Philbrick accomplishes what he sets out to do reasonably welll--the title's a clue--but there are a couple of problems that led me to the 3.49 as oppoPhilbrick accomplishes what he sets out to do reasonably welll--the title's a clue--but there are a couple of problems that led me to the 3.49 as opposed to the 3.51 star rating. I suspect these are things that are related more to marketing than to Philbrick's real take on one of my three or four favorite American novels, but I really resisted the domesticating gestures: connecting Ahab with Saddam Hussein, overvaluing Starbuck and the (in my mind absolutely ineffectual) domestic vision he advocates. For me, Melville's vision is profoundly subversive of any platitude; there's no place to rest and precious little reassurance. Tough sell in the contemporary market where we put the smiley face on everything. Moby-Dick just isn't a self-help book and I was disappointed that Philbrick tilted the end (and a few other passages) in that direction.
That doesn't render the accomplishments of the book irrelevant. For one thing, any book that incorporates this many quotes from the Melville's prose has a major advantage. I listened to the audio and Philbrick reads the passages very well. In addition, he's got a deep sense of the novel's structure and its relationship to Melville's life and American cultural history. He consistently picks out the scenes I'd consider most important--Pip, the Try Works, etc.--and reads them well. Most importantly, he explains cogently why MD's worth the effort.
For a non-Melville afficionado, I don't have any hesitation about recommending the book. On the levels where I want to engage it, Philbrick's reading has some problems. I more than half suspect that if I had the chance to sit down and talk about MD over a beer, he'd have good reasons for reading it like he does....more
The most important book of literary criticism I've read in five or six years, maybe longer. And a bit disappointing.
I'll start with the positives. NixThe most important book of literary criticism I've read in five or six years, maybe longer. And a bit disappointing.
I'll start with the positives. Nixon raises an absolutely central question for contemporary writers: how can we develop forms of expression which confront the problem of "slow violence"--primarily the environmental impact of our economic and political and personal actions--in a compelling manner. He's brilliant in framing the problem. Most of our narrative and polemical forms focus on spectacular, and usually individual, conflicts. Take three seconds to think about whatever movie's at the top of the box office list or whatever book's at the top of the NYTimes best seller list, and you'll get the point. I'm absolutely convinced that Nixon has asked the right question. It will be a part of how I think about literature from here on out.
Nixon also does a good job with the second part of his title, "the environmentalism of the poor." The take-home message here is that environmentalism isn't just for affluent western liberals; environmental degradation has an even more immediate impact on the lives of the poor, especially in the global South, which has been and is being used as a dumping ground and provider of resources for developed economices with very little attention to either short or long-term effect on the people who live there. Focusing on writers and activists from the global South--Ken Saro-Wiwa, Wangari Maathai,Arundhati Roy, Nadine Gordimer--Nixon argues convincingly that any approach to environmentalism that fails to enter into active dialog and alliance with their movements is both intellectually and politically doomed.
Finally (on the positive side), Nixon raises the question of what the "writer activist" can do to address the title issues. Again, it's the right question, but--and here I'm making the transition to the problems--I wish he'd done more to answer it. While Nixon's previous work as a critic--a terrific study of the Capetown Renaissance, South Africa's rough equivalent of the Harlem Renaissance and a study of V.S. Naipaul--makes it clear that he's got a deep grounding in the thorny questions concerning political literature, not much of that awareness is present here. Specifically, I wanted him to bring the writer-activist issues into conversation with what I'll shorthand as the Brecht-Lukasc debate. The central issue there was whether conventional literary forms (for Lukasc, the Dickensian novel and realistic drama) are capable of communicating politically challenging material in a way that leads to real action. Brecht said no, that what we need are forms which jar viewers out of their comfort zones and force them, often uncomfortably and against their wills. The specifics re. Slow Violence differ, but the question's related: can familiar polemical forms which highlight heroic individual political figures (as is the case with Wangari and Maathai) or op-ed pieces such as Roy's, do more than join in the deafening chorus of opinion which floods our media worlds today? Nixon (whose best book, the marvelous Dreambirds, uses ostriches as a point of entry into a huge range of issues) is fascinated with non-fiction prose forms. I tend to think that fictional narratives--novels, movies, TV mini-series--have a more central role to play in overcoming resistance and denial.
That leads to my final two criticisms or qualifications, both of which have to do with Nixon's text world. First, I would have liked to have seen more attention to Native American and global indigenous literature. The first books I'd use to spark a discussion of how to portray slow violence effectively would be Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and The Almanac of the Dead. Similarly, Nixon pays almost no attention to science fiction, although Indra Sinha's Animal's People shares some aesthetic strategies with, for example, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Doris Lessing's Canopus series (both of which related directly to Nixon's concerns). I don't think it's accidental that Nixon's discussion of the "environmental picaresque" in the chapter on Sinha and the Bhopal catastrophee was the one I'll be coming back to most frequently.
One last quibble. Although Nixon is probably right when he says that literary criticism about environmental issues--ecocriticism to use the argot--has been unremittingly Americanist in its focus, he oversimplifies several of the canonical writers who have been placed at the center of that canon. It may be true that the critics have been parochial and overly invested in the "sublime," but that's not an accurate description of Gary Snyder (who spent a great deal of time in Asia and is in active dialog with Asian environmentalists), Edward Abbey (who's anything but distanced in his take on how we relate to the land). or Terry Tempest Williams who, as a Mormon woman, has emphasized the issues of marginalization of the victims in ways that parallel the writers Nixon justly celebrates.
Finally, although Nixon does a terrific job communicating his ideas to a non-academic audience in public talks and journalistic essays, Slow Violence is a highly academic book. He spends a lot of time orienting his ideas towards contemporary arguments among literary critics. To be frank, I just don't give a damn about the relative prestige of post-colonialists or the theoretical discussion of cosmpolitanism vs. world literature. Some of the issues raised in those debates are interesting and, as SV demonstrates, a few are crucial. But I wish Nixon had written a book I could recommend for my non-academic friends, who on average are far far more aware of the issues he raises than those located within academia.
The fact that I've written what's probably the longest GR review I'm likely to says something about the importance of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. It frames questions and opens doors. It made me re-think my perspective on issues I've thought about a lot. A platform for further work, on the page and in the world....more