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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—these are real men!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic GospelsThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this 1979 classic of popular non-fiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Not only that, but she also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled “gnostic” was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism’s defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.

What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the “gnostic gospels” of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else’s rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within. Having dismissed nature and the body, the figure of Christ becomes less important as the incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death; Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: “Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception,” Pagels explains. Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy is de-emphasized and a greater place allotted to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: “like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.”

The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:

As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over “the people”; judges who preside in God’s place.

As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:

Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.

Pagels concludes that “the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion.”

The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to root for: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. In one chapter, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ’s incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic’s quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original, another theophany who doesn’t really bleed or weep as we do. Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, “[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church.” Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes sense the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism’s more chaotic theology.

But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest.” Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:

William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see” […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who “desired man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely,” choosing the truth of one’s own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.

Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism’s massive influence in late-twentieth-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment.

Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their “ruthless critique of everything existing” (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life via the state according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derived essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik. Pagels’s focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined in his remarkable short lyric “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity:

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.


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

A Personal Canon

tumblr_opa7lamDgA1qgqrwho1_1280A number of book bloggers are posting their personal canons. They are very fun: see here, here, and here, for instance. (It reminds me of the “literary pillars” exercise inspired by William H. Gass; see Samuel R. Delany’s here and Brian A. Oard’s beautifully comprehensive one, starting here.)

I thought to do the same, but the problem is that when it comes to imaginative literature (i.e., fiction, poetry, drama, and related) I have no personal canon, or my personal canon just is the canon. Greatest writer of the modern west? Shakespeare. Greatest English novel? Middlemarch. Greatest twentieth-century novel? Ulysses. My favorite lyric poem, I tell you no lie, is the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” My favorite living American writers really are Roth, DeLillo, and Morrison. In the last twelve months, I have made the staggering, unbelievable discovery that Mann, Pushkin, and Walcott are great writers.

Granted, I have revealing and sometimes even perverse preferences among the pantheon—these days, at least, I will take Dostoevsky over Tolstoy; I like Hawthorne, Dickinson, and James better than Melville, Whitman, and Twain; I have even lately been toying with a preference for Cather over Faulkner—but not even the slightly more outré among my well-liked books (Nightwood) or writers (Cynthia Ozick) want for general appreciation. My favorite comic book writer is Alan Moore, for the love of God!

I have never been a great hunter after literary obscurities, a comber of small-press catalogues, a seeker into the unjustly uncanonized, a devourer of rare translations from heretofore-unheralded national literatures. This undoubtedly marks me a bad person—small-minded and complacent, a Little-Englander of the soul. All the same, Emerson has a good if questionable passage on this theme in “Experience”:

[I]n popular experience, everything good is on the highway. A collector peeps into all the picture-shops of Europe, for a landscape of Poussin, a crayon-sketch of Salvator; but the Transfiguration, the Last Judgment, the Communion of St. Jerome, and what are as transcendent as these, are on the walls of the Vatican, the Uffizii, or the Louvre, where every footman may see them; to say nothing of nature’s pictures in every street, of sunsets and sunrises every day, and the sculpture of the human body never absent. A collector recently bought at public auction, in London, for one hundred and fifty-seven guineas, an autograph of Shakspeare: but for nothing a school-boy can read Hamlet, and can detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein. I think I will never read any but the commonest books, — the Bible, Homer, Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton.

Then it occurred to me that I could rescue the project of a personal canon by focusing strictly on works of non-fiction that have formed my thinking. As far as non-fiction goes, I tend to read literary criticism and theory, philosophy (not as much as I should), and, broadly speaking, political thought. Every year I resolve to read more history, biography, and science, and every year I remain as ill-informed on these subjects as a young-earth creationist. On the other hand, I make no apology for my wariness of memoir and autobiography; VIPs’ autobios are ghostwritten, and literary types who want to dilate half-imaginarily upon grief or education or illness or family life should just write novels like the rest of us. (Obvious exceptions leap to mind—please don’t think I fail to admire Frederick Douglass, to name only one—but in our memoir-glutted age I stand by my point.)

Anyway, here follows, on this endless rainy Sunday, a lightly-annotated list of some non-fictional books that have meant something to me over the years. I have slightly cheated by leaving out works that I once found persuasive but now feel myself, rightly or wrongly, to have outgrown (e.g., John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or James Wood’s The Broken Estate, to say nothing of historically local political polemics that are now in the proverbial historical dustbin where they probably belong). The following books have not so much convinced me of something, so that I can be unconvinced of it later, but have provided me with models for how to think about anything.

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae. Perhaps the most controversial item on the list. I read it in my senior year of high school. While I do not agree with its every willful provocation, it articulates a thesis that remains foundational for me: there will always be a nightside to our lives, always something dark and destructive in our desires, and art (or criticism) must not neglect this truth out of some misplaced faith—Christian, liberal, or otherwise—that incorrigible humanity could ever be totally enlightened. Also, even if she does, we should not let Paglia-the-provocateur stand in the light of Paglia-the-supreme-close-reader, particularly of lyric poetry, painting, and sculpture.

Roland Barthes, S/Z. The first and in a way last piece of “French theory” to blow my mind in college. I read it in a junior seminar alongside a selection of contemporary world novels, such as The Remains of the Day, The English Patient, and True History of the Kelly Gang. Barthes’s subtleties eluded me—especially all the seeming Lacaniana about castration—and I have never revisited the book (please don’t ask me about the “five codes” Barthes posits), but its argument on behalf of a literature that requires the reader to make a writerly effort remains one of the most appealing defenses of artistic difficulty I know: “The writerly is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation, writing without style, production without product, structuration without structure.” On reflection, this strikes me as a witless antinomianism, suggestive less of modernist experimentation than of process-not-product poetry slams, but what can I say, I needed to hear it at a certain time in my reading and writing life; probably everyone does.

Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. The first and in a way last work of literary theory to blow my mind in graduate school, read in my first semester. In a sensible world, Lukács would be more controversial than Paglia. Of all literary theory’s problematic faves, he was the only one, to my knowledge, who actually ordered men to be killed (as if to demand, “Top that, Paul de Man!”). This book dates from just before the unpleasantness of his communist years, though it is clearly the work of a man at the end of his tether, trembling on the precipice of some kind of religious conversion. The dense but lyrical language of this grand little essay as it charts the historical missions and destinies of the great literary genres from epic to novel is strangely moving: Lukács wants so badly to believe in literature. In the end, he had to find something he thought larger to believe in, already implicit here: History. The rest of us are left with this book’s doleful, dead-end wisdom: “Irony, the self-surmounting of a subjectivity that has gone as far as it was possible to go, is the highest freedom that can be achieved in a world without God.”

John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern and Straw Dogs. A pattern: I am a latecomer to the primary sources. As I read Lukács before Hegel (and don’t ask how much Hegel), I read Gray before Schopenhauer (don’t ask etc.). With the later Lukács’s left-Hegelian faith in historical progress waning in me early in graduate school as I contemplated the ruins of Bush’s right-Hegelian America and of leftish academe, it was fortuitous for me to discover a philosophical pessimism, a conservative anti-humanism, that was very nearly humane, or at least pacific. I admired Gray’s insistence that precisely because humans were not special and were not capable of progress we should care for each other and the world—though cautiously, much more cautiously than Hegel’s stormtroopers, whether the Marxist totalitarians of the twentieth century or the twenty-first-century neocon imperialists in Mesopotamia, lest we destroy what beauty and order we have actually managed to create.

Plato, Phaedrus. I told you I come late to the primary sources! Sure, I had read the Apology and the famous parts of the Republic and even—with the late Heda Segvic, an extraordinary lecturer—the Protagoras, not to mention some of Derrida’s characteristically impenetrable Platonic commentary in Dissemination, so I knew a little about Plato (not enough; I still don’t). I took up the Phaedrus, alongside the Symposium, in this Hackett edition with its weirdly sexy cover—if you want a “sex sells” cover for your Plato on Love book, it should probably show two men in bed together—mainly because I was writing a dissertation chapter on Wilde and wanted to know more about his Platonism. I was not prepared for the infinite regress of this self-devouring dialogue, a written polemic against writing, an erotic argument against eros, a supreme demonstration of the identity of opposites on the highest level, despite its, or Socrates’s, overt advocacy for one side (idealism, chastity, speech) over the other (materialism, lust, writing). If irony is our substitute for a transcendence we can neither attain nor cease from believing in, this is its Gospel.

Northrop Frye, Anatomy of CriticismI should have read it in high school; alas, I got to it only after the Ph.D. The way my teachers talked, you’d have thought all criticism before 1968 was either naïve or vicious. Frye’s total vision of literature—as a mobile ensemble of modes, symbols, myths, and genres, like some perpetual motion sculpture of the Ptolemaic cosmos, embodying the entire life cycle of the human person and the human collective—proves that at least one body of pre-cultural-revolution criticism was at once immeasurably sophisticated and boundlessly hopeful. (A Christian, Frye saw his cyclical narrative paradoxically culminating in comedy, but this is no less arbitrary than having it culminate it tragedy, like Gray, or in irony, like the young Lukács; the question is when you stop spinning the wheel.) It is probably true that this vast system slights the complexities of any one of its constituent elements; using Frye to “read” a poem would likely end in a nightmare of insensitive reductivism. But considered as a poem—an authentic twentieth-century epic with literature as its voyaging warrior—Anatomy of Criticism is unforgettable.

Gillian Rose, Love’s Work and Mourning Becomes the Law. An unexpected conclusion, for two reasons: the first book is a memoir (read circa 2010), and the second I am reading currently. Love’s Work, Rose’s deathbed testament (she died in middle age of ovarian cancer), is a staggering meditation on how to live and think in the midst of agony and evil: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not,” she counsels, quoting St. Silouan. Mourning Becomes the Law is a collection of philosophical essays arguing against the manifold forms of despair offered by contemporary art and thought, from deconstruction to pragmatism; returning to Plato, she shows that if we had no transcendent vantage, we could not criticize the here and now in the name of any value, whether justice or love or beauty. That we can find no warrant now for such a vantage is, she implies, no excuse. She converted to Christianity in her final days.

The previous entries in this private canon perhaps gather here, now arrayed in a pattern leading to Rose: unable to avoid our dark side (per Paglia), we must labor to reinterpret it (per Barthes) in a light disclosed by the ironic apprehension that all is not as it should be (per Lukács) or is even nothing in itself (per Gray), compared to some paradisal totality (per Plato), some divine comedy (per Frye), that we can imagine but not directly experience. This is too neat a narrative though, so I provide one more entry, out of the previous temporal sequence (I read this book between the Barthes and the Lukács, at around age 24) and not so weightily metaphysical:

J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores. Nobody is supposed to outgrow anything anymore—you should love Batman at 47 as much as you did when you were 11—but I feel I am always getting too big for at least some of my prior reading; so it is with Coetzee’s novels (Disgrace excepted, I assume, though I’m too scared to go back and reread it). His early work is the highest literary expression liberal guilt has ever received, and his later work is an Eliotic cry to God, but his dryness and his spareness come to feel more and more like, if not a gimmick, then a disqualifying limitation. The dryness and spareness of his criticism, though, is a tonic for someone like me, an eager-to-impress cultural parvenu reared early on showboating critic-essayists (not only Paglia, but also Bloom, Sontag, Hitchens, and Vidal). Coetzee never showboats; he describes the work under review patiently and precisely, adding context, explicating difficulties, and carefully noting strengths and weaknesses. These essays are so free from heavy weather that, compared to the grandeur above, they scarcely seem written at all. And the last piece in this book, “What Is a Classic?”, must be one of the twentieth century’s great literary essays: it testifies that after you have charted every material determinant and political injustice underlying your experience of art, you will still be left—if the art is strong enough—with an experience of otherworldly grace, near-Platonic transcendence, and that the passing on of this experience (or its means) through education defines the classic.

Weightily metaphysical after all, and neatly narrative too: if all goes well, your personal canon becomes a public one in the end.


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Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

Beyond the pleasure principleBeyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this famously transitional work of 1920, Freud sets out to explain the prevalence of psychic activity that cannot obviously be attributed to the organism’s inclination to reduce tension, the reduction of which produces pleasure. After all, as a clinician, he was seeing neurotic and hysterical patients—very tense people. So, via a speculative tour of psychoanalytic theory circa 1920 as well as of early-20th-century biology, Freud arrives at the provisional conclusion that there are two drives or instincts operating in organisms: one that seeks to restore the equilibrium of inorganic life, to get back to the peace before birth, which is the death drive; and one that seeks to carry life forward, to bind life up, to make more life, which is the life instinct, or Eros.

He allows in the book that he is echoing Schopenhauer on will (death-drive) and representation (life-drive), and the translator’s introduction draws Nietzsche into it (presumably, Apollo = Eros and Dionysus = Thanatos). But Freud’s emphases are rather different from those of the earlier philosophers, both of whom conferred a kind of Gothic glamor on the Dionysian will-to-nothingness underlying organic existence; Freud—less reactionary but more conservative, you might say—is on the side of life; he seems to see neurosis as the death-drive’s desperate end-run around Eros, the defeat of the capacity for love on the road back to the placid equilibrium of the rocks and stones and trees. This romance with death is the sickness that needs to be cured in the eyes of Doctor/Father Freud, the last Abrahamic patriarch, the last priest of Apollo, our last defender, albeit disguised as mere scientist, of Hebraic and Hellenic idealism both. Toward the end of the book, he asserts:

Our views have from the very first been dualistic, and to-day they are even more definitely dualistic than before—now that we describe the opposition as being, not between ego instincts and sexual instincts but between life instincts and death instincts.

And after that, he nearly exclaims:

The pleasure principle seems actively to serve the death instincts.

This is, incidentally, a jargon-heavy book, a scientist’s labor full of qualification and hesitations and humble assurances, not a work of Schopenhauerean lucidity or Nietzschean excitement—you will have to go well beyond the pleasure principle to read it! What if Eros in literature manifests as difficulty? Maybe there’s something to be guilty about in guilty-pleasure reading after all.

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