The Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a r...moreThe Kingdom of this World was a charred little fable of revolutionary violence – vengeful voodoo, conspiratorial caves, signal drums in the night; a revolt of slaves, “senseless and merciless” – and I sought out Explosion in a Cathedral hoping for something in that line. The novel’s scope is broader, embracing, as Carpentier writes in his afterward, “the whole area of the Caribbean” in a time of revolution, abolition, piracy and war. Explosion in a Cathedral (the original Spanish title is pointedly ironic: El Siglo de Las Luces – The Age of Enlightenment) definitely has its longueurs, but there are plenty of terrifyingly effective episodes, festive orgies of iconoclasticism, abortions of ideals.
And since the whole island must learn its lesson, the guillotine was removed from the Place de la Victoire, and began to travel, to go on journeys and excursions.
The scenes of re-enslavement, of expeditions to recapture runaways in their jungle strongholds, of reversion to the regional order despite the proclamations of the distant Republic, are especially fucked-up. Of the novel’s the fourteen epigraphs, thirteen are titles of etchings from Goya’s The Disasters of War, and one is a long extract from the book of Job. So that’s the kind of book this is.
And it’s right up my alley: little dialogue; casual violence; descriptive catalogues of frightful plants and beasts; mordant political reflections. The New World is seen not as a new start for humanity but the theater of Europe’s racist cruelty, its outsourced exploitation; its sweat shop, abattoir, lions’ den, “Rape Room”; the anus mundi, as a Nazi doctor called occupied Poland, where kidnapped peoples are exterminated or worked to death for small profit. The translation is occasionally entrancing, and suggests that behind it lies an interesting Latinate style, a morbid, tropically warped classicism, an incipient baroque, elegant and oppressive.
There were silent houses, hidden in the woods, where columns from some Greek temple rose up to meet pediments obliterated by ivy…
Halfway through I posted a status update recommending this to people who enjoyed the pace and texture of The Radetzky March, and I stand by that. Carpentier’s characters are not intricately conflicted – this is no Woolfian kaleidoscope of memory and desire – and they are defined by their relation to the French Revolution, as Roth’s three generations of von Trottas are defined by relation to the different stages of Austro-Hungarian decay. Especially read this if you’re interested in the revolutionary type of “hard man,” the rationalist who revels in the supposed necessity of his murders. The heyday of Robespierre and Saint-Just was short, but the orator of caustic blasphemy survived as a French style. More than a few times while reading I thought of this glimpse of Baudelaire in the Goncourt Journals:
Baudelaire had supper at the table next to ours. He was without a cravat, his shirt open at the neck and his head shaved, just as if he were to be guillotined. A single affectation: his little hands washed and cared for, the nails kept scrupulously clean. The face of a maniac, a voice that cuts like a knife, and a precise elocution that tries to copy Saint-Just and succeeds.
The Wikipedia entry on Carpentier says that soon after reading Explosion in a Cathedral (1962), Garcia Marquez destroyed the first draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and started anew. That entry also notes that Carpentier’s “magic realism” (a phrase Carpentier coined) is not fantastic, and his characters do not defy physical laws; the history and politics of the Caribbean are sufficiently surreal. I wonder if Garcia Marquez realized Carpentier had already made the history strange, and the only place to go was pure fantasy.
While this biography of Hitler—published in 1973 it was the first ever by a German writer—fell into my hands as serendipitously as such books always d...moreWhile this biography of Hitler—published in 1973 it was the first ever by a German writer—fell into my hands as serendipitously as such books always do (my reading is planful and curricular only when it comes to New World slavery, and Virginia Woolf), I did open it seeking answers to some definite questions. One of which is: in what milieu, and under what conditions, was Adolf Hitler considered not only a serious statesman, but a National Redeemer, and an inexorable Man of Destiny? And yeah, we so-called educated people can robotically recite the Humiliation of Versailles, the Trauma of Defeat, recall inflationary wheelbarrows of reichsmarks, the mass unemployment of the Depression, and even the discredited yet complacent German ruling classes; but those are clichés from textbooks, and I wanted an idea of a vanished social texture, which is after all why we read histories. How did the ineffectual loner-fantasist of 1912, in thrall to masturbatory Wagnerian visions of white knights and usurious trolls, and the pallid, blear-eyed, drug-addicted bunker-dwelling troglodyte of 1945, achieve a midlife of mass persuasion and practical, not to say total political power, and what did that midlife look like? Joachim Fest’s 800-page answer might be boiled down to a single passage:
The policy of appeasement had been partly based on and sustained by the bourgeois world’s fear of Communist revolution. In the script of English statesmen, Hitler was assigned the role of militant defender of the bourgeois world. That was why they had endured all his slaps in the face, his provocations and outrages. But this was the only reason. By coming to an agreement with the Soviet Union, he indicated that he was not the opponent of revolution that he had pretended to be; he was no protector of the bourgeois order, no “General Wrangel of the world bourgeoisie.” Although the pact with Stalin was a masterpiece of diplomacy, it contained an inconspicuous flaw: it abrogated the premises on which Hitler and West carried on their dealings. Here was something that could not be glossed over, and with rare unanimity the British, including the stoutest spokesmen for appeasement, now showed their resolve to oppose him. Although Hitler had a deserved reputation for psychological acuity, it became clear in this decisive moment that, after all, he was the psychologist only of the exhausted, the resigned, the doomed. And he was far better able to estimate the moves of victims than of adversaries.
I couldn’t quite picture Hitler’s early political and diplomatic ascendancy because I lacked a really vivid sense of the social disarray, the limping frailty, of European societies after World War One. In his To Lose a Battle: France 1940 Alastair Horne takes an epigraph from the letters of Marc Boasson, a French sergeant killed at Verdun in 1916 (one of the 700,000 French and German troops killed in the battle) who shortly before his death wondered: “What kind of nation will they make of us tomorrow, these exhausted creatures, emptied of blood, emptied of thought, crushed by a superhuman fatigue?” Boasson probably knew the answer, just from a glance over the poilus in his dugout: nations of exhausted survivors; societies conscious of their mortality, of the folly of their elites; a postwar order few believed in and few would enforce; the widespread feeling of having been senselessly spared, absurdly, artificially prolonged; nations feeling helpless before history, vaguely doomed, and haunted by the threat of revolution, or should we say dissolution. In short, a situation to which Hitler’s talents—as a demagogue, as a chameleon promising restoration to some and revolution to others, as a jackal upon a dying system—were nightmarishly suited. His was a vacant, lethargic personality that drew energy from social collapse, coherence from moral chaos. He said the happiest periods of his life were his four years in the trenches—from which he took not a day of voluntary leave—and the very worst year of the Depression in Germany, during which he coolly surfed a tsunami of rage and panic to the gates of established power. Fest discusses the strident simplicity of the Nazi party’s propaganda, its mastery of new media, of the technologies of omnipresence (radio, the private plane in which Hitler crisscrossed the nation), Hitler’s celebrity sexual charisma*, and the overwhelming, operatic stagecraft of the rallies—but what mattered most of all, he says, when it came to the hijacking of the German state and the use of its authority and organization to prosecute a genocidal war of continental conquest, was the very simple fact that “no one seemed to grasp who Hitler really was.” No one, at least, among his domestic backers and Western European appeasers (Joseph Roth knew); they all realized too late that Hitler didn’t want their approval—he wanted to destroy and replace them. He didn’t want to don a top hat and tails; he couldn’t be “tamed” or “boxed in”; and he hadn’t regimented the restive masses for them, but for his own nihilistic revolution, one as insanely murderous as the Bolshevik revolution he was credited with having contained or forestalled. During his rise to power Hitler relied upon his private army of brownshirt thugs for street fights with the Communists, and to impress and intimidate the wider public. A year after becoming chancellor, Hitler brutally purged the leaders of the brownshirts—an act that, for all its blatant mayhem (though Hitler was personally involved, for a few minutes I pictured a Godfather-like montage with him brooding in the halls of respectable power while gunmen of the nascent SS shot down incredulous allies) nonetheless reassured the army and the industrialists of Hitler’s moderation to the mainstream, his willingness to accept traditional power structures. In fact, Hitler had simply mutated. They had not co-opted him; he was corrupting them. His perversion of the German state and society had only just begun:
Machiavelli pointed out in a famous aphorism that power is not maintained with the same following that has helped to win it. Mussolini is said to have made this comment to Hitler when they [first] met in Venice. In the course of the conquest of power a limited degree of revolution from below had been permitted. By destroying the top leadership of the SA, Hitler choked off that limited revolution. The Röhm affair concluded the so-called period of struggle and marked the turning point away from the vague, utopian phase of the movement to the sober reality of a disciplined state. The romantic barricade fighter was replaced by the more modern revolutionary types such as the SS produced: those passionless bureaucrats who supervised a revolution whose like had never been known. Thinking not in terms of the mob but in terms of structures, they placed their explosive charges deeper than perhaps any revolutionaries before them.
“Ultimately,” Fest writes, the SS “became a genuine subsidiary government that penetrated all existing institutions, undermined their political power, and gradually began replacing them.” It would also work “to bind the nation to the regime by complicity in an enormous crime, to engender the feeling that all the ships had been burned.” “The annihilation policy in the East, which began almost immediately,” Fest writes, “was one of the ways of making the war irrevocable.” In a telling statement of the fatigue and resignation that always enabled Hitler, a top general refused to participate in an early coup attempt because, he said, “this man is Germany’s fate and this fate will go its way to the end.”
A completely absorbing book, though I was made uneasy by the first few chapters. I got queasy reading Fest’s detailed account of young Hitler’s shitty petit-bourgeois conceit—his embrace of entho-linguistic chauvinism as the only food for his monstrous and undeserved pride—and knowing that he was to be the most influential European of the twentieth century. Young Hitler is like one of Nabokov’s grotesques, an artist manqué who tries to stylize life but only deforms it; someone at once uptight and crazy, stiffly over-correct and a cesspool of manias. Fest on Hitler the painter:
The intellectual ferment, like the artistic experimentation of the period, passed Hitler by in Munich as it had in Vienna. Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee, who also lived in the Schwabing neighborhood and were opening new dimensions in painting, meant nothing to Hitler. Throughout all the months he lived in Munich he remained the modest postcard copyist who had his visions, his nightmares, and his anxieties, but did not know how to translate them into art. The pedantic brushwork with which he rendered every blade of grass, every stone in a wall, and every roofing tile, shows his intimate craving for wholeness and idealized beauty. But the phantom world of his complexes and aggressions remained completely unexpressed.
And it’s of course galling that Hitler wasn’t killed in World War One. During the first battle of Ypres, in November, 1914, Hitler’s regiment suffered fifty-percent casualties. 50%, really? And not a bullet for Adolf? Really? But like I said, the book soon becomes absorbing. Especially in the “Interpolations,” the book’s almost separable meditations on German history and culture, Fest’s writing is very pungent and personal. His early years were of course lived under the shadow of Hitler. For refusing the join the Nazi party, his father, a Catholic intellectual, was fired from his teaching post and banned from taking any other, or even doing private tutoring, and the family lived in a proud destitution for the next decade. Fest recalls overhearing his parents argue one night, his mother suggesting that “common people” sometimes had to just go with the flow, if only to get their bread—to which Fest’s father replied, “We're not common people, not when it comes to these matters.” In 1944, Fest turned 18 and decided he should enlist in the army to forestall being drafted into the SS—a compromise intolerable to his father, who shouted—or rather hissed, with a glance at the windows—“one doesn’t volunteer for Hitler’s criminal war!” Fortunately, Fest was deployed to the Western front, and surrendered to American forces. Fest Sr. even had a problem with the Nazi focus of his son’s literary career; a serious historian doesn’t write about such trash as the Nazis, he said. That remark may sound odd to us, but does covey the shame the man must have felt, as he realized that the Nazis were now inseparable from Germany and its history, that Adolf Hitler was irrevocable.
* He preferred the Rhineland temperament, and years later happily recalled how when he visited Cologne that crowd had begun to rock back and forth out of sheer enthusiasm. “The greatest ovation of my life.” (p. 521)
The sound recordings of the period clearly convey the peculiarly obscene, copulatory character of mass meetings: the silence at the beginning, as of a whole multitude holding its breath; the short, shrill yappings…The writer René Schickele once spoke of Hitler’s speeches as being “like sex murders.” (p. 337)
I find very attractive the skeptical, reflexively ironic persona that comes through in these essays, as well as the unshockable sang-froid of her pros...moreI find very attractive the skeptical, reflexively ironic persona that comes through in these essays, as well as the unshockable sang-froid of her prose rhythm--but to call the book a classic, or a "stylistic masterpiece" as the back cover does, seems a bit much. None of these essays, singly, is anything I could cherish. If I encountered any of them in a magazine I would think "she's a good writer" and move on. There's nothing--at least for intellectual pith--that compares with Richard Rodriguez's "Late Victorians," if I may indulge a childish taste for antithesis by invoking another superb stylist known for searching essays on The Meaning of California. (less)
This is the third of Hollinghurst’s four novels. And from what I can gather, the runt of the litter for quite a few of his readers. Not hard to see wh...moreThis is the third of Hollinghurst’s four novels. And from what I can gather, the runt of the litter for quite a few of his readers. Not hard to see why, given what it followed: a brace of densely brilliant novels which permit us to richly inhabit the lyric sensibilities of two very sinuous and engaging first-person narrators (writers are still taking up the gauntlet of Lolita). The Spell, by contrast, flits among a circle of suggestively drawn but necessarily flatter London men. Hollinghurst does the comedy of manners thing superbly, anatomizing with high disabused humor the various nostalgias, jealousies, fears and hopeful fantasies of individuals under different sexual “spells.” The prose is cut to a severe standard, burnished to a glow, and made to reverberate epigrammatically; description often shades into aphorism. This is some of the best English prose of our time. The Spell makes me want to re-read The Line of Beauty, as now it seems the book in which Hollinghurst succeeded in combining his talents for both the subjective surrogate first-person voice and the all-seeing lofty observer, anchoring the narration at a definite point of view, Nick’s, while making Nick, because of his anxious, outsider/interloper status, clairvoyantly attentive to the minds and manners of the other characters. I wonder where he’ll go next. (less)
With this, Alan Hollinghurst becomes my favorite living novelist. For me the phrase means a feeling of excitement about what someone will write in the...moreWith this, Alan Hollinghurst becomes my favorite living novelist. For me the phrase means a feeling of excitement about what someone will write in the future, what new domains of experience they’ll claim. Martin Amis and Edmund White do not evoke this feeling any longer, though I love them; Updike did, if in his last decade only journalistically. I enjoyed Updike’s testimony as a still-acute American elder, his comments on epoch-defining public events—-9/11, the historic election of an African-American president, the return of hard economic times evocative, in speculative origin if not quite in severity and extent, of those that exerted a formative force on his youth and genius.
Though I found The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty uniquely accomplished, The Folding Star is the first to get me all Trilling-esque: here’s the novel as the “bright book of life”; the rightfully dominant genre, the literary register of our times; the dense, dramatic, life-like union-place of all moral, sensory, and intellectual attentions. Hollinghurst has said he reveres Nabokov (with Proust and James) as one of his “grand and shadowy” masters, and both showcase the intellectual sensualism of the truly, the tirelessly responsive. Like Nabokov’s, Hollinghurst’s prose can go anywhere. He can trace the poetic contour of any event, action or situation. His descriptions do justice to a sleepy Flemish museum:
I felt a little out of step among the chaste northern saints and inward-looking Virgins—-there wasn’t one of them that welcomed you or held your gaze as the dark-eyed Italian gods and holy men so often did. Absurd, but I wanted a greeting, even across five hundred years. Here everyone looked down or away, in gestures of reproachful purity. The pious, unflattering portraits, too, of capped and wimpled worthies, were proudly abstinent. They drew respectful crowds of Sunday couples in rustling waterproofs (the day had made an uncertain start).
to music played at a funeral:
The organist was wittering on through his formless and infinitely extendable introit, music that had never been written down, mere sour doodlings to fill the time, varied now and then by a yawning change of registration like a false alert.
I’d used up all the lube Cherif had left in the jar, but I saw tears slide from the corners of his eyes, his upper lip curled back in a gesture like anguish or goaded aggression. His hand flickered up against my chest to stay me or slow me. I was mad with love; and only half –aware, as the rhythm of the fuck took hold, of a deaf desire to hurt him, to watch a punishment inflicted and pay him back for what he’d done to me, the expense and humiliations of so many weeks. I saw the pleasure start up inside for him, as if he didn’t expect it, his cock grew hard again in two seconds, his mouth slackened, but I made him flinch with steeper little thrusts. I was up on the chair, fucking him like a squaddy doing push-ups, ten, twenty, fifty…I had a dim sense of protest, postponed as if he wasn’t quite sure, he was folded in two, powerless, the breath was pushed out of him, there was just the slicked and rubbered pumping of my cock in his arse, his little stoppered farts. His chest, his face, were smeared with sweat, but it was mine: the water poured off me like a boxer, my soaked hair fell forward and stung my eyes.
The narrator, Edward, is a thirtysomething Englishman giving private English lessons in a secretive and sleepy Belgian town. He’s another one of Hollinghurst’s all-noting aesthetes, excitable, passionate even...but ever-spectatorial, and poetically melancholic; he’s transfixed Lolita-ishly, Death in Venice-ishly, by a much younger man. Whereas Nabokov’s prose is more obviously bejeweled and striking even when abstracted anthologically, most of Hollinghurst‘s best passages tie together, with precise images of a dreamlike suggestiveness, ideas that have been slowly accruing to the context. He has a great way of suddenly taking up, in a significant handful, all the themes coursing through the book. Even his gorgeous patches are set-pieces that spread over several pages. A particular high point is a magnificently extended scene in which Edward and another pupil, not the boy he's obsessed with, search a dilapidated country house, a disused sybarite’s retreat in which they think the runaway Luc might be squatting.
It was just the time to see the place, not the kind of dawn Luc’s grandfather had named the house for or would ever have witnessed there, cold skies above drenched wilderness; though there were hints of classic pleasures, a cloud on the lake just big enough to clothe a god in a fresco stooping on a sex-quest. I’d lost Marcel; I wandered down towards the water, reluctantly moved by the relics of all this fake galanterie, my mind vaguely in summer, though a cold gust insisted it was December and made me twitch up Luc’s jacket-collar. I turned back and saw the tiny top windows of the tower colour in the early sun, as though lanterns burnt in them.
...the boards had been ripped from the windows, brambles quested in.
Hollinghurst is capable of motions whose replete stateliness put me in mind not only of Nabokov, but, at times, of Browne and of Gibbon.(less)
The first third of Miami seemed to promise nothing more than amusing reportage—when drug traffickers go house-hunting they look for private water acce...moreThe first third of Miami seemed to promise nothing more than amusing reportage—when drug traffickers go house-hunting they look for private water access; Tony Montana became a mythic hero almost the instant Scarface premiered—but then it began to hit much harder. Didion is so good that any subject she takes up seems her destined one, the exclusive focus of her brooding brilliance; but reading Miami I was tempted to narrow things down and say she’s truly in her element among covert missions and counterrevolutionary conspiracy, and at her very best when relating brutal ops to the amnesiac innocence projected by our actor-leaders, when contrasting the frank machismo of Washington’s surrogates with Washington’s own circular, coquettish language of power—“a language in which deniability was built into the grammar.” Her presentation of the fraught marriage of the “sacrificial and absolutist” Cuban politicos and pragmatic, desultory Imperial Washington makes this book a keeper.
In many ways, Miami remains our graphic lesson in consequences. “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana,” John F. Kennedy said at the Orange Bowl in 1962…meaning it as an abstraction, a rhetorical expression of a collective wish; a kind of poetry, which of course makes nothing happen. “We will not permit the Soviets and their henchmen in Havana to deprive others of their freedom,” Ronald Reagan said at the Dade County Auditorium in 1983, and then Ronald Reagan, the first American president since John F. Kennedy to visit Miami in search of Cuban support, added this: “Someday, Cuba itself will be free.”
This was of course just more poetry, another rhetorical expression of the same collective wish, but Ronald Reagan, like John F. Kennedy before him, was speaking here to people whose historical experience had not been that poetry makes nothing happen.
Perhaps what I mean to say is that Didion writes particularly well about politics— because, I now see, with a glance back to her famous 1960s-themed collections, she is really a connoisseur of the fantasies fermenting in our rhetoric—rhetoric that can be taken literally or deployed symbolically, instrumentally—and she has a deep appreciation of personalities and subcultures for whom political speech is an exhilaration, a medium of metaphysics.
That the wish to see Fidel Castro removed from power in Cuba did not in itself constitute a political philosophy was a point rather more appreciated in el exilio, which had as its legacy a tradition of considerable political sophistication, than in Washington, which tended to accept the issue as an idea, and so to see Cuban exiles as refugees not just from Castro but from politics. In fact exile life in Miami was dense with political distinctions, none of them exactly in the American grain. Miami was for example the only American city I had ever visited in which it was not unusual to hear one citizen describe the position of another as “Falangist,” or as “essentially Nasserite.” There were in Miami exiles who defined themselves as communists, anti-Castro. There were in Miami a significant number of exile socialists, also anti-Castro. There were in Miami two prominent groups of exile anarchists, many still in their twenties, all anti-Castro, and divided from one another, I was told, by “personality differences,” “personality differences” being the explanation Cubans tend to offer for anything from a dinner-table argument to a coup.
This urge toward the staking out of increasingly recondite positions, traditional to exile life in Europe and Latin America, remained, in South Florida, exotic, a nervous urban brilliance not entirely apprehended by local Anglos, who continued to think of exiles as occupying a fixed place on the political spectrum, one usually described as “right-wing” or “ultraconservative”…Still, “right-wing,” on the American spectrum, where political positions were understood as marginally different approaches to what was seen as a shared goal, seemed not to apply. This was something different, a view of politics as so central to the human condition that there may be no applicable words in the vocabulary of most Americans. Virtually every sentient member of the Miami exile community was on any given day engaged in what was called an “ideological confrontation” with some other member of the Miami exile community…
Reminds me of Nabokov’s complaint that Western Europeans and Americans always pictured exiled Russians as former ladies-in-waiting to the Czarina or reactionary, monocle-wearing counts—when, as just one sample of the complexity of that emigration, Nabokov’s paternal grandfather had been Minister of Justice to one Czar; his father had been imprisoned by the next Czar, and then assassinated in Berlin by royalist fellow exiles; and though descended from a deeply anti-Semitic aristocracy, his wife was Jewish, as was his closest literary associate, an editor prominent in the Socialist Revolutionary party, anti-Lenin. I don’t like Castro and can think of few figures more tiresome than Che Guevara, but I have always found it all too easy to picture many of the first-generation Cuban exiles as rightist goons; but now, perhaps no less facilely, I see them in the long roll of “freedom fighters”—“terrorists” when the wind changes—trained and temporarily utilized by the United States, promised much, and then strung along, diverted, their struggles, causes, and plucky wars of independence supported and fulsomely publicized only while it was expedient to do so: the black soldiers who bled for the Union only to be abandoned to sharecropping and Jim Crow; the Native American scouts and guides who ended up on reservations just like the tribes that resisted; the Cuban and Filipino nationalists whose brief interval of independence from Spain was quashed by their North American allies and “liberators”; the mujahedeen at grips with the Soviets; the Iraqi Shiites and Kurds after the first Gulf War.
I mean, I know her husband and daughter died, and that kind of thing deserves a memoir, or two, even, and I know she’s frail and aged…but if she published a book on Baghdad or mercenaries or drones or Karzai or anything else in this mess, I’d buy it in a second. I’m an asshole…sorry! (less)
#4 is as hard to rate as the rest, being like them wildly uneven. At least to my taste. In Mother's Milk the characters around Patrick Melrose are no...more#4 is as hard to rate as the rest, being like them wildly uneven. At least to my taste. In Mother's Milk the characters around Patrick Melrose are no good at all, vague, phoned-in, not-quite-there; boring. But from Patrick's point of view St Aubyn's prose rockets into Cioran-ish heights of nihilist lyricism. The "sardonic harmonies" of the stupid generations are ever more obvious to our extending lifespans and bored, self-devouring domestic over-analysis. Vistas of futility, illuminated further and further behind.
"Aren't you reading rather too much into those two words?" "What else is there to do but read too much into things?" said Patrick breezily. "What a poor, thin, dull world we'd live in if we didn't. Besides, is it possible? There's always more meaning than we can lay our hands on."
#5, At Last, isn't a high priority, but I do need to see where Patrick ends up. (less)
Lincoln was a “radical” in both senses: he broke with tradition by returning to the roots. The heart of Wills’s book is Lincoln’s elevation of the Dec...moreLincoln was a “radical” in both senses: he broke with tradition by returning to the roots. The heart of Wills’s book is Lincoln’s elevation of the Declaration of Independence as a transcendental text above the earthly and provisional Constitution. The Constitution, with its tolerance of slavery, was felt by Lincoln and other transcendentalist political thinkers to require renewal by the Declaration, whose unequivocal proposition of equality for all constitutes the moral center of the American system, the American Idea in timeless and transcendent form. (Lincoln, like Emerson, was very much concerned with the ebb and flow of spiritual life in and out of established institutions.)
Wills argues that we owe to Lincoln our sense of a Constitution vividly informed and regularly amended by the people’s progressive approximation of a transcendent ideal. Wills also kicks over a few rocks to show us the judicial conservatives, “strict constructionists” and Neo-Confederate ideologues—Americans hostile to America’s founding ideals, statistically inevitable dregs and degenerates—who to this day begrudge Lincoln for making universal equality integral to the peoples’ conception of their Constitution. American bigots and subjectionists hate that there’s a potent liberation ideology built into the system. That must be so annoying.
The polished pearl of Lincoln’s constitutional thinking, the Gettysburg Address is also, of course, a funeral oration Lincoln delivered at the cemetery where 3,512 Union soldiers killed at the battle of Gettysburg are buried, and therefore it has its fascinating social-literary situation in “nineteenth century oratory, funerary conventions, and the poetry of death.” The Address’s birth-death-rebirth imagery and rhetorical reliance on antithesis, its brevity, abstraction and dense concision, show Lincoln consciously imitating the Athenian funeral oration, the Epitaphios Logos most memorably delivered by Pericles after the first year of the Peloponnesian War (Wills even writes of the Address as having “the chaste and graven quality of an Attic frieze”).
I love seeing American usage and institutions springing from the deep humanist culture of its founders and re-founders. The founders feared direct democracy, and focused their humanism on the Roman Republic; nineteenth century Americans preened themselves as heirs of democratic Athens, made Greek Revival the first truly national architectural style, and were, like much of Europe, enthralled by the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottomans. Edward Everett—the main event of the Gettysburg ceremony, not Lincoln—was “the voice of fashionably Romantic Hellenism” who had made his career speaking at fundraisers for Greek independence and delivering Periclean orations at Revolutionary War battlefields.
The location of the Athenian Kerameikos outside the city walls, in precincts of contemplative rusticity, near the groves of the Academy, inspired the “rural cemetery movement” across America, a movement of which the Gettysburg National Cemetery is a famous product (others are Boston’s Mount Auburn, which drew 30,000 visitors a year; and Concord’s Sleepy Hollow, whose dedication Emerson delivered). The Greek rural cemetery’s “pantheistic identification of dissolution with initiation,” and the Greek view of patriot graves as ideal educative sites for the young caught on with nineteenth century Americans for a variety of reasons:
1. The waning of traditional religion before the Transcendentalist cult of nature (the “theological gloom” of the churchyard and the cathedral vault exchanged for picturesque open-air sublimity, landscape-as-church).
2.The necrophiliac aspects of Romanticism, and the Romantic association of melancholy with genius, mourning with profundity (Lincoln’s law partner Herndon: “His apparent gloom impressed his friends, and created sympathy for him—one means of his great success”).
3. The limnality fetish—séances, spirit photography, dead babies with angel headstones (Mary Lincoln conducted séances in the White House, and later had a spirit photograph taken in which the ghost of her assassinated husband leans over her protectively).
A selection of morbid Victoriana:
1.Mary and Abe’s spirit photo 2.Assassination spread in Harper’s Weekly 3.Lincoln’s hearse 4.Gettysburg dead
The first of her fiction that I’ve read, and it has the bleakly stylish pleasures I might have predicted from prior exposure to the essays – her feel...moreThe first of her fiction that I’ve read, and it has the bleakly stylish pleasures I might have predicted from prior exposure to the essays – her feel for ominous banality, for the casual nihilism of the rootless (she insinuates where Isherwood rants, and beats him on the Zen of Freeways), for the grotesque contrast of a character’s obvious ongoing crack-up and the evasive, anesthetized trivialities she speaks in. Published in 1970 but feels radically spare and minimal – but I don’t know why I say that…I read hardly any contemporary fiction, so am no judge of benchmarks and besides, There is No Progress in the Arts. Interesting to compare it with Connell’s Bridge novels – his vignettes, which seemed “radically spare and minimal” to me a week ago, nonetheless offer stories, capsule meaning, however vanishingly subtle; Didion’s are a shrug and a sigh held together with a mumbled cliché – her style is a perfect vehicle for her protagonist’s sense that nothing means anything. This novel was firmly in three star territory – admire but don’t love – until the action shifted to Vegas, and from there to the desert waste with its ghost towns and missile ranges and cinder-block motels; its shifting, notional settlements of trailers and campers. The Coen brothers need to film this. (less)
Made me curious about the spectral kingdoms and extinguished dynasties of pre-colonial Vietnam, the spooky historical geography which haunts Herr from...moreMade me curious about the spectral kingdoms and extinguished dynasties of pre-colonial Vietnam, the spooky historical geography which haunts Herr from under the French place names and American grids. Contemplating an unreal old map in his Saigon apartment, Herr knows “that for years now there had been no country here but the war”:
The terrain above II Corps, where it ran along the Laotian border and into the DMZ, was seldom referred to as the Highlands by Americans. It had been a matter of military expediency to impose a new set of references over Vietnam’s older, truer being, an imposition that began most simply with the division of one country into two and continued—it had its logic—with the further division of South Vietnam into four clearly defined tactical corps. It had been one of the exigencies of the war, and if it effectively obliterated even some of the most obvious geographical distinctions, it made for clear communication…
Herr senses continuity only in Saigon, that “unnatural East-West interface, a California corridor cut and bought and burned deep into Asia,” a Babylon of discotheque whoredom and American civilian contractors who rev their Harleys up the steps of Buddhist shrines. By contrast, Huế and Da Nang, seats of the vanished Nguyễn and Champa kingdoms, are like “remote closed societies, mute and intractable.” In Huế after the battle that demolished so much of the city, bouncing over debris in a jeep with a South Vietnamese major and his driver, Herr gets curious about the old Imperial Palace:
I’d been talking to Sergeant Dang about the Palace and about the line of emperors. When we stalled one last time at the foot of the moat bridge, I’d been asking him the name of the last emperor to occupy the throne. He smiled and shrugged, not so much because he didn’t know, more like it didn’t matter. “Major Trong is emperor now,” he said, and gunned the jeep into the Palace grounds.
Besieged in Khe Sanh with the Marines, Herr looks up at the hills in which lurk NVA artillery positions, raiding parties and Annamese ghosts:
Often you’d hear Marines talking about how beautiful those hills must have been, but that spring they were not beautiful. Once they had been the royal hunting grounds of the Annamese emperors. Tigers, deer and flying squirrels had lived in them. I used to imagine what a royal hunt must have been like, but I could only see it as an Oriental children’s story: a conjuring of the emperor and empress, princes and princelings, court favorites and emissaries, all caparisoned for the hunt; slender figures across a tapestry, a promise of bloodless kills, a serene frolic complete with horseback flirtations and death-smiling game.
Reading this, I was surprised to find how historical the Vietnam War now feels. The slang, the jive, the racial tension, the rock lyrics—no longer yesterday, but much more distant. Our time has its own wars now. Growing up, Vietnam was “yesterday,” a war people my parents’ age were still trying to figure out. Two of my uncles were fucked by the experience; and my dad will always be grateful for his medical draft deferment. As a boy with appropriately violent media tastes growing up in the 1980s and early 90s, I was drenched by images of that war: rice patties, rotor wash, ambushes, shotgun bongs, black pajamas. On family trips to the video rental place, I went straight for the war movies, was a repeat-renter of Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Flight of the Intruder and all that other shit. I was a faithful viewer of Tour of Duty—its intro theme was “Paint it Black”!—and I even watched reruns of China Beach on Lifetime (not much action, but Dana Delaney was—is—fine).Vietnam was to me what WWII (at least as represented by episodes of Combat! and John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima) was to Herr and the grunts he wrote about: the shadow, the test, the Last War.
And as the Last War it held a glamour no amount of my dad’s ranting, no negative societal consensus—Disaster, Nightmare, Fuck-Up—could ever entirely dissipate. One of Herr’s colleagues, Tim Page, was approached by a publisher to do a Vietnam book whose aim would be to “take glamour out of war.” Page howled: “It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex!” He was right to laugh. Put as much gore on camera as you like, young men will not be dissuaded. They will still think: how would I stand up in that? Could I handle that? “Realism” only makes war sexier. There is no such thing as an anti-war film, said Truffaut.
I wish I’d been assigned this in high school. At 17 I was mad for Lorca, and would have loved Hemingway’s gory sportsman’s sketches—
Inside on a wooden...moreI wish I’d been assigned this in high school. At 17 I was mad for Lorca, and would have loved Hemingway’s gory sportsman’s sketches—
Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved off up the road to sit in the dark and smoke cut of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an ax three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad.
—as I loved Lorca’s dark suites, daggers, and duende. Each guy elaborated a pervy poetics of bullfighting.
The storylets about tense couples did little for me, though I usually enjoy “the ominous banality of human behavior in situations of emotional strain”--Wilson nails it--when I find it in, say, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. I exempt from this opinion Nick and Marjorie’s fishing trip/breakup--that was good.
I liked it when Nick, riding the rails, finds the ex-prizefighter and his man Bugs--a regular Huck-Jim duo--bumming out in the woods away from regular folks because the scarred old boxer gets into scrapes; and when George, dreading his return to school in “Cross-Country Snow,” asks Nick, “don’t you wish we could just bum together?” The allure, the boyish compulsion of bumming made me recall the bands of “bummers” that fanned out from Sherman’s columns, to forage and fight, coming back into camp near dark on rustled mounts, with wagonloads of loot, and sweet potatoes and smoked hams. I need to read Huck Finn!
By the time I finished this book, back in October, I was so tired of Wood’s dry Kashi prose—as Matt memorably put it—that to write a review seemed mor...moreBy the time I finished this book, back in October, I was so tired of Wood’s dry Kashi prose—as Matt memorably put it—that to write a review seemed more than I could bear. Recent reading about the Roman legacy and disaffected Russian gentlefolk has, however, recalled Wood to my thoughts. The Radicalism of the American Revolution was written against a notion of the revolution as essentially conservative. It’s easy notion to hold, for us in a multi-racial democracy. One group of white landowners in buckled shoes and knee breeches is as good as another, right? Not quite. Wood argues that though it lacked the usual extravaganzas—“no peasant uprisings, no jacqueries, no burning of chateaux, no storming of prisons”—the American Revolution nonetheless leveled the feudal social structure of colonial America and authorized a society in which labor was dignified instead of disdained—a society in which common (white) people were empowered to participate in politics, hustle unashamedly after wealth, and shout and stamp in whatever denominations they could rig up. Colonial America had been dominated by a monarchial gentry whose members held society together by “intricate networks of personal loyalties, obligations, and quasi-dependencies.” The patriarchs lent money in the absence of banks; fueled local economies in the maintenance of their estates; patronized the educations of the talented but lowly-born; controlled access to royal offices; and generally ruled as aristocracies always had and elsewhere did, from the timorous deference accorded them by artisans, mechanics and small farmers ashamed of their own dirty, calloused hands and awed by the crown connections, Olympian leisure, classical learning and supple manners attributed to their betters.
Most of the Founding Fathers—the “revolutionary generation”—came from the gentry. But from that gentry’s lowest rung; and that is key. (I knew Hamilton was a bastard from the Bahamas—“the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” John Adams snarled—but not that both Adams and Jefferson were the first in their families to attend college and so receive the humane letters “thought necessary for participation in gentlemanly society”; and Washington was never formally exposed to such an education. Adams claimed, again biliously, that Washington couldn’t write six words without misspelling one; and later, he turned down repeated invitations to tour France because he didn’t know any French.) Relative outsiders to the webs of royal patronage, and contemptuous of the fawning and flattery that characterized paternalistic politics, America’s revolutionary gentry, good classically educated gentlemen as they were, countered what Adams called the “Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride” with a set of austere ideals drawn from their reading about the ancient republics. The revolutionary gentry offered itself as an enlightened patriciate, ruling from pure merit, and modeling, for the masses of the new society, ideals of disinterested civic virtue and a strenuous, self-sacrificial devotion the public good—“invoking these classical ideals,” writes Wood, “became the major means by which dissatisfied Britons on both sides of the Atlantic voiced their objections to the luxury, selfishness, and corruption of the monarchial world in which they lived.”
Wood’s section on classical republicanism as political counterculture was one of my favorites in the book. He writes about how the educated of the day could not hear enough about the severe martial personae of Sparta and Republican Rome. The “maxims of ancient policy,” as Hume called them, formed a curriculum for the would-be statesman. George Washington’s favorite book was Addison’s senatorial drama in blank verse, Cato; and it was in emulation of the Roman general Cincinnatus that the victorious Washington surrendered his supreme sword to the Congress, when the road to a military tyranny lay open and well-trodden. I seriously get dewy-eyed at the idea of backwoods humanism—at Cicero carried in a saddlebag, Tacitus piercing the forests of New World.
Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and pediments will rise from our domes and pediments... (Memoirs of Hadrian)