Disorderly Notions by Tom Darby. Iguana Books, 2011. 398pp.
In the wake of the recent Alberta provincial election, journalist Michael Den Tandt announced that Canada is now a fully “progressive” society: “We live in a society in which the shared idea of equal rights spans the political spectrum.” Canada now apparently has consensus on gay rights, rights of ethnic minorities, the rights of women to exercise “control” over their bodies (at least until the child emerges from the birth canal), and so forth.
“Progress” is the buzzword of our time, which suggests our society reflects the kind of ideals explained by philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, and even Nietzsche. Anyone wondering what “progress” entails, but does not wish to wade through these thinkers, will benefit from Tom Darby’s new and very funny novel, Disorderly Notions. (Here, I will focus on the “ideas” of the novel—admittedly, at the expense of its wonderful literary and artistic merit, upon which I am less qualified to comment.)
This philosophical novel, which is the first of a projected Altamaha Trilogy, consists of a reflection on life at the “end of history.” The idea of progress, the main character states, presupposes in fact that history has already ended. While the “end of history” was popularized twenty years ago by Francis Fukuyama as a way of understanding the end of the Cold War, Darby, who teaches political philosophy at Carleton University, actually explained the end of history earlier with his 1982 book, The Feast. In this newer novel, he provides a more in depth reflection of its meaning while writing a highly readable and, at times, hilarious story about life at the end of history when nothing more seems possible.
The novel weaves together two narratives, which reflects the major metaphor of the novel: two meandering rivers whose confluence produces a deeper and larger river. The first narrative, set in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, is the story of William Hamilton (“Hambone”), an eccentric professor of philosophy who studies cybernetics—the science of control. After receiving a vision of the Virgin on the crescent moon that he interprets as heralding the end of history (an allusion to Revelation 12:1), he publishes an article on the “Russo-American Way of Life” in which he puts forward his thesis that communism and liberal democracy are just two sides of the same coin of political modernity. This controversial view gets him ostracized from the academy, and his dean arranges a sabbatical for him to get him away. The narrative consists of his travels across Asia with his uncle Anubis (“Andy”) and a collection of friends they meet along the way, including his lover, Margaret Pangolin (Mo). They take this course because history began in Asia and they wish to follow its trajectory westward as the new era of history dawns.
Among Hambone’s possessions is a biography of Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy of States, written by Hambone’s cousin and Benjamin’s descendent, Judah Anubis Benjamin. This biography is also a history of the family and forms the second narrative. Because the biography is incomplete, Hambone contributes to it and his co-authoring of that biography is an ingenious way to weave together the two narratives—the two rivers.
The first narrative is about the discovery and implications of the end of history, while the second narrative is deeply embedded in history. Because the latter focuses on a central figure of the losing side of the U.S. Civil War, one might say that it is about the side of human existence that loses out, or gets sublated in the Hegelian sense (Aufhebung), when history ends. It is no coincidence that Judah Benjamin is a Sephardic Jew and he and his friends are classically educated and idealize Aristotle’s vision of the magnanimous man. The end of history sublates Athens and Jerusalem.
The second narrative focuses on the generation of the Benjamin family, whereas the first narrative, about Hambone and friends’ voyage, is decidedly not about generation. For example, Hamilton’s lover, Mo, laments she is pregnant: “Who in their right mind would want to give birth to a child at . . . what do you call it? At the death of history?”
In one of the few didactic moments in the book, which still ends up quite funny, Hambone explains the end of history to an audience of progressive “development” scholars at a conference in India. Hambone explains that thinking of history as “progress” or “development” already presupposes that history is over, because we only recognize possibilities (that comprise the historical process) as possibilities only when they have passed. Thus, our progressives think they’ve already figured history out and wish to help everyone else to catch up. To be a progressive intellectual is to be a bureaucrat. To be a progressive politician is also to be a bureaucrat, or at least someone whose main concern is “process.” Politics at the end of history is nothing more than housekeeping.
The end of history ends with the universal rule of technology, whose project is the transformation of nature (both human and nonhuman). Its goal or logic is efficiency and an act or fabrication is judged according to how closely ends and means are put together. Consider how “effective” rule is preferred to “gridlock,” even though the latter carries with it the possibility of deliberation and a “sober second look.”
Hambone explains that the end of history manifests itself in three ways: 1) niceness, where humans have been domesticated, tamed, and are very predictable; 2) sameness, where “things that previously made us different from one another—race, culture, class [and one might add, sexual orientation]—will no longer matter. What remains will be there for all to choose.” Life will become mere style and it is homogeneous; and 3) “femaleness,” because “maleness,” spontaneity, spiritedness, and sportiveness will be eradicated. According to Hambone, “The future will have come, and then be gone forever, and the universal and homogeneous world at the end of history will be one eternal world of nice, white, American women.”
These “cultural” manifestations are the result of the working out of the great troika of modern political ideals of the French revolution and have become the “hypergoods” of global modernity: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Human rights and equality for all human beings, regardless of accidents of biology, nation, and culture, for one world “family.” In short, governance and administration replaces politics. Predictably, the progressives dismiss Hambone as “fascist,” “racist,” and “misogynist.” Fast forward twenty-five years, and he would also be called “homophobic,” despite his great love for one of his friends and travelling companions.
At the end of history, everything that happens is “just combinations and permutations of whatever had gone before” because everything is homogenous, lacks spontaneity, and lacks further possibility. In short, life is boring. Meaning gets replaced with bucket lists. The exhaustion of meaning produces a challenge for conveying this idea dramatically in this philosophical novel, whose plot, after all, has a structure of an action that transcends (or does not quite reach) random “combinations and permutations,” and is certainly not boring. One would have to look at the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, or David Foster Wallace for a representation of post-historical randomness.
Even so, Disorderly Notions, is from its very title (which is drawn from Don Quixote) an act of resistance against the rule of technology at the end of history because it is about the discovery of the end of history, and as such, contains within it the possibility for history to continue.
I suggest two important ways these latent possibilities can be seen in the novel. First, Hambone’s epiphany that history has ended is in the form of El Greco’s famous painting of the assumption of the Virgin who ascends on a crescent moon (an image he has tattooed onto his buttocks in a fit of mid-life crisis). Modernity does not so much eradicate Christianity as it takes it over to serve its own purposes. Thus, Christian love becomes tolerance and the golden rule becomes reinterpreted as the moral basis upon which we recognize each other’s rights to satisfy our bodily desires. Thus, people who use the language of “religious values” only reinforce the very technological and secular imperative they naively think they resist by such “values.” The same is true of “social justice.”
Technology, as the co-penetration of wisdom and power, or logos, thus becomes “the risen Christ and development is His prophet and the harbinger of the Advent of His Holy Spirit.” El Greco’s painting presents the ambiguous relationship between spirit and body in Christianity. The Virgin brings forth the Logos. The generation of the logos does not have a worldly cause, but the Virgin remains symbolically connected to worldly generation, and thus history, by standing on the crescent moon, the symbol of generation. She represents the extreme limit of our existence as human beings as between gods and beasts, spirit and body, and the divine and the deep—where we are begotten, not made, as the Nicene Creed states.
With technology, the ambiguous relationship between spirit and body in Christianity is severed, as represented by our various biotechnologies and bioethical debates, because technology is about making or fabricating, not begetting. Post-historical humans no longer view themselves as begotten because they view themselves as pure will or pneuma (though the details of achieving this still need to get worked out, as in cryogenics and other efforts to gain immortality—it is no coincidence that Lenin’s tomb is one of the last places Hambone and Andy visit in the old Soviet Union). Moderns believe they are self-made, not begotten. This is true even in light of the claims by evolutionary psychologists that genes are destiny because implicit in that claim is that their science can control the evolution of genes.
The other way that latent possibilities remain at the end of history is through begetting, or natality, which philosopher Hannah Arendt said was the hope for human beings in a post-totalitarian age. Having a child at the end of history is an admission of hidden things and that one does not know nor control the future. I won’t spoil the story by revealing what happens to those whom Hambone and Judah Anubis Benjamin beget, nor what happens to their mother, except to say that the fate of all of them is bound up in the epiphany of the Virgin on the moon and the peculiar way she mediates spirit and body.
What is the lesson to be drawn from this novel about facing the end of history? One of the most important seems to be to embrace our inner southern (or Canadian) redneck, an awkward social outcast, no less a pariah than was Socrates. That is the “circumstance and coincidence” that presupposes our capacity to think and to beget—that is, to live as human beings. As the organizer of the development conference explains to Hambone after he delivers his speech that upset the progressives: “Thinking requires risk, but with no risk, there is no life.”