WRB—Mar. 25, 2023
Although in the pages of the WRB enthusiasm glows like sunsets and the heart of man is seen flowering in a hundred generous and lovely passions, no one has ever insisted that the Managing Editors are poets.
What are you doing? Go outside! Look at the flowers! It’s this city’s one redeeming quality and it lasts for a week! [I’m leaving this in on principle, though I acknowledge that the weather in the District of Columbia today is, at best, completely miserable. —Chris]
In the NYT, Ayana Mathis on the influence of the biblical prophetic tradition on American literature:
We have descended into deep canyons of grief, but we needn’t stay there. The biblical prophets’ laments were most always followed by a vision of what might come after sin and sorrow. Isaiah prophesied a new branch from the stump of Jesse; that is to say, the Israelites would be blessed with a messianic king to bring them out of exile and hopelessness. The narratives left by the enslaved, the novels of Poe, Morrison and Erdrich have not marooned us.
- on the differences between reading as a historian and reading as someone carrying on a tradition:
The rabbis understood that. They were traditionalists first (often very creative ones) and historians second at best. They could read their own ancient texts—the books of the Torah, prophets and other canonical biblical books—with a view to understanding their plain meaning, and they did so, doing their best with the philological and other tools they had to hand. But they also lived in their present, a world that had to deal with contingencies radically different from those that their forebears faced (starting with the fact that the center of their forebears’ religion—the Jerusalem temple—was in ruins). And to that end, the knew how to read those same sacred texts in an entirely different spirit, with a view to shedding light on problems wildly far afield from the plain meaning of the text. That’s what it means to be tradents, people carrying on a tradition, and it’s a very different way of reading from how a historian reads.
A little overwrought, but you will probably enjoy reading Jason Kehe in Wired on this sci-fi author. Note in comment from Henry Oliver. [Also in Wired, I’m going to get around to reading this big feature on TSMC sometime this weekend. —Chris]
In Lapham’s Quarterly, Astra Taylor on Benjamin Lay, disowned Quaker, little person, and early abolitionist:
During worship, Lay would vehemently denounce any slaveholders who spoke, sometimes from the women’s section, where he occasionally sat in subversion of ossifying gender norms. One Sunday morning he stood shoeless in the snow outside the meetinghouse. When Friends passed by and expressed worry that he might catch cold, Lay replied that they should extend the same concern to the “poor slaves in your fields, who go all winter half clad.” Another time, Lay aimed to teach a lesson to neighbors who owned a young Black girl by entertaining their son at his home for an entire day, unbeknownst to the parents. When the couple approached Lay in a panic, convinced their child was lost, he called the boy over. Perhaps now, Lay told them, they could imagine the anguish of the girl and her family.
In City Journal, Samuel Goldman on why “John O’Hara’s novels and stories are one of those fashions, like wing collars or Bermuda shorts, that never quite come around again”:
The main reason for O’Hara’s continued neglect is neither stylistic, nor moral, nor practical. It’s that his principal subject is so absent from American life today that it seems to belong not just to another century but to another planet. John O’Hara was at his best as a literary sociologist of the kind of industrial city that has almost vanished from the American landscape. He was drawn to the big ponds of Broadway and Hollywood, and he swam in them with success, but he found his place in American letters as the Balzac of a fishbowl.
In the Cleveland Review of Books, Sarah Khatry reviews a book by Meghan O’Gieblyn on the concepts we use to understand the world and our place in it (God Human Animal Machine, 2021):
We remain meaning-making machines. Reading God Human Animal Machine, I bumped against that concept of the inescapable mirror, the human-shaped blind spot, as a warning. What if all the time I have spent in my life trying to look out, I was only looking in? It’s a criticism shared in writing, the fear that, in our attempts to write about other people and things, we fail to realize it’s the self we are still in mired in. Embrace the self instead, I’ve been coaching myself: Write first in and then through. Recognize the gaps.
In The Baffler, Rachel Pafe reviews a new biography of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller (Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, 2022):
The genius or charlatan binary first presents itself in the context of Jacob arriving in New York in 1947 for a postgraduate position at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Sketching a portrait of Jacob’s time in New York, Muller juxtaposes the high hopes for Jacob the wunderkind with the testimony of rabbinical students at JTS, including one who “concluded early on that Taubes was a phony: that he lied, bluffed about his knowledge in various fields.” Another paints him as a “demonic” expert manipulator. These anecdotes, alongside episodes from Jacob’s crumbling first marriage to writer and philosopher Susan Taubes (née Feldmann), predict a restless and dramatic life. Muller notes in Professor of Apocalypse that he found Susan Taubes’s experimental autofictional novel Divorcing (1969) “indispensable” in creating a portrait of Jacob; while “a work of fiction and hence of the creative imagination . . . used with caution it provides yet another source.”
In the LRB, Steven Shapin reviews a new edition of Thomas S. Kuhn’s late work (The Last Writings of Thomas S. Kuhn: Incommensurability in Science, 2022):
But in the culture at the time Structure was published, thinking about the nature of science was highly charged. In the Second World War, radar and the atomic bomb had established that science could deliver military might, and the US government began to pour unprecedentedly large sums of money into academic research. The continuing mobilisation of science in the Cold War arms race secured the place of physics and several other disciplines in the state’s favour, but the closeness to government, the military and big industry made some sectors of the intelligentsia uneasy. Were the virtues of science the same as those of liberal democracy—open-minded, universal, set against authority—or could science flourish in secret spaces, its agenda controlled by external forces, its beliefs distorted by dogma?
Roth Fest: “Looking around at the rapt audience—which skewed older, but included a decent smattering of my generational peers—it was hard to muster too much fear about the durability of Roth’s legacy. At the very least, I thought, the proceedings would have flattered his insatiable ego.”
Issue 4 of Struggle Magazine is coming.
I couldn’t proceed upstairs, to the Faulkners’ separate bedrooms, without hearing my professor, the great Southern writer Allan Gurganus, one of very few novelists who might with justice be named Faulkner’s successor, describe those bedrooms in his mellow drawl to a rapt classroom. “It was a house divided between two drinkers who despised each other. He drank whiskey, she drank wine. And let me tell you, boys and girls . . .” Here, Allan leaned forward and paused to look each one of us in the eye. “You can still taste the poison in the air.”
[I did not especially enjoy my visit. —Chris]
April 11 | Flatiron Books
From the publisher: We often think of mathematics and literature as polar opposites, as different as they come. But what if, instead, they were inextricably, even fundamentally, linked? In her clear, insightful, laugh-out-loud funny debut, Once Upon a Prime, Professor Sarah Hart shows us the myriad connections between math and literature, and how understanding those connections can enhance our enjoyment of both. Did you know, for instance, that Moby-Dick is full of sophisticated geometry? That James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novels are deliberately checkered with mathematical references? That George Eliot was obsessed with statistics? That Jurassic Park is undergirded by fractal patterns? That Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote mathematician characters? From sonnets to fairytales to experimental French literature, Professor Hart shows how math and literature are complementary parts of the same quest, to understand human life and our place in the universe.