Wednesday, May 03, 2006
I am now more than a month overdue for the latest book diary. Somehow, the last couple of months have not been good for book reading; I've been distracted, I guess. And, on top of that, I've been bogged down with one very interesting but very dense book that I keep putting down for breaks, which, of course, slows down my reading in general.
In any event, herewith 2-month diary, covering March and April:
The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, by James Wood. If Leon Wieseltier had been born a Christian, and a better writer, less enamored of his own aphorisms, he would have been James Wood. They share so many key traits: a ravenous intellect, a keen ear, nostalgia for a religious upbringing coupled with mature atheistic convictions, and a somewhat ponderous cultivated gravitas. I far prefer to read Wood, but it is no surprise that he has found a happy home in the back of The New Republic, along with other crusading traditionalist modernist (less of a contradiction than it sounds at first glance) critics like Jed Perle. I enjoyed this book of essays very much, the thesis of which is that the development of the novel is closely linked to the crisis in religious belief that struck Western civilization in the 19th century. I enjoyed the book very much even though I found the thesis somewhat problematic, and many of the chapters - the first one on More, the essay on Chekhov, the essay on Eliot - only tangentially related to the theme while others - on Austen, on Flaubert, on Melville - were much more closely tied in.
My problem with the thesis is twofold. First, I'm not convinced that psychological realism depended for its development on a crisis in religious belief. I find convincing psychological realism in all sorts of pre-modern texts: in Gilgamesh; in much of the narrative portions of the Pentateuch and in First and Second Samuel and in Ruth and Job; I think there's psychological realism in Homer and the Greek dramatists, in Beowulf and Njal's Saga, in Dante and Chaucer. I'm not convinced that the individual is a modern invention, but rather individualism - there were individuals in Homer, but they are embedded in an objective moral reality whereas for a modern individualist moral reality is something that develops within an individual moral consciousness (with input, of course, from external reality). And individualism in fiction, while it is a modern innovation, pre-dates (and may pre-figure) the Enlightenment, first budding in Chaucer and Boccaccio and coming to full flower in Shakespeare and Cervantes. I'm suggesting that Wood has his causality backwards.
And I should point out as well that only in a minority of modern novels is the individual moral quest - the forming of the self as the consequence of moral choices - the heart of the matter. Shakespeare's characters may change, and become something different at the end than they were at the start. (So do Chaucer's before him; his Troilus and Cresyde are very modern heroes.) But in many modern novels this is not the case. Dickens' heroes don't really change. George Eliot's do - she's probably the paradigm case for this view of the novel, which makes it all the more interesting that she doesn't merit a chapter in Wood's book - but Tolstoy's don't (or when they do - as with Ivan Illych or Father Sergius - it is by two explicit contradictions of Wood's conception of a modern novel's moral center: they make direct connection with the divine, and their individual personalities vanish). It's not hard to make a long list of truly sublime modern novels in which it's more true to say that their character is their destiny, that all they do is "become what they are" rather than change as a result of the moral choices they make. I'm not even sure many of Jane Austen's characters really change in the sense of becoming something other than what they were at the start; it may be more correct to say that Elizabeth, Emma and Anne come to understand themselves, and that they adapt to the truth about their characters, than to say that they change in any fundamental way. Joyce's epiphanies may be more paradigmatically modern than the idea of an individualistic moral quest. Wood might think that this is perfectly consonant with his thesis, but I'm not sure it is.
My other problem with Wood's thesis is that his diagnosis of the novel's decay is unconvincing. In a nutshell, Wood blames Flaubert for everything that has gone wrong, because Flaubert elevated style to the top of the heirarchy of novelistic values. In the short term, this had some wonderful consequences, but in the long term it led writers in a Byzantine direction, away from reality, especially internal human reality. I don't disagree with this at all, but I do question Wood's notion that style, and aestheticism generally, is a substitute for religion. The important thing about the religion of aesthetics, it seems to me, is not that it is a religion but that it is a false religion, a variety of gnosticism in that rather than providing a convincing account of reality it evades reality in favor of a solopsistic construction. So once again, I feel like Wood has his arrow of causality backwards: it is not that we took refuge in aestheticism and style because we lost religion but that the decay of our ability to relate to reality, manifested among other places in the exaltation of style, had a deleterious impact on religion.
All of which leads to the most puzzling thing about the book: that it does not grapple with those modern authors who themselves in their work most insistently grappled with the question of religion in modernity. He has a great chapter on Melville (again, something of a paradigm case for his thesis) but he doesn't discuss either George Eliot (as mentioned) or Dostoevsky. Each is very surprising. Eliot is, after all, the other side of the coin from Melville as a paradigm case: if Melville was sailing off into the future haunted by a God in whom he could not quite believe nor quite deny, Eliot was resolutely marching forward to the same old Protestant tune fully aware that the music had stopped but determined to march on anyway - in the process, creating one of the few successful representations of precisely the self-created moral character that Wood sees as the peak of the novel's art and, not incidentally, almost completely abjuring any smack of style. Dostoevsky, meanwhile, created truly great art of explicitly religious intent, but at the cost of sacrificing precisely the realistic inwardness that Wood so values. If both of these omissions astonish, a lower level of amazement may be registered at the omission, among the roster of more contemporary eminences (Murdoch, Pynchon, DeLillo, Updike, Roth, Morrison, Barnes) a chapter on the explicitly Catholic writers of the second half of the 20th century - people like Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy. Personally, I think both Percy and O'Connor suffer from the same fundamental flaw that mars much of Dostoevsky's work, but I'd really like to know what Wood thinks, and how his opinion fits in to his overall thesis.
Reading through the above, I recognize that I sound just a little too much like Harold Bloom in my attribution of occult power to literature itself (though, for me, gnostic is a term of abuse, not of praise). Which makes me nervous given how thoroughly Wood was able to trash the old man of the castle in his recent New Republic cover story. But be that as it may: I think I'm right, but I don't want to give the impression that I was disappointed by Wood's book of essays, which I enjoyed very much and heartily recommend. In fact, I've bought his other book of essays and intend to read it this summer.
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The remaining mini-reviews of this book diary will be a bit less . . . maxi.
The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett was recommended to me by the fourteen-year-old daughter of a friend. It has been a long time since a book so reminded me of my age. This is the kind of book I would have devoured, along with its many sequels, when I was fourteen; indeed, that's about the age I was when I read its precursor, The Color of Magic, which I remember cackling to on a family car trip to who knows where. But those days are gone, gone. I wonder if I would even find The Hitchhiker's Guide funny anymore? I suspect not. On the positive side, though, Pratchett's series has not been denounced by any prominent Christian leaders, as some other fantasy novels have.
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I can't remember who recommended to me The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood by Edward Jay Epstein. The book was OK, but not especially well-written, and rather over-fond of Fellata-ish superduperlatives. Epstein does a decent job walking through the economics of the contemporary movie industry, but I left with more nagging questions than good answers. Questions like: how much did antitrust matter in establishing the primacy of home entertainment over theater entertainment, and what would happen if the consent decree separating studios from theater chains were ended? Why, if children's movies are crucial to Hollywood's success, do the studios make so few good children's movies? And how was the present value of cashflow from Disney's intellectual property affected by Sonny Bono's untimely death? Seriously, if I understood the book correctly, theatrical releases of movies are, economically, now treated by Hollywood as a form of advertising, which is an interesting thing to learn and does indeed reshape how one thinks about the industry. But I've never understood categorically why an industry should ever wind up being shaped that way - I understand why internet startups gave away their product, because they believed there was a first-mover advantage and therefore it made sense to lose money to make money. But I don't understand why movies would have to be treated like ads, and I could see how thinking of movies that way could really screw up the artistic side of things. Maybe all I'm asking, in so many words, is why there isn't more price differentiation between different kinds of movies. In any event, the book was interesting, but less fun than I thought it would be. It did have the virtue, though, of being a very rare book that guys in the office actually wanted to borrow.
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Permit me, as a Eli, my one Harvard-Yale joke. Actually, it's not really a joke; it's an authentic observation. In any event, here is the difference between people who go to Harvard and people who go to Yale. People go to Harvard because they know that they were destined, from birth, to run the world. And it behooves them, as future world-runners, to go to Harvard so they can most efficiently hobnob with the other fellows with whom they will ultimately be running the world.
By contrast, people who go to Yale know that the world isn't good enough to deserve having them to run it.
All this is by way of prologue to the question: is there anything more Harvard then writing a book about one's Harvard experiences right after graduating, as Ross Douthat did in Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class?
Douthat is a decent writer, and there are points in this book when I got really engrossed. But overall it was a bit of a disappointment. I think the reason is that Douthat tries to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of pure memoir and pop sociology, when in fact he should have aimed straight for one or the other. I suspect he chose not to write a pure memoir because to write a memoir one has to look back on one's past life from some meaningful vantage point and, frankly, graduating from Harvard is not such a point. There is no epiphany that strikes at the end of Douthat's Harvard career, and the attempt to make 9-11 into such is probably the least emotionally convincing part of the book. But Douthat didn't do the research necessary, nor does he have the distance nor the keen eye for detail necessary to do either a Tom Wolfe or a David Brooks treatment of his chosen topic.
Given that, by his own admission, he didn't work all that hard on his school work, I wish Douthat had smelled a few more of the roses, reported a bit more on what they smelled like. My memories of Yale are dominated by things like: the sort-of girlfriend who wouldn't wear footwear and moved into our stairway landing after being thrown out of the library; the Wagner nut who made her own clothes and held tea parties in her room; the chain-smoking Korean who to all appearances owned only one pair of pants and spent four years perched in the same spot in Trumbull courtyard declaiming the glories of Rommel's military career to assorted passersby - in other words, I remember the quirky, even freaky people. I also remember a whole lot of serious conversation, and a lot of awkward identity-formation that might better have been accomplished in high school. What I don't remember is relentless status-seeking, or obsession with money. Is that because Yale people are just, well, better than Harvard people? Yes, of course. But what I've been trying to figure out is: is it also because we slackers are just better than the children of the baby boomers who followed us? Or is it all about the lame crowd Ross Douthat hung with?
Seriously, though, I went into the book inclined already to agree with Douthat on most of what he had to say. I am profoundly skeptical about meritocracy, and Harvard is the capital of meritocracy in America. But the book, while I enjoyed it, left me with more questions than answers about its own conclusions; left me more skeptical than I had been about my own conclusions about the way we are training our elite.
As I've said any number of times: I am pretty frankly elitist. I think elites are the motors of history, and that no society can survive without a patriotic elite at its head. The deep question for our society is not whether we have an elite but what the relationship is between that elite (or, rather, elites; we're a very big country, and there are lots of competing tribes at the top) and the rest of our society. If nothing else, Douthat's book is a "good thing" because it is asking that question.
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The last book on my list I really shouldn't be reviewing yet, because, after two months, I still haven't finished it. It's A Savage War Of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, but I should warn anyone who decides to open it: while extremely well-written and engrossing, it is nonetheless quite a slog. It feels, sometimes, like an almost minute-by-minute account of eight years of war. And that can get tiring.
I can't do the book justice here. So I'm just going to make a few big-picture observations about the war.
First: there are no military solutions to political problems. As Horne paints the picture, France, at least during the period that Challe was running things in Algeria, basically won the war on the battlefield. Indeed, they won it twice: they defeated the urban insurrection in the Battle of Algiers and they defeated the F.L.N. throughout the country by implementing the Challe plan. It was a brutal war, but in a military sense it was winnable. But it was not winnable in a political sense because there was no political solution that was stable over the long term. The F.L.N. would have returned under another guise ten years later even if it were crushed.
Second: no conflict is an island. France could not put the F.L.N. decisively out of business without taking the war to neighboring Tunisia at a minimum, something they were not willing nor diplomatically able to do. The Algerian War was draining the treasury and the army, and Algeria was of questionable value to France anyhow. De Gaulle understood this from the beginning. He also understood how the Algerian conflict was undermining the French state. (Ironically, precisely for that reason it gave de Gaulle the unique opportunity to reshape the French state in a stabler and more functional form, but then the same forces that brought him to power nearly toppled him.)
Third: nothing is unthinkable. The French wound up acceding to every demand of the F.L.N., when demands vastly short of what was ultimately accepted were originally deemed unthinkable. Indeed, the very rhetoric of unthinkability is, I think, a sound of profound weakness.
Fourth: terrorism works, but not for the obvious reason. Terrorism is militarily pointless. It also doesn't actually terrorize; the French who lived in Algeria did not flee the country, and the total death toll never rivaled other sources of random death like auto accidents. And it isn't actually that expensive in terms of the damage done, or wasn't then (obviously spectacular 9-11 style terrorism is different in that regard). Terrorism isn't really guerilla warfare; the F.L.N. never really controlled territory, fielded a real army, did the other sorts of things that we think of guerillas as doing. No, terrorism works because it turns individuals into collectives, and one collective cannot govern another collective, politically speaking. Civilized peoples understand terrorism to mean: I have no moral boundaries. But this is not what the F.L.N. meant. They did not mean, when they killed innocent bystanders, including children, that they would happily kill all French people, or that French people were not human, lesser beings who could be killed with impunity. Rather, they meant: the French are a single entity, and we will hurt that entity where we can. They were treating the French collectively, and the French responded in kind, with a collective punitive response that included herding villagers into concentration camps, torturing large numbers of people for information, etc. This was both necessary and intended: the purpose of terrorism was to force the communities apart, to make a political solution impossible. And this is why it works, when applied in a context similar to Algeria. (By contrast, the Red terrorism of the 1970s accomplished absolutely nothing, precisely because it was applied in such a different context.)
Lessons for America in Iraq, and for Israel in Judea and Samaria, leap out of every page. But what is most clear is the overall tragic character of the conflict, the sense that, really, things could not have progressed very differently. France could not surrender until she had proved that there was no solution that would keep Algeria French. The F.L.N. could not accept anything less than their maximal demands. And that also seems true of both our war in Iraq and Israel's attempt to disengage from the Palestinians.
The depressing thing is that Horne didn't know, when he wrote the book back in the early 1970s, what the ultimate fate of Algeria would be. The patriotic elite that (brutally and viciously) led the F.L.N. to victory turned corrupt in power, and ruined the country. After thirty years of decay, the country turned to the Islamists, ushering in a civil war that cost over 100,000 lives. Algerian nationalism was almost wholly negative; the F.L.N. had no vision for how to govern Algeria, only a determination to end French rule. It's not surprising that the Islamists ultimately grew to fill this vacuum, but Islamism is only marginally less free of content. The poverty of Arab politics only deepens with time. One can hope that Iraq proves the exception to this historic rule, but that hope has to triumph over considerable experience.