Thursday, April 26, 2018

Serendipity: Anarchism, Beautiful Ruins, Cien Anos de Soledad

Do you believe in serendipity? Sometimes I do---when it happens to me!

Reading a book called "On Anarchism," comprised of a bunch of quotes from some writings and lectures by Noam Chomsky (previous post), I'm struck that he provides a message about how the world can be a better place. And it's not through the American idea of "anarchism" or "libertarianism," but it is through a system where everyone exercises free agency and develops the talents they want to develop, and where families are important and love and kindness are the guiding principles. 

(I'll mention more about this in a future post.)

Then, reading an interview with Jess Walter, at the end of his 2012 novel "Beautiful Ruins," I see this wonderful quote: "I remember reading "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and marveling at all that happened just in the first sentence. ("Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.") There's a whole novel in that sentence.

Two days ago, reading an interview with another author, Mary Morris, I see this one: 

But then, one day—I can’t remember why—I started to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a first edition in English, a beautiful hardcover. It was raining, a totally gray day, as I lay with the book in my loft bed. And as I began to read, it was like seeing color again. The grayness went away. Even today, I was looking at the opening words again and I felt that sense of dimensionality and color and richness and aliveness: life. It started with this incredible first sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”I had to stop and read that line over and over again. I’d never read a sentence like that one before, one that seemed to encompass an entire world. I’ve always loved traveling and travel writing and that moment when your passport gets stamped. When I read the first line of this novel, I felt like I’d just had my passport stamped. I’d walked into a completely different world, one beyond what I’d ever seen or imagined or knew was possible.How does Márquez achieve the magic of this opening sentence? First, there’s the fact that the character is facing a firing squad—so there’s this threat of imminent death from the very first moment. You have the immediate sense of a dangerous political world, a place fraught with peril. And yet that darkness is juxtaposed against a sense of wonder, thanks to the detail that makes the whole thing so enchanting and unusual: the memory of a childhood journey, one day spent going to “discover ice.” We all know what ice is; it’s utterly familiar. So the sentence leaves you with this question: In what kind of landscape would ice seem like a magical element, something with almost supernatural power? Of course, in much of Latin America at that time, ice was hard to come by, perhaps even exotic. It’s a reminder that Márquez himself always said he did not write “magical” realism, insisting that everything he wrote he had somehow experienced. In that one detail you have that mix of ordinary and extraordinary that is so associated with this writer. 


Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who has died at age 87, will be remembered for many things. But one of his most perfect accomplishments may be the legendary opening sentence to his 1967 novel, 100 Years of Solitude. Here it is: 
"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."The question of what constitutes the greatest first line to any novel in literary history is not something that can ever really be decided. But Marquez's is surely as good a contender as any. It has been repeatedly ranked as one of the best, for example in 2006 by the American Book Review, which declared it the fourth-best opening line in literary history. The other top sentences, by Herman Melville and others, are worthy but ultimately unpersuasive competitors: for inventiveness, for vividness, and for the sheer force by which Marquez's first line compels you to drop everything and go read his novel from beginning to end, there is no real equal. 
Back to "Beautiful Ruins": Here's another interview with the author; I found it while I was looking for an easy way to get his quote in the third paragraph, above. I didn't find that same bit in this interview, so I went back to the back of the book "Beautiful Ruins," where I'd found it in the first place. But, meanwhile, here's a great quote from him in the Morning News interview:  "I wanted to be a literary novelist. I wanted my name to be up there---that was my dream. And I thought, You can't get there from where I am. You can't get there from Spokane." 

Is this even true? I'll read the rest of the interview, later, to find out what else he has to say about being from Spokane. I've never been to Spokane, but I've read fine books by other writers who are from there. And I'll write more about this, too, in a post soon to come.

Noam Chomsky: On Anarchism

From "Transcending Capitalism":

MAN: Referring back to your comments about escaping from or doing away with capitalism, I'm wondering what workable scheme you would put in its place?


MAN: Or what would you suggest to others who might be in a position to set it up and get it going?

Well, I think that what used to be called, centuries ago, "wage slavery" is intolerable. I mean, I do not think that people ought to be forced to rent themselves in order to survive. I think that the economic institutions ought to be run democratically-by their participants, and by the communities in which they live.

And I think that through various forms of free association and federalism, it's possible to imagine a society working like that. I mean, I don't think you can lay it out in detail-no body's smart enough to design a society; you've got to experiment. But reasonable principles on which to build such a society are quite clear. 

MAN: Most efforts at planned economies kind of go against the grain of democratic ideals, and founder on those rocks.

Well, it depends which planned economies you mean. There are lots of planned economies-the United States is a planned economy, for example. I mean, we talk about ourselves as a "free market," but that's baloney.

The only parts of the U.S. economy that are internationally competitive are the planned parts, the state-subsidized parts-like capital-intensive agriculture (which has a state-guaranteed market as a cushion in case there are excesses); or high-technology industry (which is dependent on the Pentagon system); or pharmaceuticals (which is massively subsidized by publicly-funded research).

Those are the parts of the U.S. economy that are functioning well. And if you go to the East Asian countries that are supposed to be the big economic successes-you know, what everybody talks about as a triumph of free-market democracy-they don't even have the most remote relation to free-market democracy: formally speaking they're fascist, they're state-organized economies run in cooperation with big conglomerates. That's precisely fascism, it's not the free market.

Now, that kind of planned economy "works," in a way-it produces at least. Other kinds of command economies don't work, or work differently: for example, the Eastern European planned economies in the Soviet era were highly centralized, over-bureaucratized, and they worked very inefficiently, although they did provide a kind of minimal safety-net for people.

But all of these systems have been very anti-democratic-like, in the Soviet Union, there were virtually no peasants or workers involved in any decision-making process.       

MAN: It would be hard to find a working model of an ideal .

  Yes, but in the eighteenth century it would have been hard to find a working model of a political democracy-that didn't prove it couldn't exist. By the nineteenth century, it did exist. Unless you think that human history is over, it's not an argument to say "it's not around." You go back two hundred years, it was hard to imagine slavery being abolished.  ...

WOMAN: Professor Chomsky, on a slightly different topic, there's a separate meaning of the word "anarchy" different from the one you often talk about-namely, "chaos."

Yeah, it's a bum rap, basically-it's like referring to Soviet-style bureaucracy as "socialism," or any other term of discourse that's been given a second meaning for the purpose of ideological warfare. I mean, "chaos" is a meaning of the word, but it's not a meaning that has any relevance to social thought.

Anarchy as a social philosophy has never meant "chaos"-in fact, anarchists have typically believed in a highly organized society, just one that's organized democratically from below. WOMAN: It seems to me that as a social system, anarchism makes such bottom-line sense that it was necessary to discredit the word, and take it out of people's whole vocabulary and thinking-so you just have a reflex of fear when you hear it.

Yeah, anarchism has always been regarded as the ultimate evil by people with power. So in Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare [a 1919 campaign against "subversives" in the U.S.], they were harsh on socialists, but they murdered anarchists-they were really bad news. See, the idea that people could be free is extremely frightening to anybody with power.

That's why the 1960s have such a bad reputation. I mean, there's a big literature about the Sixties, and it's mostly written by intellectuals, because they're the people who write books, so naturally it has a very bad name-because they hated it.

You could see it in the faculty clubs at the time: people were just traumatized by the idea that students were suddenly asking questions and not just copying things down. In fact, when people like Allan Bloom [author of The Closing of the American Mind] write as if the foundations of civilization were collapsing in the Sixties, from their point of view that's exactly right: they were.

Because the foundations of civilization are, "I'm a big professor, and I tell you what to say, and what to think, and you write it down in your notebooks, and you repeat it." If you get up and say, "I don't understand why I should read Plato, I think it's nonsense," that's destroying the foundations of civilization. But maybe it's a perfectly sensible question-plenty of philosophers have said it, so why isn't it a sensible question?

As with any mass popular movement, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in the Sixties-but that's the only thing that makes it into history: the crazy stuff around the periphery. The main things that were going on are out of history-and that's because they had a kind of libertarian character, and there is nothing more frightening to people with power.

MAN: What's the difference between "libertarian" and "anarchist," exactly?

There's no difference, really. I think they're the same thing. But you see, "libertarian" has a special meaning in the United States. The United States is off the spectrum of the main tradition in this respect: what's called "libertarianism" here is unbridled capitalism.

Now, that's always been opposed in the European libertarian tradition, where every anarchist has been a socialist-because the point is, if you have unbridled capitalism, you have all kinds of authority: you have extreme authority. If capital is privately controlled, then people are going to have to rent themselves in order to survive.

Now, you can say, "they rent themselves freely, it's a free contract"-but that's a joke. If your choice is, "do what I tell you or starve," that's not a choice-it's in fact what was commonly referred to as wage slavery in more civilized times, like the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example.

The American version of "libertarianism" is an aberration, though-nobody really takes it seriously. I mean, everybody knows that a society that worked by American libertarian principles would self-destruct in three seconds.

The only reason people pretend to take it seriously is because you can use it as a weapon. Like, when somebody comes out in favor of a tax, you can say: "No, I'm a libertarian, I'm against that tax"-but of course, I'm still in favor of the government building roads, and having schools, and killing Libyans, and all that sort of stuff.

Now, there are consistent libertarians, people like Murray Rothbard [American academic]-and if you just read the world that they describe, it's a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it. This is a world where you don't have roads because you don't see any reason why you should cooperate in building a road that you're not going to use: if you want a road, you get together with a bunch of other people who are going to use that road and you build it, then you charge people to ride on it. If you don't like the pollution from somebody's automobile, you take them to court and you litigate it.

Who would want to live in a world like that? It's a world built on hatred.   The whole thing's not even worth talking about, though. First of all, it couldn't function for a second-and if it could, all you'd want to do is get ~ out, or commit suicide or something. But this is a special American aberration, it's not really serious. 

MAN: You often seem reluctant to get very specific in spelling out your vision of an anarchist society and how we could get there. Don't you think it's important for activists to do that, though-to try to communicate to people a workable plan for the future, which then can help give them the hope and energy to continue struggling? I'm curious why you don't do that more often.

Well, I suppose I don't feel that in order to work hard for social change you need to be able to spell out a plan for a future society in any kind of detail. What I feel should drive a person to work for change are certain principles you'd like to see achieved. Now, you may not know in detail-and I don't think that any of us do know in detail-how those principles can best be realized at this point in complex systems like human societies. But I don't really see why that should make any difference: what you try to do is advance the principles.

Now, that may be what some people call "reformism"-but that's kind of like a put-down: reforms can be quite revolutionary if they lead in a certain direction. And to push in that direction, I don't think you have to know precisely how a future society would work: I think what you have to be able to do is spell out the principles you want to see such a society realize-and I think we can imagine many different ways in which a future society could realize them. Well, work to help people start trying them.

So for example, in the case of workers taking control of the workplace, there are a lot of different ways in which you can think of workplaces being controlled-and since nobody knows enough about what all the effects are going to be of large-scale social changes, I think what we should do is try them piecemeal. In fact, I have a rather conservative attitude towards social change: since we're dealing with complex systems which nobody understands very much, the sensible move I think is to make changes and then see what happens-and if they work, make further changes. That's true across the board, actually. 

So, I don't feel in a position-and even if I felt I was, I wouldn't say it--to know what the long-term results are going to look like in any kind of detail: those are things that will have to be discovered, in my view.

Instead, the basic principle I would like to see communicated to people is the idea that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it's justified-it has no prior justification. For instance, when you stop your five-year-old kid from trying to cross the street, that's an authoritarian situation: it's got to be justified. Well, in that case, I think you can give a justification.

But the burden of proof for any exercise of authority is always on the person exercising it-invariably. And when you look, most of the time these authority structures have no justification: they have no moral justification, they have no justification in the interests of the person lower in the hierarchy, or in the interests of other  people, or the environment, or the future, or the society, or anything elsethey're just there in order to preserve certain structures of power and domination, and the people at the top.

So I think that whenever you find situations of power, these questions should be asked-and the person who claims the legitimacy of the authority always bears the burden of justifying it. And if they can't justify it, it's illegitimate and should be dismantled.

To tell you the truth, I don't really understand anarchism as being much more than that. As far as I can see, it's just the point of view that says that people have the right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom then got to justify them. Sometimes you can-but of course, anarchism or anything else doesn't give you the answers about when that is. You just have to look at the specific cases.

MAN: But if we ever had a society with no wage incentive and no authority, where would the drive come from to advance and grow? Well, the drive to "advance"-I think you have to ask exactly what that means. If you mean a drive to produce more, well, who wants it? Is that necessarily the right thing to do? It's not obvious. In fact, in many areas it's probably the wrong thing to do-maybe it's a good thing that there wouldn't be the same drive to produce. People have to be driven to have certain wants in our system-why? Why not leave them alone so they can just be happy, do other things?

Whatever "drive" there is ought to be internal. So take a look at kids: they're creative, they explore, they want to try new things. I mean, why does a kid start to walk? You take a one-year-old kid, he's crawling fine, he can get anywhere across the room he likes really fast, so fast his parents have to run after him to keep him from knocking everything down-all of a sudden he gets up and starts walking. He's terrible at walking: he walks one step and he falls on his face, and if he wants to really get somewhere he's going to crawl.

So why do kids start walking? Well, they just want to do new things, that's the way people are built. We're built to want to do new things, even if they're not efficient, even if they're harmful, even if you get hurt-and I don't think that ever stops.

People want to explore, we want to press our capacities to their limits, we want to appreciate what we can. But the joy of creation is something very few people get the opportunity to have in our society: artists get to have it, craftspeople have it, scientists.

And if you've been lucky enough to have had that opportunity, you know it's quite an experience-and it doesn't have to be discovering Einstein's theory of relativity: anybody can have that pleasure, even by seeing what other people have done.

For instance, if you read even a simple mathematical proof like the Pythagorean Theorem, what you study in tenth grade, and you finally figure out what it's all about, that's exciting-"My God, I never understood that before." Okay, that's creativity, even though somebody else proved it two thousand years ago.

You just keep being struck by the marvels of what you're discovering, and you're "discovering" it, even though somebody else did it already. Then if you can ever add a little bit to what's already known-alright, that's very exciting.

And I think the same thing is true of a person who builds a boat: I don't see why it's fundamentally any different-I mean, I wish I could do that; I can't, I can't imagine doing it. Well, I think people should be able to live in a society where they can exercise these kinds of internal drives and develop their capacities freely instead of being forced into the narrow range of options that are available to most people in the world now. And by that, I mean not only options that are objectively available, but also options that are subjectively available--like, how are people allowed to think, how are they able to think?

Remember, there are all kinds of ways of thinking that are cut off from us in our society-not because we're incapable of them, but because various blockages have been developed and imposed to prevent people from thinking in those ways.

That's what indoctrination is about in the first place, in fact--and I don't mean somebody giving you lectures: sitcoms on television, sports that you watch, every aspect of the culture implicitly involves an expression of what a "proper" life and a "proper" set of values are, and that's all indoctrination.

So I think what has to happen is, other options have to be opened up to people-both subjectively, and in fact concretely: meaning you can do something about them without great suffering. And that's one of the main purposes of socialism, I think: to reach a point where people have the opportunity to decide freely for themselves what their needs are, and not just have the "choices" forced on them by some arbitrary system of power.

(Emphasis added by Aunt Louise)