Monday, April 30, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“ENLIGHTENMENT NOW” by Steven Pinker (Penguin/Random House – Allen Lane, $NZ40)

After I had finished reading Steven Pinker’s new big polemic Enlightenment Now (453 pages of text followed by 100 pages of endnotes, bibliography and index), I went back and checked on this blog the review I wrote, seven years ago, of his last big polemic The Better Angels of Our Nature. I found that I approved and had reservations about that earlier book in more-or-less the same proportions, and for the same reasons, as I do with Pinker’s new book. Put simply, Enlightenment Now (subtitled “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”) makes a very good case for the notion that the human condition has been greatly improved thanks to Enlightenment thinking and applied science. “Progress” is a great thing. But Pinker over-eggs his pudding by a very selective and partisan reading of history; and he has the dire habit of dividing our intellectual forebears into neat heroes and villains, a Manichaean view of history as simple black-and-white. As a lesser irritant Pinker also tends to see America as the template for the world – the copious statistics he quotes focus most on America – and there is a very hortatory tone to the book as if Pinker is not only the apologist for the Enlightenment but also its cheer-leader, much as he is a cheer-leader for liberal capitalism

But it is very unfair to arraign a polemicist for his sins before first presenting clearly the case that he makes.

So here, as I read it, is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s case.

Nature of itself tends to entropy – the degeneration of things into disorder and confusion. Only the human intellect can avert this pending state. The finest flowering of the human intellect began with the movement – initiated approximately three centuries ago – generally known as the Enlightenment. From the Enlightenment come nearly all the measurable material improvements in human life that can loosely be called “progress”. Progress and its handmaid technology have their intellectual enemies (see Chapter 4, “Progressophobia”). But, says Pinker, the case for progress is overwhelming. Thus in sixteen chapters (Chapters 5 to 20), and using his favourite tool, the statistical graph, Pinker sets out to prove how everything has got better in the last three centuries. On average, we live longer, have better health and enjoy plentiful and more varied food than we did in the un-Enlightened ages (Chapters 5, 6 and 7). Wealth has generally increased and this is not compromised by the fact that there is still great inequality (Chapters 8 and 9). Despite ecological fears, our environment is cleaner and there are means of dealing with threats like anthropogenic global warming (Chapter 10). Despite the image created by alarmist mass media, wars are fewer than they once were, as is social violence, and the dangers of terrorism are vastly overrated (Chapters 11, 12 and 13). Real democracy is growing, human rights are more respected and a greater number of human beings have education and access to real information than in any earlier period of history (Chapters 14, 15 and 16). Our general quality of life has improved, as have all measurable standards of happiness (Chapters 17 and 18). Yes, there may possibly be huge existential threats that could obliterate the Earth; but we are better equipped to deal with them than we have ever been (Chapter 19) and “progress” is far from being exhausted (Chapter 20). All this is thanks to science, the secularism initiated by the Enlightenment and the decline of religious belief.

In a nutshell, this is Pinker’s case.

For ease of your reading, I will now divide this notice neatly into two parts, to wit, the strengths and shrewd points of Pinker’s thesis; and the weaknesses and short-sightedness of elements of Pinker’s thesis.


There is much in this book with which any reader, regardless of ideology, should be able to agree. First, that the Enlightenment was a major turning point in human history. Second, that many of the scientific and social changes it encouraged have benefitted humanity. Of course I am grateful that I consult a modern doctor rather than a shaman, that medicine is now so advanced, that I enjoy electricity and easy access to learning and entertainment, that on the whole human and civil rights are expected to be observed, that more of the world is better fed and many other things.

Certainly Pinker’s relentlessly positive tone can become oppressive and tend to the Pollyanna-ish, as when, following a graph charting “Global well-being, 1820-1915” there comes the statement “although the world remains highly unequal, every region has been improving, and the worst-off parts of the world today are better off than the best-off parts not long ago. (If we divide the world into the West and the Rest, we find that the Rest in 2007 had reached the level of the West in 1950.)”  (Chapter 16, p.246). This seems to me to underrate a lot of human misery.

Certainly Pinker can come up with arguments that seem controversial; but on reflection they are quite tenable. For example, in Chapter 9 (pp.98-99) he argues that poverty is the world’s problem, not inequality and he agrees with Harry Frankfurt that “If a person lives a long, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant.”  For Pinker, the important thing is that each has enough. His conclusion is that income inequality is not the same as lowering incomes and does not contradict his statistics on the general rise in standards of living. It is interesting to note, too, that Pinker is in favour of a universal basic income.

To Pinker’s great credit, however, he is not a utopian and he admits that he is dealing with averages rather than with absolutes. In the chapter called “The Future of Progress”, he quotes figures on the milions who still suffer from poverty, lethal diseases, war and autocratic states  and he states “progress is not utopia… and there is room – indeed, an imperative – for us to strive to continue… progress.” (Chapter 20, pp.325-326)

Like anybody who reads this book, I have to admit, too, that I warmed most to Pinker in those sections where he expresses views with which I am already in agreement.

            Pinker strikes many justifiable blows against various doomsayers. For example, in Chapter 7, and especially at pp.74-75, he shows how completely wrong Malthus, and alarmists like Paul Ehlich in his hysterical 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, were about growth of population outstripping food supply. Their predictions were, quite simply, wrong and they did not take account of the agricultural revolution which has vastly increased the yield of crops and made most of the world better fed than it was when total population was much smaller. Yet, as Pinker correctly says, there are still those who imagine, regardless of the evidence, that Malthus, Ehlich et al. have said the last word on the topic. In this same chapter, Pinker is – again justifiably - very hard on those environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering without recognising that human beings have practised it for millennia, and who thus show indifference to the alternative of mass starvation.

Chapter 10 tells us that the “Green apocalyse” has not yet happened. It argues that anthropogenic climate change is real but is capable of being reversed by wise policies and advanced technology. Hence Pinker argues strongly against Naomi Klein’s polemic This Changes Everything [reviewed on this blog in 2014], which said impending environmental doom called for the complete destruction of the capitalist system. Says Pinker:

Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognises that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic and humanistic environmentalism can work.”  (Chapter 10, p.154)

It is important to note that, considering “clean” and cheap methods of power generation, Pinker says some favourable things about nuclear power.

I warm most to Pinker when he attacks malign intellectual trends, some of which have taken root in academe. Considering measurable intelligence he says, correctly: “The myth, still popular among leftist intellectuals, that IQ doesn’t exist or cannot be reliably measured was refuted decades ago.” (Chapter 16, p.243) He is aware that the comforts and conveniences of life in an advanced state lead people to over-estimate the troubles they face. He quotes with approval the psychologist Richard McNally, who said “Civilians who underwent the terror of World War II, especially Nazi death factories… would surely be puzzled to learn that having a wisdom tooth extracted, encountering obnoxious jokes at work, or giving birth to a healthy baby after an uncomplicated delivery can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Pinker himself goes on to say “By the same shift, the label ‘depression’ today may be applied to conditions that in the past were called grief, sorrow or sadness.” (Chapter 18, p.281)

Most malign intellectual trend of all, of course, is the nonsense of postmodernism. In the chapter entitled “Reason”, Pinker is mainly concerned with what he sees as the enemies of reason. He indicts “the postmodernist credo that reason is a pretext to exert power, reality is socially constructed, and all statements are trapped in a web of self-reference and collapse into paradox.” (Chapter 21, p.351) He also makes the interesting point that when it comes to many issues involving science – such as anthropogenic climate change – people who admit to its existence and people who deny its existence are not divided by how well they understand the science, but by their political ideology and whom they trust. (Chapter 21, p.357). In effect, he is admitting a point I tried to make somewhat clumsily a few years ago on this blog, in a posting I called SecularSuperstition. To hold an allegiance to science is not the same as being scientifically informed, meaning that a great mass of people respect “authority” just as they did in pre-Enlightenment days.

Naturally Pinker is very angry at those who blame science itself for the world’s woes, and again this allows him to take another mighty whack at the postmodernist school. Thus he speaks of:

a demonization campaign  which impugns science (together with reason and other Enlightenment values) for crimes that are as old as civilisation, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide. This was a major theme of the influential Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, the quasi-Marxist movement originated by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who proclaimed that ‘the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant’. It also figures in the works of postmodernist theorists such as Michel Foucault, who argued that the Holocaust was the inevitable culmination of a ‘bio-politics’ that began with the Enlightenment, when science and rational governance exerted increasing power over people’s lives. In a similar vein, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman blamed the Holocaust on the Enlightenment ideal to ‘remake the society, force it to conform to an overall, scientifically conceived plan.’ In this twisted narrative, the Nazis themselves are let off the hook (‘It’s modernity’s fault!’). So is the Nazis’ rabidly counter-Enlightenment ideology, which despised the degenerate liberal bourgeois worship of reason and progress and embraced an organic, pagan vitality which drove the struggle between races.”   (Chapter 22, pp. 396-397)

I could cite many other proof-texts to show where I agree with Pinker, but this process will become wearisome to you, so I will add one last one. Though he is clearly very uncomfortable in Donald Trump’s United States, and though he has absolutely no time for the nationalist and racist populism of the extreme right, Pinker has the intellectual honesty to note that populism is an ailment of both left and right:

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk-theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations of ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are not seen as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities and foreigners.”  (Chapter 20, p.334)

I hope this is enough to show that I have read Pinker’s book with an open mind and, on many issues, with a willingness to agree with him.

Alas, we now come to the second part of this review.


            There is something in the very tone of Pinker’s work that should put us on guard. He is so determined to tell us how well-off we now are, in contrast with earlier eras, that he frequently rebukes us for not being more grateful. He is offended that so many people do not genuflect in wonderment at the technologically-advanced, humane, Enlightenment-influenced world we live in. He is doubly offended that so many people cannot make Enlightenment ideas themselves the focus and centre of their being.

            Why should this so clearly offend Pinker? Partly, I think, because as a devout atheist (he happily speaks at “Freedom from Religion” meetings) he is very loath to acknowledge the “God-sized hole” in modern human consciousness (a term which, of course, he despises). I must use my words very carefully here. I accept fully the idea that people can have fulfilling, meaningful and satisfying lives without in any way being religious. Indeed I accept that reasoned atheism can be meaningful and satisfying, and become a goal in itself. Even so, when personal autonomy is posited as the essential goal of life (see Chapter 18, p.265), we have a disconnect from our fellow human beings and much alienation. Much as we are grateful for them, all the material comforts in the world cannot solve this problem. Indeed, I wonder if Pinker would have even written this polemic if he had not been jibed by the fact that greatly improved material progress has still left many in advanced countries with a sense of emptiness which he is unhappy to recognise and which, for his own ideological reasons, he is unwilling to acknowledge?

            Further to this, I think Pinker is annoyed at the phenomenon I have elsewhere called the “law of mundanity”. In the chapter called “Quality of Life”, Pinker tells us we should be happy for having more varied diets, more leisure time, more access to great literature. He continues:

What are the people doing with the extra time and money?Are they truly enriching their lives or are they just buying more golf clubs and designer handbags? Though it’s presumptuous to pass judgment on how people choose to spend their days, we can focus on the pursuits that almost everyone would agree are constituents of the good life: connecting with loved ones and friends, experiencing the richness of the natural and cultural world, and having access to the fruits of intellectual and artisitc creativity.” (Chapter 17, p. 255)

But here the “law of mundanity” kicks in. In any era, no matter how well off we are, the daily reality we live with becomes taken-for-granted normality. This is as true in wealthy, well-fed, violence-free societies as in any other. (I do not say this to deny the desirability of material well-being.) Hence we do not sigh each day in amazement and gratitude that we have flush-lavatories and excellent plumbing, reliable medicine, good food etc.etc. “Law of mundanity”. It is a feature of being human, and Steven Pinker can neither reason nor hector us out of it by telling us, like a careworn mother, to eat our food and be grateful.

Pinker has a very skewed and limited view of history and of how what he would call “progress” actually happens. This is bound up with his view of religion. For him, religion (along with the Romantic movement) is part of what he calls the “counter-Enlightenment”, and is characterised solely by obscurantism, crusades, inquisitions, wars of religion etc. Of all the opponents of Enlightenment, he says, “the most obvious is religious faith. To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” (Chapter 3, p.30) He is therefore bound to assume that religion cannot go with reason, and by extension that religious people are prone to being unreasonable. They therefore cannot be part of his version of Enlightenment.

            But he is then forced into some fancy footwork when having to face up to the fact that avowedly atheist regimes in our own times have been responsible for huge atrocities. So he claims “obviously atheism is not a moral system in the first place. It’s just the absence of supernatural belief… the moral alternative to theism is humanism.” (Chapter 23, p.430) (In passing one notes that he uses the term “humanism” is a very restricted sense, never once noting that the term was first used in the Renaissance – a term that never appears in this book – of mainly Christian thinkers like Erasmus and Thomas More.) The result appears to be that Pinker approves of no religious believers and only of those atheists who share all his world view. There is a great defensiveness to this argument, as there is in Chapter 22 (“Science”) when Pinker attempts to extricate science from such negative movements as eugenics.

Most obviously, however, the result of Pinker’s bias is to expunge from his record such religious believers as have contributed to what we would agree is the betterment of humanity. Here is Pinker on evolution:

 “Organisms are replete with improbable configurations of flesh like ears, eyes, hearts and stomachs which cry out for an explanation. Before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided one in 1859, it was reasonable to think that they were the handiwork of a divine designer – one of the reasons, I suspect, that so many Enlightenment thinkers were deists rather than outright atheists. Darwin and Wallace made the designer unnecessary.” (Chapter 2, p.18) As one who accepts evolution by natural selection as the best hypothesis we have for the development of species, I find this statement incomplete, quite apart from its assumption that evolution spells the end of God. Remember, when Darwin and Russell first presented their hypotheses, it was not only hidebound Biblical literalists who criticised them. There was also a cohort of genuine scientists who said that neither man had explained the mechanism of evolution sufficiently for it to be credible. Their doubts were answered only when that branch of science known as genetics began. But there is no mention of this, perhaps because – oops! – the founder of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was one of those pesky religious people – a Catholic monk no less. Well we can’t let him into our story of the triumph of science and Enlightenment.

 On p.162, Pinker lists the major voices of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment who opposed slavery. The names he gives are Pascal, Swift, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and the Quakers. With the exception of the deist Voltaire, all of these people were religious believers. [I noted this in my review of The Better Angels of Our Nature, where Pinker cited the same names in the same context]. Even more interesting, if you read James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (perhaps Pinker hasn’t), you will discover that it is the free-thinking man of the Enlightenment, James Boswell, who finds all manner of ingenious arguments for slavery, while it is the conservative Anglican Tory Sam Johnson who argues passionately against slavery. I definitely do NOT say this to absolve religious believers of all their many gross and manifest sins, but simply to show that one cannot attribute all the betterment of the world to one selected tribe.

I am wholly in agreement with Pinker when he damns the destructive philosophy of Friedrich Nietszche, with its Ubermensch fantasies and it thuggish “Will to Power”; but I do find it interesting that Pinker manages to discuss Nietzsche without once mentioning his militant atheism (“God is dead”). Let us be clear that Nietzsche was the first big-note atheist of the modern era. With similar selective delicacy (or amnesia), Pinker lists all the intellectuals who, following Nietzsche’s lead, have worshipped tyrants like Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Castro etc. , but he manages not to mention that the great majority of them [there were very few exceptions] were secular humanists and not religious believers (see Chapter 23, pp.446-447). Indeed most of these listed intellectuals would have regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment. Don’t worry though. Within a few pages, Pinker is having a well-deserved go at the “theocons” (mainly fundmentalist and evangelical Protestants) who have exerted populist pressure on recent US elections, so he can console himself that only religious people do this bad stuff. His justified polemics against anti-Enlightenment, retrogressive Islam must have helped him affirm his anti-religion views.

My chief complaint here, then, is that Pinker is too prone to divide the history of the betterment of humanity into two teams, basically the saved and the damned. On this side there are all those good secular humanists who embrace humane values, love and understand science and use reason. On that side there are all those horrible religious people who are incapable of reasoning, contribute nothing to science and devote themselves to various forms of “counter-Enlightenment”. Oh yeah, and there are a few nasty atheists too (Marxists, postmodernists etc.)

To give one last example of Pinker’s tendency to create teams, take this statement, with which, in the main, I heartily agree. Pinker condemns “a long tradition of cultural and religious elites sneering at the supposedly empty lives of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Cultural criticism can be a thinly disguised snobbery that shades into misanthropy. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, the critic John Carey shows how the British literary intelligentsia in the first decades of the 20th century harboured a contempt for the common person which bordered on the genocidal.” (Chapter 17, p.247) True, but if you take the trouble to read Carey’s book, you will find that the people Carey most decries are the Bloomsberries, all of whom would all have (like those admirers of modern tyrants) regarded themselves as children of the Enlightenment opposing religion, tradition and so forth just as Pinker does.

But enough. You are weary of this by now, and my arguments are becoming as repetitive as Pinker’s own. I reaffirm that I find much to agree with in Enlightenment Now. Yes, material progress is beneficial, science and reason are good things and [probably] the mass of humanity are better off now than they have ever been, while admitting that there is still much poverty and strife in the world. Further, I enjoyed many of the swipes Pinker takes at postmodernism, hysterical doomsayers, Nietzsche and various other people who have exerted a malign influence. But by his own partiality and biases, Pinker paints a very limited picture of how progress and material betterment happen, assumes that everything beneficial in the last three hundred years has been achieved by secular humanists like himself, ignores anything beneficial in history before the Enlightenment, and divides humanity into neatly-competing teams of the enlightened and the unenlightened.

I hope I have enlightened you.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“CALL IT SLEEP” by Henry Roth (first published in 1934); “MERCY OF A RUDE STREAM” (tetralogy of novels) by Henry Roth (first published 1994-98)

I hold to my principle that a novel should be judged by the words that appear on the page. It should not be judged by what we know of the author’s biography and it should not be judged by the circumstances in which it was written.
But sometimes the reason for a novel’s peculiar impact can be explained only by things outside the text.
I take as my example what is now regarded as an American classic, Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1906-1995). The novel was first published in 1934, when Roth was 28. It was praised by the critics, who predicted that Roth had a great literary career ahead of him.  But Call It Sleep did not sell well, and was not re-printed. Henry Roth published nothing else of note and by the 1960s his novel was in danger of being forgotten. In 1960 it was republished as a hardback, but again gained little attention. Only in 1964, thirty years after it first appeared, did it get a paperback edition. One influential review of the paperback turned it into as bestseller, and it has remained a “classic” ever since.
I first read Call It Sleep in the mid-1980s, when Henry Roth was himself nearing his eighties and was regarded as a one-hit wonder who would never be heard from again.
The novel puzzled me in a number of ways. 
Told from the perspective of a little boy, it mixed stream-of-consciousness observations with hard-headed sociological documentation and much ethnic dialect. Roth acknowledged that the stream-of-consciousness bits were greatly influenced by the prose of James Joyce (whom he later saw as having had too much influence on him). As for the ethnic dialect, being about a Jewish immigrant family in New York, most conversations in the novel are in standard English, and these, we can assume, are the conversations in which characters are speaking comfortably in their own language. But when conversations go into broken English  (grammar breaking down, Yiddish words mixing with English etc.), we know we are reading characters’ attempts at speaking in English. Given that at certain points the main character mixes with Irish toughs, there are specimens of another sort of New York-ese here too.
This was not what puzzled me most about Call It Sleep, however. I was baffled by the sense of menace that ran through it. Certainly the little boy at the centre of the novel is a sensitive creature, and certainly some bad things happen to him. But his nervousness, his jumpiness, his extreme reactions amount often to suppressed hysteria. I kept thinking that there must be something we were not being told; some unspoken abomination the author was not disclosing.
Let’s synopsise to get our bearings.
Call It Sleep takes place in New York in the years just before the First World War. It opens when its main character David Schearl is six years old; and closes about two years later when he is eight. David loves his mother Genya, but his father Albert is bad-tempered, violent, and eaten away with suspicion. Albert came to America on his own to seek work, and only later did Genya and the infant David join him from their native Ukraine (or “Austrian Galicia”, as it was then called). Naturally David has bonded more strongly with his mother. This in itself riles Albert, but Albert’s inability to find satisfactory work is another factor in his mood swings. Most disconcerting is Albert’s suspicion that Genya had an affair with another man when she was still in the Ukraine, and that possibly David is not really his son.
Because it is a modernist, and often stream-of-consciousness, novel, much is taken up with the little boy’s dreams, observations and fantasies. He intuits that something is wrong with his family, but is too young to diagnose the problem. Meanwhile the family moves from the largely-Jewish Lower East Side of New York to a part of Harlem where there are as many Irish immigrants as Jewish ones. Pre-pubescent David gets his first knowledge of sex from little girls who show their knickers to neighbourhood boys. He for a while idolises an older Gentile kid, an Irish Catholic tough called Leo, who uses David as a kind of innocent pimp, taking Leo to where he can see the girls misbehaving. It is possible that Leo rapes David’s cousin, though the text does not make this clear. Later David’s father, who takes a job as a milkman, nearly whips to death a man who steals some of his stock. Later still, David’s father seems prepared to whip little David himself in one of his rages at the possibility that David might not be his son.
Yet none of these things seem to be the real fuel of the child’s anxiety.
David receives religious instruction from a rabbi at a cheder school. If it were written by a Gentile author, the portrait of the rabbi (Yidel Pankower) could almost be seen as an anti-semitic caricature. Like David’s father, he is an ignorant and violent man. But the child is impressed by the story from Isaiah of the angel touching the prophet’s lips with live coal to make him eloquent. Near the novel’s conclusion the child, trying in some mystic way to heal what is wrong in his family, equates the angel’s hurt-giving live coal with the hurt-giving electrified rails of the train system. He touches a rail, is knocked out and badly hurt. When he is brought back to his family, both parents cherish him. It is obvious to the alert reader that this can be at best a temporary peace in an unhappy family, but it is for David a moment of blissful relief and freedom from the burden of over-active consciousness – one could almost “call it sleep”.
When Call It Sleep is praised, it is often praised in terms of its historical and sociological significance. Here is a novel of Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the process of becoming assimilated into American society. The novel does indicate strongly the sweat and toil and close quarters of the poor, and it does show the intermingling of Jews with other ethnicities. Much of young David’s stream-of-consciousness gives us the sights and sounds and sordor of New York a century ago. But, important though they are to the novel, it is not the documentary things that make this novel unique. Rather, it is the perspective of the child and his anxieties.
Which brings me back to that sense of dread – amounting to suppressed hysteria – that suffuses so much of the novel. Where does it come from?
I think I got my answer a few years after I first read Call It Sleep when, in 1994 and 1995 – amazingly, after what amounted to 60 years of literary silence – the 87-year-old Henry Roth published the first two volumes of his tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream (the last two volumes were published posthumously). Let’s make it clear that, like Call It Sleep, these novels are highly autobiographical. Like David Schearl of Call It Sleep, Henry (originally Herschel) Roth was born in the Ukraine; brought to America as an infant; had a mother whom he loved and a father whom he feared; and lived in the Lower East Side until 1914, when his family moved to the Irish and Jewish neighbourhood of Harlem.
In the Mercy of a Rude Stream sequence, we essentially get the further life of David Schearl (i.e. Henry Roth) as he grows through adolescence and young manhood between 1914 and 1927. Except that the main character is no longer called David Schearl, but is called Ira Stigman. I recall reviewing the first volume, titled A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park, for the Sunday-Star Times (on 18 June 1995 to be precise), when the paperback edition of the novel first came out in New Zealand. The novel takes “Ira Stigman” to his high school days. I praised it for its vivid picture of old New York, as experienced by the less wealthy, and for the way it showed the difficulties a young Jewish man had in yielding his family’s traditional culture to the pull of assimilation with Gentiles. It also suggested the first adolescent fumblings with sex. I noted that Henry Roth’s strategy was to have “Ira” as an old man butting in every so often to comment on the experiences of his youthful self – in other words, old Henry Roth commenting on young Henry Roth.
So far, so innocuous. But the bombshell fell when the second volume, titled A Diving Rock on the Hudson, appeared in 1995, just before Henry Roth’s death. As I recorded in my reading diary, we are 140 pages into this 410 page novel when we are suddenly, and with no preparation, told for the first time that “Ira” has a younger sister called “Minnie”. And, it transpires, between the ages of 12 and 18, “Ira” regularly has sexual intercourse with his little sister. This is repeated and frequent (virtually every time the siblings’ parents are out on the weekend). To make matters worse, “Ira” adds his pubescent cousin “Stella” to his conquests. So incest, and the dark consciousness of incest, is the theme that runs through the rest of the novel, mocking everything “Ira” does, distorting his relationships with others, giving him a “hidden” personality that is at odds with the part he plays in public, dominating his life with furtiveness, self-disgust and awareness of sin.
An author’s note at the beginning of A Diving Rock on the Hudson states emphatically that “this novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such.” But it is hard to believe this when old “Ira” keeps telling us about the one and only novel he had published in the 1930s, and repeatedly says he is now engaged in writing about his own youth. (Peripheral details also force us to make this identification – the high school “Ira” attends is Henry Roth’s old high school).
After Roth’s death, the cat was let out of the bag (you may easily find the details on-line). Henry Roth’s younger sister – of course herself a very old lady by 1995 – begged Henry not to include these shaming details in what was transparently autobiography. Roth paid her a large sum of money to soften her, and added the disingenuous “author’s note” at her insistence. There has been much discussion about this. Some praise Roth for facing up honestly to this formative circumstance in his young life. There has even been talk of his “redemption”, especially as, after his attempts at setting aside his Jewish identity, he re-embraced Judaism. Others, however, have seen great cruelty in his attitude towards his (elderly) sister, and they have noted the rather devious way he got to present his tetralogy to the world. Publishers were very eager to have a new work from the author who wrote the classic Call It Sleep. When Roth presented them with A Star Shines Over Mt Morris Park, they readily signed a contract to publish all four projected volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth was careful to keep the details of incest out of the first volume, as it might have deterred the publishers from concluding such a contract.
After all this became generally known, critics had a much better idea why Roth’s “writer’s block” had lasted for the best part of 60 years. The simple fact was that, being one who always wrote autobiographically, Roth could not write about the incestuous adolescent he had been.
I have no way of proving this, of course, but as I re-read Call It Sleep, I can’t help feeling that the 28-year-old author’s guilt and shame fed into the novel, and added that odd dimension of foreboding, dread and hysteria that I detected.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


If you are interested in such things, you might recall that a couple of postings back, in the diatribe The More ThingsChange, I quoted a passage from Matthew Kneale’s Rome, A History in Seven Sackings (2017), which I had recently reviewed for the NZ Listener. I do not think that Kneale’s is a particularly profound or wise book, but I happened to find in it another passage that resonated with me. It goes like this:

 These days, unless it is in the depths of the off season or you don’t mind spending a few hours in a queue, it is best to book a visit to the Vatican Museums online. Even then it can be a trying business that may feel less like a cultural feast than a trip to the sales. Artworks are lost behind huge tour groups, selfie sticks and guides batons brandished above them. Doors create bottlenecks where guards endlessly murmur, ‘Don’t stop, keep moving.’ The worst spot, unsurprisingly, is the most popular: the Sistine Chapel. As you enter, guards call out, ‘Silence’, ‘No photographs’, and direct you to join the crush that fills the room, of people staring upwards, holding audio-guides to their heads, or listening to tour leaders through earphones.” (p.155)

Yes indeed. Visiting some of the glories of Italian art, this has often been my own experience. But not exclusively.

Here is an account of the three times I have set foot in the Sistine Chapel.

The first time was in the early 1960s, when I was a little boy on a tour of Europe with my parents and three of my siblings. As I recall it, we entered the hallowed chapel easily and there were few people there. One has to remember that the early 1960s were before crowds of tourists flooded Europe, thanks to cheap air fares. In those days, visitors from New Zealand travelled to Europe (as we did) by ship. So here we were in the chapel with few other people to bother us. The guard didn’t mind that Dad lay down on a bench to be able to look at Michaelangelo’s ceiling without straining his neck. Was he carried away by this great work of art? We don’t know. What we do know, and what we remembered most from the visit, was that within a few moments of his lying down, distinct sounds of snoring were coming from Dad. We couldn’t blame him, really. After all, he’d just spent hours driving from Florence in a car with six people in it – including four squabbling kids -  and with a caravan being towed behind. But it did put into perspective the reverence with which one is supposed to contemplate great art.

The second time I was in the Sistine Chapel was in 2002. I had come to Rome to research a book and it was very definitely in the depths of the off season. February to be precise, and still winter. So my visit was once again unencumbered by many other people. As I was regularly reporting home, I literally counted how many people were sharing the space with me. There were eleven of them and, like me, they were all able to walk in a leisurely way from treasure to treasure and consider each in detail – not just the ceiling and the Creation of Man and all the others panels; not just the vast image of the Last Judgment at one end of the chapel; but also the side-panels and images from the New Testament that were painted by other artists. It was a time for real reflection in the quietness.

But my third visit to the Sistine Chapel was quite different. It was 2004 and my wife and I had gone to Italy for the wedding of one of our sons, who was marrying an Italian lady. It was springtime and the tourist season was well underway – but, despite the advice Kneale gives in the quotation above, we had not thought to book ahead for the many cultural sites we intended to visit. So when we got to the Sistine Chapel there was a long, slow-moving queue. And when we entered into the chapel it was wall-to-wall tourist, making it impossible to move about freely. People were packed in so tightly that had anyone fainted, (s)he would have remained standing. We could look up at the ceiling and we could look at the Last Judgment from afar, but there was no possibility of moving about freely and, without being jostled and carried on by the throng, there was no possibility of examining the art in a calm, contemplative fashion. The mania of the selfie-stick had not yet plagued the world; but otherwise the scene was very much as Kneale paints it.

I’ve mentioned on earlier postings the crush and shoving that there always is around canonical works of art that have been oversold to tourists - the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, for example. (See my earlier posting How We Really Experience Art Galleries). I should also note that on my 2002 and 2004 visits to Italy, I had the same experiences in Florence as I had in Rome – easily breezing into an under-populated Uffizi in the off-season in 2002, but facing a crushing mob in the tourist season in 2004. (Indeed in the latter case, where we hadn’t booked ahead, we were able to enter the Uffizi only because a generous American tourist handed over to us tickets she couldn’t use, because of a sudden familiy emergency.)

So there are two pieces of advice if you intend to visit the august galleries of Europe. (A.) Always go in the off-season; or (B.) Be prepared to be pushed, shoved, and probably disappointed.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE NEW SHIPS” by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “FEVERISH – A MEMOIR” by Gigi Fenster (Victoria University Press, $NZ30).

            Is it a sign of the Zeitgeist or is it pure coincidence that for the second time in a fortnight I find myself reviewing a novel whose plot turns, in part, on an anxious parent seeking an adult child, who has apparently gone missing in Europe?

Charlotte Grimshaw’s Mazarine [reviewed on my last post] had a mother looking for a daughter, and was set just after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 when the world was a-jitter about terrorism. Kate Duignan’s complex and intriguing novel The New Ships has a father seeking a son, from whom he last parted company on bad terms. It is set in 2001, when the world had similar jitters after the destruction of the Twin Towers. Both novels are narrated in the first person by the questing parent. Here, however, it would be prudent to end these odious comparisons. Grimshaw’s novel sends many overt signals that her narrator misconceives and misreports things, and it becomes in part an essay on the whole concept of the “unreliable narrator”. More subtly, Duignan’s novel allows us to see all the flaws of her narrator, but does not so blatantly question his veracity. He is telling the truth as best he can, but there are gaps in what he knows. Being stuck in his head for the length of the novel, however, we can question his values and ask how honest he is being with himself.

The narrator is the affluent, middle-aged, Wellington lawyer Peter Collie. His wife Moira has just died of cancer and he is deep in grief. But there is tension between him and his 25-year-old son, the aspiring actor Aaron. We know very early in the piece that Aaron is not his biological son. Aaron knows this too. Peter married Moira when she was pregnant by another man, whose identity she never fully disclosed to him. Not knowing who the biological father was clearly distresses Peter and he is still anxious to know. And then his son goes missing.

Grieving for his wife and then looking for his son, Peter is forced into settling accounts and taking stock of his life. As a lawyer, wishing all things were based on evidence, Peter sees himself as setting out to discover forensically the truth about his late wife, his son’s biological father and his son’s whereabouts. In the process he has to ask questions about his own identity as a husband and father and what he has achieved in life. This might seem a [relatively] straightforward and even honourable agenda, a sort of rational “accounting”. But, as we again learn very early in the novel, there is a complicating factor.

Years previously, when he was a hippie-ish young man in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, Peter impregnated a young Frenchwoman, Genevieve, who gave birth to a daughter, Abigail. Genevieve left him and later told him that Abigail had died in infancy. But, at the same time he is grieving for his wife’s death, Peter gets a message from Rob, an old pal now settled in Europe, who says he has seen a young woman the spitting image of Genevieve and who wonders if she could in fact be the young adult Abigail. So in some sense Peter is involved in seeking both a son and a daughter.    

For aught I know, at this point some cheap wit might be waiting to quote [a modified version of] Lady Bracknell’s jibe: “To lose one [child], Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Let me make it clear then, that I find this scenario both plausible and persuasive as Kate Duignan presents it. But it also adds nuance to Peter Collie’s exploration of himself. After all, in questing after his lost daughter Abigail, he is in a way in search of his lost youth, a psychological compulsion common enough in middle-aged and elderly men. And seeking one’s lost youth often involves a degree of self-mythologisation.

In a complex, but always comprehensible, narrative The New Ships interweaves events from Amsterdam in 1970s with events in the “present”.

            Speaking as a late middle-aged male, I’m impressed by how convincing Kate Duignan has made the male voice that tells this story. Peter Collie’s perspective, his priorities and his values are male ones, and they are also indicative of his flaws. He is painfully aware of social class and he sees himself as deserving praise for coming up the hard way. He began as a boy from Wanganui whose father earned a living fixing washing machines. Even if he is apparently well-read in the classics and has become an upper-middle-class professional, is there the hint of a chip on his shoulder? His haughty and snobbish mother-in-law Laura often implies that he is not from the top drawer.

Looking back on his own youth, Peter is aware that many of the extreme radicals of his youth were well-off kids merely sojourning in radicalism. His mate Rob’s wife Clare used to advocate for the Angry Brigade when she was a student in the ‘70s, but Peter notes that she comes from a family of “liberal intellectuals, deeply enmeshed with the ruling class of England” and despite having married colonial Rob she now lives in a mansion. (p.114) When he considers his partners in his Wellington law practice, Peter remarks: “I don’t forget, ever, unlike some of my colleagues who were born into the professional class, that much of what has made my life sound and comfortable is the effect of a good career: on the psyche, on the body, how it holds you together, and income, the way the money keeps coming in, ending the late-night anxiety attacks, the humiliation of pretending you have in reach many things you do not have in reach, the constant figuring and figuring…” (p.96)

And on the same page, this idea spills over into his annoyance that his late wife – an amateur painter - and son have taken for granted the life that his hard-earned income has given them:  “for every day of joy her painting gave her, the doubt [about how much he worked] made her miserable for three. I often thought she just didn’t have enough to do. And she, of course, ate well while she painted, our house was warm while she painted, our son wanted for nothing while she painted.” (p.96)

A similar sentiment surfaces when he recalls taking Aaron on holiday to Venice when Aaron was a teenager and complained about having to see “the whole art and famous oldy things crap”. Peter immediately thinks “Our horribly spoiled boy. The arithmetic was on me before I could stop it: the two-thousand dollar airfare, the train tickets, the upgrade to two-bedroom hotel rooms so he could have his privacy and we ours.” (p.153)

Many fathers literally count the cost this way, although most learn not to say so out loud.

But how much self-deception is there in Peter Collie? How often does his narrative make excuses for past bad behaviour, or simply slide over such behaviour? He conceives of himself as an honest, hard-working husband and father, but when we learn that the boy Aaron twice got lost when the family were holidaying, we wonder how solicitous he really was. Apart from Moira and Genevieve, he mentions in passing some other women he slept with when he was young, but dismisses them as unimportant and irrelevant to his life. Reading between the lines and decoding his own partial interpretation, it is clear that they were not unimportant to Genevieve. Some of the dodgy things he did in Amsterdam come into the criminal category. As a lawyer, he sees himself as the wise mentor of younger colleagues, but his mentoring of the trainee Dylan shows a haughty dismissiveness and the same attitude comes into view when he does some pro bono work for a young man who has got into trouble in a political protest.

I do not wish to give the impression that this novel is only about its flawed narrator, and the arc of Kate Duignan’s narrative really shows Peter learning things and in a way becoming wiser – redeemed, if you like. We are certainly not invited to look down on him. But there are insistent strains of symbolism in The New Ships which underline Peter Collie’s mental state. He often refers to Orpheus, who grieved for the woman he loved but who was also killed by women – as Peter is sometimes tempted to see himself being destroyed. Peter repeatedly thinks of Mozart’s Requiem, which is appropriate to funereal thoughts about his wife, but which also includes the Miserere asking for forgiveness and the Dies Irae warning of judgment. Peter is aware of mortality, craves some sort of moral forgiveness and knows moral judgment might find him out.

Then there is the way he often thinks of the legend of Daphnis and Chloe, an image of untrammelled, youthful sensual love and sex, without adult consciousness or any sense of adult responsibility. When he meets with Genevieve in 1989, years after the birth and [apparent]] death of their daughter, he says “I kissed her, lips, mouth, tongue, I put my hand beneath her skirt, across the skin of her thigh, skimmimg over her, I wanted everything back, I wanted to be innocent, I wanted to be inside her for the first time, I wanted to be Daphnis with Chloe. I wanted to fuck her in her own place, in her own bed, I wanted to feel her skin.” (p.172) This really is, with a vengeance, the illusion of being able to find “lost youth”.

I should also note that there is a subplot of Peter, after Moira’s death, attempting to sell the bach he owns at Castlepoint. This takes on a sort of symbolic value, pointing to the more pleasurable parts of life he has now lost. That Moira once painted an unglamourised, nude portrait of her husband might also indicate her desire to denude Peter of his conceits about himself. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us! as Burns said. She is the Power. As for the novel's title, reflected in the cover design of a yacht's unfurled sails, as well as deriving from a canonical poem, "the new ships" refers literally to Peter's desire to buy a sailing boat and symbolically to his setting out in a new direction in life.

And now I face a familiar problem in reviewing a new novel. With tiresome frequency on this blog, I have proclaimed my own virtue by telling you how I do not  provide “spoilers” when I review new novels, because I believe it is unmannerly to reveal elements of the narrative that the author intends to come as a surprise to readers. This is especially true of The New Ships. Part Two of The New Ships (about the last third of the novel) suddenly gives us new information which completely alters both our and Peter Collie’s view of his late wife and of his relationship with his son. In doing so this elaborates many themes about race, about culture and about the nature of family that have been implicit earlier in the novel, but have not been fully articulated.

In passing I can note, however, that Peter Collie at one point expresses the pragmatic desire not to know about Moira’s family background and his own. What do details of family add up to, after all? “Data, anecdotes, false nostalgia. Mostly, in these parts, we forget about the past and get on with it here and now. Which seems sensible and for this I am basically grateful.” (pp.125-126). But the arc of the narrative, including the parts I have scrupulously not revealed here, shows a man reconciling with the truth and the past, for all his flaws and blindnesses. In this matter at least, The New Ships has something thematic in common with Vincent O’Sullivan’s novel All This By Chance. Ignoring or suppressing the past is no way to arrive at the truth about oneself.

I am in admiration of Kate Duignan’s ability to tell such a complex tale, with  a large cast of characters and shifting time-frames, but without ever making her narrative opaque or hard to follow. This is a considerable and very readable novel, a great analysis of a complex character and an arresting commentary on both parenthood and the nature of family. And – not the least of its virtues – it does not cheat readers by leaving its initial elements of mystery unexplained.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Six years ago (15 April 2012, to be precise) I had the great pleasure of reviewing Gigi Fenster’s debut novel The Intentions Book for the Sunday Star-Times. In the copy of that review, which I have pasted into one of my books of press clippings, I see that I called The Intentions Bookincredibly well written and an altogether stunning debut” in its tale of a father waiting anxiously for news of his adult daughter, who has gone missing on a tramping trip in the New Zealand bush. Every so often in the last six years, I have wondered when I was going to see another book by the same author. Was she suffering some form of writer’s block?

Feverish, her second book, at last gives me my answer. Feverish is a personal memoir, and not a novel, in which Gigi Fenster does indeed say that her writing impulse seemed to have dried up and that she was looking for some way of reviving her creative powers. I have to be very careful about what I say here, as I do not wish to misrepresent her intentions. Before I read Feverish, I had already heard on Radio New Zealand the half-hour interview Kim Hill had with the author, and the impression that interview gave me was that the book focused entirely on the issue of fever itself. Gigi Fenster explained – as she does in the book – that after reading much (especially nineteenth-century) fiction, and being aware of much of the psychiatric literature, she understood that fever – in the true medical sense – could be associated with creativity and hence could impel her once more to write, after too long a hiatus. So she set out (a.) to understand more fully what fever was; and (b.) to induce a real fever in herself and hence to get back on track as an author.

These matters are indeed a major part of Feverish. Fenster discusses whether or not “fever” was simply a convenient plot device in 19th century novels; how much “brain fever” or GPI (“general paresis of the insane”) were more primitve designations for ailments that would now be diagnosed differently; and whether ancient attempts to induce fever actually worked.  She remarks: “I learned about First World War soldiers chewing cordite and school children putting onions under their armpits. I read about long steam baths and ancient Egyptian healers covering their patients in hot sand. I thought those techniques for inducing fever didn’t sound too bad.” (p.104) She also seeks to find out what modern drugs could induce a real fever, and what medically-credible “cures” have been devised.

How her quest resolves itself, and whether she does actually undergo a genuine, creativity-inducing fever, are matters that I should not reveal. But I can say that Feverish ends with a really enlightening discussion between Fenster and her (psychiatrist) father on the nature of both “fever” and its care as depicted in the novel Wuthering Heights. Part of the reason I cheer this discussion is Fenster’s argument that the real hero of that passionate novel – the only genuinely empathetic character – is the much-ridiculed Edgar Linton. Dare I say that that has long been my own opinion?

But (one of my favourite words as a reviewer, remember) I have said all this only by way of pointing out that, despite its importance, fever itself is not really the only concern of this memoir, and may not really be the most important concern. Feverish is as much about family, about guilt, about the nature of empathy and about curious happenstances in life. Indeed to some extent the subject of fever could be called a hook on which to hang the exposition of a life and a reflection on how human beings best relate to one another.

Let’s give some context here. Gigi Fenster, her husband and her two young adult daughters have lived in New Zealand for quite a number of years, but the author was born and raised in South Africa and did not leave that country until she was a young adult. Furthermore, Fenster and her family are Jewish – apparently secular and not relgiously-observant, but fully aware of their family’s ancestry in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. So there is in this memoir much remembrance of other societies, their traditions and their constraints.

Some of Fenster’s memories of South Africa are almost idyllic, as in pages about holidays in Swaziland and family and adolescent activities. But this is the South Africa of apartheid, so there is an undertone of guilt about being privileged white people, albeit ones of liberal attitudes. In fact the opening chapters have some white South African students in the 1980s refusing to do national service, while others dislike the system, don’t really do anything about it, but feel good that “their hearts are in the right place”. Later, there is agonising about what should be done after the police murder Steve Biko.

Does Feverish incite us to despise those whose “hearts [only] are in the right place”? No – for much of Fenster’s purpose is to encourage the virtue of empathy; that is, of trying to understand other people’s motives and why they act as they do. Isn’t it too easy to imagine that we would all be heroes in a morally-fraught situation? In similar vein, Fenster’s daughters are rather too ready to see their Eastern European Jewish forebears as being too craven, too ready to submit to authority, and they criticise their mother for not proclaiming her own Jewishness enough. This matter is related thematically to a story Fenster tells of a Dutch woman who, discovering that Fenster’s family were Jewish, was a little over-eager to tell her that her own family had sheltered a Jewish girl and saved her life in the Second World War. Her residual guilt about Gentiles who didn’t do enough to prevent the Shoah mirrors the guilt of white liberals in apartheid South Africa. Fully understanding what is going on in the Dutchwoman’s mind, Fenster nevertheless understands the woman’s situation and falls in with her version of events.

More than anything, though, this matter of empathy is played out in Fenster’s memories of a boy she knew when she was an adolescent. Simon was an eccentric loner who became fully schizophrenic, but who was capable of long, lucid conversations. In one long conversation with Fenster’s psychiatrist father, Simon suggests that psychiatry (medicated and perhaps compromised by its association with pharmaceuticals) is too clinical and impersonal, and lacks the empathy and personal relationships encouraged by psychoanalysis. Again, Fenster does not encourage us to endorse this view uncritically – she has too much respect for her father’s profession. But her survey of the (in retrospect) horrendous career of the “alienist” Julius Wagner-Jauregg does suggest how psychiatry, divorced from personal concern for the patient, could become a form of torture.

If fever is the frame, then empathy is the heart of Feverish.

It would be foolish not to note, too, that in the midst of these weighty matters, much of Feverish is dead funny, even if in a macabre sort of way. Consider some of Fenster’s family anecdotes. There’s the excruciatingly painful account of the family going on a shared holiday with the family of a couple who were clearly deep into the process of their marriage breaking up, and all the tensions and whispers and suppressed aggressions that that entailed. There’s the horrific tale of one of her baby daughters nearly being grabbed by a marauding bunch of baboons. And most pervasively, there is the helter-skelter of Gigi’s four siblings sometimes squabbling, sometimes verbally jousting, always communicating in family codes and in-jokes, getting in one another’s way and anticipating the punch-lines of their formidably intelligent parents’ best anecdotes and jokes. In fact behaving like any other kids in a decent family.

Having dealt with this memoir in such a po-faced fashion, however, I’m almost in danger of not conveying its real flavour. The prose of Feverish is itself feverish, being jittery, jumping from staccato sentence to staccato sentence and from idea to idea in a manner similar to the random associations encouraged on a psychoanalyst’s couch. It is the very eccentricity of this book and its odd structure and its apparent digressions that make it what it is. Yet it is not a random collection of anecdotes, memories and research. Its ideas unify it and the author’s vision is a sane one. A memorable memoir of a sort I have rarely encountered.