Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



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Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

… it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.

This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.

Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.

Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).

Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.

Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury.
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Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.

Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.

At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.

Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.

Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).

Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.

I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:

As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.

In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so.

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Review: Middlemarch

Review: Middlemarch

MiddlemarchMiddlemarch by George Eliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dullness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations.

I did not think a book like this was possible. A work of fiction with a thesis statement, a narrator who analyzes more often than describes, a morality play and an existential drama, and all this in the context of a realistic, historical novel—such a combination seems unwieldy and pretentious, to say the least. Yet Middlemarch never struck me as over-reaching or overly ambitious. Eliot not only manages to make this piece of universal art seem plausible, but her mastery is so perfect that the result is as natural and inevitable as a lullaby.

Eliot begins her story with a question: What would happen if a woman with the spiritual ardor of St. Theresa were born in 19th century rural England? This woman is Dorothea; and this book, although it includes dozens of characters, is her story. But Dorothea, and the rest of the people who populate her Middlemarch, is not only a character; she is a test-subject in a massive thought experiment, an examination intended to answer several questions:

To what extent is an individual responsible for her success or failure? How exactly does the social environment act upon the individual—in daily words and deeds—to aid or impede her potential? And how, in turn, does the potent individual act to alter her environment? What does it mean to be a failure, and what does it mean to be successful? And in the absence of a coherent social faith, as Christianity receded, what does it mean to be good?

As in any social experiment, we must have an experimental group, in the form of Dorothea, as well as a control group, in the form of Lydgate. The two are alike in their ambition. Lydgate’s ambition is for knowledge. He is a country doctor, but he longs to do important medical research, to pioneer new methods of treatment, and to solve the mysteries of sickness, death, and the human frame. Dorothea’s ambitions are more vague and spiritual. She is full of passionate longing, a hunger for something which would give coherence and meaning to her life, an object to which she could dedicate herself body and soul.

Lydgate begins with many advantages. For one, his mission is not a vague hope, but a concrete goal, the path to which he can chart and see clearly. Even more important, he is a man from a respectable family. Yes, there is some prejudice against him in Middlemarch, for being an outsider, educated abroad and with strange notions; but this barrier can hardly be compared with the those which faced even the most privileged woman in Middlemarch. For her part, Dorothea is born into a respectable family with adequate means. But her sex closes so many paths to action that the only important decision she can make is whom she will marry.

Dorothea’s choice of a husband sets the tone for the rest of her story. Faced with two options—the young, handsome, and rich Sir James Chettam, and the dry, old scholar, Mr. Casaubon—she surprises and disappoints nearly everyone by choosing the latter. Dorothea does this because she knows herself and she trusts herself; she is not afraid of being judged, and she does not care about status or wealth.

The first important decision Lydgate makes is who to recommend as chaplain for the new hospital, and this, too, sets the tone for the rest of his story. His choice is between Mr. Tyke, a disagreeable, doctrinaire puritan, and Mr. Farebrother, his friend and an honest, humane, and intelligent man. Lydgate’s inclination is towards the latter, but under pressure from Bulstrode, the rich financier of the new hospital, Lydgate chooses Mr. Tyke. In other words, he distinctly does not trust himself, and he allows his intuition of right and wrong to be swayed by public opinion and self-interest.

Dorothea’s choice soon turns out to be disastrous, while Lydgate’s works in his favor, as Bulstrode puts him in charge of the new hospital. Yet Eliot shows us that Dorothea’s choice was ultimately right and Lydgate’s ultimately wrong. For we cannot know beforehand how our choices will turn out; the future is hidden, and we must dedicate ourselves to both people and projects in ignorance. The determining factor is not whether it turned out well for you, but whether the choices was motivated by brave resolve or cowardly capitulation. You might say that this is the existentialist theme of Eliot’s novel: the necessity to act boldly in the absence of knowledge.

Dorothea’s act was bold and courageous; and even though Mr. Casaubon is soon revealed to be a wearisome, passionless, and selfish academic, her choice was nonetheless right, because she did her best to act authentically, fully in accordance with her moral intuition. Lydgate’s choice, even though it benefited him, established a pattern that ends in his bitter disappointment. He allowed himself to yield to circumstances; he allowed his self-interest to overrule his moral intuition: and this dooms him.

(Eliot, I should mention, seems to prefer what philosophers call an intuitionist view of moral action: that is, we must obey our conscience. Time and again Eliot shows how immoral acts are made to appear justified through conscious reasoning, and how hypocrites use religious or social ideologies to quiet their uneasy inner voice: “when gratitude becomes a matter of reasoning there are many ways of escaping from its bonds.”)

Eliot’s view of success or failure stems from this exploration of choice: success means being true to one’s moral intuition, and failure means betraying it. Dorothea continues to trust herself and to choose boldly, without regard for her worldly well-being or for conventional opinion. Lydgate, meanwhile, keeps buckling under pressure. He marries almost by accident, breaking a strong resolution he made beforehand, and then goes on to betray, one after the other, every other strong resolution of his, until his life’s plan has been lost entirely, chipped away by a thousand small circumstances.

Dorothea ends up on a lower social level than she started, married to an eccentric man of questionable blood, gossiped about in town and widely seen as a social failure. Lydgate, meanwhile, becomes “successful”; his beautiful wife is universally admired, and his practice is profitable and popular. But this conventional judgment means nothing; for Dorothea can live in good conscience, while Lydgate cannot.

But is success, for Eliot, so entirely dependent on intention, and so entirely divorced from results? Not exactly. For the person who is true to her moral intuition—even if she fails in her plans, even if she falls far short of her potential, and even if she is disgraced in the eyes of society—still exerts a beneficent effect on her surroundings.

Anyone who selflessly and boldly follows her moral intuition encourages everyone she meets, however subtly, to follow this example: as Eliot says of Dorothea, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” Eliot shows this most touchingly in the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Although Rosamond is vain, selfish, and superficial, the presence of Dorothea prompts her to one of the only unselfish acts of her life.

From reading this review, you might get the idea that this book is merely a philosophical exercise. But Eliot’s most miraculous accomplishment is to combine this analysis with an immaculate novel. The portrait she gives of Middlemarch is so fully realized, without any hint of strain or artifice, that the reader feels that he has bought a cottage there himself.

Normally at this point in a review, I add some criticisms; but I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about this book. Eliot’s command of dialogue and characterization, of pacing and plot-development, cannot be faulted. She moves effortlessly from scene to scene, from storyline to storyline, showing how the private is interwoven with the public, the social with the psychological, the economical with the amorous—how our vices are implicated in our virtues, how our good intentions shot through with ulterior motives, how our hopes and fears are mixed up with our routine reality—never simplifying the ambiguities of perspective or collapsing the many layers of meaning—and yet she is always in perfect command of her mountains of material.

A host of minor characters marches through these pages, each one individualized, many of them charming, some hilarious, a few irritating, and all of them vividly real. I could see parts of myself in every one of them, from the petulant Fred Vincey, to the blunt Mary Garth, to the frigid Mr. Casaubon, to the muddle-headed Mr. Brooke—almost Dickensian in his comic exaggeration—to every gossip, loony, miser, dissolute, profilage, and tender heart—the list cannot be finished.

Perhaps Eliot’s most astounding feat is to combine the aesthetic, with the ethical, with the analytic, in such a way that you can no longer view them separately. Eliot’s masterpiece charms as it preaches; it is both beautiful and wise; it pulls on the heart while engaging the head; and it is, in the words of Virgina Woolf, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

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