Sunshine Recorder


Cover design by Erik Nitsche, c1960

Cover design by Erik Nitsche, c1960

(Source: jellobiafrasays, via gravity-rainbow)

Link: Excerpt from William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy"

Introduction.

What do you want out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life, I am asking the ques- tion in its broadest sense. I am asking not for the goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living. In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

Suppose you can identify your grand goal in living. Suppose, too, that you can explain why this goal is worth attaining. Even then, there is a danger that you will mislive. In particular, if you lack an effective strategy for attaining your goal, it is unlikely that you will attain it. Thus, the second component of a philos- ophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living. This strategy will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life that you take to be ultimately valuable.

If we want to take steps to avoid wasting our wealth, we can easily find experts to help us. Looking in the phone book, we will find any number of certified financial planners. These indi- viduals can help us clarify our financial goals: How much, for example, should we be saving for retirement? And having clari- fied these goals, they can advise us on how to achieve them.

Suppose, however, that we want to take steps to avoid wasting not our wealth but our life. We might seek an expert to guide us: a philosopher of life. This individual would help us think about our goals in living and about which of these goals are in fact worth pursuing. She would remind us that because goals can come into conflict, we need to decide which of our goals should take precedence when conflicts arise. She will therefore help us sort through our goals and place them into a hierarchy. The goal at the pinnacle of this hierarchy will be what I have called our grand goal in living: It is the goal that we should be unwilling to sacrifice to attain other goals. And after helping us select this goal, a philosopher of life will help us devise a strategy for attaining it.

The obvious place to look for a philosopher of life is in the philosophy department of the local university. Visiting the faculty offices there, we will find philosophers specializing in metaphysics, logic, politics, science, religion, and ethics. We might also find philosophers specializing in the philosophy of sport, the philosophy of feminism, and even the philosophy of philosophy. But unless we are at an unusual university, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.

It hasn’t always been this way. Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, for example, not only thought philoso- phies of life were worth contemplating but thought the raison d’être of philosophy was to develop them. These philosophers typically had an interest in other areas of philosophy as well— in logic, for example—but only because they thought pursuing that interest would help them develop a philosophy of life.

Furthermore, these ancient philosophers did not keep their discoveries to themselves or share them only with their fellow philosophers. Rather, they formed schools and welcomed as their pupils anyone wishing to acquire a philosophy of life. Different schools offered different advice on what people must do in order to have a good life. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, founded the Cynic school of philosophy, which advocated an ascetic lifestyle. Aristippus, another pupil of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school, which advocated a hedonistic lifestyle. In between these extremes, we find, among many other schools, the Epicurean school, the Skeptic school, and, of most interest to us here, the Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium.

The philosophers associated with these schools were unapologetic about their interest in philosophies of life. According to Epicurus, for example, “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.” And according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, about whom I will have much to say in this book, “He who studies with a philosopher should take away with him some one good thing every day: he should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to become sounder.”

This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. In the pages that follow, I focus my attention on a philosophy that I have found useful and that I suspect many readers will also find useful. It is the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both mean- ingful and fulfilling—who wishes, that is, to have a good life.

In other words, this book offers advice on how people should live. More precisely, I will act as a conduit for the advice offered by Stoic philosophers two thousand years ago. This is something my fellow philosophers are generally loath to do, but then again, their interest in philosophy is primarily “academic”; their research, that is to say, is primarily theoret- ical or historical. My interest in Stoicism, by way of contrast, is resolutely practical: My goal is to put this philosophy to work in my life and to encourage others to put it to work in theirs. The ancient Stoics, I think, would have encouraged both sorts of endeavor, but they also would have insisted that the primary reason to study Stoicism is so we can put it into practice.

Another thing to realize is that although Stoicism is a philos- ophy, it has a significant psychological component. The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life. They therefore became acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world. They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at preven- tion failed. Even those readers who are leery of philosophical speculation should take an interest in these techniques. Who among us, after all, would not like to reduce the number of negative emotions experienced in daily living?

Although I have been studying philosophy for all my adult life, I was, until recently, woefully ignorant of Stoicism. My teachers in college and graduate school never asked me to read the Stoics, and although I am an avid reader, I saw no need to read them on my own. More generally, I saw no need to ponder a philosophy of life. I instead felt comfortable with what is, for almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s days seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure. My philosophy of life, in other words, was what might charitably be called an enlightened form of hedonism.

In my fifth decade of life, though, events conspired to intro- duce me to Stoicism. The first of these was the 1998 publica- tion by the author Tom Wolfe of A Man in Full. In this novel, one character accidentally discovers the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and then starts spouting his philosophy. I found this to be simultaneously intriguing and puzzling.

Two years later I started doing research for a book about desire. As part of this research, I examined the advice that has been given over the millennia on mastering desire. I started out by seeing what religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and Buddhism (and in particular, Zen Buddhism), had to say about desire. I went on to examine the advice on mastering desire offered by philosophers but found that only a relative handful of them had offered such advice. Prominent among those who had were the Hellenistic philoso- phers: the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics.

In conducting my research on desire, I had an ulterior motive. I had long been intrigued by Zen Buddhism and imag- ined that on taking a closer look at it in connection with my research, I would become a full-fledged convert. But what I found, much to my surprise, was that Stoicism and Zen have certain things in common. They both, for example, stress the importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the importance of mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so. They also advise us to pursue tranquility and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it. Furthermore, I came to realize that Stoicism was better suited to my analytical nature than Buddhism was. As a result, I found myself, much to my amazement, toying with the idea of becoming, instead of a practicing Zen Buddhist, a practicing Stoic.

Before I began my research on desire, Stoicism had been, for me, a nonstarter as a philosophy of life, but as I read the Stoics, I discovered that almost everything I thought I knew about them was wrong. To begin with, I knew that the dictionary defines a stoic as “one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaf- fected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.”I therefore expected that the uppercase-S Stoics would be lowercase-s stoical—that they would be emotionally repressed individuals. I discovered, though, that the goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions.

When I read the works of the Stoics, I encountered indi- viduals who were cheerful and optimistic about life (even though they made it a point to spend time thinking about all the bad things that could happen to them) and who were fully capable of enjoying life’s pleasures (while at the same time being careful not to be enslaved by those pleasures). I also encountered, much to my surprise, individuals who valued joy; indeed, according to Seneca, what Stoics seek to discover “is how the mind may always pursue a steady and favourable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.” He also asserts that someone who prac- tices Stoic principles “must, whether he wills or not, necessarilybe attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus tells us that if we live in accordance with Stoic principles, “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow.

Rather than being passive individuals who were grimly resigned to being on the receiving end of the world’s abuse and injustice, the Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked hard to make the world a better place. Consider, for example, Cato the Younger. (Although he did not contribute to the liter- ature of Stoicism, Cato was a practicing Stoic; indeed, Seneca refers to him as the perfect Stoic.) His Stoicism did not prevent Cato from fighting bravely to restore the Roman republic. Likewise, Seneca seems to have been remarkably energetic: Besides being a philosopher, he was a successful playwright, an advisor to an emperor, and the first-century equivalent of an investment banker. And Marcus Aurelius, besides being a philosopher, was a Roman emperor—indeed, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. As I read about the Stoics, I found myself filled with admiration for them. They were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined—traits I would like to possess. They also thought it important for us to fulfill our obligations and to help our fellow humans—values I happen to share.

In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability. There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have. This seemed to be an important insight, but it left open the question of how, exactly, we could accomplish this. The Stoics, I was delighted to discover, had an answer to this question. They developed a fairly simple technique that, if practiced, can make us glad, if only for a time, to be the person we are, living the life we happen to be living, almost regardless of what that life might be.

The more I studied the Stoics, the more I found myself drawn to their philosophy. But when I tried to share with others my newfound enthusiasm for Stoicism, I quickly discov- ered that I had not been alone in misconceiving the philosophy. Friends, relatives, and even my colleagues at the university seemed to think the Stoics were individuals whose goal was to suppress all emotion and who therefore led grim and passive lives. It dawned on me that the Stoics were the victims of a bum rap, one that I myself had only recently helped promote.

This realization alone might have been sufficient to moti- vate me to write a book about the Stoics—a book that would set the record straight—but as it happens, I came to have a second motivation even stronger than this. After learning about Stoicism, I started, in a low-key, experimental fashion, giving it a try as my philosophy of life. The experiment has thus far been sufficiently successful that I feel compelled to report my find- ings to the world at large, in the belief that others might benefit from studying the Stoics and adopting their philosophy of life.

Readers will naturally be curious about what is involved in the practice of Stoicism. In ancient Greece and Rome, a would-be Stoic could have learned how to practice Stoicism by attending a Stoic school, but this is no longer possible. A modern would-be Stoic might, as an alternative, consult the works of the ancient Stoics, but what she will discover on attempting to do so is that many of these works—in particular, those of the Greek Stoics—have been lost. Furthermore, if she reads the works that have survived, she will discover that although they discuss Stoicism at length, they don’t offer a lesson plan, as it were, for novice Stoics. The challenge I faced in writing this book was to construct such a plan from clues scattered throughout Stoic writings.

Although the remainder of this book provides detailed guidelines for would-be Stoics, let me describe here, in a preliminary fashion, some of the things we will want to do if we adopt Stoicism as our philosophy of life.

We will reconsider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire— most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will discover that Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word. We will also discover that the tranquility the Stoics sought is not the kind of tranquility that might be brought on by the ingestion of a tranquilizer; it is not, in other words, a zombie-like state. It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

We will study the various psychological techniques devel- oped by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility, and we will employ these techniques in daily living. We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control. We will also recognize how easy it is for other people to disturb our tranquility, and we will therefore practice Stoic strategies to prevent them from upsetting us.

Finally, we will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life. We will watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to iden- tify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.

Practicing Stoicism will obviously take effort, but this is true of all genuine philosophies of life. Indeed, even “enlight- ened hedonism” takes effort. The enlightened hedonist’s grand goal in living is to maximize the pleasure he experiences in the course of a lifetime. To practice this philosophy of life, he will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. The enlightened hedonist will then devise strate- gies for maximizing the amount of pleasure he experiences. (Unenlightened hedonism, in which a person thoughtlessly seeks short-term gratification, is not, I think, a coherent philos- ophy of life.)

The effort required to practice Stoicism will probably be greater than that required to practice enlightened hedonism but less than that required to practice, say, Zen Buddhism.

A Zen Buddhist will have to meditate, a practice that is both time-consuming and (in some of its forms) physically and mentally challenging. The practice of Stoicism, in contrast, doesn’t require us to set aside blocks of time in which to “do Stoicism.” It does require us periodically to reflect on our life, but these periods of reflection can generally be squeezed into odd moments of the day, such as when we are stuck in traffic or—this was Seneca’s recommendation—when we are lying in bed waiting for sleep to come.

When assessing the “costs” associated with practicing Stoicism or any other philosophy of life, readers should realize that there are costs associated with not having a philosophy of life. I have already mentioned one such cost: the danger that you will spend your days pursuing valueless things and will therefore waste your life.

Some readers might, at this point, wonder whether the practice of Stoicism is compatible with their religious beliefs. In the case of most religions, I think it is. Christians in partic- ular will find that Stoic doctrines resonate with their religious views. They will, for example, share the Stoics’ desire to attain tranquility, although Christians might call it peace. They will appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s injunction to “love mankind.”And when they encounter Epictetus’s observation that some things are up to us and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will focus our energies on the things that are up to us, Christians will be reminded of the “Serenity Prayer,” often attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Having said this, I should add that it is also possible for someone simultaneously to be an agnostic and a practicing Stoic.

The remainder of this book is divided into four parts. In part 1, I describe the birth of philosophy. Although modern philos- ophers tend to spend their days debating esoteric topics, the primary goal of most ancient philosophers was to help ordi- nary people live better lives. Stoicism, as we shall see, was one of the most popular and successful of the ancient schools of philosophy.

In parts and 3, I explain what we must do in order to prac- tice Stoicism. I start by describing the psychological techniques the Stoics developed to attain and subsequently maintain tran- quility. I then describe Stoic advice on how best to deal with the stresses of everyday life: How, for example, should we respond when someone insults us? Although much has changed in the past two millennia, human psychology has changed little. This is why those of us living in the twenty-first century can benefit from the advice that philosophers such as Seneca offered to first-century Romans.

Finally, in part of this book, I defend Stoicism against various criticisms, and I reevaluate Stoic psychology in light of modern scientific findings. I end the book by relating the insights I have gained in my own practice of Stoicism.

My fellow academics might have an interest in this book; they might, for example, be curious about my interpretation of various Stoic utterances. The audience I am most interested in reaching, though, is ordinary individuals who worry that they might be misliving. This includes those who have come to the realization that they lack a coherent philosophy of life and as a result are floundering in their daily activities: what they work to accomplish one day only undoes what they accomplished the day before. It also includes those who have a philosophy of life but worry that it is somehow defective.

I wrote this book with the following question in mind: If the ancient Stoics had taken it upon themselves to write a guidebook for twenty-first-century individuals—a book that would tell us how to have a good life—what might that book have looked like? The pages that follow are my answer to this question.

Link: Being a Better Online Reader

The science of why (at least for now) we absorb and understand less when we read digitally instead of in print.

Soon after Maryanne Wolf published “Proust and the Squid,” a history of the science and the development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century, she began to receive letters from readers. Hundreds of them. While the backgrounds of the writers varied, a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand. There were the architects who wrote to her about students who relied so heavily on ready digital information that they were unprepared to address basic problems onsite. There were the neurosurgeons who worried about the “cut-and-paste chart mentality” that their students exhibited, missing crucial details because they failed to delve deeply enough into any one case. And there were, of course, the English teachers who lamented that no one wanted to read Henry James anymore. As the letters continued to pour in, Wolf experienced a growing realization: in the seven years it had taken her to research and write her account, reading had changed profoundly—and the ramifications could be felt far beyond English departments and libraries. She called the rude awakening her “Rip van Winkle moment,” and decided that it was important enough to warrant another book. What was going on with these students and professionals? Was the digital format to blame for their superficial approaches, or was something else at work?

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

The online world, too, tends to exhaust our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions. And our eyes themselves may grow fatigued from the constantly shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts, an effect that holds for e-readers as well as computers. Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design online and in print, has found that the layout of a text can have a significant effect on the reading experience. We read more quickly when lines are longer, but only to a point. When lines are too long, it becomes taxing to move your eyes from the end of one to the start of the next. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than multiple columns or sections. The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.

The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analyzing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen’s research focusses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book—its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages—may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard some say it’s like they haven’t read anything properly if they’ve read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,” she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn’t have the same tangibility.

In new research that she and her colleagues will present for the first time at the upcoming conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, in Torino, Italy, Mangen is finding that that may indeed be the case. She, along with her frequent collaborator Jean-Luc Velay, Pascal Robinet, and Gerard Olivier, had students read a short story—Elizabeth George’s “Lusting for Jenny, Inverted” (their version, a French translation, was called “Jenny, Mon Amour”)—in one of two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers’ comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order—a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking—those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical—Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page—but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.

Wolf’s concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the “sophisticated comprehension processes,” as Wolf calls it, that those young architects and doctors were missing. “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

Of course, as Wolf is quick to point out, there’s still no longitudinal data about digital reading. As she put it, “We’re in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension.” And it’s quite possible that the apprehension is misplaced: perhaps digital reading isn’t worse so much as different than print reading. Julie Coiro, who studies digital reading comprehension in elementary- and middle-school students at the University of Rhode Island, has found that good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen. The students do not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium. The online world, she argues, may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book. “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book,” she says. “On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you’re the kind of person who’s naturally good at self-monitoring, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”

Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention. (Interestingly, Cairo found that gamers were often better online readers: they were more comfortable in the medium and better able to stay on task.) In a study comparing digital and print comprehension of a short nonfiction text, Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith found that students fared equally well on a post-reading multiple-choice test when they were given a fixed amount of time to read, but that their digital performance plummeted when they had to regulate their time themselves. The digital deficit, they suggest, isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.

Last year, Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that multitasking while reading on a computer or a tablet slowed readers down, but their comprehension remained unaffected. What did suffer was the quality of a subsequent report that they wrote to synthesize their reading: if they read the original texts on paper or a computer with no Internet access, their end product was superior to that of their Internet-enabled counterparts. If the online readers took notes on paper, however, the negative effects of Internet access were significantly reduced. It wasn’t the screen that disrupted the fuller synthesis of deep reading; it was the allure of multitasking on the Internet and a failure to properly mitigate its impact.

Indeed, some data suggest that, in certain environments and on certain types of tasks, we can read equally well in any format. As far back as 1988, the University College of Swansea psychologists David Oborne and Doreen Holton compared text comprehension for reading on different screens and paper formats (dark characters on a light background, or light characters on a dark background), and found no differences in speed and comprehension between the four conditions. Their subjects, of course, didn’t have the Internet to distract them. In 2011, Annette Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Diego, similarly found that students performed equally well on a twenty-question multiple-choice comprehension test whether they had read a chapter on-screen or on paper. Given a second test one week later, the two groups’ performances were still indistinguishable. And it’s not just reading. Last year, Sigal Eden and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai found no difference in accuracy between students who edited a six-hundred-word paper on the screen and those who worked on paper. Those who edited on-screen did so faster, but their performance didn’t suffer.

We need to be aware of the effects of deeper digital immersion, Wolf says, but we should be equally cautious when we draw causal arrows or place blame without adequate longitudinal research. “I’m both the Cassandra and the advocate of digital reading,” she says. Maybe her letter writers’ students weren’t victims of digitization so much as victims of insufficient training—and insufficient care—in the tools of managing a shifting landscape of reading and thinking. Deep-reading skills, Wolf points out, may not be emphasized in schools that conform to the Common Core, for instance, and need to meet certain test-taking reading targets that emphasize gist at the expense of depth. “Physical, tangible books give children a lot of time,” she says. “And the digital milieu speeds everything up. So we need to do things much more slowly and gradually than we are.” Not only should digital reading be introduced more slowly into the curriculum; it also should be integrated with the more immersive reading skills that deeper comprehension requires.

Wolf is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print—if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness. In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how. Wolf is now working on digital apps to train students in the tools of deep reading, to use the digital world to teach the sorts of skills we tend to associate with quiet contemplation and physical volumes. “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment,” she says. “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

Wolf has decided that, despite all of her training in deep reading, she, too, needs some outside help. To finish her book, she has ensconced herself in a small village in France with shaky mobile reception and shakier Internet. Faced with the endless distraction of the digital world, she has chosen to tune out just a bit of it. She’s not going backward; she’s merely adapting.

Link: BBC's In Our Time: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

Melvyn Bragg and guests David Bradshaw, Daniel Pick and Michele Barrett discuss Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. In Act V Scene I of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character Miranda declares ‘O wonder! How many Godly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O Brave new world! That has such people in it!’. It is perhaps the only line of Shakespeare to be made famous by someone else, for Brave New World is not associated with Prospero’s Island of sprites, magic and wondrous noises, but with Aldous Huxley’s dystopia of eugenics, soma and zero gravity tennis. A world, incidentally, upon which literary references to Shakespeare would be entirely lost. Brave New World is a lurid, satirical dystopia in which the hopes and fears of the 1930s are writ large and yet the book seems uncannily prescient about our own time. But why did Huxley feel the need to write it and is Brave New World really as dystopian as we are led to believe?

Link: The Enchiridion by Epictetus

1. Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

2. Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched. If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse. But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.

3. With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

4. When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.

5. Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

6. Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.

7. Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.

8. Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

10. With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.

11. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

12. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: "If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

13. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.

14. If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice,” but something else. But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.

15. Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.

16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

18. When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”

19. You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

20. Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.

21. Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you win never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.

22. If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say,.” He is returned to us a philosopher all at once,” and ” Whence this supercilious look?” Now, for your part, don’t have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you as one appointed by God to this station. For remember that, if you adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.

23. If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life. Be contented, then, in everything with being a philosopher; and, if you wish to be thought so likewise by anyone, appear so to yourself, and it will suffice you.

24. Don’t allow such considerations as these distress you. "I will live in dishonor, and be nobody anywhere." For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base. Is it any business of yours, then, to get power, or to be admitted to an entertainment? By no means. How, then, after all, is this a dishonor? And how is it true that you will be nobody anywhere, when you ought to be somebody in those things only which are in your own control, in which you may be of the greatest consequence? “But my friends will be unassisted.” — What do you mean by unassisted? They will not have money from you, nor will you make them Roman citizens. Who told you, then, that these are among the things in our own control, and not the affair of others? And who can give to another the things which he has not himself? “Well, but get them, then, that we too may have a share.” If I can get them with the preservation of my own honor and fidelity and greatness of mind, show me the way and I will get them; but if you require me to lose my own proper good that you may gain what is not good, consider how inequitable and foolish you are. Besides, which would you rather have, a sum of money, or a friend of fidelity and honor? Rather assist me, then, to gain this character than require me to do those things by which I may lose it. Well, but my country, say you, as far as depends on me, will be unassisted. Here again, what assistance is this you mean? “It will not have porticoes nor baths of your providing.” And what signifies that? Why, neither does a smith provide it with shoes, or a shoemaker with arms. It is enough if everyone fully performs his own proper business. And were you to supply it with another citizen of honor and fidelity, would not he be of use to it? Yes. Therefore neither are you yourself useless to it. “What place, then, say you, will I hold in the state?” Whatever you can hold with the preservation of your fidelity and honor. But if, by desiring to be useful to that, you lose these, of what use can you be to your country when you are become faithless and void of shame.

25. Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.

26. The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, “This is a human accident.” but if anyone’s own child happens to die, it is presently, “Alas I how wretched am I!” But it should be remembered how we are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others.

27. As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.

28. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

29. In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist. “I would conquer at the Olympic games.” But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war. Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing at all. Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination. Thus some, when they have seen a philosopher and heard a man speaking like Euphrates (though, indeed, who can speak like him?), have a mind to be philosophers too. Consider first, man, what the matter is, and what your own nature is able to bear. If you would be a wrestler, consider your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different things. Do you think that you can act as you do, and be a philosopher? That you can eat and drink, and be angry and discontented as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintance, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything, in magistracies, in honors, in courts of judicature. When you have considered all these things round, approach, if you please; if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase apathy, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, don’t come here; don’t, like children, be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.

30. Duties are universally measured by relations. Is anyone a father? If so, it is implied that the children should take care of him, submit to him in everything, patiently listen to his reproaches, his correction. But he is a bad father. Is you naturally entitled, then, to a good father? No, only to a father. Is a brother unjust? Well, keep your own situation towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do to keep your own faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature. For another will not hurt you unless you please. You will then be hurt when you think you are hurt. In this manner, therefore, you will find, from the idea of a neighbor, a citizen, a general, the corresponding duties if you accustom yourself to contemplate the several relations.

31. Be assured that the essential property of piety towards the gods is to form right opinions concerning them, as existing “I and as governing the universe with goodness and justice. And fix yourself in this resolution, to obey them, and yield to them, and willingly follow them in all events, as produced by the most perfect understanding. For thus you will never find fault with the gods, nor accuse them as neglecting you. And it is not possible for this to be effected any other way than by withdrawing yourself from things not in our own control, and placing good or evil in those only which are. For if you suppose any of the things not in our own control to be either good or evil, when you are disappointed of what you wish, or incur what you would avoid, you must necessarily find fault with and blame the authors. For every animal is naturally formed to fly and abhor things that appear hurtful, and the causes of them; and to pursue and admire those which appear beneficial, and the causes of them. It is impractical, then, that one who supposes himself to be hurt should be happy about the person who, he thinks, hurts him, just as it is impossible to be happy about the hurt itself. Hence, also, a father is reviled by a son, when he does not impart to him the things which he takes to be good; and the supposing empire to be a good made Polynices and Eteocles mutually enemies. On this account the husbandman, the sailor, the merchant, on this account those who lose wives and children, revile the gods. For where interest is, there too is piety placed. So that, whoever is careful to regulate his desires and aversions as he ought, is, by the very same means, careful of piety likewise. But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.

32. When you have recourse to divination, remember that you know not what the event will be, and you come to learn it of the diviner; but of what nature it is you know before you come, at least if you are a philosopher. For if it is among the things not in our own control, it can by no means be either good or evil. Don’t, therefore, bring either desire or aversion with you to the diviner (else you will approach him trembling), but first acquire a distinct knowledge that every event is indifferent and nothing to you., of whatever sort it may be, for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder; then come with confidence to the gods, as your counselors, and afterwards, when any counsel is given you, remember what counselors you have assumed, and whose advice you will neglect if you disobey. Come to divination, as Socrates prescribed, in cases of which the whole consideration relates to the event, and in which no opportunities are afforded by reason, or any other art, to discover the thing proposed to be learned. When, therefore, it is our duty to share the danger of a friend or of our country, we ought not to consult the oracle whether we will share it with them or not. For, though the diviner should forewarn you that the victims are unfavorable, this means no more than that either death or mutilation or exile is portended. But we have reason within us, and it directs, even with these hazards, to the greater diviner, the Pythian god, who cast out of the temple the person who gave no assistance to his friend while another was murdering him.

33. Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.

Don’t allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse.

Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.

Avoid public and vulgar entertainments; but, if ever an occasion calls you to them, keep your attention upon the stretch, that you may not imperceptibly slide into vulgar manners. For be assured that if a person be ever so sound himself, yet, if his companion be infected, he who converses with him will be infected likewise.

Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.

As far as possible, before marriage, keep yourself pure from familiarities with women, and, if you indulge them, let it be lawfully.” But don’t therefore be troublesome and full of reproofs to those who use these liberties, nor frequently boast that you yourself don’t.

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ” He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

It is not necessary for you to appear often at public spectacles; but if ever there is a proper occasion for you to be there, don’t appear more solicitous for anyone than for yourself; that is, wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance. But abstain entirely from declamations and derision and violent emotions. And when you come away, don’t discourse a great deal on what has passed, and what does not contribute to your own amendment. For it would appear by such discourse that you were immoderately struck with the show.

Go not [of your own accord] to the rehearsals of any
authors , nor appear [at them] readily. But, if you do appear, keepyour gravity and sedateness, and at the same time avoid being morose.

When you are going to confer with anyone, and particularly of those in a superior station, represent to yourself how Socrates or Zeno would behave in such a case, and you will not be at a loss to make a proper use of whatever may occur.

When you are going to any of the people in power, represent to yourself that you will not find him at home; that you will not be admitted; that the doors will not be opened to you; that he will take no notice of you. If, with all this, it is your duty to go, bear what happens, and never say [to yourself], ” It was not worth so much.” For this is vulgar, and like a man dazed by external things.

In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures. Avoid, likewise, an endeavor to excite laughter. For this is a slippery point, which may throw you into vulgar manners, and, besides, may be apt to lessen you in the esteem of your acquaintance. Approaches to indecent discourse are likewise dangerous. Whenever, therefore, anything of this sort happens, if there be a proper opportunity, rebuke him who makes advances that way; or, at least, by silence and blushing and a forbidding look, show yourself to be displeased by such talk.

34. If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a victory.

35. When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for, if you don’t act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those who censure you wrongly?

36. As the proposition, “Either it is day or it is night,” is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.

37. If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both made an ill figure in that and quitted one which you might have supported.

38. When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.

39. The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.

40. Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of “mistresses” by the men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place ill their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them sensible that they are valued for the appearance of decent, modest and discreet behavior.

41. It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to be long in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These should be done incidentally and slightly, and our whole attention be engaged in the care of the understanding.

42. When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.”

43. Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

44. These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don’t say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don’t say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.

46. Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

47. When you have brought yourself to supply the necessities of your body at a small price, don’t pique yourself upon it; nor, if you drink water, be saying upon every occasion, “I drink water.” But first consider how much more sparing and patient of hardship the poor are than we. But if at any time you would inure yourself by exercise to labor, and bearing hard trials, do it for your own sake, and not for the world; don’t grasp statues, but, when you are violently thirsty, take a little cold water in your mouth, and spurt it out and tell nobody.

48. The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice; the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in ambush.

49. When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ” Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity. But what do I desire? To understand nature and follow her. I ask, then, who interprets her, and, finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I don’t understand his writings. I seek, therefore, one to interpret them.” So far there is nothing to value myself upon. And when I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian instead of a philosopher? Except, indeed, that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus. When anyone, therefore, desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I cannot show my actions agreeable and consonant to his discourse.

50. Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? You are no longer a boy, but a grown man. If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar. This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law. And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.

51. The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this is a demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.

52. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

“Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.”
Cleanthes

“I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.”
Euripides, Frag. 965

And this third:

“0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.”
Plato’s Crito and Apology

Link: Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children ?

The classic moral stories have been used extensively to teach children about the consequences of lying and the virtue of honesty. Despite their widespread use, there is no evidence whether these stories actually promote honesty in children. This study compared the effectiveness of four classic moral stories in promoting honesty in 3-to 7-year-olds. Surprisingly, the stories of “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. In contrast, the apocryphal story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth telling. Further results suggest that the reason for the difference in honesty-promoting effectiveness between the “George Washington” story and the other stories wa s that the former emphasizes the positive consequences of honesty, whereas the latter focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty. When the “George Washington” story was altered to focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty, it too failed to promote honesty in children.

Link: Aleksandar Hemon on Man’s Inhumanity to Man

The Bosnian novelist discusses five books on man’s inhumanity to man, including works by Primo Levi and Cormac McCarthy - and Borowski’s chillingly titled This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentleme.

Can you describe Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man?

It’s called Survival in Auschwitz in the US to give it a positive spin – that’s the American publishing world: the Holocaust is all right as long as there are survivors. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, arrested in 1944 after Italy capitulated and the Nazis took over. He was shipped off to Auschwitz, but because he had a chemical degree, or because he was lucky – which was how he saw it – he was working in the chemical factory in Auschwitz, which was a technological venture. So he managed to survive and see the end, and in fact the book also deals with the last ten days when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz and the Russian troops had not yet arrived. Levi went back to Italy, indeed to the very same apartment where he was born, so his life was interrupted horribly. And then he wrote about his experiences, and eventually he committed suicide.

He bears witness to the Holocaust, but he’s a scientist, and he needs to understand the ethical system, as it were, behind those crimes. However perverted it is, he’s trying to understand how it works. So he talks about individual experiences, including his own. They’re always examples of a larger – I don’t want to say theory – but of a larger proposition or explanation. He unpacks the formula, as it were, behind it all. So it’s the victory of reason – or the proper kind of reason, as opposed to the Nazi kind of reason. The Holocaust was not madness: it was a technology, a system, and therefore rational. And Levi regains reason, by treating his experience in Auschwitz as something that is subject to rational analysis.

Your next book?

This is a book of stories which was originally published immediately after WWII, so they were very fresh, by Tadeusz Borowski: a young Pole who was a member of the Resistance, and who was arrested and incarcerated. He was an Auschwitz survivor. He killed himself while still in his 20s. The title story: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is about a group of inmates whose duties are to help unload the transport. It’s a horrifying story. It’s a horrifying book. He was not Jewish. So while Primo Levi talks from a superior moral position, from the point of view of a Jew, and someone for whom the starting point of the whole thing was the worthlessness of their life, Tadeusz Borowski could make choices, albeit under enormous moral and ethical pressures. He shows the dehumanisation of Auschwitz from a slightly different angle. It seems that the narrator makes the wrong choice: to go for survival at the expense of any respectful ethical choice. But that just shows how hard it was there. It’s not just suffering; it’s the violence and the ethics of it.

There’s another story where the inmates are playing football, and on the other side of the barbed wire fence is a transport. The narrator goes to get the ball when it goes out, and can see thousands of people lining up. Next time he goes to get the ball, there’s no one, and, he says, thousands of people perished between those two moments. So the narrator is not someone who wants to bear witness because it’s his ethical duty – which is Primo Levi’s position. The narrator in Borowski is someone who selfishly, so it seems, wants to protect himself from death and hunger – but at the same time he cannot but see what is happening: so he has this struggle which is horrifying in and of itself, and at the same time dehumanising and humanising. The struggle to stay a human being in a challenging situation is that if you want to stay a human being ethically, you have to stay a human being physically. And that’s what his struggle is, so it bears witness to the Holocaust in a different way.

Red Cavalry?

This is a fictionalised account of the expedition of the Red Cavalry – the Soviet expeditionary force – which in 1920 attacked Poland, hoping to reach Warsaw and establish a Soviet government. Babel was sent with the Red Cavalry as a reporter for a propaganda newspaper, and it’s based on his diaries. Red Cavalry begins with the Cossack troops crossing the River Zbrucz. After crossing, the narrator sees the sun rolling on the horizon like a lopped off head, and then you know that it’s not going to be comfortable. The book is made up of autonomous stories in which the central narrator is Lyutov, who’s obviously standing in for Babel, because he’s bookish and wears glasses. They are not always about Lyutov – sometimes he just reports or pretends to be reporting, and sometimes they are about how he works with the Cossack troops. Lyutov is Jewish – it is not always clear if the Cossacks know that. Cossacks, of course, practice the sport of killing Jews whenever they can. So Lyutov and Babel are in a very awkward position of at the same time being presumably loyal to the Revolution and to their comrades the Cossacks, and also to the tradition of Jews, and of non-violent engagement with the world. Lyutov does not adapt: he says he does not have that most basic of capabilities – to kill a man – and he fails as a Cossack in more ways than one.

It is an incredible piece of literature. Babel has an aesthetic that corresponds to not only his sensibility, but also to his awkward circumstance. You can sense the conflict between the sentences: they don’t flow smoothly, logically from each another; there’s a dialectic of narration, and you can sense the discipline. It was tricky for him: how to bear witness to things, how to talk about the fact that Cossacks were killing Jews, without being sent before a firing squad.

He failed that test?

Well, yes – although in the 1920s Babel apologised to the Cossack leader, Budyonny, and said the book was a mistake. But then he stayed put and never wrote anything like that again, vegetated as a writer, and was shot eventually. His last recorded words were to the NKVD agent who picked him up. Babel said to him, ‘You’re pretty busy these days.’

Blood Meridian?

It’s possibly the greatest American novel of the past 25 years. It is unique. Blood Meridian is amazing, because it’s so rigid in its outlook, so committed to its vision, that it does not care about the conflict of the reader who, if sane, has to be uncomfortable. It is the most violent book I have read. This is a book about a bunch of scalp-hunters in Southwestern American territories before the Civil War, who were hired to hunt, kill, and scalp Native Americans. It follows them as they ride on and roam around killing Indians, committing horrible massacres. It is quite literally apocalyptic. There’s a stretch of about 60 pages, when the only subject is the group, and the most common sentence is ‘They rode on’.

What is most uncomfortable for the reader is that there’s no space in the book from which you can judge it, no space into which the reader could step to protect himself or herself from this world – there are no good guys. Of course, you can close the book and go away, but there’s one scene of a massacre of Indians that is one continuous sentence for a couple of pages. If the sentence ends, or if it’s broken up into little sentences you could quit after, you know, the 25th sentence, but they are strung together paratactically, and you ride on in the sentence.

There’s also to my mind the most amazing character in American fiction in the 20th century: the Judge, who provides theories that justify the world in which these men operate. Also what I like about it is that it entirely blocks the kind of reading that is based on empathy. You cannot identify ethically or morally, or even intellectually or psychologically, with any of the characters. There’s no expression of emotion, no interiority: those men act, and when they act, they act violently. It desensitises you; not because you don’t care, but because the violence is a part of a larger plan. It is not a question of individual agency but rather of the state of the world, or the underlying laws that govern the world.

Tell me about The Known World.

It’s a novel about slavery, but specifically the few recorded instances of black slave-owners, and it’s a masterful, masterful work, the most complete work of literary imagination in recent American fiction. Edward P. Jones could be one of the greatest living American writers. Again it blocks the simple emotional reading that provides redemption, and teaches you that slavery was bad. It shows how dehumanising the whole system was, not only to the slaves, but to everyone involved; it is quite literally soul-emptying. It is of course, again, in some ways like the Holocaust: it was not madness, it was a rational system, an economic system in which all participated in various ways. Even among the slaves there were differences and hierarchies, and degrees of ethical involvement with the issue of slavery. Jones narrates, or manages, dozens of characters. They’re all individually defined, but there’s no central consciousness the way there might be in a straight up psychological novel that you follow as it progresses through some sort of sociological landscape, and so it’s like he’s conducting an orchestra of characters. He shifts from one to the other and has this particular narrative device in which he goes beyond the knowledge of his characters to tell the reader what will happen to them in the years after slavery. The suffering is not simply the physical suffering of individuals; it goes well beyond that. It goes to the heart of the system.

What Jones does is very important, I believe, when we’re talking about war and violence and suffering: not to reduce the understanding to a mere emotional response. Of course the Holocaust is horrifying, of course slavery is horrifying, but if you just see emotional release and redemption then you never understand it and never experience it as a reader.

Why did you choose this subject to talk about?

There’s a way of reading books that’s common in the United States, which is to identify with the best person in the book. And there are complications related to this particular mode of reading: you have to react emotionally to texts, and then analyse your emotions as though you’re analysing a text, and then in that emotional release find redemption. As far as Primo Levi goes, that doesn’t really do anything. It’s hard for me to feel better about the Holocaust when I read Primo Levi. Blood Meridian is the most radical in that sense, in that it’s obviously not about the Holocaust or anything comparable, but it simply does not allow you to assert your moral and human superiority. It confronts you with things that you would rather not know, and it blocks this emotional reading: you have to think about it.

Link: Trigger for What

The demand for trigger warnings on literature in college courses is not students’ seeking coddling but a reflection of the false universality of “great books” syllabi.

Is college itself triggering? A recent New York Times article presented a burgeoning movement on college campuses, involving students barely old enough for  R-rated movies asking for course materials to bear “trigger warnings” — a message appearing at the top of, say, a blog post about sexual violence (or eating disorders, self-harm, etc.), alerting readers with whichever concern that the content may be upsetting to them personally. These, as Jenny Jarvie noted in The New Republic, began on some of the more earnest progressive blogs but have since expanded to new contexts on- and offline. The idea behind trigger warnings is to allow readers to avoid exposure to material they may find traumatizing, but whether trigger warnings’ main function in practice is to protect the vulnerable or attract the prurient is an open question.

As long as trigger warnings were associated with online content only, they were regarded as relatively trivial, but the stakes have increased as they have moved from discussion forums to the educational system. The students who want warnings claim to be concerned for the mental health of their classmates and are perhaps better-attuned than their professors to the prevalence of sexual violence on their campuses. They seem mainly want to professors to alert their classes before presenting violent or tremendously sexually explicit materials — a reasonable enough request. But they also, the Times reported, argue that professors should warn, for example, that The Merchant of Venice “contains anti-Semitism.” In a school paper op-ed linked to by the Times, one student  wants instructors to come prepared knowing exactly which passages from all assigned books could possibly upset a reader — revealing profound but reasonable ignorance of what course prep for instructors entails. (“Professors can also dissect a narrative’s passage, warning their students which sections or volumes of a book possess triggering material and which are safer to read.” No, they probably can’t, if they also hope to sleep.) Some students at Oberlin wanted syllabi combed for “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).” Any literature that could possibly offend anybody — which is to say, any literature at all — would qualify.

The trigger-warnings-for-literature story gave something for critics of academia across the political spectrum to agree on. Conservatives, who already suspect that academia is a joke, were predictably horrified by this and latched on to the story to decry “the steamroller of political correctness” on campus. It also fed into broader anxieties about helicopter parenting and about the consumerization of higher ed. Putting advisory labels on books seemed to run counter to the liberalidea of education as a means of challenging young people’s pre-existing notions. Even many who are on the left politically — and I’m thinking of college professors — support the idea that instructors should have the authority to decide what students must read to learn. If some of the backlash came from a place of stodginess, though, most of it was about the fact that some find it quite simply hilarious to imagine having to enumerate everything upsetting that happens in literature and pinning that information onto syllabi. Several of the 1,359 commenters to the Times piece made that now-standard response to anything absurd, claiming to have confused the article with something from The Onion. One professor even developed a full-on parody syllabus, complete with targeted trigger warnings for the major events in American history. (For the Second World War: “No need for Germans, Italians, or Japanese — or their descendants — to show up. We won, they lost. Any questions?” Canadians, meanwhile, are advised to skip the class on the War of 1812.)

Because “trigger warnings” on literature are so plainly ridiculous, it’s easy to forget the possibly quite sensible place such a request might be coming from. I majored in — then went on to get a doctorate in — French literature. I’m Jewish, and in course after course, I began to notice all these Jews in French literature, all these conniving juifs, and their raven-haired juive daughters. They were moneylenders and social climbers, prostitutes and captive, aristocrat-seducing virgins. Background figures set apart from the real story, whose protagonist couldn’t possibly be a Jew. A person — someone whose experience could represent the universal human one — was, by definition, a straight, white, Christian man from a well-off or aristocratic family. Jews and other marginalized sorts might help tell the story of man but couldn’t be him.

I suppose I was “triggered,” in a sense, by what Voltaire and so forth had to say about Jews. Not traumatized, fine, but it is jarring to read hatred directed at the likes of you. There was clearly a disconnect between the “we” who were part of Western/French/“universal” civilization and meant to relate to the author, and the “they” who were … me. Why some people did and didn’t count as French, and by extension as human, is the sort of question that is regularly addressed in graduate school, but often they are thought beyond the scope of an undergrad curriculum.

The “Great Books” approach — the one many colleges and observers outside academia see as essential to a liberal-arts education — asks students to read texts, with very little sense of their original context, by and about a small subset of humanity, and to treat the content of those books as universal. Initiation in this corpus is meant to teach critical thinking skills in a way that reading from contemporary media sources supposedly doesn’t. Part of the goal is teaching students to confront challenging primary documents head-on. But it’s also about reinforcing the idea of a continuous West, with which every student is expected to seamlessly identify.

My own alma mater, the University of Chicago, has an intro course with the universal-sounding title Human Being and Citizen. According to the course description, students “read and discuss seminal works of the Western tradition, selected both because they illumine the central questions and because, read together, they form a compelling record of human inquiry.” While it’s also possible to take intro courses on particular histories (African, Russian, even “Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations”), the universal — that which demands no justification — remains white and male as ever. Or take Middlebury’s English offerings. You might think any school with a course called Feminist Blogging can’t be all that conservative. But if you look at which creators get no-explanation-necessary courses (Hitchcock, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Nabokov, Stoppard …), it starts to become clear that even with the addition of the sorts of courses that so horrify conservative critics, nothing has changed in the overall terms of the discussion. The “universal” hasn’t budged.

Students who don’t see themselves (that is, female characters, characters of color, etc.) in books deemed “great” — or, more to the point, who see characters similar to themselves treated as less than human — notice this pattern and want to discuss it. But students haven’t been given the tools to address these questions. They don’t know where to begin when it comes to looking at the range of views at a given time. Nor are they likely to learn that even back in the supposedly uniformly un-PC then, the Others themselves often protested the very same arguments as ring offensive today. I remember being altogether stunned that, in the 1840s, French Jews had almost the exact same reaction to a certain essay I’d been studying as I did.

A student seeking answers to such questions may be directed toward identity-based “Studies” options (Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, Queer Studies, etc.) whose framework, while it addresses or anticipates students’ identity-centered complaints, remains shunted off apart from literature and the “great books” that define humans in the universal. The demand for trigger warnings, then, though impractical at best and silencing at worst, may point to a deeper and more appropriate response to having one’s difference made exceptional or invisible — the demand for trigger warnings is a demand for a change in the tenor of discussion around their required readings.

One might argue that trigger warnings fail only in not going far enough, and what is called for is the abolishing of misrepresentative Great Books course requirements. But there is value in a shared frame of cultural reference, which an evolving but somewhat stable canon can provide. Literary value isn’t entirely a construct, and certain texts – some better than others – have had undeniable influence on the society today’s college students live in. If nothing else, it helps to get references to famous books one finds within other famous books without requiring footnotes. So rather than cancel such courses (an unlikely outcome, given that these remain the standbys of undergraduate curricula, and that doctoral degrees continue to be conferred on those who’ve proven their mastery of that material), instructors should find ways to incorporate identity into such courses. But this means dispensing with the assumption that a white male perspective is universal and that any other is particular.

A better approach would be to look at the question of who gets to count as a representative of the human experience as itself one of the big universal questions literature helps address, rather than treat it as a distraction. After all, questions of power and representation are themselves just as big and open-ended as the others — truth, love, jealousy — one is meant to be looking for in a book that is deemed to qualify as great.

Link: The Gay Nabokov

In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Nabokov and his four siblings posed for a photograph as a present for their mother. The children were in Yalta, in exile from their native St. Petersburg. In the photo, the air of the fabulous wealth and privilege they grew up in still clings to them. The girls are wearing matching sailor suits. Little Elena, Vladimir’s younger sister, holds a patient pet dachshund in her lap.

In the background looms a serious and rather beautiful young man dressed entirely in black. His intense gaze meets the camera’s through an exquisite pince-nez. He is not Vladimir, who is wearing a bow tie and looking hilariously full of himself. He is Sergei Nabokov, born 11 months after his famous brother and with a very different fate ahead of him.

Vladimir Nabokov, of course, would go on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century, earning not only critical acclaim but international fame and financial success as well. Sergei would never be famous — in fact, his existence has been all but covered up by his family — but in its own way his life would be just as remarkable. Shy, awkward and foppish, the opposite of his gregarious brother, Sergei had a secret: He was gay.

Sergei’s homosexuality would cast a long shadow over his strange and heroic life, and it would also, ultimately, be the cause of his horrifying and untimely death. It cast a shadow over Vladimir’s life as well: He loved his brother, but whatever else he may have been — a brilliant writer, a loving father — Vladimir was a confirmed homophobe, and his gay brother was a constant source of shame, confusion and regret to him.

Vladimir’s tortured relationship with Sergei is one of the secret stories of an otherwise very public life, and Nabokov scholars are only now slowly coming to terms with the depths of Nabokov’s prejudice. They’re also becoming increasingly aware that Sergei is a crucially important figure in his brother’s work, a presence with whom Nabokov grappled, in different ways and with different degrees of success, throughout his lengthy oeuvre. Meanwhile, the facts of Sergei’s life are still obscure — forgotten or concealed behind euphemisms or confined to the dusty realm of footnotes and archives.

It’s a question worthy of a Nabokov novel: How could the lives of two brothers, both brilliant and talented, both rich and handsome, have led to two such different places: one to literary immortality, the other to the hell of a Nazi concentration camp?

Sergei Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg on March 12, 1900. The Nabokovs were members of imperial Russia’s most exclusive social circles, and the children grew up in a glamorous whirl of country estates, liveried servants, balls, boating parties and annual vacations in Biarritz, France, and on the Riviera. The family was extraordinarily wealthy; their lineage included princes and generals and government ministers, and even their faithful dog, Box II, was descended from a pair that belonged to Anton Chekhov. Nabokov once told an interviewer, “I probably had the happiest childhood imaginable.”

But Sergei did not. While Vladimir was the eldest and the center of attention, Sergei grew up out of the limelight, shy and unhappy and somewhat odd. Elena Sikorski, nie Nabokov, the girl with the dachshund in her lap, is now 93 and the last surviving Nabokov sibling, but she remembers her aristocratic Russian youth with absolute clarity. When I telephoned her at her home in Geneva to ask about Sergei, she spoke of him fondly, but not without regret. Her voice is surprisingly deep, with an elegant, stateless European accent and just a hint of a quaver. “He was not the favorite of the family,” she recalls. “I think that he was rather miserable during his childhood.”

Nabokov was fascinated by doubles, and his work is full of them — mirrors, twins, reflections, chance resemblances. Sergei was his brother’s double, a “shadow in the background,” as Nabokov put it. All his life Vladimir would be the golden wordsmith, the master of language; Sergei was afflicted with an atrocious stutter that would only get worse as he got older. He idolized Napoleon and slept with a bronze bust of him in his bed. He also loved music, particularly Richard Wagner, and he studied the piano seriously. Vladimir, by contrast, was almost pathologically insensitive to music, which he once described as “an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.” He would creep up behind Sergei while he was practicing and poke him in the ribs — something he remembered with bitter remorse in later life. “They were never friends when they were children,” says Sikorski. “There was always a sort of aversion.”

Nabokov said that he hardly remembered Sergei as a boy. He once wrote, “I could describe my whole youth in detail without recalling him once.” But Sergei lurks in every corner of “Speak, Memory,” Nabokov’s 1951 memoir, “quiet and listless,” peering at his older brother “like a little owl,” or stumbling around a roller rink in Berlin as his indefatigable brother repeatedly laps him. In a photo of the two boys taken in 1909 in front of their grandmother’s mansion, 10-year-old Vladimir stands with his hands on his hips, legs apart, imperiously staring down the camera. Sergei hides under the brim of his sun hat, one arm held protectively across his midsection, the other stroking his cheek in a strikingly girlish gesture. In retrospect it seems surprising that it took the rest of the family as long as it did to discover what Sergei probably already knew.

When he was 15 and Vladimir 16, Vladimir found Sergei’s diary open on his desk and read it. He showed it to their tutor, who showed it to the children’s father. In retelling the incident Nabokov writes, with uncharacteristic dryness, that Sergei’s journal “abruptly provided a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behavior on his part.”

Among those oddities was Sergei’s withdrawal from the famously progressive Tenishev school, an all-boy private school also attended by Nabokov and by poet Osip Mandelstam. According to Nabokov’s principal biographer, Brian Boyd, Sergei left because of a series of “unhappy romances.” It’s unlikely that he found much sympathy within his immediate family. According to Sikorski, who quaintly refers to Sergei’s homosexuality as his “attitude,” the family instituted a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. They took Sergei’s revelation “absolutely quietly. Nobody ever spoke about it to him, and he was left to do as he wished.” Marina Ledkovsky, Sergei’s second cousin and a professor emerita at Barnard College, remembers that her own mother “pitied him quite a bit … He adored his mother, and adored his father. He was so affectionate — that’s why it was so very hard for him.”

When the revolution came in 1917, the Nabokov family fled Russia, barely escaping with a fraction of their fortune on a Greek cargo boat loaded with dried fruit. Neither Vladimir nor Sergei would ever return to his motherland. After brief stops in Athens and Paris, Vladimir wound up enrolled at Cambridge University; Sergei started at Oxford but joined his brother at Cambridge a semester later. There they played tennis together — Sergei lacked a backhand but never double-faulted — and hung around with the same set of displaced Russians. In Sergei’s letters from the period, which have never been translated or published, most of his worries are about money and about his parents, who settled in Berlin.

The two brothers went on to earn identical degrees, seconds in Russian and French, but in all other respects Vladimir and Sergei were utterly different. “No two brothers could have been less alike,” wrote Lucie Lion Nohl, another imigri, in a memoir of her acquaintance with Nabokov:

Vladimir was the young homme du monde — handsome, romantic in looks, something of a snob and a gay charmer — Serge was the dandy, an aesthete and balletomane … [He] was tall and very thin. He was very blond and his tow-colored hair usually fell in a lock over his left eye. He suffered from a serious speech impediment, a terrible stutter. Help would only confuse him, so one had to wait until he could say what was on his mind, and it was usually worth hearing … He attended all the Diaghilev premieres wearing a flowing black theater cape and carrying a pommeled cane.

Composer Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to Vladimir and Sergei, paints much the same double portrait:

Rarely have I seen two brothers as different as Volodya and Seryozha. The older one, the writer and poet, was lean, dark, handsome, a sportsman, with a face resembling his mother’s. Seryozha … was not a sportsman. White-blond with a reddish tint to his face, he had an incurable stutter. But he was gay, a bit indolent, and highly sensitive (and therefore an easy butt for teasing sports).

When the brothers graduated in 1922, they joined their family in Berlin, which had become the social and cultural center of the Russian diaspora. Sergei fit easily into the growing gay community there, and he was friendly with German activist Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the world’s first gay tolerance organization. Sergei and Vladimir went to work at a bank, but the 9-to-5 routine didn’t suit them: Sergei quit after a week, Vladimir in a matter of hours. Vladimir remained in Berlin, where he met and married his wife, Vira, but Sergei moved on to Paris.

Paris in the ’20s meant the legendary Paris of expatriates, the Paris of modernists and the avant-garde, of Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and the surrealists. Sergei would spend much of the next two decades there. While Vladimir never stopped mourning the Russia of his youth, Sergei most likely felt at home for the first time in a city that celebrated art and music, and that took his gayness in stride.

It becomes more difficult to track Sergei when he passed out of his brother’s exhaustively documented life, but some details of his time in Paris survive. We know that in the winter of 1923 Nicolas introduced him to painter Pavel Tchelitchev, whose work now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and who painted sets for Sergei Diaghilev. Tchelitchev was also gay and also a Russian imigri, and the two of them shared an apartment with Tchelitchev’s lover, Allen Tanner.

The flat was so tiny that when Tchelitchev saw it he remarked, “We are to live in a doll’s house!” It had no electricity and no bath — they had to wash themselves in a zinc tub using water heated on a gas stove. Sergei survived by giving lessons in English and Russian. His circumstances may have been straitened, but the cultural scene in which Sergei found himself was rich beyond all measure. According to Andrew Field, Nabokov’s first biographer, Sergei was good friends with Jean Cocteau, and he was also connected, through Tchelitchev and his cousin Nicolas, to Diaghilev, to composer Virgil Thomson, to those aristocratic aesthetes the Sitwells and even to the legendary salons conducted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 Rue de Fleurus.

He must have cut quite a figure. Sergei was an incorrigible dandy, and he wore a bow tie at all times. According to one story, told by a former archbishop of San Francisco, he was notorious for attending Mass in full makeup. Nicolas’ son Ivan is now in his 60s, too young to really remember Sergei, but he remembers his mother’s account of him. According to her, Sergei was “the nicest of all the Nabokovs … a sweet, funny man … much nicer, much more dependable and much funnier than all the rest of them.”

According to Ledkovsky, Sergei was deeply kind, “always a gentleman,” devoted to music but also steeped in Russian, French and English poetry — all languages that, along with German, he spoke fluently. “He could recite anything by heart, and when he recited poetry, he would not stutter at all.” He was also himself a poet, in her opinion a good one, though none of his work survives. “He was a very talented, brilliant man,” says Ledkovsky. “If he were not so timid and shy, if he didn’t feel so … out of place, who knows? He might have been the equal of Vladimir.”

The story of Sergei’s life in Paris has a Cinderella ending. Sometime in the late ’20s or early ’30s he met and fell in love with a wealthy, aristocratic Austrian, whom Nabokov’s biographies have heretofore referred to as “Hermann.” After a great deal of research, he emerges as one Hermann Thieme.

Charming, handsome, something of a dilettante, Thieme was the son of an insurance magnate. His family owned (and still owns) Schloss Weissenstein, a magnificent 12th century castle in the tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck, Austria. During the ’30s Hermann and Sergei often retreated to Schloss Weissenstein. Iva Formigoni, Hermann’s niece, now lives in Milan, Italy, but she still remembers the two of them lounging around the castle grounds together and playing tennis and bridge with her and her parents. When Sergei came to stay with Ledkovsky’s family in Berlin, he kept a picture of Hermann on his night table. (“I immediately noticed him,” she says, “because he was so extremely good-looking!”)

In a letter that Sergei wrote to his mother, he describes the joy his relationship with Hermann gave him. “It’s all such a strange story, sometimes even I don’t understand how it happened … I’m just suffocating with happiness.” Some of Sergei’s shyness seems finally to have left him. “There are people,” he wrote, “who would not understand this, to whom such things would be completely incomprehensible. They would rather see me in Paris, barely surviving by giving lessons, and in the end a deeply unhappy creature. There is talk about my ‘reputation’ and so on. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me.”

Was his own brother one of those strangers? After Vladimir met Hermann for the first time, he described the scene to his wife in a letter: “The husband, I must admit, is very pleasant, quiet, not at all the pederast type, attractive face and manner. All the same I felt rather uncomfortable, especially when one of their friends came up, red-lipped and curly.”

Nabokov simply didn’t like homosexuals. Even after Sergei’s death, Nabokov used homophobic slurs that make the modern reader cringe. In one letter he describes Taos, N.M., where he spent a summer, as “a dismal hole full of third-rate painters and faded pansies.” And he referred to gay Russian critic Georgy Adamovich as “Sodomovich.”

According to Andrew Field, his first biographer, Nabokov considered homosexuality to be a hereditary illness. Nabokov’s homophobia is in fact one of the dirty little secrets of 20th century literature, on a par with T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. “I believe Nabokov was quite homophobic,” says Galya Diment, vice president of the Nabokov Society and a professor in the Slavic department at the University of Washington. “It behooves his fans and admirers to admit it — and also to regret it.”

Where did this prejudice come from, in a man who spoke out vehemently against both racism and anti-Semitism (his wife was Jewish)? Nabokov’s father, also named Vladimir, was a politician, and he was deeply involved in legislative debates over homosexuality. In pre-revolutionary Russia consensual homosexual intercourse was a crime (as it still is in parts of the United States), and although V.D. Nabokov, as he was known, argued for the decriminalization of sodomy, his attitude toward homosexuality was complicated: He made it abundantly clear that his legislative arguments were based on purely constitutional grounds, on abstract notions of freedom and privacy, and that he personally considered homosexuality to be “deeply repugnant” to any “healthy and normal” person. V.D. Nabokov died in 1922 in Berlin, shot in the chest while breaking up the attempted assassination of a visiting Russian dignitary. Nabokov’s diary records that in their last conversation, the night before, Vladimir and his father had discussed Sergei’s “strange, abnormal inclinations.”

Abnormal or not, homosexuality was actually an important part of life in the Nabokov family. In “Speak, Memory,” we meet little Vladimir’s beloved governess, “lovely, black-haired, aquamarine-eyed Miss Norcott,” who “was asked to leave at once, one night at Abbazia.” What grown-up Vladimir doesn’t tell us is that Miss Norcott was dismissed because she was a lesbian. Nabokov also had no fewer than two gay uncles. Konstantin Nabokov, his father’s brother, was chargi d’affaires at the Russian Embassy in London. Vasily Rukavishnikov, Vladimir’s maternal uncle, was also a diplomat, though a less successful one. He did succeed, however, in making an indelible impression on his young nephew.

Uncle Ruka, as he was universally known, was a wealthy, eccentric dilettante, and there’s every indication that he was in love with the young Nabokov; certainly his attachment to his favorite nephew went beyond what was appropriate. He appears to have subjected Nabokov to a mild form of sexual abuse: “When I was eight or nine,” Nabokov writes in “Speak, Memory,” “he would invariably take me upon his knee after lunch and (while two young footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room) fondle me, with crooning sounds and fancy endearments.” In his biography of Nabokov, Boyd notes “Humbert’s first feignedly nonchalant fumbles with Lolita,” and suggests that “the adult Nabokov’s disapproval of homosexuals and his solicitude for childhood innocence may all have their origins here.”

Like Sergei, Uncle Ruka was gay, stuttered and loved music passionately. He considered his greatest achievement to be an original poem that he set to his own accompaniment, but of all the Nabokovs it was Sergei who learned to play it by heart. Of course, Uncle Ruka paid no attention to him. When he died in 1916 he left his entire estate — a mansion, 2,000 acres of land and a fortune in rubles — to his favorite nephew, Vladimir, who was a wealthy 17-year-old for a year before the Russian Revolution took it all away again.

Since Nabokov’s death in 1977, the responsibility for managing his posthumous reputation has fallen to his son Dmitri, who is fiercely protective of his father’s public image: One member of the Nabokov family interviewed for this article later asked to retract her statements, for fear of incurring Dmitri’s wrath. Dmitri himself declined to be interviewed — “out of respect for his uncle,” according to his literary agent — but in 1997 he did take part in a revealing exchange on the Internet.

When his father’s attitude toward homosexuality came up on NABOKV-L, a public e-mail list devoted to Nabokov’s work, Dmitri leapt into the fray. “I knew it was only a matter of time before the sexual-preference police would go to town on my father,” he wrote. He summed up Nabokov’s ambivalence perfectly: “He had a sense of justice, a homosexual brother, and not one but two homosexual uncles. Among the writers he admired there were plenty of homosexuals, from Proust to Edmund White. He had a number of homosexual friends. I also know he would have been less than happy had his son inherited those genes.”

After Sergei’s death, Vladimir described him in a letter to Edmund Wilson as “a harmless, indolent, pathetic person who spent his life vaguely shuttling between the Quartier Latin and a castle in Austria.” Nabokov rarely mentioned Sergei in print — at least not by name. It wasn’t until the third published version of his “Speak, Memory” that Nabokov even felt able to include an account of Sergei’s life. In an early piece of autobiography, recently published in the New Yorker, Nabokov describes his brother “drifting in a hedonistic haze, among the cosmopolitan Montparnassian crowd that has been so often depicted by a certain type of American writer. His linguistic and musical gifts dissolved in the indolence of his nature.”

At no point did Nabokov, who in “Lolita” would wring pathos from the sufferings of a child molester, ever have the courage to publicly state that his brother was gay. “It may be a kind of prudery,” muses Michael Wood, author of a book on Nabokov, “The Magician’s Doubts,” and chairman of Princeton University’s English department. “He obviously had a terrific affection for his brother. He also had a fixed distaste for homosexuality.”

But however distasteful he found it as a person, Nabokov as a writer found homosexuality perversely irresistible, and gay characters turn up in almost every one of his 17 novels. There’s invariably something strangely wooden about them. Nabokov was the archenemy of clichi, a writer passionately committed to overturning tired literary conventions through careful observation of the real world, but his homosexual characters are as a rule egregiously stereotyped.

From the giggly ballet dancers of Nabokov’s first novel, “Mary,” to the ghastly Gaston Godin, Humbert Humbert’s neighbor in “Lolita,” to the egomaniacal narrator of “Pale Fire,” they are vain, silly, usually effeminate — he uses the word “mincing” a lot — shallow, intellectually trivial and ineffectual, and the narrator generally introduces them with a nudge and a wink and a snigger. Many of them are pedophiles. Not once did Nabokov, the master observer, describe an instance of mature love between adults of the same sex — even though a glowing example of that love was right before his eyes.

Although Nabokov’s gay characters are two-dimensional at best, Sergei found other, more interesting ways to haunt his brother’s fiction. In “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” Nabokov’s fictional account of a man’s attempt to write the life of his mysterious half-brother, one finds uncanny references to Sergei everywhere, from the title character’s name, which alliterates with Sergei’s, to his foppishness and his failures at sports, to a series of uneasy meetings between the brothers in Paris that closely parallels those of the real-life Nabokov brothers. “The similarities of Sebastian and Sergei fit so well together, it’s an aspect of the work that you really have to consider,” says Michael Begnal, an English professor at Wesleyan University who writes on Nabokov. “My impression was that he had to put the whole Sergei situation to rest in his own mind, and in a way that’s what he’s trying to do.”

When he learned of Sergei’s death in 1945, Nabokov was in the middle of writing “Bend Sinister,” his most political novel. Like Sergei, the hero of “Bend Sinister” speaks out against a brutally repressive regime, and like Sergei, he would pay for his courage with his life. But Nabokov’s feelings about his brother were never simple: In “Bend Sinister” it’s not the hero who’s gay but the dictator who orders his death. In 1967, when he finally told the story of Sergei’s life, Nabokov’s writing conveys a sense of unspoken strain and remorse: “For various reasons,” he writes, “I find it inordinately hard to speak about my other brother.”

In “Ada,” his longest novel and one of his last, Nabokov made his best and final attempt to come to terms with his feelings about his brother in print. “Ada” is the story of an incestuous love affair between Van Veen and Ada Veen, brother and sister. Their younger sister, Lucette, is also passionately in love with Van, and she spends most of the novel trailing around after the couple, getting in the way and generally making a pest of herself. Van’s indifference drives Lucette to despair, and toward the end of the book she throws herself from a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic.

Brian Boyd, who is probably the single greatest living authority on Nabokov, believes that the real inspiration for Lucette was Sergei. “The centrality of Lucette in ‘Ada,’” he argues in an e-mail, “in some ways seems to reflect Nabokov’s sense of Sergei: the non-favorite, the frail one beside his confident sibling, the concentration camp victim … the one we’re invited to ignore, and even want to dismiss from the story, but eventually realize we should never have overlooked.”

If Boyd is right, “Ada” gives us a last glimpse of Nabokov thinking about Sergei — and maybe, at last, starting to think about him in a new light. “I think that Nabokov often tries to be inhumanly secure, and confident, and happy, and unregretful,” Wood observes. “If he pulled that off, he would be a monster. It’s a fine thing to try — and an even finer thing to fail.”

Whatever peace Nabokov may have made with Sergei in fiction, it came long after Sergei’s death in fact. Did the two brothers ever bridge the gap between them? “Absolutely not” is the firm answer from Sikorski, their sister. “Perhaps the last years of his life they were closer, but otherwise never.” It can’t have helped that by all accounts Sergei didn’t get along with Vira, Nabokov’s wife.

Still, in the late ’30s, when both brothers were living in Paris, there were signs of warmth. Vladimir writes in “Speak, Memory” that they were “on quite amiable terms” at the time. When their mother died in Prague in 1939, and Vladimir was unable to get away from Paris, Sergei described the funeral for him in a letter. Writing on the spare, elegant stationery of Schloss Weissenstein, he closed the letter affectionately: “I want you to know that I am with you with all of my heart.”

If they had any last words to offer each other, Sergei and Vladimir never got to say them. In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded France, and by May the Germans were bombing Paris. Vladimir and his family left for America on the last boat out of St. Nazaire, but Sergei was away in the countryside at the time. He returned to Paris to find their apartment suddenly empty.

He chose to stay in Europe with Hermann. The Nazis were already rounding up homosexuals as actively as they were Jews, and to avoid attracting suspicion Sergei and Hermann saw each other only rarely. Sergei took a job as a translator in Berlin, but he had no stomach for war, and the Allied bombings frightened him horribly. “He was just so terrified, poor thing,” Ledkovsky remembers. “Even my mother was consoling him.” The fighting grew more intense, and flight became impossible; Sergei had almost no money, and as a refugee from czarist Russia his only travel document was a flimsy Nansen passport.

In 1941 the Gestapo arrested Sergei on charges of homosexuality. It released him four months later, but he was placed under constant surveillance. It’s ironic that at that moment, after a lifetime of shyness and stuttering, Sergei could not keep silent. He began to speak out vehemently against the injustices of the Third Reich to his friends and colleagues. On Nov. 24, 1943, he served as best man at Ledkovsky’s wedding. Three weeks later he was arrested for the second time.

The file that the police kept on Sergei accuses him of “staatsfeindlichen Au_erungen” — subversive statements. There may have been more to the story: Princess Zinaida Shachovskaya, a fellow Russian imigri (whose relations with the Nabokov family have sometimes been strained), has written an as yet untranslated memoir in which she asserts that Sergei was in fact involved in a plot to hide an escaped prisoner of war, a former Cambridge friend who had become a pilot and been shot down over Germany.

After his arrest Sergei was taken to Neuengamme, a large labor camp near Hamburg, where he became prisoner No. 28631. Conditions were brutal: The camp was a center for medical experimentation, and the Nazis used the prisoners to conduct research on tuberculosis. Of the approximately 106,000 inmates who passed through Neuengamme, fewer than half survived, and as a rule, the guards singled out homosexuals for particularly harsh treatment.

Sergei’s conduct in the camp was nothing less than heroic. Nicolas Nabokov’s son Ivan says that after the war, survivors from Neuengamme would telephone his family out of the blue — they were the only Nabokovs in the book — just to talk about Sergei. “They said he was extraordinary. He gave away lots of packages he was getting, of clothes and food, to people who were really suffering.” Meanwhile, Hermann had also been arrested, but he was sent to fight on the front lines in Africa. He would survive. He spent his later life at Schloss Weissenstein, without a career, caring for his invalid sister. He died in 1972.

In America, Vladimir was beginning a triumphant new life. While Sergei was at Neuengamme, he spent the summer of 1944 sunning himself in Wellfleet, Mass., with Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. That fall he collected butterflies for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, enjoyed the benefits of American dentistry and taught Russian to Wellesley College undergraduates, with whom he flirted shamelessly. The New Yorker was beginning to print his poems. He became the first person under 40 to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. He knew nothing of what was happening to his brother in Europe.

In “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” the narrator has a dream the night before Sebastian dies. He imagines that his half-brother’s hand has been horribly maimed in an accident. In the early fall of 1945, in his apartment in Cambridge, Mass., Nabokov dreamed of his brother Sergei. He saw him lying on a bunk in a German concentration camp, in terrible pain. The next day he received a letter from a family member in Prague. According to camp records, “Sergej Nabokoff” had died on Jan. 9, 1945, of a combination of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Neuengamme was liberated four months later.

Link: Albert Camus Wins the Nobel Prize & Sends a Letter of Gratitude to His Elementary School Teacher (1957)

After winning the Nobel Prize, philosopher and Albert Camus thought to thank his mother first, and an elementary school teacher second. Camus wrote this letter of gratitude (below) to his teacher Louis Germain who, according to Letters of Note, “fostered the potential he saw and steered young Camus on a path that would eventually see him write some hugely respected, award-winning novels and essays.”

Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize in 1957 in Literature not for his most well-known works such as “The Stranger” but for an essay he wrote opposing the death penalty entitled “Reflections on the Guillotine.

Camus’ father was killed during World War I when Camus was still an infant, and his mother was “partially deaf and illiterate.”

While Camus is labeled by many to be an existentialist philosopher and writer, he detested the term. He once said in an interview , “No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked.  We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other…”

Read the letter below.

19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don’t make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus

Link: "The Grand Inquisitor" from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov"

The Grand Inquisitor is a parable told by Ivan to Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan and Alyosha are brothers; Ivan is a committed atheist and Alyosha is a novice monk. The Grand Inquisitor is an important part of the novel and also one of the best-known passages in modern literature because of its ideas about human nature and freedom. 

"Quite impossible, as you see, to start without an introduction," laughed Ivan. "Well, then, I mean to place the event described in the poem in the sixteenth century, an age—as you must have been told at school—when it was the great fashion among poets to make the denizens and powers of higher worlds descend on earth and mix freely with mortals… In France all the notaries’ clerks, and the monks in the cloisters as well, used to give grand performances, dramatic plays in which long scenes were enacted by the Madonna, the angels, the saints, Christ, and even by God Himself. In those days, everything was very artless and primitive. An instance of it may be found in Victor Hugo’s drama, Notre Dame de Paris, where, at the Municipal Hall, a play called Le Bon Jugement de la Tres-sainte et Gracièuse Vierge Marie, is enacted in honour of Louis XI, in which the Virgin appears personally to pronounce her ‘good judgment.’ In Moscow, during the prepetrean period, performances of nearly the same character, chosen especially from the Old Testament, were also in great favour. Apart from such plays, the world was overflooded with mystical writings, ‘verses’—the heroes of which were always selected from the ranks of angels, saints and other heavenly citizens answering to the devotional purposes of the age. The recluses of our monasteries, like the Roman Catholic monks, passed their time in translating, copying, and even producing original compositions upon such subjects, and that, remember, during the Tarter period!… In this connection, I am reminded of a poem compiled in a convent—a translation from the Greek, of course—called, ‘The Travels of the Mother of God among the Damned,’ with fitting illustrations and a boldness of conception inferior nowise to that of Dante. The ‘Mother of God’ visits hell, in company with the archangel Michael as her cicerone to guide her through the legions of the ‘damned.’ She sees them all, and is witness to their multifarious tortures. Among the many other exceedingly remarkably varieties of torments—every category of sinners having its own—there is one especially worthy of notice, namely a class of the ‘damned’ sentenced to gradually sink in a burning lake of brimstone and fire. Those whose sins cause them to sink so low that they no longer can rise to the surface are for ever forgotten by God, i.e., they fade out from the omniscient memory, says the poem—an expression, by the way, of an extraordinary profundity of thought, when closely analysed. The Virgin is terribly shocked, and falling down upon her knees in tears before the throne of God, begs that all she has seen in hell—all, all without exception, should have their sentences remitted to them. Her dialogue with God is colossally interesting. She supplicates, she will not leave Him. And when God, pointing to the pierced hands and feet of her Son, cries, ‘How can I forgive His executioners?’ She then commands that all the saints, martyrs, angels and archangels, should prostrate themselves with her before the Immutable and Changeless One and implore Him to change His wrath into mercy and—forgive them all. The poem closes upon her obtaining from God a compromise, a kind of yearly respite of tortures between Good Friday and Trinity, a chorus of the ‘damned’ singing loud praises to God from their ‘bottomless pit,’ thanking and telling Him:

Thou art right, O Lord, very right,
Thou hast condemned us justly.

"My poem is of the same character.

"In it, it is Christ who appears on the scene. True, He says nothing, but only appears and passes out of sight. Fifteen centuries have elapsed since He left the world with the distinct promise to return ‘with power and great glory’; fifteen long centuries since His prophet cried, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ since He Himself had foretold, while yet on earth, ‘Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven but my Father only.’ But Christendom expects Him still. …

"It waits for Him with the same old faith and the same emotion; aye, with a far greater faith, for fifteen centuries have rolled away since the last sign from heaven was sent to man,

And blind faith remained alone
To lull the trusting heart,
As heav’n would send a sign no more.

"True, again, we have all heard of miracles being wrought ever since the ‘age of miracles’ passed away to return no more. We had, and still have, our saints credited with performing the most miraculous cures; and, if we can believe their biographers, there have been those among them who have been personally visited by the Queen of Heaven. But Satan sleepeth not, and the first germs of doubt, and ever-increasing unbelief in such wonders, already had begun to sprout in Christendom as early as the sixteenth century. It was just at that time that a new and terrible heresy first made its appearance in the north of Germany.* [*Luther’s reform] A great star ‘shining as it were a lamp… fell upon the fountains waters’… and ‘they were made bitter.’ This ‘heresy’ blasphemously denied ‘miracles.’ But those who had remained faithful believed all the more ardently, the tears of mankind ascended to Him as heretofore, and the Christian world was expecting Him as confidently as ever; they loved Him and hoped in Him, thirsted and hungered to suffer and die for Him just as many of them had done before…. So many centuries had weak, trusting humanity implored Him, crying with ardent faith and fervour: ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not come!’ So many long centuries hath it vainly appealed to Him, that at last, in His inexhaustible compassion, He consenteth to answer the prayer…. He decideth that once more, if it were but for one short hour, the people—His long-suffering, tortured, fatally sinful, his loving and child-like, trusting people—shall behold Him again. The scene of action is placed by me in Spain, at Seville, during that terrible period of the Inquisition, when, for the greater glory of God, stakes were flaming all over the country.

Burning wicked heretics,
In grand auto-da-fes.

"This particular visit has, of course, nothing to do with the promised Advent, when, according to the programme, ‘after the tribulation of those days,’ He will appear ‘coming in the clouds of heaven.’ For, that ‘coming of the Son of Man,’ as we are informed, will take place as suddenly ‘as the lightning cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the west.’ No; this once, He desired to come unknown, and appear among His children, just when the bones of the heretics, sentenced to be burnt alive, had commenced crackling at the flaming stakes. Owing to His limitless mercy, He mixes once more with mortals and in the same form in which He was wont to appear fifteen centuries ago. He descends, just at the very moment when before king, courtiers, knights, cardinals, and the fairest dames of court, before the whole population of Seville, upwards of a hundred wicked heretics are being roasted, in a magnificent auto-da-fe ad majorem Dei gloriam, by the order of the powerful Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.

"He comes silently and unannounced; yet all—how strange—yea, all recognize Him, at once! The population rushes towards Him as if propelled by some irresistible force; it surrounds, throngs, and presses around, it follows Him…. Silently, and with a smile of boundless compassion upon His lips, He crosses the dense crowd, and moves softly on. The Sun of Love burns in His heart, and warm rays of Light, Wisdom and Power beam forth from His eyes, and pour down their waves upon the swarming multitudes of the rabble assembled around, making their hearts vibrate with returning love. He extends His hands over their heads, blesses them, and from mere contact with Him, aye, even with His garments, a healing power goes forth. An old man, blind from his birth, cries, ‘Lord, heal me, that I may see Thee!’ and the scales falling off the closed eyes, the blind man beholds Him… The crowd weeps for joy, and kisses the ground upon which He treads. Children strew flowers along His path and sing to Him, ‘Hosanna!’ It is He, it is Himself, they say to each other, it must be He, it can be none other but He! He pauses at the portal of the old cathedral, just as a wee white coffin is carried in, with tears and great lamentations. The lid is off, and in the coffin lies the body of a fair-child, seven years old, the only child of an eminent citizen of the city. The little corpse lies buried in flowers. ‘He will raise the child to life!’ confidently shouts the crowd to the weeping mother. The officiating priest who had come to meet the funeral procession, looks perplexed, and frowns. A loud cry is suddenly heard, and the bereaved mother prostrates herself at His feet. ‘If it be Thou, then bring back my child to life!’ she cries beseechingly. The procession halts, and the little coffin is gently lowered at his feet. Divine compassion beams forth from His eyes, and as He looks at the child, His lips are heard to whisper once more, ‘Talitha Cumi’—and ‘straightway the damsel arose.’ The child rises in her coffin. Her little hands still hold the nosegay of white roses which after death was placed in them, and, looking round with large astonished eyes she smiles sweetly …. The crowd is violently excited. A terrible commotion rages among them, the populace shouts and loudly weeps, when suddenly, before the cathedral door, appears the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor himself…. He is tall, gaunt-looking old man of nearly four-score years and ten, with a stern, withered face, and deeply sunken eyes, from the cavity of which glitter two fiery sparks. He has laid aside his gorgeous cardinal’s robes in which he had appeared before the people at the auto da-fe of the enemies of the Romish Church, and is now clad in his old, rough, monkish cassock. His sullen assistants and slaves of the ‘holy guard’ are following at a distance. He pauses before the crowd and observes. He has seen all. He has witnessed the placing of the little coffin at His feet, the calling back to life. And now, his dark, grim face has grown still darker; his bushy grey eyebrows nearly meet, and his sunken eye flashes with sinister light. Slowly raising his finger, he commands his minions to arrest Him….

"Such is his power over the well-disciplined, submissive and now trembling people, that the thick crowds immediately give way, and scattering before the guard, amid dead silence and without one breath of protest, allow them to lay their sacrilegious hands upon the stranger and lead Him away…. That same populace, like one man, now bows its head to the ground before the old Inquisitor, who blesses it and slowly moves onward. The guards conduct their prisoner to the ancient building of the Holy Tribunal; pushing Him into a narrow, gloomy, vaulted prison-cell, they lock Him in and retire….

"The day wanes, and night—a dark, hot breathless Spanish night—creeps on and settles upon the city of Seville. The air smells of laurels and orange blossoms. In the Cimmerian darkness of the old Tribunal Hall the iron door of the cell is suddenly thrown open, and the Grand Inquisitor, holding a dark lantern, slowly stalks into the dungeon. He is alone, and, as the heavy door closes behind him, he pauses at the threshold, and, for a minute or two, silently and gloomily scrutinizes the Face before him. At last approaching with measured steps, he sets his lantern down upon the table and addresses Him in these words:

“‘It is Thou! … Thou!’ … Receiving no reply, he rapidly continues: ‘Nay, answer not; be silent! … And what couldst Thou say? … I know but too well Thy answer…. Besides, Thou hast no right to add one syllable to that which was already uttered by Thee before…. Why shouldst Thou now return, to impede us in our work? For Thou hast come but for that only, and Thou knowest it well. But art Thou as well aware of what awaits Thee in the morning? I do not know, nor do I care to know who thou mayest be: be it Thou or only thine image, to-morrow I will condemn and burn Thee on the stake, as the most wicked of all the heretics; and that same people, who to-day were kissing Thy feet, to-morrow at one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral pile… Wert Thou aware of this?’ he adds, speaking as if in solemn thought, and never for one instant taking his piercing glance off the meek Face before him.”….

"I can hardly realize the situation described—what is all this, Ivan?" suddenly interrupted Alyosha, who had remained silently listening to his brother. "Is this an extravagant fancy, or some mistake of the old man, an impossible quid pro quo?"

"Let it be the latter, if you like," laughed Ivan, "since modern realism has so perverted your taste that you feel unable to realize anything from the world of fancy…. Let it be a quid pro quo, if you so choose it. Again, the Inquisitor is ninety years old, and he might have easily gone mad with his one idee fixe of power; or, it might have as well been a delirious vision, called forth by dying fancy, overheated by the auto-da-fe of the hundred heretics in that forenoon…. But what matters for the poem, whether it was a quid pro quo or an uncontrollable fancy? The question is, that the old man has to open his heart; that he must give out his thought at last; and that the hour has come when he does speak it out, and says loudly that which for ninety years he has kept secret within his own breast."

"And his prisoner, does He never reply? Does He keep silent, looking at him, without saying a word?"

"Of course; and it could not well be otherwise," again retorted Ivan. "The Grand Inquisitor begins from his very first words by telling Him that He has no right to add one syllable to that which He had said before. To make the situation clear at once, the above preliminary monologue is intended to convey to the reader the very fundamental idea which underlies Roman Catholicism—as well as I can convey it, his words mean, in short: ‘Everything was given over by Thee to the Pope, and everything now rests with him alone; Thou hast no business to return and thus hinder us in our work.’ In this sense the Jesuits not only talk but write likewise.

“‘Hast thou the right to divulge to us a single one of the mysteries of that world whence Thou comest?’ enquires of Him my old Inquisitor, and forthwith answers for Him. ‘Nay, Thou has no such right. For, that would be adding to that which was already said by Thee before; hence depriving people of that freedom for which Thou hast so stoutly stood up while yet on earth…. Anything new that Thou would now proclaim would have to be regarded as an attempt to interfere with that freedom of choice, as it would come as a new and a miraculous revelation superseding the old revelation of fifteen hundred years ago, when Thou didst so repeatedly tell the people: “The truth shall make you free.” Behold then, Thy “free” people now!’ adds the old man with sombre irony. ‘Yea!… it has cost us dearly.’ he continues, sternly looking at his victim. ‘But we have at last accomplished our task, and—in Thy name…. For fifteen long centuries we had to toil and suffer owing to that “freedom”: but now we have prevailed and our work is done, and well and strongly it is done. ….Believest not Thou it is so very strong? … And why should Thou look at me so meekly as if I were not worthy even of Thy indignation?… Know then, that now, and only now, Thy people feel fully sure and satisfied of their freedom; and that only since they have themselves and of their own free will delivered that freedom unto our hands by placing it submissively at our feet. But then, that is what we have done. Is it that which Thou has striven for? Is this the kind of “freedom” Thou has promised them?’”

"Now again, I do not understand," interrupted Alyosha. "Does the old man mock and laugh?"

"Not in the least. He seriously regards it as a great service done by himself, his brother monks and Jesuits, to humanity, to have conquered and subjected unto their authority that freedom, and boasts that it was done but for the good of the world. ‘For only now,’ he says (speaking of the Inquisition) ‘has it become possible to us, for the first time, to give a serious thought to human happiness. Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be ever happy?… Thou has been fairly warned of it, but evidently to no use, since Thou hast rejected the only means which could make mankind happy; fortunately at Thy departure Thou hast delivered the task to us…. Thou has promised, ratifying the pledge by Thy own words, in words giving us the right to bind and unbind… and surely, Thou couldst not think of depriving us of it now!’"

"But what can he mean by the words, ‘Thou has been fairly warned’?" asked Alexis.

"These words give the key to what the old man has to say for his justification… But listen—

“‘The terrible and wise spirit, the spirit of self annihilation and non-being,’ goes on the Inquisitor, ‘the great spirit of negation conversed with Thee in the wilderness, and we are told that he “tempted” Thee… Was it so? And if it were so, then it is impossible to utter anything more truthful than what is contained in his three offers, which Thou didst reject, and which are usually called “temptations.” Yea; if ever there was on earth a genuine striking wonder produced, it was on that day of Thy three temptations, and it is precisely in these three short sentences that the marvelous miracle is contained. If it were possible that they should vanish and disappear for ever, without leaving any trace, from the record and from the memory of man, and that it should become necessary again to devise, invent, and make them reappear in Thy history once more, thinkest Thou that all the world’s sages, all the legislators, initiates, philosophers and thinkers, if called upon to frame three questions which should, like these, besides answering the magnitude of the event, express in three short sentences the whole future history of this our world and of mankind—dost Thou believe, I ask Thee, that all their combined efforts could ever create anything equal in power and depth of thought to the three propositions offered Thee by the powerful and all-wise spirit in the wilderness? Judging of them by their marvelous aptness alone, one can at once perceive that they emanated not from a finite, terrestrial intellect, but indeed, from the Eternal and the Absolute. In these three offers we find, blended into one and foretold to us, the complete subsequent history of man; we are shown three images, so to say, uniting in them all the future axiomatic, insoluble problems and contradictions of human nature, the world over. In those days, the wondrous wisdom contained in them was not made so apparent as it is now, for futurity remained still veiled; but now, when fifteen centuries have elapsed, we see that everything in these three questions is so marvelously foreseen and foretold, that to add to, or to take away from, the prophecy one jot, would be absolutely impossible!

“‘Decide then thyself.’ sternly proceeded the Inquisitor, ‘which of ye twain was right: Thou who didst reject, or he who offered? Remember the subtle meaning of question the first, which runs thus: Wouldst Thou go into the world empty-handed? Would Thou venture thither with Thy vague and undefined promise of freedom, which men, dull and unruly as they are by nature, are unable so much as to understand, which they avoid and fear?—for never was there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal freedom! Dost Thou see these stones in the desolate and glaring wilderness? Command that these stones be made bread—and mankind will run after Thee, obedient and grateful like a herd of cattle. But even then it will be ever diffident and trembling, lest Thou should take away Thy hand, and they lose thereby their bread! Thou didst refuse to accept the offer for fear of depriving men of their free choice; for where is there freedom of choice where men are bribed with bread? Man shall not live by bread alone—was Thine answer. Thou knewest not, it seems, that it was precisely in the name of that earthly bread that the terrestrial spirit would one day rise against, struggle with, and finally conquer Thee, followed by the hungry multitudes shouting: “Who is like unto that Beast, who maketh fire come down from heaven upon the earth!” Knowest Thou not that, but a few centuries hence, and the whole of mankind will have proclaimed in its wisdom and through its mouthpiece, Science, that there is no more crime, hence no more sin on earth, but only hungry people? “Feed us first and then command us to be virtuous!” will be the words written upon the banner lifted against Thee—a banner which shall destroy Thy Church to its very foundations, and in the place of Thy Temple shall raise once more the terrible Tower of Babel; and though its building be left unfinished, as was that of the first one, yet the fact will remain recorded that Thou couldst, but wouldst not, prevent the attempt to build that new tower by accepting the offer, and thus saving mankind a millennium of useless suffering on earth. And it is to us that the people will return again. They will search for us catacombs, as we shall once more be persecuted and martyred—and they will begin crying unto us: “Feed us, for they who promised us the fire from heaven have deceived us!” It is then that we will finish building their tower for them. For they alone who feed them shall finish it, and we shall feed them in Thy name, and lying to them that it is in that name. Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? And even supposing that thousands and tens of thousands follow Thee in the name of, and for the sake of, Thy heavenly bread, what will become of the millions and hundreds of millions of human beings to weak to scorn the earthly for the sake of Thy heavenly bread? Or is it but those tens of thousands chosen among the great and the mighty, that are so dear to Thee, while the remaining millions, innumerable as the grains of sand in the seas, the weak and the loving, have to be used as material for the former? No, no! In our sight and for our purpose the weak and the lowly are the more dear to us. True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them—so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men! Then we will tell them that it is in obedience to Thy will and in Thy name that we rule over them. We will deceive them once more and lie to them once again—for never, never more will we allow Thee to come among us. In this deception we will find our suffering, for we must needs lie eternally, and never cease to lie!

(Source: sunrec)

Link: A Scanner Darkly

Short of participating in a genocide, how can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless on the level of Adolf Eichmann? Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes the attempt by immersing its reader in a dense, intensely readable marsh of information.

There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels.

I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?

Maybe the place to begin is near the end of The Kindly Ones, when Aue finds himself in a marsh:

We made our way through a little meadow covered with tall, thick grass, sodden and bent; beyond stretched out more sheets of water; there was a little padlocked hunter’s cabin, also standing in water. The snow had completely disappeared. There was no use sticking to the trees, our boots sank into the water and the mud, the wet ground was covered with rotten leaves that hid quagmires. Here and there a little island of firm land gave us courage. But farther on it became completely impossible again; the trees grew on isolated clumps or in the water itself, the strips of earth between the puddles were also flooded, wading was difficult, we had to give up and go back to the dyke.

This isn’t by any means the toughest terrain Aue has crossed. In the fall of 1941 he slogged through “black, thick mud” from Kiev to Kharkov, following the Wehrmacht’s advance into the U.S.S.R.; in the winter of 1943 he was skulking in the rubble of Stalingrad; he has seen the death camps at Auschwitz and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin. Max Aue witnesses every phase of the Final Solution; in fact, this witnessing is the reason for his existence. Littell, in an interview withLe Monde des Livres, describes Aue as a “roving X-ray, a scanner.” He exists so Littell can attempt a human answer to the questions that still loom over the history of the Holocaust: why? And how?

I want to set those questions, and Aue’s answers, aside for a moment, to talk about this relatively unimportant moment in which Aue, along with his friend Thomas and their driver, Piontek, are trying to rejoin the German lines. What can we say about it? Well, for one thing, the little cabin is remarkable. By the time Aue gets to the marsh, the book is almost over, and we know, in gross, anyway, how the story will end: the Germans are going to lose. And yet Aue takes the time to see the cabin, to remember it, and to describe it. This is a literary strategy known, I believe, as “realism,” but there’s something hallucinatory about Aue’s refusal to sort important from unimportant information, as though he really were a “scanner” and not a person. (Littell has refused to sell the film rights to The Kindly Ones, on the grounds that it would be impossible to make the book into a film, but the effect is distinctly cinematic.) In this scene, the beneficiary of Aue’s X-ray vision is the landscape, which rolls past as if in real time; Aue is trudging, and you, the reader, have to trudge along with him.

[…] The preternatural quality of Max Aue’s memory has been remarked on before; it’s the basis for one of the most telling and often-cited criticisms of The Kindly Ones.Claude Lanzmann, who directed the film Shoah, wrote that

Littell’s “hero” speaks torrentially for 900 pages, this man who doesn’t know what a memory is remembers absolutely everything. One has the right to ask, is Aue flesh and blood? Is Aue a man? Does Aue exist? He speaks like a book, like all the history books Littell has read. At the moment when the last witnesses of the Shoah are disappearing, and the Jews are anxious because memory is becoming History, Jonathan Littell flips the terms of the opposition, and gives his memoryless SS “hero” History as memory.

The danger of this procedure is that it will undermine the value of witnessing, precisely because it’s more complete than any eyewitness account. No one could have seen as much as Max Aue, but there’s something impossibly seductive about the idea that someone could have seen it all, that we could have both the totality of History and the authority of presence. Lanzmann fears that people will stop watching Shoah, stop reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, and pick up The Kindly Ones instead, that the fiction will in time replace the fact.[2] It’s a possibility worth fearing; but let’s assume for a moment that Jonathan Littell is not an idiot—pace the opinion of at least one German critic[3]—and that he knows what risk he runs by this procedure of turning History into memory. Why would he do it?

Here we come back to the question of how. How could the Final Solution have taken place? As Lanzmann observes, the SS don’t speak; it’s impossible to get them to tell their side of the story. Max Aue does speak, but the answer he gives is as predictable as it is unsatisfying: he is “just like you,” and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. “[I]f you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure,” he writes,

which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress.

Never mind that the Vietnam war was conducted under an idea, however absurd, of strategic gains and losses, whereas the Final Solution had the distressing and unfathomable quality of being an end in itself; in a total war there can be no civilians (this is Aue’s reasoning), only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?

This is an argument that got tested at Nuremberg without a lot of success; it does not compel belief. That’s what Aue’s prodigious memory is for. In the middle of the novel, and the war, Max Aue is sent to inspect the concentration camps of Poland, to see what he can do about getting the inmates better rations, a quixotic errand. When he gets to the Lublin camp, things turn out to be complicated, not only because Aue’s mission is incompatible with the purpose of the camp, but also, and above all, because it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. “Out of about four hundred and fifty men, not counting the Hiwis [local recruits],” a deputy explains,

almost a hundred were assigned to us by the Führer’s Chancellery. Almost all our camp commanders are from there. Tactically, they’re under control of the Einsatz, but administratively, they depend on the Chancellery. They supervise everything having to do with salaries, leaves, promotions, and so on. Apparently it’s a special agreement between the Reichsführer and Reichsleiter Bouhler. Some of those men aren’t even members of theAllgemeine-SS or of the Party. But they’re all veterans of the Reich’s euthanasia centers; when most of those centers were closed, some of the personnel, with Wirth at their head, were transferred here so the Einsatz could profit from their experience.

Get it? Not quite? Good. The enormous quantity of information contained in The Kindly Ones (you could call the novel “encyclopedic,” but, given its narrator’s subjective bias, “wikipedic” might be a better way of putting it) serves not only to enchant, but also to distract. With so many administrative structures in play, so many names and ranks and acronyms and badges and bosses to keep track of, how can you think about what KL Lublin[4] was for? The more immediate, and more satisfying because more achievable, task consists in doing what Aue does: sussing hierarchies, admiring or deploring moves made in the game of Nazi power.

It’s thinking like this that got Eichmann in trouble. Hannah Arendt, reporting on the SS officers’ 1961 trial for the New Yorker, observed that “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all.” Max Aue, who meets Eichmann again and again over the course of The Kindly Ones, puts it more bluntly: “He had a very harsh attitude but at bottom it was the same to him whether or not the Jews were killed, the only thing that counted, for him, was to show what he could do, to prove his worth, and also to use the abilities he had developed, for the rest of it, he didn’t give a fuck, either about industry or about the gas chambers for that matter, the only thing he did give a fuck about was that no one fucked with him.…” Eichmann was guilty of mass murder, but he is infamous for thoughtlessness, for not giving a fuck. As Arendt says, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Call it the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away, polluting the air with the smell of burning flesh? Especially when the gulf between the one kind of awareness and the other is so vast: the first belongs to the world of information, whereas the second belongs to the order of knowledge. You can have all the information in the world about the camps—Eichmann had much of it—butknowing them is something else entirely.

Now think for a moment about the complicated, perverse thing which The Kindly Ones does to you, the reader. Anyone could tell you that information and knowledge are two different things, that it’s possible to be ignorant even in the thick of the facts. Arendt could tell you that; her remark that Eichmann’s self-important ignorance illustrates the banality of evil has itself become a banality. But how, short of participating in a genocide, can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless? This is the door to which Max Aue holds (or rather is) the key. The book abounds with markers of lived experience: the icy waters of the marsh, the “insomniac dead” who lie scattered by the side of the road to Kiev, the diarrhea and vomiting fits that plague Aue all through the war, and afterward. These signs draw you in; they give you the feeling of knowing, but all you’re getting is information. The effect is weirdly stupefying—which is, perhaps, how Eichmann felt, after a while.

Link: The Long Haul of Solitary Death: Michel Houellebecq and the Decline of Western Sexuality

A prophet-provacateur faithful to French traditions of lucidity, sensuality, and alienation, Houellebecq believes we are all doomed. The Map and the Territory continues his great project of exposing the limits of individualism.

Michel Houellebecq condemns the soullessness of our consumer society, yet paradoxically he reserves his worst contempt for those endeavors one might naturally suggest as an antidote or palliative. The possibility of having children is generally treated with derision in his work, and it’s the same with any kind of humanitarian project. Houellebecq is especially scathing about “human rights” – in any of his novels, a character using this term is immediately identified as an idiot.

His novel Atomised (called The Elementary Particles in the U.S. translation) disparages the “sexual revolution” —

“As the lovely word ‘household’ suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.”

(In French the word in quotes is “ménage,” a more beautiful word than “household,” with connotations of order and human scale.)

In Atomised, the grandmother of Michel and Bruno is selflessly devoted to her family, while their mother, an apostle of the sexual revolution, is horrendously self-centered. Michel and Bruno themselves both prove incapable of committing to the most important women in their lives, and Michel goes on to pave the way for a future where sexual reproduction is abandoned in favor of cloning. Houellebecq denies that a society can be run according to secular humanist ideals – a passage in Atomised sweepingly blames the notions of “personal freedom,” “human dignity,” and “progress” for the alleged fact that “human history from the fifteenth to the twentieth century was characterized by progressive decline and disintegration.”

Yet he is not a reactionary, he tells Bernard-Henri Lévy in the letter collection Public Enemies, because he believes in the “absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun.” All that is left for his characters is the search for sexual gratification, in a society whose decline and fall is irrevocably determined – or, for those more theoretically inclined, the hastening of a post-reproductive future.

Houellebecq apparently regrets not having experienced a more traditional upbringing himself, and the narrator of his novel Platform laments his own lack of a civic sense —

“I suddenly realized to my embarrassment that I considered the society I lived in more or less as a natural environment – like a savannah, or a jungle – whose laws I had to adapt to. The notion that I was in any way in solidarity with this environment had never occurred to me. It was like an atrophy in me, an emptiness. It was far from certain that society could continue to survive for long with individuals like me.”

Although he expresses contempt for radical Islamists, the narrator of Platform occasionally sounds like one —

“For the west, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.”

Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Map and the Territory, opens with a description of an oil painting depicting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, a work by the fictional character Jed Martin. Imagining Hirst and Koons painted in oils invests them with a Lovecraftian and monstrous aura, obsessive figures fighting intricate battles for domination. Is a novel about contemporary man as incongruous as an oil painting of Koons? What earlier era could have produced a novel in which the hero drifts apart from the heroine largely because of apathy – as Jed loses touch with the novel’s main female character, Michelin PR representative Olga Sheremoyova?

The Map and the Territory shows a France in demographic decline, more dependent on tourism than industry, where most of a priest’s job is to conduct funerals. Houellebecq’s nostalgia for lost glory comes across in his evident shock that as culturally authoritative a French institution as Michelin is now largely owned by foreign institutional investors. A fascination with Michelin maps crops up throughout Houellebecq’s work, and is shared by Jed, whose lifework Houellebecq envisages as “a homage to human labor.”

When Michelin posts Olga back to Russia, Jed stops exhibiting and selling photographs of maps and starts making oil paintings of contemporary professional figures. Unable to finish the painting of Jeff Koons – “it was as difficult as painting a Mormon pornographer” – Jed decides instead to work on Michel Houellebecq – “a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies: it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog.” And Houellebecq is certainly easier to visualize as an oil painting than is Koons, the resulting painting inspiring one of the book’s most Lovecraftian sentences – “The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.”

In Houellebecq’s version of history, “free-market economics redrew the geography of the world in terms of the expectations of the clientele.” He captures a village in the Loiret with this juxtaposition – “The multipurpose cultural center offered a permanent exhibition on local crafts. For a long time there had probably been only second homes here.” The place strikes a visiting detective as “a fake village recreated from a television series,” with a church that has been “pitilessly restored.” The provinces become what the metropolis wants them to be, as France itself is repackaged for overseas visitors – Houellebecq’s prediction in Public Enemies, that the economic future of France is as “a sort of tourist brothel,” starts to become realized within the timeline of The Map and The Territory (some of which takes place in the 2020s, in a future where the French birth rate has begun to decline again). In another scene, at a party thrown by French television personality Jean-Pierre Pernault – a man nationally famous for his advocacy of regionalism — musicians of Breton and Corsican, Savoyard and Basque origin perform, sometimes simultaneously, in a cacophony of localisms that is absurdly Parisian.

Other French public intellectuals appear as characters, including the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder, who gains sympathy points for being the only character who tries to get Jed and Olga to reunite, in vain – Olga’s primary purpose in the novel seems to be to demonstrate the impossibility of love in our time. In general Houellebecq shows a willingness, romantic in its own way, to extrapolate from any single failed affair the “decline of Western sexuality” – the phrase comes from Platform. Romantic love is like many other traditions for Houellebecq, in that he thinks it’s important yet cannot make himself believe in it. He told the Paris Review that love may no longer exist because of “the materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.” Seemingly he would endorse the statement of another provacateur, the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that “liberalism is that cluster of theories about society that are based on the presumption that we must finally each die alone.”

Houellebecq fears the work ethic is likewise doomed. Jed’s father, an architect, defends the vision of Charles Fourier – “Fourier had lived under the Ancien Régime, and he was conscious that, well before the appearance of capitalism, scientific research and technical progress had taken place, and that people worked hard, sometimes very hard, without being pushed by the lure of profit but by something, in the eyes of modern man, much vaguer; the love of God, in the case of monks, or more simply the honour of the function.”

(“L’honneur de la fonction” is another phrase that sounds better in French.)

A phrase halfway through the book summarizes Jed’s life – “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Yet Jed’s solitary old age is encapsulated in the gently apocalyptic vision of him shopping at the local Carrefour on Tuesday mornings when it is least crowded – “He sometimes had the supermarket all to himself – which seemed to him to be quite a good approximation of happiness.” His last works are montages of electronic components superimposed on vegetation, suggestive of the world our species will leave behind. According to Jed, “everyone in Western Europe seemed persuaded that capitalism was doomed, and even doomed in the short term, that it was living through its very last years, without, however, the ultra-left parties managing to attract anyone beyond their usual clientele of spiteful masochists. A veil of ashes seemed to have spread over people’s minds.” Sackcloth suits Houellebecq well — “I feel only a faint sense of solidarity with the human species,” the character Houellebecq tells Jed, the author portraying himself over-playing himself with admirable theatricality.

Adept at balancing the lyrical with the clinical, and the confessional with the socio-analytical, Houellebecq wrestles with many ideas in this novel without letting them overwhelm it. Occasional flashes of prose lifted from Wikipedia foreshadow the eventual victory of the hive mind and “death of the author.” In The Map and The Territory this death is enacted literally, since the character Houellebecq is viciously murdered – an exercise the author Houellebecq must surely have found therapeutic.

Houellebecq’s rejection of all political developments since the fifteenth century and palpable sense of living in a fallen world, together with such claims as that “all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors,” might seem to presage a conversion to a right-wing form of Catholicism. The character Houellebecq, before being murdered, does in fact mysteriously get himself baptized. Certainly Houellebecq seems temperamentally ripe for some kind of conversion, were his will to believe only stronger.

His anti-heroes, although affable and not unkind, seem incapable of love or even friendship – generally the most intense thing they can feel is sexual infatuation. These are men who blame societal decadence for their own lack of any self-sacrificial motivation or capacity for true love – perhaps what makes them sympathetic is that it’s a lack they genuinely regret, if with a certain detachment.

Houellebecq’s big moral insight is that self-obsession individuates us less than self-sacrifice does, that ties to a community restrict us less than the absence of such ties, that consumer freedom may turn us into clones. He is capable of sensing something admirable about community-spiritedness, without to date having been able to work up any actual enthusiasm for it – but perhaps there remains the possibility that, after his symbolic murder in The Map and The Territory, he will be reborn from the ashes with the seeds of a more committed vision.

Link: Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, A Mini-Tutorial Part 1

I now begin what I hope will be a series of mini-tutorials, each perhaps only a few parts long, on books that I think are important or interesting, and which may not be familiar to the readers of this blog. As I proceed, I will find it necessary, for clarity and coherence, to repeat some things I have said in other tutorials. I apologize for this, but it has been borne in upon me that not every visitor to this blog has read the 300,000 or so words I have posted on serious subjects over the last year and a half. I find this incredible [ :) ], but I must bow to the exigencies of the cultural norms of the medium.

Herbert Marcuse was born in Germany in1898, and died at the age of eighty-one, in 1979. He was a student of Heidegger and Husserl and was deeply influence by the philosophy of Hegel. [Faithful readers will know that I have an allergic reaction to Hegel, so I consider it an evidence of my admirable broadmindedness that I am willing to take Herbert’s works seriously, as I do.] In 1932, Marcuse published his first major work, Hegel’s Ontology and Theory of Historicity. The next year, he joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which had gathered to itself the most brilliant left-wing thinkers in Germany — Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, and many others. In 1934, fleeing the Nazis like many other intellectuals, Marcuse came to the United States. During the Second World War he worked in Washington for the organization that eventually became the CIA, heading up the German Desk. It was there that he met and befriended Barrington Moore, Jr., who was working on the Soviet desk. They remained close friends for the rest of Marcuse’s life, and it was at Moore’s house that I first met Marcuse in 1960 or 61.

Although Marcuse was a formidably raffine German intellectual, he became, almost through a serious of accidents, the inspiration and idol for young, rebellious German, French, and American students in the 1960’s, gaining such wide name recognition that at one point he even was mentioned in a New Yorker cartoon. Herbert was somewhat bemused by this fame, and publicly disavowed any interest in it, but I have always thought he was secretly amused and pleased by it. Marcuse taught for some years at Brandeis, and then, when he reached retirement age and Brandeis would not extend his contract, he went for a time to UC San Diego, where he taught Angela Davis, among others. The two books by which he is best known in the United States are Eros and Civilization, published in 1955, and One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964.

In order to understand One-Dimensional Man, it is essential to have some grasp of the set of issues that Marcuse and the other members of the Frankfort Institute were grappling with in the 1930’s and afterward. I believe this is what French intellectuals and their American epigones would call his “problematic,” although I dislike that term. For these thinkers, the two great influences on their understanding of the world around them were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx [and on mine as well, I might add.] But it was very difficult to see how the insights of these two great thinkers were to be combined, or even held in the same consciousness. Freud took the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients as a given fact, to which, as a medical doctor, he gave very little thought. His realm of investigation was the individual unconscious, with heavy emphasis on the development of the unconscious in early childhood. Perhaps his central analytical concept is the notion of repression, the forcing into the unconscious of “unacceptable” thoughts and wishes, which, despite the repression, retained their power to disrupt conscious adult functioning. Freud was deeply pessimistic about the human condition, as he made clear in such speculative works as Civilization and its Discontents. The survival of the human race, he argued, requires the stifling of powerful libidinal instincts, or at the very least, the sublimation of erotic energies in productive and socially acceptable activities, such as art, literature, industry, and even war. No amount of psychoanalysis, Freud thought, however successful in relieving neuroses, could alter the fact that the infantile fantasy of instantaneous gratification of libidinal desires is incompatible with the reality orientation required for survival and for civilization itself. Notice that although these views seem to be about the social and economic world, their universality and pessimism is such that they leave that world untouched, unaltered, and hence unchallenged. In this sense, Freud’s views, while scandalous to his world, were in fact in their effect conservative rather than revolutionary.

The focus of Marx’s mature work was the socio-economic structure of capitalist economies — what he called, echoing Newton, “the laws of motion of capitalist economy.” Although in his twenties he wrote some very suggestive and important essays about the psychodynamics of labor in a capitalist economy — essays that, as we shall see, had a considerable effect on Marcuse and other mid-twentieth century left intellectuals — it was the economic theory set forth in the five thousand pages of the six volumes of Capital and several other works that were his great legacy. Particularly after the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, carried out in his name if not in his spirit, it was Marx’s theories of capitalist exploitation, of crises, and of the possible transition from capitalism to socialism, not the early speculations on unalienated labor, that were most widely associated with his name.

The key concept of Marx’s analysis of capitalism is surplus labor — the labor that workers expend over and above what is necessary to reproduce their conditions of existence. In any society, under any circumstances, a certain amount of labor just be expended to grow food, produce clothing and shelter, provide medical and other services, and care for the children who are new generation of workers. Marx calls this ”necessary labor,” and he makes it clear that this labor must be performed no matter what the “social relations of production” may be. But because capitalists own or control the means of production, they can force workers to labor longer hours than is necessary for their existence. The capitalists appropriate this “surplus labor,” in the form of the products which they sell in the market. Marx’s central analytical claim is that profit is nothing but the money form of the surplus labor extracted from the workers. Marx calls this appropriation of surplus labor “exploitation.” Thus, the central conclusion of Marx’s analysis, which, despite certain technical and mathematical problems I consider fundamentally correct, is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

The central project of the Frankfort School, to put it in a phrase, was to bring Freud and Marx into fruitful conjunction, and, by somehow fusing their insights and teachings, produce an integrated theory of human existence in a mature capitalist economy and society. In their different ways, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse and others were all embarked upon this same quest. After the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the advent of Nazism, their principal effort was to understand how such horrors could come to be in a society that seemed to be at the height of refinement, intellectual development, and artistic and cultural realization. Many of the great works of the mid-century period deal, in one way or another, with this question. [See, for example, Horkheimer and Adorno’s study of The Authoritarian Personality — note the fusion of psychoanalytic and socio-political themes in the title itself.]

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse, in a truly brilliant coup de theatre, combines the concepts of repression and surplus labor, and gives us, as a key to understanding life in a capitalist society, the concept of surplus repression. Tomorrow, we will see what he means by this suggestive phrase.

Link: Simone de Beauvoir, The Art of Fiction No. 35

Simone de Beauvoir had introduced me to Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I had interviewed. But she hesitated about being interviewed herself: “Why should we talk about me? Don’t you think I’ve done enough in my three books of memoirs?” It took several letters and conversations to convince her otherwise, and then only on the condition “that it wouldn’t be too long.”

The interview took place in Miss de Beauvoir’s studio on the rue Schoëlcher in Montparnasse, a five-minute walk from Sartre’s apartment. We worked in a large, sunny room which serves as her study and sitting room. Shelves are crammed with surprisingly uninteresting books. “The best ones,” she told me, “are in the hands of my friends and never come back.” The tables are covered with colorful objects brought back from her travels, but the only valuable work in the room is a lamp made for her by Giacometti. Scattered throughout the room are dozens of phonograph records, one of the few luxuries that Miss de Beauvoir permits herself.

Apart from her classically featured face, what strikes one about Simone de Beauvoir is her fresh, rosy complexion and her clear blue eyes, extremely young and lively. One gets the impression that she knows and sees everything; this inspires a certain timidity. Her speech is rapid, her manner direct without being brusque, and she is rather smiling and friendly.

Madeleine Gobeil: For the last seven years you’ve been writing your memoirs, in which you frequently wonder about your vocation and your profession. I have the impression that it was the loss of religious faith that turned you toward writing.

Simone De Beauvoir: It’s very hard to review one’s past without cheating a little. My desire to write goes far back. I wrote stories at the age of eight, but lots of children do the same. That doesn’t really mean they have a vocation for writing. It may be that in my case the vocation was accentuated because I had lost religious faith; it’s also true that when I read books that moved me deeply, such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, I wanted terribly much to be, like her, someone whose books would be read, whose books would move readers.

Have you been influenced by English literature?

The study of English has been one of my passions ever since childhood. There’s a body of children’s literature in English far more charming than what exists in French. I loved to read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, George Eliot, and even Rosamond Lehmann.

Dusty Answer?

I had a real passion for that book. And yet it was rather mediocre. The girls of my generation adored it. The author was very young, and every girl recognized herself in Judy. The book was rather clever, even rather subtle. As for me, I envied English university life. I lived at home. I didn’t have a room of my own. In fact, I had nothing at all. And though that life wasn’t free, it did allow for privacy and seemed to me magnificent. The author had known all the myths of adolescent girls—handsome boys with an air of mystery about them and so on. Later, of course, I read the Brontës and the books of Virginia Woolf: Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t care much for The Waves, but I’m very, very fond of her book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

What about her journal?

It interests me less. It’s too literary. It’s fascinating, but it’s foreign to me. She’s too concerned with whether she’ll be published, with what people will say about her. I liked very much “A Room of One’s Own” in which she talks about the situation of women. It’s a short essay, but it hits the nail on the head. She explains very well why women can’t write. Virginia Woolf is one of the women writers who have interested me most. Have you seen any photos of her? An extraordinarily lonely face … In a way, she interests me more than Colette. Colette is, after all, very involved in her little love affairs, in household matters, laundry, pets. Virginia Woolf is much broader.

Did you read her books in translation?

No, in English. I read English better than I speak it.

What do you think about college and university education for a writer? You yourself were a brilliant student at the Sorbonne and people expected you to have a brilliant career as a teacher.

My studies gave me only a very superficial knowledge of philosophy but sharpened my interest in it. I benefited greatly from being a teacher—that is, from being able to spend a great deal of time reading, writing and educating myself. In those days, teachers didn’t have a very heavy program. My studies gave me a solid foundation because in order to pass the state exams you have to explore areas that you wouldn’t bother about if you were concerned only with general culture. They provided me with a certain academic method that was useful when I wrote The Second Sex and that has been useful, in general, for all my studies. I mean a way of going through books very quickly, of seeing which works are important, of classifying them, of being able to reject those which are unimportant, of being able to summarize, to browse.

Were you a good teacher?

I don’t think so, because I was interested only in the bright students and not at all in the others, whereas a good teacher should be interested in everyone. But if you teach philosophy you can’t help it. There were always four or five students who did all the talking, and the others didn’t care to do anything. I didn’t bother about them very much.

You had been writing for ten years before you were published, at the age of thirty-five. Weren’t you discouraged?

No, because in my time it was unusual to be published when you were very young. Of course, there were one or two examples, such as Radiguet, who was a prodigy. Sartre himself wasn’t published until he was about thirty-five, when Nausea and The Wall were brought out. When my first more or less publishable book was rejected, I was a bit discouraged. And when the first version of She Came to Stay was rejected, it was very unpleasant. Then I thought that I ought to take my time. I knew many examples of writers who were slow in getting started. And people always spoke of the case of Stendhal, who didn’t begin to write until he was forty.

In The Blood of Others and All Men Are Mortal you deal with the problem of time. Were you influenced, in this respect, by Joyce or Faulkner?

No, it was a personal preoccupation. I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out. That’s horrible too, though I personally have never been troubled by it. There’s always been great continuity in my life. I’ve always lived in Paris, more or less in the same neighborhoods. My relationship with Sartre has lasted a very long time. I have very old friends whom I continue to see. So it’s not that I’ve felt that time breaks things up, but rather the fact that I always take my bearings. I mean the fact that I have so many years behind me, so many ahead of me. I count them.

In the second part of your memoirs, you draw a portrait of Sartre at the time he was writing Nausea. You picture him as being obsessed by what he calls his “crabs,” by anguish. You seem to have been, at the time, the joyous member of the couple. Yet, in your novels you reveal a preoccupation with death that we never find in Sartre.

But remember what he says in The Words. That he never felt the imminence of death, whereas his fellow students—for example, Nizan, the author of Aden, Arabie—were fascinated by it. In a way, Sartre felt he was immortal. He had staked everything on his literary work and on the hope that his work would survive, whereas for me, owing to the fact that my personal life will disappear, I’m not the least bit concerned about whether my work is likely to last. I’ve always been deeply aware that the ordinary things of life disappear, one’s day-to-day activities, one’s impressions, one’s past experiences. Sartre thought that life could be caught in a trap of words, and I’ve always felt that words weren’t life itself but a reproduction of life, of something dead, so to speak.

That’s precisely the point. Some people claim that you haven’t the power to transpose life in your novels. They insinuate that your characters are copied from the people around you.

I don’t know. What is the imagination? In the long run, it’s a matter of attaining a certain degree of generality, of truth about what is, about what one actually lives. Works which aren’t based on reality don’t interest me unless they’re out-and-out extravagant, for example the novels of Alexandre Dumas or of Victor Hugo, which are epics of a kind. But I don’t call “made-up” stories works of the imagination but rather works of artifice. If I wanted to defend myself, I could refer to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all the characters of which were taken from real life.

In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.

Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.

None of your female characters are immune from love. You like the romantic element.

Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it.

In your novels, it seems to be the women—I’m thinking of Françoise in She Came to Stay and Anne in The Mandarins—who experience it most.

The reason is that, despite everything, women give more of themselves in love because most of them don’t have much else to absorb them. Perhaps they’re also more capable of deep sympathy, which is the basis of love. Perhaps it’s also because I can project myself more easily into women than into men. My female characters are much richer than my male characters.

You’ve never created an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex. Why?

I’ve shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.

After your long novel, The Mandarins, you stopped writing fiction and began to work on your memoirs. Which of these two literary forms do you prefer?

I like both of them. They offer different kinds of satisfaction and disappointment. In writing my memoirs, it’s very agreeable to be backed up by reality. On the other hand, when one follows reality from day to day, as I have, there are certain depths, certain kinds of myth and meaning that one disregards. In the novel, however, one can express these horizons, these overtones of daily life, but there’s an element of fabrication that is nevertheless disturbing. One should aim at inventing without fabricating. I had been wanting to talk about my childhood and youth for a long time. I had maintained very deep relationships with them, but there was no sign of them in any of my books. Even before writing my first novel, I had a desire to have, as it were, a heart-to-heart talk. It was a very emotional, a very personal need. After Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter I was unsatisfied, and then I thought of doing something else. But I was unable to. I said to myself, “I’ve fought to be free. What have I done with my freedom, what’s become of it?” I wrote the sequel that carried me from the age of twenty-one to the present time, from The Prime of Life to Force of Circumstance

At the meeting of writers in Formentor a few years ago, Carlo Levi described The Prime of Life as “the great love story of the century.” Sartre appeared for the first time as a human being. You revealed a Sartre who had not been rightly understood, a man very different from the legendary Sartre.

I did it intentionally. He didn’t want me to write about him. Finally, when he saw that I spoke about him the way I did, he gave me a free hand.

In your opinion, why is it that, despite the reputation he’s had for twenty years, Sartre the writer remains misunderstood and is still violently attacked by critics?

For political reasons. Sartre is a man who has violently opposed the class into which he was born and which therefore regards him as a traitor. But that’s the class which has money, which buys books. Sartre’s situation is paradoxical. He’s an antibourgeois writer who is read by the bourgeoisie and admired by it as one of its products. The bourgeoisie has a monopoly on culture and thinks that it gave birth to Sartre. At the same time, it hates him because he attacks it.

In an interview with Hemingway in The Paris Review, he said, “All you can be sure about, in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it.” Of course, you don’t agree. Do you still believe in “commitment”?

Hemingway was precisely the type of writer who never wanted to commit himself. I know that he was involved in the Spanish civil war, but as a journalist. Hemingway was never deeply committed, so he thinks that what is eternal in literature is what isn’t dated, isn’t committed. I don’t agree. In the case of many writers, it’s also their political stand which makes me like or dislike them. There aren’t many writers of former times whose work was really committed. And although one reads Rousseau’s Social Contract as eagerly as one reads his Confessions, one no longer reads The New Héloïse.

The heyday of existentialism seems to have been the period from the end of the war to 1952. At the present time, the “new novel” is in fashion; and such writers as Drieu La Rochelle and Roger Nimier.

There’s certainly a return to the right in France. The new novel itself isn’t reactionary, nor are its authors. A sympathizer can say that they want to do away with certain bourgeois conventions. These writers aren’t disturbing. In the long run, Gaullism brings us back to Pétainism, and it’s only to be expected that a collaborator like La Rochelle and an extreme reactionary like Nimier be held in high esteem again. The bourgeoisie is showing itself again in its true colors—that is, as a reactionary class. Look at the success of Sartre’s The Words. There are several things to note. It’s perhaps—I won’t say his best book, but one of his best. At any rate, it’s an excellent book, an exciting display of virtuosity, an amazingly written work. At the same time, the reason it has had such success is that it’s a book that is not “committed.” When the critics say that it’s his best book, along with Nausea, one should bear in mind that Nausea is an early work, a work that is not committed, and that it is more readily accepted by the left and right alike than are his plays. The same thing happened to me with The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Bourgeois women were delighted to recognize their own youth in it. The protests began with The Prime of Life and continued with Force of Circumstance. The break is very clear, very sharp.

The last part of Force of Circumstance is devoted to the Algerian war, to which you seem to have reacted in a very personal way.

I felt and thought about things in a political way, but I never engaged in political action. The entire last part of Force of Circumstance deals with the war. And it seems anachronistic in a France that is no longer concerned with that war.

Didn’t you realize that people were bound to forget about it?

I deleted lots of pages from that section. I therefore realized that it would be anachronistic. On the other hand, I absolutely wanted to talk about it, and I’m amazed that people have forgotten it to such a degree. Have you seen the film La Belle Vie, by the young director Robert Enrico? People are stupefied because the film shows the Algerian war. Claude Mauriac wrote in Le Figaro Litteraire: “Why is it that we’re shown parachute troopers on public squares? It’s not true to life.” But it is true to life. I used to see them every day from Sartre’s window at Saint Germain des Prés. People have forgotten. They wanted to forget. They wanted to forget their memories. That’s the reason why, contrary to what I expected, I wasn’t attacked for what I said about the Algerian war but for what I said about old age and death. As regards the Algerian war, all Frenchmen are now convinced that it never took place, that nobody was tortured, that insofar as there was torture they were always against torture.

At the end of Force of Circumstance you say: “As I look back with incredulity at that credulous adolescent, I am astounded to see how I was swindled.” This remark seems to have given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings.

People—particularly enemies—have tried to interpret it to mean that my life has been a failure, either because I recognize the fact that I was mistaken on a political level or because I recognize that after all a woman should have had children, etc. Anyone who reads my book carefully can see that I say the very opposite, that I don’t envy anyone, that I’m perfectly satisfied with what my life has been, that I’ve kept all my promises and that consequently if I had my life to live over again I wouldn’t live it any differently. I’ve never regretted not having children insofar as what I wanted to do was to write.

Then why “swindled”? When one has an existentialist view of the world, like mine, the paradox of human life is precisely that one tries to be and, in the long run, merely exists. It’s because of this discrepancy that when you’ve laid your stake on being—and, in a way you always do when you make plans, even if you actually know that you can’t succeed in being—when you turn around and look back on your life, you see that you’ve simply existed. In other words, life isn’t behind you like a solid thing, like the life of a god (as it is conceived, that is, as something impossible). Your life is simply a human life.

So one might say, as Alain did, and I’m very fond of that remark, “Nothing is promised us.” In one sense, it’s true. In another, it’s not. Because a bourgeois boy or girl who is given a certain culture is actually promised things. I think that anyone who had a hard life when he was young won’t say in later years that he’s been “swindled.” But when I say that I’ve been swindled I’m referring to the seventeen-year-old girl who daydreamed in the country near the hazel bush about what she was going to do later on. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, writing books, learning about things, but I’ve been swindled all the same because it’s never anything more. There are also Mallarmé’s lines about “the perfume of sadness that remains in the heart,” I forget exactly how they go. I’ve had what I wanted, and, when all is said and done, what one wanted was always something else. A woman psychoanalyst wrote me a very intelligent letter in which she said that “in the last analysis, desires always go far beyond the object of desire.” The fact is that I’ve had everything I desired, but the “far beyond” which is included in the desire itself is not attained when the desire has been fulfilled. When I was young, I had hopes and a view of life which all cultured people and bourgeois optimists encourage one to have and which my readers accuse me of not encouraging in them. That’s what I meant, and I wasn’t regretting anything I’ve done or thought.

Some people think that a longing for God underlies your works.

No. Sartre and I have always said that it’s not because there’s a desire to be that this desire corresponds to any reality. It’s exactly what Kant said on the intellectual level. The fact that one believes in causalities is no reason to believe that there is a supreme cause. The fact that man has a desire to be does not mean that he can ever attain being or even that being is a possible notion, at any rate the being that is a reflection and at the same time an existence. There is a synthesis of existence and being that is impossible. Sartre and I have always rejected it, and this rejection underlies our thinking. There is an emptiness in man, and even his achievements have this emptiness. That’s all. I don’t mean that I haven’t achieved what I wanted to achieve but rather that the achievement is never what people think it is. Furthermore, there is a naïve or snobbish aspect, because people imagine that if you have succeeded on a social level you must be perfectly satisfied with the human condition in general. But that’s not the case.

“I’m swindled” also implies something else—namely, that life has made me discover the world as it is, that is, a world of suffering and oppression, of undernourishment for the majority of people, things that I didn’t know when I was young and when I imagined that to discover the world was to discover something beautiful. In that respect, too, I was swindled by bourgeois culture, and that’s why I don’t want to contribute to the swindling of others and why I say that I was swindled, in short, so that others aren’t swindled. It’s really also a problem of a social kind. In short, I discovered the unhappiness of the world little by little, then more and more, and finally, above all, I felt it in connection with the Algerian war and when I traveled.

Some critics and readers have felt that you spoke about old age in an unpleasant way.

A lot of people didn’t like what I said because they want to believe that all periods of life are delightful, that children are innocent, that all newlyweds are happy, that all old people are serene. I’ve rebelled against such notions all my life, and there’s no doubt about the fact that the moment, which for me is not old age but the beginning of old age, represents—even if one has all the resources one wants, affection, work to be done—represents a change in one’s existence, a change that is manifested by the loss of a great number of things. If one isn’t sorry to lose them it’s because one didn’t love them. I think that people who glorify old age or death too readily are people who really don’t love life. Of course, in present-day France you have to say that everything’s fine, that everything’s lovely, including death.

Beckett has keenly felt the swindle of the human condition. Does he interest you more than the other “new novelists”?

Certainly. All the playing around with time that one finds in the “new novel” can be found in Faulkner. It was he who taught them how to do it, and in my opinion he’s the one who does it best. As for Beckett, his way of emphasizing the dark side of life is very beautiful. However, he’s convinced that life is dark and only that. I too am convinced that life is dark, and at the same time I love life. But that conviction seems to have spoiled everything for him. When that’s all you can say, there aren’t fifty ways of saying it, and I’ve found that many of his works are merely repetitions of what he said earlier. Endgame repeats Waiting for Godot, but in a weaker way.

Are there many contemporary French writers who interest you?

Not many. I receive lots of manuscripts, and the annoying thing is that they’re almost always bad. At the present time, I’m very excited about Violette Leduc. She was first published in 1946 in Collection Espoir, which was edited by Camus. The critics praised her to the skies. Sartre, Genet, and Jouhandeau liked her very much. She never sold. She recently published a great autobiography called The Bastard, the beginning of which was published in Les Temps Modernes, of which Sartre is editor-in-chief. I wrote a preface to the book because I thought that she was one of the unappreciated postwar French writers. She’s having great success in France at the present time.

And how do you rank yourself among contemporary writers?

I don’t know. What is it that one evaluates? The noise, the silence, posterity, the number of readers, the absence of readers, the importance at a given time? I think that people will read me for some time. At least, that’s what my readers tell me. I’ve contributed something to the discussion of women’s problems. I know I have from the letters I receive. As for the literary quality of my work, in the strict sense of the word, I haven’t the slightest idea.