Updike’s Rabbit series is the ripe product of the past century—spanning its entire second half. Much has been said of Updike’s style that renders it justice, albeit in too many words—which is why I am not quoting any of it here. For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that Updike is the unsurpassed master of effaced narration, whose ample resources he exploits fully and to whose strict limits he keeps to the end. The effect on his prose is that of gritty but marvelously eloquent realism. His style is like a counterfeit note indistinguishable from the genuine in that it fabricates a structure as complex and as palpable as that of reality.
It is by a curious twist that in the 20th century, all the while visual art severed its links to physical reality and became more and more abstract, the Western novel reached a degree of naturalism and explicitness unparalleled in the past. Reality began to be captured with increasing, almost manic, precision. Shapes, colors, smells, sounds, textures, moods, minute physical characteristics, even bodily functions—every blade of grass, as it were—would now get cherished in their own right and exposed to the reader.
This recent course taken by Western literature, so much at variance with that on which the rest of Western art has embarked, perhaps owes something to the dawn of cinema: indeed, the camerawork that meticulously shines light on every detail of a staged scene and the characters that inhabit it bears a parallel to the modern literary style, which elucidates accidental details and treats inconsequential actions. But this cannot be the origin of the trend, for even, say, The Age of Innocence, written before the influence of film, already features too much detail and too little plot.
The interest modern intellectual writers take in the middle class, their partiality for ordinary people caught in ordinary moments, and the existentialist currents in which most of them are steeped, they all prejudice against plot and toward excessive detail. Yet none of these sensibilities had taken root in the intellectual and literary circles of Europe and America before World War II.
Perhaps, then, the new style dates as far back as Henry James, who might be called its first prophet, because the effaced narration he so ardently championed cannot lead but to extreme naturalism. And all those other factors—film, culture, philosophy—played auxiliary roles. What does narration, when so thoroughly effaced, do to prose in the long run?
Well, it relieves the narrator of his main responsibility, that of being judicious and selective. The author fears that jumping a few steps in the story for the sake of the plot or exercising his discretion in what to include, what to condense, or what to omit would draw attention to himself as narrator, which is taboo. He thus suppresses his activity within his narration and merely serves as a neutral camera filming the cluttered inner world of his characters and the immense reality outside them, exactly as they would perceive it in real time if they were real people.
Every activity, no matter how trifling, deserves attention now, because to cut out anything from the story would be to assert oneself as narrator. That’s one important reason, besides the extinction of prudishness from modern society, why love-making scenes are now sport in literature and not even the most explicit detail is blinked at. If it happens, then it can and probably should be told. This extreme neutrality is also the enemy of plot, for purposeful action and the clash of opposing wills—the traditional heart and soul of literature—end up diluted among those many tangential actions, hesitations, and observations, to which, because they are commonplace in life, effaced narration feels it must do justice.
In the end, the enterprise of fabricating the most realistic life, world, and set of characters possible is so seductive, so rewarding, and so much in agreement with effaced narration that it becomes an end in itself. Verisimilitude of human existence is the new goal of literature. And the more exhibitionistic a literary style, the better equipped it is to achieve it. When the author conjures up, with uncanny exactitude, specific images in the mind’s eye of the reader—the particular hues mixed in a sunset, the smell of evergreen around a cabin, the texture of a lover’s skin—he is flexing his muscles. Reality gets distilled through the five senses, in surgically precise prose.
Updike does this superbly. He makes you live under Harry Armstrong’s skin. This vicarious experience is the essence of Rabbit. It’s what makes it work. Not surprisingly, it only lasts while you are reading it. When you are done, the aftertaste is mild and fades fast. You remember how good it was, how true to life, how skillful at making you see, hear, and feel, what you should. But in the end, none of what you saw or heard or felt made any lasting impression. The vicarious experience, though uncannily rendered, does not enrich our inner life. In the end, this Harry Angstrom, whom we’ve got to know so intimately, is not worth our acquaintance. Neither is anyone around him. Perfectly as they might be cast, these characters and their interactions signify but very little. And our imagination feels manhandled, used, with nothing to show for the trouble.
After Rabbit, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion will feel like a breath of fresh air. All her novels are written in third-person omniscient. Indeed, no narrator as effaced as the modern novelist could muster that most famous opening sentence in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” What first struck me in reading Austen after Updike was the sparseness of her descriptions, both of characters and of scenes. It’s the economy of conviction. Masterful at dialogue, Austen nonetheless collapses it into indirect speech when it doesn’t advance the plot or when it is not dramatic. She never indulges in descriptive detail for its own sake. Of Eliza Bennet, we only know that she is of middling height and has dark eyes. Of Mr. Darcy, that he is a tall gentleman, handsome, with a noble air. About the scenes where the plot unfolds we are given very little detail. Permberly is a magnificent estate—a large, stone-built house, furnished tastefully—situated opposite a valley, in the middle of the woods, by a running stream. That’s almost all we are told. But it sticks.
Austen narrates. She is interested in telling a story. Not in providing a voyeuristic peep into the inner life of her characters. Most interesting, I “see” her scenes and characters no less vividly than Updike’s. She sketches the outline and my imagination fills in the rest. In the upshot, the prose is light and nimble. And the reader finds in it room to breathe. His emotional resources are not wasted in attending to minute specifications as to the hair color of Charlotte Lucas or the crookedness of Mr. Collins’s teeth. Austen reminds us that the purpose of a novel is not being John Malkovich, or Rabbit Angstrom. It’s to tell a good story. When authors forget that, they get lost in the weeds. To quote from Elizabeth Bowen’s brilliant essay, “Notes on Writing a Novel”:
Plot is story. It is also “a story” in the nursery sense = lie. The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.
I understand that I am just a person, and however smart, rational, and well-guided I might be, there are others out there like me. I have changed my mind many times in life about many issues, as I explored and experimented with various currents of ideas growing up. I have abandoned many positions when I realized they were unfounded, and I don’t find it hard to conjecture that as I was mistaken in the past, I can find myself being wrong again in the future. My mind is fallible therefore I have no privileged epistemological access to universal truth.
Others around me have opinions and attitudes about everything. I agree more with some, less with others. Some I think are complete idiots. I don’t know of a single person I agree with 100% about everything there is to discuss or speculate over. I am the only person I fully agree with all the time about everything (at times even agreeing with myself goes wrong). That’s a statistically certain indicator that I am wrong at least on some counts: What are the odds that while not having any privileged access to truth in general, I am always right about everything while everyone around me is wrong at least on their point of disagreement with me?
Why can’t I tell what exactly I am wrong about right now? Just like I can push almost anyone to a point where I am certain they are being irrational about something but just can’t see themselves being foolish, I too, being just another person, must be vulnerable to the same unaware-bullshit-harboring tendency.
This makes me humble in my approach to truth. I keep the engine always running on the bulldozer of skepticism at the base of my most crucial intellectual pillars. Entire neighborhoods can turn out to be hastily-put-together public-housing-thought projects, with no business being in my metropolitan mind. While the government might have some life-long commitment to the parasitic beneficiaries of its stupid decisions, I have no intention to stick with my idiocies once I discover them to be such. Knowing that I have the guts to tear them down once I spot them, and the strength to erect new skyscrapers over their ruins, and most importantly, knowing that I can manage to know this without falling into complacency is my most effective formula for intellectual sanity.
So I constantly ask myself “How do I know?” about everything important. When something under consideration either implicitly or explicitly prescribes rules for others, my skepticism is attuned ever more so to its justification because telling others what to do is kind of a big deal! For starters, it's almost universally backed by a looming “or else”. I don’t care who these “others” are. I am able to empathize with them, to conceive of them as people with an identity, consciousness, free will, and potentially legitimate points to the contrary. How can I possibly know that what’s being proposed is just and necessary?
What moral and epistemological authority do the proponents of this rule have, to defy the will of those to be ruled over, who might disagree? What can they properly be justified in replying to someone who tells them to just mind their own damned business? Applying this skeptical approach with fresh rigor to innumerable cases, my evaluations have historically converged to a rather consistent position which can be safely summarized as “Nothing is superior to freedom. Only negative rights are legit. Live and let live, and screw those authoritarian cocks telling you they’ve got something better figured out for everyone.”
Not everyone thinks along those lines… I wasn’t always this way either. I don’t mean so much about the pan-libertarian conclusions I have arrived at, but the actual train of thought that happened to lead me there. Most people just don’t scrutinize themselves with such modesty or skepticism and subsequently incur a high risk of screwing up.
The ThinkFuture Radio Show is my favorite podcast (sort of by default, since it’s the only one I listen to). The host, Chris Future, has this theory that almost everyone is a libertarian underneath. It goes something like this: “Do you like having other people telling you what to do, how to live your life? Do you want the government interfering with you and pulling money out of your pocket? The bottom line is that most people would like to be left alone.” So there, most of us are closet libertarians.
The crucial counter consideration to this argument is that while most people don’t like to be told what to do, they would nevertheless love to dictate others what to do. It might very well be true that most of us want the IRS out of our pockets, but we’d still love to dig our hands into others’ pockets for all sorts of reasons. We intuitively seek freedom for ourselves but find it hard to genuinely extend that courtesy to others. Accordingly, most of us are not closet libertarians but rather closet authoritarians.
But why? Don’t we know that we can’t both have our cake and eat it? I find it incredible just how eagerly most people will renounce their own freedoms just for a chance to have a say in other people’s lives. Instead of identifying with one-another and regarding arbitrary interferences with anyone as harbingers of unjust intrusions into our own lives, we usually find it intuitively easier to identify with the invasive authority. I suspect there are psychological reasons for this.
Ah, the intriguing authoritarian personality. I keep meeting these people especially at school, la crème de la crop of authoritarianism, with many passionate convictions and one or two master plans for humankind or the country. They tend to be engineers, but this might be purely coincidental given the career demographics at the University of Waterloo. They are generally pretty smart but almost always unwarrantedly smug, a sense of self probably reinforced from repeated victories in intellectual horseplay with kids not as intelligent as themselves. They think they’re hot shit, alright.
I find them reverse-engineering human nature or the global economy, with all sorts of ideas which I even might find interesting until I realize how seriously they take themselves. They are almost exclusively determinists: human relationships are exhaustively explained through caricatures of rationalized instincts, scale-free networks and intricate feedback loops. People are puppets bound by deterministic strings: their actions predictable and fully captured by reductionist analysis. Although they see free will as a naiveté, they usually are not perplexed at the corollary of their own thoughts and convictions being epiphenomenally preordained. They indeed see themselves as being above all this.
It is typically fashionable for them to have some background in economics or history, and they advertise the shit out of that knowledge. Contempt for ‘the ordinary person’ can be found bursting passively-aggressively at the seams of their statements. Of course people are like sheep, unable to cope left to their own devices.
Authoritarians hate free enterprise. They see poverty, progress, and social cohesion as a technical problem that can be fixed (by them) with top-down intervention from the natural sciences. Human institutions are mechanical organisms to be operated on with the incisive touch of a surgeon. Naturally the view that social problems are essentially technical in nature leads authoritarians to administrative solutions. The emphasis is on creative master plans as they are to be decreed at the top, with little concern for their implementation at the bottom. They simplify or ignore reality if it clashes with the effects of their 'right interventions’.
It seems almost cognitively impossible for them to grasp the main opportunity cost of central planning: the cumulative creativity of the ‘ordinary people’ they despise so much. They can’t understand that innovation cannot be planned. They see free enterprise as doomed to fail because it’s so stupid, without a controlling intelligence behind it, but they don’t consider how stupid and myopic their “smart” planning is, doing away with the creativity of all the interconnected ‘little people’ at the bottom. The authoritarian par excellence cannot conceive of an unspecified anonymous ‘ordinary person’ to come up with an unpredictable good idea.
This kind of person might deeply disagree with a government policy but they generally regard it as a matter of trial and error before getting it right. The issue is getting the brightest leaders in power so that the best policies are implemented to make it all right. They have an elaborate plan of what everyone should be doing to achieve the greater good and they would love to tell you about it…
I know from personal experience that this kind of person tends to be very condescending to anyone who will challenge him. Persisting rational counter-arguments can easily be interpreted as a personal attack to be responded with a personal counter-attack. If you go as far as to question their authority to prescribe everyone what to do, contempt and cynicism might ooze out of their pores before they sever all ties with you.
There is a lot to be said about the authoritarian personality. My most noteworthy personal observation is that authoritarian types tend to suffer from a poor theory of mind. I am not sure whether it is a building-block of their character or merely a consequence of deeper psychological factors, but the problem of other minds is certainly problematic for them.
During early childhood we emerge from our egocentric shell and start to understand that other people are not us, that everyone has a mind of one’s own and others might have different opinions and feelings from ours. This childhood revelation is just the foundation. The theory-of-mind edifice is still shaky in most adolescents, making reality checks very difficult for them and leaving little room for objectivity. The maturation of one’s personal theory of mind is marked by the realization that one's own mind is fallible just like everyone else’s. This is the first step toward dismantling our inherent megalomania. It results in an overall epistemological modesty, and an ability to vividly conceptualize being in other people’s shoes. We can respect the consciousness of others, perhaps even empathize with them, and interpret reality from multiple perspectives.
I vaguely remember outgrowing the authoritarian state of mind sometime in my mid-teens. I used to be very radical about everything I believed in. The truth of my convictions, whatever they were, was self-evident to me, but of course it was only so because I happened to believe in what I believed. Whoever disagreed was an idiot for not being able to see what I saw. Condescendence was a natural attitide. Only now as I think back I realize I used to be a little authoritarian girl.
Overcoming that stage was a great achievement which unfortunately is not a routine developmental milestone. A lot of teenagers never make it. In my case I suspect it had something to do with reading classic novels with great characters. Getting in the head of robust fictional personalities who can feel, think, be aware of the world around them no less intensely than I can, and plausibly convince themselves of being right when they are not, helped put other people’s minds as well as my own into perspective. Being a sucker for movies where I had to put myself in the shoes of all sorts of characters also had a strong auxiliary and catalytic effect, as certainly did the epic turmoil of the transitional period in Albania after the fall of communism. Escaping reality or my own stupidity in that environment became too dear a luxury.
Therefore I scrutinize my authoritarian friends with a certain autobiographical amusement. The subconscious assumptions underlying their thought patterns evoke these crude megalomaniacal ideas from childhood, which stripped of their innocent romanticism sound as crazy as “Maybe I will never die: so far only others have”, or “Maybe I am the only person who is ‘real’: others in the world are just cardboard-cut figures who come in and out of illusory existence as they appear and disappear from my sensory field”, or “I am always right: truth is my state of mind”, or even “Reality is all in my head: I can learn to ignore it into nonexistence or wish it into change”.
There are people who still hold on to this kind of regressive egocentric bullshit to some degree or another. Theory of mind can be a developmental precursor to a theory of reality. Some realizations need to happen for others to follow. Our inherent childish subjectivity is an obstacle to learning.
If at some level your sense of reality is still that of a colorful background encapsulated in your mind, then why should you bother challenging your beliefs? It’s not like there is an objective state of affairs outside your head on which you could possibly be missing out. Outlandish statements will find their way out of your mouth much more comfortably without any counter considerations to weigh them down. Other people? How can you truly respect them for being persons of their own if you cannot conceive that there are true minds like yours, thinking, feeling, and wrestling with life’s existential puzzles inside their skulls?... How much different from sheep are they to you?
They’re just ‘people’; they’re not ‘you’! They’re complicated figures bouncing around, bound by deterministic principles. But you’re not, you’re something else, you can see through it all, you can tell them what to do! Presenting your solutions to world problems can be done with unbelievable nonchalance if the people at the bottom are just grains of sand.
Theory of mind is important. Without its sensitivities cementing genuine interpersonal relationships, someone’s ability to build bridges across his own interests and those of others is fundamentally hampered. Such a person’s mode of dealing with people can easily degenerate into a regressive state of psychological functionality based on the instinct of domination: alpha male or alpha butch bringing down the house and putting the other inferior apes in their place, hence the ‘authority’ in ‘authoritarian’.
I would call it one psychological step backward from human nature. It makes evolutionary sense for the instinct of domination to be aggressively displayed in healthy animals, since they have to fight for their limited resources. But man has reason, creativity, and craftsmanship. Survival is not a zero-sum game for us. We can use our intellect to discover ways to manipulate nature in our favor and thus pull plentifulness out of scarcity’s ass. Trade is infinitely superior to domination. We take it for granted, but you need to acknowledge the other person’s mind in order to understand the value of what it has to offer. You need to recognize that it can think of something innovative which you might have not thought of yourself, in order to realize that you have something to gain from it. Without being able to respect other minds for their own sake, in your eyes your fellow men will be little more than potential threats, beasts of burden, or pieces of ass.
Did I take it too far? Is this too psychologically farfetched? I’m not sure…
I used to ask myself what the world must look like through the eyes of a genius. I am talented in mathematics, but there are people who can see in a few seconds what would take me minutes, as there are areas where I can just follow with a lot of effort but a few minds can lead, proving excruciating theorems and whatnot. So what about the world at large, all the complex patterns appearing chaotic to the profane, the beautiful structure of reality baring its secrets to those who can see through the superfluous? What kind of wisdom would that be? Impossible to even fathom, but I think I ultimately just wanted to establish if I had reason to be jealous.
And well, I have met people with specialized areas of intellect close to genius. To both my disappointment and relief, their minds are very fallible. An abyss of megalomaniacal subjectivity lies between their mighty intellect and the beauty of the world awaiting to be conquered. Crossing that abyss seems to be beyond the capacity of intellect alone. I know too many intelligent people who talk like idiots when their buttons are pushed. It’s disturbing to see great minds being too cocky to take things rationally, nonchalantly taking the soundness of their positions for granted, leaving indignant emotionality as the only appropriate response to any intellectual duel. In all its impressive depths and heights, the human mind seems to be chronically vulnerable to irrationality. Modesty and skepticism can mark the line between the intelligent and the wise, or that between the intelligent and the insane. Reason is a fragile and shaky hanging bridge, of which the life-long traversal can be accomplished by only the perpetually vigilant and humble mind.
Update: These select writings from Karl Popper speak truth to power; shame I didn't learn about Popper's ideas until very recently.If you like this post - buy me a coffee