WRB—July 15, 2023
If you read this email you will not become a better person.
It may not be the work of history per se to pose grand theories of social contagion, or of the implications of society-wide shifts in the way humans view the Washington Review of Books.
In The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs on theology in the novels of Thomas Pynchon:
The distinctive function of Thomas Pynchon as America’s theologian has been to produce an elaborate, raucous, anarchic, and terrifyingly accurate portrait of all the forces, prosaic and demonic, that in our technocratic regime militate against the restoration of our full humanity—and at the same time to show us how resilient and inextinguishable are the energies of hope, generated as they are by the belief that “secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice.” It requires great discipline, of the hope-against-hope kind, to keep us awake and alert and sensitive to any transmission from “the far invisible.” Whether he knows it or not, in tracing so profoundly these countervailing forces of spiritual totalitarianism and a dream of divine justice, Pynchon offers the essential theological account of our era, one unmatched in subtlety, range, and depth. It is not a fully Christian account, and though I am a Christian I do not deplore this. Theology must begin where we are, and where we are is in the fog, waiting and hoping for a hierophantic word from the far invisible.
Two from the new issue of Liberties:
Carlos Frankel on what we find when we look at the stars:
Contemplating the universe in this way is a powerful antidote for vanity; and so, to keep myself honest, I look up to the heavens once in a while, briefly, from the corner of my eye. Yet its lesson of humility notwithstanding, what I see in the night sky or through a telescope cannot give my life value and purpose. On the contrary, it threatens to obliterate my mortal and terrestrial reasons for getting out of bed in the morning: family, friends, writing, teaching, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a concert, a noble cause. From the cosmic perspective, my goals and my projects seem trivial and pointless. If I want to hold on to what gives my life meaning, therefore, I must shield myself from the universe rather than contemplate it—the exact opposite of what for Plato yields “the most excellent life.” The cosmos as we now understand it is no longer useful for my soul.
[It’s not a perfect book (some of that stretched-out padded feeling 350-page reported nonfiction books usually end up struggling with), but a few years ago I read Paul Bogard’s book about the night sky (The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013) and learned a lot. —Chris]
Rachel Connolly () on humor and the lack thereof:
There is no formula which explains why a certain thing should be funny, or guarantees that it will be funny. Actually the lack of formula seems a definitional component of humor, since so much of what is funny depends on an element of surprise or unexpectedness. As it does on mysteriousness: the more you spell out a joke, or explain why something is funny, the less so it becomes. And this sits directly at odds with our risk-averse culture, where everything must be obvious, hyper-caveated, and over-explained. And the formula of any successful cultural product must be repeated until it feels tired and rote. If the first of the “funny rich people” films was funny, is the seventh? Or the eighth? There is a roteness to so many things now. A rote way to write about trauma, or romantic relationships, to deal with this or that uncomfortable interaction, to talk about progressive politics, to be unprogressive. But predictability and explanation are the mortal enemies of humor. I read recently something that seems to sum up so much of what feels missing from our culture currently: Jeff Bewkes, a former HBO boss, remembered himself telling the creator of Sex and the City: “I don’t want ratings. I want a better show . . . stop explaining jokes.” I sent it to a few friends who work as novelists and TV writers. The replies were all a version of: “Better times!”
Edelweiss Man was a believer in karma. He had done some very bad things in his youth and didn’t expect to go anywhere nice when he carked it, he said. That’s why he liked to visit the “miraculous” icon in a monastery, brought in the Middle Ages from Athos by a monk whose destination was Rila Monastery to the north, but he got lost in a storm and ended up here, taking shelter in a small, abandoned forest monastery. Years later, locals saw colored lights in the woods. And there, inside the building, were the remains of the monk and next to him—the icon, giving out unearthly light. We drove there. It was a high, dangerous forest road that climbed into the mountain, a hermit’s road, a road where you won’t be found for years, unless you hug an icon that shines. The icon was indeed shiny—Mary and her son were wholly made of wrought silver, only their faces were painted and nestled within the armor. The monastery was named after Panteleimon, a lucreless healer from Asia Minor who healed the blind with prayer. And mineral water. The monastery had been cared for by a brave lone nun called Domenika. She came as a young woman in the early years of Communism and must have lived a peaceful life in the forest with her hens and goats. The numerics of her lifespan bookended the twentieth century with inscrutable symmetry.
In The Walrus, Karin Schwerdtner interviews Annie Ernaux (translated by Neil Smith):
Whether it’s a letter or an email, correspondence from readers is proof that my books are, that they exist for people other than me. When I finish a book, that is to say, when I emerge from writing, I don’t know what the book is. It’s readers who let me know, in a way. The letters themselves are tangible evidence that my books are reaching an audience. Hanging on to this proof is important to me.
[We feel the same way about emails from our readers. —Chris]
In The Drift,on fake illnesses and illness fakers:
The glut of illness testimonies—the memoirs, the blogs, the TikToks—try to rescue all the bad patients by redeeming them: by showing how good they really are. One after another, they take the stand and present the evidence. See, they really do believe in science and avoid gluten and tell the truth. But one of the reasons witnesses are coached on how to testify is that we judge truthfulness by many proxies, many of which may have nothing to do with the facts at all. People are backed into corners where the only way to communicate the truth may be to fudge the details: medicine is just one example. And people are also forced into circumstances where the real vagaries of their stories sound like lies, just as poorly localized pain or shifting symptoms make their victims sound dishonest.
- on Ross Douthat’s chronic Lyme memoir (The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, 2021), which BDM mentions:
Our psyches are murky, ambivalent, and often set against themselves; they can will several things at once, good and bad alike. Here, I think, Freudians and Catholics agree. The thing you most want in the world might be the site of profound anxieties, and every triumph is also terrifying.
[All of this becomes even more true when you realize that the general outline of this memoir is basically the same as that of À rebours. And if Ross Douthat were not Ross Douthat, he would be Joris-Karl Huysmans. —Steve]
Albert Camus, The Fall (1956):
That is what no man (except those who are not really alive—in other words, wise men) can endure. Spitefulness is the only possible ostentation. People hasten to judge in order not to be judged themselves. What do you expect? The idea that comes most naturally to man, as if from his very nature, is the idea of his innocence. From this point of view, we are all like that little Frenchman at Buchenwald who insisted on registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: “Useless, old man. You don’t lodge a complaint here.” “But you see, sir,” said the little Frenchman, “my case is exceptional! I am innocent!” We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself.
- on Ross Douthat’s chronic Lyme memoir (The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery, 2021), which BDM mentions:
In TAC, Peter Robinson reviews Andreas Killen’s book about the cultural context of brain science (Nervous Systems: Brain Science in the Early Cold War, March):
There are more than enough anecdotes about characters to make the narrative surprising. His litany of weird people and ideas can distract from the deeper weirdness that Killen is pointing at, the question of what was driving zeal for scientific models of the brain. Some of his stories are likely well known to many of his readers (Pavlov’s dogs, barbarous lobotomies to treat the mentally ill), and some may be new (Allen Dulles, who authorized the MKUltra program, had a son who suffered hallucinations after a head injury in the Korean War). Most of his anecdotes dramatize his characters’ interest in one pet theory or another, all of which eventually proved at best insufficient and at worst dangerously wrong. Killen dramatizes some of the partisan tension over whether the mind is irreducible or an understandable machine, with psychoanalysis in one corner and cybernetics in the other, and neurosurgery (emblematized by Penfield) sometimes more cautious about claims given the messiness of the surgical profession. It does leave a curious lacuna where Killen could have explored the nature of induced belief and delusions, a problem encountered early in clinical neurology. He addresses this instead through the history of communist bloc conditioning experiments and Western panic about the possibility of brainwashing.
In TNR, Phillip Maciak reviews Jaime Green’s book on the search for alien life (The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos, April):
This “lonelier truth” is ultimately what the scientists and fantasists Green profiles are seeking to unfold or even debunk. There’s the astronomer Steven J. Dick who tells us “there is no such thing as immediate discovery,” that, in other words, given the distances involved, the time scale of the discovery of alien life will be vastly different than the time scale of an individual human life. Or there’s Jason Wright, an optimistic researcher nevertheless haunted by the idea that, even if we got a real alien signal, we wouldn’t know what to do with it. “He likened it,” Green writes, “to giving Thomas Edison a modern cable modem and seeing if he could access all the information on the internet.” These stories are filled with triumphant and tragic figures whose lives are inextricably tied to the impossible possibility of other lives existing beyond our own. In Green’s empathetic telling, the search for aliens or Dyson spheres or drinkable water on distant planets is, at tremendous scale, a fight against loneliness.
The decline of handwriting is causing us to lose the ability to judge people based on their handwriting. [And yet we can now judge them by a subtler art: emoji usage. —Chris]
Megan Nolan for The New Statesman: “Why does the word ‘Goodreads’ summon in me a creeping feeling of dread and nausea? Why does the mere act of typing it into a search bar incite reflexive physical discomfort, as if I were walking down a street on which I had experienced a bad break-up?”
A collection of essays about heteropessimism.
Google Reader is dead. Who killed it?
To executives, Google Reader may have seemed like a humble feed aggregator built on boring technology. But for users, it was a way of organizing the internet, for making sense of the web, for collecting all the things you care about no matter its location or type, and helping you make the most of it.
[Now we just have the WRB. —Chris]
There is a lack of long-form journalism in Britain. [Honestly we could stand to hear less out of those people. —Chris]
Tonight at AFI in Silver Spring: David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars (1979)
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Arlington is installing a reclining Lady Liberty statue. [New York is very owned, I’m sure. —Steve] [Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. —Chris]
The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is displaying 15 text-and-image-based artworks by Jessica Diamond until June 2024.
Elizabeth Cutler’s one-act drama, Between Raindrops, will be performed four times between now and the 23rd at Cafritz Hall.
Profs and Pints DC presents: “Unbuilt Washington—The City That Never Was,” with Martin Moeller, Tuesday at 6 pm at Penn Social.
You will learn that Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s famous plan for Washington was, in fact, only partially executed, and that the unrealized aspects of the plan might have altered perceptions of the city. You will see startlingly modern projects designed for prominent sites that were thwarted by America’s entry into World War II. You will also presumably be relieved to discover that a post-war proposal for superhighways running along either side of the National Mall never came to pass.
There is a hidden lounge on the third floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, the only place from where you can look beyond the curved walls of the building and enjoy a fabulous view of the National Mall
Concerts in Fort Reno Park Monday and Thursday.
“Black Silk” by Tess Gallagher
She was cleaning—there is always
that to do—when she found,
at the top of the closet, his old
silk vest. She called me
to look at it, unrolling it carefully
like something live
might fall out. Then we spread it
on the kitchen table and smoothed
the wrinkles down, making our hands
heavy until its shape against Formica
came back and the little tips
that would have pointed to his pockets
lay flat. The buttons were all there.
I held my arms out and she
looped the wide armholes over
them. “That’s one thing I never
wanted to be,” she said, “a man.”
I went into the bathroom to see
how I looked in the sheen and
sadness. Wind chimes
off-key in the alcove. Then her
crying so I stood back in the sink-light
where the porcelain had been staring. Time
to go to her, I thought, with that
other mind, and stood still.
[This is from Gallagher’s 1984 Willingly, her fourth of thirteen poetry collections (fourteen if you count 2016’s Boogie-Woogie Crisscross, a collaborative book of poetry she wrote via email with the poet Lawrence Matsuda).
The first thing I noticed about this poem was the dissonance in those final lines, but after sitting with it for a moment I saw how that moment played into a broader movement in the poem, from separateness to unity to separation again. The poem begins with the she cleaning alone, and then in the middle section, she and the speaker move, for a moment, as if they’re one: we spread it / on the kitchen table… making our hands / heavy. The two of them work together to put the vest on the speaker, but then they’re separate again. For a second, it’s mainly just a physical separation, with them in different rooms, but there’s a shift forward when the other woman starts crying and the speaker says so I stood back. Not but, not and, but rather so: this moment of exposed grief causes or calls for the two them to remain separate. In those final lines, there’s a further separation where we see the speaker step into the mind of the deceased man. This moment is set up when the other woman says “That’s one thing I never / wanted to be . . . a man,” implying that by putting on the black silk vest, the speaker is, in some way, stepping into the role of the deceased man. But even as she thinks what the man would have thought—Time / to go to her—she is ultimately still separate from the man, the other woman, and, crucially, separate from the relationship that existed between them, and so she remains still. The moments the two of them move in unison are the speaker grieving with, and honoring the grief of, the other woman, but this final moment when she stands apart is its own form of honoring that grief, I think. —Julia]