Aesthetics and Ethics: Dorian Gray and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

book cover book cover Read both in the last two weeks and while they are in many ways worlds apart, the authors share an interest in the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, and between human connectedness and the private/public hidden/disclosed lines. Dorian Gray was good (and has enough witty-yet-profound quotable passages to fill pages), but The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I have about 8 pages of notes in the back of it. It also connects up with my favorite essay in the Empathy Exams about kitsch, authenticity, meaning, aesthetics, and morality. The book is a must read. But warning: keep the tissue box nearby.

The Empathy Exams

book coverJust finished — a solid read. The book is a collection of essays that loosely have an empathy theme. With some emphasis on the loosely. I’d just say it’s a collection of essays that all fall into the thinking-against-oneself genre — a genre that some find self-indulgent but I find comforting and insightful more often than not.

My favorite essay was In Defense of Saccharin(e). In it she reflects on sentimentality (like an artificial sweeter), anti-sentimentalists, irony, aesthetics, the use of metaphor to describe emotion (as a tool for deflecting and diffusing “the glare of revelation”), and a favorite line that I will now be using frequently, “big crude crayon-drawing feelings that could actually render us porous to one another.” Love that. Enjoyed thinking through the issues in that essay.

Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929

book coverI’m behind on book reviews (very, very behind) but I finally read the last pages of this today and just had to say something. And that something is: this book is fascinating and quite relevant to my own work (how great when that happens!)

The book traces the Seattle labor movement’s transformation from incredibly powerful and fairly radical leading up to the 1919 general strike to the fairly toothless business unionist AFL version of the mid to late 1920s. Frank attributes the decline to a variety of factors, but racism and sexism are front and center. As is the government’s suppression of radicals leading up to and during the Red Scare (something covered more extensively in Paul Avrich’s books on anarchism).

What was most relevant to me in all this was the consumer-based strategies Seattle labor used, first in 1919 and then again in the mid/late-1920s. In both cases, the idea was to use consumer (working class consumer) purchasing power via boycotts, “buy union” labels, etc. to advance the union cause. Now there are two super interesting things about this for me: (1) how a consumer strategy lends itself to both radical (1919) and conservative (mid-1920s) visions of labor and (2) why consumer strategies mostly failed.

On (1) — the radical version was possible only when the consumer-focus was a complement to resistance and the point of production, as part of a larger and broader vision of a working class society. In this version, labor also didn’t *just* use things like the union label and shop cards, they also engaged in super interesting experimentation with things like cooperatives, which allowed for some distance to be maintained between labor and capital (because via the cooperatives, labor could attempt to compete directly with capital as a source of goods). I’ve now purchased about a half dozen books on the use of cooperatives in US history. When do they work? Can they? Why don’t we see more of them? Who uses cooperatives today? As costs lower, why don’t we see a co-op version of Uber? Or any of the other zillion “on-demand economy” companies?

On (2) — the failure is tied to, among other things, ongoing sexism and racism. As an example, women did 80-90% of all family shopping, which meant that for consumer organizing to work, women had to be on board. But in both 1919 and the mid-1920s, women were almost wholly excluded from labor. Women who worked outside the home were almost invariably excluded from unions [married women were rejected from unions in 1919 and funds were withdrawn for female organizers in 1922] and women who worked in the home were not even considered workers at all. It’s thus no great surprise that women did not identify with the movement and thus had little motivation to spend the extra time and energy (i.e. work) necessary to seek out pro-union shops and goods. As for race, it’s a similar issue. Seattle labor was by and large unwilling to admit non-whites into membership. But that meant that non-whites had little motivation to support a white-only consumer movement.

Long story short: the book was fascinating and has left me with (literally) pages of notes and questions. So much more to know! Highly recommended!

Go Set A Watchman

book coverFinished last weekend. I’d write more but given the endless sea of stuff that will be written, I can’t motivate myself to do so. So here’s the best I can do:

  • I thought the first hundred or so pages of a much higher quality than the rest.
  • Perhaps because I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird since I was a kid, watching Atticus fall from god to human was touching and heartache-inducing because I felt the pain Jean Louise (Scout) felt as it was happening. Not because I went into the book with a strong vision of Atticus as infallible hero.
  • Throughout the book JL is referred to as “color blind” and I wonder how a child reading the book today, where “color blind” has a particular (and different) meaning (think about equal protection, affirmative action, theories on how to stop racism, etc.), will understand it. My own thought is it’ll be an important teaching moment.
  • Harper Lee adds in some quite amazing passages that have to do with social hierarchy and the freedom to ignore social norms. I haven’t seen anybody write about this aspect yet but I hope they’re on their way. In short: JL is an elite while some around her (I’m thinking of Hank in particular) are considered trash. When JL is screaming at Hank about his choice to involve himself in a clearly racist and oppressive organization, Hank says some pretty interesting stuff about what it’s like to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But as interesting and complicated as it is, it does not register at all for JL. It’s not an excuse for his behavior by any means but it does open the door for a fascinating analysis of how the role of class in racism.
  • The title is a biblical reference: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” Isaiah 21:6. I hope to see some reviews looking at that connection, too.

If this were a standalone book, I’d not be keen to recommend it. But because it’s connected to TKAM, a book that almost every kid in US schools has read, it seems a virtual must-read.

The Man Who Was Thursday

book cover Wow. From the person who brought me two other recent successes (The Member of the Wedding and The Road to Wigan Pier) now comes this. What to say (other than, “I love you and please keep recommending books!!”):

First, G.K. Chesterton’s writing is exceptional. For most writers, there are maybe a half-dozen lines I underline in a book because they’re cool and insightful and well-crafted. Virtually this whole book should be underlined. That this guy had such insight into human behavior while also being able to express it in writing with such wit, topsy-turvy paradoxical flair, and yet simplicity is something to behold. I will absolutely read more by him in the future — and then stick the book under my pillow in the hopes his style comes to me through sleep osmosis. (it’s a thing — sleep osmosis). A few examples of awesome passages

  • “Gabriel  Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical. He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion. He came from a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more  did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.”    [NB: I mean, come on! I want to write that!]
  • The debate between Syme (who stands in for order) against Gregory (who stands in for anarchy, which basically here just means chaos [unfortunately]). They debate where art comes from – order or chaos. Gregory retorts that if poetry comes from order, then the Underground Railway would be the most poetical thing in the world. Syme agrees. From there,
    • Gregory says: “Nonesense!” “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket  for that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”
    •  “It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
  • “Let us remain together a little, we who have loved each other so sadly, and have fought so long.”
  • “Now absent-mindedness is just a bit too awful in a bad man. We think of a wicked man as vigilant. We can’t think of a wicked man who is honestly and sincerely dreamy, because we daren’t think of a wicked man alone with himself. An absentminded man means a good-natured man. It means a man who, if he happens to see you, will apologise. But how will you bear an absentminded man who, if he happens to see you, will kill you? That is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay. How would you like to pass ten mortal hours in a parlour with an absent-minded tiger?” [NB: Reminds me of why No Country for Old Men was so very very creepy]
  • “Syme was subject to spasms of singular common sense, not otherwise a part of his character.”

I could go on.

Also, given how many anarchy-related booklists I’ve seen this book on, I assumed it was in some sense pro-anarchy. Let me assure you that that is not the case, though I can’t say it’s a full-fledged love letter to order either. A bit like C.S. Lewis (though upon some googling it seems more accurate to say Lewis a bit like Chesterton, just not particularly clever and topsy-turvy version of him): Chesterton was a Christian and this book can certainly be read to endorse a sort of divine orderliness that goes along with that view of the universe. But then, if that’s the view what to make of the fact that the book suggests it through a most chaotic and absurd of nightmares. Perhaps a phoenix rising from the ashes sort of thing.

Long story short: Chesterton is brilliant and the fact that I’ve only just heard of him in the last few months is a tragedy. I want a first edition like nobody’s business!

An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre

book cover So I lied. Less than twelve hours after saying I’d likely not post here for a bit I finished another Paul Avrich book and can’t help myself. [apologies for the not-great book cover. There wasn’t a good one online so I took a photo at 11 at night]

I’d never even heard of Voltairine before reading Avrich’s duel Berkman-Goldman biography a bit back (though to be honest, I knew nothing about Berkman and Goldman before stumbling upon their biography either) but there were a few quotes attributed to her that peaked my interest. I could tell Avrich had something of a special interest in her and so I was not at all surprised to find this biography.

As a biography this is a solid B. Part of the problem throughout Avrich’s work is that, being one of the only historians to look at anarchy in the United States, he no doubt felt compelled to do too much at once. Write a biography of one person but at the same time give an overview of Anarchism, and create mini-bios of as many other people as possible (more than is necessary to our understanding of Voltai). And perhaps this is just a product of coming at the book with unrealistic expectations, but I was also hoping the book would talk more in-depth about her actual views. That is, more than just a line or two about her views on education, prison reform, sex, etc., I wanted depth and nuance. A mini-treatise! Avrich’s research was exhaustive and impressive, and he cites to a ton of lectures she gave over the course of her too-short life. But then fails to tell us much of anything about her positions. He’s such a tease!

That all said, I learned a great deal about her and there’s no doubt Avrich’s work here has, as another reviewer said, “rescued de Cleyre from undeserved oblivion.”  L. Glen Seretan Review, 1979. Absolutely worth reading — I only wish it were twice as long!

Below are some of my notes, in case they’re of use: 

  • People worth looking up
    • Lucy Parsons (p.90)
    • Natasha Notkin (98)
    • Mary Hansen (98)
    • Jacob Coxey – “industrial army” – marched to DC to demand relief from unemployment. (100)
    • Max Nettlau – anarchist historian (109)
    • Elisee Reclus (157)
    • Mary Wollstonecraft – Voltai’s feminist hero. Mentions idea of room of one’s own and issues with opposite-sex romantic relations and power. (158; 161)
    • Kropotkin –  esp. Fields, Factories, and Workshops, influenced her views on the possible compatibility of technology, innovation, and labor. (167-68)
    • Catherine Breshkovskaya – Socialist revolutionary from Russia. (187). “Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal”. (186)
    • Relationship between anarchists & libertarians with socialists like Debs and London. (203)
    • Flores Magon
    • American libertarian and anarchist thinkers she IDs
      • Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau
  • Ideas, Orgs, etc.
    • Alternative living arrangements
      • Stelton Colony (82)
      • Sunrise Colony in Michigan (82)
      • Mohegan colonies (104)
      • Flores Magon’s Mexican revolution and corresponding experimentation with communal living in places like Tijuana. (226)
    • Ladies Liberal League and the Radical Library (97)
    • Marriage and Children – seemed to think it might be morally wrong to have children. (160)
    • Property
      • not an advocate of communal property originally and definitely not a Communist. (105; 144) (contrast with Emma Goldman)
      • in 1890s moved to a Dyer Lum-Proudhon type mutualism.
      • strongly opposed to commercialism. Had a sort of Jeffersonian agrarian fantasy
    • Philosophy
      • anti-materialist conception of history. Like Berkman “the idea is the thing”
      • Dominant Idea Theory – thought was about consumerism. (162)
      • Anarchy has different threads
        • (1) Individualism vs. (2) Collectivist (subcategories include: mutualism, socialist/Marxist, communist)
        • (1) US native (I take him to mean not native but simply not first generation) vs. (2) immigrant. (155)
      • what draws some anarchists and libertarians to Buddhism? Here Avrich talks about Lum, who was her most stable mentor and lover, being involved in it. (56)