The Myths We Live By – Mary Midgley
This is a collection of essays by moral philosopher Mary Midgley, the bulk of which articulate her disdain for certain kinds of “reductionism”; that is, the scientific and philosophical attempt to methodically explain complex systems in terms of their simple constituent parts. Midgley traces this from Descartes and the Enlightenment, and argues that the emphasis placed on reductionism (or “atomising”) by quantum physics is becoming a cultural mindset that is influencing other areas of academia (and life in general) to a detrimental extent.
She begins by describing the holier-than-thou attitude held by physicists (and which is apparently becoming more and more prevalent in universities) who contend that their discipline is the purest, most objectively true, and that other fields of physical science (chemistry, biology…) are merely weaker versions of the absolute reductionist discipline of atomic physics.
This conception of ontological scientific truth as the highest human achievement has cultural links to such things as the rise of intolerant New Atheism, and the attendant derision by scientists of the academic study of the humanities. It’s the sort of mindset that led Professor Brian Cox to recently Tweet that people who use such terms as “post-modernism” are “not very clever”. It’s perfectly acceptable for an esoteric language to develop around quantum physics (etc.), because the terminology employed there is objective and refers to provable things that exist. By comparison, any attempt by the arts to utilize technical language as a taxonomy of study is “pretentious”, derided for being value-laden, subjective and pluralistic, and therefore devoid of the kind of inherent truth that we find at the heart of physics. Or so the reductionist argument goes.
Essentially, Midgley (an atheist) takes issue with the Western societal fetishisation of the scientific process, arguing that the cultural reverence of “science” (the term and the discipline) and the “truth” it apparently produces is creating a sort of social disregard for other fields of study (such as the arts) whose subjects of learning are irreducible to mere building blocks. As part of her anti-monist philosophy, Midgley’s argument is that this kind of scientistic reductionism can’t, and shouldn’t be applied to other aspects of life. Law, History, Literature, Ethics etc don’t consist merely of “epiphenomena”, and can’t be broken down and understood in terms of fundamental constituent parts (and here she excellently takes issue with Dawkins’ idea of “memes”). The scientistic position can never provide answers about, for example, moral goodness, justice, feminism, history and so on, because these things (despite attempts by people like Richard Dawkins or the behaviourists) are not ultimately reducible to the chemical or physical phenomena that may constitute their existence.
Midgley further highlights this incompatibility by demonstrating that physics and gene science become necessarily fatalistic when expanded to encompass the conscious world, as if consciousness is an illusion created by the coming-together of myriad smaller processes that transpire beyond the human will. Society, by comparison, still very much operates in terms of choice, decisions and individual responsibility. There’s a funny mini-essay about how science and its language could never articulate the meaning of “Sunday”. Physics is not “omnicompetent” and capable of explaining all of the systems with- and in- which we interact. Her argument isn’t anti-science, rather, she argues that a pluralist and non-reductive conception of the world should replace the Kierkegaard-ian Either/Or mindset. Just because something isn’t testable under scientific conditions, doesn’t mean it has no value.
Further examining Descartes, Midgley conceives of the mind/body dualism as perpetuating a kind of historical misogyny, whereby – when expanded to a social level – the male is identified with the “mind” aspect of the duality (reason, choice, independence, intelligence and so on), and the female with the “body” (pregnancy, child-birth, menstruation, breast-feeding, emotions etc). Historically, this system of thought was used to perpetuate the denial of female enfranchisement; Midgley even quotes Rousseau on women thusly “Unable to judge for themselves, they should accept the judgement of father and husband”. This might all seem a bit of a stretch, but as The Myths we Live by piles essay upon essay, the misogynistic nature of the mind/body dualism – and its place in cementing the reductionist philosophy in Western culture – becomes pretty convincing.
I also enjoyed an essay about the agrarian or feudal notion of the collective subject (whose only duty was to do what the King told them) versus the industrial notion of the worker-voter who, reduced to an individual, could exercise their (masculine) reason, by voting.
The Myths We Live By is wonderful to read, Midgley is so eloquent; compassionate but not sentimental. Her arguments are convincing, and I’m sure they will become a major touchstone for my own thinking about the current state of things, especially in our Dawkins-infatuated and increasingly scientistic, individualistic, profit-as-value society. In fact, I would have liked a deeper analysis of the economics of reductionism, particularly the reduction of the worker, zero-hours contracts, and the disturbing rise of the idea of valueless education (no growth/profit = no value, etc).
For such an important and culturally relevant piece of thinking, then, it’s a tad disappointing that this book isn’t more accessible. It’s not an entry-level text. There’s no glossary, philosophers’ first names are rarely provided, and as for their dates… forget about it. Midgley expects the reader to bring with them a working knowledge of such terms as “logical positivism”, “categorical imperative” and “neo-Darwinist”, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the works of Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and, well, pretty much the whole canon. I nevertheless encourage everyone to try it. I’m a passionate amateur at best, but by reading it slowly, and with the internet close at hand, I found the challenge more-or-less surmountable.
Pnin – Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s Pnin is probably best understood as a campus novel – and is frequently described as such – but beneath the book’s somewhat perfunctory surface-level comedy of manners lies a more serious examination of loss, unrequited love, and the emotional impossibility of understanding the holocaust.
Timofey Pnin is a Russian-born professor at the fictional Waindell College in the United States. A refugee who’s fled the “Hitler War”, Pnin is weird-looking, has an appalling grasp of English, and is cursed with a sort of low-level bad luck and clumsiness, which simultaneously inspires both sympathy and ridicule.
The majority of the comedy comes from Pnin’s social awkwardness; he’s stubborn, prone to rambling, and all-too proper in his Russian conservatism to really fit-in with the more liberal emergent society of 1950’s America. He’s no mere comic foil, however. Pnin is, in his own way, intelligent, morally courageous, loving, and deserving of our compassion. Having fled the country he loves so much, he’s essentially trying to maintain his dignity as a fish out of water. He’s trapped between old Russia and new America; a limbo beautifully expressed in metaphor by the novel’s very funny opening chapter, which sees Pnin marooned on a remote railway station. It’s a sequence that reminded me of the beginning of Bend Sinister, in which the protagonist – Krug – walks up and down, up and down a bridge, unable to alight at either end. These sequences of geographical indeterminateness are frequent in Nabokov’s fiction, and perhaps speak to his own feelings of being culturally adrift as a Russian writer working in English. Pnin, Krug and Nabokov are all, in a way, exiles.
In fact, the first 40 pages or so of Pnin left me somewhat confused as to Nabokov’s intent. Watching Pnin stumble from awkward situation to awkward situation as he tries to navigate the cultural idiosyncrasies of America is undoubtedly amusing, but this somewhat clichéd émigré farce didn’t quite seem like Nabakov, to me. But slowly, thankfully, the screwball culture clash begins to make way for deeper examinations of identity, introspection and a sense of individual separate-ness. If you were feeling particularly twee (which I am), you might call it homesickness played as tragicomedy.
Pnin is unable to find the cultural and emotional profundity he so longs for amid the salvo of Americana: pop art, consumerism and mass-production are all anathema to him. Nabokov will often do this brilliant stylistic thing whereby he’ll describe, list-like, some phenomenon of the modern world, exploited for all its comic ridiculousness, only to perform a sort of volta, and abruptly end the description with a comment on how cold and empty it all seems. This juxtaposition is humorous in its unexpectedness, and moving in the way it exposes a modernist lack of intimacy and meaning;
The accumulation of consecutive rooms in his memory now resembled those displays of grouped elbow chairs on show, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.
With the help of the janitor he screwed on the side of his desk a pencil sharpener – that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as must we all.
The real underlying sadness of Pnin, however, is much more subtle. Intermingled with Pnin’s comic misadventures are moments which hint at a deep and profound melancholy. As the narrative progresses, several events transpire that speak to a loneliness that’s as much personal as cultural: an earnest but awkward reunion with his estranged son, gloomy descriptions of rented single rooms, and a strange moment when Pnin is unable to borrow a library book because it’s already been reserved by someone with his exact name. Slowly, and with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-brevity, Nabokov reveals that Pnin’s real tragedy happened many years earlier, when the love of his life, Mira Belochkin, was killed in a concentration camp. I was so stunned to find something so dark in a novel that’s otherwise only fleetingly sad, that I had to re-read the following paragraph several times before I felt able continue with the rest of the book:
Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin […] because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again.
I mean, what do you do with that when you encounter it in a comic novel? In any novel?
It’s not as ill-fittingly dramatic as I’ve perhaps made it seem; in fact, Mira is almost never mentioned, which is, of course, the whole point. Pnin’s sadness isn’t a histrionic or violent outpouring of passion and grief; it’s an absence of action, of thought. The fact that Mira is talked about so rarely not only reinforces, on a narrative level, Pnin’s attempts to impose forgetfulness upon himself, but the near total absence of Mira from the text physically mirrors the absence of Mira from the world.
So the success of Pnin comes from Nabokov’s deep structural and linguistic handling of tragedy and comedy, whereby the humour is all narrative action, malapropism, movement and slapstick, and the sadness is an absence and stillness that catches you off-guard in the occasional gaps between the jokes. So deft is Nabokov’s handling of these moments that one never gets-in-the-way-of, or undermines the other, but neither are they separate and isolated from one another. As dark as it may seem, Pnin is only so funny because he’s been through such tragedy. Has there ever been a writer as simultaneously hilarious and upsetting as Nabokov? Brings a new meaning to the phrase “crying with laughter”, I guess.
Uprooted – Naomi Novik
(Trigger Warning: sexual assault/rape).
Naomi Novik’s Uprooted has been heaped with near-hysterical praise, but I’m really struggling to see what all the fuss is about. There are parts of the book I enjoyed, and aspects of its ambition I found admirable, but mostly I thought it was pretty dull, and in some places downright problematic.
Firstly, the good: I really liked the simplicity of its premise; Uprooted attempts to marry the narrative style of epic fantasy with the conceptual straightforwardness of a fairy tale; and it does this successfully, if without much imagination. The book is set in a bucolic valley, the home to several quaint little villages. At one end of the valley is a dark, evil Wood, and at the other end is a tower inhabited by a powerful wizard called the Dragon. It’s his job to protect the villagers from the Wood.
Every ten years, the wizard will descend upon the villages and choose a seventeen-year-old girl, taking her into his tower whether she likes it or not. Enter our narrator, Agnieszka, the most recent girl to be chosen. Contrary to the suspicions of the villagers, the wizard doesn’t imprison Agnieszka as a sex slave, but takes her as a servant-cum-apprentice, and, despite an acrimonious (read: abusive) start to their relationship, they begin working together to defeat the evil Wood once and for all.
It’s refreshing to find a High Fantasy novel that shuns the very en vogue, Tolkienian fetish for world building. There’s no convoluted lore or encyclopaedic amounts of fictional history to get to grips with. There are no scrawly little maps covered in unintelligible place names. There are very few characters and, most importantly, this isn’t the first instalment in a 15-volume series of door stop-sized book bricks. It’s so simple, in fact, as to almost seem allegorical, and it’s in this regard that Uprooted skews closest to the iconography of fairy tales. Most notably, Agnieszka’s encounter with the dark Wood and her attendant loss of innocence is a definite coming-of-age metaphor, and the book’s ending (by far the best part of the novel) is a satisfying (though predictable) fable about the nature of evil and the damage we don’t even know we’re doing to others and the world around us.
There’s also a shit load of magic, and you’ve got to give Naomi Novik props for the sheer number of weird spells and magical plot-devices she’s come up with. There’s magic everywhere. People are running through walls and summoning monsters and throwing fireballs and remote-viewing the distant past and it all gets pretty crazy, which is fun. It’s a nice rebuttal to the “if Gandalf can do all that flashy stuff, why isn’t he doing it all the time?” problem.
While this all sounds good in abstraction, however, the actual book itself is a big letdown. At nearly 500 pages it’s far too long. I couldn’t help but feel that the allegorical nature of its premise would have been better served by a novella. There’s tedious chapter after tedious chapter about learning spells, and a mid-novel battle that just never seems to end. While I’d probably give this stuff a pass if Uprooted was part of a multi-volume saga, here it just ruins the momentum, and feels like a failed attempt to artificially create an impression of epicness that the story just doesn’t need.
This speaks to a deeper problem with the book’s genre identity and structure. It begins as I’ve described, as a simplistic if garrulous fairy tale. But in the middle there’s a really weird Regency-esque concern for the etiquette of high society, and towards the end the book adopts a Game of Thrones-like penchant for gratuitous violence. The pacing is well off. Perhaps this is all a consequence of the book’s unnecessary length, but the genre-swapping, rather than adding and building upon Uprooted’s simple premise, actually detracts from it.
The real problems, though, stem from the book’s characterisation. The characters here are more complex than the basic moral types you might encounter in fairy tales, but only just. The problem isn’t really a lack of depth, but a lack of consistency. None of them have distinct voices, there’s little in the way of interiority, and some of their motives and desires are just plain contradictory. I struggled to get my head around Prince Marek, for example, who at one moment is your stereotypical prince charming, then a potential rapist, then a military hot-head, then a political schemer; good guy, bad guy, morally ambivalent, the book just can’t make up its mind about him. This means that the resolution of his story has very little emotional resonance, despite the gravitas seemingly afforded it by the text.
The book’s sexual politics are also problematic (to say the least…). At one point prince Marek visits the tower and attempts to rape Agnieszka. It’s a shocking sequence, made more so by the fact that, until this point, the novel could almost be a children’s book. But Agnieszka’s response to the assault is pretty weird. Because the prince is good-looking and powerful, Agnieszka can’t seem to decide whether or not to submit to his advances,
I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him. But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid.
This is the introduction of a disturbing element to Uprooted: the book repeatedly romanticizes abuse. Agnieszka is, in many ways, a stereotypical ingenue, but “I’d probably have been willing” doesn’t parse as an appropriate in-the-moment response to the assault she’s spent so many pages dreading.
This is just one of many examples when the book excuses the predatory actions of its male characters in a ‘but-he-was-handsome-and-overcome-with-desire-for-you’ kind of way, as if this is romantic. I’ve read bad arguments that Agnieszka is SO naive at this point as to be completely confused by the prince’s actions, but the narrative that surrounds this scene makes it pretty clear that Agnieszka knows what’s going on: she frequently worries that the wizard himself is going to rape her, and the text definitely positions the prince as a spoilt rich kid who thinks he’s entitled to sleep with the help.
The real elephant in the room, though, is the aforementioned fact that the wizard abducts and imprisons a seventeen-year-old girl once every ten years. This isn’t given anything like the moral examination I was expecting. The novel’s rationale seems to be that, because Agnieszka eventually has a good post-abduction experience with the wizard (spoilers: they fall in love), then taking young girls is a perfectly fine thing for him to do. (And this is ignoring any potential Stockholm Syndrome that Agnieszka may be subject to.)
But, c’mon, Agnieszka doesn’t really have a good post-abduction experience, because for her to fall in love with her abusive abductor is bullshit, regardless of how the book itself treats their relationship. I shudder to think what messages about consent and romance this is sending to the book’s potential younger readership (both boys and girls).
There’s no hiding the fact that the initial relationship between the wizard and Agnieszka is abusive. He ignores her, insults her, throws her around etc., and when their relationship does inevitably soften (*sigh*), the word that kept running through my head was “grooming”. The wizard insists he’s never slept with any of his other abductees, but this is also problematic; are we supposed to look favourably on him because of this? Oh what a good abductor he is. Is Agnieszka supposed to be flattered that she, out of all his abducted girls, is the one he deigns to desire?
The fact that the entire narrative process of the novel hinges on a woman being so stripped of her agency is horrible, even if, by the end, she’s able to reclaim her independence. It reminds me of those giant 18th-Century novels like Pamela and Clarissa, wherein the heroines’ reward for putting up with the abuse enacted upon them by their masters is… they get to marry them. There’s nothing wrong with a fantasy novel tackling these issues, of course, but presenting it as a romantic ideal is so not the way to go about it.
Elsewhere the book is peppered with little oddities. Great swathes of text are given over to describing how Agnieszka is messy. She’s always spilling stuff and tearing her clothes etc. etc. This is reiterated so often that I was expecting it to eventually have some narrative significance, but it never really amounts to anything. Maybe you could generously describe it as a narrative call-back to other fairytale heroines like Snow White or Cinderella, whose servant-work is echoed in Agnieszka’s dirty clothing? The evil Wood is also unpredictable; in one chapter you can’t even breathe its air without becoming corrupted, yet in another a huge army marches through it and fights a big battle with its creatures, unperturbed by the poisonous air. There’s also a really, really pivotal character who’s only introduced at the very end (and very serendipitously at that), and several wizards at the court who could be deleted from the book entirely with no consequences for the plot.
It’s so frustrating that a book can start off so well, and then let you down so much. On paper this is everything I look for in a Fantasy novel, especially its refusal to pander to the current genre trend of dense and unnecessary worldbuilding. In summary, then: its intriguing premise is let down by poor characterisation, bad pacing, repetitive prose, and horrendous sexual politics.