WRB—May 6, 2023
It was at a party one night, wasn’t it? It was late, and the party was quite rowdy. Towards morning someone in the group said: “You have practically everything as a reader and as a writer. But you lack an email newsletter.” You laughed, thinking it was ridiculous, but later you found yourself thinking about what he’d said. You grew more and more worried…
In the Spring issue of The Hudson Review, A.E. Stallings has a four-part essay: “Frieze Frame: How Poets, Painters (And Actors and Architects) Framed the Ongoing Debate Around Elgin and the Marbles of the Athenian Acropolis.” Here’s Part I:
“The imperishable structures” in the 1827 version of the poem were in the original the more explicitly military “imperishable trophies” but eventually became, by 1845, “imperishable Columns.” (Is it coincidence that around this time the façade of the British Museum, with its 44 massive columns—inspired by the 46 columns of the Parthenon—was being completed?) The Periclean Parthenon was a constant reminder to the Athenians of the Persian threat and ultimate defeat. Very soon, then, after Napoleon’s own defeat, Wordsworth begins the process whereby Britain models herself as the new Athens, the Parthenon and her sculptures therefore as much a reminder of Waterloo as Marathon or Salamis.
Byron and Shelley were both appalled by these bombastic poems as an abandonment of Wordsworth’s republican values and a glorification of war. (Byron’s nickname for Wordsworth was “Turdsworth.”) But Haydon would have been delighted, of course, being in complete accord about the connection of ancient and contemporary art. On December 28, 1817, Haydon hosted one of the most famous literary dinner parties of the nineteenth century, in his painting room. The guests included Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, a doomed young explorer headed out to find the source of the Niger, named Joseph Ritchie (“and pray, who is the Gentleman we are going to lose?” Lamb apparently quipped, when told Ritchie was going to penetrate the African interior), and Haydon’s young friend, John Keats. Lamb, Wordsworth, and Keats all had “cameos” in Haydon’s large-scale painting, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem—with its oddly prosaic and middle-aged Christ and dominated in the center by a dark, strangely proportioned donkey—which was in progress and on display. (Mrs. Siddons, with whom Haydon was on friendly terms, would later declare that “The paleness of your Christ gives it a supernatural look.”)
The evening of poetry, amateur phrenology, and drunken hilarity became known as the “Immortal Dinner.”
Fergus Butler-Gallie in The Spectator on America’s funniest homegrown lit:
What makes Portnoy, Confederacy, Mame and Catch-22 all funny—uproariously so—is that they manage to stand outside the tent of American classic fiction, forging a serious literary vision of what the nation means, yet still commenting astutely upon it, or, more accurately, poking it with a sharp stick. They sit bitchily, deconstructing the idealism and meaning and tragedy that define serious literature. This, of course, is the point of comic fiction. It’s hardly unique to the United States, but there can be little doubt that the recognizably particular idealism and radicalism that define both classic American fiction, from Moby-Dick onward, and the attempts to deconstruct the whole shebang in the post-modern era, make those successful attempts to mock it (a different and, to my mind, finer skill than deconstructing or railing against) all the more impressive.
In terms of unexploded ordnance, that’s too much, in our editorial opinion. Kris Bartkus for The Dial about what’s going on in the North Sea. [Nothing good, it sounds like! —Chris].
Christian Wiman in Commonweal with a brief note on the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks:
“Actual” is a very precise word, a “telling” word, a crucial wingbeat away from the word “real,” which one might have expected. “Actual” comes to us from the Old French actuel, meaning “active, practical.” Farther back, the Latin actus meant “driving, doing, act or deed” (an actus was, literally, a cattle drive). Clearly the word once referred less to a condition than an action, less to a state of being than being itself. To say that God is actual, then, in the context of this poem, is not necessarily to say that God is “real.” It’s to say that God is so woven into reality that the question of God’s own reality can’t meaningfully occur.
- calls for intellectual ambition:
On the more public side, in the glare of social media, the issue is not over-specialization but there too our eyes have turned downward. Twitter is full of articles with apparently big concepts—fights over the use of the word fascism, or the future of democracy—but it feels small in a different way. Sure, an article or an event may set off a series of arguments and counterarguments which get published that week, but reading these pieces is nothing like the experience of encountering the writing I have been citing above. In the case of the older works, one is always startled. One is thrown into a way of being in or seeing the world that feels completely confusing, alien. These works violate boundaries—mixing up fields we prefer to keep separate. For Weil, any talk of specific policies or legislation, important as that is, becomes empty without also being able to speak very intimately about the full human experience of pain.
[Fine, I will read Wittgenstein. Incidentally, I still think about this column from The Point a lot: “Why Am I Being Hurt?” (Agnes Callard), about that same essay from Weil. —Chris]
Speaking of essays on Simone Weil, Jacqueline Rose has one in her forthcoming collection (The Plague: Living Death in Our Times, August), and NYRB has an interview with her up this morning, which is of course how we know that:
You’ve said that you once seriously thought about becoming an analyst. Instead, as a literary critic, you’ve become one of the major exponents of Freud and the analytic tradition in English. How does analysis inform your critical practice?
Well, they’re inseparable, right? I can’t think without psychoanalysis, because I find it so fundamentally liberating to have a discourse that says your mind knows better than you do, and that there are things going on in the unconscious that give the lie to the norms of so-called Western civilization and to the norms of sexual definition. It’s always been an emancipatory discourse for me. There is a direct line that runs from Sylvia Plath to Freud to Zionism: in each case I’m looking for the fractures in the identities that seem to be doing the most harm. Plath was an extraordinarily deft writer of what my sister, the philosopher Gillian Rose, would call ethical equivocation, a realm that is hard to occupy and that can be sensuous and fear-provoking at the same time. I mean, she could move among each of these registers, sometimes in one line of poetry. For example, she could articulate a fine-tuned feminist critique of what men do to women, while at the same time having the ability to look inside herself. She knew how to explore the psyche and simultaneously accuse the world of injustice. I think that takes some doing.
Samir Chadha interviews Kathryn Scanlan for The White Review:
One of the reasons I don’t like writing straightforward nonfiction is that I feel hemmed in by the requirement to be “myself.” I seem to be physically incapable of writing a personal essay. Fiction is appealing because the ‘I’ can be anything and anyone. I can go wherever I want. It doesn’t need to be me, and I can be other.
[I love the Q&A format they have on the website here. —Chris]
- has rounded up all the reviews of Ben Smith’s new obituary book (Traffic, May), so we don’t have to. E.g.:
The New York Times, “How ‘Going Viral’ Became a Thing” by Virginia Heffernan—Heffernan has been a NYT-branded blue-chip Name for virtually the entire time span of the events in this book, and she has no obvious stake in any of it, so assigning her the review feels like the Times putting one last boot into the corpses of the would-be upstarts it has now definitively buried. It’s a characteristically Timesian choice, since in taking the opportunity for a little editorial gloating, they have missed the opportunity to publish a review worth reading. This one is superficial and vapid.
In the Journal, Adam Kirsch reviews a recent book about Maimonides (Maimonides: Faith in Reason, March):
When it comes to communicating Maimonides’s breakthroughs as an interpreter of Jewish law and a religious rationalist, Mr. Manguel is generally at sea. He will often seize on a phrase or passage out of context and connect it, sometimes ingeniously, with one the many other subjects he does know about, from Dante’s poetry to modern semantic theory. But no coherent sense emerges in the book of what made Maimonides so important, and so lastingly controversial, as a Jewish thinker: his insistence on minimizing the supernatural element in Judaism, while elevating rational thought as the best way to make contact with God. Readers looking for an introduction to this achievement can turn to Moshe Halbertal’s 2013 book Maimonides: Life and Thought.
Two from the new issue of The Nation of books from last year:
Rumaan Alam reviews Murakami’s book from last year about being a writer (Novelist as Vocation, November):
As one comes to the end of Novelist as a Vocation, one realizes that Murakami is not all that interested in interrogating what has driven him to write and gives no real insight into whatever struggles he has faced as an artist. Perhaps he’s being humble, perhaps he’s being private, or perhaps he cannot quite acknowledge that a novel—whatever that is—is more than just an accretion of words at the rate of 1,600 per day.
As a result, some of Novelist as a Vocation can feel pretty silly. There is something absurd in Murakami avowing, “I love the activity of writing novels. Which is why I’m really grateful to be able to make a living doing just that, why I feel it’s a blessing I’ve been able to live this kind of life.” The author barely explores the ways in which he feels blessed, doesn’t even elucidate the kind of life he’s led. He has no particular responsibility to, but it feels to me like a missed opportunity.
And George Scialabba reviews Émile Perreau-Saussine’s recently-translated biography of Alasdair MacIntyre (Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography, 2005, September) and a collection of essays by Richard Rorty (What Can We Hope For?: Essays on Politics, 2022):
Richard Rorty was MacIntyre’s polar opposite in all ways except one: Both men liked and respected the other. Rorty was an anti-foundationalist, while MacIntyre grimly insists that philosophy without metaphysical foundations is the merest fiction. Rorty thought our paramount moral and political obligation was to reduce suffering and increase happiness; MacIntyre thinks it is to follow the path of virtue marked out by the traditions of our community, guided by that community’s view of the telos or purpose of human life. Rorty thought the Enlightenment, and the spirit of criticism it bequeathed, inaugurated a new and fortunate period in history, an epoch in which personal and social liberation are at least possible. MacIntyre thinks we will be lucky to survive that liberation. Rorty was fond of drawing a distinction between Enlightenment rationalism and Enlightenment liberalism. He agreed with MacIntyre that Enlightenment rationalism—the attempt to ground morality in reason—had failed. But he thought Enlightenment liberalism—egalitarianism, free speech, universal suffrage, the separation of church and state—had succeeded gloriously and was humanity’s best hope. MacIntyre holds out little hope, except in Catholicism, where he has come to rest.
Rorty seems to have felt that his philosophical celebrity entailed an obligation to comment on contemporary political issues, while MacIntyre seems to feel that his philosophical celebrity entails an obligation not to. As a result, Rorty was pretty much a model public intellectual in the 20 years before his death, while MacIntyre may as well have been writing from inside a monastery.
[I wouldn’t read another book about liberalism even if my mother wrote it. I have a funny story about MacIntyre that I will tell you if you ask, or a lot of times, even if you don’t. —Chris]
The fantasy in the “I don’t believe in writer’s block” pose is that someone who is writing can do so because they are disciplined, and courageous, and patient, and vulnerable enough for the work. And this is not strictly true. People can write a great deal without getting at anything very hard.
- has his May 2023 new books preview up in two parts. [This is going to save me a lot of time honestly. —Chris]
“like Isis, Vice was a 2010s phenomenon that wrongly thought it could take on the giants and win.” Sure. Fine.
Courtesy of the WRB’s loyal, occasional [Very occasional.] [And what an occasion it is! —Chris] “Local Music Guy”: “You might mention this concert in tomorrow's issue: the DC Concert Orchestra will be performing Debussy, Copland, and the little-known Cécile Chaminade at the Church of the Epiphany this Sunday at 3:30.”
“The National Building Museum has announced its upcoming exhibits for summer and fall 2023, including one celebrating iconic cities around the world, called Brick City.” It’s a Lego thing.
Today at the Freer Gallery: “In celebration of the Freer Centennial, we commissioned Min Xiao-Fen to compose original scores for two Chinese silent films, Romance of the Fruit Peddler (dir.: Zhang Shichuan, 1922, 24 min.) and Romance of the Western Chamber (dir.: Hou Yao, 1927, 43 min.).”
“The award for most anticipated and contentious exhibition of the past year and a half must go to Philip Guston Now, the retrospective jointly organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Tate Modern, London.” (Karen Wilkin in The Hudson Review.)
Aaron Rosen in an Image journal newsletter: The current Guston exhibition at the National Gallery of Art arrives after a massive art-world saga that forced years of delay. But all that’s over, fortunately, and now is the moment to appreciate Guston in all his daring, to let the paintings of this reverent iconoclast unsettle us in all the right ways.
May 30 | Verso
Osip Mandelstam: A Biography
by Ralph Dutli
From the publisher: This is the first full-scale biography of Osip Mandelstam to combine an analysis of his poetry with a description of his personal life, from his beginnings as a young intellectual in pre-revolutionary Russia to his final fate as a victim of Stalinism. The myth has grown up that Mandelstam was a gloomy, miserable figure; Dutli deconstructs this, stressing Mandelstam's enjoyment of life. There are several underlying themes here. One is Mandelstam's Jewish background in pre-1914 Russia, which he rejected as a young man, but reaffirmed in later life. Another is the inescapable impact of Russia's political and social transformation. His evolution as a poet naturally occupies a large place in the biography, which quotes many of his most famous poems, including his devastating anti-Stalin epigram. He produced wonderful poetry before the October Revolution, but did not reach his full poetic stature until the 1930s when in exile in Voronezh. He was never an official Soviet poet, and it was only thanks to the intervention of Bukharin that he was brought back from utter impoverishment. The biography gives full weight to his emotional life, beginning with his friendship with two other Russian poets, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, followed by love and marriage to Nadezhda Khazina.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Washington Review of Books to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.