Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Mandarins I

Despite the continued presence of houseguests, I've managed to make a small dent in the novel. So far I'm enjoying it a lot and it could end up becoming one of my favorites. The characters are intelligent, emotionally sophisticated, observant, articulate and free to a much greater degree than the characters in other novels that I've read. I feel as if I am reading the first adult novel since I finished Middlemarch, and Simone de Beauvoir is already becoming an imaginary friend.

The novel begins as World War II ends, and the characters are in the process of moving on after their lives have been disrupted and curtailed for four years. The men, loosely representing Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Koestler, embark on new writing projects, while the women in their lives, though far more independent than the women you are likely to find in other fiction, mostly seem to frame their lives around the men. What strikes me is the frankness of the conversations and the self-awareness of the women, which exceeds that of fictional characters I've encountered elsewhere. I think all fiction writers should be required to read The Mandarins if they have any pretensions about describing people who are not morons. Only a few pages of this were enough to confirm my view that American fiction is fundamentally children's writing produced by emotionally stunted authors for sale to infantile readers. In American literary fiction, style, if you can call it that, has replaced substance.

I'm not as impressed with the male characters. Koestler seems cold, calculating and manipulative. Sartre seems wrapped up in questionable ideology. Camus is the most natural and appealing, though at heart he seems to be no more than a carefree writer. As a thinker, Sartre is the heavyweight of the three, but his serious philosophical works have not held up well. I am hoping to compare this group to current intellectuals who, I think, are narrower as people but perhaps no better or worse in terms of their ideas.

One phenomenon that is of interest to me is the dominance of socialistic thought among intellectuals throughout the twentieth century. You can still see remnants of it in Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky. I tend to agree with them with respect to capitalism, which has now been documented as a source of inequality, but I have been unable to understand the unquestioned faith in self-governance that dominates leftist thought. My skepticism has become one of the themes of this blog, because I have no confidence that people will ever be able to self-govern without causing significant ill effects like the ones we live with today. The question, to me, is not how to increase freedom, but how to circumscribe it fairly and rationally. I suspect that Sartre got this wrong and that his successors still do.

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