In Cambridge in 1970, I was walking with a few others after leaving a protest against the Vietnam War. It was after midnight; I was tired; I had to teach the next day. Several blocks from the protest, a band of police suddenly appeared and began chas
I don’t understand Republicans, and what they've become.
It’s the issue that worries me most in my own life. Many things are worth much more worry (climate change, growing inequality, American imperialism and militarism, the political power of corporations, ineradicable racism and sexism, etc.), but I can’t solve them by myself. Yet I’ve felt that I could understand Republicans, if … if I had more imaginative sympathy, or if I talked with them more often (ok, if I talked with them even a little), or if I broke out of my own ideological prejudices.
The 2012 election didn’t help. The Republican primaries were ridiculous, Romney was spineless, and 47% of votes went to him anyway. (Just not those 47%.) I was baffled.
And then I read a book that explained Republicans.
1984. Here’s what George Orwell says about the principles of the Party of Big Brother. It sounds awfully familiar, to anyone paying attention to what Republicans say.
“War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”
“It is necessary that the war should be continued everlastingly.” “When war is continuous … the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded.”
“The object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”
“If (the average citizen) were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.”
“It is also necessary that (every Party member) should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.”
“From the point of view of the (Party), human equality was no longer an ideal to be striven after, but a danger to be averted.”
“A hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”
“Practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years – imprisonment without trial, … torture to extract confessions … – not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”
“In the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance.”
“To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”
I’d always thought that Republicans were simply driven by greed and fear. Orwell taught me that it’s more complicated than that.
It’s not just that they hate taxes and resist supporting the common good, including funding schools. They really don’t want people to get smarter.
It’s not just that they funnel money into a military-industrial complex run by their pals. War helps them preserve inequality.
Their civil liberties policies are not just driven by fear. They are driven by a need to oppress our citizens.
1984 should be required reading for all high school students. And even if one has read it before, it’s worth re-reading. It’s easy to remember how horrible life under Big Brother would be, but it’s easy to forget how close to Big Brother’s Party the Republicans have come.
The old dialectic between Beauty and Truth. Susan Howe, in a brilliant lecture that wove together (her verb – she noted that text and textile are cognates) Dickenson, William Carlos Williams, Henry James, Jonathan Edwards, and fragments of the actual paper they wrote upon, clearly came down on the side of Beauty. “Rigor of beauty is the quest,” Williams says in Book III of Paterson. Howe has put a great amount of research into archives, and into understanding the relation of language with its physical expression in written words.
She is a fan of Jonathan Edwards, and is fascinated even by his sermon of terror, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I could say that I’m interested in him, as a source of a particular strain in American consciousness, in the same way I’m interested in William F. Buckley Jr. But it’s a destructive strain and I find Edwards repulsive. He’s one of the main movers of a shift in the American social outlook from one that regards the common interests of all people as primary, to one that focuses on the individual. John Winthrop, in his City on the Hill sermon, spoke of a community being saved or damned together, and many of his precepts (and governance rules – since he was governor of Massachusetts) were based on caring for the common good. That was a dominant vision for Puritans until Edwards’ vision of individual damnation – a spider held over the pit of Hell by an angry God – replaced it. The extreme individualism in American culture has many sources – the frontier had a lot to do with it too – but Edwards was one powerful source.
I realized, when thinking about this lecture, that our different attitudes toward Edwards come from our highest values as relates to Art. Susan is a seeker of Beauty, and I am often more after Truth. (These are hardly exclusive for either of us.) But I felt uncomfortable realizing this. I value Beauty highly, and it was my original motivator for writing. Truth as a motivator can lead easily to polemics. Her lecture was a reminder of the importance of a dialogue and balance between these two critical artistic goals.
Another Great Thomas Pynchon Novel
Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, the warmly human Bleeding Edge, is among his best works. While nothing could compare with Gravity's Rainbow, (indeed, few books written in the last 50 years should be mentioned in the same sentence), Bleeding Edge is as good as V. and Mason & Dixon.
Pynchon deeply cares about how the world works, and what is happening politically, socially, and economically. Pynchon is among our best novelists operating at this high level. He shows the corporate forces that dictate too much of our lives, and the technology that takes us too often away from the people in our lives. Pynchon's protagonists try to find alternative ways of evading those forces.
His main subjects in Bleeding Edge are how 9/11 and the Internet have affected our culture. As a writer who in other books has suggested conspiracies of powerful forces exerting control, Pynchon articulates (using 'as if' and equivocation) but then dismisses many conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11. He's after less fanciful and more insidious game here: the way that government figures allied with military/security commercial forces used the 9/11 atrocity to impose a manichean narrative of fear and permanent warfare on the American psyche.
A false grand narrative, and as U-2 says, "We're stealing it back." Don DeLillo recommended that writers create a counter-narrative; Pynchon creates that counter-narrative for post-9/11 life. That includes remembering all the Reagan/Bush imperial predation that the official post-9/11 narrative buried. He doesn't blithely dismiss fear, (our heroine Maxine gets into dangerous situations on a couple of occasions and realizes it), but he wants our fears focused on matters within our control. Who would have expected that parenting would be such an important issue in a Pynchon novel? Or that he would give us such an emotionally satisfying ending?
Pynchon has always favored characters attracted to the frontier, people who want to live apart from the controls imposed by the megalithic forces of commerce or government. The outlaws, the renegades, the adventurers, the pilgrims, the folks on the fringe. His latest frontier is the Deep Web, away from the bots and spiders and all the forces that want to suburbanize it and make it safe, respectable and commercial. Nothing will stay frontier for long, as those forces will always move toward the frontier to monetize it. But his characters can still move a bit further out to escape the forces that would addict us to brands, hip tech toys, porn, and mindless videos. Deep Archer, the novel's virtual sanctuary to escape to from the developed world, may have been compromised, but there will always be people like Eric Outfield who create wondrous new spaces and who occasionally strike blows against the developers.
One of Pynchon's strengths as a writer is how he shows the world to us. He often uses the structure of a detective story, with a protagonist acting like a detective (in the case of Inherent Vice, an actual detective), trying to figure out a complicated situation. Some critics pan his plots as confusing, shaggy-dog stories. While the plots can certainly be confusing on first read, it's because Pynchon puts the reader in the place of the protagonist trying to figure out what's going on. We feel the experience of Maxine as she tries to unravel what is happening around the sinister dot.com hashslingerz. Yes, we have to work a bit to figure it out, and there are false leads and false grand narratives, but there is coherence in Pynchon's vision that makes the effort worthwhile. He throws in unrealistic elements like time travel and a porous border between life and death, but I read these as metaphoric.
One reason his novels can seem confusing is because he sometimes uses ellipses, and does not waste words moving characters around. Two characters can be talking, a third is mentioned, and in the next line, one of the first two characters is following up with the third in a separate scene, with no transition. This style is wonderfully efficient and facilitates the inclusion of lots of plot. No one can complain that not enough happens in a Pynchon novel.
But he also shows us Maxine as she travels through a vivid N.Y.C. Pynchon gives us beautiful descriptions of the city he sees and loves, a real world not wholly corrupted by crass development, though some of it may be gone forever (as is rued by those of us who loved Ames Billiards). His descriptive prose is as good as anyone's writing today, and has been for the last fifty years.
A couple years ago, I took our car in for a service. After dropping it off at the dealer, I waited on the street corner to be picked up. The dealer is on a commercial street in NE Portland, with much traffic and little charm. A few parking lots, as the Blazers play nearby, another car dealer. The impression one gets there is of nothing, of empty spaces, which is quite uncharacteristic of most areas near downtown Portland. A dreary place.
While waiting, I read from A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I was reading the Out of Body chapter, narrated by Rob, a mentally unstable character. Because the book is chronologically tumbled, the reader already knows that Rob drowns, but in this chapter he’s still alive.
Rob refers to himself in the second person in this chapter. At first I neglected to ask the question any reader should ask when confronting a puzzling narrative technique: Why is the writer doing that? Each chapter of Goon Squad is written from a different viewpoint, with a different style (including an amazingly successful chapter written in PowerPoint), and I assumed that Egan was simply doing something else differently.
While standing on the corner, I was finishing the Rob chapter. At the beginning of the last paragraph, it became clear why Egan used second-person: Rob suffers from something like dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder. One part of Rob is talking to another part of Rob. I’d missed a couple clues to this earlier. But it was made obvious in the beginning of the last paragraph, and as I stood on this street corner with traffic flying past, I thought, “This is very cool. She’s using one of the tools of language (in this case, person) to amplify her revelation of the character’s character.” My favorable impression of Egan, from what I’d read in this book and from The Keep, went way up.
Then I finished that last paragraph.
In the beginning of the last sentence, Rob is still dissociated and is speaking in second person. But at the very end of the sentence he drops into first person for the only time in the chapter. He realizes he’s drowning, becomes terrified, and appears to get it together, too late. The shift to first-person hit me with the force of one of the trucks zooming past, as the character evocation and transformation became viscerally clear. Suddenly I burst out crying, standing on that shitty street corner.
Some passages in Joyce, in Woolf, in Proust, are so consummately beautiful that they make me cry, no matter how often I read them. Welcome to that club, Jennifer. Thrills like this are why I love reading great literature. It can be for a number of reasons: beautiful prose, exquisite character revelation, amazing exercise of language.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
Ulysses - Joyce
Dubliners - Joyce
To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway - Woolf
The Waves - Woolf
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment - Dostoyevsky
Demons - Dostoyevsky
Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon
V. - Pynchon
Mason & Dixon - Pynchon
Bleeding Edge - Pynchon
The Plumed Serpent - D.H. Lawrence
The Rainbow - Lawrence
Women in Love - Lawrence
Underworld - Don DeLillo
Libra - DeLillo
The Names - DeLillo
White Noise - DeLillo
JR - William Gaddis
The Recognitions - Gaddis
A Frolic of One's Own - Gaddis
War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy
The Crossing - McCarthy
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
Light in August - Faulkner
Absalom, Absalom - Faulkner
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann
Death in Venice - Mann
The Sleepwalkers - Hermann Broch
Swann's Way - Marcel Proust
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Desolation Angels - Kerouac
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
Sometimes a Great Notion - Ken Kesey
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest - Kesey
A Flag for Sunrise - Robert Stone
Outerbridge Reach - Stone
Damascus Gate - Stone
The Chaynesville Incident - David Bradley
South Street - Bradley
In the Light of What We Know - Zia Haider Rahman
Tree of Smoke - Denis Johnson
Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
The Fall - Albert Camus
The Stranger - Camus
The Trial - Franz Kafka
The Judgement - Kafka
A Passage to India - E.M. Foster
The Rings of Saturn - W.G. Sebald
If on a Winter's Night a Traveller - Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities - Calvino
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The General in his Labyrinth - Garcia Marquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Garcia Marquez
The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
The Four-Gated City - Doris Lessing
The Memoirs of a Survivor - Doris Lessing
Beloved - Toni Morrison
The Tin Drum - Gunther Grass
My Century - Grass
To the Wedding - John Berger
G. - Berger
Wild Life - Molly Gloss
The Dazzle of Day - Gloss
Another Country - James Baldwin
Giovanni's Room - Baldwin
In the Beauty of the Lilies - John Updike
Rabbit, Run - Updike
The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
In the Skin of a Lion - Ondaatje
Fifth Business - Robertson Davies
The Manticore - Davies
World of Wonders - Davies
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - Mitchell
Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee
Ceremony - Leslie Marmon Silko
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami
1Q84 - Murakami
Plowing the Dark - Richard Powers
Galatea 2.2 - Powers
The Echo Maker - Powers
Acts of Faith - Philip Caputo
Crossers - Caputo
All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
Magister Ludi - Herman Hesse
Man's Fate - Andre Malraux
The Last Temptation of Christ - Nikos Kazantzakis
Snow - Orhan Pamuk
My Name is Red - Pamuk
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - Jose Saramago
Blindness - Saramago
A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
Dublinesque - Enrique Vila-Matas
The Fixer - Bernard Malamud
The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
Cry the Beloved Country - Alan Paton
The Woman who Escaped from Shame - Toby Olson
The Company You Keep - Neil Gordon
The Death of Artemio Cruz - Carlos Fuentes
The Transit of Venus - Shirley Hazzard
The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolano
What Falls Away - Tracy Daugherty
Herzog - Saul Bellow
American Pastoral - Philip Roth
Netherland - Joseph O'Neill
The Known World - Edward P. Jones