Second, how do we, the consumers, cope with the burden of this sovereignty? How do we know what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’? What if, confronted with a flood of ads, campaigns, trailers, logos and billboards, I still don’t know what I like? This is where star ratings, endorsements and marks out of ten come in handy. In a society of excessive choice, we become reliant on what the French sociologist Lucien Karpik has described as ‘judgment devices’, prosthetic aids which support us in the exhausting labour of choosing and preferring. Karpik studied such comfortingly analogue examples as the Michelin restaurant guide. Today we are inundated with quickfire judgment devices: Tripadvisor, Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, PageRank and all the other means of consulting the ‘hive mind’. The scoring systems they deploy are crude, no doubt, but more subtle than the plebiscitary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ imagined by Schmitt and now hardwired into many social media platforms.
The tyranny of binary opinion isn’t just a symptom of consumerism, but also an effect of the constant flow of information generated by the internet. It is not for nothing that, in the age of the digital platform, we use liquid metaphors of ‘feeds’, ‘torrents’ and ‘streams’ to describe the way images, sounds and words surround us. In the midst of an online experience of one sort or another, clicking a button marked ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ is about as much critical activity as we are permitted. For services such as Netflix or Amazon, the design challenge is how to satisfy customers’ desires with the minimum of effort or choice, largely on the basis of what they have liked – or not – in the past.
The unceasing pursuit of audience ‘acclaim’, in the form of rapid, real-time feedback, bleeds into the sphere of cultural production. Talent shows are evidence of what happens when the plebiscitary form is extended to entertainment: singing and dancing become contests, tests of vocal and bodily agility, that eventually result in everyone straining for the same sound, look and appearance. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have a similar effect on the presentation of the self, where the goal is to win plaudits for instantly impressive slogans and iconography. Chunks of ‘content’ – images, screengrabs of text, short snatches of video – circulate according to the number of thumbs up or thumbs down they receive.
It is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilising this state of affairs is. A one-year-old child has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms or observations are necessary, just pure decision. This was precisely what Schmitt found purifying in the idea of the plebiscite, that it cut out all the slog of talking. But a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way. Look at what ensued after 46 million people were asked: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
Acclaim and complaint can eventually become deafening, drowning out other voices. It’s not only that cultural and political polarisation makes it harder for different ‘sides’ to understand one another, although that is no doubt true. It makes it harder to understand your own behaviour and culture as well. When your main relationship to an artefact is that you liked it, clicked it or viewed it, and your main relationship to a political position is that you voted for it, what is left to say? And what is there to say of the alternative view, other than that it’s not yours?
One of the pleasures of extravagant length for someone making an artwork—a novel, a movie, a TV series—is how difficult it might be to predict how the work is going to end or what its meaning might become. Extravagant length converts composition into a hopeful but risky process of improvisation.
Around 1917, the Russian literary critic and revolutionary Victor Shklovsky wrote an essay on Don Quixote, and in particular on the genesis of its mythic hero. Shklovsky argued that Cervantes had begun his novel as a series of episodes with a gimmick: a character who couldn’t distinguish between reality and fiction. It was only by following this screwball joke for episode after episode that he had come up with something much deeper and rarer. He had created the complicated figure of Don Quixote, therefore, not before he began but in the process of writing his book. As he continued to think through its giant length, Cervantes happened on a new invention: a character who was fuzzy with ambiguity, a study in self-deception, illusion, and unreality, both comical and noble, who begins the history of the modern European novel.
I’m in no way an avid watcher of cartoons but, to risk a sense of disproportion, I began to feel something similar as the animated series BoJack Horseman unfolded on Netflix over six seasons and seventy-seven episodes, beginning in 2014 and ending early this year. “It’s not Ibsen,” went a repeated refrain in the show, which was funny not just because it was a form of immediate self-deprecation about the show itself—a cartoon comedy whose supporting cast includes a news anchor who’s an irascible blue whale and a film studio renamed Warbler Brothers—but also because this show was Ibsen in a way, just an opioid version: a wild investigation of self-deception and failure. Or rather, that’s what I concluded by the end. At first it was simply zany and delightful, this series about a talking horse who’s the washed-up star of a now-forgotten 1990s hit sitcom, Horsin’ Around, a saccharine confection about a horse who adopts three human orphans. But by the time it finished, it had become something much grander and more terrible. Exactly what, however, and exactly how, are conundrums that have preoccupied me.
As the Vikings pushed out into the world from Scotland to Constantinople, the stories of their exploits were told mostly by their victims and enemies. Those depictions aren’t necessarily wrong, just incomplete. Price writes that Vikings were “warlike people in conflicted times, and their ideologies were also to a marked degree underpinned by the supernatural empowerment of violence. This could take extreme forms, as manifested in such horrors as ritual rape, wholesale slaughter and enslavement, and human sacrifice.” But what’s missing from the accounts of Irish monks and Arabian ambassadors are explanations for the beliefs that animated the Viking’s experience and gave his violent acts coherence and shape in his mind.
Luckily for the reader of Children of Ash and Elm, Price happens to specialize in Viking religion and polar shamanism, and the book begins with a deep dive into Viking mythology and cosmological belief. We might remember bits and pieces from school, such as Ragnarok, the Viking apocalypse story, but Price gives us a concise account of the Vikings’ invisible world, which is stranger and more complex than you might remember. Take the composition of a human, which, according to Viking beliefs, was an amalgamation of forces and entities. You had a “hamr,” or a shape or a body, though some people could shape-shift into various animals. You had a “huge,” or a mind. But people also had something known as “hamingia,” which was sort of like a personal luck energy that could occasionally abandon you. And finally, everyone had a “fylgja,” a female “fetch” or “follower” inherited from ancestors. The exact function of the fylgja is unclear, but belief in it continues among modern Icelanders. If you ask them about the “hidden people” or the huldufolk, Price writes, they’ll “roll their eyes,” but ask them about their fylgjur, and you might get “a level stare and perhaps a change of subject.”
There is a moment in the life of Oscar Wilde that is difficult to interpret. In Paris in 1899, two years after his release from prison and seventeen months before his death, he wrote a short letter to Morton Fullerton, who worked in Paris for the London Times, asking for money. Fullerton, known for his charm and good looks, would later have an affair with Edith Wharton and had been the lover of the English writer and sculptor Lord Ronald Gower, often identified as the model for the louche and cynical Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is hard not to wonder why Wilde selected Fullerton and if Fullerton’s high-toned reply did not contain something more than a mere refusal. He ended it with, “I grope at the hope that meanwhile the stress has passed, and that you will not have occasion to put, malgré vous, either me or anyone else again into such a position of positive literal chagrin.”
Like many others, Fullerton may have felt a distinct chill at the prospect of being associated with Wilde. Since the two were never friends, and since Fullerton, as far as we can make out, had forsaken his homosexual life when he left England, one possible explanation for his haughty reply (to which Wilde responded, “In so slight a matter, my dear Fullerton, sentiment need not borrow stilts”) is that there may have been a faint whiff of blackmail in the request for money. Wilde wrote as a voice from Fullerton’s London years, and Fullerton in Paris had left all that behind to become an enthusiastic heterosexual.
In his essays Rohmer generally refrained from writing about Christianity in apologetic or confessional modes, though he would not hesitate to confront opposing ideologies. In a piece for Cahiers responding to a secular colleague, Rohmer charged, “Be an atheist and the camera will offer you the spectacle of a world without God in which there is no law other than the pure mechanism of cause and effect.”
One could also say that his whole filmography is a continuation of this rebuttal. The hairdresser miraculously reunited with her true love in The Winter’s Tale; grace bursting through Delphine’s malaise in the form of the green ray at sunset at the end of The Green Ray; the reconciliation between the marquise and her mother in The Marquise of O; the turn from adultery back to fidelity at the end of Love in the Afternoon; the extemporaneous defense of monotheism in The Romance of Astrea and Céladon; the reenactment of the Passion Gospels at the end of Perceval. And of course, My Night at Maud’s.
It would be churlish to extrapolate from Jean-Louis’s personal expression of faith in My Night at Maud’s – except for in A Summer’s Tale, Rohmer denied that his characters were inspired by his own life – but elements of it ring true in the light of his filmography. In a conversation about Blaise Pascal, the young engineer Jean-Louis tells his Marxist friend Vidal, “I’m a Catholic, or at least I try to be, but he [Pascal] doesn’t fit in with my notion of Catholicism. It’s precisely because I’m a Christian that his austerity offends me. If that’s what Christianity is about, then I’m an atheist.” The subject comes up again at dinner with Vidal’s friend Maud, a charming doctor who spends the night pressing him on his beliefs. Over wine and dinner, Pascal comes up again. “I think there’s another way to look at Christianity,” Jean-Louis says of Pascal’s strict asceticism. Vidal notes, “his sister Gilberte wrote how he never said, ‘This is good.’”
“Well I say, ‘This is good!” Jean-Louis replies excitedly. “As a Christian, I say not acknowledging what’s good is evil.” If his movies are any indication, it is obvious that Rohmer believed the same.
"It is the problem of the predicate, memorably summed up by Roland Barthes in his impatient dismissal of the way we talk about the singing voice. “Are we doomed to the adjective?” he asked. “Are we faced with this dilemma: the predicable or the ineffable?” Barthes’s discomfort with description extended as far as objecting to human relationships being figured in language: “A relationship which adjectivizes is on the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death.” The aim should be to abolish within oneself, and between oneself and others, adjectives. He felt the same way about metaphor, the drawing of analogies. And it is true, the point about dancing is not to be like anything, or compared with anything, not to be this or that, but to be."
Not even Fitzgerald, it would seem, knew what he was dealing with—the taut incompleteness that has allowed generations of Americans and non-Americans of every stripe to imagine themselves into a story set on Long Island in the 1920s. When a professor named Carlyle V. Thompson published a paper arguing that Gatsby must have been a Black man, his fervor was understandable, even if he’d missed the point. Gatsby is Black—and Jewish, and an immigrant, and JFK, and Obama, and Zuckerberg, and Trump, and Jay-Z, and Anna Delvey. American fiction is full of thinly veiled Gatsbys: Don Draper in Mad Men, Alien in Spring Breakers, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novels and their various adaptations. These imitators, conscious and unconscious, real and fictional, give the original character a richness and a solidity that can’t be found in Fitzgerald’s text alone.
"Centuries of wildly differing interpretations of Machiavelli – tyrant or republican, revolutionary or fascist – fractured his thought from his life. His early biographers, Roberto Ridolfi most wonderfully, as well as feminist political theorists like Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, put the two back together again. (This revisionism hasn’t quite entered the popular imagination: trolls in the more nihilistic corners of the internet still debate whether Machiavelli was, in fact, an incel.) Today, Machiavelli’s ruthlessness and cynicism are mostly embraced by those at the contemptible end of the political spectrum: members of the Trump administration have adopted him as a patron saint; in the UK, we have Dominic Cummings, ‘the Machiavel in Downing Street’. But the Succession fans and trolls who revere Machiavellian shrewdness mistake his cynicism for insensitivity to the world, when in fact it reflected precisely the opposite. His cynicism developed from an almost unbearable clarity of insight (it is true that, more often than not, he was disgusted with what he saw). He obviously wasn’t a feminist – Fortuna, remember, was a woman to be mauled – but his ruthless self-inquiry is bracing to read at a time when the right has claimed a monopoly on political realism and popular feminism confuses the cheap pang of emotional recognition for thought."
Houellebecq wants to show that Schopenhauer’s philosophy is about more than vitality and passion. Schopenhauer did not write to make readers better, more self-aware people but to explain the world’s cruelty and to provide them with an escape hatch. The book is at its most enjoyable when Houellebecq displays Schopenhauer’s lucid prose, which can be “as deep as the abyss, majestic in its desolation and horror,” such as this description of the food chain, which Houellebecq dedicates “especially to ecologists”:
"Junghuhn recounts how in Java he saw a stretch of ground covered with bones, extending as far as the eye could see, that he took for a battlefield: these were actually just the skeletons of large turtles, five feet long, three feet wide and tall; when they leave the sea, these turtles take this path to lay their eggs, and are then assaulted by wild dogs … which combine their efforts to tip them onto their backs, tear off the lower carapace and the small scales on their bellies, and devour them alive. But a tiger often then pounces on the dogs."“
For what fault must they endure such a torment?” Schopenhauer asks. “There is only one answer: in this way the will to live objectifies itself.”
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