The classic commonplace book enabled its creators to store and index excerpts from their readings that they considered noteworthy. I have always admired the impulse that prompted those compilations as well as the dedication and diligence their creators brought to the effort. This is my effort to record and reflect on the best of what I read.
First, a postscript to my mention in my week of September 6 post about my high expectations for Colson Whitehead’s new novel “Harlem Shuffle,” which I had then just begun to listen to. My high expectations were fulfilled. The novel, which takes place in Harlem in the early 1960s, tells a captivating story of a man’s life and struggles to survive economically and morally, and it captures a rich and complex time and place. It abounds with memorable characters, and in the Audible version, the reader Dion Graham impressively creates a distinctive voice for each of them.
As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am a fan of the podcast Backlisted, almost every episode of which prompts me to read a book I had not known of, often by an author I had not known of. A recent episode focused on the novel “Elizabeth Costello” by the South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee. Though I had read and admired his novels “Disgrace” and “Waiting for Barbarians,” I had not known of “Elizabeth Costello.” Coetzee wrote it in 2003, but many of its themes remain intensely timely. As the Backlisted hosts state, it is “a novel that politely asks the reader to consider, amongst other matters, animal rights, the power of faith and the limits of fiction itself.” I would add the decline of academic discourse to that list. Though Coetzee uses the novel for some heady discussions of topics of interest to him (especially cruelty to animals), he also creates a vivid portrait of the title character, herself a novelist.
In that week of September 6 post, I also mentioned a delightful collection of essays called “The Gifts of Reading.” In each essay, a writer describes the pleasure he or she has taken in giving or receiving books. One writer, Imtiaz Dharker, mentioned the Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel, who, in effect, gave her William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” The volume of poems influenced her greatly, so much so that she regularly gives the same book to younger writers and artists. I was less interested in what she had to say about Blake, though, than I was in what she said about Nissim Ezekiel, of whom I had been unaware:
He casually dropped this in [describing Blake], the possibility of inhabiting different worlds at once, being different things under the skin. He knew something about that himself. He was a rare creature in Bombay, a Maharashtrian Jew of the Bene Israel community which, having sailed from Galilee around 150 BC, was shipwrecked off India and just stayed on. In 1948, Nissim went to London and studied at Birkbeck, published his first book of poems, “Time to Change,” in 1952, and paid his back to India as a deck-scrubber on a cargo ship. Having read Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes among others in post-war Britain, he carried back to India an idea of poetry written in a more modern idiom. He was always willing to shift between forms, writing plays, translating from the Marathi, putting poems on posters, often using an ironic Indian English…
I had been unaware not only of Nissim Ezekiel, who became a literary figure of great significance in post-colonial India, but also of the fact that there was an Indian Jewish community. I have purchased his “Collected Poems” and am reading them with pleasure. In one of his most anthologized poems, “Background, Casually,” he wrote:
I went to Roman Catholic school, A mugging Jew among the wolves. They told me I had killed the Christ, That year I won the scripture prize. A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears.
I had already been inclined to read the new novel “The Magician” by Colm Tóibín, and the New Yorker’s publication in its September 20 issue of D.T. Max’s piece on Tóibín, “How Colm Tóibín Burrowed Inside Thomas Mann’s Head,” clinched it. Tóibín had first won me over with his novel “The Master,” based on the life of Henry James, and I loved the play based on his “The Testament of Mary” and the movie based on his “Brooklyn.” My reverence for Thomas Mann goes back to my college years, so I was eager to see Tóibín do with Mann’s life in “The Magician” what he had done with James’ in “The Master.” I have only begun reading it, but I am already enjoying it greatly.
On October 11, Amor Towles (author of “A Gentleman in Moscow” and of his new book “The Lincoln Highway”) will be the speaker in the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Writers Center Stage series at the Maltz Performing Arts Center at CWRU. A few weeks ago, he was featured in the New York Times By the Book column.
Before I set out on a new project, I like to read a handful of novels written in (and ideally set in) the time period in which I’m about to immerse myself. My new novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” takes place over 10 days in June of 1954, so in anticipation I read a number of American works from the mid-50s including James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953); Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” (1953); Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955); and Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (1955). What I love in particular about this list of concurrent classics is how varied they are in terms of geography, tone and theme. In aggregate they provide a snapshot of America’s socioeconomic, regional and racial diversity. They also showcase very different approaches to effective storytelling.
Politics and Society
Throughout her sixteen years as Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel has been the world leader for whom I have had the highest regard; often, the drop to second place has been huge. As she prepares to leave office, several articles have sought to summarize her career and her legacy. These were two of the better ones I read:
As Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to leave office after 16 years, her country is among the richest in the world. A broad and contented middle class is one facet of Ms. Merkel’s Germany that has been central to her longevity and her ability to deliver on a core promise of stability. But her impact has been far greater. To travel the country she leaves behind is to see it profoundly transformed.
Letters From an American (9/13/21) by Heather Cox Richardson If losers in a democracy refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, the system falls apart. The growing radicalism of the Republican Party is putting pressure on Democrats to pass a voting rights act to counteract the vote-suppressing measures that Republican-dominated states are enacting.
I must take one more liberty and venture: That is not the way most of us think, including those of us quite agonized over how to turn a corner on race in America. This witch-burning mentality is something most of us less concur with than fear. These “Crucible” characters (Arthur Miller helps us again) get their way by threatening to shame us the way they are shaming the latest transgressor.
By contrast, the modern online public sphere, a place of rapid conclusions, rigid ideological prisms, and arguments of 280 characters, favors neither nuance nor ambiguity. Yet the values of that online sphere have come to dominate many American cultural institutions: universities, newspapers, foundations, museums. Heeding public demands for rapid retribution, they sometimes impose the equivalent of lifetime scarlet letters on people who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling a crime. Instead of courts, they use secretive bureaucracies. Instead of hearing evidence and witnesses, they make judgments behind closed doors.
Suspicion of and hostility toward the federal government; racial hatred and fear; a concern that modern, secular society undermines religion and traditional morality; economic anxiety in an age of rapid technological change; class tensions, with subtle condescension on one side and resentment on the other; distrust of the broader world, especially Europe, and its insidious influence in subverting American freedom — such views and attitudes have been part of the fabric of U.S. politics since the anti-Federalists, the Whiskey Rebellion and Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic Party was the home of white supremacists until they jumped to George Wallace in 1968 and later to the Republicans. Liberals and Democrats in particular need to distinguish between their ongoing battle with Republican policies and the challenge posed by Trump and his followers. One can be fought through the processes of the constitutional system; the other is an assault on the Constitution itself.
As I approach my seventieth birthday next year, my impulse to get rid of accumulated stuff grows stronger. Apparently, the pandemic heightened that impulse in many others. In the article “Pandemic Decluttering” (NYT, 10/8/21), author Joanne Kaufman writes:
Covid sent the nation into lockdown. Stuck within their own four walls, people began pondering such existential questions as “Why do I have seven Pyrex loaf pans?” and “What are the odds that I’ll ever get into those size 2 jeans again?” Like Ms. Meredith [a declutterer described in the article], they frequently found relief, if not necessarily answers, in a Swedish death cleanse, perhaps more to the point, in a bored-to-death cleanse. But for many, decluttering was a practical necessity. Suddenly, home was no longer simply haven and shelter. It was also an office (sometimes multiple offices), a school, perhaps even a gym, requiring extra equipment and furniture — requiring a rethinking and reapportioning of space. To accommodate those changes something had to give, and a lot had to go.
(For those like me who had been unfamiliar with the concept, the article “What Is Swedish Death Cleaning? by Ashley Knierem (The Spruce, 12/18/20) explains: “Swedish death cleaning is a method of organizing and decluttering your home before you die to lessen the burden of your loved ones after you’ve passed.”)
Decluttering generally makes me feel virtuous, but a recent article by Susan Shain in the Mic Check newsletter, “Decluttering is bad for the planet. Here’s how to do it sustainably” (8/19/21) gave me a helpful reminder that the ways in which we declutter may be more or less harmful to the environment, and it provides some useful suggestions for better approaches.
Picture your neighborhood garbage truck. Got it in your mind? Now picture 29,000 of them, lined up end to end, stretching from Sacramento to San Jose, California. Then, finally, picture all those trucks, brimming with trash and dumping it all in a landfill, every single day. In the United States, that’s not hyperbole; it’s reality. Every year, we send nearly 150 million tons of waste to the landfill — an amount equal to roughly 2.5 pounds of trash per person, per day. In 2018, that included 9 million tons of clothing and shoes, 9.6 million tons of furniture, and 1.6 million tons of small appliances. That’s bad news for the planet, considering landfills account for 12% of global emissions of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas responsible for at least a quarter of today’s global warming.
I have admired and enjoyed (though I always hesitate to use that verb about books on such harrowing subjects) Colson Whithead’s novels “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” so I am looking forward to reading (or, more accurately, listening to, since I got the Audible version) his new novel “Harlem Shuffle” (see cover below), especially after reading Janet Maslin’s review in the 9/10/21 NYT, in which she wrote:
“Harlem Shuffle” brings Whitehead’s unwavering eloquence — at one point he describes traffic as “honking molasses” — to a mix of city history, niche hangouts, racial stratification, high hopes and low individuals. All of these are somehow worked into a rich, wild book that could pass for genre fiction. It’s much more, but the entertainment value alone should ensure it the same kind of popular success that greeted his last two novels, “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys.” It reads like a book whose author thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.
The review also brought to mind how much I enjoyed James McBride’s “Deacon King Kong.” McBride (Oberlin College alum) won the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Award for fiction for “Deacon King Kong.” The documentary of the awards ceremony, again hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, will be broadcast on Tuesday, September 14 at 9 p.m. and Saturday, October 2nd at 3 p.m. on WVIZ Ideastream Public Media.
Apropos of brilliant books on harrowing subjects, I have begun reading “Minor Detail” by Adania Sibli (see cover below) and quickly became captivated by this novel set in newly created Israel in 1949. I heard Sibli (born in Palestine in 1974) interviewed on a “Between the Covers” podcast and found her perspective and her insights compelling. The book brought to mind the one of the main themes of “Conflict is not Abuse” by Sarah Schulman (mentioned in my post for the Weeks of August 2 and 9, 2021): that those who suffer trauma can become its perpetrators on others.
Paris Review: “Memoir of a Born Polemicist” by Vivian Gornick These were the first sentences of my memoir Fierce Attachments, and with them I began the long apprenticeship of a writer who, in the act of making naked use of her own undisguised experience, has taught herself to value writing that serves the story rather than writing that imposes itself on the story. By which I mean: as a polemicist I went in search of stories that would illustrate my argument and then used the language I thought would best make it; as a memoirist I developed a set of interacting characters and let them find the language that would best express their situation.
From the poem “Breathe” by Bob Hicok (Smartish Pace #28)
Everything we do is rooted in, is a branch of breath. Some of us are afraid of breath and I am killed by this new style of death, distanced and alone. Have you Zoom funeraled yet? Been a ghost in a box mourning a ghost in a box? I cry for those I couldn’t sprinkle soil upon.
For other bibliophiles who love to give and receive books, I highly recommend “The Gifts of Reading” (see cover below), a compilation of essays on that topic. Read one or two for a quick reminder (if one is needed) of the joys and insights books bring and of the bonds they create among those who share them.
Politics and Society
NYT “Legislating in the Name of God” (9/9/21) by Linda Greenhouse I could go on with this list [of state officials that openly cite religious reasons for anti-abortion legislation], but these examples are sufficient to raise the question for those of us not on board with the theocratizing of America: Who let God into the legislative chamber? The answer is that we did. Our silence has turned us into enablers of those who are now foisting their religious beliefs on a country founded on opposition to an established church. … What reason other than religious doctrine is there, really, for turning back the clock on a decision that nearly a half-century ago freed women from the choice between the terror of the back alley and the tyranny of enforced motherhood? About one-third of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, want the court to overturn Roe. And yet, as we saw last week, the right to abortion is already functionally dead in Texas, and its fate may soon be left to the whims of Republican politicians everywhere else. It’s incumbent on the rest of us to call out those who invoke God as their legislative drafting partner.
Washington Post (WP): “Texas Abortion Ban: Justice Department Sues to Stop Law ” (9/9/21): “This kind of scheme to nullify the Constitution of the United States is one that all Americans, whatever their politics or party, should fear,” said Garland, warning that what he called the “bounty hunter” element of the law may become “a model for action in other areas by other states and with respect to other constitutional rights or judicial precedents.” The U.S. government, Garland added, has a responsibility “to ensure that no state can deprive individuals of their constitutional rights.”
My class on the short fiction of Eudora Welty continued and ended (see my post for the Weeks of August 9 and 16). For the third week of the class we read, “The Wanderers” and “No Place for You, My Love,” and for the final week, we read “Circe” and “Asphodel.” Those stories showed her exceptional range as a story-teller. Each is distinctive, but all of them reflect Welty’s affection for her characters, however ordinary or strange.
I have the privilege of auditing an undergraduate course through CWRU’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Program on the Japanese novel in translation. Like the course I audited last year on the Japanese novel and the West, this course is taught by Professor Takao Hagiwara, who provides great erudition and insight in analyzing the novels we are reading and in placing them in their Japanese cultural and historical context. Our first work is “Kokoro” by Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), an intriguing novel that inter-weaves a young man’s coming-of-age story, his complex relationship to an older mentor with a troubled and concealed past, and the end of the Meiji period in Japan.
From the poem (from the Paris Review) “Self-Portrait in the Bathroom Mirror” by Mary Jo Bang
I wasn’t a child for long, and after I wasn’t, I was something else. I was this. And that. A blast furnace, a steel maze inside, the low-level engine room of an ocean liner. My eye repeats horizontally what I by this time already know: there is no turning back to be someone I might have been. Now there will only ever be multiples of me.
Bang said of her efforts at photography: “I could see myself getting closer and closer,” she said of her years learning photography. “Over time, what was on the film and the photographic paper more and more resembled what I’d imagined when I looked into the viewfinder. And I saw how, if you steadily worked at something, what you don’t know gradually erodes and what you do know slowly grows and at some point you’ve gained a degree of mastery. What you know becomes what you are. You know photography and you are a photographer. You know writing and you are a writer.”
New York Times (NYT) “By the Book: Why Maggie Nelson Is Drawn to Certain Autobiographies” (8/26/21) “On Freedom” explores some thorny ethical questions concerning its title subject, especially in regards to our relationships with other people. What writers helped you think about the topic? Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, George Oppen, Manolo Callahan, Mariame Kaba, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Denise Riley, Saidiya Hartman, Jacqueline Rose, Wendy Brown, Amber Hollibaugh, Gayle Rubin, Harry Dodge, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dean Spade & Tourmaline, Buddhist literature, recovery literature.
Politics and Society
Guardian (9/2/21) “Roe v Wade died with barely a whimper. But that’s not all” by Laurence H Tribe For years, as the supreme court’s composition kept tilting right, reproductive rights have been squarely on the chopping block. Now they are on the auction block as well. … It wasn’t just Roe that died at midnight on 1 September with barely a whimper, let alone a bang. It was the principle that nobody’s constitutional rights should be put on sale for purchase by anyone who can find an informant or helper to turn in whoever might be trying to exercise those rights.
From Robert Wright’s Nonzero Newsletter (8/30/21) “Afghanistan: 3 Unlearned Lessons“ The speed with which the Afghan army collapsed this summer, and the ease with which the Taliban took city after city, caught pretty much every American official by surprise. That surprise shouldn’t surprise us, given that these officials had been getting feedback about the war that was, predictably, biased in a positive direction. … Unlearned Lesson #4: We should try really, really hard to avoid military interventions. This follows—not quite inexorably, but plausibly—from unlearned lessons 1, 2, and 3. If indeed (Lesson 1) the presence of foreign troops tends to energize and expand opposition; and if indeed (Lesson 3) this problem, along with other problems, is exacerbated by the difficulty of navigating ethnic and other social and political complexities—complexities that we tend to have only a dim comprehension of; and if indeed (Lesson 2) attempts to deepen that comprehension, and navigate these complexities, will be frustrated by the systematic corruption of relevant information—well, then maybe the odds against success are pretty steep. And since confirming how steep they are tends to get tons of people killed, maybe we should quit repeating that exercise.
New York Times (NYT) (8/31/21) “The Buying of the American Mind” by Paul Krugman I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the era when big money ruled the right. But traditional corporate influence looks benign compared with where we are now. At this point, to be a conservative in good standing you have to pledge allegiance to blatant lies — Democrats are Marxists, the election was stolen, basic public health measures are sinister assaults on freedom. … “So the blend of craziness and corruption taking place on the American right is special, without anything comparable on the left. Don’t both-sides this.”
Watched, Seen and Heard
Guardian (8-21-21) “Neuroscientist Anil Seth: ‘We risk not understanding the central mystery of life’” Presumably, the mind-body problem is never going to be entirely resolved? No, but I’d like to make progress. It’s the boring answer of continuing to do rigorous science, rather than proposing some eureka solution to “the hard problem” [the question of why and how our brains create subjective, conscious experience]. My approach is that we risk not understanding the central mystery of life by lurching to one or other form of magical thinking. While science might be a little bit slower, there is much to be done in a straightforward materialist understanding of how the brain relates to conscious experience.
On August 6, I will be starting a four-class course on the short fiction of Eudora Welty, taught by Prof. Monica Miller through the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program of Case Western Reserve University. Prof. Miller is an excellent instructor. I previously took her courses through that Program on Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. (I bailed out on the Faulkner course when I found “Absalom, Absalom” impenetrable, but through no fault of Prof Miller.) We start by reading Welty’s stories “”Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and “Why I Live at the P.O.”; for the second week, “Petrified Man” and “Curtain of Green.” The course will also touch on Welty’s photography—she was a photographer for the WPA—and its relationship to her writing. In 2009, the Smithsonian Magazine said of an exhibition of her photographs: “The pictures, made in Mississippi in the early to mid-1930s, show the rural poor and convey the want and worry of the Great Depression. But more than that, they show the photographer’s wide-ranging curiosity and unstinting empathy—which would mark her work as a writer, too.” That article also quotes her own views of her photography career and its connection to her writing: In her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, published in 1984, Welty paid respects to picture-taking by noting: “I learned in the doing how ready I had to be. Life doesn’t hold still. A good snapshot stopped a moment from running away. Photography taught me that to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was the greatest need I had. Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it.”
New York Times (NYT) (8/6/21) BY THE BOOK: Rita Dove Was there a book of poems or a poet in particular that inspired you to write? Not a specific poet or book, but the sheer variety of possibilities for singing with language fired my synapses — from Shakespeare to Mad magazine, listening to Bessie Smith or a Corelli flute sonata, collecting the fortunes on Salada tea bags. … Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so? I don’t see how they could not. If we identify and interact with characters, even if we despise them or deplore their ethics, we have entered into a moral arena; their actions invite moral judgments. To empathize with a protagonist whose beliefs and customs are different from ours is to see the world from another’s viewpoint — and that kind of intimate understanding definitely serves a moral function.
“Overnight in the Guest House of the Mystic,” poems by Dick Allen
From “Alfresco” How many cities have such avenues and quietness, how many times we’ve passed such tables, under awnings, in the rain, and promised ourselves promises: to love forever, to do nothing but exist, to taste the food, to drink the wine.
The Poetry Foundation’s bio of Allen (linked above) says: Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.E. Housman, Ben Jonson, and Robert Frost, Allen “ranges with ease from astronomy to politics to domestic situations; his poetry captures great swatches of real and imagined experience in nimble style,” according to Publishers Weekly. Allen says in a Poetry Daily interview, “In a time still so influenced by Archibald MacLeish’s admonition that ‘a poem should not mean, / but be,’ my task is to have the poem ‘be’ and mean something—a non-preachy something, but something.”
In this New Yorker Fiction podcast, Ann Patchett reads Maile Meloy‘s story “The Proxy Marriage.” The story is beautiful and heart-warming without every being cliche or sappy, and, not surprisingly, Ann Patchett’s discussion of it with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman is almost as engaging as the story itself.
Politics and Society
NYT: “How Strong Is Trump’s Grip on the G.O.P.?” by Ross Douthat (7/31/21) This suggests that if you are worried about 2020 being replayed in a Trump revival in 2024, but this time with Republican state legislatures actually acting to overturn results, you should be looking for signs that Trump has found a way to fuse, in advance, support for himself with support for that specific move. To overcome his manifold weaknesses as an inside-game player, he would need not just sympathy for his inevitable voter-fraud allegations but also an understood rule, among G.O.P. statehouse leaders in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Arizona and their voters, that to support Trump simply is to support legislatures choosing presidents, with no daylight in between.
The Beinart Notebook: “The Double Standards Fallacy” by Peter Beinart The US shields Israel from virtually all accountability even though Israel’s human rights abuses—while certainly not the worst in the world—are quite grave. Israel has, after all, been declared an apartheid state by its own leading human rights organization and the leading human rights organization in the world. So the next time someone asks you why the world treats Israel so unfairly, ask them to name a government that is committing such serious human rights abuses (as determined by the world’s most reputable human rights organizations) that enjoys such unconditional support from the powerful governments and institutions on earth. … These are interesting theoretical questions, at least to me. Ultimately, however, the question of whether it’s legitimate for Ben and Jerry’s to divest from settlements in the West Bank comes down to two simple questions: First, is a grave injustice occurring there? The answer is yes: Holding West Bank Palestinians without citizenship, free movement, due process, or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives constitutes a terrible crime. For more than half-a-century, Israel has denied millions of people the most basic of human rights. Second, do most Palestinians believe that boycotting West Bank settlements can help alleviate their suffering? The answer, overwhelmingly, is yes. That’s what really matters. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.
Guardian: “A Trump bombshell quietly dropped last week. And it should shock us all by Robert Reich (8/3/21) But Trump was no accident and he’s not in any dustbin. He has turned one of America’s two major parties into his own cult. He has cast the major political division in the US as a clash between those who believe him about the 2020 election and those who do not. He has emboldened state Republicans to execute the most brazen attack on voting rights since Jim Crow. Most Republican senators and representatives dare not cross him. Some of his followers continue to threaten violence against the government. By all accounts, he is running for president again in 2024. Donald Trump’s proto-fascism poses the largest internal threat to American democracy since the civil war. What to do about it? Fight it, and the sooner the better.
“Conflict is not Abuse” by Sarah Schulman I had not heard of Schulman or this book until I heard Ezra Klein interview her recently. She makes arguments that are courageous in today’s environment. My thesis is that at many levels of human interaction there is the opportunity to conflate discomfort with threat, to mistake internal anxiety for exterior danger, and in turn to escalate rather than resolve. I will show how this dynamic, whether between two individuals, between groups of people, between governments and civilians, or between nations is a fundamental opportunity for either tragedy or peace. Conscious awareness of these political and emotional mechanisms gives us all a chance to face ourselves, to achieve recognition and understanding in order to avoid escalation towards unnecessary pain.
From “The Anatomy of Melancholy” (1621) by Robert Burton But who can help it? It is an ordinary thing in these days to see a base impudent ass, illiterate, unworthy, unsufficient, to be preferred before his betters, because he can put himself forward, because he looks big, can bustle in the world, hath a fair outside, can temporize, collogue, insinuate, or hath good store of friends and money, whereas a more discreet, modest, and better-deserving man shall lie hid or have a repulse.
Watched Seen and Heard
The Showtime series “The Good Lord Bird” is outstanding. Based on the novel by James McBride and starring Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson, each episode is mesmerizing in its portrayal of the abolitionist John Brown.
The HBO series “White Lotus” is weirdly engaging. I am only two episodes (of six) into it, but already hooked by the quirky characters and the plot, both of which come close to going over the top but stay on this side of the satire/lampoon divide.
NYT “Can We Ever Look at Titian’s Paintings the Same Way Again?” by Holland Cotter (8/13/21) about an exhibition of Titian paintings at the Gardner Museum in Boston It was titled “The Rape of Europa,” and its theme — a young woman, a Phoenician princess, is abducted and forcibly impregnated by a god in disguise — can’t help but put us on red alerts today, when accusations and verified reports of sexual assault on women appear almost daily in the news. In fact, the whole cycle, with its repeated images of gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh, invites #MeToo evaluation, and raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny. And purely in terms of formal innovation and historical influence, great is what this art is. In 1550, when Titian first received the commission from Philip, then ruler-to-be, he was renowned throughout Europe as the most daringly expressive brush-man in the business. Unlike his Florentine peers, he let paint, stroke by stroke, have a material and emotional life of its own. In this, he was the un-Michelangelo, the contemporary he considered his only real rival. … We can love art for its beauties and call it out for its blindness. We can exalt it to the skies, and still wrestle it to the ground. Old or new, art is us at our best and our worst, and it really is us, with everything that means, and useful beyond fashion or price.
In my last post, I mentioned my reading “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy. After I posted it, I read the afterword by Paul Elie. He captures some aspects of the novel that I too find both enigmatic and captivating: Southern, Catholic, ironic, oblique: The Moviegoer doesn’t add up, quite. What is it about? What has come of Binx Bolling’s search? What has prompted Binx to settle down with Kate and embrace everydayness with quasi-religious devotion? “It is impossible to say,” Binx remarks in the last line of the novel proper. It is impossible to say. And yet The Moviegoer, like its central character, has an inner coherence. Its take on everydayness has the quality of wonder that is the novel’s true subject. It opens out onto some larger mystery, one that we, no less than he, are still trying to solve.
I had long wanted to read Iris Murdoch‘s novel “The Sea, the Sea” and was finally prompted, in a circuitous way, to do so. I heard an interview of the philosopher Susan R. Wolf (Edna J. Koury Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) on a Phi Beta Kapp “Key Conversations” podcast. At the end of the interview, in recommending books that had influenced her, she said, “For me, some of my greatest influences are Iris Murdoch, who is also a novelist. She has a little collection of three essays called The Sovereignty of Good that changed my philosophical life and worldview.” I had not known that Murdoch was a philosophy scholar as well as a novelist. I read the first of the essays in that collection and was deeply impressed by her erudition and (not surprisingly) by the lucidity of her prose, even in dealing with some difficult concepts regarding morality and moral reasoning.
That prompted me to read “The Sea, The Sea,” which won the Booker Prize in 1978, and I am glad I did. The exceedingly unreliable narrator, Charles Arrowby, is a case study in self-deception and obsession, and he is a genius in rationalizing his own selfishness. He can perpetrate casual cruelty on those most devoted him without apparent qualm. Murdoch makes him a maddening character, but never ceases to make the story a compelling one. Excerpts from the book cannot convey its power, but perhaps this excerpt from a June 2009 Guardian article “The moral brilliance of Iris Murdoch” by Bidisha conveys Murdoch’s genius:
Murdoch was a genius….She took on the most profound moral questions that we ordinary, flawed, troubled creatures grapple with: the battle between good and evil within ourselves and within society; the possibility of faith and the death of God; the occasionally delightful and playful, occasionally dangerous and destructive urges of erotic desire; the compulsions of amorous and intellectual obsession; artistic creativity and the artist’s ambition to create the one ultimate and universal work that addresses every moral dilemma with its overarching theory. All that makes it sounds as though reading her work is like finding oneself in the middle of an endless Brothers Karamazov-like rumination. Yet lightly thrown over these huge issues were plots of a disarming playfulness, creativity and joy: realistically daft adults making buffoons of themselves, androgynous girls, tough but unimaginative women, happy dogs, tortured gay priests, angry clever bullies and power-holders, hypocritical husbands, melancholy wives. Murdoch’s characters are fallen, her world post-lapsarian, full of contingency and realistic illogic. Her characters act against their own happiness with frustrating frequency. But then, that is what people are like. They behave absurdly, yet Murdoch does not write absurdly. She examines human silliness with her own clever, tolerantly smiling seriousness.
From the poem “Variation on a Theme by Ernest Hemingway” by Dick Allen
Like the streets and the marvelous pennies on sidewalks, the iris that came out of nowhere, he was a part of my days for awhile and I trusted him as only a question can be trusted, never an answer and I moved away from that city, never regretting my silence or his but missing the houses with the mansard roofs and the tall brick chimneys, so red against the snow falling, winters I lived there.
I always enjoy the New Yorker Fiction podcasts, in which the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, invites writers (who have themselves written stories published in the magazine) to choose a story by another writer from The New Yorker archives to read and then discuss with her. I especially enjoyed a recent podcast in which Susan Choi read and discussed the story “Found Objects” by Jennifer Egan, which was published in The New Yorker in 2007. The story morphed into the first chapter of Egan’s acclaimed novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” and hearing the story has heightened my desire to read the novel.
By the Book (7/25/21)Eddie Glaude, Jr. What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of? I am sure people have heard of the book, but I would have to say Jose Saramago’s “Seeing.” It is this jaw-dropping allegory about how quickly democracies can turn into something much more sinister — especially when ordinary people dare to make their positions known. Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is exquisite.
NYT review of “The Great Mistake” by Jonathan Lee, a novel based on the life of Andrew Haswell Green, New York City planner and civic leader of the nineteenth century. Lee repeatedly captures Green’s thoughtful, melancholic nature, including in a scene when as a boy he considers drowning himself in grief after the death of his mother. “There would be better years,” Lee writes. “It would take a long time to swim toward them. He wasn’t sure, at first, that he had the energy. The breakthrough was realizing that there would be days when he did and days when he didn’t, days to avoid the water at all costs and days to dive in, bold.”
Politics and Society
Guardian (7/5/21) “Welcome to Dystopia: Getting Fired From Your Job as an Amazon Worker by an App” by Jessa Crispin While politicians pout about the possibility of having to raise the minimum wage to $15, a level that would have sustained a decent life 10 years ago maybe, it’s likely these unemployment benefits will be allowed to expire and the safety net will be removed once again. Amazon isn’t going to change on its own unless forced to, and that means giving people the power – and the money – to say no to their own exploitation.
New York Times (NYT) (7/5/21) “This Wave of Anti-Critical Race Theory Laws Is Un-American” by Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley and Thomas Chatterton Williams (The authors are a cross-partisan group of thinkers who have written extensively about authoritarianism, liberalism and free speech.)
These [anti=CRT] initiatives have been marketed as “anti-critical race theory” laws. We, the authors of this essay, have wide ideological divergences on the explicit targets of this legislation. Some of us are deeply influenced by the academic discipline of critical race theory and its critique of racist structures and admire the 1619 Project. Some of us are skeptical of structural racist explanations and racial identity itself, and disagree with the mission and methodology of the 1619 Project. We span the ideological spectrum: a progressive, a moderate, a libertarian and a conservative. It is because of these differences that we here join together, as we are united in one overarching concern: the danger posed by these laws to liberal education.
Washington Post (WP) (7/6/21) “The Supreme Court Inches Closer to a Press Freedom Showdown” by Charles Lane …[T]ake note of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s 11-page dissent on the last day of the just-completed term, in which he argues that the court should have heard a challenge to its 1964 landmark holding in New York Times v. Sullivan. … A detailed survey by the Media Insight Project, released in April, traces disenchantment not to partisans’ belief that media are biased against them but to more general “skepticism about the underlying purpose and mission journalists are trying to fulfill in the first place.” Journalists surveyed by the project believed that “a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems.” And in 1964, the Supreme Court elevated that journalistic article of faith to constitutional principle. Today, according to the Media Insight Project, only 29 percent of the American people agree with it.
In 2005, novelist and book-lover Larry McMurtry (best known for his “Lonsesome Dove” novels) wrote an essay for The New York Review of Books (July 14, 2005) entitled “On Rereading,” in which he says “Now, though, I’ve become principally a rereader, a habit that’s prevailed for nearly a decade.” I had occasion recently to reflect on the fact that in 2005 McMurtry was 69, the same age I am now. The occasion was my decision to reread “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy, which won the 1962 National Book Award for fiction. I had read it around 30 years ago, and I recalled loving it, but could not recall why. Though, like McMurtry, I find myself more drawn to rereading at this stage of my life, rereading can sometimes lead me to disappointment and puzzled wondering “What was I thinking?” Happily, this is not one of those cases. I am as captivated now as I was on the first reading by the strange and estranged reflections of the narrator Jack Bolling, such as this one:
The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
Percy himself described “The Moviegoer” as the story of “a young man who had all the advantages of a cultivated old-line southern family: a feel for science and art, a liking for girls, sports cars, and the ordinary things of the culture, but who nevertheless feels himself quite alienated from both worlds, the old South and the new America.” Though it is a novel of its time and place, the ways in which Bolling seeks to make sense of and make a life in a perplexing world and universe continue to resonate far beyond Louisiana and the 1950s.
I had been unfamiliar with the poet Jeffrey Harrison until reading his poem “The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts” a few months ago, but that prompted me to get his recent collection “Between Lakes.” This collection has heightened my appreciation for his poems, especially those that relate to his relationship with his father in the time leading up to and following his father’s death. Harrison writes with clarity, empathy and spare beauty, as in the poem “Gratitude”:
And so, despite the decade or more the cancer stole, I’m grateful for that year and a half, for those two springs when we watched the goldfinches turn from green to yellow, like autumn leaves, for the flame-emblazoned shoulders of the red-wing, and for that new, gentle father who kept telling me how grateful he was that I was there.
In the New York Times “By the Book” interview of novelist Dana Spiotta, I especially appreciated these two responses: Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time? I read the Tolstoy short story “Master and Man” for the first time via George Saunders’s analysis in his great book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.” That story throttled me — a breathtaking reading experience. And then Saunders shows you how Tolstoy did it, which is a gift, truly. Do you think any canonical books are widely misunderstood? “Ulysses” is famously difficult, and, in truth, there are tedious parts. And problematic parts. But if approached with irreverence, you can feel the living force of an extraordinary and particular mind at play. Take what you want, don’t be too precious. Its audacity grants a writer all kinds of permission. As Anne Enright said, Joyce “opened all the windows and doors.”
Politics and Society
Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech
Nadine Strossen served as President of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008 and is now a professor of law. In her 2018 book “Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship,” Strossen takes on the complex and controversial topic of the extent to which “hate speech” can and should be punished or enjoined. Her cogent thoughts on the topic have become even more timely in the intervening years, with “cancel culture” having become a battle cry in the culture wars. She is clear and candid in her view:
My mission in this work is to refute the argument that the United States, following the lead of many other nations, should adopt a broad concept of illegal “hate speech,” and to demonstrate why such a course would not only violate fundamental precepts of our democracy but also do more harm than good.
The Constitution, Religion and the Supreme Court
Linda Greenhouse reported on the U.S. Supreme Court for the New York Times over four decades. Her articles on the Court were perceived as so influential that conservative jurists complained that there was a “Greenhouse effect,” causing conservative Justices to take more liberal positions to obtain more favorable press coverage. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, “Grievance Conservatives Are Here to Stay,” Greenhouse reviews two recent books on another current hot-button issue: the role of religion in the selection of SCOTUS Justices and in the decisions of the Court. She asks a provocative question and suggests an interesting answer:
What accounts for this paradox of religious ascendance over an ever more secular society? The asymmetry between the strategic single focus of the Christian right and the secular majority’s diffidence in confronting claims to religious privilege explains a good deal: political victory goes to those who try harder. That questioning someone about their religion is the last taboo in American society has been a gift to the religious right: the secular middle doesn’t know how to talk back or even how to frame the questions.
The Editorial Board of the New York Times examined another topic on which the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is having a profound influence: voting rights. In its editorial (7/2/21) “The Supreme Court Abandons Voting Rights,” the Times addressed the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Arizona voting law despite lower federal court findings that the laws made voting harder for voters of color. Noting the statement in Justice Alito’s opinion that, “The mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote,” the Times responded:
Since the court is talking about “mere facts,” the conservative justices might have noted the mere fact that voting fraud, which lawmakers in a number of states claim they are trying to prevent with laws like the ones in Arizona, is essentially nonexistent. As one federal judge put it several years ago, such laws are akin to using “a sledgehammer to hit either a real or imaginary fly on a glass coffee table.” That doesn’t appear to bother the conservative justices, who have given a free pass to state legislatures to discriminate, even as they demand more and more from voters trying to show that they are hurt by that discrimination.
The irony, of course, is that Republicans are now proving that systemic racism exists — and they, along with Fox News, are the primary offenders. With their united stand against the voting-rights bill and their united votes against Ahuja [Kiran Ahuja, recently and narrowly appointed to run the Office of Personnel Management] on the bogus justification of critical race theory, they’re the ones reducing Americans “to their racial identity alone,” as [Senator Josh] Hawley put it. The Proud Boys who attacked the Capitol must be filled with pride anew.
Watched, Seen and Heard
Cleveland Chamberfest for 2021 has come to an end leaving us looking forward to its return in 2022. This performance of works by Beethoven, Smetana and Mendelssohn was a delight.
In the lecture he delivered as the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro said, “But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” In his new novel “Klara and the Sun,” Ishiguro delves into the realm of artificial intelligence and explores the possibility that the person asking those poignant questions may not be a person. The title character Klara is the Artificial Friend (or “AF”) to an adolescent girl. We see the strangeness of our world and our human flaws and foibles through her eyes. Inevitably, but believably, Klara raises the question whether robots can have the equivalent of feelings and emotions and whether they may be capable of behaving with greater humanity than humans.
In her NPR review of the novel, Maureen Corrigan wrote that Ishiguro “is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing, fragility and the inevitability of death — all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.”
In the Summer 2021 issue of The Paris Review, one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast is interviewed. She lampoons the second-class status that “fine artists” often inflict on cartoonists:
Cartoonists and craftspeople—we sit at the children’s table. Don’t get me started about a lot of what people call fine art. So much of it is horrible, horrible art school bullshit. “Kriddlenap’s twenty- by eighty-foot canvas, with its multitudinous chromatic biomorphic forms, condenses the picture plane into a totality of architectonic textured cacophony. The sixteen basketballs that tentatively adhere to the surface are an ironic nod to . . . ” On and on. Fucking hate it. Endless pages of circle jerking.
One of the things I love about her cartoons is the way in which she transforms angst and insecurity into humor. In the interview she says:
But in general, making cartoons is a way of avoiding feelings of pointlessness and despair and still not being too upbeat.
As so often happens, the most recent episode of the podcast “Backlisted” brought to my attention a writer of whom I had not previously heard and left me eager to read that writer’s works. In this case, the book is the novel “A Goat’s Song” by Dermot Healy. The hosts and panelists of this excellent podcast series are always positive about the work on which an episode focuses, but seldom have I heard them as effusive as they are in this episode in expressing the view that Healy’s works generally, and this novel in particular, are under-appreciated.
Politics and Society
In the article “America Has a Drinking Problem” (The Atlantic, July/August 2021), Kate Julian examines recent trends in American consumption of alcohol in a large historical context. Here is how she frames the issue: What most of us want to know, coming out of the pandemic, is this: Am I drinking too much? And: How much are other people drinking? And: Is alcohol actually that bad? The answer to all these questions turns, to a surprising extent, not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it. But before we get to that, we need to consider a more basic question, one we rarely stop to ask: Why do we drink in the first place? By we, I mean Americans in 2021, but I also mean human beings for the past several millennia.
In “Doing the Work at Work What are companies desperate for diversity consultants actually buying?” (New York Magazine, May 26, 2021), Bridget Read provides an extensive and insightful account of the explosive growth in the diversity consulting business that the past year has generated. Across the country, consultants in the diversity business felt that same whiplash of pandemic bust turning into protest boom. Practitioners who were collecting unemployment received calls from the CEOs of major corporations looking to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars publicly and fast. One of her interesting insights: As more money pours into the diversity industry, the products and services for sale are becoming ever more abstracted away from actual workers in pain.
Apropos of diversity, in an NPR Weekend Edition Saturday interview (“Critics Concerned About Princeton’s Removal Of Latin, Greek Requirement In Classics”) with NPR’s Scott Simon, John McWhorter, linguist professor at Columbia University, expresses his views about why Princeton University’s new policy for classics major is problematic for students of color.
As Benjamin Netanyahu ends his tenure, following the parliament’s approval Sunday of a new governing coalition that excludes him, he is not only Israel’s longest-serving leader but also one of its most influential. He reoriented the country’s decades-old approach to peace and security, reshaped its economy and place in the world, and upended longtime legal norms and notions of civil discourse. To his supporters, Netanyahu, known by all as “Bibi,” leaves behind a booming economy, newfound international respect and a decade without bus bombings by Palestinian militants. To critics, he leaves a country more divided, less equitable and largely indifferent to peace with the Palestinians.
Note to Justice Breyer: This is not Ted Kennedy’s Senate, where you worked as his chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee four decades ago. This is not the Senate that confirmed you 87-9 in 1994. Those kind of bipartisan votes on Supreme Court nominees are ancient history. That Senate is no more. “Talk to them” until you discover common ground — Kennedy’s approach for dealing with Republican colleagues, as Breyer related in a talk to students at the National Constitution Center last month — is great advice for high-schoolers learning to navigate the world. It doesn’t work with McConnell.
But as the election and pandemic traumas fade, corporate America is easing, quietly, back into the giving game. Lobbyists are suiting up. Fund-raising events are on the calendar. Wallets are reopening. It will take a while yet for the giving to return to its normal, obscene levels, but the trajectory is once more headed up — with the trend expected to accelerate in the coming months. … The further Jan. 6 recedes from view, of course, the more that Corporate America will deem it less risky to donate than to not. As any savvy politician can tell you, the attention span of the American public is short. Without constant stoking, widespread outrage fades quickly — or is replaced by the next outrage. Just ask gun control advocates, who know too well how quickly the public, and politicians, move on from mass shootings.
I always enjoy Jessa Crispin’s columns in The Guardian for their sharp prose and iconoclastic attitude. In this one, she deplores our pervasive and compulsive urge to turn everything into a prompt toward self-improvement.
There is something truly warped about the way American culture prioritizes growth and romanticizes hardship. Call it hustle culture, or manifest destiny, or the myth of the self-made man: we are incapable of just having a hard time. Cancer is your teacher, poverty is supposed to inspire ambition, a tragedy is just a teachable moment. A year spent in lockdown is an opportunity to pivot, to build wealth from the fear of others, to self-improve. There is nothing about you or your life that cannot be enhanced, monetized, upgraded, or learned from. And our culture believes strongly that if you are unwilling or unable to participate in this hysterical climb upward, you are undeserving of assistance or care.
Watched, Seen and Heard
Bo Burnham “Inside” (Netflix): Too soon to make the pandemic funny? Bo Burham didn’t think so. He filmed and performed the entirety of this comedy and musical special alone in his apartment over the past year. However dark (literally and figuratively) it’s all funny, even if some of the jokes may be lost on us aging Boomers.
Chamberfest Cleveland 2021 will continue through June 26. We heard a memorable performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by acclaimed pianist Roman Rabinovich.
Support Local and Public-Interest Journalism: The Sierra County Sun
My friends former Clevelanders Diana Tittle (former editor of Northern Ohio Live and author of many books, including “Welcome to Heights High” and “The Severances”) and Tom Hinson (long-time curator and now Curator Emeritus of the Cleveland Museum of Art) moved to New Mexico several years ago. In “retirement,” they have become energetic and effective advocates for progressive causes and the Democratic Party in New Mexico, especially in Sierra County in the southern part of the state where their home in Truth or Consequences is located. Troubled by the threats to local journalism and investigative reporting there (and across the nation), Diana became Editor of The Sierra County Sun, a non-profit-organization devoted to public-interest journalism. Its mission statement states: “The Sierra County Sun is a leading provider of fact-based, credibly sourced, independent, original reporting on local government and public affairs in Sierra County, New Mexico.” Diana recently offered me the opportunity to adapt this blog into a Reader at Large column in the Sun, for which I am grateful. If you share Diana’s belief, as I do, that the decline of local, public-interest journalism and the threats to its survival are among the things imperiling our democracy, I encourage you to visit the Sierra County Sun website (www.sierracountysun.org) and support the efforts of Diana and her colleagues with a donation. Thanks.
First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami Haruki Murakami has been among my favorite contemporary writers for nearly 20 years, since I read—and was captivated by—his novel “Kafka on the Shore” when it came out in 2002. His most recent collection of stories, “First Person Singular: Stories,” preserves his place in that personal pantheon. It may not be an entirely positive admission, but I have always felt a connection with his typical male narrator: intelligent, observant and generally well-meaning and kind, but often clueless and befuddled. The narrator of the story “Cloud” in this collection is quintessentially Murakami:
So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange. incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.
On the theme of “my favorites,” I again include the podcast “Poetry Unbound,” in which the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama reads and then talks about a poem he loves in each episode. Ó Tuama’s discussions are never pedantic in the way that caused many of us to stop reading poetry after a high school teacher pulverized whatever interest we might have had in it. (Fortunately, I was not among those. I was blessed to have teachers who took genuine pleasure in the musicality and love of words in poetry.) In a recent podcast, he featured the poem “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. The poem itself, and Ó Tuama’s discussion of it, are a joy to listen to. From that poem:
From laden boughs, from hands, from sweet fellowship in the bins, comes nectar at the roadside, succulent peaches we devour, dusty skin and all, comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
One of the joys of Sunday morning for me is reading the “By the Book” column in the New York Times Book Review. Each week, the column interviews someone (not always a writer, but always—or almost always—a passionate reader). Recently, the interviewee was the iconoclastic writer Lionel Shriver. Here is part of her answer to the question “How have your reading tastes changed over time?”
Although I appreciate distinctive style and turns of phrase, I’ve grown less interested in language for its own sake. That is, I resist acrobatic show-off prose and abstruse vocabulary (though is “abstruse” abstruse?) — and I’m more interested in skillful or artful language as a route to content. I don’t like detail for detail’s sake, either.
Though I am not as proud of it as she is, I share her growing impatience, and find myself saying “Life is too short” when I encounter the “acrobatic show-off prose” that exasperates her.
…[B]oth as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
When Moynihan proposed “solutions” like the Family Assistance Plan, they were simple ones: Give poor people money. Give them jobs. Give everyone health care. The New Deal proved government could do that. But government, he knew, was not so good at changing the way people behaved. He scorned “the desperate notion that possibly the federal government could keep guns out of schools.” He was boggled by drug addiction, though he was able to compare — in his impossibly erudite fashion — the social devastation of high-powered drugs like heroin in the 20th century to the crime wave caused by the development of blended whiskey in the 19th. He assayed hope, without great conviction: “We are going to have to work our way through these issues. It doesn’t follow that we will, but I don’t know that we won’t.” A quarter-century after he wrote those words, we haven’t. … Twenty-five years later, we live in a world that was Moynihan’s nightmare: Postmodern tribes — with their own fake “facts” — have gone virtual; affinity groups are organized by cable news networks and social media platforms. Cynicism about government’s ability to do anything useful abounds. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden’s postindustrial version of the New Deal — which Moynihan would have voted for enthusiastically, as it reduces inequality with a minimum of social engineering — will heal the wounds.
The situation in Israel and the Middle East continues to change so rapidly and significantly that articles I read even only a week or two ago now seem out of date, but here are two of the more thoughtful articles I have read during that time that may still have some relevance:
“Netanyahu is singularly responsible for driving an enormous wedge into American public opinion,” Connolly [Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.)] said. “It’s not about abandoning American support for Israel. It’s about policies we see as threatening Israel’s long-term viability as a democratic Jewish state, and about a right-wing lurch in Israeli politics.” Netanyahu embodies so much that angers me: hateful bellicosity; tribalism that corrupts all that might otherwise be joyous and meaningful about religion and community; and not just a willingness, but an eagerness to perpetuate others’ suffering for the sake of preserving his own power.
Therefore, I hope that when the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week, he conveys a very clear message: “From this day forward, we will be treating the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as a Palestinian state in the making, and we will be taking a series of diplomatic steps to concretize Palestinian statehood in order to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. We respect both of your concerns, but we are determined to move forward because the preservation of a two-state solution now is not only about your national security interests; it is about our national security interests in the Middle East. And it is about the political future of the centrist faction of the Democratic Party. So we all need to get this right.’’
From Robert Wright’s “Nonzero” Substack newsletter item “The Truth about Darwin,” rebutting the argument the contention that Darwin excused racism and colonialism when, In Wright’s view, he sought only to explain them: He [Darwin] wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”
For [Frederick] Douglass, however, this founding crime did not discredit American ideals; it demonstrated the need for their urgent and radical application. He insisted that the Constitution was “a glorious liberty document.” He drew encouragement from the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and the “genius of American institutions.” He challenged the country’s hypocrisy precisely because he took its founding principles so seriously. How can you love a place while knowing the crimes that helped produce it? By relentlessly confronting hypocrisy and remaining “woke” to the transformational power of American ideals.
Nadine Strossen, professor emerita at N.Y.U. Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote by email that she considers herself “a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ but even more important to me are the classic liberal values that are under siege from all sectors of the political spectrum, left to right, including: freedom of speech, thought and association; academic freedom; due process; and personal privacy.” … Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book, “Say It Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture” cited in an email a similar set “of reasons for the deficient response to threats against freedom of thought, expression and learning emanating from the left.” His list:”Woke” folk making wrongful demands march under the banner of “EQUALITY” which is a powerful and attractive emblem, especially in this George Floyd/Covid-19 moment when the scandalous inequities of our society are so heartbreakingly evident. On the campuses, many of the most vocal woke folk are students whom teachers and administrators want to mollify, comfort and impress. Many teachers and administrators seek desperately to be liked by students.
These discussions of “wokeness” bring to mind an experience I had when I went to a Cleveland Indians baseball game against the White Sox earlier this week. (I know that my continuing to use the team’s current name until it gets changed raises questions about my own wokeness.) Capacity limits were still in effect, so the crowd was small, but in the seats directly behind me and my friend were four people: three women and a man, all middle-aged and white. The first time the Indians player Harold Ramirez came up to bat, the three women started hooting, as though it was the funniest thing they had ever heard that a man with the last name Ramirez could have the first name Harold. “Harold? Are you kidding me? Harold Ramirez? What were his parents thinking!?” The hoots and jeers continued with each at bat.
What I wanted to do, but didn’t, was turn around and say, “So you think everyone with a Hispanic last name has to name their son Jose or Miguel or Pablo? You think it’s a joke or some kind of transgression if they give their kids a name you think is ‘white’?” Had I done so they’d have probably gotten indignant and said I was probably next going to tell them that they’re racists and get all “woke” and “cancel culture” on them. They might also have cooked up a disingenuous excuse and said they just think Harold is a funny name for a baseball player and that it had nothing to do with the Hispanic last name. (I would have been ready with Harold Baines.)
In retrospect, I think that what I should have done rather than that or nothing was turn to them calmly and say, “You know, I have a cousin named Mitchell Martinez. His father is Hispanic, and his mother, my aunt, is Jewish. They named him after my late grandfather. I don’t think his name is as joke. I don’t know anything about Harold Ramirez’s background, but I don’t think his name is a joke, either, and I don’t think you should.” That story isn’t true, but I think it would have been a better way to make my point, possibly without causing the immediate defensive response the other approach would likely have caused. Either would have been better, though, than my having done nothing and then continued to feel remiss.
All around I see people determined to undo what Covid tried to do to us. Covid isolated us, but I see people thinking about how they can replace social distance with social closeness and social courage. I’m hoping to practice what a friend calls “aggressive friendship,” being the one who issues the invitations, reaches out first.
As David Brooks often does in his columns, here he expresses fine sentiments like this one about “aggressive friendship,” but he does so in a way that shows that he is oblivious to some of the larger and more troubling aspects of environment we are living in. In this column and in the commencement speech on which it is based, he makes removal of his mask into an act of liberation, playing into the views of those whose animus against government, public health and science caused them to make masks a symbol of servitude. (Recently, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green compared mask mandates to the Holocaust.) I am grateful to my masks for having helped keep me healthy this past year, and i think we should all be.
Guardian article (5/28/21): “Stop glorifying ‘centrism’. It is an insidious bias favoring an unjust status quo” by Rebecca Solnit
Underlying it [status-quo bias] is the belief that things are pretty OK now, that the people in charge should be trusted because power confers legitimacy, that those who want sweeping change are too loud or demanding or unreasonable, and that we should just all get along without looking at the skeletons in the closet and the stuff swept under the rug. It’s mostly a prejudice of people for whom the system is working, against those for whom it’s not. … The idea that there is some magically apolitical state all should aspire to is key to this bias and to why it refuses to recognize itself as a bias. It believes it speaks from neutral ground, which is why it forever describes a landscape of mountains and chasms as a level playing field.
Watched, Seen and Heard
The Netflix miniseries “Unorthodox” is powerful and beautiful. It is based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” It captures and conveys my view of the horrific effects of all orthodox religions on the human mind and spirit, especially when—as is so often the case—they are saturated with misogyny.
Maria Papova’s “Brain Pickings” observations about Bronson Alcott and the joys of gardening. Alcott wrote:
Human life is a very simple matter. Breath, bread, health, a hearthstone, a fountain, fruits, a few garden seeds and room to plant them in, a wife and children, a friend or two of either sex, conversation, neighbours, and a task life-long given from within — these are contentment and a great estate. On these gifts follow all others, all graces dance attendance, all beauties, beatitudes, mortals can desire and know.
The term “public intellectual” always makes me more than a little suspicious: is the person just a popularizer of ideas that more complex or innovative thinkers developed, and that the public intellectual dumbs down to pander to a larger audience? Or is the public intellectual one of the rare individuals with the ability to address philosophical and cultural issues in a way that places them in a real-world context and makes them both relevant and meaningful to the non-academic public? I put University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard in the latter category. Her book Aspiration intrigued me, because it raises a question that I—and I think many others—have often tried to address without clear awareness we are doing so: how do we pursue certain values when we do not yet know what having those values will be like? How do we strive to change or develop as a person when we cannot yet know clearly what undergoing that change or development will involve? She writes: We aspire by doing things, and the things we do change us so that we are able to do the same things, or things of that kind, better and better. In the beginning, we sometimes feel as though we are pretending, play-acting, or otherwise alienated from our own activity. We may see the new value as something we are trying out or trying on rather than something we are fully engaged with and committed to. We may rely heavily on mentors whom we are trying to imitate or competitors whom we are trying to best. As time goes on, however, the fact (if it is a fact) that we are still at it is usually a sign that we find ourselves progressively more able to see, on our own, the value that we could barely apprehend at first. This is how we work our way into caring about the many things that we, having done that work, care about. Podcaster and now New York Times columnist Ezra Klein interviewed Callard in a recent episode of his podcast “The Ezra Klein Show.” He draws her out on the topic of aspiration in a way that is engaging and enlightening. With that link, one can listen or read the transcript.
With a combination of regret and relief, I decided to stop reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! around a quarter of the way through. I found As I Lay Dying captivating, but I was finding Absalom impenetrable. One of the benefits of retirement is that I have more time—and, one would think, attention—to try to comprehend and appreciate challenging works of literature, but contrary to expectations and intuition, my patience has diminished as I approach the end of my seventh decade. Maybe “life is too short” springs to mind more quickly as it becomes more true. Faulkner is a brilliant writer, and I hope to come back to Absalom and to The Sound and the Fury, which has also eluded me, when my frame of mind is better suited to doing so. Anyone communicating with the spirit (certainly in heaven if there is one) of my wonderful high school English teacher Mrs. Carolyn Groner: please keep mum about this news of my lapse. She was a proud native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and she often quoted Faulkner’s memorable statement from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” Though she lived and taught for decades in Ohio, she carefully preserved her lovely accent, with which she read the part of Lady Macbeth to her students. More than fifty years later, that is still how I hear “Out, out damned spot!” in my mind’s ear.
Though I have not devoted much attention to graphic novels, I love the works of Alison Bechdel, and not just—though at least in part—because she is an alum of my alma mater Oberlin College. I have been reading and viewing her new graphic memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength. She deals with many of the same experiences that she portrayed in Fun Home, but she does much more in this book. As many great memoirs do, this one captures and conveys her life story while weaving it into the cultural history of her era. The text and the drawings intertwine seamlessly.
Politics and Society
Washington Post (WP) column (5/9/21): “The big myth about Cheney, Trump and the GOP” by James Downie The reason there’s no battle is that while Cheney, Hogan and others want to argue that their vision of the Republican Party competes with Trump’s, that’s simply not the case. I’ve written previously that the GOP is still Trump’s GOP. But the reverse is also true: Trump’s GOP is the GOP as it’s ever been. … But the broader pattern goes much further back than the Bush years. The Republican Party playbook is the same as it ever was: Disguise worshipfully pro-big business, pro-wealthy policies with appeals to the resentments of President Richard M. Nixon’s “silent majority” or Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” or whatever label the party prefers for a specific type of White American. … There’s no “battle” for the party’s soul; there are only the party leaders who will keep swimming in this foul stream leaving behind those that don’t. For the rest of the country, including the media, reckoning with that fact means being honest about it — the sooner, the better.
But for a different perspective: WP column (5/13/21) “The GOP has lost its way. Fellow Americans, join our new alliance” by Charlie Dent, Mary Peters, Denver Riggleman, Michael Steele and Christine Todd Whitman (Charlie Dent represented Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2005 to 2018. Mary Peters was secretary of transportation during the George W. Bush administration. Denver Riggleman represented Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2019 to 2021. Michael Steele is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Christine Todd Whitman was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001) With Cheney’s dismissal from House leadership, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party — and our country — is not over. It is just beginning, which is why we are forming a “resistance of the rational” against the radicals. We still hope for a healthy, thriving Republican Party, but we are no longer holding our breath.
New Yorker article (5/10/21) “We’ve Had Great Success Extending Life. What About Ending It?” by Brooke Jarvis (a review of Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer by Steven Johnson and of The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die by Katie Engelhart) Extra, extra: The average human has received thousands and thousands of extra days in which to live. Johnson tries to account for those days. Which scientific or civilizational advancements should we thank for them? He groups innovations by those which have saved millions of lives (this list begins with the aids cocktail, anesthesia, and angioplasty), hundreds of millions of lives (here the roster goes from antibiotics to pasteurization), and, finally, billions of lives, a small but illustrious pantheon of three: artificial fertilizer, hygienic plumbing, and vaccines. … …[T]he innovations that have saved the most lives are the product of piecemeal improvements, built on networks of support and inspiration, and spread by social movements. Most were not blockbuster therapies or expensive medicines but unsexy, low-tech ideas, like water chlorination or better techniques for treating dehydration. Almost none, he [Johnson] points out, came from profit-seeking companies. And many were just advancements in basic bureaucracy—the creation of public institutions that could systematically track health data, require that drugs be tested and regulated, or enforce simple safety measures. … A remarkably nuanced, empathetic, and well-crafted work of journalism, it [Engelhart’s book] explores what might be called the right-to-die underground, a world of people who wonder why a medical system that can do so much to try to extend their lives can do so little to help them end those lives in a peaceful and painless way. Engelhart writes, “It would be hard to exaggerate how many people told me that they wish simply for the same rights as their cherished dogs—to be put out of their misery when the time is right.”
National Geographic (April 2021): “An Environmental Problem We Can Fix” by Susan Goldberg, Editor (and former Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer) There’s no better example of that than the experience of the United States, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act. Signed by President Richard Nixon on December 31, 1970, this single statute resulted in a 77 percent decrease in the nation’s air pollution. It lengthened millions of American lives, saved trillions of dollars, and according to the American Lung Association’s Paul Billings, became “the most powerful public health law enacted in the 20th century.”
New York Times (NYT) column (5/13/21) :”The Anti-Abortion Movement Can’t Use This Myth Anymore” by Jessica Valenti For years, anti-abortion activists have tried to impose their morality under the guise of women’s health and protection. Legislators have proposed anti-choice bills with names like “woman’s right to know,” which sound compassionate but in reality force doctors to falsely claim that women who end their pregnancies suffer physical and mental harm. The primary political strategy of abortion foes relies on the claim that abortion is brutal and dangerous, a myth that is much harder to perpetuate when people can easily access medicine to safely end their pregnancies at home. … Every abortion advancement — from earlier, less invasive procedures to increased access to medication abortion — forces anti-choice activists and legislators to show their most extremist hand: Their goals have almost nothing to do with health, safety or even babies but everything to do with controlling women.
NYT column (5/19/21): “The ‘Unshakable’ Bonds of Friendship With Israel Are Shaking” by Nicholas Kristof Some young Americans see the rise of this hawkish, more extremist Israel and perceive not a plucky democracy but an oppressive military power. What strikes them most isn’t democratic values so much as what Human Rights Watch calls “crimes of apartheid.” Netanyahu also undermined bipartisan American support for Israel by undercutting Democrats like Obama and aligning himself at the hip with Donald Trump and America’s right wing. … It isn’t Islamophobic to denounce Iran’s nuclear program. It’s not anti-Christian to reproach President Donald Trump for condoning white nationalism. And it’s not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel for possible war crimes.
NYT column (5/20/21): “How City Hall Saved Local News” by Sarah Bartlett and Julie Sandorf (Ms. Bartlett is the dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and Ms. Sandorf is the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.) At a time when newsrooms nationwide are laying off reporters and some are closing down, a program begun by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been helping to sustain small, independent media outlets in every corner of the city. … Other solutions are emerging. More local news outlets, for instance, are considering becoming nonprofits to enable philanthropic support for their work. In the meantime, New York City has created a model that we know works, that doesn’t require new taxpayer funding and that can be readily adopted in communities across the nation.
I finished reading As I Lay Dying and now begin the more daunting Absalom, Absalom for the Faulkner course I am taking through the Case Western Reserve University Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in 1949 for all the novels he had then written, including As I Lay Dying, published in 1930. He ended his Nobel Prize acceptance speech memorably: I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
In a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, “Poetry Unbound,” poet Pádraig Ó Tuama reads and discusses the poem “Reporting Back to Queen Isabella” by Lorna Goodison. I will avoid a spoiler and not quote the haunting last line here. The poem can be read in the transcript on the linked website.
Politics and Society
New York Times (NYT) “By the Book” interview of Stacy Abrams: What books do you think best capture your own political principles? “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paulo Freire, to understand my commitment to engaging and centering the disadvantaged and marginalized in my politics, entrepreneurship and activism. The In Death series, by J. D. Robb, centers on a broken, brilliant detective who has to learn to reconcile her core morality with the accommodations we must make if others are going to be included in the process. “The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro, describes how bureaucracy and power can create beauty, function and opportunity while also serving as a reminder of the casual cruelty of racism, classism and rank arrogance. “Down the Line,” by Bayard Rustin, written by the man who helped design and execute the March on Washington and so much of the architecture of the civil rights movement, is a meditation on leadership and vision and how to sublimate your personal ambitions to a larger objective. “Prophet of Innovation,” by Thomas K. McGraw, which is the biography of a conservative economist who grappled with the cycles of progress and destruction in our economy, an ever-present challenge for anyone who wants to be effective in politics.
NYT column (5/8/21): “Was Nazi Germany Defeated or Liberated? Germans Can’t Decide.” by James Angelos But the discussion of May 8 as a day of liberation, however well intentioned, does not just challenge the far-right narrative. It also muddies historical reality and could contribute exactly to what many of those who embrace it wish to avoid: a shunning of historical responsibility. At a time when living memories are disappearing, some Germans — now and in future generations — will take the talk of liberation literally, glossing over the complicity of the masses in Nazi crimes.