Essays by novelists lamenting the de-throning of the novel as the preeminent narrative art form of our culture have become a familiar genre. Jonathan Franzen is a particularly distinguished practitioner of the form. Recently Will Self published such an essay in the Guardian. Self (what a marvelous name for a novelist!) argues that the novel has been dethroned by the emergence of less challenging media of narration. The decline began, he thinks, a long time ago with the emergence of film, radio, TV and such things. The novel itself began when certain conditions in the technology of print media were developed, it then lasted beyond its time—all the way up till the late 20th century it retained great cultural power—but now it is almost finished becoming a niche-art without influence on the wider culture. Continue reading
Martin Mosebach is well known in the German speaking world for his brilliant, cutting edge novels for which he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 2007. But he has also written a collection of polemical essays on the Roman Liturgy from a traditionalist point of view–so far the only one of his works translated into English. This makes him a bit of a puzzle to German churchmen. He does not fit the cliché description of a “traditionalist,” “Latin Mass” Catholic. He seems like a throw back to certain writers of the first half of the 20th century who were both top notch writers and traditionalist Christians. The English speaking world had plenty of these both Catholic (Evelyn Waugh) and Anglican (T.S. Eliot). The likes of Eliot and Waugh provided devastating descriptions of a modern society (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) which they considered to have gone astray, and the also proposed the a cure in the form of a return to traditional Christianity. Mosebach might be read this way as well, but there seems to me to be a difference. Comparing the two Mosebach novels that I have read, Der Mond und das Mädchen (2007) and Was davor geschah (2010), to Waugh’s satirical novels there seems to me to be something subtly different going on. To be sure Mosebach is concerned with showing the emptiness of a culture drained of Christian faith and morality just as much as Waugh is, but the difference is that Waugh thinks there is still something to be done about it. Mosebach, it seems to me, doesn’t; he doesn’t think that the culture as a whole has any chance of returning to Christianity.
The result is that Mosebach gives a much more detached narration of his stories than Waugh. The narrator of Was davor geschah tells us that one of the characters is not motivated by “predilection for the aesthetics delights of decline and ruin” (Vorliebe für die ästhetischen Wonnen des Niedergangs). But Mosebach does seem to show a keen enjoyment of such delights. Mosebach’s novels are very similar to Waugh’s A Handful of Dust in describing the ruin that people run into by flippant disregard for the moral order, but while Waugh’s book is written with bitter wit, Mosebach’s is written with a kind of aestheticising elegant distance–like a 19th century novelist describing a landscape. Mosebach himself makes something like this point in an interview. There he states that he cultivates an abstract relation to his material, trying to treat his characters like musical themes which he then develops into a kind of symphonic composition.
It is interesting to compare Mosebach’s detached view of the contemporary culture that he despises and considers himself to have transcended with morally serious contemporary writers who see themselves as part of the culture, and struggling with its moral contradictions. In an earlier post I compared two such writers, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace with respect to the problem of necessity. I argued that Franzen sees part of the problem with contemporary life in an excess of freedom of choice without the kind of moral necessity that gives life direction and urgency. Wallace, I suggested, shows how the version of necessity that Franzen sees as the saving possibility is insufficient to the extent that it cannot finally ground the good which necessitates. Mosebach too is concerned with the problem of a false necessity that people embrace for the sake of giving their lives direction. In Was davor geschah everyone’s life is destroyed by some of the characters trying to escape the emptiness of their lives by giving themselves over to passion. Mosebach describes this without bitterness or sarcasm, but there is one wonderful passage where he hints that it is all an illusion. It is a chapter called “time holds breath;” a breathtakingly beautiful description of a moonlight sledding party. This is the last paragraph:
We had passed through a no man’s land in the sleds, but no man’s land has no man’s time. We had moved in a great white bag, as though we were still in the world of the unborn. The wintery forrest in the darkness of the night had made everything appear as though it were not yet inevitable, as though there were many combinations possible, each one about to dissolve again. In the light [of the house] we were back on the tracks on which we had long since been moving. Must I even mention that despite all the good drink that night Phoebe no longer looked at me?
(Ein Niemandsland hatten wir mit den Rodelschlitten durchfahren, aber im Niemandsland herrscht auch eine Niemandszeit. In einem großen weißen Sack hatten wir uns bewegt, als seien wir noch im Reich der Ungeborenen. Der nächtliche Winterwald hatte alles erscheinen lassen, als sei es noch nicht zwangsläuﬁg, als seien viele Kombinationen möglich, und jede davon bestimmt, alsbald wieder zu verfallen. Im Licht gerieten wir wieder in die Gleise, in denen wir uns längst bewegten. Muß ich hinzufügen, daß Phoebe in dieser hochalkoholisierten Nacht keinen Blick mehr für mich übrig hatte?)
The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom have lots of freedom, but their experience seems to teach them that freedom is overrated. Take Patty Berglund reflecting on her own misery:
By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. (p. 181)
I am by no means an admire of leftist politics, but I must admit that the English Labour MP in the above clip is attacking a real evil. The so-called payday loan companies that give short-term loans at a very high rate of interest are a particularly clear and extreme example of the injustice of usury. They exploit the distress of the poor, enticing them into an unjust contract, obligating them to exchange (say) £182 for £100.
Payday loans are clearly absurd, but they are typical for an economic system in which usury is the default solution to bottle necks both in supply and in demand. Leftist analysis of economic injustice is often as insightful as Leftist solutions are disastrous. Take a look at David Harvey’s application of Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capital accumulation to the current situation:
That’s a remarkably pithy summary of the basic underlying dynamics of the system. The first point at which usury enters into the system is in supply. Supply is supposed to work by a capitalist taking money, buying means of production, hiring labour, and and using an industrial technology to produce enough of a commodity to pay for the means of production + labour + a profit. The first point at which usury enters into the system is simply to accumulate enough capital at the right place and time to get the system going. But this means that enough of the commodity has to be produced to pay for means of production + labour + interest on debt + a profit. Unless of course one delays re-paying the debt, for then one can reinvest part of the profit in an expansion, and pay from the expanded profit. This is the first point at which growth becomes vital: one needs to be able to expand. The imperative to expand is of course also strengthened by competition (not to mention greed).
Now an interesting problem arises: it’s simply what G.K. Chesterton identifies as the basic contradiction of capitalism: namely that it wants the mass of men to be both poor (since their wealth comes from wages) and rich (since they are the capitalist’s customers). Another way of stating the paradox is to say: where does the necessary surplus demand come from to keep the growth going? Marx explains the contradiction by means of a simplified model of the economy: if you had an economy entirely divided between capitalists and workers increase in demand can’t come from the workers, since they can’t possibly spend more money than is paid to them in wages. So the capitalists themselves have to supply the surplus effective demand. But how is that possible? Well, the answer is of course by usury. But now it’s lending money to the consumer. Credit cards are a great example here. This is money lent to increase demand in order to drive growth. So now you have a system in which both supply and demand are financed by usury which always depends on future expansion. Hence debt increases with the growth of the economy. The whole thing is an elaborate Ponzi scheme that only works as long as there is a very high rate of growth.
But of course one can answer to this that in fact it has worked pretty well. Every once in a while there’s a depression in which a lot of people go bust and the system starts over again as it where from scratch, but for the most part the economy keeps growing. And while perhaps we have more usurers making unjust gains than in earlier economies, we also have less people starving. Is constant growth such a bad thing? What about “be fruitful and multiply” and all that. This is the line of argument taken up by Edward Hadas in a book that I have just begun reading. In the introduction Hadas remarks that he began the book intending it to be simply a condemnation of the modern economic world. Synthesizing the thinking of the anti-capitalist Jewish left in which Hadas was raised, and the anti-modernist strand of Catholic Social Teaching to which he had been converted. But soon he came to think that a tout-court condemnation was an inadequate response to what he calls the “pro-life” features of modern industrial capitalist economy. This economy, he contends, allows the world to support many more people, and allowed them to live longer, healthier lives, and expand their knowledge of creation. “A life-lover cannot simply dismiss these accomplishments as meaningless.” (p. xvi) So Hadas goes about trying to formulate a constructive critique of the system. Hadas’s point made me think of a chilling scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, where the misanthropic Walter attacks economic growth:
Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two percent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one percent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible: a world population of eighteen billion and world energy consumption ten times greater than today’s. And if you went another hundred years, with steady growth, well, the numbers were simply impossible. […] “I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right?” (pp. 121-122)
An anti-life vision if ever there was one. In a brilliant undergraduate essay Caleb Cohoe once made a “pro-life” argument for capitalist economy similar to Hadas’s, in which he points out that Aristotle thought that one had to prevent poverty by limiting population including by infanticide and abortion.
But then again, if one looks at the actual effect of the globalization of the capitalist system in our times one sees that it has spread abortion and contraception to the four corners of the globe. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Hadas’s unfolds his project of a pro-life re-thinking of our economic life.
This year’s Big American Novel is the long-awaited, unfinished book that David Foster Wallace had been working on up to his death in 2008. The Pale King is about the dull lives of IRS bureaucrats, and, as DFW wrote in one of the notes appended to the manuscript (p.545), it has two “broad arcs”: the first arc has to do with boredom and paying attention and the differences between people and machines; the second has to do with with being an individual vs. being part of something larger, civics. Both of these arcs are closely related to the central theme of pretty much all of Wallace’s writing. Continue reading