WRB—June 28, 2023
“A kind of immortality”
A vacation is not like immigrating to a foreign country, or matriculating at a university, or starting a new job, or reading the WRB. We embark on those pursuits with the trepidation of one who enters a tunnel not knowing who she will be when she walks out.
There is no such thing as an apolitical artist, Thomas Mann once said. The postwar Jünger adhered to a philosophy of radical individualism, which ostensibly bars ideological commitments. In his novel Eumeswil (1977), he theorizes a figure called the Anarch, who rejects the state yet also takes no action against it. The book’s narrator, a crafty fixer in service to a tyrant, articulates the ethos: “I am in need of authority, even if I am not a believer in authority.” This is a feeble form of opposition, bordering on the nonexistent, and it is pitted against a generalized conception of the state that elides the huge systemic differences between, say, a republic and a dictatorship. Social-democratic programs are equated with totalitarian control. You can understand Jünger’s appeal to the modern right when you read him complaining, in the 1951 treatise The Forest Passage, about liberal health policy: “Is there any real gain in the world of insurance, vaccinations, scrupulous hygiene, and a high average age?” Somehow, Jünger’s fiction avoids being trapped by the poverty of his political thinking. So profound is this writer’s detachment that he manages to remain aloof from his own beliefs.
[Lots of people are saying that he offers a conservative critique of fascism. That’s fine. —Chris]
In the Times, Ruth Franklin on the 75th anniversary of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”:
It’s true that what reads as discomfort for one person can feel like aggression to another. Still, the idea that authors should work to avoid offending anyone is a recipe for bad writing. When we use social or political litmus tests to evaluate literature, to borrow a line from the critic Wesley Morris, “It can be hard to tell when we’re consuming art and when we’re conducting H.R.” If we view intellectual dissonance as a problem to fix rather than an opportunity for discussion, our cultural climate suffers. The lack of an easily digestible message is why a short story caused outrage in readers when it first appeared—but it’s also the reason we’re still talking and thinking about it 75 years later.
Everybody was meeting at bars or people's homes or whatever. Remembering the experience of rehearsal for theater, where everyone had a say about the dramaturgy, I said, Wouldn't it be great if we had a magazine where we spoke about the work the way we spoke about it among ourselves? Everyone said, Wow, what a great idea. We didn't think it was going to last. We just thought it would be some kind of magical two or three issues that coalesced. We knew it was going to be a legend. I don’t know how, but we did. And then it would just disappear, and that was okay.
[Inspired by this example, the WRB attempts to answer the question “What if my texts with Chris were a newsletter?” —Steve] [I probably occasionally wouldn’t respond for 36 hours. —Chris]
If Eliot was interested in religious coexistence, though, she was also interested in unbelief. The novelist known for “showing people how to be good in a world without God,” as Kathryn Hughes puts it, Eliot emphasizes throughout The Spanish Gypsy that the Roma—unlike Spain’s other minorities—have no declared religion. Zarca says that the Roma “have no god” but “a faith / Taught by no priest … / Faith to each other.” Accurate or not, Eliot uses the Roma to interpolate irreligion into 1492 Spain and to position secularism in contradistinction to the coming tide of religious violence. As Sephardo, a Jewish astrologer, says to Silva, “the stars / … tell no fortunes. I adhere alone / To such tradition of their agencies / As reason fortifies.”
Maddy Frank on writing and the Meramec Caverns of Missouri in Longreads:
Someone once told me that geology is like storytelling: piecing together rocks of eras past to create a narrative, the earth’s narrative, our narrative. But that makes the missing facts, the missing chapters, even more noticeable. Geologists call these missing bits of time “unconformities”—layers of rock from vastly different time periods butting up against each other, the years connecting the two completely gone. In parts of the Great Unconformity (which is clearly visible in the Grand Canyon), for example, there are over a billion years missing. We don’t know where they went, at least not for sure. Our best guess is a large-scale deglaciation event. Receding ice, miles thick, can eat just about everything, it seems. Water has a knack for stealing time. The dissolution that created these caves is evidence of that.
Christopher Scalia reviews Alex Pappademas’s book on Steely Dan (Quantum Criminals: Ramblers, Wild Gamblers, and Other Sole Survivors from the Songs of Steely Dan, May) [mentioned in the Come-up Books section May 24, with some notes by Steve May 20] in the WFB:
Pappademas’s style is lively and allusive, and his analysis is consistently both surprising and convincing. He has a knack for identifying threads that run through the band’s work and the themes of particular albums. “Most of the characters in the songs of Steely Dan’s ’70s albums,” he writes, “are either longing for some vanished past or too busy losing themselves in drugs or crackpot spirituality or grasping sexual neediness to even communicate with each other, much less get it together to try to change the world.” Similarly, Pappademas elsewhere refers to “the tension between [Becker and Fagen’s] fascination with contemporary perversion and violence and their conservative yearning for an idealized past,” which is indeed an underrated aspect of the band’s creative output. They’re the kinky Kinks, yearning not for little shops and china cups but teenage girls who remember Aretha Franklin.
- has learned to love the Dan: “Frankly, I didn’t know you could use the word ‘crucified’ on AM radio. Except maybe on KLAC (570 on your dial), where Oral Roberts had his Sunday show. You certainly didn’t rhyme it with ‘lied,’ ‘tried,’ and ‘side’ in a pop song.”
[The band of the WRB. —Steve] [Can’t deny it. —Chris]
Siddhartha Deb reviews three Don DeLillo novels reissued by the Library of America (Don DeLillo: Three Novels of the 1980s (LOA #363): The Names / White Noise / Libra) in The Nation:
The writing in White Noise is wonderful, and yet the extended metaphors and the revisiting of Wagnerian-fascist mythology through the filter of Middle America can strike one as evasive. It is as though American reality, in all its excess, is too resistant to critique; only the glancing blows of satire, symbolism, or imported magic can score a point or two against it. The systems novel is itself subsumed by the system, of which publishing and readers dulled by white noise are just another aspect. After all, there is not a single reference to Bhopal or Union Carbide in the footnotes of the Library of America edition.
What the story lacks in dramatic tension—since everything is, in a sense, foreordained and marked out by clues in the short bits of exposition—it gains in lightheartedness. Having escaped from danger, the boys need more danger and make it for themselves out of some otter claw marks, rustles in the undergrowth and a strange donkey-like shape glimpsed at a distance. “Nothing, in fact, was simpler. The beast was a Racal, and even a huge Racal, the size of a donkey—and hence a dangerous Racal; what is more, a wandering Racal, a loner, one of those sensitive Racals irritated by the slightest thing, that charge you with a tremendous leap—the infamous leap of the Racal, surpassing that of the tiger.”
Willa Cather tourism brings over a million dollars a year to her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska. [The Most Photographed Willa Cather Hometown in America. —Steve]
“Goodreads Has No Incentive to be Good.” [Review bombing aside, Goodreads has always been years ahead of its time in envisioning an internet that just doesn’t quite work anymore. Now that Google and Twitter are catching up on the concept, they deserve their moment in the sun. —Chris]
Against literary festivals. [I was going to say “imagine a literary festival organized with the goal of being ‘complex, dark, moody and depressed,’” but then I realized that’s just the annual Association of Writers and Poets Conference. —Julia]
The history of audiobooks:
Audiobook skeptics are probably right. Listening to a novel will never be a substitute for reading, if the aim is to digest and analyze what we’re reading. . . .
Fiction, which lies at the intersection of style and content, makes this question particularly tricky. There’s the music of the language, and also the concepts and ideas communicated through the music. There’s the story itself, and also all of the signs and symbols beneath it. . . . Reading, by allowing us to stop and ponder, might tilt the needle a little more toward content, but listening, by harnessing the emotional power of the human voice, might tilt the needle a little more toward style.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, from the overture to The Raw and the Cooked (1964):
The true answer is to be found, I think, in the characteristic that myth and music share of both being languages which, in their different ways, transcend articulate expression, while at the same time—like articulate speech, but unlike painting—requiring a temporal dimension in which to unfold. But this relation to time is of a rather special nature: it is as if music and mythology needed time only in order to deny it. Both, indeed, are instruments for the obliteration of time. Below the level of sounds and rhythms, music acts upon a primitive terrain, which is the physiological time of the listener; this time is irreversible and therefore irredeemably diachronic, yet music transmutes the segment devoted to listening to it into a synchronic totality, enclosed within itself. Because of the internal organization of the musical work, the act of listening to it immobilizes passing time; it catches and enfolds it as one catches and enfolds a cloth flapping in the wind. It follows that by listening to music, and while we are listening to it, we enter into a kind of immortality.
First issue of The Whitney Review of New Writing is out now.
Paper Magazine is being resurrected.
According to Bon Appétit, you can now get good bagels outside NYC and environs. [I’ll believe it when I see it. —Chris] [The managing editor from Long Island put this in the draft. The Managing Editor from Maine is waiting for Moxie and bean suppers to have their moment. —Steve] [I still haven’t forgiven you for that Moxie cocktail we made in 2019. —Chris]
New independent bookstore, People’s Books, opened in Takoma Park yesterday.
The 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will take place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., June 29–July 4 and July 6–July 9. The theme this year is the Ozarks and American religion.
Denis Covington, in the only truly essential text on American religious experience (Salvation on Sand Mountain, 2009):
Snake handling, for instance, didn’t originate back in the hills somewhere. It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture. All along their border with the modern world—in places like Newport, Tennessee, and Sand Mountain, Alabama—they recoiled. They threw up defenses. When their own resources failed, they called down the Holy Ghost. They put their hands through fire. They drank poison. They took up serpents.
A new exhibit of Frank Stewart’s photography is at the Phillips collection through the beginning of September.
An opera based on Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower is being performed at Strathmore tonight, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
Rachel Connolly () will be discussing her debut novel (Lazy City, October) with Celeste Marcus at an online Liberties x Interintellect salon next Thursday, July 6 at 5:30.
Tara Isabella Burton will discuss her forthcoming book (Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, June) withDamir Marusic at the Connecticut Avenue Politics and Prose tomorrow evening.
July 11 | FSG
Tabula Rasa, Volume 1
by John McPhee
From the publisher: Over seven decades, John McPhee has set a standard for literary nonfiction. Assaying mountain ranges, bark canoes, experimental aircraft, the Swiss Army, geophysical hot spots, ocean shipping, shad fishing, dissident art in the Soviet Union, and an even wider variety of other subjects, he has consistently written narrative pieces of immaculate design.
In Tabula Rasa, Volume 1, McPhee looks back at his career from the vantage point of his desk drawer, reflecting wryly upon projects he once planned to do but never got around to—people to profile, regions he meant to portray. There are so many examples that he plans to go on writing these vignettes, an ideal project for an old man, he says, and a “reminiscent montage” from a writing life. This first volume includes, among other things, glimpses of a frosty encounter with Thornton Wilder, interrogative dinners with Henry Luce, the allure of western Spain, criteria in writing about science, fireworks over the East River as seen from Malcolm Forbes’s yacht, the evolving inclinations of the Tower of Pisa, the islands among the river deltas of central California, teaching in a pandemic, and persuading The New Yorker to publish an entire book on oranges. The result is a fresh survey of McPhee’s singular planet.
[This blog post writing up some of McPhee’s writing advice was extremely helpful to me in college. I pass it on now. —Chris]