Blog description.

Accentuating the Liberal in Classical Liberal: Advocating Ascendency of the Individual & a Politick & Literature to Fight the Rise & Rise of the Tax Surveillance State. 'Illigitum non carborundum'.

Liberty and freedom are two proud words that have been executed from the political lexicon: they were frog marched and stood before a wall of blank minds, then forcibly blindfolded, and shot, with the whimpering staccato of ‘equality’ and ‘fairness’ resounding over and over. And not only did this atrocity go unreported by journalists in the mainstream media, they were in the firing squad.

The premise of this blog is simple: the Soviets thought they had equality, and welfare from cradle to grave, until the illusory free lunch of redistribution took its inevitable course, and cost them everything they had. First to go was their privacy, after that their freedom, then on being ground down to an equality of poverty only, for many of them their lives as they tried to escape a life behind the Iron Curtain. In the state-enforced common good, was found only slavery to the prison of each other's mind; instead of the caring state, they had imposed the surveillance state to keep them in line. So why are we accumulating a national debt to build the slave state again in the West? Where is the contrarian, uncomfortable literature to put the state experiment finally to rest?

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Review: Jennie Erdal - The Missing Shade of Blue | Deconstructing Hume

This piece started out as a simple book review written for Amazon, then morphed into a short essay deconstructing Erdal, via Hume. I use the term 'deconstruction' deceptively, given my purpose is to highlight the contradictions of this dead-end to literary criticism, and to point out the same contradictions in the moral dead-end of Hume, for whom the meticulous concern of finding the right words to express himself, confounded the dangerous ideas he used those words to express, and thereby undid him. Objectivism - my agenda, clearly stated - has no fear regarding the inherent nature and beauty of language; deconstruction, rather than a cleverly pointless subjectivist deceit, simply translates to 'real world' premise checking. So here we go: my new - quite possibly clumsy - integration, the essview.


Let's get perfunctory matters out of the way: Scottish writer Jennie Erdal's novel The Missing Shade of Blue is a fabulous book. The copy reviewed below was a Kindle download I purchased from Amazon and read on an iPad, and I'm pleased to say, unlike some ebook offerings, has high production values that made it as pleasant to read as a dead-tree counterpart. Better, the start of the novel, on the iPad at least, takes you to the cover page, which is surprisingly rare with ebooks, given the trend to dull the importance of cover art which remains a weakness in the ebook revolution. (Publishers', I want my cover art - don't cheapskate on that, please.)

In almost all ways that matter, Erdal has ticked, with this novel, all my reading pleasure centres.

In the age of Generation Text, if you like a deep read that proudly proclaims itself a philosophical novel and really delivers on weighty subject matter to make a reader think about the world they inhabit both physically and in their head: this is a fabulous, refreshing book.

Conversely, if you like whimsical, playful writing exquisitely delivered with a deft, Scottish dry humour: this is a fabulous book.

If you like writing anchored in a geographic place (Edinburgh): this is a fabulous book.

And if you like fly fishing, (and by good chance I'd already decided to learn fly fishing this winter), then this is a fabulous book.

Although, in this review, if you like the work of eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, then be warned, he's about to get an Objectivist drubbing: albeit that is a matter attaching not to the class of this novel, but the muddled mind of Mr Hume. Given the clever architecture of Erdal's novel is, itself, built upon a Humean construct,I can only unravel the truths lit up in it, by first shining the torch of reason on the deadly contradictions of David Hume.

I read everything with the mind of a writer (even if my negligible creative publishing record would suggest, not a good one). From that, I am guided by Orwell's quoted desire to turn political writing into art, and though Erdal's novel is not political, there can be no politick without the secular trinity of philosophy and economics which are informed by it, and it by them. Thus, I fell into the purchase of The Missing Shade of Blue easily after being directed from (sadly deceased) Denis Dutton's 'Arts and Letters Daily' blog to an essay by Erdal in The Financial Times on the philosophical novel, musing if such a novel was still possible (1). The irony being such a novel is possible, here it is, but it had to be based on Hume, the thinking of whom I am implacably opposed to. I am aware my interpretation below at times runs counter to Erdal's own writing on her novel in the mentioned essay: for a start she sees Hume as benign - pfui - however, I don't believe these differences diminish either the novel (certainly), or my interpretation, and this perhaps because Erdal is hamstrung by the same contradiction that cripples Hume. Objectivists understand there can be no contradictions, so when you come up against one, it's time to check your premises, or in this case, Erdal's, which is what I propose to do.

I shall go outside the text of the novel to get immediately to my central problem with Mr Hume:

The rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason." – David Hume

In that single, small sentence, lies the gate open to fascism, communism, and every type of coercive mysticism that has ensured the field of human endeavour is strewn with the blood of free men. In that is the brute fist punching insanely at the heart of liberty, forever. Upon Hume's repudiation of reason there can be no civilising morality of man qua man, there can be no notion of that only economic system existing on the voluntary interactions of individuals, namely, laissez faire capitalism, without which, my pursuit of happiness is not even possible. And happiness forms a major theme in this novel, with the central character having published a book on it, even though his own happiness is shattered on the perilous rocks of Hume's further twisted (il)logic - inevitable after casting reason aside - that a man's free will is nothing more than an illusion. It is this that Erdal has constructed her novel around. In Hume's anti-reason immorality lies the meaningless anarchy that becomes the life of the central character, academic philosopher, Harry Sanderson. If an individual has no freewill, if there is no reason, then the individual is but a slave of the whim and caprice of a mob or a fad, whether that be the tyranny of the majority in our western social democracies, enforced by the fist of the State and the planned economy built on planned lives, or on religion, on tradition worship for the sake of it, or the latest teenage fad. He/she is, like Sanderson himself, the victim of the unknowable chaos of their natures, or as he words it; 'randomness was largely what determined the future. Along with chance and absurdity - 'its close cousins'.

Harry Sanderson's life becomes, in microcosm, a symbol of all the forces operating that have built the new Western IRon Drapes that we must now all cower behind, where tax legislation has become the legislation of the modern Big Brother police state. His type of (non)thinking created the intellectual vacuum that allowed politicians to bribe themselves to power by promising to take responsibility off (non-thinking)individuals for even living, in that economic illusion of our welfare states which are now, as they always were going to do, destroying the planned economies of the greater part of Europe, as well as the US; wiping out with them large portions of the middle classes.

Harry Sanderson's academic book on happiness in the novel had to be doomed, because according to Hume we can know nothing, certainly not what happiness is. And I find it interesting, and heartening, through the character of Harry, that Erdal acknowledges this, and it is thus in this I find myself very close to her, the writer peering over the prose, because a chief concern she has for herself is why, then, if 'we can't know', is she writing at all. And it is on this notion that the philosophical underpinning of the novel spreads thankfully outside of Hume to something all writers, and all readers, are ultimately concerned with: that nebulous thing called 'Truth'. I have little idea of Erdal's position on the secular trinity of man (philosophy, economics, politics), but in this, we (writer and reader), are looking each other as co-adventurers in the eye, and the fact that Erdal spends some good part of the novel reasoning on this, rightly puts a quill through the hoary old mind of Hume, even though this was contrary to Erdal's intent, for it points out the central contradiction that undoes Hume: that he has to use reason to negate reason. That if we can't know anything, we cannot communicate at all, there is thus no art, certainly no literature; and yet he has communicated his rotten, contradictory nonsense over three hundred years, and we do have art, we do have literature. It is for this reason I found Erdal's essay comment on the benign Mr Hume, confusing, until I came to understand she is caught in the same contradiction. What happens to Harry Sanderson is the acting out of Hume's repudiation of reason, and it is not benign. Further, in Erdal's novel the truth that becomes possible is 'the knowing', and it is derived by her reasoning, albeit, of course, such reasoning coming from her characters experiencing reality through the plot she arranges for them.

The way Erdal intellectually has approached this theme, the nature of literature and truth, is genius. The narrator of the novel, 'Eddie' Logan, is a Frenchman, a translator, in Edinburgh to translate Hume. Via him, and the painter Carrie Sanderson, the author is able to look at the purpose of art through two quite differing lenses. Erdal states her premise in this regard clearly, allowing - one of her basic devices - the philosopher Sanderson to state what was on her own mind:

"... literature can solve more things than philosophy. Philosophy is good at asking the questions, but literature gets closer to the answers."

Recalling the opening of this review, the deft dry humour that permeates this novel, there is of course a perfect foil for this notion, just so the 'artist' doesn't get too high an opinion of themselves, in the form of Eddie Logan's house-keeper:

"She didn't see much point in books - ... You could find everything you needed to know just by living."

But this is much more than mere comedic counter-foil: it strikes at the punch-drunk heart of the Humean contradiction Erdal herself has become caught in. The house-keeper is expressing Hume's notion, the contradiction, that truth (despite truth can't exist for Hume) cannot be known through reasoning, but only by 'experiencing': missing the fact that experiencing can only have meaning/truth via the 'translating' of our reason to make sense of what has been experienced. The mind is not separate from the body, and certainly not from reality, if we are to survive, at least, as Objectivists know. It is here we see the direct same contradiction is indeed playing out within Erdal's novel, despite the novel remains self-contained. Predominantly through the reasoning based on his experiences, the narrator, translator (there are so many ways the act of translating are important), Eddie, translates for the reader the truths of which literature is capable. Erdal covers a lot of territory, in what is quite a short novel, in pursuing this. For example, the answers given for living that might be gained from literature are certainly not to be found in organised religion. Carrie's fictional son, Alfie, is cared for in a psychiatric unit; on coming home from the Christmas function, Carrie states:

"During the sermon the chaplain had interpreted everything – every good thing, every bad thing, every damned thing – as a sign of God’s plan. ‘He was seeing signs everywhere,’ she said, ‘just like the inmates.’ And yet he was free to leave the building afterwards, while they had to return to their rooms for treatment."

Good, that takes the mystical BS out of it, so the answers must at least be earthly. And indeed they are. I think she gives three different answers to be sought. The first applies to the artist only; Eddie interpreting again:

"It occurred to me then that as a translator, or as an artist, it was possible to lead a quiet and honourable existence. There was no cheating involved, no double-crossing. No one was harmed in the process. Your integrity was all wrapped up in the words or in the brushstrokes."

So a way for the artist to be at peace in their world. The next is for both artist and reader and is central to what this novel is about:

"... claiming that a good novel was like a small miracle. She gave me a quizzical look, as if to check whether I was serious. Miracle? she said. Only figuratively, I said, in that fiction allowed us to live lives other than our own. ‘Provided it’s well written, you’re carried along, waiting for everything to unfold – even if you know in advance what’s going to happen.’ And every so often, I said, something emerged from a novel that could only be called truth – there was no other name for it."

Translating this again, for myself this time, it connects to how and why I read, which is the act of reading almost as what we might understand by the religious experience. Reading performs many of the functions of a religion for me: it calms me, takes away my problems of the moment, I'm normally relaxed and interested when reading, certainly engaged, and by some indefinable 'how' it is meaning for me, just the act of reading fiction. It's a very personal, individual activity. So, after the (thankful) death of religion proper, and the function that had historically, now we have the religious experience through the arts, but on a Damascene road of solely human making.

Finally, Erdal broadens out her themes again. Throughout the novel Eddie, paralleling his job as translator, literally, is merely the cypher. He is there to observe the Sandersons' and report to the reader, while along the way we learn of his parents' history. He is almost a non-entity, living vicariously through the lives of the other characters, just as a translator he lives through the lives of those he is translating. There is another Humean theme playing out here, as we see him, in absence of meaning in his own life - he had a complete breakdown when he was young - living very much according to tradition for the sake of it, being his childhood, and trapped in it, more boy than man. Thus Erdal's final truth: the translator places his feet firmly on the earth, starts living in the moment, and ceases to be the mere scribe to start experiencing life/joy/joie first hand through fellowship with humans, namely, on holiday with Carrie and Alfie:

"Above all I felt an ordinary connectedness to another human being, another way of life. Or rather, a reconnecting – to things I had forgotten, or never known."

And I believe Erdal meant this to be the Humean 'truth through experiencing', though, of course, it's not. Eddie only understands this truth by reasoning (note that, from the application of his reason) over the experiences he has once he starts interacting, finally, on the basis of first Eddie qua Carrie, and then Eddie qua Carrie/Alfie.

Finally, returning to 'review mode', and breaking out from the essay I've slipped into - academic habits don't die, apparently - I can't end without re-referencing the humour throughout the novel. The Kindle version of The Missing Shade of Blue can be purchased from Amazon for just US$9.99. That price alone would be worth it for reading the single chapter where the Humean disaster, Scottish philosopher, Harry Sanderson, is practically forced on the US talk show circuit discussing happiness. Comparing the bright-eyed Bible-belting American pursuit of happiness to a Scot's dour irony - 'the humour of the defeated' - is the most comical, and keenly observed rendition of cultural difference you will have read for a long while.

Jennie Erdal has certainly made it to my reading list. I'll be looking out for her next novel in anticipation of more deep, whimsical, funny, sad, innocent, cynical epiphanies. And just a damned good read.

... But watch out for Hume. He's the road to the Gulag. Really. And on that score Jennie Erdal may want to check her premises ;)

Writer may be contacted at:

(1) Erdal's essay: What's The Big Idea.

1 comment:

  1. This review was featured on Beattie's Book Blog today. Cheers for that Graham.