WRB—April 15, 2023
“Don DeLillo once called lists a form of cultural hysteria.”
Imagine that literary culture were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the writers. Widespread riots occur, books are burnt, editors are lynched. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes literacy in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining authors. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive literature, although they have largely forgotten what it was. . . Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not literary culture in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
[Steve left this link in the draft. I can’t get through the paywall. But anyway maybe someone will enjoy it. —Chris] Kit Chellel for Bloomberg on gambling.
In 1949, American writer and ethicist Aldo Leopold wrote explicitly against human-centric attitudes in his book A Sand County Almanac. In the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a hunter believes himself justified while stalking and killing a wolf, a predator toward the top of the food chain; but, when looking the slain animal in its eyes, he has an epiphany about top-down trophic cascade; without wolves, won’t deer become pests, and so on? The way to avoid or remedy this imbalance is to “think like a mountain,” to consider not what a wolf’s life means for one’s own enjoyment or survival, but how a wolf’s presence affects the balance of things. “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf,” Leopold wrote, a koan that went on to inspire conservationists.
Read with this contemporary understanding of ecology in mind, Leopold’s mountain begins to look an awful lot like, well, Leopold. Of course a conservationist who often drew sketches of the natural world outside his home would describe a mountain as a watchful, impassive eye. Leopold’s mountain—a symbol of objectivity and passivity, a keeper of balance and harmony—is yet another man-made metaphor, revealing of his own values: “safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” which, he writes, “we all” strive for, whether we’re wolves, hunters, or mountains.
Is it possible to render a landscape as its own, round character; to think, really, like a mountain? Some projection of ourselves onto nature is inevitable, especially in creative work, and when our choice of material—language—is a human invention. Still, is it worthwhile to try?
[“You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.” (Black Narcissus, dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, 1947)
“I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to—a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world—and yet still it remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.” (John D’Agata, About a Mountain, 2011)
“What was forgotten—what the world was perhaps not ready for in Marsh’s time—was Man and Nature’s more subtle point. Travelling the world 150 years ago, Marsh concluded that most of the planet was not a threatened wilderness, but had already been ‘much modified in form and product.’ … Marsh asked whether we were changing nature itself into something new, something lesser, something our ancestors might not even recognize. He had written what can be thought of as the first principle of historical ecology: to know what is, you must know what was.” (J. B. MacKinnon, The Once and Future World, 2013)
“Briggs’s greatest quality in this novel is the ability to weave passages of high-flown literary criticism with snippets of daily difficulties: at the same time as the character Helen discusses what makes great fiction so powerful and so realistic to us, Briggs manages to make the detail of her living room equally enticing.” [The Long Form (exceedingly brief review here by Patrick Maxwell) is out in blue in the U.K. already, but won’t be available in the U.S., as these things sometimes go, until the Dorothy-a-publishing-project printing in October.]
This probably has never occurred to most of our readers, but sometimes the people who make good art are not so good themselves. You wouldn’t want to get coffee with them or marry them or really whatever you could think to get up to. [As I’ve mentioned, I recently read Phyllis Rose’s book on the topic. For more on her, see the Poem. —Chris] Anyway, Claire Dederer has a new book out about artists who are unpleasant (Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, April 25). Here are two reviews:
In order to explain herself, Ms. Dederer considers her role as a critic. She confesses her discomfort with being a voice of authority and a cultural arbiter. Beginning with her early days as a movie reviewer, she “kept slipping up and being the audience . . . I felt stuck in my own subjectivity.” Eventually, she learned to embrace her personal perspective. The voice she ultimately developed and deploys here is conversational, clear and bold without being strident, “a never-ending flow of judgment, which nestles together with subjectivity.” She repeatedly reminds readers that when she writes “we,” she actually means “I”: “We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority.” (She can’t resist adding a sexist dig: “It’s the voice of the middlebrow male critic, the one who truly believes he knows how everyone else should think.”)
I’m not quite as enthused as Dederer is about the politicization of interpretation. We’re at the point when we could use a little more of the art-for-art’s-sake spirit; could let ourselves luxuriate in sensuality, beauty, and form; should offer more resistance to the pressure to find and deliver socially useful messages. I look back with a certain chagrin at how, as a young critic, I delighted in bucking my high-minded education by hunting down traces of a writer’s mixed motives, bad faith, petty and not so petty obfuscations in his writing. I took hubristic pride in my gotcha criticism and my eagle eye. But what used to feel subversive now feels like an imperative: Either scan the text for signs of immorality or be suspected of reactionary tendencies. You were hoping for aesthetic transport? Back to the consciousness-raising session with you!
“The Miami Native is a new magazine in print and online. We publish three issues a year of serious writing about an unserious city. Our aim is to articulate the existential stakes of Miami for its locals and translate them for the Miami-curious elsewhere.” [I mean sure. Fine. —Chris]
Substack has a Twitter built in now. We don’t go in for that sort of thing.
The Charles Dickens Illustrated Gallery “contains all the original illustrations from Charles Dickens’ novels, and is free to use for everyone to download, share, create, remix, research, teach or do whatever they like with.” (Steven Heller interview with the proprietor on Print Mag)
The NYRB has a sale on their poetry books this weekend, typical tiering.
War stories from selling books to the Strand: “I remember one guy came in with books that were all messed up. Neil Winokur said, ‘We’re not taking these.’ I could tell they were all fucked up—no way they’d take them. The guy got mad and said, ‘That’s not fair!’ You know what Neil did? He came out from behind the counter, picked them up, and threw them across the street. That shit was so funny, man.” [When I was unmarried and poor and my (then) girlfriend was living in New York, I would load up a suitcase with books, bus myself up there, and sell the books to the Strand to pay for the weekend’s drinks, and, if I was lucky, my return bus ticket to D.C. —Nic]
Lear ends tomorrow, it looks like there are a few tickets left. [A reader told me it is “marvelous,” “very, very worth it,” and “so good.” (Here he is writing this week on Shakespeare. See also Daniel Hannan in National Review on the same.) Well, I never got around to it. (For more on this topic, see the Poem) —Chris]
A reader weighs in on the bagel situation we covered on Wednesday: “One thing about the D.C. bagel stuff that annoys me is that nobody ever brings price into it. I do not think a Call Your Mother bagel would be remarkable in New York, but it would be fine. In D.C., not only is it the best option, but it’s also very pricey. I think it is correct to say that there are multiple places you can get a functional bagel in D.C. now, which did not used to be the case. But they’re expensive and they aren’t everywhere. To me, if you want to say somewhere is a ‘center of bagel excellence,’ the bare minimum should be that the bagels are good most places and cost a normal amount.”
The 2023 RAMMY (D.C. Metro hospitality industry group) award finalists have been announced. [I haven’t been to most of these places, though rather notoriously I’ve dined at St. Anselm a few times. —Chris]
Washingtonian: “4 New Dim Sum Spots to Try Around DC” [Chang Chang, across from the Palm and i Ricchi, is a little expensive but genuinely excellent. —Chris]
The staff of Solid State Books (on H Street NE) has unionized.
The Dupont Circle fountain is working.
Through June 11, Material Inheritance, “contemporary work by new Jewish cultural fellows,” at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. (Written up in the Jewish Currents Friday email this week). [One more thing from this in Critical notes.]
April 18 | Slant Books
Sleeping As Fast As I Can
by Richard Michelson
From the publisher: With humor, anger, and tenderness, Richard Michelson’s poems explore the boundaries between the personal and the political—and the deep connections between history and memory.
Growing up under the shadow of the Holocaust, in a Brooklyn neighborhood consumed by racial strife, Michelson’s experiences were far from ordinary, yet they remain too much a part of the greater circle of poverty and violence to be dismissed as merely private concerns. In these poems, Michelson pays tribute to his father, a victim of gun violence, and honors his mother’s surrender to dementia. Still, it is Michelson’s sense of humor and acute awareness of Jewish history, with its ancient emphasis on the fundamental worth of human existence, that makes this accessible book, finally, celebratory and life-affirming.
[For more, see the Poem.]