'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'


Evgeny Kissin - Bach Siciliana (No. 2 in E Major)

Should you need a mental health break from the cruel world around, then simply disengage from the torrent of sad news and pointless commentary. I’m on a 72-hour Bach and Beethoven piano sonatas/concertos regimen followed by seeing a really good friend get married.

Doesn’t need a caption. 

Gaza and the Luxury of Opinion

Too many ignorant comments about the war in Gaza in high and low circles of the internet. It strikes me that if one has the luxury of opinion about what are life and death matters to others in far away lands, then one at least should have the decency to pause before justifying any action that causes suffering. Power differentials matter.

Imagine for a moment that you and your family were confined to a piece of property too small for your basic needs and nourishment (forget flourishing!). Now, imagine that the entrances and exists to the property are controlled by overwhelming armed forces on the ground, in the air, and even from the adjacent river that runs behind the house. You and your family are doubtless resentful of this (justifiably or not), and so you are desperate to gain access to any and all pieces of weaponry and armor to lash out at your jailers, even though you have no hope of ever even approximating their military prowess. Lastly, let’s also suspend all sense of history and judgment about the reasons behind you and your family’s confinement to this piece of land in the first place (maybe you deserved it, maybe you didn’t, maybe your plight is a historical accident). 

Mindful of the immense power differential between you and your jailers, and leaving aside the morality of your confinement in the first place, the key moral question then is about your ongoing treatment. What amount of punishment constitutes too much - i.e. cruel and unusual - punishment? 

A common sense of decency and humanity demands that we affirm a reasonably similar answer to this question regardless of what we might each hold dear in our views of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Cruel and unusual behavior is never justified, but the temptation to do so, alas, is at its highest when there is such asymmetry in the distribution of power.

The consequences of our actions take hold of us, quite indifferent to our claim that meanwhile we have improved.
Selections from Part Four—“Epigrams and Interludes”—of Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufman; from The Modern Library’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Gordimer and Me


Leo Carey recalls working with Nadine Gordimer: http://nyr.kr/1jTyEsI

“Gordimer had a slightly fearsome reputation—not suffering fools gladly, that sort of thing—but we got along well. Of course, I was trying hard not to be a fool. I sent her memos that were highly detailed, as a way of semaphoring that all was under control.”

Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

A perilous and unspoken accord in American politics has grown up while no one was looking, which unites the liberal left and the authoritarian right. They agree in their unquestioning support of a government without checks or oversight; and it is the Obama presidency that has cemented the agreement. The state apparatus which supports wars and the weapons industry for Republicans yields welfare and expanded entitlements for Democrats. The Democrats take to the wars indifferently but are willing to accept them for what they get in return. The Republicans hate the entitlements and all that goes by the name of welfare, but they cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy when they vote for ever-enlarging military entitlements.

What can be the reason for Obama’s decision to ‘partner’ in counterterrorist training and the supply of weapons to protract the civil war in Syria? This would scarcely seem to be in his interest if he wants a settlement with Iran to round off his record in foreign affairs. And yet Obama has a propensity, which no walk of reason could justify, to pledge to do a thing that looks strong, then call it off, then halfway do it anyway. Syria in the summer and autumn of 2013 was the most damaging instance of this to occur in open view. From threat to hesitation, to declaring an attack, to postponing the attack, to aborting the attack because a solution was offered from outside that didn’t require the use of force: the giddy succession of warlike postures entertained and abandoned last year is now to be followed by the subsidising of a proxy war after all.

David Bromwich in LRB

Well worth the read. Captures the sense of utter disappointment and despair doubtless felt by many of us who’ve stood by this president for far too long. 

Anonymous asked: My mother really likes the London Review of Books. My family is in debt to you for the recommendation. She asked me today why the LRB has so few female writers. I had not noticed that but do agree with her upon reflection. I thought you might an answer because I really could do nothing but speculate. Thanks for maintaining such an honorable blog.

I had wondered about the same point until I saw the following article in The Guardian on the LRB and its inimitable editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers. She seems aware of the disparity as well, but not concerned that it somehow diminishes the quality of what they have published in the past. I can’t speculate beyond what’s in the article. 

How Not to Think About the Disaster in Iraq

So much of what bothers me about the commentary on the murderous mess in Iraq today is linked to the classic American tendency (even evident in progressive writings) to judge actions and events based on their consequences. This line of thinking has a long and storied lineage in the Western philosophical tradition, but so does another way of thinking, which, alas, receives far less attention in comparison. 

The latter perspective, a deontological one, insists on judgment based on the moral worth of the action undertaken - i.e. if it offends or violates fundamental aspects of our humanity. In his terrific slim book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises (a must-read for anyone interested in the nature of politics), the philosopher, Avishai Margalit, makes a key distinction between morality and ethics. The former, he writes, “is about how human relations should be in virtue of our being human and in virtue of nothing else.” Morality touches on concerns related to our membership in the human race. Ethics, however, “is about what relations we should have with other people in virtue of some special relationship we have with them, such as family relations or friendship.”

This distinction is an important one when it comes to thinking about politics (and especially about international politics) because the two operate on fundamentally different philosophical bases. Morality does not lend itself to utilitarian calculations or consequentialist principles, no matter how optimal the results. 

I point this out because so many of us who objected to the Iraq war did so for moral and not ethical reasons. The Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq was wrong because it was based on an utter lack of disregard for the scores of human beings that had already suffered due to American policy, and whose basic dignity would continue to suffer after the invasion, no matter how optimal the results. The Iraq war was morally wrong because it placed the national interests of the United States (as misunderstood by the Bush administration) ahead of thelives of ordinary human beings. 

To date, however, much of the media reports of the carnage left behind seems to judge the efficacy of the invasion based on its consequences. This is wrong and must not be left uncontested. If there is to be a reasonable and morally just response to the terrible killings that have continued, more or less consistently, since March 20, 2003, then the moral sources of this conflict must be recovered and taken seriously. 

For all his faults, I actually believe that this is a distinction very much in the mind of President Obama. In his many speeches against the Iraq war, he has been especially keen on defining it as a moral failure, and not merely an ethical one.

So the big question, then, is how to address and fix a moral failing as tragic and consequential as this one (especially one wrapped in a language so moralistic that it’s made a farce out of moral principles)? The answer is as dispiriting as it is simple: moral failings can’t be fixed, they can only be acknowledged and atoned for. The important thing for the US now is not to commit any more offenses against human dignity, and to find ways of paying for and facilitating a better future in Iraq. It sounds like not much, and it isn’t much. But then again, there simply are no positive or rewarding consequences for gratuitously violating others’ humanity. 

The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.

What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world.

I like it when humanists begin their writings with an itch, an inquiry, or, as ever-inelegant social scientists would say, a puzzle. Tim Parks has astutely picked on an important of our contemporary condition, and it’s worth reading to the end of the article to read his takeaway. 
When we’re young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren’t that wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young.
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (via kafka-on-the-shore)
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