Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

July 30, 2009

Five Moral Pieces (Umberto Eco)


In his introduction, Umberto Eco writes that the five essays in this book are occasional pieces and ethical pieces. Their occasional nature arises from their being speeches given at some conference or articles commissioned for publication. Their ethical nature is what makes them moral pieces: “they treat of what we ought to do, what we ought not to do, and what we must not do at any cost.”

What we ought to do, or what fans of Eco ought to, is read this short book – a mere 111 pages. I read it in two sittings. It is by no means an essential or a required Eco. In fact these are only slight pieces – meaning they are short and minor essays, yet with big themes. And, I hasten to add, they are highly readable pieces, even if they are structured to be knotty moral-philosophical arguments.

The essays are not of uniform quality. Some strike me as well thought out, others are just plain fillers. “Reflections on War” (1991) was written at the start of the Gulf War – “just as Allied troops enter Kuwait City” – but its relevance surpasses its time. Not only because war is timeless in the first place, but because the issues still resonate on the previous/current “war on terror” and the next wave of war in Iraq that George W. Bush architected and justified by lying through his teeth. The principles given in this first polemical essay are prescient as they apply to modern warfare in general. Eco discusses the role of technology in modern war and why this makes obsolete and revises the art of war given by Clausewitz.

Eco’s reflections in this first essay, and in all others following it, are not really too focused or too tight. Yet his conclusions and assertions, even if predictable in parts, are nonetheless powerful and explored creatively. This is because he arrived at them obliquely. Eco has this unique style of circling around ideas playfully before confronting the issues full frontal.

The essay that I consider the weakest, and which I find too theoretical, is “Ur-Fascism.” The essay defines several hybrids of fascism and Nazism and differentiates between and among these types. It is the sort of essay that is limited by its geographic experience and scope (Europe) though not by its subjects (racism and intolerance).

What we ought not to do is dismiss offhand Eco’s arguments. They are well developed, free-ranging thoughts. They skim on several surfaces and make some surprising turns and dives. Since these are short pieces, Eco goes to the nib of an idea without being laborious. The labor of reading constitutes only in the wonderment at a quick change in register, quite unlike his fiction. Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before, for example, despite being great, contains stultifying passages that can bore the hell out of an "addled reader" (reader with ADD). What these essays share with his fiction is the living wit behind the prose.

“When the Other Appears on the Scene” is another playful essay, constructed as real correspondence to a priest, a cardinal. It reminds me of The Creation by E. O. Wilson. While The Creation is concerned about the cultivation of an environmental ethic, Eco’s essay briefly sketches the foundation of a “lay ethic”, or ethics for the laity, specifically that for nonbelievers. One of Eco’s striking arguments goes like this: a nonbeliever also has a lot to fear for sinning and has a lot to repent because, at the back of his mind, he is not so lucky to have a god who can forgive him his sins.

I’m not sure if Eco is an atheist (not sure if Google will say), but his letter points to this absentee kind of religious preoccupation. Eco eventually arrives at what he calls “natural ethic” which he believes “can find common ground with the principles of an ethic founded on faith in transcendence.” This reminds me of Wilson’s book because that book is also addressed as a letter to a man of religion, a pastor, and also seeks to find common ground between two supposedly contending institutions, that of pragmatic science and dogmatic religion.

“On the Press” demonstrates Eco as a credible academic, blasting the Italian press for the seemingly shallow coverage of non-substantial news. He has mustered evidence from the news articles themselves to validate his claims and in the end, he suggests practical solutions to promote the integrity of journalism. This essay broadly anticipates scandals and controversies of public political figures in the press.

The last essay in a way serves to encapsulate the basic idea of the whole book. This is not just a conflation of disconnected pieces after all; they can also try to cohere. The essay is about intolerance, a basic feature of the modern world, now that we are global and globalized, and multiculturalism is the state of nature. This last essay is a bit distracted and diffused also but it contains philosophical gems. There is, for example, a rule of thumb proposed to justify the decision of nations who are faced with a choice of whether or not to interfere or intervene in another nation’s seemingly intolerable acts. This is a very thorny contemporary issue. (Just think of the recent bloodshed in Myanmar and the challenge of democracy in Honduras: Should nations act decisively in such cases, despite directly threatening the sovereignty of the erring nations, or should they just watch events unfold on TV?) But again, the soundness and power of Eco’s solution is morally apt. For as long as nations are mulling decisions in the international arena, and individuals in their personal lives, choices have to be made in black and white. Suffer the consequences later, or as Eco phrased it, be “ready to pay the price of error.”

What we ought not to do, and what we must not do at any cost is lead immoral lives, however that is done. Eco shows some hints, insights, and bases of “the certainty and necessity for moral action.” His pieces on war and war crimes, religion and disbelief, freedom of the press, tolerance, and fascism, uphold basic decency as the sturdy rope that knots into a strong moral fiber. This book of essays may be occasional and slight and fleeting but they clarify a lot of things. If we listen, we can filter the noise and din from the explosions of war, intolerance, and libel. The line must be drawn and the cord pulled down. Living is simply choosing. The sound of our confidence is hidden in trying journeys.

It tolls for thee.

July 15, 2009

Stairway to hell: Two translations of “Rashōmon”


In my previous notes on Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s Rashōmon and Other Stories (translated by Takashi Kojima and published in 1952 by Charles E. Tuttle Company), I mentioned that there is a more comprehensive anthology of Akutagawa’s works, the 2006 Penguin edition that is translated by Jay Rubin.


Some three or four anthologies of Akutagawa’s stories have appeared throughout the years, but the Rubin translation is considered the most comprehensive as the 18 stories in that collection are grouped according to themes and periods of the Japanese author’s writings. For example, the late literary period of Akutagawa, which is considered autobiographical, is not represented in the Kojima translation, which gathers only half a dozen stories.


As to the faithfulness to the original of Kojima’s English translation, I don’t know. Having no knowledge of the source language, one goes by the approximations and compositional choices of the translator. But here are two comparisons, from the title story “Rashōmon” (1915), between Kojima's and Rubin's versions, respectively:



A. Kojima (1952)


“The rain, enveloping the Rashōmon, gathered strength and came down with a pelting sound that could be heard far away. Looking up, he saw a fat black cloud impale itself on the tips of the tiles jutting out from the roof of the gate.

“He had little choice of means, whether fair or foul, because of his helpless circumstances. If he chose honest means, he would undoubtedly starve to death beside the wall or in the Sujaku gutter. He would be brought to this gate and thrown away like a stray dog. If he decided to steal … His mind, after making the same detour time and again, came finally to the conclusion that he would be a thief.”


A. Rubin (2006)


“The rain carried a host of roaring sounds from afar as it came to envelop Rashōmon. The evening darkness brought the sky ever lower until the roof of the gate was supporting dark, heavy clouds on the ridge of its jutting tiles.

“To do something when there was nothing to be done, he would have to be prepared to do anything at all. If he hesitated, he would end up starving to death against an earthen wall or in the roadside dirt. Then he would simply be carried back to this gate and discarded upstairs like a dog. But if he was ready to do anything at all—

“His thoughts wandered the same path again and again, always arriving at the same destination. But no matter how much time passed, the “if” remained an “if.” Even as he told himself he was prepared to do anything at all, he could not find the courage for the obvious conclusion of that “if”: All I can do is become a thief.”





B. Kojima (1952)

“As quietly as a lizard, the servant crept up to the top of the steep stairs. Crouching on all fours, and stretching his neck as far as possible, he timidly peeped into the tower.

“As rumor had said, he found several corpses strewn carelessly about the floor. Since the glow of the light was feeble, he could not count the number. He could only see that some were naked and others clothed. Some of them were women, and all were lolling on the floor with their mouths open or their arms outstretched showing no more signs of life than so many clay dolls. One would doubt that they had ever been alive, so eternally silent they were. Their shoulders, breasts, and torsos stood out in the dim light; other parts vanished in shadow. …”


B. Rubin (2006)

“With all the stealth of a lizard, the servant crept to the top tread of the steep stairway. Then, hunching down and stretching out his neck as much as possible, he peered fearfully into the upper chamber.

“There he saw a number of carelessly discarded corpses, as the rumors had said, but he could not tell how many because the lighted area was far smaller than he had thought it would be. All he could see in the dim light was what some of the corpses were naked while others were clothed. Women and men seemed to be tangled together. It was hard to believe that all of them had once been living human beings, so much did they look like clay dolls, lying there with arms flung out and mouths wide open, eternally mute. Shoulders and chests and other such prominent parts caught the dim light, casting still deeper shadows on the parts lower down.”



The world of difference between the two versions is enough for the reader to question the artificiality of construction in translations. You can judge for yourself. But for me, one criterion to evaluate them is to determine which better preserved the “comedy” of the situation, whether or not it is meant to be humorous. In that respect, and based on the excerpts above, I lean toward the choices of the first translator, even if there are some editorial decisions on the part of Kojima that condensed some of the passages.


In the first instance, the image of a “fat black cloud” being “impaled on the tips” of jutting tiles looks the more sinister and grotesque than “dark, heavy clouds” being “supported on the ridge” of the jutting tiles. In the second comparison, a neck stretched “as far as possible” is somehow quirkier than a neck stretched out “as much as possible.” In “as far as possible,” it is as if the neck is elastic and can hover closer to what it is trying to recognize in the dark.


I’m not sure either which is the more literal translation, but Kojima’s bring a more surprising take on the pathos of the corpses “lolling on the floor” like clay dolls than Rubin’s corpses “tangled together.” And Kojima executes a punchier line with this: “One would doubt that they had ever been alive, so eternally silent they were.” Now who can top the absurdity of that sentence?


Rubin’s anthology of eighteen stories may have been the more comprehensive in terms of the quantity and scope of selection. But I find that, at least in the story of “Rashōmon” in English, it isn’t the more jaunty adaptation. I prefer Kojima’s English which exhibits better compositional choices, wit, and deadpan (pun intended) humor. Several more side by side comparisons of the passages of the two translators will allow us to spot other revealing choices of words and contexts.


Does it mean that Kojima’s version is superior to Rubin’s? I don’t know. But I think it is the version that will make Akutagawa turn more listless in his grave.



(Image from a detail of the front cover of Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006). Illustration by Yoshihiro Tatsumi.)




Rashōmon and Other Stories (Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)



Consider the first story. A Police Commissioner interviews seven individuals regarding an alleged crime of murder:


- The first witness is a woodcutter who discovered the body of the dead man;

- the second witness is a travelling Buddhist priest who met the man and his wife prior to the incident;

- the third witness is a policeman who arrested the only suspect to the alleged crime;

- the fourth, an old woman, the dead man’s mother-in-law;

- the fifth is the bandit who confessed to the crime;

- the sixth is the wife of the dead man; and

- the final witness, the dead man himself speaking through a medium.


That’s it. We have the sketch of the story told from several points of view. The depositions of the first four witnesses overlap with each other, telling of what appears at first as a crime of passion. The last three witnesses are directly involved in the man’s death.

The novelty of this story, “In a Grove,” lies in the inconsistencies between the testimonies of the persons involved. The actual circumstances of the man’s death, which initially appears to be an obvious case of murder, become more and more complex and murky as different versions are presented. The elements of a successful crime (motive, opportunity, and means) are turned upside down in every successive telling. We do not know who is telling the truth. Everyone is complicit.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the author of this short story, is a Japanese master of the form. In his hands, a short story is a short story. That is to say, it is quick. His words are efficient without sacrificing the complexity of a plot. His tales are suffused with nuance and concrete details. His themes are large themes. His main concerns are basic. He is interested in the ambiguities of human choice, the uncontrollable passions suddenly flaring, the travails of the outcast, and the futility of moral justifications.

My copy of Rashōmon and Other Stories is a reprint of the second edition of the book first published in 1952. It contains six pieces, all translated by Takashi Kojima, and with an introduction by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō translator Howard Hibbett.

In the book's preface, Takashi Kojima said that the six stories are selected with the aim of collecting the “finest and most representative writings” of Akutagawa. For a prolific writer such as Akutagawa, a mere representation of his best works in six servings, out of the more than a hundred stories he completed, appears to be non-representative at all. But there can be no doubt that the six pieces – six master pieces – are among his finest. Any collection that contains the first two in this book, “In a Grove” and “Rashōmon,” is a book to be treasured. Though it does not contain his other famous stories (“Hell-Screen” and “The Nose”), the book is a perfect sampler of Akutagawa’s literary output.

The “most comprehensive” collection of Akutagawa’s stories is said to be the Penguin compilation Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006), translated by Jay Rubin and introduced by no less than Murakami Haruki. Murakami mentions in his introduction that Akutagawa is his third personal favorite among “Japanese national writers,” after Sōseki Natsume and Tanizaki. Three of the collected stories here – “Yam Gruel”, “The Martyr”, and “Kesa and Morito” – are not included in the Penguin edition. Maybe that’s a loss for that edition because these three are real gems.




When I watched the 1950 film Rashōmon, directed by Akira Kurosawa, in the UP Film Center more than ten years ago, during a retrospective of films by two Asian directors (Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray), I was not aware that it was based on two short stories by Akutagawa. The film was incontestably one of the finest produced in history. This six-story edition perhaps appeared as a kind of a movie tie-in edition of the film that was fast gaining critical and mass acclaim at that time.

I was dumbstruck during the screening of the film. Even now, I could still visualize the husband’s fiery eyes and stone-hard gaze on his wife after the bandit pursued and tricked the couple. Reading the source story was like reading a natural script of the film. It’s like watching again the entire film, a déjà vu experience.

The plot of the film was essentially that of “In a Grove,” while its landscape of waste and despair was borrowed from the story “Rashōmon”. Both “In a Grove” and “Rashōmon” deal with human selfishness: the manipulation of truth to justify oneself and the subjectivity of good at the behest of human avarice.

In the first story, the characters are consumed by the need to explain or justify their behavior before the High Police Commissioner, to bear witness to something they have “seen.” The film masterfully assigns the role of the High Police Commissioner to the audience, in the same way that the reader "acts" as the Commissioner who listens to all the versions of the story. Each version is tailored in such a way that it casts its teller in the role of the underdog or the wronged.

The “Rashōmon” story, like the first, is also about the relational value of truth and goodness. It's about a servant laid off from his job and left to wander around the gates of Rashōmon, an area notorious as hideout for thieves and dumping ground of corpses. In the face of this abject situation, the former servant is driven to do an “evil” thing in order to survive.

There lies the paradox of “Rashōmon”. When people are reduced to living at the margins, they are forced to do things that are considered to be taboo. They will die if they don’t. When life contracts into uselessness, subjectivity becomes a precondition of existence, “good” and “evil” following the theory of relativity.

Akutagawa’s stories (at least in the Kojima translation) are deceptive because of their sketchy quality. They are not what you might call polished writing. Here and there are awkward sentence constructions. I don’t know if it is due to the translation, but a certain clunky quality of the prose is consistently displayed throughout. As if these are just rough drafts of a master who cannot be bothered to perfect his trade? And yet behind the rough outlines of the plotting are universal truths.

The pieces contain truths that most other forms took very long to develop. Akutagawa’s mastery is for a compression of details and a compacted intensity of feelings. Their power and impact are derived not from the flashes of technique but from a rhythm borne out of hurried recognitions. The fragility of life's convictions and principles dawn on us when the temple of the familiar was not found dwelling where it is supposed to. Is it in the inner sanctum of men? There is in fact no temple for Akutagawa, only a harsh condition of living, a bleak view of humanity, a state of nature characterized only by uncertainty.

Greed, hate, covetousness, pride, lust – these are the vices pictured in several stories in this collection. One can even add gluttony (to exaggerate a character’s craving in “Yam Gruel”) and get the picture of Akutagawa’s apparent subject matter – the seven deadly sins. His source of conflict is often perversion (e.g., “lust for lust’s sake” in "Kesa and Morito").

Characters pander to their base instincts. They tenaciously hold on to their own needs and wants, pursuing their wishes come what may. They are driven to it, their nature drove them to it. The environment entraps their soul.

Akutagawa’s is the kind of writing that makes your heartbeat race fast as you read it. And the kind that stops the heartbeat by some lately introduced complication. His stories, almost always period pieces, do not lose their contemporary feel. They are timeless and alive. They are like "the sublimity of life", which culminates, as one of the stories proclaims, “in the most precious moment of inspiration.”

July 11, 2009

Stark white

















And is not blindness precisely the condition of men who are entirely cut off from knowledge of any reality, and have in their soul no clear pattern of perfect truth ...

- Plato, The Republic


There is no substitute to a reading experience, even if that experience is an essay on blindness. When we read the fine print that is thrust into our hands, we couldn’t help but finger the Braille in our minds. The literal obscurity of vision becomes a catatonic experience of helplessness and powerlessness. In the face of unseeing, we disappear into the story, and live in the recounted horrors as active participants, commiserating with the villains, cheering the do-gooders. Once we are thrust into the world of sightlessness, we are implicated in the narrative in which the violence of our humanity is exposed, in the full light of day. Not amber, not black, but stark white.


In José Saramago’s novel, Blindness, an epidemic of something called white blindness sweeps an unidentified city. One by one, patients are brought in quarantine – the government’s primary response to contain the spread of contagion. What happens when blind people all live together in one place and food eventually become scarce? It's an invitation to chaos and the ensuing breakdown of human values, decency, morals, and all other things we associate with goodness in human civilization. The futility of governmental response and the individual human response is exposed. Throughout this crisis, a woman – an ophthalmologist’s wife, no less – is the only one left who can still see. She helps a small band of blind people cope with the situation.


If that sounds very cinematic, it is. At least on paper. Few people would dare to translate Saramago’s vision into a movie because it is not, in the first place, “movie material.”


Of course, cinema can get the verisimilitude, the characters can fit the bill, the production design can nail everything right, the props, the bunks, the facility for the blind, even the stink. But the emotional trauma is lacking, not that we want more of it, that would be perverse. It’s the trauma of blind reading experience that is impossible to capture, which in the case of Blindness the book, is virtually (visually) impossible to communicate.


I think any movie adaptation of Blindness will be hard-pressed to live up to expectation because to transform into the physical medium the essence of white blindness will require a new way of seeing. That is the prejudice I harbor before watching the movie, and that is the certainty that I have after seeing it.


In the movie, directed by Fernando Meirelles, we have a multinational set of characters. (They are not just Portuguese as one would expect. The language in which the book was first published is Portuguese). That’s a good indication that the filmmakers get the universality of the situation right. The actors essentially play well their counterparts in the book. It is a faithful adaptation. It will be heretical to deviate too much from the book as it is. Blindness the book is one solid vision and an already perfect manifesto.


A movie is about seen images, and so we are presented with images dissolving into white. A character sees white tiles dissolving into white, bleached walls becoming white, and other white dissolutions of scenes into fog. Fair enough. So what is lacking in the movie experience? For one, how can a filmmaker translate into images the unbroken paragraphs that is Saramago's unique style? The dialogue separated by commas in which a character seems to dissolve with the one he is speaking with, so that one confuses the speaker with the one spoken to. In the book, it is not merely the images dissolving into stark white, but characters dissolve into each other. The confusion in the book is all the more unsettling because it is the “white imagination” that we are flung in the midst of, without a map or guide. In a movie, the very images themselves appear to defeat the purpose of viewing.


This is not to romanticize the book beyond its intention. The representation of a banal nightmare is not only visual but also metaphorical. What is lacking is the complexity of imagination that the movie supplants with photography.


Am I asking for too much in a movie? Well, yes. One couldn’t help it. The reader identifies with the Saramagian universe, where the essence of characters is delineated in terms of their ability to cope with an extraordinary situation. The reading experience is the more disorienting one, the more exemplary in its psychological and emotional exploration of stolen lives. It is the imagined blindness that is exhibited in the mind, a mental conjuring of a world deserted by eyes. And since it is a world gone blind, it is also beyond imagination. It is of the unspeakable and unimaginable variety. In this case, the sense of the literary does not beg for a sense of sight.


Blindness the movie then is a contradiction, in both the physical and metaphysical sense. In the physical sense because the premise is lost in the very act of watching the scenes unfold, and in the metaphysical sense because the idea of blindness is also an allegorical notion. The movie is really essentially not about blindness, but an appeal to blindness.


[What Socrates meant by blindness (being "cut off from knowledge of any reality" and having "no clear pattern of perfect truth" in the soul) is of the abstract sort. This is the definition he gave to Glaucon in a dialogue about what qualities the Guardians of the state should not possess. For me, this kind of blindness ("spiritual blindness," if you will) is what propels the book to more than its literal meaning. As opposed to "physical blindness" (the subject, for example, of Henry Green's masterful first novel, also titled Blindness), spiritual blindness is the graver and the more dangerous for it knows no cure and the symptoms are harder to detect.]


Yet this does not mean that the entire movie sucks. It is just that compared to the book, the imagery is now simplified, or the action being reduced to physical images. How can imagery substitute for the experience of Blindness the book when it is the very idea of seeing that is expelled out of the picture? Fade to black is now fade to white?


For those who have read the book first, the movie is experienced in the realm of familiar images. The blindfolded statues in a church, the purifying rain, the shopping center, the facility, the dog of tears – all these are faithful and just-right recreations.


(In The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Saramago’s novel immediately preceding Blindness, the religious theme is very explict. The reference to atheism in Blindness is more subtle. In one of the early scenes of the movie, the doctor’s wife likens the disease to a case of “agnosia” or the inability to recognize familiar objects, and she naturally recognize the pun with agnosticism. This term is, I believe, not mentioned in the book.


The connection betweem agnosticism or atheism or lack of faith/belief and the loss of sight has been made before. Think of Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus. In the book, this idea is reinforced by the image of blindfolded statues of saints in the church, which the wife visited after escaping from the facility. This is a powerful evocation of un-belief. Along with the horrific consequences of the epidemic of white blindness, it questions the existence of a god who watches over all this. It may be stretching too much the meaning of Saramago, but there it is. Saramago is a confessed atheist and is known for his strong ideological views.)


It was reported that Saramago had reservations about the potential of his novel as a film. And with good cause. As mentioned earlier, it is hardly a material for a movie or any dramatic adaptation, for that matter. We expect the filmmakers to have been guided by their instincts. For the most part they are. They took all they can from the book and it served them well.


Still, the movie pales in comparison with the book. Scratch that. “Pales” is a visual term. The movie is lackluster (in the sense that it lacks sufficient power to pull the reader in). That is not to say that the movie is utterly fails. It is, on its own terms, a well made movie.


Like the book, the movie’s images are fluent at capturing the horror and degradation that happens inside and outside the facility of the blind. We find ourselves averting our gaze from the despicable things that happen in the story. The film’s aesthetic is stable, grounded as it is in the novel’s aesthetic of madness and ugliness. The filmmakers were able to see in the eye this mad and ugly concentration camp and at the same time deliver glimpses of empathy in this darkest of nightmares.


For all the idealization of the book being impenetrable to adaptation, and the criticism of the movie’s inability to live up to the book, I admit that there is a certain virtue that the movie was able to adapt and to deliver, and this is compassion. It is that rare quality that brings hope even after a parade of horrifying events. The director’s compassion alights on the screen just as they do on the novelist’s pages. It renders Blindness into more than an experience of cruelty, irony, and cynicism, but an experience of regeneration and purification.


Blindness the movie is well made because, however wanting, it sees through the novel vision of the book. For me, the movie even functions as a homage to Saramago. It has a high regard for the author and for the literature he created. Maybe that is why Saramago was very touched, even in tears, upon seeing the movie himself. Maybe he could not believe someone will have the audacity to transfer into film, into stark color, what we can just imagine seething against the blinding light of day.






July 7, 2009

Ecology and the End of Postmodernity (George Myerson)







































It appears that we do not need to be so hung up about the future. The cult of the future belongs to the future, with all its gross and insatiable apocalyptic yearnings. Nobody needs to complain of the frozen present. It’s all what we have for the moment.


In George Myerson’s slim book, there is initially a temporal confusion when the author first announced that “ecology is not postmodern at all” but that it heralded “not the death of modernity but the end of its shadow, postmodernity.” The 80 pages of argumentation in Ecology and the End of Postmodernity can be viewed as a precaution against embracing postmodernity and all its attendant discontents of the past. It cautions against a forward leap to postmodernism without addressing first the problems of the present.


Myerson assumes an unorthodox view. Postmodernity is backward, and modernism must strive to recapture its old standing. Postmodernity is simply defined as the end phase of modernity. It is the theory that modern philosophy and society have finally reached the end of the line. The book’s central thesis then is radical in the sense that it inverts the normal thinking associated with environmental outlooks. That ecology, instead of ushering in postmodernity, in fact terminates it.


Presumably the science of ecology exposes the toxicities that man introduced into the environment. It questions the culture that allows this pollution and suggests ways to mitigate it.


Myerson devised new ways of looking at the modern-postmodern divide. He built on the previous arguments of social theorists like Ulrich Beck and Jürgen Habermas. He labelled new environmental movements to explain why ecology spelled the end for the postmodern condition. We are given, as first illustration, “Ecological Relegitimation” (after Jean-François Lyotard) to describe ecology’s legitimization of the mainstream. We also have “The Ecopathology of Everyday Life” (after Freud) to explain the rise of radical ecology.


Published in 2001, the book has adopted a millennial flavor. It gives a special, and not arbitrary, emphasis on the year 2000, the cut-off point, after which “we stopped being postmoderns.”


Myerson started his defense of his thesis by sketching some of the key theories behind an anticipated narrowing of the modernism-postmodernism gap. Readers unfamiliar with postmodern theories are given a brief survey of it.


Myerson sketched the thoughts behind Lyotard’s “grand narrative” which is the amalgamation of little stories depicting the “heroic epics” of scientific discoveries. When people started losing their faith in the narrative, they also began losing faith in literature.


We might as well say the end of the novel. For this book, the end of postmodernity is likened to the beginning of a new narrative. The works of Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie are thought of as embodying the postmodern vision. Myerson’s thesis then has two implications: the environmental-philosophical implication and the literary implication.


(Yes, Myerson’s critique of postmodernism has important implications not only to the future way of life but to the map of that way of life, literature itself. One can deduce from his analysis of Lyotard’s grand narrative of the postmodern, dubbed as “postmodern fable,” a strong inclination against the genre “hard science fiction.” Lyotard’s postmodern fable is “elaborately scientific”:


"The point was that no scientific story could have a human or humane meaning. Science still tells stories, but there is nothing we can do with them. We cannot use them, in particular, either to justify or to criticise our way of life, our political order."


Beyond hard sf, the consequences of this new regard to modern and postmodern fictions are of course another speculation. But tying the two together – ecology and literature – is the subject of relatively new fields of eco-literature (or green literature, if you will) and ecocriticism. How “eco” has become the prefix of the day, annexing itself to any unsuspecting word, is perhaps a symptom of the Ecological Relegitimation in literature.


The grand narrative is written in metalanguage and this can be specified as metafiction. Metafiction brings self-consciousness to the art of narrative. In so doing, it destroys the act of discovery and gives suspicion to the metalanguage in which it is clothed. Perfect examples of this narrative are Italo Calvino’s novels Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.


Radical ecology may also have a cognate in literary movement. The discontent “postmodern” writers felt for the modern world is also symptomatic of what the critic James Wood calls the mode of hysterical realism. As pointed out by Wood, the fictional narrative is now exhibiting a hardening toward hysteria and detail-mania, a cartoonish and journalistic approach to narration, hysterical realism in fact. This is not exactly radical realism or a rebel literary form, but more like a mannerism of the moment. Perhaps it can’t be helped as the grand narrative was shaped by the age.)


Lyotard’s views on legitimation hinged on the profusion of knowledge to counter “incomplete knowledge.” To this end, mass media became the stage where the conflicts of power and legitimacy are enacted. The interplay between science and mass media is well-suited to the investigation of the acceptance of Lyotard-Habermas ideas. This will enable the philosopher to weigh the balance of power wielded by the scientific authority, the state authority, and the people. All he need do is read the papers and watch the news to test the validity of the grand narrative as precondition or grounds for “legitimacy” and thus “legitimation” of a political claim.


For Myerson, the millennial event culminated in the United Kingdom on September 13, 2000. This date saw the height of a massive protest and blockade in Britain due to the rise in fuel prices. This period, said Myerson, demonstrated the postmodern desire for a protest. However strongly supported by the public the call to action was, it was doomed to fail. The protest was not sustained to leave any effect.


The issue of legitimacy was finally decided by events following the sudden end of the protests. The issue of global climate change (which in 2000 already has the backing of the acknowledged scientific authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was splashed on the headlines following a period of flooding which beset the UK. The fact that this happened right after the massive protest on fuel prices is fortuitous, but the connection is not lost on Myerson. Talk about perfect timing. Green taxation was made a perfect excuse for the rise in fuel prices and so the protests did not have a legitimate footing to begin with. Without green taxation, the fuels would have been very cheap to buy. More consumers will be more encouraged to buy petrol, and in effect, more greenhouse gases would have been spewed to the atmosphere. Global warming sets in, global climate change is jumpstarted.


The chips were now stacked in favor of the political authority, which was previously losing face when it was beleaguered by the massive protests. The state who implements green taxation now found an ally with the science of weather. Myerson hailed this event as the relegitimation of ecology in the mainstream.


Was it? The reports of flooding undermined the previous massive protest as it gave “concrete” justification for the rise in petrol prices, namely the imposition of high green taxes on the fuel. Yet in the first place, the protest was not directed against the science of climate change. The issue of green taxation was only highlighted after the protest. The protest was motivated by the rise in fuel price which affected the consumers’ ability to better provide for themselves basic needs.


Myerson’s use of Lyotard’s theory of Legitimation in the face of the protest and flooding may be too much of a philosophizing streak. However, his contention of state acquiring legitimation in this manner may be warranted if only to highlight the relationship between global warming and market-based instruments, such as green taxation, which can be effective ways of curbing consumer behavior. When the people were made to suffer the consequences of a fossil fuel lifestyle, can they be blamed for the mass action that they initiated?


At this point, when the previously beleaguered state already acquired new legitimation, Myerson then started to reject Lyotard’s rejection of the grand narrative. This can finally lead to the legitimation, or simply the recognition, of ecology and the primary role it plays in society.


Myerson’s affirmation that science is “the necessary reference point for any legitimate political response” is supported by the ensuing events of flooding. But we are still in the world of risk and uncertainty and what plays out in the mass media is what people really expect to believe. What is clearly demonstrated is that scientific backing can buy a government some free time from criticism of its policies.


In this respect, Myerson succinctly summarized the quality of the ecological grand narrative. Mainly: its ability to process and synthesize knowledge and thus unify scientific information. And since the main source of the ecological narrative is the news headlines, the rise of the mass media and information and communication technology played their vital roles as well to the dissemination of timely information.


Science is becoming a new power bloc in influencing the reception of information. This in itself is not a cause for alarm. But it makes one wary of the possible omissions that can be made especially if scientific uncertainties are not even mentioned in news reports. The translation of scientific information for mass consumption is one aspect of journalism that needs to be further investigated.


To prove the Ecopathology part of argument against postmodernity, Myerson focussed on the next big issues in UK: the mad-cow disease and the foot-and-mouth disease. These health issues demonstrate that radical ecology can easily enter the mainstream because the issue is one that involves great personal risk. It is collective fear that perhaps fed the Ecopathology of a society.


Like any reactionary ideology, Ecopathology can suffer from extremism. Myerson is quick to point out that “Ecopathology … finds great significance precisely where everyone else sees none at all.”


This is a sobering assessment of radical ecology. It overturns common sense to find a “deeper” explanation to commonplace events.


(This elevation of the trivial moments and its subsequent abandonment is likened by Myerson to the fictional techniques of Milan Kundera. In fact postmodernist tricks and playfulness in fiction are further embodiments of a discontent not only with the present, but with the future as well. That is perhaps the failing of writers such as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Their elevation of the mundane using metafictional methods and prose reflected only the despair of modern life without recourse to hope. In the face of “millennial expectations,” perhaps optimism is the blind force which rejects postmodernity to accommodate the pragmatism of the modern present.)


Myerson’s explanation of the Ecopathology of Everyday Life was based again on what are being said in the news. His distrust of this strain of modernity, wherein great significance is given to the commonplace, is apparent. For him, there lies in Ecopathology a tendency to violate common sense. This is harder to detect as this mental state is being displayed not in the mainstream but in the snug confines of the living room, or the shopping mall, or the office.


It would have been better if Myerson explained more on the flow of ecological ideas from the mainstream to everyday living. That is, the immediate connection of Relegitimation with Ecopathology. As it is, his short discourse was already full of provocative ideas on (post)modern encounter between humans and the environment. His expressed ideas and grasp of rhetoric are very well taken. Even so, the reckoning is not over, for ultimately ecology is not the new world order. Man is.


(Image by Sam Haskins)