The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse by Pascal Bruckner

Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.

French cultural critic Pascal Bruckner has made a career out of diagnosing strains of psychic weariness in Western life. In The Tyranny of Guilt, he warned that excess levels of guilt over past atrocities had hamstrung Europeans, rendering them incapable of confronting the problems of the present. In a seeming departure, Perpetual Euphoria found Bruckner questioning the shrill consumerist imperative to pursue happiness at all costs, making a case for the right to be maladjusted, even downright unhappy. Unlikely as it seems, there is a loose thread running through both of these books: Neither suffering nor happiness can form the basis for action. Both must be subordinated to freedom. With his latest book, Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, Bruckner has teased out another strain of inertia tugging at the Western conscience: ecological catastrophism.

We’ve been groomed by unthinkable calamities like Fukushima—reinforced by Hollywood disaster flicks, or vice versa—to see cataclysms looming on the horizon, and to filter anything less compelling. Bruckner calls this the “seductive attraction of disaster.” Like the threat of nuclear annihilation that previous generations grappled with, the threat posed by global climate change is so vast in magnitude that it can paralyze us with fear. Put another way, climate change is a panacea, allowing us to trade a multitude of lesser fears for one all-encompassing fear. Here we find ourselves in the same territory as Tyranny: saddled with guilt for having incurred nature’s wrath, unable to formulate concrete solutions. In the case of climate change, the correctives on offer—consuming less, renouncing growth, retreating from science and technology—at best merely staunch the bleeding and at worst, turn us into irrational ascetics.

Bruckner isn’t skeptical of climate science, per se; if anything, he argues for a more rigorous form of scientific inquiry. Rather, his polemic takes aim at two broad follies attaching to the problem of climate change.

The first is the folly of enforcing a strict moral boundary between the natural and the artificial. The paragraph heading, “Nature is not our guide,” telegraphs Bruckner’s unsentimental view of nature. He belabors the point in Hobbesian fashion: “The whole human adventure is a merciless struggle against the physical, biological, and psychological fatalities imposed on our species.” So much for the original affluent society of hunter-gatherers. Moreover, human intervention has had a salutary effect in some places. He cites the role of the human hand in shaping and cultivating the hyper-fecund forests of the Amazon: “The parts of the forest transformed by human presence have a richer variety of flora and fauna than the virgin parts.” Nonetheless, Bruckner recognizes the beauty and intrinsic worth of the vast, protected open spaces of the American West. A compromise: “We have to protect nature, but we also have to protect ourselves against nature.”

The second folly is that of rich nations already enjoying the comforts (and delicacies) of development preaching austerity—a strict carbon diet—to the poorer nations of the global South. Such an asymmetry amounts to a denial of human potential and civilization itself, defined for Bruckner’s purposes as “a multiplication of desires.” If this sounds like a defense of the status quo, it is. “Luxury and refinement are indispensable for the blossoming of any great civilization,” Bruckner proclaims, with an echo of the French colonial administrator.

But Bruckner goes further. Each new technological advance is an enlargement of ourselves, granting us new powers and redefining our very nature. In perhaps the creepiest passage in the book, he claims that “the future human being will be prosthetic or he will not be at all.” Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek made similar remarks for the documentary film, Examined Life: “We need more alienation from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop a much more terrifying new abstract materialism.” Zizek shares Bruckner’s conviction that the way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is more, not less, faith in technological work arounds and abstract management of natural systems.

Fanaticism isn’t all polemic and provocation. There are mordantly entertaining asides that showcase Bruckner at his best, skewering the fashions of the day. One section in particular reads like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, or Teju Cole’s update, “In Place of Thought.” See, for example, the entry on EQUITABLE:

When a product is simultaneously ethnic, ethical, and equitable, it accumulates the maximum of meaning and justice. Adding ‘eco’ and ‘bio’ to any word is enough to sanctify it. What is sought, through the proliferation of abbreviations, is neither more nor less than absolution. The nomenclature has a purifying aim.

Thus absolved by the arbiters of fairness, we may go about buying and consuming with a clean conscience.

Pope Francis recently chastened that we have “slapped nature in the face,” and that “we may have exploited nature too much.” It would appear that ecologists, whom Bruckner attacks for their latent religiosity throughout Fanaticism, and the oldest religious institution in the West, the Catholic Church, have reached common ground, united in their condemnation of the ravages of consumerist capitalism and crimes against nature. Bruckner frames the argument as a choice between the self-imposed poverty of religious types and insatiable, market-driven consumption—a false choice—casting his lot definitively with the evangelists of perpetual growth and novelty.

Should we be skeptical of Bruckner’s cool head in the face of probable ecological collapse, rejecting it as a cynical disavowal of the real threat at hand? Skeptical, yes, but not to the point of fanaticism, for there is much generosity and nuance to be found in Bruckner’s defense of the French humanist tradition and Enlightenment ideals, not easily written off as cynical stalling. In a paradoxical twist, he muses, “Perhaps the Old World is better adapted to change than the New, to the extent that its ideal of competition is less ferocious, the cult of work less frenetic, and the ability to rediscover slowness and sweetness—that is, new uses of time, new intoxications with the minuscule—more firmly anchored.” Bruckner finds much to be optimistic about. From an “age of gluttony,” floated on credit and violently punctured by the economic crash of 2008, we may be entering an “age of duly considered desires.” The world hasn’t ended. Perhaps that is enough to be optimistic about.

A Useless Man: Selected Stories by Sait Faik Abasıyanık

Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.

Nearly all of the stories gathered in Sait Faik Abasiyanik’s A Useless Man: Selected Stories can be read in the span of a short subway ride, say, between Oakland and Berkeley, or Brooklyn and Manhattan. The longest story in the collection, an excerpt from “A Cloud in the Sky,” I reserved for an unplanned jaunt to Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Come to think of it, since I have come into possession of Abasiyanik’s Stories, I have found myself pursuing loosely structured goals in the region just as an excuse to hop on a train and dive into another succinct tale. The stories in this collection can be read slowly and methodically, without any apprehension of not finishing. They are stories of village and urban life in and around Istanbul in the first half of the 20th century, ideally suited for traveling without aim. In other words, they can be read as they were written, in public, and in haste.

The narrator of “I Can’t Go Into Town” brags that “I can dash out a story while I wait for the ferry, balancing on one foot.” Indeed, one is rarely on sure footing with Abasiyanik’s charmingly unstable avatars. Like Robert Walser’s walking stories, these meditations on natural beauty and village life often dance around an ugly truth. Lost innocence, unrequited love, misanthropy. Turn down the wrong street and there they are, crystallized in the form of vegetables left out to dry in the cornice of a building. And the more beguiling and bucolic the tales start out, the less prepared we are when, in the words of translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, “he pulls the carpet out from underneath our feet.” The narrators of these tales share the proclivity (or the prerogative in the case of “I Can’t Go Into Town”) to write themselves into corners, to say, “I prefer not to” write this story. Beleaguered alternately by self-doubt and the will to entertain, they offer up instead scraps of anecdotes, crusts of bread and cheese rinds left over from a day in the life of a town. Thus, in the course of outlining the reasons why he can’t go into town we meet, in passing, the gluttonous deli owner, the shrewd baker, the barber with his stock of worn stories (Which will it be? Anecdote #1, or #2?), the worldly coffeehouse proprietor. We can sense the narrator’s genuine feeling for the place, which makes his reasons for demurring all the more obscure. “I don’t go into that bright white coffee house. I don’t sit opposite someone who doesn’t want to see me, and I don’t say a word to the proprietor.” And the reason? “I can’t go into town, and that’s that.” If this final explanation does not satisfy it is because Abasiyanik understood, as Vila-Matas observed of Walser in Bartleby & Co—that fictional compendium of disappearing writers—“that writing that one cannot write is also writing.”

But life goes on, happily oblivious to the vacillations of a recluse. Or not so happily. In “I Just Don’t Know Why I Keep Doing These Things,” the narrator, another lonely soliloquist, harbors motives that, in their inscrutability, flirt with the sinister. Here, the anecdotal layer, with its warm patina of camaraderie and routine, the baby fat of familiarity, is dispensed with, leaving us aghast in the presence of unadulterated malice. Our anti-hero, the one who doesn’t know why he keeps doing these things, sits in the window of a café watching the people go by. As a kind of a game, he is thinking of the inherent evil of man and the meaninglessness of life. Fodder for light conversation, no? An old man who also frequents the café becomes, inexplicably, the subject of his scorn. When the old man’s prayer beads go missing the narrator leads him to believe that he has stolen them when he has not. For reasons unknown to himself, he continues to taunt the old man. “I feel bad for that poor old man, too. I even go so far as to look into his eyes, as if to say I’ve stolen his prayer beads and feel no remorse.”

“A Useless Man” is the story of another stranger, an anonymous man who has not left the comfort zone of his neighborhood—all of four square blocks—in seven years. We accompany him as he makes the rounds, stopping at the café for a cappuccino, for a tripe soup from a street vendor, for a handful of bruised oranges, and down a street fraught with menace where an unrequited love, an olive-skinned Jewish girl, once lived. These encounters abound with projections and counter-projections, but no real communion. “The city is so huge, and everyone’s a stranger. Why do they even make these cities to pack in this many people, when people don’t like each other anymore? I just don’t understand. Is it so that people can deceive and humiliate and murder each other?” Abasiyanik’s strangers keenly register the malaise of a rapidly urbanizing landscape, and so turn inwards, to the familiar, the village within the city, secretly relishing the distinctly modern, alienated pleasures of the flâneur.

If Abasiyanik’s flâneurs occasionally find the world “picturesque,” they are a far cry from those “connoisseurs of empathy” described by Susan Sontag in On Photography, a collection of essays likening the street photographer of the 1970s to the older Parisian flâneur. In “Four Plusses,” the narrator, a genial face in the crowd, has the bad luck of being asked to read the results of a medical exam by a desperate, illiterate man on the cusp of landing a job. The results are not good. The narrator vows henceforth to assume an “arrogant air, so that no one else would dare approach me for the rest of the day.” The moral of the story: Having a sympathetic face in a crowd invites all kinds of human misery. But Abasiyanik cannot look away. If the stories in this collection tend to dwell on the “marginal” and the “deviant,” it is not out of any particular obsession with the grotesque. Like Diane Arbus, whose work was misunderstood by Sontag, it is his aim to capture the incongruence between mask and motives at the precise moment when it is revealed.

In Abasiyanik’s teleology, a petty thief is admirable insofar as he is beautiful, young, daring, and if the object of his desire is a silk handkerchief for his beloved. Here, Abasiyanik’s robust sensuality finds its purest expression: “In summer, and right through to the end of the walnut season, boys hands smell only of peaches and plums in this place and their chests give off the aroma of hazel leaves as they roam the streets half-naked in their buttonless striped shirts.” He looks the other way as the boy pilfers the stockpile he is supposed to be guarding. Another, more vigilant night-watchman shoots the boy as he is leaving. “He was dying. His fist was clenched. When the watchman pried it open, a silk handkerchief shot up from his hand, like water from a spring.” Other local heroes include Papaz Efendi, a pagan philosopher disguised as a priest, and Mustafa the Blind (“Carnations and Tomato Juice”), a laborer who persists at cultivating a patch of briars by the sea, paying “[w]ith the nails of `his fingers.” These are men who would never consider the “triumph over nature” a fait accompli, men for whom nature’s continual renewal is a source of endless joy requiring wise stewardship. Contrast these characters with Konstantin Efendi (“The Last Birds”), a greedy islander who shoots so many birds from the sky that they never return.

Sontag could have been writing about Abasiyanik when she wrote of Walser, “[he] is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small—as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.” Abasiyanik’s anti-heroes are the “innocent monsters” of Baudelaire’s roving gaze, and they are possessed of better, more vital instincts than the feckless technocrats reconfiguring the vast ebbs and flows of nature for selfish human purposes. But fill a few square blocks with the Papaz Efendis and Mustafa the Blinds of the world, and throw in a few bold handkerchief thieves, and you’ve got a real neighborhood. But lest we indulge in false nostalgia for an innocence that we may never have had to lose in the first place, we are reminded of the man who could not and would not go into town. “I can imagine it now, all those little twenty-five watt bulbs glowing, and all the flies.” Perhaps this is reason enough not to go into town. But if you must, make sure to bring along Abasiyanik’s Selected Stories for the trip.

If Hemingway Wrote Javascript by Angus Croll

Reviewed for Nomadic Journal.

Angus Croll’s book-length thought experiment adds a new twist to the common trope in technical writing of using literature as dummy text for exercises: This time the literary references are the exercises. In If Hemingway Wrote Javascript the literary masters tackle classic programming problems in ways that will be recognizable to well-read programmers, with style to spare. Borges, Lewis Carroll, Dickens, and David Foster Wallace devise algorithms that generate prime numbers. (At least two of these authors would not have been out of their element here). James Joyce, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jack Kerouac take on factorials. Can you guess whose code has a jazzy, improvised feel? and whose abounds with neologisms and non sequiturs? Croll plays the role of omniscient narrator, offering post-code explanations that dig into the rationale behind each writer’s approach.

Hemingway comes at a pivotal time in the history of the modern web’s lingua franca. With the advent of standards-compliant browsers and Ajax, and Javascript’s ensuing emergence as a Serious Programming Language, there has been a call for greater adherence to a set of best practices and even style rules. The call has been heeded, with syntax-checking tools like JSLint and JSHint hastening along the standardization of the notoriously flexible, forgiving language. Against these developments, If Hemingway Wrote Javascript offers a playful rebuttal, showing us that the language can, in the hands of stylists, be a vehicle for self-expression, or at the very least the expression of a style.

Because each of our secret Javascript adepts has such a distinct voice and approach, style and syntax can’t be ignored. But while he is regaling us with a thought experiment, appealing to Javascript and literary nerds alike, Croll is making a quasi-serious point. Taken as a whole, the exercises in style contained within Hemingway make a case for the will to style. Style is not allowing ourselves to be hemmed in by dogma and doctrinaire thinking. It is an affirmation that the manner in which we do something is almost as important (and surely as interesting) as the results, following the examples of the literary greats. Just think of how many words—new descriptive tools—Shakespeare coined that are now in common usage, all at the service of retelling Boccaccio.

As in literature, there are many ways to say the same thing in a language as flexible as Javascript. That notion is stretched to the extreme in Croll’s scenarios, with often comic results. In Roberto Bolaño’s Fibonacci’s sequence algorithm, he bunches all of the program’s heavy lifting into one claustrophobic line, with a word to the wise in the comments:

//Everything is getting complicated.

for(var i=2,r=[0,1].slice(0,l);i<l;r.push(r[i-1]+r[i-2]),i++)

Then, for no reason, he defines a long list of important mathematicians which are never referenced again in the program.

rationalTheorists = [“Archimedes of Syracuse”, “Pierre de Fermat (such margins, boys!)”, “Srinivasa Ramanujan”, “René Descartes”, “Leonhard Euler”, “Carl Gauss”, “Johann Bernoulli”, “Jacob Bernoulli”, “Aryabhata”, “Brahmagupta”, “Bhāskara II”, “Nilakantha Somayaji”, “Omar Khayyám”, “Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī”, “Bernhard Riemann”, “Gottfried Leibniz”, “Andrey Kolmogorov”, “Euclid of Alexandria”, “Jules Henri Poincaré”, “Srinivasa Ramanujan”, “Alexander Grothendieck (who could forget?)”, “David Hilbert”, “Alan Turing”, “John von Neumann”, “Kurt Gödel”, “Joseph-Louis Lagrange”, “Georg Cantor”, “William Rowan Hamilton”, “Carl Jacobi”, “Évariste Galois”, “Nikolai Lobachevsky”, “Joseph Fourier”, “Pierre-Simon Laplace”, “Alonzo Church”, “Nikolai Bogolyubov”]

Anyone who has tackled the author’s sprawling epics, 2666 or The Savage Detectives, will recognize this device right away as vintage obsessive, exhaustive Bolaño derailing his own well-laid plans. In the postmortem, Croll characterizes Bolaño’s approach as “messy, sprawling, and inconsistent, liable to lurch into pages of tangential minutiae or take a sudden turn that orphans erstwhile heroes and leaves tantalizing plotlines unresolved.” One could argue that the popularity of both Bolaño and Twitter is at least partly attributable to a common homologous structure: the nested story. Twitter conversations can go several layers deep and spawn any number of spin-off conversations, leaving us tabbed out and craving resolution. Incidentally, Croll, when he is not devouring the classics and soon-to-be-classics, works as an engineer at Twitter.

So why isn’t our code as rich and variegated as these examples? For reasons which will be obvious to any seasoned programmer: the quest for elegance, or, more apt to a discussion of Javascript, unobtrusiveness. Elegance in programming is exclusively concerned with clarity and brevity. In this technical sense of the word, Hemingway’s prose is not too far off the mark. When being understood is of the utmost importance, I’ll take Hemingway-inflected Javascript over Joyce any day. Happily, in literature, Hemingway’s is not the only possible voice.

As an engineer and an astute reader, I doubt Croll harbors any illusions that “code is poetry,” one of many rallying cries of the open source community. The book’s examples are more farce than anything approaching production-grade code. Code may aspire to be more like poetry in the rare confluence Croll has created for our geeky enjoyment, but for the most part code is making the world more standardized, not less. The efficiencies introduced by software developers that have transformed the economy and changed the way we communicate have been built on a bedrock of mechanical elegance and instrumentalized crowd psychology, not poetics. Logically there is no equivalence between code and poetry not because poetry cannot be code—Oulipo proved that it could be, the Flarf poets less convincingly—but for the simple reason that code is not poetry. Not yet at least. Code is instrumental language designed to be interpreted by machines and their operators in order to accomplish defined goals, while poetry, at its most expressive (and subversive) is de-instrumentalized language that disrupts, to borrow a phrase from the start-up lexicon, as it decodes and recodes the usual flows of language, which are always threatening to petrify into inert, perfunctory sayings.

One of the first programming books I laid hands on used excerpts from Kafka’s Metamorphosis as dummy text in its exercises. Before I’d read any Kafka I knew the first line of that story: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Since then I’ve known quite a few programmers who have read Kafka. The Kafka-reading programmer is a bit of an anachronism, possibly a systems analyst debugging code in a cubicle on a Friday night when all of the others have left, an uncomfortable, though no less dutiful, cog in a large bureaucracy. In purely literary terms Croll really has understood Kafka, Kafka the absurd humorist, whose early translators saw fit to correct his tonal “mistakes.” Fittingly, Kafka’s is the only exercise in the book that does not resolve itself. It loops infinitely. Kafka the coder is aware of the bug but is himself useless to fix it; he merely notes in the comments that a “hideous bug” has been introduced. Croll saves this, his best trick for last. It almost feels poetic, this broken code, calling to mind Benjamin’s remark about Kafka: “There is nothing more memorable than the fervor with which Kafka emphasized his failure.”