‘Washington, D.C.’ By Gore Vidal

To my great joy, early in the book, a young man fantasizes that he is within the Barsoomian tales of Burroughs. Even more enjoyable, for me, at least, he name drops neither, just a character you’d only know from having read the books (or seen the movie).

This character grow into a sort of Vidal stand-in; an elite-born man who became a polemical political moralist, who also knew political Washington inside and outside.

Of course, the Washington of Washington, D.C. doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the least because you’ll rarely see Senators hanging around the city on weekends (they are back in the states they represent). But this book also realizes that. At one point, an aging, mostly moral, lion of the Senate muses that he almost lost re-election after being outspent and confesses some confusion over how television and radio ads changed things.

I gather he retroactively incorporated this into his ‘Narratives of Empire’ series, but it lakes the scope and sweep of the two I have read (Burr and Lincoln). It felt rather personal, not in the least because it covered a time when he was growing up in this older Washington.

That said, one can see in the aspiring politician Vidal’s critiques of Kennedy. In the leftist intellectual seduced by that rising star, Arthur Schlesinger (I don’t know what Vidal thought of him). But it’s not exact and more a nearby critique, than a direct one.

Lord help me, in many ways, it’s more Henry James than Gore Vidal, but the better for it. I had set aside my affections for him, but this reminded me that, actually, he’s a d—m fine novelist.

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins Of The American Republic

This wonderful, if sometimes clunkily written, book is a series of long digressions on figures of deep influence to the intellectual leadership of the American Revolution and America’s founding. He begins with a discussion of two lesser known Revolutionary figures, Ethan Allen and Thomas Young, who wrote stridently ‘Deist’ (really, atheist) works. Theoretically, it is about the influence of Deism on the founders, but really, it’s about making sometimes tendentious, but always interesting arguments for another layer of philosophical forebears beneath accepted intellectual forefathers like John Locke.

So how does that work in practice? A long discussion of Epicurean cosmology and how it (supposedly) informed the intellectual climate that directly influenced Revolution figures (mostly Jefferson and Franklin; though this also undercuts the idea that these were foundational, since in their learning and interests, they were sui generis). Spinoza is brought up early and often and is taken to be a key figure whose ideas were behind all the most influential ideas of those most directly connected to the ideas of the Revolution.

I’m not sure that Stewart was all that deeply interested in writing a book about the intellectual history of the American Revolution, but rather that it made an easier sell on his actual book, a fascinating look at two marginal figures of the American Revolution combined with an expansive view of the influence of Epicurean physics and places Spinoza at the center of the Enlightenment (yes, he makes a point towards the end that Spinoza is an ‘early modern,’ but in context of the whole book, he is clearly shifting the Enlightenment backwards a good bit, moving it’s beginning to Spinoza and Hobbes).

Stewart is himself a materialist of the Spinozan variety (he wrote an earlier book about the Dutch-Iberian philosopher), I would hazard by his good natured glee when writing about it. I don’t mind a position, in that respect, especially when it is joyful in its advocacy, rather than disrespectful in it.

I enjoy listening to (and usually disagreeing with) some of the podcasts and YouTube videos put out by the gloriously titled “James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding.” I will give them credit for introducing me to the philosopher Daniel N. Robinson and also for aiming to influence the legal community in a specific conservative direction. Unlike the Federalist Society, which is really just a political organization dressed up in judicial clothes, the James Wilson Institute has a very specific legal philosophy around natural rights, which also puts it in opposition to the current trend of pretending to be originalist (natural right theory is not orginalism).

I bring this up because Steward waits until the book is nearly done to bring James Wilson (a Founding Father who is not obscure, but, let’s just say, sits in the second tier) up and goes on to describe him as: avaricious, socially ambitious, lavishly educated


‘Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays On History’ By Bernard Bailyn

Bailyn was an influential scholar of American history who died recently. He was old school and, while the first essay in this collection is, in part about the horrors and evils of the slave trade, it’s safe to say he was more of the great man school of history, which, in practice, leads to more discussions of dead white men, than not. This is only a slight criticism, so long as others are taking up the slack.

However, it was disturbing to read his essay on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century historians who reinvigorated study of colonial loyalists during the Revolutionary War and missing the strong strand of racism which united them.

His cause isn’t helped by a congratulatory prose style that is both flavorless and slightly condescending. Don’t get me wrong, I will be breaking down and buying on his full length histories, but this, the only volume by him in the DC Public Library system, is a poor argument for his importance as an historian of America.

‘The Heavenly City Of The Eighteenth-Century Philosophers’ By Carl L. Becker

How did have I not read Becker before? He has the classic style of the great, witty, learned, essayists of the nineteenth century. This book reads like a sequence of connected essays, which, effectively, they are, being based on a series of lectures he gave. Becker’s name appeared before me while reading Garry Wills’ Inventing America; while arguing against Locke’s influence and for that of the figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, mainly Reid and Hutcheson (I hadn’t realized this was controversial).

Primarily about the francophone philosophes (francophone rather than French, so as to include Rousseau), with frequent attempts to loop in the Enlightenment figures of the American founding and into the Scottish Enlightenment, it makes eighteenth century philosophy a fascinating, discursive read, which is an apt metaphor for it.

Sadly, for me, he fails to stick the landing. First published in 1932, he waxes unhappily about Bolshevism and the socio-political tumult of nineteenth century Europe. While I don’t necessarily mind (if also don’t necessarily agree) with his grumpy reactionary-ism, he doesn’t connect it to his lyrical discourse on the eighteenth century philosophers, except perhaps to say, that was good and these are bad.

Inventing America

I loved this book, but mostly because it made me want to read other books. I’ve started reading Carl Becker, because Wills mentions him. I definitely need to read more Scottish Enlightenment (Hume, Home, Hutcheson, etc).

However, the argument itself seems… unnecessary today. That the Scottish Enlightenment was the critical intellectual yeast of the Founding documents does not seem controversial today, nor does relegating Locke slightly (though not so much as Wills does; he tries to dispel any idea of Locke’s political writings being an influence on Jefferson’s Declaration, which smacks of a lady protesting overly vigorously). He also leans heavily on finding references to Francis Hutcheson (followed by Kames, Hume, Smith, and only rarely Reid).

Wills writes that Lord Kames was Jefferson’s intellectual hero. Of course, Kames, Christian name, Henry Home, was David Hume’s uncle (Hume changed his name so that the spelling matched the phonetics) and Jefferson notably raged against Hume.

He spends as much time emphasizing the Declaration was not seen as a momentous documents at the time it was signed, only later becoming so (in part, through Jefferson’s own efforts to elevate it), as he does on the specific influences that this book is supposed to address. C’est malls vie, I guess.

I did learn things, though, or at least gain new perspectives. He provides new lenses through which to view Jefferson’s famed Head and Heart letter, provided by Scottish sentimental (which doesn’t mean what you think it means) moralism and Laurence Sterne. Incidentally, though I mostly fall into the camp of those who feel that the recipient of that letter and Jefferson did have a sexual relationship, though the letter suggests to me that our third president was an awkward lover.

The Secret Talker

Fascinating, beautiful, intricate, but did not quite cohere.

The protagonist’s slow release is information and growing willingness to implicate herself and expose herself as more flawed and cruel than I would have guessed at the beginning. Also, her friend and sometimes confidante is deliciously wicked and rapacious!

Written in the early aughts (I hate that term), the technology is a little old fashioned sounding today. But the failure for me is that the final reveal left too many questions, including, how the heck did this person craft their identity, in a purely practical sense (you’ll have to read to understand what I mean).

Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, And A World Of Revolution

Another book about the relationship between Jefferson and Adams; less formally innovative than the other, but a nice, brisk read, nonetheless. Some odd choices though. It focused less on than the bitter divide that kept them apart for over a decade and more on the things that connected them. For about half the book, it seemed to be using their differing views of the French Revolution as the lens through which to view these two men, but then it seemed to forget about it. Which was weird, because it spent at least fifty pages discussing important figures within the French Revolution. Was that just padding?

Also, kind of amazed how historians (mostly white, male historians) are still tip toeing around Sally Hemings. It was a terrible, terrible thing he did, because her age and lack of freedom meant she could not consent and wildly hypocritical. But he did good, too, and it need not be interred with his bones, and Antony might say, it we acknowledge his deep sins.

Betrayal: The Final Act Of The Trump Show

At this point, there’s not much new compared to the coverage of the book and other reporting… but, good heavens, what a lot of crazy people. Vice President Pence comes across as… sort of good? Even if he waited until the very last moment to say, enough is enough, can we please stop destroying the Constitution and American democracy?

The role of John McEntee, a Trumpy, horndog who was put in charge of Stalinist purges, was interesting. I’d heard of him, but the salacious tidbits, like hiring attractive, twenty year old female Instagram ‘influencers’ alongside hardworking, loyal young men who also weren’t competition for any sexual conquests McEntee felt like embarking on.

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‘Mortality’ By Christopher Hitchens

Of necessity, his last book (though I suppose a collection of miscellany could still, and perhaps already has, come out; but that wouldn’t have been written last).

Am amazing stylist and, equally or more important, a master of his craft. There are plenty of talented writers who never properly learned their craft and any decent reader can quickly discern the difference.

Mortality is not an example of Hitchens the craftsman.

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War For Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle Of Global Power Brokers

So, there’s this insane right wing, slightly racist philosophy called Traditionalism. When capitalized, it means something very specific, more than a little occult, and deeply weird.

It’s non-fiction, but most resembles Umberto Eco’s great novel of occult paranoia, Foucault’s Pendulum. Listening to Teitelbaum’s breathless accounts of conversations with right wing esotericians, I keep thinking of Eco’s narrator and his encounters with important seeming occult thinkers.

This is also because, even though Teitelbaum repeatedly presents himself as a scholar (specializing, apparently, in right wing ethnomusicology, which doesn’t sound like a real thing), he doesn’t write as on. One review said he seemed a bit star struck by Bannon, but beyond that, the book is more of a mostly chronological account of his descent into crazy town, with Bannon as his Gandalf (a wise man who tends to disappear and then reappear, offering wise words). I also pick up hints of Bernard Henri-Levy, in it. The globetrotting name dropping and the self-importance of it all.

He acknowledges the book was rushed and it has a breathless quality, like he’s embarked on a mystery he must solve : Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Traditionalist. He uncovers clues, only to find that it wasn’t clue, only the self-important ramblings of a minor figure that no one cared about. It also has a chronological quality; it is more or less directed by the timeline of his interviews with Steve Bannon.

I learned that the godfather of traditionalism is the French philosopher, René Guénon. I have somewhere his book, The Multiple States of Being, which I haven’t read. It was given to me by an acquaintance; later, I figured out that giving me that book was his way of expressing his romantic feelings for me. Having learned from this book that Guénon helped found a neo-fascist movement makes that seem an odd choice, but I’ll give that acquaintance the benefit of the doubt.

However, my main takeaway from this book is this: Bannon and I used to frequent the same metaphysical bookstore in Los Angeles: The Bodhi Tree. Did I ever see him? Maybe. Would I have recognized another shaggy, middle-aged white dude as the future political strategist for the apocalypse? Meh.