Which isn’t to say that issue of The New Republic had only one noteworthy item – far from it! I confess, I was worried after the first issue of the redesign. I knew TNR had been bought by a 15-year-old Internet gazillionaire, and I naturally assumed that could never be a good thing. I envisioned the unmitigated disaster that usually befalls a Grand Old Dame of the Penny Press when the Powers of of Evil try to force her to become topical. Suddenly, pale little toadstool-snippets of commentary on last-minute news events begin supplanting the reasoned matter at the front of the magazine, and (slightly) longer but still buzz-heavy topical pieces begin filling up the back (pieces in which “What the fuck?” is considered intelligent commentary; pieces in which flash-in-the-pan TV shows are treated as cultural barometers by idiots with paying deadlines; pieces whose subtext is all too often “The War on Women – Dispatch #2,477″). My worry was especially pointed in this case, since the back-half of TNR has for so long been a carefully-tended garden of delight.
But I needn’t have worried: this issue of 25 February (the one with the blank cover, which, it turns out, is supposed to be a clever comment on the fact that most Republicans are white)(John Byrne once got himself fired from Marvel Comics for that kind of cleverness, but I guess times change) has as powerful and talented a rear end as Tom Brady in-season.
Cass Sunstein lets rip a fun little tirade against the moronic catch-phrase “it is what it is,” which of course made me happy, since I hate that catch-phrase too. I’ll always remember the look of shocked outrage on the local gas-bag’s face when he sagely sighed “It is what it is” (about the U.S. use of killer drones, no less) and I just as casually said, “So you’re commenting that something exists, and you want that to be considered profound? That’s pretty stupid, isn’t it?” Reading Sunstein’s rant also made me glad I’d never written such a rant myself, unfortunately: it gets a little old a little fast, however entertainingly done.
Speaking of entertaining: the great historian Alan Taylor (if you haven’t read his American Colonies, you should correct that oversight) turns in a long, detailed review of the latest work by another great historian, Bernard Bailyn. Taylor takes a hard look at Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years (about pre-Revolution America’s violent birth-pangs) and, in a move that gave me a jolt of hope, finds much of it wanting, especially along the heading of the apparently now-discredited “American Exceptionalism” – hope not because I agree (there’s never in the history of the world been a nation anything like the United States, so I’m OK with a doctrine of exceptionalism) but because spirited disagreement between two titans is rapturously good for the entire Republic of Letters.
The disagreement-bait piece of the issue, however, is certainly Adam Kirsch’s great, cantankerous take-down of the current crop of quipping humorists being marketed as “essayists.” Kirsch singles out David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, and David Rothbart, but he could easily have quadrupled that number, starting with the arch-fraud Dave Eggers and moving outward in concentric circles) and rightly contends that the traditional essay form pioneered by the likes of Bacon and Montaigne has been cheapened by these Punch-style comedy routines. I mentally cheered at virtually every word (my reservation came only from what I now see as a standard industry blind spot: Kirsch never seems to consider the possibility that serious, traditional essays might be thriving online).
But my cheering reached its peak – measured, of course, in enthusiastic underlining and annotating – with Adam Thirwell’s absolutely incredible piece on Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry has naturally always eluded me but whose strange, pathetic life now fascinates me, thanks to Thirwell. This piece is so full of great, quotable chunks that it feels slightly dishonest to single one out, but this is my favorite:
He was institutionally infantilized by choice. What else, I suppose, is an enfant terrible? Baudelaire, could have done the bourgeois thing, and found himself a job; or still done the bohemian thing but lived within his means. But he was intent on a larger experiment. There was a grandeur to his double decision: to live by his writing, but in a state of extravagant debt. He cultivated humiliation as a way of life – so often begging for money, so often letting it be known that if the sum he asked for couldn’t be given, he would accept anything, “any sum WHATEVER.”
And as surreal a development as it is for me to enjoy anything connected with Baudelaire, I can top it with something even more surreal from this same issue! In an interview with Dwight Garner, the mighty – and mightily prolific – Clive James says, “It hurts everyone’s reputation to write too much.”