principles of the country, and if asked, I'd probably call myself a libertarian with a small "l" to indicate that I am not registered with the party. It is merely a convenient description for my general values. Indeed, I have started to understand of myself that if a Libertarian I voted for ever actually made it to office, I'd find someone else to support. Basically my political beliefs are: I find government to be like lacy underwear: chafing and uncomfortable, although it does occasionally serve a purpose. I vote accordingly.

Now that that's out of the way, let's chat about Corey Robin's ridiculous article. There's so much to unload, where to start?

Firstly, let's get down to defnitions. After a bit of fluff about stupid Republican campaign slogans, Robin states: "that is what conservatism is: a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back." If this is his definition, then every single political party on the planet that has ever been able to get one of their own into office, whether elected or not, is conservative, and that most definitely includes Democrats and Marxists. Never has this been more obvious than in the last few presidential election cycles in the US. Has any recent major player ever brought anything new to the proverbial debate? When was the last time you had someone get up and list their beliefs without concessions, without worrying about alienating someone? How many people have just stood there and said, "Look: this is what I think: no to gay marriage, no to abortion, no to universal health insurance, yes to increased defense spending -- and that's the end of it." or the opposite. It doesn't happen. As much as we'd all like to think that the person we support is a straight talker, none of them are. What these people want, no matter what their official line, is to keep hold of power either for themselves or for their party (and thus themselves). They want to appeal to the most people. They are attention and power addicts. That's all they are. This is a problem for all political parties. To say that only conservative parties have this issue shows that Robin is a hook-line-sinker type when it comes to voting for his own party (whichever that is--one can only guess).

What's next? Firstly a boring (and quaintly and ironically bourgeois) explanation of the power dynamic between workers and bosses. Oh, and also between slave and master, secretary and...someone unnamed (but almost assuredly a tie-pinned lech), wife and husband. Then two paragraphs about how it used to be legal for men to rape their wives. What on earth this has to do with conservatism I cannot fathom. In fact, I don't know a single conservative who has told me they wish that this was still legal. Funnily enough it hasn't ever even come up in conversation. Ever. Even with all my lawyerly conservative friends from my Tufts days. Not a-once. Maybe that's like Democrats who used to say they didn't know anyone who voted for Bush. Maybe I've got my head in the sand and LOADS of conservatives in the US secretly think that rape is grand, but who don't like to mention it at cocktail parties. Possibly this is true. I haven't done any research into the matter. In any case, I thought the wife and husband power dynamic had been pretty well abolished in the US, or at least, the involuntary universal power dynamic. The involuntary individual occurance is still in existence, but Robin only speaks in generalities, so we will, too.

Then Robin discusses some strikes and the power of the people to look after themselves. Ok, I think it's fair to say that most conservatives are anti-union-establishment, at least to some extent. Robin gives a couple of examples of people who rebelled against unjustness and oppression, took control of their own governance and found that they were capable of looking after themselves without delving into anarchy or violence. Bless my Libertarian soul...I do believe Robin has just handed me and others like me a wonderful example of minimalist government in practice--practically exemplar of the whole "for the people, by the people" thing that those pesky conservative Constitutionalists are always banging on about. Apparently Robin believes this behavior is anathema to conservatism, which is " the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes." Or not. You know...whatever.

Conservative principles admire the story of the person born with little who achieves much as well as the person born with much who achieves much. Is that working against subordinate classes? The use of the term "subordinate classes" -- eep.  Who, praytell, does Robin place into that category? Do people nominate themselves? If someone publicly self-identifies as a member of the subordinate class, does this action not in and of itself destroy the designation? Does he use the big book of conservative final judgment to see how people stack up? Did WFB leave an address book full of servant names? And lastly, how do those Robin designates subordinate feel about it? I know how I'd feel about it. Anyone in this day and age who speaks of subordinate classes in the US severely misunderstands the concepts of subordination and class. Some people in America have more money than others. We are all equal before the law. Corruption is to be squashed wherever it is found. Where does subordinate class come into it?

Robin then moves into a protracted argument of why Edmund Burke's ideas are old-fashioned. Apparently the fact that Burke's philosophy was steeped in the social conventions of the century in which he lived is somehow a taint on modern conservative thought. I think the idea is to illustrate that conservatives base their ideology on outdated ideas and that this keeps the People under the heel of the Man. Because every conservative takes Burke as gospel and reads no other philosophy or political science, nor conceives of his own thoughts without Burke's assistance or that of other dead white men. It's a good thing society is balanced by marxists, who would never base their contemporary political philosophies on the antiquated ramblings of a dead white man.

Then there's this corker: "Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other." Are we all talking about the same political tradition here? Is he speaking of monarchists? The man works in New York, so I'm going to assume he at least has access to American newspapers and television.  Surely he then knows that conservative pundits are exponents of the anti-zero-sum-game-economy argument. That is, conservatives are the ones who say that advances in the private economy necessarily spur advances in the public economy, AND that this is to be encouraged zealously. In plain terms: Do good privately, either morally, monetarily, politically, ethically; thus more good will exist morally, monetarily, politically, ethically; thus the overall human condition will improve and democracy can flourish. There is no forestalling here. It is exactly the opposite of what Robin says. There is a small nugget buried in there, which is only barely hinted at, and it is the fact that libertarians ask that the government (even a democratic one) stays out of their private spheres as much as possible. Robin seems to take that to mean that libertarians are therefore using their private spheres for nefarious, pro-tyranny purposes. By this point in reading his article, I really am beginning to think that Robin doesn't actually know what most of the words I've just used mean.

In short order, Robin gives the backhandedest of backhanded compliments to conservatives: "Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there." According to Robin, leftists condemn conservatives as yokels, and conservatives happily lap it up and use the "untutored and the unlettered" image to their advantage. These are the same people who Robin says put themselves into positions of great power and then do everything to keep themselves there. So is the image an uptight suit in the highest echelons of power or is it a bumbling hillbilly who don't know much about city ways, but knows what he knows. The demonic conservative can't be both, and this has been one of the Left's biggest rhetorical errors in the last thirty years. GWB was said to be both a mastermind of worldwide conspiracy and a completely vacant fool. No wonder he used to look faintly amused and confused when heckled. The hecklers couldn't make up their minds about his image, and neither can Robin, even as Robin criticizes both liberals AND conservatives for not making up their minds. It's too absurd.

This paragraph was enlightening, in that once I read it, I started to get my head around Robin's lack of understanding: "It begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others—and then recalibrates that principle in light of a challenge from below... After all, if a ruling class is truly fit to rule, why and how has it allowed a challenge to its power to emerge? What does the emergence of the one say about the fitness of the other?" The problem is this: Robin jumps in a couple of sentences from the idea that some individuals are fit to rule others (taken broadly, I'd say most people believe this is true, including Robin, or else none of us would support democratic-elected government) to the idea of a ruling class, as if the concepts are the same. A ruling class is a monarchic dynasty. A ruler can be a democratically elected leader. One is despotism by definition. The other need not be by any means. Robin also fundamentally misunderstands the fact that democracy, real democracy completely relies on the fact that power changes hands both regularly and irreguarly, and that this very democracy is a concept that conservatives support. Loudly. The American democratic system MUST be upended now and then or else it doesn't work. That's why we have term limits and mid-term elections and voting. It's that basic a requirement. It's why the recent era of skin-of-the-nose electoral wins is actually a healthy situation. It shows a lack of consensus and it makes politicians work harder to find palatable solutions. It reminds those in political power that they are there only at the pleasure of the masses, and the masses will be happy to take them out of power in quick order if need be. Politicians who win landslide elections get lazy. The American democratic system helps prevent that from happening too often.

Most of the rest of the article is devoted to how and when conservatives actually allow for change to happen. Robin cites various examples of groups who are only willing to change things in order to keep them the same. He also carries on about how conservatives really just want to keep us all doing the same thing forever for the sake of familiarity. And he goes on about how there were some Republicans once who opposed slavery abolition, and only one single conservative has ever admitted this. Talk about being unable to leave the past behind. In this instance, a conservative is unjustly named, in my opinion and in many others'. Someone who advocates for rape in marriage or tyranny or class definition is not a conservative. This person is a sociopath. Someone who thinks change is fundamentally bad and is to be avoided is not a conservative. This person is a neophobe and what I shall call a nostalgist: someone who thinks whatever was happening in the past was by definition better than what's happening now. Nostalgism isn't being conservative. It's being a bit cranky. And we're all guilty of it occasionally, conservative or otherwise.

Very close to the end, Robin abruptly states that conservatives as a breed are against reproductive freedom. This is a Republican party line. This is a right-wing religious line. This is an anti-feminist line. It is not a conservative line. This is just plain sloppy on Robin's part. Slightly weirdly, Robin ends with a vague call to arms on behalf of conservatives to rally their "party" in the face of Occupy ThisNThat, and to form a more robust modern philosophy and to stop riding the coattails of successful conservative politicians. Fair enough, I guess. But why he's encouraging the same people he said were anti-democratic, women-hating, power-thirsty, evil-genius yokels only a few paragraphs ago, I can't answer.

Here's a secret, and maybe Robin realized it 10 seconds to deadline: conservatives and liberals of all parties both want the world to be a better place. They both want their children to grow up healthier, freer, happier than they did. They both want evil people out of power and good ones in. How we get there is the sticking point.

There is one power dynamic that Robin conspicuously ignores: that of the teacher and the student. As a professor of political science, he wouldn't want to jeopardize his position by planting ideas in his students' heads, I'm sure. Otherwise someone like me might come along and knock him off his tower.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Book Review: The Ancient Ship

The Ancient ShipThe Ancient Ship by Zhang Wei

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last few years, I've had an increased interested in modern Chinese fiction, which is probably at least partly due to the fact that my local library is practically next door to the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre and features an unexpectedly large selection of Chinese language books. I'm sure I've read about 6 or 7 novels in this time either translated from Chinese to English or else written in English by Chinese expats. For the former, I find one ongoing problem: translation. I know nothing of Chinese, but some translations, by dint of the fact that they are clouded with awkward phrases and ambiguity or else nonsense, make it clear that the Chinese language is rich in metaphor and double meaning. Inevitably this makes me regretful that I'm reading a translation.

That said, especially considering its length, The Ancient Ship is well translated by Howard Goldblatt, to the best of my understanding. By that I mean that, while the narrative is dense, it is not made cumbersome by the inherent difficulty in translating artistic MEANING, as opposed to just words. Hats off there, then.

Like a few others who have reviewed this book on this site, I had some difficulty with the first third of it. It is nonchronological, and I have only a very little knowledge of modern Chinese history, so understanding what was happening to the village of Wali in a wider context wasn't that easy. The fact that I carried on reading past this point in spite of the challenge says a lot about the beauty of the writing, and the drive of the story.

The middle of the book very suddenly and briefly delves unflinchingly (cliche, but very accurate term) at the misery in the countryside brought on by the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. The violence and suffering is made more shocking by the fact that the rest of the story is about the normalized lives of the survivors, some of whom abused each other horrifically or who witnessed incomprehensible atrocities, only to find themselves continuing to live for decades amongst each other as neighbors.

These are the themes, but the narrative drive is the economic change from agrarianism to collectivism to the weird modern Chinese mish-mash of oppressive communism and free market capitalism that is now in place. It follows one generation of siblings through it all, including their resignation, indignation, action and passivity to it. It's intense, and I found that it got better and better right to the last page.

Two aspects of it were troubling, but not because of the writing. One was the constant self-identification of all characters with their clan. Everything they did was for or as a result of the history of the clan. Or in defiance of the clan. This was hard for me to understand because it's so different from my own upbringing, and it sparks a lot of thought on the obstacles to progress that clannishness creates. I'm not sure if this was a question Zhang Wei intended to raise or whether he took for granted that this was (is?) just the situation in China.

The other aspect that was very troubling was the abusive relationships between Jiansu and his girlfriends. He has one girlfriend who is a co-dependent type, to whom he makes various casual, unkept promises, and whom he generally walks all over. He has another girlfriend whom he threatens, hurts, and rants like a lunatic to. There is a lot of moral ambiguity from the other characters about this that made me unsure where the line was in the micro-society we are reading about.

In any case, this was very throught-provoking and rewarding to read. And long.

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