Some books published in 2016 I’m glad to have read.
By Harvey Blume
Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American century
This is an informed, engaging account of six figures who entered politics on the left but made their imprint by reversing to the right. There is, notably, Ronald Reagan, who began as an ardent New Deal Democrat and finished as the paragon of the right.
What propelled Reagan rightward? For one thing, there was vastly more money and celebrity to be had by being reborn as an anti-New Deal conservative.
And then, in his Hollywood career, Reagan had the kinds of experiences with the hard left, be it Stalinist or Trotskyite, that could drive many a well-intentioned leftish liberal to doubt first principles. Lenin, famously, called liberals “useful idiots,” unwilling to take on the necessarily murderous responsibilities of revolution. In a way, Exit Right is the story of some useful idiots who, though they stopped being the Leninist sort, could not, alas, thereby escape equal and opposite forms of idiocy. In their turn away from the dogmas of the left they became susceptible to those of the right.
Oppenheimer, in this, his first book, is a bit too cute about his own politics, as if keeping them close to his chest might be construed as objectivity. Also, Oppenheimer might have chosen to focus on African-Americans who had the same trajectory as Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens.
The case of Eldridge Cleaver would have rewarded attention.
Caveats aside, this is a engrossing study of political and intellectual history.
Laura Secor’s Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran is fascinating, and unexpected.
Who knew, for example, that after Khomeini toppled the Shah in 1979, there was a public debate in Iran about the meaning of the Islamic Revolution, which pitted advocates of Karl Popper against followers of his Germanic antithesis, Martin Heidegger?
Popper’s Iranian supporters believed the Islamic Revolution should take the path to an open society, one favoring “free exercise of the rational mind.” Like Popper, they believed that ideologies making “utopian promises tended to produce men in chains and hell on earth.”
What Popper saw as the signal achievements of open societies were the very things Heidegger condemned as flaws. For him, liberalism, science, technology, free thought, and the rest were nothing less than ontological calamities.
What was ontology? In brief, it was what Heidegger said it was. As critic Mark Lilla has put it, there was only one ontologically correct Heideggerian, and “that was Heidegger.”
Why drew Shiites to this banner? What did they get out of his clotted prose?
In brief, they got permission to be Shiites. If there was nothing admirable about western values, it was better to leave all thought of open societies behind and fully embrace Islam as the one and only source of absolute values.
I can’t but wonder what would have happened if Jacques Derrida and other neo-Heideggerians had attended to this debate. It seems that in Teheran they were quicker than in Paris to note that Heidegger’s critique of liberalism derived “from the position of fascism, not Islam or socialism or anything else.”
I yawned when I found there was yet another book about Weatherman. I thought Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the First Age of Terror had covered that group well, and, moreover, had contextualized it in the politics of the day.
But I wound up appreciating the work Eckstein had done in his reprise of newly released FBI documents. Turns out J Edgar Hoover himself played favorites when it came to furious SDS faction fights. When SDS was coming apart in 1969, he ordered his many infiltrators to take the side of Weatherman as against its Stalinist rival, the now duly forgotten Progressive Labor Party, for leadership of the student movement.
Hoover was fighting an old war, the war against the Communist Party, and it took him and his successors time to notice it was actually the shaggy, seemingly anarchic dope heads of Weatherman who were doing damage.
Cynthia Ozick’s Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays
You don’t have to agree with all of Cynthia Ozick’s stringent formulations — I don’t — to admire their force. Her essay about W.H. Auden reading at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, for example, gives her the occasion to loose a broadside at what she sees as the diminished state of contemporary poetry:
Poetry then had not yet fallen into its present slough of trivia and loss of encompassment, the herding of random images of miniscule perspective leading to a pipsqueak epiphany, a delirium of incoherence delivered, monotone upon monotone, in the cacophony of a slam.
The underlying theme of the essays in this collection is that vibrant literary criticism is necessary not just for evaluating literature but for creating an atmosphere — or as Auden might have said, a “climate of opinion” — that can foster it.
She writes that “superior criticism — the novel’s ghostly twin — not only unifies and interprets a literary culture, but has the power to imagine it into being.” In her view, little of such criticism is in evidence today.
Ozick’s formulations are passionate and memorable but also, in some ways, archaic: there is less nurturing literary criticism because there is less nurturing literature now. This is not necessarily because writing is inferior but because literature is no longer the sole aesthetic superpower. It shares pride of place with film, television and a plethora of digital media. It might have served Ozick to balance her penetrating reading of Lionel Trilling, say, with one of Marshal McLuhan.
Amos Oz’s Judas
There is almost nobody whose opinion I’d value more than that of Amos Oz about U.N. resolution 2334, which has pitted Barack Obama against Bibbi Netanyahu. That resolution pushes deep questions about the nature of Zionism and of the Jewish state to the fore. So does this novel, set in Jerusalem circa 1960, when Shmuel Ash, a young Jewish scholar, winds up, after love life, finances, and university hopes collapse, taking care of a crippled Gershom Wald, whose son was killed in conflict with the Arabs.
Wald is a Zionist elder. His dwelling echoes with the words of David ben Gurion and ben Gurion’s critics. Wald lives for these debates, carried out not only in his own mind but in vigorous phone conversations with ideological foes, though it’s never clear if those opponents, outside his own mind, even bother to exist. Perhaps he’s conducting phone polemics with himself.
This, then, this is a novel of ideas. And because Shmuel Ash’s fixation in academia was on Judas, the ideas cycle back to the origins of Christianity. Who was Judas? What was he to Jesus, and Jesus to him?
Did Judas deserve the opprobrium Christianity placed on him, and through him, on the traitorous, Christ-killing Jews? Judas himself, as Shmuel reinterprets the tale, does not deny his responsibility for Christ’s death. On the contrary, he can’t wait to hang himself for what he’s done. What he’s done, though, in Shmuel’s and, it seems, Oz’s view, is radically different from what history has tagged him with.
In this intense but gentle novel, Shmuel Ash, at the end, can only find himself by leaving Jerusalem, its history and its quiet beauties, including its cats, behind.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.
A couple of book selections, both focusing on Shakespeare, for theater mavens.
Shakespeare on Stage and Page: Selected Essays, by Stanley Wells. Edited by Paul Edmondson. (Oxford University Press, 300 pages, $29.95)
Now 86, Stanley Wells has been a giant of Shakespearean scholarship for decades, his writing inevitably marked by a bracing lucidity. This is a wonderful collection of his essays on a wide range of topics, from the textual to the thematic: he examines issues raised by individual scripts, explores how Shakespeare’s ghosts have been depicted on stage, and digs into the role of money in the plays. I made a beeline to his pieces on Shakespeare in the theater criticism of Max Beerbohm, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt. I was not disappointed with his thoughtful examinations, partly because he treats reviewing with curiosity and respect, rather than with academic condescension. His essay on seeing Laurence Olivier in Peter Hall’s legendary 1959 production of Coriolanus is terrific: “I left the theater, on the first night, profoundly impressed, and walked the streets of Stratford for twenty minutes before feeling that I wanted to talk to anyone. That, I think, is what Aristotle meant by catharsis.”
How Shakespeare Put Politics on Stage: Power and Succession in the History Plays by Peter Lake. (Yale University Press, 688 pages, $37.50)
I usually find books on Shakespeare’s history plays impeccably scholarly but unreadably dry, often content to be irritatingly microscopic exposés of Elizabethan skullduggery. But Peter Lake’s book is fabulous, a juicily written exploration/reconstruction of the politics of the era and what Shakespeare made of it in his plays. Lake’s overall project is suitably dramatic: why, in 1601, did Shakespeare end up writing the acidic Trolius and Cressida? The answer is that it expresses the chagrin of a disgruntled idealist: “the fantasy figure of Hal/Henry V had finally split apart.” “Shakespeare had got things spectacularly wrong and, having placed virtually all his eggs in the basket of Essexian virtu and Jacobean legitimacy, he now looked back, or rather perhaps allowed his audience to look back at the recent past and to confront the immediate future, through the showily self-conscious, determinedly illusionless pessimism and bitter irony that pervades Troilus and Cressida. But in so doing, at least at the level of practical political prognostication, he had got things wrong again, for, as it turned out, it was the removal of Essex from the scene that paved the way for the triumphantly unopposed and wholly peaceful accession of a new monarch and the successful conclusion of the war with Spain.”
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.