Tuesday, October 27, 2009

i've got a new attitude!

oh my gosh, i have to do this so fast, i should not be blogging right now, but i want to write this down. it requires you to (1) read my last post, which was a short little transcript of an interview with the novelist hilary mantel, and (2) understand the basics of the philosopher peter strawson's essay 'freedom and resentment'. you go do (1), and i'll work on making (2) happen:

(skip this if you've read the strawson) in 'freedom and resentment' (probably one of the most riveting little philosophical essays i've ever read), strawson asserts that there are two general places from which we can consider one another. the first he calls 'the reactive attitutes' [RAs], and we 'inhabit' these (i think that this is the word strawson uses) pretty much all the time with other adults. from the RAs we implicitly consider one another agents, who are, with some exceptions, the cause of their own actions, and we can feel passionately about them as agents, hating them, or loving them as equals; we can feel mildly amused or annoyed at them as strangers. i did a bad job of explaining that, but it'll make more sense after i tell you about the second place-- the objective attitutes [OAs]. we tend to take up the OAs when we think about children, or people living with severe mental illnesses, or when we're acting as doctors, or social workers or whatever. when we think in this way, we are thinking about people in terms of (a) the forces that caused them and (b) how to use that information to sort of manage them in the future. blame, according to strawson, is an RA, and we can only avoid blaming others by taking up the OAs. but strawson doesn't think that we are capable of considering the other adults in our lives from the OAs for very long-- we can do it for a little, but we could never manage to maintain the OAs consistantly in our daily interactions. And, he thinks, we oughtn't do that even if we could, because while you can feel compassion, or affection, perhaps, or the love of a parent for a child, passionate adult engagement is impossible, almost definitionally. there is something clinical about the OAs, and that troubles strawson. (this paragraph sucks, but i'll fix it up later-- you get the general idea for now, and hopefully most of you have read the strawson and are skipping this part anyway.)

the point: i think that the attitude that HM takes up in thinking about these characters (thomas cromwell and robespierre) constitutes a third kind of approach or attitude. it is diognostic in a sense- she wants to know the causes, the full explanation of what happened- 'the facts'- but it is not clinical- first, because she's not trying to manage that person (their fate is set in history- the facts are in), just understand them, and second, because she is utterly concerned with the vividness of the character's inner life. she's not trying to do anything to them, she's just trying to understand them-- and not just functionally, but phenomenlogically. she wants most of all to do them justice.

i don't think that this is a version of either the RAs or the OAs. i don't think that this is a highbred. i think that this is a distinct approach, and it's a better approach. because i don't think that our respecting one another as agents or loving/hating one another passionately depends on our failing to know who a person is, including the forces that caused them (aka the forces that drive them), and if meditating on the causes of a person tend to mellow our most recriminative impulses, i don't think that they'll necessarily dull our ardour. indeed, i don't see why it couldn't give our ardour more depth and focus. oh man, i really have to go grade papers, but i want your opinion: what should these kinds of attitudes be called?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

h. mantel on doing justice.

from a riveting interview aired today on NPR's weekend edition between liane hansen and booker prize winning author hilary mantel:

LH: was it difficult to provide a certain amount of suspense when many people, anecdotally, know the outcome?

HM: what we’re doing here is unlike what a historian does. we’re behind thomas cromwell’s eyes, and we’re moving forward with him through history. he can’t have hindsight. he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. he’s just blundering on, in the half dark, as we all are—the way we all move through life, with imperfect information—and he’s only able to guess at what will happen next. of course we all know what happened, and we can’t entirely forget that. but there are two questions: how did it happen? and also, most vitally for a novelist, how did it feel to the person concerned? how did history feel from the inside?

LH: are you attracted to historical characters that need some kind of rehabilitation? i mean, in 1992 in your book A Place of Greater Safety, you made robespierre sympathetic.

HM: i'm not so much attracted to rehabilitation as i'm attracted to justice. there is something in common with robespierre and thomas cromwell, in that they’ve both been given an extremely bad press. and it's very difficult to get back beyond reputation, back to the real man, back to the sources. because a lot of the history we're taught, it's just packets of prejudice handed on from one generation to the next, and the packet is never opened and examined. we just carry it unquestioningly and hand it on ourselves. and i suppose i’m the kind of perverse person that, if you tell me someone’s a saint, i'll go looking for his feet of clay. but if you tell me that someone is a scoundrel, and a villain, and there's nothing to be said for him, i start asking, “now why would you want me to think that?' so it's not that i feel i have to redeem these people in any way, it's that i think the facts will redeem them if the facts are ever examined.