Sunday, 30 November 2014

The dead souls of Dead Souls

Lately I've been reading Dead Souls, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Writing about a book that has so much in it, is difficult.
The title, at the basic level, refers to the dead muzhiks that are not yet registered as dead. A man named Chichikov appears out of nowhere and arrives at the town of N. A short while later he starts buying dead souls. Chichikov is well liked, the deal is simple and advantageous for both sides, the people accepting his offer transfer the dead souls to him, get money, lose nothing and at the same time transfer all of the tax burdens to Chichikov. They simply have to keep the secret and act like the peasants are alive.
After some difficulties in persuading people, Chichikov successfully achieves the 1st step of his plan. Things appear to go well. As the whole town know he buys peasants, he tells stories of settlement and, when people spread the rumour that he may be a millionaire, he becomes more and more popular.
Until the secret is revealed. The whole town go mad- curious and puzzled and confused, people ask questions, look for answers, invent stories from nothing, spread rumours... No one questions the buying and selling of living human beings, but everyone goes mad when a strange man suddenly appears and acquires dead peasants, who clearly bring no profit, for reasons no one knows, everyone goes mad because it is mysterious, because nothing is known about Chichikov, because nobody knows what he needs the dead souls for and what is behind it all, because there are so many possibilities, because once people have an idea, however incredible, they give it flesh and make it plausible and complex, and cling to it and in the end believe in it themselves.
However it's not only that. Dead Souls is not a polemic, not a political novel, not a literary work depicting the unjust system in order to call for a social change. In fact Gogol's not even a realist. More importantly, the dead souls of the story are the living ones, the members of the town: the philistines, the flatterers, the liars, the cheats, the hypocrites, the small-minded, artificial, shallow people, the heartless misers, the opportunists, the vulgarians... They are depicted as banal and shallow from the start. They never go straight to the point in Russian, for instance, and instead use euphemisms, choose more polite, more genteel expressions... but once they start speaking French, they may use words and phrases that are a lot worse. As Chichikov arrives, they, empty as they are, quickly yield to his so-called charm, his flattery, his way of saying things people want to hear. Everyone likes him, everyone treats him as if they have been close friends for a long time, and once it is believed that he may be a millionaire, people throw heaps of favour on him. Does this sound like people's change of attitude towards Pierre in War and Peace? But Gogol is not Tolstoy. This is an absurd world, and the characters are grotesque- they are both individual (each with some exaggerated characteristics, like Manilov the flatterer, Sobakevich the greedy cynic, Nozdryov the cheat and big-mouthed liar, Mme Korobochka the paranoid idiot, Plyushkin the miser, etc.) and lumped together as a bunch of banal, conformist, empty people, and yet they have a strange quality of convincingness, or rather, Gogol has a way of telling the story and describing their characters and exploring their personalities and creates such strong images that makes us accept their existence in this bizarre world without questioning, without thinking of them as caricatures, in the negative sense of the word. They have no inner life, because they are indeed empty, and each blends with the space behind them, with their own house, their own furniture, etc. 
The funniness of Dead Souls is increased when the town know Chichikov buys dead souls. Somehow, all the possibilities the members of the town think of, which start from nothing and get developed into intricate, detailed plans as though these people do know the truth, remind me of the debate surrounding Shakespeare. Little is known about him, and there are some periods in Shakespeare's life that are complete blank, about him we have almost nothing, then historians and scholars write biographies around nothing and develop so many theories about the real author that can never be proven definitely because there's not enough evidence. The little information people actually have, the more room for the imagination. 
But then I've digressed. 
Chichikov is a dead soul himself. At this point, I haven't finished volume I and don't know about his life before he comes to the town of N. But from the start, one can see that he praises and flatters everyone and has no opinion of his own. Then he creates a lie, tells others about it, imagines detailed plans as though they're real, brags, celebrates... almost to the point of believing in it himself. He has nothing, he is nothing. 
It should be noted, the plot of Dead Souls is unimportant. The social, political ideas are unimportant. Whether it reflects Russia and the Russian soul is unimportant. Gogol, as I see here, is above all that. His art lies in the creation and depiction of this absurd world and all the people in it, lies in the way he tells the story, making it original, unexpected and bizarre, lies in the way he once having an idea gets carried away until the topic is exhausted but never seems to be off the track, lies in the flow of his prose and his vivid descriptions, lies in his strangeness and his unique vision, which makes him different from other giant Russian authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Leskov (though at 1st Gogol made me think of Leskov)... That's his greatness. And that's what matters. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

12th Night and 2 different approaches

I've watched 2 versions of 12th Night.
This is the 1st one, directed by Kenneth Branagh for the stage and by Paul Kafno for the screen:
On Friday I watched this one, directed by Tim Carroll for the stage and by Ian Russell for the screen:

It's difficult, and perhaps unfair, to compare them, because they have very different approaches to Shakespeare's play and both are well done. Kenneth Branagh's version is sadder, darker, more serious; the actors more restrained with a more naturalistic style of acting. It has a dark palette, mostly using colours such as black, grey, brown, etc. and a bleak background, which add to the melancholic tone of the play. Tim Carroll's version, on the other hand, is merry, comic to the point of being over-the-top now and then, hilarious from the beginning to the end except a few moments of melancholic songs. Both the clothes and the background have lots of colours, strong and bright and cheerful, focusing more on the festive spirit of Shakespeare's play. If in Kenneth Branagh's version some characters bring laughter (Sir Toby, Maria, Andrew Aguecheek, Malvolio...) and some are serious (Viola, Olivia, Orsino, Sebastian...), in Tim Carroll's, all are comic and amusing, even hysterical.

It's probably a personal thing to prefer 1 version to another. What you will. I myself prefer the playful approach. Why? Because the play is set in the time of fun and festivals. Because the ending is in some sense absurd- even if you don't question Orsino's transference of love from Olivia to Viola, as some critics do, you may wonder about Olivia's marriage to Sebastian, a man she doesn't know (or at best, accept it as a convention, or a device to untangle the knots of the play). Because in my opinion it's better to treat Orsino and Olivia as ludicrous characters, because that's how they are- Orsino's more in love with love than with his beloved and Olivia immerses herself in ceremonial grief and quickly afterwards, mistakenly, falls in love with a woman in disguise. They are delusional, and ridiculous. I think Kenneth Branagh takes them a bit too seriously. 
I don't mind the depiction of Viola, though I like her. Some critics, such as Harold Bloom, wonder why a person like Viola could fall in love with Orsino. Some others question her silence at the end of the play, and ask whether they can be happy together. After all 12th Night can be interpreted in different ways and Tim Carroll's choice is another interpretation. 
Besides, 1 of the main themes of 12th Night is indulgence. Orsino overindulges in sentimental love, Olivia in excessive mourning, Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek in fun and drinking... Malvolio can be the opposite of Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek, a killjoy, hostile to pleasure, but he has his own kind of indulgence- self-love. The theme of indulgence is more emphasised as everything is pushed to the extreme in the 2nd version. The theatrical, comic way of acting is more suitable. The absurd approach is more appropriate. 

Update on 28/11: 
Now I've calmed down, reread the play, reread an essay I'd written some months ago, watched again some scenes in the Kenneth Branagh production, had a look at an American version of 12th Night by Nicholas Hytner, talked to several people and thought carefully about the 2 versions discussed above. I think: 
- 1 version focuses a bit too much on the comic, merry aspect and the other a bit too much on the melancholic aspect.
- I still think that Kenneth Branagh takes Orsino and Olivia a bit too seriously. 
- People, discussing this Shakespeare play, tend to forget 2 characters in the background- Antonio and Andrew Aguecheek. Antonio, mistaking Olivia as Cesario for Sebastian, feels betrayed and gets hurt and afterwards is forgotten. Note, in the last scene, when Sebastian appears and the knot is untied, Antonio only speaks once, expressing surprise and asking if that's truly Sebastian. That's it. He says no more for the rest of the play, nobody cares about him, and the audience may even forget about him. His silence is more puzzling than Viola's. At this, the Kenneth Branagh version is better. I remember nothing about Antonio in the other version. 
Andrew Aguecheek is a foolish character, but we're meant to feel sorry for him, not only laugh at him. His line "I was adored once too" is deeply sad. Again, the Kenneth Branagh version depicts this better. 
- Some of the humour in the Tim Carroll version is lost when I watch some scenes again. 
- The presence of the audience in the Tim Carroll production can become rather irritating, because they laugh and that is reminiscent of sitcoms. I don't like sitcoms. 
However, as I've said, these 2 productions take 2 very different approaches, based on 2 different interpretations, and all the different choices in each production fit well together. Both are well done. 
Now look at this version by Nicholas Hytner:
There are people who like it, I suppose. Personally I find it ridiculous. Just ridiculous. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

George Sand and Gustave Flaubert: A discussion on art, and the job or the right of the author

George Sand wrote to Flaubert on 12-15/1/1876:
"My cherished Cruchard,
I want to write to you every day; time is lacking absolutely. At last here is a free moment; we are buried under the snow; it is the sort of weather that I adore: this whiteness is like general purification, and the amusements of the house seem more intimate and sweeter. Can anyone hate the winter in the country? The snow is one of the most beautiful sights of the year!
It appears that I am not clear in my sermons; I have that much in common with the orthodox, but I am not of them; neither in my idea of equality, nor of authority, have I any fixed plan. You seem to think that I want to convert you to a doctrine. Not at all, I don’t think of such a thing. Everyone sets off from a point of view, the free choice of which I respect. In a few words, I can give a resume of mine: not to place oneself behind an opaque glass through which one can see only the reflection of one’s own nose. To see as far as possible the good, the bad, about, around, yonder, everywhere; to perceive the continual gravitation of all tangible and intangible things towards the necessity of the decent, the good, the true, the beautiful.
I don’t say that humanity is on the way to the heights. I believe it in spite of everything; but I do not argue about it, it is useless because each one judges according to his own personal vision, and the general aspect is for the moment poor and ugly. Besides, I do not need to be sure of the safety of the planet and its inhabitants in order to believe in the necessity of the good and the beautiful; if the planet departs from that law it will perish; if the inhabitants discard it they will be destroyed. Other stars, other souls will pass over their bodies, so much the worse! But, as for me, I want to gravitate up to my last breath, not with the certitude nor the need of finding elsewhere a GOOD PLACE, but because my sole joy is in keeping myself with my family on an upward road.
In other words, I am fleeing the sewer, and I am seeking the dry and the clean, certain that it is the law of my existence. Being a man amounts to little; we are still near the monkey from which they say we proceed. Very well! a further reason for separating ourselves still more from it and for being at least at the height of the relative truth that our race has been admitted to comprehend; a very poor truth, very limited, very humble! well, let us possess it as much as we can and not permit anyone to take it from us. We are, I think, quite agreed; but I practice this simple religion and you do not practice it, since you let yourself become discouraged; your heart has not been penetrated with it, since you curse life and desire death like a Catholic who yearns for compensation, were it only the rest eternal. You are no surer than another of this compensation. Life is perhaps eternal, and therefore work is eternal. If this is so, let us do our day’s work bravely. If it is otherwise, if the MOI perishes entirely, let us have the honor of having done our stated task, it is our duty; for we have evident duties only toward ourselves and our equals. What we destroy in ourselves, we destroy in them. Our abasement lowers them, our falls drag them down; we owe it to them to remain erect so that they shall not fall. The desire for an early death, as that for a long life, is therefore a weakness, and I do not want you to admit any longer that it is a right. I thought that had it once; I believed, however, what I believe today; but I lacked strength, and like you I said: “I cannot help it.” I lied to myself. One can help everything. One has the strength that one thinks one has not, when one desires ardently to GRAVITATE, to mount a step each day, to say to oneself: “The Flaubert of tomorrow must be superior to the one of yesterday, and the one of day after tomorrow more steady and more lucid still.”
When you feel you are on the ladder, you will mount very quickly. You are about to enter gradually upon the happiest and most favorable time of life: old age. It is then that art reveals itself in its sweetness; as long as one is young, it manifests itself with anguish. You prefer a well-turned phrase to all metaphysics. I also, I love to see condensed into a few words what elsewhere fills volumes; but these volumes, one must have understood them completely (either to admit them or to reject them) in order to find the sublime resume which becomes literary art in its fullest expression; that is why one should not scorn the efforts of the human mind to arrive at the truth.
I tell you that, because you have excessive prejudices AS TO WORDS. In truth, you read, you dig, you work much more than I and a crowd of others do. You have acquired learning that I shall never attain. Therefore you are a hundred times richer than all of us; you are a rich man, and you complain like a poor man. Be charitable to a beggar who has his mattress full of gold, but who wants to be nourished only on well-turned phrases and choice words. But brute, ransack your own mattress and eat your gold. Nourish yourself with the ideas and feelings accumulated in your head and your heart; the words and the phrases, THE FORM to which you attach so much importance, will issue by itself from your digestion. You consider it as an end, it is only an effect. Happy manifestations proceed only from an emotion, and an emotion proceeds only from a conviction. One is not moved at all by the things that one does not believe with all one’s heart.
I do not say that you do not believe: on the contrary, all your life of affection, of protection, and of charming and simple goodness, proves that you are the most convinced individual in the world. But, as soon as you handle literature, you want, I don’t know why, to be another man, one who should disappear, one who destroys himself, who does not exist! What an absurd mania! what a false rule of GOOD TASTE! Our work is worth only what we are worth.
Who is talking about putting yourself on the stage? That, in truth, is of no use, unless it is done frankly by way of a chronicle. But to withdraw one’s soul from what one does, what is that unhealthy fancy? To hide one’s own opinion about the characters that one puts on the stage, to leave the reader therefore uncertain about the opinion that he should have of them, that is to desire not to be understood, and from that moment, the reader leaves you; for if he wants to understand the story that you are telling him, it is on the condition that you should show him plainly that this one is a strong character and that one weak.
L’Education sentimentale has been a misunderstood book, as I have told you repeatedly, but you have not listened to me. There should have been a short preface, or, at a good opportunity, an expression of blame, even if only a happy epithet to condemn the evil, to characterize the defect, to signalize the effort. All the characters in that book are feeble and come to nothing, except those with bad instincts; that is what you are reproached with, because people did not understand that you wanted precisely to depict a deplorable state of society that encourages these bad instincts and ruins noble efforts; when people do not understand us it is always our fault. What the reader wants, first of all, is to penetrate into our thought, and that is what you deny him, arrogantly. He thinks that you scorn him and that you want to ridicule him. For my part, I understood you, for I knew you. If anyone had brought me your book without its being signed, I should have thought it beautiful, but strange, and I should have asked myself if you were immoral, skeptical, indifferent or heart-broken. You say that it ought to be like that, and that M. Flaubert will violate the rules of good taste if he shows his thought and the aim of his literary enterprise. It is false in the highest degree. When M. Flaubert writes well and seriously, one attaches oneself to his personality. One wants to sink or swim with him. If he leaves you in doubt, you lose interest in his work, you neglect it, or you give it up.
I have already combated your favorite heresy, which is that one writes for twenty intelligent people and does not care a fig for the rest. It is not true, since the lack of success irritates you and troubles you. Besides, there have not been twenty critics favorable to this book which was so well written and so important. So one must not write for twenty persons any more than for three, or for a hundred thousand.
One must write for all those who have a thirst to read and who can profit by good reading. Then one must go straight to the most elevated morality within oneself, and not make a mystery of the moral and profitable meaning of one’s book. People found that with Madame Bovary. If one part of the public cried scandal, the healthiest and the broadest part saw in it a severe and striking lesson given to a woman without conscience and without faith, to vanity, to ambition, to irrationality. They pitied her; art required that, but the lesson was clear, and it would have been more so, it would have been so for everybody, if you had wished it, if you had shown more clearly the opinion that you had, and that the public ought to have had, about the heroine, her husband, and her lovers.
That desire to depict things as they are, the adventures of life as they present themselves to the eye, is not well thought out, in my opinion. Depict inert things as a realist, as a poet, it’s all the same to me, but, when one touches on the emotions of the human heart, it is another thing. You cannot abstract yourself from this contemplation; for man, that is yourself, and men, that is the reader. Whatever you do, your tale is a conversation between you and the reader. If you show him the evil coldly, without ever showing him the good he is angry. He wonders if it is he that is bad, or if it is you. You work, however, to rouse him and to interest him; you will never succeed if you are not roused yourself, or if you hide it so well that he thinks you indifferent. He is right: supreme impartiality is an anti-human thing, and a novel ought to be human above everything. If it is not, the public is not pleased in its being well written, well composed and conscientious in every detail. The essential quality is not there: interest. The reader breaks away likewise from a book where all the characters are good without distinctions and without weaknesses; he sees clearly that that is not human either. I believe that art, this special art of narration, is only worth while through the opposition of characters; but, in their struggle, I prefer to see the right prevail. Let events overwhelm the honest men, I agree to that, but let him not be soiled or belittled by them, and let him go to the stake feeling that he is happier than his executioners.
15th January, 1876
It is three days since I wrote this letter, and every day I have been on the point of throwing it into the fire; for it is long and diffuse and probably useless. Natures opposed on certain points understand each other with difficulty, and I am afraid that you will not understand me any better today than formerly. However, I am sending you this scrawl so that you can see that I am occupied with you almost as much as with myself.
You must have success after that bad luck which has troubled you deeply. I tell you wherein lie the certain conditions for your success. Keep your cult for form; but pay more attention to the substance. Do not take true virtue for a commonplace in literature. Give it its representative, make honest and strong men pass among the fools and the imbeciles that you love to ridicule. Show what is solid at the bottom of these intellectual abortions; in short, abandon the convention of the realist and return to the time reality, which is a mingling of the beautiful and the ugly, the dull and the brilliant, but in which the desire of good finds its place and its occupation all the same.
I embrace you for all of us.
G. Sand"

On 15/3/1876, after some other letters, she came back to this topic:
"I should have a good deal to say about the novels of M. Zola, and it would be better to say it in an article than in a letter, because there is a general question there which must be formulated with a refreshed brain. I should like to read M. Daudet’s book first, the book you spoke of to me, the title of which I cannot recall. Have the publisher send it to me collect, if he does not want to give it to me; that is very simple. On the whole, the thing that I shall not gainsay, meanwhile making a PHILOSOPHICAL criticism of the method, is that Rougon is a STRONG book, as you say, and worthy of being placed in the first rank.
That does not change anything in my way of thinking, that art ought to be the search for the truth, and that truth is not the picture of evil. It ought to be the picture of good and evil. A painter who sees only one is as false as he who sees only the other. Life is not crammed with monsters only. Society is not formed of rascals and wretches only. The honest people are not the minority, since society exists in a certain order and without too many unpunished crimes. Imbeciles dominate, it is true, but there is a public conscience which weighs on them and obliges them to respect the right. Let people show up and chastise the rascals, that is good, it is even moral, but let them tell us and show us the opposite; otherwise the simple reader, who is the average reader, is discouraged, saddened, horrified, and contradicts you so as not to despair.
How are you? Tourgueneff wrote me that your last work was very remarkable: then you are not DONE FOR, as you pretend?
Your niece continues to improve, does she not? I too am better, after cramps in my stomach that made me blue, and continued with a horrible persistence. Physical suffering is a good lesson when it leaves one freedom of spirit. One learns to endure it and to conquer it. Of course one has some moments of discouragement when one throws oneself on the bed; but, for my part, I always think of what my old cure used to say to me, when he had the gout: THAT WILL PASS, OR I SHALL PASS. And thereupon he would laugh, content with his joke.
My Aurore is beginning history, and she is not very well pleased with these killers of men whom they call heroes and demigods. She calls them horrid fellows.
We have a confounded spring; the earth is covered with flowers and snow, one gets numb gathering violets and anemones.
I have read the manuscript of l’Etrangere. It is not as DECADENT as you say. There are diamonds that sparkle brightly in this polychrome. Moreover, the decadences are transformations. The mountains in travail roar and scream, but they sing beautiful airs, also.
I embrace you and I love you. Do have your legend published quickly, so that we may read it.
Your old troubadour,
G. Sand"

Here is Gustave Flaubert's response:
"You OUGHT to call me inwardly, dear master, “a confounded pig,”— for I have not answered your last letter, and I have said nothing to you about your two volumes, not to mention a third that I received this morning from you. But I have been, for the last two weeks, entirely taken up by my little tale which will be finished soon. I have had several errands to do, various readings to finish up with, and a thing more serious than all that, the health of my poor niece worries me extremely and, at times, disturbs my brain, so that I do not know at all what I am doing! You see that my cup is bitter! That young woman is anemic to the last degree. She is wasting away. She has been obliged to leave off painting, which is her sole distraction. All the usual tonics do no good. Three days ago, by the orders of another physician, who seems to me more learned than the others, she began hydrotherapy. Will he succeed in making her digest and sleep? in building up her strength? Your poor Cruchard takes less and less pleasure in life, and he even has too much of it, infinitely too much. Let us speak of your books, that will be better.
They have amused me, and the proof is that I have devoured with one gulp and one after another, Flamarande and the Deux Freres. What a charming woman is Madame Flamarande, and what a man is M. Salcede. The narrative of the kidnapping of the child, the trip in the carriage, and the story of Zamora are perfect passages. Everywhere the interest is sustained and at the same time progressive. In short, what strikes me the most in these two novels (as in all yours, moreover), is the natural order of the ideas, the talent, or rather the genius for narrative. But what an abominable wretch is your M. Flamarande! As for the servant who tells the story and who is evidently in love with Madame, I wonder why you did not show more plainly his personal jealousy.
Except for the count, all are virtuous persons in that story, even extraordinarily virtuous. But do you think them really true to life? Are there many like them? It is true that while reading, one accepts them because of the cleverness of the execution; but afterwards?
Well, dear master, and this is to answer your last letter, this is, I think what separates us essentially. You, on the first bound, in everything, mount to heaven, and from there you descend to the earth. You start from a priori, from the theory, from the ideal. Thence your pity for life, your serenity, and to speak truly, your greatness. — I, poor wretch, I am stuck on the earth as with soles of lead; everything disturbs me, tears me to pieces, ravages me, and I make efforts to rise. If I should take your manner of looking at the whole of life I should become laughable, that is all. For you preach to me in vain. I cannot have another temperament than my own; nor another esthetics than what is the consequence of it. You accuse me of not letting myself go, according to nature. Well, and that discipline? that virtue? what shall we do with it? I admire M. Buffon putting on cuffs when he wrote. This luxury is a symbol. In short I am trying simply to be as comprehensive as possible. What more can one exact?
As for letting my personal opinion be known about the people I put on the stage: no, no, a thousand times no! I do not recognize the right to that. If the reader does not draw from a book the moral that should be found there, the reader is an imbecile or the book is false from the point of view of accuracy. For, the moment that a thing is true, it is good. Obscene books likewise are immoral only because they lack truth. Things are not “like that” in life.
And observe that I curse what they agree to call realism, although they make me one of its high priests; reconcile all that.
As for the public, its taste disgusts me more and more. Yesterday, for instance, I was present at the first night of the Prix Martin, a piece of buffoonery that, for my part, I think full of wit. Not one of the witty things in the play produced a laugh, and the denouement, which seems out of the ordinary, passed unperceived. Then to look for what can please seems to me the most chimerical of undertakings. For I defy anyone to tell me by what means one pleases. Success is a consequence and must not be an end. I have never sought it (although I desire it) and I seek it less and less.
After my little story, I shall do another — for I am too deeply shaken to start on a great work. I had thought first of publishing Saint-Julien in a periodical, but I have given the plan up."


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Reading Flaubert's correspondence

Lately I've been reading Flaubert's correspondence with Turgenev, and with George Sand.
The letters with Turgenev do say something about Flaubert's personality, life and aesthetic views, and explain the close friendship between these 2 writers. They have the same views on life, literature and politics, the same pessimism and melancholy, the same disbelief in the possibility of happiness, the same principle of an impersonal style (of withholding comments and keeping their personal beliefs out of their novels), the same focus on style and details, the same attitude towards politics (follow what's going on, without belonging to a party or a group) and the same refusal to have any system. They have the same admiration, with reservations, for Tolstoy, for instance. And when Flaubert's attacked on various sides for Sentimental Education, Turgenev's 1 of the few who see its worth.
At the same time these letters show some differences between the 2. Flaubert's "the hermit of Croisset", with a small circle of friends, whereas Turgenev's the man of society, so Flaubert's more emotionally dependent and sometimes even sulky like a child. He's also more pessimistic- he has a gloomy view on everything, seeing life as futile and people as stupid, but Turgenev consoles him that it's more like a symptom of old age.
However, the Flaubert- George Sand letters are fascinating, because they're exchanges of ideas and feelings between 2 very different persons. They discuss, they debate, they give each other advice besides affection and consolation, they explain themselves and try to convince each other. As Virginia Woolf puts it, "She brings out all his peculiar qualities so finely that no autobiography could tell so much as he tells almost unconsciously". For most of the time reading the correspondence, I've felt more drawn to George Sand, for her love of life and acceptance of everything in spite of the negative bits. Flaubert's pessimism and disdain, bordering on cynicism and misanthropy, can be frustrating, his scorn for the mass and his disbelief in democracy and universal suffrage can be frustrating, and his ceaseless lamentations over the labour of writing can get on one's nerves. George Sand apparently feels the same about his attitudes. I can't help feeling, as I think of Tolstoy, that perhaps this pessimism makes Flaubert limited in some ways, and inferior to Tolstoy. 
As I read on, I have better understanding of his negativity. He sees through pretensions and notices all the stupidity around him. He refuses to rise above human folly and the silliness of others, as he says George Sand does, but stares at everything, reads everything, avoids nothing- the more he reads about history and science and numerous books, the more convinced he is of the barbarism and stupidity of people that will not change- he takes in everything and lets it all engulf him so that he sinks into sadness and melancholy. Understanding his view on the mass, I can also understand why he's against universal suffrage and democracy- of course he's mistaken, but I have hindsight, I know how democracy has turned out in spite of the early scepticism, and more importantly, unlike a lot of people, I have known both dictatorship and democracy, and Flaubert doesn't (not that I have any illusion about democracy- it's not without faults, but it's the best thing we've ever had). I read the letters and see Flaubert as a character on the pages, and seeing him in context, in his place and time, can sympathise with his views and see why he has such thoughts. These letters shed some light on Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education
Fascinating stuff.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Notes from "Consequences of Democratic Institutions"

Chapter 16 of Principles of Comparative Politics (William Roberts Clark, Matt Golder and Sona Nadenichek Golder)

- 2 visions of democracy:

+ Majoritarian vision: elections are events in which citizens get to choose between 2 alternative teams of politicians that are competing for government=> citizens know that whichever team forms the government is responsible for the policies that do or do not get implemented during its tenure=> can reward or punish the incumbents in the following election=> exert influence over policy decisions only at election time.
=> all policymaking power is concentrated in the hands of a majority government.
+ Consensus vision: elections are events in which citizens chose representative agents from as wide a range of social groups as possible and these agents then go on to bargain over policy in the legislature=> legislature: a miniature reflection of society as a whole=> elections provide citizens with the opportunity to choose representatives that they believe will advocate their interests=> citizens can influence the policymaking process between elections.
=> no precise set of policies, all groups of citizens should have the power to influence.
=> power should be dispersed among as many political actors as possible.

- Institutions:

(Presidential systems fall at the consensus end of the spectrum because power is dispersed between the executive and legislature. In parliamentary systems, the executive is supported by a legislative majority. For semi-presidential regimes, the premier-presidential democracies are close to parliamentary democracies, whereas the position of the president-parliamentary democracies on the spectrum depends on whether there's cohabitation or not, i.e. whether the president's from 1 political bloc and the PM's from another, or from the same one).

Prototype for consensus democracies: Belgium
+ federal
+ bicameral
+ constitutional review
+ proportional representation=> large party system, broad coalition governments
+ cabinets: equal number of French- and Flemish- speaking ministers (not including the PM)

=> Evaluating majoritarian and consensus visions of democracy:

- Accountability and mandates:
+ Accountability: the extent to which voters are able to reward or punish parties for their behaviour in office.
Retrospective voting: voters look at the past performance of incumbent parties to decide how to vote in the current election.
+ Clarity of responsibility: ability of citizens to identify who's responsible for the policies that are (or are not) implemented.
=> majoritarian> consensus (blame shifting, credit claiming, etc.)
also: governments in non-presidential democracies can fall in the middle of an interelection period=> voters may have to pass judgment on a government that hasn't been in power for a long time=> who's responsible for the policies in place and the outcomes being experienced?

+ Mandate: a policy that the government's both authorised and obligated to carry out once in office.

Prospective voting: voters base how they will vote in the current election on the expected performance of incumbents and challengers.
=> majoritarian: elections are not just about throwing the rascals out but also about giving the next government a mandate to implement the policies that it ran on during the electoral campaign.
consensus: views mandates as being bad because they mean ignoring the preferences of the minority not in power.
+ Government identifiability: the extent to which voters can identify what government alternatives they are voting for at election time.
=> majoritarian> consensus.

- Representation: responsiveness+ congruence.

+ Responsiveness/ dynamic representation: how well elected representatives respond to changes in the preferences of the electorate.
=> majoritarian: fully responsive when the party with a majority of the votes controls the government, partially responsive when the party with a mere plurality of the votes controls the government.
consensus: government formation process is complicated=> weak connection between percentage of seats and share of power.
=> both majoritarian and consensus democracies come close to but fall short of realising their ideals of democratic responsiveness.
+ Congruence/ static representation: how well elected representatives match the preferences of the electorate.
=> can be achieved in both, but empirically: majoritarian< consensus.

=> Conclusion:

Majoritarian: better at promoting mandates, accountability, government identifiability, clarity of responsibility and the like.
Consensus: better at dispersing power, providing choice, generating ideological congruence between citizens and representatives.
=> the US: best example of a hybrid.
  • extremely majoritarian in electoral system, party system, government type and interest group relations
  • extremely consensus-oriented in that it has constitutional review and it is presidential, federal and bicameral
=> "the best of both worlds", or "neither fish nor fowl"?


The effect of political institutions on fiscal policy

- Fiscal policy: manipulation of tax and spending decisions to accomplish government goals.
- Economic and cultural determinants of fiscal policy:
+ Net contributors and net recipients.

+ The partisan model of macroeconomic policy: left-wing parties represent the interests of low-income voters and right-wing parties, high-income voters.

+ Americans and Europeans have different attitudes towards the poor=> different policies.

- Electoral laws and fiscal policy:

Higher fiscal policy activity in countries with proportional representation electoral systems=> why?
+ PR leads to more redistribution by facilitating the election of left-wing governments.
+ PR leads to more redistribution through its effect on the size of electoral districts.
+ PR affects government spending and debt through its effect on the composition of governments.


Electoral laws, federalism and ethnic conflict

- Ethnic diversity and conflict:
+ We should recognise that such conflict is the exception and that interethnic peace is the rule.
+ Ethnic violence, irredentism, rebellion, civil war.
+ It's ethnic polarisation, not ethnic heterogeneity that increases the likelihood of things like civil war.
The risk is higher when there are a few large ethnic groups with opposing interests than when there are many small ethnic groups.
+ Ethnic outbidding: a process in which ethnic divisions are politicised and the result is the formation of increasingly polarised ethnic parties.

- Electoral laws and ethnic conflict:

+ Debate: whether democratic stability is best ensured by taking ethnic groups as given and ensuring that minorities are guaranteed adequate representation, or by assuming that group identities are malleable and can be successfully channelled into regime-supporting, rather than regime-challenging, behaviours.
+ Arend Lijphart: 1st view=> consensus.
=> Consociationalism: form of government that emphasises power sharing through guaranteed group representation.
Confessionalism: form of government that emphasises power sharing by different religious communities through guaranteed group representation.
=> Criticisms: PR systems can replicate societal division in the legislature, sometimes facilitate the election of small anti-system parties that become locked in cycles of legislative conflict, which can then spill over into violent social conflict; or give a disproportionate influence to small parties that can be very radical, etc.
=> Donald Horowitz=> alternative vote=> voters motivated by ethnic identity are likely to indicate a co-ethnic as their 1st preference and the least unsavoury candidate from an alternative ethnic group as their 2nd choice=> successful candidates would be those successful at making board-based centrist appeals that cross ethnic lines=> encourages moderation and compromise.
(little evidence, however).
+ Selway and Templeman: PR appears to exacerbate political violence when ethnic fractionalisation is high; similar results for the effect of parliamentary, as opposed to presidential, rule.

- Federalism and ethnic conflict:

+ Incongruent and asymmetric federalism has been seen as particularly appealing for those countries in which policy preferences differ in significant ways across geographically concentrated ethnic groups.
+ Several studies challenge this view, some even go as far as to suggest that federalism may actually intensify, rather than reduce, ethnic conflict:
  • reinforces regionally based ethnic identities
  • provides access to political and economic resources that ethnic leaders can then use to bring pressure against the state
  • makes it easier for ethnic groups at the subnational level to produce legislation that discriminates against regional minorities
  • decreases outright rebellion but increase protest activity among minority groups
  • no effect on the level of attachment that minority (or majority) groups feel towards the state
=> black-and-white terms.
=> reality: success in some countries, failure in some others=> why?
=> Brancati: political decentralisation reduces ethnic conflict when regional parties are weak, but can increase it when regional parties are strong.
=> should combine incongruent and asymmetric federalism with other institutional features that lower the likelihood that regional parties will form and do well.
+ Electoral laws=> preferential voting systems attempt to weaken or even transcend the political salience of regional as well as ethnic identities=> likely to discourage the emergence and success of parties that focus their campaigning on a particular identity (regional or ethnic) group.
+ Can impose cross-regional vote requirements.


Presidentialism and democratic survival 
- Evidence suggests that democracy's less stable in presidential regimes than in parliamentary ones, and that parliamentary democracies last much longer. 
=> due to something inherent in the structures of presidentialism? 
- Shively: consequences of presidentialism:
+ Presidents can appeal directly to voters and fuse the powers associated with the head of the state and the head of government, so they can wield a degree of power unavailable to most PMs, who, by comparison, are "1st among equals" in the legislature. 
+ Low clarity of responsibility. 
+ Makes it difficult for policy to be made quickly: new legislation must work its way through the legislature and be accepted by the president before it can be enacted. 
+ Different recruitment: PMs tend to be selected from the leadership of a party's legislative delegation=> have worked their way up (debating skills, policy expertise, loyalty). President candidates may not have experience and expertise. 
=> However, parliamentary democracies that have coalition governments are also likely to have difficulty in making policy quickly, locating responsibility for policy and making comprehensive policy. 
Immobilism: a situation in parliamentary democracies in which government coalitions are so weak and unstable that they are incapable of reaching an agreement on new policy. 
=> French 4th republic (1946- 1958)=> Charles de Gaulle's new constitution=> a stronger president's the solution to the problems of parliamentarism as exhibited in the 4th republic (instability, immobilism, stalemate). 
=> Are the dangers of parliamentarism greater than the dangers of presidentialism or vice versa? 
- Stepan and Skach: the prospects for the survival of democracy are worse under presidentialism.
+ Presidentialism: mutual independence (legislative and executive branches).
Parliamentarism: mutual dependence.
+ Presidentialism: antagonism.
Parliamentarism: reconciliation.
+ Parliamentarism: constitutional means for resolving deadlock=> the legislature can pass a vote of no confidence and remove the government, or the PM can dissolve the parliament and call for new elections=> greater stability.
+ Data: parliamentary democracies have higher survival rate.
=> What if the factors that cause democracies to fail are also associated with the choice to adopt parliamentarism or presidentialism in the 1st place? Because then it may be these factors, not presidentialism per se, that cause the collapse of democracy.
- Vanhanen=> democratisation index.
=> association between it and power resource index.
=> overachievers (score surprisingly high on democratisation index)- 37 parliamentary, 10 presidential
vs underachievers- 6 parliamentary, 12 presidential
(=> affect survival).
=> However, if presidentialism is adopted in moments of crisis, then the regime collapses not because there's something problematic about presidentialism, but because it tends to be adopted in difficult circumstances.
- Mainwaring:
+ Legislative fragmentation=> cabinet instability in parliamentary systems, democratic instability in presidential (=> deadlock).
+ Presidents lack experience to deal with the legislature or to solve deadlock situations.
+ But, low legislative fragmentation=> low likelihood of deadlock=> low democratic instability.
=> not presidentialism per se that imperils democracy, but rather presidentialism combined with a highly fragmented legislature.