WRB—Nov. 29, 2023
“murdered with a poisoned book”
The Washington Review of Books is ultimately a self-defeating exercise—a futile act of defiance in the face of death, as practiced by writers who equate death with annihilation.
These days psychoanalysis is back in the zeitgeist, what with Parapraxis and the like. [Can we say this? Are a bunch of English majors of a certain stripe going to get mad at us? —Steve] [I feel that if a bunch of English majors aren’t mad at us we can hardly be said to be doing our job. —Chris] [A bunch of English majors being mad at you is just a fact of life; the question is why. —Steve] [English majors have only interpreted books in various ways. The point is to review them. —Chris] In City Journal, Jonathan Clarke on his own experience of studying it and its continued relevance:
My fellow students at the psychoanalytic institute were a provocative group—sardonic, sophisticated, and skeptical. Psychoanalysis has benefited from the Ph.D. crisis in the humanities; several of my most intellectually nimble colleagues would ordinarily have been on the tenure track. We were all older students, ranging in age from early thirties to early sixties. We did the assigned reading, and sometimes we would read aloud passages that we found striking. Some concepts still resonate with me. (Our “shadow life,” for example, is the one we might have lived if we had chosen differently—and which we carry with us as a form of psychic double-entry bookkeeping.) I have accepted that much of my behavior is driven by unconscious motives, which has relieved me of the burden of believing that my mental constructs embody reality.
The world is a mess. Radical ideologies are everywhere. [It ever was thus. —Chris] You know what that means: people are writing about Dostoevsky. Samuel Earle makes a contribution to that genre in The New Statesman:
The emotional depth of Ivan and the grand inquisitor also speaks to Dostoevsky’s ability to animate ideas and give them a life and character of their own, even—or especially—when he disagreed with them. As the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin suggested in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929), Dostoevsky forged this feeling for thought into a new literary genre, the polyphonic novel, in which characters ceased to be mere puppets and instead became “free people who are capable of standing beside their creator, or disagreeing with him, and even of rebelling against him.” Central to this talent was experience and empathy: Dostoevsky encountered a range of tragedies and subjectivities over the course of life, not least within himself, and these encounters, Bakhtin believed, “only helped him to understand more deeply the extensive and well-developed contradictions which coexisted among people.” Even at 17, in a letter to his brother which touched upon their father’s recent death, Dostoevsky wrote: “Man is an enigma . . . This enigma must be solved, and if you spend all your life at it, don’t say you have wasted your time; I occupy myself with this enigma because I wish to be a man.”
In The Guardian, Sophie Elmhirst on a nursing home romance:
If it’s true that as we age we gradually regress, Mary and Derek had, perhaps, reached adolescence. It matched how Mary felt in her head. She often said she was a young person in a bashed-up body. In her mind, she could get up and dance for you. With Derek, they could play at being young again, in a way, mooning at each other all day long because they had no other obligations. They could fall in love like 16-year-olds: the love of people with no responsibility.
In The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch on Israel Joshua Singer, the older brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer:
Israel Joshua Singer’s work, written in the fifteen years before the Holocaust, reflects a time when Yiddish civilization was more vital and more modern than ever before. It also shows that, even before the Holocaust was conceivable, Jews in Eastern Europe could feel their future disappearing. Franz Kafka, writing in German, and S. Y. Agnon, writing in Hebrew, had the same intuition.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, on the other hand, produced almost all of his work after that future was gone. Few great writers have had such a bizarre fate—working for decades as his readership slowly vanished, knowing that he would have no successors. Yet in a strange way his writing was liberated by the disappearance of hope. Though Jewish life continued after 1945, the Yiddish civilization that Singer belonged to and wrote about was beyond salvation, and therefore beyond despair. Things that I. J. Singer felt compelled to reject in the name of reason and modernity—religion, tradition, superstition, utopian hope—could return with an eerie animating force in I. B. Singer’s work, like revenants.
In Esquire, Kate Dwyer on the campus novel in the twenty-first century:
Hart agrees that there’s a “blurred-line liminality to adjuncting that might further complicate the already complicated student-teacher dynamic.” Social media has made higher education “more and more public,” Hart said, with students posting about their classes, dissecting the texts on the syllabus, or calling out professors’ behavior. This access to the wider world beyond the campus, and access to the campus from the wider world, means that the campus bubble is less of a bubble today—and thus, the stakes of the campus novel are more in tune with the real world.
[Can’t have a literary form about the manners and mores of the bourgeoisie if you can’t depict them accurately. —Steve]
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