Posts from February 2016
February 11th, 2016
The latest issue of Vanity Fair had an amusing little one-page squib that managed to provoke in me an old and often-provoked reaction. The piece, called “Unsung Superheroes,” is written by Scott Jacobson, Mike Sacks, and Ted Travelstead (don’t ask me why – the thing is 300 not particularly taxing words long; I have no idea why it required even one credited stoned author, let alone three credited stoned authors), with an accompanying illustration by the great Zohar Lazar, and it presents readers with a lineup of D-rate superheroes to complement the A-list teams those readers have been seeing in movie theaters for a decade now.
There are characters like “The Bean Counter,” “Pop-Uppity,” “Mud-Slinger,” and, a hero who could have come in handy elsewhere in this issue, “Grammar Girl”:
Swoops in to save the day whenever frightened townsfolk desperately need to know who vs whom, that vs which, and just plain right vs wrong. Her modifiers never dangle and her voice is never passive. She has just the right effect. Or affect. She’ll tell you.
And why, you might ask, would a space-filling trifle such as this provoke any kind of reaction in me? Well, it’s a long story – nearly 25 years long, in fact – and I feel this same reaction whenever I see a D-list team of losers trotted out into the spotlight: I flash back to 1993.
Specifically, to Legion of Super-Heroes #49, written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum and drawn by Stuart Immonen. In that issue, stalwart Legionnaire Tenzil Kem, code-named Matter-Eater Lad (that’s his superpower, for those of you not up on your bits of Legion lore: he can eat anything), is on the planet Tartarus and preparing to face the dictator Evillo with a hastily-recruited band of local D-list superheroes, including Policy Pam, whose superpower is the ability to sell insurance to anybody, at any time, Echo-Chamber Chet, who loudly echoes everything that’s said to him, and my personal favorite, Spaceopoly Lad, who’s superpower is the ability to finish every game of Spaceopoly he starts.
And what reaction does all this provoke in me, you might ask? Not nostalgia, surprisingly – back in 1993, DC Comics still had sense enough to publish new Legion of Super-Heroes comics every month, something they haven’t done now in three long years. So you might be expecting the chain of associations to go something like this: Vanity Fair‘s “Unsung Superheroes” – Legion of Super-Heroes #49 – bring back the Legion!
But no – not only do I think for a second that there’s any chance of such a thing happening, but I’m not sure I’d want it to happen in the current DC continuity. No, my reaction is a far more straightforward capitalist whining: how the sprock can a quarter-century have elapsed without DC Comics dusting off and reprinting the entirety of the Keith Giffen-T&M Bierbaum era of the title, one of the best runs in the team’s entire 50-year history? Why are readers wanting to experience that run forced to grub through the single-issue boxes in the basement of their local Android’s Dungeon? Nice solid deluxe reprint volumes of these issues would sell – and they’d introduce a whole new generation of readers to the glories of one of comicdom’s grandest traditions.
All that from Pop-Uppity! Who can explain it?
January 20th, 2016
It was a bit of a thready swallow, working my way past the smug cover photo of Fox News shill Megyn Kelly in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, but I was certainly glad I did, since the issue itself was chock-full of murder, celebrities, and murdered celebrities, plus great photos, grotesque real estate ads, and, in this issue, two short opening pieces of interest.
The first was James Wolcott’s smart, amusing “Podcast Nation,” in which he writes about a phenomenon I myself haven’t fully figured out yet: podcasts and what they’re all about – who they appeal to. I’ve listened to a smattering of podcasts in the last few years and completely failing to see the appeal, so I read Wolcott’s random musings here with extra interest, including the sweeping characterizations that are the sure-fire sign of a hack padding out a word-count:
Podcasts are essentially radio on the installment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind. As commercial radio trashed itself with so many commercials, demographic narrowing (in many markets, pitching to Aging Angry White Male), and the incessant pandering of the religious/right-win tom-tom drums, podcasts redeemed the medium by restoring its lost creative promise.
More interesting and far more alarming was Michael Kinsley’s short piece “The Unbearable Silence of P. C.,” about the rampant censorship of the so-called “progressive Left” in the US and UK. Kinsley is specifically worked up about British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was driven out of his job and publicly ruined for jokes he made about women in the science lab, but to put it mildly, the problem exists in America too, where college undergraduate babies can scream in the face of their deans and professors (and where one of those instructors can in turn call for a mob to attack a reporter and not be arrested for it). I thought one bit of Kinsley’s piece was especially on-point, about how the greater danger isn’t the infringement of a legal protection of free speech but rather the more nebulous (but not less intentional) dampening of the whole societal expectation of free speech:
The First Amendment is nice to have if you find yourself arguing for free expression in a case before the Supreme Court. And that’s no small thing. But the Constitution isn’t the most important guarantee of free speech for the average citizen in ordinary circumstances. More important is a culture of free expression, where people are encouraged to say what they think, where eccentricity of all kinds is tolerated or even appreciated, and where Voltaire’s aphorism is baked into everyday life.
It’s not often that I agree with Michael Kinsley about anything (in fact, his 2015 “plagiarism – meh, no big deal” piece was one of the most corrupt and idiotic pieces Vanity Fair has ever run), but in this I think he’s exactly right: First Amendment or no First Amendment, if people start to think that they can’t speak freely, their right to do so won’t mean much. Kinsley’s piece prompted me yet again to thank whatever gods may be that I spend no time in academia.
August 18th, 2015
After a solid week of Penguin Classics, what better palate-cleanser could there be than a sojourn through the Fall Fashion issues of the glossy magazines? It’s a way to run a quick finger down the ‘content’-xylophone from the deeper notes of Longfellow and Dostoevsky to, well, to the very, very strange world of fashion.
Almost all the big square-bound glossies indulge in a Fashion issue at least once a year, doubling their page-length with very lucrative ads from all the biggest designer houses, and usually I avoid these issues like the proverbial plague, mainly because the editors of these issues tend to shelve any serious freelance articles they may have on the docket until later issues, figuring, no doubt, that a probing expose on Salvadoran torture gangs doesn’t exactly mesh well with the latest runway exotica from Paris and Milan.
I go to these magazines for those serious freelance articles, naturally, but I confess, I always feel a touch of interest in these elaborate fashion digressions, and for the least likely reason: oddly enough, I’ve known a few professional male models in my life, including one who, when he was in the business, was, you could say, fairly prominent. And from these three young men I’ve heard many war-stories from that business, fascinating stories and fascinating theorizing about what high-fashion bizarrities really are. One of these young men offhandedly told me that the weird, other-worldly stuff paraded down the high-profile runways aren’t, of course, meant to be worn in daily life but are instead “what poor people will be imitating in ten years” (what can I say? One of these three young men was a bit of a douche). Another said the big fashion shows are meant only as “comic book versions” of the designers’ actual aesthetic vision. All three told tales of clouds of tobacco, rivers of hard liquor, and discreet piles of cocaine (and, incidentally, daily eating habits that even I would consider indulgently bad), as well as horror stories of megalomaniacal show-runners and designers treating models like herd animals. I believe there were a couple of mentions of sex as well.
The fashion issue of Details gives a mighty snapshot of that world on its cover, which features 31 of the top male models working today, and the Details crew devotes their efforts 100 % to their subject – the issue has virtually no editorial content whatsoever (not that it’s ever exactly War and Peace), just display after display of preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.
The fashion issue of Esquire is a slightly more substantial affair. It has a profile of arrogant young actor Miles Teller (profiled before the box office performance of his starring vehicle, Fantastic Four, gave him a bit less cause for arrogance), an interview with Keith Richards by the redoubtable Scott Raab, and a short but meaty review by Richard Dorment of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. But the issue is nevertheless crammed full of the aforementioned preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.
And then there’s the fashion issue of Vanity Fair, a big fat thing which has a very interesting article about Chelsea Clinton by Evgenia Peretz and a hilariously appalling piece by Nancy Jo Sales on the ‘culture’ of Tindr – but which is mostly just one fashion display after another. And turning through those slick pages, one after another, looking at all these impossible-looking people draped in these impossible-looking clothes, I was struck by two things: the egregious fragility of the fashion items – you can tell just by looking at these things, from the handbags to the sweaters to the blouses, that they’re not constructed to survive even ten uses – and also, secondarily, almost incidentally, their obscene expense. The Salvatore Ferragamo scarf? $450. The Marcelo Burlon shirt? $279 – and the matching poncho? $638. The Bottega Veneta polka-dot dress? $2400. The Haute Dogs lip glosses? $50 per color. The grotesque red Gucci bag? $2980
These figures are only fractions of the price tags you find in the men’s “gear” magazines, where $10,000 wristwatches are not uncommon, but they’re still mighty depressing. The pictures are gaudy and weird and eye-catching, but its depressing to think there are people in the world who’ll pay $3000 for a flimsy shoulder bag that would fall apart if it were asked to carry, say, ten books – not to mention the fact that $3000 would buy you 3000 $1 books at the Brattle bargain carts.
The people who are the actual customers for the kinds of clothing in these fashion magazines are the people I sometimes see at the Brattle sale lot – glancing at it in blank, uncomprehending disinterest before passing on without a second thought. It’s a shame – but at least I managed to hook all three of those former model-boys in reading for pleasure! And we’ll get back to that very thing tomorrow, now that we’re done with the camera-flashes and the runways.
July 15th, 2015
The Penny Press this week featured a long article on a remorseless natural disaster, something that strikes without warning, wantonly destroys property, and inflicts untold pain and misery on humans around the world.
I refer, of course, to corgis.
Specifically, to a wonderfully wonky article in the latest Vanity Fair by Michael Joseph Gross about the many seething, boiling crowds of corgis Queen Elizabeth II has overseen for the last fifty years, with whom she’s been photographed innumerable times, and who’ve caused many a statesman, both foreign and domestic, to curse fair Albion after having a wayward ankle mauled. Gross’ article quotes many corgi enthusiasts about how spirited and frolicsome the little dears are (one interviewee is willing to concede that they can be “a bit naughty”), but at no point does anybody use the word “monsters.” Noblesse oblige, no doubt.
Nevertheless, and I say this as somebody with the most vested of all vested interests, the breed is rotten. Not Dalmation-level rotten, nothing nuclear like that, but still: calling corgis “a bit naughty” is like calling Donald Trump “a bit dim.” These are dogs who savagely attack their own litter-mates when jockeying for position at the food-bowl; these are dogs who listen carefully to human instructions and them pointedly ignore them; these are dogs who never waste an opportunity to make a pain of themselves. These traits are common in squat, tubby breeds with short legs (dachshunds, for instance, or a certain other breed which shall remain nameless), but they’re virtually weaponized in corgis.
Nevertheless, as Gross makes clear, the little monsters serve a much-valued function for this particular owner:
The corgis are more than symbols, though. In a life ruled by protocol, they provide an easy way for the Queen to break the ice with strangers. In what can be an isolating position, she gets from them unlimited amounts of love and physical affection, uncompromised by the knowledge that she is the monarch. Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself and leads them on daily walks, which also serve as a kind of therapy. Her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has referred to this form of therapy as his wife’s “dog mechanism.”
One dog breeder recalls a visit from a young Queen keen on inspecting a new litter, and the point is emphasized:
“We sat on the floor and talked about corgis. There’s a litter of puppies crawling around on our hands and knees and we’re sitting on the floor being tramped on and chewed and bitten. Puppies don’t care who it is, me or the Queen of England. They don’t care. They can chew bits of anybody.”
To which is should be strongly added: corgis don’t care. Corgis can chew bits of anybody. Not all puppies behave in such a way, and even those who do usually grow out of it.
One of the more melancholy points of Gross’ piece is that Queen Elizabeth appears to be as thoroughly responsible a person when it comes to dog ownership as she is when it comes to everything else; recognizing the fact that she herself is getting too old to manage crowds of headstrong, ankle-tangling dogs, she’s been steadily scaling back the size of her menagerie. All too soon, the article implies, the threat of corgis will no longer be present in all the royal haunts of Britain.
Just this opposite of this kind of impending relief applies in the week’s other disaster story, the piece Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker about the Cascadia subduction zone (read: massive fault line) that runs for several hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from California’s Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. This New Yorker issue sports an absolute gem of a bright, happy summer cover by the great J. J. Sempe, but on the issue’s Table of Contents, Schulz is in full catastrophe mode about the mega-earthquake-tsunami that’s long overdue to erupt from the Cascadia zone:
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
“Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable,” Schulz writes. “The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.” And she lays out the stark impossibility of the West Coast population being able to do that: the evacuation routes aren’t posted, the emergency relief plans aren’t in place, and public awareness of the potential danger is nonexistent. Basically, if the “Big One” Schulz describes ever actually happens, millions of people might die, and that whole stretch of North America would become a disaster area that would take many years to make habitable again.
Which is very nearly as bad as corgis, when you think about it.
December 6th, 2014
The roll call of periodicals I read was grimly undiminished in 2014. The list – currently National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Outside, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, Publisher’s Weekly, Harper’s, The Rolling Stone, Audubon, The Atlantic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The National Review, The New Republic, The Boston Review, The Nation, Smithsonian, Yankee Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Natural History, The Journal of Roman Studies, and of course the mighty TLS – is fairly long, and so the pool of candidates for the list is correspondingly huge. And inevitably, the more one reads (and the more Twitter-links one follows), the more one comes to realize how much other good stuff is almost certainly slipping by unread. This list, unlike the others in this annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung, is constructed in the full awareness that it’s only a rough approximation. That’s irksome, and in response I’ll be including a bit more than my customary ten items this time around:
18. The Teen Whisperer by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker) – Naturally, I’m as appalled by the limitless super-phenomenon of YA author John Green as any other thinking adult. I shudder to think that this smiling, affable purveyor of fairly ordinary two-dimensional overwritten children’s books is the most influential and best-selling author in the history of mankind, with a vast cult of millions of tweens who would unhesitatingly garotte their grandmothers if he or his brother Hank so much as suggested it. But appalled or not, I couldn’t help but love Margaret Talbot’s shrewd – if droolingly hagiographic – profile of John Green, including her insights into how reading itself has changed for Green’s numberless fans:
In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.
17. 21st Century Limited by Kevin Baker (The Atlantic) – Any profile of the American long-distance passenger rail system is bound to be heavily steeped in nostalgia, and this is certainly true of Kevin Baker’s lovely piece in the Atlantic. But Baker balances things out with some very good observations about the nature of the allure here:
“The romance of it!” But just what this means, they cannot really say. It’s tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. But hang seen a rural train emerge silently through a gap in the New England woods, having seen the long slide of a 1 train’s headlights, I suspect that the appeal of trains is something more primitive than this. Trains are huge things that come upon us like predators. Almost from the beginning of the machine age, Americans yearned and sought ways for the train to connect their little towns – to connect them – to the greater world.
16. The War of the Words by Keith Gessen (Vanity Fair) – The story of Amazon v.s. the book world is far from over, but one of the best reports from the front lines was this smart and surprisingly funny piece by Keith Gessen from Vanity Fair, where for once Gessen’s tendency to make every single thing that happens in the world about himself actually works in favor of the performance, since he’s both a piece-writer for the glossies and a published author himself and thus vested in the whole question. And maybe as a result of this, he manages to fill his piece with great quotes and apercus:
Inside and outside of publishing, people disagree about how the business will shake out. “Book publishers had the longest time horizon to prepare for the digital transition,” the industry lawyer told me, “and they were the least prepared.” From Amazon’s perspective, demographics is destiny: people who read print are dying, while digital natives are being born.
15. Snowden in Exile by Katrina Vanden Heuvel & Stephen F. Cohen (The Nation) – Until I read this long interview with Edward Snowden in The Nation, I had very firm opinions about the guy, and they weren’t favorable by any means. Somehow, through the shrewdness and comprehensiveness of the questions and discussions provided by Vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, this piece brought me to a new understanding, mainly, I think, by allowing Snowden to do so much of the talking himself:
“When people say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ what they’re saying is, ‘My rights don’t matter.’ Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen – that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, ‘I don’t need them in this context’ or ‘I can’t understand this,’ they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights.”
14. The Human Factor by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair) – It’s well-known – hell, I’ve been saying it for years – that William Langewiesche is the Homer of air travel, and this brilliant piece in Vanity Fair, about the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, is this great author at the height of his powers:
There is another unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly: anyone can take you up on the offer. Beyond the degradation of basic skills of people who may once have been competent pilots, the fourth-generation jets have enabled people who probably never had the skills to begin with and should not have been in the cockpit. As a result, the mental makeup of airline pilots has changed.
13. The Dogmatist by John Gray (The New Republic) – I might have little patience with John Gray as a philosopher, but I have a new respect for him as a book reviewer after this New Republic piece savaging not only the new memoir by Richard Dawkins but also Richard Dawkins himself, and in such virtuoso terms that I almost felt sorry for Dawkins:
One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation – a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a mind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted prose of indignant rationality merely laughable.
12. What To Call Her? by Jenny Diski (The London Review of Books) – It seems almost blasphemous to cite this piece by Jenny Diski from The London Review of Books about her experiences when she was a girl living in the household of Doris Lessing instead of any of her incredibly moving essays about her recent ongoing struggle with cancer, but I can’t help it: this piece is such a perfect balance of tender and bittersweet that it got my vote:
As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering cliches when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all.
11. Dead End on Silk Road by David Kushner (Rolling Stone) – In beautifully controlled prose and scrupulous reporting, David Kushner in this Rolling Stone piece tells the harrowing story of the “Silk Road,” a backstage illicit shadow-Internet of crime, and of Ross Ulbricht, who for years oversaw the Silk Road as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” profiteering enormously and casually ordering the deaths of buyers and sellers who crossed him, until finally the Feds caught up with him. Kushner sifts through the evidentiary record and unfailingly sniffs out the best bits:
Though DPR was careful to keep a distance from his customers, he occasionally lifted the veil slightly – after Green helped the seller unload a kilo of coke to a buyer for $27,000 worth of Bitcoins, DPR reached out to him. “Congrats on the sale,” DPR wrote, initiating an exchange in which he later referenced his girlfriend. Curious about how DPR managed his double life, the seller asked, “Does she know who you are? … Dread, I mean.”
“No way,” DPR replied. “Maybe never.”
“How can you hide that from her? I have to guess that [you are] spending at least 10 to 12 hours a day on SR.”
“I’ve become good at hiding,” DPR replied.
10. This Old Man by Roger Angell (The New Yorker) – Legendary writer Roger Angell’s piece in The New Yorker this year about being 90 was remarkable not only for its unsparing clarity but also for its ideological flexibility. Readers over a certain age will find themselves nodding at every one of his sudden-seeming realizations:
My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my lists is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
9. Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’ by T. J. Clark (TLS) – The mighty TLS is seldom represented in this year-end list, mainly because the journal concentrates so heavily on task-specific book reviews that don’t lend themselves to stand-alone virtuoso writing. This extremely thought-provoking piece by T. J. Clark about the great Veronese was the first of two happy exceptions this year:
Veronese has a Shakespearean ability to use the sensuous and structural qualities of his medium – the exact disposition of light, space, colour and figure within the picture rectangle – to make standard materials mutate. And surely the main task of art history is to give an account of how ‘As would be expected …’ is no answer.
8. The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written by Frank Rich (New York) – As a matter of course, I try never to miss anything that Frank Rich writes, and since I’m already a big fan of Moss Hart’s Act One, I read this long appreciation of the book with avid interest – and I wasn’t disappointed:
What lifts Act One above other riveting backstage sagas and rags-to-riches success stories is the loneliness and sadness the hero has to overcome. “I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child,” Hart writes early in the book, no doubt knowing full well that his theory is valid.
7. In the Egosphere by Adam Mars-Jones (The London Review of Books) – This epic-length and very polite career-evisceration of Philip Roth by the brilliant Adam Mars-Jones is electrifying from start to finish, even for somebody like me, who’s been eviscerating Roth’s writings for thirty years. Mars-Jones’s piece is full of great quotes (“Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed chronic mistrust of rugs,” and many other examples) and also a delightful number of challenging broader pronouncements:
Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship.
6. Blood on the Sand by Matthew Power (Outside) – This Matthew Power piece from Outside is the hauntingly sad story of young Jairo Mora Sandoval, who spent his brief adult life protecting the great sea turtles who beach themselves on the sands of Costa Rica in order to lay their eggs. Sandoval was killed by bandit egg-poachers, and Power’s piece makes no bones about his heroic status:
Just a few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Wildcast’s pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing. When Lizano saw Fernanda at Mora’s funeral, she asked for her forgiveness.
“Sweetie,” Fernanda replied, Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing.”
And “Blood on the Sand” is doubly sad, because Power himself – as talented and friendly a young feature-writer as ever drew breath – died suddenly of heat stroke in 2014, with this and a handful of other pieces standing now as his memorials.
5. Losing Aaron by Janelle Nanos (Boston) – When Aaron Swartz hanged himself in 2013, the emotional ripples shot out in all directions (starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s ridiculous “Let us weep” tweet, but generally improving from there), and one of the most touching I’ve encountered so far was this piece by Janelle Nanos for Boston magazine about Aaron’s father Bob and his own torturous attempts to deal with the tragedy – including a quite natural layer of anger:
In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaron’s memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. “These people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the lines … but today’s MIT destroys those kinds of people,” he said.
4. Never Out of the Storm by Tim Kendall (TLS) – This gorgeous, lightning-quick piece by Tim Kendall from the TLS deals with the lyricist Ivor Gurney, a WWI veteran whose querulous, yearning regard for his own poetry (neglected even while he was still alive and certainly ever since) is nicely captured by Kendall:
Then, with his greatest work still to write, Gurney was dropped, his manuscripts returned again and again until he gave up trying. “Surely this is a good poem,” he would write in cover letters to editors, bewildered as he was by repeated rejection. Pleading got him nowhere: he never published a third volume, and died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1937, aged forty-seven, with a reputation primarily as a gifted composer who had not quite realized his potential. The poetry was all but forgotten.
3. Gombe Family Album by David Quammen (National Geographic) – The mighty National Geographic magazine fielded dozens of first-rate pieces in 2014, but the one that struck me most sharply was an interview by naturalist David Quammen with Jane Goodall about her time with the chimpanzees of Gombe … an interview during which she relates my personal favorite of her life-story anecdotes:
It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything. I shouldn’t have given them names. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds, or their feelings. Those are unique to us. Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true. And that was my dog, Rusty. You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.
2. Cage Wars by Deb Olin Unferth (Harper’s) – The subject of the factory farming of produce animals has generated quite a few articles and books in the last few years, and this piece by Deb Olin Unferth in Harper’s stands out for its fantastically readable evocation of what chickens themselves are actually like:
In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells.
And the best thing I encountered in the Penny Press in 2014:
1. The Fiction in the New Yorker – From the very first week of the year and straight on through with hardly a dud week in the year, the New Yorker has had the single greatest run of short stories in its long and venerable history. I ordinarily feel about New Yorker fiction pretty much the same as everybody else does: it’s well-done but predictable, intelligent but Upper West Side anodyne, as free of challenge as it is of outright tedium. But in 2014, that picture was radically altered; through some backstage editorial shifting or higher-caliber slush-pile interns or whatever the reason might be, the fiction in the New Yorker has all year been brightly, insistently re-energized – hell, even the artwork and layout looks to my eye to be receiving extra loving care. And the results have been electrifying: stories like “Here’s the Story” by David Gilbert, “Ba Baboon” by Thomas Pierce, “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, “Eykelboom” by Brad Watson, “Original Sins” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Last Meal at Whole Foods” by Said Sayrafiezadeh, “Motherlode” by Thomas McGuane, “The Pink House” by Rebecca Curtis, “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson, and (a personal favorite, for obvious dog-related reasons) “Madame Lazarus” by Maile Meloy – these and dozens of other stories have confidently reclaimed the whole term “New Yorker fiction.” No idea if it’ll stay this way in the new year, but in 2014 it was the best thing I read In the Penny Press.
May 14th, 2014
The 1990s came rushing back into the spotlight for me today in the Penny Press, first in the latest Vanity Fair, which had not only an entertainingly angry piece by Lili Anolik on the whole culture-altering media circus of the O. J. Simpson trial, and then a piece written by Monica Lewinsky, whose scandal with President Clinton brought the whole of the United States government to a standstill back in 1998, and finally an excerpt from Matt Berman’s new memoir about working in the 1990s on John Kennedy Jr.’s start-up magazine George. Berman’s an affable narrator, telling a familiar story of an ordinary guy unexpectedly caught up in the vortex of Kennedy fame. It’s the animating heart of Berman’s new book, JFK Jr, George & Me (as it was of Christina Haag’s far more vibrant and memorable Come to the Edge), and one of the main characteristics of that book is here in this article: the effective way Berman casts himself as something of a starstruck bumbler who’s less aware than his readers are of the significances happening all around him.
One such moment struck me, of course. Berman’s at a laid-back meeting at Kennedy’s place when Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette, starts up a conversation with Berman:
John offered me a Rolling Rock. I sat down and tried to look comfortable. Carolyn sprawled next to me, putting her arm on the back of the sofa behind my head. She stared at me with her clear blue eyes. “Matt, where did you grow up? I bet Connecticut.” I mentally examined myself, searching for clues to her comment. Was my sport coat too preppy? Did I have a bad haircut? Do I have an accent? Then I remembered that she had grown up one town away from where I had; she was from Greenwich and probably recognized the type.
It’s hard to know what ‘type’ Berman is talking about here. The Greenwich where Carolyn Bessette grew up was about as far as you can get from the working-class Connecticut whose marks Berman is here worried she spots in him; it’s impossible to tell if Berman’s at all aware of the rumors that there might have been a much more direct way for Carolyn Bessette to know about the ways of young men from working-class Connecticut. And if he does know about those rumors, you have to wonder what other things he knows but does not say in this article or in his memoir. That’s the amazing thing here: that even twenty years later, the fog machine can still be found working.
And over in The New Republic, in a short, fantastic piece called “American Plague,” Michael Hobbes writes about the greatest scourge of the early 1990s, the AIDS epidemic, which, he rightly points out, struck the United States far worse than it struck any other country:
Looking at the data on AIDS deaths, you see that the virus hit the United States early and hard. In 1982, the first year of nation-wide CDC surveillance, 451 people died of AIDS in America. Just five died in Britain. In 1985, when Germany started reporting, it had 170 AIDS deaths. The United States had almost 7000.
Hobbes looks at all the possible reasons why this disparity might exist, but you end up worrying that the real reason is the last one offered, the most terrifyingly simple one:
“At the end of the day, it’s best understood as a function of health disparities writ large,” says Chris Beyrer, the director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program. The core difference between the United States and Western Europe, he says, is that “we’re a much bigger, much more complex, and much more unjust country.”
Of course, it’s not all 1990s-retrospectives. The best thing I read today in the Penny Press was by Timothy Snyder (author of 2010’s utterly magnificent Bloodlands), a piece called “This Battle Means Everything,” also in The New Republic, that looks at the turmoil currently ratcheting up in Europe and has some extremely sobering things to say about it all:
We easily forget how fascism works: as a bright and shining alternative to the mundane duties of everyday life, as a celebration of the obviously and totally irrational against good sense and experience. Fascism features armed forces that do not look like armed forces, indifference to the laws of war in their application to people deemed inferior, the celebration of “empire” after counterproductive land grabs. Fascism means the celebration of the nude male form, the obsession with homosexuality, simultaneously criminalized and imitated. Fascism rejects liberalism and democracy as sham forms of individualism, insists on the collective will over the individual choice, and fetishizes the glorious deed. Because the deed is everything and the word is nothing, worlds are only there to make deeds possible, and then to make myths of them. Truth cannot exist, and so history is nothing more than a political resource. Hitler could speak of St. Paul as his enemy, Mussolini could summon the Roman emperors. Seventy years after the end of World War II, we forgot how appealing all this once was to Europeans, and indeed that only defeat in war discredited it.
September 13th, 2013
As impossible as it is to believe, Vanity Fair is 100 years old. And yet I must believe it, for there’s Graydon Carter telling me so in his “Editor’s Letter” opening this extra-big anniversary issue, pompously holding court as he’s done so inimitably for what feels like most of those 100 years. Carter headed the team that’s recently put together the truly spectacular book Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age, and the experience has put him in a gently woolgathering mood. He ranges his wind-baggy rhetoric over the century in question, stretching from the birth of modernism to the birth of the Internet, and he reflects wistfully on Frank Crowninshield, the man who gave the magazine its recognizable form. “A Yankee born in Paris and educated in Rome, Crowninshield – known as ‘Crownie’ to intimates – was cosmopolitan to his bones.”
Crowninshield died two years before Carter was born, but that slight bar to intimacy doesn’t stop Carter from calling him “Crownie” for the remainder of his opening remarks. Thankfully, those remarks are brief, although they’re hardly the end of the issue’s woolgathering. No: Carter has commissioned ten essays for the occasion – one writer per decade, and readers unwise enough (as I was) to read them straight through will get a very rocky start. The 2000s are covered by somebody named Bill Maher (a quick Wikipedia search reveals that he’s a TV talk show comedian, and a quick YouTube search reveals that he’s an imbecile) in what amounts to the transcript of an unconvincing Catskills stand-up routine. The 1990s fare far worse: their emcee is talentless egomaniac vanity publisher Dave Eggers, who’s very nearly Carter’s match for insinuating that a vast stretch of time’s main purpose is to sit still while he, the Great Man, reflects upon it. The 1980s – lucky in this as in all things – get Kurt Anderson, and things pick up from there: Lorne Michaels writes about the New York of the 1970s, Robert Stone about the turmoil of the 1960s, Jan Morris about greeting Edmund Hilary when he descended from summiting Mount Everest; Daniel Okrent dares to be dark about the 1940s, Laura Hillenbrand and A. Scott Berg do fine historical turns on the ‘30s and ‘20s respectively, and – in a neat twist that works better than it should – Julian Fellowes (he of “Downton Abbey” fame) eulogizes the 1910s.
And some of the magazine’s standard players are here like clockwork (one can’t help but wonder what kind of piece Carter would have extorted out of Christopher Hitchens – and to miss seeing it), including James Wolcott writing at the top of his game about the peccadilloes of some of TV’s celebrity chefs, including the nationally-disgraced Paula Deen:
Deen’s trademark dishes, such as her bread pudding made of Krispy Kreme doughnuts cut into cubes, recall the grand tradition of good-ol’-boy cuisine that helped Elvis Presley keel over at Graceland. Rich in sugar, flour, and nostalgia, they slow down the metabolism and thought processes, inducing a semiconscious sloth bliss state that is deaf and blind to the entreaties of Barack and Michelle Obama as they extend a head of broccoli as America’s last hope. A true American entrepreneur, Deen excelled in playing it both ways, promoting a diet conducive to diabetes and then pushing diabetes medicine.
Also in this issue, Sarah Ellison, in a well-balanced piece about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, swerves just slightly to get in a little well-deserved dig:
The U.S. government has tried to decapitate his organization, which has only made him a martyr. No one is talking, as they were when he was free to mingle with the outside world, about his thin skin, his argumentative nature, his paranoia, his self-absorption, his poor personal hygiene, his habit of using his laptop when dining in company, or his failure to flush the toilet.
The curious thing about this special anniversary issue of Vanity Fair, in fact, is how ordinary it is – it serves as the best possible reminder of just how extraordinary the magazine always is, month after month. An old (one might almost say intimate) friend of mine alerted me to the customary VF pattern a long time ago, and the magazine has stayed true to that pattern ever since: the fluff and “Hot Type”-style flutter is always quartered in the front half of every issue, and the meat in the back half – and so it is here, with the longer, jump-cut articles after the half-way mark tending to be the highlight of the Table of Contents. Certainly that’s the case in this issue, where we get “What Lies Beneath,” a great piece by William Langewiesche about the vast, unmapped underground of New York City – the waterways, the subways, the sewer system, and how all of it fared during the pounding of Hurricane Sandy. He specifically disavows urbane-legend rumors of giant albino alligators, the killjoy, but even so, the piece is superb – we can only hope it’s the prelude to a book.
Criminal film directors, the royalties of two different countries, the idle obscenely rich right here in the United States, plus great photography throughout – special issue or no special issue, it’s a feast. Crownie would have been proud.
June 13th, 2013
The July issue of Vanity Fair has many standard features that are depressing. First and most noticeably, there’s the cover story-hand job common to most glossy magazines; in this case it’s a ‘profile’ of Hollywood’s current top box office Everyman, Channing Tatum, whose he-man pouting on the cover over the banner reading “Channing Tatum: An Action Star Who Can Act!” The banner might be true, but if Tatum can act it hasn’t yet been caught on film, and probably the piece’s talented author Rich Cohen knows that and was under orders to produce a standard-issue bro-file fawning all over Tatum in supposedly ‘up front’ ways that are nevertheless carefully choreographed to conceal everything the chunk of meat’s management wants concealed (Cohen makes no mention of Tatum’s tobacco habit, for instance, nor does he even lightly allude to the fact that Tatum isn’t exactly brightest warbler in the aviary).
The depressing features extend well beyond the cover, of course. There’s a culture-clash/French-bashing article by James Wolcott that reads like it was assembled from a kit and depresses in exact proportion to how talented Wolcott used to be; there’s yet another fawning puff piece, this one on Pippa Middleton’s love of tennis. Ingrid Sischy’s long profile of the odious John Galliano at least works in some uplift amidst its own depression: true, Galliano is a toxic, self-aggrandizing former pretty-boy piece of pastry who was a waste of protoplasm even before he exiled himself from civilized society with The Anti-Semitic Outburst Heard Round the World, but in compensation the reader gets to spend some time in the wonderful presence of Sischy’s writing, which is always a treat. Likewise Michael Joseph Gross’ long article on the cyber-war currently being waged between the U.S. and Iran, which was upliftingly well-written but depressing as all get-out to read.
But no issue of Vanity Fair ever entirely disappoints (not since Graydon Carter took over, much as I begrudge to admit it), and this one has a true gem underneath all the depressing mud: Laura Jacobs has an absolute corker of a piece about Mary McCarthy’s blockbuster 1963 novel The Group and the shockwaves it set off, both in the literary world and among McCarthy’s Vassar classmates.
Although even in this piece, there were plenty of slightly depressing elements. True, Jacobs can be wonderful about McCarthy’s prose:
And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear into the hearts of her male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.
But I don’t agree with the weird reduction in that penultimate line, that oddly sexist equating of sexual predation with literary fearlessness – it makes a troubling lead-in to the following line, where you’re left wondering just which of McCarty’s traits these female writers are aspiring to (not that it matters in this case, since no aspiring female writer under the age of 35 has even heard of Mary McCarthy, let alone read her)(one of the sharpest young female writers I know, for instance, would scorn the very idea of reading somebody who’s actually had the bad grace to be dead – if the ink isn’t still wet on your latest chapbook, you might as well be one with Nineveh and Tyre).
Likewise troubling is the bit where Jacobs relates some of the withering critical responses to The Group and then blandly agrees with them. She quotes Robert Lowell: “No one in the know likes the book.” And she quotes Dwight Macdonald: “Mary tried for something very big but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”
To which Jacobs nods, “All true, and all beside the point,” even though it’s not true, nor is it true that the book’s “plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil.” And worst of all is the piece’s resort to psychobabble in defense of a flawed assumption:
Novelist lift material from life because they must. First novels are invariably autobiographical, which is why second novels are so difficult: the writer needs to recede and let the characters create themselves. McCarthy never learned to back off and loosen her grip. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d lost so much so young.
Or, alternately, there’s the faint possibility that Mary McCarthy knew what she was doing, that she wasn’t just some helpless fawn banging her head against the iron cage of her Freudian childhood hangups – that, ultimate heresy, she might have understood more about what was happening in her own fiction than virtually all of her critics, then or, apparently, now. It was McCarthy’s best friend Elizabeth Hardwick who once said, “When it comes to the written word, I wouldn’t bet against Mary.” Maybe Jacobs was emboldened by the fact that Hardwick herself nevertheless frequently did bet against her friend.
But then, Hardwick didn’t write The Group
April 15th, 2012
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.
January 16th, 2012
Jumping (somewhat belatedly) into the fray of 2012’s Penny Press, we find the party in full swing, which is always inviting. In the 6 January TLS, for instance, Mary Kenny writes a letter whose simple honesty about the late Christopher Hitchens will be cried down instantly by the millions of arrested adolescents who jumped on the bandwagon of his tardily-adopted religion-bashing:
Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew in the 1970s (and who was much encouraged by my husband, Richard West, as well as by Anthony Howard), was often brilliant and beguiling, and he was also brave. But he would not have become a world-famous celebrity if God Is Not Great had been a more conscientious book; and that’s the pity of it. It was because his message could be reduced to a simple, tabloid black-and-white picture that Hitchens became more famous than Vaclav Havel.
Of course, during the week-long obsequies in the wake of Hitchens’ death, no such clarifications were possible, but it’s nevertheless true: if Hitchens had written a book praising disco (Recatching the Fever, or some such), passionately calling for its return, and that book had somehow struck up an international response, it would have been in the cause of disco that Hitchens would have hit the lecture circuit, and he’d have been every bit as eloquent and biting and funny and crowd-pleasing on that subject as he was on how shitty your parents were for making you go to church when you were a kid. And more importantly (and this is also more than Mary Kenny is willing to say, bless her), before, during, and after those disco-lectures, there would have been not one word about the tyranny of organized religion – because there would have been no money in such words. When fans would approach the touring Hitchens and tell him he was their intellectual hero, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t make me a hero – just buy my book.” When serious young idealists approached him on tour and told him how much his ideas meant to them, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t tell me your beliefs – just buy my book.” I give the man all the credit in the world for a freelancer’s naked opportunism, but I got a little weary, at the end of 2011, hearing how the world had lost a great philosopher (or worse, in the case of Salman Rushdie, a great philosophe).
That same issue of the TLS had a wonderfully controlled review by Andrew Scull of Raymond Tallis’ latest screed, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, which Scull summarizes quite succinctly:
As an atheist and a materialist, Tallis cannot appeal to a soul, a ghost in the machine that can operate and somehow direct the actions of the body. But he is fiercely dismissive of those who contend that we are nothing more than complicated organic machines, fated to live fully determined lives along lines programmed into our bodies and brains. Humankind’s place in nature is, he insists, unique. We are nothing but our bodies and our brains, and yet we are somehow able to move beyond our biology. Our self-conscious, self-reflective capacities allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies, to create an ever-richer and more complex mental life and culture, and to make choices, to act freely on the world.
Scull maintains more control in the face of this nonsense than I would have, certainly, but then, Tallis and his like have always irritating, since this outlook justifies every kind of cruelty mankind has ever perpetrated on the rest of the animal world. It takes a signature ability of the human brain – self-reflection – and elevates it to the sine qua non of the Chosen, and the people who do that elevating never seem to stop and reflect on the rigged game they’re playing.
There is a symphony in the way scents layer down on top of each other out in the natural world, for instance – the older ones yielding their strongest flavors over time, merging those flavors with both the surface (plant, wood, rock) and the surface-trails insect and bird-life has tracked through them, the less-old ones merging with the older ones and creating (both immediately and over time) new dimensions, and of course the newest coats charging the whole lattice with new meaning, filling it with both data-heavy short-term information (“This is me,” “this is what I ate an hour ago,” “this is my sexual receptivity, and for whom,” etc) and data-heavy longer-term information (“this is where I live, and I generally like/don’t like visitors,” for instance, and all the scent-graffiti that accumulates from others, both short and long-term). All of that – the whole totality of it – blends together into an incredibly detailed, incredibly vital tapestry – something that can be either intensely interactive or solitarily absorbing. Simply reading it can induce a zen-state of pure reception that’s often more compelling than hunger, thirst, or need for shelter.
Humans are physically incapable of experiencing that symphony. They lack the physical senses even to know it’s there, much less to read it. If an alien species came to Earth with force-fields and laser-guns to compel mankind’s submission and, far more importantly, a centuries-old philosophical framework built on asserting the moral, intellectual, and ethical superiority of beings who could experience that scent-symphony, mankind would find itself in cages, or in funny costumes, or experimented upon – at the very least, mankind would find itself relegated to a secondary caste of beings. And mankind’s protest would be: “But this is inherently unfair! You’ve arbitrarily set the criteria for superiority based on a physical capability you just happened to evolve, and that we just happened not to evolve – you’ve taken the random chance that you have such an ability and made it the basis for everything!” And then mankind would be prodded back into its lab cages, or its circus shows, or its meat-processing plants – not by argument, but by those force-fields and laser guns.
Tallis makes much of his atheism, but he’s unwilling to face some of its most embarrassing consequences. I suspect that in this he’s no different from the late Hitchens, who makes yet another hagiographic appearance, this time in Graydon Carter’s “Editor’s Letter” at the front of the February Vanity Fair. Carter is wonderfully opinionated on just about everything, so of course he wasn’t going to let the death of his long-time correspondent Hitchens pass in seemly silence. Instead, he’s got a classic anecdote to tell, about a typically epic lunch he attended with Hitchens – a lunch at which enormous amounts of alcohol were imbibed by all, despite looming deadlines. The sequel will be familiar to Hitchens fans: “After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.”
Saint’s lives must have their miracle-stories, I know, but Carter is old enough to realize this was no unique talent in Hitchens. In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s – hell, in any decade he cares to name – there have been word-hacks over-fond of wine would could bang out 1000 words of clean copy on an Olivetti even three sheets to the wind. Some of those hacks could even do 2000 words, or 3000. I suspect that Carter himself has known more than just one such seedy paragon.
Fortunately, as always, he introduces an absolutely great periodical. There’s a stand-out, horrifying profile of Mitt Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, retailing all the usual ghastly stories about how brusque and inhuman the presumptive Republican front-runner is. The piece (cunningly called “The Meaning of Mitt”) also relates sobering anecdotes from people who encountered Romney in his capacity as poo-bah of the Mormon faith. These new anecdotes are uniformly damning, and one of them, told by Suffolk University’s Judy Dushku, is all the more so because she’s a kind and very mentally flexible person – if she came away from Romney with a bad impression, you can take that bad impression to the bank.
But the issue’s highlight was so sparkling as to wipe away all such tawdry worries. The always-reliable Bob Colacello turned in a piece called “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” – a wonderful, fittingly gossipy, absolutely glowing portrait of an effervescent phenomenon that’s now almost vanished: the so-called ‘ladies how lunch,’ the battalion of wealthy society matrons (and the men they sometimes brought along) who made a long, leisurely ritual out of highly visible lunches at some of New York’s most glamorous venues, places like the Colony Club, Le Pavillion,Orsini’s and of course Le Cirque. These women – everybody from the Duchess of Windsor to Jackie Onassis to society bluebloods like Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner – ruled New York’s glittering apartments for decades (from the real kick-off during the Kennedy years to the Reagan ’80s), and Colacello’s piece captures that lost world perfectly – it’s one of those VF articles I read and then instantly hope to see as a full-length book sometime soon.
“Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” was so enchanting it distracted me from the annoying fact that neither Daniel Craig nor Matt Damon mentions smoking during their Proust Questionnaires, even though they’re being asked about the things that matter most to them in the world – and it distracted me from the Burberry ad at the front of the magazine, in which talented stage and screen actor (and ten-pack-a-day tobacco addict) Eddie Redmayne is so dedicated to his addiction that he has to hide his cigarette behind his leg even during the one photo of him that made it into the shoot. Hell, the piece even distracted me from the fact that Mitt Romney might by some fluke end up as President of the United States. That’s some writing! (And of course I liked the fact that the greatest beauty among the “ladies who lunched” actually made it into one of the photos, there on the left-hand side)