June Short Fuses – Materia Critica

Each month, our arts critics — music, book, theater, dance, television, film, and visual arts — fire off a few brief reviews.

Popular Music

There’s nothing not to love on this CD — except for the fact that this was the last time Mavis Staples and Levon Helm performed together. That alone makes this a must-own.

A newly unearthed live recording from two legends certainly warrants a longer review, yet it is a struggle to say a lot about something this unimpeachably good. Carry Me Home is a live recording from June 3, 2011, when both Mavis Staples’s and Levon Helm’s bands played together as part of the latter’s storied Midnight Rambles concerts. Sadly, it was less than a year before the ex-Band drummer died after a long struggle with throat cancer. Because of his illness, he sings very little on this album, though Staples — the last surviving member of The Staples Singers — more than rises to the occasion, putting one sweet vocal after another in this powerful set of gospel, blues, and soul songs.

Opening with Curtis Mayfield’s “This Is My Country” (recorded by The Impressions in 1968 and still relevant today), Staples ad-libs a comment about those criticizing then-President Barack Obama. A strongly New Orleans-flavored version of the gospel standard “Handwriting on the Wall” takes advantage of the various horns and background singers assembled that night. Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” is given a very lively treatment. “Move Along Train” is a slow gospel/blues shuffle track written by Roebuck “Pops” Staples — it appeared on Helm’s 2009 album, Electric Dirt. Also from that album, the moving (yet hardly mellow) “When I Go Away” is a reflection on mortality — Helm can be heard contributing background vocals.

You’d have to figure that a Dylan song would get covered, and appropriately enough the selection was from his born-again period: “You Got to Serve Somebody.” The concert ends with “The Weight,” which the Staples performed with The Band on The Last Waltz. Here, Helm gamely pushes his throat to croak out a full verse on one of his signature tunes. As I said, there’s nothing not to love on this CD — except for the fact that this was the last time Staples and Helm performed together. That alone makes this a must-own.

— Jason M Rubin

Classical Music

Russian pianist Pavel Kolesniko’s album dedicated to the music of Reynaldo Hahn presents an uncanny match of performer and composer.

Several months ago, I was left spellbound watching a gifted young Russian pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, at a Wigmore Hall concert. I was completely intrigued by this youngish Russian pianist, who played, among other pieces, a selection of Reynaldo Hahn’s solo piano works. I was haunted — who was this intriguing performer? And where could I find Hahn’s piano music, which I yearned to play on the harp?

Fortuitously, Hyperion has recently released a new all-Hahn solo piano recording with, unsurprisingly, Pavel Kolesnikov. Before that I had managed to locate a selection of Hahn’s piano work, which I hope to transplant to the harp this summer. I have now listened to Hahn: Poèmes & Valses numerous times and have also heard recordings of Kolesnikov performing The Goldberg Variations and a lovely assortment of Chopin. On this Hahn disc Kolesnikov’s playing is brilliant, an uncanny match of performer and composer. And what delightful music!

A little introduction to this quite extraordinary composer (and pianist). Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) was the youngest of 12 children born in Venezuela to a Venezuelan mother and a German Jewish father. The pianist is generally famous for two things: his two-year romance with Marcel Proust, which developed into a lifelong friendship (Proust included Hahn as a character in his unfinished and posthumously published novel Jean Santeuil) and his much-loved song “À Chloris.” [Joyce DiDonato’s performance on YouTube.] Hahn wrote almost 100 songs; famously, he once had an upright piano moved onto a gondola in Venice, where he accompanied himself (as he did often). He was a fixture in Parisian salons, where he charmed the artistic elite, again singing and accompanying his own pieces. His biographer Bernard Gavoty described Hahn’s voice:

Was it beautiful? No it was unforgettable. The voice was nothing exceptional … a fine baritone voice, not very large, flexible as grass, ruled with a marvelous intelligence, a reflective divination. An interminable cigarette dangled from the line of his life, not as a “pose” but out of habit. He sang as we breathe, out of necessity.

Hahn’s songs were composed in the 30-year period from 1888 to the end of the First World War. Another breathtakingly beautiful all-Hahn recording was made by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham about 20 years ago. Most of his much lesser-known piano music was written early in his career. Some of his more unusual works include “Portraits de peintures” (1894), which was inspired by poems by Proust (the piece was composed to be played between spoken verses), and “Le rossignol éperdu” (The Distraught Nightingale) which is made up of 53 fugitive, moody miniatures (published in 1939). An assortment of them are beguilingly played by Kolesnikov.

In his album notes, Kolesnikov confesses that, during the isolation of Covid lockdown, he clung to Hahn’s music. The selections for this recording come from Hahn’s early years. It was, writes the pianist, “during a less oppressive, less agitated time. Even so, might we perceive in his music some sort of escapism? Probably, and this is why I clung to these works at the beginning of the pandemic. Renaldo Hahn was my lifeline.” For this album, Kolesnilov chose 19 of “Le rossignol éperdu” and six “Premières valses.” Kolesnikov writes that “never does it cross his [Hahn’s] mind to be moderne. What a blessing.”

I cannot praise the performances on On Wenlock Edge & Other Songs too highly.

Three years ago the charismatic Scottish tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Julius Drake recorded a CD of music by Leoš Janáček which won all sorts of prizes and left this reviewer on a quest to hear all the music by this Czech composer. Now, the performers have reunited for an album (on Hyperion) featuring songs of the famed British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). I cannot praise the performances on On Wenlock Edge & Other Songs too highly.

The past few years, Spence has emerged as not only a terrific singer, but a much-admired media personality as well. In 2020 he won the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award and Personality of the Year Award, as well as Gramophone’s Solo Vocal Award for his critically acclaimed recording of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared (Arts Fuse review) with Julius Drake. He has also been nominated as Singer of the Year by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Last winter Spence was one of three mentors appearing on “Anyone Can Sing,” a TV series in which six would-be singers were given guidance by expert vocalists. During the pandemic he served in a clinic as a volunteer vaccinator for over 100 people every day.

Those who love Vaughan Williams most likely know his most famous song cycle, On Wenlock Edge, here performed by Spence, Drake, violist Timothy Ridout, and the Piatti String Quartet. I have always enjoyed the lush 1984 recording with tenor Robert Tear and full orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. I must admit it took me a while to acclimate myself to this pared-down original edition (1909). Set to six poems from A.E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad, On Wenlock Edge was written shortly after Vaughan Williams had studied in France for three months with Maurice Ravel. Housman’s 1896 volume gave Shropshire its lasting literary reputation; many of the collection’s poems mythologize and romanticize rural life. If all you’ve known of Vaughan Williams are his “hits” (“A Lark Ascending,” “Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”) On Wenlock Edge is a beguiling introduction to his vocal music. Two much less familiar song cycles, “Four Hymns” (for tenor, piano, and viola) and “The House of Life,” receive stellar performances here as well.

Spence, Drake, and their string colleagues capture the chameleon moods of each song, including the energetically humorous selections from Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties, such as “Harry, the Tailor” and “The Saucy Bold Robber,” and “The Brewer” from Williams’s Six English Folk Songs. This CD should reinforce Vaughan Williams’s reputation as a gifted setter of poetry. As for the eternally excellent Drake, God’s gift to singers, two stellar new albums (also from Hyperion) feature him with mezzo-soprano Alice Coote performing Schubert songs and with longtime colleague Gerald Finley in a version of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.

— Susan Miron

Three remarkable — and highly entertaining — serious operas by Rossini, splendidly performed and available at a bargain price.

Since the early ’70s, opera lovers eager to explore the byways of the repertory have been hailing the recordings made by the aptly named firm Opera Rara. Some 21 of its numerous releases have been devoted to long-neglected works by Gaetano Donizetti. I have praised here the Opera Rara recording of his Il paria, a fascinating opera set in India, and the firm’s world-premiere release of one of his most important works (composed for Paris), L’ange de Nisida. But the Opera Rara catalogue by now offers works by many other composers as well, including Bellini, Gounod, Mercadante, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Pacini, and Ambroise Thomas.

Now the firm has remastered, and put together in a single 8-CD box, recordings made in the years 2000-2009 of three major operas of Rossini that are all based on serious libretti full of political tensions and love triangles: Ermione, La donna del lago, and Bianco e Falliero. (They have simultaneously done the same for three Donizetti operas from the 1830s.)

Ermione is often written about because of its pedigree (the libretto derives from Racine’s great tragedy Andromaque) and because it is perhaps the most experimental of Rossini’s operas. Contemporaries felt that, in it, Rossini was trying to incorporate some of the dramatic urgency typical of French opera at the time. (A well-known example of the latter is Cherubini’s Médée, a work famously recorded by Maria Callas in Italian — and hence retitled Medea.)

La donna del lago is nowadays the best known of the three operas, thanks in part to a splendid recording featuring Katia Ricciarelli in her strongest shape and a Met telecast with Joyce DiDonato and Juan-Diego Flórez. This opera, too, has a distinguished literary origin, being freely based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. It features, as do several other Rossini operas written for Naples, two leading tenor roles, one very high-flying, the other demanding a fuller low range (a kind of “baritenor,” to use Broadway terminology).

My own favorite of the three operas might be Bianca e Falliero, perhaps because I know it better from having reviewed a recording made at the 2015 “Rossini in Wildbad” Festival (in Germany’s Black Forest region—see my review of that previous recording). Rossini’s musical imagination was at its height here, in arias, duets, and larger ensembles that convey aptly the conflicting desires of the various main characters. (The story revolves around an attempt by the Venetians to repel a military attack from Spain.) Here, as also in La donna del lago, there is an important male role written to be sung by a female mezzo-soprano. For newcomers to the operatic world, this can take some getting used to. But with the magnificent mezzo Jennifer Larmore on hand, singing with glorious solidity and dramatic specificity, one’s initial hesitations can easily be set aside.

All three operas are strongly cast, with such distinguished artists as tenors Barry Banks (as the father in Bianca) and Gregory Kunde (as the Scottish chieftain Roderick Dhu in La donna del lago) and, in both Ermione and La donna del lago, the fiery yet sweet-toned soprano Carmen Giannastasio. These are all singers who can handle the lavish passages of coloratura yet also touch one’s heart with gentle expressions of yearning or regret.

The conductors are David Parry and (in La donna del lago) Maurizio Benini — the latter having, in the meantime, become a major presence at the Met (e.g., in a splendid Norma production). Both know how to balance the multiple demands of musical coherence and dramatic propulsion.

It is great to have all three recordings available again on CD. The single booklet contains cast and track lists and plot summaries for all three operas, plus an insightful essay by Eleonora Di Cintio. Librettos are available online at opera-rara.com or by email. If all you know of Rossini is the knockabout comedy of The Barber of Seville, you have a lot to discover here—and at a special low price (less than $5 per disc)!

To purchase, click here.

— Ralph P. Locke

At 95, Herbert Blomstedt’s got nothing left to prove. Even so, with readings like this, he demonstrates that, far and away, he’s one of the finest conductors of his era.

While the first two installments of Herbert Blomstedt’s new recorded cycle of the Brahms symphonies with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig were surprisingly hit-or-miss, the series wraps up strongly with this pairing of the Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. At its heart is a titanic, utterly natural account of the Fourth that, though not quite as elemental as some, is still thoroughly captivating and engaging.

Blomstedt manages, on the one hand, to tease out the music’s many layers of detail: its busy textures and subtle doublings are lucid and beautifully balanced. Simultaneously, he shapes everything with unerring rightness. The reading’s dynamic range is immense — pianissimos in the first movement’s development are hushed while the finale’s coda thunders — yet the musical line is never unduly pushed or gratuitously held back.

Rather, each interpretive choice serves a specific, expressive purpose. Accordingly, even Blomstedt’s more questionable decisions — underplaying the noble string hymn at the climax of the Andante, for instance, or opting for a slightly broad tempo in the Allegro giocoso — all make sense in the world he’s crafted for this Fourth. Suffice it to say, this is a knowing performance of a familiar piece that manages to capture it all in a fresh light.

Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester are in similarly fine fettle in the Third, which flows with uncommon ease and clarity. Again, nothing is pushed too hard, tempo-wise, though there’s no want for rhythmic energy: the finale’s dotted figures are plenty muscular. Fundamentally, Blomstedt’s approach is songful. The flawless exchanges of lines in the Andante, the third movement’s quietly impassioned phrasings, the finale’s radiant coda — all are magnificently done.

True, the 95-year-old Blomstedt’s got nothing left to prove. Even so, with readings like this, he demonstrates that, far and away, he’s one of the finest conductors of his era.

Theirs is a match made, if not in heaven, then at least in the right place on this side of it, and one of the year’s invigorating releases.

Nobody needs an excuse to play or record Camille Saint-Saëns’s five piano concertos: they’re all terrific. But it sure doesn’t hurt to have a pianist of Alexandre Kantorow’s caliber lending his insights to the quintet. Not only is he one of the technical wizards of the instrument but he’s one of the most consistently satisfying musicians sitting at a keyboard today.

This album completes the 25-year-old pianist’s survey of Saint-Saëns’s music for piano and orchestra; a 2019 release showcased the Third, Fourth, and Fifth concertos. What we’ve got here are the Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 plus four trifles: the “Wedding Cake” Caprice, the Allegro appassionato in C-sharp minor, the Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, and Africa. Only don’t tell Kantorow they’re novelty items — as in the bigger works, he plays the daylights out of the smaller ones, too.

Indeed, for pianism of astonishing technique, control, and musicianship, this is a hard disc to beat. Kantorow’s accounts of both concertos want nothing for fire, color, or brilliant phrasing. His take on the First’s solo part is fantastically precise and not once distracted by the music’s filigree. Nor is his reading of the Second, which brims with personality and swagger, especially in the Scherzo.

As for the filler, Kantorow knows exactly when and how to move things along so as not to lose interest in the line (in the Allegro appassionato and Rhapsodie), rhythmic focus (“Wedding Cake”), or textural clarity (Africa).

In all of this, he’s accompanied by the excellent Tapiola Sinfonietta led by his father, Jean-Jacques — an esteemed Saint-Saëns champion in his own right; truly, this apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Theirs is a match made, if not in heaven, then at least in the right place on this side of it, and one of the year’s invigorating releases.

— Jonathan Blumhofer


Pleasure is not particularly titillating — unless humiliation and animal husbandry are your cup of tea.

A scene from Pleasure.

Pleasure, the first feature by Swedish director Ninja Thyberg, is an expansion of an earlier short. It is set amidst the L.A. porn industry, where sex acts of all varieties have been reduced to either mechanics or choreography. It is also the debut for Sophia Kappel, a husky-voiced, self-assured beauty who outclasses the real working porn stars with whom she is embedded. Her character, Bella Cherry, is a dubious heroine in quest of fame and fortune: she believes that she can somehow rise easily in the industry by virtue of being Swedish. Asked at customs whether she is arriving for business or pleasure, Cherry pauses and, with a guilty grin, purrs “Pleasure.” The word and the title belie the protagonist’s experience.

Men remain mostly in charge of the business and casting. Male actors (and I use the term loosely) with names like Chris Cock and John Strong stand around, their wagging appendages in hand as they prepare for their entrances. Directors, like ringmasters, instruct the performers on what to do with their faces and where to position their limbs. “Don’t look like you’re enjoying it too much,” Cherry is told in her first scene. She is vetted and warned about the stakes and risks involved. Mark Spiegler, a top porn manager and agent (and the founder of Spiegler Girls), plays himself. Despite his resemblance to a toad, the ladies love him. Apparently, Spiegler is the best in the business at negotiating porn contracts, making stars, and keeping trouble at bay.

Female performers are generally treated with dignity and respect until the cameras roll. Perversity and degradation ramp up in the film until Cherry passes out in a scene that borders on rape. Dauntless, she persists in subjecting herself to all sorts of indignities in scenes made to be efficient vehicles for masturbatory purposes, spectacles of power, subjugation, and body parts.

Back at their apartments, the talent (a loose term referring to anyone in front of a camera) giggle, gossip, and dream of fame. They play the role of starlets at conventions where horny men pay for selfies with their favorite “stars.” Male and female, the porn performers look spent. Even Cherry begins to lose her Nordic sheen. At first, she is buoyed by the freedom she finds in taking charge of her own sexuality. Camille Paglia might agree with that rationale, but in practical terms it means wiping yourself off, douching, and then moving on. A wise woman in the biz acts with strategic aplomb — make some money and then get out with an intact soul.

Films directed by women about porn usually expose the grim, exploitative side of the business. Recent examples would be Ronna Gradus and Jill Bauer’s 2015 documentary Hot Chicks Wanted and Janicza Bravo’s 2021 Zola. Pleasure is not particularly titillating — unless humiliation and animal husbandry are your cup of tea. Still, it has the merit of not being overly moralistic. Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about what is a venerable fact of life. This is a 90-billion-dollar global industry whose product is consumed every hour of every day. As the expression goes: “Anyone who loves the law or sausages should never watch either being made.” No pun intended, that holds true for the business of pornography as well.

— Tim Jackson


This well-researched and inviting book underscores the fact that Kendall Square is a work in progress, a space whose potential remains immense.

Cambridge’s Kendall Square is set at the junction of major tech, life sciences, and future perfect innovation. For several decades, this East Cambridge enclave, which borders on the MIT campus, has been at the nexus of scientific or engineering breakthroughs of global significance, most recently supplied by high-powered startup companies. Actually, it has been that way for a long time. Initially, Kendall Square was the site for developments in canal and railroad technology; it was also the home for the first long-distance phone calls and the creation of electrical products. In the early part of the 20th century, this geographically small area served as an industrious hotbed for the production of soap, candies, musical instruments, printing, and specialized rubber products.

After WWII, the Polaroid Instant Camera was created there. But this was also a period of developmental stagnation because of politics and a lack of pioneering vision. Since the ’90s, however, technology and life science industries have been aggressively cultivated. Today, Kendall Square hosts, among others, Moderna, Pfizer, Takeda, and other Big Pharma companies. It has also become a home for large outposts of Google, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. This huge corporate bouillabaisse is zestily seasoned by entrepreneurial startups and various MIT research centers.

In his book Where Futures Converge: Kendall Square and the Making of a Global Innovation Hub (MIT Press), Robert Buderi, a former editor-in-chief of Technology Review, plays the dual role of enthusiastic cheerleader and thoughtful critic as he chronicles the story of this “most innovative square mile in the world.” He describes Kendall Square as a rare ecosystem and he understands its evolution well, offering a detailed history of its various cycles of change, its decades of reinvention and refinement. Engagingly and clearly written, the book follows the fascinating birth of scientific and technological inventions and discoveries, keeping its focus on how collaboration, adaptation, and accident fosters social change as well as invention.

Buderi admires the cosmic growth spurts of Kendall Square, hailing the companies, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs that built the area’s past and those who are fashioning its future. But he pulls no punches regarding the considerable challenges of the present and those to come, including the fact that the “square mile” offers some of the highest rents in the US. People with an average income cannot afford to live there, leading to empty streets with relatively no night life after the workday ends. That barrenness lowers opportunities for chance encounters that could lead to new brainstorms and eventual breakthroughs.

This well-researched and inviting book underscores the fact that Kendall Square is a work in progress, a space whose potential remains immense.

— Mark Faverman

Read Blake or go to hell, that’s my message to the modern world,” advised Northrop Frye. William Blake vs. The World is another welcome plea for the devil’s party.

While reading John Higgs’s enjoyable biography of William Blake (Seagull Press, 389 pages), it was difficult to not think it was mistitled. Instead of William Blake vs. The World it might as well have been called William Blake Saves the World, and that would have been just fine by me. There’s a touch of evangelical fervor in Higgs’s portrait of the 19th-century poet and visual artist as a neglected genius, a bona fide visionary — once dismissed as a madman — whose belief in the healing power of the imagination has become more necessary to our survival than ever. Given the enormous disasters coming our way, led by the apocalyptic future promised by the climate crisis, Blake’s demand that we reenvision ourselves and our civilization should be taken seriously. In the words of critic Eugene McCarraher, “a more humane, generous, and ecologically sensitive civilization would need more than economic and political revolution; it would also need a cosmological revolution, an exercise in moral and intellectual imagination that annuls the divorce of power and love without losing any of the achievements of scientific modernity.” That sounds like a fair description of what Blake saw as his prophetic mission: to convince readers that empirical reality is simply a gateway through which, via the imagination, we will perceive worlds of wonder, discoveries that will lead to a world transformed.

Higgs is at his best in helping readers to broadly understand Blake’s at times confusing dramatization of the “cosmological revolution” depicted in his magnificent Prophetic Books, the first graphic novels. These masterpieces (particularly 1820’s Jerusalem) are gloriously illustrated narratives dedicated to a complicated (and original) mythology made up of fragmented aspects of the mind — reason, creativity, passion, etc. — that rebel against the liberating power of the human imagination. The biographer simplifies Blake’s at times inconsistent system, but his summaries are solid first steps that will help readers tackle the poems on their own, hopefully with the help of expert scholarly guides such as Northrop Frye and Saree Makdisi (they don’t make Higgs’s bibliography, though Leo Damrosch’s fine Eternity’s Sunrise does). He brings in interesting research by neurologists and psychologists that reinforce Blake’s insistence that “how we see is important as what we see, ‘For the Eye altering, alters all.'” Higgs is also spot-on about the metaphysical/therapeutic thrust of the poet’s thought: “Blake’s work was not just a description of the human mind and the world it built in its own image. It was also a diagnosis. He believed that he understood what had gone wrong, and he was telling us what we needed to do about it.”

Higgs falls short when it comes to talking about what Blake thought could be done about what had gone wrong. For example, he mentions Blake’s fierce sympathy for the poor, his condemnation of industrialization, which intensified the class conflict and religious hypocrisy. But he leaves it at that, choosing to devote longish chunks of his text to what influenced Blake’s political ideas, including sections on the anarchistic Ranters and the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. But why not go into how Blake believed that the artist’s imaginative labor inevitably challenged capitalist arrangements. He worked throughout his life at producing and selling art, so he was not being coy when he asserted “…my business to Create.” Art is not a commodity because it is a “representation of what Eternally Exists, Really and Unchangeably.” How do we value imaginative labor? Blake dares to posit that it may call for its own economics. William Blake vs. The World would have been even more valuable had Higgs explored the many ways Blake took the world on.

Still, Higgs has written the first major volume on Blake for a popular readership since Peter Ackroyd’s 1996 biography. It has been well received in England and I hope it finds many readers here. Besides ironing out Blake’s mythology, he is honest enough to admit where the work has dated, such as its view of the sexes. I wish Higgs were more sensitive to Blake’s poetic and visual brilliance — there is little here on his wizardly combination of words and imagery and how that might influence our interpretation of his thought. Higgs is weirdly lukewarm about the marvelous Songs of Innocence and Experience. As the biographer admits, each reader will arrive at their own understanding of the poet. My major reservation about Higgs’s take is that he insists Blake’s ultimate goal was for the dueling aspects of consciousness to reach a peaceful balance — reason and imagination, science and feeling. He seems to be influenced by how Blake, at the end of his life, left his frustrations and years of paranoia behind, attaining a childlike acceptance surrounded by a group of young artists who recognized his greatness. I don’t begrudge Blake any contentment, given how badly society had treated him. But for me, this is far too passive, too lamely conservative a conclusion. My Blake was the one who never gave up on the need for “Mental Fight,” who proclaimed “Without contraries is no progression,” and who, at the climax of Jerusalem posited that the imagination thrived on perpetual conflict, a dynamic interaction between intractable polarities, including power and love. Blake’s creative paradise will be volatile, not placid.

“Read Blake or go to hell, that’s my message to the modern world,” advised Northrop Frye. William Blake vs. the World is another welcome plea for the devil’s party.

Raymond Geuss’s book will be of interest to a generation that is beginning to see how liberalism is standing in the way of taking actions that will mitigate the climate disasters to come.

One of my favorite living writers on philosophy is the 75-year-old Raymond Geuss, and, for those not familiar with his tart iconoclasm, Not Thinking Like a Liberal (Harvard University Press, 185 pages) is a fine introduction to the root ideas of an astute analyst of the exhaustion of mainstream thought, particularly of the liberal capitalist variety. He is an anti-Kantian, which means he engages with everyday facts and beliefs rather than vapid abstractions, and believes that “philosophy is essentially a matter of criticism, of constant evaluative activity.” This volume is unlike his other books, which are often made up of formal essays and reviews, one of my favorites being his witty commendation of Russell Brand’s 2014 Revolution, which argued that the “revolutionary abolition” of capitalism is a necessary condition for the spiritual revival necessary if humanity is going to deal with the twin calamities of inequality and climate change. Geuss sets up an amusing trio of “liberal” interlocutors — Lady T, Pisher Bob, and Preacher John — in order to make good his claim that Brand has published “an impressive contribution to political philosophy, a field which during the past thirty years or so has not been overly populated with interesting work.”

There is nothing as amusing as that in Thinking Like a Liberal, though there are some ace sardonic quotes, such as this one from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: “Humans are as capable of cannibalism as they are of the Critique of Pure Reason.” That gives you a sense of Geuss’s bracing sensibility, his acceptance of how deep our irrationality runs, of how far we are from being the ideal rational agents posited by philosophy. He agrees, with Theodor Adorno, that it is wrong to believe that the “truth is simple and can be easily formulated, and made accessible to all if only, for instance, free discussion is permitted.” Geuss doesn’t believe that we will be able to debate our way out of the enormous injuries (moral and economic) liberal capitalism has inflicted. We accept them, on an unconscious level, as the way things are.

The volume takes us on a brisk autobiographical journey through the early years of Geuss’s intellectual development. He was cocooned in what he calls “a deviant sub-culture,” a private Catholic boarding school outside of Philadelphia. The institution’s predominantly Hungarian faculty — refugees from Soviet occupation — opposed the pieties of both liberalism and authoritarianism. This off-kilter (for the time) education inculcated a distanced perspective that — when joined to an appreciation of the value of obscurity and complexity — inoculated Geuss from falling for a false dichotomy between two unacceptable polarities. Geuss’s early training in philosophy at Columbia University reinforced this flexibility of mind, this instinct to look outside of well-marketed alternatives, both in and outside of academia.

All of this will be of interest to a generation that is beginning to see that liberalism is standing in the way of taking actions that will mitigate the climate disasters to come. In his final chapter, Geuss suggests that “even without hope, we still can, and should, act”:

Our species is now committing suicide by destroying our natural environment. It seems impossible to imagine how catastrophe could be avoided without significant coercive measures directed against the major actors and institutions of our current economic system. “Liberalism,” in the sense in which I have been using the term in this book, is committed to the inviolability of individual taste and opinion, the need to protect unfettered individual choice, and free enterprise. Anyone who, in our world, can see a viable path from this conception to a situation in which we avoid ecological disaster has a much sharper vision than mine.

We must act “because of the people we are,” Geuss concludes. This sounds to me more like Samuel Beckett than Adorno. From Waiting for Godot: “Estragon: Nothing to be done. Vladimir: I am beginning to come around to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.” Not Thinking Like a Liberal gives us a sense of what made Geuss the kind of thinker he is, and points us in the direction the struggle must take.

— Bill Marx

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts