Kieran Setiya identifies one of the abiding tics of what one might call the "Eagletonian demotic". Of Eagleton's style, as it's on display in After Theory, Setiya says:
[It] is self-parodic in its obsession with unpredictable demotic analogies... At first it seems funny, then a bit annoying, then pathological, and finally utter madness, like someone who plays the children's game of repeating everything you say – but then will never stop.
Eagleton has a review, in the new issue of the London Review of Books, of Songs of Experience by Martin Jay, an intellectual history of the concept of "experience", the first two paragraphs of which (Eagleton's review, not Jay's book) are clogged with those "demotic analogies". I part company with Setiya, however, when he describes these analogies as "unpredictable"; here, they're dismally predictable. Perhaps, though, Setiya means that an "unpredictable" analogy is a kind of non sequitur, in which case, he's right. These paragraphs are confirmation that Eagleton's wisecracking, analogising style, which I once I admired for its élan, has now congealed into a sort of literary Tourette's syndrome:
Emerson thought all experience was valuable, an opinion not shared by the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay.... For empiricists like Locke and Hume, experience is what informs us that our feet will still be there when we wake up in the morning. Like the media in Uzbekistan, it is not very reliable, but it is all there is by way of information about the external world.
Don't they edit him in Little Russell Street any more?
Jonathan Coe deservedly won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction last night for his magnificent biography of B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant. Earlier this year, I posted my interview with Coe about the book here.
I recently discovered Kieran Setiya's blog, Ideas of Imperfection, one attractive feature of which is that it's updated at a pace nearly as glacial as mine is. Setiya is a moral philosopher, based at the University of Pittsburgh, but he appears to be devoting the blog to non-technical discussion of"philosophical ideas in literary criticism and theory" (he does his "proper" work in ethics and the philosophy of mind) - so very much the territory which the crowd at The Valve are exploring.
A couple of posts caught my eye - one on Martin Amis's book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, and one about Terry Eagleton's After Theory (which I've discussed, albeit glancingly, before). I'll deal with what he says about Amis in this post, and save the one about Eagleton for later. But do read it in the meantime.
Setiya uses Amis's book as an occasion to reflect on the limits of moral philosophy. He cites Bernard Williams' remark about the almost insuperable difficulty, for moral philosophers, of writing about the moral tragedies of the twentieth century. In doing so, Williams said, "one is likely to reveal the limitations and inadequacies of one's own perceptions more directly than in, at least, other parts of philosophy." Setiya thinks Amis manages to tackle the enormity of the gulag in a way that doesn't seem "profane", as the topic would when explored in the idiom of contemporary moral philosophy. He doesn't try to defend that claim; he just adverts to the "moral ferocity" of Amis's prose.
And in the comments, Setiya develops a bit further what strikes me as quite a strong defence of Amis's odd little book, trying to answer the charge, made by Christopher Hitchens among others, that it fails both as a history of Stalinism (Amis acknowledges that it's stitched together from a narrow range of sources, principally the books of his father's friend, Robert Conquest) and as a history of Western infatuation with the Soviet Union (that was the bone of contention with Hitchens).
When I first read Koba, I inclined to the Hitchens view. Amis argues that Western enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment, in the teeth of what was known about the purges, show trials and gulag, is one of the central enigmas of the twentieth century. True enough - and it's a question that has attracted close scrutiny from numerous writers and historians. But Amis doesn't acknowledge that work - he turns this into a family affair. The book closes with with letters to his father's ghost (Kingsley had once belonged to the Party) and to Hitchens, whose "unregretted discipleship of Trotsky" is recorded solemnly. Amis quotes from an essay of his father's, in which Kinglsey explains his eventual apostasy from Moscow, and whose lucidity of self-questioning contrasts favourably (or so I thought) with his son's complacent recollection that he "never felt the call of political faith".
Setiya's reply to that sort of criticism is to argue that it's unfair to charge Amis for failing to write proper history when he was never in that line of business to start with. He raises a very interesting question about just what kind of book Amis was trying to write:
"Koba the Dread" is too personal to be read as history. It is a memoir of Martin Amis, composed as a response to his sister's early death, and ending with a letter to his father. We ought to be tipped off by its atmosphere of resentment rather than (detached) indignation. It makes no sense for Amis to feel about Stalin the way he does, and the writing is a function of this. The book raises a question of genre, to which the reviews are sometimes blind, or unsympathetic. People may doubt that there is value in this work: Amis himself is unclear about what he is doing... Perhaps it is also wrong to deal with Stalin and one's personal problems in the same place. But it has a certain effect, and unlike Hitchens, I didn't find it impious, or morally shallow.
There's something in this. It's clear that the material in the Stalin book really belongs in Amis's magnificent memoir Experience. And Setiya is saying, if I understand him, that this is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss Koba the Dread.
UPDATE: In the comments to his original post, Kieran Setiya responds to my mild complaint that he doesn't offer an argument for his claim that "the moral comparison of Hitler and Stalin might – not 'would' – be profane in the language of contemporary philosophy, but is not in Martin Amis". He says:
To begin with, the fear of profanity or impiety is not just a fear of revealing one's moral limitations. It is also that it would be obscene or inhuman to write about the Holocaust or the Great Terror without emotion, with the detachment characteristic of philosophy. That is one reason why I am sympathetic to the most controversial aspect of Koba the Dread: the fact that it is so deeply (and sometimes distortingly) personal.
This has another effect, which Amis deliberately exaggerates: it acknowledges the fact his character is on the line. In one of the more curious passages late in the book, Amis says that he, too "is obliged to confess – not to a lie but to a sin, and a chronic one." The sin is to have made a not-very-funny remark that compared the weeping of his infant daughter to the screams of prisoners in the gulag. Why does Amis insist on telling this story? Because he wants to confess that he is not up to dealing with the events he is struggling to describe. He is overmatched. Humility of this kind is possible in moral philosophy, and it is sometimes achieved. But it doesn't sit well with the familiar, no-nonsense style, the crispness of analytic argument, or the steadfast refusal to "listen to the body".
He's obviously right about the lack of fit between subject matter of this kind and the "no-nonsense" style of analytic moral philosophy. But I'd be interested to know who he has in mind when he says that Amisian humility has occasionally been achieved in philosophy.
Charles E. Reagan describes a visit with the philosopher in 1974, when he had just finished writing The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (University of Toronto Press, 1978).
“I remember him telling me,” writes Reagan, “that, after he had completed the book, he and his family went to Greece for a brief holiday. He said that everywhere he went, he saw trucks with ‘Metaphora’ painted on them. There was no escape from the philosophical theme which had dominated his life for the preceding three years. Then he realized that ‘metaphora’ literally meant ‘moving truck.’”
A friend of mine tells a similar story. He was staying in a remote corner of Crete and one day came across an old man walking a donkey across a parched field. My friend, who is half Greek, stopped to talk to the old man and asked about his donkey. "Ah, this old thing," the old man said, "he's just a metaphor." The verb metaphorein and its cognates meaning, of course, to transfer or transport.