Saturday, 15 September 2018

Marcel Proust’s 960 Word Marathon

In Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (Volume 1, In Search of Lost Time), the longest sentence of 601 words occurs in the opening section of the first chapter, “Overture”:
But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold — or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam — or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling.
But the longest sentence in the 7-volume set is of 960 words. It appears in the Introduction of Volume 4, In Search Of LostSodom and Gomorrah (sometimes translated as Cities of the Plain):
Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head, turning the mill like Samson and saying like him: “The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!”; excluded even, save on the days of general disaster when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews rallied round Dreyfus, from the sympathy — at times from the society — of their fellows, in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are, portrayed in a mirror which, ceasing to flatter them, accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves, and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love (a thing to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love) springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable malady; like the Jews again (save some who will associate only with others of their race and have always on their lips ritual words and consecrated pleasantries), shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their company, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their condescension; but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism that strikes them, the opprobrium under which they have fallen, having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the physical and moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous, finding (in spite of all the mockery with which he who, more closely blended with, better assimilated to the opposing race, is relatively, in appearance, the least inverted, heaps upon him who has remained more so) a relief in frequenting the society of their kind, and even some corroboration of their own life, so much so that, while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults), those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it they readily unmask, with a view less to injuring them, though they have no scruple about that, than to excusing themselves; and, going in search (as a doctor seeks cases of appendicitis) of cases of inversion in history, taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Israelites claim that Jesus was one of them, without reflecting that there were no abnormals when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ, that the disgrace alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning, to every example, to every punishment, by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men (even though it may be accompanied by exalted moral qualities) than certain other vices which exclude those qualities, such as theft, cruelty, breach of faith, vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men; forming a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognise one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his congeners to the beggar in the street, in the great nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting, to the father in the suitor for his daughter’s hand, to him who has sought healing, absolution, defence, in the doctor, the priest, the barrister to whom he has had recourse; all of them obliged to protect their own secret but having their part in a secret shared with the others, which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true, for in this romantic, anachronistic life the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon, the prince, with a certain independence of action with which his aristocratic breeding has furnished him, and which the trembling little cit would lack, on leaving the duchess’s party goes off to confer in private with the hooligan; a reprobate part of the human whole, but an important part, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and unpunished, where its existence is never guessed; numbering its adherents everywhere, among the people, in the army, in the church, in the prison, on the throne; living, in short, at least to a great extent, in a playful and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race, provoking them, playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it; a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others, a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal, on which these lion-tamers are devoured; until then, obliged to make a secret of their lives, to turn away their eyes from the things on which they would naturally fasten them, to fasten them upon those from which they would naturally turn away, to change the gender of many of the words in their vocabulary, a social constraint, slight in comparison with the inward constraint which their vice, or what is improperly so called, imposes upon them with regard not so much now to others as to themselves, and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Sartre’s Search for a Title: from Melancholia to Nausea

Jean-Paul Sartre had thought of giving the name Melancholia to the novel on which he was working during the 1930s. But Gaston Gallimard, the book's publisher, felt that Melancholia was not commercial enough. He advised Sartre to find a better title. Sartre suggested Factum on Contingency as an alternative. This had been the title that he had given to his early notes for the book in 1932. He also came up with a longer title, Essay on the Loneliness of the Mind. But Gallimard was not enthused by these titles. Sartre then suggested another title: The Extraordinary Adventures of Antoine Roquentin. He told Gallimard that the blurb would offer an explanation of there being no adventures. After pondering for a few days, Gallimard came up with his own suggestion: Nausea. Sartre liked the suggestion and Nausea became the title of his book which got published in 1938.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Kant and Altruism: The Man and the Myth

By Roger E. Bissell

Leonard Peikoff has long propagated the myth that Kant is an altruist who advocates that one do one’s duty and sacrifice one’s values because they are one’s values, of “sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, as an end in itself” (1982, 82). This is a serious distortion of Kant’s views. Doing one’s duty, for Kant, does not require setting aside one’s values, but merely one’s personal inclinations and desires, and then acting according to moral principle. One of his chief illustrations of this point is quite revealing, particularly in comparison to Rand’s “ethics of emergencies” (and please bear in mind, this is Kant writing in 1785 in Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. His later, more evolved thinking on this is even more revealing, as I’ll show shortly):
To be beneficent when we can is a duty; and besides this, there are many minds so sympathetically constituted that, without any other motive of vanity or self-interest, they find a pleasure in spreading joy around them and can take delight in the satisfaction of others so far as it is their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however proper, however amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth, but is on a level with other inclinations, e.g. the inclination to honor, which, if happily directed to which is in fact of public utility and accordant with duty and consequently honorable, deserves praise and encouragement, but not esteem. For the maxim lacks the moral import, namely, that such actions be done from duty, not from inclination. Put the case that the mind of that philanthropist were clouded by sorrow of his own, extinguishing all sympathy with the lot of others, and that, while he still has the power to benefit others in distress, he is not touched by their trouble because he is absorbed with his own; and now suppose that he tears himself out of this dead insensibility and performs the action without any inclination to it, but simply from duty, then first has his action its genuine moral worth. (Kant [1785] 1952, 258; emphasis in original)
Note carefully here that Kant is not saying that acting benevolently when one is so inclined is per se without moral worth, but only when one so acts out of that inclination, rather than setting it aside and acting instead from duty, that is, from one’s awareness and acceptance that this is the morally right thing to do, that one should “be kind where one can,” regardless of the personal feelings of honor, inner satisfaction, and so on that one may also experience as a result.

Now, it is true that Rand does not advocate being kind to others as a moral duty. The term “duty” is, in fact, anathema to her, for it signifies an obligation that is necessarily divorced from one’s values. But as we’ve seen, Kant does not regard moral obligation in this way either, and to claim that this is what he means by “duty” is a gross misrepresentation of his views. Instead, as already noted, “duty” for Kant means acting according to moral principle, regardless of your feelings and personal inclinations—of “doing the right thing,” even if you don’t feel like it. How different is this from what Rand advocates in the Objectivist ethics?

Moreover, Rand does embrace the concept of an “obligation” to help others, which though not altruistic is very real and rationally justifiable. In fact, though nothing like an altruistic duty, Rand’s humanitarian “obligation” to help others is very much like Kant’s non-altruistic “duty” to help others. Helping others, for Rand, is a highly conditional, contextual matter, tied firmly to one’s self-interest, values, and happiness, and she discusses it at length, expressing principles such as the following: “If one’s friend is in trouble, one should act to help him by whatever non-sacrificial means are appropriate” (Rand 1963, 53; emphasis in original). “It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one’s power. For instance, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life)” (55; emphasis in original).

But observe that though these are conditional imperatives, they are imperatives, that is, moral principles. The “should’s” she uses multiple times in this essay are not a cynical ploy in order to deflect criticism that Objectivism is morally egocentric or sociopathic. When Rand says you should help others, she is making an emphatic statement of what as what she regards as morally right for you to do for others, given certain conditions. Not morally permissible, but morally required, obligatory. And these acts of helping others are not the right thing to do because one will get a heroic or warm-and-fuzzy feeling out of doing them—though one indeed may get such a feeling or other—but because they are virtuous acts, moral actions. Specifically, Rand says, they are acts of integrity, which she defines as “loyalty to one’s convictions and values…the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into practical reality” (52–53).

Also, Rand insists, there are limits on such moral obligations. As she colorfully illustrates this point: “…a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should [there’s that word again] help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life). But this does not mean…that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save” (55).

Now, considering what a vicious, sacrificial, duty-driven altruist that Rand and Peikoff paint Kant as being, you’d think Kant would have had nothing to do with such rational limits on the obligation to help others in need. Just give and give and give—and don’t ask if you can stop. Well, if your reading of Kant’s ethical writings never progressed beyond 1785, you might be excused for thinking this (though even then, only by overlooking the egregious misrepresentation of what Kant means by “duty” and “sacrifice”). However, consider this from Kant’s Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics (1797):
If happiness, then, is in question, which it is to be my duty to promote as my end, it must be the happiness of other men whose (permitted) end I hereby make also mine. It still remains left to themselves to decide what they shall reckon as belong to their happiness; only that it is in my power to decline many things which they so reckon, but which I do not so regard, supposing that they have no right to demand it from me as their own (370, emphasis added).
And just to make absolutely clear that “permitted” end does not involve a blank check (compare to Rand’s rejection of the obligation to sail the seven seas!), Kant adds: “…no one has the right to demand from me the sacrifice of my not immoral ends” (370, emphasis added). Instead, deciding when and how much one is to “sacrifice” (give up) on behalf of another is a highly individual, open-ended matter, to be decided by the giver, not the receiver, of assistance.

As Kant says: “I am only bound then to sacrifice to others a part [note: not all or without limits] of my welfare without hope of recompense; because it is my duty [translate: my moral obligation], and it is impossible to assign definite limits how far that may go. Much depends on what would be the true want of each according to his own feelings, and it must be left to each to determine this for himself” (372, emphasis added). In other words, each person must be free to deter mine for himself when giving to others does or does not require “sacrifice of [his] not immoral ends,” and to be free to not go beyond the limits of non-sacrificial action.

True altruism, according to Kant, is simply not viable as a moral principle: “For that one should sacrifice his own happiness, his true wants, in order to promote that of others, would be a self-contradictory maxim if made a universal law” (373, emphasis added). This ought to be conclusive proof to Objectivists that Kant has been very unjustly portrayed as a moral monster by Rand and her followers. But of course, it won’t be, because Kant is such a convenient person to demonize and hold up as the root cause of all of our social problems, and recycling the distortions and context-dropping of Rand et al is so much easier than doing the heavy lifting of reading and truly trying to understand what Kant had to say.