Tag Archives: alasdair macintyre

Mario Vargas Llosa in Winter

22 Jan

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We  are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

These words came to mind as I wrapped up Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest essays, Notes on the Death of Culture, in which he exercises his prerogative as a grumpy old man and complains about what has gone wrong in the world. His lament here is on the decline of high culture and its replacement by a sorry substitute of an anti-culture of the masses. He is unashamed to defend the old elites and use terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ to draw distinctions between the good and the bad. His diagnosis has nuance, but it boils down to this: the democratization of culture has left us with incoherence, and no means of elevating truly great work above the rest of the noise. We live in a society of spectacle, in which the biggest, flashiest sights eclipse all work of any quality. In spite of our great advances in technology and political progress in many parts of the globe, the cacophony may drown out the narratives we need to sustain our societies and thereby jeopardize the entire project.

Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal figure, one that was never in vogue in his native Peru—alas, he lost the 1990 presidential election to eventual autocrat Alberto Fujimori—and his type has become increasingly endangered elsewhere, too. He’s unique among Latin American literary giants of the late twentieth century in his firm embrace of open markets and rejection of leftist revolution. He is also one of those intellectuals with tremendous respect for the religious and the societal role of faith who nonetheless does not identify with any place, perhaps revealing the weakness of his stance in the process: if faith is just some guarantor of social order and does not place any demands upon its adherents, why should anyone else buy in? He knows he takes a lonely stance, but also knows that people like him have long served as the curators of culture, and worries about what may come next.

This worldview leads the Peruvian Nobel Laureate to embrace some fairly standard positions that prioritize a secular political order and existing institutions, including critiques of Muslim headscarves and WikiLeaks. Regardless of his positions, this is hardly the most gripping part of the book; authors philosophizing are a dime a dozen, and Vargas Llosa is witty but never revolutionary. His work is stronger when he delves deeper into the trappings of faith and in a mediation on the death of eroticism (cue Rollo May), which are somewhat more transgressive themes. Here, he mounts a defense of ritual and the private sphere in an attempt to keep some sense of mystery and wonder alive in the world.

Vargas Llosa is at his best when he talks about the arts, and the value of the canon in which some of his finest works (Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat) surely belong. The excerpted section that concludes Notes on the Death of Culutre made bolder leaps than his 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address that pondered some similar themes, but it does better drive home the thrust of his argument: that literature is particularly suited to inspire reflection, rebellion, and the pursuit of ideals, and does so in a way that newer technology cannot. Here we see the depth of his mind, and how he has taken many great works and used them in ways that again prove their greatness: by serving as windows into the soul, an inspiration toward human action in the service of a greater cause. This, he tells us, is how a curmudgeonly “dinosaur in difficult times” can still impart some wisdom.

Our intrepid author is otherwise short on advice for how to sustain culture; he even admits that the future does not concern him much. (This must be much easier when one is 79 than it is when one is 26.) This, perhaps, is what brought me back to MacIntyre today: the need to build communities (and I use that term loosely) that can preserve the best of this great cultural inheritance, even as we make our way in a modern world that often has no regard for it. We do this not to repeat the past or stay stuck in it, but to make sure we don’t lose touch with the more insightful things people have said in the past, and to ensure we stop and reflect on the broader narratives in which we situate our lives. I suppose I ought to get to work.


A Sense of Place in the Modern World

23 Oct

So many trends in this day in age cut against loyalty to a place. Being committed to one spot on the map seems to be either a luxury or a harsh necessity.

Just think about it. Finding a well-paying job (or simply a job) often requires travel and frequent movement as one climbs the ladder in search of the best opportunity. Well-educated people often uproot themselves and cluster together in a handful of economic centers that have a lot of interesting high culture. People who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds can escape them, and for many, that is no small victory. Economists speak glowingly about “creative destruction”—that is, the need to tear down old stuff and replace it with new stuff to keep the engines of economic growth firing at full steam. The two political parties’ platforms only rarely give nods to local interests; Democrats emphasize universal rights above local loyalties and often use a distant federal government as their instrument of choice to promote it, while Republicans tend to venerate the frictionless free market above all else. Throw in the technological advances of the past few decades, and people have never been so free to move about without setting down deep roots where they are.

The march of modernity is all bad for a sense of place. Mobility has actually declined somewhat in recent years, though I’d guess that has more to do with economic forces than some newfound commitment to certain locations. The internet makes it easier to connect to interesting people without ever leaving places that might otherwise not be the most stimulating places. It is also becoming increasingly easier to do some jobs from home, and some communities that are just flat-out nice places to live will prove resilient because of that. The mayor of my hometown of Duluth, Don Ness, made that argument in this recent Atlantic piece—he’s admitted that he is the anonymous mayor there. It’s a sensible point, but while this is nice for a city like Duluth, it’s not of much use to many other places. Building communities and growing cultures takes time and commitment, and it’s hard to find the people and capital to build them.

All of this movement is often viewed as a positive thing (the American Way, even), and as the media and other big institutions that drive culture tend to be full of people who have made plenty of career leaps, voices that question it don’t get much coverage. When they do, it’s often negative—and not always without reason, as the excesses and eccentricities of opposition groups merit a fair amount of the mockery they incur. This isn’t to say that all the national media hates or ignores small towns or Middle America—they continue to be a fantastic source for stories of virtue and laments for middle-class Paradise Lost—but most of them seem to view it as a different land to be mused about from afar, its decay inevitable. The people who really argue for something different are on the margins: environmentalists and lefty localists, certain conservatives who are actually interested in conserving things (usually communities, churches, and stable social orders), and a handful of literary figures who transcend those categories, like Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry.

People from very diverse backgrounds agree with bits of their argument, even if they might not ever cohere into a political movement. These people generally respect things like political rights and an open economy, but they don’t think that loyalty to such ideals should come at the expense of personal ties. They are skeptical of abstraction and a life consumed by endless thinking. Instead, they focus on the relationships with people immediately around them, and because interpersonal relationships are at the center of everything, constant movement doesn’t much appeal to them. Family and friends are important, so they keep everyone close and recognize their debts to both their ancestors and their children. As a result, they’re comparatively thrifty and careful about their economic choices. They aren’t necessarily Luddites, but technology isn’t their favorite thing on earth, and if possible, they’d often rather repair things with their own hands than haul in an expensive expert to do the work. A number ground their localism in shopping locally and caring for their neighborhoods, and a number rely on houses of worship to provide community. There’s nothing glorious about this way of life, but it is one of steadiness and deep contentment, and it provides the strongest cushions possible when tragedy strikes.

Of course, it can all go wrong, as it has many times over the years. The most egregious examples are racial, religious, or other such barriers imposed by small communities with strong tribal instincts. Communities can be stultifying, or just stale. It is very difficult for one individual to stand up to an entire community, and when everyone knows one another, grudges can be even more toxic than when the enemy is a bit more abstract. These troubles can always be overcome, but they also require careful attention, and mean people have to think beyond the most convenient aspects of community as well.

A more benign trend among localists is a tendency to tip toward escapism. This is what religious conservatives will call the “Benedict Option,” though it’s not hard to find secular or left-leaning equivalents: people with a shared sense of morality retreating into their communities to hide from or wait out the collapse of the fallen modern world around them. If you want to be one of those people, be my guest; as long as you’re not shooting at those who don’t join you, you have that freedom, and the global economy isn’t going to take a hit because fifty people retreat into a self-sustaining commune or a homeschooling cooperative. I respect that, and I think the rest of society stands to learn from methods used in alternative schools or from Zapatista “good government” practices or the Amish freedom from being eternally plugged in.

I’m just not going to join them.

Why not? With a few obvious exceptions, those idealized communities never really last; the best we can do is pick and choose a few things from them that are worth adopting. Humans will always dream, and unless one has been within the culture for generations, people will grow restless and head out to explore the world on their own terms. It’s no secret that I’m a loyalist to community, but I didn’t come to appreciate that without spending an awful lot of my childhood dreaming about being somewhere else. I still do. I still love to travel, and I keep up with international news and pop culture and major sports. That makes it an awful lot easier to find common ground with people who aren’t from one’s little tribe, and so long as one has faith in one’s lifestyle, it isn’t going to corrupt anyone in some terrible way. I have less fear of moral decay than many religious conservatives, or even a healthy number of bourgeois liberals; somehow, it seems like you can always find people saying we’re all going to hell, and yet somehow, human nature seems to survive intact. The cloisters are a lovely place for a weekend of reflection, but there’s a bit too much Athens in my Jerusalem for me to stay there, and the same is probably true for most people out there. I can’t run away from the world. Yes, there’s an awful lot wrong with it, but it’s the only one I have.

Staying in touch with the world beyond my little fishbowl also keeps me from falling too far into blind obsession. I’ve shared some very pointed words about school board levies and local politicians on this blog, and I’m glad I have; Duluth is small enough that I’ve actually been able to dialogue with some people about these things and now have a modest readership. I’m proud of that, and I want to keep building on it. But I also don’t want to sit here preaching to a choir that nods and smiles, and I need constant reminders that there are other things out there that make all of this seem trivial. This blog’s wanderings into hockey or Greek philosophy or global affairs may seem like random whims, but there’s a design here: I’m trying to keep myself from ever being too caught up in these delightfully petty political circles I’m floating around in. And if need be, if Duluth doesn’t work out in the long run, I’m ready to pull up and move somewhere else. Roots aren’t easy to grow, but as long as the soil is halfway decent, they have a chance in most places.

There is wisdom in seeing life as an ongoing pilgrimage or journey from one place to the next, but too often that strikes me as a defense mechanism; a regrettably necessary means of making peace with roots that have rotted away. Sure, there are some people who just have a lot of wanderlust, or their own roots are among perpetual wanderers. Like the old line says, not all who wander are lost. But plenty of them are, or may be fully aware that their wanderings stem from old burdens or an inability to properly go home. The Jews did an admirable job of surviving, even thriving, when they were wandering the desert or scattered across Europe, but they always yearned for Israel. And while that home may seem a fleeting one when held up against the sweep of history, for our equally fleeting time on earth, it can make all the difference in the world. If life is a journey, it’s a much happier one when we have a warm bed to come home to at the end of the day’s adventures.

Jonathan Franzen, Fiction, and a Novel of My Own

23 Sep

Jonathan Franzen fascinates me more than any other contemporary author, though at first glance, it’s hard to figure out why. He’s not necessarily my favorite writer, nor the most talented one out there, and not even the most insightful. His dour lifestyle doesn’t really sound all that pleasant to me, and when I had the chance to attend a book reading of his at the National Cathedral, he came across as, well, weird.

I suppose that leaves us with his fame, which I’ll admit is a bit captivating to anyone with any pretension of writing fiction. This man is guilty of making me think novel-writing can still be relevant, and sure enough, there are countless glimmers of insight in The Corrections and Freedom that really speak to “the way we live now,” that vogue phrase used to describe great contemporary literary fiction. I think those sorts of work are valuable, and while I suppose my writing makes some effort to do that, I also find it limiting in some ways. What good is a novel about “the way we live now” in forty years, other than as a historical artifact? Granted, it’s not a crisp division; no story can really be removed from the time and place it’s set in, and we can learn far broader things from even the most myopic case studies. But with Franzen there’s a serious risk of drowning in the details of the present, and it’s hard to know how relevant some of his insights might be down the line. He is so relentless in his attempts to capture the moment with his ironic, self-conscious detachment that it can grow tiresome, even to people like me, who have a certain appreciation for that sort of thing.

Franzen’s power, however, emerges in his ability to bury himself in the misery modern life for ages and ages, and then come up with a brilliant ending that transcends all the previous grumbling. He’ll go on and on making you feel utterly depressed about the state of the world, and then he’ll drop something on you at the end that makes everything seem good again. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. I really liked the premise of The Corrections, and still have an autographed copy sitting on my bookshelf, but about midway through it I was distracted by something else, and it remains unfinished. If and when I ever get through it, I suspect I’ll love the ending, but I have to be willing to go through the beginning bits again, and Franzen spends so much time making his characters so profoundly flawed that one almost has to feel a personal connection to them to see them through. I found enough of that in Freedom that I sped through it, and felt rewarded afterwards. Even so, though I was moved by the ending when I read it, later reflection led to some doubt about the sincerity of the final transcendent moment. (This incisive, if overly harsh, Ruth Franklin review explains why better than I can.)

Sometimes, I think he’s actually more effective as an essayist. My favorite thing he’s written was “Farther Away,” a New Yorker essay on human solitude (which, like every other New Yorker piece I want to link to, is not online). His manifesto on literature in the digital age, “Perchance to Dream,” is also masterful, though I have my quibbles with parts of it. And now, in The Guardian, he offers an excerpt of an upcoming work of non-fiction that modestly sets out to explain “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” It follows the classic Franzen formula to a tee. It diagnoses many Bad Things, uses examples of varying strength to make that point, and employs a caustic wit; it all makes Franzen seem rather misanthropic, and by the end he’s snuffed out most of your hope for the future of our species. (This is especially true if you like to write and are a mediocre self-promoter.) But then he turns around and points out how the apocalypse won’t be so bad after all, and gives you a chance to find some hope for humanity again.

Franzen’s escapes from his own despair make so many readers want to believe in him as a voice of redemption. We all want to think we can do that, too. He has so much potential. And yet, for me at least, he doesn’t quite get there. He is too consumed by his misery, his fleeting glimmers too brief, and too constrained by his times. Much of my inspiration for writing fiction comes not from Franzen himself, but from the critiques of him: I want to close the deal.

So, this seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement: I have a novel draft that I am, finally, more-or-less ready to share.

I’m an unpublished 23-year-old kid who’s just finished his first draft, and who hasn’t taken a formal English class since high school. I don’t pretend to be some sort of new-and-improved Jonathan Franzen. No, quite the contrary: my stumbling efforts owe a debt to him. Art, in my mind, is not a work of genius that emerges from a vacuum. It is wedded to literature that has come before it, forever in dialogue with the past. Hence my epigraph for the novel:

Man is…essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I’ve named the thing The School of Athens, and there is a lot going on here. The basic premise—kids growing up in a small northern Minnesota town—has some things in common with my life, though I’m also pleased to say that is far less autobiographical that some of my previous attempts at fiction. None of the characters are really based on anyone from my childhood, and my fictional town of Arcadia certainly has its differences from the east side of Duluth. As the epigraph suggests, it asks what it is we’re supposed to do with our lives, and explores the tension between individual ambitions and commitments to a community. It is a coming of age story, and there is a healthy dose of teenage angst. There are clashing cultures, love stories, and of course there is some hockey. As the title suggests, there is some Greek philosophy allegory, though I hope that readers can enjoy the novel without knowing much about Plato or Aristotle.

As in many “contemporary literary fiction” novels, it confronts some problems of the modern world: the emptying of the American countryside, broken families, moral uncertainty, and an atomized society. There is plenty of skepticism about sentimental or easy solutions, and some healthy mockery of the notion that some characters have anything in common with the Greek heroes who are their namesakes or inspiration. On the other hand, though, it tries to avoid some of the pathologies that afflict Franzen and other modern novelists. While it seems to be happening sometime in the present, I never name a year. There is little to no name-dropping of brands or current events; instead, it focuses on conversation and direct contact, and the timeless traits of human interaction that haven’t changed all that much since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. All the characters are flawed, but they all have some redeeming traits as well, and contra Franzen, you won’t have to wait until the end to see glimpses of that—not that the ending will necessarily hit that note, though. You’ll have to read the thing to find out.

Still, I’m not going to measure this novel’s value by its place within some grandiose literary debate over postmodernism or literary theory or what “great” novels should talk about. (In fact, my ambivalence over that sort of theorizing is a secondary reason why I chose not to attend an MFA program that accepted me.) I’d love for this thing to succeed, but I have no illusions over making a living off of writing novels in this day in age. I just hope I’ve told an interesting story that people can relate to.

So, drop me a line if you want to read it: I need all the criticism I can get. That’s the only way it’ll get better, because I know it’s far from complete. Thanks for reading.