Monday, August 25, 2008

Failure in the First Person

Perspective is important in any literary work, one of its central structural elements. The perspective from what a narrative is written will demarcate what any reader can be told directly and what they must glean for themselves through implication and throwaway details. Three of my favourite books used a clever first-person narrative construction to create highly nuanced stories which had their power in the small details that composed them.

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita hid the suffering of the title character under the self-important narration of her pedophiliac abductor Humbert. Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile had a narrator, the priest and literary critic Father Urrutia, spend his entire life hiding from the uncomfortable political reality of life in a dictatorship. This only becomes explicit at the end, when he describes a house that was the hub of Chile's literary scene in the early 1980s, which happened to have a torture chamber in the basement. And Bolaño's masterpiece, The Savage Detectives, depicted two central characters, poets without a home Ulises and Arturo, through the viewpoints of over fifty first-person narrators who knew them at different points in their lives.

I've thought about writing my own fictional works in the first-person, but I don't think I'm quite good enough for that yet. I still need to find a way to structure a story around the telling of the story, as Nabokov and Bolaño could do so well. At this stage in my life, any first-person writing attempt would probably end up like these examples.

This spring, I found Mario Vargas Llosa's The Way to Paradise in a bargain bin. It's the life story of French socialist activist Flora Tristan in odd-numbered chapters, and that of her grandson Paul Gauguin in even-numbered chapters. The narrative makes a very simple point about life, that the ideals for which we strive in our lives are always subject to the compromise that comes with living in society. The problem with this book is that you figure this out about a hundred or so pages in, then are continually bludgeoned with it until the end. Their lives and thought processes (and so narration) is repetitious, blatant about the theme of the novel, and seemingly unchanged in attitude all the way through. The clear questing of these characters removes any subtlety from the narrative, and we are left with a slog of nearly 400 pages that would have been expressed much better in a different, shorter, format.

I haven't read Joyce Carol Oates' My Sister My Love, or any Oates, but judging by this review by one of the more reputable sources I know, I'd get more of an idea of how not to write than anything else. It's a book based on the killing of JonBenet Ramsay, told from the fictionalized version of the girl's older brother. But apparently, in this case, all the limitations on the knowledge of the narrator that constituted subtle powerful details and implications, are here just limits. As well, the narrator is said to be quite inconsistent in characterization, with serious breaks in tone that throw off the possibilities for the narrator character. Because one thing I learned from Lolita, By Night in Chile, and The Savage Detectives, is that a first-person narrator is a character herself, in addition to being a storyteller.

Maybe that's why I haven't tried to write in a first-person style yet. I haven't worked out a narrative yet that would have a place for someone who would want to tell the story in the first place. All the characters I've made so far are so secretive that they wouldn't want to reveal anything to a reader at all. So they wouldn't even bother narrating.

In all fairness, I don't intend to disparage Joyce Carol Oates or Mario Vargas Llosa themselves. The impression I have from my research on them as I was preparing this post was that the books in question are among their worst, and far from their A-game. Perhaps eventually, I'll find a cheap copy of Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, or Captain Pantoja and the Special Service; and maybe Oates' Them, or Zombie.
An odd thing to consider for a moment. A friend updated her facebook status a while ago, and it read "[Name Removed to Prevent Embarrassment] just dropped a container of yoghurt in the fridge and made a huge mess." Do you think she cleaned this mess up before or after she updated her facebook status about it?
I was watching some CNN today for coverage of the Democratic National Convention, and one of their amusing items was a short, almost scatological piece on the prominent product placement of Pepsi at the DNC this year. The Convention is held at the Pepsi Centre, a name which apparently cost the beverage company $68 million.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Career Advice for Young Economists

I discovered this article in the New York Times about Nouriel Roubini, the economist who predicted the current recession in the United States. He did it by identifying the problems of reckless debt growth in emerging economies over the 1990s that led to their economic collapse (Thailand, South Korea, Russia, Brazil, Argentina), and seeing where those traits were in other countries. The one with the clearest indicators of impending collapse was the United States. Read the article I linked at his name for a much better articulation of this economic process than I could give you.

A curious point. In Roubini's interview, he points out what he sees to be a flaw in the way economists work, which I think has its roots in the way economists are educated. The models that economists create to predict future events are based on a very common presumption: that the future will be basically similar to the past, that trends which have begun will continue. But this isn't necessarily the case. We know that there have been severe financial crises, so such crises are possible. And a severe financial crisis is not a continuation of past trends and patterns, but a catastrophic rupture of those patterns, the breakdown of all previously ongoing movements.

For any philosophers reading, this sounds pretty familiar. It's David Hume's skeptical critique of knowledge from book one of the Treatise on Human Nature. We think we understand what will happen in the future, and that our statements of scientific law are universal across all time, because we presume that the future will generally be the same as the past. But the future hasn't happened yet, so it's completely indeterminate, a venue where anything is possible.

Returning to economics specifically, Roubini pointed out here that economists often focus on evolution of existing movements, and the continuity of those movements. So the financial panic, the severe break with the past, the economic catastrophe, is not usually studied. Any realm of a discipline that is not usually studied is a niche that an enterprising young thinker could fill. An economist who specializes in financial panics and crises will find themselves publishing original, groundbreaking research, simply because they are in an area where so little work has been done anyway.

Such studies are important not just for the growing public profile of a young economist, but are critical for humanity as a whole. Not only will a young economist specializing in crisis studies gain a reputation as an original thinker, but he will also be doing a great service for humanity by using his science to help guide us through financial disasters, and prevent the conditions for those disasters from arising in the first place.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Batman, Overman

There can be considerable overlap between art and philosophy, and not only in the obvious field of the philosophy of aesthetics. In a way, I think the best art is ethical philosophy, and the best ethical philosophy is such a work of art. That statement wasn't clear at all, so allow me to give a very broad example of what I think this overlap can do.

Just before I left Newfoundland, I had a conversation with a friend about what we both took The Dark Knight to be. One of his philosophical interests is post-colonial philosophy, which he shares with me. But I also love Nietzsche, and I've read more of this than he has. One of the things we talked about regarding Dark Knight was its conservative interpretation. Here we have a hero, Batman, who spies on the populace and allows himself to be provoked into torturing a villain, presumably for the greater good. On this interpretation, Batman is a figure who justifies the Bush-Cheney administration, taking on evil tasks to protect the innocent from a terrorist. I definitely think you can interpret Dark Knight in this way, but there's also another understanding of the film that resonates with me, and I think speaks a much more profound truth.

Harvey Dent says, having dinner with Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." This phrase encapsulates how I understand Dark Knight. Just because he's Batman, that doesn't make everything he does morally acceptable. This isn't about justification of any action like spying or torture or police brutality. It's about the confrontation of a person who holds himself to be good with the abyss. And when you stare into the abyss, as Nietzsche said, the abyss stares back at you. Where I pick up from there is that when the abyss stares back at you, you have to be strong enough not to become an abyss yourself.

The three characters at the centre of Dark Knight's ethical confrontation that I've just described are Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Jim Gordon. The abyss, personified as The Joker, forces them to confront themselves, and what they are willing to do to achieve their ends. Because if you go too far, you betray the good intentions you started with. "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Of those three, Harvey wasn't strong enough to resist the abyss, and abandoned his ideals as he embraced revenge in his final rampage. Everything Harvey did as Two-Face was a surrender to The Joker's will to destruction. He believed everything The Joker told him in that hospital room, and acted precisely according to plan.

Jim and Bruce are strong enough to take up the burdens necessary to sustain their ideals. Bruce refuses to kill The Joker because that would betray his principles about murder. And he and Jim are both strong enough to cover up Harvey's crimes, and maintain the fiction of incorruptibility that keeps hope in Gotham alive.

My post-colonial friend expressed concern when I advocated an ethics inspired from Nietzsche's talk about strength, believing that this kind of thinking leads to fascism, and the triumph of the one with the bigger gun. But the strength I mean is the kind of strength to affirm your life, to overcome petty, reactive desires like revenge and resentment. This is the strength to maintain your ethical stance even in the face of the most incredible temptation to break it.

This strength is value neutral, of course. The Joker refuses to abandon his ethical stance, which is that all are corruptible, and he will corrupt them through fear, terror, and paranoia. The writing style of philosophy proper is working out ethical systems. Grammatically, they are a series of positive statements. Starting from premises about what is good or what standards the good must satisfy, the straight philosopher works out theories and corollaries that elaborate this concept of good. Just read John Rawls' A Theory of Justice as the best example of this I know.

But the actual collision of ethical systems is something I'm not sure this style of philosophizing I've described can help us with. When two incompatible ethical systems collide, can anything settle the collision except war? Are we really faced with what The Joker describes in his last lines in Dark Knight, "an unstoppable force meets an immovable object."? I'm not sure of the answer here yet, but I think stories like Dark Knight offer us a way of understanding these collisions, and how they would play out. The best way to solve this problem of the limitation of philosophy is, I think, to figure out how to combine the philosophical grammar of positive statements with the narrative grammar of the morally ambiguous situation.

I'm certainly thinking modestly here, aren't I?