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The Past Will Never Be Past: On A Detroit Anthology

Through a horrific half-century of decline, Detroit has become one of the most blighted cities in America. It has also become one of the most misunderstood -- a victim of misread history, media clichés, self-serving racial rhetoric, corporate and political indifference, and crime and corruption that can still get downright rococo. But lately there have been encouraging signs that people are starting to get Detroit, a necessary first step if the hoped-for renaissance is to take place. Not only do these people understand what the city means and what happened to it, but they’re able to believe that the city has a future beyond bankruptcy, abandonment, and physical decay. There is not a Pollyanna or a Romantic in this crowd. Nor is there anyone willing to succumb to despair. They’re a reminder that Detroiters are, first and last, survivors. One of the freshest of these voices belongs to Mark Binelli, a native Detroiter whose 2012 book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, debunked many of the myths about the city’s past while offering a clear-eyed assessment of its current disarray and future prospects. No, Binelli points out, the 1967 riot -- or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion -- did not start white flight. And no, Mayor Coleman Young did not singlehandedly bring the city to its knees any more than a handful of white hipsters are going to singlehandedly get it back on its feet. Considerably darker, but also free of worn-out assumptions, was Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy from 2013, which didn’t hesitate to pick at the city’s abundant scabs, but also offered strangely heart-warming truths like this: “Detroit is full of good people who know what pain is.” Then there was Paul Clemens’s 2005 memoir, Made In Detroit, which tells what it was like to grow up white in a city that became predominantly black in 1973, the year Clemens was born, the year Young was elected the city’s first black mayor. Among the book’s many insights is that Detroit has always been a raw place, no matter what color your skin happens to be or who happens to be in charge. He invokes Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night: “After leaving behind World War I battlefields, Paris slums, and malarial African jungles, Céline’s restless narrator makes his way to the Motor City, to work in the Ford factory. At the beginning of the first Detroit chapter, he says, in an observation yet to be improved upon: ‘It was even worse than everywhere else.’” And that was in the 1920s, when the city was booming. The latest addition to this growing body of wised-up writing is a scintillating new collection called A Detroit Anthology, published by Rust Belt Chic Press (which has also brought out companion volumes about Cleveland and Cincinnati). It’s a lively stew of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, personal essays, and fictionalized observation. There is no cheap nostalgia or breathless boosterism. There are remarkably few mentions of cars, but plenty of talk about sports, race, families, neighborhoods, music, and history. In fact, the book’s greatest strength is the various ways the contributors acknowledge that understanding Detroit’s history is the key to understanding its current condition and its possible ways forward. In Detroit, more than most places, the past will never be past. This is brought home in Steven Pomerantz’s essay, “Fort Gratiot,” the heart-breaking story about the hardware store his father and uncle, the sons of immigrant Russian Jews, ran on the city’s east side from 1948 to 1979 -- years that neatly bookend the city’s peak and its slide. Pomerantz writes knowingly about the symbiosis of Jewish merchants and their black customers in the inner-city, a dance as old and itchy as America itself: This much everybody understood, and it formed the basis for an uneasy alliance -- they needed each other too much to let their mutual dislike get in the way. But as always in these types of things, it was more complicated than that. The neighborhood black community was made up of my father’s friends and enemies. They were the source of his livelihood and the bane of his existence. When flames and rage engulfed the city in July of 1967, many black merchants spray-painted badges on their buildings -- SOUL BROTHER and AFRO ALL THE WAY -- in the hope that arsonists would pass them by. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. In any event, the Jewish hardware store on Gratiot remained untouched, for reasons that will never be known. “My father attributed this to his good relations with the black community,” Pomerantz writes, “but it could have been just dumb luck.” In a bitter irony, the business failed not because of racism or crime or white flight, but because Pomerantz’s uncle spent years embezzling money from his own brother. This book also offers many small grace notes as counterpoints to such big moments. The essay “Turner Ronald Carter the Third” by Kat Harrison is a touching story about a black girl’s awakening to the shocking realization that a white playmate regards her as inferior. This hits home the day the boy, always friendly, marches onto her front yard, unzips his pants, urinates on the shrubbery, then runs home without a word. “In later years, my musings about Turner’s defiant and deviant act led me to think that he was the weapon his parents used to register their displeasure with the arrival of unwanted colored neighbors,” Harrison writes. “How sad and cowardly it was to use a child to insult another child, neither of whom could have possibly understood the motivations and bigger issues at play.” In “Awakening,” Maisha Hyman Sumbry is rescued from the boredom of waiting for the school bus by a magical blast of Run-DMC, courtesy of a passing Dodge Charger with a powerful sound system. And in “Playing Ball,” J.M. Leija explains her love for her hometown Tigers this way: “The people, the city, it’s all just a little bit easier when we’re playing ball.” The contributors to A Detroit Anthology range from first-time authors to seasoned professionals, which gives the collection its free-wheeling, anything-goes feel. But it’s not flawless. In the essay “I’m From Detroit,” Shannon Shelton Miller writes scornfully about how suburbanites (that is, white people) know virtually nothing about the city or the people who live there (that is, black people). There’s some truth to the point, but it’s part of the tired old merry-go-round that helped bring Detroit low in the first place. It comes out of territoriality, provincialism, tribalism. It’s about us vs. them, and in Detroit there’s an almost laughable abundance of such dividing lines: city vs. suburbs; black vs. white; labor vs. management; Republican vs. Democrat; foreign vs. domestic; even west side vs. east side. To Miller’s way of thinking, 8 Mile Road is the great line in the sand, the DMZ between the city and its northern suburbs, between the courageous few who chose to stay and the multitudes who opted to flee. But as Steven Pomerantz knows, it’s more complicated than that. I have lived north of 8 Mile and I have lived south of 8 Mile – I have lived all over the world, for that matter – and I can report that vice and virtue have nothing to do with geography or race. Zip codes and skin color confer nothing. This harping on geography -- and its subtexts -- reminds me of a common encounter I had when I lived in the South. When Southerners heard my flat Midwestern accent -- no syrup, no drawl -- they often asked a question that was not altogether friendly: “Where you from, anyway?” The subtext was obvious: You’re not one of us, so you’re automatically suspect. Asking me where I was from was the wrong question. The right question would have been: What are you made of? Or better yet: What’s in your heart? But “I’m From Detroit” is a rare misstep. The consistently high tone of A Detroit Anthology can be credited to Anna Clark, the book’s editor, who grew up in western Michigan and has lived in Detroit since 2007, working as a freelance journalist. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about who lives here, what happens and what doesn’t happen here,” Clark told me in a telephone interview. “But the thing I wanted to do with this anthology was get past the stance that we’re going to explain this city. I wanted to get the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters -- diverse and true and candid conversations people have at a dinner table or in a bar.” By that measure, the book is a thrilling success. It gives voice to people who now live or once lived in this fascinating, tortured place, the survivors, good people who know what pain is, people who understand that the city exerts an undying pull on them. Or as Philip Levine, the great poet of Detroit, once put it, Detroiters are people “who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos -- a gesture they don’t need -- would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or “No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’”

The Millions Interview: Nikolai Grozni on Music, Misfits, and Mythology

Nikolai Grozni’s debut novel, Wunderkind, is a searing tale of music behind the Iron Curtain, two years before the fall of Communism. Konstantin, a 15 year-old piano prodigy, is a student at the Sofia School for the Gifted, and spends his time raging against the inhumanity of the regime, acting out, rebelling against his teachers, and playing the piano with desperate abandon. It is an outright autobiographical text, Grozni admits; he himself was an accomplished concert pianist in his youth, and studied at the Sofia School for the Gifted in the late 1980s. After stints at the Berklee College of Music and a Buddhist monastery, he obtained his MFA in creative writing from Brown, and currently lives in France. One of the most beautiful things about Wunderkind is its contrasts in tone-- like Chopin’s Ballade No 2, which Konstantin takes on, knowing that it is “too elusive, too impossible to measure” even to be meaningfully recorded; it begins with a Mozart-esque simplicity, and then moves into more moody territory, before exploding with rage. Grozni captures the angst of adolescence as Konstantin moves through the sad beauty of Sofia in a way that seems almost romantic; but those passages will be followed by reminders of the inhumanity of the world he lives in. It is a landscape that recalls Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go -- Grozni’s characters are doomed by the system but full of life and hope, scraps of beauty in a dystopian paradise. With a blistering narrative of violence and lyricism, Grozni captures them playing their instruments. “Nothing is more difficult than to talk about music,” wrote the composer Camille Saint-Saëns of his own attempts at writing music criticism; “it is already tricky enough for musicians, but it is almost impossible for others: even the strongest, most subtle minds lose their way.” Grozni manages to pull off the near-impossible feat of not only writing about music, but of doing so in a way that pushes the reader to the limits of what language can express. I had a chance to chat with him when he was in Paris to read at Shakespeare & Co. The Millions: You really nail the anxieties of being a musician in this book. That passage where Konstantin describes the feeling of becoming incredibly self-conscious while performing, and to continue performing you have to forget what you’re doing again -- it’s so right on. To a certain extent, when you’re playing the piano, you have to just not think about what you’re doing. How is it for you with writing? Is there a similar call for conscious unconsciousness? Nikolai Grozni: Absolutely, only in writing it is much more difficult to achieve. When you play an instrument you can always count on the sounds and harmonies, even accidental ones, to carry you away. With writing all you have is the sound of your own thoughts. It could be maddening, boring, or cathartic. TM: I think one of the things that says so much about Konstantin and the problems he has living under the Communist regime is the fact that he can’t commit to one set of fingering -- “By the time I learned a piece well, I had access to at least three or four sets of fingerings, which added a degree of unpredictability to my playing because I could never really know for certain how my fingers would fall when I walked onstage and faced the grand piano.” This seems irresponsible or self-destructive on one level, but is also perhaps a safeguard against becoming an automaton, because it makes it more likely that you will remain uncomfortably conscious during the performance. How does this fit in with the larger subject of the book? It seems everyone around Konstantin is a Communist automaton, whereas all the “misfits” of the school -- Vadim, Irina, Konstantin -- have this uncomfortable awareness. It doesn’t necessarily serve them well. NG: It's true, Konstantin's biggest fear is that he will become an automaton, a cogwheel in the system, like all the rest. This affects his piano playing as well. He is constantly aware of the dangers of playing a piece the same exact way again and again. This is the reason why he also can't write anything during his literature exam -- he is afraid that by allowing the thoughts of the teachers, of the apparatchiks, in his head, he will become one of them. What fuels his rebellion is a deep sense of anger at the world around him, and, ultimately, this very anger destroys both him and Irina. But Konstantin wants to fail, that is the paradox. He feels that if he fails he will have proven to himself that didn't get corrupted. TM: Your descriptions of the music are wonderfully synaesthetic -- did that come naturally? Were you always thinking about music in literary terms, even back then? NG: I've always thought about harmonies, notes, and passages in terms of colors and visual portraits. I think this probably comes naturally to kids with perfect pitch -- when you have nothing else to hold on to but sound, you begin adding colors, feelings, and ideas. Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is a perfect example of how a composer sees the music. TM: Are there other writers who have written about music who influenced you, either positively or negatively? NG: For me, Franz Liszt's Life of Chopin is one of the best books about music. Chopin's letters and George Sand's diaries are also excellent sources of inspiration. Thomas Bernhard's The Loser is a fantastic book but there's not much music in it. When I set out to write Wunderkind I wanted the book to look like a conductor's score. TH: You have this fascinating passage in the novel where Konstantin claims that Chopin is the only composer to write in the first person, speaking directly from his own experience, whereas other composers are writing in the third person, telling out about things that happened to other people. It’s an interesting observation coming in the middle of a novel in the first person. Do you share his impatience with the third person? NG: I love the first person, in writing, in music, and in life. All great modern novels, as far as I am concerned, are in the first person (Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, Beckett's The Unnamable, etc.). Incidentally, all three of my Bulgarian novels were written in the third person, and I think there are many advantages of telling a story in an omniscient voice -- the ease of changing stage sets, of doing travel, exposition, tension, and, very importantly, humor -- but, in the end, I felt that I would never be able to go far enough in revealing consciousness in the third person. For me, the purpose of writing and reading is to understand and reveal the mind, and while there's a great deal that can be glimpsed and inferred about the mind and the human condition from third person stories like Chekov's "A Nervous Breakdown," they can hardly compare with the authenticity, depth, and rawness of the first person narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. After all, third person means someone else; first person means you. TM: Can you talk a bit about the frequent use of mythological material (Icarus; Prometheus; Erebus, god of Chaos; Erinyes, the Furies)? You seem to be rooting Bulgaria in this heroic, invented past; there were so many mentions of Thracians that I had to look them up -- they are a tribe from Greece who were apparently the original settlers of Sofia -- and was delighted to find that Orpheus was meant to have been king of the Thracian tribe of Cicones! NG: You don't have to do a lot of digging in Bulgaria to find the old gods. The pagan past is very palpable and vivid even today. There are cults of sun-worshipers who wake before dawn and perform oblations at sunrise; there are thousands of ancient temples and pagan sites in the mountains, a lot of them still waiting to be excavated. Orpheus is believed to have descended to the underworld by entering a cave in the Rhodope Mountains. On top of that, Bulgaria is a place where black magic has always played a very powerful role. When you hear that someone is a witch or a sorcerer, it's not at all a joke. People pay a lot of money to destroy someone through magic. TM: Were you really a monk in India? How did that come about? NG: I've always wanted to live in India. Even as a small child I was convinced that if someone wanted to meet the wise men and learn the truth, he or she would have to go to India and live up in the mountains. So, one day, while I was still in college, I just packed my bags and left for India. I stayed there more than four years, and, yes, I was a Buddhist monk. I learned Tibetan and studied at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist universities. TM: How did you end up in France? NG: I'm not sure. It started as a why-not idea, and I'm still here, three years later.   Image courtesy Cara Tobe

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

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Bryan wrote in with this question:I'm a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I'm a huge fan of the Millions. I'm attaching a recent reading list, if there's any chance you'd be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 - april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy's Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known - n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O'HaraSwann's Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan's recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a "very testosterone-y" reading list and added, "I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets)." Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several "upgrades" that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow's Herzog. If you're going to read Exley, read A Fan's Notes, and "Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature," Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan "needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O'Hara, and Hemingway," all authors featured on Bryan's list.In thinking and discussing Bryan's list, we also hit the idea of a "staff picks" for recent grads - a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson's version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don't let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey's argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you're holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you're untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you've been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age - mid-twenties or so - when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell's social soul. "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny."Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

Margaret Thatcher, Humanist Icon: Reflections on Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia

I.The year is young yet, but I'd like to direct your attention to what will no doubt be recognized as one of the finest short stories published in it. It is called "Walter Benjamin," and it appears in the Australian journalist Clive James' experimental omnibus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. I use the term "experimental" advisedly; like the revelatory works of W.G. Sebald, Cultural Amnesia weaves history, fiction, and memoir so tightly together that it may be hard for the casual reader to tell the imaginary from the real... particularly as Cultural Amnesia purports to be a work of criticism. Compound this postmodern pliability with a classic unreliable narrator - James himself - and vertigo quickly sets in.So how does an artist hold together such an ambitious edifice? "Style," James tells us, in one of his not infrequent moments of insight. And if some of James' critical pronouncements lead us to suspect him of a tin ear, his writing confirms that he has learned a great deal from Proust, from Gibbon, from Waugh. Cultural Amnesia, which at 850 pages looks like intellectual heavy lifting, turns out to be a lively read: clear, colloquial, provocative, and often funny. James the stylist prizes clean rhythms, practical diction, an air of erudition, and above all the art of aphorism. We discover early on that he is a fine coiner of apercus, and if fatigue sets in halfway through the book, we finish with exhausted admiration: the man is a mint, a machine churning out sheet after epigrammatic sheet.Unfortunately, in literature, unlike science, elegance is no indicator of truth, and it's not always clear whether James' clever turns of phrase are backed by any standard other than authorial fiat. To put it another way (paraphrasing Virginia Woolf), Clive James seems willing to throw a few truths on the fire in order to make an essay blaze. Of Rilke, for example, he writes, "There is a dangerous moment when, in the [Duino] elegies, 'the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness' start sounding like fine shades of meaning, instead of forced exercises in sentimentality." James' British resistance to even the mildly visionary does lend this assessment a bumptious snap, crackle, and pop. But in straining for a phrase to parallel "fine shades of meaning," the critic does violence to the poet he professes to admire. Whatever they are, the Elegies are less like "forced exercises" than anything else in the Rilke canon... possibly in 20th Century poetry. And this slip recursively undermines one of James' earlier aphorisms, decrying "ways of studying the arts so as to make the student feel as smart as the artist." (Because what else is James doing with Rilke here? (And do we really venerate artists for their "smarts?"))We can forestall the dizzying cascade of parentheses that might ensue by reminding ourselves that Cultural Amnesia is, among many other things, a character study. Its subject: one Clive James. For the duration of our reading, we are in the presence of a voice no more self-aware than that of Nabokov's Kinbote. As with Pale Fire, we get to what is worthwhile not by nodding along with the narrator but by reading through him, by teasing out the contradictions he's straining to conceal. And because our narrator's subjects are seldom so small as a line of Rilke - because he rarely stoops to close reading - the potential rewards, are enormous.Really, despite some introductory fulminations against "ideology" (a neat lift from the Marxism it purports to abhor), Cultural Amnesia aims at a kind of unified field theory of 20th Century history and culture. In alphabetized essays running from Anna Akhmatova through Dick Cavett all the way to Stefan Zweig, James returns again and again to the same questions: How did artists (not to say works of art) respond to the atrocities of Nazism and Communism? How should we value works of art, and why, and which ones? II.These are, as James suggests, humanist questions, and if the answers he arrives at don't quite meet that standard, there's much to admire in the attempt. Over and above the sheer pleasure of James' style stands his passionate moral engagement with history. He assays his new humanism on behalf of the millions and millions of victims of totalitarian movements. Like McDuff, he feels these losses as a man.Indeed, writing about the suicide of Viennese polymath Egon Friedell, as storm troopers come "marching down the street," James sounds almost envious that he was born too late to have been there alongside Friedell, to prove his own mettle. Our current pieties and abstractions about the war in Iraq or the genocide in Darfur can sound hollow in comparison to James' moral outrage; there is much to learn from the way he takes massacres personally, and the critic owes it to him to take seriously the possibility that Stalin's gulags might be a "central product" of socialism, rather than an aberration. (There was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre did not take that possibility seriously, and if James' renunciation of everything Sartre wrote requires some willful misreading, at least it stands for something. James and Sartre have this in common: the belief that critical positions should never be lightly held.)It bears saying, too, that we are lucky Clive James is on our side. Passion is crucial to thought - it's what makes thought matter - but it can also cloud judgment, and too frequently in Cultural Amnesia James' zeal for laissez-faire liberalism tips over into a ratification of corporate capitalism or a crotchety disdain for "economic determinism [and] dogmatic egalitarianism." In the Introduction, he writes,"Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough [...] but their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million."Even as he ignores Rwanda and Darfur (syntactically blaming the bright young things for even bringing them up), James seems implicitly to dismiss the liberal, democratic catastrophe in Iraq by saying, in effect, "well, things could be worse." Such Panglossian sophistry, pronounced throughout the book, is a blot on the good name of humanism.Nor does James quite follow through on his pluralist aspirations, which are the best and most deeply held part of his own ideology. He can imagine Duke Ellington jamming for Igor Stravinsky, but cannot hear the "we vs. they" contradictions in his assessment of leftist academics:"The Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airlines into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life."To align the "witch doctors" of Cultural Studies with Al Qaeda is to fail to understand either, and this failure is not just intellectual, it is moral.In more supple hands, the conjoinment of conscience and illiberalism in James' essays - the way even his "descriptive" certainties shade toward systems of intolerance and control - might help illuminate the vexing ideological blind spots James exposes in subjects like Sartre. A fuller humanism, that is, might explore the ethical tensions of being human. But James, despite having his own person as good evidence to the contrary, conceives of human beings as unitary creatures, either cowardly or heroic. And, with sometimes disastrous results for his criticism, he resists the idea that generally lousy people can make genuinely great art.III.Given James' stern opposition to critical theory, it is both ironic and heartening to hear him decry the commodification of culture. In years past, an essayist's insistence on learning as its own virtue might have suggested a doctrine of art for art's sake. James, however, seems to view an artist's works as an accessory to his or her life. Beneath a veneer of newfangled catholicism, he is that most old-fashioned of creatures - a biographical critic. Reading carefully through his renunciations of ideology, it becomes possible to discern James' own. He does not believe that an artist with socialist sympathies can be as great as an artist who made do without them... or that a book colored by an objectionable ideology may also be a great one."Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics," he writes, blithely ignoring the incipient racism in the former. Why can't he see Journey to the End of the Night for what it is? Would remembering Celine's jaundiced account of the "primitives" in the novel's African section make Journey less of a book? Or does the dialogic form of the novel allow us to situate Celine's fictional alter-ego in a fully articulated ethical world, in which we can evaluate and possibly understand his misanthropy? Answering these questions would require a wholesale reexamination of James' precepts about art... and might even force him to borrow a trick or two from Marxist literary theory, or - horrors! - from deconstruction. But James, blithely assured that academic critics "have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement," can't entertain the notion that moral and ideological ambiguity might enrich, rather than reduce, a text.Of course, evaluating a genius mainly in light of his stated views on totalitarianism can itself become a reductio ad absurdum. Here, for example, is James' version of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it. [...] There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw the photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak, and broke down in tears."Aside from being a vulgar misapprehension of Wittgenstein's proposition about the limits of language (or, if James had the nerve, a gestural opening into Wittgenstein's later philosophical investigations), this moment of voyeurism is spectacularly beside the point, reducing Wittgenstein and the Holocaust to mere credentialing mechanisms for one another. James presupposes that a virtuous human being surprised by the evidence of totalitarian slaughter could be anything other than grief-stricken. (In James account, Sartre would be one of those human beings. Here bad historiography is the accessory to bad criticism, falsifying the way Stalin's propaganda machine worked... which is not to excuse Sartre, who should have known better.) Anyway, we end up learning more about Clive James than about Ludwig Wittgenstein.Even those artists lucky enough to have died before the rise of totalitarianism are not spared the indignity of becoming Rorschach tests for James' various preoccupations. Gibbon gets taken to task for his prose (!) and Proust gets praised for all the wrong reasons. To hear James tell it, Proust's virtue is his essayistic "wisdom"; In Search of Lost Time has "no structure to speak of." This is heroically contrarian, but also dead wrong, and points to the blessing and curse of Cultural Amnesia. Unless we are inspired to remember the works of art James is nobly attempting to rescue, we'll be stuck having to take his word for it.Proust's "wisdom" isn't contained in his discursive speculations, the critical essays (sometimes enchantingly specious) indebted to Ruskin and Bergson. The Search's essayistic passages are aesthetic movements, not entries in a philosophical rolodex (a critic who characterizes Wittgenstein as primarily a poet should understand this.) It is precisely the structure of In Search of Lost Time, mapped in miniature by the "Combray" section, that embodies Proust's species of wisdom. James, not surprisingly, sees Proust's book as a mirror of his own - "an imaginative encyclopedia" - and misses the ironic reversals, the ultimate recognition toward which Proust's grand structure tends.But in James' own search, as in Proust's, the narrator's most dubious conclusions may serve to highlight deeper truths of psychology. The truth about Clive James is that he can't entertain the idea that his triumphalist brand of capitalist liberalism might have its own flaws to be guarded against, its own totalizing tendencies, its own rolls of the dead. James is wonderful on artists whose lives and work are ideologically in harmony with each other and with him, but is much less tolerant than his bete noire Georg Lukacs of those whose ideas challenge a laissez-faire global political order. James frequently and rightly affirms that a right to dissent saves liberal democracy from becoming a totalizing ideology, but can't conceal his resentment of the ungrateful few who exercise that right. And in the absence of Proust's structural wisdom - in the absence of a Recognition scene, in which the narrator belatedly discovers his own imperfect apprehension of things - Cultural Amnesia trembles with unresolved tensions, threatening to bring down even the heroes James has enlisted on behalf of his cause.IV.To borrow from his sketch of Egon Friedell, James "comes on like an actor and a thinker both." And sometimes the point of his performance seems to be to indemnify the capitalist West against any notion of progress. This leads him to the two tendencies that compromise, perhaps fatally, several of his essays.The first tendency is to distort the legacies of the cultural figures he admires (those who fit comfortably within the current version of centrist, bourgeois tradition) through misplaced emphasis. In James' ode to Louis Armstrong, Armstrong's single greatest achievement appears to be that he admired Bix Beiderbecke. Margaret Thatcher, we are told, posed "a crisis for Britain's ideological feminists, who could no longer maintain that there was a glass ceiling." Thomas Mann? "A solid paterfamilias." One does not doubt that Mann confined his homosexual feelings to his fantasy life, that Thatcher vexed feminists, and that Armstrong approved of white musicians. But surely the collective achievements of this triumvirate amount to more than allowing straight white heirarchs to say, "Look, boys, he's one of us!"Nor does James does reserve distortions for his fellow humanists. If he mischaracterizes artists who worked to shape the center, he fictionalizes those on the left.A tortured eulogy for Edward Said dissolves into an orgy of bad faith, as our narrator tells himself that faint praise and outright damnation add up to an ingenuous farewell."There is no call to doubt [Said's] integrity just because he had been raised in transit on luxury liners, laurelled at Princeton and Harvard, and otherwise showered with all the rewards Western civilization can bestow. What can be doubted is his accuracy. [...] It is important to say that there were some Arab thinkers who [...] found Orientalism a wrong-headed book. According to them, it encouraged a victim mentality by enabling failed states to blame the West for their current plight: a patronizing idea, common to the Western left. Though most of Said's Western admirers were never aware of it, this ambiguity marked Said's written work throughout his career: he was continually telling the people he professed to be rescuing from Western influence that they were helpless in its embrace. A quality of self-defeating ambiguity also characterized Said's role as a practical diplomat."This tangle of innuendo belies James' insistence elsewhere that transparency of prose and transparency of meaning are synonymous. Every possible charge against Said is given space on the page, even as James conceals his endorsement. The rhetorical coup de grace comes when James hides behind "some Arab thinkers." These nameless Arab thinkers' sole contribution to 20th Century culture seems to be that they make it easier for Clive James to write off a subaltern whose politics he finds threatening; in the rest of the book, James evinces no interest in Middle Eastern culture.We are further informed, in the space of a paragraph, that "the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical"; that "no Orientalist had ever been more damagingly superficial than" Edward Said (again, according to non-Western scholars); that "Egypt had Napoleon to thank for everything it possessed" (said Naguib Mahfouz - and he won the Nobel Prize, so who can doubt him). James is nothing if not a marvel of compression:"Said was right to this extent, however: Occidental intellectuals find out very little about what is thought and written in the Oriental world. Very few of Said's admirers in the West could begin to contemplate the fact that there are some bright people in the East who thought of Said as just another international operator doing well out of patronizing them, and with less excuse. I finished writing the piece that follows not long before Said finally succumbed to cancer, and I have left it in the present tense to help indicate that I was treating him as a living force, brave in a cause that was very short this kind of soldier."We are witnessing here the birth of a new rhetorical mode: character assassination by friendly fire. Maybe James was right to suggest that Said should have stuck to playing piano.James is even worse on Sartre, whom he hates above all others. His inability to give Sartre a fair reading is a shame, as Sartre, unlike Said, might actually have been convicted of the most of the charges against him. To wit: "When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even if what he was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish."But as excoriation curdles into invective, James sinks so low as to suggest that Sartre's "physical ugliness" shaped his cultural positions, that Sartre was "debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered." Sometimes it's hard to tell what really enrages James most: Sartre's apologies for Communism, or the fact that he beat James to the punch in opposing Nazism.In light of Sartre's socialist sins, Being and Nothingness is written off here as an update of Heidegger's "high-flown philosophical flapdoodle"... the product of "a mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in [...] its own compromises with reality." Now, in Heidegger, we have a man whose conduct under totalitarian rule deserves all the opprobrium that can possibly be heaped upon it. But Being and Time cannot be dismissed as "flapdoodle" on the grounds of biography alone. Nor can Being and Nothingness, whose author has the advantage of having participated in the Resistance. In fact, both Sartre and Heidegger were keenly interested in the mind's compromises with reality, though they didn't conceive of it in those terms (see, for example, Being and Time, Part One, Division I, Section V).It's likely that Heidegger's agnosticism on the subject the Other (later critiqued by that self-interested Witch-Doctor Emmanuel Lewinas) enabled his early political enthusiasm for Hitler. But it's also possible to hang Heidegger out to dry on the grounds of his own definition of authenticity. Sartre, too, for that matter . To the extent that they endorsed or excused (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can't be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic). Even Hegel and Kant get his goat. I had always thought of the anti-intellectualism and paranoia as a combination peculiar to the American far right, but apparently it can afflict Aussie humanists, too.V.Which brings me to "Walter Benjamin," the essay I hailed above as a fine piece of fiction. It's not historical fiction, in that it doesn't hew closely enough to fact. But as a work of imagination, it's audacious.Okay, I'll admit it... I'm being unfair to James. But only because James is unfair to Walter Benjamin. Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility - which can in no way be construed as ideological - has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James' angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn't be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can't let him die with dignity."It remains sadly true, however, that he is more often taken for granted than actually read. 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' is the Benjamin essay that everybody knows a little about. Whether its central thesis is true is seldom questioned, just as the value of his work as a whole is seldom doubted. His untimely death was such a tragedy that nobody wants to think of his life as less than a triumph. But there had already been many thousands of Jewish tragedies before his turn came, and what is remarkable for the historically minded observer is just how slow so brilliant a man was to get the point about what the Nazis had in mind. About the other tragedy, the one in Russia, he never got the point at all."How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor... I mean James', of course. How terrifying the totalizing flatness of the phrasing: "his turn came"; "Jewish tragedies." How awful the statement that Benjamin's death was less remarkable than his failure to get the hell away from Hitler, the tiny insinuation that somehow his death was his fault. And how bizarre to take Benjamin to task for not having "got the point" about a tragedy he didn't live to survey the extent of. And then James has the gall to tell us he's doing Benjamin a "courtesy!"In real life, Benjamin is pretty widely read, and "The Work of Art" is well known precisely because its central thesis isn't really up for debate. A quick comparison of James' "proof" that this thesis is bogus with the thesis itself reveals that James hasn't understood what Benjamin means by "aura." Not even one bit. Normally, the James method would be to chalk this misunderstanding up to Benjamin's obscurity - he goes on and on about Benjamin's "all-inclusive obscurity" - but he's made the mistake of granting that "The Work of Art" features "a general point designed to be readily understood." So why can't James understand it? If I may expropriate some other lines from this essay. "His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning."Of course Benjamin's reality, James tells us, was anti-Semitism. (And if he knew what was good for him, the implication is, he'd have written about that, in the form of journalism, rather than theorizing about Parisian cafes (shopping arcades, actually.)) But what reality can a successful TV personality, in his (I'll say it) idiotic dismissal of a cultural giant, possibly be cushioning himself against?VI.That reality is the world we now find ourselves in. The Soviet bloc has collapsed, without affording Clive James the chance to prove himself worthy of his heroes. Nazism, though it still persists, has dwindled. Only in the past few years have the lines for a new global conflict have been drawn. That the good guys have so far not acquitted themselves heroically challenges James' picture of liberal democracy as a system that doesn't require progressive intervention or even vigilance (only totalitarian ideologies have such requirements, he thinks). And so, rather than refine his model, James saddles up and goes looking for enemies. Too often, he finds the wrong ones.Given the amount of cannibalizing he's done of his own body of work here, an odd palimpsest effect sets in... as if James is trying to reshape decades of enthusiastic reading and writing into a brief against the new enemies of civilization. Between the fits of intemperance, ignorance, and magnificent self-satisfaction are principled reflections on those who actually have blood on their hands, on Trotsky and Goebbels and Mao. And though it's often said that it's easier to write a bad review than a good one, James writes insightfully about figures like Albert Camus, whose art and political record were both sterling. His encomiums extend to literary critics, philologists, and historians from all over the world, and have left me with a list of writers I'm eager to read. I don't know enough about Gianfranco Contini or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to do anything other than enjoy James' writing on them.In his role as a bourgeois provocateur, however, James is too willing to substitute ardor for attention, attention for smartness, smartness for intelligence. Cultural Amnesia is always ardent, often attentive, frequently smart, and sometimes intelligent. And boy is it learned. About the big things, it's absolutely right. As students of culture, we must connect the dots. We must take a stand against oppression, against mass murder.But we know that already; we want our new humanism to help us with the details (with Guantanamo, with nuclear proliferation, with the ongoing totalitarian tragedies in North Korea and Iran). And it's the details where James' claims to humanism get dicey. He would rather praise that paragon of moral imagination, Mrs. Thatcher, than actually calibrate the human cost of the laissez-faire branch of economic determinism. (I can't resist quoting this little cascade of reasoning (read closely, now): "She should have trusted her instincts and shut out the smart voices [...] Her best instinct was to stick to a simple course of action once it had been chosen. That instinct became her enemy, and the enemy of the country, on those occasions when a simple course of action is not appropriate. In domestic policy it hardly ever is.")What we can take from Cultural Amnesia, in the end, is a largeness of ambition, a breadth of learning, a catholic sensibility, and a heroic belief that culture can be a matter of life and death. But we must explore the finer points of art and history for ourselves, and reach our own conclusions. We must be intelligent readers. We must be careful not to let Clive James' "necessary memories" stand in for our own.

Vonnegut and Celine

Jerome Weeks has an interesting post up at his blog about the impact of Louis-Ferdinand Celine's novels Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan on the work of Kurt Vonnegut.Both novels were written 30 years before Slaughterhouse: Celine was seriously wounded in battle during World War I, while Vonnegut, of course, survived the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. But Celine's fractured narrative style, in particular, had an enormous influence on Slaughterhouse (and Catch-22, as well).And in the Philly Inquirer, Carlin Romano tries to explain just why Vonnegut has been such an enduring novelist, "why Vonnegut's leaps of inventiveness satisfied so many, why his political stilettos estranged so few."
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