WRB—Dec. 2, 2023
The holidays are hard.
Darnton structures his history by looking at how individual news cycles—wars, operas, trials, riots—were received by the nascent literary culture forming around the Washington Review of Books.
Are novels good or not? Well, people keep writing new novels related to Herman Melville, famous author of, among other things, novels. [One of these days I’m going to finish Clarel. —Steve] In The Baffler, Andrew Schenker on the continued rediscovery and reinterpretation involved:
One hundred seventy-two years ago, Melville sent his microcosmic ship eastward, “turn[ing] upon himself and Western Man, performing an act as violent as subsequent war and catastrophe,” as Metcalf puts it. Undertaken in quest of both what then seemed an endless supply of oil and the fulfillment of its commander’s homicidal/suicidal vendetta, the doomed voyage played out against the background of an impending racial reckoning that was increasingly on its author’s mind. The Pequod’s unequal labor system, its mission of environmental destruction in the interest of fuel, the treatment of its black characters, all reflected Melville’s increasing understanding of the political state of his country and his growing concern over the impending fate of the American Union. All concerns which were, and continue to be, justified. In the long Melvillean afterlife, the violence of the Pequod, which is the violence of the United States, becomes the violence both visited upon and perpetrated by Carl Mills, the subtler violences of Melville’s own family life and that of just about any domestic relationship, and, with Moby-Dick standing as act of both history and prophecy, the greater violences—military, legislative, environmental—that surely await us in the years to come.
Are novels good or not? Well, one of them led to a failed communist utopia in Texas. [Whether that’s good or not I leave to the individual reader. —Steve] John Last relays that story in Smithsonian Magazine:
While regrouping in New Orleans, Cabet ran into representatives for the nascent Mormon movement, which had recently been forced by an angry mob from the community its followers built in Nauvoo, Illinois. For “pennies on the dollar,” Hancks says, Cabet secured a “turnkey city” built by the Mormons’ hard labor, ready and waiting for a new utopian society to set up shop.
The Nauvoo colony truly represented the glory days for the Icarians. At its peak, 500 people lived there. Every night, they would dine together in a common hall, feasting on crops they collectively managed. Those who didn’t work the fields labored in workshops, sewing clothes, forging tools, making shoes and baking bread. Living in a state of such reputed Christian virtue, they felt no need for religious observances, only common education in Icarian values.
Are novels good or not? Well, translating one of them helped preserve some Kurdish idioms. In the new issue of The Dial, Kaya Genç on Kawa Nemir, who translated Ulysses into Kurdish, the language preservation efforts he undertook in the process, and the political circumstances that forced him to leave Turkey:
A notebook he kept during his 1998 visit to Şırnak, a village with rivers and forests, featured names of numerous freshwater creatures that later appeared in his translation of Ulysses. In other sections of the novel, he struggled with matching Joyce’s large vocabulary about the sea. After all, Nemir noted, Kurdistan is one of the most mountainous regions in the world, and Kurds never expanded far from the mountains. For the translator, the problem was to find Kurdish words for sea creatures that Kurdish writers had not mentioned in their works—and that thereby remained unnamed in the Kurdish language. He studied various genera of fish, trying to locate words used in Kurdish texts, and turning to his notebooks. In 1994, Nemir had scribbled the word “whale-path” in a notebook while studying Beowulf in college. He knew that Kurds called whales neheng, so he wrote in his notebook: “whale-path: rêka nehengan.”
[Are you interested in the latest developments in whether novels are good or not? We’ll keep you posted if you subscribe. —Steve]
Two in Commonweal:
Anthony Domestico on Louise Glück’s last works:
Death haunts almost every one of the book’s fifteen poems. In “A Sentence,” the speaker declares that her days have run out: “Everything has ended, I said. / What makes you say so, my sister asked. / Because, I said, if it has not ended, / it will end soon / which comes to the same thing.” In another poem, a dying woman falls into silence in the middle of a story, with those surrounding her bed left unsure exactly how permanent a sleep she has drifted into. What they do know is that, in this moment, “Something…existed between us, / nothing so final as a baby, / but real nevertheless.” Death forces us to confront reality; in doing so, it brings us together.
Jack Nuelle on a nativity play Sartre wrote while in a Nazi POW camp:
Sartre’s atheism did not waver even as he engaged the religious subjects of Bariona. Twenty years later, when he finally consented to have his first play published, he insisted on including a note at the beginning which read, in part, “The fact that I took my subject from Christian mythology does not mean that the drift of my thinking changed, even for a moment, during my captivity.” However, by the time of his death in 1980, his thinking had changed, at least somewhat. Sartre admitted that Jewish eschatology—in which a new world will emerge from the old, in which the dead will be reborn—was appealing to him. As he put it, “It’s the beginning of the existence of men who live for each other.”
Two on depression of one kind or another in The Nation [Do we need to check on The Nation? The holidays are hard. (Or are they?) —Chris] [If they’re not hard, why are so many of the best movies set around Christmas about characters who are truly miserable? —Steve]:
Even though Kierkegaard treats despair as a spiritual and existential condition rather than just a psychological state, The Sickness Unto Death sparkles with psychological insight. Especially compelling is his diagnosis of the different forms of despair that arise from an imbalance between the various pairs that make up the human synthesis (those first folds in our sheets of paper). Too much necessity, and we lose all imagination and hope—we cannot breathe; too much possibility, and we float airily, ineffectually, above our own lives. Too much finitude, and we lose ourselves in trivial things; too much infinitude, and we’re disconnected from the world. Since life is so rarely in balance, despair is the inevitable state—but understanding this, for Kierkegaard, opens up a renewed perspective on how to live with this inevitability.
Dostoevsky was fascinated by the vapidity of suicide notes—their tendency to fasten on the irrelevant and the mundane, the fact that they are a form that the suicide feels must be observed but in which no real meaning, let alone explanation for what follows, is disclosed.
Rachel Hunter Himes on “Art for the Millions,” an exhibition at the Met of Great Depression-era art by leftists:
The chasm between Guston’s proposal and the completed mural hints at the reason WPA work can be challenging to engage with as art, rather than as history or propaganda: Created for government-run facilities and subject to state-imposed constraints, it clashes with our ideals of artistic freedom. The WPA’s guidelines forbade overt political content (although it found its way in nonetheless) and steered artists toward legibility, prioritizing representation over abstraction and favoring the social realist aesthetic. Artists trying to get by in an era of mass unemployment had little choice but to accept these constraints. Yet this context makes the individual visions that shine through all the more meaningful. By working within such constraints, artists like Guston discovered new modes of representation and irony.
In The Guardian, Madoc Cairns reviews Robert Darnton’s history of ideas and news in the leadup to the French Revolution (The Revolutionary Temper: Paris, 1748-1789, November):
What turned the crises of the 18th century into a revolution wasn’t conflict but communication: Paris’s primitive, semi-literate public sphere, forming around street-corner gossips and coffee shop debates. Darnton locates The Revolutionary Temper’s protagonist here, in an “information society” of pamphlets and gossip and song: a popular consciousness running horizontally across the common people of Paris, and vertically through the politicians, intellectuals and endemic mischief-makers of the French capital. The nouvelles—something like primitive newspapers; prolific, unreliable and wildly popular—acted as the central pivot of this “imagined community.” Around them, the city turned. Nouvelles were hungry for controversy. As France slouched from war to depression to war again, their writers rarely had to look far.
But Anna’s more confounding realization is that Ayn Rand’s gospel of selfishness, though superficially verboten, is already so commonplace that it needs no champion. She finds herds of “unwitting Randians” among the crunchy New Agers fixated on self-love and the social-media content creators single-mindedly obsessed with personal brand management. The sense of clueless communality gives a warmth to Ms. Freiman’s humor, which tends toward silliness rather than censure. (There is a lot of toilet humor in this book, a universal comedic touchstone if there ever was one.) Even so, one reads The Book of Ayn with genuine relief that someone has pulled off a novel of jokes at the expense of the most solemnly protected absurdities of our time. The feeling of catharsis extends to the acknowledgments page, which Ms. Freiman ends by thanking “the person who spent hundreds of hours writing a novel: me.”
Submissions for the Yale Nonfiction Book Prize open Monday, January 15.
On reinventing Tyrian purple. [Nice color. —Chris]
“Why does Norwegian literature do disproportionately well abroad?”
“The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68” [You’d want to fight someone, too, if you were on Long Island. —Steve]
The aesthetic of Southwest Review has changed over the past few years.
Jeff Zucker wants to push The Daily Telegraph into the United States, should he buy it.
Layoffs at Condé Nast.
Layoffs at Vox Media.
Smithsonian programs this weekend:
Department Stores: A Feminine Oasis today at 10 a.m.
'Tis the Season: An Analysis of Hallmark Channel Holiday Movies on Sunday, December 3 at 1 p.m. [Are Hallmark Channel holiday movies not as much for women as department stores are? Discuss. —Steve]
The Poulenc Trio will perform a concert “Celebration: Rossini, Poulenc, the Duke, and Beyond” at the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room on Sunday, December 3 and Monday, December 4, both at 7 p.m.
“Song” by Adrienne Rich
You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean
You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely
If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep
If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning
[This is from Rich’s Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972, co-winner of the 1974 National Book Award for poetry. It was her eighth poetry collection.
The syntax is so wonderfully varied in this poem—the only time we get a full repeated phrase is the first lines of the third and fourth stanza, with If I’m lonely. I love, particularly, how the second stanza functions; look at everything that gets drawn out between the first lonely in that stanza and the last one. There’s something song-like (which the title prepares us for, of course) about the varied refrains of loneliness and then those two quick repetitions. And the images are so lovely; my favorite is the ice-fast rowboat in the last red light of the year. It’s such a striking visual. —Julia]
January 16 | Doubleday
From the publisher: From trendy restaurants to city grids, to TikTok and Netflix feeds the world round, algorithmic recommendations dictate our experiences and choices. The algorithm is present in the familiar neon signs and exposed brick of Internet cafes, be it in Nairobi or Portland, and the skeletal, modern furniture of Airbnbs in cities big and small. Over the last decade, this network of mathematically determined decisions has taken over, almost unnoticed—informing the songs we listen to, the friends with whom we stay in touch—as we’ve grown increasingly accustomed to our insipid new normal.
In Filterworld, Chayka traces this creeping, machine-guided curation as it infiltrates the furthest reaches of our digital, physical, and psychological spaces. With algorithms increasingly influencing not just what culture we consume, but what culture is produced, urgent questions arise: What happens when shareability supersedes messiness, innovation, and creativity—the qualities that make us human? What does it mean to make a choice when the options have been so carefully arranged for us? Is personal freedom possible on the Internet?
To the last question, Filterworld argues yes—but to escape Filterworld, and even transcend it, we must first understand it.
[The WRB, of course, is proudly hand-curated right here in the District of Columbia. —Chris] [I’m there in spirit, I guess. —Steve]