WRB—October 25, 2023
“auctioned off to lobstermen”
All of us are condemned to a dream of the Washington Review of Books, even though no one I know reads in that way, or lives that kind of a life. Yet these are the dreams you’ve given us.
[I spotted Walter Benjamin’s note “Mickey Mouse” flipping through the four-volume Selected Writings this spring; it’s obviously a delightful juxtaposition right before “In Almost Every Example We Have of Materialist Literary History.” So I was glad to see this piece this weekend. —Chris] For The Spectator, Esther Leslie briefly surveys the mid-century flourishing of intellectual engagement with Disney and the mouse:
The German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin read History and Class Consciousness in June 1924, and began to seek out the manifestations of modern culture that articulated what it was like to live in an alienated world. He found Disney, and specifically Mickey Mouse, and he wrote some notes called “On Mickey Mouse,” in 1931, after a conversation with composer Kurt Weill and banker Gustav Glück. Disney cartoons, he argued, reveal the thriving structure of capitalism, where profit is a theft not only of what the worker produces, but also their time and the laboring capacity of their bodies. The cartoons make clear that even our limbs do not belong to us, which must instead serve the power structures within the cartoon: we chop bits off in exchange for money or give parts up in war. “[In Mickey Mouse] it is possible for the first time to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen.” What fascinates Benjamin is how these animations articulate what we are required to do in order to survive or to live our bare lives.
Online for The New Yorker, Ryan Ruby introduces us to Marguerite Young’s big book about what it’s like to visit the Midwest (Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, 1965), which was reissued by Dalkey last year:
As her name suggests, Vera encounters the truth as something that is constantly flipping upside down and right side up again. In Young’s telling, reality is not the neutral ground where disparate perceptions overlap; it is the interstices between them. Reality is the worm in the wheat, as the novel’s working title would have it, the point at which our “perfect equations” come up short, our “definitions fail,” and our desires for “ultimate harmony” are frustrated. Truth is “but another illusion,” Vera is forced to conclude. As with the two utopias Young describes in “Angel in the Forest,” you could “substitute” one theory of life “for another and get the same result.”
Vera spends most of her time listening to other people, but she’s able to narrate the book partly because she’s reconciled the seemingly antithetical world views of her mother and her nursemaid. She comes to agree with Catherine that “reality bears with it always an aspect of fateful disappointment,” and that making one’s peace with illusion is precisely “that on which the whole of life depended.” Unlike Catherine, however, she gives up the quest for “perfect happiness,” a pragmatic move that Miss MacIntosh might have approved of. Although Vera never makes it to What Cheer, she doesn’t despair. “One still had reached one’s goal,” she reasons, “even if it was not the one intended . . . Whatever one found was real.” What Vera finds at the end of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is something none of the novel’s perfection-seekers do: love.
[Attentive readers may remember the infamous “runt” edition of Oct. 5, 2022, in which we sharedBaffler essay on the novel, or an edition from that August with Meghan O’Gieblyn’s new introduction. They may also remember that Young’s Collected Poems was put out last fall as well, from Sublunary Editions (the Upcoming book of WRB Sept. 21, 2022 and the source of the Poem in WRB Oct. 22, 2022). As always, we appreciate your being attentive. —Chris] [I think every year they choose a new big book to focus on. I heard a lot about Clarissa last year. Still reading that one. —Steve]
Invisible Cities (1972) is an essential text for understanding the WRB sensibility. Luckily, The New Statesman has up Jeanette Winterson’s introduction to the new Folio Society edition of the novel, for the author’s centenary this month:
Every micro-story stands alone as a strange and troubling miniature world. Read together, these stories become both atlas and encounter. Narrated as an encyclopedia of empire from the adventurer Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, these stories suggest a reality that expands until it can no longer be grasped. Instead, it must be understood through the signs and wonders that are its atomic truth. The buildings, harbors, houses, trades, the seemingly stuff of the real, are in themselves ciphers. Reality is found in the intersections, the connections, the idea of a system of infinite relationships—an idea Calvino loved from his readings of Ovid and Lucretius. . . .
Invisible Cities is built like a Boolean Truth Table. The mathematical table shows all possible combinations of inputs, and for each combination the output that the circuit will produce. It’s a logic operation. The categories we find in Invisible Cities—Hidden Cities, Cities and Desire, Cities and Memory, Thin Cities, Dead Cities, and so on—aren’t random. Once chosen, these “inputs” will reveal their “outputs”. Think of a Truth Table as including a column for each variable in the expression and a row for each possible combination of truth values (or cities in our case). Then add a column that shows the outcome of each set of values. That’s the dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
The mapping out of possible truth values is the hot debate sparred back and forth across the space the two men occupy whenever they meet. At first, Polo’s space is offered as places he has seen and been. Gradually, the emperor begins to describe the cities, and Polo must tell him if they are real—moving carefully around what the word “real” means.
on Sept. 20.]
“The Pole” is in some respects a strangely sterile story: it nominally takes place in Spain in 2015, but it’s a firmly global one. There is little physical description, little of the immediate sensation of life. Beatriz is not a woman of passions, at least not ones she gives in to, and she holds the Pole at such a distance that at times he seems almost non-existent. But for this reason, Beatriz’s disgust at his age and his violent and staunchly sexual desire for her are all the more shocking in their frankness. This is a book about deep themes—death, decay, despair, all three combined in an elderly character with a striking resemblance to his creator—and one that offers little consolation.
Chris remarked a few weeks ago that biographies of George Eliot and ruminations on her ersatz marriage are “not a topic long out of the digital pages of the WRB.” Dear reader, they’re back. Online for The Point, Michael Ledger-Lomas reviews two books addressing the topic from Joanna Biggs (A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again, May) and Clare Carlisle (The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life, August) and asks why “we expect the subject to assist the biographer and ourselves in our ordinary quandaries”:
Judging by the percentages of people who now divorce or never marry at all, our faith in marriage continues to dwindle. But what Phyllis Rose called our “bewildered respect” for the domestic convolutions of Victorian writers remains strong. The bewilderment may be healthier than the respect, because it acknowledges the remoteness of the past. To sustain what Eliot once called the “perilous joy” of marriage in modern societies is difficult; so is dealing with its end through divorce. But in the end, an overidentification with Eliot may neither help us in our perplexities nor deepen our appreciation of her novels. They are overtly keen to teach us things, but we do not read them for their moralizing, any more than we turn to the painters of the Dutch Golden Age whom Eliot admired for advice on draining marshes or the care of chequered floors.
[Ledger-Lomas’ lede here is a quote from Eliot: “Biographies generally are a disease of English literature.” Extremely attentive readers of long standing might remember Morten Høi Jensen’s Liberties essay on the subject from WRB May 11, 2022. —Chris]
So inescapable is Eliot in relation to the “marriage question” that we can even read Rebecca Mead in a long group review—itself framed around Middlemarch—of some marriage books (On Marriage, May; The Two-Parent Privilege, September) in this week’s New Yorker: “Of Middlemarch, the greatest novel by the most philosophically inclined of novelists, Baum offers the ingenious interpretation that marriage itself is the key to all mythologies, and that Middlemarch was meant to be the all-encompassing work that Edward Casaubon was unable to write.”
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