Nature, like religion, spirals toward a center that remains forever out of reach.
Meador: Your discussion of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart gets at the need to imagine a new political narrative rather than making a nostalgic appeal to something that came before. Can you talk about that?
Katongole: There’s a temptation to think, “If only we can recover the precolonial traditions and build from those.” Well, yes, this might be helpful. But we must be thoughtful. It is not as if precolonial traditions are standing around waiting to be recovered. Even if this were the case, there are a number of aspects of precolonial African history and society that I’m not sure I want recovered.
Things Fall Apart was crucial to me in thinking this through. There’s violence in the protagonist Okonkwo’s village before the coming of the colonialists; many are killed, women are abused. This is not a perfect society.
The book contains a scene in which Okonkwo and the village’s traditional leaders confront the colonialists, and Okonkwo kills one of the Europeans. I read this scene as showing two different forms of violence meeting in the marketplace. In a way, it is a picture of what is happening in Africa now. Some precolonial forms of violence come together with new forms of violence, issuing in what I call a unique form of African modernity.
My interest is, how do we move through this? Simply recovering or recreating the past is not the way history works.
Christianity, I think, might provide a way forward. Well, of course I think that – I’m a Christian! But I’m also committed to nonviolence, to the vision of true peace at the heart of the Christian story. If we were to live into that, it might provide us with a way of working through the violence at the intersection of precolonial, colonial, and neocolonial forms of violence in modern Africa.
Readers have often understood The Recognitions’ obsession with counterfeiting as a familiar Fifties critique of American phoniness. “Peel away the erudition,” Jonathan Franzen wrote about the novel, “and you have ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ ” But Gaddis makes clear throughout that he is after bigger, more interesting game; his real target is not fakery but something like its opposite, what a teacher of Wyatt’s calls “that romantic disease, originality”:
"Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way. When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates."
This notion of degeneration owes something to Plato, for whom the visible world is a copy of the eternal forms and mimetic art a copy of that copy. In this view, the artist’s true job is not to depict our transient reality but to pierce through it and give us some access to the absolute. This is what contemporary viewers miss, Wyatt insists, when they focus on the meticulous craftsmanship of the Old Masters.
"This . . . these . . . the art historians and the critics talking about every object and . . . everything having its own form and density and . . . its own character in Flemish paintings, but is that all there is to it? Do you know why everything does? Because they found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing, and so this . . . and so in the painting every detail reflects . . . God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then."
By these lights, the problem with forgery is not a lack of originality but the fact that it divorces technique from its proper aim, leading to empty virtuosity. Which, the novel suggests, is also the more general problem with the modern world—meaning not the air-conditioned nightmare of midcentury America, but the West from give or take the Reformation on: “Reason supplied means, and eliminated ends. What followed was entirely reasonable: the means, so abruptly brought within reach, became ends in themselves.”
Closely related to the disease of originality is the cult of self-expression, which views art primarily as a reflection of its maker and often takes as much interest in the eccentric life of the artist as in the work. A running joke concerns Otto’s play, which is really a “series of monologues in which Gordon, a figure who resembled Otto at his better moments, and whom Otto greatly admired, said things which Otto had overheard, or thought of too late to say.” The novel’s most famous lines, known to many who have never cracked its pages, are spoken by Wyatt in response to Esther’s speculation about a famous poet’s sexuality:
"What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology."
The question that follows is where exactly that leaves the artist forced to live in the kingdom of means. For many of the writers Gaddis most admired—Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh—the solution was a retreat into religious traditionalism. At various points in the novel, Gaddis presents such a retreat as a live option. “Thank God there was the gold to forge,” says Wyatt, meaning that there is after all something real and enduring at the core of things. When Wyatt finally abandons his counterfeiting scheme, he returns to the same Spanish monastery that his father visited in the book’s first pages; there is some suggestion that his stay will deliver him a sort of creative authenticity. Even Otto muses in his shallow way about the possibility of conversion: “It kind of gives a reason for things that otherwise don’t seem to have any.” Meanwhile, the one artist in the book who produces something genuine is the devoutly Catholic composer Stanley, for whom faith provides a meaningful context. Admittedly this context is an equivocal gift. Toward the end of the novel, Stanley plays an original composition on an organ in a Medieval church, which topples from the strain: “He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”
The strength of Lourié’s account is that it shifts the frame from national interest to a more universal landscape of civilizations and values. For her, unlike for many other critics of the way the world is going, the story is not merely about defending national sovereignty against the designs of Davos, or the West against Russia or China, or vice versa. The categories penetrate one another. The fault lines in any society map on to a global clash of values, even if those values may prevail in some places and systems more than others.
While she gets the scale right, I want to suggest that to make sense of this dystopian prospect, we need a middle ground between a cabal of designers, on the one hand, and a diffuse force in History that somehow operates of its own accord, on the other. She rightly notes the mentality behind much of the “Project,” including that “the main thing to be repressed is any attempt to find a solid foundation for something.” But such mentalities—however sobering as an account of diffuse human weakness and temptation—really gain weight in history only when borne into power. Diffuse misguidedness animates actors, just as broader dystopia flows out of their actions. But the actors themselves and the institutional patterns that allow them to act need identifying properly. We can advance the alternative of “remaining human,” as she puts it, only if we can push back on the right pressure points.
Three Rings is beautiful, and its beauty justifies its wandering ambulations, but what it suggests is ultimately incohesive: We’re all exiles bound to each other through a shared cultural destruction and rebirth — victims, every last one of us. But without some sort of metaphysical heft to give it context, Mendelsohn’s sophistication is ultimately flat — well-written but sentimental and a little preening. Writing about Sebald, Mendelsohn says that his “circling merely exhausts us while never bringing us any closer to the subject.” Mendelsohn never exhausts, but he, too, seems to be orbiting some central moral or spiritual truth without ever actually expressing it.
On the other hand, Three Rings performs exactly what it describes. It’s an object of its own subject, a tiny model that maps out the horror and frustration of its author without giving in to the temptation of dry rhetoric. After reading Three Rings, you feel as if you yourself have wandered in and out of exile, searching the patterns of recurrences for some clue as to the source of your personal suffering. Mendelsohn writes at the end of his book that for the German Jew Auerbach, “Ring composition; a wandering technique that yet always finds its way home, a technique which, with its sunny Mediterranean assumption that there is indeed a connection between all things,” was “a little too good to be true.” Perhaps the reader of Three Rings will share Auerbach’s sentiment. But he won’t regret the journey.
The apparent thinking behind deflationary claims like “X is nothing but” is that partial truths can fully explain larger, more complete and essential truths. But in most cases the essential truth concerns the whole, and wholes cannot be explained simply by decomposing them into their constituent parts. There is some reality and autonomy to each level of inquiry in any given scientific investigation or field. To state the obvious: water has something that hydrogen and oxygen molecules do not have when considered separately. A behavior, a cultural norm, a mental experience, and a cognitive process all have something that cannot be found when each phenomenon is decomposed into its constituent parts. The whole, particularly in the realm of behavior, is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Thus, the reductionist program of attempting to understand phenomena via decomposition of the whole into parts must always remain radically incomplete, even though it is a valuable and necessary program. To really grasp the nature of an object or process you do, indeed, need to understand its parts, but you also need to understand what emerges when those parts are put together and interact over time in the right way. If parts were all that mattered then we could ignore the wholes that emerge from their interactions; but doing so would in fact lead us to miss hugely important aspects of reality. For “emergent” wholes typically possess unique causal properties themselves that are not reducible to the powers of their constituent parts and cannot, even in principle, be predicted from those parts. Music, for example, can do things in the world that auditory cortical firings by themselves cannot.
Stimulation of cortical auditory neurons may (under certain contextual conditions) trigger a musical experience; but that experience may in turn trigger downstream effects (e.g. the desire to weep or to jump for joy) that have nothing to do with and have never been correlated with auditory cortical firing patterns. Moreover, if we choose to ignore emergent entities, we will miss all the things in the universe that are novel or just coming into being, which is not how one does real science. Therefore, the “nothing but” reductionist program is inherently incomplete. It necessarily ignores unique causal properties of emergent wholes and it does not “see” anything really new in the universe.
The greatest difference between a familist society and an individualist society might concern whether to respond to growing income by seeking more consumption or more leisure. In the individualist society, once basic manufactured goods were available to all, most people might nevertheless choose to continue to work long hours away from their families in order to afford either high-status versions of standard, widespread manufactured goods—Maseratis instead of Hyundais—or high-status luxury services like those provided by personal shoppers, pedicurists, or plastic surgeons.
But interpersonal arms races for trophy goods and trophy services are unlikely to incentivize investment in productivity growth in standardized, mass-produced consumption goods or home appliances that augment unpaid domestic labor. In a familist society, such wasteful and frivolous competition for high-status consumption would be kept in check by high consumption taxes which would fall on luxuries but exempt necessities. To influence the trade-off between buying a luxury car and having a second child, a familist government would make raising children cheaper and owning luxury cars more expensive.
What about the welfare state? Here a familist society might depart radically from the individualist model, by making the nuclear or extended family—not the individual—the unit for purposes of welfare policy and taxation. Tax credits for childcare and eldercare should go not to individuals but to the family unit, including perhaps the grandparents or siblings or other relatives. Multigenerational families, not the government, should decide on the division of caregiving labor within the family.
Property taxes on homes should be lower for families with children than for individuals, and perhaps eliminated altogether for multigenerational and extended families under one roof. Purchases of machinery to be used in home production with unpaid domestic labor, like microwave ovens, washer-dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, home office printers, and perhaps 3-d printers, should be treated by tax authorities as capital investments by the “Family, Inc.,” not as consumption.
Potentially eternal tax-exempt family trusts, with contributions from different family members over time, could be set up for multigenerational families of limited means. Money could be withdrawn without penalty for a variety of purposes approved by the family as a whole. Modest family trusts could be designed so that they will not be depleted by means tests for certain public benefits, like the individual asset test for Medicaid-funded nursing home care. In a familist economy, even the poorest families could have entailed estates.
We need a Copernican revolution in the way we think about the economy. Our Ptolemaic economists and economic policymakers treat the market as the center of the social system, orbited by family, state, and civil society. Where is the Copernicus who will provide a vision of a society in which the state, the market, and the nonprofit sector are properly understood to be satellites of the family?
Those who claimed that the economy could be understood as a system of commodity production also made greatly exaggerated claims about the market’s ability to dissolve older social hierarchies. Henry Sumner Maine’s famous formulation that society was evolving “from status to contract” was echoed by many nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theorists who imagined that older distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin would soon disappear in the new system of voluntary contracting to buy and sell commodities.5 Even Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto insisted that in the new bourgeois order, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away. . . .”6 Such assertions were recycled in the twentieth century in Gary Becker’s argument that firms with a taste for discrimination against women or racial minorities would be effectively punished in the marketplace.7
The reality is that the market economy has routinely exploited and intensified many of these old hierarchies. Plantation owners in the Caribbean and the American South used sophisticated management and accounting schemes to organize the labor of their slaves.8 Employers routinely used differences in gender, race, ethnicity, and national origin to play groups of workers off against each other. Meatpacking firms in North Carolina replaced undocumented Latino immigrants with workers from Haiti and Honduras who are in the United States with Temporary Protective Status. And while employers and businesses have alternated between pushing women into the housewife role and pulling them into the labor force, gender inequalities persist.
In sum, the view of the economy as a system of commodity production was never completely accurate. It mistook a part of reality for the whole, with the consequence that both the autonomy and the emancipatory potential of markets were greatly exaggerated. And yet, at another level, there was and continues to be some truth to this formulation. Marx highlighted this in his discussion of “the fetishism of commodities.”9 He argued that the buying and selling of things in the marketplace, including the labor of human beings, had the consequence that people came to misunderstand actual social relations among people as relations among things. People routinely make the calculation, for example, that it is necessary to work another week to purchase a specific product rather than questioning why the owner of my firm earns many times the wage of an average worker. What we learn from Marx is that it is important to examine the actual social relations that lie behind buying and selling in the marketplace.
Should the icon be traditional? Of course it should be...Should the icon be modern? Undoubtedly. Corresponding to each significant time period of the past was a specific iconographic style and also a unique view of the icon. Such is only natural and cannot be otherwise, which is why an icon transplanted from a different era often looks like an imitation.
In my opinion, the question runs much deeper. It would be somewhat superficial to declare that an icon MUST be this or MUST NOT be that; it would be very hard indeed to say what an icon MUST really be. It is more practicable to look into what an icon actually IS.
Several years ago, a priest from Grodno came to order icons for the iconostasis from us. He generally gave iconographers a wide berth of artistic freedom, with just one stipulation: he wanted his icons painted “Rublev Style”. Such a preference is well known to iconographers. The phrase “Rublev Style” is a sort of magic buzzword uttered by many clients. With the Grodno priest, we agreed that I would pick several icons as models to guide me during my work. I then made the selection which included the 13th-century Hilandar Icon of the Saviour, the Byzantine fresco of the Saviour by Manuel Panselinos, the Icon of the Saviour from Vatopedi Monastery, and a few other photos of works which, like the ones I just mentioned, had nothing to do with Andrei Rublev but were highly expressive in terms of beauty and artistic vision. During my next meeting with the priest, I laid out the samples in front of him, and he replied with complete satisfaction “Yes! This is exactly what I had in mind”.
[Image: Icon of the Savior from Hilandar Monastery, 13th century]
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor