There were annoying things to wade through in the Penny Press this week, but I knew ahead of time what a glowing prize awaited me at the end, so I waded with a smile on my face!

Unfair to say ‘wading’ was involved in reading the wonderfully-written Vanity Fair piece by Michael Joseph Gross on Internet piracy, privacy, and a whole cluster of similar topics that will involve all of us at some point in the very near future. Gross’ article was just the smooth, intelligent read I’ve come to expect from this writer, although annoyances did manage to surface around the edges of his subject, like when one of his sources was talking about encryption security for popular websites:

Even so, the most influential Web sites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, balked at adapting to the new reality they’d helped bring into existence. No communications on any of those sites were fully encrypted yet. Without mockery [former hacker Jeff] Moss recites their arguments in a plain tone, strained only by mild weariness: “It’s too expensive. We never designed it to be all encrypted. And, you know the Net is not a private place anyway. It’s not really our problem.” His response, in the same tone, is that, since these corporations built their empires by encouraging everybody to share everything, they have a responsibility to provide security.

Needless to say (or maybe it isn’t), that last line is mighty annoying – and a good, quick indicator of some of the worst ways the Internet has changed society, blurring the line between professional obligation and personal responsibility with the end goal in mind of absolving idiots of the consequences of their own behavior. If a young couple in White Plains is scraping by with two jobs, living in their four-room apartment and never having any more than $300 in the bank, and they take it into their heads to believe some bank’s promises that they can, after all, afford a house … if that young couple, knowing their own finances to the last penny and, presumably, knowing the difference between daydreams and reality, decides to take on the mortgage for that house anyway, that young couple deserves everything that happens to them. They don’t deserve a federally-funded bailout; they don’t deserve immunity from prosecution when they have to abandon that mortgage, and they most certainly don’t deserve victim-status on the evening news.

Likewise the last line of that quote. Those enormous Internet sites that ‘encourage’ people to share everything about themselves have absolutely zero responsibility to provide encrypted security for the people who decide to do just that, and it’s a sign of our infantilizing times that anybody would thing otherwise. I know dozens of young people who post every single thing they do and think on Facebook in real-time as they do it and think it; the concept of privacy seems literally inconceivable to them. Which is fine, I guess, and may be the world they’re choosing to live in – but if you make that choice, you can’t then cry foul if it backfires. If you jump into a big river, you can’t blame it if you end up drowning.

So I guess it could be said that I have nobody but myself to blame that I intentionally jumped into Lewis Lapham’s cover essay in the new Harper’s on the dangers of Americans forgetting their history. I knew going in that Lapham can be a windbag of the first order, and I knew going in that such a subject – how kids these days just don’t know nothing, and how egghead academics aren’t helping matters – was guaranteed to bring out the worst in this writer. But I read “Ignorance of Things Past” anyway, so I guess I deserve the frustration that comes from reading Colonel Blimp nonsense like this:

Not being a scholar affiliated with a tenure track, I don’t much care whether the mise en scene is Athens in the fourth century B.C., Paris in the 1740s, or Moscow in the winter of 1905. I look for an understanding of the human predicament, to discover or re-discover how it is with man, who he is and how it is between him and other men. To consult the record in books both ancient and modern is to come across every vice, virtue, motive, behavior, obsession, consequence, joy, and sorrow to be met with on the roads across the frontiers of the millennia. What survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality.

No use pointing out the shrieking irony of such a passage (and the piece is one big crazy-quilt of such passages), I suppose – how the relentless New Age-y abstracting of history into moralizing sermons like this one about ‘the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality’ (or whatever) is exactly why so many Americans know nothing about history, how the knee-jerk equating of detailed knowledge with tenure-track academia is absolutely lethal to the study of anything (and, despite Lapham’s probable protestations, is the most toxic legacy of the George W. Bush interregnum), how claiming you care about history too much to be concerned with the actual facts of history is pretty much fatuous beyond belief … etc. No, no use pointing out any of that – I just hiked up my waders and made it to the opposite shore, to the two glories of the week’s Penny Press … in, of all places, The Atlantic, which I’d only just recently anathematized here at Stevereads (although there was a curious and brilliant piece in that Harper’s – “Byzantium” by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, something I’ll want to re-read a few times before I’m even 100 % certain I understand everything the author was trying to do).

And the added irony? I don’t agree with either of the pieces I so loved and am so praising! First up was the great B. R. Myers reviewing not only Chad Harbach’s much-praised debut novel The Art of Fielding but also diagnosing the very culture of the current book-world that feels compelled to position one or two ‘it’ novels every season for compulsory consumption by party-going literary hipster elite. Myers rightly scorns that self-appointed elite, and it’s certainly a pleasure to watch him scorn some of its past honorees. And he’s right that The Art of Fielding was positioned as just such a book last year (and he’s right that “aren’t we great?” article about it in Vanity Fair didn’t help things any). And it’s great to listen to him fulminate, since virtually nobody does it better:

Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writing too little. Sometimes the only ay to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison.

The only thing he’s wrong about is The Art of Fielding itself! He’s so incensed by the machinery surrounding the novel (although he kindly exempts Harbach himself from having much of a hand in that machinery) that it tends to burr his sensitivity to the gigantic merits of the novel at the center of that machinery. He’s certainly wrong to equate it with a self-regarding pile of dredge like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. And he might even be wrong in his implication that all book-reviewers are name-dropping lemmings incapable of finding even an ‘it’ novel genuinely good, or genuinely great. Some of the people who praised The Art of Fielding so much last year wouldn’t be caught dead at a cocktail party, after all.

The opposite problem cropped up in the issue’s other powerhouse offering: Clive James wrote a gorgeous, rambunctious piece lauding the living daylights out of Dwight Macdonald, not only for the new reprint of Masscult and Midcult but for every bloomin’ word he wrote:

A supreme author of critically gifted prose, Macdonald at his dazzling best was just as open: anything produced by anyone, he would examine for its true quality. That’s what a cultural critic must do, and there are no shortcuts through theory. But deep down he knew that, or he would never have bothered to coin a phrase. Back again because they never really went away, Dwight Macdonald’s essays are a reminder that while very little critical prose is poetic, great critical prose always is: you want to say it aloud, because it fills the mouth as it fills the mind.

This is just as awkward as disagreeing with Myers! I’ve avoided jumping on the Macdonald bandwagon this time around specifically because I’ve always thought his prose was overrated (I read this reprint just recently, and I still think so), and here’s one of my favorite living critics singing hymns of that very praise!

Still, even such unwanted deviations aren’t enough to dim the pleasure of finding two such pieces back to back in a periodical I’d only just recently dismissed as all but intellectually irrelevant (“what the fuck?“) – it was a very pleasant surprise, in light of which I’m prepared to take the high road and forgive both Myers and James. This time.


  • Jeffrey Jones

    The segment of Lewis Lapham’s essay you quoted appeared to mean to me that he pursued a knowledge of history for reasons other than that of a pure academic due to his temperament and background (that is made clear earlier in the essay). Lapham then expands on what his most important insights from history are and that an extremely detailed knowledge of scholarly detail was not required by him to obtain those insights. I don’t recall him suggesting that we cannot gain other benefits from historical knowledge nor that you must approach an exploration of history in his way. That passage, read in the context of the entire article, is fairly straightforward. I do think that Mr. Lapham’s use of an extensive vocabulary and complex sentence structure as well as the development of a theme over many pages is not a la mode these days but that does not does not equate to a “windbag of the first order” for me. I find his style to be unusual and more challenging than most but almost always substantive and worthwhile whether or not I agree with him.

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