Friday, October 10, 2008

Adam Gopnik on John Stuart Mill.

The New Yorker's "critic-at-large" not only gets to live in Paris, he also can read and write whatever he wants for a living. He, like Mill himself, shows how we peons may benefit from the leisured class who put pen to paper, fingers to keyboards. As Gopnik with earlier essays on Philip K. Dick and G.K. Chesterton showed me, he's worthy of attention for revealing not only what we half-recalled from our previous encounters with his literary subjects, but for reminding us that we half-learned from them lessons worth remembering.

Here's excerpts from his October 6, 2008, review "Right Again" of Richard Reeves' biography: "John Stuart Mill-- Victorian Firebrand".

After introducing Mill's maddening perspicacity, his always having arrived at progressively informed judgments about feminism, equality, liberalism, or freedom 150 years ahead of us, Gopnik explains how this troubles biographers.
Every time we turn a corner, there is Mill, smiling just a touch too complacently at having got there first. Admiration for intelligence and truth easily turns into resentment at the person who has them; Aristides the Just was banished from Athens because people were fed up with hearing him called Aristides the Just. It is one of the many virtues of Reeves’s funny, humane biography that it brings Mill to life in the only way sententious great men can be brought to life, and that is by showing us what he was like when he lost his heart and when he lost his reason. Both happened to him just once, but that was sufficient. Mill’s is a story of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.

His notorious education at the hands of his Utilitarian, hyper-rational father summarized, his early success in political and economic philosophy related, Mill-- still only twenty-- suffers a breakdown, and turns to the arts for solace.
Though he was able to continue working, he could no longer write. With his quick intelligence, he recognized that the problem lay somewhere in his formation, in things that had been given too little attention. He turned to music for solace. It helped for a while, until he grew obsessed with the thought that there are only so many notes, and so many combinations of notes, and that, sooner or later, they would be used up, and all melody exhausted.

I think of chess in the same way; I wonder if Kafka or Beckett or Nabokov did! Others might contemplate "the prison house of language" such in Borgesian convolutions rather than Frederic Jameson's obfuscations. Speaking of postmodern tenured elites, it's bracing to find that Gopnik argues for a contrary position regarding Mill's embrace of the aesthetic imagination to soothe his overheated radical journalism.
His love of poetry and music and art also led him toward conservative thought. Aesthetes always bend to the right, in part because the best music and the best buildings were made in the past, and become an argument for its qualities. Someone entering Chartres becomes, for a moment, a medieval Catholic, and a person looking at Bellini or Titian has to admit that an unequal society can make unequalled pictures. To love old art is to honor old arrangements. But even new and progressive art is, as Mill knew, a product of imagination and inspiration, not of fair dealing and transparent processes; the central concerns of liberalism—fairness, equity, individual rights—really don’t enter into it. Mozart, whom Mill loved, would have benefitted as a person had he lived in a world that gave him the right to vote for his congressman, collect an old-age pension, and write letters to the editor on general subjects, and that gave his older sister her chance at composing, too. But not a note of his music would have been any better. Art is a product of eccentric genius, which we can protect, but which no theory of utility can explain.

Mill urges his readers towards a pioneering "self-development," one that employs the liberal arts in their own "radical" etymology. Perhaps one of the first to do so by blending ethical utilitarianism with "hedonic calculus," ingeniously?
A good life for Mill, post-madness, is not one where you have queued before the slot machine of utility and got the candy it dispenses. It is one where you have gone out into the world to build the best self you can—travelled where you wanted and seen what you could and said what you had to, sung your own songs and heard your own poems. Mill was a romantic and an epicurean in a gray tweed suit, and his mature liberalism is both what a narrow historian means by liberalism—a theory of free conduct justified by its good results—and what the rest of us mean when we say that someone is liberal-minded: open to all the pleasures of life and generous in their enjoyment.

Even my condensation of Gopnik on Mill itself expands. Being a Victorian, expecting his audience to take more time and to possess more patience than you or I may have with a method of communication by blog, digest, and mediary, Mill's hard to reduce to the bite-sized chunks we gobble up as daily wisdom.
Mill’s sentences sway and ponder with the heavy grace of elephants, and are often about the same size. Defending a philosophy of hedonism, he writes sentences that contain more philosophy than hedonism: “The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” in other words, but no rosebuds fall on the page. Whatever the subject, Mill surveys the ground, clears it of underbrush, builds a house of straw to demonstrate what a shoddy house looks like, sets it on fire, and in its place builds a house of brick, which he dares you to knock down. The house of brick is, as Victorian brick houses usually were, lacking in grace and lightness and charm, but it still stands. You don’t come away from Mill dazzled, as you do with Ruskin or Carlyle, but you come away with a place to live your life.

Since my wife and I have been carrying on these recent months a spirited if attenuated discussion about theodicy, why not bring Mill into the symposium (a term I lately was reminded about-- from the Greek for a 'drinking as opposed to dinner party')?
When someone says that proof of God’s existence can be found in Nature, he doesn’t say it’s bosh. He asks what this would actually entail if it were true, and infers that such a creator would have to be limited, inept, well-meaning, forgetful, and in a daily contest with another power: “A Being of great but limited power . . . who desires, and pays some regard to, the happiness of his creatures, but who seems to have some other motives of action which he cares more for, and who can hardly be supposed to have created the universe for that purpose alone.” What natural theology, taken seriously, shows is not the great Watchmaker or the All-Seeing Jove but the absent-minded Landlord, a sort of eternal Lord Emsworth, who, though he helps the young lovers, cares mainly about his pig.

But Mill really means it: take the argument for God’s existence seriously, and that’s where it leads you. That’s the key thing about Mill, hustling between London and Avignon, climbing mountains and administering India and surveying churches: he always really means it.

What a great riposte to the natural law argument! A conservative might charge that one may not place one's genitals anywhere not 'designed' for reproduction. A liberal, if not libertine, may parry that a hammer, if used for cracking walnuts rather than pounding nails, can still be used for a different function effectively. Mill learned about the utility of his open-minded thinking in pleasant practice. He married his apparent mistress who had been trapped in a miserable marriage, Harriet Taylor, after what for mid-Victorian convention would have been a scandalous courtship, near the rhino's cage at the London Zoo where they dallied. Gopnik compares her to Lennon's Yoko, both an intellectual's match and a surrogate mother.

The result of their collaboration still may rattle cages today. One considers our cultural contradictions within which Sarah Palin's rise to scrutiny has brought claims that she's both the epitome of today's working woman and an unfit (grand)mother. I learned yesterday that the U.S. rate of teen pregnancy (overall at a third before twenty, with 70% of blacks and 50% of Latinas) ranks us among levels of former Soviet satraps.
Mill and Taylor, in their later writing, most famously in the 1869 “The Subjection of Women,” aren’t content to show that women would be happier if freer; they go right to the ground and ask what reason we have for thinking that any restraint on women’s freedom is just. The arguments against women’s liberty have to do with what is natural for women to do, or what women are capable of doing, or what some men would be offended by. They take each case and show that its only rationale is our slavery to custom. Women are naturally passive? Go tell Queen Elizabeth. They are happy in their lot? All slaves say as much to the slave master. They are “designed” to have children? No argument from nature can ever alter an argument from ethics: if women want to raise children, excellent; if they don’t, there is no natural reason to think they must any more than there is a reason to think that male philosophers should all put down their pens and go out hunting for mammoths.

Mill demolishes any sally that we humans should look to rhinos or Romantics as our role model.
In his essay on “Nature,” he writes, “Nature cannot be a proper model for us to imitate. Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider what nature does, but what it is good to do.” Mill’s rejection of a natural case isn’t that anything goes; it’s that nobody can really know what goes until someone goes farther. He doesn’t believe in a blank slate on which anything can be inscribed; he believes in the power of the chalk-holding hand to change the sum on the blackboard.

Such confidence, so typical of his century, does show Mill's expectation that rational behavior would banish the shadows. Harriet had died after only seven-and-a-half years of marriage, but he dedicated "On Liberty" to her the next month. He learned much from her, and did not waver in his convictions. Let all beliefs into the forum for contention, and we, he figured, would choose the sensible plan. This does, Gopnik avers, leave Mill perhaps too sure that the ameliorative would always equal the calculable.
It’s also true that many things the Victorian Mill couldn’t even have imagined being asked to tolerate have come to be tolerated under the sway of the argument he began. The idea that people would demand the freedom to practice sodomy would, I think, have astonished Mill as much as anyone else in his day. (The topic isn’t mentioned anywhere in his writings, though Bentham did write a courageous essay against hanging men for it—and then thought better of publishing the piece.) Yet, demanded on Millian grounds—no harm; no foul—the freedom has been granted. In a sense, social conservatives like Rick Santorum are right: there is a slippery slope leading from one banned practice to the next. Give rights to blacks, and the next thing you know you are giving rights to women and sodomites and then the sodomites are renting formal wear and ordering flowers for their weddings. The slippery slope is what Mill called liberty. Every time we slide a little farther down, what we find is not a descent toward Hell but more air, and more people breathing free.

Yesterday, near Nixon's old "Western White House" in San Clemente, I drove behind an older couple in a Cadillac, with a "Yes on Prop. 8" bumper sticker. Layne told me she'd have slashed its tires. She gave money the day before for its defeat. Backed by Catholics, many Christians, and most of all Mormons, this seeks to define Californian marriage as limited to a couple of the opposite sex. Today, pondering Gopnik on Mill, I nodded at this passage. Turn to a Victorian sage, and you'll find a contemporary guru.

Conservatives, politically and culturally, get a lot of flak. Yet, as Gopnik reminds us, we need them. Not to limit who can marry whom, I'd explain, but to encourage us to analyze ourselves how far we should go in proposing legal and moral changes, and how quickly we should alter our ways. The brake that principled rather than ignorant caution drags on the liberal rush to tear down the open road I find an essential component of our society. Mill shot his mouth off and called Disraeli's Tories "necessarily the stupidest party," and I guess you could label the GOP similarly. Gopnik clarifies what Mill's comment intends:
He meant that, since true conservatism is a complicated position, demanding a good deal of restraint when action is what seems to be wanted, and a long view of history when an immediate call to arms is about, it tends to break down into tribal nationalism, which is stupidity incarnate. For Mill, intelligence is defined by sufficient detachment from one’s own case to consider it as one of many; a child becomes humanly intelligent the moment it realizes that there are other minds just like its own, working in the same way on the material available to them. The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary. Put him in another’s shoes and he would turn them into Army boots as well.

This instantly brought mental pictures of not bin Ladin whom Obama's vowed to arraign, or the surge which McCain's promised to surf, but my perspective on Irish republicanism. The districts in Derry, the loyalist of the Fountain minutes from the Bogside, that of Van Morrison's Cyprus Avenue so near Gerry Adams' Pound Loney. Or, of the local gang, eight hundred strong and lasting forty years, that's terrorized the few blacks who dare to move into the barrio around my home.

Near the article's end, Gopnik reminds us of Mill's influence on abolition, and how he championed so much that ideologues and demagogues have distorted in the past 150 years in pretending to rally us for liberal programs or radical ideals. Mill endures, despite our prejudice that perhaps still makes Marx peddled as an icon cooler than his calmer British neighbor, as a voice of reason. If Millians had been more dominant than Marxists, what society might we enjoy as rentiers manque today?
There is a non-stupid conservative reproach to Mill. It is that his great success at changing minds has made a world in which there is not much of a role for people like him. Mill and Harriet, to a degree that they could hardly recognize, flourished within a whole set of social assumptions and shared beliefs. Respect for the mind, space for argument, the dispersal of that respect throughout the population, even the existence of a rentier class who could spend their time with ideas—all of these things were possible only in a society that was far more hierarchical and élitist than the society they dreamed of and helped to bring about.

You can also fault Mill for not grasping something that a crazy reactionary like his friend Carlyle recognized: the depths of violence and rage and hatred beneath the thin shell of civilization. Mill is like a man who has spent his life on one of those moving walkways you find in airports. He takes the forward movement so much for granted that he never makes it his subject. “Most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits,” he wrote, a little too assuredly. Mill’s work, intellectually so thick, is psychologically thin. There is too little room for Rhinos in it—too little room for the irrational drives that he recognized in his own life but could not entirely blend into his philosophy. It is rich in arguments for freedom, but poor in insights into why so few people want freedom when they can have it. Though no one is more free from the taint of twentieth-century totalitarianism—- among Mill’s London contemporaries, it was Carlyle whom Hitler adored, and Marx whom Stalin fetishized—- Mill displayed no prescience about it, either. Enshrined popular reason was his goal; permanent popular rage beyond his ken.

Still, most philosophical projects die with the philosopher. Mill’s thought, as his biographer says, is alive right now on every page of the morning paper. When we debate gay marriage, or abortion rights, or due process for the Guantánamo detainees, we’re still working out the consequences of his thoughts and his practice.

(Illustration of Mill & Harriet by Ralph Steadman from the article. For Gopnik on Dick, see "Blows Against the Empire," Aug. 20, 2007. For Chesterton, "The Back of the World," July 7, 2008.)

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