I have a guest post on the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
During the main library’s closing, I saw a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails staring up at me from the small branch library’s small “new books” shelf (it’s easier to see interesting things on the small shelves, because they’re not surrounded by too many other books, and because frankly, it would almost no one uses the branch library, so things are very much more often still on the shelves), and although it had sounded to me like something I wouldn’t like, I picked it up. (Bakewell has also written a kind of self-help book based on the essays of Montesquieu.) I was pleasantly surprised.
At the Existentialist Café is framed as an exploration of the writers Bakewell had been fascinated by in college, and almost got a postgraduate degree in, before leaving the academic world. The book traces the development of existentialism from Kierkegaard through to Sartre, following its fate as an inspiration for the rebels of 1968 whom Sartre championed. The text moves easily between personal reflection on the meaning of the writers’ philosophies, history and biography, and explications of the works themselves.
Bakewell’s book is very much the clearest explanation of the central parts of Heidegger’s, Husserl’s, and Kierkegaard’s philosophies that I’ve read: aimed at the general reader, not the specialist or the student who’ll need to read the originals themselves anyway. These philosophers don’t (to use the historical present, as I’ve been taught to do in these contexts) concern themselves with the traditional concerns of philosophy, as they’ve been understood in the line from Plato through to Bertrand Russell. They aren’t concerned with epistemology: how we know things, how we find out we’re wrong about them. They aren’t concerned with distinguishing reality from appearance or illusion. They aren’t concerned with determining the boundaries of true knowledge, or with deciding whether true knowledge is possible outside the borders of “science,” or what “science” is. Many philosophical texts try (especially in the cases of Husserl and Heidegger) to fit them into this tradition anyway. They focus not on what Husserl and Heidegger said about life, so much, as on what presuppositions about the nature of Knowledge Husserl and Heidegger must be making in order to say what they do. They ask the question, what is happening in the history of philosophy, that philosophers of such important are turning against (deliberately or otherwise) parts of the tradition. Primarily, they try to construct a bulwark to protect this tradition.
Bakewell ignores that, ignores the epistemological presuppositions a student of philosophy might want to consider if she were to reconcile, say, Heidegger and Kant. She focuses instead on (something that is hard even to describe from within the worldview of traditional English-language philosophy) their recommendations for life. For this reason, however, Bakewell gets across quite strongly the fact that these theorists—at least as they’ve been received—don’t worry themselves much over the ontological or moral statuses (whether they’re real, roughly, and whether they’re good, respectively) of the truths they recommend the reader grasp. The nuances of how truths are grasped—whether through reading, through social activity, scientific research, or quiet reflection—differ from theorist to theorist. Each, though—Sartre, possibly, excepted—did, she suggests, assume their nature and status would or should be obvious to the reader. Sartre makes extremely clear that the choice of project is moral and not epistemological or scientific.
Each of these writers viewed life as a kind of project in the world, a projecting outward of the self into reality, and a taking in through listening of truths compelled in the course of that projection. Bakewell traces the differences in expression and emphasis between the kinds of “listening” recommended by Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, and her other subjects, though not in so much detail as to become boring. She doesn’t ignore Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations, and indeed presents a convincing explanation of how closely his philosophy meshed with those, but these aren’t her focus. She does mention Sartre’s membership of the Communist Party, perhaps at less length than previous, more critical, writers have done; she makes rather less of Merleau-Ponty’s political sins than those writing with less distance from the events have done. She narrates the central figures’ interactions as teachers, students, colleagues, and archivists: her account of how Jesuit students saved Husserl’s papers, and his widow, from the approaching German invasion is especially interesting.
As the title suggests, the book’s center is the social world dominated by Jean-Paul Sartre, and secondarily by Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is told well, in a manner not at all as precious as might be suggested by some of Bakewell’s interviewers, and in a way that doesn’t assume the reader already knows material like the true identities of people from Beauvoir’s memoirs. As Bakewell tells it, existentialism spiraled finally into the social theories Sartre expounded: in its essence, first, refusing to excuse one’s own behavior as caused by external forces, and refusing to escape freedom by denying ones actions are a result of one’s own choice; and second, “tr[ying] to adopt the gaze of the outsider, turned against the privileged caste—even when that caste includes himself.” (Sartre believed this required membership in the Communist Party, or at least what was then called fellow-traveling, though as time went on other choices became more popular.)
The first part of this, particularly, was not fully agreed to by everyone in the circle. The story Bakewell tells raises the question whether Sartre’s thinking about choice and responsibility works best for someone like him—white, male, privileged, in fact the center of his social and intellectual circle—and not for everyone else. Camus, an exile, a European alien in Africa and an African, provincial foreigner in France, someone with political projects and concerns that didn’t neatly align with those of lifelong Parisians, might have found it more difficult to “choose freedom” than his friend. Beauvoir wrote an entire book explaining how and why women might find it difficult or impossible to choose as Sartre did.
Whether this has anything to do with the Heideggerian (or more generally phenomenological) project is another question. It’s not only that the ability to sit in the woods and listen for the voice of reality is an activity that demands privilege and time. It’s that some might find the revelations of that voice more congenial, more supportive of their everyday lives, than others. Camus and Beauvoir might be seen to have worked to tease out the implications of some of those difficulties (with differing levels of conflict between themselves and Sartre).
This circles back to the questions raised traditionally by philosophy. What is reality? Where do moral imperatives come from? The Kantian tradition answers in one way. Heidegger answers differently. He gestures toward a philosophy for people who work directly with physical reality—people who use, in his example, hammers, for instance—but Bakewell shows that the connection between tools and the “clearing” where imperatives appear to the thinker is murky. He famously stated that “only a god can save us”; but which God? For Heidegger, it was the god—the forced willing of the existence of a god everyone knew was not present in the world in any form—of Nazism (however much he may have disliked the reality of the Führer and his minions). For Sartre, it was the god of the people and the prophecy of the Communist International. For most of their present-day followers, it is neither of these things. Whether what the existentialists (and phenomenologists) wrote can guarantee present-day existentialists’ beliefs will remain consistent with the results of their encounter with the world, would seem to be an open one. Maybe we do need traditional philosophy after all; maybe the existentialist tradition is actually not sufficient unto itself.
I’ve tried to puzzle through some writings by Judith Butler over the years, and finally think I’ve gotten a handle on some of them—not Gender Trouble, though, for which I only downloaded a sample, once, that turned out to consist only of the introduction to the revised edition. I’ve even looked into the kerfuffle with Nussbaum. (New York magazine recently published a profile of Butler, linked to by Dennis Dutton's Arts & Letters Daily site: you can still see it if you load the non-mobile version of the page.)
There are a lot of interesting things to be thought and said, in my opinion, by examining what Butler actually wrote. There are a lot of interesting things to be considered about her influence on life today.
But Judith Butler is a philosopher and her book is philosophy. What it “means” depends on a lot of philosophical presuppositions that, first of all, few people who aren’t philosophers know about, and second of all, are not universally shared even among philosophers (let alone non-experts). One can say things about Derrida and the transformation of philosophical texts into literary ones, the replacement of philosophy by literary criticism, and so on, and still, eventually, one runs into the question of ideology.
And obviously there is more than one ideology in the world. More, even, than two.
I sometimes picture a certain kind of writer sitting back and watching as we non-expert readers thrash blindly about trying to figure out what’s going on with them, waiting patiently for us to grasp the currently correct way of understanding the kind of thing they do, gently ignoring our coherent but inaccurate attempts. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we realize this kind of thing is ivory-tower theorizing and—by design—can have no direct connection with practical or political concerns, which never—never, ever—derive from the theoretical in any kind of simple way.
The Internet is full of people who’ve read one book, one time, or participated in one discussion group, and learned one or two vocabulary words to describe parts of the world, and maybe a third to describe the world as a whole, and—similarly—sit back and wait patiently while they try to needle other people into coming around to their own point of view. To use the term Rorty invented, it’s a game of “Guess My Final Vocabulary.” For those who don’t realize there’s more than one, it’s easy. But the big one is “anti-capitalism,” or “anti-liberalism.” It’s easy for someone to just slap “and it’s capitalism’s fault” to the end of every critique. Readers can fill in the blanks the way they like.
Freddie de Boer recently complained (as he so often does - UPDATE: Freddie has updated his comment so that the quote I used is no longer there - the original version can be found here) of Butler that, while she criticizes capitalism frequently, the “pop” version of her theories leaves that part out. (It also leaves out much of the criticism of the gender binary and of the idea of femininity, but Freddie doesn’t seem interested in that part.) But no one is unaware that Butler is on the left, so that complaint seems a little off-target. It’s interesting that Freddie does not complain that attacking “capitalism” is often more than a little vague. What, specifically, is wrong with “capitalism”? What is “capitalism,” other than a handy word for “the way we live now”? What is he proposing we should have in its place? Is there anything around right now that could serve as the basis for an alternative way of thinking, or is everything actually existing right now tainted by “capitalism”? Maybe these questions seem academic, I don’t know. But people have been criticizing “the way we live now” for centuries. What does the word “capitalism” add?
One definition of socialism used to be that there was something that the modern world had lost from the world that came before, and it was socialism’s job to reincorporate those things. Now, apparently (if writers like Freddie are typical, especially of "socialists" whose concerns aren't primarily economic at all, but more all-embracing and "revolutionary"), socialism instead means nihilistically opposing everything about the status quo in the name of those worst off. You don’t have to know anything about anything: you just have to prove your passion by your willingness to go all the way and use the “S” word. But then you have to believe this makes you better than people who actually know the details of the critique and how they might be ameliorated, and you have to believe your call to tear it all down is superior to their step-by-step plans. People like Freddie seem to be waiting, patiently, for people who have other things to do, to realize they ought to abandon everything they know and accept his (left) critique of capitalism in its place: to have it suddenly dawn on them that they need people like Freddie to lead them. (The similarity of that last sentence to a statement about “religion,” or “psychoanalysis,” or “the Twelve Steps,” or “Reality,” is not a coincidence.)
I was going to say something about how gender fits into all of this. I guess there isn’t time.
In 1938, in an essay titled “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster coined the phrase “two cheers for democracy,” and that’s apropos here. As a novelist, Forster himself gets three cheers, I’d think. Evelyn Waugh should then get two cheers, and The Magicians, which is enjoyable enough but not, to be honest, a great work of art, would get one. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll give it two for the time being. When the commercial recap columns start appearing a day late, or not at all, and they start asking in their headlines what’s the point of it all (as the Observer’s did over the past couple of weeks), it’s fair to say that some people are wondering whether a show—albeit still in its first season—has jumped the shark. I’d like to take a moment, though, to point out some—possibly overlooked—things I like about it.
When, a couple of weeks ago, Eliot’s same-sex romance got hot and heavy, only to turn out to be an evil trick that would result in the boyfriend’s death, the Internet started getting antsy. This kind of thing turns out to be an actual TV Trope with an actual name, and as it turned out, some other show had used its apparently more usual lesbian version in what sounds like a somewhat worse way, so the Internet explosion carried over to The Magicians, as well. Even worse, in response, Eliot had to kill his boyfriend, and then he turned into a serious addict.
This, however, actually solved a problem with the original story. When we meet Eliot, in the book, he is already drunk or high all the time. Why he’s that way is never explained. He isn’t depicted as out of control in any way, just a heavy user of mind-altering substances. He isn’t depicted as explicitly gay, either (that I recall—I still don’t have my own copy of the first volume of the trilogy). But he is, after all, an obvious human allusion to Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. I hadn’t read that book until after I’d finished The Magicians, but the way in which Eliot Waugh is obviously alluding to a novel by Evelyn Waugh, which novel is about a middle-class boy enamored with Oxford University, country house life, and Roman Catholicism, all in equal measure, was . . . obvious. Now that I’ve read Brideshead, the way in which Sebastian’s and Eliot’s addictions are overlooked and underestimated, as much as their homosexuality and their inability to find what might be called “a spiritual outlet,” is even more obvious. Standing on its own, however, by the third of the novels, the question why Eliot drinks, especially years after the characters have all graduated, begins to be a question. The answer can’t be that he drinks because he’s gay, but the alternative—that he drinks because there’s nothing corresponding to Fillory in the real world—is too far-fetched and too subtle for television. And the Eliot of the books, a kind of seedy Holden Caulfield figure with a mysterious and possibly romantic background, would come off on TV as much too unsympathetic. So he’s presented as attractive and charming and relatively sober, . . . until something terrible happens to him.
And at that point, we’ve got the Eliot of the books. Because another change from the novels’ version of events is that on TV, Quentin pairs up with Alice right away, while Eliot and Janet are pushed to the margins for a very long time—while in the books, Quentin follows Eliot and Janet around like a puppy dog (the way Charles Ryder obsesses over Sebastian and his sister Julia in Brideshead Revisited), and only connects with Alice later. But why this is, isn’t really explained in the book. We believe it because Quentin is the narrator and he tells us that it's so. Television doesn't have a narrator, and so the television series spends eight or nine episodes getting both Janet and Eliot to the point where we believe they’ll follow Quentin and start hanging out with a group who are much less cool than the two of them. (As for Penny, the change is really drastic and only partly explained by the fact that he was given part of a story that, in the book, belonged to another of Quentin’s closer friends.)
This makes it sounds like I really dislike the show, and it’s true that it is very disappointing if it’s considered a straight-up adaptation of the books. It is actually not bad. It seems to want to be very plot-driven. The mystery-of-the-week type episode a couple of weeks back was really not too bad, even if it did move up an enormous mystery from the last third of the last book in the trilogy to before anything even had started. The themes are not quite those of the books, but they’re interesting. The biggest changes in the themes that are carried over from the books (as opposed to being entirely new) only take about a week to take hold and seem natural. But between providing background from the books, adding background to the books, running quickly through sequences from the books that aren’t to be fully dramatized, and humanizing the characters, there’s not much time left for plotting either mysteries of the week or the basic storyline from the novels.
I almost decided to stop watching the show when I saw the coming attractions set in the Neitherlands. I have a very clear mental image of what the Neitherlands should look like—like a Di Chirico painting, all proto-fascist neoclassical architecture and no people, cold symmetrical fountains with colonnades behind them—and instead I could see we were getting something Romantic and pre-Raphaelite, with moss and trees and overgrown ivy, lots of open space, and rolling hills, and no buildings at all. I was happy that the first ten seconds did give us something like what I thought it should be. It seems emblematic. I really am not certain what this part of the show is about anymore. I always felt that the novels were about Fillory and/or Brakebills as literature itself, or as ways of looking at life through a filter set by literature. The TV series heavily emphasized another possible subtext, that “magic is a drug,” and then seems to have dropped it, but doesn’t yet have anything to put in its place. Instead we’ve gotten a lot of people trying to get in touch with, or else to avoid, their emotions, . . . while the implications of the written characters’ investigations of other people’s lives (that is, the other lives themselves, the story within a story for its own sake) is being downplayed. There just isn’t enough time to luxuriate in the other-worlds aspects of the story. And without it, what’s really left?
As for Julia’s story, after a couple of weeks, as I said, I’d made my peace with each of the changes the TV writers made, one at a time. But I was dismayed to see how the “Free Trader Beowulf” group was handled (it can’t really be called a subplot: it constituted almost the entirety of Julia’s half of the second novel, and nearly all of it is gone). I should probably have guessed that Kady is the character screen-named Asmodeus, and I can almost see a very roundabout way in which she works as a replacement, but really this seems wrong. Asmodeus is Julia’s best friend online, in the books, and Julia is shocked to find out she’s an energetic seventeen year old who’s nevertheless been involved in the group for years and is way more senior in it than Julia is. If the show spent a couple of months getting Eliot and Janet to the point they were at, at the beginning of the first novel, and the same amount of time getting Quentin and Alice to a point about two-thirds of the way through, in that period it’s gotten Julia almost to the end of her entire storyline in two whole books (she has two different timelines in the second book, so this is taking her to near the beginning of the later one, but at the end of it she disappears). I can find some interest in seeing what the TV writers want to do with the novel’s own themes, but this seems to go beyond that. They’ve taken Failstaff and the other Beowulf figures and made them safe (to say the least), and they’re coming close to replacing “the goddess,” with its overtones of paganism, feminism, and pantheism, with a straightforward statue of the Virgin Mary. They seem to want to take the end result of her searching and get rid of all the dangerous stuff she engages in, in the book, to get to that place. I think I could get on board with a Julia whose life is totally different from what it is in the books, which is what we had up until a week ago. I am not thrilled with a Julia who has the same friends, in very similar situations, to what she has in the book, except that the friends also have lives that are totally different from the books, and the situations are just close enough to map cleanly but in fact are totally different. At least not like this.
Mad Men also had a kind of lackadaisical attitude to making all the episodes line up as a single, smoothly arcing narrative, and a large cast of characters. But Mad Men’s world-building was almost entirely visual, it had ten or twenty minutes more to play with, and it didn’t have to use the entire cast every week. Up until this week or the week before, I could see the series going in a direction where it got all the character development and world-building out of the way, and then concentrated on the adventure stuff. I’m not confident now that this is going to happen. I’m certainly not confident that it’s going to be good.
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Infinite Jest, so here are two of the best links I’ve found discussing that anniversary.
Emma-Lee Moss, a writer at The Guardian, decided to read the book for the first time in order to write about it, and to invite her friends to join a discussion group and read it with her. A podcast of all of them discussing the novel is here. They discuss some of the high points about the book and its significance, and read aloud from its best passages.
A woman writer, not Moss, wrote somewhere recently that she’s been putting off reading Infinite Jest because she’d need to carry it places and people would see her reading it, and she’d have to fend off unwanted attention from literary bros trying to tell her how to read it. (None of these people are reading e-books, I guess; maybe the experience of reading the very long book depends the nature of its physical form.) In 1997, obviously, that kind of thing didn’t happen. I would have loved, back then, to have someone remark on the fact of what I was reading so that I could discuss it with them. Though I suppose the Internet equivalent of that kind of person did start to appear pretty quickly.
Attempts to find contemporary political meaning in the most popular works of science fiction and fantasy are a perennial favorite on the Internet, even when they get out of hand.
The most reason one seems to be a dispute over whether a post on J.K. Rowling’s blog makes mistakes about political science as it relates to the history of Africa. Timothy Burke, an anthropologist at Bryn Mawr, has all the links here and here; Vox has an explainer here. I like Burke’s, especially, because he goes into what he thinks the differences would be, between an African magical establishment of the kind described by Rowling, and what she describes at Hogwarts.
Attempts to find a philosophical meaning in a book based explicitly on Plato’s Republic are not very surprising. Jo Walton’s The Just City is such a book, and Crooked Timber has a symposium about it.
I’ll be getting soon to the last couple of sections of the first chapter, which discuss different ways of understanding the distribution of goods, in a little while. I want to say something, first, about the bulk of the book. The rest of the chapters consist of a series of examinations of different social goods, illustrated through historical and sociological case studies. Since I’ve committed myself to reading these and looking for a purpose in them, it’s more than possible I’ll find a reason for each of these. As a whole, though, o my first reading these seem to imply a certain political argument that, it seems to me, hasn’t panned out as expected.
What it reminds me of is something like the New Historicism of the subsequent decade, as represented by Stephen Greenblatt’s book on religion in Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt sets out to provide readers with the religious and social context that he believes lies behind the text of Hamlet. He covers the religious institutions as they existed at the time, popular narratives of ghosts and hauntings, indulgences and masses said for the dead and how they relied on the doctrine of Purgatory that was rejected by the established church, paintings and illustrated books for clergy and the laity (including popular piety, especially that of women), as well as high literature. He introduces readers to the fascinating story of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a cave in Ireland where people were said to experience visions of the afterlife. He explains how the pain experienced by the dead in Purgatory and Hell was conveyed to the living, and bound them to the institutions of the church. Finally he explains how all this historical and cultural context informs Shakespeare’s imagery and dialogue.
The New Historicism is generally taken to have a left political purpose. But Greenblatt doesn’t make any such argument explicitly, and it’s not obvious how a reader should draw one out of the book. There are a small number of clear points made: The kind of burial society that was common in the Old World, and among immigrants to the US, is a democratic way of serving the social need to support people whose loved ones have died, by helping with burial costs and the support of the survivors; in Tudor England this purpose was served by the bureaucracy of the church. People who are mourning often feel their deceased loved ones are still present in some way, often dream about them, and when they believe in an afterlife, often worry about their wellbeing after death; and culture and religion provide a way of thinking about these. Institutions, and also people out for profit, can often benefit financially from the worries of those mourners; thus, the people who controlled the cave known as “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” could charge entrance fees to people who believed they could learn something important from the visions induced there, and the Catholic Church could charge for masses said in order to speed the souls of dead rich people out of Purgatory (and thereby pay artists and musicians who created a culture around those masses). Most of the book is about the second of these three: the way cultural and religious assumptions structure the way people experience the feelings that arise out of mourning, and specifically the details of the structure that existed at the time Hamlet was written (assuming, as Greenblatt does, that Shakespeare was deeply influenced by the Catholic doctrines that the Tudor monarchy had put under a legal ban).
So how does this kind of historicizing literary criticism get read into politics? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s generally read into a theoretical context in which the structuralism of people like Lévi-Strauss and the poststructuralism of people like Derrida, Foucault, and Bourdieu are taken for granted, along with their reworking by Marxian theorists like Althusser. The leftism, that is, like the metaphysics, is incorporated into the literary criticism, basically, by reference; it no longer needs to be stated explicitly (though Greenblatt’s book has a lot of footnotes, with citations to works in social science). Without the Marxian element, of course, this is just poststructuralism, which might have any political valence, or none at all. The politics (for the reader), then, is optional. To the extent that this is true, and that the book itself doesn’t explain the theory, most of the political work is done elsewhere. Greenblatt does often enough explain the theory, but it’s not uncommon to find thoroughly straightforward accounts of literature or culture that do not, yet seem to be intended as political interventions on the left.
It’s this kind of account, superficially naïve even if intended to allude to some deeper, unspoken theory, that Walzer’s case studies seem most to resemble. His chapters don’t have anything like the depth of New Historicist research, which mostly postdates his book. They don’t make obvious reference to a theoretical basis as Greenblatt’s do. Their purpose seems to be intended as obvious and literal. And given Walzer’s emphatic renunciation of abstract philosophizing, any other purpose seems impossible. One kind of reader might, on the contrary, assume that Walzer is writing as some kind of Straussian here, hiding his true, philosophical intentions behind a scrim of unobjectionable facts. Such a reader would expect the true response to Walzer’s book to be some deep thought about his premises and logic, and a thoroughgoing reworking of the ideas he expresses into something resembling more an unexpressed truth. I see no need for that assumption. I think I’d argue, from what I’ve seen of them both so far, that the true continuation of Walzer’s work in this book is to be found in Greenblatt’s.
There’s a new book out, called Exit Right, that looks interesting if you’re interested in the political or intellectual history of the middle and end of the twentieth century. It’s a new history of men who started out on the far left and then moved to the far right: Chambers, Burnham, Reagan, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens. There are new reviews by Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic and Alan Wolfe in The New Republic.
Near the beginning of Wolfe’s review, he discusses his personal encounters with David Horowitz. One is related by Daniel Oppenheimer in the book under review:
before Horowitz came to this realization [the loss of faith in revolution], he “participated in a small seminar at Berkeley, on the topic of ‘Marxism and Post-Marxism,’ with a number of his fellow New Left veterans.” I was one of those participants; the seminar helped me rethink my radicalism to emerge as more of a liberal than a leftist. It was not so much the books we discussed—I can barely remember what they were—so much as our attitudes toward Cuba and the Soviet Union, neither of which, to most of us, held out any hope for progressive change.
Wolfe says no more about this fascinating fact. Who else was part of that seminar at Berkeley? How many of them left the movement around the same time? What was the nature of Wolfe’s own change (to, as TNR readers know, a form of consensus liberalism), and why? We find out something about the passions and concerns that led his former friend Horowitz to drastically change, but little about the historical context in which he did so.
We seem to know so little about the people who were involved in political debate and action over the past hundred years. We know about the people who left Communism, and we know about the people who became neoconservatives, and that’s about it. And we know even less about people who are younger. Most historians of the 1960s and the New Left have written histories of their contemporaries but almost nothing about themselves (there are scattered exceptions, like Mark Rudd, who’ve written memoirs). Younger writers, like P.J. O’Roarke, those socially but not especially politically inclined, have written of their move from a libertarian liberalism to more of a right-wing conservatism, driven apparently largely by their rejection of drug use. Even younger writers have often written narratives of addiction and recovery (culminating in the notorious case of James Frey), implicitly assimilating “growing up” itself to a certain vision of sobriety. There’s the occasional spiritual journey, like that of Elizabeth Gilbert, and perhaps, not much more. Perhaps there’s little space for other stories in the accepted and expected narratives. Why that’s the case isn’t entirely clear.
(Delay in posting due to snow days, etc., may or may not persist.)
The Magicians, the book, the first one in the series, presents itself as a story about the friendship between Quentin and Julia, though in an attenuated way. Julia appears at the beginning of the story, as one of Quentin’s two cooler friends, along with James, who she may or may not be dating (I can’t remember whether this is stated in the book). She disappears almost immediately. Quentin goes to his Princeton interview (not Yale) with James, who’s also interviewing there, and immediately afterward is transported to Brakebills, cutting short his senior year in high school to start college early. Julia doesn’t reappear until his next vacation at home, when she confronts him and reveals that she resents the fact they didn’t choose her, too. (James never reappears at all.) Around that time, Quentin’s family moves from New York City to a suburban New England town much like Lexington.
That’s it. All of the rest comes up only in the second book, where it’s told in flashback, as an explanation of how Julia had become the difficult, unhappy woman Quentin later meets in Fillory, and of how she managed to get there in the first place. The TV series sets the two stories more in parallel, so they’re both at similar points in their education at the same time. But with this episode, the friendship between Quentin and Julia seems to be replaced by two new friendships that don’t really have a place in the books: between Quentin and Penny, at Brakebills, and between Julia and Marina, in Brooklyn. (There’s no character corresponding to Marina in the books in even the slightest of particulars, except that Julia does meet a bunch of independent magic-adepts, and some of them are women.) And that’s fine.
In the third and fourth episodes, Julia and Quentin interact, in ways that show Julia and her friends messing with the Brakebills crowd. First, they steal a book from Quentin’s house, something for which he and his housemates are going to be held responsible (Brakebills is apparently the only institution in the world that’s permitted to have books of magic, and from the novel we know they have a hair trigger when it comes to expulsion), and which leads to a physical confrontation. Next, Julia takes revenge on Quentin by (under Marina’s guidance) putting him under a spell that causes him to black out after a party and dream that he’s been committed to an institution after trying to kill his father. So, in the series, instead, it’s suggested that Quentin is going along happily in his grad-school career, when Julia somehow derails him at a distance.
As a result of this, we see that Quentin is learning to trust and respect Penny. Penny knows how to help Quentin because he can read Quentin’s mind and tell him how to get out of his own web. Quentin’s shaping up as a sort of mediocre kind of magician, so far, and Penny (though, to the dismay of his roommate, he’s not white, not upper class, and not nerdy looking in the right way) is a better one.
While this is going on, Marina is serving a similar role for Julia. But while Julia has understood Marina, so far, as an outsider like her, someone who’s gotten where she is by grit and hard work, Marina all along has thought of herself as a rightful graduate of Brakebills, whom fate has separated from what’s rightfully hers. She kicks Julia out of the gang for betraying her, after she uses Julia’s connection with Quentin to get access to the Brakebills grounds herself, and after reacquiring the knowledge Brakebills was withholding from her, removes Julia’s ability to use anything she’s learned.
Needless to say, none of this is in the book. In the novel, there’s a sense that Quentin feels at fault for Julia’s unhappiness to the extent that he was her friend and he failed to think about her, and that he tries to make it up to her. It isn’t suggested that his going to Brakebills has anything to do with her, or that the path she chose has anything to do with him. By moving up Julia’s storyline, the series creates a feeling that the same thing might be happening to the two of them in different ways.
Dominance and Monopoly (and Ideology)
In the next section, Walzer presents two new concepts, to go along with the discussion of goods and social meanings in the beginning of the chapter: dominance and monopoly. A dominant good is one that will get its possessor some other, unrelated goods. If you have money, you can buy food, but it doesn’t work the other way around, because money is the dominant good in a market society. And it is often—in fact, usually—the case that one group of people has a monopoly over that good. Thus, when land ownership was the dominant good in Europe, those who owned land tended also to have political power, office, religious honors, and so on, and this was the class of aristocrats. When ownership of capital or financial wealth became the dominant good, the society’s other goods shifted to them, as well, and to the new moneyed middle classes. Thus, societies can be classified and characterized by identifying the good dominant in each, and the class that tends to hold that good.
This is a framework for understanding and categorizing societies, not a full explanation. The shift of other goods to the newly dominant class wasn’t immediate, and in some cases may never have been complete. I’m sure Walzer would agree that the framework isn’t the be-all and end-all. And it’s a useful analysis, but it does appear to blur into dogmatism: In every society, one good is dominant over all others. In every society, one group monopolizes the dominant good and thus dominates over all realms of activity. To suggest that the dominant good might be more equally or fairly distributed is to propose the revolutionary (and perhaps futile) idea that monopoly is unjust and should be abolished. To suggest that non-dominant goods should be distributed more independently of the dominant good is to propose the revolutionary (and perhaps futile) idea that dominance is unjust and should be abolished. To suggest that a different good ought perhaps to be dominant is to propose Marxism, and is in any case not interesting because it basically accepts the status quo.
It isn’t easy to take this seriously. To suggest that party loyalty, religious affiliation, or moral rectitude be a requisite for holding political office may not be wise, but it is hardly Marxist. Similarly, to suggest that it not be a requisite for holding office, if it is, one does not have to agree that it is irrational or unjust to suggest that there be other requirements in other situations. Surely, to suggest a reform, one does not have to agree that the whole idea of society is unjust.
The ideal of complex equality and pluralism of goods is attractive but unpersuasive.
In the next section, Walzer presents what he calls simple equality as equality of the dominant good. In our society, this would be money: Suppose everyone had the same amount of money. Then other goods would also be distributed equally (because money still dominates). He follows a fairly well-worn narrative to show how this might go. First, the government would have to intervene to make sure no one accumulates too much, over time. Then, some people might start to monopolize education, just because they cared about it. And because education is important, it would become the dominant good and the bad kind of meritocracy would develop, so that educated people and their families would begin to monopolize office and political power, and eventually even money. So, something like Rawls’s theory of justice would have to be imposed to ensure that they don’t take over too much. This is not the only critique of commercial society that could be made, but it’s a pretty common one, especially among those who object to the dominance of money and of the rich over society in both its traditionally public and private aspects.
Complex equality, then (the topic of the section after that), is instead the removal of the dominance of money, and in fact the removal of every kind of dominance. Because there are so many different kinds of goods, they will all be distributed evenly enough, around the population, that no one person or group will accumulate too many goods for themselves. Because each good is self-policing, or rather policed within its own sphere, there will be no need for coercive government intervention. Instead, each good will be policed by those who are agreed by everyone involved to be the right person to do it.
That there’s no narrative, here, of how it might go wrong, might suggest an important asymmetry in Walzer’s exposition. Moreover, the dogmatism of the preceding section reappears here, in the glib mention, in passing, of the assumption that there will still be monopoly within each individual sphere. The problem of ideology goes unmentioned in this section, as well (even though it’s considered elsewhere in the chapter). Are the goings-on within each sphere simply immune to criticism? Walzer doesn’t say. The idea of complex equality is attractive but unpersuasive. Yet Walzer proceeds without appearing to have recognized this. These question are raised for the reader but the book shows no hint of how they should be resolved.
Pluralism of goods, again.
At the end of the section titled “A theory of goods,” just before the pages discussed in this post, Walzer had listed some criteria for such a theory. Working backwards, the last of these are: Goods must be understood on their own terms; the criteria for one good must not determine the distribution of a different and independent good. Goods are historically determined (so Bernard Williams, and by extension British analytical philosophy as a whole, is wrong, and there is no natural criterion for evaluating the distribution of a given good). Goods are distributed according to social meaning, not material meaning.
This approach rules out a bit. It rules out a scientific approach, wishing to distribute goods according to a natural or material significance or need. It rules out a market approach, treating everything as having its monetary price. On its face, it rules out a lot more: democracy, power politics in general, localism, and tradition—in fact, any extrinsic approach, any approach that doesn’t engage with the goods’ social meanings. Though, in practice, these extrinsic meanings may be incorporated into the social meanings themselves. More specifically, although the terms employed are somewhat broader than what’s strictly needed for this purpose, what’s ruled out is the criticism of one good on grounds appropriate to a different good: suggesting, perhaps, that simony or nepotism is really okay, because money ought to be dominant over all other considerations. Or, even more specifically, what’s ruled out is the assignment of some good or power to a person who is recognized to merit only a different good or power.
It isn’t clear how this fails to risk relativism, however. It would seem that any action, any criticism or suggestion, is potentially subject to the unanswerable objection that (as Stanley Fish put it) “that isn’t the way we do things here.” And Walzer must support that objection. To be very blunt, a society that sincerely believed math could be done only by white men, or that granted university professorship a social meaning, stemming back to the days of the medieval church, which required mathematicians to be morally conforming men from the dominant culture and race, would have to be recognized by this theory as, really, OK. This is clearly not what Walzer intended, but he would appear to have disarmed himself, and others, against those kinds of claims (at least to the extent that he believes his own side must take the claims made by this book seriously, which I think a reader will in most cases take to be true). All he can offer women, people of color, and members of religious minorities, it would appear (barring a thoroughgoing revolution), is something like, “Let the white man have the math professorships, at least they can’t make us starve and they can’t take away our votes.”
Notably missing, so far and in the chapter headings, are any of the goods normally associated with democracy and equal respect. Walzer says nothing about equality in that sense. He is discussing, purely, equality in the holding of some goods and in access to certain other goods. There is no place in this theory for a criticism of some social practice on the grounds that it fails to treat people with equal respect. (Arguably, “equal respect” might possibly be recharacterized as some kind of good.) There is no place in the theory for a criticism of a given social meaning. It might be suggested that space is left for such critiques outside the theory. But the argument here has already preempted any outside criticism, by showing that such criticism is invariably radical: revolutionary or even childish.
This has aged badly.
This approach outlined in these sections runs into the difficulty that it combines the empirical and the theoretical in a slightly awkward way. The empirical part is the description of the actual dominant good, the actual monopolizing class, the actual other goods that are dominated or allowed to follow their course. The theoretical part is the explanation of why a society sustains itself, and why it may be resistant to change (as well as how a scholar can usefully conceptualize it).
Is any given proposal revolutionary? Does it correspond adequately to the social meanings prevalent in the society in question? These aren’t questions that can be answered solely through ivory-tower speculations. If it’s customary and accepted that a good G will dominate over a good H, then it may be revolutionary to suggest that H should be considered as autonomous; if it’s customary that H should be autonomous, then it may be revolutionary to suggest that G should dominate over it. Thus, given a situation in which someone who has G is trying to claim a good H, and a second someone is complaining about it, an observer can’t simply assume either that the holder of G is right and the second person is being naïve or presumptuous, or that the second person is right and the holder of G is claiming an antiquated, premodern, and now non-existent quasi-right.
This does come up. The established, humanist art critic will maintain that the values of art are autonomous. The up-and-coming young essayist, echoing the sociology of art courses she was required to attend in school, will counter that the art world is dominated by the moneyed classes, etc., as is the case all through the world. They cannot both be right; and so we have the usual hysteria about “postmodernism,” which in most cases is not what is at issue, at all.
For the argument outlined here to have been helpful for critique, in the years since 1983, it would have to have been possible to understand the theory as descriptive, and only descriptive. But theory, it would seem, has instead become an explanation of why things are always, everywhere conservative, why every transaction or interaction must always increase the power of the dominant class, why every analysis of a good must always be couched in terms of the dominating good. (Or—for the right—why things are always “liberal,” because they think the dominant class is a liberal one.) There are understandings of this kind of critique that assign it a different meaning; but those would seem to have little to no real currency.
For some ideologies with a historical component, like Marxism or Christianity, perhaps this isn’t a problem. One can understand historical change as something that happens through some other, esoteric means. One can carve out a niche in which to live in a satisfactory way while rejecting the possibility of public criticism of existing norms. Not all have resigned themselves to that, however.
It seems to me that Walzer lowers his sights somewhat in the rest of the book, and confines himself to specific proposals and specific historical-anthropological case studies. These more modest arguments will presumably be easily detachable from the stronger arguments made in the first part of chapter one.
The X-Files: I had been a fan of The X-Files till the bitter end. I didn’t start watching it from the beginning. I had really loved VR5 (someone please get this out on DVD or Blu-Ray!), which had starred Lori Singer—costarring Louise Fletcher, as her now mostly catatonic mother, and Anthony Heald, as one of her quasi-mentors—as a young woman trying to find answers about her past and her missing father and twin sister, working her way into a virtual-reality network that she charmingly jacked into by way of an old-fashioned acoustic-coupling modem. It was often visually stunning and never the same twice, but it was canceled after a single season.
The X-Files was on after VR5, or just before it, or something, and I kept the TV on once, or maybe there was a delay from preemption, and saw most of the episode on the Norwegian oil rig, but never bothered to watch it regularly until VR5 had gone away. What pulled me in was the chemistry between Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny as Scully and Mulder, and the way the show overall evoked a feeling from my childhood adolescence, which I connected with science fiction movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Wargames, and which I’d felt I’d long outgrown (especially in its less than equal vision of gender relations—I’d somehow never noticed that Ally Sheedy actually doesn’t really get to do anything cool). I stuck it out to, I think, even the second movie (not sure about that), but I started to lose faith in the show around the time Scully’s cancer was hinted to be metaphysical in significance, and the showrunners didn’t really seem to know how it ought to end.
So I watched the first hour, so far, of the new series mostly out of curiosity. It is interesting, I suppose, that it puts Mulder’s paranoia in a larger context than it ever did before, showing the connections to rightwing lunacy that might have been there all along. I’m not sure how much the visual sense the show had was based on its not being broadcast in digital HD, and on its being the first and only story of its kind. Even in its having a certain kind of continuing storyline, it was groundbreaking in its day but has now arguably been surpassed. I, for one, would have loved to see an in-depth exploration of Mulder or Scully as a character, something more like what you’d later see in The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, but that’s what you never quite got from The X-Files. Six hours isn’t a very big investment, and I’ll probably keep watching it, but I feel like the credit lost from the way the previous run ended is going to be difficult to earn back.
The Magicians: So, I’ve watched the second hour of this, and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll watch more. I really don’t watch much TV these days. I’ll watch some prestige drama if my husband wants to see it—the last series I watched on my own was The Tudors, which I loved for the political intrigue, but we don’t get Showtime anymore—or we’ll stream something like The Hour, but I find it hard to focus on TV. It’s rarely as visually compelling as film is. I used to be able to knit or work out while I watched, but fifteen or twenty years ago I trained myself to try to pay attention to the visuals, and now I can’t do that, but I don’t feel I’m getting much from it. If it’s talky, you can’t slow it down and think about it, like you can do with a book, and the dialogue usually isn’t that good anyway. I’m a lot less likely to just have random stuff on the TV now that I have a child, and anyway the last time I regularly watched was Thursdays on NBC, when I stopped in part because I got tired of 30 Rock and in part because my husband joined a sports league that met that night, and I didn’t want to watch alone. Now that I’ve got hundreds of channels I tend to scan the listings looking for movies, and ignore everything else.
I’ve tried a couple of times to watch the new science fiction shows on SyFy or BBC, and haven’t been able to. I mostly don’t find the look or the writing or the acting, the whole mise-en-scène of the twenty-first century TV SF show, especially compelling. And it’s still television, intelligent or not. And clearly this isn’t a show I’m going to be able to knit during—I’m going to want to keep my eyes on the screen.
But. It is definitely not bad. It’s definitely not the novel. What Julia’s story is going to become, is becoming more clear; and it seems to have very little whatsoever to do with the way it happened in the books. Which is fine. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can get on with the way the showrunners want to tell it.
What Quentin’s story is going to become, I still don’t know. It seems to me the first two hours compressed a lot of pages into what seems like a couple of weeks, though I don’t have a copy of the first book handy and can’t say for sure. It seems to me these first two episodes have a feeling of having disposed of something that might have lingered a little longer in the books, but I can’t say what that is, or how it might affect the story going forward. It’s true that this part of the book had a sometimes plodding, going through the years one by one, month by month, sort of feel, but also that most of what we learned about Quentin’s friends, and about what the school ultimately means to them, came from this section. We really aren’t finding out much about those friends yet at all.
It still feels like it’s moving a little quickly. I don’t always know what’s going on, sometimes until I remember how it worked out in the original, sometimes not at all. I’m not sure I’m happy about the way the “different worlds” thing is being foregrounded, so far, in the series, as it was not (that I recall) in the books. I’m hoping we’ll see more of Julia’s storyline, because so far that seems to be the more interesting and eventful one. I can live with the fact that the creators of the TV show have a different vision of the story than the novel has, I think. What worries me a little is that, going forward, a certain kind of reader or viewer may take this to be an actual comment on the novel, when to my mind it’s shaping up to be something different altogether. There’s a certain idea, in some SF circles, that there’s a kind of globally shared Zeitgeist that all works of SF or fantasy comment on, and I think that could be misleading here. What we’re shown of the way magic is connected with the outside world is, here, quite different from what we’re shown in Lev Grossman’s books. I’d like to leave open the possibilities that Grossman did, not take Sera Gamble’s interpretations (however admirable and interesting in themselves) as limiting his.
Chapter One is titled “Complex Equality” and begins with sections titled “Pluralism” and “A Theory of Goods.” Each of these first two sections contains a kind of analysis of a small number of concepts from political theory. As a non-scholar, I feel I have to know how these should be taken. Are these Walzer’s proposals, or are they Walzer’s summaries of the scholarly consensus?
Walzer describes “distributive justice” as a theory about the distribution of everything within a society, even things that aren’t normally transferable, and so on. This sounds like a good idea, and almost obvious. How else could philosophers and other thinkers evaluate the justice of a society, other than by characterizing the distribution of various bad or good things among its members? Why should questions of the distribution of one thing be discussed in different terms than the distribution of others? Moreover, as will be seen in the following pages, Walzer is responding to A Theory of Justice, a far-reaching theory published about a decade earlier by John Rawls. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Rawls is interested in justice as it applies to everything that might be shared either justly or unjustly.
However, this is not what Rawls was doing. (At least, it’s not what he’s taken to have been doing, from the vantage point of today. It would be interested to learn whether he addressed this question somewhere in the very long text of his book, but for me, that’s a research project for another day.) Moreover, it’s not what philosophers mean by “distributive justice.” Distributive justice is pretty much about economics, and economics-like things. It doesn’t expand the concern with distribution until everything that might fall under a discussion of justice is rephrased in distributive terms. Rather—although it sometimes generalizes its concerns from money to “happiness” or “utility,” or something along those lines—it narrows the concern with justice to what can in fact be measured and in some way seen as distributed.
Walzer offers some criticism of Rawls in this introductory chapter, and in this he seems to me to approach the issues along the same lines as Michael Sandel (in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice) does. I don’t fully understand Sandel, either, but he seems to take Rawls to be attempting to encompass the entire social world in something of the same way Walzer does here. His objection to Rawls is that Rawls asks people to consider things that are important to their sense of being who they are as, instead, something they could alienate from themselves, whether to engage in the reasoning of the original position or to accept the results of its reasoning as binding on themselves. I think a better way of putting this is expressed by Martha Nussbaum and Charles Larmore as that Rawls pays insufficient attention to the fact that people in modern society in fact disagree about what “the good life” is (to use the terms traditionally taken from Plato and Aristotle), and that modern philosophers on the whole reject the idea that a consideration of what the good life might be is essential to doing philosophy at all.
“Pluralism,” here, means pluralism of goods. There isn’t just one kind of good, like pleasure, happiness, or money (as there is in certain kinds of utilitarianism). There are other goods, like honor and divine grace. “Pluralism” does not mean, however, pluralism of different groups: that every group should be able to do as it likes (see the previous post on this topic). More about this will become clear in the next section (which I’ll discuss in a future post).
Here, I’ll just say that pluralism in this sense feels very plausible. It seems to be in line with what liberals of a few decades earlier had called “minority living”: the ability to pursue tastes and values that aren’t shared by the rest of the population. It seems to be in line with a sense that society as it’s currently constituted is leaving some important things out of consideration.
From a philosophical view, part of his argument might seem to fit fairly well with that of Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre would hold that arguments about, say, divine grace, can only be made within the limits set by previous discussions about divine grace. People educated in those existing discussions have no real reason to listen to outsiders who criticize the distribution that results from the insiders’ ideas, unless they are given a reason to do so. So this might seem to be the upshot of Walzer’s discussions of how different societies have understood such a thing. But it isn’t immediately obvious that Walzer’s purpose in bringing up all these different kinds of goods is to argue that people who find them important, today, have to be listened to. “Divine grace” and “membership” may turn out to be very different types of goods, with very different levels of importance.
So “pluralism” for Walzer might seem to be more philosophical or even methodological: a reluctance to reduce all possible goods to the same scale, to be measured and compared using the same tools. It seems connected to the suspicion that people from different backgrounds will be insufficiently convinced that the comparisons offered by the majority are correct ones.
Walzer insists that all goods are both distributed and given meaning by society. By “society” he means, not some kind of structure (of the sort that was presumably being discussed a lot at the time he wrote the book), but the society’s members taken individually and collectively. He states explicitly that money has no actual meaning unless society decides to give it one. The same is true of individual attributes like talent or divine grace.
On the one hand, this appears to be an argument about the importance of society and institutions for any individual endeavor—something like what was simplified into “you didn’t build that.” On the other, it sounds like the argument John Searle makes in The Construction of Social Reality to show how money does acquire its meaning and significance from social arrangements. But it seems overstated. For one thing, there’s a difference between saying that society or culture determines the meaning of something like talent, why talent matters, what will count as talent, and so on (as well as that the way in which talent is recognized and developed depends on social arrangements), and saying that a person only has talent because other people agree to grant them talent. The second version suggests not only that it might be possible to take a vote as to whether a person should be talented, but that something like a vote does actually happen, and would be seen to have happened if the situation were correctly understood.
But even more than that, the argument is a very extreme version of the social constructionism hypothesis, which has in the intervening time been pretty thoroughly discredited, in its strong form (see Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What?). Richard Rorty (in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity) shows how something like Walzer’s statements here can be true but have less strong consequences than might appear on a naïve reading like the one that’s natural to me, as a non-expert, and his is the interpretation I prefer. This may or may not turn out to be incompatible with what Walzer actually says. On the weaker reading, all Walzer’s saying here is that the distribution and meaning of personal traits are mediated by culture and by the institutions that structure social interactions. On the stronger reading, he’s providing fuel for something like Steven Pinker’s attacks on what he views as a social-science consensus—something actual social scientists deny. This seems to leave Walzer here arguing for something without real support.
It also leads him into a kind of misguided nonbeliever’s defense of religion that can actually come across as insulting, as when he insists that actual, existing religions find the spiritual meaning of “bread” to be so much more important than the material meaning that they might conceivably—deliberately—let people starve—and that they would be right to do so. Walzer allows no room at all for anything, even food, to have a sheerly material significance. This seems, again, overstated. Surely, in anthropology and literary criticism, it’s important to recognize that a social (or as a believer would say, spiritual) meaning has a place. That’s not to insist that everybody must deny the existence of everything else. Saying it is displays a severe misunderstanding of religious discourse, not a decent respect for believers in religions.
Since writing my last post, I’ve watched the first hour of The Magicians, which has been available on-demand for a few weeks—it’s the first half of the pilot, which will be shown in full tonight. It looks like the changes are drastic enough to change things I’d felt were essential to the way the books worked, and only some of the time interesting enough to suggest an alternative vision of the series’ own. Some of the things I liked best about the novels are obviously going to be missing from the television show.
The show seems to shift the story’s genre to a kind of urban fantasy that I guess you see pretty often in this kind of show, from a different kind of religious science fiction/fantasy in which, it seems to me, the connection between the real world and the magical one are somewhat different. The Magicians was often called “Harry Potter for young adults,” but it really owed more to The Chronicles of Narnia. And to my mind the differences between Grossman’s world and Lewis’s are very telling.
C.S. Lewis associated his fantasy realm with the church. This suggests that what happens in Narnia is very important in our own world. Lewis’s society was, after all, a Christian one (Lewis seems to have believed that it wasn’t, really, not quite, but this does not come across). Grossman associates his with the university. This gives Fillory a more “optional” feel than Narnia has. A reader can disbelieve in Fillory without feeling the author would consider him a heretic or a terrible person. That generally isn’t the case with the Narnia books. Disbelieving in Narnia is like being the one person who doesn’t clap, in the theater, when Tinkerbell dies.
Disbelieving in Fillory, on the other hand, is presented as natural. Quentin does not believe in Fillory, which he believes is a fictional world, made up by an English writer decades ago, and published in books only children read, and not all children, at that. None of his friends believe in Fillory. They make fun of the idea that Fillory is real, as much as of the idea that Hogwarts is real. The faculty at Brakebills doesn’t believe that Fillory is real. They are relentlessly hardheaded, practical types who hope their graduates will do something useful in the real world, benefiting ordinary, nonmagical people, or at least support themselves adequately and be reasonably happy.
This is true in the novels, at least. The entire confrontation with the gods of Fillory is something the very young Quentin and his friends deal with on their own, without any help from the grownups. The TV series appears to be setting up a situation in which the head of Brakebills is fully aware of what’s going on, and is, in fact, involved in it.
To me, this feels like it collapses a very interesting fault line through the novels. The Magicians is really a book about a young man encountering the grownup world, and then also a book about a young man learning about evil, and the reality of the ideals and books he’d idolized as a boy. The Magicians ends with a very mundane (if in some way, even more ultimately, redeemed) fall into the everyday world of graduates of elite colleges who don’t know how to make themselves useful. Magic has meant very little to them, because they have to learn how to be human first.
The TV show feels like it’s setting up the confrontation with evil within Fillory as having a very definite effect on the real or mundane, nonmagical world, and as the center of the plot. This probably makes sense in a television series—and probably makes it more like the other series on networks like SyFy and BBC—but elides something I appreciated in the novels.
The biggest change, though, is that it brings forward the Julia storyline into the beginning of the narration. In The Magicians, the first book in the series, Quentin pretty much abandons his friends, Julia and James, when he’s accepted into Brakebills and leaves high school early as a result. We only find out what happened to Julia in the second book, in which she feels like the really central character (it turns out she’s had a breakdown, caused in some way by the Brakebills administration itself); Quentin’s Brakebills girlfriend, Alice (who destroys herself doing too much magic in an attempt to save him and others), similarly feels like a moral center of the third of the books—both suffer somewhat horrific fates, in ways that can’t help (whether they in fact are) feeling connected with their being women. (This feels uncomfortable, and you wonder why Grossman has chosen to make his female characters suffer so much more than his male ones, why they seem unable to achieve success as he imagines them, but in my opinion this is no reason to condemn the books. I’d take these books over something like the unwatchable About Time, which has similar issues.) In the books, then, the story of Julia’s education is told in parallel to a later narrative from Quentin’s life, while in the series it looks like it will more closely parallel the exact same period in Quentin’s life. This could have the effect of making the way Julia learns magic—basically, “on the street,” from other people who didn’t get to go to Brakebills, an experience that warps her psychologically for life—seem more respectable than it does in the books, where we’re made to believe that Brakebills is a legitimate gatekeeper.
(I’m also not expecting to see as much of the Internet as we saw in The Magician King, given, for one thing, that the part where it played a huge role has been rendered moot already by Julia’s weird encounter in the restroom of a bar.)
The other big change is that the characters are made older. In the books, they’re high school seniors when the story begins, and Brakebills is an undergraduate college. In the show, they’re apparently college seniors (though they appear to live like somewhat older people, for the most part), and Brakebills is graduate school. This has the effect of underplaying the coming-of-age aspects of the story. It also pushes aside some mild issues of class that do appear in the books, in which Quentin and his friends are decidedly middle-class, public school students, and exceedingly studious. The emotion in Quentin’s discovery of real magic stems from the fact that he’d only known this kind of thing from books. The heartbreak in what happens to Julia stems from the fact that she goes from “straight-A student” to “rebellious Goth” so quickly. Neither of these things is likely to happen in the TV show, because both of them are from the beginning gorgeous, well-dressed and blow-dried, sophisticated adults. Along the same lines, much of the effect of the books derives from the idea that there is a secret learning that even the graduates of the best mundane schools, such as Princeton and MIT (even those with graduate training!), don’t ever find out about. If Quentin and Julia are depicted as the kind of idealized, beautiful, well-off characters who invariably populate TV (and if the magical world is depicted as much more broadly intertwined with the ordinary one, which I suspect might be shaping up as the case), the idea that magic is an entrée into a truly elite and mysterious world is worn off.
One of my favorite passages in The Magicians describes the mind- and finger-numbing study the students undergo in order to learn what Brakebills has to teach them. Another describes the miraculous moment in which they realize they’re really thinking like another creature. It’s unlikely either of these could be the core image of a television show. Instead, we’re likely to get a battle to the death with the forces of evil, with cool special effects (and a fair amount of onscreen sex). What will be interesting to me is whether we can still catch glimpses of the vision Lev Grossman built into his books.
There’s a discussion going on at the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians about a new book by Jacob T. Levy on pluralism. Reading the posts, I noticed that Levy uses the word “pluralism” in a different way than Michael Walzer does. Levy’s use of the word is more like what I’d expect (partly, probably, because I’ve read a lot of things by him and the people he’s in dialogue with, published a lot more recently than Spheres of Justice was). By “pluralism,” Walzer means something like (to put it in more MacIntyrean terms, which are the only ones I know for raising my understanding of it to this level of abstraction) that there are different methods and logics that are appropriate to different realms of inquiry. He doesn’t (that I see) discuss the idea that there are different groups or institutions within society. In fact, he explicitly talks in terms of “society” as a whole. He takes it for granted that anybody in the society can criticize any aspect of it, as long as they do so in appropriate terms. Levy, though, means that there are different groups in society, and some of them should be protected from criticism by the others. I think Walzer would reject this. However, I don’t think Walzer provides much support for fending off Levy’s interpretation. After about thirty years, it seems to me that Spheres of Justice—though it clearly is not offered as an argument in favor of something like what Levy proposes—can fit pretty well, even surprisingly well, alongside Levy’s argument.
As far as I can tell, Jacob Levy’s ideas fit easily alongside a lot of “liberaltarian” type argument that try to assimilate libertarianism to liberalism. They have a lot in common with the right-libertarianism found in many places in contemporary North America. They’re in favor of the free market, though not absolutely opposed to all regulation. They’re in favor of health regulations. They’re opposed to government control of schools. They accept a lot of communitarian or traditionalist arguments in favor of the autonomy of small “local” groups, by which they mean groups that are ethnically and religiously homogeneous, practicing traditional “unliberated” ways of life. They’re in favor of scientific research, including social science, and accept the difference between modern and premodern ways of thought. They accept modern constitutionalism and modern ways of thinking about political theory.
But they generally fall on the right side of the political spectrum. They may support feminism and gay rights in principle, but in practice they support the rights of people who’ve traditionally had power to act in ways liberals consider bigoted. Moreover, they argue that social science research supports (and some of it does appear to do so) their opposition to what they consider excessively accelerated progress.
And parts of their views are accepted, to some extent, by liberals, and by some (mostly communitarian-leaning thinkers) on the left.
The relevant part of the theory seems to go something like this:
We do, in fact, right now, have a bunch of institutions. These include religions, families, and so on. People spend a good amount of their lives in these institutions—for the most part, most people are raised in them—and in fact they operate according to their own rules which are often different from what you’d expect if you started with liberal principles and deduced these institutions from them
We also, in fact, right now, have liberalism, which operates in certain parts of society, such as academia, the learned professions, the marketplace, and so on. People operate in liberal society—sometimes called the public realm, or civil society, or by some other term—as adults, in the workplace, when they participate in national or global or culture, and so on.
The idea seems to be that we don’t have to investigate the two realms farther than that. The liberal parts of society are what they are, and the institutions are what they are, and society works pretty well this way. The libertarian kind of idea Levy proposes holds that, however, liberalism is always trying to criticize the institutions, and that liberalism should change its ways and thereby back off a bit and let institutions make their own decisions. From this point of view, for people to be free and to live in a free society, they have to be rooted some of the time in a less liberal, perhaps less free community. Or, at least, if free people choose to live part of the time in such a community, they have to be allowed to do that. This is held by a number of liberals, not only by libertarians. And so it’s held that nothing really needs to be done in this area. Liberalism can go on criticizing the institutions, but keep its gloves on and recognize that criticism won’t always be taken seriously, and the institutions can keep on doing what they’re doing, and it’s all good.
But, I would object, in a lot of cases, institutions aren’t present in that way. They’re often not present (in the way expected by the theory) where there’s been cultural disruption, as from immigration, or poverty, or slavery, or on the reservation. They’re usually not present where there’s been modernization and urbanization. It is unrealistic in the modern era to assume that religion is mandatory in the way it was in the past. It’s unrealistic to assume that the arguments about the need for premodern institutions hold equally well in a diverse society as in an ethnic monoculture. Those arguments seem to assume that those traditional institutions are always there to fall back on, and are a kind of base of operations for those who aren’t or can’t be fully immersed in the liberal world; and this is often not the case—most obviously, for those who are engaged in child-rearing.
More than that, there’s reason to believe that the parts of society called liberal share more with those institutions than the theory would predict. This has been urged by scholarship increasingly, over the past three or four decades, by thoroughly respectable thinkers who are not extremists or cranks. They are more infused with religion, for example, and not only because they rely on religious institutions to form the personalities of their members. Or their ideas stem from a more narrow slice of history than has usually been recognized.
And so the argument seems itself to be a little abstract: uninterested in the details of what institutions exist, what they’re like, or how they interact with one another and with the liberal aspects of society. Philosophy doesn’t get its hands dirty with details like that, and presumably the points would be raised by a different field of knowledge. But those fields of knowledge are themselves constrained, in what they can argue, by what’s accepted as philosophically correct.
Moreover, the points I’ve raised are relevant to criticisms of liberalism and its attitude toward institutions. There are further objections I’d make with regard to traditional institutions themselves. The argument seems usually to suppose that institutions are unitary and unchanging, without internal conflict. Thus, it seems easily to collapse into the assumption that internal conflict within traditions is caused by external influence (usually from liberalism, or at least from tensions caused by liberalism, for example as a result of globalization). It lends itself to use from within a traditional institution as a mechanism for demonizing all change—or one side of a longstanding conflict—as deserving criticism along the lines of the arguments Levy suggests.
I don’t want to suggest that Jacob Levy would agree with the implications I’ve drawn out from the context I’m trying to set him in. I do think that these points are relevant to my understanding of Spheres of Justice, which was written before some of these argument were drawn out at such length, at a time when the political options on offer were different than they are now.
I read The Woman Upstairs, the novel Claire Messud published after The Emperor’s Children, a few years ago, not long after it came out. I was intrigued by the news coverage, and it sounded interesting. It’s about a woman who’s a New England native, an artist, whose life becomes entwined with the family of another, more successful, artist, a South Asian woman married to a Frenchman, and whose own artistic vision is rejuvenated as a result. The novel’s setting is split between the studio Nora shares with the other woman, the public elementary school where she teaches, and her elderly father and aunt who live nearby.
I was right to expect it would be interesting. Nora is a terrific character, and her struggles to find a way to think about how she might fit in, in both the artistic and the domestic worlds, are fascinating. So is the depiction of a somewhat lopsided female friendship. It is absolutely worth seeing how (and how far) this kind of egotistical artist character can be depicted, when the character is a woman instead of a man. It’s very likely that I’ll read this novel again.
I did feel there was something “off” about the depiction of Nora. At this point, I suppose that I’m saying, basically, that I would have written the novel differently, which is a silly kind of criticism to make.
I mean that in both senses, though: I would have written this novel (or at least a novel with this character, with a character who in some essential way is the same character), and I would have written it differently. I’m not only saying, that is, that in some trivial way, Messud has different ideas than I have and came up with a different story about similar situations than I would have. I’m saying that The Woman Upstairs cuts close to the bone in a way that feels, nevertheless, off. These ideas aren’t simply different from mine; I think they’re wrong. This character and this situation are neither foreign to my world, nor good depictions of it—they appear to be descriptions of my world, they appear to have something to say about situations I’ve experienced or witnessed, but in fact, they aren’t and they don’t.
Still, they are fascinating, not least as ways of getting at something I’m interested in. The fact that this “something” can be seen in the way Messud describes is, itself, fascinating to me.
As it happens, the novel and its characters are well-observed. I think many of us have known people like Nora. Messud’s text provokes a shock of recognition. Many of us who’ve known artists and people interested in art have heard the opinions about “the art world” she espouses. And many of us have known people of a similar type, women raised in New England, from privileged but slightly provincial backgrounds, with extremely definite opinions about a lot of things. And many of us have known women who are angry: anger being Nora’s most notable quality. The very first sentence tells us that Nora is angry—that the entire story is fueled by her rage. This would appear to have something to do with her situation: her inability to progress with her art, her alienation from the larger world of contemporary art, her being stuck in an unchallenging job teaching other people’s children. Though, again, she doesn’t, frankly, seem all that angry to me. She seems opinionated and independent-minded. In fact, the way Messud pairs these characteristics with an insistence that Nora thinks of herself as “angry” is puzzling.
Messud clearly has an interest in anger, which plays a significant role in both these two of her novels (the only two of hers I’ve read). Characters in her books tend to be divided into two groups: those who are comfortable and those who are angry. This isn’t a subtle point in The Emperor’s Children: her characters know when they’re angry, and they say so. The actions of the angry characters are driven by their anger. Their writing or their art is driven by their anger. Characters who are not angry do not behave in the same way.
In The Emperor’s Children, Marina is not angry at her father; Danielle is not angry with her mother, and is only momentarily angry when Marina kind of steals a man she’s interested in both personally and professionally; even Julius is not angry with a man who beats him up and leaves him permanently scarred. Murray Thwaite is not angry with the world he criticizes in his lucratively remunerated essay-writing. His wife is not angry with his domestic helplessness or with her underappreciated second shift. The only one who’s angry is poor Bootie Tubb, who didn’t get to go to the Ivy League, and who feels disrespected by his rich relations. In The Woman Upstairs, Bootie’s place is taken by Nora (though in many ways her life has been rather more privileged, actually). In interviews, Messud has suggested that this kind of angry, emotional, unrestrained character is the typical figure of an artist, and she’s compared her characters to Philip Roth’s. But Roth’s angry people are very rarely writers themselves. They are ordinary people whose angry lives the novelist’s stand-in witnesses and transforms for an audience. Roth recognizes that anger is generally somewhat deserving of criticism, and at best comic. Messud, or her narrator, either is unaware of, or determined to ignore, that.
Although it took me a while to get into it, I really liked The Woman Upstairs in the end. Though it’s much shorter than The Emperor’s Children, I think it’s actually more ambitious, forgoing the wordy descriptions and the huge cast list that go with nineteenth-century, or at latest early modern, realism. The Woman Upstairs allows itself to delve further into the thoughts and feelings of its main character than the earlier novel permits in the case of anyone it depicts. And The Woman Upstairs tells us more about its art, about what its characters do, than the longer novel does. That helps to place things in context, more than décor and gossip can do.