Alfred Bester, “The Stars My Destination”

Published in 1956, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is a very innovative and unforgettable science-fiction novel.  The Library of America edition I am reading points out in the insert that The Stars My Destination was seen as a “perfect cyberpunk novel.”  Certainly there are many themes in this novel that are familiar to readers of cyberpunk such as body modification, underclass heroes, the domination of megacorporations, and deep class divisions driving plot.  By combining the problem of class division with the problem of technology cyberpunk is one of the more politically relevant genres of recent literature.  The Stars My Destination is a beautiful and powerful introduction to this genre.  Through its major plot device, the human capacity to teleport (called Jaunting), Bester explores questions of power and equality that allow us to ask questions about our own time about the ways those in power adapt to change and the way we can exploit technological innovations to expand our freedom.

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Jaunting is the ability to teleport oneself, unaided, by a simple expression of will.  The only requirements are that you know where you are and can visualize where you are  going.  Different people have varying capacities for teleporation, but some few – due to brain damage, for instance, are incapable of doing it.  No one is capable of interstellar jaunting.  Jaunting creation revolutionary conditions as the boundaries between classes were fractured.  “The transition was more spectacular than the change over from horse and buggy to gasoline four centuries before.  On three planets and eight satellites, social, legal, and economic structures crashed while the new customs and laws demanded by universal jaunting mushroomed in their place. There were land riots as the jaunting poor deserted slums to squat in plains and forests, raiding the livestock and wildlife.  There was a revolution in home and office buildings: labyrinths and masking devices had to be introduced to prevent unlawful entry by jaunting.  There were crashes and panics and strikes and famines as pre-jaunte industries failed.  Plagues and pandemics raged as jaunting vagrants carried diseases and vermin into defenseless countries. . . Crime waves swept the planet and satellites as their underworld took to jaunting with the night around the clock, and there were brutalities as the police fought them without quarter.  There came a hideous return to the worst prudery of Victorianism as society fought the sexual and moral dangers of jaunting with protocol and taboo.” (158)  One other things jaunting did was establish a relative equality between Earth, Venus, Mercury, the Moon and the “Outer Satellites” (the moons of Saturn and Jupiter).  A form of economic colonialism that existed between the core and the outer worlds fell away and was replaced with continual conflict rather than trade.  A final influence of jaunting was a cultural crises as “Classicists and Romantics” battled it out.  The Romantics looked for the new frontiers and embracing teleportation as the means to create them.  This is all established in the first pages of the novel and is almost enough for a conversation about the eternal dance between liberatory technology and those in power.  It is hard to argue that jaunting is not liberatory.  It broke down walls; it opened space – the control of which enforced regimens of power and exclusion.  How could a prisoner be confined if he could will himself free?  Yet, it did not take long for reaction to set in.  Jaunting became conventional – a ranked job skill like any other.  Megacorporations did not seem to lose their power.  In fact, they seemed to gain power.  The elite distinguished themselves by purchasing jaunt-proof homes, hidden behind mazes, and by refusing to jaunt themselves.  Their continued use of personal drivers advertized their wealth.  A woman character complains that jaunting all but restored the veil as men discovered creative ways to hide and seclude their women.  Prisons moved to undisclosed, hidden, underground locations to prevent escapes.  In short, despite a period of conflict and liberation brought forth by the new technology the old power dynamics are not transformed or turned upside down, just reformed.

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In comes Gulliver Foyle and the story of The Stars My Destination.  Foyle is on a mission of revenge.  While drifting in space on a ship Nomad, Foyle was passed by another ship, the Vorga.  For most of the novel, it is revenge that is driving his actions.  He escaped the Nomad by falling in with some strange cult called “The Scientific People,” who tattoo his face and provide him a genetically compatible wife.  He escapes but is forever scarred with these tattoos.  Even when he removes them, they are revealed when he shows his anger.  Other people are interested in Foyle because the Nomad contained a significant quantity of PyrE, which can be used as a super weapon.  It is also one of the only means to win a war with the outer colonies.  Its supply is strictly controlled.  The ship also contains a large amount of bullion.  After being captured by men in the employ of the rich and well-connected Presteign, Foyle escapes a jail and seizes the Nomad and its contents.  He returns to earth, with cybernetic upgrades to achieve his mission of revenge.  I do not want to dwell on the plot, but rather speak to to three ways that Foyle disturbs the balance civilization created in the aftermath of jaunting.  First, by preventing PyrE from getting into the hands of the government of the Inner Planets, Foyle ensured a destructive war that the Outer Satellites would almost certainly win.  Second, he distributed the PyrE to the people around the world.  He is deemed insane for giving such power to the people, but he replies: “I’ve handed life and death back to the people who do the living and dying.  The common man’s been whipped and led long enough by driven men like us. . . Compulsive men . . . Tiger men who can’t help lashing the world before them.  We’re tigers, the three of us, but who the hell are we to make decisions for the world just because we’re compulsive.  Let he world make its own choice between life and death.  Why should we be saddled with the responsibility?” (367)  Finally, Foyle is the first person capable of “space-vault.”  As it turns out, his presence on the Nomad was not intended.  He jaunted from space to the ship after being left to die as a decoy.  As with the discovery of jaunting, an era ends.

Foyle does indeed retire, leaving humanity to its own fate and joins the “Scientific People” who accept him as a sort of monk.  In a sense, he ends by abdicating responsibility for the chaos he unleashes.  All in all, a great novel and reminds me of the need, from time to time, to embrace those systemic shocks that may not promise permanent freedom but do create spaces for autonomy.

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Robert A. Heinlein, “Double Star”: Franchise Politics and the Virtues of Empire

I am starting a new volume of The Library of America this week and shifting away from the non-fiction writings that dominated my discussions of Henry Adams and William James.  Rather than explore the 2,400 pages of Adams’ history of the early American republic, I decided to set Adams aside for now and take up the second volume of the collections’ sampling of 1950s science fiction.  This volume begins with Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star.  I started the blog with science fiction writers of the same generation as Heinlein and we see right away that his life compares with these others (go to the first four posts of this blog for my comments on these works).  Like the others, Heinlein made his name in pulp magazines, lived through the second World War (Heinlein served in the Naval Yards), and lived through the emergence of science fiction as a major genre of American writing.  He also saw its entrance into American television.  One of his famous novels played no small role in the sexual revolution.  Stranger in a Strange Land questioned the rationality of monogamy by looking at it through the eyes of a Martian stranger.  One result of this work was the establishment of (perhaps) the first organization of the sexual revolution promoting ethical non-monogamy, the Church of the All Worlds.  The model of this pagan group existed in the novel first.  His politics are all over the map and change throughout his life and his works.  Throughout everything is a strong believe in individualism and personal autonomy, which led him to embrace some aspects of Ayn Rand’s philosophy but also free love and the ideas of Margaret Mead.  When and if, The Library of America publishes a larger collection of his work, I will say more about Heinlein, I am sure.

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Double Star tells the story of a actor with the appropriate name Lorenzo Smyth who is hired to mimic a politician who has been kidnapped.  The politician his is mimicking is John Joseph Bonforte.  Bonforte leads the Expansionist political party within a constitutional imperial monarchy.  While the name seems to suggest an expanding Earth empire, Bonforte and the Expansionist Party actually supports the broader imperial coalition with Martians as civic equals of humans.  In this way, the Expansionist Party looks a bit like the politics of the Roman Empire, which eventually granted citizenship to all free males in the empire and remains one of the more interesting examples of a mult-ethnic empire.  The Ottomans seem to have established a similar model that incorporated Christians, Shia Muslims, Arabs, and Jews into the Empire on relative equal footing, something that nation-states have failed to do, as evidenced by the rise of ethnic cleansing in the age of nationalism.  Anyway, their main political opponents are the humanists (which Lorenzo Smyth is sympathetic too).  They oppose Martian incorporation into the empire.  The Martians look, speak, and act differently and are too clearly “the Other” for any true equality.  As with much science-fiction of the 1950s, the influence of Jim Crow and its challengers would have been clear to any reader.  I will bracket these racial allegories because they are mostly boring, and speak instead of the possible virtues of empire.

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It is not my view that empire is an ideal system.  Nation-states, however, are grounded on principles of difference.  Wilson dreamed of each “nation” enjoying self-determination, certainly not each individual.  Who would have the job of determining which people are a nation?  It often fell to the educated elite, who define the language, folklore, and history of a people and pushed it onto the people via a system of forced public education.  People who fell out of this definition would be excluded from the rights of citizenship and best.  At worst, they would need to be excised.  This is the history of the nation state.  Were empires better?  In many ways not.  They were not by definition participatory, but they were by definition ethnically diverse.  They did not typically force a singular identity on all of the people.  In many cases, as long as you kicked up taxes and remained peaceful, empires tended to leave you alone.  Not so the nation-state.  In Double Star, Bonforte (his ideas given voice by a clever actor) sees empire and expansion in this way.  “My opponent would have you believe that the motto of the so-called Humanity Party, ‘Government of human beings, by human beings, and for human beings,’ is no more than an updating of the immortal words of Lincoln.  But while the voice is the voice of Abraham, the hand is the hand of the Ku Klux Klan.  The true meaning of that innocent-seeming motto is ‘Government of all races everywhere, by human beings alone, for the profit of a privileged few.   But my opponent protests, we have a God-given mandate to spread enlightenment through the states, dispensing our own brand of Civilization to the savages.  This is the Uncle Remus school of sociology–the good dahkies singin’ spirituals and Ole Massa lubbin’ every one of dem!  It is a beautiful picture but the frame is too small; it fails to show the whip, teh slave block–and the counting house!” (97)  Bonforte presents two models of empire.  One based on the domination of one people over another, bringing oppression under the model of civilization, the other on diversity and shared solidarity.  In a sense, it is the same conflict with have toady over globalization.  Is globalization the simple bringing of Western modernity to the far corners of the world and the exploitation of the world’s poor for the benefits of a few rich nations, or does it present the possibility of transnational solidarity.  Both can be labelled empire.

At the end of the novel, Bonforte dies and Smyth is in the position of having to take on his role as Bonforte for life.  In a sense, he becomes Bonforte in everything but DNA.  I am reminded of Adams’ critique in Democracy.  Everyone, he seems to suggest, is acting.  But each politicians acting has the goal of enriching themselves.  Here, we find that given the institutions of political parties, each politician is potentially interchangeable.  Smyth was a skilled actor but essentially anyone could have been Bonforte, simply by learning his speeches, philosophy, and values.  This is franchise politics.  In American politics today, when a candidate for office goes off messages, it can be a crisis for the Party.  Politicians are hired to sell a product, the message of the party.  The face, behind the message (as long as there are no sex tapes or other dirty secrets) is essentially irrelevant.

What begins implausible (an actor taking over for a politician) ends up being for us very familiar and a painful reminder of how shallow our democracy is.  We do elect actors and salespeople to speak for us.  That they may promote values that we share make the deception no less odious.

Henry Adams, “The Education of Henry Adams”

The Education of Henry Adams contains two parts.  The first covers the first thirty-three years of Adams’ life and explores the continual failures of Adams’ attempts to find an “education,” the emergence of “chaos” reflected in the Civil War and the emergence of industrial capitalism in post-war America, and the end of his education after securing a teaching position in history at Harvard College.  The second part begins twenty years later and explores mostly his reflections on the changing nature of America and the conflict between his pre-industrial heritage, mind, and education with the industrial world.  This transition promised a new period of education in Adams’ life.

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I found the first part of this autobiography rich in commentary on education.  One cannot help but notice the privileged that Adams’ enjoyed.  He was born into an illustrious political family.  He had access to his family’s connections.  Adams attended Harvard College with other privileged youth.  His early careers was secured, first as assistant to his father when he served in Congress in 1860 and 1861 and then as an assistant to his father during the all-important diplomatic mission to Great Britain during the Civil War.  His constant complaint about his inability to find an education, despite these privileges cannot help but turn off someone of working-class roots like myself.  I certainly did not get to enjoy the library of a former president in my youth or bounce around Europe as a dilettante seeking an “education.”  Nevertheless, my goal in this blog is to give each writer a fair reading and find what, if anything, an anarchist can learn from the American tradition.  Well, in this sense, once we look past Adams’ privileged we find a rich and convincing discussion of the meaning, purpose, and means of education.   One cannot read this work and not come away questioning the utility of formal, bureaucratized education.  True education, Adams’ insists, comes from engagement in the world.  It is a product of life and action, not the receipt of information from the system.  We realize that yes, we did not get to go to Harvard because of our family connections but we also did not miss out on much.  Besides, he never forgets his privileged, unlike so many of the elite who never really reflect on how easy things have been for them.  “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” (724)

In his “Preface” he claims that he wrote The Education to provide a guide for young people, complaining that despite Emile or Benjamin Franklin no guides existed.  Certainly none that spoke to the needs of the 20th century (or even the 19th).  This was Adams’ dilemma throughout his life.  His formal education prepared him for the 18th century, yet he lived in a world of industrial chaos – the world of the dynamo.  He does take from those writers a belief in autodidacticism.  The joke of Harvard learning and his insistence that education is an individual quest attest to this.  “If the students got little from his mates, he got little more from his masters.  The four years passed at College, were for his purposes, wasted.  Harvard College was a good school but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all.  He did not want to be one in a hundred, — one per cent. of an education.  He regarded himself as the only person for whom his education had value, and he wanted the whole of it.  He got barely half of an average.  Long afterwards, when the devious path of life led him back to teach in his turn what no student naturally cared or needed to know, he diverted some dreary hours of Faculty-meetings by looking up his record in the class-lists, and found himself graded precisely in the middle.” (774)  He then adds that the one skill he needed for the modern world (mathematics) was not taught to him properly.  Not only did Harvard College fail to complete his education, he noticed that it did not even begin an education.

We notice with Adams that education needs to be dynamic and therefore must be deinstitutionalized.  The Civil War left “a million young men planted in thevmud of a lawless world, to begin a new life without education at all.” (820)  Every generation teaches their young for the world they grew up in, but change can be so dramatic and complete that all of those lessons are useless.  I reckon that our current educational crises is based on the perpetuation of an out-dated model.  Here is a useful clip from an education “reformer.”  Even advocates of formal education (in some form) realize what we have is useless.

Adams does receive a diplomatic education by working alongside his father, making connections, and learning lessons of “political morality.”  But strangely this education disqualified him for a life as a diplomat.  “For the law, diplomacy had unfitted him; for diplomacy he already knew too much.” (913)  Adams was after an education and nothing diplomatic after 1865 could be as interesting or educational as the politics of the war.  This drove him to the press.

Adams also discusses his relationship with Darwinism. It seems he took it up as a fad, but Darwinism is central to his argument about education.  Chaos, Adams insists, “breeds life” and order tradition and passivity.  This is essentially a vulgar Darwinian argument.  Darwin describes adaptation in response to a shifting world.  Adams describes formal educations obsolescent in transforming conditions.

Let me end this post by pointing out that he labels the chapter describing what for most intellectuals would have been the pinnacle of their dreams, a faculty position at Harvard, as “Failure.”  Why?  Well, he realized that he was part of an educational institution that was doomed to failure.  He could reach only a fraction of students but still fail to give that minority anything of value.  Adams was a relic.  Worse still, teaching ended his education.  “No more education was possible for either man.  Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge, to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart.  Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst.  Henceforth he went on, submissive.” (1006)

It seems to me the lesson we should take from Adams’ failure is that we should not measure our success, our knowledge, and education by the standards of a by-gone age.  The world that created the institutions of public education and higher education and dinosaurs.  And every year since Adams wrote these words, these institutions have aged more and developed only in uselessness and decadence.  Millions of students attend glorified prisons (for both the body and the mind) to acquire a piece of paper, which will in turn allow them entrance into another prison.  Families and communities will pass on the ignorance of a generation.  Schools pass on the ignorance of an entire society.  I do not believe individuals can do worse then this.  We should have faith in each child’s capacity to teach themselves through experiences.

Henry Adams, “Mont Saint Michel”

From the context of modernity, science and reason, the medieval period strikes us as the exact opposite.  Rather than driven by reason, people of the middle ages embraced superstitions.  Instead of investing wealth in industry and “progress,” they invested massive wealth in cathedrals, castles, and a religious hierarchy.  They uplifted science over philosophy.  In Mont Saint Michel and Charters, Adams makes these distinctions.  It is less of a history of the architecture and philosophy of the Middle Ages and more of a nostalgic sigh, reminding people in the early 20th century of how people thought and created in the 13th century.  Through it all is not only do we not understand the medieval period, but that we have lost a perspective of value and richness.

Adams’ poem “Prayer to the Virign of Chartes” sums up this theme of lost and modernity’s tendency to reject the old as not only dated, but on some level worthless. “For centuries I brought you all my cares, and vexed you with the murmurs of a child; you heard the tedious burden of my prayers; you could not grant them, but at least you smiled!  If then I left you, it was not my crime, or if a crime, it was not mine alone.  All children wander with the truant Time.” (1202)  Throughout Mont Saint Michel, “The Virgin” is a symbol of the medieval perspective on life.

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This is contrasted in his poetry (and later in The Education of Henry Adams) with the “dynamo.”  While the Virgin is known to be forgiving and kind the dynamo is morally opaque.  “We know not whether you are kind, or cruel in your fiercer mood; but be you Matter, be you Mind, We think we know that you are blind, and we alone are good.”  Despite this, the Virgin is a mystery and a riddle, but the spirit of the dynamo demands knowledge of all.  No mystery can be unrevealed.  “Seize, then, the Atom! rack his joints! Tera out of him his secret spring! Grind him to nothing!–though he points to use, and his life-blood anoints me–the dead Atom-King!” (1204-1205)  Adams sees a danger in a science that will reveal all.  “The man who solves the Infinite, and needs the force of solar systems for his play, will not need me, nor greatly care what deeds made me illustrious in the dawn of day.” (1205-1206)  Mont Saint Michel develops these themes by trying to get into the head of the people of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries.

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He looks across the middle ages broadly, but focuses on a few issues such as the massive investment in time, energy, and money in the building of great cathedrals such as the one in Chartes, the prominent role of women – such as the Eleanor or Heloise, folklore and legends, and philosophy.  In every area he finds a world directly opposed to ours, which is why this is not strictly a travelogue of a tour of medieval French sites, or a history.  On the grandeur and apparent waste of a cathedral, Adams writes.  “One has grown so used to this sort of loose comparison, this reckless waste of words, that one no longer adopts an idea, unless it is driven in with hammers of statistics and columns of facts.” (425)  When dealing with architecture, Adams is fascinated by the investment involved in these structures.  A capitalist would never make such investments.  Even the hope of Heaven, these investments would be a risk.  “One may be sure, too, that the bourgeois capitalist and the student of the schools, each from his own point of view, watched the Virgin with anxious interest.  The bourgeois had put an enormous share of his captain into what was in fact an economical speculation, not unlike the South Sea Scheme, or hte railway system of our won time; except that in one case the energy was devoted to shorting the road to Heaven; in the other, to shortening the road to Paris.”  (431)  Of course, we know that no capitalist today would make such an investment without the promise of a return.  This is summed up later in the work.  “Society had staked its existence, in this world and the next, on the reality and power of the Virgin; it had invested in her care nearly its whole capital, spiritual, artistic, intellectual and economical, even to the bulk of its real and personal estate; and her overthrow would have been the most appalling disaster the western world had ever known.” (576)  From the perspective of the modern world, Aquinas is not less awe-inspiring than the cathedrals as it reflects the same investment into the spirit that modern capital invests in “technological progress.” In the chapter on Aquinas, Adams constructs his view of God with the dynamo, his representation of 19th century progress.  But the difference is great: in one the created is trying to understand the creator.  In the dynamo, the creator lamely watches progress unfold.

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I am not entirely convinced that the Middle Ages has much to teach us.  Adams, of course, ignores the exploitation of working people that stood at the foundation of medieval society and the creation of the Cathedrals.  For Adams, each Cathedral was the collective work of religious artisans, and not masons taking a job to support a family – or worse, deluded masses manipulated in producing palaces for the elite.  I do not know which is true, but I for one find little desire to return to 13th century France.  I am reminded that we need to keep on the lookout for alternatives.  If William James is correct, we cannot imagine outside of our experience and history.  If the Middle Ages can show us a world where women commanded political authority, where people were not slaves to capitalist logic, where the solving of mysteries produced as much respect as the investing of wealth, and where stories of heroes and poetry and craftsmanship and art produced wounder, then I am not opposed to opening a door to that world and time.  Perhaps we need a bit more wonder and mystery if we are to escape the enforced boredom of late capitalism.

Henry Adams, “Esther: A Novel”

Esther is Adams’ second and final novel.  The plot concerns a freethinking young woman’s encounter, through artistic pursuits, with a church, an experienced artist, and a orphan woman from the West.  As Esther incorporates herself into this world, she agrees to marry the preacher, Mr. Hazard.  She is all but an atheist.  Her close friend, George, is a paleontologist and agnostic.  Her father uses religion only for its moral influence on society, not out of any true believe.  Esther is never quite able to resolve her conflict between her love for Mr. Hazard (admitted in the final line of the novel) and her disgust with her finance’s beliefs and practices.  The idea of being a church wife, attending services and putting on the face of a devoted believer disgusts her.

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The world of Esther is a world in change.  We can foreshadow the “dynamo and the Virgin” in Esther.  The rise of the new woman, professional, educated, assertive, and in the public, runs in conflict with expectations about the role of women.  Listen to Hazard’s expectations of the woman he eventually courts.  “The next morning he looked about the church and was disappointed at not seeing her there.  This young man was used to flattery; he had been sickened with it, especially by the women of his congregation; he thought there was nothing of this nature against which he was not proof; yet he resented Esther Dudley’s neglect to flatter him by coming to his sermon.” And later on that same page, this is contrasted with his opinion of Catherine Brooke.  “Her innocent eagerness to submit was charming, and the tyrants gloated over the fresh and radiant victim who was eager to be their slave.  They lured her on, by assumed gentleness, in the path of bric-a-brac and sermons.” (214)  The transition to new ideas is clearly represented in the characters of Hazard and George Strong, the scientist.  The artist, Wharton, and his failed marriage also suggest the coming of a new era where traditional arrangements break down.  That these modern figures (Esther and Wharton) are hired to paint portraits for the church provides yet another dichotomy between tradition and modernity.   Catherine Brooke as an orphan from the West brought to New York City, suggests the conquest of the frontier and the end of that epoch of American history.

An atheist reader (like me) will be tempted to cheer on Esther as she allows her modern mind to prevent what could only be a disastrous marriage.  We are not entirely sure until the very end what Esther sees in Hazard.  He struck me as too authoritarian, too traditional, and too patriarchal for a women like Esther.  Yet the final confession, that she loved Hazard, reminds us of the danger of allowing the mind to overcome the heart.  Indeed, the conflict between faith and science, between tradition and modernity is not more of a problem than many other things that divide couples (monogamy/non-monogamy, politics, cultural differences).  To assume that faith is the irreconcilable barrier is rather irrational and peculate and boring.  This realization does not make one like Hazard any more, but it makes one dislike Esther a bit.  Without idealizing the concept of “romantic love” (full of capitalist logic, which I can have the chance to discuss in a later post), we can appreciate that Esther threw away an opportunity for happiness, friendship, and community through Hazard.  She simultaneously throws away the advances of George who loved Esther from the beginning of the novel.  (This time the problem is not intellectual, but a lack of feeling.)    These are the mistakes of youth and in my experience common enough.

Henry Adams, “Democracy: An American Novel”

The next volume of the Library of America that I will work on is one of the three they published collecting the works of Henry Adams.  Two of these are his history of the early American Republic, which I will consider later.  Today I will start looking at his novels and autobiographical writings, starting with Democracy: An American Novel (1880).  Adams was a member of the political family founded by John Adams during the American Revolution.  While his ambitions were literary and historical (his major work is a massive history of the United States in the age of Jefferson), he was not completely immune from the political life as his novel Democracy suggests.  From his early years, he attacked the corrupting influence of money in politics in post-Civil War Washington.  That we still fight these battles is either a source of fatalism about the possibility of a government of the people, or possibly a defense of these influences as natural or even necessary.  An anarchist might read this text as a reminder of the importance of direct action and organization and the impossibility of democracy on a national scale.

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The plot of the novel centers on a young widow, Lightfoot Lee, who invests her money and time to experience the life of Washington D.C.  The narrator is not entirely sure of her motives, whether they were academic or ambitious.  As we learn throughout the novel, there was a place for ambitious women who hoped to raise in Washington society through marriages to politicians.  The narrator also begins by pointing out, that she did not find Europe a source of decadence and corruption.  She simply chose to explore all that America had to offer.  By the end of chapter one, we learn unequivocally that her desire to consume all that America offered was a cover for her true desires.  “She replied that if Washington society were so bad as this, she should have gained all she wanted, for it would be a pleasure to return, — precisely the feeling she longed for. . . . What she wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces of government, and the machinery of society at work.  What she wanted, was POWER.” (8)  She quickly enters the social life of Washington and is immediately courted by diplomats and politicians.  Most prominent among these is the Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, who has presidential ambitions after narrowly missing his party’s nomination.  To become president, he needs a wife and Lee seemed ideal.  Ratcliffe is a great orator and full of traditional ideas.  He is opposed to reforms in the civil service and suffrage laws (the major issues being debated in the backdrop of the novel).  When talks come to new ideas such as Darwinism or communism, Ratcliffe is opposed on traditional and religious grounds.  That said, he is fully corrupted, duplicitous, manipulative, and ambitions.  When Lee learns of his corruption she rejects his offers of marriage and leaves Washington for Europe.

The relationship between Europe and America is a strong theme throughout the novel.  In the early 19th century, people in the U.S. liked to think of themselves as different from Europeans: democratic, uncorrupted, and holders of a unique and distinct culture.  It is in political and cultural life, more than anywhere else, that Americans expressed their independence from European corruptions.  There are numerous Europeans in Washington as vagabonds or diplomats.  They seem to bring European corruptions – reflected in the womanizing Baron Jacobi.  But of course, Americans in Washington were not much better.  Schuyler Clinton, from New York, apparently “made love to every girl with any pretensions to beauty that had appeared in the State of New York.” (16)  Adams wanted to show the reader how life in Washington had much in common with European courts.  Dynasties abounded, sycophants seeking jobs existed around every corner, parties for the rich and power seem to be the main events, and money – not the people – spoke.  The Baron Jacobi made the point that America has actually outdid Europe in respect to corruption.  “Well, I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States.  The children in the street are corrupt, and known how to cheat me.  The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States’ legislatures and the judges.  Everywhere men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.” (38)  Most of the characters in the novel seem to know this, or acts as through they do, even as they defend democracy.  One more idealistic figure, Nathan Gore of Massachusetts (a scholar and historian like Adams), seems to believe in the real potential of democracy powered by educated people.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the people of the United States just elected a incompetent Indiana farmer, who Ratcliffe is able to manipulate.

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One corrupting element of democracy that Adams had a long argument against was the selection of civil servants based on political alliances, rather than merit.  He argued for civil service reform in 1869.  This is a theme of the novel, and talk of reform is in the air, but a large part of this short work concerns the transition to the new president and the jockeying for jobs that go on behind the scenes.  Even the new president proclaims that the spoils system would be changed under his presidency, but any effort at reform fails.

We share Ratcliffe’s cynicism at the end.  Lee can avoid corruption only by going to Europe.  A new president matters little.  New ideas falter in Washington and become only the discussions points of parties for the political elite.  Even courtship serves political ends.  He says at one point that a democracy can only be as good as the people in it.  I suppose this is true that a few more people like Nathan Gore would have created a less corrupt government, but we cannot ignore the institutional arrangements that encourage corruption.  These institutions are not analyzed or listed by Adams, but we know what they are.  The political parties (that Ratcliffe thing trump all possible sources of loyalty, save the nation), the corporate influence, the bureaucratic class, and the physical and cultural separation of representatives and the people.

Personally, I have little to say in defense of American democracy and will today join with Adams in the condemnation of Washington.

 

William James, “The Will to Believe”

The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy was a collection of James’ lectures on religion and some other issues on philosophy in the later 1890s.  All of these essays have interesting items to teach us and I will first summarize some of his theses as best as I can in a few sentences each before commenting on what I think they can teach us when taken as a ten-course meal.  See my other posts on James in the archives on January 14 and January 15.

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“The Will to Believe” (1896): The argument of this essay is that it would be irrational to reject religious beliefs (and for James, experiences) since the validity of these claims and experiences cannot be denied or defended with scientific certainty.  “We have the right to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.”  (477)  Now for many, this or that religious belief will be dead and useless.  But when believes can be real, and reinforced with experiences, they should be embraced.  This clearly does not apply to only religious claims.  Indeed, most religious claims are dead for most of us.  For me, it is the goodness of humanity and our potential for solidarity that holds the most power – is the most live – now.  This is a powerful argument and should not be used to justify the indoctrination of “dead” beliefs, but rather a celebration of experiences, ideas, and beliefs, which may in the end be impossible to support with scientific certainty.  But love, friendship, and joy all exist in that realm.

“Is Life Worth Living” (1895): This argument is a corollary to “The Will to Believe” as well as a pragmatic argument against suicide.  Life’s purpose is one of those beliefs that cannot be scientifically justified.  Again, this could be a defense of theistic claims, but I do not see James’ limiting life’s meaning to God’s purpose.  “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is not better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.  But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem.” (502)

“The Sentiment of Rationality” (1880): Although presented long before “The Will to Believe” it is rightfully placed near it in this volume.  There is a poverty to strict rationality.  It of course discounts subjective experiences, such as those of the “more mystical minds.”  Moral questions are clouded by strict rationality or evolutionary logic.  Morality is experienced subjectively and on some level escapes rational consideration.  Furthermore, rationality will never be agreed to by all.  Even two “rational” thinkers will disagree.  Given these facts, forgoing certainty seems a normal part of life and should be accepted as part of our considerations of truth.

“Reflex Action and Theism” (1881): Here, the position James makes is that all philosophical inquiry and our entire psychological mentality are bound by experience.  “Philosophies, whether expressed in sonnets or systems, all must wear this form.  The thinker starts from some experience of the practical world, and asks its meaning.”  He contrasts philosophy with a voyage.  Theism exists in some of these states of consciousnesses, produced most strongly in mystical experiences.

“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (1891) Moral systems cannot be worked out in advance, James suggests.  Instead they are lived and contingent.  (Part of this contingency is the waiting we need to endure until the religious questions are understood.  Until, for instance, we know there is or is not an afterlife, or know that the Ten Commandments are or are not God’s will, we cannot really have a clear answer to all moral questions.)  Given this, particularly the impossibility of perfect clarity on ethical questions he states: “It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea; but the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” (617)

“Great Men and Their Environment” (1880): This essay attempts to find some common ground between evolutionary environmentalism (slow change) and the rather rapid historical change we experience.  As I understand it, James is positing a evolutionary theory of greatness in respect to historical times.  Some mentalities, ideas, and geniuses are adapted to certain times producing greatness.  “The mutations of societies, them, from generations to generation, are in the main due directly or indirectly to the acts or the examples of individuals whose genius was so adapted to the receptivities of the moment, or whose accidental position of authority was so critical that they became ferments, initiators of movement, setters of precedent or fashion, cenetres of corruption, or destroyers of other persons, whose grist, had they had a free play, would have led society in another direction.” (626)

These are the essays that I find most apt for our purposes.  Without exception these essays promote an active engagement with the world as individuals, as moral agents, and as believers.  At criticism is the strict intellectualism.  In this sentiment I find much common ground with James.  For your use, here is Wolfi Landstreicher (Against the Logic of Submission) on that same question.

I think it would be limiting to look at James’ The Will to Believe purely through the lens of religious dogmas.  James often identifies other attitudes (pessimism, optimism, morality) as fundamentally religious because they cannot be scientifically determined.  While I would not use that phrase because of my personal relationship with religions and its evolution over the years, I find it often necessary to take a “Leap of Faith” in many of parts of life.  Revolutionaries need no small amount of faith in order to act.  And action itself, reinforces our belief in the visions we make real.
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The remainder of this volume of James’ earlier writings includes his “Talks to Teachers on Psychology and the Students on Some of Life’s Ideals” and some essays. The lectures to teachers have some interesting comments on teaching in what we would now call a “child-centered” way, by understanding how children learn. Ultimately, he is still part of the effort to dispense learning most effectively to children, rather than encourage children to teach themselves and facilitate autonomous learning (what we might now call “unschooling.”) His lectures to “students” (really college students) covered his views on the meaning of life, the poverty of intellectual absolutism, the need for diversity of perspectives in ideas, and the necessity of the relaxation of the tensions of modern American society (he points out the problem of moral anxiety as particularly acute).

With this, I will move on from William James, with the promise to explore his later writings later in this blog.