Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

heidegger
Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.

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(via)

By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

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Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

winter
Art: John Totleben

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!

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.

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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!

Q, Conspiracy, and the Novel; or, Why Portraits and Ashes Should Be Your Summer Read

Readers who perceive an esoteric subtext to my writing and who therefore keep a paranoiac tally of my cryptic allusions will recall that I have mentioned the “Q” or “Qanon” conspiracy theory twice. Both references occurred in the context of paranoiac fictions: Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. But there is more to be said about the crossroads where conspiracy and literature meet.

If you are unfamiliar with Q, here is the briefest possible summary I can manage: Q is the pseudonym of a 4chan/8chan message board poster (or group of posters) who claims to have a top-secret security clearance within the Trump administration. He further claims that the administration is mounting a sophisticated revolution or counter-revolution against the “deep state” at home and abroad—against, essentially, the global hegemony of administrative liberalism, which Q accuses of being a nearly satanic force of exploitation and predation, especially sexual exploitation and predation. A regular Q catchphrase: “These people are sick.”

Since last October, Q has regularly posted communiqués in the form of almost poetic questions or fragmentary hints, to goad his audience of Trump supporters to do their own research into the supposed perfidy of the international order. His goal is evidently to prepare a cadre of citizens to spread calm throughout civil society by providing rationales for the defeat of the deep state in a future climax of high-profile arrests (including Obama’s and Clinton’s) and even martial law. Another regular Q catchphrase: “Where we go one, we go all.”

The Q conspiracy is strange on several grounds. First of all, conspiracy theories do not generally assure their adherents that all is well, that the powers that be are on their side. Q takes elements from prior conspiracy theories, particularly those that describe cabals of shadowy perverts who manipulate states and economies, and rewrites them. Q revises conspiracy from a horror story, where evil is all-pervasive and defeated temporarily if at all, into a superhero story, where evil is defeated consistently and predictably by collective good.

In fact, Q is the only example of a positive conspiracy theory I can think of: it says that conspirators in high places are working quietly to serve us, to help us, to bring about the world we desire. In this sense, we might amorally describe it is an innovation in the history of legitimizing authority. A final regular Q catchphrase: “Trust the plan.”

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Another strange feature of Q is that it is becoming mainstream. An advocate for the overthrow of the liberal world order, for a coming military coup and the arrest or even execution of previous elected officials, has just been included by Time on a list of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. While the tone of the write-up, by Melissa Chan, is lightly disparaging, the lightness has a mollifying effect on the reader, as if a military junta were being described in a gossip column:

Last October, an anonymous user, known simply as Q, started posting cryptic messages on the controversial message board 4chan—the common theme being that President Trump is a secret genius and his opponents, namely Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are evil. Q reportedly claimed to be getting this information directly from the government, thanks to top-secret, “Q-type” security clearance. There has been little—if any—hard evidence to support Q’s musings. But over time, thousands of people started to believe them—or at least, to acknowledge they might be real.

Propaganda often works not by arguing for a claim, but simply by placing the claim before audiences as an appropriate object of open-minded discussion. Similarly, almost sympathetic treatments of Q, often with a literary bent, have recently appeared in Tablet and Harper’s.

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TV writer Ted Mann opens his Tablet exploration of Q with an account of his researches while working on Homeland. I have never seen Homeland beyond one episode, but I was once obsessed with another show Mann worked on, Chris Carter’s ludicrously underrated grim and apocalyptic X-Files follow-up, Millennium (1996-1999). The series follows ex-FBI profiler Frank Black, an empath who is able to see through the eyes of serial killers, as he becomes embroiled in an involuted shadowplay among secret societies, intelligence services, and metaphysical forces struggling over the fate of the world ahead of the turn of the titular millennium. It was an uneven but brilliant show that overcame its obvious influences (Se7en above all) to create an uncommonly foreboding and psychedelic vision of a demon-stalked, rain-drenched landscape where goodness is just the fragile flame of one man’s love and integrity. In other words, all the Q themes, but played mournful and slow.

Anyway, Mann, in a worldlier tone than Chan’s, a tone heavy with winking savoir faire and barely withheld knowledge, also manages to “acknowledge that [Q] might be real”:

There’s a lot more to the Q anon story, but you’d never believe me if I told you now. Think of it as a dream. A world without war, a world of tremendous abundance powered by non-linear technology, a cure for cancer, the restoration of civility, kindness and humor to the long-suffering peoples of the earth, God only knows.

We are here witnessing a writer’s admiration for another writer, a writer of pre-millennial dystopias tipping his rumpled noir fedora to the gold-hatted scribe of post-millennial utopias.

These two themes, the literary and the utopian, are played still more insistently in novelist Walter Kirn’s Harper’s essay on Q. Kirn puts his conclusions about Q in someone else’s mouth, but this half-disavowed thesis is the same one we’ve seen above. Kirn “acknowledge[s] that [Q] might be real”:

Could Q have actual foreknowledge? Was he somehow the oracle he purported to be? Having followed the posts for months now, I wish I could summarily dismiss them, but so outrageous is our current reality, so reliably unpredictable and odd, that it does not seem impossible to me that there might exist an internet seer stationed in the White House whose job is to brief lowly geeks on global intrigues. My friend Matthew, who saw combat in Afghanistan and has reported on intelligence issues, believes that Q may be the result of psyops conceived to maintain morale among Trump’s base.

To be fair to all the above writers, I am in agreement with their arguments and intimations, not least because Mann and Kirn seem to have inside information (as I do not): even if the Q conspiracy theory is untrue as stated, Q himself (or themselves) is likely not some shitposting chan troll but rather a mouthpiece for genuine powers that be—for “powers, principalities, thrones, and dominions,” to quote Ted Mann quoting St. Paul.

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Which makes me all the more bemused (or should I be alarmed?) at Q’s so far rather blasé reception in mainstream media, especially in its more literary corners. What is going on? Is the discourse hedging its bets? Or is it only the old Pynchon/DeLillo phenomenon: novelists’ envy of those who write novels with nations and lives?

Like Ted Mann, Walter Kirn frames his Q analysis with a discussion of fictional narrative. He first recounts his failed attempt, over a decade ago, to create an Internet novel, and he concludes by stating that Q, though working for disturbingly authoritarian ends, shows the way to a genuine literature, fragmentary and participatory, for the current age:

The Q tale may be loathsome and deeply wicked, a magnet for bigots and ignoramuses whose ugly dreams it caters to and ratifies, but as a feat of New Age storytelling I find it curiously encouraging. The imagination lives. A talented bard can still grab and keep an audience. Now for a better story, with higher themes. Now for the bracing epic of recovery that the dark wizards have shown us how to write.

Well said. I would find it well said, since my novel Portraits and Ashes is a story of art and conspiracy, paranoia and redemption, that acknowledges the mysterious forces pervading and degrading our world even as it also shows how they may be transcended by men and women committed to love and beauty. It is undoubtedly indecent to write propaganda for oneself, but I don’t know what to say or what to do about the paranoid forces marauding my country and my world; all I know is that I wrote Portraits and Ashes to drive myself sane. I hope it may do the same for you.  A page-turner and a philosophical novel, Portraits and Ashes will satisfy your desires both to indulge paranoia and to recover from it. From the back cover:

Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.

Plus, it is a literary novel that will also serve for the beach or the plane. If you ever get sick of the news or its refraction in social media’s mazy and scary missives, Portraits and Ashes will come as a relief: a novel for our exciting and petrifying millennium.

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Images 1-3: screencaps from the opening credit sequence of Millennium.

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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!

Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar

The City and the PillarThe City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A little over a decade and a half ago, Gore Vidal was one of the most urgent voices on the American left: challenging empire in the era of neoconservatism, challenging religion at the height of evangelical power, he seemed to speak for America’s disaffected left-liberals in the Bush years.

Readers coming to Vidal’s cultural and political essays for the first time today, however, may not necessarily associate them with the political left at all. Politics change with the times. What is progressive in one decade looks regressive the next, and vice versa. If Vidal, who died in 2012, could come back to see Bill Kristol and David Frum hailed as heroes of an anti-fascist resistance movement, he would die all over again. But other changes are more subtle. The leading edge of today’s progressive movement, for instance, is notably religious, its socialism informed by a spiritual commitment to “the least among us.” Similarly, its feminism (having largely dismissed the sexual revolution as the alibi of the male predator) is tempered by an ecumenical avowal of “modesty.” Contrast Vidal’s classic essay, “Monotheism and Its Discontents” (1992):

The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved — Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

In the era of the religious right’s dominance, Vidal was not in the mood to be “inclusive.” When it came to capital-P Politics, matters of statecraft and war, he, in the same essay, remarks upon the resemblances between his own “isolationism” (a word he felt had been unfairly demonized) and that of the populist right:

Meanwhile, the word “isolationist” has been revived to describe those who would like to put an end to the national security state that replaced our Republic a half-century ago while extending the American military empire far beyond our capacity to pay for it. The word was trotted out this year to describe Pat Buchanan, when he was causing great distress to the managers of our national security state by saying that America must abandon the empire if we are ever to repair the mess at home. Also, as a neo-isolationist, Buchanan must be made to seem an anti-Semite.

Speaking of the latter point, Vidal did not place much value on politesse in matters multicultural. His most famous statement on sexual freedom is perhaps 1981’s “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (which you can read at The Nation under its original title, “Some Jews & The Gays”). That essay may be understood as a sequel to Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” As Wolfe’s 1970 essay charted the late-1960s apotheosis of phony leftism among “the new class” (midcentury media elites), so Vidal’s 1981 essay accounts for this class’s turn to neoconservatism and its accompanying homophobia.

Because so many members of the new class descended from immigrants, Vidal sought to make common cause with Jews on the grounds that reactionary regimes, Nazism above all, tended to target Jewish and gay populations alike. Yet he does not avoid stereotype. In fact, he mercilessly manipulates stereotype, evidently considering turnabout fair play: as if to avenge the vicious homophobia of Midge Decter and Joseph Epstein, he deploys, in discursive revenge, judeophobic tropes: “No matter how crowded and noisy a room, one can always detect the new-class person’s nasal whine.” And the whole essay argues, in the name of a universal humanism, against any exceptionalist understanding of the Holocaust, as illustrated by this memorable anecdote with, ironically, the cadence of a Borscht Belt bit:

In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. “After all,” said Isherwood, “Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals.” The young man was not impressed. “But Hitler killed six million Jews,” he said sternly. “What are you?” asked Isherwood. “In real estate?”

Vidal’s attitude toward sexuality as such was anarchic. He construed human beings as essentially bisexual, denying any such thing as the homosexual identity as opposed to the variably sexual actor, and he saw males in particular as sexually omnivorous. He had a contempt for bourgeois family life, on the basis of whose protection the empire was extended and whose metaphysical warrant was monotheism, with the Hebrew Bible as its wellspring. A coherent and comprehensive worldview, then, not much in evidence on the left today, even if various of its features seemed crucial in the years after 9/11, when Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War seemed (to some) like beacons in a fog of propaganda.

Vidal once semi-seriously appointed Christopher Hitchens his “dauphin or delfino,” before the two men broke over Hitchens’s own post-9/11 conversion to neoconservativism; Vidal ironically outlived his erstwhile successor by one year, which means neither of them crossed into the Trump era. A few commentators have speculated that Hitchens, had he lived, would have warmed, out of sheer contrarianism, to Trump. I highly doubt it, notwithstanding the role played by Hitchens’s nemesis (and Clinton bagman) Sidney Blumenthal in the concoction of the Steele Dossier; I tend to imagine, wrongly perhaps, Hitchens voting for Evan McMullin! With Vidal, on the other hand, one does have to wonder.

Despite all of the above, I do not recommend, as I never do, intellectual biblioclasm. Vidal was a giant of American letters, a brilliant political essayist, and a rebel against orthodoxies whose solidity in their own time it is now difficult to remember. Often the contemporary critics most loudly denouncing historical figures for their “privilege” are themselves unwittingly privileged by their own presentist bias; heirs to the revolutions our predecessors made at great cost to themselves, we judge them from positions of moral security they could not have known.

After that unconscionably long preamble, let me get to the point: Vidal mainly considered himself a novelist. Like Orwell and Baldwin and Sontag, he was almost certainly a better essayist than novelist, but is his fiction any good at all?

His early novel, The City and the Pillar (1948, revised 1965), provides a mixed answer to that question. Historically, it is a crucial text, part of that handful of canonical testaments to 20th-century gay male life before Stonewall, alongside Maurice (1913-14, 1971), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and A Single Man (1964). Of these novels, Isherwood’s is perhaps the only outright literary masterpiece, while Vidal’s is, aesthetically speaking, the slightest. The work of a very young author (Vidal was 21 when he wrote it), The City and the Pillar lacks the moral wisdom of Forster or the sociopolitical acuity of Baldwin, not to mention Isherwood’s late-modernist prose-poetry. Nevertheless, as Vidal mentions in his 1995 introduction to this edition, a reprint of the 1965 revision, he sent the novel to Isherwood and to Thomas Mann, and both men admired it, with Mann reporting in his diary, “An important human document, of excellent and enlightening truthfulness.”

The novel begins with Jim Willard drunk in a New York City bar. From there, a flashback is cued that fills out the bulk of the novel before we return, in the final chapter, to the present. Jim is reared in a politician’s family in Virginia, and is an all-American athlete himself destined for politics. But in high school, he falls in love with a classmate named Bob and they share a tryst in an old “slave cabin” (Vidal again links instances of oppression) by the Potomac:

Now they were complete, as each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.

Then novel’s prose will rarely be so lyrical again. After high school, Jim becomes a sailor, and then he jumps ship and becomes the kept man of a movie star named Shaw. Life with Shaw gives Jim his introduction into the queer demimonde, which Jim regards ambivalently. Like Forster’s Maurice and Baldwin’s David, Vidal’s Jim is characterized as a “normal” man but for his desire for other men. “Normal” here means “not effeminate.” This is unacceptable to us, no doubt, but these novels tend to express a horror at the feminine, wishing instead to associate male homosexuality with traditionally masculine expressions of gender. As in Giovanni’s Room, the effeminacy of the queer male world is implied to be damage done by the constraints of the closet, and also a cause of the sorrows of gay life.

The City and the Pillar certainly dwells on the sorrows, though they come across more as corruptions given the briskness of the novel’s unsentimental dialogue-heavy and generally anti-lyrical style. Vidal in his introduction says he intended “a flat gray prose reminiscent of one of James T. Farrell’s social documents,” while Brian A. Oard ingeniously compares the novel to Candide. And in Vidal’s pitilessly appraising eye, canvassing in a brief but picaresque text almost the whole of North America as well as London and the sea, there is not a little of Voltaire.

The rest of the novel’s plot is shortly told. Jim leaves Shaw to take up with the writer Sullivan, which gives Vidal a chance to satirize the literary world. After a failed love triangle in Mexico with Sullivan and a woman named Maria, Jim enters the army during World War II and experiences more romantic failure. Though he finds economic success postwar as a tennis instructor in New York, he remains unlucky in love and unsatisfied with the gay subculture, a dissatisfaction that Vidal brings out most brutally in his cruel portrayal of the fatuous and hypocritical party host Rolly: “‘You know, I loathe these screaming pansies…I mean, after all, why be a queen if you like other queens, if you follow me?'”

The novel is plainly moving toward the crisis of Jim’s reunion with Bob, his first love, now married with a child. While Bob had been a willing sexual partner in their youth and expresses ambivalence when he rejoins Jim in New York, he eventually rebuffs his old friend’s advances. Following this rejection by his Platonically ideal male lover, Jim rapes Bob and leaves him face down on a hotel room bed (and in fact, in the novel’s original 1948 version, he kills Bob). After this unforgivable violation, Jim goes to the bar where we met him in the novel’s first chapter. The despairing conclusion finds him in contemplation of the river, water being the novel’s symbol of metamorphosis from the Potomac beside which Jim and Bob make love to the ocean on which they separately set sail:

Once more he stood beside a river, aware at last that the purpose of rivers is to flow into the sea. Nothing that ever was changes. Yet nothing that is can ever be the same as what went before.

As these words imply, The City and the Pillar differs from Forster’s, Baldwin’s, and (to a lesser extent) Isherwood’s novels. The hero’s fundamental problem is not society’s ban on his love for men as it is in, say, Giovanni’s Room. Jim’s tragedy, or fortunate fall, is rather the reverse: his love for men, by freeing him from family life and respectable bourgeois society, discloses to him the essential emptiness of existence, as perceived by the godless Vidal but concealed beneath monotheistic rhetoric and the nuclear family. Like the queer theorist Lee Edelman after him, Vidal treasures queerness for its power to dissolve comforting illusions, its anti-promise of “no future.” (A comparison might also be drawn to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood [1936].)

Like his political essays, then, Vidal’s fiction retains a power to shock and disturb. But Vidal’s wit is better expressed in essay form, where it is wedded to the dissolutely avuncular charm of his voice, rather than to the cold eye of his novel’s third-person narrator. The novel’s grim point, too, could have been made without the climactic act of violence, whether murder or rape, which to me bespeaks a young author’s belief that shock tactics can disguise structural flaws.

The novel’s main structural flaw is Jim. He is too colorless a character, merely a passive observer, his recalcitrant lovelessness and unconvincing obsession with his youthful paramour inexplicable extremisms. (Vidal compares him to Humbert Humbert in his introduction, but where in Jim is Humbert’s idiosyncrasy and perversity?) The novel’s title allies Jim to Lot’s wife: he is destroyed for looking back. But what does Vidal give him to look forward to? I admire amoralism in a novel, but immoralism is moralism’s equal and opposite, just another version of the didactic. Oddly, Vidal’s essays feel less sermonic than this novel does.

Even so, The City and the Pillar is darkly entertaining, historically illuminating, and remorselessly intelligent. Though politics and history have left him behind, as they will leave all of us behind, Gore Vidal remains a writer to read.

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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!

Against Celebration: Bloomsday vs. Dallowayday

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Two years ago, Elaine Showalter suggested that we balance Bloomsday (June 16, the day whereon Joyce’s Ulysses is set) with Dallowayday:

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is set in a single city on a single day: London on 13 June 1923. But while Bloomsday on 16 June is the occasion of riotous celebrations in Dublin and around the world, the day of Mrs Dalloway’s party is ignored. I think Dallowday is a date worth celebrating – it should be the occasion of readings, exhibitions, performances and revelry. Why is Leopold Bloom more important than Clarissa Dalloway? How did Dublin get to own a single day in literary history, and London miss out?

Showalter’s brief essay is in fact a list of fairly good reasons for the predominance of Bloomsday over Dallowayday, reasons including Woolf’s characteristic vagueness as to the actual day her novel takes place and Dublin’s greater need than London for stimulants to the tourist trade. She does not neglect, either, the differing class character of the two novels:

Indeed, I suspect that the absence of a pub crawl has been the major drawback to the institution of Dallowday. Mrs Dalloway’s party in Westminster is a sedate and sober affair. It’s more about the guest list (the prime minister!), the decor (new chair covers!) and the Imperial Tokay, than the wild escapades of Nighttown. A feminine party, in short. I don’t think there’s a pub in the entire book. Women didn’t go to them in the 1920s; Woolf was not celebrated for her heroic drinking. Clarissa Dalloway and her friends do not slip off for nightcaps or dance on the tables like Zelda Fitzgerald.

Showalter is serious in condemning a gendered condescension toward Woolf as against Joyce. She quotes her own undergraduate lecture notes from the 1960s: “VW: more intellectually limited than James Joyce,” which is not only false but the direct opposite of the truth.

Joyce’s genius was for converting perceptions into unimprovable orders of words and then making larger symbolic and narrative patterns out of them, but he was not, that I can detect, interested in ideas at all, and some of his patterns are more technically or mechanically fascinating than they are in any way profound. Woolf, by contrast, and as shown by her vast achievement in the essay form as well as the novel, was an intellectual and woman of letters, discursively engaged in the literary and cultural debates of her time; she was, with Eliot, modernism’s greatest artist-critic.

I would advise against, though, pitting Bloomsday against Dallowayday merely on the grounds of identity politics: boys vs. girls. We are currently in the midst, not without reason, of a gender-first variant of identitarian cultural critique and political activism, the fourth wave reprising the second; “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” is the reductio ad absurdum, which the Washington Post inexplicably saw fit to publish. But my cynical (and no doubt toxically masculine) suspicion is that this is the expedient of a left-liberalism that is, throughout the West, electorally on the defensive, and women tout court are a larger constituency than those conceived in race or class terms. But when left-liberalism was more robust, only half a decade ago, the watchword was “intersectionality,” and an elite white woman with rather amoralist aesthetic and consumerist proclivities like Woolf would have found herself in the crosshairs of identitarian polemic. I myself wrote a doctoral dissertation partially on Woolf and Joyce supervised by a scholar who was arguing almost 15 years ago for a greater critical awareness of Woolf and her modernist cohort as “cultural capitalists” and enclosers of the artistic commons.

With a more intersectional approach, there is not even any guarantee that Woolf comes out ahead in this kind of victimological relay with Joyce anyway. Which identity is the more oppressed and thus more in need of redress, that of a male Catholic colonial of the downwardly-mobile lower middle class, prey to alcoholism and, albeit heterosexual, emancipatorily intrigued by polymorphous sexual expression; or that of the queer upper-class Englishwoman, subject to mental illness? An answer is not so readily forthcoming. Furthermore, the logic of displacement on the grounds of political redress would certainly not stop with Woolf’s ouster of Joyce. Why celebrate white, Anglophone authors at all? Or for that matter, why celebrate authors? Isn’t literacy the ultimate agent of civilizational exploitation, more potent than because the source of superior weaponry?

But Showalter’s own early work betrays just such an awareness of Woolf’s limitations from the point of view of the committed political imagination, so much so that I suspect her Dallowayday article is just in part, as they say across the pond, taking the piss. Here is Showalter’s verdict on Woolf from her pioneering feminist literary history, A Literature of Their Own (1977), bringing to a close a chapter titled “The Flight into Androgyny”:

In George Lukacs’ formulation, the ethic of a novelist becomes an aesthetic problem in his writing. Thus it is not surprising to recognize in Virginia Woolf’s memorable definition of life: “a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end,” another metaphor of uterine withdrawal and containment. Woolf’s fictional record of the perceptions of this state describes consciousness as passive receptivity: “The mind receives a myriad impressions…an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” In one sense, Woolf’s female aesthetic is an extension of her view of women’s social role: receptivity to the point of self-destruction, creative synthesis to the point of exhaustion and sterility. […] Refined to its essences, abstracted from its physicality and anger, denied any action, Woolf’s vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied. The ultimate room of one’s own is the grave.

“Receptivity to the point of self-destruction” is another word for modernism. Showalter, wishing in the ’70s to found her feminism on the revolutionary Marxist agency theorized by Lukács, rejects the “feminized” (or androgynous) role both male and female modernists since Pater sought for the artist as a receptacle of “sensations and ideas.” But in this, Woolf and Joyce are not at odds but are rather perfectly allied, and their day-in-the-life novels can be celebrated in tandem and without contradiction as epics of the everyday perceiving consciousness in its encounter with the modern cityscape.

But for all these qualifications, Dallowayday is a good idea on two grounds: 1. Mrs. Dalloway is a masterpiece; and 2. its celebration might serve as a corrective to some of the boozy sentimentality that has grown up around Bloomsday.

I have written on prior Junes 16 about how this day’s sacralization of Joyce’s mock-epic tends to misconstrue its tone and some of its implications, or to elevate some misleadingly at the expense of others. That the novel endorses alcoholic dissipation is one mistake I have mentioned, which should be obvious enough to anyone who reads the book with any superficial comprehension: one of Bloom’s heroic qualities is drinking in moderation.

Bloom’s unquestioned heroism is another problem. Joyce was an adept of Defoe, Flaubert, and Ibsen, three writers who, despite their differences of period, nation, language, and genre, insisted on the objective portrayal of everyday life without superimposed authorial moralism. Bloom is meant to be an outsider to the sickly self-enclosed world of Dublin’s moral, cultural, and political paralysis, and thus a challenge to that stasis. And some of his qualities are morally appealing ones, above all his liberalism, which is this novel’s commendation to the contemporary literati. But Bloom’s existing outside the bounds of conventional morality, whether those of Victorian domesticity or Irish Catholicism, perhaps transgresses boundaries we still recognize, or should.

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For instance: “Why is Milly in Mullingar?” to quote the title of a 1977 James Joyce Quarterly essay by Jane Ford (1977 is also the year of Showalter’s study, and this essay’s interest in father/daughter incest bespeaks the feminist priorities of the period). Ford speculates:

A “piecing together of hints” scattered throughout the novel seems to indicate that Milly is in exile in Mullingar due to three transgressions that have occurred with her father: “once by inadvertence, twice by design” (U 692). […] Notwithstanding Mark Shechner’s contention that “despite the ubiquity of confession in Ulysses and Joyce’s other books, that crime remains as mysterious as Earwicker’s crime in Phoenix Park,” my conviction is that there is sufficient textual support in the novel, not only for fantasies of father/daughter incest, but for the actual occurrence as well. Overwhelmed by guilt, Bloom might well succumb to the temptation to jump into the Liffey.

One doesn’t have to agree with the specifics of this argument, though I think I do, to perceive Bloom’s unseemly sexual interest in his daughter: “Sex breaking out even then.”

My larger point, though, is that celebration, at least in the modern sense of moral approval (as opposed to an ancient sense involving the worship and the propitiation of hungry gods), is the wrong approach to literary texts that make a priority of encompassing all that actually is, which includes so much not worth celebrating. The ludic qualities of Ulysses as well its cyclopedic Homeric vastness, tend to conceal this aspect of Joyce’s vision, however, while the briefer (and more violent) Mrs. Dalloway makes it obvious.

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In fact, I suspect one reason we celebrate Bloomsday over Dallowayday is the flagrant amoralism of Woolf’s novel. I don’t know that Woolf herself, an intellectual of the left, thought Clarissa Dalloway, society wife to a right-wing politician, particularly worth celebrating except as a specimen of humanity as such. Were Mrs. Dalloway written today, it would be a sympathetic treatment of Melania or Ivanka, and its irrecuperability to left activism, correctly perceived by Showalter, would be immediately evident. Moreover, the novel climaxes when this elite protagonist’s sensibility is energized by her aesthetic delectation in the death of a shell-shocked soldier of a lower class:

She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

Do you want to drink to that? Actually, in some moods, I do. This is what literature is fundamentally for: a confrontation with all that is repressed by those discourses and disciplines, from religion to philosophy to sociology to psychology, that have to put a brave face on things. But things are what they are; existence is hierarchy and death, the attractions of doom, the sublime beauties of terror, the appeal of power, the cruelty of consciousness, and the impersonal ecstasies of art. Because Mrs. Dalloway is the shorter and more obviously didactic book than Ulysses, it brings this all-too-human but anti-humane quality of literature to the fore, and is thus less the tourist trap than its Dublin counterpart.

(Speaking of psychology, I saw a comment to the effect that we might celebrate Dallowayday by calling for better mental health treatment in deference to the novel’s attack on the imperial psychologist Bradshaw. But on the evidence of the text, Woolf rejects the medical model of the psyche entirely, regarding it as a means of social control and the squelching of art, and she anticipates the anti-psychiatry of Foucault and Szasz. This is part of Mrs. Dalloway’s glorious if elite anarchism, its Nietzschean rather than Freudian modernism. As I said, celebration, as a social act, may not be appropriate to any of modernism’s wonderfully anti-social books.)

In conclusion, though, I would like to “celebrate” or at least to commend Mrs. Dalloway for its formal differences from Ulysses. I have never been good at reading Woolf’s diary (I don’t want to read strangers’ diaries; I want to read the diaries of my friends and family), but I am aware of some astute commentary there on Joyce’s big book. While Woolf is better known for her discreditably or even disgustingly haughty belittlement of Joyce (“the book of a self-taught working-man,” which he wasn’t, at least not in Woolf’s English caste-system sense of the relevant terms, not that it should matter anyway), there is also some acute criticism of Ulysses in the diary:

It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. […] I feel that myriads of tiny bullets pepper one and spatter one; but one does not get one deadly wound straight in the face—as from Tolstoy, for instance; but it is entirely absurd to compare him with Tolstoy. (September 6, 1922)

Joyce didn’t think it absurd: he thought “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” the greatest story in the world. But, if we can forget “the obvious sense” (oh Virginia, you incorrigible snob!) and focus on the literary one, doesn’t she have a point about the novel’s “underbreeding”? (Breeding is a trope in Joyce’s novel, by the way; contrary to his otherwise ultra-modernist attitudes and postmodern anticipations of third-wave feminism, the Jesuit-trained author stands up in the most old-fashioned Catholic or even Tolstoyan way for natural childbirth as his hero offers paeans to maternity.)

That is, Mrs. Dalloway‘s Shakespearean amplitude in brevity (as opposed to Ulysses‘s mock-Homeric exhaustiveness), its enlivening flood of earnest unbroken language (as opposed to Ulysses‘s fragmentary kaleidoscope of styles), its suggestiveness rather than precision (as opposed to Ulysses‘s heavily-researched commitment to the facticity of June 16, 1904), makes it the more affecting work, the Tolstoyan shot straight to the face.

We should not neglect the anti- and postcolonial importance of Joyce’s desire to put the whole of his colonized city onto the map of world literature, but even so, it is a bit of a relief not to know the precise date whereon the events of Mrs. Dalloway occur, and I doubt that Woolf gave it much thought. She did not consult newspapers and directories, just as I have not thoroughly read her diary.

Though Ulysses scrupulously if rather literally mimics the dream-state in “Circe,” which is a just a warm-up for Finnegans Wake, Mrs. Dalloway, with its transience of perception from character to character across expanses of consciousness as well as social space, is the more winningly dream-like achievement. It is Joyce’s formalist literalism, his resolute commitment to achieving every (sometimes inorganic) experiment, that Woolf lacks: this is what she means in her censure of the “tricky,” and I think she is more right than wrong.

But, pace Showalter, we do not have to be little Lukácses, would-be commissars of culture, judging [X] progressive and sending [Y] off to the gulag for reactionary tendencies. Both books sit comfortably on my shelf (two copies of each, in fact), and I love them both. It is only the zero-sum politics of celebration that make literature seem such a dreary attempt to effect political ends by aesthetic means. We can read both of these books, anti-social as they are, in the privacy of home and library, and take them for what they are worth to us: the unspeakable thoughts they so compellingly insist on whispering into our inner ear.

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Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

Radical Chic; &, Mau Mauing The Flak CatchersRadical Chic & Mau Mauing The Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate.
—Whit Stillman, Metropolitan

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it is a year or two into a conservative presidential administration—one that follows an epoch-making liberal one, and that was carried into office on a wave of resentful white populism. Social and cultural changes that once looked permanent now feel a bit insecure. An alliance between the cultural and economic elite with progressive causes, including some of those causes’ more radical exponents, starts to break. Satire overwhelms earnestness. The ideological and demographic constituencies of the broad political left itself begin to fall out: socialist vs. liberal, working class vs. middle class, African-American vs. Jewish. The ethical status of the state of Israel is a particular flashpoint. And the New York Times increasingly appears to side, at least in matters cultural, with the political right.

Is this America? Is this 2018? It is indeed America, but I am describing the Nixon years, and you can read all about it in the late Tom Wolfe’s 1970 classic of embedded and excitable reportage, “Radical Chic.” The titular phrase, by the way, is one—among others—that Wolfe introduced into the language; it signifies the temporary adoption of left-wing ideology by the rich as a matter of fashion. (The word woke now means roughly the same, at least in its ironic usage, where it is spoken in imagined quotation marks to suggest a privileged white liberal’s patronizing adoption of black slang.)

Upon the white-suited author’s recent death, I wanted to read something of his, preferably not a 900-page novel in the mode of a zany Zola, so I chose this diptych on hearing “Radical Chic” commended on social media as especially relevant to the politics of the present. I just didn’t realize how relevant it would prove, even though I am the one always saying history is likely more circle than line.

“Radical Chic” famously narrates a party and/or meeting and/or benefit (the nature of the gathering actually becomes a point of contention in its controversial aftermath) held in the home of celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1970 wherein he hosted a number of Black Panthers alongside his more customary guest list of VIPs (Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, Harry Belafonte—to cite a few names still in circulation). The event itself goes awry when Bernstein and his cohort begin interrogating their new guests not so much on racial politics, but rather on the Panthers’ avowed revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism—obviously an unwelcome prospect to this gathering of the haute bourgeoisie. Further, there is the tense subtext of worsening relations between the black and Jewish communities, exacerbated by the Panthers’ Third Worldist politics and concomitant hostility to Israel. When a columnist somewhat mockingly reports on the party in the New York Times the next day, it becomes a watchword for the delusions of fashionable bien pensance at the end of the 1960s.

While Wolfe artfully restricts his narrative timeline to the present of Bernstein’s party and its immediate aftermath, his own authorial voice ranges through the history of status wars between old and new money in New York City. Because America has no landed aristocracy, Wolfe explains, there are always new rich emerging from new bases of wealth (railroads, oil, steel, etc.) who need to set themselves apart with new status symbols. Often this takes the form of nostalgie de la boue, or “romanticizing of primitive souls”—essentially, slumming. Making matters more complicated, the new rich of the midcentury, who made their millions in media and culture, come from the ranks of the formerly impoverished immigrant groups: they are Catholics and Jews. These groups, especially the latter, have an understandable historical connection to the political left without compare among previous Protestant cohorts of the new rich. For this reason, they are especially divided between their self-interest and their desire for social justice, and are accordingly susceptible to radical chic, a fundamentally dishonest way of reconciling these incompatible commitments, and one moreover accompanied by an exploitative aestheticization or fetishization, even a consumption, necessarily de haut en bas, of the objects of their pity:

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—

—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads—

—these are real men!

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.”

Radical chic is the anti-racism that is really just racism.

Now Wolfe could not explicate this history and its results so knowledgeably without some sympathy for the subjects of his investigation. His attitude is not simply one of contempt; there is too much understanding in it for that. But there is satire, especially in the piece’s opening explanation of how Bernstein and friends clamored to hire white (largely Hispanic) rather than black servants in preparation for their encounter with the Black Panthers.

Wolfe largely spares the Black Panthers themselves his satirical scrutiny. I suspect he sees them as honest political players, pursuing their interests in the open sans the complex codes of the comme il faut among the jet set, codes that often operate precisely to conceal conflicts of interest. In the slighter second piece in this volume, “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” he is more unsparing, and here his conservative politics come to the fore as he presents an elaborate game between community organizers and poverty programs in San Francisco. The staid bureaucrats, he explains, require the organizers to intimidate and harass them to justify getting anything done, though what they bring to the communities they ostensibly serve is often make-work amounting to little. Wolfe allows that this characteristic exchange of administrative liberalism helps to bring self-reliance to otherwise desperate constituencies, but here his derision is withering, especially in his depiction of a climactic parade through the gilded and marble City Hall of children, grotesquely eating junk food and headed by an organizer in a dashiki.

But if “Radical Chic” helped me to understand aspects of elite media in the Age of Trump, “Mau-Mauing” helped me to understand why the last president—himself a former community organizer—often implored his audiences to push his ostensibly moderate government toward more radical goals; according to Wolfe, this is a longstanding technique for change in urban politics. While “Radical Chic” exhibits a certain tact in writing about the Black Panthers that prevents the piece’s satire from lapsing into racist invective, “Mau-Mauing”—with its eponymous mocking allusion to anti-colonial revolt—does no such thing: its author is the anthropologist as insult artist, and the field report is acidly cartoonish, even if written with contemptuous relish.

The progression in this book, then, is the one narrated by this book: a rightward shift, a growing impatience with the attempt to display sympathies whose honest extension would mean your own undoing. It is true that this can be a cold and unfeeling doctrine, a Nietzschean call to the right of might, but on the other hand at least it does not have that particular reek of hypocrisy. And anyway, Wolfe seems to suggest in his relatively respectful allowance of voice and distance to the Black Panthers, better an open conflict of interests than the cheat that is the power-play of pity. Wolfe’s own justly celebrated writing style, its dandiacal energy unimpeded by guilt or condescension, is the literary correlate of such an aristocratic politics.

The effect of Wolfe’s satire against the high-low alliance made by radical chic is to shield the middle classes, the “silent majority,” from the scorn of the cultural elite and the anger of the insurgent oppressed; yet Wolfe is certainly not of this middle realm himself. His overture to them—like so many we see today—is possibly only another unworkable and hypocritical partnership across the line dividing the cultural haves from the have-nots. As Flaubert claimed he was Emma Bovary even as he anatomized her delusions, so Wolfe might have to acknowledge a kinship with Leonard Bernstein. But I doubt the maestro is the doppelgänger Wolfe would have chosen out of his own text. Perhaps as he gazed across Bernstein’s parlor, over the heads of the cringing liberals, he saw—in a moment of nostalgie all his own—the Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party as his own self-image in photo negative: the stylish warrior.

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Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues

The Hero And the BluesThe Hero And the Blues by Albert Murray

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Albert Murray is, as the fashion journalists say, having a moment. His collected non-fiction and fiction/poetry have now been canonized by the Library of America (in volumes published in 2016 and 2018, respectively) and his insights on race, American identity, music, and literature are now being rediscovered by a wider readership.

Murray, who lived from 1916 to 2013, was an African-American critic and novelist most active in the mid-twentieth century and known for his writing on what he called “the blues idiom” and its intersection with literary modernism. While I had heard Murray’s name before, I was first urged to read him by friend and correspondent Matthew St. Ville Hunte, whose brilliant review-essay on another Murray reissue—Murray Talks Music—is a good place to start learning about the writer:

Major critics do not achieve that status by possessing impeccable taste; it is not the highest calling to have the cleanest scoresheet. Indeed, there is something foppish and epicurean about striving to merely have all the right opinions at the right times. Instead, the major critics are the ones with the strong opinions, the ones who aren’t receptive to every new experience, the ones whose defiant inflexibility may bend the culture towards the future. Major critics have major themes, which ballast their writing and allow them to rise above merely being tastemaking. Just as Edmund Wilson had modernism and Trilling had the liberal imagination, Albert Murray had the blues idiom.

This is both a perfect and a somewhat odd moment for an Albert Murray revival. Odd because his ideas and emphases are almost anathema in this 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? Three or four times in just the last week, I have run across laments about the almost Soviet gap between what liberal writers, educators, and media professionals feel they can say in public and what they are saying in private. (What they are saying in private, let me tell you, is nothing other than what I just said—we can say it; but we will have to overcome our own pusillanimity, which is admittedly a tall order!)

On the other hand, the popular adversaries of the above trends are not much less deadening in their reductions than the left-liberal literati; the “Intellectual Dark Web” leaves a lot to be desired, especially intellectually. Everything today decays into the worst kind of simplistic political argument, cable TV crossfire obsolesced because now generalized—it feels as if we are all talking heads in hell. What a perfect time, then, to read and re-read an intelligent, complex writer who argues for the importance of myth, archetype, and ritual, for the universality of art, without succumbing to the cruder polemics of a Jordan Peterson, a writer who insists upon the cultural autonomy and political independence of African-Americans in a register more alive to nuance and tragedy than Kanye West’s Twitter.

With the Library of American reprints, Murray’s entire oeuvre—some 2000 or 3000 pages—has come flooding back all at once; but as I am a slow, lazy reader, and as we all have to start somewhere, I have decided to focus on The Hero and the Blues, a short collection of three lectures published in 1973.[1] In this small but carefully composed book, Murray outlines his thesis that art’s function derives from ancient rituals meant to ensure community survival by embodying a hero’s story. Art shows us how our fictional surrogate, a Representative Man, is or is not adequate to the challenges posed by life. In this way, art demonstrates how we ourselves should live:

It is the writer as artist, not the social or political engineer or even the philosopher, who first comes to realize when the time is out of joint. It is he who determines the extent and gravity of the current human predicament, who in effect discovers and describes the hidden elements of destruction, sounds the alarm, and even (in the process of defining “the villain”) designates the targets. It is the story teller working on his own terms as mythmaker (and by implication, as value maker), who defines the conflict, identifies the hero (which is to say the good man—perhaps better, the adequate man), and decides the outcome; and in doing so, he not only evokes the image of possibility, but also prefigures the contingencies of a happily balanced humanity and of the Great Good Place.

Such faith in art’s universality and individual- and community-shaping power—its precedence over all disciplines, particularly the social sciences—was of course unfashionable by the late twentieth century, and even more unfashionable when race (or gender or class) was at issue. Hailing the artist as primordial maker, Murray echoes the resounding modern manifestoes: Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry,” Emerson’s “The Poet,” Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Lawrence’s “Why the Novel Matters.” But his own context was the postmodern one that defined and still defines the human being as a “subject” circumscribed by social context, the creation of language rather than language’s shaper.

As a result, says Murray, fiction has sold its birthright to the sociologists and psychologists (dismissively metonymized by Murray as “Marx-Freud,” a hybrid monstrosity of shallow thinking). Novelists have given up tragedy, comedy, and farce for the lower art of melodrama: a story where narrowly material and social success is the goal rather than any broader confrontation with the nature of things. The higher modes of tragedy, comedy, and farce, by contrast, deal not just with the social context and material well-being emphasized by the protest writers; they put the hero into conflict with the essentials, Emerson’s “lords of life”—the tragic hero transcends them even as he is defeated by them, the comic hero overcomes them through the social regeneration of marriage, and the farcical hero evades them through nimble caprice amid absurdity[2].

Murray sees the hero of tragedy, comedy, and farce as defined by what he calls “cooperative antagonism”—that is, heroism is necessitated by adversity. This in turn implies that adversity is not to be avoided even if one could, that “safety”—to put it in contemporary pop-psychobureaucratic terms—is not to be sought as a political telos, especially because it is incompatible with freedom:

Heroism, which is, among other things, another word for self-reliance, is not only an indispensable prerequisite for productive citizenship in an open society; it also that without which no individual or community can remain free. Moreover, as no one interested in either the objectives of democratic institutions or the image of democratic man can ever afford to forget, the concept of free enterprise has as much to do with adventurous speculations and improvisations in general as with the swashbuckling economics of, say, the Robber Barons.

Here Murray comes into conflict with prevailing political thought about race in America on the left. (Though it should be said that this is not at all the main topic of the book, which is primarily an aesthetic treatise.) By capitulating to Marx-Freud and salvation through superior political management, black writers offer themselves up as objects of pity and study to white intellectuals, and in the meantime they give up their people’s own contribution to world culture: the blues tradition, whose improvisatory craft demonstrates how oppression may be transcended through artful ritual. As Hunte comments in his review:

The blues, as explained by Murray, are not the wails of lamentations, melancholic outpourings for the woebegone and disconsolate. Au contraire, the blues are intended to dispel such feelings, not wallow in them. The blues constitute a battle against chaos and entropy and in their broadest interpretation, lie at the heart of any artistic endeavor. But this is not merely art as entertainment, though it must certainly be that as well. This is art as ritualized survival technique.

Committed to the autonomy of art, Murray refuses to explain black expression as simply the result, the epiphenomenon, of slavery and oppression; he sees it, rather, as the intellectual and sensuous mastery by brilliant craftsmen of their adverse context. For this reason, he makes an extended comparison between the blues ensemble and the Elizabethan theater, and between Duke Ellington and Shakespeare: African-American art, like European art, is not a primitive eructation of the volk but the work of master crafters committed to improving the polis. Blues is thus the epitome of all true art, the heir of those rituals that assembled themselves into the epic from which all later music and narrative derives. Murray goes so far as to recommend that black experience become the paradigm of American experience in general, that all American artists become black blues artists—not as cultural appropriators, mind you, but as fellow crafters who rightly recognize the genius after which they ought to pattern themselves if they want to overcome their own troubles. The writing of Marx-Freud, by contrast (he singles out Wright and the later Baldwin; in our own day, he might mention Coates and Rankine),

concerns itself not with the ironies and ambiguities of self-improvement and self-extension, not with the evaluation of the individual as protagonist, but rather with representing a world of collective victims whose survival and betterment depend not upon self-determination but upon a change of heart in their antagonists who thereupon will cease being villains and become patrons of social welfare!

The title notwithstanding, there is surprisingly little about the blues per se in this book. Much of it is rather a reading of two of Murray’s favorite modern writers, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, both of whom he sees as modeling heroic fiction. His enthusiastic discussion of Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers as the depiction of a nimbly exilic hero rather than a Moses bound for the Promised Land will make any reader realize that they should go beyond Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain with Mann, while his praise of Hemingway makes that writer’s seeming outdatedness itself look like little more than a quirk of our own cynical era.

I would like to conclude with Murray’s defense of experimentation in the arts. Whenever anyone starts talking about myth and archetypes as underlying literature the way Murray does, people understandably get suspicious: doesn’t that lead to artistic complacency and stereotypes, to political conservatism of the least thoughtful variety? But Murray was a partisan of modernism, not a marketer of Joseph Campbell monoplots to Hollywood nor a vendor of supposedly antediluvian sexual wisdom like some we could name today. Modernism’s motto was “make it new”—myths and archetypes are the “it,” but “new” is the point. Formal inventiveness, new ways of telling the old stories, are the aesthetic correlate of the social renewal presaged by true art’s rituals of survival and transcendence, the bearing of vital traditions through every challenge:

Implicitly, experiment is also an action taken to insure that nothing endures which is not workable; as such, far from being anti-traditional, as is often assumed, it actually serves the best interests of tradition, which, after all, is that which continues in the first place.

Revivals of unjustly neglected or forgotten authors may also renew tradition: so, if you want surprisingly prescient and relevant wisdom from almost half a century ago, it is a good day to read Albert Murray.
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[1] 1973 was the same year of publication, incidentally, as Toni Morrison’s Sula, and only one year later than Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. It would be a great reading experience to take these three books in sequence, each correcting the excesses and omissions of the other: Reed cares, like Murray, for black expression as ritual action, but he puts this in an Afrocentric and anti-colonial context that Murray would find too culturally exclusivist and anti-American; as for Morrison, her vision of heroism incorporates more of the negative and the nihilistic than Murray seems willing to acknowledge—Murray may believe in “cooperative antagonism,” but Morrison believes in the devil—and she also, crucially, portrays female heroism, whereas Murray’s vision of the hero is (like all his favorite novelists) male.

[2] Murray would recognize the aforementioned social-media flayings as ritual actions, and he values farce above all genres—somewhat as Northrop Frye values satire (derived from the satyr play, the goatish—we would now call it “inappropriate”—caper that capped tragic trilogies in ancient Athens)—because of its power to counter the solemnity of ritual and mock ideologies before they become so aggrandized that they menace the community:

Farce breaks the spell of ritual. It counterbalances the magic which ritual works upon the imagination. It protects human existence from the excesses of the imagination and operates as a safeguard against the overextension of ideas, formulations, and formalities. After all, extended far enough, even the idea of freedom becomes a involving security measures and thus a justification for restrictions which exceed those that generated the thrust toward liberation in the first place. The world is, or should be, all too familiar with totalitarian systems which began as freedom movements.

“Should be”—you can say that again.

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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!

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books are so famous, so ubiquitous in the culture, that you feel you have read them well before you ever read them. You feel, in fact, that you don’t need to read them. This is what kept me from reading The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) for so long. (And I should note that I’ve seen neither the 1990 film nor the recent series.) Then, as with so many other famous books, I read it and found it to be very different from what I was expecting.

Often summarized as a dystopian/feminist riposte to the rise of the Christian Right in 1980s America, and moreover a riposte with ongoing relevance as this movement remains a potent political force in U.S. life, The Handmaid’s Tale is in fact a defense of liberal culture and as much an entrant in the so-called sex wars dividing the feminist movement in the 1980s as it is an attack on conservatism. It is, as well, a recursive and unreliable metafiction rather than a straightforward narrative, though this is not made clear until the conclusion.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person narrative of a 33-year-old woman who serves as a conscripted surrogate mother to an elite family in a near-future America, rechristened Gilead, and ruled by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime called the Sons of Jacob. Now named Offred (“of Fred,” signaling her possession by the Commander in whose house she serves), our heroine has vivid memories of life before the country’s takeover. Through her eyes, we see the new world of Gilead, with its ordered hierarchies of class and gender and its organized violence, and we also see the old world—our world—defamiliarized through her recollections of her husband and child, her gay best friend, her feminist mother. In a move that likely influenced Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Offred is an avowedly normal person, one without exceptional reserves of heroism:

I’ll say anything they like, I’ll incriminate anyone. It’s true, the first scream, whimper even, and I’ll turn to jelly, I’ll confess to any crime, I’ll end up hanging from a hook on the Wall. Keep your head down, I used to tell myself, and see it through. It’s no use.

Her observant passivity, as well as exhibiting realism about most people’s capacity for heroism, also makes her an ideal guide to the landscape Atwood wants to explore, and her sardonic, lyrical monologue, full of wordplay and symbolism, makes what could be a one-note narrative of misery more emotionally various.

Offred’s narrative ends ambiguously, in media res, but an epilogue, “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale,” set at an academic conference two centuries in the future, both contextualizes her narrative and makes us doubt its reliability. We learn that we have been reading a future (male) academic’s transcription and organization of an audio recording of Offred. The text is presumably colored by his own—and his time’s—bias and agenda, which, Atwood carefully hints, is not at all free from the misogyny informing Gilead.

From its Chaucerian title and Swiftian epigraph to its Orwellian afterword, then, The Handmaid’s Tale places its main narrative—an impassioned, intelligent monologue associated with the realist novel and akin to those of Moll Flanders, Pamela Andrews, or Jane Eyre—within a tradition of satire (of which the dystopian, with its caricatural extrapolation of bad present-day tendencies into a future defined solely by them, is a subgenre). Of satire, Atwood’s teacher Northrop Frye observes in The Anatomy of Criticism:

The satiric attitude here is neither philosophical nor anti-philosophical, but an expression of the hypothetical form of art. Satire on ideas is only the special kind of art that defends its own creative detachment. The demand for order in thought produces a supply of intellectual systems: some of these attract and convert artists, but as an equally great poet could defend any other system equally well, no one system can contain the arts as they stand. Hence a systematic reasoner, given the power, would be likely to establish hierarchies in the arts, or censor and expurgate as Plato wished to do to Homer. Satire on systems of reasoning, especially on the social effects of such systems, is art’s first line of defense against all such invasion.

In other words, satire is literature’s immune response to religious, political, and philosophical encroachments on its autonomy. Frye sees this autonomy as beginning with Homer, who in the Iliad describes both Greeks and Trojans with sympathetic understanding, thus turning the poem into complex, dialectical art rather than a propaganda tract that speaks for only one side. It is this vision of literature, which arguably came to fruition with the dialogism of the realistic novel, that Atwood is protecting within the carapace of her satire. In the high tradition of the twentieth-century dystopia—a basically liberal genre—Atwood is warning us against extremism, totalitarianism: in a word, ideology.

This admonition accounts for the elements of the novel that I was not expecting: not only the anticipated critique of religious patriarchy, but also Atwood’s accusations of complicity directed against second-wave feminism. Early in the novel, Offred recalls attending a book-burning with her mother and her mother’s feminist friends; their immolation of pornography seems of a piece with the novel’s other images of women abused and tortured for sexual transgression:

I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.

Likewise, the language of the “aunts,” those who instruct the handmaids in Gilead’s ideology, echo certain strains of feminist complaint:

Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Offred even at one point addresses her absent mother with the accusation that feminist separatism is adjacent to female subordination:

Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.

Atwood is here not only at one with the dystopian Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also with Orwell as the inner critic of his own party, the Orwell who wrote in “Inside the Whale,” “So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

With the novel’s floral motif (“They’re the genital organs of plants”), Atwood announces that nature (a vital feminine force) is on the side of her heroine, even if this sacred feminine, this real Holy Grail, is presently in thrall to man:

The tulips along the border are redder than ever, opening, no longer wine cups but chalices; thrusting themselves up, to what end? They are, after all, empty. When they are old they turn themselves inside out, then explode slowly, the petals thrown out like shards.

Nature, like Offred’s own complicated inner life, itself often moved by love and desire even in the most atrocious circumstances, suggests that there is always an outside and an underside to ideology, a nature and a human nature that surges up, that expresses itself in literature and art, despite all attempts at repression.

The novel’s argument, therefore, is only locally against American fundamentalism; it is more broadly directed against any and all reductionisms, whatever their alibi (right or left, Christian or feminist), taking the helm of the state, controlling culture, and subduing the individual. She specifies the female individual not only to advance feminist ideals but to take a stance within the broad and various field of feminism. This stance no doubt accounts for Atwood’s controversial objection to what she sees as the potentially totalitarian excesses of today’s #metoo movement:

If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers? It won’t be the Bad Feminists like me. We are acceptable neither to Right nor to Left. In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated. Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.

Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan observes that this debate about the #metoo movement reveals a divide in feminism between individualist and social visions; I think it is fair to say that The Handmaid’s Tale is a consummate work of the individualist imagination. In any case, the apparent longevity of these cultural debates, and the political context that necessitates them, mean that The Handmaid’s Tale will retain its relevance for some time to come.Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 8.38.07 AM

Because Atwood does seem to believe in the autonomy of art, its inability to be reduced to ideology, I would like to pay her the compliment of concluding with an aesthetic evaluation of her work. My ideological analysis aside, did I, do I, like The Handmaid’s Tale qua novel? Well, I have mixed feelings, some of them unrelated to this specific book.

I increasingly distrust dystopia as a genre, on grounds both aesthetic and political. It just makes everything too easy, I think: yes, if [X] in contemporary society were magnified times 100 and [Y] diminished times 100, it would be a terrible thing. But in the world I live in, [X] and [Y] (let us say liberal cultural norms and the conservative backlash thereto) exist in a precise and complex interrelation, and if this relation were to shift, everything would be so different as to have little relevance to my actual existence right now. Why not write about [X] and [Y] in all their present-day singularity, Henry James’s “present palpable intimate”? Aren’t the oversimplifications of dystopia for children, a moral pedagogy for those not yet equipped with the tragic awareness of competing goods? This will be a too-extreme argument in the present atmosphere of total aesthetic relativism, so let me move on to some more specific observations.

For one, Atwood is uninterested in the theology of Gilead; she seems to regard it solely as the alibi of power-hungry brutes. But the novel would have been much more interesting had it contained any element of ideological debate or awareness, something comparable to Goldstein’s tract in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And while Atwood amusingly sets the tale in Cambridge, MA, and bases her theocracy on the Puritans, her novel gives no flavor of the most interesting aspect of Puritan culture: its incessant and paranoid inwardness—the self-scrutiny, self-doubt, and self-torment of John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, a quality of interiority from which the liberal individualism Atwood seems to celebrate took some cues. An Offred who actually begins to doubt herself, to search herself, would be a richer character, and the novel would thereby be deepened. Or what if her oppressors—the Commander and his wife—were wracked with Puritan self-consciousness, and a defiant Offred were able to turn it against them? Evoking Puritanism without doing its specificity any justice seems a missed opportunity for inner and outer conflict in a novel that sometimes plods along with its passive protagonist.

Meant to be a statement on America, a warning that “it can happen here,” The Handmaid’s Tale actually evades cultural specificity. Would American fundamentalists really rename the country? They love America—real American fundamentalists would dress Offred in the flag! Gilead, by contrast, resorts to quasi-Orientalist stereotype: it just looks like the Iranian Revolution with more Catholic iconography—veiled women and sinister Gothic ceremonies. Moreover, the American experience that most resembles what Atwood describes is slavery rather than Puritan theocracy. In fact, it would be useful to know when Atwood first read Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a book whose themes—and whose problems of textual transmission and verification—are echoed in and by Offred’s own narrative. Such resemblances account for charges that Atwood perpetuates “white feminism.”

Offred as narrator, too, never comes into focus for me. Her trauma is often implied—she has lost not only her freedom, but all of her loved ones—and I suspect Atwood intended the sarcastic tone of her narration to come across as a compensatory avoidance of feeling. Yet Offred often sounds too much like, well, a satirical novelist, like Margaret Atwood. As Mary McCarthy complained in an early review:

But the most conspicuous lack, in comparison with the classics of the fearsome-future genre, is the inability to imagine a language to match the changed face of common life. No newspeak. And nothing like the linguistic tour de force of ”A Clockwork Orange” – the brutal melting-down of current English and Slavic words that in itself tells the story of the dread new breed. The writing of ”The Handmaid’s Tale” is undistinguished in a double sense, ordinary if not glaringly so, but also indistinguishable from what one supposes would be Margaret Atwood’s normal way of expressing herself in the circumstances. This is a serious defect, unpardonable maybe for the genre: a future that has no language invented for it lacks a personality.

I agree with McCarthy when she finds Atwood’s science fictional imagination wanting; as Jennifer Helinek wittily observes of the novel’s “compubanks” and “compucounts” and the like (not to mention its “prayvaganza”), “the people in charge of pre-Gilead America appear to have been underpaid Fisher-Price employees.” As for the novel’s lyricism—McCarthy dryly refers to the book as “a poet’s novel”—it sometimes “dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry,” to quote Zoë Heller’s actually rather unfair comment on a better novel that treats Atwood’s themes, Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

I sink down into my body as into a swamp, fenland, where only I know the footing. Treacherous ground, my own territory. I become the earth I set my ear against, for rumors of the future. Each twinge, each murmur of slight pain, ripples of sloughed-off matter, swellings and diminishings of tissue, the droolings of the flesh, these are signs, these are the things I need to know about.

But there is also much to admire in The Handmaid’s Tale. Its rich and allusive imagery turns it into a summa of and a metacommentary on the novel of female experience; Atwood so often implicitly asks us to think of Hawthorne’s red letter and Brontë’s red room that her book gives us another view of a vital literary tradition.

Further, the intense irony introduced by the epilogue, with its snickering sexist and relativist professors in a multicultural far future, undoes the oversimplifications of dystopia and practically enjoins us, as Gerry Canavan argues, to read the novel again and again with different perspectives and possibilities in mind. Atwood so brilliantly alters her tale in its last 20 pages that its preceding 300-some pages become bewildering complex, an interpretive labyrinth, whereas they had appeared on a first reading to be almost transparent.

To say that a novel remains relevant because the themes it treats are still with us is to say nothing about the quality of the novel. The quality of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to me mixed—as befits a defense of impurity and ambivalence, of the liberal imagination—but I believe its textual richness and intelligence will keep it alive, as alive as Chaucer or Swift, even after the likely disappearance of its polemical targets from the earth.

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Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thomas Pynchon’s freewheeling narrator of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tells us, “Well, and keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place. (Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” Similarly, the underground cult classic compendium of conspiracy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy (an important influence on both Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) opens with this epigraph from Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo: “Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.” Anyone seeking the crossroads where modern or postmodern literature, the occult, and fringe politics converge should acquaint themselves with Reed’s strange and brilliant book.

Mumbo Jumbo is set during the 1920s, “[t]hat 1 decade which doesn’t seem so much a part of American history as the hidden After-Hours of America struggling to jam. To get through.” America is experiencing an outbreak of the phenomenon (“an anti-plague“) called Jes Grew, essentially Reed’s name for the culture of the black diaspora, especially as expressed through music, whether ragtime, jazz, or blues (the name derives from an epigraph attributed to James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry: “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, ‘jes’ grew,'” both an ironic appropriation of a racist artifact [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] and a refusal of individualist proprietary attitudes toward culture). As in the 1890s with its ragtime vogue, the Jazz Age threatens to overwhelm “Western Civilization” with a pleasure-loving and peaceable way of life opposed to the sterile and exploitative lifeworld of, locally, “neuter-living Protestants,” or those whom Reed more broadly calls Atonists, or monotheists (worshippers of the sun):

The Atonists got rid of their spirit 1000s of years ago with Him. The flesh is next. Plastic will soon prevail over flesh and bones. Death will have taken over. Why is it Death you like? Because then no 1 will keep you up all night with that racket dancing and singing. The next morning you can get up and build, drill, progress putting up skyscrapers and…and….and…working and stuff. You know? Keeping busy. [Reed’s ellipses.]

The novel, though relatively short, tells the labyrinthine story of the agencies trying to advance or stop the spread of Jes Grew.

On the pro side, there is the novel’s hero, the Harlem houngan PaPa LaBas, proprietor of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral. He teams with a cadre of magicians from Haiti—itself under U.S. occupation—stationed on a Marcus Garvey ship in New York harbor as they strive to recover the fragmentary text or scripture of Africa’s diaspora magic, dance-dictated in the night of time by Osiris to Thoth. In the absence of this book, Jes Grew is only an aural, oral, and bodily tradition and is therefore at a disadvantage under monotheism’s textual onslaught, its Bibles, Korans, Constitutions, Interpretations of Dreams, Communist Manifestoes, academic treatises, high literary traditions, and yellow journalism. Similarly, the novel also bears a significant subplot about a group of art “thieves” who strive to liberate the works of the global East and South from Europe’s and America’s museums; in his portrait of this multicultural group, Reed charts some of the fissures and fractures among people of color, noting that, for instance, a common enemy in European empire does not necessarily make for frictionless comity between black and Asian peoples.

Against Jes Grew’s supporters is the Wallflower Order, who are in their time of Jazz Age extremity forced to call in white intellectual and ageless Knight Templar Hinckle von Hampton (Reed’s satire on white Harlem Renaissance impresario Carl Van Vechten), who plans to defeat black insurgency by coopting it. He starts a little magazine called The Benign Monster, the title itself suggesting the intelligentsia’s gentrification of radical energies, and seeks a “Talking Robot”—i.e., a black intellectual who will mislead black audiences back to the monotheistic path of Atonism. Hinckle’s pathetic struggle is actually portrayed with some sympathy amid the satire—I got the sense that, racial polemics aside, Reed knows he has more in common with a modernist literary intellectual than with a Voodoo magician. Nevertheless, Reed unsparingly excoriates European literature from Milton to Freud to Styron:

John Milton, Atonist apologist extraordinary himself, saw the coming of the minor geek and sorcerer Jesus Christ as a way of ending the cult of Osiris and Isis forever. […] It is interesting that he worked for Cromwell, a man who banned theater from England and was also a hero of Sigmund Freud. Well the mud-slingers kept up the attack on Osiris, a writer Bilious Styronicus even rewriting Osirian history in a book called the Confessions of the Black Bull God Osiris in which he justified Set’s murder of Osiris on the grounds that Osiris made “illicit” love to Isis who, he wrote, was Set’s wife. He was awarded the Atonists’ contemporary equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for this whopper.

In fact, an overhasty reading of Mumbo Jumbo might lead one to expect that its ideological conflict is a matter of black vs. white—because in modern Europe and America, it is. But Reed’s most ambitious joke is delivered in a climactic thirty-page summing-up that parodies detective-novel exposition resolutions, conspiracy theories, and religious revelations all at once. PaPa LaBas, attempting to arrest Hinckle von Hampton, explains to a Harlem society gathering that, “if you must know, it all began 1000s of years ago in Egypt.”

The conflict between Jes Grew and the Atonists dates back to the fraternal quarrel between Set and Osiris in the Egyptian pantheon: Osiris learns the arts of peace and plenty at college from Ethiopian and Nubian students, and he disseminates this gnosis throughout the world, particularly to Native Americans. Set, by contrast, is “the stick crook and flail man,” advocates for discipline and thus eventually ends up worshipping Aton, the transcendent sun god, and beginning the monotheist cult that in various iterations—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and capitalist—would war throughout history on Jes Grew and the liberation it stands, or dances, for. Moses himself is revealed to have effectively swindled the secrets of Osiris for himself, which resulted in his getting only the negative side of the magic; this negative side became monotheism as we know it, everything that “the people of the book” have wrought.

In other words, all human culture, like the human race itself, comes out of Africa: European cultures are without autochthony or autonomy and are only offshoots, even where they are most racist or conservative, of one or another side in an intra-African quarrel, the latest round of which is presumably Kanye West vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.[1]

Which brings us around to the perhaps less salubrious politics of the novel. Mumbo Jumbo is not really “woke” or “PC” or whatever we’re calling it now. For one thing, it expresses sufficient quantities of anti-Islam sentiment to get Reed brought up on hate speech charges in Europe, as he seems to think that Islam is, no less than any other form of religious or secular monotheism, an attempt to repress the authentic black mysteries. It is the black Muslim intellectual Abdul who comes into possession of the scripture that is the novel’s quest object, and he burns it: “Censorship until the very last.” And despite the attractions of Reed’s emancipatory occultism, what does his displacement of Hebrew religion with Egyptian magic, his execration of Moses, Marx, and Freud imply? A reader can surely be forgiven for detecting a classically anti-Semitic subtext here. And, as befitting the work of a male author who has been known to worry that feminism is a tool of the white power structure used to disarticulate black and brown traditions and scapegoat men of color, the novel’s female characters tend to be either helpmeets or harridans (or both), even the goddesses Isis and Erzulie.

On the other hand, the lessons of Mumbo Jumbo might well be applied to today’s cultural appropriation debate. Reed’s position is quite subtle: he mocks and derides cultural exploitation and co-optation at the level of production, which is the point of his satire on modernist literary culture’s attempts to capture and neutralize the energies of black rebellion; on the consumption side, however, Reed seems to see the diffusion of Jes Grew as humanity’s only salvation—to see black culture as a force that, at the level of the dancing body, takes over whites rather than being taken over by them. The novel, I therefore take it, counsels against castigating every white person who takes a selfie while wearing an item of non-western origin, even as it also takes aim at corporations, universities, and other institutions profiting from the creativity of populaces they exclude and exploit.[2]

Finally, I have not yet mentioned the novel’s form. I have made it sound too linear, too much like a thriller with philosophical weight. But it is rather a collage and a montage, written in telegraphic prose, splicing in quotations and images, doing without quotation marks, transitions, or the pretense of God-like objectivity. One of its dedicatees is “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat,” and the novel’s style of radical juxtaposition and teasing polyglot wordplay is a fitting homage to Herriman’s brilliant Jazz Age achievement in comics. Reed’s ludic style protects his conspiracy theory from seeming like the work of a mere crank, though I’m sure he believes the spirit, if not the letter, of it. The novel promotes play and humor as against the droning solemn seriousness of monotheistic religion and literary culture:

LaBas could understand the certain North American Indian tribe reputed to have punished a man for lacking a sense of humor. For LaBas, anyone who couldn’t titter a bit was not Afro but most likely a Christian connoting blood, death, and impaled emaciated Jew in excruciation. Nowhere is there an account or portrait of Christ laughing. Like the Marxists who secularized his doctrine, he is always stern, serious and as gloomy as a prison guard. Never does 1 see him laughing until tears appear in his eyes like the roly-poly squint-eyed Buddha guffawing with arms upraised, or certain African loas, Orishas.

So, if you are looking for a serious laugh, I highly recommend Mumbo Jumbo.
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[1] Note that, by the terms laid out in Mumbo Jumbo, Coates, despite a superficially Reedian invocation after Zora Neale Hurston of “the bone and drum,” is arguably the authoritarian Atonist, promoting the traditional cypto-monotheist political left as the black man’s salvation in a white man’s magazine, while West disseminates magickal-musical thinking far and wide in a popular idiom on a populist platform, even quoting Carl Jung’s contemporary avatar Jordan Peterson just as Reed approvingly quotes Jung. My point is not to side with West over Coates or Reed over the western world, but to get the tally correct; I will say that “left” and “right” are becoming ever less reliable guides to cultural politics, though the comrades tell me that that is itself a right-wing position. “[A]s gloomy as a prison guard” indeed.

[2] Speaking of appropriation, Ted Gioia notes all the elements E. L. Doctorow seems to have lifted from Mumbo Jumbo for his own Ragtime, published just three years later. It’s not for me to judge who has the right to what; I will only suggest that Reed’s novel is about a hundred times more interesting than Doctorow’s.

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Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Richard Rorty is a Pragmatist philosopher: he believes that ideas and actions should be judged on their effects rather than their metaphysical or ontological status. Don’t ask whether it’s true, whatever “it” may be, ask only if it works.

His late-twentieth-century advice to the American Left in this 1998 book, therefore, is to stop the sectarianism, ditch the Marxist scholasticism, and come together to effect the aims of an economically egalitarian and culturally liberal society. Essentialist identity politics, an excessive concern with reform vs. revolution, an overly pessimistic idea of America, and a focus on ideology-critique in arts criticism: all of these, according to Rorty, are a drag on the movement toward social justice. A movement that is all the more urgent, he explains, since globalization will exacerbate inequality and thereby make anti-democratic populist fervor inevitable. Because of this quite correct prediction, Rorty’s twenty-year-old book received renewed notoriety after Brexit/Trump.

This book’s most basic practical political contention is that the economic effects of globalization must be ameliorated within the nation-state to avoid fascist backlash. I agree with this. Which would have satisfied Rorty: he would say that this is all we really need to agree on, and that we can cheerfully agree to disagree on the rest.

And I do disagree with much of the rest. Pragmatism has always struck me as a basically dishonorable position, though I will get back to you when and if I read more William James. In general, though, how can philosophers, of all people, desist from the quest for the truth? Pragmatism lacks even the sublimity of Existentialism, which, while no less anti-foundational and anti-essentialist, at least posits the creation of authentic truths rather than just effects. As an anti-foundationalist, Rorty cannot explain why we should desire an egalitarian society. Nietzsche, I believe, pointed out that democratic values silently depend on the monotheistic presumption that we are all made in the image of and are equal in the eye of the Lord. What if this is true? It may not be, but the question, which seems to me so obvious, does not appear even to arise for Rorty.

As for Rorty’s attitude toward literature, I find it embarrassing. If you want national uplift, go to a baseball game. And if Whitman were only what Rorty makes of him, he would just be Carl Sandburg. I know that in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty cordons off, for the safety of all involved, the purely aesthetic (i.e., irony) from the movement toward social justice (i.e., solidarity), but in this book he calls for a literature of national purpose. He castigates Pynchon and cyberpunk and Silko for criticizing America without leaving open the potential for change once left by reformist novelists like Stowe or Sinclair. He demands that we put Emerson above Poe because the former lifts our mood with his vision of infinite possibility and the latter drags us down into Gothic questions about otherness and irrationality. What would he do with Melville or Faulkner, with Emily Dickinson? Or even with Emerson’s and Whitman’s own bad moods, their own ventures in Gothic decadence (“Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death, / And again death, death, death, death”)?

Finally, much as I have my own misgivings about Marxism and identity politics (but I repeat myself: when Marx said that one social class held the key to social transformation, he invented identity politics), Rorty seems almost comically averse to the idea of intractable objective differences of interest, even within the Left. Relatedly—in a “no coincidence, comrade” kind of way—Rorty’s autobiographical asides, his recollections of a childhood spent among anti-Stalinist upper-middle-class socialists, are a fascinating glimpse of an untold truth that people of my own disreputable (perhaps even “deplorable”) class/regional/family background find out when we go away to college but cannot really find a way to discuss without sounding like Hannity even though it’s true: much of the American Left is, by and large, a hereditary elite.

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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!