in Book Reviews, Books

May Books

Well, I’m in full swing writing my next two chapters, but I did manage to finish off a few things.
1. Commonwealth by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.
I haven’t come across any really positive reviews of this book (John Gray, for example, finds it hardly even worth discussing).  However, I’m going to go out on a limb and state that I really did enjoy it.  In fact, I’ve enjoyed this entire trilogy (Empire, Multitude, and finally Commonwealth) quite a lot.  In the first volume, the authors explore the rise of the transnational empire of global capitalism.  In the second volume they look to the multitude — the plurality of subjectivities working together towards a better life free from the constraints of empire.  In this final volume, they look at those things which both work against and towards the creation of “the commons” as a way of structuring life together outside of the constraints of private propety.  Of course, I’m aware of the criticisms raised against Hardt and Negri’s project.  Yes, they repeat themselves a fair bit.  Yes, they can be frustratingly vague or overly simplistic in their analysis and in their proposed solutions.  Yes, they can be overly romantic.  Fair enough.
However, despite these criticisms, there is a lot of real value in this volume.  In particular, I really enjoyed their reflections on the development of parliamentary democracy as the republic of capital, their desire to have resistance movements move beyond identity politics, their cautious suggestions about the need to institutionalize the revolution, and their restoration of love to this conversation.  Further, although their concluding remarks about joy and laughter have been treated disdainfully by others, it is interesting to note a point of resonance with the Latin American liberation theologians.  Something worth pursuing further, I reckon.
Anyway, this book and the whole trilogy are recommended reading.  They provoke a lot of good thought and have the potential to open up positive trajectories in a person’s life.  I know they have had that impact upon me.
2. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon by George Woodcock.
After reading Kropotkin’s autobiography last year, I decided I would (very slowly) begin to work my way through biographies related to the birth of the anarchist movement.  I finished a biography of Herzen last year, and this book on Proudhon was the next installment.
It was a very good book.  Woodcock knows his subject matter very well and is able to relate the events of Proudhon’s life (during the fall-out of the French Revolution and Jacobinism), demonstrate the ways in which his life and writing are interconnected, and explain the (sometimes complex) social and economic theories Proudhon developed.
I must say, I am more than ever convinced that anarchism is the best way of trying to organize our life together.  It seems to me that it has the possibility to attain to the goals of both democracy and communism, while avoiding both of their flaws.  And, as far as I can tell, it also seems to be in keeping with the way of Jesus Christ.
Recommended reading, for those who desire to learn more about these things.
3. Within a Budding Grove (In Search of Lost Time Vol. 2) by Marcel Proust.
I really enjoyed this installment of In Search of Lost Time.  I think I’ve become accustomed to Proust’s narrative voice and his long, tangential sentences.  His insight into our interactions with others, our perceptions of ourselves and even his way of describing and exploring what it is like to get drunk and lose oneself in the company of others are all really delightful.  A few samples:
Each of our friends has his defects, to such an extent that to continue to love him we are obliged to console ourselves for them–by thinking of his talent, his kindness, his affection–or rather by ignoring them, for which we need to deploy all our good will.  Unfortunately our obstinacy in refusing to see the defect of our friend is surpassed by the obstinacy with which he persists in that defect, from his own blindness to it or the blindness that he attributes to other people.  For he does not notice it himself or imagines it is not noticed.  Since the risk of giving offense arises principally from the difficulty of appreciating what does and does not pass unnoticed, we ought at least, from prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.
And here’s a quotation which I think would be worth comparing to Rilke’s opening lines in his first Elegy:
For beauty is a sequence of hypotheses which ugliness cuts short when it bars the way that we could already see opening into the unknown.
And here’s one on drinking:
I was enclosed in the present, like heroes and drunkards; momentarily eclipsed, my past no longer projected before me that shadow of itself which we call our future; placing the goal of my life no longer in the realisation of dreams of the past, but in the felicity of the present moment, I could see no further than it.  So that, by a contradiction which was only apparent, it was at the very moment in which I was experiencing an exceptional pleasure, in which I felt that my life might yet be happy, in which it should have become more precious in my sight, it was at this very moment that, delivered from the anxieties which it had hitherto inspired in me, I unhesitatingly abandoned it to the risk of accident.  But after all, I was doing no more than concentrate in a single evening the carelessness that, for most men, is diluted throughout their whole existence.
One more:
“There is no man, ” he began, “however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived a life, the memory of which is so unpleasant to him that he would gladly expunge it.  And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man–so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise–unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded.  I know that there are young people, the sons and grandsons of distinguished men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement from their schooldays.  They may perhaps have nothing to retract from their past lives… but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile.  We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world… I can see that the picture of what we were at an earlier stage may not be recognisable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in later life.  But we must not repudiate it, for it is a proof that we have really lived.
I’m very glad I decided to read this hell-damn-ass long book. Hopefully typing out these quotes might inspire a few others to do the same.
4. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.
For some reason, this book got mentioned a few times in things I was reading.  I had heard that Banks was sort of being represented as the current voice in Scottish literature and that he was utilizing some elements of Scottish horror or macabre.  When I was very young I remember looking at a collection of Scottish ghost stories my Grandfather had and my Scottish relatives also had some… interesting… ghost and alien stories of their own.  So I thought I would check out The Wasp Factory.
The story itself was decent — it’s about a young boy who is some sort of sociopath (he has killed three other children, as he lets you know early on) and what happens when his older brother escapes from an insane assylum and begins to work his way back home.  A lot of reviewers seem quite appalled about all of this, and the way in which it is related, but I wasn’t too put off by the subject matter.  I suppose I have encountered enough appalling things in real life.  That said, I found the ending to be fairly disappointing.  The big twist at the end was decent enough but then Banks seemed to feel the need to psychologize and explicitly explain how everything was related to that twist.  To me, that felt like he was overdoing things.  The reader should have been able to make the connections he makes and I think the story would have been better served if he left a lot more unsaid at the end.
As I was reading, I was thinking that the narrator’s voice sounded a lot like the voice employed in Ender’s Game (which I reviewed a month ago).  Couple that with Banks’ remarks in the preface that he wanted to be a science fiction writer and it has left me wondering if there is a certain (juvenile?) voice that is common to that genre.  Then again, maybe the similarity is that both books are about young males with sociopathic tendencies.
All in all, I don’t think this book was all it was cracked up to be.  Pretty ho-hum.
Monthly Mix-Tape
1. Handel, Lascia Ch’io Pianga (stumbled onto this stunningly beautiful song thanks to the first five minutes of Triers’ “Antichrist”); 2. A Perfect Circle, The Nurse Who Loved Me; 3. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Black Water (going to see this band later today!); 4. Roky Erickson with Okkervil River, Goodbye Sweet Dreams; 5. Great Lake Swimmers, Various Stages; 6. The National, Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks; 7. Shearwater, Black Eyes; 8. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More; 9. Band of Horses, On My Way Back Home; 10. MGMT, I Found A Whistle; 11. Pink Floyd, Pigs On A Wing.

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