My Intellectual Heroes

As I’ve got older, I’ve come to read an increasing proportion of non-fiction. And within that, I’ve veered away from biographies and history towards the heavier stuff as time has gone by. Not that I ever shied away from a good thick doorstopper as a teenager. It sometimes tickles me to remember reading Peter Hennessy’s magisterial Whitehall, on the history, incumbents, current (1988) structure and performance of the British civil service, or The Development of the British Economy, 1914-90 while I was fifteen, for example. I always was an insanely ambitious reader (you can interpret that as “massive geek”, if you prefer).

Nowadays I have found my bearings intellectually with those I regard as my main influences. Oddly enough this process only began when I was at university: prior to that I was mostly literary, my favourite writers perhaps being James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs. But once I started reading the political and economic thinkers, that’s when I found my bearings. So here is a history of my heroes.

Karl Marx

I’m not going to apologise for this, either for its tabloid shock value, nor for its student trendiness. Marx remains a staggeringly powerful thinker and one well worth reading. (I was going to say “worth studying”, but as with any thinker, you should be able to engage with them for fun). Encountering Marx was something of a revelation – throughout my adolescent years I’d formed strong opinions on what I didn’t like (Christianity, “family values” types) but never found anything broader on which I could base it all. Upon hearing the main tenets of Marxism – that capitalism is inherently monopolistic, that the middle-class will be swallowed up, that economic development is the engine of history, and so on – I suddenly thought, “Holy shit! That’s just what I think!”

I was never, let me stress, a Rik from the Young Ones student revolutionary, nor was I ever into the Socialist Worker Party, the Trots or even the Scottish Socialist Party. My engagement with politics has always been intellectual rather than active. You might think I’m a lazy-do nothing arse if you’re a busy activist, but hey, that’s just the way I am. The political aspect of Marxism I never bought, insofar as talking about a vanguard party, dictatorship of the proletariat or the future withering of the state; it seemed (and still seems) absurd, and anyway is often more of a Leninist development according to his political opportunities. But the materialist conception of history, and the dialectic, and the view of history as a series of class struggles, were electrifying, illuminating, ideas. I feel a great deal of fondness for the eccentric old boy, and forever grateful to him for clarifying and sharpening many of my muddled thoughts. If you’re really not familiar with Marx either as a thinker or as a real person, try his biography by Francis Wheen, which is a highly readable delight.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche is another endlessly-misunderstood thinker and writer. Bastardized and misquoted by his anti-Semitic brother-in-law, unable to defend himself once he became helplessly insane in 1889 aged just 44 (the suspicion being it was caused by syphilis), Nietzsche did however tempt fate with his the overblown furious prose of his late works. His contempt for Christianity, his belief in an “Superman” and his disdain for the “slave mentality” – well, you can see where people would get the wrong end of the stick. Read the right way, though, without assuming that Nietzsche was arguing against types of people and seeing that it was against modes of thought, and Nietzsche is an invigorating, positive, indeed affirmative (one of his favourite words) thinker. (In some ways, he’s quite close to Buddhism). But rather than having a sustained, totalizing philosophy, I always feel that Nietzsche is best read as a coiner of provocative epigrams and thoughtlets. Have a browse through Twilight of the Idols, rather than the preposterous Thus Spake Zarathustra, for example.

Jean Baudrillard

Though Marx is of course hugely powerful and enlightening, I always felt – as many people feel – him better as a critic of capitalism than suggesting a positive program. And even then, his critique of capitalism is naturally suited to the classical Victorian capitalism of his era. Marx did, of course, foresee the development to the knowledge economy, but you really need to be within that context of that era to see the developments and implications of what is going on. I knew that, but where to go with that, how Marx could be updated to the (post)modern era, I couldn’t figure out.

Then one day I took Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers by John Lechte (a stunningly good book) out the library, and when I got to Baudrillard – BAM! POWEE! SHAZAAM! Fireworks went off, synaptic connections snap, crackled and popped, and I felt that immense intellectual excitement that you either know or you don’t. Baudrillard essentially works through Marxism into a semiotic perspective, and there you have it – Marxism synthesized into postmodernism. Baudrillard’s trajectory did take him to an almost Derrida-esque (Derridean?) obscurity, which is irritating. But his early works, on the object and the consumer society, and his more groundbreaking works, on simulations and networks for example, are staggeringly prescient and utterly fascinating. Read and never think the same way again. For me his The Consumer Society remains his best work.

JK Galbraith

I discovered Galbraith via Baudrillard, as The Consumer Society is in large part a critique of Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. In comparison to the above, Galbraith may seem rather conventional. (You thought I’d be extolling Noam Chomsky or Edward de Bono, I bet). Certainly he was a paid up member of the “Establishment”, a lifelong academic at Harvard, ambassador to India under Kennedy, highly garlanded. Nonetheless, his analysis of modern (i.e. post WWII) capitalism, the behaviour of business, the imperatives of capital, his explication of the role of the state in advanced economies, the necessity of planning and the implications of this, the reality of competition, the desire for vertical integration, all advanced or built on what I understood of the economy as it actually operates. One of the oddities of American capitalism is that it provides little theoretical understanding of itself as it actually words (I’m sure the real smart people have this understanding, but the political narrative of our era operates against it). The founding-myth of the individual farmer/landowner struggling alone and making his own fortune is still so strong that it sets the terms of debate within the US: self-reliance, standing on your own feet, “freedom” etc etc. No matter that the (sub)urban experience (as lived by 82% of Americans) is entirely different from that, or that the modern economy, where large corporations and government control the majority of economic output. The degree of interconnection, institutionalisation and wage-labour, rather than independent small capitalists, makes it an entirely different world. Still, the founding-myth carries on, so that American politics (on the right) has a strong libertarian bent, denying any communality. This might be alright for the farmer in New Mexico, but for the urban population in Cleveland or Bakersfield or Jacksonville, it surely runs counter to their experience.

Galbraith is in fact the great analyst of the corporation, its needs, drives and behaviours, and how it interacts with the state. He is a Keynesian, aware of failures in the market (his book The Great Crash 1929 is still a best-seller) and dismissive of simple remedies (he invented the phrase “conventional wisdom”) like tax cuts and cutting regulation to increase economic activity. (This is not to say that I don’t believe that these actions can have any positive effect on the economy, but they are not a panacea). He writes with elegance, wit and irony; he is clear, persuasive, and in masterful control of complex concepts and material.

I first found Galbraith through his book The New Industrial State in 2003 or so, and it blew me away; in its clarity, depth of understanding and analytical rigour it trumped anything I’d ever read before. Here was an ideas-led, sophisticated analysis of the world and the economy, not as it could be or ought to be, but as it is. He is my current, and most long-standing, intellectual hero. I just think he’s the tops, man.

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My Favourite Characters

I’ve been busy running my new blog of late, hence the lack of posts. If you have any interest in Chinese business, or business in China, check it out.

Anyhoo, yesterday I answered a question in Reddit about which characters seemed the most “complete”. I immediately thought of Toranaga, the warlord from the brilliant novel Shogun. This made me think on about other characters I have loved, laughed at/with, felt fond of, empathised with, sympathised, admired, etc etc. Fiction (in whatever medium) is such a glorious way of expanding your acquaintanceship with a broader section of humanity. Whenever people ask me what kind of films I like, I tend not not say a genre (so reductive), but reply, “One’s with good characters”. This is really what makes a good film, nine times out of ten. You can admire cinematography all you want, but if the people on screen ain’t doing shit, then it’ll be a boring film. A good film, or book, will have this humanity. It is the irreducible core of fiction.

Anyway, here’s some that I have liked.

Richie Tozier from IT (Stephen King)

Richie Tozier is one of the “Losers”, that group of disparate and unhappy children in King’s best novel. He is an endlessly wisecracking smart-ass whose mind runs ten times too fast for his sense of decorum, whose comic absurdity mirrors the folly of the world he sees in his sharp eye, and whose belief and imagination are inchoate yet rich with potential. He’s an eleven year-old who views the stodgy hypocrisies and self-delusion of adults somewhere between wise cynicism and hysterical laughter. And, boy, he makes me laugh. I don’t think any fictional character (outside of comedy) has ever made me laugh so much – i.e. not by being set up for comedy, but simply by being himself and reacting off the other characters.

King is clearly partial to Ritchie (as he often is with his characters), and indulges him. About the first time we see him in IT, he’s introduced to the chubby Ben Hanscombe, as the Losers build a dam: Ritchie performs a series of “salaams” in front of the bewildered Ben, wades into the stream to place sod on their dam, trainers on and all, and does a salute to Ben whenever he returns for more instructions. This overacting and hyperactivity just reminds me of what it was like to be in Scouts, when we all had boundless energy and boyish enthusiasm – when we’d go camping at the drop of a hat and ten-miles walks were a regular Sunday stroll. But Richie’s manic wise-assism, to coin a phrase, also reminds me of being in primary school when it felt like my mind worked completely differently to the football jocks I then consorted with (I didn’t really know there was any different types of boy at that age), and the bafflement when they didn’t get what I was prattling on about, what I was referring or alluding to, and so on. That sort of poignancy is a rare thing, and sets King so far above the meat-and-potato slasher writers like James Herbert.

Toranaga from Shogun (James Clavell)

Shogun, if you don’t know (you really should!) is a novel set in the year 1600, following the adventures of John Blackthorne, the first Briton to set foot in Japan during its time of samurai warlords and first contact with European missionaries and traders. You follow Blackthorne as he makes his way through the levels of Japanese society, from the peasants and fishermen in the landfall village of Anjiro to the nobles and daimyos (warlords) of feudal Japan, kind of like how you follow the hobbits in Lord Of The Rings, or R2D2 and C3P0 in Star Wars. At the very center, or apex, of this war-torn land is Toranaga – Yoshi Toranaga noh-Minowara, head of the Yoshi family of the Minowara clan.

One of the numerous delights of Shogun is how it presents the intricate Japanese politics of the era and makes it comprehensible, even admirable. With the nation torn between around 260 daimyos, Machiavelli would have a field day, for the balance of power can shift on a feather’s touch. At the start of the novel, Toranaga is president of a council of regents appointed to rule Japan until the son of the Taiko (military ruler), who had died the year previous, comes of age at fifteen. Though Toranaga is president, his hated rival, Ishido, rules Osaka Castle, constructed by the Taiko to be the ultimate power in the land, unconquerable in its strength and wealth, with the nation split between those aligned to Toranaga, and those to Ishido. Toranaga’s political intrigues and manoeuvres are wonderfully subtle, and as the book comes to its climax, devastatingly effective. He rules over his generals, samurai, family, consorts and peasants with a fiercely attentive eye, the ability to make a man feel a foot taller just by a word of praise, and also – what’s perhaps most endearing – an wonderful lack of decorum. (The section where he discusses the penis size of his fellow regents is hilarious). Though arrogant and power-driven, Toranaga never resembles a stuffed shirt – or as Alan Clark so memorably described Douglas Hurd, “he’d be as well having a corn cob stuffed up his arse”. Toranaga relishes the basics pleasures of life – sex, simple food, kinship and family, bawdy humour, even peeing. The completeness of this portrait is staggering, and unique in anything I’ve ever read.

Mark Renton from Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh)

Renton is I suppose the closest person to me I’ve encountered in fiction. (Although cynical, underachieving, drink-loving, smart ass Brian from Family Guy would be up there too). He’s an intellectual from a Scottish working-class family who don’t really value that sort of thing. He is ginger. He is a football and music fan. He is deeply cynical about the social and political structures around him, both of government and the working-class institutions. He attended university but remained closest to his friends from back home. He reads a great deal, but mostly aimlessly. Of course there’s the junkie thing as a difference – I didn’t spend my early 20s in a heroin haze, nor did I need to get into theft and fraud to keep myself afloat. I did get into the clubbing scene enough to get a perspective on it all, though.

There is something of a tradition of the alienated Scottish working-class intellectual. It runs through House With The Green Shutters by George Mackay Brown, Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book, the (I think awful) Lanark by Alasdair Gray, and James Kelman’s A Disaffection, and even flavours Iain Banks’ finest novel The Bridge. With education in Scotland practically synonymous with “getting-on” and ultimately Anglicisation, those who refuse to be assimilated into the middle-class suffer (or take upon themselves) a double alienation – from their background, and from the class/society they have rejected. This is a harsher problem than say the working-classes in England, where at least their background remains their own, should they decline to rise socially. Or so it seems to me. Renton exemplifies these problems in a way I relate to far more than the alienated protagonists in the other books. Trocchi’s “Necchi” character is a drug addict and existentialist, but far out of his time in the early 1960s. Patrick Doyle of A Disaffection is a painfully sensitive disappointed romantic, the sort of guy you can imagine proselyting about the dignity of labour and being a member of the Socialist Workers Party and all that nostalgic shite. No: Renton is very much a character of his time and place. You never hear Patrick Doyle talk about his tastes in music, as you do with Renton – instead when sitting with a group of regular working men he starts jabbering about Karl Marx. Christ. Renton (who’s name I take to mean a split, between his educated, intellectual side and his self-destructive social grouping) may be intellectually superior to most of the people around him, but unusually – and thankfully – there’s none of the usual moral smugness associated with this: he’s deeply flawed, a junkie and thief, often described as physically repellent, who has mother-issues, a small penis and a fair amount of narcissism. But all this just makes him a more believable character: far from the absurd alpha-males of working class fiction – check William McIllvanney for egregious examples of this pish – but something more brutal, more honest and more true.

Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (James Joyce)

This is another example of personal identification (and perhaps egotism on my part). But Joyce’s evocation of the development of the Dedalus’ intellect, from childhood to young manhood, is magnificent, just the sort of thing which anyone who lives the life of the mind will get and empathise with and feel excited by. While the bildungsroman is a well-known genre in charting the growth and development of the narrator/author/protagonist, most of this tends to be experiential, as you follow him/her (it’s usually him) through his early experiences. It’s harder to convey, and more satisfying to read, of the development of the mind. With the language in each chapter mirroring the language ability of Dedalus, and the text far more focused on Dedalus’ mental preoccupations than on the externals of school, family and explorations of the psychogeography of Dublin, Portrait is the best example of fiction portraying intellectual development I have ever read. (Second place goes to Edmund White’s The Beautiful Room Is Empty, which conveys the mind of the narrator, if not its development).

This is not to say that Dedalus is a a hero, someone to look up – not the triumphant student hero that you encounter on books like Tom Brown’s Schooldays or even Enid Blyton’s boarding school books (which I loved to read as a lad). Dedalus is weedy, self-righteous, veers between religious ecstasy and frequenting cheap prostitutes, and often acts superior. Yet there’s something wonderful about reading his development because it feels real, lived, genuine. You feel his ambition, his likes and dislikes, his personality, his mind. This is such a rare thing. For those, like me, who live the life of the mind, whose most important events are internal, whose forebears are literary rather than familial, Portrait is the definitive, you know, portrait of a mind attaining maturity. It’s utterly magnificent.