Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Andrew Sean Greer, _Less_

WITTY AND LIKEABLE, but perhaps lightweight for a Pulitzer winner...? Maybe not.

Arthur Less, our main character, is a novelist who is about to turn fifty, whose publishers are taking a pass on his most recent novel, and whose lover is about to marry someone else. Teetering on the brink of a midlife crisis, he decides it is time to go around the world in eighty or so days. He cobbles together an itinerary with a variety of conferences, short-term teaching gigs, residencies, and other such writerly pursuits, and off he goes.

We are in the same territory as Rachel Cusk's Transit trilogy, but everything is in a more farcical vein. Less is a bit like Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh's Decline and Fall, someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen, and most of the novel is him riding the buffets of circumstance. Were this a Martin Amis novel (cf. The Information), Less would be satirically flayed down to his bones, but Greer is a bit more Armistead Maupin than Amis, so there is room to hope that things will work out well for Arthur Less.

And they do. I was expecting them to, but there was nonetheless a streak of ingenuity on Greer's part. The identity of the novel's first-person narrator is revealed in the final chapter, which is part of Less's happy ending, but the more interesting bit (I thought) was that narrator's unexpectedly musing on time, memory, and change, which, in conjunction with a plausible sounding anecdote about Less reading Proust, opened the novel out in a particularly thought-provoking way. A lively romp, then, but not just a lively romp.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Sy Montgomery, _The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness_

I READ THIS because (a) several friends liked it and (b) it was tipped in the acknowledgements of Brenda Shaughnessy's recent book. It's a swift and enlightening read, but I would dissent from the reviewer (quoted on the back of the paperback) who likened it to Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk. Macdonald's book often speaks to loss, frustration, need, fear, but Montgomery seems content to stay in better-lit, more familiar emotional territory.

Lots of amazing information about octopuses (octopodes?) here--their intelligence, their astonishing facility at expanding and contracting, their ability to change color and create camouflage. I had not known much of this, and Montgomery lays it out deftly.

The book often gets just chatty, though, in a way I did not enjoy. Montgomery spends quite a bit of space on her interactions with the staff and volunteers at the Boston Aquarium, where most of the book is set, but we do not ever find out very much about any one of them, so I found myself wishing I either hearing more about them or a lot less.

Similarly, Montgomery tells us a lot about some difficulties she had learning to scuba dive. Something could have been done with this, á la Macdonald, but then she gets the hang of things and dives...and I'm left to wonder, what was all that bother for? Did it need three pages?

I could have used a lot more like this:

But the ocean forces you to move more slowly, more purposefully, and yet more pliantly. By entering it, you are bathed in a grace and power you don't experience in air. To dive beneath the surface feels like entering the Earth's vast, dreaming subconscious. Submitting to its depths, its currents, its pressure, is both humbling and freeing.

A brilliant passage, no? Wouldn't you like to hear more about that? No such luck. Next sentence: "A half hour later, when my friends emerge, my ears are no better." Really, that's what you want to tell us about? Your ears?

Pankaj Mishra, _Age of Anger: A History of the Present_

MISHRA'S THESIS, BRIEFLY, is that militant Asian nationalism does not have much to do with Asian culture, nor Islamic terrorism much to do with Islam. Both are echoes of western movements that flared up most brilliantly and dangerously in the 19th century. Nothing new here, folks.

Isaiah Berlin and René Girard are mentioned by name only twice apiece, but their ideas seem to lie near the core of Mishra's argument. Berlin analyzed the birth of nationalism as a reaction to the (French and British) Enlightenment's founding assumption--that human nature was everywhere and in every age largely the same--and that assumption's corollary--that eventually everyone in the world would gravitate to a common set of social principles (in effect, become French or British). The post-Napoleonic pushback against this, first in Germany, then in Italy, Russia, Poland, Ireland, and the Balkans, revolutionized European culture and politics, and eventually redrew the map.

Nationalism, then, is not some atavistic, nativist acting out on the part of Arabs, Hindus, and the Cbinese, but essentially mimetic (here Girard comes in), the performing of a pattern of desire and behavior learned from the west. For instance, Mishra tracks down some byways of influence leading from Giuseppe Mazzini, key thinker of Italian nationalism, to influential figures in Zionist and Hindu nationalist circles.

Mishra similarly finds analogues for the young men of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the desperate, intense types we meet in the pages of Dostoevsky and Conrad, fictional analogues of the children of Bakunin who created a wave of head-of-state assassinations in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries (including our own McKinley).

A worthwhile book--Mishra is one of my favorite contemporary journalists. I kept thinking, tough, that the thesis might have been a better fit for an in-depth article in NYRB or Harper's rather than a book. Chapter 5 on the genesis of nationalism, for instance, 115 pages long (about a third of the book), goes into, much, much more detail than Mishra's argument requires.

I often had the feeling that Mishra would actually rather be writing about 19th century Europe than about Narendra Modi. But could one at this date convince Farrar Straus Giroux to publish a book on 19th century European intellectual history, by an Indian writer at that, even one as gracefully written as this one? Probably not. So Modi it is--even if Rousseau, Herzen, and Nietzsche end up getting a lot more attention.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Thomas Campbell, _Gertrude of Wyoming: or, The Pennsylvania Cottage_

HAZLITT DEVOTED HALF of a chapter in The Spirit of the Age to the poet Thomas Campbell, whom I had never even heard of, much less read, and praised him so highly ("beauty linked to beauty, like kindred flame to flame [...], the voluptuous fancy that raises and adorns the fairy fabric of thought") that I decided I had to investigate.

Campbell is mainly famous for two long poems, The Pleasures of Hope (mainly abstract-philosophical) and Gertrude of Wyoming (narrative). Hazlitt seemed more taken with the latter ("The Pleasures oF Hope alone would not have called forth these remarks from us; but there are passages in the Gertrude of Wyoming of so rare and ripe a beauty, that they challenge, as they exceed all praise'), so that's the one I chose to read. Besides, how can you say no to a poem titled "Gertrude of Wyoming"?

Published in 1809 (Campbell was 32), Gertrude is a narrative poem in three parts, with a total of 92 Spenserian stanzas. It is set in the American colonies--not in the Rockies, though, but in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.  In Part I, Gertrude's widowed father adopts a boy who was orphaned by the French and Indian wars; Gertrude is nine at the time. The boy grows up and leave, but returns about fifteen years later, in Part II, and marries Gertrude. Part Iii is set a little later yet, at the time of the Revolution, and...well, it gets tragic here. You can get an idea from the Wikipedia page on the Battle of Wyoming (also known as the "Wyoming Massacre.")

Campbell had never been to North America so far as I can tell, but his father has business dealings in Virginia (which collapsed, with great financial loss, at the time of the Revolution) and two of his brothers emigrated here. It is obvious from Campbell's notes to the poem that he had read everything he could find on the native peoples of the region. The poem walks that James Fenimore Cooper line--the native peoples the English settlers encounter are at times nature's nobility, profound and eloquent, at other times brutal and bloody. This is all seventeen years before JFC published Last of the Mohicans, though--seems like it could well have been an influence.

I did not end up sharing Hazlitt's enthusiasm for. the poem, but I enjoyed reading something he enjoyed so much. And the next time I teach Faerie Queene, I can announce, "This stanza was later used for many other narrative poems--Gertrude of Wyoming, for instance."

The other half of the chapter in which Hazlitt takes up Campbell is given to George Crabbe--not famous, but a lot more famous than Campbell--and I was struck that the lengthy passage Hazlitt quotes to illustrate Crabbe's strengths is about Peter Grimes, the fisherman whose life as recounted by Crabbe became the basis for Benjamin Britten's opera.

William Hazlitt, _The Spirit of the Age_

I SPOTTED THIS on a fellow grad student's shelves in the early 1980s--it was one of those lovely, compact Oxford World Classics, bound in dark blue--and thought, "I ought to read that." This faint resolution somehow persisted over the decades, even though I never had any particular need or occasion to honor it, and even though I actually started it at the beginnings of four or five different summers, always sputtering out a fw chapters in.

Well, this was the summer I finally read it. I hit on the tactic of reading a chapter a night, usually with a baseball game burbling quietly on the television, and it worked--I have now read The Spirit of the Age. And it is good,

Written mostly in 1824, the book collects eharacter sketches of twenty-four illustrious figures of the day, mostly men of letters--poets, philosophers, one novelist (Scott)--but also a few politicians, a couple of editors, and one fashionable divine whom Hazlitt unforgettably dismantles. No actors--surprising in the light of Hazlitt's admiration for Edmund Kean.

Hazlitt knew a few of these men well and seems to have been at last acquainted with most of them, but there is very little personal reminiscence in the essays; Hazlitt focuses on their work, their reputation, to an extent their temperament, and their contribution to the climate of the time. Even without Hazlitt dwelling on his own interactions with these people, though, the book seems steeped in his personality: his politics (reformist, anti-aristocratic), his taste (Romantic), his sensibility (a lover of language, with tendencies to hyperbole).

One would not expect Hazlitt to include many women. but it is surprising that there are not any at all. William Godwin, but no Mary Wollstonecraft? Walter Scott, but no Maria Edgeworth?

I kept thinking what a delight it would be to have a similar contemporary book from someone like the late Christopher Hitchens--I don't know who but Hitchens or the late Gore Vidal would be equal to writing a book of the same range, including (let's say) Nancy Pelosi, Jorie Graham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Dawkins, Franklin Graham, and Toni Morrison. But what a treat that would have been.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory_ (3)

AGAMBEN TACKS ON a brace of appendices. One aims to identify when Western political theory made its regrettable alliance with theology, "an error with some of the most far-reaching consequences in the history of Western political thought." Agamben pins this on Rousseau, more precisely The Social Contract, with its idea of the general will.

The other asks when "economy" began to take on more of its contemporary meaning, pulling away from the theological one. Agamben points to the Physiocrats and the Encyclopédie, but thinks the theological shadow stayed over the term for a while even so.

Here I am slack-jawed. Figuring out either point would have been a career intellectual pinnacle for most of us. For Agamben, these are appendices. "By the way...".

I am most amazed, though, by how Agamben brings poetry into the story. Glory, you will recall, co-habits with "inoperativity" ("rest" in the KJV), a realm beyond necessity. Now consider this, an addendum to 8.26:

    A model of this operation that consists in making all human and divine works inoperative is the poem. Because poetry is precisely that linguistic operation that renders language inoperative--or, in Spinoza's terms, the point at which language, which has deactivated its communicative and informative function, rests within itself, contemplates its power of saying and in this way opens itself to a new possible use. [...]

   What the poem accomplishes for the power of saying, politics and philosophy must accomplish for the power of acting. By rendering economic and biological operations inoperative, they demonstrate what the human body can do; they open it to a new, possible use.

Ready when you are, politics and philosophy.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory_ (2)

SO, IF WE designate as Kingdom the sovereign, transcendent authority, and designate as Power the executants (angels, stewards, ministers) of the will of that authority, what of Glory? Agamben's preface indicates the "relation between oikonomia and Glory" as the book's topic--the relation, that is,  "between power as government and effective management, and power as ceremonial and liturgical reality [...]".

It isn't surprising, then, that the rituals-and-regalia side of fascism eventually enters the picture.

As usual, though, Agamben does not spend much time on such relatively obvious points. Glory gets its most thorough treatment in the last and longest chapter, "The Archaeology of Glory." A swift tour of the Hebrew (kabhod) and Greek (doxa) terms that get translated as "glory" suggests that there is a "constitutive nexus" between oikonomia and Glory, particularly evident in the Gospel of John and II Corinthians. The hymns proclaiming God's glory involve "the hidden root of all aestheticisms, the need to cover and dignify what is in itself pure force and domination." Does the presumed imperative to praise God come down to "something that theology absolutely does not want to see, a nudity that must be covered by a garment of light at any cost"?

Yep. But that's not all there is to it. Perhaps not even the most important thing. We have to deal with anapausis, "inoperativity," or, as the King James Version has it, "rest." Heaven, we might say.

Glory is all about inoperativity. Which is not exactly rest, though, but an alluring possible impossibility.

That means that the center of the governmental apparatus, the threshold at which Kingdom and Government ceaselessly communicate and ceaselessly distinguish themselves from one another is, in reality, empty; it is only the Sabbath and katapausis--and, nevertheless, this inoperativity is so essential for the machine that it must at all costs be adopted and maintained at its center in the form of glory.

For humankind has no work to do and longs not to do it. "Inoperativity" is the imaginary beyond that knows no desire, no necessity, no imperatives...no bullet items, no spreadsheets, no blank forms to fill out...it is even the messiah's promise, the turning of life into the Sabbath, the Kingdom finally come. "Here," Agamben writes, "the bios coincides with the zoe without remainder."

We'll have to pick this up later.