Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Michael Harrington 1928 - 1989

A crumpled Pelican paper back full of off-cut strips of light blue, top quality 'Conqueror' paper. Each strip with a person, place, thing, concept, or a short quote; and always a page number: all written in soft pencil. Anyone walking in here would know the books I concentrated on by the number of bookmarks in each one. The problem - or not - for me is the paper tufts draws attention back to these few books. Michael Harrington's Accidental Century is a book that gets dipped into more frequently because the bookmarks stand out like road signs!

It was not so much his arguments, though I still go along with many - treat it as a historical document if nothing else - but the way he drew me, by quite detailed exegesis, to a variety of works that I might not have gone straight to. Now, many years later, having read quite a few of the books he mentions, checking some of these favourite passages - for example on Mann - is a stimulus to re-read the books themselves, or perhaps try others not read.

I have no detailed idea why - except from the previous suggestion of a writing exercise involving the biography of a famous writer {first or third person}, while trying not to crib directly from the character of Adrian Leverkuhn - but now there is a strong desire to start Dr. Faustus again after 30 years, with a strong determination to finish it for the first time.

Doctor Faustus is a book I couldn't get into in the big reading phase in my late 20s. Now I can see it's going to be important for me both as a novel, per se, and in helping me develop writing skills. Though one can never be sure of anything in this life, it feels as if there might be a straight run on several others of Mann too, since they are there on the shelves: patient, pleading, yellowing, crumbling.

The blurb for The Accidental Century {written in 1966} says:

One clear theme underlies all the bewildering changes in western society this century - the technological revolution. Out tools are now transforming our way of life; yet in this man-made age we have no real control over their use.

In this controversial book the author of The Other America argues that this 'accidental revolution' has undermined traditional ideologies and systems of belief. With the growth of the monopoly corporation, free competition has destroyed itself; and the socialist ideal has been corrupted by compromise with the welfare state. The contempory crisis, in which neither religion nor humanism can command widespread faith, is implicit in the works of such writers as Mann, Orwell, Malreaux, Sartre, and Camus. Now, Michael Harrington argues, the prospect of a cybernated and automated future presents us with a stark choice: either build a new democratic and socialist world by controlling our rampant technology; or to suffer an avoidable fate - the tyranny of the machine.

The last chapter, 9, titled A Hope: here he lays out his final analysis. It would not be a crime for someone trying to work out if it was worth reading, cover to cover, to run quickly through this, first. You will be drawn to the index, with its surfit of references to literary authors, which draws you into great chunks of the book. Before you know it your want to go back to the beginning to run through this what might seem rather old-fashioned business of decadence and see if it fits your world.

It is a good book for a science student wanting a guide wider reading. You will be able to overcome accusations of sciolism with this book! Trust me: they'll never know.

It occured to me while looking through a few modern OS maps to find a mountain mention on a post card that just arrived, a book such as The Accidental Century is like one of those 1950s maps which lie unloved in secondhand bookshops, stuffed into a large carboard box. I buy them, knowing they will not serve me as well as the modern equivalents. But there is a pleasure to be had running over the old roads - the topographical contours will be the same - in order to be taken back in one's mind to the time when there were of use.


Michael harrington :
a bibliography from MBEAW.
A resources page for MBEAW, under title voices of reason, covers quite a lot of writers.

Down the bottom of this Jesse Jackson Jnr. site {not links} is a set of front pages of all Harrington's books {presumably U.S. editions}.

Conversation with an Atheist -- Michael Harrington on Religion and Socialism

All that is solid melts into the air, The Experience of Modernity, By Marshall Berman

Only small mention of Harrington: serependipitous find, but interesting read about another book.

Why should I grieve now? A Zen story {chapter 3} : mentions the words 'the accidental century". No Harrington, but obviously referring to the book. Need a zen quote? Check out the Irishman 'joke'.


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