Category: Reviews

Talking To My Daughter About The Economy, by Yanis Varoufakis (Review)

When I was in my final year of high school (back in the Pleistocene era, when Ontario still had “Grade 13”), I was fortunate to take two courses from the same teacher, a Mr. McCabe—fortunate in a number of ways, although I am only going deal with those relating to the subject matter that Mr. McCabe taught here. I had chosen to take Introductory Economics with him, and was also under obligation by the school, which was a Roman Catholic one, to take a course in Religious Education in each of the five years of high school, which in Grade 13 was actually, at least as Mr. McCabe taught it, more about what is called Social Justice than anything overtly doctrinal: it was, in effect, a course in contemporary human geography and social history viewed through the lens of the Church’s doctrine of there being a “preferential option for the poor”. So while in period one Economics class we learned about the supply and demand curve, about marginal propensities to produce and consume, etc., in period four Religion we learned about the plights of the poorest of the poor around the globe—about Haiti and Jamaica, about Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, about South Africa, just to name a few examples.

It was an eye-opening experience for me (and, I hope, for my equally-unworldly classmates), as, with all of the callow solipsism of a typical youth, I had never considered that morality might have a widely social dimension to it before; it was largely a matter, I had erroneously thought, of the individual and his or her conscience. After all hadn’t Margaret Thatcher just made it clear (well not to me, as I didn’t know of it until some years later) that there was no such thing as society, but only individuals and their families?

My own intellectual tendencies at that point were similar to those of many young males who are on track to a career in engineering: one studied the sciences because they were true and useful; they got you a job, produced goods that people both needed and valued, and were firmly rooted in reality, in the stubborn objectivity of nature, and in man’s need to master and tame nature in order to provide the aforementioned jobs and goods. The humanities were required by the education system, it seemed, either because they were stuck in the past, valuing some outmoded view of the world (values that could not be measured), or because they provided some subsidiary value to life, because one could not work all of the time: one had to pursue leisure activities, some of which should for the serious-minded engineer be of an intellectual nature, and the humanities instructed one as to how to go about doing so intelligently, at least (even if it “was all really just subjective BS, wasn’t it, in the end?”).

What united both the sciences and the humanities, though, was that they were “subjects”—units of study that seemed to have been not so much carved off from one another as to have been “born” naturally that way—discrete from each other, each with its own logic and method. Economics was surely a science, modelling the natural inclinations of human behaviour with formulas and charts, and if you mastered it, you would no doubt understand the way that markets naturally function, something which was important, I assumed, for those overseeing the running of the economy, who must be to it like doctors and dentists were to the human machine: highly skilled mechanics adept at keeping the gears of the economy turning over.

Except the evidence coming out of period four Religion seemed to put that assumption to a test, since we studied about the poorest of the poor and how their nations came to be that way, and what should and perhaps could be done about it.  The evidence was there, but I did not connect it to what was being taught in period one economics until several years later—these were different worlds, right?—worlds that had no real bearing upon one another. At best, I might have achieved a momentary insight along the lines of “yeah, well our prosperity here does seem to require their poverty over there” in period four Religion and then just go happily back to imagining, in period one Economics, that the laws of supply and demand were as unimpeachably laws of human nature for Homo Economicus as the laws of gravity were for Newton mechanics in period two Physics. Everything was in its place in this Best of All Possible (Adolescent) Worlds.

The pitiless, efficient lawyer Jaggers, master of exchange value.

Wemmick at work, with his “post office box mouth”

Several years after finishing university, however, after abandoning Engineering for Physics, then Physics for English and Philosophy, I had occasion to think about Mr. McCabe and his two courses again, after having encountered the character of Wemmick in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. Wemmick toils as clerk and bill collector for the successful and remorseless lawyer Jaggers.

At work, Wemmick is all business, and his enslavement to that cold, calculating, utilitarian, instrumental reason (that anything of any worth can be expressed in terms of what Yanis Varoufakis calls exchange value, in terms of what it can be bought and sold for), the ethos which rules over market society like a tyrant posing as God’s anointed proxy, is unavoidably reflected in Wemmick’s demeanor: at the office, Wemmick’s enforced inhumanity to his fellow man is portrayed by the mechanical “post office box” opening that is his mouth, a mouth completely colonized by his occupation. Nothing escapes that mouth which does not advance his employer Jaggers’ financial interests.

At home (which is an actual, miniature castle, complete with drawbridge-and-moat that effectively protect his private life from his diurnal existence), however, it is another story: here he is a jovial host to young Pip, and affectionate son to his father (“the aged P”)—a man, seemingly (if you forget the hours of the working day and the days of the working week), in full.

Wemmick’s home is his fortified castle

Smiling Wemmick cares for “the aged P”

Wemmick’s solution to the alienation endemic to life under capitalism comes at a cost, indicative of one of the contradictions inherent to market societies: each of us can only be part-time human beings, as the market forces us to alienate ourselves from those more human values whenever they come into conflict with exchange value.

For example, love, friendship, walking in nature, singing a nursery rhyme to a child or taking care of an aging parent—these are all aspects of our lives that enrich them with meaning (and which Yanis Varoufakis calls “experiential values”, as they lack or cannot be translated into monetary or “exchange” value).

Wemmick’s solution makes sense to us even as it seems completely crazy: the only way to stay partly human is to give up being fully human, to compartmentalize our lives by erecting imaginary ramparts and digging imaginary moats around our “real” lives, so as to protect them from the harsh realities of the world “out there”, of life in the metaphorical market.

That literature can reveal to us in a such strikingly nuanced, ambiguous and yet palpable way might strike some readers as unusual, as we have been trained to think of literature and political economy as subjects as incommensurable as my period one Economics and period four Religion supposedly were: we almost instinctively view art which attempts to be politically or ethically engaged in social matters as being potentially propagandistic, tendentious, as being somehow lacking in the elusive artfulness of “proper” art, art that aims not at reductive answers to complex questions, but, on the contrary, further complicates them.  We expect art to offer us ambiguity, not certainty, about ethical and political matters, and political art is thus a contradiction in terms, we say.

But a closer look at Dickens’s deployment of metaphor in the case of Wemmick brings a certain kind ambiguous clarity, one that poses as many questions as it seems to answer. The metaphor of Wemmick’s split existence, reified (“thingified”) into his slit of a mouth, his homey castle of a home needing defences that a feudal lord might envy—this image opens up a way of thinking about aspects of our existence that might otherwise have gone unexamined. And far from reducing our range of thought, Dickens’s portrayal of his character expands it, makes further inquiry possible, but does not offer us propagandistic solutions to those contradictions and dilemmas. What if everyone lived like Wemmick did? What would become of ideas such as “community” and “social life”? What if Wemmick were forced to choose between these two worlds, work and home life, due to some unforeseen circumstance (such as the parent being taken ill, making Wemmick at least temporarily unable to meet his obligations to his employer)? Dickens does not presume to answer such questions. Instead, he depicts Wemmick as balanced precariously between these two worlds, successful (for the time being) at balancing the tensions between them, living with the contradiction that the “postal slit mouth” and the “castle” of a home metaphors reveal—reveal as if the novelist is a spelunker venturing into some previously  unexplored cave for the very first time, and his novel is a flashlight by which we, too, may see as we follow behind him.

And so a novelist of great skill can bridge the artificial divide between the various aspects of our existence (between, say, the worlds of economics and social justice, kept apart only by a set of assumptions shared by those who might develop a high school curriculum, but which are very present on the ground of lived human reality for those who have eyes to see. Thus does Yanis Varoufakis in his book Talking To My Daughter About The Economy wisely look to literature, myth and film to attempt to capture the very contradictions , those conflicted mysteries that compose our socio-political-economic hyphenated reality—the very environment in which we live and die and which is by no means a natural one. Varoufakis teaches us with many vivid examples from the dramatic and literary arts that economics possesses a deep, almost mythical but historically determined structure, one which deserves to be dragged into the light of day so that each of us (Wemmicks all) can see for ourselves what drives it so remorselessly on, lest we otherwise might leave it all to the so-called experts, to those who claim the subject of economics as their exclusive territory, a pseudo-science which is supposedly exclusive of all moral or political concerns.

In this book, Varoufakis not only shows us how the growth of human civilization  gave birth to the first systems of politically-legitimized inequality (and how ancient and feudal inequality, “societies with markets” gave way to a much different kind of world, “market society”, in which everyone is driven to, compelled to sell their labour, and in which the only real value is “exchange value”) he also takes us on a tour of several key moments that truly define the capitalist world as we now know it: the imposition of debt via the contract (with Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus); the expansion of capitalism via debt-financed industrialisation (with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein); the “black magic” of how private bankers create money out of nothing (with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath); the irrational mysteries of money and labour markets  (with ean-Jacques Rousseau’s fable of “The Stag and the Hares” and the myth of king Oedipus); and the triple threat of our current economy, automation, virtual currencies and environmental degradation (with Star Trek and The Matrix).

In the end, this is a highly entertaining and informative little book, for the neophyte and initiate alike. I wish my own father had given something like this to me when I was a teen. Varoufakis ends with a juxtaposition of two ancient Greek concepts the idiotis  vs Eudaimonia: idiots are those who place themselves outside of civilization by refusing to think of the common good: an idiot is literally a privateer, someone who minds only his own business, and ignores that of others. True happiness comes from understanding our true, interconnected nature, and involves an environment and an economy in which each of us can literally “flourish”, grow from tiny acorns into mighty the oak trees of our fullest potential. Varoufakis challenges his daughter to see past the conventional wisdom of those idiots whose technocratic mumbo-jumbo would prevent us from reaching toward a more democratic world, one in which eudaimonia is a possibility for everyone. I have a hunch which side his daughter Xenia (whose name’s “etymology comes from the Greek word xenos , meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’ and translates as ‘kindness to strangers’” (146) will pick. He seems like a pretty good dad.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about this book before (hopefully) purchasing it, I have provided a “digested read” or Midrash of the book over on my Longreads site.


The Blind Spot : Javier Cercas [Book Review]

While it is a truism that every artist constructs the aesthetic by which he or she wishes to be judged, I never tire of reading books like Cercas’s The Blind Spot, as these kinds of apologia pro [scribo] vitae sua (don’t ask me if I conjugated that correctly!) give what I would like to think of (however erroneously) as real insight into what practicing writers think of the phrase (one either abhorrent to or simply ignored by most scholars) literary value. For in books like this thoroughly amicable one we may not get quite at the truth about what drives a particular artist to create in the ways that he or she does, but we do get the artist’s public, conscious version of what drive’s him or her.

For Cercas (as for Milan Kundera, to whom the first part of this book is heavily indebted),  the novelist is an explorer of the human condition, and the sole moral absolute that all would-be serious authors must adhere to is to go exploring in new directions. Like Kundera, Cercas locates the Ur-novel in 17C Spain, with Don Quixote, which ushered in  a century-and-a-half of transgressive, digressive, genre-blending, formal literary freedom (in northern Europe at least, if, paradoxically, not in Spain), before this freedom was curtailed in the 19C by Realism’s quest for “constructive rigour” in the interest of bringing the novel its [allegedly] longed-for “purity, status and nobility”(27).

Cercas as a young writer wanted to tap back into what Kundera calls this largely “unacknowledged legacy of Cervantes” (Art of the Novel),  and what I found most interesting in the first third of this volume was how Cercas details what it wa s in Cervantes (and, later, in Borges) that made him want to write in the way that he supposedly does (I must admit that this not only is this the first book of his that I have read, but also that I often like to read an author’s essays before diving into their fiction) (also: that I am writing this here in somewhat of an imitation of Cercas’s love of the parenthetical aside, a love that I cannot help but share).

Cercas’s quest is to blend the absolute authorial freedom granted by Cervantes and Borges (specifically, the Borges of “The Approach to Al’Mutásim” and “Pierre Menard: The Author of Don Quixote”), both of whom perpetuate a kind of ingeniously generative deception:

…four centuries apart, modern narrative [cf. Cervantes] and postmodern narrative [cf. Borges] are born out of two frauds…Two paradoxical frauds besides. They weren’t trying to pass off unliterary writing as literature, but to pass off literature as unliterary writing. Which confronts us with a fundamental fact: by breaking with the literary rules of its era, all authentic literature presents itself as, or is considered to be, not literature, and its new form an absence of form. (35)

What is compelling here is that to be a literary explorer means to be always in search of a “new form”, a form which will inevitably not be recognized as such by those to whom “the literary” is a matter of working within already extant forms, and varying only the “content” that fills those forms. Literary innovation, in other words, is neither recognized by nor welcomed by the reigning literary orthodoxy. Cercas’s own novels (again, which I have not read, but now aim to!) , such as The Soldiers of Salamis and The Anatomy of A Moment themselves bring novelistic techniques to bear upon the a terrain previously controlled by academic historians, and the result was, Cercas maintains, that they were initially not recognized as novels because they were, regardless of how they were written, manifestly not fiction.

But if novels aren’t necessarily fictional, what is their sine qua non—of what, exactly, are they made? Cercas maintains (again, following, I feel, Kundera) that what makes a novel a novel is its radical ambiguity. Kundera calls it “polyphony”, for Cercas  it is “the blind spot”, the paradoxical, unsolvable riddle, the defining aporia that is at the heart of the truly literary novel. If conventional (often conventionally realist) novels like to keep things understandably tidy, coherent, loose ends all tied up and questions answered, Cercas maintains that the only thing that “blind spot novels” (novels that cannot quite see what they are most in search of, novels that [loosely quoting him quoting Faulkner] light a match in the darkness so that “we can see the darkness”(83), that heretofore still undiscovered country of our souls) do is ask us still more questions (or perhaps even only a single, overwhelming question, rolling the human universe into a ball that is then tossed at us readers, who must do something with this “enigma with no [apparent] solution”), but always in the most complex way possible.

The kind of novels that do just that should come as no surprise to many of you who are in the small, but still significantly-sized club that values the literary innovators of modernism-and-after: those by Melville, Musil, Kafka, et al. For these are writers who not only seek to “make time live, to make it more intense and less trivial”(51), for any good realist novel should aspire to do at least just that, but also to:

change the reader’s way of perceiving the world; that is: they serve to change the world. The novel needs to be new in order to say new things; it needs to change to change us: to make us what we’ve never been.

To my surprise, however, Cercas then spends a sizeable chunk of this slim volume extolling the virtues of a writer who would not normally be counted among the great literary innovators of the past: Mario Vargas Llosa, whose The Time of the Hero (orig. The City and the Dogs in Spanish)— yet another book among the much-much-more-than-1002 essential reads that I have not yet read, by the way—is at first and even second glance a thoroughly realist novel.

I love reading these kinds of essays: extended reflections on novels that I haven’t read and which, though they hardly displace the actual reading of them, nevertheless allow me to vicariously participate in their reading. Nay: in their writing. For Cercas reads The Time of the Hero as if writing it, or with the attention to detail, to shifts in tone and to elegant variations of structure of an expert art conservationist, lovingly and painstakingly examining every inch of the threatened masterpiece’s canvas. I won’t get into the details, but this part of Cercas’s book was the most riveting for me, probably exploring that which I have not yet myself personally explored, the topology of this great Peruvian novelist.

But what surprises most in this reading of Vargas Llosa is how, almost as if against that author’s own intentions, his realist novel is shown to be a blind spot novel, one riven by ambiguity, by questions in search of answers that are never quite within reach—because the answers are themselves no more than questions, questions which take the form of none other than the novel itself.

Finally, Cercas closes the book with an extended appreciation of Sartre the novelist, which is another surprise, not least because Cercas himself confesses to having had, in his youth, the most profound antipathy toward that Parisian eminence. This is because of Sartre’s steadfast commitment to art that commits itself socially and politically, to artists who are engagé. The younger version of Cercas though that that French word meant having to create are that was tendentious, that gave answers instead of asked questions, that subordinated aesthetics to ethics or politics. But the mature Cercas is determined that we should look at Sartre (and, by analogy, at the nuances of any artist whom we have perhaps, in our callowness, unfairly pigeon-holed or overlooked) afresh:

Sartre’s premises are

Not at all distant from the ideas of the Russian formalists, in particular Victor Shklovsky: according to him, the mission of art consists of deautomatising reality, of making normal and familiar things that we see all the time appear strange and singular…[to] allow us to look at reality—physical reality, but also moral and political reality—as if seeing it for the first time, with all its edges, full of all its marvels and all its horror, tearing off the automatised mask of habit. “To name is to unmask”, is how Simone de Beauvoir summed up the thinking of her eternal companion Sartre, “and to unmask is to change”.(138-39)

By so disturbing our moral and political complacency, the committed novelist can be seen as being like Socrates’ gadfly, biting both the individual and the state, challenging its received wisdom—even though the contents of his or her novels is not overtly political. And irony is the novelist’s chief weapon in this war against cliché, for the univocal mask that polyvalent truth wears must always be torn asunder, to reveal the “equivocal and multiple” truths that we often find so inconvenient to consider. Thus “irony is not the opposite of seriousness, but perhaps its maximum expression”.

So, if you like these kinds of books, this is a pretty good one to add to your queue. I would just recommend reading Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Testaments Betrayed first (not to mention Sartre’s What is Literature?), as Cercas’s book is in dialogue with them, both consciously and unconsciously.