Mr. Updike, Meet Miss Austen

If you are a student of literature, I recommend reading back to back John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy and Jane Austen’s novels, as I have by chance, because the contrast between them yielded interesting insights.

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.
The modern novel has little to redeem its lies but the skill with which it tells them. These lies are not told for the sake of establishing a higher poetic truth. Rather, they want to pass themselves for truth. I cannot but think of Mariah Carey’s over-singing—her voice, with its challenging and melodious twists and turns, as it calls attention to its own beauty while executing a mundane, unmoving song. And that’s why the modern novel is bankrupt, and why no book like The Three Musketeers will ever be written again. Or any epic, for that matter. Tolkien was the last of the storytellers. The language of narration has been lost. Sympathy for heroes and fascination by villains no longer stir the imagination of modern writers. Evoking existential angst is all they aspire at. I don’t know whether the narrative heritage can ever live again. But any efforts to revive it must be grounded in the reading of pre-20th-century Western literature not in childhood or adolescence, or at least not only then, but well into adulthood, so as to combat our acquired taste for beautiful garbage.

The Passion of the FEDS

My previous post on Jonah Levine got some interesting secondhand comments from FEDS officials but you won’t find them on the blog. Apparently the content and language of my post have failed to meet the FEDS minimum standards of respectability so they will not even grace me with their official dissent. One of the comments was that mine was simply a rant serving no productive purpose, rather than an argument, and that I am as guilty of wasting everyone’s time as the people I criticize. Serves me right.

The opinions in my blog are expressed for the sake of my entertainment only, and I apologize to nobody for the way they come across. However, the pleasure I derive from my work would be greatest if the ideas I articulate were conveyed fully and clearly to all of my readers. So if the FEDS claim—that my argument has no credibility due to the personal attacks and language used—is not just a preemptive pretext to evade the serious underlying critique, then I shall reformulate my position to cater to all parties, including the most sensitive ones, in anticipation of productive and purposeful discussion.

That comment about how I am as guilty of wasting everyone’s time as the people I criticize got me thinking: Perhaps I have been too harsh on the FEDS. Perhaps I have unjustly mistaken our young politicians’ utter obliviousness to social reality for utter corruption. Just what do I mean?

When anyone reads my blog, they are exercising their freedom of choice, to use their time as they see fit. They use the impression of the first few lines to determine whether reading my post is likely worth three minutes of their life, then act accordingly. There is no voting process over what to do, no ruling by majority, and I am certainly not forcing anyone—at the point of a gun—to keep reading.

If a reader is dissatisfied with the time investment in my blog, he has nothing to blame but his own judgment and cannot hold anyone guilty of wasting his time for him, certainly not the author. He can unsubscribe, block the page altogether, tell his friends just how awful this site is so they better watch out to never get stranded on it, but that’s about it. It is an individual choice, the consequences of which are contained within the agent who made the choice.

So I am not guilty of wasting anyone’s time with my rants!

To draw a comparison between this situation and the condition of a student-citizen who is dissatisfied with her student government and is blaming her student politicians, might be just a sloppy simile, but I would be naïve to see it as simply that. What it reflects is this FEDS executive’s disturbing ignorance on the principles of Government.

If you think my blog sucks, x out of it in a heartbeat! No harm done… But if I believe my student government is wasting my time and money, how do I opt out? Which office do I file a claim through, so I can forfeit my privileges as a student citizen and in return get a full FEDS tax refund? What is my choice? The comparison doesn’t hold so well to scrutiny, does it?

But before anyone screams “Anarchy!” let me clarify a distinction between student government and real government. The government serves some essential functions such as national defense, domestic law and order, basic infrastructure maintenance, and the protection of individual rights in general, which for reasons outside of the scope of this post, require a legal monopoly over the use of force. If citizens opted out of this minimalist system, if people ceased to support it and to subordinate to it, the resulting chaos would pose a threat to the very foundations of our civilization.

Waterloo FEDSA student government serves no such essential functions. If it were to be dissolved tomorrow, academic life would go on as usual, administrative life at the university would be intact, our university degrees would be worth just as much, and each of us students would be $32 richer every term. Our student government is nothing but another student association in the purpose that it allegedly serves, so its alter-ego “Student Union” describes its true nature better than “Student Government”, or at least it would, if the word “Forced” were prefixed to it. FEDS is nothing but a forced union.

Freedom of association is ubiquitous in a liberal society, and it is in fact easily derived from a few fundamental individual rights, namely the right to property, liberty, and freedom of speech. Beautiful institutions capable of channeling and amplifying their individual members’ will are founded on this framework. Like the Corporation, and the Unions, let’s not forget!

University of WaterlooBut nowadays we have forced unions. And our student government is just an example of just that. Workers of a certain profession have little say on whether they want to join or not, students have no say on whether they want to be part of it or not. We all have to pay our compulsory fees, and our freedom is castrated: it is reduced to freedom to vote and have a diluted say over who shall rule over all of us, who shall decide for us how to spend our money, instead of the freedom to rule over ourselves, instead of the freedom to decide for ourselves how to spend our money.

The student government would fulfill a very legitimate and productive purpose if each student could voluntarily opt in and out of its jurisdiction. FEDS would have to offer genuine value: the kind of value all members would deem worthy of the membership fee. We would have virtually 100% turnout in elections: The students who chose to walk the walk by paying a fee for FEDS services would usually care to also talk the talk.

But what does it matter to me if Jonah Levine or his opponent wins, if I don’t want their services at all? …If I don’t want their representation at all? With a 16% turnout, what can be inferred about the silent 84% of the student body? Are they indifferent between Jonah and the other guy because they are convinced that both are equally capable of doing a bang-up job so there’s no reason to worry about who ends up winning? Or are they indifferent between them because they don’t care either way since their services and representation aren’t really worth shit to them? (Here is South Park’s perspective, which really nails it)

Deep hypothetical questions I am bringing up here, but finding out the answers is astonishingly simple: Make FEDS fees refundable next term, and for God’s sake, make the claiming procedure something a couple of notches short of excruciating, and let’s see how many people choose to renew their no longer forced membership. … … …

Dead silence…

Look everybody. I don’t have a specific problem with Jonah Levine, or anyone in particular. I know the platform of the VP Ed is basically the same across all candidates, with minor twitches here and there. I don’t have a problem with student politicians BECAUSE they are student politicians. But I do have a problem with the breed of student politicians we have recently been dealing with, and I don’t know there to have ever been any other kinds. People who ought to know how corrupt the system is because they are the ones who can see it from the inside, because they are the ones executing its functions: how is twists the notion of freedom of association and transforms it into a grotesque form of crypto-tyranny, perpetuated through apathy, indifference, and justified through a “democratic” process. If people who work with FEDS know it, then why don’t they talk about it, why don’t they work to change it, to make FEDS an open organization of voluntary membership? I think it is part corruption/opportunism, part ignorance of the ethical implications.

Michelle ZakrisonI met Michelle, our latest Lady of the Manor, on the last day she still hoped of being reelected. I was under a lot of pressure from schoolwork but I was excited to be talking to our president. I was asking questions, trying to further ideas, to get reactions: I have never in my life met someone so transparent, pretending to be so interested in ideas yet unwilling or unable to propose or discuss any of her own.

The friends I was with noticed it too, and they don’t even share most of my political leanings. Oh I am sure she has ideas! She just wouldn’t want to clash with mine in any way. She doesn’t want to be disagreeable; she wants me to believe she is on my side, no matter where I stand, and wants you and every student voter to believe just the same. She is not alone. Loose platforms painted with clichés, general feel-good slogans, but no actual substance, are purposefully engineered to be all things to all people. Is the word spinelessness being primed here for future use?

FEDS is part of a powerful plot of hypocrisy that extends beyond its institution. It is an all-pervasive yet underhanded ideological attack on our institutions of individual rights and liberties. It is a plot of the clan against the individual. This likely story suffices for illustration:

At some point during FEDS’ history, some members got together, held some sort of referendum preceded and followed by some meetings, and granted themselves the right to represent every student, whether they liked it or not. Taxation with pseudo-representation aside, the real problem is the philosophical claim made and left unchallenged: that it is up to the group, the clan, to rule over the individuals. The pinnacle of freedom under this arrangement is democracy at every level, not adherence to individual rights.

It is the group, as defined by the majority, that dictates what everyone gets, what everyone will do, what everyone’s values are. No single individual can decide for himself what he gets, what he wants, what his conscience dictates. So the group is transcended from the sum of the individuals comprising it, to an entity of its own: the mother of all entities, outside of and aside from which, the individual is defunct and impotent. How else can it be if the only power I have left is to influence the group I belong to, instead of being able to make decisions for myself? Who holds the ultimate power in this headless system?

Statism is the new religion. And freedom of religion does not mean freedom to a religion, no matter how hard religious fundamentalists try to twist the meaning of this constitutional provision. It also, and most importantly, means freedom from religion at all! A forced union, a group we are forced to be represented and ruled by, is tyrannical no matter what anyone says. If we don’t have the freedom to join our hands together for a common purpose when we choose to, and take them apart and walk alone when we change our minds, then we are slaves.

Jonah and the new student executives will now lobby on our behalf about anything. I feel most strongly over the role of the VP Ed, because now Jonah will take that twisted representative power he acquired through the devious workings of a system that dilutes and castrates the freedoms of all students, and use it to lobby to dilute and castrate the freedoms of other people he doesn’t even represent on paper: the taxpayers.

Does it all even out in the end? Is it an authorless crime? Maybe, though I am not sure, but it is certainly not victimless.