Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Sam Lipsyte, _Hark_

OUR LEADING SATIRIST?  He may well be. Paul Beatty and George Saunders could give him a run for his money, but he's in my top three, certainly.

The title refers to the novel's central figure, Hark Morner, a self-help guru whose technique is "mental archery," a kind of mindfulness (focus on the target) plus yoga (followers do various bow poses) wrapped in a Zen/Emersonian discourse. The novel is largely from the points of view of the people around him, though, team-members and assistants from a variety of backgrounds who compete to be closer to the source while juggling the numerous and slippery elements of their private lives.

"Hark" is also an old way of saying "listen up," the cry of the prophet, and the novel repeatedly invokes religious tropes. Is Hark a messiah or a charlatan? A huckster or the real thing, whatever we suppose "real"is? The brilliant touch of the novel is that we don't exactly know, any more than those enthralled by Jesus, Muhammad, or for that matter L. Ron Hubbard knew. A lot of what Hark says at least seems profound, in the manner of Noah Eli Gordon's The Source, without our knowing whether it is as whipped-up-out-of-nothing as Gordon's brilliant pastiche. But do we ever know the difference between real and apparent profundity?

In the true satiric vein, no one in Hark is all that admirable; there is scarcely an unmixed motive to be found. Occasionally, a character seems to be getting somewhere, and a few rogue ions of integrity linger in the air after Hark exits from the narrative. Nothing is revealed, to quote his Bobness (speaking of figures who oscillate between messiah and charlatan), but Lipsyte's insight into American spirituality feels on target.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Jamel Brinkley, _A Lucky Man_

I DO NOT read enough short story collections, I told myself recently, and forthwith took steps, including reading one. Brinkley's first book, A Lucky Man was shortlisted for the National Book Award--not too shabby.

The stories are realist and basically mainstream in technique, though elegantly so. Most are about African-American characters in and around New York City, with occasional glimpses into aspects of that world I had never read about before such as J'ouvert, a holiday Brinkley renders with the hallucinatory clarity that Marcel Camus brought to the Mardi Gras scenes in Black Orpheus.

As with not a few first collections, the stories in A Lucky Man mostly look at characters in their childhood and youth; Brinkley does a particularly convincing job of catching the flavor of sibling rivalry. But the latter part of the book does an equally convincing job with characters past their prime. The title story is exactly that, about a man right on the threshold of a loss of capability and standing, and it is the most scrupulous anatomizing of that particular vulnerability I have read since William Trevor's "Access to the Children." If Brinkley is this good at telling the stories of older men now, while still a young writer, I wonder how good he is going to be in the future.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Meghan O'Gieblyn, _Interior States_

WINNER OF THE 2018 Believer magazine prize for non-fiction book, and an excellent choice. O'Gieblyn grew up in a Midwestern evangelical family. She was at the Moody Bible Institute training to be a missionary when the wheels suddenly came off her faith. A difficult period apparently followed--we don't learn much about it in this collection, but it involved lots of alcohol. The good news is that O'Gieblyn found her vocation, somehow, and turned into an excellent writer.

The excellence of the writing is reason enough to read the book, but I particularly enjoyed it because O'Gieblyn can write of middle American evangelical culture as a former insider, with sympathy, generosity, but also open-eyed clarity. This American species has been scrutinized and speculated about a great deal since the election of Trump, but far too often in a condescending, touristic, drop-in-take-notes-and-leave way. O'Gieblyn writes out of a strong blend of intimacy and critical distance, like Joan Didion writing about the Central Valley in Where I Was From. She has no illusions about what it is like out here, but we midwesterners are not just stereotypes to her--she's a bit like Thomas Frank in that way.

Her essay on Trump's appeal to evangelicals, "Exiled," is the best thing I have read on that subject--in fact, I would say it is the only really insightful piece I have read on the subject. American evangelicals (and some Catholics, and folks like Rod Dreher) have begun to see themselves as living in Babylon. How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land where gays can marry? Trump is Nebuchadnezzar, obviously not one of the Chosen People himself, but someone who might be swayed to allow space for the Chosen People  to live by their own law, if he heeds right-hand-man Daniel--that is, Mike Pence. I find this a lot more credible than thinking the evangelicals simply have not noticed or do not care that Trump is a mendacious, womanizing, vainglorious lout. But you can be all that and worse, and still be an instrument of the Lord, if you are willing to listen occasionally to Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, indeed, is your only hope.

Jill Lepore, _The Secret History of Wonder Woman_

WONDER WOMAN HERSELF does not enter this story of her origin until the last of the book's three parts, on page 181, because the book is mainly about the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, Ph.D., an only-in-America original if there ever was one. Sometimes he seems like a character who slipped out of Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance or Melville's Confidence Man.

Marston got a doctorate in psychology from Harvard in the 1920s, when the discipline was still relatively young, and was in on the development of the lie detector. Someone else, though, held the patent for the version of the device that eventually went into wide use, and Marston's academic career stumbled. He strikes me as the person who arrives with a stack of credentials and comes across as a human dynamo at a job interview, but turns out in time to be not all that competent, and who before you know it has become a genuine pain in the tush.

By the end of the 1930s, Marston had exhausted not only his academic opportunities, but some in Washington and Hollywood as well, and was not generating any income for his young and growing family...which, Lepore learned, was growing in an unconventional way, for Marston had persuaded his wife to let into the household Olive Byrne, a student with whom Marston had begun an affair at his last academic post.  Besides the three of them, there were four children, two born to Elizabeth Holloway Marston and two to Olive Byrne.

As if that were not interesting enough, Lepore also turned up the information that Olive Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the famous contraception activist. The Marston household was thus connected to the one of the more powerful currents of feminism of the time, the Greenwich Village radicalism of John Reed, the New Masses, Sacco and Vanzetti, etc. And yes, sure enough, it does turn out that Wonder Woman had an expressly feminist agenda. Marston was also, apparently, a bit into bondage, but we all have our foibles, no?

The takeaway: even though we have gotten used to thinking of American feminism as coming in waves, with interim periods in which it falls dormant, Wonder Woman goes to show that in the "trough" periods between waves American feminism does not go dormant, but goes underground, circulating secretly, occasionally erupting in a geyser in unexpected venues like comic books.

The fight for women's right hasn't come in waves, Lepore writes. Wonder Woman was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women's liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women's rights has been a river, wending.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Carl Schmitt, _Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty_, trans. George Schwab

TOGETHER, TRANSLATOR GEORGE Schwab's introduction and Tracy Strong's foreword take up about fifty pages, only about ten fewer than the text itself. First published in 1922 and then revised in 1934, Political Theology is, Schwab notes, "perhaps the piece that best serves as an introduction" to Schmitt's thought, and since Schmitt joined the Nazi party in 1933, one promptly grasps why this key text may need a contextualization almost as long as the text itself. Whatever insight a Nazi political scientist may afford, you had best handle that insight with care.

I've heard that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe led the way in the rediscovery (and reclamation, we might say) of Schmitt, but I wound up here mainly because of Giorgio Agamben. The "state of exception," a crucial concept for Agamben's Homo Sacer project, is a Schmittian one; further, in addressing "political theology" in The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben often cites not only Schmitt himself, but also Erik Peterson, a theologian contemporary with Schmitt who engaged with Schmitt's thought in a very striking essay from 1935 that I just read last month, "Monotheism as a Political Problem." Clearly it was high time I looked at this book.

The "state of exception" idea arrives early, first sentence of chapter one: "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." That is, logical as it may be to say simply that the party that gets to make the rules is that community's sovereign, the true sovereign is whoever it is that can decide to suspend the rules--that party has higher authority than the rules themselves.

Whose authority outranks that of the rule-makers? God's, people might have said once, or that of the church, which speaks for God. Not these days, though, a history I have been learning about as I attempt to scale the mountain that is Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Nonetheless, insofar as a society acknowledges and obeys an authority higher even than the authority of the rule-makers, it is trafficking in theology, even if there are no overt evocations of God. Hence the short book's other grenade, in the opening of chapter three:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development--in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver--but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.

That is, our secularization was not a thoroughgoing top-to-bottom new building, but a remodeling of the powerful structure that was already there. One consequence would be a willingness on our part to let an as-it-were god suspend, with impunity, our laws and constitution, as Hitler did.

Would we let Trump do this? A few of his supporters may see him that way, but I agree with what David Runciman wrote in the LRB just weeks after Trump's election in 2016, that the voters' "behavior too reflected their basic trust in the political system with which they were ostensibly so disgusted, because they believed it was capable of protecting them from the consequences of their choice." That is, folks voted for Trump to send a message of disgust with Washington, but do not actually want him to be sovereign, and are counting on Washington to make sure he doesn't become one. This all goes for Boris Johnson as well, of course.

Theologized politics also gives us an elect and a preterite--and we know how that is working out, do we not?