Monday, January 15, 2018

Thinking for Oneself

I seem to be told more and more often these days just to take things on faith. Trust, and understanding will follow. Usually, this injunction is laid because of the supposed incomparable wisdom (on the right) or political/moral purity (on the left) of the source of the truth claim in question. And, as some extension of the inevitable corruption and compromises of adulthood, I find I am more and more tempted to follow this advice.

It's partly the despair-inducing situation of these last two years of political life. It's been enough to make anyone want to give up thinking for themselves. No sooner had one discovered the need for a unified opposition to Trumpism in all forms, than one found in oneself and others the same orneriness and competitiveness that always stood in the way of unity in the past, undimmed by the years and the present crisis. Perhaps catastrophe does not, after all, bring out the best in us -- or not enough of it at once.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Stefan Zweig's "Beware of Pity": A Review

I gather that Wes Anderson has contributed to something of a mini-vogue for the works of Stefan Zweig in recent years -- as en vogue as this sort of thing can ever be --by doing little more than making public references to his work in relation to a recent film. (I am reminded of the consternation and rage one of my high school English teachers always expressed over the fact that Oprah -- by means of her book club -- was apparently able to "claim," and thereby emblazon her name onto virtually any work of literature in circulation, without having contributed in any way to the book in question. When this fate befell his beloved Faulkner, it was almost too much for him to bear.) If you come to Zweig's Beware of Pity by this particular trail of bread crumbs -- the Andersonian one -- you will probably be expecting to find in the novel picturesque details of the late Hapsburg social life that would soon crumble into dust with the guns of august.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Five Poems


The weighty politician rose to address the floor –
Reserving his most withering looks for the members of the press
Who with truth had tortured him
 With probity persecuted
Through many a legislation past—
And those who were there assembled would ever afterward recall
The speech as his finest hour.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Whence this Rage?

I have had occasion to note several times over the past few years watching the American political scene-- if that's still the term for it -- a curious statistical fact: it is the consistent inverse correlation between the level of paranoia and vitriol a person seems to express, and the actual danger in which they live. The porcelain fragility of our current president's ego would be the obvious example. Let us begin there.

Observe. See him there, swishing his tale in his oval-shaped shark tank. Here is a man who -- in the midst of a total lack of qualifications and deservedness -- somehow has managed to obtain and hold onto the single most powerful political office in the globe. This is a man who is free as perhaps no other currently on the planet to live out the full scope of his megalomanic fantasies. Yet it is no less evident that he labors each day under a hag-ridden delirium filled with imagined "enemies" and threats.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dorothy Baker's "Cassandra at the Wedding" (1962): A Review

Perhaps there are works of literature of such outstanding intrinsic quality that they can be read at any moment in one's life and still equally convey their luminosity and inspiration. The jury is out on that one. What is more certain is that there are books that ought to be saved up for a very particular time or mental state -- ones that are such a perfect distillation of a single mood that they are perhaps best kept on a shelf untouched until one can be sure one is in the worst throes of it oneself, and then taken down and devoured. Not so much because they show a way out of a given emotional predicament, as because the flawless expression of an emotion is always somehow a salve to it.

Thus, Cassandra at the Wedding. On a list of books I have maintained on my computer more of less without interruption since high school, Dorothy Baker's short 1962 novel found an early place. This list, I should explain, is designed for those books that I haven't yet read, and perhaps don't really intend to any time soon, but which I dimly sense are going to come in useful someday.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ray Madoff's "Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead" (2010): A Halloween Special

The eighteenth century Enlightenment -- along with its descendent ideology of liberalism -- is often conceived as taking one side over the other in a series of binary oppositions -- bourgeois vs. aristocrat, disadvantage vs. privilege, talent vs. birth, youth vs. age, and so on. All of which is probably true enough, but we tend to leave out one of the more intriguing of the oppositions: the contest between the living and the dead. In cases where the vital interests -- er, at least, interests -- of these two subsets of the body politic conflict, liberalism tends to plump for the former, conservatism for the latter. And I take it that part of the deeper story underlying Ray Madoff's brief, entrancing book, Immortality and the Law: The Rising Power of the American Dead (quite possibly the best, most ensnaring title for any work ever published on the topic of tax policy and estate planning) is as follows: Just as mid-twentieth century American liberalism has taken a beating across so many fronts in the last few decades, it has lost ground in this one too. Right now, the dead are winning.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Written upon discovering that the majority of one's fellow online poll-takers in a particular Florida Congressional district answered "Yes, he should get the harshest sentence possible" to the question "Does Bergdahl deserve life in prison after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy?"

Isn’t it amazing –
This feast of Bergdahl hating?
Isn’t it astounding
This compensatory hounding
From those brave from impregnable safety
Of ten thousand thousand feet