‘Trust Exercise’ By Susan Choi

It took me a bit to follow the narrative shifts, even after I’d finished the novel.

Trust Exercise begins with a teenage girl at a high school for the performing arts and how the ups and downs of the experience and moving in and out of acceptance within the drama group (literally, drama; acting, stagecraft, theater, is what they specialize in), but most especially her love for another student. Their time as boyfriend and girlfriend ends relatively quickly, but hangs over it all.

Then, it’s revealed that what we just read was a novel by the now grown girl. It’s revealed by another classmate, who was composited, rather than directly portrayed, the in novel, who complains about that and about how, actually, the drama of those two teenage lovebirds was the swirling center about which everything seemed to revolve in the classroom.

Then, it’s all undone again. The second narration was as fictional(ized) as the first. A visiting group of English students and their teacher/chaperones might never have existed. The drama teacher was not actually gay, but even more predatory (in the novel that is the first part, he may have taken advantage of a male student).

Everything described actually happened. Mostly. Just rarely to and by the same people as in the earlier version.

It’s a brilliant book, but my main feeling is to be grateful I never have to live through high school again (and that our own drama program – I did four years of high school drama – was not nearly so bad).

Somewhat unexpectedly, I realized that this book, which I got from the library for my little one, is also by Susan Choi. I discovered it because a Facebook friend posted a link to books by and about the Asian-American experience for APIA History Month. It’s a beautiful, elegiac book of magical realism for elementary school children.

img_5248The subtitle of this book was the title of an earlier book by Scruton and he describes this one as an attempt to wade back into the waters of demolishing the new new left (and also the same left as before, too).

His opening salvo acknowledges that Marx is not really, anymore, a lodestar for those on the left, but he still cannot help but engage with him, mostly because, like it or not, his philosophical writings are powerful and important.

But despite his protestations (doth the conservative protest too much?), he follows up his introductory chapter with a broadside (these are all, really, essays) on the Marxian historians Eric Hobsbawn (who I head read and love and to who Scruton gives appropriate credit for being a brilliant historian and man of letters) and E. P. Thompson (who I have heard of, but never read). Go figure.

Well, that’s not fair. Communism had far greater currency in England during the Cold War and had far more mainstream credibility than in America.

He even links Marxian ideas to John Kenneth Galbraith (though praising him as a stylist; the aestheticist in him is never far from the surface), which says more about the range of ideas Marx wrote about than it does about Galbraith (in case you’re interested, the linkage here is the Canadian economist’s  writings about want and desire in contemporary society being created by society’s output, which idea can, yes, be traced to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, but I could do the same so some of Ross Douthat’s more explicitly religious critiques of society, so this isn’t really a left/right thing).

What did surprise me was his praise for Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison. He writes admiringly of its insights (while dismissing what links it to his other works, those he doesn’t like; these weak links, of course, are somehow related to Marx; but I appreciate being given a new, deliciously French vocabulary word: marxisant). His seemingly off-handed mention of how he died of AIDS reeks of the worst sort of nauseating, neanderthal moralizing (the subtext seems to be, ‘you know he was gay right?’ he shows similar attitudes when criticizing Sartre’s Saint Genet for mocking ‘norms of heterosexual respectability’).

As to why he, in particular, cannot let Marx go, even when he acknowledges Marxism is no longer very relevant to current debates, it is at the heart of his conservatism. Insofar as Scruton is a philosopher of import and a conservative, it is on the field of aesthetics that his foundation is laid. He is, arguably, a Burkean, but a Burkean of Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin Of Our Ideas Of The Sublime and Beautiful. Materialism and class analysis are anathema to him. Tradition, culture, and classic ideas of beauty inform Scutonian conservatism (I wanted to write Scroogean there, but that’s more a feature of the near homonymity than any deep connection between Scruton and Scrooge, whose own conservative was less about beauty and culture than class and materialism). Marx is a symbol for a turn from this aesthetic sense (he even blames the tortured syntax and unnecessary vocabularies that have become standard to many forms of academic writing across the ideological spectrum on Marx and Marxism, which would surprise anyone who has tried to read an academic article by an economist broadly from the Chicago, née Austrian, School.

I am disinclined to defend Zizek, though Scruton offers him some praise.

He writes perceptively of art, literature, cinema and music, and when he is considering the events of the day – be it presidential elections in America or Islamist extremism in the Middle East – he always has something interesting and challenging to say.

Well, paint me surprised. Later, he even seems to suggest that is Marxism is just fine (Lacan, apparently, is to blame for Zizek’s flaws) Also, I guess I hadn’t noticed before, but I don’t see an Oxford comma here.

The codicil chapter, which fits awkwardly, though if he had just stopped, that would have felt jarring, tries to give a positive statement on conservatism and is titled What Is Right? A certain political naivete rears its head here and makes clear that he’s not much of a political theater. His origin story is of watching the student demonstrations in Paris in 1968. He says that he didn’t know what he believed, but that they must be wrong. He loves order, in other words. But when he tries to go beyond that, well, he sounds rather liberal, to my ears.

I enjoyed the last (and only other) book that I read by Scruton that I read, but, just as I questioned his credentials as a political thinking, I am also not sure that he is really a philosopher at all (anyone who gives Hume some portion of credit for having ‘kept skepticism at bay’ deserves some mistrust). Actually, I am fairly certain that he is not. Which is not to say that he is not well, indeed, deeply read in the subject. But it is to say that he is more like a Christopher Hitchens figure. A powerfully intelligent polemicist rather than a systematic thinker. He’s also like Hitchens in that it can be marvelously fun to read his mockery (Habermas is subjected to the best lines. His books ‘are printed in luxury editions for the better class of living room. Few people have read these books from cover to cover; few of that who have read them remember what they say.’ Also, ‘with somewhat greater frequency than the lines of Shakespeare that fall from the monkey’s typewriter, interesting ideas surface in the great waste-paper basket of Habermas’ prose’) and that it’s a worthwhile waste of one’s time to watch extended clips of him online (at least thirty minutes, but preferably longer).

But, he’s made me want to take another stab at reading Being and Nothingness (presumably not his intention) and to find and reread a Raymond Williams book that bought years ago at Kramerbooks (I know I’ve seen it recently on the shelves in my study; it has a striking, if not particularly handsome, silver cover), offered an offhanded but fascinating defense of Augustine’s theory of original sin, and maybe convinced me to read more Scruton.

Scruton fulfills or can fulfill, in a way, something like the role that William F. Buckley played for the intellectual left. That is the role of the conservative that one can engage with. The each bring a pleasant, upper class accent and vocabulary, though Scruton, so far as I know, lacks Buckley’s unreconstructed racism and segregationism (though his attack on Edward Said and his defense of Said’s targets smacks of a certain pro-colonialism). Certainly, I hope so. One can imagine him despising Trump’s rigidly unintelligible propaganda, proudly uninformed opinions, and, not least, his outspoken and unironic tackiness (one can easily imagine Buckley being outwardly seduced by Trump, but that is because Buckley’s interest was movement through the exercise in political power, whereas Scruton appears driven by his love of aristocratic English high culture).

Yes, Virginia, There Is An Aristotle, And No, He’s In Not In Danger Of Being Cancelled, But Some People Have Apparently Solved All The World’s Problems, So Have Time For This Sort Of Straw Man Pablum

Is Aristotle in danger of being ‘cancelled,’ as this New York Times approved editorial suggests? No, because that’s a stupid straw man premise.

But were he alive today, we would absolutely criticize him and call out magazines that published books and articles by this hypothetical contemporary Aristotle that either defend slavery or sexism or whose foundations are built on them. Does the author really not get the difference? I suspect she does and is being willfully obtuse, especially since protecting Aristotle from being cancelled goes in the same circular file as protecting ‘Merry Christmas’ from ‘Happy Holidays.’ (And, in case you need a refresher six months before Christmas, you say Merry Christmas to people you know to celebrate Christmas, and Happy Holidays to people who don’t or if you don’t know; try it, and I bet you’ll be surprised to find the saying Happy Holidays has not destroyed your faith in God, belief in the Trinity, or caused your local Wal-Mart to erupt into a pagan bacchanal featuring unspeakable and non-consensual acts with discount patio furniture.

Review: ‘Twilight At Monticello: The Final Years Of Thomas Jefferson’

img_5245My interest in Jefferson has always been in the workings of his mind and I am not sure this book did much to expand my understanding, in that regard.

Also, this is the second book I have read about Thomas Jefferson in the last several weeks that seems to give weight to arguments that doubt his fathering Sally Hemmings’ children. This is does so better, by describing the arguments against it, as if in good faith, but ultimately coming down on the side of, yes, Jefferson and Hemmings had a sexual relationship and he fathered several children with her. Frankly, right now, the issue (no pun intended) is so little in doubt that any effort to seriously recognize the other side is deeply fraught, because it is clear that racially motivated prejudices drive them (Jefferson, a proud and noble white man with unimpeachable intellectual and ethical credentials, could not have had a sexual relationship, which could never be truly consensual, with a black woman, however light skinned).

It is also a depressing book. The chronicle of a family’s decline into insolvency. Page after page of Jefferson’s extravagant spending, combined with loan upon loan (including sad sounding loans, like $100 from a local shopkeeper) and the occasional bad faith financial transaction (while acting with essentially power of attorney for a European friend’s property, he sold it and then loaned the proceeds to himself). Even his offer to sell his library to replenish the Library of Congress, which the British had burnt to ashes during the War of 1812, was driven in no insignificant part in order to get a hold on some cash to pay off some loans and show sufficient solvency so as to be able to ask for more credit. And did I mention that Crawford hints that, in his later years, Jefferson might have had an opium addiction? Yeah, it’s not a fun read, in many respects.

‘Severance’ By Ling Ma

Severance was well reviewed, and rightly so, but like most contemporary, literary novels, I always feel a slight sense of disappointment. It’s a very, very good novel, but it’s no classic for inclusion in the canon. Which is, of course, not a fair comparison, but one that I always go to. Perhaps why I read so much genre fiction. Less weight on the shoulders of reader and writer.

The obvious comparison here is to Station ElevenSeverance has more to say, but Station Eleven says it better. By which I mean that Na is not really writing any kind of science fiction novel. She is trying to make a point about modern life and the traps of routine and acceptance into which we fall. And she makes it well. Mostly.

The protagonist, Candace Chen, is a bit of tabula rasa, for good or ill. Only in the flashbacks to her childhood does she seem more fully realized, as a character.

But, this novel is about a global, airborne pandemic (albeit one spread by fungal spores). And features people wearing masks and empty office buildings. So… a little on the nose right now.

The Court Of Broken Knives

img_5217This was a difficult one to get into. A young, beautiful protagonist who is, at least initially, a member of a mercenary company that is only mostly shamelessly rips off Glen Cook’s Black Company (here, the unimaginatively named Free Company of the Sword), who happens to be a genetic sociopath. If there is a success here, it is in succeeding in duping the reader into thinking that – because he is good looking (yes, even when we can’t see the person, we are predisposed to think good looking people are better people) and is clearly set up as the protagonist – we are rooting for the good guy. Not that Spark doesn’t give us ample reason to mistrust that instinct (including pretty severe addiction problem – drugs and alcohol – that not infrequently has him puking all over himself).

About midway through, one character actually gives voice to that mistake, albeit inside her own head. Someone so beautiful must be good. And we are dragged along. It helps that the most mistrustful folks, the handful of members of the aforementioned Free Company who survive a bloodbath that takes place about one third of the way through, a portrayed as grimy, not very good looking, and very… human, in an icky and mortal way. So we don’t really trust them the way we do the good looking sociopath.

Admittedly, by around the final third, pretense has been dropped and the ‘hero’ is revealed as tramautized, sociopathic, man-child with never properly explained powers (he’s descended from some kind of god-like and also deranged hero of ancient legend).

I’m making this all sound more literary and successful than it is. Because it’s hard to feel super invested when you really don’t like anybody enough to care too much what happens to anybody and come to the conclusion that, with the exception of one (former) high priestess (who is too damsel-in-distress-y for my tastes), that the moral arc of the universe would be just fine if every significant character to whom the author introduced you were swallowed by a meth alligator.

Review: ‘Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics Of Enlightenment And The American Founding‘ By Darren Staloff

My critique would be this: we must take him at his word. He devotes some two score pages to a description of the Enlightenment (primarily the French Enlightenment; in the sections about the individual Founders, the Scottish Enlightenment gets many nods, but not so much here, though the distinctly non-French Kant does get a few mentions). In the 80-100 pages each of the figures gets, he describes their take on (and sometimes rejection of) various strands of Enlightenment.

But he does not much quote from them. Yes, he has extensive citations, but not owning all those primary sources (and also having a job and a family which takes up some of my time), I must accept his interpretations and assessments at face value. And, as I mentioned, I’m not one hundred percent on his vision of the Enlightenment (which sometimes bleeds into early Romanticism).

But on those assertions.

Adams, he claims, saw class conflict, as vital. It was the tension which preserves the Republic. If the aristocratic elite become too dominant, you have baronial oligarchy. If the masses win, some charismatic general, a la Napoleon, takes power. Interesting and also begging for some contemporary commentary (where he have a populist who simultaneously works to put the economic oligarchs in power).

One nearly unforgivable statement is that he writes it is ‘probable but not certain’ that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemming’s children, which is true (though by 2005, when this book was published, it would have already been more to say it is ‘nearly certain and widely accepted’), but what makes it so frustrating for me and what makes me question him, is that he goes on to cite the theory that it could have been his younger brother. That is a canard that had been used by unscrupulous historians and pseudo-historians for years to try and deny the heritage of his descendants by Hemmings. What makes this so much more frustrating is that Staloff is unstinting in pointing out the racism that undergirded too much of Jefferson’s public life, including how his own actions to drive American Indians (oh, and why does he insist in writing ‘Amerindian?’) from their land lay the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s later, genocidal actions.

In general, it was about Adams that I learned the most (though my trust in what he writes was deeply shaken by what he wrote about Hemmings in the final section, about Jefferson). It’s been many, many, many years since I that McCullough biography and the section on Adams spoke a lot more aspects of his presidency that had (to my mind) little to do with whatever point he was trying to make about the Enlightenment, but I didn’t know about his critical support for Haiti’s revolution, opening up relations with the revolutionary government and allowing American ships to bring needed supplies. Again, though, not clear how this relates to Adams supposedly somewhat skeptical view of Enlightenment ideas.

In fact, he doesn’t do a great job on how their actual political lives were or were not guided by their own takes on the Enlightenment. When he writes about the Enlightenment, he mentions the Physiocrats who can be directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism, but then he posits Jefferson as being a post-Enlightenment Romantic. And if the Physiocrats are an emblematic facet of Enlightenment, how does Hamilton’s singleminded focus on commerce and finance fit in? He does place the Enlightenment in a uniquely urban context, which fits well with Hamilton (and Adams, though he doesn’t make that point).

This is an interesting book, but frankly, the arguments are little muddled.

Bloomsday Forgot

No, it’s not Bloomsday. I missed it.

I forgot about it. Which I do not normally do. In past years, I have been in strange rooms at midnight for marathon readings of Ulysses.

This year, it simply passed me by.

And yes, grappling with COVID and, perhaps more importantly, with racism (andyes, Black Lives Matter, and yes, All Lives Matter is racist in part because you never, ever used that phrase until people started saying Black Lives Matter), meant that I had other things on my mind. More important things, even.

But it passed. And that’s sad.

He is a member of the traditional, white, western canon, but he is also still one of the greatest English language authors in all history and we used to take one day a year to honor and. remember him and, as, if not more importantly, to make literature fun, vital, and experiential.

I won’t live forever, barring some kind of amazing medical advance and don’t know how many Bloomsdays I have ahead of me.

I hope that, at the very least, I remember the next one.

When It Is Written

This chapter in world history will be written and it will portray us, the United States of America, badly. Because we, as a country, compare so badly to a defined group of other, otherwise comparable (more or less developed, capitalist, and small ‘d’ democratic) countries. There are the countries that acted nationally and decisively and are on some kind of trajectory to make the virus a more or less negligible factor even in the absence of the vaccine; and there are countries like us who have flailed about and now sort of appear to have given up on doing anything about.

And this chapter will be written and it will be remembered because it makes for such a nice, clear narrative. Those that took action and succeeded, in some fashion, and those who did little, did it late, gave up early, and failed.

Historians like it when such bright lines exist.

Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.

– Horace Walpole