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Dubliners and On Bullshit

Updated on October 23, 2015

Over the past month I have read two books that I have only had time to review now.

The first book I read was James Joyce's Dubliners. I first "read" this last year during my senior year of high school. The reason read is in quotations is because during high school - at least the high school I went to - there was no enough time to actually do all the work. Actually, there was enough time, but because the school day was so exhausting - the combination of waking up early and sitting in rows like fattening cattle all day while a figure drawls on and scribbles on a board can be tiresome - there was no way for me to muster the energy to do all the work. I would also end up staying up late trying to complete my work because I would not start it immediately the moment I returned home. Going to bed at 2 in the morning and waking up 5 hours later is a real blow to energy. Therefore, I would just be more tired the next day after a boring day of school, meaning I could do less work. Basically, I read the first two chapters of Dubliners. However, I thought those two chapters were fantastic. I was amazed with the writing style; a simplicity they still caused vivid images in my minds eye. Thus, a year later, I decided to read the whole book at my leisure without concern for assignments.

What is fantastic about Dubliners is that the author, James Joyce, himself was a Dubliner, meaning a resident of Dublin. However, Joyce hated Dublin. In fact, as I understand it he hated all of Ireland. Obviously, there were certain aspects he probably liked, but he did have an overwhelming problem with the Irish remaining in Ireland. Unlike Joyce, the Irish had this strange innate sense of pride in Ireland. At least it is depicted as innate pride in Dubliners. The novel offers no explanation as to how the Irish became so pride of Ireland. The novel also does not classify it as simply pride. In the novel, pride is broken down into different loyalties like for family, government, culture, homeland, etc. The particular loyalty being examined only becomes evident when the character is placed in a particular circumstance. For example, the twelfth short story in Dubliners, Ivy Day in the Committee Room, is about the characters' loyalty to government and their homeland. The problems with this loyalty then exposes that Ireland is doomed to suffer the same unproductive politics. Basically, every story shows how a particular loyalty is irrational, meaning limiting on the individual. The eighth short story - at least I think it is the eighth - A Little Cloud perfectly captures the damaging effects of irrational loyalties. One Irishman meets an old friend, who I believe was actually English not Irish. The Irishman has ended up with what would be comparable to the average suburban life of today. The Englishman, however, travels the world, visits exotic places. The latter is living the life he always desired to live, while the former is not. The Irishman questions the Englishman why he never returns and doesn't he miss being home. The Englishman, of course, does not, and honestly says he only returns to Ireland and England for a few distinct and favorable characteristics the rest of the world cannot offer.

Essentially, Dubliners concerns escaping from the prisons of family, culture, homeland pride, etc. Obviously, family can be a positive element in someone's life, but in most instances it is not. Consequently, like culture and patriotism it becomes a weight against one's own desires, success, and thus happiness. Therefore, the theme of the story is be selfish, do not be selfless towards any variation of the collective that cloaks itself in the illusion of virtue, for it will only make one miserable. All of the short stories show this later effect, which is my only disappointment. I would like to see one hero escape the loyalties towards Ireland, one hero realizing his own happiness not grinding himself into fodder for a collective. However, I believe Dubliners makes a very strong case by not depicting the heroes but the sufferers - I would not necessarily call them villains, may be misguided. Sometimes a depressing tale is more effective than an uplifting one. Furthermore, I believe many of the short stories can be applied to the reader's own life. The short stories involve situations that are actually quite generic. Everyone experiences one of these stories, or know an immediate relative or friend who has. Therefore, the stories could not be related to if they were heroes tales. Consequently, the reader might miss the theme, for he would not see the mistakes the characters are avoiding. In this situation, the characters make the mistakes, and the reader will more likely think, "I have made this mistake," or "I am doing this right now."

The second book, On Bullshit, is non-fiction. It was originally a short essay by Harry G. Frankfurt that analyzed the concept of bullshit. I believe he wrote the essay in like the seventies or eighties, but only recently has it been printed by a book.

When the term book is used, and one combines it with analysis the image of a fat text is probably evoked. However, remember this was originally an essay, and when it was printed as a book nothing was added. What is produced is something about the height and width of a pocket Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution one can purchase from Cato. Furthermore, there is probably less text in this 67 page book than the pocket Constitution.

Frankfurt begins by stating that the concept of bullshit has never really been analyzed. Throughout the book he does reference an earlier essay by Max Black called The Prevalence of Humbug. Though Frankfurt does recognize there is a similarity between humbug and bullshit he refuses to accept them as synonymous, for they are different words; therefore, they must have different meanings no matter how slight. For example, angry and furious are similar but not synonymous. Furious has a far more negative connotation than angry. One who is furious is definitely more mad than one who is angry. Since Frankfurt states that humbug and bullshit are different and the concept of bullshit has never been thoroughly explored before he makes it clear that this essay On Bullshit will not produce definite answers. It is only a first step in understanding the concept. If anything, it produces hypotheses ready to be tested.

Early on in the book Frankfurt also separates bullshit from lying. Once again like humbug and bullshit there is a similarity between lying and bullshit, but seeing as how they are different words they must have different meanings, even if only slightly. The rest of the book primarily explores this difference. What Frankfurt concludes is that a lie is the direct opposite of a truth. Therefore, a liar must actually be aware of the truth because the liar's motive is to convey something that is false. For example, if one person wants to defraud another through a sale, like that of a car, the defrauder must know how much the car actually costs. The defrauder must know the car costs $15,000 if he wants to defraud the customer, for he wants to make more than what the care is actually worth. He must then know the true worth of the car, so he is sure to construct a falsehood, a lie, that opposes the truth. $80,000 would definitely oppose $15,000. Of course, this is not a perfect example because he could also pick $2 which would oppose $15,000, it would still be a lie, but he would not be defrauding someone. For another example, if the one wants another person to commit a vicious act he must first know what virtuous acts are. If he was just guessing he might accidentally select a virtuous act.

Ultimately, Frankfurt decides that bullshit is that last example I provided, meaning guessing, which I think is fascinating. The greatest part in the book is when Frankfurt explains that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lying. Basically, one who is bullshitting wants to sound a certain way without actually knowing much about how that way is supposed to sound.
For example, if an Average Joe is asked about his view on the environment he wants to sound like he knows what he is talking about. Unfortunately, Mr. Joe, since he is an Average Joe, does not know anything about the environment. He does not know what an environmental expert would say. Therefore, Mr. Joe makes up stuff. He guesses what is supposed to sound right. The difference between this and lying is that Mr. Joe does not know the truth, he just guesses. That is why bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lying, for lies acknowledge that truth exists. A liar must know the truth, for he motive is to counter act it. The bullshitter's motive is to sound like he knows the truth without actually knowing the truth. Consequently, he just guesses, enters a game of crap shoot. This is, of course, very fitting for the word bullshit. Frankfurt does not explain the bull part all that much, but he does spend significant time explaining that bullshitting is like shit neither as any real form or any concern for form.

The last line of On Bullshit is the best line, aside from the one explaining that bullshit not lies is the greatest enemy of the truth. In the last line Frankfurt states that sincerity is itself is bullshit. I interpreted this as meaning how people use sincerity now. Originally, sincerity meant to be honest and genuine. However, people today often feign sincerity. One most often hears the word sincere in a context like, "Please try to be sincere." This is usually stated after one person has conveyed that he really does not care at all. Therefore, he must bullshit. He tries to sound sincere without actually knowing how one is supposed to sound sincere, for he previously implied he does not care at all. However, another interpretation, the correct one obviously, relates to the lines previously before it. Frankfurt argues that humans are unstable being in a constant state of change; thus, sincerity is bullshit. I would have to agree, if only humans were in a constant state of change. I believe individuals decide who they are going to be very early on. Throughout life they change very little. Frankfurt seems to believe humans are like leaves in the wind, they change on arbitrary whims. If this were true sincerity would always be bullshit. Under my argument, where people decide who they are early on, sincerity is easy, they have known who they are very early on. However, multiple collectives order individuals to be different than who they are. Furthermore, one individual may be part of multiple collectives that contradict each other; thus, causing the individual to experience more pressure from the collectives. In the end the individual may become confused. If he were to accept himself, he would probably know exactly what he wanted. However, with collective pressures contradicting one another and contradicting himself, he cannot be sincere. If he were he would be shunned face a type of exile, which he probably could not bare, evident by his participation in several collectives. Therefore, when he tries to be sincere he is only saying what he thinks he should say, what he thinks he should sound like, to appease a specific collective. Sincerity then becomes bullshit again.


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