Decline and Fall

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A Year in Reading: Jedediah Britton-Purdy

At the end of 2019, I am reading with very different eyes from a year ago. My wife and I learned that she was pregnant on the last day of 2018, and our son, James, was born just before Labor Day. Two weeks after we learned of the pregnancy, we moved from North Carolina, where between us we had spent half our lives, to New York City, where we both began new jobs. New arrival sharpens vision: I paid closer attention to the details of changing seasons in Manhattan’s sui generis climate than I had in familiar places. I watched the first snowdrops bloom on the east-facing northwest shoulder of Central Park (late January), the first daffodils appear on the lower slopes of the Morningside escarpment (the end of February), and the redbud explode to announce the real beginning of an Eastern spring.

Books often bring the new for me, but this year they were more of a trace backward, stitching new experience into what underlay it. Looking at children’s books seriously for the first time in decades, I discovered images indelible in my mind but lost to conscious memory. When I opened Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (1962), with its sharp-edged collage—a red snowsuit sharply outlined against white drifts and a brown-and-yellow cityscape—I realized I had been carrying it around all my life. It might have been my first way, as a rural child who loved snowstorms, of picturing life in cities, and imagining common experiences across racial lines. I had a purple snowsuit at about the time I first encountered Snowy Day, and this year I tracked down a false memory: I had thought of the fictional snowsuit as purple, putting myself in the story and bringing it into my own mornings when hours of play turned crisp chill into soggy cold.

I also learned that, in a place as iconic as New York City, something that catches your eye may already have a literary memorial. On one of the last weekends before James’s birth, I bicycled up Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge, where a snug red lighthouse nestles under the immense gray span. In replies to my predictable Instagram post, I learned that The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (1942) is a local touchstone on the attractive theme that everyone’s work is necessary—the lighthouse thinks the bridge will make it obsolete, but is reassured that its little light still matters. Now James has that book, a gift from a friend, and I wonder whether he will notice that the tugboats and barges that occasionally ply the river still look much the same as they did 80 years ago.

I spent a part of the summer reading the Library of America’s new two-volume edition of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction. This was another backward reach: I met Berry before I could read, at a draft horse auction in Ohio, and I’ve read his agrarian essays and communitarian, anti-capitalist criticism since I could read as an adult. His ideal of an economy of caregiving, not extractive but renewing, not acquisitive but joyous and generous, has been a point of my compass. So has his version of patriotism: a burdensome, trying, mandatory struggle with your legacies of harm, as well as a special interest in your country’s chance at being “a thing decent in possibility.”  But I’ve struggled with his faith in the local and his mistrust of politics on any ambitious scale. I can’t imagine a transformation as deep as the one he wants that isn’t sharply political and doesn’t expand our sense of responsibility internationally, even if it also deepens that sense locally. Rereading him didn’t resolve any of these questions, but it took me back to finding, in him, a writer who had made a voice from materials I knew well: brushy, eroded hillsides; the bare gray trees of Appalachian winter; the way cool air comes down on a hayfield after sunset and soothes scratched arms that have been wrestling bales in the heat.

Another book helped me to reckon with my own past as a child of the late Cold War—middle-school age when the Berlin Wall fell. I had an abstract bent, and when I arrived at college, the political philosopher John Rawls was teaching what I think was the last lecture course of his long career, on the themes of his Theory of Justice, probably the most influential work in the field in the second half of the 20th century. In my earnest undergraduate way, I revered Rawls’s ambition to define a philosophical formula that could justify a social order on truly equal terms, but I also resisted a certain abstraction that made the theory hard to connect with the on-the-ground environmental justice work I had been involved with at home in West Virginia before leaving for school. Katrina Forrester’s new study of Rawls and post-World War II liberalism, In the Shadow of Justice, brilliantly maps the terrain where I was wandering, showing how Rawls’s monumental work, which defined what political philosophy was for generations, was itself a product of a very specific American moment: a time of elite consensus, economic optimism, and an ascendant philosophical method that put great stock in implicit agreement rather than pervasive conflict. That world has passed, but the thought it produced remains, and the awkward way that the one has perched on the other accounts for some of my bewilderment decades ago.

One of my favorite books of the year was another new one, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. It is a study of the landscapes of deep time, the ways that descending into caves and catacombs, underground rivers and ancient glaciers, can train us to see how very old and strange the world is beneath its surface. It is the most fully achieved work in Macfarlane’s project of finding paths to re-enchantment—new sources of wonder in a damaged world, motivations to defend it that have joy as well as fear in them.

Time is also the theme of Martin Hagglund’s This Life, which had lodged this thought in my mind: a great part of the point of progressive politics is the struggle for time—for control of it, for the freedom to face an honest reckoning with what is worth doing with our fleeting lives. Imagine Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” which famously asks, “what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life?” and extend it to hundreds of pages of dense and passionate arguments with St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Marx, Knausgaard, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and you have a sense of Hagglund’s project.

When James was born, sleepless but lifted by the energy of falling in love with this new person, I read him Milton’s Paradise Lost. I had never been through it. It is amazing—so much richer and more vital than I had allowed myself to expect. Reading it aloud—as my wife and I did with Emily Wilson’s Odyssey when it came out—was the way to meet it. Small freaks stayed with me: Milton has the rebel angels “canceled” by God from heaven’s memory, upon landing in hell Satan sends Mammon to found a mining operation (the devil a mine boss! It would have made sense to James’s coal-miner great-grandfather), and when the angel Raphael visits Eden, Adam and Eve make him a fruit salad. But the real wonder of the work is the reminder that language really is the first special effect: The scale of the story is literally cosmic, with angels and devils tumbling across galaxies and planes of creation, and the account of the Earth’s coming into being stirred a mental montage of every episode of Nova that I watched as a child and of Planet Earth as an adult: a world swirled into being from the materials of chaos, shaped by the planetary floods of its “God moved on the waters” phase, eventually birthing herds of beasts from its soil.

Milton’s account of creation famously gave Philip Pullman the phrase, “his dark materials,” the rubric for his wildly popular YA trilogy. As early-parenthood exultation receded before exhaustion, I started looking for simpler fantasy than Milton for long nights. Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust, was almost unreadably flat and derivative. I remember weeping while staying up all night reading the original series, so the disappointment felt close to betrayal when the only storyline that held my interest was the protagonists’ recurring difficulty finding diapers for the important baby (Lyra, later the heroine of the series) in their care. I did, however, thrill to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), feeling the same wonder I always do in reading Woolf that a writer can be so incisive at every level: the cut of the observation, the perfect unsentimental sympathy of the feeling, the fine balance of the sentence. Orlando suited the moment because it is a romp, a pastiche of literature and of literary culture (any one of its set-pieces on the vanity of writers would set the standard for a decade of The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs”) that is also a brilliant, prescient treatment of gender’s fluidity and strangeness. Woolf spotted that late-Medieval romance, with its phantasmagoric scene-changing and wild unreality, was the perfect template to let a character switch from “man” to “woman” and explore the boundaries between those while imposing no obligation on the author to explain the shifts except as occasion for remarking on the strangeness of both categories.

Maybe the greatest intellectual pleasure of this year was making the belated acquaintance of Stuart Hall, the very great cultural theorist and trenchant critic of Thatcher’s neoliberalism who died in 2014. I began reading Hall’s essays in Selected Political Writings (2017), and soon found that there was no one else with whom I wanted to think about our own moment of political sadism and confusion. Hall put together “discourse,” feeling, and political economy in a single mode of seeing a social world. Of course that is what we need to do; it’s just that it is so hard to do. The best way I have found to attempt it is begin by reading your way into a transient harmony with someone who does it well. So I have read Hall for instruction, and also for the pleasure of thinking on the page.

How should we think about this terrible and confusing time? I learned a lot about how to think about American nationalism from historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth, a study of the continuities between the bloody frontier that was central to the first hundred years of American history and the southern border that has become central today. The country’s edges have always been rallying-points for chauvinism and racism, Grandin shows, and he argues that these nationalist themes have served as distractions from inequality, class conflict, and flawed democracy at home. The border becomes a mirror through which the country sees itself darkly.

Political theorist Corey Robin also gave me a new set of lenses, in this case for the jurisprudence of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is often dismissed—in ways Robin notes are pretty racially loaded—as a lightweight right-wing hack. Robin argues that Thomas actually has a deep and tragic view of American history and the law’s place in it, which centers around the political pessimism of conservative black nationalism. Thomas doesn’t become any less disturbing in Robin’s forceful interpretation, but he becomes far more interesting and emblematic. His politics is fundamentally despairing, and much harm flows from that in his bleak view of law. But, Robin argues, this racial pessimism ironically links Thomas with much of the liberal left, which has learned to deplore the country terrible history and indefensible present injustices without developing a new politics radical enough to overcome them, so that despair feeds on itself.

This was the year that I gave belated readings to two great studies in the political economy of the present: Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag (2007), on mass incarceration in California, and Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists (2018), on the ideology and institution-building of neoliberals after World War II. Rather in Hall’s spirit, they make good work of the impossible premise that to understand anything, you must understand everything. To see mass incarceration whole is to understand “the new Jim Crow,” of course, but it is also to understand the regulatory environment of municipal bonds, the condition of unused semi-rural land in post-industrial California, and the development strategies of local officials in the declining hinterlands. To understand the rise of global trade as the vanguard of a world in which “the market” is everywhere and irresistible, you have to understand the theories of politics, law, and government that its architects advanced, and the ways that “market fundamentalism” is not a flight from politics but a tactic for turning political energies to the politics-handcuffing goal of encasing markets from popular resistance, reform, or revolt.

A very different political economy, a weirdly enchanting one, is Bathsheba Demuth’s new Floating Coast, a history of life on the Bering Strait, a harsh place rich in energy—whale blubber, walrus oil, petroleum—and victim of the changing and clashing visions of modernization that the American and Russian empires have visited on it decade after decade. I don’t know a work that better combines love for the strangeness and specificity of a region—like Barry Lopez’s great Arctic Dreams in that sense—with a rigorous account of how world markets and programs of development have torn at and transformed it.

I had a strange year in fiction. Ordinarily I read a clutch of novels—Ferrante was my beloved for a season of eager discovery, and just before this year I binge-read Rachel Cusk—but this time I was immersed in Anthony Powell’s four-volume aircraft carrier of a series, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975). Sometimes called “the English Proust,” Powell actually did something very different in his semi-autobiographical portrait of upper-crust English life from the Edwardian era to the 1970s. One gets little sense of the narrator’s interiority—pace Proust!—except as it is refracted through thousands of pages of close social observation, worked through willfully crooked sentences and jokes that sometimes take a page to work themselves free of the drawing rooms, bars, and hotels where they are taking form. Sometimes a couple of hundred pages would be nearly unreadable, and I’d stall out for a month. Yet it portrays how age and experience change us in the most fundamental ways, by changing who we believe the people around us to be, what we love and admire, and what bores or disgusts us, even what kinds of people we suppose that there are in the world. In these ways, a schoolchild lives in a very different world from an old person, and it changes all along the way, as if the stage on which we act is set by the implicit world-making of our own minds, which we cannot really escape except by living through it. Powell never says this, but he tracks it painstakingly, so that even the limits of the work—dullness here or there, snobbishness everywhere—are folded into its achievement: a portrait of life as the slow planing of soft boards, a self-wasting absurdity that is also our only topic.

It was in that headspace that I found myself reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—looking for a sort of light Powell when I couldn’t take the denser stuff, like turning to Pullman from Milton. I didn’t know Waugh when we came across his first novel, Decline and Fall, in a tiny cache of English-language books in Greece last year, and his spare-nobody satire and perfect sentences made ideal beach reading. Brideshead is a strange book, like a religious interlude in the midst of one of Powell’s lives, as coruscating and deft as any of the satires, but walking a drunken path to some kind of mystical Catholicism. Whatever Waugh thought of this book, to me it read like the work of someone perfectly in command of his tools but overwhelmed by his themes, like a master costume-jewel whose workshop has been lifted by a tsunami.

I usually read more poetry than I did this year, but one collection got to me: Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings, which describes growing up in West Virginia, around mines and chemical plants, surrounded by people you love who are dying. There is claustrophobia here, in hollows, big families, and very small towns, but also helpless attachment, which combine in the feeling that you have to get out of the only place you will ever belong. I lent it to my father-in-law, who grew up in the “chemical valley” of the Kanawha River, son of a coal miner. He handed it back not much later. It was too much, he said, to absorb such a fine rendering of such implacable pain.

British Humiliation and ‘The Cursed Child’

In late July, a kind of spell fell over London’s West End as the latest iteration of the Harry Potter saga opened: a play that even the New York Times’ imperious theatre critic Ben Brantley deemed magical. “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later,” as the tagline goes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 picks up where the last film left off, as Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Draco, and their receding hairlines drop their Hogwarts-bound offspring at Platform 9 ¾. Subsequently released as a script, The Cursed Child almost immediately broke book sales records, consumed, like the “Hamiltome,” by hundreds of thousands of fans who have no hope of ever finding their way inside the theater.

Whether you consider Harry Potter and The Cursed Child exhilarating fan service or terrible fanfic, its purpose is less to give us a “where are they now?” than to exhume the original series and examine the workings of the plot. The discovery of a contraband Time Turner by Albus Potter and Scorpio Malfoy — the sons of Harry and Draco — allows us to consider a Ronmione-free future; a scenario in which Potter and Malfoy offspring are sorted into Slytherin and develop a close, Drarry-like bond; and the cosmic importance of that gif of Neville Longbottom slaying Nagini. But beyond the threads of parental legacies and the heroism of friendship, going back in time to fiddle with the knobs teaches us one thing above all: the formative properties of humiliation.

[SPOILERS] When Scorpio Malfoy and Albus Potter travel back to 1995 to save Cedric from dying in the Triwizard Cup, they disarm him, tweaking the events of the Yule Ball such that Hermione believes Viktor Krum played a part in sabotaging Cedric, and attends the Yule Ball with platonic friend Roonil instead. Without the Hermione-Krum pairing, Ron is never humiliated into admitting his feelings for his buddy (in the original story, “Ron got jealous and behaved like a prat”); without the catalyst of the crying on the stairs and ginger angst, Ron marries Padma Patil, and has a naughty son, Pradu. (Won’t someone think of Pradu?) Our lamb Cedric is still killed.

On a second trip back to 1995, Scorpio and Albus inadvertently humiliate Cedric with an engorgement spell that puts him out of the running for the cup. This ripples into a future in which the spiteful Cedric is a Death Eater (so un-Hufflepuff!), Harry is killed and Voldemort lives on as lord: “SCORPIUS: Humiliating Cedric turns him into a very angry young man, and then he became a Death Eater and—and—it all went wrong. Really wrong… He killed Professor Longbottom.” Yes, patron saint of awkward adolescence, the late-blooming Neville Longbottom, is another victim of this alternate future in which people greet each other with the humorless “For Voldemort and Valor.”

Worse, perhaps, killing off Harry in a more efficient manner (fewer books) robs us of perhaps the greatest gif of all time; that of the infamous Draco-Voldey hug that comes to mind any time I find myself in a conspicuous social situation.

[END SPOILERS]

The Draco we see in a meddled-with future in which Voldemort lives is the same knob we know from the original book series, sans-humiliating clinch, rather than the soft, aggrieved “Sorry about your floor, Minerva” Draco introduced at the beginning of The Cursed Child — a character who appears to be a better father than Harry.

The common theme with all of these toggles is humiliation. To even get the Time Turner, located inside Minister of Magic Hermione Granger-Weasley’s office, young Albus Potter takes polyjuice to disguise himself as his Uncle Ron, and winds up kissing his aunt (“Let’s have another baby!”), as his disgusted friend Scorpio watches on.
Make no mistake, bollocksing things up in front of your peers and suffering a metaphysical death from embarrassment is a fundamental part of the British human condition, if one that is downplayed in the fan worship abroad. The parts of Harry Potter most glommed onto by Americans are patriotic concerns like honorable sacrifice, bravery in the face of an existential threat, unabashed declarations of love, and a fierce work ethic. But the heart of Harry Potter is really the Weasley’s burrow, that den of poor, gangly, knit-sweatered gingers, and perhaps most emphatically in the character of the endlessly put-upon Won-Won.

You can feel the difference of tone in the recently announced American wizarding houses, which lack the whimsy and ironic pride of their British counterparts: where the name Gryffindor is linguistically silly enough to give its position as the Hero House a self-deprecating vibe, “Thunderbird” sounds just a bit too into itself. My American husband was recently sorted into Hufflepuff and covered his head with a pillow, misunderstanding the hidden honor in being deemed a badger. Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard; in the U.S., there isn’t the offsetting pride in being the slightly silly underdog.

Contrast Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: both are flame-haired buffoons, but Trump is virtually incapable of admitting his own stupidity, where Johnson will at least give us a self-effacing photo op in a climbing harness. Britons are, as ever, on the watch for numpties.
Back to literature, Evelyn Waugh’s hero Paul Pennyfeather kicks off Decline and Fall with a drunk, trouserless jog through Scone College that gets him booted from Oxford and installed as a teacher at a boarding school. From there, things generally get more and more degrading (“‘We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr. Levy, ‘School is pretty bad.’”), until he fakes his own death and starts again. It’s the penultimate British tale!

Or consider Lucky Jim, whose hapless Dixon exists in a world of imbeciles, each stupider than the last. The dramatic high point of the novel comes when Dixon gets up to deliver a lecture and prove himself to the gallery shortly after taking a couple of “tonics” to calm his nerves. The result is a mash of hysterical incoherence, accents, and impersonations that sends the hall into disarray and gave me such an exhilarating sense of spiritual shame on Dixon’s behalf that I needed four crumpets to overcome my emotions.

The plot of Pride and Prejudice is really just “well-to-do people desperately trying to stave off public embarrassment” — which is why the moment where Mr. Bennet ushers Mary off the pianoforte is one of the most cringe-worthy for me — and adapted nicely into the reindeer sweater and sundry indignities of Bridget Jones’s Diary, while one of the worst single details in 1984 is the humiliating way that husband and wife engage in sexual relations (“She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor cooperating, but submitting. It was extraordinarily embarrassing, and, after a while, horrifying.”). Even Thomas Hardy understood how generally embarrassing it was to be a woman in Victorian England. More recently, Caitlin Moran turned adolescent awkwardness into a roaring tale with her YA novel How to Build a Girl.

The promise of English literature, and YA lit most especially, is that we shall rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of our latest mortification.

Several years ago on a ski-date, I tumbled down a cliff face after an attempt to gracefully execute a jump turn failed, and I found myself leaning out into space. My skis were plucked from my feet as I somersaulted over and over, beaming off my back, head, shoulders. Certain that this was my last, sublime mistake in this world, the only thought that crossed my mind was, “How embarrassing this is, the hot guy from ski school watching me die.” That is how deep my instinct to shame runs; that is the legacy the British bequeathed my homeland, Australia.

But is it heroic? I think the opposite; being cut down a peg or two stops the metastasizing of narcissistic personalities, the ultimate example of which is Voldemort, with his various attempts to stow his soul in different places. In The Cursed Child, the most sympathetic character is the sweet Scorpius Malfoy, who grows up dogged with the rumors that he was the product of some freaky time-travel IVF with Voldey.

Embarrassment allows a concession, a change of heart, a level of empathy, where the earnestness of someone who knows they are right does not. People aren’t crazy to feel like the atmosphere amid the election is a little Wizarding War-ish; the problem is that everyone is so entrenched in their positions, so coddled in self-righteousness, that compromise and conversation have become impossible.

J.K. Rowling, who didn’t write The Cursed Child (though she conceived the story with John Tiffany and the playwright Jack Thorne), has been the flashpoint for any criticism, most commonly for creating plot holes in the original story, and for allowing its weaknesses to be re-examined in this speculative trip back. I’m all aboard the bandwagon though, because a willingness to sift the contents of her masterpiece before an audience of millions, and even allow us to second-guess her choices, has to be unprecedented among authors. It’s almost as though she’s letting us go through her old wardrobe, where we are guaranteed to pull out her parachute pants and tiny backpacks and squeal “What is this?!!!” And that’s a bit heroic.

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