The Thin Man

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This classic of detective fiction, a beacon of hard-boiled, noir-esque mystery, is both entertaining and curiously dated.  Set in the early ’30s, this series of murders surrounding a brilliant – yet possibly quite mad inventor – is really a comedy of manners disguised in an endless parade of drinks, speakeasies, shady characters and cops.

The hero – dry, dapper and endlessly correct Charles, hovers – cat like, mixing an endless series of drinks at all hours of the day and night – in nearly every scene; the book is almost about how much people like Charles than it is a about multiple homicide. He is paired with his just as charming wife, the two forming a perfect, completely irresistible couple. The rest of the characters form a collection of bad stereotypes, left helpless and foolish in the wake of Charles. By the end, the big reveal of the murder comes more as a relief from hall-of-mirrors effect that Hammett creates in order to create the mystery.

But it is thoroughly enjoyable none the less. Part of the appeal of Hammett is his unique writing style: a sort of debonair minimalism, ultra-dry wit attempting to appear “hard-boiled.” The result is that you spend a lot of the book trying to figure out – along with literally the rest of the characters – what Charles is thinking.

A breeze – half the fun is the long lost world were it is socially acceptable to be truely drunk literally at all times of the day and night.

 

The Strange Story of the Survival and Resurgence of Conservative Politics Since WWII

It’s 1945, and right wing politics – globally, and here in the US – is on suicide watch.

And for good reason. The Great Depression destroyed faith in the capitalism system; the Western world is saved by various brands of Keynesian-style socialism. Here in the US, we know this as FDR’s New Deal.  Fascism exploded onto the scene following the Depression, but between the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII, was completely discredited. Traditional conservative causes like royalism, religion and that general notion of “we need to get back to the good old days” was intellectual bankrupt and in total abeyance.

Trump’s election in 2016 is the culmination of the survival and complete return of right wing politics in a global sense. Placing Trump as the cap stone amongst figures like Theresa May, Nigel Farage, Erdogan (president of Turkey), Szydio in Poland, Orban in Hungary, and Duterte in the Philippines,  we are living at a rather startling resurgence of right wing politics. Putin pre-dates this crop of right-wingers, but as a classic authoritarian kleptocrat, he necessarily finds himself at home with Trump, whose political essence, ideology and rhetoric aside, is fundamentally the same.

Why? How?

The crucial movement, the key time period were conservatism is resurrected from the trash heap of history is the stretch in American history that starts with the Red Scare and McCarthyism and closes with Nixon’s election. I’m calling this “the Cold War” and by Cold War I am not referring to the military and political containment of Soviet Russia, I am referring to the Cold War as a cultural phenomenon on the US.

To be blunt: our government, in collusion with big businesses and the military-industrial complex – what Eisenhower warned us all about – makes the conscious decision to promote conservative and religious groups both in the US and across the globe to fight communism.

To be clear, conservative ideas are intrinsically linked to a) power/money/privilege and b)certain psychological and emotion orientations. This means that conservatism was always going “to come back” from 1945. But this is quite separate from how it was consciously saved and promoted by the US government and how small groups of wealthy conservatives consciously set out to make the US a Christian, white, capitalist country. In 1945 the US is a ‘revolutionary’ country, distrustful of the old European imperialism; by Nixon, we are the imperialist power; and this goes beyond a simple consequence of being by far the most powerful country at the time.

Put another way, the best thing to happen to capitalism and conservatism ever – literally ever – is communism. Even today, vague and uninformed references to communism/Stalinism/Soviets is enough to chill conversation and debate over our economic system. It’s still a real bogeyman, and that is not a coincidence at all.

The hegemony of Keynesianism, socialism and communism in the post-war world allowed conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism to rebrand itself. FDR’s New Deal and the public spending of WWI created a truely middle country – economic equality had never been higher, but the spectre of the welfare state at home and totalitarian communism abroad allowed people like Frederick von Hayek – his fundamental insight being that a centrally planned economy simply could not keep up with the complexity of human society – and other outsiders like Ayn Rand to lassez-faire capitalism as a fundamental component to human freedom; a freedom under threat from the welfare state. The American Libertarian Party today is a direct result of their ideas. Corporate power was able to increasingly pose as an agent of choice and of liberty.

Shifting to domestic American politics, the Republican Party in the early 40’s was the party of monied interests, lost in the wilderness from the Great Depression – the legacy of “do-nothingism” dies hard. FDR had left the US the most powerful and respected nation in the world after a decade in power, the stark reality is that the Republicans would have to defeat the new Democratic president Truman or fade away from the national scene. It’s the Cold War that saves them. McCarthyism marks the point where the Republicans cease to be a party of loyal opposition and because a truely right-wing party.

This basic shift leads to America’s first right-wing president: Nixon. Sometimes this is referred to as the “Southern Strategy” – pandering to Souther racism and insecurity to back up the monied and military interests of the rest of the party. The larger point here is that in order to justify the sustained level of military spending to fight the Cold War, our government green-light a widespread culture of fear-mongering and conformity. It’s no coincidence that Reagan got his political start as the face of General Electric’s propaganda show. The ’60’s counterculture is as much a reaction against the Cold War conformity – the great moulding of America into either lily-white cowboys or evangelical businessmen  – as against anything else.

So we have the conscious decision of the US government to quite literally save conservative circles – be it military cabals, business consortiums, ex-nazis, etc – by providing surprising amounts of financial and ideological support. This succour went on for decades. This also cut they other way. For example: figures like Ho Chi Min (his declaration of independence for Vietnam was basically copied word for word from our own) were forced into the hands of the Communist block.

I think it’s important to examine why conservative, authoritarian politics has returned. Since neoliberalism gained real power in the ’80s with Reagan and Thatcher, economic inequality has exploded. Privatisation, austerity, trickle-down economics, free-trade all boil down to a sustained attack on the idea of the public good by corporate combines with resources and concerns which exceed the confines of individuals and nations.

The generic name for all this is “capitalism,” but this would be inaccurate; the reality is an increasingly globalised system of private corporate power which has utilised a rhetoric of “free trade” to leverage votes, promising prosperity (a prosperity strangled by regulation and laziness). The stark reality is that these companies are profitable because they escape the tax burden and are the beneficiaries of governmental policy. The US’ effective policy is for Americans to drive cars; oil companies receive massive tax breaks. Or Wal-mart effectively taking advantage of welfare policy to under pay its employees. The result is impoverishment of the society at large. If you need more proof look at Russia: the largest privatisation and corporate giveaway of all time.

The basic pattern here is that the system which we all roughly refer to as “capitalism” siphons off wealth away from the larger society, obviously leading to a period of crisis. During the last cycle (the ’30s), government enacted the welfare state and taxed the ultra wealthy and corporations. These protections have been worn away with the obvious result that we have today.

 

The Spanish Labyrinth

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Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth is one of the best known works on the Spanish Civil War. It is a impressive example of specialist’s history that instead of being stuffy, arcane and pedantic, achieves a clarity of thought and style which reaches the general public. Labyrinth manages to make what to most would be obscure details into important, powerful and relevant narrative.

In this period in American politics, it strikes me as quite timely to read a book about the socio-economic and political history of a country’s run up to a civil war. Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth is a deep dive into the reasons behind the Spanish Civil War. At once an examination of the Spanish character and experience, as well as a detail of the ideological forces – the Anarchists, the Socialists, the Carlists and the Falange, etc – that played out in the war.

The Spanish Civil War is not just a historic event, it is a focal point of the world crisis of the 1930s: the ultimate lab for the ideologies of the time. It is also cool. The sheer drama, mixed with Spanish panache and the overwelming sense of everyone casting aside their masks, all set in the style of the 1930’s. Hemingway, the International Brigades, Hitler and Mussolini looming in the background, fascinating characters like Queipo de Llano (a fascist general, famously drunk, who bluffed his way to take over an entire city and spent the rest of the war haranguing Spain with a nightly radio broadcast), Azana (the majestic and competent prime minister of the Republic; the ultimate good guy) and Durruiti (an anarchist leader who both made decisions and led from the front in the most literal sense in battle).

Labyrinth only touches on the actual events of the Spanish Civil War in the closing chapter, and rather focuses on the run-up to the war. Of particular note is the chapter on Spanish Anarchism, probably the major example in history of actually existing anarchy in practice. The rendering and evaluation of Spanish Anarchy is fascinating considering that “anarchy’ is such a scary and confusing word for most people.

Insightful, well-written: this book will make you think about where we are right now as a society and where we are headed.

L.A. Confidential

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James Ellroy writes brutal crime-noir thrillers set in 1950’s Los Angeles. Dramatic, savage, soaked in gore and lust and slang, Ellroy’s books are both grimy realistic and flights of pure mythology.

L.A. Confidential  – I actually have not seen the movie – is set around three cops and their role in tracking down a serial killer, in a hunt that lasts decades. More than a simple hunt for the murderer, this book is steeped in the personal psyches of its characters, the politics, culture and mythos of the L.A. PD, and the illusions and ideology and lies that lie at the heart of society.

Yes, part of the thrill is the police procedural side, the politics of crime  and the interdepartmental feuding. Yes, part of the thrill is the simple backdrop of ’50s, L.A. It is Ellroy’s mastery of mystery and his ability to weave a unreadably complex web of lies, truths, stories, and theories which make for a truely epic book. Watching as three detectives slowing unravel the thread of truth and eventually put it all together at the end of the book is more than entertaining, it strikes me as a major feat of literature which I would truely despair of ever coming close to achieving.

The real hook for my is Ellroy’s ability to link the specific instance of “crime” – the murder, etc – to the larger crime of society; the instance of crime is a symptom, an expression of a deeper, larger crime. The sense that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and the heroes are drawn inexorably toward this core rottenness. The very characters which represent the Great and the Good are revealed to be the origin of the crime; they stand out, Cronus like, as the purveyors of the founding lies that community so often seems based on.

My only complaint is that Ellroy’s commitment to slang – especially slang that is a frankly antiquated – and his writing style which often comes very close to stream of consciousness often makes for slow, hard reading. Most of the time this adds “flavour” but every so often it results in a complete breakdown in the reading ‘flow’.

I enjoyed L.A. Confidential much more than Black DaliaConfidential, as not based on real events, allows Ellroy to explore both the “police procedural” side and the “mythology” side a little bit better. Dalia struck me as going a little too deep into the personal pathos of its characters.

 

 

Absolute Recoil

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I can admit that Zizek – as brilliant and original as his writing is – does have a slight tendency to copy himself. Certain jokes, certain passages tend to repeat every now and again through the ranks of his books. I will even go so far as to say some of his books are simply random collections of things Zizek felt like commenting and that have been published just because it’s Zizek.

Absolute Recoil is not one of these books. In fact, this title is a cornerstone of Zizek’s system, one of the most comprehensive and concise formulations I have encountered so far. The title is taken from the writings of Hegel and is meant to describe the moment when one polar extreme immpiedtaly gives rise to its exact polar opposite, and that “moment/movement” itself, the moment of “absolute recoil” is the very thing that gives coherence and meaning to the two polar opposites in a larger sense. I should probably mention that this takes places on a level of what is ultimately deep human psychology.

I will not claim to fully understand “absolute recoil” or some of the other more abstruse points of Hegelese, this is quite simply my understanding of what I have read.

Zizek is a proponent of “dialectical materialism” a rich vein of philosophical thought whose’ philosophical insight has been only grown in proportion to its lack of political success. The idea of “dialectical” or “the dialectic” harkens back to Plato and Socrates, but was given its more modern interpretation by Hegel. The idea behind the dialectic, at its deepest, most fundamental point is that Rationality (again, in it’s fullest, most complete majesty) is comprised of an ongoing, moving tension. Based on Plato’s idea that true wisdom emerged through rigorous conversation, I like to think of “dialectical-ness” as the formal recognition that the means are an end to themselves. The unity of opposities, the idea that tension is the only constant, the idea that the cycle or the change is the reality all stem from ‘dialectical thinking.’ Anytime a logic of “two sides of the same coin” are at work, you are in dialectical thought.

Materialism is the idea that all is grounded in a tangible, tactile reality. It’s best to think of Karl Marx’s formulation of base and superstructure when thinking about materialism:  there is the way humankind makes and produces its food and shelter (the base) and the superstructure is everything else, which results from the way we go about producing what we need. In this light, the internet’s obsession with cats has more too do with neoliberal office methods/stresses of work than with any sort of natural cuteness of cates. Obviously, this is a powerful way of seeing the world; it often dismisses ideology and the power of ideas out of hand.

You might be able to tell from reading the above paragraphs that “dialectical materialism” is a bit of a paradox in itself; it points both towards the lofty realm of idealism bordering on eastern mysticism and the brutal, realpolitik ground that dismisses that same idealism as an illusion generated by systemisation of power drawn from modes of production. Upon reflection however, and in true “dialectical” tradition, the unity of these two opposites capture a much higher standard of rationality which escapes the narrow, small mindedness of positivism and the abyss of moral relativism that deconstructionism leads to.

With this book, Zizek is attempting to restart this great tradition. It’s an attempt to put a much maligned and even more misunderstood way of thinking back on the map. Will it be successful…?

We can only hope.

The Monkey Wrench Gang

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Another book which has gained in relevance over the past few years, The Monkey Wrench Gang is the story of four brave souls who set out to stop the ecological destruction of the American West by sabotaging construction machinery, bridges, and power plants. Complete with a happy ending, this story mixes Hunter S. Thompson hi-jinks with a deeper environmental and sociological message.

Part of the reason why I picked this book up was because of the legacy of Edward Abbey himself, a legitimate representative of the great American tradition of independents, libertarians and free thinkers a la Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, and Muir. Abbey clearly drank deeply from the the sacred font of wisdom which is Walden. One of Abbey’s most well known quotes is “growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell” which is directly inspired by Thoreau’s meditation on ant society; where the business of American society is directly compared to an ant hill. “Of course we are busy” asks Thoreau, “but what are we busy about?” Or something to that effect.

Abbey is best thought of as the same generation of Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Abbey’s frame of reference and reading of the American political and social landscape is distinctly that of the early Baby Boomer generation; by that I mean that formative group of people who seemed to shepherd in the Hippie movement.

I will admit to being disappointed in this book – especially since several people commented on how much they loved Edward Abbey while I was reading it – therefore a little disillusioned with people in general. I still cannot decide if Abbey consciously modded himself after Hunter S. Thompson or they shared a similar cast of mind and similar audience. Simply put, Abbey is the poor man’s Thompson and the ecologically concerned man’s Kerouac (Kerouac was always about being cool).

Rather than focus on the why – the deep and multifaceted justification for their actions – and evaluating and reflecting on the powerful corporate and social forces which perpetuate ecological destruction, Abbey likes to dwell on the actual details of the sabotage escapades; what stands out in the book is the sensuous landscapes of the south west, lovingly described, followed by desperately mediocre character scenes followed by not-all-that-suspense sabotage scenes which often feel more like a fraternity hazing stunt  rather than action that would be instantly labeled “ecoterrorism” by the Media.

The four characters do strike an interesting symbolic balance. There is Dr. Sarvis; a gentleman and scholar, a character who represents classical Enlightenment thought an the academic’s concern for the natural world based on the large, classic sense of Reason. Then there is Seldom Seen Slim, a jack Mormon and river guide who can be understood to represent sincere and open faith, viewing the destruction of the landscape and ecosystem as a crime against God. Third is George Hayduke; probably the most pathos-filled character and could only have been created in the universe of post-Vietnam America. Hayduke is a Vietnam veteran who sees the destruction of the environment as simple a continuation of Vietnam; the war has shifted to his home. He is the only character who consistently advocates violence and a path towards true terrorism; he is by far the most unrealistic character. Last is the lady interest. She’s from New York and Jewish; chic and into Buddhism, she lends glamor to the otherwise sex-appeal-less male characters.

Abbey does a poor job of making a case for environmentalism. He flounders at articulating exactly why we as a society should be motivated to take action. His characters are one-dimensional and forced. Some of his other books might be better – I understand that he has something of a autobiography – but The Monkey Wrench Gang is pretty easy to skip. Read Ecotopia instead.

Gai-Jin

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When I was teenager, was handed James Clavell’s Shogun, a masterpiece of exciting historical fiction. Drawing inspiration from real historical figures and a real global-historical context, Shogun was vivid and dramatic, and intoxicating mix of cloak-and-dagger, Robinson Crusoe, and epic, sweeping narrative. It was a book that read like a movie.

I have re-read Shogun several times, and each time enjoyed it throughly. I am sorry to report that Clavell’s other ventures in writing are far less successful. Clavell actually wrote about half a dozen novels based on a similar formula to Shogun: a culture clash between East and West, set in East Asia, dramatic characters caught up in wheels-within-wheels intrigue and passion. Gai-Jin is the third in the “series” set in Yokohama in the early 1860s, when foreign governments where first trading with Japan after the expedition of Commodore Perry. I have previously read Tai-Pan, the second in the series; the books are all linked in many ways, though each can pretty much stand on its own.

Gai-Jin, like Tai-Pan focus more on European/English characters; and both badly fail to live up the awesomeness that is Shogun. What is used to great effect in Shogun comes off as kitschy or trite or cliche in his other books. The tricks seem predicable; the endless cunning and seeming depth of characters in Shogun are recycled, but clumsily. Not only did I not care about the plot in Gai-Jin (there was no sense of building towards a climax, no sense of larger purpose), but each character seemed essentially the same: calculating, but blinded by their rather shallowing passion.

I picture James Clavell, the toast of society after Shogun. Then, after a month or so, his editor calls him in and says “Wow, James, Shogun is amazing. When can we expect the next one? Oh, and by the way, can you write it with a screenplay in mind?” And to me, that’s the secret of Gai-Jin. It was meant to be turned into a movie, or a TV series. It’s very much like a HBO series in book form (I’m specifically thinking of The Tudors here): the same dozen-or-so-characters swirl around in pomp and splendour and cunning and drama but really not all that much happens, despite many dramatic scenes. Really, the fact that the Clavell books are not HBO-ized I find seriously shocking.

Read Shogun. Do not bother with the rest.

Silence

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Silence by Shusaku Endo is an intense, personal exploration of faith and a meditation on Japan and Japanese christianity. It’s no wonder then that Endo is known as the Graham Green of Japan, an author who similarity broods on the mysteries of (Catholic) faith. I’m thinking here of The Power and the Glory, and The Heart of the Matter, books that center around a man in a sticky situation wrestling with faith.

Set in late 17th century Japan, after the golden age of Catholic expansion and influence  had come to an end and persecution was the order of the day by Japanese authorities, this is the story of the last Catholic priest and his apostasy. To provide some historical background, the Portuguese established Nagasaki in 1570 and proceeded to get rich as the middleman of the silk trade between China and Japan. At the height of Jesuit power and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Japan was the target of serious missionary work, and at one point there was thought to be over 400,000 converts. This all came to a close as the Tokugawa Shogunate established itself and in part an effort for social homogeneity, effected not only the sealing off of Japan to the outside world, but a brutally effective campaign to snuff out Catholicism. The appeal of Catholicism in Japan was based on the misery of the peasants, often treated as less-than-human. I think it’s fair to say that Catholicism has had an appeal in all feudal societies.

Father Rodriguez, the main character, travels to Japan to investigate the apostasy of Father Fierria, the last ranking Father in Japan. After an arduous journey, he meets a strange Japanese man in Macao who guides Rodriquez to some still-believing Japanese peasant villages. Initially things go well, but Rodriguez is eventually captured by the samurai and begins his own personal Calvary. Rich in dazzling caparisons to the Biblical story of Jesus, the conclusion is complex and complicated. Some readers will find it deeply fulfilling, others will be less happy with it.

I would not call this book “enjoyable” but it certainlly is interesting and works on the level of personal faith but also on the cultural level of “why did Catholicism not take root in Japan?”

 

The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the top-shelf works of dystopian fiction that has suddenly become urgently relevant with the Trump presidency. While America in 2017 chillingly reminds me of 1984‘s “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”, The Handmaid’s Tale addresses a different side of the strange alchemy of conservatism which made Trump possible: the Mike Pence-ian, Evangelical, vision of America.

The Tale is set in a future New England town, after the liberal-democratic order has truely fallen, subverted by a mixture of violence and political manipulation. In this dark, religiously fuelled totalitarianism known as the “Republic of Gilead,” women truely are the property of men. The underlying logic and assumptions behind the Old Testament vision of sexes are taken to is logical conclusion. Thus, “Offred,” our heroine, is a “handmaid,” sort of fertility prostitute for a high-ranking “Commander,” who presides over a walled-off suburb for the elect with his “Wife” and “Martha” (housekeeper)”.

This is a deeply stirring book – I was struck by the subtle depth of the writing, which often resembles poetry as much as descriptive narrative. Atwood as a writer is a master at using the “gaps” – what is not said, or what is said when – to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Silences are eloquent in the Republic of Gilead. The story thus manages to be a intense psychological and emotional journey through loneliness and exploration of the relationships between women and women, and men and women and a scathing, eerie depiction of what a truely Evangelical America would mean.

For example, the “Aunts” – the women who train the Handmaids and are the ideological shock troops so to speak – shame the Handmaids in training for being sluts, i. e., “its your fault you got raped” and then extol the new theocratic order because it “protects women” even as the Republic of Gilead is more or less a system of systematic, institutionally approved rape.

My wife literally could not put this book down, and it’s clear why: this books is a mix of first class writing, intense psychological perspective and dystopian terror.

The Limits of Disenchantment

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In the sickly, demented light of the post-Trump world, the basic problems and ideas of the book remain perfectly relevant and important. The ideas, problems and insights of books like this seem ever more rare and baroque to me; something like the last ember of a dying campfire.

The main strains of European philosophy: Critical Theory, Psychoanalysis and Deconstructionism are in tern examined and put through the philosophical ringer by Peter Dews, who is clearly a master thinker in his own right.

It’s a tour de-force of sheer thinking about thinking. Not for the uninitiated, untrained or faint of heart. I do not think that Dews even has a main point; this book is a buffet of – well – contemporary European philosophy.