Juliana Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment

Du Bois's Telegram: Literary Resistance and State ContainmentDu Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment by Juliana Spahr

The first thing to be said about this book is that it is brave. Poet and critic Juliana Spahr does not make her startling argument in general, nor does she make it in unreadably dense jargon that could only be followed by academic insiders. She mounts her case in plain language and names names—generally names of the venerated dead or the celebrated living. It’s a good use of academic tenure.

Spahr takes her title from a telegram sent by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1956 to the Congress of Black Writers and Artists, from which he had been uninvited partially at the behest of Richard Wright, who was seeking to avoid communist exploitation of the event. Du Bois writes:

Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our state Department wishes the world to believe. The government especially objects to me because I am a socialist and because I believe in peace with Communist states like the Soviet Union and their right to exist in security.

The thesis of Spahr’s short study is that the U.S. government’s attempt to circumvent literary radicalism continues to shape American literature today. While everyone knows by now of the state’s midcentury meddling in the promotion of modernist American arts and letters, as disclosed most notably in Frances Stonor Saunders’s Cultural Cold War, too few people have pursued the argument into the present. Spahr does, and she comes to two conclusions.

First, the CIA and FBI are no longer involved in either promoting liberal or harassing radical writers to the extent that they were in the 1950s and ’60s. But the interpenetration of private and state money to champion non-commercial literature in academe and to retain writers as professors means that we have had since the 1970s a literature that is de-radicalized in both aesthetic form and political content.

Her most pointed phrase in this analysis, encompassing writers from Maya Angelou and James Baldwin to Rita Dove and Richard Blanco, is “state-sponsored multiculturalism.” Through the patronage of the government or of private foundations tied to traditional elites, America produces a non-radical picture of its own diversity for mollifying consumption both at home and abroad.

Second, Spahr concludes that politically and/or formally radical work does still appear: she gives as her main example a body of multilingual poetry written around the turn of the 21st century, most of it contesting xenophobia and some of it even linked to sovereignty movements. But the sequestration of serious, non-commercial literature within academe means that such radical writing cannot circulate publicly among those who would be its natural constituencies and thus cannot have any radical political effects. It is poetry read only by poetry professors. (I have a Ph.D. in English and have heard of exactly one of the books she discusses.)

Together the grant-giving foundations and the MFA- and tenure-dispensing universities have eliminated both the independent coteries we associate with modernism and the autonomous publishing linked to radical political and social movements. Using as one example an explicitly anti-racist program to help budding black writers, Cave Canem, Spahr writes with acid understatement:

But there is a decidedly different rhetoric and relation to the institution that defines organizations like Cave Canem than, say, something like the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. When Baraka wrote about revolutionary theater he wrote, “The Revolutionary Theatre must Accuse and Attack anything that can be accused and attacked” and “We want actual explosions and actual brutality.” Cave Canem, in contradistinction, talks about their commitment to “the professional growth of African-American poets.”

Neither the milieu that produced Gertrude Stein nor that which produced Amiri Baraka exists any longer. While work of their merit or radicalism may still appear (Spahr mentions Claudia Rankine, who repays her with a back-cover blurb), the structural conditions disfavor its wide dissemination or social effect.

Spahr shows that the history of how this elimination happened encompasses even the later work of Stein herself, which was conscripted into the cultural Cold War along with the rest of modernism; the early work of James Baldwin, whose first essays were published in CIA-affiliated journals; and even—perhaps her most striking claim—much of early Anglophone African literature, whose writers (she names Wole Soyinka and Dennis Brutus) had western intelligence ties or anti-communist affiliations.

In short, we have been living in the Matrix, precisely when we thought we were most touching the real of either language as disclosed by experimental poets or of American society as observed by multiculturalist writers:

Because I learned so much that I know about literature from higher education (and I am not alone in this), what I learned is a State Department version of what matters.

As she herself admits, Spahr has built her thesis by synthesizing research in separate areas by scholars with disparate concerns, the point being to tell a single, coherent story about events usually discussed apart from one another, such as the CIA’s meddling in the construction of postcolonial English-language African literature or the professionalization via academe of American poetry in the second half of the 20th century.

The general reader, without expertise in all of the relevant fields, must take Spahr’s synthesis on trust. I can only say that her narrative feels true to me, i.e., I recognize the literary/academic world I inhabit in her picture. Her tone, too, which might have been much more cutting or polemical, but which is rather circumspect (sometimes to a fault), inspires confidence. For that reason, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand why today’s American literature often feels so safe, bland, tame, platitudinous, or, if dissident, out of touch, even where it claims to be most radical.

On the other hand, this book, like all the books it criticizes, has an agenda. Also like all the books it criticizes, it dissimulates its own condition of production. While I agree with Spahr’s enumeration of the problems with contemporary literature, I dissent from her sometimes only implied solution. I moreover think that she deliberately confuses an issue central to her argument for troubling reasons.

Let me take the latter point first: Spahr uses the term “autonomy” throughout the book. She acknowledges that this is an extremely complicated concept in literary studies, but goes to on to explain that she will use it in a simple way. She gives a basic definition that anyone would agree with:

A literature is autonomous when it is free from outside interference, from the market, from the government.

Then, a few lines later, she qualifies this definition in a way that would have some of the writers she discusses (not least Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin) rolling in their graves:

I do not consider the moments when writers decide to align their works with various popular movements a restriction on autonomy. (I do not, thus, presume that “autonomy” means freedom from politics, even though it is often used to mean this.)

This dubious argumentative move gets her out of a difficulty that, in my view, she really needs to confront. Spahr is nowhere more convincing than when she argues that the slow death of independent small presses and little magazines have robbed American literature of energy and originality. But she does not propose any attempt, by itself, to revivify these institutions outside the university. What does she suggest we do instead? Here is how the book’s penultimate paragraph begins:

Revolution though. There is some historical precedence that it is revolution that frees cultural production from the institutions that constantly work to contain it.

Now I don’t object to this conclusion on intellectual grounds. It is entailed by Spahr’s premises, which reflect Marxist orthodoxy: base determines superstructure (in “the last instance” anyway, as Engels said). If this is the case, then literature, being heteronomous in relation to state interference and private capital, can’t reform itself, but will only be reformed with the renovation of these institutions. Since Spahr is concerned with the elimination of race and class hierarchies, the renovation will take necessarily take the form of a violent insurrection by the oppressed.

Spahr recognizes, even if she keeps it vague in a book published by Harvard UP, that her theory terminates not in a classroom or in a poem but on one side or the other of a gun. (Recently, her friend and collaborator Joshua Clover almost found the limit of academic freedom when he kept this part of the theory somewhat less vague.)

But this implied endorsement of armed struggle raises two questions for me. First, why is Spahr so seemingly certain that she will be on the right side of the revolution, or, indeed, of the gun? There is, to borrow her phrase, “some historical precedence” to believe that revolutionaries will not spare even theoretically radical poets and professors. Furthermore, if Spahr is serious about her implicit communism, she might agree with its historical position toward modernism: hostility and dismissal, coupled with the conviction that revolutionary art should speak in clear language to the people it proposes to organize.

She avoids this fusty Lukacsianism by pretending that there is no third option between Cave Canem’s stultifying professionalization and Baraka’s alarming brutality, even though modernism, or autonomous art in the old-fashioned sense, just is this third option: the recreation of reality in imagination and language by minds unaffiliated to constraining, still less to axiomatically violent, organizations. Which Baldwin was correct to say, even if he said it at the CIA’s expense:

Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity, which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty. (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”)

Literature, to be autonomous, must be autonomous from politics. This does not mean that writers lack political beliefs or that their works lack political implications, which is a straw-man argument no sensible person would make. It means instead that writers should be free of organized political interference in the production and dissemination of their work, whether that interference is organized by left, right, or center.

(And given what I am about to say about organized leftism, I should disclose right now that I neither have nor want any ties to organized liberalism or conservatism, unless having registered as a Democrat almost 20 years ago counts, and I hardly think it does.)

Spahr is right to call the United States to account for betraying this ideal in the name of supporting it when it used the CIA, the FBI, and other state institutions to promote and suppress various artists and artworks. Yet her calculated muddling of “autonomy” misleads the reader into thinking that literature after “revolution” will be truly free.

Finally, I have to ask a last, uncomfortable question: if the state and academia are really so hostile to revolutionary ideas, how is it that Spahr is a tenured professor and that Harvard UP has published her book? How is it that I sat through graduate-school seminar-room defenses of Mao and Stalin at a public university and had to make a case for artistic autonomy (again, in the old-fashioned sense) very carefully and in the face of no little hostility? How is it, as I once found in material distributed to college faculty for racial-sensitivity training, that the holding of “liberal views” was listed as evidence of white supremacy? Spahr’s book may answer the question of who pays for liberal multiculturalism and why, but it leads me to wonder in turn: who pays for academic communism and why?

Her mischievous wordplay around “autonomy” aside, though, Spahr’s bravery should be contagious. Let me be as clear as I can about my beliefs, then, even to the point of vulgarity. I am as autonomous an artist as I am able to be in the circumstances, and if you’d like to start supporting autonomous literature, I even have a suggestion of where you might begin.

But more seriously, I am not a communist. I do not believe that armed struggle offers a way out of American society’s present dilemmas. I do not believe there is a physically violent solution to intellectual and spiritual crises. Separatist social movements and revolutionary political parties uniting theory and praxis? “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I affirm Stephen Dedalus’s pacifist epiphany in Ulysses: (He taps his brow.) But in here it is I must kill the priest and the king.” I affirm, too, the conclusion of Middlemarch, which suggests that “the growing good of the world” is made possible only through the “incalculably diffusive” works and days of individuals. I believe that there will be no general freedom until each of us understands these insights. Does that mean we have to wait? I suspect it does, perhaps forever, but stillness might, on principle, be superior to violence. In the meantime, we could do worse than to read Du Bois’s Telegram.


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Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, who begins The Sign of Four with Sherlock Holmes in an opium trance, Dashiell Hammett can’t get his detective novel started without an infusion of aestheticism. The Maltese Falcon, named as it is for an objet d’art, opens with two descriptions that strike several notes of the art for art’s sake and decadent movements of fin-de-siècle England and France, even though Hammett was writing almost two generations later, in 1930, in America, on the cusp of a hard-boiled decade:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?”

She was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with an effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face.

We have the transvaluation of values that gives us Satan as hero, we have the artistic formalism that describes a human face as a geometric phenomenon, we have the queer overtones of a sexily boyish heroine, and above all we have the bored, jaded irony in the narrator’s tone, his blasé patience in physical description, as if he had all the luxe, calme, et volupté in the world.

The Maltese Falcon is, moreover, an artistic experiment—which should perhaps come as no surprise since it was written in the modernist moment, when those other legatees of aestheticism, such as Joyce, Woolf, Stein, and Hemingway, were reinventing the shape of narrative prose. Like the last-named modernist, Hammett strips his novel of anything but description and dialogue. At no time do we enter a character’s consciousness or see through one’s eyes. The narrator is a camera, not metaphorically, as with Isherwood’s contemporaneous experiment in objective (albeit first-person) narration, but literally in that Hammett only reports surfaces and actions; we are left to infer what anyone is thinking or what any of it means.

The complicated plot of this pioneering noir novel is hardly worth recording in any detail. It is a shaggy-dog story about P.I. Sam Spade’s recruitment by the faithless femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy to help her recover the title bird—a treasure that once belonged to a Templar-esque order of former Crusaders, and which is now being hunted around the globe by a rivalrous group of high-end thieves. Three murders and a lot of trouble with the police later, Spade ends up in an almost ritually slow stand-off with the criminals until the falcon proves elusive and Spade proves even colder than frigid Brigid.

Our assembled antagonists include not only the sexy villainess but also a pederastic Levantine named Joel Cairo and an elaborately fat man named Gutman. But the real moral of the story, fired home at the conclusion by the recoil of Effie Perine, the novel’s only decent character, is that the inscrutable, loveless Spade is perhaps the most chilling denizen of his corrupt world. Hammett concludes with a hint of his Satanic hero’s permanent damnation:

[Effie’s] voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

I wish I had read this novel earlier, if only to appreciate how much Pynchon borrows from it for my beloved Crying of Lot 49: the early modern secret society, the absent quest object, the California paranoia, even the aestheticism and modernism (as when Pynchon alludes to Pater and Varo). Yet Pynchon also almost certainly rebukes Hammett when he has Oedipa Maas, a kind of older and wiser Effie Perine, experience a moral epiphany rather than an immoralist betrayal on the nighttime streets of San Francisco. Postmodern literature rises in humanist rebellion against the pop fiction it was supposed to have uncritically incorporated with the late-20th-century collapse of cultural hierarchies.

But how did pop fiction get so decadent in the first place? Didn’t learned literary sociologists assure us that the art for art’s sake or immoralist attitude was the response of elite cultural producers to the popular market’s indifference to their wares? Isn’t aestheticism an elitist last-stand of high literature before its overwhelming by mass literacy and mass media? Didn’t Baudelaire and Flaubert invent decadence to invert the moralistic judgments and easy aesthetics of the mass market? Didn’t they (per Pierre Bourdieu) construct modern art as “the economic world reversed”?

If all that sociology is true, then why do we find such foundational detective fictions as Doyle’s and Hammett’s (and Chandler’s) drawing on tones and tropes of l’art pour l’art? (Note, by the way, that the French intelligentsia got the message, or, more aptly, caught the boomerang, when they argued in the mid-20th-century for the artistic greatness of American detective fiction and film.)

The answer, which I’ve written about before, is one of those observations so simple you can’t make it unless you forget much of what you learned—or unless you never even bother to learn it in the first place, which is my recommendation re: literary sociology. The answer is this: when you subtract external spiritual, ethical, or political determinants from art, you get two precipitates, which themselves can be combined or separated. They are formalism and entertainment: art that obeys only its own inner logic and communes only with itself, or art that exists only to provoke sensation of whatever sort in its audience. The first person to understand this, Edgar Allan Poe, single-handedly invented both avant-garde poetry and popular genre fiction.

Since Poe created modern detective fiction, Hammett is his legatee. And he knows it: the strenuous queer-bashing and Orientalism of his narrative is an unmistakable case of misdirection and disavowal: he’s well aware of his sources. For Hammett, modern literature is, like the object for which his novel is named, a glittering treasure from another century painted black and thrown into the pitiless jostle for wealth and power.

But Hammett’s irony does not stop at such a conservative lament. Gutman explains to Spade that the Crusaders who built the bird themselves wanted only wealth and power; the reputed faith or humanism of the past was a charade, while noir cynicism was always the truth, even in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Furthermore, the only Maltese Falcon we ever see in the novel is a forgery: when Gutman scrapes off the black enamel, he uncovers only lead. In this respect, the object is like the novel is like the hero. The book is a formalist experiment with no philosophical depth. And for most of the novel’s length, we suspect Spade’s Satanic exterior to hide a heart of gold, but no: as Brigid and Effie discover, he’s cold to the coeur.

Plato thought poetry was divine madness, Aristotle thought it was moral mimesis, but Hammett asks a question that provokes even a postmodern pasticheur like Pynchon to blanch: what if art is all surface, a worthless artifice that inspires only mindless greed (when it comes in the guise of entertainment) or false devotion (when it presents itself as formalism)? In which case, why not popular fiction, the worse the better? Not because, as the clown lisps in Dickens, “People mutht be amuthed,” but because trashy bestsellers reveal that the whole enterprise was rotten from the start.


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Machado de Assis, The Alienist

The AlienistThe Alienist by Machado de Assis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We could learn a lot, both about life and literature, from this 1882 novella by the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Machado is only now becoming prominent in the Anglophone world with Liveright’s publication last year of his collected short stories (in which another translation of The Alienist appears; I read the 1963 version by William L. Grossmann—the first in English—as reprinted by Melville House). We are currently more aware both of his significance for Latin American letters and of the praise he has already received from English-language authors.

Philip Roth hailed him as a “tragic comedian,” Susan Sontag commended him as “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America,” and Harold Bloom called him “the supreme black literary artist to date.” If we hesitate at Sontag’s import/export terminology or at Bloom’s perhaps presumptuous arbitration of black aesthetics, Roth’s judgment is nevertheless precise. Morten Høi Jensen, reviewing the Collected Stories, has this to say about The Alienist:

“The Alienist,” one of his best (and longest) stories, is a darkly comic parable of bureaucracy, madness, and power equal parts Kafka and Monty Python. I laughed out loud several times as I read it but found, upon reaching its conclusion, that what I had initially experienced as comic had become tragic. It is as if Don Quixote had been condensed to a 50-page novella.

Though Machado is credited with bringing literary realism to Brazil, I was reminded for my part of Voltaire by the novella’s slapstick briskness of narration and arch appraisal of human delusion; Jensen’s evocations of Cervantes and Kafka, however, catch the pre- and post-Enlightenment undertone of despair over human incorrigibility that sounds at The Alienist‘s close.

At 80-some pages, The Alienist is a little epic of revolution and counter-revolution, a little tragedy of one man’s fall from overweening ambition to final self-defeat, and a grand satire, eventually on everyone and everything. The story begins when the brilliant, European-educated physician, the eponymous psychologist Simão Barcamarte, decides, at the age of 34, to return to his provincial Brazilian home town of Itaguaí.

There, and with the support of a local government grateful for his modernization effort, he opens the region’s first asylum and, driven by pure scientific curiosity, determines to find the causes of and discover the treatments for mental illness. A rationalist, he marries a vain woman he hardly cares for because he deems her physiology (blood pressure, eyesight, etc.) promising for his progeny and claims that her charmlessness will leave him undistracted from his scientific work.

But Barcamarte (whose name translates as “Blunderbuss”) finds that more and more of his neighbors can be defined as mad; consequently, he confines more and more of them to his asylum, the Green House, so called because of its uniquely-colored windows. While Barcamarte begins with actually debilitating delusions, he comes to regard every human foible, from poetic fancy to vanity in fashion, as a symptom of mental illness and eventually has four-fifths of the population committed, including his own wife. He says:

“Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that is not an island at all but a continent.”

This incarceration of the populace provokes a revolution led by the barber Porfírio; but the new government, once installed, decides to work with Barcamarte instead of fighting him, and the previous government is restored in the end. This satire on populism, revolution, and governmental inertia suggests Machado’s political cynicism: while Porfírio, pleased with his own grandiose phraseology, proposes storming the “Bastille of human reason,” other fine phrases find their own constituencies, and revolution inevitably comes full circle.

Barcamarte relents not from outside pressure but when he he begins to question his own premises: if four-fifths of people are unbalanced, then how can mental illness be considered a deviation from the norm? Perhaps the norm is psychological imbalance, he concludes, and only the well-adjusted and rational belong in the Green House. He puts this theory into practice, releasing his prior patients and now locking up only those who exhibit unusual sense and rectitude. When he finds that the latter are only too easy to corrupt into irrationality, he frees them too. If folly is universal, what is madness and who is the madman? The story comes to its conclusion with the elegance of a logical proof and the fatedness of a tragedy:

Simão Barcamarte…had found in himself the perfect, undeniable case of insanity. He possessed wisdom, patience, tolerance, truthfulness, loyalty, and moral fortitude—all qualities that go to make an utter madman.

Why do I say we have much to learn about life and literature from this little book?

First, life. Today we encounter an almost unprecedented faith in the medical model of the psyche. Individuals accept, and institutions increasingly not only accommodate but demand, fundamental identification based on labels devised by physicians. That these labels are themselves often tropes, names for lists of symptoms, and that their sometimes pharmacological treatments might conduce more to the profits of corporations than people—these are observations I almost hesitate to type, so concealed are they behind a moralized rhetoric of “help” and “care.”

And while I certainly don’t mean to belittle the necessity of medical intervention for certain mental problems, I find The Alienist prophetic, especially as it was written before even the advent of psychoanalysis. Anticipating 20th-century enemies of totalizing psychology from Woolf and Nabokov to Pynchon and Foucault, Machado satirizes the arbitrariness and authoritarianism of psychological classification and queries the motives, even the sanity, of those who would presume to sit in judgment on human reason. In so doing, he speaks to the 21st century.

But Barcamarte is not just the butt of Machado’s joke—and here we find our literary lesson. In one passage, the narrator—who, Cervantes’s metafictional style, claims to be summarizing a historical chronicle—contrasts Barcamarte with his assistant, the pharmacist Crispim Soares:

Crispim Soares stared at the road, between the ears of his roan. Simão Barcamarte swept the horizon with his eyes, surveyed the distant mountains, and let his horse find the way home. Perfect symbols of the common man and of the genius! One fixes his gaze upon the present with all its tears and privations; the other looks beyond to the glorious dawns of a future that he himself will shape.

The humorous tone of the above notwithstanding, Barcamarte really is a genius. The proof comes when he has enough integrity to subject himself to his own theory. His true universality of perception allies him to his author, whose metafictional irony ensures that he satirizes himself and his discourse (i.e., fiction) as well as his subjects.

Both Machado and Barcamarte are disinterested. This word is now lazily used as a synonym for boredom, but it properly denotes the ideal impartiality of the scientist and the artist. Like every other ideal, it is not humanly achievable, but neither is it to be abandoned. Its mark in this text is the narrator’s dispassionate storytelling, a quality of withholding and understatement that allows the reader to feel the tragic finale to this ironic tale more than any authorial emoting would have.

As Namwali Serpell notes in her polemic on “The Banality of Empathy,” we may need less sentimentality in our fiction and more of the cognitive capacity to recreate viewpoints and attitudes, all the better to perceive both their potentials and their limitations. Here, too, Machado shows the way.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain (The Border Trilogy, #3)Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cities of the Plain began life as a screenplay, and it shows. For most of its length, it is bare description and dialogue. While its scene-setting is often concisely vivid and its cowboy conversations laconically witty, it lacks either the lived-in quality of a successful realistic novel or sufficient stylization to justify such mimesis’s absence.

This third volume of the Border Trilogy is the opposite in every way (except for its epilogue) of the second volume. We could even understand them as McCarthy’s divergent responses to having had such a popular and critical success with the Border Trilogy’s first volume, All the Pretty Horses—a masterful novel that, unlike McCarthy’s more difficult prior books, persuasively combines mass appeal with literary seriousness. The 1992 Western gives us a hero’s journey and a tragic romance, complete with passionate love scenes and brutal combat sequences, while also probing the boundary between nature and culture and the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

If All the Pretty Horses is less despairing than its 1985 predecessor, the notoriously ultraviolent Blood Meridian, it nevertheless earns its sincere praise of heroism by confronting its hero with truly hopeless odds in an indifferent universe. (And I read Blood Meridian itself as a humanist and perhaps even Christian novel, dissenting from those critics who see its gnostic, war-worshipping villain, Judge Holden, as the author’s mouthpiece. Even if the world as McCarthy portrays it is evil, his novels still suggest that humans have a capacity, neglected as it is, to be good.)

But The Crossing, the 1994 sequel to All the Pretty Horses, reads almost like McCarthy’s apology for having written a popular novel. It is long, plotless, dense, and full of visionary if nihilistic disquisitions, a Western hallucination equal parts Beckett and Dostoevsky. It returns to the mode of Blood Meridian, but lacks even that novel’s liveliness of nihilation. The cinematic Cities of the Plain, on the other hand, is an apology for the apology: a briskly-written pop Western that rewrites All the Pretty Horses‘s tragic love story and gruesome knife fight sans any complicating thematic and ideological gestures.

The plot is as simple as it gets. It is 1952, and John Grady Cole (from All the Pretty Horses) and Billy Parham (from The Crossing) are working together on a ranch near the border run by a kindly man named Mac whose beloved wife has just died. The young John Grady’s preternatural horsemanship continues to marvel all who know him (he tells a colleague, “A good horse has justice in his heart”), and, despite Mac’s grief, the lives of these vaqueros seem idyllic, all the more because of their bittersweet awareness that their territory will soon be requisitioned by the state and that the cowboy way will soon vanish forever.

The novel’s own particular catastrophe, standing in for the closure of the West at large, comes when John Grady Cole falls in love with a teenaged prostitute (or, really, captive) in a Juarez brothel over the border. Her name is Magdalena (get it?), and she has epilepsy, which makes her even more vulnerable to the attentions of the pimp Eduardo (we are briefly told of her horrifying background, which begins when she “had been sold at the age of thirteen to settle a gambling debt”). A blind pianist informs Cole that Magdalena is too good for this world—

My belief is that she is at best a visitor. At best. She does not belong here. Among us.

Yessir. I know she dont belong here.

No, said the blind man. I do not mean in this house. I mean here. Among us.

—but the boy hero, ever Quixotic, is undeterred and sets out to rescue her from the cruel Eduardo. It is possible to be too cynical about the adolescent male rescue fantasy at work here, especially when combined with the title’s Biblical judgment against corrupt carnality; but McCarthy’s critique of sex trafficking and his commendation of attentive love over transactional lust seem like worthy enough moral priorities for a novel, if not totally uncontestable. And the naïveté of John Grady’s plan is defeated most brutally by McCarthy’s tragic narrative design.

The problem, however, is that the characters are almost completely emblematic, to the point of stereotype. They might as well have labels as names—Kindly Old Rancher, Cruel Mexican Pimp—and Magdalena’s name is a label. I am not even sure this is good screenwriting, let alone good fiction writing, though perhaps actors would flesh out the thin characterization in performance.

This actor-enhancement is arguably what happens in McCarthy’s 2013 film (with director Ridley Scott), The Counselor, which I find a more satisfying narrative than Cities of the Plain. Penélope Cruz adds to a Magdalena-type abused innocent a winning charm, and Cameron Diaz’s blonde beast of a villain is far more interesting than the campy, oleaginous Eduardo—not least because McCarthy is, in The Counsellor, at least reversing a stereotype rather than upholding one when he shows the white norteamericana to be the predator battening on a good Latina. With presumably anti-racist intent, McCarthy here flips the old, bad tradition in the Anglo-American novel of contrasting a good woman who is fair and blonde with a bad woman who has dark hair, eyes, and even skin.

In my review of All the Pretty Horses, I criticized the critics who found its depiction of Mexico simplistic and dualistic, but Mexico really does appear in Cities of the Plain as a hell-heaven of endemic violence coupled with inexplicable goodness. Billy Parham recalls the hospitality he’d found in the country on his titular crossing:

You could see that the revolution hadnt done them no good. […] They didnt have no reason to be hospitable to anybody. Least of all a gringo kid. That plateful of beans they set in front of you was hard come by. But I was never turned away. Not a time.

But it is not only the brothel where Magdalena is imprisoned but also the Revolution itself that testifies to the land’s senseless brutality, as Mr. Johnson, Mac’s father-in-law, recalls:

There were thousands who went to war in the only suits they owned. Suits in which they’d been married and in which they would be buried. Standing on the streets in their coats and ties and hats behind the upturned carts and bales and firing their rifles like irate accountants. And the small artillery pieces on wheels that scooted backwards in the street at every round and had to be retrieved and the endless riding of horses to their deaths bearing flags or banners or the tentlike tapestries painted with portraits of the Virgin carried on poles into battle as if the mother of God herself were authoress of all that calamity and mayhem and madness.

McCarthy, a believer in incorrigible nature and individual (not collective) goodness, can be expected to distrust revolution on classically conservative Burkean grounds, but All the Pretty Horses showed a greater political acuity than the above. As for Eduardo, who claims to speak for Mexico as against the overweening north, the less said about his sleek and oily head and his silk shirt, the better. On the other hand, it is undeniably fascinating to read a trio of U.S. novels that represents the Mexican Revolution—a blank for most Americans—as the germinal event of the 20th century.

There are moments throughout Cities of the Plain that recall its predecessors’ glories, not least when it comes to McCarthy’s reverence for the dramatic landscape with its

pictographs upon the rimland boulders that bore images of  hunter and shaman and meetingfires and desert sheep all picked into the rock a thousand years and more.

And there are affecting grace notes throughout, especially at the novel’s tragic conclusion. When Billy finds John Grady dead, we read a plangent, simple line worthy of Tolstoy:

The boy lay with his face turned away from the light. His eyes were open. Billy called to him. As if he could not have gone far.

I mentioned that Cities of the Plain does not resemble The Crossing until its epilogue. There, McCarthy recapitulates the narrative mode of the earlier novel. The novel jumps into the future: it is 2002 and Billy Parham, now 78, is drifting in and out of homelessness, when he meets another drifter who tells him an obscure story about a dream he had about a traveler’s dream. The drifter’s complex narration inspires Billy to protest, in a line that reflects the screenplay-mode of the rest of the book:

I think you got a habit of makin things a bit more complicated than what they need to be. Why not just tell the story?

But this narrator has philosophical ambitions. The point of his recursive tale seems to be twofold. First, the world is a fated and fatalistic place, and we cannot escape our destiny (the implication is that John Grady was always already fated to die for his idealism):

Each act in this world from which there can be no turning back has before it another, and it another yet. In a vast and endless net.

Second, the stories we tell about the world are also part of the world and help to weave the fabric of its fate. We are punished for our idealism, but it is also our strength, our glory, our justification:

These dreams reveal the world also, he said. We wake remembering the events of which they are composed while often the narrative is fugitive and difficult to recall. Yet it is the narrative that is the life of the dream while the events themselves are often interchangeable. The events of the waking world on the other hand are forced upon us and the narrative is the unguessed axis along which they must be strung. It falls to us to weigh and sort and order these events. It is we who assemble them into the story which is us. Each man is the bard of his own existence. This is how he is joined to the world. For escaping from the world’s dream of him this is at once his penalty and his reward.

This fatal metaphysic of narrative, which explains McCarthy’s suspicion of such modern writers as James and Proust, takes us back before the novel to the aesthetics of Greek tragedy. Yet there is a danger in treating the complexities of modern fiction as merely disposable in a climate where oversimplification is the hallmark of stultifying popular entertainment: you may strip away Jamesian or Proustian obliquity and find that you have created not a Sophoclean tragedy but a schlocky B-movie. For this dubious achievement, success is at once McCarthy’s penalty and his reward.


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Nick Drnaso, Sabrina

SabrinaSabrina by Nick Drnaso

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Around the time this acclaimed graphic novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, I read it and wrote a somewhat glib, very short review. The review briefly restated my distaste for the artistic tradition within comics to which Drnaso adheres—not because I think this tradition lacks all intrinsic merit, but because it seems to have become the sole stylistic signifier of “seriousness” in comics to the outside literary world, even though it hardly exhausts the potential of the form. I deleted that review as too mean-spirited and shallow. On the other hand, I don’t believe in Auden’s old axiom that a critic shouldn’t write bad reviews. Bad reviews allow for the clarification of values; they give a great opportunity to say, I believe this and not that. To that end, a more substantive explanation of why I cannot esteem this celebrated graphic novel:

Nick Drnaso works in a stylistic idiom that goes back from today’s “literary” graphic novel to the ’80s/’90s alternative comics scene to the ’60s Undergrounds. This style bases itself on the ironic appropriation of supposedly more innocent art of early-to-mid-20th-century cartooning, both to point out the disavowed perversity that underlay mainstream culture before the revolutions of the ’60s and to lament our regression from a society that at least had ideals, however flawed. The paradox of an irony-poisoned nostalgia is not itself the problem. Spiegelman raises it to high and anguished art in Maus and Clowes finds its emotional core in Ghost World. But it bespeaks a limited social analysis, a lament over lost childhood, and also limits aesthetic amplitude. Such a style, because its irony covers everything in a patina of deniability, repels any emotion except a numb, rueful, and self-conscious sadness, even as it leaves us politically uncertain as to whether we are to mourn the past or be glad it’s gone.

Drnaso, like Adrian Tomine, comes late into this tradition. He seems to adopt it automatically as the house style of the literary graphic novel without recognizing its ill-fit with his subject matter or ideological outlook. He puts his figures, reminiscent of Chris Ware, through their agonizingly slow paces—tiny panels full of meticulously-recored banalities—to condemn our world as an inferno where we have no real relations with each other and consequently have to jolt ourselves awake with Internet sensationalism, conspiracy theories, and violent video games. Drnaso’s precise ligne claire leaves not a line out of place, while his colors are flat and institutional, like office or hospital walls. The aesthetic is all of a piece, which is admirable only to a point.

The plot itself indicts our civilization as lonely, violent, and hysterical. Sabrina narrates the aftermath of the title character’s random murder by a fame-seeking Internet troll. Her grieving boyfriend, Teddy, goes to live with an old school friend named Calvin, an Air Force cybersecurity expert whose own marriage has broken up. The depressed Teddy slowly becomes convinced, by an Alex Jones-like radio host, that his own girlfriend’s murder was a false flag committed to spread panic by the global elite, while Calvin becomes enmeshed in the viral Internet version of the same conspiracy theory.

Mass shootings abound as everyone downloads Sabrina’s leaked murder video. No one is immune from the contagion of inhumanity—though the novel suggests that men are particularly affected, as even the best of them lose themselves in shooter games while, in counterpoint, Sabrina’s grieving sister reaches out to others and escapes into nature, successfully mourning without the need of digitally-enabled masculine self-assertion. As social media rages, daily life is banal and anhedonic, the 21st-century condition one of empty exchanges and passionless endurance. In the dialogue, Drnaso persistently misspells “yeah” as “yea,” like in the King James Bible, which is perhaps ludicrously apt for this jeremiad of a book.

With its tone of slow, flat affect and its political polemic against fake news and toxic masculinity, Sabrina more than earned its plaudits from the mainstream. But I am left with more questions than answers. For one thing, the book’s style is, as fashion critics say, too matchy-matchy. Is there no language any character can speak above the level of unintelligent, empty conversation? Is there any way to provide imagery in this mode of drawing and coloring that would act as a counterweight to the oppressive normalcy the novel showcases?

When Sabrina’s sister escapes into nature, the trees and bushes are as flat as the office walls elsewhere depicted. When Teddy discovers Calvin’s daughter’s children’s books and allows their playfulness to put his pattern-making faculty to better use than conspiracy theorizing, the picture-book art, meant to be playful, is as dull as anything else in the novel. When the characters break from their anomie long enough to care for each other—as, for instance, when Calvin feeds a cheeseburger to a grief-defeated Teddy—the style is unable to let the moment float free of ironic comment on all action.

Everything, even those things we are supposed to understand as redemptive, comes off like Peanuts seem through a cynical, depressive haze. Such a style long ago spent its critical force, and it hangs around only as a sign of artistic integrity even though it no longer possesses any intellectual content. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Drnaso’s political intention, but his sheer inertia of style cannot even hope to depict the salvation through nature, art, and kindness that his narrative arrangement commends. It used to be called the fallacy of imitative form: Drnaso tells us that we’re bored and depressed in a boring, depressing way.

sabrinaFurthermore, is Drnaso’s trendy political analysis really so unimpeachable? It was instructive to teach this book to students who were not familiar with comics, because I had to fill them in on the form’s history before addressing Sabrina itself. This history lesson offered the ironic juxtaposition of Drnaso with Fredric Wertham: here is an art form over which midcentury parents and professionals quaked with moral panic, and here is a contemporary comics creator who is himself quivering over today’s threats to public order: social media, fake news, conspiracy theories, toxic masculinity, and all the rest (everything but Putin). Is it possible that these contemporary fears will one day come to seem as quaint as Wertham’s sub-Frankfurt-School warning that Batman would turn kids gay?

Not that Wertham and Drnaso weren’t and aren’t pointing out some real problems. Wertham was correct to say that midcentury comics were often crude, brutal, and illiterate, and Drnaso is on solid ground when he advises us to get outside more and treat each other better. But is the Internet reducible to the most egregious of its uses? Are we really all in danger of being mowed down at any moment by attention-seeking shitposters who can’t get over their anomie in any other way? And is the legacy media not exaggerating social media’s dangers for its own purposes, to distract from its own panic-inducing culpability in extremist violence, and is there not a sad irony in a comic book artist, of all people, going along with such scaremongering? There is also the problem, all too common among liberals today, of using the most stupid or cynical forms of conspiracy theory to discredit any social criticism that strays an inch to the right or left of wherever the Democratic Party’s leaders and their mainstream media allies tell us to be. We shouldn’t throw Noam Chomsky out with Alex Jones and thus pretend that liberal civilization offers no grounds for reasonable critique.

All in all, then, Sabrina is a precision-crafted product of its time; it is almost a time capsule. This is an achievement of a sort, but the best art does more than parrot the platitudes of its period; rather, great work rises above its era through imaginative force. Drnaso is unwilling or unable to do this—and even associates a drive for transcendence with dangerous male aggression in a classic instance of “male feminism” (AKA chivalric sexism). Such moralism and timidity likely dooms his work to rest in the epoch it so thoroughly condemns.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

José Revueltas, The Hole

The HoleThe Hole by José Revueltas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Hole was written in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Penitentiary in 1969 and published the same year; a classic of Latin American literature, one that Valeria Luiselli claims on the back cover has informed the works of Bolaño and Aira, the novella appears for the first time in English in this 2018 translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes.

Revueltas’s short novel is not only remarkable for its prison provenance. It is also an experimental formal contrivance—a solid block of prose from end to end with no breaks. Revueltas narrates his characters’ experience in real time, a viscous flow of consciousness that mimics the hallucinatory desperation of its criminal anti-heroes in the depths of the prison.

Our main characters are Albino and Polonio; they have convinced their cell-mate, a pathetic, disheveled man they call The Prick, to have his mother smuggle drugs into the prison  by carrying them in her vagina. She is accompanied by their young girlfriends, La Chata and Mecha, who themselves fall prey to the violations of the female guards who search them on their way into the prison. The smuggling plan goes as well as you’d expect, and the novella climaxes in an orgiastic and defeated rebellion.

Revueltas was in the prison, but not the titular hole; he was not a common criminal but a political prisoner, a lifelong Communist on trial for inciting the student rebellion in 1968. Accordingly, his novella makes a number of philosophical points in the course of its brief nightmare narrative.

First is that society at large is a prison. The novella opens with our anti-heroes watching their watchers, observing the guards, whom they think of as apes:

They were captive. […] They were born to keep watch and they knew as much, to spy, to constantly look around, making sure no one escaped their clutches in that city with its iron grid of streets, barred corridors, corners multiplying on all sides…

The prison is the city is the world, and the guards are as imprisoned as those they keep. In his comprehensive introduction to The Hole, novelist Álvaro Enrigue points out that Lecumberri Penitentiary was an exemplary modern institution, a model of “‘progressive’ rationalism” founded in 1900 on principles derived from Bentham’s panopticon.

Modernity, rationalism, progress: everybody watching everybody else along the sightlines formed by an authoritarian grid laid over us all by the powers that be. Revueltas makes the point even more explicit at his novel’s climax when the anti-heroes are defeated by guards who pin them in their cage by barring the space with metal rods:

…all in a diabolical mutilation of the space, triangles, trapezoids, parallels, oblique or perpendicular divisions, lines and more lines, bars and more bars, until every possible move those gladiators could make was blocked and they were left crucified on the monstrous blueprint of this gargantuan defeat of liberty, all the fault of geometry.

If “geometry” is at fault, if reality’s propensity to be rationalized defeated even the endless love of history’s most famous crucified convict, then resistance is whatever exceeds the rational. This is a filthy, nihilistic book, but it offers glimpses of redemption. Consider Albino’s tattoo, which drives observers to erotic frenzy:

Lower down his stomach was a tattoo of a Hindu figure—etched in the brothel of some Hindustani port, or so his story went, by the in-house eunuch, a member of an unpronounceable esoteric sect, while Albino dreamed a deep and almost lethal opium sleep beyond all possible recollection—the tattoo depicted an amusing couple, a young man and a woman in the throes of passion, their bodies entwined, enlaced in an incredible foliage of thighs, arms, legs, breasts, and marvelous organs—the Brahmanic tree of Good and Evil—positioned in such a way and with such kinetic wisdom that Albino only had to set it in motion with the right contractions and muscle spasms, its rhythmic oscillations rising at intervals on the surface of his skin, and a subtle, in apprehensible rocking of the hips, for those flailing and capricious-looking body parts—torso and armpits, feet and pubis and hands and wings and stomachs and hair—to assume a mystical unity in which the miracle of the Creation was repeated and human copulation was portrayed in all its magnificent and marvelous splendor.

Entwined foliage rather than straight lines, mystical unity rather than bars of division, miracles rather than reasons: if these can be found even in the eponymous hole, then perhaps geometry need not win the war, though it wins the battle Revueltas stages in the novella.

Geometry does tend to win out in Álvaro Enrigue’s long introduction, though, which frames the text for the Anglophone reader. While Revueltas was, as I said, a Communist, “all the fault of geometry” is not a Marxist position. Marxism does not perceive a fault in the structure of the universe as the source of social problems, but rather contingent and therefore alterable historical conditions. According to Enrigue, this tendency toward ontological pessimism rather than historical optimism caused Revueltas’s comrades to react with suspicion:

When Revueltas published his first novel, Walls of Water, Pablo Neruda denounced it for its pessimism: such existentialist themes were disrespectful of Stalinist orthodoxy. Neruda failed to understand the literary potential of young José Revueltas, who in turn held the Chilean poet—the loftiest of all lofty Communists—in such high esteem that he took Walls of Water off the market. Nevertheless, Neruda was correct in pointing out the link between Revueltas and post-war French literature. His tragic characters belong to the race of Albert Camus’s existential heroes: “indifferent to the future.”

Revueltas’s self-criticism anticipates the auto-#cancellation of authors scorned by social media activists today, and should tell us all we need to know about the Stalinist sources of the ideology taking root in American cultural institutions. Unfortunately, it takes further root at the end of Enrigue’s introduction, when he insists that this quasi-pornographic and wholly oneiric novella is “a timely fable about our complicity—all writers and readers—in the triumph of mass incarceration as the only solution to problems that could be resolved in more rational ways.”

But The Hole identifies rationalism itself as the enemy and names no solution whatever to the problems it describes, as it portrays prisoner and guard as alike caught in the cage of the universe and refuses to moralize over its anti-heroes’s murderous viciousness and visionary appetites. “Fable” is the last word I would use for this violent spasm of language.

I might have preferred a more emotionally complete fiction than The Hole myself, and I too hope our society can move on from mass incarceration; but the need to find in imaginative literature a timely and rational political fable is another “gargantuan defeat of liberty.”


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Against Intellectual Biblioclasm II

I wrote my first manifesto “Against Intellectual Biblioclasm” over a year ago. I concluded it was time for an update when I read this earlier today:

Yet I am more persuaded by a former jihadi named Shahid Butt, who now spends his time deradicalising misguided souls in Birmingham. To him, another rioter from 1989, Rushdie is simply “a dickhead”. He says: “What kind of literary writer, academic, are you that the only way that you can get any fame is by being derogatory and by insulting billions of people. Is that the best you can do?”

Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all.

This may or may not be “a modest proposal” on the author’s part—Poe’s Law applies. Yet his logic, the eliminationist-totalitarian logic of #cancellation now rampant within the left-liberal literary world, is impeccable. As I wrote in my review of Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues last year:

[T]his [is the] time of the left-liberal literati’s retrenchment, its increasingly shrill insistence, enforced by regular social media mob actions against wreckers and traitors, on a Marxist-derived reductionist approach to human identity and a moralistic attitude toward the nature and purpose of art, the latter coupled with impatient defenses of inquisitorial censoriousness. They want to pull books from the shelves and pictures from the walls; who could possibly doubt that if, say, the Rushdie affair happened today, all of literate Brooklyn would high-mindedly excuse those calling for the “racist” novelist’s head?

When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.

It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom. 

The totalitarian left as a metaphysical entity is, in contrast to secular freedom, an only very slight development of the theocratic imagination, with its anathemas, its iconoclasms, and its eschatologies. In the platonically sterile air of its cultural dominance, laughter itself, laughter per se, becomes a confession of unrighteous thought, hence the perennial necessity of purging jesters like Rushdie or, before him, Joyce. 

How did this happen? How did we, the heirs to Joyce and contemporaries of Rushdie,  become thrall to these latter-day Savonarolas, Matherses, and Zhdanovs? Ours was a literary century inaugurated by the martyrdom of Oscar Wilde, who would be #canceled today if only the present-day literati lifted their heads from whatever children’s books have not yet been pulped for insensitivity long enough to know of his pederasty, his anti-Semitism, or his Confederate sympathies, none of which justify the juridical destruction of his person nor corrupt the spirit of imaginative freedom that respires from his perfumed prose.

Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them. Selfishness always aims at creating around it an absolute uniformity of type. Unselfishness recognizes infinite variety of type as a delightful thing, accepts it, acquiesces in it, enjoys it. It is not selfish to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. It is grossly selfish to require of one’s neighbor that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions. Why should he? If he can think, he will probably think differently. If he cannot think, it is monstrous to require thought of any kind from him. (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism”)

And this inquisition has nothing whatsoever to do with “anti-racism,” which is just another in a long line of noble causes corrupted into an alibi for tyranny by opportunists who begin to feel insane if they go one second without controlling other people. Albert Murray would be the first to tell you. But also: Toni Morrison stood with Rushdie, Ralph Ellison mocked the Marxists, and Zora Neale Hurston knew the score 90 years ago:

Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”)

As for “social justice,” it is practiced just as you would expect a political concept developed in the 19th-century Catholic Church to be practiced: with less respect than is presently desirable for freedom, individuality, and the imagination.

I was raised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, so I will say what I want about the abuses within the institutions of that faith, if not about the faith itself, which is often salvific and beautiful (Wilde would agree). Perhaps many forms of feminism would make somewhat more emotional sense to me if I hadn’t heard three generations’ worth of stories, and witnessed an example or two with my own eyes, of adult women dressed all in black beating small children with rulers bound into fasces or stabbing them in the chest with ballpoint pens for their sins. My parents were married by a priest now known to be a predatory pedophile, and in my youth a different priest now known to be a predatory pedophile was frequently entertained at my family’s dinner table. So much for holiness, holy women, holy men, and holy causes. In Catholic school, long before I knew about any priest’s private predilections, long before I read Wilde (or Nietzsche), I learned that avowed morality is usually a cover for domination and brutality.

Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant. In any case, “morality,” “justice,” and all the rest of “those big words that make us so unhappy,” make me want to vomit. These are abstractions susceptible of being twisted into this shape and that by totalitarians. Those who want to ban and burn the books of authors of color are “anti-racists” in the same way that many communist states were “democratic republics.”

By contrast, the élan vital of literature is specificity, concretion, and singularity. That is not because all writers are moral, or all works are; the very question of the morality of art is—not a childish one, because children blessedly don’t care, but precisely one motivated by all the insecurity of adults who don’t feel they have command of themselves unless they are commanding others. As one good Catholic, Simon Leys, once wrote,

It is not a scandal if novelists of genius prove to be wretched fellows; it is a comforting miracle that wretched fellows prove to be novelists of genius.

Now I write the foregoing because I know how many people agree with me. They are just unwilling to say so in public; in public, they melt into puddles if someone cries, “Think of the children!” or if some opportunist, with transparent phoniness, claims to be the single voice of a race, a gender, a class, or a sexuality, even though doing so is a form of dehumanizing essentialism in its own right because it traduces the complexity of all communities and individuals.

It has to stop. We all have to seize our courage in the face of the all-out assault on artistic freedom that is coming from within the very institutions (the press, academia, publishing) we have appointed custodians of art. There is no excuse. The time for freedom of speech and art is now and forever. Against the book banners and the book burners—against them while we’re allowed to be.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This 1979 classic novel of time travel and slavery could not be published today.

Imagine it, imagine Octavia Butler temporally jumped to the present and trying to put out Kindred in the current media climate. Assume, because it’s so good, that the novel even finds an agent and a publisher. Then a science fiction press, banking on an excited reception for this relevant, suspenseful, original, and provocative narrative, releases advanced copies to online reviewers. Perhaps the publisher advertises the novel’s plot teasingly, but a bit vaguely: “A modern African-American woman involuntarily travels back in time to the early 19th century, where she has to live among her enslaved ancestors.”

But the advanced readers begin to leak the novel’s true premise on Goodreads and Twitter. Kindred is really about a modern African-American woman forced to travel back in time to save the life of the white man who enslaved her ancestors. What’s more, she also has to ensure that he rapes one of those ancestors over and over again, because if she doesn’t, she herself will not in the course of time be born from the lineage founded by that assault.

The heroine, furthermore, is married in the narrative present to a white man, and is clearly and avowedly motivated by an obscure attraction, at once maternal and sororal, to the white rapist and slave-owner who will become her distant grandfather. Their fatal dance is the novel’s emotional core, even as the other black characters, all enslaved on the man’s plantation, accuse her of collaboration with white power, an accusation she often finds difficult to deny.

The reaction would be swift and shocking. Before anyone but a handful of self-appointed guardians of literary safety had even read the manuscript, Butler would find herself accused of promoting “tropes”—the acquiescent slave, the violated woman who secretly desires her abuse, etc.—whose mere presence in a work, no matter how ironized or contextualized or ramified, have the power to “harm” the audience through some unspecified mechanism formerly known only to fundamentalist preachers in the Satanic-Panic 1980s.

To attempt to defend Butler would necessarily be to perpetuate this tropological harm. To attempt to remind her attackers that their attitude toward the arts is not socially just, as it descends directly from the ideologies legitimating Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, to say nothing of Winthrop’s Boston; to attempt to inform them that their censorious quest is also not resistant to white-male authority (as they will claim it is) since its premises come more or less straight from several grand old men of the European canon, such as Plato, Rousseau, Hegel, and Tolstoy—all of this would take too long for Twitter.

Considering these obstacles, most influential writers and critics would only privately express their discontent as they do nothing to defend their beleaguered colleague in public, while a few bestselling authors and celebrities will even opportunistically amplify the inevitable hashtag campaign: #kancelkindred.

A cringing, scraping, self-humiliating apology, a promise to “listen better” and “do better,” would be demanded of the author. Her publisher, convinced that 20 self-selected tribunes of the oppressed on social media represent some massive groundswell or any genuine constituency at all, would indeed and inevitably #cancel publication of this great novel. Its author, now construed as a sad victim of internalized racism and sexism and certainly not a responsible purveyor of true and positive representations to the polis, would be sent back to clerical work or manual labor.

And the world of literature would be the poorer, because Kindred is as superb as it is disturbing. Butler’s science-fictional rewriting of the classic slave narrative from the viewpoint of a contemporary black woman allows her to question every bit of received wisdom we have on the topics of progress and modernity, of race, gender, and class.

The plot, alluded to above, is as follows. A California writer named Dana has just moved to a new house with her husband Kevin, a white man who is also a writer, albeit older and more established. One day, Dana finds herself mysteriously transported back to the early 19th century to save a drowning white boy, Rufus Weylin. Over the course of about a month in the summer of 1976, Dana—sometimes accompanied by Kevin—is summoned back five times to save Rufus’s life. While with each trip she is only gone from the present for seconds, minutes, or hours, she spends months at a time over a two-decade period in the early 19th century.

Gradually, she grows accustomed to the life-rhythms of the Weylin plantation and begins to grapple with the quotidian ethical complexities of slavery, its way of corrupting everyone it touches, from Rufus Weylin himself, a white man of some moral promise who debases himself as a rapist and human trafficker because his society enables him to do so, to the more privileged among the enslaved, who themselves uphold the system, often by harshly ruling over those lower than themselves in the hierarchy.

Butler deglamorizes the past, giving us not a splendid plantation, not moonlight and magnolias, but a squalid semi-mansion run by whites who are themselves barely literate. As we might expect of a writer devoted to science fiction, she emphasizes the past’s material and technological deprivation, its bodily reek and lethally primitive medicine.

Critics who read the time-travel trope through Toni Morrison’s Gothic lens of slavery haunting the present (as in Beloved) might think Kindred argues that life has changed little between the antebellum period and now. And the novel does make such thematic gestures, most notably through its frequent doublings of Dana’s present-day white husband, Kevin, with the slaveholding white male characters in the past setting, as if to suggest that certain psychosexual patterns of attraction and repulsion between white men and black women were perennial and inevitable:

I scrambled away, kicking [the slave patroller], clawing the hands that reached out for me, trying to bite, lunging up toward his eyes. I could do it now. I could do anything.


I froze. My name? No patroller would know that.

“Dana, look at me for Godsake!”

Kevin! It was Kevin’s voice! I stared upward, managed to focus on him clearly at last. I was at home. I was lying on my own bed, bloody and dirty, but safe. Safe!

Kevin lay half on top of me, holding me, smearing himself with my blood and his own. I could see where I had scratched his face—so near the eye.

“Kevin, I’m sorry!”

“Are you all right now?”

“Yes. I thought. . . I thought you were the patroller.” (Butler’s ellipses)

Butler’s numerology also references the Faulknerian theme of the past’s not being past. Dana’s penultimate trip to the 1800s, which she thinks will be her last, ends on June 18—on the eve, that is, of Juneteenth. But this emancipation proves to be short-lived when she is called back a final time on July 4, 1976, not only Independence Day, but the U.S. Bicentennial. These dates emphasize the fragility, impermanence, and incompleteness of African-American freedom when considered in the light of slavery’s legacy.

But Butler’s focus is psychosexual more than it is political. It is about the dynamics of libidinal push and pull that ensue with the proximity of free white men and enslaved black women. (Black men and white women play little role in the novel: the former suffer nobly on the sidelines of the action, while the latter are portrayed as one-dimensionally, if bathetically, villainous.) Kindred hints that only partnership and collaboration between black women and white men can save the nation, despite the many pitfalls of their relation:

“But stay close to me. You got here because you were holding me. I’m afraid that may be the only way you can get home.”

Butler deals little with the economics of enslavement, and is if anything anxious to emphasize the distance between contemporary capitalist arrangements and slavery, a message I assume she derives from Douglass and Jacobs’s 19th-century narratives, both of which argue for the moral and practical superiority of wage labor:

I was working out of a casual labor agency—we regulars called it a slave market. Actually, it was just the opposite of slavery. The people who ran it couldn’t have cared less whether or not you showed up to do the work they offered. They always had more job hunters than jobs anyway.

If Dana’s and Kevin’s recourse to low-level, low-wage labor to support their writing careers is sometimes enervating, it is at least a choice they make, a practice of freedom that may be circumscribed by economic necessity but is at least not forced upon them as chattel. Both the white man and the black woman are subjected to it equally, even if Butler hints at prevailing racial and sexual inequalities in Kevin’s greater success as a writer.

Butler’s interest is less in freedom, in triumphant individualism, than in survival. Among the classic science-fiction texts she revises is Robert A. Heinlein’s “‘—All You Zombies—,'” a time-travel paradox tale whose protagonist is his own father and mother. While Heinlein suggests the loneliness and solipsism of such white self-making, Butler adds the moral twist that a black person descended from the enslaved who wished to be the true author of her own life would have to ratify what was done to her ancestors.

Butler was famously inspired to write the book upon hearing a black student say that he would have violently rebelled had he been enslaved. In Butler’s view, this is misguided, not only because—as The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go also insist—the vast majority of people are not heroic revolutionaries, but also because the mere act of survival under any system of oppression is morally compromising. Dana’s reflection on Sarah, an enslaved who has carved out a space of freedom and authority on Weylin’s plantation and who finds many abolitionist ideas incomprehensible, makes this point:

She had done the safe thing—had accepted a life of slavery because she was afraid. She was the kind of woman who might have been called “mammy” in some other household. She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. […] I looked down on her myself for a while. Moral superiority. Here was someone even less courageous than I was. That comforted me somehow.

Dana can hardly afford moral superiority, however. As she understands early in the novel, Rufus is her distant ancestor, and her mission is not only to save his life, but to ensure that he sexually coerces Alice, an enslaved woman with whom he is obsessed. If he does not do so, then, in a time-travel paradox, Dana will not have been born and will thus cease to exist.

We can detect Butler’s overall philosophy in the fact that Dana never seriously considers sacrificing her own existence so as not to participate in such a moral atrocity. Apparently, we are all driven by a ruthless will to persist, at anyone’s expense. Dana’s awareness of this potential within herself makes her, as well as her husband, “kindred” to the men who survived on the stolen labor of her ancestors—she, no less than whites, is heir to the crime.

The novel bleakly intimates that we all exist, insofar as we do exist, by consuming the lives of other people. Kindred, then, can be added to my little canon of tragic-nihilistic American novels that find in the brutal inequalities of race, gender, class, and sexuality not occasions for moral regeneration à la Harriet Beecher Stowe or James Baldwin or the Twitterati, but rather evidence of evil’s omnipresence and redemption’s absence: Quicksand, Nightwood, Sula, Corregidora.

Finally, Kindred may subtract the putative glamor of the past, but its very filth and danger become a perverse attraction, as Dana reflects:

I felt as though I were losing my place here in my own time. Rufus’s time was a sharper, stronger reality. The work was harder, the smells and tastes were stronger, the danger was greater, the pain was worse . . . Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch. (Butler’s ellipses)

If inequality persists it in the present, it often does so impersonally, through the practices of institutions for which no one person can be held responsible. In the antebellum south, on the other hand, the forces that victimize Dana require her to rise to their occasion and even provide a physical target for her wrath or revenge. Such a nostalgia for a past that was more brutal but more alive is, I believe, the hidden motivation for the troubling phenomenon of the hate-crime hoax, lately in the news: like Dana, the hoaxers may wish that the real hate to which they feel themselves subject could be a nameable actor in their own lives rather than an effect of abstract social and political arrangements.

I began this review with an imagined illegitimate complaint about Kindred: that its ruthlessness and amorality of vision would render it unfit for the politically-conscious reader. I want to end with a legitimate criticism of the novel I’ve encountered. I have known some readers, usually academics, who picked up Kindred because they heard it discussed in the context of literary science fiction or great novels about slavery; and they put it down disappointed not by its themes but by its style. They thought Butler would be a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin or Toni Morrison, but she has nothing akin to their dense literariness, their investment in style and psyche. She wrote books for mass-market genre publication; in consequence, her prose is expertly engineered for clarity and suspense, while her characters exist to carry out the plot rather than being case studies in modernist depth psychology.

While I disagree with the poptimist argument that literary fiction’s stylization is just a pretentious status signifier—for reasons best explained by the Victor Shklovsky passage quoted in my review of Milkman—I will nevertheless defend Butler’s superficial simplicity of composition. By carefully rendering language transparent rather than opaque, she compels our attention to the novel’s animating dilemma. As in Dostoevsky or, closer to home, Philip K. Dick, the novel becomes an experiment in philosophy rather than an art object.

Admittedly, as a partisan of literary fiction, I would have preferred fewer conversations about the whys and wherefores of time travel; it’s not as if the Samsas dwell at any length on the pragmatics of Gregor’s metamorphosis. But when popular fiction is written with the emotional intensity and theoretical verve of Butler’s—and she is certainly better than Dick, in my view—it is as valid a way to write a novel as is Morrison’s or Le Guin’s comparative aestheticism.

In sum, all you should #cancel are your immediate plans to read anything but this most viscerally dispiriting and intelligently alarming of novels.


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Jason Lutes, Berlin

BerlinBerlin by Jason Lutes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For readers and writers of contemporary fiction, history can play the role that myth once did. Just as Sophocles’s audience relished the dramatic irony created by their foreknowledge of Oedipus’s fate, we can read about the everyday lives of Berliners in the Weimar Republic with poignant dread over what we—but not they—know to be their grim destiny. And like the theatergoers of antiquity, we gather around the more-than-twice-told tales less to be merely entertained than to reaffirm our communal convictions, pledge again our piety to our gods. Or else why tell the familiar tale yet again?

So it is with Jason Lutes’s titanic graphic novel Berlin, over 20 years in the making, a book about the private lives of Berliners, some fictional and some historical, in the last days of Weimar. Again we watch a republic with an independent civil society collapse into warring factions of extremists, the worst of whom will seize the state and take total command of the citizens; again we see pluralism in all its manifestations—artistic, religious, and sexual—fall before the fists and guns of absolutism. The Jews and the queers are persecuted all over again, and again the liberal intellectual, with the exquisite pangs of his involuted conscience, is helpless to arrest the destruction of liberalism.

The particulars of Lutes’s story are perhaps less important than these archetypes that it mobilizes, but in any case Berlin charts four years in the lives of middle-aged journalist Kurt Severing and a young aspiring artist named Marthe Müller. While the two are lovers off and on, we follow their separate paths through the collapsing city. Kurt is a mostly unaffiliated leftist and pacifist skeptical about communist sectarianism and violence and hopeful that words can change the world:

I imagine the daily output of the entire newspaper district. It makes me think of drowning, but I want to be able to see it another way. Instead: human history as a great river, finding its course along the lowest points in the landscape, and each page as a stone. Tossed in without purpose, just to see the splash, thousands of them might raise the water level until it escapes the confines of the riverbed. The water spreads out, the force of the river diminishes; before long, a marsh. But if each stone is placed carefully and with purpose, perhaps something can be built. Not to dam the current, but to divert its course. Berlin was built on a marsh. I hope it will add up to more than a pile of stones.

The travails of his journalistic colleagues index the decline of civil freedom in Germany; he himself increasingly withdraws from reality, since the time for words has come and gone and the political situation will be decided by force alone. What roll does a pacifist writer have to play in such a scenario?

Marthe meanwhile enters and then leaves art school and has an intermittent affair not only with Kurt but with her queer colleague Anne. Anna introduces her to Berlin’s famous sexual demimonde, as made famous by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, and through her eyes we behold the fascist crackdown on the Weimar Republic’s notable sexual libertarianism.

Meanwhile, we are treated to debates about the artistic avant-gardes of the period, from Expressionism to New Objectivity, even as the narrative overall, and the precise drawings through which we receive it, sides with Marthe’s preference for realism over conceptualism and observation over theory. (I tend to think that behind this motif we can perceive the longstanding feud between comics creators and the art world, between the penurious devotees of painstaking panel-craft and the Lichensteins of the world who would appropriate their work for the museum walls and in the process reap all the spiritual and tangible rewards of the vaunted “artist.”)

Subplots abound: Lutes claims influence not only from the expected Döblin and Isherwood, but also from Wim Wender’s choral film, Wings of Desire, which flits in and out of the inner lives of Berliners with empathetic abandon as it discloses the sorrows and glories of the city after its postwar division. Berlin shows us a well-to-do Jewish family divided between the understandably conservative impulses of the father and equally understandable rebelliousness of the son; and it shows us a poor family divided by ideology, as mother and father, brother and sister, square off against one another as Nazis and communists. A band of touring African-American musicians adds the jazz to this Jazz-Age tale, though we might wonder whether their status as comic relief and their slightly unrealistic heist capers don’t reinforce a stereotype rather than adding depth.

In any case, Wim Wenders had his magical-realist angels overseeing the city and his Homeric bard wandering the Potsdamer Platz, while Lutes’s book, eschewing magic, is labelled “HISTORY” on the back cover.

Lutes has also cited Tintin creator Hergé as an influence: unsurprisingly, then, he communicates his complex narrative in a shadow-modified clear-line drawing style, even a cursory glance at which suggests precision and neatness, order and refinement. His storytelling is also clean, with panels in irregular but immediately legible grids and an alternation between establishing shots of Berlin sites and closer portrayals of his characters’ dramas. There are no explosive or delirious layouts or disorienting compositions—they would be too reminiscent of superhero or manga sensationalism, too little to the purpose of convincingly capturing history.

berlinLutes at his most daring fades out his images as his viewpoint character dies, or truncates the image as another viewpoint character is suddenly killed; he also has a tendency to resort to Hitchcockian angles in moments of crisis. There are a handful of other fascinating visual conceits, but they aren’t followed up or deployed consistently. (My favorite occurs when Lutes replaces the typewriter-clacking sound effect with words themselves, hovering in typeface over a street whose residents are mostly writers.) Otherwise, Berlin has a deliberately meticulous and minimalist style that does not call attention to itself at the expense of the subject matter.

And with that observation, we come to a possible problem: such an abandonment of style is very un-Weimar. I was startled (not in a good way) when Lutes recreates some images by George Grosz; it reminded me that there are no images so arresting in Lutes’s own style. Never mind Grosz: where is Wenders’s visual lyricism or Döblin’s spates and torrents of vernacular language? Where is the passion of the Expressionist and proto-graphic-novelist Frans Masereel, alluded to early in Berlin and then never revisited?

Lutes is closer to Isherwood’s “I am a camera” style, but then the Tintin-esque cartoonishness of his character-drawing is not exactly documentary either. There is a mismatch here between style and substance, between form and content, and it makes me question the critical claims that Berlin is “a watershed achievement” (to quote the back cover blurb).

This misfit of art and idea afflicts the story as well. Just as Lutes’s drawing style can’t accommodate Weimar’s modernist extremes, his narrative can’t make up its mind about political extremism. Communism is depicted with a mix of wariness and patronizing fondness, and while Levering’s anguished liberalism is challenged, it is still the dominant note of the novel. I am hardly saying that Lutes should embrace communism—I grant his ideological premise of a lament over extremism as such, even if it portrays the far right as much worse than the far left. But like his protagonist, Lutes never commits even to this and seems to have it both ways, giving us communists as heroes and villains, cynical manipulators and admirable freedom fighters, in different moments of the narrative, which creates a sense of authorial aloofness, even condescension.

The sexual politics of Berlin are much the same. Marthe at first embraces and then rejects queerness, and it is hard to know whether or not we should assent to her abandonment of her queer lover, Anna. By the way, Anna herself is portrayed earlier in the novel as a butch lesbian and later as a transgender man; like Alison Bechdel’s remark that had she grown up 30 years later she might have understood herself as trans rather than gay, this suggests our own cultural shift in sexual thinking from the late 20th to the early 21st centuries. And I wonder if that is not a more interesting story to tell, one with less ready answers, than yet another liberal iteration of World War II mythology. Lutes for his part might well want to tell it; he states in a recent interview:

When you’re somebody who writes, or in the case of comics, writes and draws, the experiences of people, if I just wrote about my own experience it would just be another straight white guy’s experience and that, frankly, is the last thing I want to read anymore. I’m much more interested in the experiences of people other than my kind of person. […] But I’m not going to just write stories from my perspective because that’s a boring perspective.

This is supposed to be a broad-minded, enlightened attitude coming from a straight white man. But it is not. It’s the attitude of an aesthetic and intellectual tourist, enervated by postmodern living and in quest of other people’s greater presumed vitality. It is a hardly updated ideology of the noble savage, and there’s nothing persuasive or admirable about it.

Above all, though, Lutes’s attitude is a flawed one not from an ethical or political perspective but from an aesthetic one. There is no short cut to telling an interesting story. Queer artists, female artists, artists of color do not simply tell interesting stories by virtue of their identity, and it’s an insult to the great storytellers among them to suggest that they do. People who tell interesting stories, whatever their identities, do so because they are masters of their craft and because they are impassioned—not bored—artists.

You’re not boring because you’re straight, white, and male; you’re boring because you’re boring. And your book is often boring because you apply a staid style to subject matter that you presume is inherently interesting without always remembering to prove or earn its interest on the page.

So I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of dissenting from the press’s and academia’s consensus about what constitutes great comics. I see in Berlin—aside from its undeniable craft, polish, and good intentions—the creeping middlebrowization of an art form that gave us, for the better part of a century, and often on the same page, only garbage and grace.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories collects Christopher Isherwood’s two novels of the 1930s set in Weimar Germany, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), published in England under the superior title Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and the better-known Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which introduced Sally Bowles and made Weimar’s cabaret scene a pop culture paragon after being adapted for stage and screen.

Isherwood was a relatively young writer—in his late 20s—when he was having and first writing up his experiences as Berlin visitor (or sex tourist, more of which below), so The Last of Mr. Norris is a slight, callow performance.

The novel is the first-person reminiscence of William Bradshaw, a visiting English writer who is only a barely-fictionalized version of Isherwood—William and Bradshaw were the writer’s middle names. But Bradshaw is not the novels’ focus: rather, the narrative dramatizes Bradshaw’s encounters with the eponymous Englishman Arthur Norris, a middle-aged habitué of the demimonde, who introduces Isherwood and us to Weimar Berlin’s panorama of prostitution, paraphilia, and radical politics.

Norris, with his badly-attached wig and his constant debt, comes off at first as a bathetic but compelling figure, a sad sadomasochist and well-intentioned naïf in the paranoid underworld of interwar communism, an aging dandy who possesses the glamor of a faded starlet.

As the novel progresses, though, we see that his campy tremulousness conceals a ruthless will to survive even at the price of selling out his ostensible friends; as he is manipulated by the various forces conspiring to control Germany, from the police to the Communist Party, he in turn manipulates everyone that comes to hand. Bradshaw looks into Norris’s eyes toward the end of the novel to detect if he is telling the truth and sees the man for who he is:

As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes. But no, this time-honoured process didn’t work. Here were no windows to the soul. They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shell-fish in the crevices of a rock. There was nothmg to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam. Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin. After three or four attempts, I gave it up. It was no good.

Norris is at first amusing, and then he is chilling, and Isherwood manages this slow transformation ably; but as the lead of a novel, he is too lightweight, just a grotesque, and I found Mr. Norris overly long. Better than its portrayal of the title character is its glimpses of Berlin as the political situation comes apart, given in Isherwood’s style of documentary fiction:

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.

The narrator, though, has very little character of his own, just a style of ironic and detached observation that eventually seems as frigid as Norris’s amorality. Over and over again, he tells us that he smiled at some vivid eccentricity of Norris’s, a gesture that casts a pall of frivolity over the whole novel.

In Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books, the critic John Carey speculates that Isherwood, understandably concealing his homosexuality and his real reason for his Berlin sojourn from the 1930s Anglo-American reader, in fact identified more with Norris than with the narrator:

But it seems that Isherwood also constructed Mr Norris out of parts of himself. He went to Berlin at a stage in his life when he was contemptuously dismissive of conventional morality, and cynical about political causes (‘All politicians are equally nasty’). In both respects, he resembled Mr Norris. Further, what attracted him to the city, as he frankly admitted, were the boy-bars where hungry youngsters would sell themselves to foreign homosexuals for the price of a meal. However much he might suppress it, it can hardly have escaped someone of Isherwood’s intelligence and upbringing that this was blatantly exploitative (and would have been equally so, of course, had the prostitutes been girls, not boys). He was using the misfortunes of the stricken city as an opportunity for his own hedonism, just like Mr Norris.

This speculation raises a question that might occur to contemporary readers, especially given Armistead Maupin’s preface to the 2008 New Directions edition of The Berlin Stories, which introduces these novels in the context of Isherwood’s own status as 20th-century gay icon: is Mr. Norris a gay or queer novel?

Hard to say: it takes place at a very different moment in “the history of sexuality” than our own. Its narrator, standing in for the gay author, represents himself as a rather hard-boiled, Hemingwayesque, masculinist 1930s narrator, and emphasizes several times that he resists the sexual come-on of the aristocratic pederast Kuno, and that he is, as ever, amused by Kuno’s boy-crazy ways.

Norris, on the other hand, is a heterosexual, a devoted sadomasochist, yet is he who speaks in the languid, campy tones of Wilde. His landlady reports to the narrator, “‘He’s so particular, Herr Bradshaw. More like a lady than a gentleman,'” and his beauty routine queers him in Bradshaw’s sardonic eyes:

Seated before the dressing-table in a delicate mauve wrap, Arthur would impart to me the various secrets of his toilet. He was astonishingly fastidious. It was a revelation to me to discover, after all this time, the complex preparations which led up to his every appearance in public. I hadn’t dreamed, for example, that he spent ten minutes three times a week in thinning his eyebrows with a pair of pincers. ( “Thinning, William; not plucking. That’s a piece of effeminacy which I abhor.” ) A massage-roller occupied another fifteen minutes daily of his valuable time; and then there was a thorough manipulation of his cheeks with face cream ( seven or eight minutes) and a little judicious powdering (three or four). Pedicure, of course, was an extra; but Arthur usually spent a few moments rubbing ointment on his toes to avert blisters and corns. Nor did he ever neglect a gargle and mouth-wash. (“Coming into daily contact, as I do, with members of the proletariat, I have to defend myself against positive onslaughts of microbes.”) All this is not to mention the days on which he actually made up his face. (“I felt I needed a dash of colour this morning; the weather’s so depressing.” ) Or the great fortnightly ablution of his hands and wrists with depilatory lotion. (“I prefer not to be reminded of our kinship with the larger apes.”)

Clearly, certain archetypes or stereotypes of gender and sexuality had not yet hardened by the time of this novel’s composition. Mr. Norris perhaps works better, then, as evidence for a cultural history of changing sexual ideas, than it does as a novel with its own artistic integrity.

Goodbye to Berlin, an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece, is much better. Here the narrator is named Isherwood without pretense, and if he doesn’t tell us about his personal life it is because he famously theorizes a new form of documentary fiction inspired by the objectivity of film and journalism rather than by the stream-of-consciousness subjectivity that marked the prior generation’s high modernist novels:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Divided into five freestanding sections, Goodbye to Berlin may be read as another instance, like Winesburg, Ohio, or Dubliners or Cane or Go Down, Moses, of the modernist story cycle or novel-in-stories. (On this note, it’s worth remembering that Isherwood famously championed this literary mode’s most notable use in science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.)

The first and last divisions are called “A Berlin Diary”—diaries being another documentary form—and they chronicle Berlin’s deteriorating political situation from 1930 to 1933, from the casual anti-Semitism of even otherwise sympathetic characters to open Nazi street violence. Isherwood’s quiet theme here, as he observes and reports, is the missed connection between public and private life (ironically exhibited by his own sexual diffidence, however understandable) that allows totalitarianism to thrive:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

But the novel is better known for its second section, “Sally Bowles,” than for these weighty political reflections. Sally is a 19-year-old English cabaret singer who escaped to Berlin from her stultifying rich family (her father is a mill owner and her mother an heiress of a landed lineage); Isherwood is charmed by her sexual frankness and artistic flightiness. The climax of “Sally Bowles” is a bittersweet description of her abortion, though we see her again in the novel a final time, when she seals a sense of her corruption with a vile anti-Semitic remark. Isherwood, camera though he affects to be, is plainly taken with Sally’s air of prematurely degraded eroticism, which he captures, in keeping with his documentary realism, by several times showing us her hands:

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. […] Sally lit another cigarette: she smoked the whole time. I noticed how old her hands looked in the lamplight. They were nervous, veined and very thin — the hands of a middle-aged woman. The green finger-nails seemed not to belong to them at all; to have settled on them by chance—like hard, bright, ugly little beetles.

The grotesquery in these passages, the imagery of dirt and insects, the confusion of age from “little girl” to “middle-aged woman” reminiscent of Isherwood’s treatment of the puerile but decaying Mr. Norris from the earlier novel, all suggest authorial disquiet over sexual disinhibition, not celebration of Weimar freedom.

But pop culture seems not to have noticed Isherwood’s ambivalence, and Sally Bowles, while she has ancestors in prior demimondaine fiction (George du Maurier’s Trilby comes to mind), helped to create a new archetype or sexual role model: the Bohemian girl. (My own swooning adolescent encounter with a much-desexualized version of the type occurred when I made the fictional acquaintance of Neil Gaiman’s cheery, black-clad Death from the Sandman comics.) Like Arthur Norris, though, Sally Bowles is too insubstantial to carry a novel, and I was more impressed by the sections that follow.

Both “On Ruegen Island” and “The Nowaks” dramatize Isherwood’s relation to the Nowak family. He meets their youngest son on a holiday on Ruegen Island, where the 16-year-old working-class boy falls into a flirtation or affair with an older Englishman, Peter Wilkinson. Isherwood here introduces a dreamy eroticism into his docu-style:

It is Peter’s will against Otto’s body. Otto is his whole body; Peter is only his head. Otto moves fluidly, effortlessly; his gestures have the savage, unconscious grace of a cruel, elegant animal. Peter drives himself about, lashing his stiff, ungraceful body with the whip of his merciless will.

The dream hardens to nightmare—a comic nightmare in the Dostoevskean style—when Isherwood goes to live with the Nowaks in their impoverished flat, where almost everyone sleeps in one room, and where Isherwood must dodge the flailing conflict of the drunken father, the tubercular mother, the Nazi older son, the puerile little sister, and the histrionic Otto. The whole section culminates in Isherwood’s avowedly nightmarish accompaniment of Otto to visit Frau Nowak in a tuberculosis sanitarium for women that strikes the narrator as a frightening epiphany of female sexuality:

Women being shut up together in this room had bred an atmosphere which was faintly nauseating, like soiled linen locked in a cupboard without air. They were playful with each other and shrill, like overgrown schoolgirls. […] They all thronged round us for a moment in the little circle of light from the panting bus, their lit faces ghastly like ghosts against the black stems of the pines. This was the climax of my dream: the instant of nightmare in which it would end. I had an absurd pang of fear that they were going to attack us—a gang of terrifyingly soft muffled shapes—clawing us from our seats, dragging us hungrily down, in dead silence.

If this unmistakable note of authorial misogyny disturbs or displeases, though, it is dispelled in “The Landauers,” wherein Isherwood befriends the wealthy, cultivated department-store owning Landauer family.

He visits the Landauers, to whom he has a letter of introduction, because they are Jews, increasingly threatened by the rise of the Nazis. He is especially enchanted with Natalia, the family’s daughter, a literate, witty, free-spirited 18-year-old anti-type to Sally Bowles, whom she despises. Isherwood also details his complex, perhaps homoerotic relation to Herr Landauer’s nephew and business partner, Bernhard, a reserved man tortured by his divided identity (he is Prussian, English, and Jewish) and by his complicity in crass commerce. When he upbraids the pseudo-objective narrator for his clear cultural biases, we might nod in agreement:

“You are a little shocked. One does not speak of such things, you think. It disgusts your  English public-school training, a little—this Jewish emotionalism. You like to flatter yourself that you are a man of the world and that no form of weakness disgusts you, but your training is too strong for you. People ought not to talk to each other like this, you feel. It is not good form.”

In the Landauers, we see an enlightened and brilliant world, however troubled, which the Nazi brutality incubated in the hothouse poverty of the Nowaks’ flat will pitilessly exterminate.

Isherwood’s insight, against the previous generation of British writers, that political and psychological insight could come from dispassionate reportage, an objective rather than subjective style, is borne out in the amplitude of Goodbye to Berlin‘s 200 tersely-narrated pages of description and dialogue. If Sally Bowles is overrated as a character—how many readers remember her anti-Semitic crudity, however unintentional, to Natalia Landauer?—the novel as a whole is perhaps under-studied for its artful montage arrangement, for its quiet play with time (events in its five sections are concurrent with one another), and above all for the way it only half-conceals behind the camera its author’s palpable passion.


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