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Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer.  Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.

La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book.  Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)

There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil.  To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6)  Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling?  La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete.  This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)

I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad.  La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels.  Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling.  This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.

Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint.  In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently.  The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling.  La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine].  The question I want to ask is, why?”  Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?

What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style.  I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world.  Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing.  They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good.  People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant.  ER also provided this lesson.  Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled.  Too technical.  Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories.   No content can sell and too much content can sell.  It’s all about storytelling.  La Farge spends no time talking about style.  He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style.  Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.

La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though.  His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered.  La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission.  There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.)  The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations.  Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps.  This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.

For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation.  He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified.  Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive.  I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged.  The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects.  The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina.  Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises.  Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty.  If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.

In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.

Easterly, William.  (2009).  Aid Watch,

la Farge, Paul.  (2009).  A scanner darkly.  The Believer, 66, 3-8.

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I have previously established that I am not a fan of Michael Crichton, so I did not feel any loss when I heard that he had passed on.  I am not happy for I am sure that in his wake he leaves grieving friends and family.  I suspect that his books also brought people into bookstores, so that loss will be felt.  I will not miss seeing the newest Crichton title poo-pooing the latest trend in technology.  But I also cannot help smirking at the way he died: a long battle of cancer.  I suspect it was a long and painful and for that I sympathize, but I see a funny coincidence between his subject of choice and the method of his death.

Luddites, while he is not a Luddite he is not too far off, would say his death is a cautionary tale: our technological drive has made the world toxic and we are thus more likely to die long drawn-out and painful deaths.  But they are incorrect.  Long painful demises happened even among the fictional noble savages the Luddites revere.

Crichton lived to be old enough to be afflicted by cancer because of the very technologies he warns about.  His bout with cancer was probably less painful because of those same advances.  His death may have even been avoided had he not scared off funding and interest in cutting edge technologies.  A close of friend of mine, referred to in previous posts as The Girl, does work in development and nanotechnology and she says the chilling effect of Crichton’s Prey was noticeable.

Many defend Crichton as being pro-management instead of anti-technological and consequently my railings against him are undeserved.  I contend that the link does exist: see my earlier post about Crichton for proof and also read Prey, the book is about the impotence of management.  Even if the link is not true then one needs to ask if there is a real difference between pro-management and anti-technologist.  The difference is so nuanced and subtle as to yield little real difference.

I do not want this post to paint me as a technological apologist, but it is important to know that technology can remedy many ills as well as improve people’s/worker’s quality of life.  I enjoyed that his books were easy to read and fast paced and I do feel a loss for the future of books.  But I worry that his books were political in a way that appeared apolitical and hence avoided drawing criticisms and examinations of the messages he was conveying.  That is a loss I will not miss.

Michael Crichton is an idiot. I listened to a podcast this morning of his participation in a debate about global warming. He stood resolved: global warming is not a crisis. Before hearing this debate I would have greed with the resolution, but not because I deny that anthropocentric warming is occurring but because the impact of said warming is not a crisis.

Crichton, however, had a different argument, one that did not prove the resolution. He argued that poverty kills millions of people a year in preventable deaths and that environmentalists were draining funds from preventing these deaths to some future possible crisis. He then reduced environmentalists to be head-in-the-sand deniers of suffering. This is a weak argument and it exposed Crichton for what I had always feared he was: a moron that can write.

His argument does nothing to the resolution. It addresses neither the impact nor the validity of the global warming debate. The true test is if his opponents, those who argued global warming is a crisis, could agree with his argument that environmental resources could be spent instead on poverty prevention. The answer is yes, and therefore is not in competition with the resolution’s negation.

Leave it to a wealthy person that is not charitable enough to stave off his sense of guilt by blaming the philanthropists of callousness. The environmentalists rallying around global warming are anything but callous moralizers. These are people that see deleterious effects, present or future, caused by our way of living. If anyone is oblivious it would be Crichton for failing to see beyond immediate impacts.

I thought Jurassic Park was an excellent book, one which not only entertained but also sparked scientific interest in non-scientific circles. However, maybe there is a time for Crichton to stop talking in scientific circles and return to what he does best: entertaining the masses.