When, in November 2005, young men began torching cars and ransacking supermarkets in the suburbs of Paris, they made no demands and had no programme or manifesto, so it was left to intellectuals and commentators to try to make sense of three weeks of rioting. The violence had to have some deeper significance, they said; it couldn’t be just a meaningless paroxysm.
But what if the firebombing and pillaging were in fact just a self-destructive acting out? What if things were as they appeared to be? It’s a fallacy, says Slavoj Zizek in his new book, to suppose that violence must always have a deep-lying cause susceptible of rational articulation. Intellectuals often succumb to what he calls a ‘hermeneutic temptation’ when they search for the ‘real reasons’ behind this outbreak of violence or that. Zizek takes as an example the violent reaction by some Muslims to the Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Many Western liberals fell over themselves to insist that the protesters’ motives weren’t ‘really’ religious but actually had to do with Western imperialism, the situation in Israel-Palestine and so on, as if theology were always and everywhere nothing but the misplaced expression of legitimate rage.
The main problem with Zizek’s book, which is written with his usual contrarian élan, is that he can’t give up the mental habits he criticises. He draws a distinction between ‘subjective violence’ (which most of us would just call ‘violence’) – that is, the violent things done by individuals and entities such as states – and ‘systemic’ or ‘symbolic’ violence, which isn’t violence at all but injustice of one kind or another. To rail against the former, Zizek says, is to lose sight of the latter. ‘Humanitarian sympathy’ with the victims of (subjective) violence is just false consciousness, ‘an ideological operation par excellence’. Lucky for us that the lonely philosopher can see through the mirage of fellow-feeling to the way things really are.
Benjamin Markovits’ previous novel, Imposture, opened with a prologue, allegedly signed by the author himself. It informed readers that the tale of literary deception they were about to begin was in fact the work of a former teaching colleague of his named Peter Pattieson. It claimed that Pattieson had left Markovits a bundle of papers, among which was a series of novels on the life of the poet Lord Byron. Imposture was the first of this series, written in a perfect facsimile of a style “nearly two hundred years old”. Pattieson, Markovits said, spoke and wrote “Romantic like a mother tongue”.
Prospect magazine recently asked its contributors to name the most overrated and underrated cultural events of the year. I picked the following:
God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic). For all the shapeliness of his sentences, Hitchens’s pamphleteering on behalf of the “new atheism” is superficial, complacent and historically undernourished.
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor (Harvard). Charles Taylor’s gargantuan philosophical history of modernity, which complicates the flattering and simplified story we like to tell ourselves about secularisation, is a major intellectual event. Somehow, it hasn’t yet been recognised as such.
You can read the other nominations here.
When the controversy over the cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten depicting the Prophet Muhammad erupted early in 2006, a leading article in the Guardian ... suggested that John Stuart Mill was a "better guide" to the issues involved than Voltaire. What exactly does the father of modern liberalism have to tell us about insult, offence, and the limits of free speech?
This review of Charles Taylor's remarkable new book A Secular Age will appear in the next issue of The Philosophers' Magazine.
(I should also point out that there's a Social Science Research Council blog, The Immanent Frame, devoted to question of secularism, religion and the public sphere. Contributors include Charles Taylor himself and Robert Bellah.)
Charles Taylor has always taken seriously Hegel’s dictum that philosophy is its own age comprehended in thought. As he did in an earlier work, Sources of the Self (1989), Taylor asks in his new book (which is even more prodigiously comprehensive than its already substantial predecessor) how we got here. That is, how we Westerners arrived at a distinctively “modern” self-understanding in which it became possible, and remains possible, for religious belief to be regarded as just one “human possibility among others”.
In fact, Taylor is interested not only in the question “how did we get here?” but also in asking “what is it we’re living through?” The counterpart, therefore, to the historical question of how our current secular dispensation emerged is an analytical one about what secularity is exactly. And the answer to that, Taylor suggests, is less obvious than it sounds. There are at least three (not necessarily compatible) ways, he says, of construing what it means to say that a given social milieu is “secular”.
On the first construal, secularity refers to common institutions and practices. A society is secular, therefore, when its political organisation has no connection with faith in god. Most modern Western states are secular in this sense; and even in those, like the UK, which still have established churches, religious belief is nevertheless a largely private matter. Secularity in the second sense, meanwhile, refers to the falling away of religious belief and practice, declining church attendance and so on. And, in contrast, modern Western societies are by no means uniformly secular in this sense: it may be true that religious belief is in steep and irreversible decline in Western Europe, but the same certainly can’t be said of the United States.
In any event, it’s the third construal that really interests Taylor. The focus here is neither on the role of religion in public institutions nor on the extent of religious belief, but rather on its conditions. The shift to secularity in this sense, Taylor argues, consists of a “move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others.” It is the slow emergence of secularity in this sense that Taylor sets out to explain, at formidable length, and in remarkable historical and philosophical detail.
Binding all that detail together is an argument that Taylor manages to sustain over nearly eight hundred pages. Simply put, A Secular Age is a magisterial refutation of what Taylor calls the “subtraction story” of secularization. On this familiar narrative, secularization is simply an effect of the progress of science and rational inquiry. Taylor raises two related objections against it: first, that it misses the essentially moral dimension of the “exclusive humanism” that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, and which, in his view, is closely tied to an “ethic of freedom and beneficent order”; second, that the emergence of that humanism is too substantial an achievement to be explained by the subtraction story, which makes it seem as if human beings simply “fell into” conceiving of their moral capacities without reference to god.
Taylor goes further: not only is the discovery of “intra human” sources of benevolence the “charter of modern unbelief”, but religion itself played a significant role in shaping that ethical vision. Such a claim is not unprecedented – Max Weber famously argued that the “innerworldly asceticism” that created the modern world was in fact rooted in certain currents of Judeo-Christian monotheism. But Taylor builds on this analysis, paying particularly close attention to deism, which rejected on moral grounds the idea of God as an agent perpetually intervening in history, and to the “inward turn” in modern culture (the subject of Sources of the Self), which itself was often driven by religious motives, notably during the Reformation. Whether contemporary secularists will be willing to accept Taylor’s contention that “re-invention and innovation” have existed on both sides is another matter, of course.
Harold Bloom’s literary personality contains multitudes: he is a biblical scholar, a Shakesperian and a critic of Romantic poetry. In his books, it’s often hard to separate these vocations, and Fallen Angels, a strange, hectic little essay that Yale University Press has deemed worthy of being placed between hard covers (with illustrations by the artist Mark Podwal), is no different. As the title suggests, it’s ostensibly about angels, but turns out to be about what Bloom’s books are usually about – that is, and in no particular order, the genius of Shakespeare, the Bible as literature and the saving, redemptive power of reading.
America, Bloom begins by arguing, is in the grip of a “post-millenial” obsession with angels. (Actually, Bloom doesn’t argue so much as smother the reader in great gusts of oracular chutzpah.) Angels, he says, are everywhere. A cursory Amazon search turns up, inter alia, Contacting Your Spirit Guide, Angels 101: An Introduction to Connecting, Working, and Healing with Angels and Angel Numbers, which latter is apparently a guide to the “angelic meanings” of numbers. And central to all these books is the idea of “angelic intervention” and communication with angels.
Reasonably enough, Bloom thinks that this obsession is a sentimental evasion of the simple fact of human finitude. Nevertheless –and this is the most arresting provocation of an irrepressibly provocative book– he also thinks these preoccupations are redeemable. Bloom takes the Emersonian view that American religion is not the opiate but rather the “poetry of the people”, and that it can therefore be saved from the sentimentalism of contemporary “angelicism”. The key to this is getting us to see that angels, specifically fallen angels, are in fact images of a distinctively human predicament – that of a dying animal with transcendental longings.
To this end, Bloom applies his gargantuan erudition to the representations of fallen angels and devils which first emerged in the Zoroastrian faith of ancient Persia, before being transmitted to Judaism and Christianity. Characteristically, he is entirely indifferent to questions of belief and unbelief; rather, Bloom prefers to treat the great Western religions as a series of “literary representations”. This means that Satan, the fallen angel par excellence, the “star figure” in this story, was a “literary character” long before Milton got his hands on him in Paradise Lost.
By appearing, as Blake put it, to be of the devil’s party, Milton brings us to the recognition that our relationship with Satan is an “intimate” one. Milton’s Satan fascinates and disturbs us precisely because we see ourselves in him. If, on Bloom’s account, Milton’s literary genius is outstripped by Shakespeare’s, it is because Shakespeare sees that there are more fallen angels than devils, that “we can be fallen angels without being demons or devils.”
For Bloom, therefore, “fallen angel” and “human being” are different names for the same condition. In his secular religion of literature, fallenness is stripped of its Pauline and Augustinian associations and becomes a synonym for what Philip Roth calls the “human stain” – the fact that, more often than not, we remain enigmatic to ourselves.
Of course, this invites the question why talk about “fallenness” at all, unless some of those theological associations in fact remain in play. Bloom’s answer, I suppose, would be that he talks like that because, for all his disdain for Saints Paul and Augustine, he still believes in redemption. Not redemption through Christ, needless to say, but redemption through literature.
Philip Roth once described his novel Portnoy's Complaint as a kind of explosion – an act of self-sabotage in which he blew up 'a lot of old loyalties' in order to liberate himself as a writer. Though less dramatically incendiary than that intemperate masterpiece, Roth's new book Exit Ghost is no less significant, for it too marks the end of something.
The exit announced in the title is that of Roth's long-time authorial surrogate and fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman. Exit Ghost closes with the words 'gone for good', as if to suggest that Zuckerman's departure from Roth's fiction is meant to be definitive. The novel, then, is both Zuckerman's reckoning with his own writing life and Roth's reckoning with Zuckerman. Consequently, it is haunted by Zuckerman's books and the other 'Zuckerman' books – in particular The Ghost Writer, the first instalment of what Roth has called an 'imaginary biography'.
When Exit Ghost opens, Nathan Zuckerman is in New York for prostate surgery. While in hospital, he catches a glimpse of Amy Bellette, who he'd met 50 years before at the home of his literary hero E.I. Lonoff, an encounter recorded in The Ghost Writer. Amy, now decrepit and ravaged by a tumour, turns out to have in her possession half of a manuscript by Lonoff. The other half is in the hands of an incorrigibly ambitious would-be biographer named Richard Kliman.
Zuckerman tries to resist Kliman's prurience on Lonoff's, and Amy's, behalf. But he, and we, are haunted by the thought that Kliman might in fact be the ghost of his, Nathan's, younger self – the young man who had confessed to Lonoff that when you admire a writer you become curious, you 'look for his secret, the clue to his puzzle'. It's not clear from this splendid novel whether Roth is leaving us a clue or in fact warning us that there's no secret to discover.
Tom McCarthy’s first novel ‘Remainder’ was an unlikely bestseller. The chilly, highly formalised anatomy of an obsession (that of an unnamed narrator who has suffered an unspecified trauma), ‘Remainder’ was passed over by several mainstream publishers before being rescued from McCarthy’s bottom drawer two years ago by a small Parisian art press. It was subsequently acquired by the new independent imprint Alma Books and became a runaway word-of-mouth success.
It wasn’t only the publishers who didn’t know what to make of ‘Remainder’; it baffled the critics too. Even those favourably disposed towards it, like the novelist Joyce Carol Oates for instance, assumed that the narrator’s maniacal re-enactment of tiny fragments of his past (an undertaking which also involves the reconstruction of an entire apartment block) must have some sort of wider significance. ‘Remainder’, Oates wrote, is ‘not a psychologically intimate novel about a person, but an allegory of a contemporary Everyman’. McCarthy cheerfully acknowledges that ‘Remainder’ is not an ‘intimate’ book, but he’s not sure about its allegorical import. ‘It was also read as an allegory of US foreign policy post-9/11,’ he tells me. ‘And here the Times read it as a parable of consumer culture. The novel certainly opens up allegorical possibilities, but hopefully it should exceed them. Ultimately, it’s just a set of repetitions.’
The same might be said about his new novel ‘Men in Space’. Though it has a larger cast than ‘Remainder’, and is told mostly in the third person rather than the first, it too is ‘just a set of repetitions’. Indeed, the readerly pleasure to be had from McCarthy’s fiction derives not so much from its exploration of character (Oates was right about that) as from the way in which it is so elaborately patterned. ‘I’m not really interested in the kind of realism which is all about the feelings and emotions of a person. My characters or personages are negotiating and being shunted around a set of grids that are bigger than them and their feelings.’
McCarthy bristles, however, at the suggestion that he takes a purely formal delight in manipulating his figures in space. ‘I’ve heard people say that about Alain Robbe-Grillet – that his writing is so formal and so geometrical, just a set of exercises. But if you read him carefully, there’s a deep psychosis behind the formal play. And that’s absolutely the case in “Remainder”. But in “Men in Space” too there’s actually a lot of pathos, immense human dramas. It’s quite catastrophic.’
These ‘immense human dramas’, which include at least two deaths, unfold in Prague in the early 1990s, as Czechoslovakia is about to break in two. McCarthy moved to the Czech capital shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘It was a very fascinating time. For the first time ever in history, there was a poet, an absurdist playwright, running the country, and he filled parliament with his friends. So there was this bunch of artists, druggies and ne’er-do-wells running the place. I had the sense that I’d been lucky enough to live through something important and wanted to write about it.’
But ‘Men in Space’ is not, for all that, a historical novel. ‘It’s like when Scott Fitzgerald writes about the jazz age. He’s not writing a journalistic account of the characters who were around then: he’s using it as a backdrop for something else. What’s interesting beyond the specific historical event, the collapse of communism, is that it’s the collapse of totality. Once totality’s gone, what happens next?’
All the characters in ‘Men in Space’ – the small-time Bulgarian crooks, the former football referee, the secret police agent, the art students and artists, the Dutch gallery owner and the teachers of English – are waiting, waiting for some intimation or revelation of a new Europe that they’re not sure will ever come. In a sense, therefore, ‘Men in Space’ is a novel about waiting – just as ‘The Castle’ by Franz Kafka, a son of Prague himself of course, is a novel about waiting (K., remember, expires from the all the hours he spends in offices and ante-rooms waiting for appointments).
Plotting an elaborate scam, the Bulgarians pay a local artist to produce an exact facsimile of a medieval icon painting, which shows the ascension of an unidentified saint. But where Byzantine iconography usually depicts God in a circle around the saint’s head, here the head of the saint is enclosed in an ellipse, as if he is floating in a kind of cosmic void. It’s a motif that obsesses McCarthy. ‘Both my books are about failed transcendence and the ways in which we inhabit the world; the way the world disappoints us by making promises which it then doesn’t fulfill.’ In Tom McCarthy, English fiction has a new laureate of disappointment.
‘Men in Space’ is published by Alma Books at £12.99