Diary

Colin McGinn

I have recently been to two valedictory parties for Oxford philosophers on the brink of emigrating to America. I spoke to another philosopher who is actively considering a munificent offer from a Californian university. Reliable rumour has it that a number of other leading British philosophers are contemplating taking their talents to the Land of the Free. And they have been preceded there by several others in the past few years. British philosophy appears to be packing up and moving across the Atlantic. Neither is this minor exodus being compensated for by American philosophers taking up posts in Britain. There are too few such posts, and those there are are not attractive to American philosophers. The consensus seems to be that it is better to be a philosopher in America than Britain right now and for the foreseeable future.

The reasons are not far to seek. You get three times the pay over there, your teaching and administrative duties are comparatively light, your sabbatical leave is generous. Research is highly valued and appropriately rewarded. Philosophy in America is accordingly flourishing. There is much justified optimism there. In Britain, however, philosophy is suffering from multiple cuts, as indeed are other subjects. The deepest cut is the freezing of posts: it keeps young scholars out of academic life, thus inducing an atmosphere of stagnation, and it results in morale-destroying lacunae at the senior level. Consequently, there are now departments with no very junior people and no professors. The government may have set out to hack the ‘dead wood’ from the university system: what they have done instead is to slice off the living shoots and healthy branches.

This was, of course, entirely predictable: established scholars will go where they are most valued and where they can best get on with their work, while potential scholars are forced to take up other occupations. Nor is this depletion of intellectual resources readily reversible: these people won’t be coming back. During the 12 years I have been a professional philosopher (I scraped in just before the squeeze) I have seen a steady decline in the vitality of British philosophy. Meanwhile America has surged ahead, and it is now consolidating its lead over Britain by attracting some of our best philosophers. California is now arguably stronger philosophically than the whole of Britain – in a decade it might be Arizona or Montana! Recent government policy may not be the whole reason for this intellectual recession, but there can be no doubt that it is a large part of the reason. And the same can be said of other subjects.

Four years ago, when I was a lowly lecturer in London, I had to decide whether to take a job at a university in Los Angeles. The offer sounded unrefusable: pay tripled, lots of research time, excellent and affable colleagues. Only a devout patriot could turn it down. I had already spent six months in LA three years earlier and had greatly enjoyed it. It was philosophically stimulating, and I made more friends than I had in England. But I wanted to go over again for a trial period before deciding. I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to live there permanently.

I arrived in early January and found LA to be just as I remembered it. The hummingbirds were hovering in the palm trees, the people were dressed in shorts, the hot sun burned indefatigably in the high blue sky. I bought a car (top priority in LA) for $400 – a dented green Chevy Nova with ripped seats and an unquenchable thirst for oil. The Nova did not quite have the vulgar style of my earlier Impala, a two-toned gas-guzzling yacht-like structure into whose rearview mirror police cars would often loom: but at least the Nova didn’t automatically sound the horn whenever I hung a right (the electrics were all messed up, as I was laconically informed by a gun-toting repair-shop proprietor). Once I was mobile I could find an apartment to rent, which I soon did in Brentwood, where the warning signs on the houses speak sinisterly of ‘armed response’. My small and expensive apartment had the standard LA wall-to-wall shaggy carpet and saloon-style doors into the ‘kitchen area’. Strolling the murky corridors of the apartment building, I could hear the sounds of daytime game-shows emanating from behind the closed doors of my reclusive neighbours; and occasionally I would glimpse a night-attired spectral figure gliding to the laundry room or a burdened shopper in the dark subterranean car-park. Under my third-floor balcony a swimming-pool posed for a David Hockney painting, the water the colour of Paul Newman’s eyes, though it was deemed too cold to be usable in ‘winter’. (Appropriately enough, I had met Hockney during my previous visit to LA, through my artist brother. His brother was there too, giving, I think, financial advice to the painter. Looking out over LA, Hockney’s brother thrilled us with tales of his exploits on Bradford Council: it made me think that no matter where the English are they are always back at home in England. The caretaker of the apartments (in America, the ‘manager’) was a Cuban man whose wife watched Spanish television all day and whose revolver was usually visible when I visited his apartment to pay the rent. He was, in fact, very helpful to me, telling me that America is for the Americans – that we Cubans and British should stick together. He seemed much exercised with the concept of trust. He stressed that I had exclusive rights to a designated parking place in the cavernous lot beneath the building. I was now well set-up: I need never actually walk the scorching LA streets.

My teaching at USC required me to take the nine-mile freeway drive to the campus only twice a week. Being easterly, the surrounding area is not a place you choose to visit otherwise: the further you get from the coast the more dangerous it is said to become. I was myself the victim of a characteristic LA crime in that area: I had my car battery stolen from the university parking lot – on my birthday too. I discovered this loss at midnight, having been dropped off by a friend to pick up my car. He had to drive back all the way across the city to take me home. It was all very nerve-racking. I mostly stayed in west LA, working on Wittgenstein by day and video games by night. I had been fatally introduced to the latter by a philosophical colleague, and the addiction proved exigent. I had enough free time to make good progress on the book and to reach respectably high stages of Pacman and Galaga. One problem was that my arm muscles would become so sore from manipulating the controls that I had to drive home with one hand. I observed that playing these strange games was a major pastime in LA. Aguy in the Westwood arcade once said to me, as he took the controls: ‘Now let’s get down to some serious Pacman here.’ Wittgenstein, on the other hand, is more of a minority interest out there on the West Coast. Doing both seemed a good way to get a sense of what it would be like to be a philosopher in LA.

The rain started a month or so after I arrived and persisted for several weeks. LA is not designed to cope with heavy continuous rain: it is apt to go to pieces when drenched. The city banks on sunshine, and is rarely let down. The arching freeways, on which the functioning of LA depends, were often undrivable, the exits flooded and blocked, making it virtually impossible to get to work. Wilshire Boulevard became a lake as the inadequate drainage system failed to contain the downpours. Driving along curving Sunset one wet afternoon, I skidded across three lanes when I abruptly braked to avoid a car that had pulled out in front of me – the rain had combined with the ample deposits of oil on the road to make a lethal surface. The pool out back silted up with thick mud from the garden, giving it the appearance of a domestic swamp. When it was laboriously cleaned out during a sunny respite and filled with fresh water, it stayed blue for only a couple of days, until the rain performed an encore and filled it with mud again. Mud is, indeed, a serious hazard in LA: it has been known to engulf whole houses as it flows down from the hills. Fires, earthquakes and coyotes are some of the other natural hazards, especially for the canyon-dwellers. The rain eliminated pedestrians even from those small pockets of the city in which people actually walk; they seemed afraid they would melt in it, like the Wicked Witch of the West (LA is indeed not dissimilar to the Land of Oz). One evening in Westwood Village, after seeing Scorsese’s film The King of Comedy, I noticed Steven Spielberg coralled by rain in the cinema foyer, preferring multiple recognition to getting wet on his way to the parking lot. Sunday jogging between the smoggy carriage-ways of San Vicente came to a halt, which must have been a relief to the joggers’ lungs. It felt as if ordinary life had been suspended until the sun remembered its assertiveness training. Angelinos like their water in the sea or the shower or the bed, not coming down at them out of the sky. Grey skies are decidedly not part of the Californian dream. As for myself, I got much more work done than I would have liked.

After about three months I decided not to move to LA. This decision was not prompted by the quality of academic life there: it was determined by the wider culture. There is, for many Europeans, something alien about the American way of life, especially perhaps in a place like Southern California. It is like breathing an atmosphere with the wrong combination of gases. Received European opinion identifies three elements in American society which together distinguish it from other societies. First, there is the money element: unrestrained capitalism, the profit motive, the respect for wealth. Second, there is American moralism: the puritan tradition, the tendentious emphasis on family, the anti-Darwinian moral majority, a certain unreflective sentimentality. Third, there are the media, centrally television: low-grade popular entertainment, TV preachers, the constant celebration of showbiz celebrity. And, as the received wisdom has it, there is a spiritual hollowness at the heart of it all – the inevitable price of an abject consumerism.

One finds this kind of diagnosis in two recent American novels in which LA figures. Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero deals with the idle rich kids of LA movie people: they are depicted as desperately kick-seeking, obsessed with the surface of things, watching pop videos on MTV all the time, snorting furlongs of coke – utterly soulless. Jay Mclnerney’s Ransom has a central character who has fled from LA to Japan to escape his despised film-producer father and to discover some sort of integrity in the martial arts; the impression given is that spiritual fulfilment is not feasible in modern America.

An English writer who sees America this way is Martin Amis. His recent collection of ‘Visits to America’, The Moronic Inferno, contains pieces dealing with money mania, prime-time religion, and the phenomenon of media celebrity; and his last novel, Money, about the corrupting power of the stuff, is largely set in America. (He has also written feelingly about the pitiful plight of the videogame junkie – see above – in Invasion of the Space Invaders. Defender is rightly singled out for its addictive powers as well as being a real ‘wallet-thinner’.) He declares himself ‘excited and frightened’ by America, and wonders how being a superpower affects the ‘dreamlife’ of Americans. He is strong on appalled recoil from the deification of the dollar and the canonisation of media personalities, including writers. But the collection is too disparate and occasional to provide any real analysis of America’s depth psychology.

How do the three Ms – money, moralism, media – relate to each other? Well, the activities of money need to be exculpated, rationalised, embedded within a justifying moral framework; and both money and morality need to be rendered palatable – hence the media insistence on the ‘caringness’ of companies, and the showmanship of the small-screen preacher. Last time I was in America (New York this time) I heard a radio programme in which the urgent evangelical presenter exhorted his audience, his scattered congregation, to phone in their donations (‘pledges’, as they are euphemistically known), while in the background could be heard the constant ring of telephones as the listeners did as they were bade, with the presenter announcing the names of the pledgers and the exact sums pledged. Here was a programme you could pay to be mentioned on and at the same time you could do a little something for God: the three elements were all there.

President Reagan exemplifies the three Ms perfectly – a fact which does much to explain his resilient popularity. He is rich, his morality is traditional and religious, and he has a silver-screen public image (that wave, that smile). To be against Reagan is seen to be against basic American values. The popularity of guns in America might be similarly explained: they exist largely to protect money and property; they are justified in terms of liberty and individual rights; and they play a major role in popular entertainment, second only to human beings (Miami Vice has made an aesthetic out of designer firearms for cool killing). Bigger firearms, the nuclear kind, occupy an analogous psychic position. Their incredible expense reminds Americans of the great wealth of the nation; they exist to deter the opponents of liberty; and their pyrotechnic violence makes them an excellent subject for the ultimate disaster movie.

If the Amis collection does not go deep enough, it also raises a question about the role of this kind of journalism: namely, does it not foster what it most purports to scorn? In particular, isn’t such journalism precisely what celebrity feeds upon? Take the piece on Hugh Hefner. It invites us, willy-nilly, to find his cupidity, mendacity and baseness somehow interesting, a fit object of fascination. Part of the reason Hefner is where he is today is that voyeuristic articles keep appearing on him, some of them written by people whose intelligence might be more worthily employed.

This problem of unintended promotion takes a subtler form in the case of Amis’s fictional counter-hero, John Self, the money-glutton and pornographer, a man with as much interior culture as a massage parlour. The author describes this crass compendium of gross appetites so brilliantly, and with such inventive wit, that the character comes to seem perversely deep and rich in his manic search for self-gratification. Self emerges, miraculously and unintentionally, as the kind of guy you would quite like to know. There is real artistry in his compulsive philistinism. Nestling inside all that vice and violence are humour and pathos, as well as a sort of raw perceptiveness. Lavish enough creative talent on a subject and it will come to seem attractive – instead of boring, tawdry and depressing. The cover of the paperback edition of Money reflects this ironic inversion, at least to my eye: you’d think the book belonged to the titillatory tradition of a Jackie Collins expose of the rich and famous. The final irony would be a Hollywood movie based on the book which made lots of money by treating money as the fetish Money condemns it for being. As the novel itself suggests, money has this uncanny way of always coming out on top. I do not pretend to have a solution to this problem, but I think it is a step in the right direction to recognise that it exists. For all I know, it may be the ineluctable condition – as Plato long ago argued – of all art, which must glamorise, or domesticate, even that which it most deplores. And when the theme is as inherently glamorous as money the danger is doubled.

Is America really, then, the moronic inferno? Contrary to the impression given by his title, Amis doesn’t think so: the moronic inferno is ‘global and eternal’, not ‘peculiarly American’. Certainly its universities and intellectual life are far from moronic, and they are not very infernal either (though the tenure system is widely regarded as a kind of purgatory). True, the dominance of money, moralism and the media in America make it less than paradisal: but then we in Britain have to put up with class divisions, craven propriety, the tabloids. If America is a moronic inferno, Britain is a cretinous campfire. At least the American inferno keeps its universities warm, while in Britain the universities are coming to be damp and cold places, along with so much else here. I can well understand why my colleagues are being attracted away to the warmth: but for the present I think I’ll just keep rubbing my hands.