Week of January 18, 2021


I finished reading Nabokov’s Pnin. His prose is as captivating as I hoped and expected, without ever seeming cloying or just clever. Professor Pnin is a memorable, and memorably sad, character. He is thoroughly peculiar and yet conveys how it must have been for a Russian intellectual emigre in the America of the 1950s. I thought of Sergei Pavlovich Kryzytski, my beloved Russian Professor at Oberlin. Though not as odd a character as Pnin, Prof. Kryzytski always had that wistful aura of someone perpetually a bit out of touch, or sympathy, with American life and culture. This review of Pnin in the blog Dactyl Review helped me understand that some things about the novel that I found puzzling (e.g., the elusive identity of the narrator) were indeed puzzling, and presumably (considering Nabokov) intentionally so.

New York Review of Books (NYRB): Claire Messud reflections on Alison Lurie, who died in December 2020

Lurie believed that the profound and the everyday could not be separated, in literature as in life. In her essay “Witches and Fairies: Fitzgerald to Updike,” published in these pages in 1971, she analyzed the female archetypes of fairy tales and their appearance in twentieth-century fiction, observing:

In the classic fairy tale there are four principal roles for women: the princess, the poor girl who marries the prince, the fairy godmother or wise woman, and the wicked stepmother or witch.

Over time, she herself took on the role of fairy godmother or wisewoman to those she cared about—knitting at Gilmore’s bedside when she was hospitalized with a serious illness or, as Rose remembers her, “making potholders, or sewing new elastic into the waistbands of old skirts…endlessly curious, hands always busy.”

I heard N.K. Jemisen interviewed on a podcast, and I thought she was captivating, so I decided to read The City We Became. I have read about 30 pages and will not read further. She is a bold and imaginative writer, but, as is usually the case for me with fantasy and science fiction, I cannot sustain my interest. This world is interesting enough for me and already dazzles me and far exceeds my capacity for understanding.

If I were featured in one of the NYT By the Book articles and asked about books I am embarrassed not to have read, among my likely responses would be that I am embarrassed never to have read anything by Anthony Trollope. I have always been impressed by accounts of his writing diligence and discipline and by the praise of the acuteness of his social and political observations. So, I am going to take the leap and start on Can You Forgive Her and the Palliser novels. I think it will suit my mood.

Politics and Society

From “Who Really Supports Nonviolence?” by Peter Beinart in The Beinart Notebook:
But if you see violence the way King did—as including the violence of state oppression—then the two insurrections look totally different. Throughout his presidency, Trump has reveled in government violence against people who threaten white Christian supremacy inside the United States and American supremacy overseas. He has encouraged the police to abuse suspects they arrest, tortured migrant children by separating them from their families, pardoned US marines who killed civilians in Iraq, dramatically increased the number of civilians killed by US airstrikes in Afghanistan and tried to withdraw health coverage from more than twenty million Americans. Last week, his administration designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, which will make it virtually impossible for humanitarian groups to work in the territory under Houthi control and, according to UN officials, spark “large-scale famine.”
These actions may not look as spectacular as the attack on Congress. But they are acts of unjustified violence. And when Trump’s supporters violently overran Congress earlier this month—in an effort to ensure that the candidate who won the most white Christian votes became president, not the candidate who won the most votes overall—they were pursuing the same broad agenda as Trump himself.

In The Atlantic, “Donald Trump Is Out. Are We Ready to Talk About How He Got In? by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It was popular, at the time of Donald Trump’s ascension, to stand on the thinnest of reeds in order to avoid stating the obvious. It was said that the Trump presidency was the fruit of “economic anxiety,” of trigger warnings and the push for trans rights. We were told that it was wrong to call Trump a white supremacist, because he had merely “drawn upon their themes.” One hopes that after four years of brown children in cages; of attempts to invalidate the will of Black voters in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit; of hearing Trump tell congresswomen of color to go back where they came from; of claims that Joe Biden would turn Minnesota into “a refugee camp”; of his constant invocations of “the Chinese virus,” we can now safely conclude that Trump believes in a world where white people are—or should be—on top. It is still deeply challenging for so many people to accept the reality of what has happened—that a country has been captured by the worst of its history, while millions of Americans cheered this on.

New York Times (NYT) column: “President Donald J. Trump: The End. This terrible experiment is over.” by Thomas Friedman

Folks, we just survived something really crazy awful: four years of a president without shame, backed by a party without spine, amplified by a network without integrity, each pumping out conspiracy theories without truth, brought directly to our brains by social networks without ethics — all heated up by a pandemic without mercy.

Finally, as I said, before we tear Biden apart, how about everybody give him a few months to surprise us on the upside? Give him a chance to put country before party and fulfill his oath of office.

In fact, when he is up there on the Capitol steps at noon Wednesday, taking the presidential oath to do just that, why don’t we all — you, me, your kids, your parents — take the oath with him at home:

“I do solemnly swear that I will … to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

London Review of Books (LRB): “The Bergoglio Smile: Colm Tóibín on Pope Francis

This use of apology and aura of humility that he carried with him to Rome was not something noted previously in Bergoglio, whose meekness, Vallely writes, ‘was not some natural modesty, bashfulness or self-effacement’. It was, rather, an act of will in the spirit of Jesuit self-discipline. ‘In Pope Francis humility is an intellectual stance and a religious decision. It is a virtue which his will must seek to impose on a personality which has its share of pride and a propensity to dogmatic and domineering behaviour.’ Slowly, the man who had remained silent during the dictatorship began to ‘speak out’, as Burns writes, ‘and act in defence of the common good … Bergoglio’s political as well as spiritual manifesto became that of the Beatitudes, with the poor in spirit, the merciful, those who thirst after justice, the pure in conscience and the peacemakers deserving of blessing or conversion.’

One way of reading his rise to power is to attend to his two-year-long exile in Córdoba between 1990 and 1992. As a Jesuit, Bergoglio would have been skilled in the art of introspection. He could see the ways he had failed. As a novice master and a provincial, he had not been a uniting force. He was austere, a disciplinarian, humourless. And he had neglected to confront a vicious dictatorship. It’s possible that during those two years of banishment he decided to change. What he did once he became Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires was the result of that change. And it happened to lead him to the papacy.
Another scenario is that from the very beginning, from his ordination onwards, Bergoglio sought power, that he was guilty of the very ‘careerism and the search for promotion’ that he would deplore.

But there is perhaps a third and more banal way to see Bergoglio. In this, he is simply a great conformist. His rise, in this version, is not deliberate or calculated. It happened because it was noted that he would not disrupt or act courageously and would not move against the mainstream. He was a quintessential company man.

NYRB: “Orthodoxy of the Elites: In Anne Applebaum’s book, democracy, free markets, and meritocracy all get the aerial view.” by Jackson Lears

Applebaum’s air of abstraction, her detachment from the details of life on the ground, are habits of mind that afflict Twilight of Democracy. It is a book that reveals the very malady it sets out to dissect, by showing how badly intellectuals can muck things up when they subordinate intellectual values to ideology.

She gestures toward how the clercs helped manipulate the popular longing to belong, and she acknowledges the divisive and fragmenting effect of social media. But she ignores the equally fragmenting and divisive impact of a meritocratic neoliberal ideology that implicitly tells people they are falling behind because they deserve to. And she remains persistently indifferent to material issues—the widening class divide, shrinking safety net, and stagnant wages promoted by the neoliberal commitment to austerity, as well as (in the US) the race-based carceral state that polices the shambles created by those policies.

If “American democracy is good,” as Applebaum believes, if its public figures truly aspire “to be a model among nations,” then they should be willing to grapple with the significance of their own history, including the many crimes committed in the name of American democracy. That would be a fundamental departure from the exceptionalist faith in America’s unique virtue, a heresy unthinkable to the foreign policy establishment and the intellectuals who legitimate it. Deliverance from exceptionalism is not likely to happen anytime soon, but it is crucial to keep imagining it—if only to sustain the idea of international cooperation required by climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. For American democracy to survive, its clercs are going to have to disengage from orthodoxy, stop talking only to one another, and start listening to heretics.

Watched, Scene and Heard

Three fine special exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Second Careers: Two Tributaries in African Art

Gustave Baumann: Colorful Cuts

and Bruce Davidson: Brooklyn Gang

Alex Wheatle“: the fourth in the “Small Axe” anthology of films by director Steve McQueen. This one, portraying the early life of the British writer Alex Wheatle, is excellent, as all the others in the series have been.

And Misc.

NYT obituary: “Deborah Rhode, Who Transformed the Field of Legal Ethics, Dies at 68.”
A remarkable life of a contemporary, about whom I had been unaware.

To Professor Rhode, the core issues in legal ethics were not about bar association rules, but the politics and interests behind those rules, especially those that limited who could practice law and how lawyers should go about providing services to people who could not afford them.

“Enduring satisfaction,” she writes, “is most often a byproduct of participating in worthwhile activities that do not have happiness as their primary goal. Ultimate fulfillment comes from a sense of remaining true to core ideals and principles, and of using life for something of value that outlasts it.”

I heard Krista Tippett interview the physicist Frank Wilczek on a podcast in the “On Being” series, and I found him highly engaging. I have begun reading his most recent book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. I have started several books that seek to make modern physics understandable to non-scientists with the hope of being less of a total ignoramus, and I have not yet succeeded. Perhaps this one will enable me to break that streak.

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