WRB—July 1, 2023
“It nuzzles oblivion”
Some of the most irreplaceable artifacts in world history have been destroyed by fire, from the papyrus copies of the WRB at the Library of Alexandria, to a fragment of Jesus’ crown of thorns at Notre-Dame de Paris in 2019.
Translations in the NYT:
Jennifer Wilson on Constance Garnett’s radical politics:
It’s true that Garnett could be strait-laced. When she first met Stepniak, she was aghast at one thing above all else. “To my horror,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir, “I found that he habitually carried books out of the British Museum reading room at the lunch-hour, and I could not make him feel it was a crime, since, as he said, he always took them back.” Yet the image of Garnett as a buttoned-up Victorian bookworm hides, much like a corset, her true shape. A socialist, Garnett understood her role as a translator to be revolutionary in the most literal sense: as an act of infiltration, a way of sneaking subversive information across borders.
Hector’s response suggests a fascinatingly contradictory attitude toward his own actions. His firm tone could suggest brash confidence and/or a man steeling himself for a heartbreaking choice to prioritize his own honor over the lives and freedom of everyone he loves—a choice that becomes possible only when presented as no choice at all.
Despite all the years on his head and blood on his hands, Rooster Cogburn stays a moral child his whole life. So do the self-deluded scammers of Masters of Atlantis, the quack doctor of The Dog of the South and the malevolent feckless hippies of Gringos. The belief that you can always start over in the next town or state or hemisphere or marriage or business plan is as American as apple pie. So is the reflexive conception of youthful narcissism as essentially innocent, even when it manifests as self-indulgent, self-destructive, callow or harmful. We fight to preserve that innocence (or its façade) for as long as possible, then fetishize it forever after it’s gone. Portis recognizes that innocence held past its expiration date spoils just like meat does, and stinks about as bad. For all of his Looney Tunes vitality and love of a good goof, these are novels that, when they’re forced to take a side, side with the grownups every time: Mattie Ross no less at fourteen than in her dotage; Ray Midge and Norwood once they’ve been sufficiently tried by life; Jimmy Burns right from the jump. Portis is their partisan not because they are above reproach but because they are not beyond hope. The only things he finds truly hopeless—both damnable and damned—are a refusal to grow up and a man who can’t change his own oil. Probably he would say that this is saying the same thing twice.
Megan Greenwell on a fire in 1973 that burned 17 million military personnel files, and the attempts made to preserve them, in Wired:
By the time I arrive home a few days later, my mood is more sanguine. With all of the information on the QMP, I can figure out which Army unit Grandfather was in, then find the “morning reports” that tracked that unit’s movements around the world. With more work, I can probably track down the vast majority of the same information that burned in 1973, about the refugee turned soldier who became my grandfather. I’ll never know the full story, but I’ve come to accept that even one of those 3-inch-thick B files I’d been coveting wouldn’t have given me that.
After the flames raced down the 700-foot-long aisles of the sixth floor, after the columns of smoke rose from the roof like Jack’s beanstalk, after the wind scattered military records around the neighborhoods northwest of St. Louis, after 42 local fire departments battled for days to save one of the largest federal office buildings in the United States, the government spent 50-plus years sorting through the charred remains. Untold numbers of people, meanwhile, spent 50 years, and counting, trying to replace what they lost.
Spencer Wright is on the fifth part of a series of the history of rubber for Scope of Work:
Like its Amazonian forebear, the rubber industry that developed in Singapore, Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula was brutal to its labor force. But it was also much more productive, quickly eclipsing Amazonian output, and this is at least partly due to the way that the two labor forces were organized. In essence, the seringueiros (rubber tappers) in the Amazon were hunter-gatherers – whereas in Southeast Asia, rubber was produced by industrial agriculture.
Jeremy B. Jones on writing his grandfather’s obituary in The Bitter Southerner:
What I’ll miss most is the sound of his voice, cooked up in the North Carolina mountains out of remnants from across an ocean. There always thar, fire always far. I loved the phrase ever which a’way but loose. Loved how things liked to happen. How hello was what do you say and how being still meant setting awhile.
Even his voice was quiet, throaty and clipped in the way of men in these mountains—a voice meant for conversations beyond a crowd, meant for the group of men eyeing the door, aiming to be outside where it’d be easier to talk about nothing or just as soon not talk at all.
Leo Robson on Ian McEwan in The New Statesman:
What emerges consistently from McEwan’s recollection is his sense of his career as a path, with elements of strategic thinking, but crucially no roadmap or grand plan. In an interview to mark his birthday, he told the journalist Mick Brown that a careers officer, advising a job in the foreign office, showed him a graph showing the arc of his salary from the age of 22 until retirement. “I couldn’t bear that thought: creeping up this pole.” Instead he took a bumpier option. The joy, he once told the Paris Review, “is in the surprise”. He made sure of that, with each book “a completely new departure”.
Cynthia Ozick remembers Robert Gottlieb (RIP) in The Atlantic:
“The way you write stories,” Bob once explained, “is to start off thinking you’ve begun a novel, but then when it won’t move forward, you discover that what you’ve already got is a short story.” Like some wayward playmate, he snatched a balloon out of my then-2-year-old daughter’s hand, prancing all around the office with it. He didn’t mind my showing up with child and balloon. And he made sure to return the balloon.
He never asked me to change a word or phrase or any choice of punctuation, whether in essay or fiction. His ear was my ear. We were of the same generation, and had been nurtured under the same dispensation. He never asked me to cut. Instead, he suggested that I add and expand: always an occasion for rejoicing. He gave his verdict by telephone literally overnight. No other editor since the creation of the world has equaled that.
Lola Seaton reviews Mark O’Connell’s book about Malcolm MacArthur, the socialite who committed one of the most famous crimes in Irish history (A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder, June), for The New Statesman:
For O’Connell, Macarthur is the “self-fabulising” creature of a journalist’s dreams: “His entire identity, it seemed—the apparel, the accent, the endless days of cultivated leisure—was rooted in a fiction.” Yet, as though with Malcolm’s admonition in his ears, he ultimately admits that Macarthur wasn’t what he wanted him to be: “Raskolnikov in the final pages of Crime and Punishment, confessing his guilt.” “In failing to confront the enormity of his sins—in failing to be annihilated by it—Macarthur had failed me as a character. He had denied me the satisfaction of an ending.”
Except that this very failure provides O’Connell with an arguably more sophisticated ending. This is a postmodern tale, whose inconclusive nature—there is no “ultimate truth” of Macarthur’s life—can at times seem a foregone conclusion, and a little premeditated, as though O’Connell is not so much conceding defeat as courting it. Is Macarthur as enigmatic as O’Connell needed him to be for his suavely thwarted portrait?
By emphasizing that narrative is only ever collage, a sort of non-totalizable multiplicity always encroached upon by a subjectivity which necessarily totalizes it, Doom Town thus posits that it is only through the recounting of details as best as we think they have happened that we can educe a structure of sorts to which we can then make adhere certain composite events that occurred “out there.” Something happens “out there” and then, in here, we record it, totalizing this into a structure (a Tower of Babel, perhaps). This structure is internal, comprehensible to us alone and thereby comfortable to us alone. It is easier to retreat into the self—to legibilize the real into a gleaming symbolic order—than it is to reckon with the horror (the horror!) of a symbolic hinterland.
Jonathan Levy reviews Glory Liu’s book on the American reception of Adam Smith (Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher Became an Icon of American Capitalism, 2022) for the Boston Review:
For historians of ideas, it is commonplace, when recounting the Chicago school’s reading of Smith, to lament just how bad of a reading it was. Liu cannot resist this temptation, but by placing it in the longer history of Smith’s American reception, she shows that there is more to learn from the episode than just confirming that Stigler was not a very sophisticated historian of ideas.
Indeed, Liu demonstrates just how malleable ideologically the interpretation of Smith has been over time. This is not true for all thinkers. Readings of Marx have varied over time, but they have not jumped over the ideological firewalls that typically separate right from left in just the same way. What does this say not about Smith’s reception, but Smith’s thought itself?
The writing is first-rate. Early on, Ignatieff describes their encounters in Berlin’s flat in Albany. Most of his life, he writes, “has been spent in places just like this, in the walled gardens and high-windowed rooms of English institutional privilege”. He later describes Berlin’s first night in England. “After breakfast, Isaiah got up, went over to the piano in the sitting room and with one hand, picked out ‘God Save the King’.” “His was a version of Englishness frozen in the moment when he first encountered it in the 1920s,” Ignatieff writes, “the England of Kipling, King George, G.K. Chesterton, the gold standard, empire and victory.”
National Geographic, R.I.P. [My family had a bunch of old issues of it in the basement when I grew up. I spent a lot of time with them. —Steve]
“The U.S. doesn’t need to promote its literature abroad; everyone already buys rights to its books.”
Short books are in. [No sign here that sensitive young men carrying around any of these short books in their breast pockets, as they once did with Werther or A Shropshire Lad, is in. —Steve] [I believe that sort of thing is for the girls now, according to—Chris]
New issue of The Hedgehog Review: “Theological Variations”
And a new issue of The Dial: “Rivers”
Profs and Pints DC presents: “Unbuilt Washington—The City That Never Was”, at which Martin Moeller, adjunct lecturer at the University of Miami, will discuss the unrealized architectural history of the District.
The third installment in the series running at Greater Greater Washington on the history of the location of downtown D.C., according to various definitions used for various purposes.
There’s a clone of MetroHero out, and Metro is launching its own version next week.
July 18 | Harvard University Press
The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought
by Wang Hui, translated by Michael Gibbs Hill
From the publisher: What does it mean for China to be modern, or for modernity to be Chinese? How is the notion of historical rupture—a fundamental distinction between tradition and modernity—compatible or not with the history of Chinese thought?
With theoretical rigor and uncommon insight into the roots of contemporary political commitments, Wang delivers a masterpiece of scholarship that is overdue in translation. Through deep readings of key figures and classical texts, The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought provides an account of Chinese philosophy and history that will transform our understanding of the modern not only in China but around the world.
What we’re reading:
Steve is back in Maine for the Fourth and flipped through the old issues of National Geographic mentioned above.
“Catfish” by Claudia Emerson
It nuzzles oblivion, confuses
itself with mud. A creature
of familiar taste, it ambushes
from its nest of ooze the pond’s
brighter fish, clears its palate
with their eggs, lumbers fat
and stagnant into winter, lulled
into dreams of light sinking until
light drowns, and all is as before.
[This is from Emerson’s 2012 collection Secure the Shadows, her fifth of eight poetry books. —Julia]