>Ruth Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids

Life is hard for us, American-based fans of the incomparable mystery author Ruth Rendell. Every time her new book comes out, we either have to sit around waiting for over 18 months for an American edition to come out, or hunt around for a copy someone might have brought from Great Britain and might be willing to sell. Some people, of course, are lucky enough to have close friends in Great Britain and can pester them for a copy of Rendell’s new book. I have not been blessed in this department, so I have to cast my lot with used books sites.

Ruth Rendell is admirable on several accounts. As an auto-didact, she has a range of vocabulary and the breadth of erudition that many of her Oxford-educated peers do not possess. She is 80 years old, but this prolific writer keeps releasing new books on a regular basis. The great changes that have taken place in our Western societies over the last 50 years and the incapacity of many people to adapt to said changes form one of Rendell’s favorite topics. Still, this writer who was born in 1930 has an astonishing understanding of today’s realities. In my favorite novel by Rendell ever, 13 Steps Down, she created a memorable character of Gwendolen Chawcer, an elderly bookish spinster who is terrified of “new-fangled” (her favorite word) devices such as computers and microwaves. Even though Rendell understands how terrifying modern reality can be to older people, she seems to have a perfect grasp of today’s modes of existence.

Her most recent novel* Tigerlily’s Orchids (Import Edition) Hardback is not Ruth Rendell’s best work but it’s still a joy to read. The book is light on mystery. You pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen, and there is little (if any) suspense. The strength of Tigerlily’s Orchids (as well as of this writer’s entire corpus of work) lies in Rendell’s gift of creating delightfully quirky characters who are weird in most endearing ways. I am usually horrible with characters’ names (which, believe me, is a huge problem for a literary critic.) You can see me engrossed in a book and ask me what the names of the protagonists are, and more often than not I will not be able to say. Ruth Rendell, however, is so good at creating memorable characters that even my unreliable memory always retains their names.

What I like the most about Rendell’s books is her skill in taking any minor quirk in a character’s personality and demonstrate how this touch of strangeness can gradually develop into full blown insanity, taking this character along some very dangerous paths. I might be projecting here, but I believe that everybody has this little place within them that houses some uncanny oddity, some little spot of the bizarre, some minor obsession. We keep it under control – for the most part – but it’s very pleasurable to imagine it unleashed, they way it is in Rendell’s books. I have read interviews with Ruth Rendell and I have no idea where this proper and quite sheltered older lady** found her deep knowledge of the darker side of human psyche. Still, nobody writing today describes a gradual slippage into insanity better than Rendell.

If there is a Rendell fan among my readers, please make yourself known. I have tried foisting Rendell’s books on everybody around me but, somehow, I can’t find a true lover of Rendell’s books among people I know.

* Rendell’s The Vault is scheduled to appear in 2011 to the delight of her fans all over the world.

** Rendell is also a very kind human being. When I was a teenager in Ukraine, I wrote her a letter to express my admiration of her novels, and she responded with a long letter and a gift of books. It was next to impossible to find new Enlgish-language books in my country at that time, so this gift was priceless to me.

>A Scientist Defends the Humanities at SUNY Albany


I know the following letter is quite long, but it is definitely worth reading. Unlike the “spineless faculty” at SUNY Albany, Gregory Petsko, a scientist from Brandeis, has written a fantastic open letter to the so-called President of that so-called university. I wonder why the faculty of SUNY Albany haven’t written a hundred, two hundred, five hundred of such letters and distributed them everywhere. But this has been the hallmark of their behavior from the day the destruction of literature departments at SUNY Albany was announced: silence.

An open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany

Dear President Philip,

Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can’t really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn’t disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I’m through, you will at least understand why.

Just 30 days ago, on October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that ‘there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.’ Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure – in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.
Let’s examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.
Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.
That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.
Then there’s the question of whether the state legislature’s inaction gave you no other choice. I’m sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian – and authoritarian – solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I’m not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.
It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.
And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I’m sure, in relief that they didn’t get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I’m reminded of the fable by Aesop of the Travelers and the Bear: two men were walking together through the woods, when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground, with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man’s ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion, and, laughing, said ‘What was it that the bear whispered to you?’ ‘He told me,’ said the other man, ‘Never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch.’

I first learned that fable, and its valuable lesson for life, in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable – and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a Classics department, which now, of course, you don’t.
As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I’ll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world’s number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn’t – well, I’m sure you get the picture.

I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.

I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It’s your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh’). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I’m sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don’t.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly ‘dead’ subjects. From your biography, you don’t actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.
One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I’ve done it for over 10 years, and I’m pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I’ve been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.
One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.
Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part – a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don’t have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you’re that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That’s how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don’t try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don’t, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,
Gregory A Petsko

Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief: A Review, Part II

The first part of this review is located here.

It took me a while to write the second part of this review because I find the last chapters of the book to be quite inferior in quality not only to the beginning of On Belief but to the philosopher’s entire oeuvre. Žižek’s goal here is to convince us that Leninist terror and the “ideal” Communist society it aims to create can still be rescued from oblivion and taken up as legitimate political projects. Žižek realizes that any Communist project requires a profound transformation in the very nature of human beings: from separate beings trapped in our individuality we should move towards becoming driven by collective needs. Žižek realizes, of course, that in developed countries we are moving in the opposite direction, which is something he laments bitterly.
What Žižek blames for this – and what he hates the most, in a truly Leninist style – is liberalism of a certain ilk:
Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat – if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment – recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery … This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.
If you are surprised at the virulence of this long quote, you have to remember that there is nothing more hateful for a Communist than a move towards any kind of individualism. Unless we sacrifice what this philosopher sees as our puny personal concerns, interests, and traumas for the greater good (which, by the way, he hasn’t yet been able to specify), we are doomed to become even more narcissistic and alienated than before. Everything that makes our lives more tolerable in the here and now is hated by Žižek for the simple reason that the more content we are with our existence, the less likely is any collective agreement to a revolution and an attendant reign of terror, which Žižek is honest enough to accept as unavoidable.
On Belief  proceeds to attack the fear that a revolution will deprive us of a set of freedoms we have come to cherish and see as necessary to any satisfactory mode of existence. Žižek attacks our belief that we enjoy any freedom that matters through making a distinction between formal and actual freedom:
This is what the distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom ultimately amounts to: “formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. . . We can go on making our small choices, “reinventing ourselves” thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance.
Of course, you can only see indivdual life choices as small, if individual lives are of lesser value to you than the collective. This is an easy position to take, since any collective is never anything other than imagined. Speaking in the name of the collective is, thus, giving a voice to a non-existent entity, one that you can easily invest with any characteristics, desires and preferences. If the collective isn’t truly there, it will not be able to contradict you.

What especially disappointed me in the second half of this book wasn’t even Žižek’s simplistic approach to Judaism and Christianity. It was the fact that this brilliant literary critic produced the most inept specimen of literary criticism I have encountered in a long time. I have heard quite a few impotent explanations of the Soviet Union’s eventual rejection of Modernism and its replacement with Socialist Realism, but none of them have been as silly as Žižek’s:

The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man – no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very “ultra-orthodoxy,” i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology …THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist “socialist realism” effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a “Socialism with a human face,” i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.

This maladroit analysis fails, of course, to account for the Soviet rejection of ANY kind of Modernism, not just the type of avant-garde Žižek describes (which was actually in no way representative of the Russian Modernism as whole). The hatred of all major totalitarian regimes of the XXth century towards Modernist art is an issue that should not be touched upon whatsoever if the best one can do is this ridiculously manipulative analysis.
Žižek’s gaffe in analyzing the predominance of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union makes me wonder what the philosopher imagines his books audience to be like. If he expects his readers to be ignorant enough to miss all the reticences and falsehoods contained in this paragraph (as well as in many others), then how can he expect said uneducated audience to get through the previous 100 pages of his text where Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Freud are referenced in every line?

>How To Promote Your Blog, Make It Popular, And Attract Readers


I have only been blogging for 19 months and before that I knew nothing whatsoever about blogging. So I’ve been really reluctant to write this post. I have finally decided to write it because I received so many requests from my readers to share the “secrets” of this blog’s popularity that I couldn’t resist any longer.
I’m sure there are many things that more experienced bloggers know about this. Also, I don’t have any time to follow the regular advice dispensed to beginner bloggers to promote their blogs on Technorati, blog carnivals, webrings, etc. As it is, I spend from 30 to 60 minutes every day answering blog-related mail and another 60 to 90 minutes moderating comments. And then there is also answering comments and actually writing the posts. There are days when I spend up to 8 hours on blog-related activities. And that’s on top of my full-time job. So scouring blog promotion sites is really out of the question for me. The advice I can give mostly has to do with what you can do within the blog itself to make it easier for readers to find it and keep coming back once they do. Once again, I don’t pretend to be any kind of authority on this. This is what works for me. If you have any suggestions of your own, do leave them in the comment section.
1. Mind the titles of your posts. Many people go out of their way to come up with fun, snappy titles for their blog posts. I’m sure that this strategy makes their regular readers very happy, but it also makes it very hard for new readers to find the blog. The best thing for the post title is to be as descriptive as possible of what the post contains. Think about the search phrase that people who might be interested in this post will enter into their search engine and design the post title accordingly. You will end up with long, boring titles, but also a bunch of new readers every day.
2. The length of the posts matters. In my experience, posts should be neither too long nor too short. If a reader followed a link to your blog and found a post that is just 3 or 4 lines long, it is possible that they will feel disappointed and won’t come back. At the same time, excessively long posts bore people. Visitors might not even begin reading the post if they see it is too long. I suggest breaking up a longer post into 2 or 3 parts.
3. Guest posting might be counter-productive. Several bloggers shared with me something that confirmed my own experience: more often than not, inviting guest bloggers to post on your blog decreases readership. If you do it more often than once or twice a year, the readership might decrease dramatically. Even if your guest blogger is very talented and writes a lot better than you do, people don’t want to read their posts on your blog. (That is, unless your guest blogger is some kind of a huge celebrity, but how often does that happen?) If readers come to your blog, they come to read your posts and they feel disappointed if you offer them somebody else’s writing instead. As your blog becomes more popular, you will start getting offers to guest post more and more often (I receive at least one a day.) It might feel like accepting these offers will give you more posts, which will end up in bringing in more readers. In reality, it works the opposite way.
4. Make the blog easy to understand for new readers. As in any relationship, you will end up developing a language of your own with your long-standing readers. Some bloggers tend to forget that this language is incomprehensible to new readers. Sometimes, you read a post and have a feeling that there is a lot of interesting history behind it, which is not comprehensible to readers who haven’t been to the blog before. Before you publish the post, read it as if you were a first-time visitor. And then change it in a way that will make the post easy to understand to anyone who has never been to the blog before.
5. Don’t limit yourself in the choice of topics. I know this advice is contrary to what many blog promotion sites suggest: just choose a topic and stick to it. There is an important difference between blogs that are trying to sell something and blogs that aren’t. My blog isn’t selling anything. Of course, it’s nice when people go to Amazon through this blog and buy what they need, but it was never the point of the blog. Nowadays, I receive offers to place paid advertisement on my blog about every other day and, for now, I’m resisting these offers. As a result, I can write about absolutely anything I want, and the blog has a chance to attract different kinds of people with a variety of interests.
6. Write often. I know that you must have heard this a hundred times before, but it’s a truth that bears repeating. I know that I feel quite annoyed when my favorite bloggers
7. A blog is not the same as a Facebook page. Posting tons of photos of your friends and of every event you attended is only of interest to the people you know. If you have no desire to attract readers who’ve never met you, go ahead and do it. However, if you want to increase your readership beyond the circle of your immediate acquaintanceship, I suggest you move all that personal stuff to Facebook. As a reader of your blog, I have no interest in knowing what your friend’s friend looks like when she is drunk and I don’t find looking at 15 pictures of your kitten throwing up on the carpet all that fascinating.
8. Follow the buzz. At any given time, there is a subject or two that’s on everybody’s mind. Identifying such a topic and writing about it while it’s still hot will bring an explosion of readership to the blog. For me, that has always been the most difficult strategy to follow because I never have the time to stay updated on what everybody is watching on YouTube or tweeting on Twitter. However, as your blog becomes more popular, you will discover that your readers will do this work for you. If you have received three requests within the hour to discuss a certain subject on the blog, it might be a good idea to look into it.

>Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Review, Part II

What I find especially interesting about Maugham – and what I wished this biography addressed a little more intelligently than it did – is how fast his fame faded. As Hastings points out, Maugham’s works have even been adapted to the screen more times than Conan Doyle’s. Still, today almost everybody knows Conan Doyle, while Maugham’s name is familiar to a very narrow circle of readers. I only know his work so well because in the Soviet Union where I was born censorship limited our familiarity with English-speaking authors of the XXth century to those writers who remained completely untouched by Modernism and continued writing in the outdated realist style. And herein, I believe, lies the main reason for Maugham’s loss of popularity.

Hastings recognizes that

it was not done in highbrow circles to take [Maugham’s] writing seriously.

Incapable of finding an intelligent explanation of why Maugham was not seen as an equal by the artistic giants of his era, Hastings provides an answer of her own: they were jealous of his affluence, his big villa and his expensive limousine. Once again, one wishes that Hastings had some minimal familiarity with the development of literature in English. Maugham knew that he was consistently considered “a second-rate writer”, and it’s obvious that this knowledge was deeply painful to him. It is a disservice to the writer not to explore this issue and, instead, concentrate on excruciatingly boring sex lives of his numerous acquaintances.

Hastings’s inadequacy at a serious analysis of Maugham’s legacy reduces her to filling page after page with painstakingly researched minutiae of the author’s daily existence. We find out the names of everybody who visited this extremely hospitable writer at his villa, what the guests ate and drank, where they went after lunch and before afternoon tea. Hastings provides us with names and brief biographies of pretty much everybody Maugham met in his long and active life. We are even regaled with the knowledge that one of the writer’s male lovers used to sit in the patio of Maugham’s villa in pink shorts at a certain point in time, while another lover walked around in very short white shorts out of which his thighs bulged ridiculously, and that Maugham once won $12 at a game of cards (which was far from the only one he played in his life). This wealth of mundane details can be of interest only to the most assiduous of fans. Since I am not one of them, I found those pages of the The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography incredibly tedious.

This biographer’s tendency to disregard what really matters in favor of utterly trivial details manifests itself especially strongly in the last third of the book. Hastings mentions a couple of times in passing Maugham’s “socialist beliefs” but fails to elaborate what they consisted of and how this intensely snobbish writer who spent his life in a relentless pursuit of aristocrats managed to remain any kind of a socialist. Instead of discussing Maugham’s politics, a feat for which this biographer is signally unsuited, Hastings tells us at length what cars the author bought before and after the war, that writer Ian Fleming enjoyed beating his wife with wet towels, and what a lover of Maugham’s lover’s lover (no, there is no typo here) wrote in a letter that had nothing whatsoever to do with Maugham.

The entire effort that Hastings made in writing this book can be summed up in the words of one of my favorite colleagues: “Incompetents abound.”

[The first part of the review is located here]

Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Review, Part I

started my Thanksgiving break with a plan to relax completely and exorcise the accumulated exhaustion of a very difficult semester. In order to do that, I embarked on a project of reading Selina Hastings’s bulky biography of Somerset Maugham. In case you don’t know, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most successful and popular British authors in the period between the two great wars. Today, most people don’t know Somerset Maugham and he isn’t widely read at all. His novel Of Human Bondage is still quite popular. However, his short stories and plays that made Maugham so famous have fallen out of favor with the readers. There are several reasons for that. For one, Maugham was a strong believer in the colonial system of the British Empire. His colonialism jumps off the pages of his short stories and is quite disgusting. He was also a vicious misogynist and made a career out of selling his contempt towards women. Maugham pretty much missed the boat of Modernism and kept writing in a plodding realist style, which was quite unsuited to the realities of the XXth century.

Obviously, Maugham’s colinialism and male chauvinism disgust me profoundly. Still, I have to confess that I have a secret love for his short stories because they are so beautifully crafted. It is my contention that before Julio Cortazar’s time, nobody could write a short story better than Maugham. If you have no idea what I’m on about, just read Maugham’s short story “The Lotus Eater” (which is available in open access online here) and you’ll see what I mean. Sadly, Maugham proved incapable of inscribing himself into the XXth century either ideologically or stylistically. He wasted his considerable gifts on pushing the outdated message of colonial and masculine domination, which is why his erstwhile fame is well-nigh forgotten nowadays.
Unfortunately, Selina Hastings lacks the most basic understanding of how to analyze literature. She could have definitely benefitted from taking at least a couple of literature classes. Then, she would have known, for example, that it is wrong to confuse the writer with his characters. She has this annoying habit of saying: “This is what Maugham felt/thought/did” and trying to prove that with a quote from his novel Of Human Bondage about the feelings, thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist Philip Carey. As autobiographical as that novel might have been, Carey and Maugham are not the same person. Trying to psychoanalyze the author on the basis of what his characters say or do is the kind of a rookie mistake that a serious literary biographer should never commit. Whenever Hastings attempts to offer an analysis of one of Maugham’s works, she invariably slips into the language of a seventh-grader’s book report:

One of Maugham’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to create three-dimensional characters, women as well as men, interacting with one another.

Imagine that. A novelist writes about men – and even women – who actually interact with one another. This surprising fact definitely needed addressing in the writer’s biography.

Given to hero-worshipping her subject, Hastings manages not to notice his vitriolic hatred of women. She goes as far as suggesting that the opposite is the case. For this biographer, Maugham was

a man who enjoyed the company of women, who in his fiction and his friendships was so understanding and compassionate toward them.

I wouldn’t be able to address Maugham’s friendships with women (although I do know – and Hastings offers ample proof for my opinion – that he treated his wife and daughter abominably), but as for his writing, it isn’t often that one encounters an author who has done quite as much as Maugham to create a gallery of horrible, nasty, disgusting, stupid, venal, brainless women. It is unsurprising that Hastings, who can construct a turn of phrase as atrocious as

doctors, diplomats, traders, missionaries, and their women

would be incapable of noticing Maugham’s misogyny. Hastings is so blindly uncritical of Maugham’s every word, position, and action that she quite sincerely suggests that one of the reasons why Maugham’s marriage was such a disaster was that

the traditional feminine occupations of knitting and needlework held no appeal for [his wife] whatsoever.

Of course, it is just as probable that the marriage suffered more because of the fact that the traditional husbandly occupation of having sex with his wife held no appeal whatsoever for Maugham, who was gay. Hastings, however, chooses to demonize Maugham’s long-suffering wife Syrie for not learning to knit, which, as Hastings seems to believe, would have distracted her from her husband’s numerous homosexual affairs and turned this marriage into an endless bliss.

[Find Part II of the review here.]

>Slavoj Zizek’s On Belief: A Review, Part I

>I have no idea how I managed to miss Žižek’s On Belief when it first came out. Now, however, I have finally had a chance to read this book by one of the greatest philosophers of out time (actually, the greatest, in my opinion) and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course, Žižek wouldn’t be true to himself if he didn’t frame this book as yet another failing effort to rescue at least some sad remnants of the Russian Revolution as a genuine transformative and hopeful event. In On Belief, he does this through a very desperate “Stalin – bad, Lenin – good” sort of argument. Of course, anybody who has even the most superficial knowledge of the history of the Russian Revolution realizes that such an argument is non-viable. No amount of quotes from Kant, Hegel and Lacan can dispel the historical reality of Stalin being one of the 4 people who were the closest to Lenin at every step of the way both before and after the revolution. No kind of philosophical casuistry can deny the fact that Stalin was the most faithful  and logical, albeit quite plodding, follower of Lenin. It would be great if Žižek would quit flogging the dead horse of the Russian Revolution and realize that the stench the dead horse’s corpse is producing only makes it fit for a speedy burial. Still, even a great philosopher has a right to a small weakness here and there.

Thankfully, Žižek doesn’t spend too much time on these feeble attempts to resuscitate Lenin for the future of humanity. When he is not addressing the traumatic (especially, for someone of his origins) legacy of the Soviet Union and speaks, instead, of the present and the future, Žižek is spectacular. In On Belief, Žižek virulently assaults the contemporary pieties of certain liberal-leaning intellectuals. Their interest in all kinds of New Age philosophies that are supposed to rescue them from the evils of consumerist society deserves the philosopher’s scorn:

The ultimate postmodern irony is thus the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the “economic infrastructure,” “European” technology and capitalism are triumphing world-wide, at the level of “ideological superstructure,” the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age “Asiatic” thought, which, in its different guises, from the “Western Buddhism” (today’s counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to the “Asiatic” Marxism–Leninism) to different “Taos,” is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. Therein resides the highest speculative identity of the opposites in today’s global civilization: although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.

We have all met liberals of this ilk. They spend their lives chasing after a spirituality of a higher order that they have found in quasi-Buddhist practices. Sitting in their incense-smelling rooms, surrounded by paraphernalia they bought in a store that boasts of selling items brought directly from Tibet, they pontificate for hours against the evils of Eurocentrism, flaunt their boringly ideological vegetarianism, and celebrate the supposedly pure and miraculous spiritual, medical and sexual advances of the Easterners. Unsurprisingly, Žižek, who is opposed to any kind of hypocrisy, has something to say about that. The very talk of Eurocentrism is an act of orientalism:

Therein resides the ultimate paradox: the more Europeans try to penetrate the “true” Tibet, the more the very FORM of their endeavor undermines their goal. We should appreciate the full scope of this paradox, especially with regard to “Eurocentrism.” The Tibetans were extremely self-centered: “To them, Tibet was the center of the world, the heart of civilization.” What characterizes the European civilization is, on the contrary, precisely its ex-centered character – the notion that the ultimate pillar of Wisdom, the secret agalma, the spiritual treasure, the lost object–cause of desire, which we in the West long ago betrayed, could be recuperated out there, in the forbidden exotic place. Colonization was never simply the imposition of Western values, the assimilation of the Oriental and other Others to the European Sameness; it was always also the search for the lost spiritual innocence of OUR OWN civilization. This story begins at the very dawn of Western civilization, in Ancient Greece: for the Greeks, Egypt was just such a mythic place of the lost ancient wisdom.

One cannot escape Europeanness through a flight – either imaginary or physical – towards the East. Just the opposite, the more passionately you embrace Eastern practices, the more anchored you become in your colonizing European identity. This kind of a rebellion is not only devoid of any actual transgressive value, it actually reinforces the very practices from which it purports to liberate you. The same sad process of a formerly transgressive behavior becoming a pillar of a repressive establishment can be seen in the realm of student rebellion:

The “truth” of the student’s transgressive revolt against the Establishment is the emergence of a new establishment in which transgression is part of the game, solicited by the gadgets which organize our life as the permanent dealing with excesses.

The irony of the situation is that Žižek, whose every word is aimed at being a transgressive act, is especially loved by spoiled trust fund babies turned Ivy League graduate students who entertain themselves with Žižek’s writings as they are biding their time before taking control of the very establishment they like to imagine themselves as subverting.

In a similar way, the tolerant multi-culturalists who celebrate the Other and spend their lives in a navel-gazing privilege examination are exactly the same as fundamentalist Evangelicals in the US. We all know how much Žižek dislikes such fanatics of tolerance (and how grateful I am to the great philospher for shining a light of reason on them). I only wish that I ever find my way to formulating my objections to their peculiar brand of fanaticism as beautifully and precisely as Žižek does:

Moral majority fundamentalists and tolerant multi-culturalists are the two sides of the same coin, they both share the fascination with the Other. In moral majority, this fascination displays the envious hatred of the Other’s excessive jouissance, while the multiculturalist tolerance of the Other’s Otherness is also more twisted than it may appear – it is sustained by a secret desire for the Other to REMAIN “other,” not to become too much like us.

I have seen these attempts to enforce Otherness by our tolerant comrades more times than I care to remember on this very blog. They hate it when anybody tries to address Otherness with anything than quasi-respectful silence. These fanatics of meaningless tolerance are terrified that a discussion, an analysis, a rapprochement will reduce the Otherness of those they desperately need to be fully and completely Other. Without scratching the itchy scab of their imaginary privilege ona adaily basis, they will have no sense of their own identity, their own self-worth. This is why there is nothing more disrespectful of the Other than a refusal to discuss the limits of its Otherness. The position that “Every choice has an equal right to exist” is profoundly imbued with the capitalist philosophy, which is the reason Žižek hates it so much.

[The second part of the review is located here]

>Voting Is a Pleasure: A Funny Video from Catalonia

>My reader Canukistani has sent me a link to the following hilarious video that a political organization in Catalonia is using to encourage the young people to vote:

I wish I could have shown this video to my students before our recent elections. However, even if I’d known about the video then, I would have been too afraid of scandalizing our Midwestern students.

Thank you, Canukistani!

>A Cornell Professor Admonishes Rude Students


This video of a Cornell professor telling off students who interrupt his lecture with exaggeratedly loud yawns has been making the rounds on the academic websites. Everybody dumps on the professor for raising his voice to the students but I think that he was right. We coddle the students so much nowadays that they keep behaving like overgrown, spoiled babies in the classroom and everywhere else. On the one hand, we are expected to prepare them for the real word, for being successful in the workplace. On the other hand, however, we have to placate, entertain and keep them constantly happy and engaged. Sometimes, it’s just frustrating to see how immature some students are. As much as this annoying childishness is their own fault, we are partly to blame too because of how rarely we do what the brave Professor Talbert has done.