Wesley Yang, The Souls of Yellow Folk

The Souls of Yellow FolkThe Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was once a pop-socio-psychological commonplace of American foreign-policy commentary that terrorism on behalf of political Islam was motivated less by ideology and more by an intractable reality of gender: young men with no prospects in their societies will inevitably become violently anti-social. Maybe people still say that about what used to be called “the Arab street,” but the consensus in the west today is that males (and other longstanding elites) can be displaced from their previous positions of ill-gotten authority, given no meaningful alternative but to atone quietly for the sins of their fathers, and that no unseemly consequence will follow from this dispossession. The tough-minded political pragmatism which led Virginia Woolf at her most radical to write in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” that “We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun” has given way to an imperative in the guise of a question: “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”

To the (limited) extent that it is a unified work and not just an omnium gatherum of a decade’s published journalism, Wesley Yang’s merrily mistitled essay collection is, often brilliantly, about this state of affairs: about those, sometimes Asian, often male, excluded from certain intangible perquisites of American life—love, success, security, belonging—in our time of the decomposition of the liberal polity under pressures both right-wing (the dominance of markets and market-thinking over every aspect of life) and left-wing (a totalizing identity politics that sets itself against hierarchy as such).

It begins with an essay that is germinal to the whole book, one published in 2008 in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre: “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho.” Meditating on his literal resemblance to the school shooter, Yang identifies Cho as a type of superfluous or underground man, but also identifies his alienation as inflected by an invisible racial politic: the non-erotic valuation of the Asian male. From Dostoevsky to Houellebecq: Cho was a loser not just in general, but a loser in the sexual marketplace.

A perfectly unremarkable Korean face—beady-eyed, brown-toned, a small plump-lipped mouth, eyebrows high off his eyelids, with crooked glasses perched on his nose. It’s not an ugly face, exactly; it’s not a badly made face. It’s just a face that has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country.

Yang—the most daring essayist currently trying (and apparently failing) to stay in the good graces of the liberal literati—does not justify Cho’s murder spree but seeks to understand it. In the essay’s finest polemical passage, he quotes Cho’s teacher, Nikki Giovanni, who pronounced his creative writing submissions “weird” and “intimidating,” before quoting Giovanni’s own weird and intimidating poetry from the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements (“Do you know how to draw blood / Can you poison / Can you stab-a-Jew”). He comments:

Black militancy was something that many people admired, and many more felt sympathy toward, given the brutal history of enslavement, rape, terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynching, and segregation that blacks had endured in this country. And so you wonder what would have happened if, for instance, Cho’s poems (and thoughts) had found a way to connect his pain to his ethnic identity.

One of the questions of the collection, then, comes to be whether or not Asian-Americans, particularly men, should or even can avail themselves of the redress of identity politics to ameliorate their legitimate grievances.

The collection’s second essay, “Paper Tigers,” addresses the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents otherwise successful Asian-Americans from rising to the commanding heights of the American class/status structure—they stall at middle management and never get to be CEO, due to a combination of pernicious ethnic stereotyping and actual cultural difference. Yang, though, is interested less in those who pursue the bureaucratic solutions offered by identity politics than he is in those who take action to hack or game the system as they find it, getting coached on the western way of calibrated insouciance from self-help mavens. This focus on those who try to win by the pre-set rules rather than changing the system itself is echoed later in the collection when Yang gives us a ruefully sympathetic-satirical portrait of the pickup artist community and its adoption of a Darwinian rulebook in an ostensible search for a Darwinian object—sex—but in a genuine search for the object Darwinism cannot help us to understand: love.

For despite the fact that Yang finds a welcome reception these days in the purlieus of “Sokal-squared,” his sensibility is far from their STEM-mongering rationalism, even though he shares a common enemy with them in contemporary left irrationalism. His political thought is essentially Hegelian, as a profile of Francis Fukuyama in these pages demonstrates. Yang writes so sympathetically of the unloved because he believes life is not a quest to attain power or to spread one’s genes, but a quest for recognition as an equal in a community of equals. Hence his exquisite ambivalence, thought by his critics to be mere troglodytic right-wingery, in the face of the new generation of academic radicalism:

And yet [the campus protestors] also gave voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish: that all of us, even the unexceptional, could claim as a matter of right an equal share of existential comfort as those who had never had cause to think of themselves as the other. This still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential. But those of us who have grown inured to life’s quotidian brutalities—the ones we accept for ourselves and the ones we unthinkingly impose on others—should not be surprised that the young have a different sense of the possible than we do, or forget too readily what it was like before we were so inured.

The struggle for recognition continues outside the pages of this book, as Yang collects and satirizes his bad reviews on Twitter, arraigning his critics for being so involved in their own self-righteous ideologies that they are incapable of hearing his message. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s review in the New York Times is sufficient to make the point, as it complains that Yang doesn’t address the history of Asian-American activism (Nguyen, by the way, wrote an acclaimed novel that I found predictable and so never finished because it is yet another—60 years after Achebe and 52 years after Salih—riposte to Heart of Darkness, which should go to show that “social justice” as an intellectual method and as a literary aesthetic is far from cutting edge, has rather fallen into its decadence if not senescence).

But the fact is that The Souls of Yellow Folk fails as a book from time to time, and not just because Yang is not DuBois. Some of Yang’s works are strictly reportage, bereft of any personal voice and only tenuous in their thematic relevance to the other essays, such as pieces on historian Tony Judt or on a controversial expert witness at terrorism trials, and they really don’t belong here in my view. The terrorism essay plausibly provides another variation on the alienated young man theme, while Judt’s intellectual perseverance amid devastating terminal illness gives us a model, against identitarianism, of the mind’s superiority to circumstance; but for all that one can make connections, they and a few others still seem out of place. Yang is right to complain that some of his reviewers simply want him to have written a different book with different politics, but it’s not wrong to observe that Souls often fails to hang together as a book at all. Without having to become a treatise, it might still have been a more focused collection.

A deeper flaw, a philosophical one occasioned by Yang’s intellectual commitment to recognition, makes itself known in the concluding pages of this book, when in essays from 2017 Yang provides a detailed critique of the social justice left. He accuses its activists of having absorbed a set of lessons from poststructuralism that posit both language and institutions as nothing other than vectors of power, obviating the old liberal ambition to reform institutions by using language to persuade a majority to abandon its prejudices and alter its practices. By contrast to the social justice left’s radical ambition to bring in an egalitarian millennium through linguistic and institutional engineering, Yang concedes the manifold injuries social life deals to those who have lost its lottery while also worrying that attempts to reduce harm through new forms of undemocratic social control may only entrench new hierarchies under the false labels of peace and equality.

Why do I call this theory flawed? Because it is from Hegel, not from the poststructuralists, that identity politics derives. Poststructuralism represents the midcentury European left’s borrowing of some insights from the reactionary tradition—Nietzsche, Heidegger—precisely because its partisans saw how Hegelianism, in its Marxist variant, leads to the totalitarian dogmatism Yang so well describes.

Social-justice theory comes ultimately from Marxism, which is the attempt to overcome existential alienation by altering power relations within political and social institutions. Marx began as a Romantic rebel and ironist, hailing Prometheus and imitating Sterne, until he became convinced that his alienation could be ameliorated through a total social transformation, one premised on what we now call identity politics. What differentiated Marx’s scientific from his precursors’ utopian socialism was precisely the identification of a mechanism—in the form of a social class—that could effect the transformation of an inegalitarian society to an egalitarian one. A social class whose exploitation was the engine of the entire system could, by resisting that exploitation, bring the system to a halt; having been exploited, this class would not replicate exploitation in its turn but rather abolish the class relation as such. Marx and Engels identified the industrial proletariat as this revolutionary class:

Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

Over a century later, this prophesy having failed, the Combahee River Collective appropriated the narrative shape of the theory but inserted a different protagonist:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. […] We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Given these premises, proximity to white-maleness is proximity to oppression, proximity to black-womanhood proximity to liberation. By the terms of this theory, there is no good-faith middle ground, no legitimate arbitration from a position of universal because disinterested neutrality, between white-male and black-female identities of the kind that Yang wants to construct out of the Asian male:

In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man, besieged on all sides by grievances and demands for reparation, and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior, who feels with every fiber of their being that all that stands in the way of the attainment of their thwarted ambitions is nothing so much as a white man. Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either. This condition of marginality is both the cause and the effect of his erasure—and perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.

Never mind that the position exactly between oppressed and oppressor is already structurally occupied in our society—by white women—but Yang’s moderation cannot be read in the present political atmosphere as anything other than either immoral dithering or esoteric reactionism; he is trying to inhabit a position of principled universalism that does not exist within institutions that have pledged themselves to liberation conceived on social-justice terms, which is to say the terms of zero-sum Hegelo-Marxian eschatology.

Consider, for instance, that Yang got his start at n+1, an intellectual journal that was at its inception over a decade ago an organ of what might fairly be called left-conservatism: its editors’ essays, resembling Adorno with an Americanizing dash of Chomsky and Lasch, criticized capitalist reductionism and brutality in a tone the ironic sorrow of which betrayed an unavowed nostalgia for the older and more ostensibly humane bourgeois order that capitalism had melted into air (Yang’s essay on Britney Spears in this volume is a good example, as is Mark Greif’s similarly themed “Afternoon of the Sex Children.”)

A motto printed in n+1‘s first issue wittingly or unwittingly echoed Buckley’s stand athwart history: “We’ve begun by saying No. Enough.” This was a natural response to the progressive imperialism of the Bush years; but after the Obama age redeemed for the left the concept of the “right side of history” by applying it to race-class-and-gender and superficially detaching it from militarist adventurism, n+1 itself became an organ of a very different ideological character; there we now read, in its most notable essay of recent years, Andrea Long Chu dissenting from exoteric-liberal transgender claims to the inherence and authenticity of gender identity to suggest instead (partially in provocative jest, it should be noted) that a man who sincerely sympathizes with the project of dismantling patriarchy will become a woman, that the abolition of maleness should become a biological and material as well as an ideological reality to complete second-wave feminism’s own Marxist-derived project of destroying gender as the legitimating ideology of sexual exploitation: “We are separatists from our own bodies. We are militants of so fine a caliber that we regularly take steps to poison the world’s supply of male biology. […] Because of us, there are literally fewer men on the planet.” In another notable n+1 essay, Dayna Tortorici puts it more crisply: “Must history have losers? The record suggests yes.”

There is simply no way Yang will be recognized by his peers—whose own legitimation as authority figures depends on the premises he criticizes—as a good-faith interlocutor. As his panoply of bad reviews makes this more clear, I wonder if in retrospect this book, which seeks moderation, will come to appear as a historical marker: the first manifesto of the next neoconservatism. Anyone honestly and dispassionately assessing the surpluses and deficits in the current American ideological economy—overrun as it is with competing identitarianisms and bereft of any universalism untethered to class, race, gender, or party interests—will wonder what on earth took so long.

But there is something other than politics, something other than Hegel, at work in this book. You can find it stated of chef and comedian Eddie Huang in Yang’s profile of him: “Huang is…a person at war with all the constraints that would fetter him to anything less than an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.” And then Yang states it far more powerfully of himself in “Paper Tigers”:

I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer—”a power which outlasts kingdoms.” Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who did not seek after material gain. Who was his own law.

He distances himself from this—it is “madness,” he writes, it is “self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves”—but why? Isn’t this far more interesting—I think it is—than a desire to rise smoothly through the corporate ranks? What is this but a need not to be recognized? To be able to mediate between competing social factions because one neutrally shares aspects of both their identities and complaints is one thing; but Yang here evinces a wish to persist in the total isolation from which literature, not journalism, comes.

We hear in these tones not a need for social validation but a need for, or just an acknowledgement of, an alienation that is existential, ontological, that is before as well as behind the face, and which the transformation of social institutions can never bring to an end. I think of Kafka:

What do I have in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself, and really ought to go stand myself perfectly still in a corner, grateful to be able to breathe.

I think of Hamlet, the anti-father of us all, the anti-founder of our anti-Zion, and I note that Seung-Hui Cho wrote a vulgar adaptation of Hamlet called Richard McBeef, though he apparently failed to learn the Adornian lesson that every work of art is, or anyway should be, an uncommitted crime.

These moments of a- or anti-social sublimity in The Souls of Yellow Folk struck me more powerfully than anything else in the book. Yeats (himself torn between political community and aesthetic anarchy) said that it is out of the quarrel with others that we make rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves that we make poetry. Yang has poetry in him; the poet sings, though, not to be seen by other people but for the sake of the song.


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!

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of SpeculationDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This acclaimed 2014 novel of marriage, motherhood, and adultery is a perfect expression of the fictional and even critical style of our time.

Five years ago, in homage to James Wood’s famous censure of the late 20th century’s “hysterical realism,” I called this style “penitential realism” and noted some of its most salient characteristics: “a resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of co-incidence”; “[a] focus on moral ambiguity, on characters inextricably complicit in their societies’ sufferings, along with an emphasis on negative mental states and affects…shame, guilt, embarrassment, repression, anhedonia”; and “a benumbed tone, disenchanted, inert, and baffled, not least by themselves.” Dept. of Speculation is much funnier than this list would suggest, but otherwise it fits the bill. Likewise, Anthony’s recent note on autofiction also applies:

It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what [Rachel] Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.

When I say that Dept. of Speculation is autofiction, I don’t mean to imply that it is autobiographical; I have no idea whether it is or not. But its fragmentary and intimate first-person address, one drawing for support on a range of cultural discourses, echoes a characteristic 21st-century mode of writing that, with inspiration from Bernhard and Barthes, Sebald and Berger, traverses several different genres from fiction to criticism and even to poetry and the graphic memoir. Works by writers as diverse as Teju Cole,  Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Kristen Radtke come to mind.

Elevating the fragment over the scene, the notation over narration, such writing testifies to a loss of faith in fictional or nonfictional storytelling. This is an older idea than it looks, going back at least to Romantic aesthetics and the modern (not postmodern) collapse of faith in traditional theology and systematic philosophy, as The Stanford Encyclopedia instructs:

The fragment is among the most characteristic figures of the Romantic movement. Although it has predecessors in writers like Chamfort (and earlier in the aphoristic styles of moralists like Pascal and La Rochefoucauld), the fragment as employed by Schlegel and the Romantics is distinctive in both its form (as a collection of pieces by several different authors) and its purpose. For Schlegel, a fragment as a particular has a certain unity (“[a] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog,” Athenaeumsfragment 206), but remains nonetheless fragmentary in the perspective it opens up and in its opposition to other fragments. Its “unity” thus reflects Schlegel’s view of the whole of things not as a totality but rather as a “chaotic universality” of infinite opposing stances.

I emphasize both the current popularity and the distinguished pedigree of this literary mode because I want to play fair. The truth is I am not sure how much I like it. At one time, I liked it enormously. When I was younger, I thought it was the height of profundity to concede the humility, contingency, and contradictoriness of one’s own discourse. I was stunned in a seminar, late in college, to read Barthes’s S/Z and Ondaatje’s English Patient, and I wanted to write criticism like Barthes and fiction like Ondaatje, or maybe even vice versa.

Now, and I can’t say why for sure, or when the change came, I am far more impressed by those who actually make the doomed effort of coherence, of continuous argument, of epic narration. Fragmentary penitential autofiction strikes me as fundamentally evasive, raising questions only to flee from them. I am also troubled by this style’s tendency toward political self-congratulation. Here, for instance, is Jenny Offill in an interview:

As for form, I will say that compression and distillation of grand themes feels particularly anti-patriarchal to me. I get tired of the idea that big doorstopper books equal ambitious books. But to be fair, that’s just my particular aesthetic. Part of becoming a real artist is deciding if and how you want to push back against prevailing norms. You’re free, remember?

I appreciate the “to be fair,” but all the same, the conflation of gender and genre doesn’t match the historical record. Offill’s chosen fragmentary form was the invention, by and large, of male Romanic philosophers and poets, while women have been writing “big doorstopper books” for at least a millennium. World literature’s first great novel is a big doorstopper written by a woman: The Tale of Genji. The longest novel ever written was written by a woman: Artamène. The most socially and politically important Anglophone novel of the 19th century is a big doorstopper written by a woman: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Perhaps the single greatest Anglophone novel of the 19th century, or even ever, is a big doorstopper written by a woman: Middlemarch. Are all of these women patriarchs? I don’t see what “patriarchy” (a word that, like certain other explanatory terms favored by the intellectual left, explains everything and so explains nothing) has to do with it.

Politics having failed us yet again, let’s talk about aesthetics. Dept. of Speculation is the brief first-person narrative of a writer, editor, and creative writing professor who tells the discontinuous tale of her marriage from its beginning to its crisis, when the husband commits adultery and then the couple attempts to reconcile.

The book take a montage or collage form, with every paragraph set apart from every other, each offering its own image or observation, quotation or fact. There are few full-fledged scenes or sustained reflections. Moreover, Offill’s prose is not notably stylized but rather written in relatively colloquial English. This choice works overall, since the fragmentary style when combined with a higher verbal register can sound portentous or self-important. At the same time, an occasional sense of slackness prevails, as here:

The philosopher’s sister-in-law ordered a piece of antique mourning jewelry to wear. A gold locket with a place inside to put a picture of the one who died. On the outside their is a small etched rose. But Prepare to follow is engraved on the inside of it. The nineteenth century. Jesus. Those people did not mess around.

To adapt Capote’s infamous comment on Kerouac: that’s not writing, that’s Tweeting. All the same, Offill needs to risk this casualness to create the novel’s chief appeal, which is the candor of the narrator’s voice:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.

She confesses to confusion, bad feelings, mixed emotions, divided loyalties. She is honest about the travails of motherhood:

Is she a good baby? People would ask me.
Well, no, I’d say.

She is honest about her seemingly indefatigable love for her errant husband:

The wife has never not wanted to be married to him. This sounds false but it is true.

(Note the play with perspective: sometimes the narrator speaks in the first person and addresses her husband in the second, while at other times, as their marriage grows troubled, she distances herself, even grammatically, from both.)

Sometimes it feels as if the narrator is willfully transgressing the expectations of various imagined constituencies at different times: now daring the hidebound male reader to upbraid her for insufficient feminine deference, now flaunting to the feminist ideologue her incorrigible commitment to husband and child. This psychological and by extension moral complexity is the best use of the autofictional style, as it brings the personal voice in all its brittleness and inner contradiction into fiction, so as to better perform the greatest fiction’s traditional office of refusing didacticism and defying absolutism.

Offill also puts her story in a grander perspective by calling on canonical voices (the narrator quotes Keats, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Rilke, and Berryman) and the cosmic vistas of science. The narrator is editing a book about space for an eccentric rich man, which allows Offill to add at intervals facts about the travails of space travel to her story, a motif of literally universal loneliness that compounds the mundane loneliness of the struggling couple. On the other hand, the prevalence of male authorities cited by the narrator, from philosophers to cosmonauts, adds to the novel’s theme of men’s greater cultural latitude for the selfishness apparently necessary to grand achievement:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

A countervailing Buddhist motif in the novel suggests that better than monstrousness is the abandonment of self:

The Buddhists say that wisdom may be attained by reaching the three marks. The first is an understanding of the absence of self. The second is an understanding of the impermanence of all things. The third is an understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience.

This recalls Nietzsche’s prophecy that Buddhism, precisely because of its princely abdication of moral selfhood, would eventually predominate in the post-Christian west: “Buddhism is a religion for the closing, over-wearied stages of civilization” (The Antichrist, trans. Mencken). Such aspirations to quasi-aristocratic upper-middle-class detachment are sociologically appropriate to this anti-novel about a pair of Brooklyn intellectuals who seem hardly ever to worry about money.

Dept. of Speculation is a superb instance of the kind of novel that it is. Judged from within its own frame of reference, it can hardly be faulted. I suspect I will even teach it in a class on contemporary literature for its exemplary qualities. But I do question the dominance of this aesthetic today, especially when accompanied by arguments that fiction more fully imagined, more conceptually complete, more stylistically weighty is aesthetically naive or politically regressive. At one point, Offill’s narrator offers this piece of cultural flotsam:

Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart…it produces indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities. [Offills’s italics and ellipses.]

Observe the ambiguity: we are, on the one hand, obviously invited to laugh at this old-time sexism; on the other hand, does Offill’s artistic method not coincide perfectly with the advice book’s mistrust of fiction? Isn’t the entire point of the fragmentary rather than architectonic style to recall us to “ordinary realities”?

What if we are personal because we are too timid to venture the universal? What if we are fragmentary because we are not energetic enough to create wholes? What if we collect facts because we cannot attain visions? What if we insist that life does not cohere only because we are no longer even willing to try to make sense? Do we think the world will judge us kindly, or forget to judge us at all, if we make ourselves inconspicuous? I suspect it’s time to speculate more boldly. “You’re free, remember?”


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!

Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

Maggie: A Girl of the StreetsMaggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

—Stephen Crane

The short-lived and hard-living American writer Stephen Crane exemplifies the aesthetic ambiguity of the 1890s. On both sides of the Atlantic and even both sides of the English Channel, it is an in-between period, fecund with avant-garde literary schools and movements (naturalism, impressionism, Symbolism, Decadence, Aestheticism, regionalism) and incubating the popular genres in their modern forms (science fiction, detective and mystery fiction, horror fiction). It is a literary epoch harder to define than the seemingly more settled moments of high realism and high modernism that precede and succeed it, and its own experimental variations on realism and modernism are intriguingly “low,” in the dual senses of provisional rather than monumental and de-idealizing rather than championing the human spirit.

Before dying at 28 of tuberculosis, Crane wrote fiction considered the earliest examples of naturalism in America and poetry that looked forward to Imagism and other modernist de-clutterings of the lyric.  Joseph Katz, in the introduction to The Portable Stephen Crane, writes, “In his own time, he was called either an impressionist or a decadent; but as later criticism sought a perspective of the literary nineties he was variously considered a realist, a naturalist, a symbolist, a parodist, and even a romantic.”

Crane’s first novel, really a novella, written when he was 22, is 1893’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Like my own Portraits and Ashes, Maggie ran afoul of too many of its time’s moral and commercial assumptions, so Crane was obliged to publish the book himself. It first appeared under a pseudonym in an error-ridden edition that nevertheless came to the attention of distinguished critics like William Dean Howells. Maggie was later republished respectably by a major firm, despite its almost vicious anti-sentimentality and profane-for-the-time dialogue, after the 1895 success of Crane’s great Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

But Maggie is more interesting for how it challenges the literary presumptions of our time than for how its characters’ frequent verbal recourse to “damn” and “hell” shocked the prudish literati of the 1890s. C. S. Lewis, in a passage quoted five years ago by Alan Jacobs, gives the following justification for reading old, even seemingly outdated, books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. […] The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.

I think the most commonly-shared assumption among readers, writers, and critics of our time is that fiction exists primarily to provoke emotion through empathy. Whether this takes the form of popular YA fiction’s open sentimentality or the theoretical manifestoes in favor of affectively authentic autofiction or autocriticism in writers like David Shields, Karl Ove Knausgaard, or Maggie Nelson, we are all apparently looking for strong feeling in our fictions, feeling that has the power to bridge the social chasms that exist between classes, races, and genders or just the ontological chasm that exists between any two distinct selves. (I don’t exempt myself from this diagnosis, by the way; if do you read my Portraits and Ashes—and I wish you would!—you might well shed a tear or three.)

In this emotionalism, we are akin to the Victorian realists and sentimentalists at whom writers like Crane, whether they deployed aestheticism (with its Platonist underpinning, its quest for metaphysical beauty within and behind all mere phenomena) or naturalism (with its ruthless Darwinian materialism scorning the metaphysical), were taking aim. For these reason, we might use Maggie as a corrective, not despite but because it offends our own sensibilities.

While the Newark-born Crane was heir to America’s traditional social and spiritual elite (his bloodline went back to the Massachusetts Bay Company, and his father was a Methodist minister), he rejected his pious upbringing, abandoned traditional paths to success, and liked to live in an atmosphere of poverty and danger. Like those later laureates of Newark, Amiri Baraka and Philip Roth, Crane was an incorrigible literary (and extra-literary) rebel. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, with its pitiless canvas of New York’s impoverished and immigrant-populated Bowery district, is the result of this literary insurgency.

A contemporary writer of privileged background treating the lives of the underprivileged would almost certainly use a variety of literary techniques to close the gap between the educated author and audience, on the one hand, and the culturally and economically deprived characters, on the other.

Free indirect discourse, where the objective narrator’s language merges almost-but-not-quite totally with the language and sensibility of the characters, is the key device for this transgression of boundaries between self and other: it exists to fuse author, character, and audience, while preserving a minimal space of narrative objectivity to allow for the savor of irony. The writer has access to the characters’ thoughts, but as long as the narrator can say he, she, or they of the characters, the writer also implies superior because distanced knowledge. This irony, which exists in the slight gap between the third-person narrator and the first-person consciousness of the character, causes free indirect discourse to feel sometimes like the literary corollary of the patronizing attitude of the guilty middle-class liberal toward the poor. It is a way of saying, as Bill Clinton once notoriously said, “I feel your pain.”

Crane’s refusal of free indirect discourse in Maggie—which he might very well have used, since it goes back at least to Austen and Flaubert—is therefore bracing and intriguing to encounter in the present. In its place, Crane seeks his effects in the contrast between the narrator’s elevated verbal register and the sadly circumscribed lives of the characters. In the first chapter, he narrates a fight between rival boy gangs:

Some Rum Alley children now came forward. The party stood for a moment exchanging vainglorious remarks with Devil’s Row. A few stones were thrown at long distances, and words of challenge passed between small warriors. Then the Rum Alley contingent turned slowly in the direction of their home street. They began to give, each to each, distorted versions of the fight. Causes of retreat in particular cases were magnified. Blows dealt in the fight were enlarged to catapultian power, and stones thrown were alleged to have hurtled with infinite accuracy. Valor grew strong again, and the little boys began to swear with great spirit.

The irony here is not the bittersweet one of free indirect discourse, which says, “Poor dears, how much they have to learn.” It is, rather, a cruel irony, an almost mocking display of the disparity between the narrator’s epic means of narration and the paltriness of the acton narrated. Yet the irony is as cruel as the setting, and in that way pays tribute to the integrity of the situation described. These children don’t want Stephen Crane’s pity, and might like to think of themselves as Homeric warriors.

We are not far, here, from Joyce or Faulkner, lavishing epic and tragic language on their lower-class characters with more earnestness than irony, as if there were no real reason Bloom could not be equal to Odysseus or Darl Bundren to Hamlet. This objectification and aestheticization at once of social life, providing the reader with both knowledge and pleasure sans moral judgment, is why there is no contradiction in seeing Crane as both a naturalist and a decadent. (The element of decadent aestheticism will soon drop out of American naturalism, which is why later and more didactic naturalist novelists like Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright will find themselves charged with sentimentalism and demagogy.)

Crane’s brevity is another aspect of his technique. Given the same story, Charles Dickens would have filled three volumes. By contrast, Crane compresses the life of Maggie Johnson and her brother Jimmie into fewer than 100 pages. The novel is episodic, made up of brief and discrete dramatic scenes, mostly dialogues punctuated by “hard, gemlike” descriptions evoking atmosphere.

Crane’s handling of dialogue also emphasizes the distance between character and author; with bracing remorselessness, Crane heightens the contrast between his representation of uneducated speech and the erudite dialogue tags:

On the street Jimmie met a friend. “What deh hell?” asked the latter.

Jimmie explained. “An’ I’ll t’ump ‘im till he can’t stand.”

“Oh, what deh hell,” said the friend. “What’s deh use! Yeh’ll git pulled in! Everybody ‘ill be onto it! An’ ten plunks! Gee!”

Jimmie was determined. “He t’inks he kin scrap, but he’ll fin’ out diff’ent.”

“Gee,” remonstrated the friend. “What deh hell?”

As for the story, it is simple, if narrated in fragments. Maggie is the oldest daughter of the Johnson family, and despite their poverty, she is beautiful and also idealistic, if in a more inchoate way than her predecessor, Emma Bovary:

The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.

Her idealism leads her to fall in love with her brother’s friend, a bartender named Pete. The narrative, for me, reaches its height of grim tragicomedy when Maggie waits for Pete to take her on their first date:

When Pete arrived Maggie, in a worn black dress, was waiting for him in the midst of a floor strewn with wreckage. The curtain at the window had been pulled by a heavy hand and hung by one tack, dangling to and fro in the draft through the cracks at the sash. The knots of blue ribbons appeared like violated flowers. The fire in the stove had gone out. The displaced lids and open doors showed heaps of sullen grey ashes. The remnants of a meal, ghastly, like dead flesh, lay in a corner. Maggie’s red mother, stretched on the floor, blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name.

The little details are so well-chosen and poetically phrased that it makes me think we should all restrict ourselves to novellas for the sake of our prose: “violated flowers,” “dead flesh,” “red mother.”

Unfortunately, the world of the Bowery is a strict big-fish-eats-the-little-fish hierarchy, and Pete is prevailed upon by a stronger and smarter woman to abandon Maggie, though she has already run away from the Johnson home, itself presided over by an abusive alcoholic mother. Maggie’s decline, first into forced prostitution and then into death, quickly follows. The narrative is most eloquent in describing the loveless night city she wanders after her fall:

At the feet of the tall buildings appeared the deathly black hue of the river. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence.

There is Crane’s irony again: the gap between Maggie’s horrific experience and the distant joy of the more fortunate. Her fall is not a Victorian warning to girls to keep on the correct path, nor is it a socialist polemic for the alleviation of the misery of the poor. However, if Crane eschews sentimentality, his irony nevertheless testifies to human hope. Without condescending to his characters, he shows readers the gap between their wishes and their existences so clearly that we cannot help but feel for them, all the more because the narrator does not. His refusal to judge allows us to think and feel for ourselves; his compassion is absent, but its shape is detectable in the jagged edges of his broken narrative. Far from exhibiting arrogance because it refuses overt pity, it takes remarkable restraint, even selflessness, to write this way.

If Lewis is right that old books help us correct our own invisible and pervasive mistakes, then we might find in Crane’s old book a caution against our present pious romance with our own emotions.


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!

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed FirsThe Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One recurring theme of my reviews is that classic literary works often defy or exceed their traditional historical categorizations. The -isms of literary history are a necessary organizing system: they help us to locate books in time and context and to recognize common points of artistic and thematic emphasis in distinct eras. Without some generalizations, we can’t think at all; on the other hand, we can’t let generalizations do all our thinking for us. Since one purpose of art is to surprise and enliven, the best works are often those that cannot so easily be herded into their appointed places by the literary historian.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella of 1896, is a good example of how works are often doing something other than their historical designation, their customary -ism, would suggest. Anyone who has heard of Sarah Orne Jewett at all has heard that she belongs to the broad category of “realism,” and is usually relegated to the subcategory of “regionalism.”

Her most famous work, The Country of the Pointed Firs, does bear out these labels. Narrated by a vacationing writer from the city, the novella is set during one summer in a small fishing village in coastal Maine. Our narrator carefully records the manners and mores of the villagers, as well as the landscape, seascape, and flora of the country. Jewett’s concern for the lives of ordinary people, her precision in description, and her verisimilitude in dialogue all make this a work that exemplifies both realism’s rejection of Romantic flights of fancy and regionalism’s interest in often vanishing ways of life far from the economic and urban centers of American society after the Civil War.

Toward the novella’s conclusion, the narrator is on her way back from a family reunion and comments, “The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.” A wistful newness disclosed by retrospection is the novel’s emotional keynote. The narrator, about whom and about whose metropolitan life we learn little, spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens. She lives with an old herbalist named Mrs. Todd, whose eccentricities furnish much of the novella’s gentle comedy, but she also spends time with old sea-captains and fishermen.

In an early comic-Gothic episode, the possibly senile Captain Littleplace tells her a story of an Arctic expedition so haunted and mysterious that I thought the pointed firs were about to give way to the mountains of madness when the sailors encounter “blowing gray figures that would pass along alone, or sometimes gathered in companies as if they were watching.” A much later episode shows her visiting the elderly widower, Mr. Tilley, whose fastidiousness and grief help draw the plotless narrative to its emotional climax: “‘I can’t git over losin’ of her no way nor no how. Yes, ma’am, that’s just how it seems to me.'” She also hears, at the center of the book, the tale of “poor Joanna,” a woman of an earlier generation, who, spurned in love, retreated to a remote island and lived in seclusion for most of her life.

Though Jewett’s tone is superficially light at first, almost like that of the literature of tourism, the narrator comes not to condescend to but to sympathize with these old villagers: the intensity in love and labor of their vanished time, their deep knowledge of land and sea, their seafaring cosmopolitanism to rival the metropole’s as their travels bring them objects and ideas from far away, and their connection to sources of meaning and value that urbanites never experience. The narrator is impressed by the camaraderie and affection that exists even among inhabitants of various coastal islands:

[O]ne revelation after another was made of the constant interest and intercourse that had linked the far island and these scattered farms into a golden chain of love and dependence.

But the gradual disappearance of this community, and the sense that a larger set of human values is evanescing along with it, accounts for the novella’s gathering tone of elegy. The narrator hints, again and again, that this seaside village and its inhabitants, while quaint, also open onto lonely eternities:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

Jewett’s desire to honor this vanishing culture takes her beyond realism. The narrator at regular intervals deploys a literary technique that we associate not with realism but with modernism: what T. S. Eliot, explicating Ulysses, called “the mythic method.” Jewett orders her present-day subject matter by correlating it with ancient precedents. We may at first find Mrs. Todd a charming and humorous old lady, but the chapter where we first meet her ends this way:

She stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.

Likewise, later on, after Mrs. Todd tells the narrator about her unrequited love while they are on an herb-gathering expedition, the narrator observes:

She looked away from me, and presently rose and went on by herself. There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain. It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

In a later instance of the same mythologizing motif, the narrator says of Mrs. Todd: “She might belong to any age, like an idyl of Theocritus.”

No doubt this incipient modernism helps to explain Willa Cather’s love for this novella. She judged, reports the back cover of the edition I read, that The Country of the Pointed Firs “ranked [with] Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…as one of the three American works most likely to achieve permanent recognition.” Cather alludes, in My Ántonia, to Virgil just as Jewett alludes to Theocritus; and we might see Cather as standing in relation to Jewett as Virgil stands to Theocritus, with each later writer refining the earlier one’s pastoral poetry to praise those who live in, with, and by nature—and who are, by virtue of their proximity to land and sea, closer to the gods.

When the narrator joins a procession of the guests at a family reunion, she reflects, echoing Keats’s “Grecian Urn” this time, on the immemorial rituals of human community:

[W]e might have been a company of ancient Greeks going to celebrate a victory, or to worship the god of harvests, in the grove above. It was strangely moving to see this and to make part of it. The sky, the sea, have watched poor humanity at its rites so long; we were no more a New England family celebrating its own existence and simple progress; we carried the tokens and inheritance of all such households from which this had descended, and were only the latest of our line. We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood; I found myself thinking that we ought to be carrying green branches and singing as we went.

This is a cold pastoral in the end: the narrator’s sojourn concludes with the summer and she goes back to “civilization.” Like the pastoral poets Theocritus, Virgil, and Keats before her, Jewett has only the consolation and keepsake of her art.

Meanwhile, what remains in my memory from this book is less some patronizingly quirky anthropological information of the sort connoted by “regionalism,” but a tone and vision both more archaic and more modern at once, as when the narrator visits the grave of the self-exiled hermit, Joanna:

I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky.

This is an example of the realism that is rarely spoken of by the literary historian: the writer’s realistic appraisal of our ability to endure the endemic hardships of the human condition in whatever region we may find ourselves.


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!

William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses (1942), though not always grouped with Faulkner’s indisputable masterpieces, is nevertheless one of his most significant and influential books.

On strictly formalist or literary-historical grounds, it is a beautiful example of the short story collection as novel, an idea that developed over the course of the 20th century until becoming a major fictional mode in its own right today, as explored by Ted Gioia in his essay on “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.”

When Go Down, Moses was first published, its title was followed by “and Other Stories,” but Faulkner himself insisted that it should be regarded as a novel. Though it ranges among several plots and several characters and has no single protagonist or narrative, it does tell the story of the McCaslin-Beauchamp family and, through them, provides a miniature history of the American South from its settlement by whites to the eve of World War II. No doubt taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Jean Toomer’s Cane (all of which we know or suspect him to have read), Faulkner in this book pushes the modernist story cycle even closer to novelistic unity.

This novel is also a milestone in Faulkner’s literary project, often regarded by critics as marking the end of the great period that began in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Likewise, Go Down, Moses is also often cited as the culmination of Faulkner’s evolving political vision, even as his summa on the theme of race. Telling the tangled tale of the descendants, both white and black, of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a fierce patriarch who tried to found a white dynasty even as he committed rape and incest among the black women he enslaved, Go Down, Moses is nearly impossible to read without consulting a family tree (luckily the copy of the novel I bought in a used bookstore came with one, pictured below, probably given as a handout in a literature course).

The novel begins with a story called “Was” that reads almost like a regional-fiction tall-tale in the vein of Mark Twain, a slightly confusing but high-spirited story about bumbling twins and a runaway slave the horror and significance of which will not become apparent until much later in the book, when we learn that the story’s black and white characters are in fact related, despite the latter’s holding the former as property.

Faulkner then switches perspective to Lucas Beauchamp, a proud and independent black descendant of the McCaslin line, and his tragicomic pursuit of buried fortune on the family farm at the expense of his wife; this long story’s titular motif of “The Fire and the Hearth” can be read as Faulkner’s celebration of basic civilized decency, as opposed to greed. A mysterious story called “Pantaloon in Black” follows: it narrates the surreal descent into madness of a grieving young black man on the McCaslin farm, whose travails are then recapitulated with flippant cruelty by a sheriff’s deputy. In each of these tales, Faulkner indicts racist reductionism by, as Toni Morrison once remarked, “[taking] black people seriously.”

In the book’s longest chapter, the classic freestanding novella “The Bear,” a young Isaac McCaslin, the closest thing the novel has to a hero, pores over the family ledgers in the farm’s commissary assembling through his forebears’ often sparse notations the appalling family history (“His own daughter His own daughter. No No Not even him“). The ledgers form “that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South,” an obvious symbol, as Malcolm Cowley long ago pointed out in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, of the author’s own literary aspiration.

The white Isaac is so disgusted by his ancestor’s crimes that he relinquishes his inheritance, makes many attempts to pay his black relatives their share of the patrimony, and becomes a simple carpenter in conscious imitation of “the Nazarene.” In a long argument with his cousin and surrogate father, Cass, he theorizes that God’s design necessitated not only the founding of America but also its violent purgation in the Civil War to purify botched humanity through suffering. As opposed to the racist sheriff’s deputy of “Pantaloon in Black,” who frankly declares his belief that black people “aint human,” Isaac judges thusly: “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” He recognizes his place in a universal brotherhood irrespective of race, claiming kinship with “not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors.” To a northern black man who marries his cousin, he pleads:

‘Dont you see?’ he cried. ‘Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason, their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples’ turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see?’

Note the “not now.” Isaac, like Faulkner, is not a programmatic liberal or leftist. The “not now” theme is echoed in the penultimate story, “Delta Autumn,” where an elderly Isaac is confronted with the failed interracial relationship of another white McCaslin scion and thinks, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!

Faulkner, like Melville, is one of the only white American writers to have come out of the critique of the canon looking better than he looked before, because his attempt to undo racist ideology from the inside using experimental literary techniques was made legible by late-20th-century literary theories that went beyond New Critical hopes for textual and social wholeness. Yet Faulkner, also like Melville, had no political program. Isaac’s anguished guilt is preferable to the Confederate nostalgia that haunts other characters in this book, but it is an equivalently mythic attitude, and undeniably patronizing toward the objects of its charitable gaze. White people are enjoined to behave like Christ and black people patiently to “endure,” a solution inadequate to the complexities of the 20th century, even if its Christo-Gothic mythos of curses and atonements may secretly structure much official anti-racist discourse even in the present.

If neither Faulkner nor his hero provides a political answer to the problems they so astutely perceive, what recompense do they offer for the injuries of history? Besides the sentimental trope of the hearth, Go Down, Moses, its modernist stream-of-consciounsess infused with latter-day Romanticism, suggests two familiar salvations from organized social violence: nature and art. These are also violent, Faulkner suggests, but at least they are animated by values higher than greed for land or gold.

In “The Bear,” Isaac is initiated into manhood by going on an annual hunt. His mentor, another surrogate father figure, is the aptly named Sam Fathers, a man of mixed Chickasaw and black heritage, who baptizes Isaac in the blood of the hunt after the boy kills his first buck. The theme of the novella is their quest to bring down Old Ben, a quasi-legendary bear, with one paw wounded from a trap, who has so far evaded capture. Young Isaac attains almost preternatural hunting skill in his quest for the titular bear, but his desire to kill Old Ben should not be taken as an Ahab-like hostility toward or rage against nature; it is rather a kind of communion with the massive eternity, outside of human time and greed and generation, that nature is:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

But the “big woods” Old Ben used to roam have been sold off to a timber company by the end of “The Bear.” Walking in the forest, Isaac finds the company’s corner-markers, subjecting “dimensionless” nature to the same measurements that served avarice and cursed the south in his ancestors’ time; he judges the concrete beams “lifeless and shockingly alien in that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist.” The theme of death’s not existing because nature is a roiling eternity ever in flux is picked up shortly after this passage, when Isaac mediates on the graves of his former friends of the hunt, and thinks of the hunt’s continuance even after death:

…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him back his paw even, certainly they would give him his paw back; then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—

Faulkner’s own famous literary style, a heedless onrush of indifferently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical rhetoric, its ornate and sometimes confusing diction (“myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part”) meant to defeat ordinary sense, its endless sentences (one in “The Bear” goes on for five pages) meant to triumph over time, here finds its justification: I am only, implies the author, imitating nature itself, which also runs on and contains everything. Nature and art are at one. They need to be because more and more of nature is being eaten up by the profit motive in the postbellum south, leaving art as the only repository of values that are everywhere being degraded by the curse laid on the south by the greed of its white inhabitants.

Faulkner’s art, in effect, takes the place of nature. Note the echo in the passage quoted above of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whose panting lover, pictured on the titular art object, is ever approaching his beloved but never will reach her, just as the bear, suspended after death in Faulkner’s narrative, always runs and never is caught. In the “cold pastoral” of art, cold because art freezes time, nature and its passions are preserved. Cass quotes Keats’s “Ode” to Isaac, making the point nearly explicit:

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Listen,’ and read again, but only one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. ‘She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,’ McCaslin said: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’

‘He’s talking about a girl,’ he said.

‘He had to talk about something,’ McCaslin said. Then he said, ‘He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.’

That is how such a complex aesthetic artifact as this novel-in-stories allies itself to raw and wild nature: both sustain “all the things which touch the heart” in a world more often characterized by the heartlessness of civilized exploitation and oppression.

If I have enumerated the literary and political significance of Go Down, Moses above, this Keatsian humanism gives it its more basic emotional moment, and may explain more than anything the novel’s continuing influence. In just the last 12 months, I have read three contemporary American novels that almost overtly borrow from it: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Any old novel with so diverse and distinguished a legacy as that demands to be read.


View all my reviews. 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!

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1965 novel is a text so overwhelmed by its various contexts that it is almost impossible to read. It was still ubiquitous as a semi-illicit paperback when I was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reputed to be an overwhelmingly intense and filthy book. I accordingly tried to read it when I was 11 or 12, but couldn’t make head or tail of it; I had better luck with Kosinski’s later novel, the National Book Award-winning Steps (1968). Steps is an episodic novella in the mode of pornographic dystopia, and I read it in one sitting, fascinated and revolted and pool-dazed. It also, famously, made an impression on David Foster Wallace, who should have learned a thing or two from its brevity.

I abandoned any plans I had to read The Painted Bird when I discovered that it was regarded as a sham, that its author (a kind of counterculture celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s) had falsely advertised the novel to his publishers as autobiography, and that many of his works may have been either partially plagiarized or partially written or translated for the author, still uneasy in the English language, by editors.

Once hailed by the literati as an instant classic, praised by Arthur Miller and Anaïs Nin and Elie Wiesel, canonized as a contribution to the literature of the Shoah, The Painted Bird came to be regarded as a mere hoax, notably denounced by Norman Finkelstein as one more piece of false advertising for what he controversially called “the Holocaust industry.” Kosinski, who committed suicide in 1991, seemed by the turn of the millennium to belong not in the literary canon but in the annals of notorious confidence men.

So it is surprising to turn to the actual text of the novel, as I finally have, and to find a carefully composed narrative, delicately written and thematically unified. Scholars and critics differ as to the actual provenance of the text, except to note that the horrors it narrates are decidedly not autobiographical: the Jewish Kosinski spent the war sheltered by a Polish Catholic family, not wandering the novel’s psychosexual nightmarescape version of Poland’s countryside.

In fact, The Painted Bird is so manifestly symbolic, the extreme events it narrates so difficult to credit, that I have a hard time believing anyone could have taken it as an unvarnished memoir. Appearing around the same time as The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the first publication of The Master and Margarita, Kosinski’s book might usefully be regarded as magical realism. Elie Wiesel, to be fair, acknowledges as much in his New York Times review, quoted at length on the first page of my edition:

If we ever needed proof that Auschwitz was more a concept than a name, it is given to us here with shattering eloquence in The Painted Bird, a moving but frightening tale in which man is indicted and proven guilty, with no extenuating circumstances.

I would dispute only the word “proof” there: as befits a work of the literary imagination rather than of the mind in recollection, The Painted Bird gives proof only of its author’s sensibility. Kosinski’s sensibility is neither pleasant nor entirely original, but it is fascinating and bizarre enough, especially as rendered in this novel’s wonderfully economical prose, to commend this novel as more than a hoax—rather, as good fiction, a compelling “tale,” to use Wiesel’s most apt word.

The premise of the tale, as noted by D. G. Myers, who also judges the novel “great” despite the problems posed by Kosinski’s biography, is that Auschwitz is, for those who came after it, the truth of their world:

The Painted Bird is notorious for its horrors: eyeballs are gouged out of sockets, animals are tortured, women are violated with bottles holding manure, men are devoured by rats. “The Germans puzzled me,” the boy says. “Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?”

This is the question that Kosinski’s whole life was given over to answering. That he died by his own hand suggests that his answer, finally, was No. And so Kosinski joined a line of Holocaust writers—Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi—who by committing suicide testified that the world was beyond repair. Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski’s own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust.

Another blurb, this one on the back of my old paperback edition, where it is jarringly discordant with the grotesque wraparound cover illustration, compares Kosinski to Anne Frank. Even allowing for Cynthia Ozick’s wise warning not to sanctify Frank, this is highly misleading; The Painted Bird belongs on the shelf with Sade, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Bataille, not with The Diary of a Young Girl.

From the uncredited cover illustration of the 1970 Pocket Books edition.

The novel is the retrospective narrative of a young boy’s journey through rural Poland during World War II after his parents have sent him away from the city to protect him from the Nazis.

In the countryside, rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment as well as with magical folk beliefs about metaphysics and medicine, the narrator encounters a sequence of grotesque and violent incidents, from the fire he accidentally sets that destroys the home of his first caretaker to the brutal gang rape and murder of a later caretaker’s lover. He witnesses incest and bestiality, he is systematically tortured by a peasant with a fearsome dog, he is nearly drowned in an iced-over pond, he is thrown into a pit of manure by an incensed mob, and he is even captured by German soldiers, only to be released in a mysterious act of mercy by a glamorous Nazi officer, whose power and command the boy admires:

The instant I saw him I could not tear my gaze from him. His entire person seemed to have something utterly superhuman about it. Against the background of bland colors he protected an unfadable blackness. In a world of men with harrowed faces, with smashed eyes, bloody, bruised, and disfigured limbs, among the fetid, broken human bodies, of which I had already seen so many, he seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth, polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under the peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force.

Along the way, the boy accedes to folk belief about his status as an evil being (due to his being, in the peasants’ eyes, a “Jew” or “Gypsy”), adopts Catholicism and begs God to intercede on his behalf, decides that Satanic powers truly rule the world and tries to join the side of the evildoers, admires what he sees as the knowledge and power of the Germans who wish to subjugate him, and, finally, when liberated by the Red Army, accepts communism’s promise of the brotherhood of man until the flaws in that ideology, too, with its own trampling of the individual, become apparent.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Painted Bird is a bildungsroman that follows its budding hero’s consciousness into wider and wider contexts, each new one revealing the limitations of the previous. Struck mute during his ordeal, the boy regains his voice at the novel’s conclusion; in other words, having passed through these ordeals and ideologies, he becomes capable of telling his story.

But if the latter development sounds like a sentimental anticipation of official multiculturalism’s favorite trope of literature as “voice,” the rest of the The Painted Bird is a decidedly more decadent affair. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, when reading scene after scene of vivid brutality, that the novel’s briskly-narrated phantasmagoria indulges an aestheticization of violence to the point of pornography. The regaining of voice at the conclusion even recalls the pornographer’s old alibi of having told a moral tale, while Kosinski’s deeper account of individualism, in keeping with the boy’s admiration for the Nazi officer and later for Stalin, involves the right of the strong to re-order the world at will according to their own aesthetic designs, precisely the game Kosinski played with history when he passed this off as his autobiography.

To support an interpretation that emphasizes individualism, consider the titular metaphor. The novel’s title comes from an early episode wherein another of the boy’s caretakers, a peasant bird-trapper named Lekh, would regularly choose a bird and paint its feathers in bright colors and then release it; when this painted bird would attempt to rejoin its flock, its fellows, disturbed by its dazzling and artificial coloration, would set on it and kill it. The Cold War moral is clear: individual vs. society.

As A. E. M. Baumann points out in his excellent Jungian reading of the novel, Kosinski portrays all collectivities, from rural peasantry to Soviet empire, as essentially hostile to individuation:

The effect within the book of this continuity between worlds and beliefs works not only on the grand scale but also to the specific. For example, when we meet Lekh the bird catcher, and read of the demise of the bird painted by Lekh, the whole of the scene is likewise brought into the mythic unity of the book. The scene is not an artificially inserted metaphor: it presents an idea already inherent to the world-systems of the Polish peasants, inherent to their belief systems: and as will be seen, inherent to all cultures, even to the “equality” within the new, Russian state. As such, the antagonism between the individual and culture that is the center of The Painted Bird is from the start inherent to the whole of the world through which the boy passes. In turn, through that unity, that antagonism is brought out of the historical and into the mythic.

Fair enough, but the reader also has the right to be disturbed by the total amorality of this mythical version of individualism, with the persecuted painted bird’s wish to join the flock and envy of its most powerful members (e.g., the Nazi officer), even with this myth’s affinity not only for what the boy sees as German style and swagger but also for the Nazis’ imperial view of the Polish populace, which the novel literally dehumanizes (per the bestiality motif).

When contemplating the ideological possibilities of an individualism untethered from morality, it is a relief that such a vision produces in this novel only a version of aestheticism, only the voice to tell the tale, rather than anything more severe. In this sense, Kosinski pits the paint of the painted bird against the violence of the flock; the novel implicitly and ultimately exalts the artist, who represents only his own idiosyncrasy, over the officer who marches on behalf of a collective.

To end on this aesthetic note, whoever wrote The Painted Bird wrote it effectively. (On the authorship question, I observe that Samuel Beckett’s first literary agent, the Irish writer George Reavey, is another claimant; and there is something of Beckett, if not his humane and humorous awareness of universal suffering, in this novel.) Its crisp narrative is a well-paced succession of sensory detail given in a style that is simple without being affected like that of a Hemingway epigone or someone imitating the paratactical style of the Bible; the novel would repay strictly formal study by the student. Orwell’s ideal of prose as a windowpane comes to mind, as long as we recall that the window is really a painting, and that the painted vista is, for better and for worse, almost entirely the product of Kosinski’s imagination.


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!

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

AsymmetryAsymmetry by Lisa Halliday

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The jacket copy of this fascinating 2018 debut novel—back cover and both flaps—informs us no less than four times that Lisa Halliday was a recipient of the Whiting Award. This award goes to 10 promising writers each year, and is granted by a jury that is itself selected by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.


I mention this odd insistence on the Whiting Award because Asymmetry does feel like a novel that would appeal to a philanthropic organization. Its ideology in harmony with its setting’s post-9/11 time period, Asymmetry is a work of humane but slightly traumatized liberalism, like many of the signal Anglo-American literary novels of the mid-2000s—Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Smith’s On Beauty, McEwan’s Saturday, Robinson’s Gilead.

If you’ve heard of Asymmetry at all, though, none of the above is what you heard. You know the book as a roman à clef about the author’s affair with Philip Roth. And it is, beautifully so, in its first half. Titled “Folly”—as in the folly of love, folie à deux—the freestanding novella that is the first 120 or so pages tells of 25-year-old editorial assistant Alice and her romance with a famous Jewish writer almost old enough to be her grandfather, Ezra Blazer. 

Despite today’s #metoo moment, their affair is depicted less as a straightforwardly predatory or “creepy” relationship than a warm, lovable, but fraught and unequal one, an instance of literary initiation and erotic pedagogy of the kind celebrated even today by some pedagogues, though denounced by others. Speaking only for myself, I don’t believe in erotic pedagogy at all: leaving aside the ethically disqualifying power differential in student/teacher relations, the acquisition, transmission, and retention of knowledge is difficult enough even when your blood isn’t flowing in the direction opposite your brain.


My own beliefs aside, however, I admire how Halliday, in sometimes almost telegraphic third-person narration, depicts this relationship’s many facets, and most importantly captures its real affection, the solicitousness between the couple, without which we might not tolerate it.

Ezra genuinely seems to mean well, and his personal selfishness (and Rothian hunger for the Nobel Prize) is offset by great magnanimity, whether to homeless people he encounters or to Alice herself, as when he pays off her Harvard loans. He is so intelligent and funny that he ably seduces the reader; his increasing frailty as he ages also mitigates somewhat the aspects of his character that we might wish to judge more severely.

Alice, moreover, is a bit of a literary naïf—Ezra has to tell her how to pronounce “Camus”—but her odd sensibility, seemingly effortless erotic sophistication, and her quiet understanding of what Blazer’s patronage might mean for her makes her the novel’s most complex character. Halliday’s unerring intelligence as a dramatist makes “Folly” a small masterpiece of charming ambiguity.

A theme in Alice and Ezra’s literary conversations is the proper subject for fiction—the self or the other. Ezra votes for the self, in line with his real-life counterpart Portnoy-Zuckerman-Roth, while Alice suggests that others, even “the other” in academe’s race-gender-religion-culture terms, are better topics: “Muslim hot dog sellers,” she suggests, after they’ve just visited one. Ezra, who gives Alice not only Henry Miller and Jean Genet to read but also Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, is not insensible to the nightmare of history, but he seems not to share her desire to capture it in fiction. Their conversations on this topic prepare us for the novel’s second section, “Madness,” which appears unrelated to the first. 


Another freestanding novella, “Madness” (as in the madness of war) is the first-person reminiscence of a Kurdish Iraqi-American named Amar as he is detained by immigration authorities at Heathrow Airport on the way to Iraq to visit his brother (though we later learn that the purpose of his voyage is more serious than just a visit). Amar narrates his childhood in Brooklyn, his college experiences (including his first love with a mercurial actress), his academic and professional hesitation between medicine and economics, and, most importantly, his befriending in London of a foreign correspondent and his adult travels back to Iraq after the 2003 war.

Unlike the compelling impersonality of “Folly,” a kind of stripped-down near-experimentalism, “Madness” is a more typical example of “literary fiction.” In fact it is almost a recitation of literary-fiction modes and styles of the last 70 or so years, from the early-Bellovian warmth and storytelling brio of the opening episodes about immigrant life in America, including the zany detail of the narrator’s in-flight birth, to the melancholy and learned Sebaldian meditations that come to dominate the last sections, where the destruction wrought by the Iraq War and generalized Islamophobia usher us into gloom, as if to say that the heroic immigrant bildungsroman of the midcentury has become a casualty of the 21st-century’s wars. 

We gradually become aware that we are reading in “Madness” a novel-within-the-novel. An intricately patterned, almost Nabokovian set of echoes and resonances shows that Amar’s story is one Alice has composed out of her own very different experiences and observations. Presumably in rebuke not only to the autobiographical obsessions of Roth’s generation but also to today’s ideologues of “cultural appropriation,” Halliday conducts a master-class on how the life of “the other” may be reconstituted from the experiences of the self. This is not without risk, as Amar himself, echoing the Zuckerman of American Pastoral, observes, but it remains worth doing:

But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.

Just to prove Halliday’s awareness of what’s at stake, as well as her literary wit, there is an allusion on the same page to Stephen Crane, whose own most famous novel is an account of a war in which he did not fight.

Halliday’s descriptive intelligence and storytelling energy make “Madness” every bit as readable as “Folly,” but, in line with Alice/Halliday’s own intentions, there is a feeling of the dutiful, the mechanical, and the pedagogical about it, as if it were reported on assignment. There is in Amar’s life story perhaps a received quirkiness, but nothing of the authentic strangeness of Alice’s character.

Ironically, this demonstrates the real literary danger in “writing the other”: we are so anxious to show we are not estranged, to prove “nothing human can be alien to me” (to borrow Marx’s beloved maxim of Terence), that we shy from discovering in “the other” the terrifying alienness we find in our own single selves. Amar in one moment ruminates that he might have become a terrorist but for the accidents of birth; yet the most vivid novelistic characters are so unpredictable that you wonder if they might become terrorists tomorrow. 

The epilogue purports to be a Desert Island Discs episode featuring Ezra in 2011, after he (unlike Roth, cruel irony) wins the Nobel at last. While the epilogue is theoretically necessary to spell out what most readers will have already divined over 100 pages before—that the novel’s second part is a fiction written by Alice to test the limit of the novelist’s empathy—it feels tacked-on, as if an editor had requested something more in line with the aforementioned #metoo moment, even though the rest of the novel reads almost as a generous appreciation by a female author of some of the specific travails of men. 

Ezra here gives a charmless, crass performance that doesn’t sound much like the Ezra of the first half, or like Roth’s public voice, or like any other human being, and his musical tour of his life is by-the-numbers. I was amused for personal reasons, though, that Halliday relocated her Roth surrogate from Newark to Pittsburgh and enjoyed the well-researched references to Squirrel Hill, Kaufmann’s, and Edgewater Steel. But when recounting his participation in the founding of the Paris Review, Ezra doesn’t even mention the CIA! (As a chanteuse of my own Pittsburgh youth once sang, “I think I’m paranoid”!)

Asymmetry is an addictively entertaining novel, especially in its first half (and especially if you love Roth, as I do). Its Bush-era humanism, seemingly so innocent of today’s furious populism and identitarianism, throws a nostalgic light. Such liberalism, though, often lets itself off too easily, and so it might be here. There are asymmetries Halliday raises without ever addressing. 

If one point of Asymmetry is to answer affirmatively Alice’s worry about whether “a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man,” then, on humanistic grounds, I agree. “Only connect,” or else what’s the point of novels?

But what if Alice made her “Muslim man” not an economist but a writer? What if she made him a writer who, because he did not have an affair with a much older, richer, and better-known author who paid off his student loans, was not able to break into publishing? What if he was not able to tell his own story not so much because of the cultural barriers spoken of by identity politics, but because he did not have the right institutional and economic connections, erotic or otherwise? Such a narrative development would have made Asymmetry even more ethically complex and rigorous than it already is, but it might also have made it much less endearing and lovable, to me anyway, if not to you, or to the committee appointed by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.


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.


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!

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey Into NightLong Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long Day’s Journey into Night, often considered one of the finest American dramas and as its author’s masterpiece, was first published posthumously in 1955. The sources of its plot and characters in the Nobel-winning author’s autobiography, his tortured family life marked by regret and addiction, seemed to demand its withholding until O’Neill’s death in 1953.

The play’s title is apt as it obeys the Aristotelian unities of time and place: it is set from morning to night on one summer day in one room of the Tyrone family’s New England summer home. The offstage sea, with its encroaching fog and sounding foghorn, contribute much of the solemn, oneiric mood.

The patriarch of the Tyrone family, James, is a wildly successful stage actor who came from impoverished Irish immigrants, including a father who abandoned the family. This poor beginning led him to sell out his Shakespearean gifts and ambitions for a moneymaking role that made him rich and famous but vitiated his talent; it also caused him to become a lifelong miser, no matter how much money he makes.

His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who became hooked on the opiate after the birth of their son, Edmund. Edmund is their third son, but their second, Eugene, died in childhood; this tragedy, along with a punishing life on the road as an actor’s wife, has contributed to Mary’s addiction and despair, her endless reminiscing upon her long-vanished youthful promise when she was a convent-school girl.

Jamie and Edmund are their grown sons, Jamie a dissolute and cynical actor and Edmund a budding intellectual and artist devoted to the most pessimistic currents of modern thought. (Biographical critics note that Edmund is transparently a stand-in for O’Neill, though observe, too, the poignance with which the author gives his own name to the dead child.) The two sons, like the father, are alcoholics. Much of the play’s rhythm is structured by their increasing drunkenness throughout the day, and by Mary’s increasing disappearance into her morphine haze, “night” being not only a time of day but a state of mental darkness.

Long Day’s Journey is not quite plotless: its two dramatic foci are the family’s discovery that Mary has relapsed into addiction, when they’d thought she was cured, and Edmund’s diagnosis of tuberculosis, which casts a shadow of death over the proceedings. Both events provoke the play’s intense dialogues between and among the family members as they hurl recriminations at one another or deliver monologues about their failed promise, speeches gathering emotional force and bitter honesty as day turns to night.

Brief quotation cannot suggest the play’s mounting power of confrontation and scenic construction; I imagine it, like Death of a Salesman, is more powerful staged than read. O’Neill and Miller share a perhaps greater gift for dramaturgy than a way with words (which is not quite true of other major American dramatists, like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson). The play’s tableaux, particularly the concluding one, might be more powerful than the rather slangy and verbose speeches.

On the other hand, Long Day’s Journey also has a novelistic quality that comes out in its extensive stage directions, the descriptive passages of which seem meant to be read rather than staged. O’Neill’s impossibly detailed renditions of his characters’ appearances, which no casting director could hope to approximate, demand an inner theater:

Edmund is ten years younger than his brother, a couple of inches taller, thin and wiry. Where Jamie takes after his father, with little resemblance to his mother, Edmund looks like both his parents, but is more like his mother. Her big, dark eyes are the dominant feature in his long, narrow Irish face. His mouth has the same quality of hypersensitiveness hers possesses. His high forehead is hers accentuated, with dark brown hair, sunbleached to red at the ends, brushed straight back from it. But his nose is his father’s, and his face in profile recalls Tyrone’s, Edmund’s hands are noticeably like his mother’s, with the same exceptionally long fingers. They even have to a minor degree the same nervousness It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that the likeness of Edmund to his mother is most marked.

What most fascinates me about this play is the debate about literature itself that O’Neill stages between the generations. The living room that is the play’s setting features two bookshelves. One represents the rebellious modernity of the sons and the other represents the old man’s comparative classicism:

Against the wall between the doorways is a small bookcase, with a picture of Shakespeare above it, containing novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Stirner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Kipling, etc.


Farther back is a large, glassed-in bookcase with sets of Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Lever, three sets of Shakespeare, The World’s Best Literature in fifty large volumes, Hume’s History of England, Thiers’ History of the Consulate and Empire, Smollett’s History of England, Gibbon’s Roman Empire and miscellaneous volumes of old plays, poetry, and several histories of Ireland.

As opposed to the supposedly calm universality of the father’s classic and romantic drama and enlightened historiography, the sons incline toward anarchism and socialism in politics, naturalism and aestheticism in literature, all of which entail a rejection of Christian metaphysics and morality. In later scenes, the sons quote from Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Wilde, whose aesthetics Tyrone pronounces “morbid”; he goes on to claim that Shakespeare contains both the genuine truths expressed by the morbid moderns but also much more:

Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters? You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying.

When we learn in a monologue what Shakespeare means to Tyrone, nothing less than a total transcendence of his desperate origins, we are less inclined to condescend with the radical youth to the elder’s classicism:

I was wild with ambition. I read all the plays ever written. I studied Shakespeare as you’d study the Bible. I educated myself. I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry.

And when Edmund mocks Tyrone’s possibly parochial insistence that “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic,” we might be invited to appreciate the English dramatist’s universality as much as to laugh at the Irish-American’s credulity (and history has caught up with half of Tyrone’s equation, anyway: Shakespeare is nowadays widely regarded as a Catholic writer, if not an Irish one).

O’Neill intends, I think, to synthesize the classics with the moderns. If his characters are trapped in a fate they can’t escape, marked indelibly by their family and class origins and controlled by addictions they can’t evade through force of will, is this any less true of the personae in Sophocles and Shakespeare? How great a departure is Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Zola’s naturalism, or Wilde’s aestheticism, with their insistence on humanity’s determination by inhuman forces and on art’s amorality, from Greek tragedy’s celebratory hymns to crushing fate? Mary insists that “life,” a mysterious determining force, is the agent in their lives, rather than they themselves:

But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self for ever.

Mary, though, retains a transcendent belief in some “true self” for “life” to betray and abuse. Edmund, for his part, praises the dissolution of the self in the engulfing sea as his most authentic experience, which we could easily compare to Hamlet’s concluding admission, “Let be,” or the manifest death-drive of Sophocles’s Antigone or Euripides’s Pentheus:

When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way. […] Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Edmund’s artistic-mystic vision is the authentic experience of which alcohol and morphine offer only the degraded copy; this insight is why Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, is alone among the characters in being able to write the play.

Browsing through Harold Bloom’s introduction to a later edition of the text (Yale UP, 2002), I see that Bloom dwells on the un- or anti-Americanism of O’Neill’s aesthetic. For Bloom, this means un- or anti-Emersonian, a rejection of Transcendentalist self-reliance and progressive optimism, against which the Irish-American O’Neill posits the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the severity of Jansenist Catholicism. In this vein, I have also sometimes heard O’Neill discussed by others as not American at all, but an honorary Irish author working somewhere between the “scrupulous meanness” of Joyce’s naturalism in Dubliners and the surrealist inertia of Beckett’s drama.

Leaving aside the perhaps beside-the-point national question, Long Day‘s modernist combination of a naturalistic with a more symbolic or expressionistic mode makes O’Neill’s drama exemplary of a heightened or mythic realism, like so much of the 20th-century’s most powerful fiction and drama from Henrik Ibsen to Toni Morrison. O’Neill’s intellectual conviction that his characters’ wills are not their own, that they are lived by their fates, is embodied strikingly by their wild changes of mood, tone, and posture, as if O’Neill were asking the actors to be successively possessed by different spirits:

He forces a laugh in which she makes herself join. Then he goes out on the porch and disappears down the steps. Her first reaction is one of relief. She appears to relax. She sinks down in one of the wicker armchairs at rear of table and leans her head back, closing her eyes But suddenly she grows terribly tense again. Her eyes open and she strains forward, seized by a fit of nervous panic. She begins a desperate battle with herself. Her long fingers, warped and knotted by rheumatism, drum on the arms of the chair, driven by an insistent life of their own, without her consent.

In this way, O’Neill’s dramaturgy literalizes his famous description, in the drama’s opening dedication to his wife, of “the four haunted Tyrones,” protagonists of this haunting modern tragedy.


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.


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!