I like this book very much - it should get four to four and a half stars - but I hate hate hate HATE that the town the main characters live in is call...moreI like this book very much - it should get four to four and a half stars - but I hate hate hate HATE that the town the main characters live in is called Lovecraft. It's so distractingly obvious and stupid that I'm hoping the book reboots in the second volume.(less)
Somewhere, someone is writing a magnum opus on resource scarcity and its social effects. Unfortunately, this is not that book. Published in the late n...moreSomewhere, someone is writing a magnum opus on resource scarcity and its social effects. Unfortunately, this is not that book. Published in the late nineties, the purpose of this academic work is to formulate a few theories of resource scarcity and its social effects. There are a bunch of critical questions asked here, ones very much worth asking, such as:
-will decreased availability of natural resources result in interstate warfare? If not, what kind of conflicts will it engender? -Who will suffer the most, and who will suffer the least? -If water becomes harder to come by, what will that do to international relations? -What will that do to local economies in rich countries? Poor ones?
You might think this is all the work of a die-hard Malthusian, someone who looks at the world and sees logarithmic graphs everywhere. That is and is not the case - Homer-Dixon is very critical of those who think that scarcity has no effect on technological innovation - in other words, people who like to throw their hands up and declare that everyone's standard of living is only going to get worse and we all might as well start socking away bottled water and Nutra-Grain bars. He likes to point out examples where declining availability of cropland has caused people to just change their farming practices, and so on. But he also spends a lot of ink pointing out just how silly is the expectation that market incentives will solve every scarcity problem. While it takes a long time for him to explain, the rationale is pretty simple.
Imagine you're a farmer in Haiti named Jean. Your great-great-great-great-grandparents declared independence from France, and for a little while everything was hunky dory. After the richly deserving monsieur was put to the sword, everyone just divided up the land and started tilling. France was a little cranky, but also a little too far away to go through and take everything back. Great-great-great-great-grandaddy plowed his own fields, ate his own food, sold whatever he didn't eat, made enough profits to have and support a couple kids. Wait a second, though. What did HE do with the land? Well, he had little Jean-Baptiste and little Yves to deal with, and little Julie who would eventually need a dowry, so he just split the land into three equal pieces and that was that. Repeat ad nauseum, and fast forward to now. Due to generations of splitting and a multitude of land-grabs by Haitian elites, you are the proud owner of a quarter acre of highly eroded soil. You need food, but you've reached the minimum quantum of land that you can own and live on without cutting your shack in half. Your children are going to be even poorer than you are, because Haiti's a very small country, and all the timber has already been burnt for fuel, mostly by people just as poor as you are but less scrupulous. You can't even sell anything because you and everyone you know spends all their time trying to get by.
A die-hard capitalist will look at this situation and say, well, SOMETHING is bound to give. Jean is going to come up with something he can do or a service he can provide, sell it to others, and because he's engaging in trade he and the people he sells his services to will be richer, in a sense. Jean has just increased the net productivity of Haitian society by specializing. Homer-Dixon says not so fast. Jean doesn't have government-provided water, so he has to walk a few miles to get a litre of highly saline swill from a well every day, and even that only when he can afford it. He doesn't have much energy because his caloric intake is too low. Because the transaction costs on everyday existence are so incredibly high, Jean is going to stay poor - Jean might be a textbook case of someone in need of technical innovation, but being an entrepreneur takes robust public institutions and a certain social buffer. Resource scarcity can provide an incentive to come up with technical solutions to everyday problems, but it can also sharply limit people's inventiveness and capacity to implement those solutions. Jean isn't going to do it because he basically spends all of his time covering his minimum material needs, and so does everyone he knows.
The problem is, in explaining this, Homer-Dixon starts to look at the technical solutions that would enable Jean to flourish as one measurable thing, which he terms ingenuity. What does Jean need to make his own life better? Sure, he needs more robust public institutions to guarantee that he isn't wasting half his day in search of clean water, but failing that, he needs some scientist to come in and make his day with a cheap machine that purifies water and allows him to sit back and smoke a cigar while his quarter acre gets irrigated automatically: ingenuity! Bangladeshis on permanent food support while their cropland gets more and more worthless? What they need is: You guessed it, ingenuity! The gap between the difficulties imposed by scarcity and the potential material productivity of any given society ends up being covered either not at all or by Ingenuity, no matter what is creating that gap and no matter how wide the gap is. Anything that helps you is Ingenuity. Anything that doesn't is Scarcity, or Poor Government Institutions.
If you're getting the feeling I find this a bit weak, you would be right. The reason is that Ingenuity isn't something that exists in a vacuum. This whole gee-whiz bit of TH-D's analysis reminds me of an old recurring comedy sketch that I think used to be on NPR: "Ask Doctor Science! He has a master's degree... in science!" Governments don't have an Ingenuity Fund that they plunk their tax surpluses into and it spits out a space shuttle every couple of years. Ingenuity has to be for something. You don't put money into the Haitian Innovation Fund, you put money into the Find Cheaper Ways to Get Haitians Water fund. You don't put money in the Bangladeshi Ingenuity fund, you put it in the Develop Rice that Doesn't Mind Monsoons fund. Sometimes ingenuity just takes the form of more robust government. For example, according to TH-D, if Pakistan could find a way to exercise stronger federal control over transport infrastructure in Karachi instead of allowing a minority group to keep its stranglehold on how everyone gets around, there might be less ethnic strife in that country. Ingenuity is completely situational and means far too many different things to reduce it to a single variable in a scarcity equation.
All that said, there are some very important insights to be gained here. One is that widespread interstate conflict will probably not result from increased scarcity of oil, water, arable land or anything else. Part of this is the perceived illegitimacy of any government that engages in conflicts like this. It's really hard to exploit resources when no one wants you there, and oftentimes, the effort you have to go to to make war in the first place renders any resource gains moot. Even if people do end up fighting over resources, renewable resources are far less likely to be the object of violent conflict than non-renewables. TH-D could only come up with two examples of war over renewables, the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War of the '70s (I don't think anyone was killed), and the far more serious Soccer War between Honduras and Nicaragua, which had farmland scarcity and mass immigration as a proximate cause.
Instead of war over resources, if indeed scarcity becomes a more serious issue in the near to middle future...
-We can expect elites to engage in intensified rent-seeking behaviors. Groups in positions of privilege typically try to restructure laws and regulations so as to maximise their own access to increasingly rare commodities.
-Gaps between perceived availability of scarce resources can be a major driver of mass immigration, so we might expect people to move to places they see as flourishing.
-TH-D sees Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria as countries seriously threatened by declining environmental bases, consequent social unrest, and possible authoritarian government. This was written in '99, so it's not too early to test its predictive power, and while Indonesia seems to be flourishing, Pakistan and Nigeria are indeed unstable and on a perpetual razor's edge.
-"There is no clear correlation between economic hardship and violence." (p. 143) One of the more stunning conclusions in here, TH-D rallies a fair bit of evidence to show that endemic violence depends on largely on groups' notions of economic justice, and some people just don't tend to think of themselves as being dry-humped. Even when they do, it usually takes a special opportunity combined with confidence in not being punished for people to engage in insurgency.
-"It takes a much longer spell of good weather to restore social buffers than it does for a series of extreme events to deplete them." (p. 41)
-One mammoth realisation here is that small coalitions within countries - gangs and other relatively small groups - are better positioned to exploit and engage in resource capture than large groups, such as whole religious or ethnic communities. This is because interpersonal social pressures exert stronger influence than allegiance to an abstraction or a very large number of people; TH-D remarks that "there is 'no constraint on the social cost such an organization will find it expedient to impose on the society in the course of obtaining a larger share of the social output for itself...'"
Overall, I recommend this if, like me, you're on the prowl for works on the linkage between resource scarcity, government and social comfort. If you're not, what're you doing here? Anyway, it's pretty academic with some long sections on methodology, and I couldn't help thinking that TH-D could've used a little more substance and less exposition. But given the paucity of research in this area outside of increasingly marginal and hard-to-find journals, any book on these subjects is welcome.(less)
Read most of this in a bed-and-breakfast in Sardinia, on vacation from my vacation.
I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first one. At times I wonde...moreRead most of this in a bed-and-breakfast in Sardinia, on vacation from my vacation.
I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first one. At times I wonder if George R. R. Martin likes the pillage as much as some of the personages in here do - has anyone ever suggested to these people that maybe rape is not an admirable hobby, even for a grubby faux-Middle Ager?
The geopolitics are becoming a little formulaic, too. Most of the pivotal characters in here would get honorary doctorals from Felix Dzerzhinsky U, though Tyrion remains interesting in that he often finds ways to force the convergence of mercy and power politics. And yet by the end of the book, despite her dead moral center, it's hard even not to empathize with Cersei, which is an accomplishment.
That's not to say that there isn't some patchy writing here. Ex. A, p. 255: "Guyard the Green, who fancied himself a singer, diddled a harp and gave them a verse about tying lions' tails in knots, parts of which rhymed."
The whole series is starting to remind me of a remark in Rules of the Game - tout le monde ont leur raisons. Everyone has their reasons, whether they're incinerating their enemies, murdering children, feeding their overlords to their own dogs, or hacking off other people's limbs with whatever implements are handy. I'm still curious to see where it goes, and whether it culminates in something more grand than just a war of all against all. For all my bitchery, Arya and Tyrion are compelling me to read on.
Next book on its way already - thanks for feeding my habit, Amazon Prime. Here I imagined that during my lengthy period of unemployment I'd be working my way through the complete works of Shakespeare or doing that close reading of Being and Time I'd always planned. So much for that.(less)
Well, this was just way, way better than the first half of this book. Don't expect any provocative commentary here. At this point I'm reading these bo...moreWell, this was just way, way better than the first half of this book. Don't expect any provocative commentary here. At this point I'm reading these books the way some people snort coke or go to Starbucks. I'll be back at the trough as soon as I can dig enough change out from under the sofa cushions. The endless twists and turns are great fun in the short term, and even though on further reflection the hundreds of dei ex machina with which Martin populates his novels definitely tax credulity, no one with half a brain reads a fantasy novel without expecting to suspend disbelief. But whatever. George knows I'll spread my cheeks for him any old time.
Still, it's a little absurd how many of Martin's characters have adopted rape and flaying and grotesque acts of revenge as pastimes, the way some people back here in Realityland take up crochet. If everyone was that awful to everyone else, one wonders how they could possibly sustain the various internal reassurances it takes to live in society. Why wouldn't everyone just start to assume that all the people around them were sociopathic freaks, down to their neighborhood postman? There's some serious Hobbesian propaganda hidden in these pages. Why is it even as sustaining as it is, reading about so many mutually hostile parties engaged in a brutal war of all against all?(less)
Writing a fantasy novel is basically begging to be compared to Tolkien - you're painting a big old target on your back. Now, I'm not the biggest Tolki...moreWriting a fantasy novel is basically begging to be compared to Tolkien - you're painting a big old target on your back. Now, I'm not the biggest Tolkien fan, despite falling squarely in the old coot's key demographic (males with sedentary lifestyles and, shall we say, a certain number of RPGs under my belt). That's not to say I don't appreciate Tolkien, I do, just in the same way that I appreciate Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, I have the same problem with both:
They're completely sexless.
When you remove sex from fiction, you're willfully obliterating your audience's ability to recognize the world around them in your work. Tolkien was worse than most. People have spent loads of bandwidth imagining the fevered rutting of Samwise and Frodo, but it never happens in the books, and couldn't happen, because Tolkien has castrated his characters behind the scrim. Sure, Galadriel is described as "beautiful," as are plenty of other women in the Lord of the Rings, but that's like saying Monet did some "nice" paintings. Anyone who makes the remark is missing something. Even when writing for adults, his quest to write something of Moral Importance led Tolkien to ignore the fundamental drivers of human behavior, or repress them out of existence. It's a serious flaw, and one that I can't really get over whenever I read his work.
Which is why I love this book. Fritz Leiber never really did it for me, but A Game of Thrones has the best of both worlds: the sweeping politik of Tolkien and the grittiness of Leiber. The whole book is an argument against Tolkienian purity and the kind of Band of Brothers vibe that suffuses Lord of the Rings: the most compelling characters by far are Tyrion, a libertine midget, and Arya, a tomboy. Besides devoting a reasonable quantity of ink on people who have human thoughts and emotions, the world of the novel is painstakingly drawn. You don't pick up on the fact that winter here lasts not for months but for years until you read an offhand remark by a character several hundred pages in, which is as it should be.
Now all Martin has to do is write people who both think and talk like humans. I have to ding this a star because no one, ever, in the history of humanity has uttered some of the sentences of dialogue written here, or ever would. It's a peculiar affliction of fantasy that everyone's diction becomes florid, ever so slightly British, and really well thought-out, as though they compose their surprised exclamations hours in advance. This book would be perfect if not for that. I can't wait for the next one.(less)
For what it is, it isn't terrible: a short defense and hagiography. As you go on, it becomes perfectly obvious that Lukacs can acknowledge Churchill's...moreFor what it is, it isn't terrible: a short defense and hagiography. As you go on, it becomes perfectly obvious that Lukacs can acknowledge Churchill's flaws, such as his vision of the white man's burden and the civilizing mission of the British Empire. Lukacs just doesn't think they're very important.
I don't mind a good dose of hero-worship, and with some serious qualifications, Winston Churchill is a worthy object. But calling him the "savior of Western civilization" as Lukacs does is going a bit too far. I also find it objectionable that Lukacs uses "English" as a compliment. It's embarrassing to see a wit and intellect like the author of this book adopt such a worshipful attitude towards an entire nationality, no matter what that nationality is. I don't care if Lukacs thinks the residents of East Timor are the greatest people on earth, or the English, or Americans, or anyone else. It's unseemly and compromising for a historian.
The best straw men he can find to beat up on are Irving and Charmley. I would have preferred he had not bothered. Arguing with them on minutiae only legitimizes their revisionist opinions.
Churchill may have been the leader that England needed when it needed one most. He was extraordinarily witty, his mind was quick and capacious, and he was the only leader of a major power who proved willing to stake his political future and the blood of his armies on opposing Hitler in defense of Poland, but that still doesn't change that history books shouldn't drool.(less)
Besides the odd Lovecraft, this is the first horror book I've read since tearing through dozens of Stephen King novels in high school.
I really wanted...moreBesides the odd Lovecraft, this is the first horror book I've read since tearing through dozens of Stephen King novels in high school.
I really wanted to like it, but the writer had a couple of ticks that drove me crazy. First of all, the CAs - constant acronyms. Nearly every page, there's an aside in which the character who's being interviewed tells us what an acronym means. It's the worst kind of exposition. If you were gathering a comprehensive oral history of the 00s, and you were talking to someone about WMDs or 9/11, you (and they) would never, ever, ever in a million years stop to explain what those were. If someone's around to interview someone else about it, you both already know.
Others have also noted that all the characters talk the same. One thing that's refreshing about the Studs Terkel book(s) on which this is based is that every voice is remarkably different from all the others. Every single one has its verbal fingerprint. We all have things we do conversationally, whether we know it or not, to distinguish ourselves. I tend to offset subclauses in commas or parentheses, and I tend toward run-ons, God knows. Everyone does something like this. There're as many tells in what you say as in how you say it; people (like me) with lots of parentheticals are usually intellectually insecure college graduates. In Terkel, this is all perfectly obvious. But in World War Z, everyone just sounds like Max Brooks is writing a tremendously self-conscious novel.
All that said, toward the end I was kind of swept away by the narrative. The guy whose job it was to clear the underground of zombies, the Japanese otaku, some of the people here become individuated enough that you really want to read more about them, even if their self-expression is often clunky and full of Americanisms that you would never hear in the context presented. I just wish it hadn't been so badly written.
World War Z would have been perfect if it'd been presented as a series of interlocking short stories or novellas in third person. Who would want to read the otaku's story if it actually sounded as it would coming through a translator? No one. Honestly, I think Brooks just set himself too hard a task.(less)
American Football by Harold Pinter (A Reflection upon the Gulf War)
Hallelujah! It works. We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass And out their fucking ears.
It works. We blew the shit out of them. They suffocated in their own shit!
Hallelujah. Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew them into fucking shit. They are eating it.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust, Into shards of fucking dust.
We did it.
Now I want you to come over here and kiss me on the mouth.
The modifier "American" before "Football" in the title makes football - like war - into something we Yanks have corrupted, something we singlehandedly turned into a dirty, obscenely triumphalist business. If the poem had been called "Football," would it have abridged the work in any way? No, but it would have left doubt as to who Pinter's audience is - and who is his target. The poem is written strictly for non-American consumption. The rest of us are beyond redemption. And in case there was any doubt as to which putatively American wars Pinter dislikes most, he has provided a subtitle.
As a longtime admirer of Pinter's work, I had heard that he'd gotten venomous in his old age, and I don't entirely blame him. But the same way you don't mess with Texas, the gearshift while someone else is driving, or a stranger's drink, you just don't mess with football. It's the height of Euro-snobbery that the sport is seen as merely rugby with more padding, and I detest the implication here and elsewhere that it's part and parcel of New World barbarity while at the same time being purely derivative, both too violent and not violent enough.
I admit that I know less about rugby than I would like to, and less than I would have to go on for too long about it, but the most common misconception of football is that it's rugby for wusses. Not true. There are few wusses in football, but there's a whole different weltanschauung - in rugby, there are no downs. It's a big difference that makes it as much like footie as it is like [sic:] American football - rugby's free-flowing, with less opportunity for statistics, less opportunity to take stock of quanta or formation, and a more spontaneous game with less rigidly defined roles. Rugby's less like chess and more like a complicated game of checkers. You're trying to get to the other side as in football, and the methods by which you do this are many, but there is (trust me) no equivalent to the Byzantine set of restrictions that prevent a cornerback from touching a receiver’s hands past five yards from the line of scrimmage, an offensive lineman from getting the ball unless he changes his jersey, and three members of special teams running in a wedge formation on a kick return.
So obviously, in football, there are very strict rules about who may touch the ball, and the rules are enforced with Torquemadean zeal. What’s more, every contact between players is legislated to a degree that would make Grotius beam. While to people who know nothing about football, tackling is reputedly the most dangerous and frequent activity on the field, there can only really be one tackle per play (and often not even that), but there are any number of players who have more than one player to block. I think we can presume that if anyone is blowing "their balls into shards of dust," it's probably a blocker, just based on the fact that probably 90% of all contact with "them" in any game is a block.
If you are enough of a charlatan as to try to fully transpose the ethics of war into American football, a blocker would be like someone who lays down suppressing fire; they try to hold off the other side while their skill position fellows accomplish one or another goal: rushing, passing, running someplace else on the field, any number of things. A blocker who's trying to hold off defenders while his team's back limps into the end zone is more like a medic than a combatant. The mountainous guys who man the offensive line are like the quarterback's armor - keeping the people away from the person designated to handle the ball most is a difficult job requiring both size and a surprising level of quickness. But one player can occupy any number of roles in a single play. A tight end might block a defensive end first, then fake a route, then block someone else once a wide receiver has gotten the ball. So there is no “it” do have done, nor an “it” that “works"; for most players, there are a million “its” in every game, a million details to take stock of. It’s a game of cunning, made for foxes and not hedgehogs, who only know one big thing. And it is not violent for violence's sake.
We could only WISH the U.S.'s military leaders would transpose the ethics of football into the conduct of war. It's not the political content of the poem that's objectionable - Pinter's complaint is with the conduct of the war rather than its causes, of course, because he thinks that allows him to bitch about Yanks without acknowledging the British role in the first Gulf War. As for the conduct of Gulf War I, he's undoubtedly right. What's insulting, overblown, and cliched is the stereotyping that equates football players with murderers, the apposition that makes it possible to write a poem about both at the same time. It seems to me that instead of addressing violence and its origins, the poem is about Americanism and its origins, with a crass "they're all gay anyway" last line. There is a good point to be made here, and a not-bad poem, but it has a different title, at the least.
What’s more, even if there are opportunities to “blow their balls into shards of dust,” most football players won’t talk about it. If you listen to the talk NFL players share on the field, its cruelties are narrowly bounded, and while things can (of course) get rough, I think it happens much less than people suppose. For example, Michael Oher is a recent NFL draftee who will certainly turn out to be one of the preeminent left tackles in the game (and is astoundingly big, certainly capable of blowing ANYONE’S balls into shards of dust). When asked what defenders he liked playing against, he remarked that he likes playing against Brandon Spikes, a fearsome inside linebacker from Florida, because Spikes makes fun of him by calling him by his middle name, Jerome.
That’s not to say that with a sample size of one I’ve proved that they’re all pacifists, but if Pinter had not been completely tone deaf to the nuances of what he describes in his ridiculous poem, he would have understood that football players rarely speak in so vindictive and obnoxious a manner. It’s partly self-preservation – you don’t insult someone’s mom when they weigh 300 pounds, and are capable of planting spikes in your face at the bottom of a pile when no one’s looking. But it’s also because (and Pinter NEVER would’ve believed this) football players actually aren’t stupid. The work it takes for everyone (other than a kicker) to memorize and understand the implications of every possible formation they need to know in a season is monumental, more work than I have honestly ever put into anything, and I think most of the time, players in college and the NFL have better things to do than disparage their opponents merely for being their opponents.
But if you know nothing about the sport, or if you have a rhetorical point you’d like to make, all you see is a bunch of guys running at each other. It’s much the same patronizing attitude that led the Greeks to hear only bar bar bar bar bar when Scythians were talking, or that led early English colonialists to presume the Iroquois had no concept of statehood – how could they, without written language?
I feel certain that Premier League footie is accompanied by at least as much joy at winning, blatant homoeroticism, and military metaphor. We might have gunners, but they have strikers. The poem says absolutely nothing profound about American football except that if you play it, you should do so with as little schadenfreude as possible. It does play into the widespread delusion that sports that superficially resemble war are, in some metaphysical sense, its moral equal. I used to get this chestnut from my parents, who were fine with war but hated sports, and were mightily opposed to my ever playing them. It was all so violent. Why would I ever want to risk getting hurt myself? The only possible answer was: because I would like to help get the ball into the end zone, please. Teleologically, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that, though the means by which the ball ends up getting there inevitably are.
But anyway, all that aside, this book is, as I say every year, an unbelievably rich resource. It’s a tribute to the sport that people who are this good at writing prose put this out annually. It’s almost Pynchonic – there are funny songs! On top of that, every Prospectus (now Almanac) is a masterly work of statistical analysis that could never be performed on behalf of footie, because frankly, footie isn’t information-rich enough. (No one measures Ronaldinho’s distance from the goal when he kicks one in – it’s enough that he managed to do it.) It’s also not the worst place to start if you’re interested in the sport. Aaron Schatz and the guys who write these books deserve a medal; I know they have plenty of adjunct businesses, but it still has to be relatively thankless – and since I’ve just written a 4,000 word defense of football, you won’t believe it, but these are some of the best books I read every year. I’d urge you to buy one even if you’re only slightly interested in reading about: -why the Pythagorean theorem does such a number predicting win-loss records, -what team watches Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman before games, -what the best predictor of success in the NFL is, -who does best in the shotgun formation, -when the Lions will ever win a freakin' game, -which college players are going to crater once they're up against actual defenses, -whether Bill Belichick is a god, or a right-place-right-time case, -when it’s best to make aggressive off-season moves, or -the effect that doctors have on teams' success in general.
It’s worth the money, it’s hilarious, it’s accessible, and it’s pure, utter genius – much better than anything Harold Pinter ever wrote after Betrayal.
I'm in what I hope is the middle of a long period of incuriosity. Books don't really interest me these days, because most of the time when I pick one...moreI'm in what I hope is the middle of a long period of incuriosity. Books don't really interest me these days, because most of the time when I pick one up, I think, what's the point, anyway? My inner devil likes to whisper that books haven't made a material difference in my own life besides maybe a slight air of well-read-ness, and maybe not even that. Depression isn't like having a raincloud over you all the time, it's more like a hangnail, annoying you whenever you try to do something you normally enjoy, and the harder you try, the harder the nail tries to tear itself from your finger.
So normally this wouldn't be the best time to read a disquisition on Modernism. This prose goes down so easily, though, that I ran out of reasons not to finish the book after having started it last September. Edmund Wilson is unique for me among early 20th century critics in that he sounds almost exactly up-to-date, and I don't think opinions of Valery or Eliot or Proust have really changed all that much since he wrote this critical assessment. Wilson's own writing is exacting without being fussy, and contemporary without being modish.
The exciting thing about this book is seeing Proust and Joyce and Yeats before there was a unified critical opinion as to their value. You get the sense that Wilson knows he's creating the consensus, and by bucking it occasionally he only firms up the broader narrative. As an example, Wilson had the privilege of being able to read "Four Quartets" without the weight of their putative greatness balanced over his head, and instead of praising the book without qualification, he says:
"...I am a little tired of hearing Eliot, only in his early forties, present himself as an 'aged eagle' who asks why he should make the effort to stretch his wings. Yet 'Ash Wednesday,' though less brilliant and intense than Eliot at his very best, is distinguished by most of the qualities which made his other poems remarkable: the exquisite phrasing in which we feel that every word is in its place and that there is not a word too much; the metrical mastery which catches so naturally, yet with so true a modulation, the faltering accents of the supplicant..."
The section on Proust performs more lay psychology than would probably be considered prudent these days, but while Wilson has little respect for Proust, he admires his habits of mind, and wishes only that Marcel had had to "meet the world on equal terms and [...:] felt the necessity of relating his art and ideas to the general problems of human society..." The last lines on Proust are so excellent that I won't reproduce them here - read the book. Anyway, Wilson prefers the fiery revolutionary Yeats, while finding his theories on history and his metaphysics to be rotten caricatures.
It is striking and rare to read someone with such nominal opinions of major early 20th-century writers express them in a voice that's so familiar yet inventive. Wilson seems to have understood with clarity the importance of the Symbolist and Modernist movements even as they coursed, developed and died all around him. Imagine writing at a time when the world had seen only a few serialized chapters of Finnegan's Wake!
Chew on this: Axel's Castle was written when Texas was still a depopulated backwater mostly without electricity. It was written twenty years before Hawaii or Alaska became states. It was written before American highways existed. It was written when cars were still a novelty in some parts of the country. It was written before anyone knew Wallace Stevens had written much poetry. It was written before Hitler came to power. You'd never guess it from the words on the page.(less)