WRB—September 27, 2023
“the comfort toy of the also-ran”
The WRB is not magic. It’s a technique and a science. A technique born of science and at the service of a will. The will of the Managing Editors to free themselves.
We started hearing a lot about psychoanalysis again last year, with everyone getting around to their Janet Malcom rereading/revisiting pieces [With her last book, (Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, January) posthumous, out at the beginning of this year], a lightly-themed issue of Jewish Currents and Parapraxis launching at the end of the year [I’m not going to dig up the trend pieces but I’m sure you can find them. —Chris]. Now that the buzz is all on modernizing Homer (the Wilson Iliad out yesterday), we can read Mark Adair for Antigone on themes of hallucination in Homer and Freud:
On this central problem of our existence, two great minds, separated by gulfs of time, culture and occupation, somehow converged. . . . by thinking in Greek fashion—using analogy, empiricism and speculation—to formulate his theories, Freud made advances unachievable by those unschooled in this Hellenic approach to problem solving. . . . Tension-tolerance is implicit in the teachings of classical culture, which valorized self-restraint and, above all, self-knowledge. Tension-tolerance made possible classical culture’s unswervable resolve to learn more and more about both the inner and outer worlds. This ethic, admittedly an ideal, is sometimes called paideia. Freud’s immersion in paideia helped him identify tolerance for reality, both internal and external, as the main challenge to the human mind. . . . Much like a dream, hallucination is a mental act of omnipotence: it fulfills a wish in defiance of external reality. In this essay we’ll consider hallucinations that wishfully restore lost love objects. Homer’s aperçus on our universal struggle with hallucination occur in both the Iliad and Odyssey.
- revisits Caro’s work (The Power Broker, 1974; The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vols 1–4, 1982–2012; Working, 2019):
Where did our ability to build go? We used to build skyscrapers in months; now it takes decades. Where did this sclerosis come from? Yes, it is a product of regulation, of “vetocracy” and bureaucracy taking its pounds and pounds of flesh. But how did we end up here? And how, if at all, can we go back?
These are the questions I thought about, more than anything else, reading the works of Robert Caro. . . . When asked, Caro will maintain that his body of work is concerned with how power is obtained and exercised in a democracy. To this I might add that it is about how power was obtained and exercised in a democracy, and in particular in America in the twentieth century, in that period when we built things.
2022 was really the year for Clarice Lispector, with New Directions putting out the brick-shaped collected newspaper columns (Too Much of Life: The Complete Crônicas, 2022) and a collection from her in their “Storybook ND” line (The Woman Who Killed the Fish, 2022), which are even weirder shaped. [I was going to mention on Saturday, but since we’re here, next week ND is putting out another Lispector novel (The Apple in the Dark, 1961, October), translated by Benjamin Moser, whose own book (The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters, October), which itself sounds delightful, will follow a week later. —Chris] Anyway, in the Jewish Review of Books, Julia Kornberg has a piece about the Brazilian author’s ambivalence about her Jewishness and her work’s debt to Bella Chagall:
She dedicated the book [The Hour of the Star] “to the memory of my former poverty, when everything was more sober and dignified and I had never eaten lobster.” She closes the dedication with the remark that the work is “a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need to. Amen for all of us.” The heroine of the novella, in the sole explicit reference to Jewish history in Lispector’s work, is named Macabéa.
But, unlike the Maccabees, Lispector’s Macabéa is a victim, not a hero. She is presented to us like “thousands of other girls . . . from the northeast . . . in the slums of Rio de Janeiro,” and not unlike Lispector herself. Her story is narrated in the cruel voice of a former lover who berates her as a virgin, an idiot, “scarcely a body.” Macabéa seems destined to oblivion and defeat: she attempts to make a life in the city, but it eats her alive. She falls in love with a man named, of all things, Olímpico de Jesus, but he is beyond cruel. In the background, a reader can still perceive a hint of Chagall-like images: “Only now do I understand and only now has the secret meaning sprouted: the violin is a warning. I know that when I die I’ll hear the man’s violin and demand music, music, music.” Finally, she visits a clairvoyant who promises her she will marry a rich German man named Hans. Instead, Macabéa is run over by a Mercedes-Benz.
[We don’t have a cute 2022 tie-in for this one. —Chris] In recent years there has been much discussion of irony; we will not try your patience by recounting it. But Jahan Ganesh makes an insightful contribution in the Financial Times, saying: “Not everyone who is incapable of irony is a winner, no. But lots of winners are incapable of irony”:
As with individuals, so with nations. Britain’s ironic talent only really flourished when the country ceased to matter in the world. If you think it is an eternal national trait, look at a public building from Victorian times or thereabouts. The sternest, least playful architectural style since the Middle Ages coincided with Britain’s dominion over much of the earth. A nation that commissioned the Viceroy’s House in Delhi can’t claim to have always had a sense of the absurd. No, that came with national decline. That came with the rise of the po-faced Americans, who could be mocked for not being in on the great joke of life. Irony is, or can be, the comfort toy of the also-ran.
[What, then, is the Washington Review of Books? It is a sincere enterprise. It must be. The desire for ironic posturing could not, I promise, sustain it. And yet also an ironic enterprise: for who could sincerely expect success out of a books and culture newsletter today? —Steve] [I think a publication that was entirely in earnest wouldn’t style itself after the defunct hometown football franchise. Anyway, my comments on acts of care such as this one are in Critical notes. —Chris] [I would call it a rearguard action against the forces of Dulness or what have you, but I have learned from Baudelaire: “The use of military metaphors denotes non-militant spirits, but ones made for discipline, that is, for conformity.” Perhaps our more observant readers will wish to associate the spirit of sincerity with Chris and the spirit of irony with me. I won’t protest too much at that. —Steve] [I would. —Chris] [Well, I’m less generous in spirit than Chris. —Steve] [After going through What we’re reading this morning, I’m beginning to think Julia is the mean one. —Chris] [I don’t snap off comments about half the movies I watch in theaters every month not to win this title. And yet I do think this is an important work, a labor of love, a gathering of kindling, a building of a small fire at a campsite at which we have arrived very late in the day. I am honored by the support our subscribers give us. I hope you’ll consider subscribing, and I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription—it helps make this work of ours possible. —Steve]
- in :
He writes that it’s “absolutely impossible” for people to fly without the aid of technology, “and everyone can agree on this, for certain. Or at least everyone nowadays who doesn’t want to be taken for a fool or an unhinged eccentric.” Reading this line, I thought, What are you talking about? I doubt you could stand in any major urban center in this country and be more than a mile from somebody who believes that some people fly. Catholics believe that St. Teresa of Ávila floated; some Buddhists make similar claims for the Buddha; I’m in California right now and I guarantee somebody within a mile of me thinks you can fly if you line up your crystals just right and flap your arms.
Eire’s book is about the specific lives of, and wild claims made about, people in the early modern period, roughly spanning the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. But it’s also about a hidden culture within modernity and postmodernity: Contemporary thought and experience is riddled with premodern belief. Then, too, the way we think of “premodern faith” borrows much from counter-movements against modern rationality, like Romanticism and postmodernism.
See an excerpt in the new issue of The Lamp.
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