A Walking Tour of the LRB Archives

On the occasion of its website redesign, the London Review of Books has removed its paywall for a month. I’ve subscribed off and on over the years, and the site’s paywall has shifted its criteria and limits enough, that I’ve read a great deal of the LRB‘s articles in the areas that interest me since I first started going online regularly almost exactly 20 years ago.

Back when the Internet was a smaller, slower place, the LRB site was one of my main sources of an unofficial education. From it, I learned in more lucid and more eloquent terms some of the hidden curriculum of my formal schooling, particularly at that always-befuddling and proverbially bloody crossroads of literature and politics. I also and perhaps even more importantly learned how to write literary and cultural criticism for an educated but general audience, largely from scholars on enlivening leave from the strictures of peer review and academic consensus.

I admit I’ve paid a bit less attention to the LRB in recent years. With the 21st-century collapse for good and ill of various old ways of thinking and doing, such journals have come to seem a bit obsolete. Too many of them have succumbed to the homogenization brought on by our current culture war; they all seem to promote a vulgarized version, though no less contradictory than the recondite original, of a poststructuralist-inflected half-Marxian identity politics, so that everything from n+1 to Bookforum to the New Republic to Teen Vogue now reads like The New Inquiry circa 2011, that venue’s recent and perhaps belated concession of preponderant female heterosexual desire notwithstanding. The organs explicitly opposed to this ideology are mirror images of their enemies—the same thing but reversed, as predictable and Procrustean as those they lampoon. Quillette, with its “Intellectual Dark Web” scientism, is Exhibit A here. Some venues do work productively against this drift: The Point, The Baffler, and Tablet (home of Wesley Yang and Jacob Siegel, two acute commentators on the liberal collapse) most obviously. Harper’s is still good, too, still what it always was: a rare instance of the mixed-ideology magazine, ranging from Rebecca Solnit’s pussy-hat feminism to Walter Kirn’s old-fashioned culturally libertarian integrity.

Anyway, none of these trends is to be blamed, necessarily, on the LRB; it’s just an explanation of why I no longer keep up so faithfully with the big journals. When I was coming of age, though, and even through my 20s, they were capable of surprising the reader in ways now best sought outside official organs, on blogs and social media and podcasts and YouTube.

If you’re still with me after such disagreeable polemics, though, I thought we might stroll together through the LRB archive. In what follows, I’m going to share links to and quotations from articles that impressed me over the years.

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Let’s first revisit a piece that was controversial when printed in 1999, but which, if published now, would light up social media for days and probably result in its author’s being officially or unofficially sanctioned by his academic superiors: Terry Eagleton’s review of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason. This is a book you might not have read from cover to cover—I haven’t either—but you may be familiar with its most famous chapter, a revised version of Spivak’s epochal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Anticipating today’s conflicts between the partisans of intersectionality (who see race-gender-class-sexuality as inextricable and mutually interacting modes of oppression) and more orthodox Marxists (who prioritize economic exploitation), Eagleton’s piece assails Spivak as a bourgeois obscurantist whose poststructural rhetoric masks capitalist complicity with radical chic.

Whatever its romantic illusions and secret self-regard, this most rapidly growing sector of literary criticism signals the entry onto the Western cultural stage, for the first time in its history, of those the West has most injured and abused. There can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak, Said and Homi Bhabha, even if two of that trio can be impenetrably opaque. Unlike one of the two Calvary thieves being saved, this is hardly a reasonable percentage. […] Like most US feminism, post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without necessarily being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a ‘post-political’ world.

This so impressed me as a model of the negative review when I read it online in about 2002 that I actually printed it out. It was my introduction to the Marxism vs. identity politics debate, which has only grown more heated in the last two decades. It was intemperate then, too, though, as the letters below Eagleton’s review can attest.

Speaking of Edward Said and of political ambiguity, as Eagleton just was, don’t miss in the LRB archive his 2000 memoir of a disappointing encounter—from a Palestinian activist’s viewpoint—with two generations of the French intelligentsia. Though the piece emphasizes Said’s meeting with Sartre, its puzzled account of the elusive Foucault (again a point of contention in the letters section) is the high point:

Although we chatted together amiably it wasn’t until much later (in fact almost a decade after his death in 1984) that I got some idea why he had been so unwilling to say anything to me about Middle Eastern politics. In their biographies, both Didier Eribon and James Miller reveal that in 1967 he had been teaching in Tunisia and had left the country in some haste, shortly after the June War. Foucault had said at the time that the reason he left had been his horror at the ‘anti-semitic’ anti-Israel riots of the time, common in every Arab city after the great Arab defeat. A Tunisian colleague of his in the University of Tunis philosophy department told me a different story in the early 1990s: Foucault, she said, had been deported because of his homosexual activities with young students. I still have no idea which version is correct. At the time of the Paris seminar, he told me he had just returned from a sojourn in Iran as a special envoy of Corriere della sera. ‘Very exciting, very strange, crazy,’ I recall him saying about those early days of the Islamic Revolution. I think (perhaps mistakenly) I heard him say that in Teheran he had disguised himself in a wig, although a short while after his articles appeared, he rapidly distanced himself from all things Iranian. Finally, in the late 1980s, I was told by Gilles Deleuze that he and Foucault, once the closest of friends, had fallen out over the question of Palestine, Foucault expressing support for Israel, Deleuze for the Palestinians.

The last sentence is fascinating in light of the IDF’s somewhat infamous reception of Deleuze, but what to do with it? What, again, are the politics of French theory? Is Deleuze “based”? What would Foucault have thought of undergraduates’ recent protest against the idea of legitimating pederasty on queer-theory grounds? I no longer care to know—I barely read the stuff any more—but I once did, and the good old LRB was there to help.

Speaking, as we unfortunately were, of anti-Semitism, I turn now to Tom Paulin’s laudatory review, from 1996, of Anthony Julius’s prosecutorial T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. I found Julius’s book informative and persuasive about Eliot’s undeniable bigotry, though its stunt-insistence that anti-Semitism can’t be separated from Eliot’s real poetic achievement is dubious. If this were true, then why, as Julius himself allows, was The Waste Land immeasurably improved by Eliot’s removal of the explicitly and grotesquely anti-Semitic lines given in Paulin’s review? Had Eliot left them in, would The Waste Land have achieved its status as modern poem par excellence, addressed to “Gentile or Jew”? Paulin is memorable not so much on the poetry question; he comes alive, rather, when he seeks the religious roots of anti-Semitism in a conservative hatred of Puritanism, that “dissenting imagination” he evokes so well elsewhere:

Empson in an essay in Using Biography and Julius in a comment on it argue persuasively that Eliot’s hostility to his father’s Unitarianism is one of the psychological causes of his hostility to Jews, but I think there is a deeper cultural base for it, in that a certain strain of conservative discourse tends to identify Judaism with Unitarianism and with other forms of Puritanism. One source, here, is Burke. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, two leading Unitarians of that period – Richard Price and Joseph Priestley – are attacked and anti-semitic prejudice is mobilised against their enlightened form of Christianity by ringing changes on the name of me meeting-house – the Old Jewry – where Price delivered his famous discourse ‘On the Love of our Country’ which praised the Williamite, American and French Revolutions and provoked Burke’s polemic.

As with Eagleton’s and Said’s pieces, don’t miss the letters section below the review proper, where an irate James Wood hastens to the defense, not of Eliot’s prejudice, but of poetry itself. (Paulin, by the way, was himself later accused of anti-Semitism. He responded in verse, where else but the LRB?)

Speaking as we just were of James Wood, let’s look now at one of his neglected essays—not a denunciation of “hysterical realism” but a somewhat troubled response to John Carey, another tireless English critic of modernist elitism. Wood concedes that Carey has a point about some of the modernists’ political excesses, but he also mounts a thrilling defense of modernist difficulty as a democratic practice intended to address readers as intellectual equals against the 19th and 20th century’s leveling but inegalitarian tendencies. Wood’s critique of “easy moralism” and “curious Oxonian populism” from 2001 could hardly be more timely in our age of “poptimism,” i.e., the elitism of the corporate monopolies, and of cancel culture:

But who is deciding that a man like Bloom ‘would never and could never’ appreciate Ulysses? Joyce, who like every artist wants the largest readership? Or Carey? This is merely elitism in populism’s clothing. In Carey’s generalisation, the masses can do no wrong. But modern art was partly a rebellion against massification because the masses were believed to incarnate and enforce generalising conformities. Modern artists, when they generalised about the masses, were generalising about what they feared was itself a new generalising force in society. This is contradictory, perhaps, and often it took unpleasant forms, but it is not necessarily incoherent, or even wrong. (Tocqueville had feared the same about the conformities of American democracy.) Nietzsche was not just thumbing his nose at the masses for the fun of it. He believed that the ‘herd morality’ of Christianity enslaved the masses, was unfair to them, because it turned ‘free spirits’ into a mass: ‘all these moralities ... all baroque and unreasonable in form, because they address themselves to “all”, because they generalise where generalisation is impermissible’, he writes in Beyond Good and Evil – this is a version of Carey’s own argument in The Intellectuals and the Masses.

Speaking of modernist difficulty, I hope I will not be thought ungenerous if I now direct your attention to a bad review of a book written by one of my own teachers, Colin MacCabe, under whose tutelage I first made my grateful way through Joyce’s labyrinth of Ulysses. Brigid Brophy (last seen here canceling everybody in sight) is not at all impressed by MacCabe’s pioneering poststructuralist reading of Joyce, but I want to minimize that unpleasantness and instead consider her acute comment on the economics of Ulysses. She makes a brief point about modernist anti-capitalism that is almost the opposite of Wood’s above: she sees Joyce’s resort to the old patronage model as a regression to the time before modern authorship, a flight from the economic freedom allowed by the opportunity to address an audience beyond the coterie:

Indeed, for a critic who purports to think in political terms and who cites the ‘traditional Marxist definition of a practice’ when he discusses the activity of writing, he is weak on economic relationships. He doesn’t mention the respect in which Joyce was truly a counter-revolutionary: he reversed the tendency, which had been increasing from the 17th century on, for writers to depend not on private patronage but on the public. It is at least worth considering the effect on a writer’s writing of the source of his income. Perhaps some 20th-century writers have striven to express themselves comprehensibly enough for a mass public, and others to write incomprehensibly enough to satisfy the avant-garde expectations of a patron. After all, it might really just not have done, in the eyes of Joyce’s financial supports (a Rockefeller daughter and Harriet Weaver), had Joyce’s imagination eventually come up with an indubitable masterpiece but a masterpiece on the lines of, say, Treasure Island.

Who is right about modernism, Wood or Julius/Carey/Brophy? Who can say? I can’t even agree with myself on the matter from day to day, even if I did talk them into giving me a Ph.D. with a defense of modernism that runs to a mortifying 300 pages. Speaking of self-division, Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Saul Bellow’s final novel, Ravelstein, in 2000, offers a memorable comparison of early Bellow to late, of a younger author exploding with Joycean exuberance (his linguistic magnanimity making him a well-known favorite of the aforementioned Wood) to an older author marred by ungenerous perception:

I can’t resist adding two more themes from Bellow’s triumph in 1953. One is a hatred of workhouse condescension towards the underclass: ‘Something in his person argued what the community that contributed the money wanted us poor bastards to be: sober, dutiful, buttoned, clean, sad, moderate.’ And the other a real demotic admiration for the Greeks, for their ancient willingness to face things as Augie tries to face the humilations of jail and the Stygian gloom of Erie, Pennsylvania and other wasteland spots […] By contrast, Ravelstein, and Ravelstein, are shadows on the wall of Augie March’s cave. The great city of Chicago is now represented as a heaving Calcutta midnight, awash in feral delinquency. Ravelstein segregates himself in an apartment building, with the pretentious name of ‘The Alhambra’, where his only contact with the world of the streets is a superannuated black skivvy: ‘As nearly as any honky could, he took into account her problems with her prostitute daughter, her jailed criminal son, and with the other son whose HIV troubles and scrambled wives and children were too complicated to describe.’ Why does one get the impression that Bellow would rather these people were ‘sober, dutiful, buttoned, clean, sad, moderate’?

Some would say the same unpleasant metamorphosis befell Hitchens himself in the years after 9/11. One such critic is Stefan Collini. Reviewing Hitchens’s book on Orwell in 2003, Collini gives an indelible picture of the contrarian intellectual as fallen blowhard:

The sight of Hitchens view-hallooing across the fields in pursuit of some particularly dislikable quarry has been among the most exhilarating experiences of literary journalism during the last two decades. He’s courageous, fast, tireless and certainly not squeamish about being in at the kill. But after reading this and some of his other recent writings, I begin to imagine that, encountering him, still glowing and red-faced from the pleasures of the chase, in the tap-room of the local inn afterwards, one might begin to see a resemblance not to Trotsky and other members of the European revolutionary intelligentsia whom he once admired, nor to the sophisticated columnists and political commentators of the East Coast among whom he now practises his trade, but to other red-coated, red-faced riders increasingly comfortable in their prejudices and their Englishness – to Kingsley Amis, pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic; to Philip Larkin, farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants; to Robert Conquest and a hundred other ‘I told you so’s. They would be good company, up to a point, but their brand of saloon-bar finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism, and I would be sorry to think of one of the essayists I have most enjoyed reading in recent decades turning into a no-two-ways-about-it-let’s-face-it bore. I just hope he doesn’t go on one hunt too many and find himself, as twilight gathers and the fields fall silent, lying face down in his own bullshit.

Recent commentators such as Agnes Callard and Sam Kriss, themselves notorious in some quarters, have usefully cautioned us not to throw the dialectical baby out with the contrarian bathwater. Accordingly, how could I forget to mention another LRB stalwart, Slavoj Žižek? I haven’t read all his articles—I’ve barely ever read a book of his from cover to cover—yet I feel as if I’ve read thousands, millions, billions of pages of Žižek. As someone once quipped of his beloved master Hegel: it’s okay if you lose one page of his, because he will just say the same thing on another. A few of his controversial and oft-repeated observations are worth keeping in mind, such as this prescient warning from 2006 about corporate capitalists’ strategic adoption of seemingly progressive ideology, which he ironically calls “liberal communism”:

We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to.

Our tour of the archive has perhaps left us exhausted from the world-historical quarrels buffeting us in our progress—why am I suddenly thinking of Russian Ark, a film that put me to sleep both times I watched it?—so let me end with Elif Batuman, a Russophile and theorist of the individual in history. She began her career as another brilliant controversialist somewhat in the Hitchens/Žižek mold with her unforgettable LRB essays. Her writing life, after this astonishing debut, went in a different and less contentious direction under the influence, I believe, of the present expiring decade’s aforementioned homogenization of literature and politics. (I loved her memoir, but couldn’t finish, or even get started with, her novel, which is possibly my fault and possibly not.) I’ll always remember her early LRB stemwinders, though. In one, a review from 2008, she came up with the most provocative unified field theory of American comics in its two characteristic genres—the superhero saga and the historical memoir—I’ve ever read. If the owl of Minerva ever flies in my regularly-offered History of Comics class, it takes wing on the day, toward the end of the semester, when we discuss Batuman’s essay:

The suitability of the comics medium to historical narratives lies, again, in the text-image duality, which makes history a kind of imagistic backdrop to the characters’ actions. The superhero’s double identity corresponds, in this sense, to Lukács’s distinction between private citizens and ‘world-historical’ characters: Clark Kent (and Isaac Babel) represent text and private life, while Superman (and the Red Cavalryman Lyutov) represent the image and world-historical narrative. According to Lukács, the task of the historical novel is to use private destinies as a mirror of ‘social-human contents’, in order to ‘present history “from below”’. This is the aim so spectacularly achieved in Maus, whose first volume is subtitled My Father Bleeds History: this is history seen literally from below, from the perspective of the mouse.

And in her 2010 diatribe against creative writing programs (I didn’t attend one either), she found the courage to deliver a last blow against literary identity politics on the eve of its becoming so totally hegemonic that one takes one’s career into one’s hands to speak even slightly ill of it:

The World Pluribus of Letters has replaced a primary standard of ‘universal literary value’ with a primary standard of persecutedness, euphemised as ‘difference’. It seems strange to me that McGurl, who sees the situation so clearly, seems not to view it as a problem. Perhaps his status as a White Person prevents him from objecting to the ideals of the Pluribus. But my hardworking immigrant parents didn’t give me a funny name and send me to Harvard for nothing, so I’m going to go ahead and say how damaging I think this all is. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about persecution, for either the persecuted or the non-persecuted, there is a genuine problem when young people are taught to believe that they can be writers only in the presence of real or invented sociopolitical grievances.

I too have at least one hardworking immigrant parent and a funny name, and I did not even go to Harvard; but I am also, admittedly, at least nominally and depending on who’s looking, “a White Person.” Does that qualify me to agree with Batuman? I’m not entirely sure, but I do, I do—I’m sorry, but I do. And with that credo, we conclude our perambulation of this most stimulating archive, free to enjoy, like a temporarily public garden or library or museum, at least through the New Year.


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