The Reactionary Mind


Early in the book, in the second chapter, he quotes from the slightly unorthodox conservative, Andrew Sulivan, from his book, The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom, and the Future of the Right:

All conservatism begins with loss.

(Of course, I tend to think of Sullivan as rather a wannabe Hitchens, but lacking that better writer’s adventurous spirit and mordant wit. Of course they both did quit national magazines on account of feelings of ostracization stemming from more liberal colleagues disapproval of some of their positions.)

As a rhetorical tool, Corey Robin’s best move is to quickly go after Edmund Burke and place him squarely in the lineage of modern conservatism. ‘The priority of conservative political argument has been the maintenance of private regimes of power,’ he writes. Burke, by virtue of his commitment to keeping Westminster in narrow, elite hands, even as he believed in gifting a degree of economic security, falls under that rubric, the author argues. There is much more on Burke, early on, which makes me want to read more of Burke because I have an instinct to want to defend him (perhaps on account of my own elitism). But I cannot deny the efficiency of placing Burke in a lineage that leads directly to Trump, because otherwise, that esteemed eighteenth century thinker is the there to be pointed to, as an example of noble, intellectual conservative thought, implying that the current crudeness is an aberration. Robin seems to point at Burke’s thought and say, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

But to go back to that idea of loss… Buckley stands athwart history and shouts stop because something is being taken away from him. Race certainly being part of it, as desegregation and civil rights took a certain dominion from white men. While not his purpose, he gives a beautifully succinct explanation for why the Civil War could be about slavery (it was) even though most white men in the South did not own slaves. Under slavery, every white man was an aristocrat. With emancipation, man white men became merely poor and wanted their aristocratic privilege back.

Always though, he rows ceaselessly back to Burke. He take a trip earlier to visit Hobbes (the conservative as counterrevolutionary), but Burke is always there. He is what Thomas Jefferson is to me, I think: an admired figure who he knows is also dangerous and deeply unadmirable. To paraphrase a movie, he just can’t quit him.

He enjoys long, discursive, excerpt heavy footnotes… especially about Burke. I think he understands that Burke is figure at the beginning who no one (including, arguably, me) can accept as truly being part of the lineage of Trump. And he can’t let that (or him) go. Burke, you might say, is living rent-free in his head.

He’s now living in mine, too. I’ll have to find my copy of his selected writings and revisit. Especially his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity which sounds like a fascinating (and, yes, deeply conservative) defense of the rich and their capital against the needs of working people, disguised as an economic treatise.

The takedown of Rand (intertwined, somewhat inexplicably, with Nietzsche) was delicious. The author was incredulous as to how a writer of such ridiculous prose and philosopher of such shallow depths (who seems not to have read much philosophy) could be have become so… influential. In the end, I don’t think we know. I blame Paul Ryan.

Similarly, his critique of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s frankly rank hypocrisy (hint: he only adopted his textual originalism when it was useful to buttressing his decision, rather than always letting his originalism lead him to the decision) was nice to hear, because paeans to his supposedly principled legal stance have always rankled. Like so many leading 20th century (and now, 21st century) conservatives, his politics and philosophy were rooted in a culture of victimhood.

So, did this book, as a blurb attests, predict Trump? There is a chapter on Trump, clearly written post-election. But it feels understandably tacked on. Yes, he appealed to the sense of aggrievement, of victimhood, that is chronicled throughout as a key factor in conservatism. But Trump himself is so vacuous (he makes Ayn Rand look like Hannah Arendt) that the chapter is jarring. He’s a cipher, but in no way a thinker who added anything to the conservative movement beyond, perhaps, a little daylight (which has not proved to be as a good disinfectant as one might like).

Jefferson On Hume


Every one knows that judicious manner and charms of style have rendered Hume’s history [of England] the manual of every student. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured it when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it had instilled in my mind… It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that these were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown and have spread universal toryism over the land.

Letter to Colonel William Duane, August 12, 1810

I Want To Be At That Party


My all time favorite fictional party is the one at Holly Golightly’s apartment in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I read the book, indeed, it is the only Capote novel that I have, as yet, read, but the movie made a more startling and powerful impression on me).

My new second favorite might be the one in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum or, On the Nature of the Gods. Intelligent men having deeply thought-out conversations on ideas passionately held. It’s like one of Plato’s dialogues, but not everyone gets railroaded by Socrates, which, let’s be honest, would probably not be that fun to experience. Just ask Gorgias.

‘Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning’ By Cathy Park Hong


I borrowed this from the library (after a reassuringly long wait; people wanted to read it) partly because I like Hong’s poetry and partly because my daughter may experience some of what would be discussed.

First of all, a great book, beautifully, painfully written. Some remarks that delivered some deeply personal pain (some paragraph about how white men date Asian women because they can find Asian women who are much more attractive than the white women who would consider them and how Asian women, because of low self-esteem, will date a white man that no white woman would consider; as a white man with an Asian wife… yikes… but let’s just say, not without truth and move on).

The meditation on the erasure of the violence done to the writer Theresa Has Kyung Cha was devastating, but what I really kept coming back was something not in the book, but relevant.

My better half spoke about wanting me to take our daughter to school and to pick her up and be present whenever possible so that the roost-ruling white children and white families would see her white father and accept her as not being othered by race. Trying to make her safe and accepted by blessing her with my whiteness.

The Decagon House Murders


Despite these Japanese locked room mysteries supposedly being all about the mystery and the clues peppered throughout (a reader should be able to figure it out with the clues provided), with character and psychology being secondary, I noticed the this book and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders have similar characters. The lead ‘detective,’ in the case of Decagon, a man named Shimada, is a whimsical, almost romantic amateur (I need hardly add that I don’t mean ‘romantic’ in anything resembling an erotic sense).

This book ran in two tracks: on the mainland, where some amateur detectives get an idea of a potential mystery; and one an island (with the titular house) where you sort of know that everyone is going to die. While a neat idea, it also didn’t quite work for me. The island scenes were overly dramatic, but in retrospect, only existed to give us the clues we would need, as readers.

Now, I will freely admit that I didn’t figure out the mystery until the author revealed it. And even though I was disappointed, I won’t be afraid to try another Japanese mystery novel.

House On The Borderland


If someone ever said, hey, do you like Lovecraft, because, if so, you should read this, and then you read it, you would say that the aforementioned someone had a point. But only if you were a completist, because it draw a lot from Lovecraft’s more fantasy-like, dream tales.

The opening is a classic Edwardian trope of two well-to-do young men on an outdoorsy trip Ireland who camp and fish near an abandoned garden and find an old manuscript, which they read.

It’s the tale of man in late middle age (who, frankly, seems like he might not be a nice guy; he lives with his sister and I kept feeling sorry for her, without precisely being able to say why) who finds a put opening up near his house. He shoots a monstrous creature who are never explained but are usually explained as being ‘swine-things.’ Canny, they then lay siege to his house before mysteriously quitting the assault. Later, he investigates a tunnel, which seemed like surely the next step is to find an underground civilization, but no, the tunnel floods and he goes home. Where he has a dream (?) where he enters into a crazy cosmic phantasy, like someone decided to reenact Plato’s Timaeus after imbibing some kind of experimental pharmacopeia. And his dog crumbles to dust. And maybe the swine-whatevers come back? And did I mention they trap door to his cellar leading to… a supernatural river, maybe?

It actually was a little scary and, you know what, I’m going to recommend this book.

A Parliamentary Wine


After reading this article, I decided that I had to try a Picpoul de Pinet, which luckily I found a pleasantly inexpensive one at the best little liquor store in Washington, DC (Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, if you must know). Crisp, with lots of minerality, it surprisingly satisfied both me and my better half, who have famously different tastes that make it almost impossible for us to share a bottle.

The Lost World


Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarn falls between the science fantasy of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the didacticism of Jules Verne, which is to say, it is an adventure about dinosaurs in the jungles of South America that makes some stabs at following the best science known at the time.

I remember reading this a kid in the kitchen of my Uncle Buddy and Aunt Anna’s house in Atlanta, especially the bit where the protagonist names the lake in the dinosaur-filled plateau, Lake Gladys, after the chilly, would-be fiancée who inspired him (and who subsequently married a clerk while the protagonist was doing feats of derring-do; suffice to say that Doyle has a bit of misogynist streak, not unlike his most famous creation).

What can you say about a book like this? That it’s a ripping good tale. That the racism… could have been worse? That the genocidal attack on a tribe of prehumans feels icky?

You can definitely say that it needed more dinosaurs (a truth which can also be applied to Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth).

I had a good time reading it though, all in all. From my father, I inherited a love of British adventure stories and from my childhood a love of dinosaurs. So, something for everyone, I suppose.

Reading Trump Into Camus


I have rejected looking to Camus’ The Plague for insight into… well, into this current plague.

But is just occurred to me, that there is an insight into Trump, or rather, into Trumpism, by which I am referring to the darker parts of the human soul. The fearful parts.

And the final lines of The Plague came to me:

He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

The Anxiety Of Influence


This book has been on my list for years, but was almost impossible to find, but there it was at Solid State Books. Even more amazing, after I bought it, they replaced with another copy on the shelves!

For a critic famous for his defense of the traditional canon, the pre-post-colonial canon, as it were, The Anxiety of Influence is a brilliantly, desperately sincere text of postmodern play.

Is Romanticism after all only the waning out of the Enlightenment, and its prophetic poetry only an illusory therapy, not so much a saving fiction as an unconscious lie against the difficult human effort of holding the middle ground between instinctual existence and all morality?

I was caught by the quote because the question of Enlightenment and its successor, Romanticism seems to keep coming up, though this answer seems inadequate in terms of history, if not literature.

If here were a poet, his bête noire (or perhaps, I should say daemon) would be Milton (he wants it to be Dante, but it’s Milton). While he praises and respects poets like Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, his idea of poetry was forged between Milton and Keats. In the end, the whole book is about how the sublime is achieved by the great poets. While we can talk about the sublime today, he means it in a sense in which we rarely speak of it – the way Burke spoke about it.

I do not know if I ever will (my to be read stack is quite high), but the highest praise I can give this book is that I want to read it again. Not right away, but when I am older, to sit down in a comfy chair and read this dense, slim labor of love one more time.