Disorderly Notions. Tom Darby. Toronto: Iguana Books, 2012.
Sometimes political theorists turn their attention from reading and writing about arcane philosophical texts to reading and writing about literature, or even film. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dostoevsky are some of the usual literary suspects; Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers are often explored for their theoretical relevance and insight. Literature and film, we know, reveal undifferentiated truths about the human condition. Bundled in the garb of a particular time and place, some of these creations speak more loudly and more compellingly than famous canonical texts. As Leo Strauss teaches us, some might even be more important because their creators, living under the threat of political persecution, were forced to hide their meanings under the cover of fiction, drama, or even poetry. In such cases, careful readers must pay close attention to the speech and deeds of the most disreputable characters to discover those meanings. Whores and madmen matter in this respect. Political theorists, for example, have much to learn from Shakespeare’s fat debauch Falstaff, or from pretty much any drunkard, lunatic, or prostitute in Dostoevsky’s works.
The challenge for most theorists who turn their attention to literature is the literary genre itself. With myriad voices and manifold action, discerning an author’s intention demands more subtlety and care than is required when reading more straightforward types of prose. Determining which, if any, character is the artist’s mouthpiece can confound even the best readers. Dynamic characters, nuanced symbolism, and historical particularities all addle interpretation.
One wonders, however, about a political theorist’s interpretive difficulties should she turn the table and use the literary genre itself to interpret canonical texts. One might think of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being as a literary representation of Nietzschean thought. Kundera, however, is a novelist whose art is unsullied by the misfortune of a theoretical training. One might think of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, Vaclav Havel’s art, Mircea Eliade’s efforts, or even Gustave Beaumont—Tocqueville’s travel partner in America—and his Marie as an effort to use literature for the declaration of political ideas. One could double down on such a hermeneutical wager and write a novel to interpret a novel, as J.M Coetzee has recently done with his Master of Petersburg, which engages Dostoevsky’s Demons.
What, for example, might an interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit look like as a novel? In The Sunday of Life, Raymond Queneau took a stab it. More recently, Tom Darby has taken a hand at it with his Disorderly Notions, a wide-ranging novel based on Hegel’s thought or, more precisely, Kojeve’s interpretation of Hegel. His book is, to be sure, a rare bird in the political theory zoo.
I read Disorderly Notions over a recent Christmas break – a break spent mostly in the sun, surf, and Catholicism of the Philippines, where nothing new ever happens. It is, of course, difficult for a modern professor to find time to read novels, but it is more difficult to read a book in the right place. The Philippines, it turns out, was a good place to read Disorderly Notions.
Darby’s novel tells the story of Hamilton West, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, who, in 1989 or so, comes up with the End of History thesis. The narrative then follows the protagonist on his travels through Asia – where, according to the thesis, history began – in search of something new. Through India, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Tibet, and Russia (which, by pretty much any account is neither Europe nor Asia), Germany, and England, we follow West’s search for something new, be it an idea or a love. Early in the novel he finds a new love, but even in this the End of History thesis bears itself out – nothing new is possible any longer. Even the love story is a repeat, but West has no idea . . .
Darby’s novel tells the story of Hamilton West, a professor of philosophy, who, in 1989 or so, comes up with the End of History thesis. The narrative then follows the protagonist in his travels through history, from the early years of the American Republic, through the civil war, through cowardly flights to Canada during the Viet Nam era, right up to the end of history in 1989. These historical peregrinations are presented as an account of West’s family, which, not unlike Darby’s family, has its roots in the American south, amidst slavery, plantations, racism, and the wrong side of history. Even this family history is a repeat.
As most political theorists know, the End of History thesis belongs to Francis Fukuyama. It was Fukuyama, an American and a political theorist by training, who published an article of the same name in 1989 in the National Interest, which brought him much renown. His argument was simple: the purpose of human history is the gradual realization of a more and more perfect form of government. Liberal democracy, he argues, is the fulfillment of this historical movement. There is no better, no higher regime type, than liberal democracy. Once this idea has been formed, all that remains is to actualize the idea around the globe. The most likely way for this to happen is to make televisions and other technological gewgaws available in, say, Iran. Once the technological fruits of this most differentiated form of government are tasted, it will put to bed, finally, the illusions around the globe that other regime types are palatable. History has run its course. Nothing new or better can happen. Should we desire something new, we just reach into the garbage pail of history.
As most political theorists know, the End of History thesis belongs to Barry Cooper. It was Cooper, a Canadian and a political theorist by training, who wrote The End of History: An Essay on Modern Hegelianism, in 1985. It’s a complicated book that brought him no renown. Save for some of his more stalwart students, nobody read the book. Ten years earlier, Tom Darby read Hegel with Barry Cooper in Toronto. Thirty years later, Darby writes a novel, “a world of disorderly notions pick’d out of his books.” Ten years later, Avramenko read Hegel with Darby in Ottawa. Avramenko, spewing the Thesis from his mouth, will never write a novel.
Darby’s novel tells the story of Hamilton West, a professor of philosophy, who, in 1989 or so, comes up with the End of History thesis. The narrative then follows the protagonist in his travels through women. Like the travel through time, like the travel through regime types, the travel through love reveals nothing new. At the End of History, West, while searching through his own romantic and intellectual history, discovers that there is indeed nothing new. At the End of History, one finds no new ideas, no new regime types, and no new love. Instead, one finds no difference – just indifference and ennui. The particular and heterogeneous become the universal and homogeneous. In the end, Darby, Disorderly Notions, and Hamilton West demonstrate that the modern world is one of unmitigated cosmopolitanism and that, at bottom, we are all Eskimo Brothers.