WRB—August 26, 2023
“Counterfeits of the virtues”
How the WRB became the hottest—and most divisive—name in literary criticism
In today’s edition:
(working backwards from the bottom):
Rap…the lost dialogues of Aristotle…Seneca…“Ulysses of the Wild West”...Rebecca West…insomnia…Roman war crimes…Jane Austen…
In The Paris Review, David Schurman Wallace on Flaubert and distraction:
Bouvard and Pécuchet, you may think, aren’t exactly distracted. In fact, at times they seem nearly maniacal in their thirst for knowledge. But isn’t the idea that] they are potentially interested in everything a kind of curse, something worse than indifference? As fast as they find a passion, they can be drawn away from it. They are avatars of the societal affliction Flaubert called la bêtise—mankind’s universal stupidity. Their curiosity has no staying power—it’s just the dirty runoff of a Zeitgeist that tells them to improve themselves, improve the human race. Their distraction implies a lack of concentration, the mark of a bad student. And they are tragic because they want so much to be good, to get the right answer. All the worse that they’re not reflective enough to see that all the spinning of their wheels will never lead anywhere. (But how could anyone think that and keep going?)
Now that I no longer work a forty-hour-a-week job, I tell many people I am writing a book. It is going along, I say, but slowly. How is it that so many chores, parties, trips, assignments, and plainly wasted hours intervene? Not everyone is distracted from their most cherished goals. But I think everyone is distracted from something—it is desire’s shadow, trailing behind our self-presentations. By beginning anything, we create the possibility of detours.
In Compact, Julia Yost on hatred, downward social mobility, and death in Jane Austen:
In Austen’s novels, death is both dreaded and denied. Her characters both obsess over mortality and look past it, out of fear of it and hatred of one another—troubling the familiar notion of her novels as drawing-room sketches, narrowly concerned with the mannerly courtship intrigues of the rural gentry. Even in Austen’s arcadia, death lurks, along with other consequences of the fall: hatred, fear, privation. As for class difference, it was not instituted primarily for the testing and vindication of meritorious young ladies, but gives cover to the cruelties we perpetrate without admitting it, the hatreds we deny we bear.
Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981):
Jane Austen, by contrast, identifies that social sphere within which the practice of the virtues is able to continue. It is not of course that she is blind to the economic realities against which Cobbett railed. We learn somewhere in all her novels about where the money of the main characters comes from; we see a great deal of the economic self-seeking, of the pleonexia which is central to Cobbett’s vision. So much so indeed that David Daiches once described her as a ‘Marxist before Marx’. Her heroines must, if they are to survive, seek for economic security. But this is not just because of the threat of the outside economic world; it is because the telos of her heroines is a life within both a particular kind of marriage and a particular kind of household of which that marriage will be the focal point.
. . . .
She is—indeed, given the moral climate of her times, she has to be—preoccupied in a quite new way with counterfeits of the virtues. Morality in Jane Austen is never the mere inhibition and regulation of the passions; although that is how it may appear to those such as Marianne Dashwood who have romantically identified themselves with a ruling passion and who make in a very unHumean way reason the servant of the passions. Morality is rather meant to educate the passions; but the outward appearance of morality may always disguise uneducated passions.
[In the right mood I’ll defend Mansfield Park as Austen’s best novel. Someone has to. —Steve]
Two in the new edition of The New Criterion:
An adapted excerpt from the upcoming The Golden Thread by Allen C. Guelzo and James Hankins (2024):
Nevertheless, the Romans did have laws of war that forbade certain behaviors such as treachery and the breaking of treaties. Roman norms taught that generals should treat enemies who surrendered with moderation, especially women and children. This was what Virgil meant when he famously wrote that the destiny of Rome was “to show mercy to the conquered and defeat the proud” (Aeneid VI, 853). How well these laws and norms were enforced is another question. The Roman general Galba, the one who massacred the Lusitanians, was charged in Rome, not with the massacre, but for having used an un-Roman trick to entrap the enemy. A legislative bill was introduced in the centuriate assembly demanding that the enslaved Lusitanians be freed in redress of the harms they had suffered. It was further proposed that Galba be tried for breaking the laws of war, which included his failure to consult augurs and fetial priests. The latter were a priestly college that oversaw the moral rules of war and would certainly not have approved his actions. Galba, who was also a famous orator, appeared before the assembly with his weeping children in tow and persuaded his fellow citizens not to prosecute him. We know, in fact, of no Roman generals or promagistrates in the republican period who were convicted and punished for war crimes or corruption, though several were forced into exile.
Bruce Bawer on the life of Noël Coward:
And after the war? In the 1920s, Noël had been the personification of posh English youth; during the war, arguably, no show-business figure on either side of the conflict had done anywhere near as much to put his talent at the service of his country (in reward for which, by the way, he was unceremoniously hauled into court for violating new rules—of which he was unaware—about international financial transactions). But now? “Peace had brought with it a world in which Noël Coward did not belong,” declares Soden, “and he did not want to.” He hated the socialists who replaced Churchill, hated their welfare state, hated the general decline in manners and culture. He had fought the censors tooth and nail for decades, but when stage censorship in Britain ended in 1968, he hated that, too. He also hated the youth culture of the Sixties. (When he was taken to Fire Island, the gay beach getaway in New York, he was appalled.) In 1949 he settled on the island of Jamaica; in 1956, while retaining his home there, he established official residency in Bermuda, and later he became a Swiss resident to avoid Britain’s punitive tax rates (which applied in Jamaica, a British possession until 1962). In the immediate post-war years, a few of his new plays were winners, but the list of failures was longer; even revivals of some of his earlier hits closed quickly.
In The Neglected Books Page, Brad Bigelow with some notes on a profile from 1932 of Margaret Fishback by Joseph Mitchell (including the profile itself). From Mitchell:
Miss Fishback is an advertising copy writer for Macy’s. She is called “the highest paid advertising woman in the world,” but she laughs heartily whenever she hears that she is. She came to New York eight years ago, found a job in a ballet, danced in various opera companies at $1 a night and $1 for each rehearsal, wrote poems for F. P. A.’s [Franklin P. Adams] column in the World under the name of Marne and always had a good time. She is a graduate of Goucher College. There she was a friend of Sara Haardt, who is the wife of H. L. Mencken.
“Mencken is the most attractive man I ever met,” she said. “I like men. I never was married, but I have had my troubles. You can be sure I have had my moments. Hell, I’m not a lady poet. I’m not literary. I like to get around. The reason I’m not a married woman is because I don’t have time. I work from 9:15 to 6:30. I’m always in a hurry. It wouldn’t be fair to marry. I’m too interested in my work.”
In The American Scholar, Robert Zaretsky on Simone Weil and decreation:
Citing Weil, Murdoch insisted that morality is nothing more, and nothing less, “than a matter of attention.” This ideal required what Murdoch called “unselfing,” a prerequisite to turning fully to others while leaving oneself behind. To wait, patiently and fully, for the world and others to reveal themselves. The consequences, for both Weil and Murdoch, are so obvious yet so startling; when we transform how we see the world, we also transform how we relate to the world and those who inhabit it. To paraphrase John Kennedy’s famous phrase, it is not what the world can do for us, but instead what we can do for the world. The first step is to make my own self smaller. It is a relationship in which the other is always the focus. “The more the separateness and differentness of other people is realized, and the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one’s own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing.”
In the local Post, Jacob Brogan reviews the reissue of the memoir of Alison Rose, model, actress, and writer for The New Yorker (Better Than Sane: Tales from a Dangling Girl, 2004, reissued August 22):
These elisions can be frustrating, despite the book’s many pleasures. It can also be maddening that Rose remains a slightly phantasmal presence in her own story, still the girl who wondered, at 8 years old, whether she “was a living thing or not,” only to be told by her mother: “Well, maybe you can be put to sleep for a while. They put animals to sleep.” One longs, sometimes, for her to stop flitting away behind the aphoristic words of her friends and lovers to say what’s really wrong, what she’s really feeling, but it’s not clear that she wants to. “Better Than Sane” is not, or is not simply, a memoir of mental health crises, though it is haunted by them. Neither is it a story of confidence, clarity and hard-earned wisdom.
In The Guardian, Samantha Harvey reviews Marie Darrieussecq’s reflections on not being able to sleep (Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia, trans. Penny Hueston, September 5):
For all its turmoil, at its core there’s a kind of rest, as when a dog circles round and round on its bed before settling. Sleepless doesn’t have a proposition as such, but I come back to this idea of inhabiting. This is a book about dwelling, being grounded, as much as it is about sleep. One of its pages is given over to photographs of hotel rooms around the world that Darrieussecq has stayed (not necessarily slept) in. When she arrives at a room in Haiti during a storm, “the tiles on the bungalow floor are covered in a centimetre of water, but the beds, like boats, are dry.” The bed as a boat on a sea—an image that’s accompanied me through many wired nights. In her perpetual wakefulness Darrieussecq is hyper-aware of the space afforded to each of us on this planet (all species, not just humans), and of settling on whatever suffices for a bed—that small piece of the Earth we might call our own.
On October 2, 1904, Proust writes to Princesse Hélène de Caraman-Chimay, “Such a mysterious gift, this tetronal. Through what sort of incomprehensible communion does the white wafer, which in itself seems to contain oblivion, allow me to forget my sorrows for a few hours, and leave me in the morning, on waking, more hopeful, more acquiescent? I thank you for your gift, Princess. I will owe you my sleep tonight. Until now you had given me only dreams.”
One of the dangers of sleeping pills is that they attack short-term memory. “Chloral makes holes in my brain,” Proust confided to Paul Morand. And you can die from those memory lapses: you don’t remember when you took the first dose or the second. You say to yourself, It’s not possible, not possible to not sleep so much. So you take more. The self-medicating insomniac is flirting with death; the tightrope walker living on a suspended sentence juggles the white tablets of his addiction.
Chris has made Rebecca West’s short book on Henry James, otherwise out of print, available on Amazon.
The executives at some of America’s most prestigious arts organizations are doing very well for themselves. [The WRB is a labor of love, although if someone wants to hand me $2 million a year, health club dues, and a rent-free luxury apartment for this work, I won’t say no. —Steve]
Jim Milliot, the editorial director of Publishers Weekly since 2014, is retiring at the end of the year.
Commonweal is now accepting applications for fall interns.
On the District’s unique Advisory Neighborhood Commissions.
The Summer 2023 issue of Struggle magazine is launching today with a party in Georgetown.
Jeremy Eichler will be in conversation with Anne Midgette about his book on the impact the Second World War had on the music of composers who lived through it (Time's Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance, August 29) at Politics and Prose Monday at 7 p.m.
Dissent is holding a fundraiser and celebration for its 70th anniversary at the AFT Building Wednesday, October 25 at 6 p.m.
“Lines On Roger Hilton’s Watch” by W. S. Graham
Which I was given because
I loved him and we had
Terrible times together.
O tarnished ticking time
Piece with your bent hand,
You must be used to being
Looked at suddenly
In the middle of the night
When he switched the light on
Beside his bed. I hope
You told him the best time
When he lifted you up
To meet the Hilton gaze.
I lift you up from the mantel
Piece here in my house
Wearing your verdigris.
At least I keep you wound
And put my ear to you
To hear Botallack tick.
You realise your master
Has relinquished you
And gone to lie under
The ground at St Just.
Tell me the time. The time
Is Botallack o’clock.
This is the dead of night.
He switches the light on
To find a cigarette
And pours himself a Teachers.
He picks me up and holds me
Near his lonely face
To see my hands. He thinks
He is not being watched.
The images of his dream
Are still about his face
As he spits and tries not
To remember where he was.
I am only a watch
And pray time hastes away.
I think I am running down.
Watch, it is time I wound
You up again. I am
Very much not your dear
Last master but we had
Terrible times together.
[I got this from Graham’s New Selected Poems (2004), but struggled to track down when, precisely, it was written during his life. It’s a lovely little elegy for postwar abstract painter Roger Hilton, both spare and a little playful. The use of perspective here—the address to the watch, and then the move into the watch’s perspective in that fifth stanza—and the use of pun (watch in that last stanza, for instance, is both a direct address and an imperative) makes this an animated and memorable poem. —Julia]
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