Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Whence the Literary Bankers?

Last week my friend Robert sent me the following email:

The nineteenth century novel is the closest thing we have to a literature of capitalism. One of the stock characters was the businessman or his son who due to the vicissitudes of life, a run of bad luck, or weak character turns to gambling, becomes addicted and ultimately looses everything. In some novels a rich relative might bail them out, or wife and family might bring them to reason, while others ended in tragic ruin. The melodramatic and Weberian moral was obvious. Today we have a post-capitalist literature, which rarely deals with the virtues and vices of the business world. And yet here before us are all these bankers, addicted to gambling, relying on government to bail them out, with their decaying character laid bare before the public. Where are our Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Trollop?

I replied:

What is our closest analogue—something like American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis? That book belongs to a more confident (pre-lapsarian?) era in American finance. But then the scary thought is that perhaps, despite the crisis, nothing has really changed and the world of American Psycho still exists.
More recently John Lanchester wrote a book called Capital which takes the banking crisis as its plot fulcrum and which I have heard good things about but have not read. Also: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, whose subject is not banking at all but the promise and failure of the Kruschev era soviet system; but here the financial crisis is the obvious, if unmentioned, prime mover. It's curious: the book which says maybe the most interesting things about the financial crisis happens to be a book about communism.
Perhaps the failure of finance is too obvious and banal to make compelling fiction—like a mystery novel, if the identity of the killer is already clear after the first chapter.
I've heard people say that nowadays, the production of English language fiction is split between New York and London on the one hand, and Iowa (the most famous MFA program) on the other. If that is true, then the literary problem can be reduced to one of geography: half of our writers are too close to finance to write about it, while the other half are too far away.

Robert sent back:

The thing about capitalism in nineteenth century novels is that it was very much the environment in which the character existed. Nicholas Nickleby has characters that are involved in making loans to businesses, there is a great deal of information about what they are doing as it is part of the plot, Also Dickens did have strong opinions about people who lived only to make money but functioning in the business world was a part of the story. The French are thick with business Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert all have capitalist characters central to their stories.
In the 20th century John O’Hara often wrote with a strong capitalist business background as of course did Sinclair Lewis but not Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck (East of Eden???), Faulkner, Nabokov, Proust, Forester, …

What do you think?

Posted by Jarad

Sunday, July 15, 2012

We Calibans

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday, I got off the Subway and it was raining. I went walking down to the Williamsburg waterfront. The place was empty, although on a clear night, strollers block the paths and couples pack the benches. Across the East River, the Empire State Building had been lit purple, blue, orange, yellow, and green for pride week; to the left, trains crossed the Williamsburg Bridge. It was close to midnight and I walked past the open lot where the flea market sets up every weekend and past the ferry, down to the rail at the edge of the water. I found a dry place to sit on the ground, facing the river, cross-legged under a rain shelter for ferry passengers. I had decided to bring The Tempest with me to read.

I get to the passage where Miranda recalls teaching Caliban to speak:

... I pitied thee;
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not (savage)
Know thine own meaning; but would gabble, like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known...
You taught me language and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you
For learning me your language.
And I thought to myself: What a virtuoso passage! Aren’t we all always Miranda, and Caliban too? Don’t we strive restlessly to give opportunities to ourselves, to better ourselves? And don’t we all misuse or squander the opportunities?

But then I realize the brutality of the comparison. For Caliban, who is trapped, and whose physical freedom is exterminated, can language amount to more than an extra facet of enslavement? There is a technique of colonial management that was developed to maximum sophistication by the British, who taught the Brahman elites of colonized India to speak and read English. The deliberate aim was to create a class of Indians who “thought British.” Nietzsche said that all thought is trapped in the “prison house of language,” meaning that thought always flows through language’s canals and channels. If that is true, then Miranda did not only teach Caliban language, but also, perhaps, dug furrows in his mind.

Language could rebound to Caliban’s advantage; the colonizer’s weapon could always fall into the hands of the colonized. Yesterday in 1789, the French third estate stormed the Bastille, shouting: “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Two years later, the black slaves working the sugar plantations of Haiti used the same slogan when overthrowing their French masters.

Language has a finite number of combinations, but infinite speakers—that's the trouble. It is like the subway, which has a fixed set of routes but endless riders. You are inevitably reusing lines already used millions of times. When you are taught a language you are shackled to the language’s past. For Caliban, that past is decidedly inhospitable. And Caliban will never develop his own language, for the teacher has what the game theorists call “the first proposer’s advantage.” The first solution to a problem gets adopted a high percentage of the time, even if the proposal is unfair. Proposing an alternative solution is a perverse waste of resources—reinventing the wheel.

The only appropriate response is defiance: “the red plague rid you / for learning me your language.” Brooklyn is full of Calibans: rebels against an inherited way of being, who will ultimately wind up disappointed repeaters of the past. 

Posted by Jarad