Tolstoy the Libertarian

Posted by on November 30th, 2007

A Libertarian and Relativist quote taken from the Christian Anarchist Leo Tolstoy. Somewhat compatible with discourse theory.

¬†“That this social order with its pauperism, famines, prisons, gallows, armies, and wars is necessary to society; that still greater disaster would ensue if this organisation were destroyed; all this is said only by those who profit by this organisation, while those who suffer from it – and they are ten times as numerous – think and say quite the contrary.” Leo Tolstoy – The Kingdom of God is Within You.

The terms social order and organisation can be replacd with any form of discourse of power. Although the numbers that can be said to suffer from it will vary proportionate to the power of the discursive practise.

Legal Protection of Religion In The News

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 28th, 2007

Dawkins publisher may be tried for attack on ‘sacred values’

A Turkish prosecutor is considering whether to prosecute the Turkish publisher of Richard Dawkins’ bestselling atheist polemic, The God Delusion, on the grounds that it incites religious hatred. The Guardian

Pupil defends teacher in Muhammad teddy furore

A seven-year-old Sudanese boy has defended his British teacher, who stands accused of insulting Islam’s prophet, saying that he had suggested calling the class teddy bear Muhammad because it was his own name. The Guardian

Might as well put this one in from last week for completeness:

Springer show judgement reserved

The BBC will have to wait to see if it will be prosecuted for screening Jerry Springer – The Opera in 2005. The High Court reserved judgement on whether Christian activist Stephen Green should be allowed to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy. BBC

I have already expressed my views. AC1

Discourse

Posted by on November 27th, 2007

This brief outline of Foucault’s theory of discourse is intended to bridge other ideas that I have posted on; such as language games (Wittgenstein and Feyerabend), and recently libertarian socialism. Rather than detail the connections between the three, i’ll leave it to the reader to deduce (or to comment and enquire on). Besides I think the connection is fairly obvious.

The theory of discourse is a postmodern ethical argument concerning discourse and power. Here the term discourse means an historically evolved set of interlocking and mutually supporting statements. It is the ‘language games’ of particular intellectual disciplines, which could also be described as ‘discursive practice’. They usually accept some dominant theory/philosophy to guide them, i.e. science and rationalism. But importantly these discursive practices also include contentious political activity. In other words the discourses define and describe their antagonists, evident in concepts such as ‘irrational’, ‘criminal’, ‘insane’, ‘terrorist’. At the same time the discourse, as well as labelling those who are the archetypal anathema to its orthodoxy, also expresses the political authority of its protagonists.

Prisoner: As God is my judge, my Lord, I am not guilty.

Judge: He is not. I am. You are. Six months.

The language games that each disipline adopts enacts the authority of those empowered to use it within a particular group. Thus when I see a surgeon, his authority is enhanced by his use and application of medical knowledge and terminology. He is empowered to operate on me by my compliance, which accepts his authority in surgical discourse. The opposite would be the case if when I see the surgeon his diagnosis and prognosis was performed in accordance with the interpetation of astrological data. He may be very knowledgeable about my horoscope, but he lacks the sort of authority I would expect from a surgeon, and thus no way would I consider empowering him to anaeasthetize me and open me up! The same is true across the disciplines, thus scientists and theologians often engage in conflict because neither accepts the authority of the other to speak about the others discipline.

But discourse theory is concerned with more than just providing a critique of appropriately acquired and applied knowledge. It is concerned with the political use of authority and empowerment to subordinate, exclude and marginalize those who are defined as being outside, antagonistic, antithetical to the discipline.

We are familiar with the term ‘knowledge is power’ in Foucaults theory this can be rephrased ‘discourse is power’. Law, Penology, Medicine* are powerful discources that in some cases are rathe robviously designed to exclude and control people, such as those diagnosed as criminally insane or ill. – * Such an investigation is relevant also to Institutional Religion, Political Systems, Education, Philosophy etc.

The general juridical form that guaranteed a system of rights that were egalitarian in principle was unsupported by these fine, everyday, physical mechanisms, by all those systems of micro-power that are essentially non-egalistarian and asymmetrical that we call the ‘disciplines’ such as exams, hospitals, prisons, the regulation of workshops, schools, the army. –Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison

Consequently for postmodernists there is an imperative to identify with the victim and to analyse power from the bottom up. Foucault attempts to show that the will to exercise power beats humanitarian egalitarianism every time, and this implies the guilt even of the Enlightenment reliance upon universal principle and reason. With echoes of Feyerabend, Reason and Rationality are identified as being incipiently totalitarian, because the appeal to an always correct Reason is itself a system of control and will always exclude what it makes marginal, defining it as non-rational, irrational and the like.

Rationalism and its supporters define what constitutes Reason, but furthermore are its sole arbitors, thereby excluding and marginalising its critics, its opponents and whosoever else it decides. The tag ‘irrational’ implies a lack of authority, non-validity of argument, deprived and perhaps even depraved. Those thus labelled are therefore either to be pitied, ridiculed (commeansurable identification of religious believers with those who believe in Fairies at the bottom of the garden, for instance), ignored, excluded from meaningful dialogue (see the arguments had between El Sordo and AC1 on whether non-rational arguments including notions of sentiment and feeling can be valid or included), marginalised from the economy of discourse (which university would fund an atheist theologian, or a pseudoscientist in physics?).

The normalizing discourses, that various disciplines define and enact, go beyond merely intellectual segregation, but also in numerous situations impinge upon the liberty of individuals and even groups. Thus the medicaly ‘reasonable’ psychiatrist is empowered and endowed with the authority to define the ‘unreasonable’, pass judgement upon them and to lock them in an asylum. Such prejudicial discourses can be found everywhere, sexists, racists, imperialists all use similar techniques. They make their normalizing discourse prevail, they create their own deviants and exclude them accordingly. (The Patriarchal influence of most early religious philosophy significantly contributed to the oppression of women and their role in society over thousands of years.)

The most important point that postmodernists make about the role of discourse is that it is not confined to the obvious formal contexts, such as the law courts. It inescapeably permeates the whole of society from top to bottom, from judges pronouncements, to scientific journals, to TV advertisements, to pop songs, to newspapers. The more dominant a discourse is within society, the more natural it seems and ironically the more it justifies itself by appeals to nature. Everybody, the postmodernists claim, absorp these subordinating norms, because they are often an intimate part of our language, of which we adhere to unwittingly as though they were facts rather than psychologically and politically motivated features of our talk about it.

The task for postmodernists (and indeed everyone) is to provide an ethical solution to the chauvenistic influence of discourse. This is a failing of Foucault, he identifies a problem, promotes ‘struggle’ and rebellion as solutions, but does not detail beyond what Lyotard suggest: small-scale local reforms*. In other words small groups of the excluded (i.e. Homosexuals) could unite and fight against exclusion, but how do we eradicate exclusion from society wholesale (and is it even possible).

* The Zapatista rebellion in South Mexico, and the Abahlali baseMjondolo of South Africa are excellent example of small-scale postmodern rebellion and may well induce egalitarian change in their societies, but what relevance does it have for us? Note with the Abahlali part of their discourse excludes the political intervention of wellmeaning outsiders.

Another task for postmodernists is to evaluate the role of individual agency and responsibility within discourse. Is it enough to attirbute blame to the discourse of power that flows through individuals, or does the individual themself hold some accountability. (This has some relevance to our recent Institutional Religion discussion).

The critique of discourses of power has one final important role to play in modern philosophy. The role and identity of the self. Certain theories have developed that propose that concepts of the ‘self’ are inseperable from the various discourses of power that flow through us. Thus for a very simple example a male (generally) is inherently a patriarchal sexist, he has to play the role that is defined as being male. Unfortunately there is too much material to explore this further, thus postmodern theories on self and identity must be reserved for a different post. I will conclude with a quote and the plot for a postmodern novel.

A human being is “not a unity, but a process, [is] perpetually in construction, perpetually contradictory, perpetually open to change.” Catherine Belse, Critical Practice

In John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse the narrator Ambrose, describes the difficulty of writing a story called ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ about a character called Ambrose who is Lost in the funhouse. He is visiting his family which includes visiting a funhouse. But he is described by an author who is perpectually aware of the fact that he is telling a story and that he is using literary conventions to do so. Ambrose systematically loses his autonomy and is identifiable as the function of the authors story, the creature of the person who is writing him.

The ultimate conclusion, and possible topic for another post, is that human identity, the ‘self’ is a fiction.

Abahlali baseMjondolo

Posted by on November 26th, 2007

In furthering my studies of the Zapatista movement of South Mexico I came across this group. Abahlali baseMjondolo is a South African Libertarian Socialist movement. The name is isiZulu for ‘the shack dwellers.

Rather than go into extensive detail into the aims of the movement (which I will leave to the individual to research via the links provided) I will just give a very basic outline of the principles of Libertarian Socialism and the Abahlali baseMjnodolo .

Libertarian Socialism rejects the roles of the state or the political party in the promotion of liberty and social justice. Both party and state are top-down political movements, therefore removed from the realities of the struggles it purports to represent. Liberterian Socialists instead look towards trade unions, workers councils, citizens assemblies and non-bureaucratic decentralized means of action.

An example of LibSoc is the Zapatista movement of South Mexico which places the revolution in the hands of the people. There is no party, there is no single political theory, there is merely community action and communal consensus. All members of the community have a voice, all participate within the rule of the community, and a system of ‘ministerial’ rotation. In other words the machinery of power is rotated amongst the whole community over a period of time.

Zapatista and Abahlali baseMjondolo are examples of postmodern revolution. Practical realities replace theory. It is not anti-theory, but theory arises secondary to practical experience. Thus as an example in the Durban shack townships the role of religion is very important to the people. Instead of imposing a secular view from above (as in classical Marxist theory) Abahlali respects and promotes the equality of personal belief. Other examples from Chiapas (South Mexico) is that different communities have different economic templates, some maintain money, others have transferred to a gift economy.

Abahlali has three key areas in its philosophy.

  • Politics of the Poor. This means politics conducted by and for the poor. Instead of by wellmeaning outsiders. The political process is liberated to include in its functions the people it aims to help. In practise this means that the political process takes place where the poor people live, at whatever time is convenient for the people of that area, it is conducted in their language, and respects their indigenous cultural identities.
  • Living Politics. This has two meanings. 1) that its politics is shaped by experience not theory. Political education creates its own elites that impose ideas upon others. 2) Living politics is democratic and communal.
  • Peoples Politics. The whole community participate, decisions are based upon the consensus of the whole. The system does not allow for representational politics, or the establishment of a professional political class. Personal power and financial reward are rejected.

Institutional Religion

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 25th, 2007

William Blake was featured on BBC Poetry Please a few weeks back and this renewed by interest in him (beyond “The Tyger“). Blake thought of himself as a Christian but was rather against institutional religion. I know you might be thinking “institutions are not evil, only people are”, but I would say some ideas are destructive regardless of the holder of the idea. I quote an extract from Blake and italicized an example of how institutional religion can be destructive.

I stood among my valleys of the south
And saw a flame of fire, even as a Wheel
Of fire surrounding all the heavens: it went
From west to east against the current of
Creation and devourd all things in its loud
Fury & thundering course round heaven & earth
By it the Sun was rolld into an orb:
By it the Moon faded into a globe,
Travelling thro the night: for from its dire
And restless fury, Man himself shrunk up
Into a little root a fathom long.
And I asked a Watcher & a Holy-One
Its Name? he answerd. It is the Wheel of Religion
I wept & said. Is this the law of Jesus
This terrible devouring sword turning every way
He answerd; Jesus died because he strove
Against the current of this Wheel

William Blake

Another point is we can consider institutional religion and personal religion separately. Criticism of the institution of the church is not meant to offend since this does not automatically exclude personal religious belief. However, I think Blake would consider non-institutional belief a minority. In Christianity, what Jesus said in the gospels (or strictly what we was reported to say) and what the church as become are quite separate.

Anti Citizen One

PS Although written by an atheist, the first movie version of “His Dark Materials” is out soon, which chimes with Blake’s view.

What is Copyright?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 24th, 2007

I have occasionally highlighted concerns about copyright and its implications on society. But why does copyright matter? Good question…

Knowledge is a resource which we all use to some extent in order to live. Bacon’s saying “knowledge is power” might be rather clich√© but it has a certain amount of truth. Influentially, Plato valued knowledge above material concerns. This is neatly summed up by George Bernard Shaw:

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.

Most forms of artistic expression fall within one tradition or another. Virtually all artistic works incorporate elements of earlier works. Example: Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet drew heavily on verse written 30 years earlier by Arthur Brooke (and he based that on a traditional Italian story). Another example: Beethoven’s 9th symphony uses the poem “Ode to Joy” written by Friedrich Schiller. ALL art draws on previous work to some extent. Even new art forms like photography draw on painting for inspiration (and to seek acceptance as an art form at all). How many films are based on books? Conclusion: past artistic works is a foundation for new artistic works. If you restrict access to artistic reuse, you restrict what can be done artistically.

The sound recordings of Beatles become public domain on or around 2013. This means anyone can reproduce and enjoy the Beatles songs without charge. This does not mean people can record their own versions as the score and lyrics are under copyright for a looooog time – I think 70 years after death (and some of them are still alive) in the UK. Guilbert and Sullivan operas are an example which are completely in the public domain. People may adapt and stage this without obtaining permission – after all Guilbert and Sullivan are well past caring. This incidentally introduces a practical problem: for an obscure artistic work, how can we check when the author died? This leaves many original works in a limbo of unknown copyright (so called “orphaned works”). This aspect needs reform to make it clear when it is public domain, for example copyright lasts for X years after publication or Y years after creation.

There has been recent controversy over a Canadian web site that distributed music scores which are out of copyright – at least out of copyright in Canada (which is a generous 50 years after death).

“Within two years – without any funding, sponsorship or promotion – the site had become the largest public domain music score library on the internet, generating a million hits per day, featuring over 15,000 scores by over 1,000 composers, and adding 2,000 new scores each month.” BBC

Unfortunately, they were still in copyright in Europe. So this Canadian was “breaking” a law in another country but was not in any way based in Europe. After legal threats from Universal Edition (an American company) the site was closed. The obsurd conclusion: a web publisher must comply with every law in every country in the whole world!(!!!!) Clearly this is absurd since many countries have absurd laws and one cannot hope to obey them all.

I suspect the problem is caused by international trading organizations forcing their dogmatic pro-market agenda on the world. Example: when copyright laws are harmonized between countries to assist in free trade, they are always changed in favour of business. This policy is rooted in US thinking, which Noam Chomsky summed up brilliantly: “The country was founded on the principle that the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority, and so it remains”

One organisation which as worked tirelessly for the publics rights is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The “copyleft” movement is also a significant counter movement that I applaud.

Another example: scientific journals charge subscriptions for readers but (as far as I am aware) generally do not charge to publish. The articles are copyright. This is a RIDICULOUS state of affairs, since most journal articles are university groups which are funded by public money. So the public have to pay the scientists to do they work and pay a second time to get the published article! Also, this might be affordable to large institutions in richer countries, but is unaffordable to the majority of institutions in poor countries. What we need is a “pay to publish” model that allows free distribution of scientific results.

As Max said in the movie Pi: “I’m trying to understand our world! I don’t deal with petty materialists like you!”

Well said, Max, well said.

Anti Citizen One

PS. This site is all under a creative commons license which is “copyleft”.

A small meditation on ID cards

Posted by on November 23rd, 2007

Following on from the widely reported scandal of the missing personal details of 25 million people and the backlash that this has inaugurated against the UK governments soon to be implemented ID card policy, I decided it was high time to meditate deeply on this matter.

In principle I was vaguely opposed to ID cards believing in the anarchist/libertarian concept of the liberty of the self, which opposes any intrusive governmental control over the details of your identity.

Yet two small qualms kept preventing me from an outright opposition to the idea (believing in vain that a sensible compromise could be reached). The first temptation came from my inner librarian who said “would’nt it be a good idea to have all your personal data centralised and organised in one neat database and card?” – thus preventing the countless piles of forms that need to be completed when any business is being conducted with government agencies. The second voice came from my inner nationalist “wouldn’t an ID card be helpful for counter-terrorism?” This was a strange position (for a revolutionary like me); but not being inclined towards Islamic fundamentalism (although I seek a greater understanding of its roots and development), and being repulsed by mass killings of the sort that occured on 9/11 and 11/7 and those planned but foiled on other occasions, I felt that possibly a national identity card of the variety used in the second world war could be of use to enhance our general security.

But this inner dilemma, politically opposed to ID cards yet pragmatically pre-disposed to supporting the notion, made me feel very uncomfortable. Therefore I did what many philosophers are prone to do (thus demonstrating the family resemblance between philosophy, law and science) and I sought advice in historical precedent. One of the phrases commonly bandied around by the supporters of ID cards are “the innocent would have nothing to fear.” Thus dismissing the opponents as being either in possession of a guilty conscience, or of being paranoid. But, I reasoned, such a defence of ID cards presupposes that the information they contain would be used in an ‘ethical’ manner by the government of the day. This further supposes that the government would have the best and selfless intentions towards its citizens. It finally supposes that the government would not contemplate using the information for the purposes of self-preservation.

Now, although by no means would I describe the current government as being totalitarian, or fascist, or authoritarian (though it is creeping ever closer), could I with confidence assume this to be the case in the future? Of course I cannot! At this point I recalled a history paper I read once concerning the super-efficient manner in which the Nazi’s succeeded in rounding up undesirables (particularly the Jewish communities) within Germany and the occupied countries. The method involved a systematic organisation of information, using punch cards and sorting systems. The information was acquired using census returns and data from Church registries, government records, tax returns, council records etc. The technology used was a punch card machine (a precursor to the computer) designed and manafactured by the European subsidiary companies of IBM! (An allegation of involvement that the major information technology company has never refuted).

The conclusion to my meditation then was quite logical. The seemingly innocent machinery of bureacracy, and the systematic collection of seemingly unimportant bits of personal information when placed in the hands of those who would do anything to preserve their power, or to further their own political ends, rapidly loses all vestiges of innocence.

Ironically whilst watching Oliver Stones Comandante, a documentary about Cuban Communist Fidel Castro, I was reminded of a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

A Perfect Illustration of Why ID Cards are a Bad Idea

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 21st, 2007

“So it seems unlikely that many will be lining up to congratulate Chancellor Alistair Darling today after it emerged that the Revenue has lost a staggering 25 million customer accounts.” The Register, 20th Nov 2007

Almost as bad as UK government authoritarianism is UK government incompetence The more centralised the data becomes, the greater chance of catastrophic failure. Previously we were protected by the hand written records being too hard to catalog. Giving this government technology is like giving a gun to a monkey.

AC1

Mini Review: Postmodernism and Science

Posted by on November 20th, 2007

In the OUPbook Postmodernism: a very short introduction, Christopher Butler analyses different themes in postmodernism, particularly its approaches to philosophy, politics and art. In one chapter he considers the postmodern (now reffered to as pomo) approach to science. Generally pomo is characterized as avant garde, anti-realist, irrealist, anti-rational, sceptical and perhaps in some quarters even as anti-science.

The pomo tool of deconstruction when applied to science critically evaluates the role of political and sociocultural influences upon scientific research, funding for the sciences and its technological innovations. A particular focus of concern is concentrated upon weapons development, pollution and industrial exploitation of the worker. A postmodernist critique of science will in general be critical of the notion that the ‘march of science’ equates with progress.

However in Butler’s overview he is generally critical of the pomo approach to science. In fact he appears to support science unconditionally, thus relegating the scope of postmodernism to cultural theory, politics and liberative ethics. This unquestioning adherence to science (for which he doesnt provide a justifying explanation) seems to promote the primacy of deductive reasoning and empirical method over and above all other ways of thinking. Ironically Butler’s pro-science stance would appear to demonstrate what pomo calls the modernist tendency to prejudice. I found this chapter a little hard to swallow as it seems to make an innaccurate generalisation about pomo approaches to science. As is implied in the pomo ‘school of thought’ there is of course no one single approach favoured, thus the anti-science tag would sit uncomfortable with philosophers of science such as Feyerabend and Kuhn, who explicitly accept science as a valid method, but reject its claims to primacy. Such relativistic approaches have sought to legitimise non-scientific and non-rational endeavour (i.e. Religion).

In his chapter, Butler quotes two leading physicists Sokal and Bricmont who responded to the pomo critique. Firstly defending the misuse of some of their work and secondly attacking the pseudo-scientific inclinations of certain philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard had a tendency in his work to use scientific, or scientific sounding terminology in his writings. Two famous examples were ‘hyperspace‘ and ‘the Euclidian space of war‘. Sokal and Bricmont criticise Baudrillard on two grounds. Firstly it would appear that he is using the terminology in order to give it an air of scientific authority. Secondly, and more misleadingly they accused him of mistaking certain scientific ideas, distorting science, misrepresenting it, and therefore talking unscientific nonsense. This attack was in effect an attack upon the legitimacy of the postmodern critique of science. Butler unquestioningly accepts this attack, I however do not. Baudrillard certainly does use scientific terminology and broaches certain scientific issues. So in response to the critics we must analyse what is happening. There are 3 possibilities.

1) Baudrillard is correct in his use of the terminology, and Sokal and Bricmont are wrong.

2) Baudriallard has redefined the scientific terminology to mean something else. Therefore they only bare a family resemblance to the original meanings of the words, in which case Sokal and Bricmont are at the least mistaken.

3) Baudrillard has misused and misunderstood, or distorted certain scientific concetps. Sokal and Bricmont are right to label this as psuedo-science.

Lets look at the implications of these three possibilities. If 1) is correct then in this case the definitive claims of science are wrong, the edifice has been undermined and science and technology may be about to collapse. I am sceptical about the probability of this outcome (you will be glad to know). If 2) is correct, and I suspect Baudrillard may defend himself along these lines, then the accusations of Sokal and Bricmont are wrong, for they are misunderstood. However Baudrillard does not get such an easy reprieve, for if he has coined new neologisms for old standardly accepted scientific terms, and he has not provided a ready definition then he is responsible for the misunderstanding, and he has done the cause of philosophy a great disservice by creating (rather than destroying) confusion. Finally, if 3) is correct then Baudrillard is guilty of overstepping the barrier between language games and the criticisms levelled against him are justified and correct.

Like I have said, I believe Baudrillard is guilty of causing confusion as opposed to deception. Either way though if in the case of Baudrillard there has been confusion or error then this should not delegitimise the entire pomo approach to science, as Butler would seem to imply. What it does mean is that postmodernists when investigating the epistemological claims of science must be more careful and more vigorous in their critiques. This new sense of caution should not distract pomo philosophers from the fundamentally important task (which is even admitted from within the scientific community) of anlaysing and criticising the sociological and political basis and motivations behind science and scientific research. Particularly where such research has negative technological uses.

Book Review: Orpheus Emerged by Jack Kerouac

Posted by on November 18th, 2007

Orpheus Emerged, written by Jack Kerouac in 1944/45 was only published posthumously in 2002 following the death of his wife. Friend, Poet and contemporary Robert Creeley wrote in his introduction that this was an momentous occasion, the rediscovery and publication of a lost classic by the ‘voice of a generation’ Beat author Jack Kerouac. Yet despite the positive reviews printed on the dust covers the book was near universally panned by the critics. Dull. Achingly Stiff. Pretentious. Immature. Pedantic. Critics clearly did not like it.

This was the second time I had read this novella, and for the second time I managed to finish it in a couple of hours. And for the second time I was left wondering what was it I had just read. I had my ideas, but I felt somehow cheated that I had read a book, somebody elses creation which was yet so ambigous that its value and meaning depended upon my interpretation of it, as though it were in fact my book. My greatest dissappointment though (first time round) was, like the critics, reserved for the fact that it just wasnt anywhere near as good as Kerouac’s seminal work ‘On The Road‘. Looking for some guidance, and some hint of what it all meant I ploughed the internet for literary criticisms. All I found, as you can see from the perjorative descriptions listed above, were equally confused and disappointed readers.

Orpheus Emerged is the story of a group of young bohemian intellectuals studying at university. It is a chronicle of their passions, conflicts and dreams, and ultimately is a record of their search for truth through art and philosophy.

Michael is the artist, desperately seeking happiness, and wallowing in his own artistic model of the aesthete. He is a bohemian whose poetry infers an experimentation with drugs, a dabbling with mystical religion, and sexual experimentation. Paul (whose relation to Michael is unknown, see later on for my theory) is an out of town bum, with little money, an intellectual who annoys everyone he touches, and yet with whom that cannot do without. He is not registered as a student, but he attends lectures anyway, and the professors politely ignore him until he speaks up and makes his contributions in a class on Nietszche. Arthur, Leo, Anthony and Julius are ensemble characters who weave through the story. Arthur is a budding poet who aspires to Michael’s aesthetic heights. Leo likewise is in awe of Michaels work, but is critically aware of deeper trains of thought. Julius is an observer, and a shrewd one at that, described by the others as a ‘super-voyeur’ he alone guesses at the complex relationship between Michael and Paul. Arthur is an emotional wreck, an alcoholic and a wife beater, married to Marie, who being a more dominant character cares not about the violence, loves Anthony dearly, but seeks to explore her own sexuality in an affair with Michael. Finally Maureen is Michael’s mistress in her late twenties, seeking commintment and security from the young bohemian, she is mature, wise and singularly uninterested in the pretentious artsy world of Michael and his friends.

When you read the book, set over a couple of weeks, nothing much happens, and there is no coherent plot or exploration of character. Chance meetings are always just around the corner and everything seems so utterly contrived. They meet, they eat, they drink copiously, they hold a party, they attend lectures, they talk pretentious waffle about art and philosophy, often subconsciously aware that they dont know what they are talking about. They conduct affairs, they gossip, they suffer emotional crises, they seek oblivian in drink and plumb the depths of despair and talk of suicide.

It is easy considering all this, the shallowness of the characters, the pretentious rubbish that they spout, the numerous references to Nietszche, Rimbaud and other counter-cultural figures in literature, the meandering pace of the plot, to simply say ‘who cares?’

Then I had a revelation. Within the book was hidden a kernel of truth, within the very motif of the search for truth. Michael the poet is frustrated with the aesthetic life, Paul mocks him relentlessly as a failure. Michael is aware of the pretentiousness of much of his work, yet recognises the need to continue as a prophet for the sake of Arthur and Leo (at least). Michael is troubled by his amoral nature in conducting his affair (destroying his relationship with Maureen and near killing Anthony who drinks himself to oblivion), yet as Paul hints at, by being troubled he is clearly not amoral.

Throughout the novel there is one continous battle, between Michael the aesthete and Paul the iconoclast. Michael feels the need to touch God, and to impart in his long winded poetry an essence of the divine. Paul ridicules his work, calls him a failure, enrages him, goads him, steals his work and threatens to burn it. The two of them are constantly at daggers drawn. Michael attacks him with a lampstand, then later when blind drunk and contemplating suicide decides to murder Paul at the same time.

In the novel, which is set in no particular time or place (it could easily be here and now) Kerouac is himself searching for truth. He is looking to find his voice, the voice of a generation. This book is the beginning of the genesis of the beat movement. He wrote it at the end of the second world war, at columbia university shortly after he met Allan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and the other artists who would become the leaders of the beat movement. It is an early postmodern work of art, it is an existential masterpiece of self-analysis. The movement that was to spawn rock and roll, the hippy movement, pacifism, the anti-war generation and free love, was born out of this novel, this chronicle of existential angst. Dissillusionment with the war and the world, the rejection of authority and conventional morality.

No wonder Orpheus Emerged reads so badly, it is unfinished, its merely a particle of the developing Kerouac. Too caught up in the real world who has been there to teach Kerouac how to write? Nobody has, he has had to develop all by himself, find his own voice, his own identity. As he says of Wagner in the novel, he has had to spend years sorting out his intellectual grounding before he can produce his art.

Who is Paul? My reading is that he is the alter-ego of Michael, his shadowself. He has a ghostly ethereal character to him. When Michael disappears for a week (conducting his affair) Paul leaves town and ‘sleeps on the grass and eats fruit for breakfast’. When Michael reappears so does Paul. When one goads the other, the other always responds ready for a fight. When Michael falls ill with a fever (at the climax of the novel) so too does Paul. Michael never attends lectures, but Paul does. And the greatest hint, when Michael resolves to commit suicide he decides he can only do so after killing Paul. In the end, Michael storms to Pauls apartment, wherein is the mythical ‘Helen’ a character about whom we know nothing about, other than she is the love of both of them. Helen and Paul are seen catching the streetcar and leaving town. This scene witnessed by Arthur, Leo and Julius concludes the novel, and they like the reader are left uncertain who the man is, Michael or Paul? The shrew observer Julius, earlier concludes that Paul must be Michaels brother, so we can assume some physical resemblance between the two.

In conclusion I see that the book is much deeper than many critics give it credit for. Yes it is poor in comparison to his other works, but it is meant to be, it is an existential biography in which Kerouac embarks on a sincere quest to find his own voice.

Michael, the artist-man, wants to achieve literary perfection, Paul his shadowself mocks and scorns his efforts, such perfection cannot be achieved by affecting the habits and manners of great artists, it can only be found in self-discovery. The search for truth can only be resolved by being true to oneself. Michael and Paul are meant to be the same character, shadows of each other, Michael and Paul are Jack Kerouac. Their struggles are his struggles. This work is the chronicle of his existential journey. It is through this existential journey, through writing this book, that Kerouac can begin to find his true voice. Jack Kerouac is Orpheus Emerged, and once he has found himself the mature writer, the writer for whom the critics are full of praise, can finally emerge.

Taking no more than two hours, its an easy read. But (and it took me a long period of contemplation) you may feel as though you have witnessed nothing of any import. I cannot recommend this book on its own merit. But can recommend it as a source for contemplative guidance in the existential sense. Michael and Paul remind me very much of me at the same age.