Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Elena Ferrante Novels, Philosophy, Naples, and Me

It seems like forever that I'd been meaning to read the Elena Ferrante novels about Naples. I kept hearing how good they are, and how they are about Naples in some deep sense. Naples is interesting to me, partly because my grandmother's family was from Gaeta, near Naples. Also, I read the book Gamorrah and saw the movie, and it's about Naples. The movie has incredible scenes of housing projects that are simultaneously horribly run-down and dysfunctional and also weirdly beautiful. I remember when I saw the movie, the discomfort I felt at aestheticizing someone's poverty. But then, so much about movies involves complicity with some morally questionable aestheticizing of something.

Finally in April I started reading them, and once I started I couldn't put them down, and now I am in the middle of the fourth and final book. In one sense, the books are primarily about the state of womanhood in the modern world: about women's relations with other women, with men, with family, with work, with the various constraints that form the tracks that guide our lives into territory we hadn't meant to be heading toward.

But the books are also speaking to me in more specific ways. One theme has to do with the relationship between the world of books, learning and ideas and the worlds of practicality, poverty, and politics. Not surprisingly, this is something I think about often. As I often tell people, my journey into academia was initially prompted by my condition as an American without health insurance working as a waitress. Though I didn't have money, I was lucky to have had a lot of cultural capital, and I was good at math, so I figured it might work out. A zillion years later, here I am, a professor of philosophy.

Over these years I've become increasingly interested in doing philosophy in ways that connects it up with ordinary life, but in my darker moods I despair of this even being possible. You have ideas, and you want to bring them to life in context; but very quickly the situation reveals itself to be one of convincing some people to believe one thing rather than another or at least question something to which they've long been committed, which is no longer a problem in philosophy but more a problem in politics and rhetoric. And honestly, if you want people to reconsider how they see the world, a novel or a movie is going to be way more effective. So, in these moods, I'm like WTF am I doing?

I know there are answers; I wrote about some of them here and here. If you can't think things through for yourself, you can't form your own opinions at all; thinking is often difficult and uncomfortable. My friends have answers too, and they talk me down. Still, there is this feeling of a distance, between the idea world and world of people, events, and things. In the Naples books, this distance moves from metaphorical to literal, as the characters' different paths renders them able to communicate only imperfectly.

A second more particular theme is the specific social and class structure of Italian and Neapolitan society in the decades between 1945 and now. I have to admit an uncomfortable truth: that there is something about the dysfunction of Italy that soothes and appeals to me. This is uncomfortable for the obvious reason that it's horrible to feel positive in response to people miserable over lack of work and failing social structures. Of course, I don't feel positively about it on balance. I see its badness.

But if there is a twinge of something, I think I can chalk it up to this. Italian society seems explicitly and self-knowingly in a post-empire state: one in which the choices are often all bad, and the task is muddling through. In North America, by contrast, the mood of optimism, the relentless moral smugness, and the rhetoric of opportunity, meritocracy, and free choice exist exhaustingly alongside the reality of exploitation, global violence, and oppression. I feel like it would be comforting for me for the surface to match the reality, for the mood of the people and even the infrastructure to reflect, in an obvious way, the darkness.

I keep wondering who Elena Ferrante is. I know the name "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, and I know that a few years ago there was an internet kerfuffle over her real identity. I do not know -- because I don't want to know, at least not yet -- whether that kerfuffle ended in her identity being revealed. As a result, I have exerted Herculean self-control not to look this up. I guess I don't want to know what her real relationship is to Naples, or to academia, or to other people. Given that all of this information is like ten keystrokes away at any given moment, it's hard to say how long my ignorance can last.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is This Blog On Hiatus Or What?

After almost ten years of regular posting on this blog, I find myself unable to put the words together on a regular basis. What is up with that?

Is it that I'm busy with extra administrative tasks at my job? I've had over a hundred applications for two short-term academic jobs to read over the last couple of weeks, so maybe.

Is it that I'm worn out putting words together? I am revising a draft of my book manuscript -- tentatively titled "The Philosophy of Sex and Love: An Opinionated Introduction" -- which requires massive amounts of time rewriting, reorganizing, reframing, reeverything, so sure, that could be it.

Is it that writing anything on the internet right now feels either nerve-racking or pointless or both? Sometimes I get into a mood where for everything I might say, I can imagine immediately what the various intellectual and emotional responses are, and I can imagine how I feel about them, and then I move on to how that seems from a wider point of view, and ... Once I start in that direction there's no real destination for me except cocktails. Sometimes with even one tweet, I can through that whole mental process and I'm so over the whole thing before I even start typing. I've been in that mood lately,  I expect that yes, there's some of that.

Is it the disconnect between the hilarious prose that I want to write and the plodding prose I feel I end up writing that's getting me down? The other day I was joking with someone about a topic so dark and awful I am not even going to name it here, and we were laughing hysterically. I felt, as I so often do, the power of black humor to make life feel worth living. But, as they say, dying is easy and comedy is hard. Plus, black humor on the internet is tricky. Did I mention that writing anything on the internet now feels nerve-racking or pointless or both?

Maybe it's time to shake things up. We'll see. I'd write more now, but I have more job application files to read before tomorrow. See you next week, hopefully!