Review- Morgan, “The Puritan Dilemma”

Edmund Morgan, “The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop” (1958) – I read this book due to two of my less popular interests: Puritanism, and the American Studies/Consensus School scholars. In many respects, my picture of the former is a product of the latter, and they had some important structural elements in common. Both were institution-builders; both have had oversized impacts on the baseline of American thought and cultural life. Both projected a sort of high-mindedness they meant to catch on with a larger mass of non-intellectuals, but were motivated at least in part by the same base motives as everyone else. Neither are particularly cool to talk about these days. With the Puritans, everyone knows who they are (or think they do) and disapprove; the Consensus School of American history and the founders of American Studies are best known as foils to more current trends in their fields, to the extent they’re known at all.

I feel stuck with them, in some strange ways- I guess as a New Englander and a student of American history, culture, and institutions, I feel kinship with them. This, despite belonging to groups that can be seen as the opposite of both: the descendant of Catholic and Jewish immigrants on the one hand, and an engaged leftist scholar who places conflict, not consensus, at the center of American history on the other. What can I say? You don’t pick your ancestors, and the imprint the Puritans left on New England and that the American Studies founders left on their subject are profound, and I think they influence more than just me- I’m just willing to cop to it.

Anyway, Edmund Morgan, one of the great American historians, is a cusp case, as far as the Consensus School/American Studies gestalt is concerned. His flagship book, “American Freedom, American Slavery” broke with the school (in the mid-seventies, when it was in decline anyway) by placing slavery at the center of early American history. But in the fifties, he seems to have resided pretty soundly in the Consensus school of his mentor Perry Miller, if “The Puritan Dilemma” is any evidence. For those unfamiliar (are any still hanging around reading this?) the Consensus school of American history held that, as the name suggests, consensus over liberal values (as understood by midcentury white upper-middle class Americans) defined American history, and specifically not conflict over ideology, power, or anything else. It was a reaction against both the youthful leftism many of its founders dabbled in during the 1930s and a school of thought exemplified by Charles Beard and others who placed a populism-inflected vision of class conflict at the center of American history. This movement reached its peak during and was mutually influenced by and influential on the founding of American Studies as a field, with American Studies’ stated goal of advancing a unitary American civilization to protect against the threat of right- but mostly left-wing extremism. There’s a reason they’re not cool anymore.

Morgan’s “The Puritan Dilemma” hits a lot of the Consensus school buttons. It’s wrong to say that the Consensus historians saw no conflict in American history- just that most of it was over ownership of a few key ideological constants, like what constitutes freedom. So Morgan illustrates numerous conflicts that his subject, first Governor of Puritan Massachusetts John Winthrop, managed during his time. In keeping with the Consensus school, Winthrop, who represents a future for America and the values of its founding, wins most of these conflicts, though makes the occasional tragic mis-step. Another Consensus school flag is the use of biography (another uncool thing in contemporary historiography). The big Consensus school work that’s still read sometimes is Richard Hofstadter’s “The American Political Tradition,” in which a series of pocket biographies of American political figures who either did or would have hated each other’s guts are brought into harmony over the key aspects of liberalism. “The Puritan Dilemma,” written ten years later, projects much the same dynamic backwards into the far colonial past. Winthrop’s foils and opponents in this biography — mainly Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams — represent not so much opposition to Winthrop and Puritanism’s central project but it’s being taken too far in assorted directions. This emphasis on a personal character that prizes practicality and compromise over vision and consistency is very Consensus school.

This can make “The Puritan Dilemma” something of a just-so story, which, if it were less well-executed and consistent, would have ruined the book and might still ruin it for some readers. Winthrop was born into comfortable countryside circumstances in England in the 1580s (he died well before the Salem witch trials- he and Morgan both dodged a reputational bullet there). The dilemma he and the Puritans were constantly faced with was how to make a good society in a world they saw as fundamentally bad. Maybe that’s why I relate to them- unlike a lot of other leftists, I don’t see the world as fundamentally good. I see it as fundamentally indifferent… anyway. Especially given the Puritan fixation on the afterlife — and unlike other Christians, they couldn’t influence which afterlife they got — the quandaries of worldly action presented themselves in stark terms. This was intensified by the degree of education and theological sophistication at work, to say nothing of the blank social slate with which the Puritans found themselves presented.

At every stage, Morgan shows Winthrop as being faced with a choice between retreat from and engagement with the world. At every stage, Winthrop makes the right choice. This pretty much always means engagement. The one exception was a biggie: his retreat from England to Massachusetts, where he was sorely tempted to stay and fight for Puritan values at home. But this was an out of frying pan, into the fire situation- a retreat to an even more intensive variety of engagement in problems ranging from the immediately practical (food) to the theological.

In Massachusetts, Winthrop depicts Morgan as a bulwark of stolid good sense, a George Washington (as Washington was then conceived) figure, a practical unifier who is surrounded, more than Washington was, by crazed ideologues. Winthrop recognized when to push and when to pull back- he made the Massachusetts covenant considerably more democratic (involving freeman suffrage, that is, suffrage for ordinary church — which was the same as community — members) than he had to according to his orders from the Massachusetts Bay Company, Morgan argues. This is also an ingenious way to explain away what looks a lot like oppression and abuse of power on the part of Winthrop and the power structure he represented. He knew the way to go- others did not. Winthrop giveth, Winthrop taketh away (the sort of remark that’d get my tongue pulled out in 17th century Massachusetts).

“History is written by the winners,” they say, but by the twentieth century the winners in early Massachusetts’s theological-cum-political conflicts, like Winthrop, weren’t that popular, and figures of opposition like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams had been made over into patron saints of freedom of religion. To support their exile is a bold move, one Morgan makes with aplomb (which isn’t to say I agree with him). He depicts Hutchinson and Williams as fanatics — reasonably persuasively, but fanaticism in Puritan Massachusetts sounds like speeding at the Indianapolis 500 — whose beliefs were dangerous to the commonwealth. Antinomianism, ala Hutchinson, was corrosive to public welfare in its dismissal of all good works and implication that law had no bearing on those imbued with the Holy Spirit. Separatism, ala Roger Williams, threatened the political unity of the commonwealth, threatening to split every congregation from every other, as exemplified by Williams eventually refusing to believe in the grace of anyone other than himself and his wife. There’s a lot to debate here. Separatism did prove a boon to religious liberty, and the collapse predicted didn’t seem to strike Rhode Island. Antinomianism wasn’t threatening the social order so much as Hutchinson’s position as a woman questioning men, and even Morgan grants that Hutchinson ran rings around Winthrop intellectually. But still- Winthrop won, he founded the New England way of reconciling faith and world, and this was all for the best in this best of all possible Americas, Morgan heavily implies.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with much of this. But Morgan wielded a beautiful pen, a real sense for the storytelling behind the subject matter, and the book held my interest the way few have recently. At this point, my review threatens to be longer than the book- this is no hefty life and times biography, this makes its point in fewer than two hundred pages. In all, between my weird interests, Morgan’s capabilities as a writer and a historian, and my determination not to make my rating system an ideological test, I can’t but give this book my highest rating, for holding my attention rapt and making me think a lot. Your mileage may vary- but I still think both the Puritans and the Consensus School might have more to do with you than you might think. *****

Review- Morgan, “The Puritan Dilemma”

Review- Wright, “Going Clear”

Lawrence Wright, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” (2013) (narrated by Morton Sellers) – I’m of just about the right age and almost the right level of online to have the cultural struggle against Scientology be a notable part of my political/cultural coming of age. I’ve never worn a Guy Fawkes mask outside of an auditing center (or anywhere else), but sympathized with those who did. Eventually, I came to roll my eyes a little as there seemed to be either little overlap between those who did that kind of thing and those who fought other, larger forms of oppressive power, or there was all too much overlap and it made things work funny (see Occupy)… Similarly, I was never a regular “South Park” watcher or a militant “new atheist” but I was around people who were both. I watched “Battlefield Earth” and chortled merrily at its ineptitude, back when that seemed like sticking it to the Church in some undefined way.

I’ve been interested in Scientology for some time in a slightly different way. I see it as part of a tradition of American prophecy and religion-building that includes the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the Church of Satan, the Nation of Islam, assorted offshoots of all of these, etc. Witnessing the founding of religions within the modern time frame and in my country of origin and academic speciality fascinates me. I like finding out the various nooks and crannies of their belief systems and where they came from. The founders interest me as well- before I could finally track down a hard copy, I had printed out Russell Miller’s L. Ron Hubbard biography, “Bare-Faced Messiah,” kept out of print by repeated lawsuits, and stored it in a binder. “No Man Knows My History,” about Joseph Smith, is a classic as well, and I sometimes give it out as a gift. I wish there was a good biography of Anton LaVey, but I suppose he is a shallower figure than his peers in any event. It’s hard to get shallower than that guy.

But if you want to go beyond the founder of Scientology, you basically have to go to “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright’s journalistic account of the church. He does a thorough job, chasing down records (especially of Hubbard’s own accounts of himself, which, putting it charitably, vary wildly from the official records he left behind) and working with numerous defectors. Like a lot of journalistic books, it has a narrative framing device, in this case the journey of Paul Haggis, screenwriter, director (he won the Academy Award for the now widely-derided “Crash”), and longtime Scientologist turned critic. He and other defectors supply much of the information for this book, much of which footnooted with “The Church denies any of this happened.”

Needless to say, the stories of lived experience carry more weight than the anodyne denials of the organization, though I wonder if the Scientologists are quick enough to pick up on the sort of rhetoric now going around on the “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s, which could be used to cast doubt on witness testimony. That said, the worst of the Satanic Panic rested on coached testimony from children, not multiple independent confirmations from adults, the way the abuses of Scientology have been.

The book is divided into three parts (“Scientology,” “Hollywood,” and “The Prison of Belief,” appropriately enough). The first part goes over the now reasonably familiar ground of the life of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, followed by his decline and the takeover of the organization by Scientology wunderkind David Miscavige. The next part concerns the organization under Miscavige as it places more and more weight on celebrity endorsement, particularly in the person of Tom Cruise. This part contains many of the most explosive revelations. The stuff about Hubbard — his tyranny over the Sea Org as it sailed around, his cult of preteen girl “Messengers,” his bigamy — was relatively well known. Less well known is what Scientology gets up to more recently: its continuing use of quasi-slave labor from its own members, and “The Hole,” a desert trailer park gulag for its own executives where David Miscavige and his underlings savagely beat and mistreated dozens, in a sort of parody of Stalinist terror over the leadership of the Communist Party. Interestingly, this isn’t what got Paul Haggis, our narrative inside man so to speak, to quit- I’m not sure he knew about it, maybe I missed a part where Wright confirmed or denied. Haggis quit because he had lesbian daughters, and the Church supported Prop 8 in California, the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative.

To the best of my knowledge, Scientology has never recovered from a series of revelations arcing from the first time OT-3 (the stuff about Xenu and the alien nature of the “thetans” Scientologists were supposed to “clear”) material was posted online through the publication of this book and the documentary made based on it. These days, it seems, Scientology is more like a multi-billion dollar real estate portfolio with a small religion attached, which has assets (cheap labor) and liabilities (a tendency to make dumb moves like pissing off The Internet).

One of the reasons Scientology is interesting to me is as a case study of a new religion with a number of interesting historical features: it went through the historical phase-shift of the 1960s, it experienced the death of a charismatic leader and went on going (always an interesting point for any religion), it developed its own subculture, and it interfaced in a variety of interesting ways with changing American mores and ideas of the individual and their place in the universe. Wright considers some of this, but at the end of the day, the book is more about Scientology’s (many and fascinating) crimes and misdeeds, and people’s journey with and out of it. Basically, I’d like this work of journalism to be more like history. But that’s really the only issue with it, otherwise it was a good read. ****’

Review- Wright, “Going Clear”

Review- Azuela, “The Underdogs”

Mariano Azuela, “The Underdogs” (1915) (translated from the Spanish by Frederick Fornoff) – We get a worm’s eye view of the Mexican Revolution in this novel, which as far as I can tell is considered the great novel of that war. Indigenous Mexican peasant Demetrio takes to the hills with some friends after federales burn his house. Azuela doesn’t explain the whys and wherefores- that’s just what the war causes men to do. The politics of the war impede on its logic only from high above. Demetrio and his friends know they hate the federales, the rich, and the reactionaries, and the three tend to meld together. They win some fights and soon enough become a sort of military unit, promoting Demetrio to their leader with self-declared ranks and joining up with other revolutionaries.

They’re all fighting the murderous Victoriano Huerta government, but really the war, Azuela takes pains to note, has its own logic. Demetrio and company “live off the land-” that is, by looting, rich people where they can, anyone else in a pinch. Drunkenness, concubinage, random violence and general disorder become the order of the day, in a way reminiscent of such wars from the Thirty Years War onward. This is contrasted to the high-sounding rhetoric of Luis, a city-slicker “curro” who joins Demetrio’s unit, from whom the sort of patriotic revolutionary speeches contrast to his behavior tolerating and reluctantly participating in the abuses of the revolutionary forces.

Talent will take you far in such a chaotic situation, and Demetrio winds up a general in Pancho Villa’s army. But those who know the conflict or just know about romantic rebels like Villa realize he’s doomed. After taking part in the overthrow of Huerta, Villa loses the great battle of Celaya to his erstwhile allies, which Demetrio only finds out about from some refugees he might otherwise rob. Demetrio’s men go down fighting against a better organized and equipped force. The end, no moral! My edition is a critical edition with a bunch of essays, one of which compares “The Underdogs” to epic literature, and I think that’s right- Demetrio has the gigantism and ineptitude of epic heroes, and the war is largely it’s own point, as they tend to be in epics. It was interesting to read such a modern epic about a war largely neglected in the States. ****’

Review- Azuela, “The Underdogs”

Review- Hopkins, “False Self”

Linda Hopkins, “False Self: The Life of Masud Khan” (2006) – Masud Khan was a controversial British psychoanalyst. Born and raised in the British Raj in what would become Pakistan, he came to Britain as a young man and immediately got involved in the postwar psychoanalysis boom. From the beginning of his career to its ignominious end, he was both lauded and condemned for his high profile and unconventional style. Linda Hopkins, a psychoanalyst herself, tries to avoid both in this interesting biography, opting instead for an attempt at a deep, compassionate understanding of a profoundly difficult man.

Psychology is a subject that has interested me at various points but it’s subtleties typically escape me. I find it hard to concentrate on them. I find it easy to concentrate on history, however, including my own, so I’ll say Masud Khan reminds me of a number of people I’ve met during my long sojourn in alternative education and grad school after that: charismatic rich kids who make big gestures and have a tendency to lie. Khan came from a rich landowning family in Punjab and took British psychoanalytic circles by storm when he came to Britain and took part in the postwar analysis boom. Handsome and quick-witted, he quickly became a big figure, analyst to numerous stars (Hopkins won’t say who but I believe her), dinner party lion, hobknobber with celebrity, holder of important psychoanalytic institutional posts, heir apparent to the great (supposedly, I don’t know much about him) Donald Winnicott.

Hopkins has us exhilarate with the good years and reel with the bad. By the late sixties Khan’s penchant for lies (seemingly pathological ones, at least in that they seemed not to serve a practical purpose, but I’m no psychologist), drink, and other women (despite being married to the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet) caught up with him. He broke many of the rules of psychoanalysis, most notably socializing with — and sleeping with — patients. He did this for years and no one in British psychoanalysis did anything about it. Hopkins doesn’t make clear why- Khan did have some “lucky” timing, in between it being the sixties and seventies and his getting cancer at a key moment when the authorities were going to censor him. He recovered and went right back at it.

What finally killed his reputation was his last book, where he, among other problematic things, went on extended screeds against the Jews (despite having several of the proverbial good Jewish friends). Hopkins doesn’t quite bracket this off — she presents enough of a balanced picture to be realistic — but does suggest we put this, and his other misbehaviors, in the balance with the good Khan did. This is supplied by numerous interviews with patients who claim he helped them, and his many contributions to psychoanalysis. Hopkins doesn’t go into detail about the latter, and as someone who benefits from having psychological concepts explained to him as though he’s five, this wasn’t a helpful omission for me. As for the interviews, they appear to be roughly even between those who claimed he helped and those who claimed he didn’t, or that he hurt them- maybe there were more of the former but the latter made more of an impression.

Hopkins looks back more in sadness than in anger. This makes for good biography. The impression I was left with of Khan is mixed. On the one hand, I’m not immune from being charmed, including by the vaguely sociopathic when they take an interest in me. On the other, I scorn abuse of power, which is what sleeping with your patients is. Obviously antisemitism is wrong, though Hopkins argues was more of a symptom of his possible bipolar status than a real ideological stance- but charmers like Khan live and die by inconsistency, and I scorn that, too. He was consistent in his hatred of fat people, too, so overall my conclusion is that he could’ve used a swift ass-kicking, as an adult. But that wouldn’t make very good biography, and “False Self” is pretty good biography. ****’

Review- Hopkins, “False Self”

Review- Dickens, “Bleak House”

Charles Dickens, “Bleak House” (1853) – I think my issue with Dickens is that I go in expecting Anthony Trollope but sentimental. I failed to recognize that Dickens is a lot more stylistically complex. This isn’t always a good thing, and with my acknowledgment that there’s more going on in Dickens on a literary level, I prefer Trollope’s clarity and sophistication of social observation.

All that said, “Bleak House” was a pretty good read, with the usual Victorian literary caveats of it being extremely long, filigreed, and full of subplots. Like a soap opera, it’s hard to say what the main plot is, though there is a main character in the part of ingenue Emma Sunmerfield. She acts so little for herself that it’s hard to say her plot is THE plot, but she does sort of tie it all together. “It all” includes an interminable, generations-consuming lawsuit, the mysteries of various births (including Emma’s own), a murder or two, some guy spontaneously combusting, and, of course, marriages.

I’m not about to recite the whole plot of this eight-hundo pager. Dickens isn’t shy about metaphor- the London fog swirling around the courts district, the contrast between the childlike selfish aristocrat Skimpole and the street child Jo, and of course the nasty do-gooders, all compassion for far-off problems but living in homes of squalor both physically and emotionally. All told, it’s pretty good Dickens, as far as Dickens goes. I should probably go back and give “A Tale of Two Cities” another shot. ****

Review- Dickens, “Bleak House”

Review- White, “‘It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own’”

Richard White, “‘It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own:’ A New History of the American West” (1991) –This is a pretty textbook-ish account of the territory between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean from European contact to the Reagan administration. White’s main thesis is that the mythology of the West — of self-made men making their own individualistic stamp on the vast landscape — is challenged to the point of irrelevance by the array of federal interventions that made the West what it is. These range from the federal army destroying independent Native American power to distributing land to people and railroads (mostly railroads) to, after the frontier period, investing massive amounts of money into water and power infrastructure in the West, following it up with federal investment in military and commercial ventures in the same area. This is one of those theses that have become common sense in American history, at least in part due to White’s intervention thirty years ago- I don’t know enough about the historiography of the West to say how they’ve diverted from White since, but I imagine it has.

Probably most interesting to me is the repeated clashes between those who dream of the West as a blank canvas on which to paint their designs and the reality of the place, both ecological and human. From private empire-builders like James Wilkinson and magnates like John Sutter to farmers convinced that “rain follows the plough” into plains and deserts to boomtown boosters of various descriptions, White describes a range of dreamers foiled by reality, though not without cost to people, especially Native peoples and the Hispanic populations of the pre-American-rule West. There’s a lot here about the tortured twists and turns of American Native policy, which makes for informative but infuriating reading. He also describes a fair amount of class conflict, though ultimately gives short shrift to radicals ranging from the IWW to the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers. I guess he’s right in that they didn’t alter the structure of forces in the West, and were less politically successful than the similarly western-concentrated New Right. I guess the material reality they ran against was the brutality of a capitalist state. Is that as inevitable a part of Western reality as aridity and distance? Who knows, let’s hope not. ****

Review- White, “‘It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own’”

Review- Snyder, “Black Earth”

Timothy Snyder, “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” (narrated by Mark Bramhall) (2016) – What a weird book! Snyder, who is at this point a full-on hashtag-resistance intellectual, was never a stranger to controversy or to portentiousness, and cuts a broader public figure than most historians. I remember being introduced as a historian in a wedding conversation with one of the literate burghers of my hometown, and the name and title the fellow dropped to make conversation with me was Tim Snyder’s “Bloodlands.” From the killing fields to Snyder’s (impressive, by any measure) archival depths to a comfortable suburban Massachusetts living room…

Anyway, “Black Earth” continues some of the conversation begun in “Bloodlands” (with all of its flaws) and takes it still further. We return to the zones of “double occupation” (that is, lands that both the Nazis and the Soviets occupied, sometimes trading back and forth multiple times), the site of most of the Holocaust and, Snyder avows, the geospatial inspiration and permission for it. At the center of “Black Earth” are Snyder’s sweeping claims about Nazism, the Holocaust, and the state. Forget about the image of the bureaucrat rubber-stamping the camps into being, Snyder tells us. Nazism is actually a negation of the state (here, he’s echoing Hannah Arendt, with her claims that Nazism represented an eclipse of nationalism). Hitler sought to destroy states, and succeeded in doing so in Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, and especially Poland (though not, notably enough, Germany), and was abetted by the Soviet Union in the zones of double occupation. These stateless zones then became sites where anything was possible, and that thing became the Holocaust. The state, far from the agent of genocide, is the only real protection against it, Snyder tells us.

The weak points here are many, and resemble those in “Bloodlands,” to an extent. First, Snyder’s characteristic exclusions when he’s trying to make a point: Yugoslavia, despite its massive death rate in the war, can’t be a “bloodland” because it wasn’t double-occupied; its contributions to the Holocaust get similarly short shrift in “Black Earth.” Needless to say, the many genocides perpetrated by states — like those undertaken by colonial regimes, such as the destruction of the Native Americans — aren’t mentioned. The Nazis did indeed destroy states in Eastern Europe. But the maintenance of a state is no guarantee for survival like he makes out, as the fate of the Dutch Jews or the targets of genocide by the Croatian Ustashe demonstrate. Snyder knows this but basically waves it off. The Ustashe were a state that wasn’t really a state, the Netherlands had a state but not really (but the French didn’t?), etc. etc.

This goes along with Snyder’s strange dismissal of the prevalence of prewar antisemitism and its importance to the Holocaust, placing everything on Nazism and especially the person and ideology of Hitler (Himmler comes in as second banana, and Carl Schmitt, who there’s no evidence ever wrote a thing Hitler read, comes up too). There’s some interesting stuff here on Hitler’s use and abuse of biological metaphors, his insistence on a life of struggle and violent competition (he was far from alone in this, as a perusal of Theodore Roosevelt’s writings will show), the way he depicted Jews as “super” natural, i.e. using ideas to circumvent the way of nature. But then, to use internet lingo, Snyder “capes” for interwar Poland, admitting it was antisemitic but showing how its antisemitism drove the Polish government to support the hardest core Zionists they could find, on the idea that that way they’d be rid of their Jews. The opposite of a Holocaust, you see! Or maybe you don’t, seeing as mass involuntary population transfers inevitably lead to mass death in any instance, even the Revisionist Zionist-Polish Nationalist (or contemporary Likudnik-Christian Zionist) fever dream. The stuff about the connection was pretty interesting to read, but does not bear anything like the analytical weight Snyder places on it.

Let’s meet Snyder half-way and say that state destruction did occur and was important, and antisemitism on its own doesn’t lead to genocide, but don’t buy state destruction or Hitler’s “biological anarchism”(!) as explanations. How then, a Snyder fan might ask (I wonder if that other Snyder, Zack, has read “Bloodlands” like the hometown burgher…), do I explain the different outcomes faced in different countries during the war? Well, the massive fucking land war might have something to do with it. The Nazis and the Soviets fighting for national survival in the biggest war the planet has ever known, and everywhere this happened, the Nazis introducing their war against Judeo-Bolshevism, until the latter essentially took over the war as the Nazis began to lose. This has the added benefit of including Yugoslavia, where the partisan fighting was especially fierce, and why in the western occupied areas anti-semitic genocidal violence picked up as the war got closer, as when the Italian Republic of Salo actually started taking Italy’s racial laws seriously. It’s a commonplace that the war and the genocide went together. That commonplace is good enough for me, but it doesn’t have the tendentious energy that Snyder wants to deliver.

One gets the impression from reading a lot of the reviews that not everyone read it all the way through, that they felt they got enough of the book by looking at the beginning chapters and the conclusion. They may even be right, in a lazy kind of way. The middle of the book is more or less a recitation of the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of Snyder’s preoccupations, familiar facts to anyone who knows the history with some added editorial baggage. But it made me wonder- could the whole thing have worked without the one state Hitler didn’t destroy or even really try to, the German state? Someone had to recruit and pay the Einsatzgruppe. Someone had to keep the home front going. And is it really the destruction of the state if you impose dictatorship on an area after wiping out its government? It’s the destruction of a nation-state, sure. But there does seem to be somebody with a monopoly on the means of the use of force. It doesn’t add up.

What it all doesn’t add up to is found in the conclusion, a true monument to a particular kind of conservative-liberal febrility that Snyder has continued to pursue in his work on contemporary political life. Like the rest of the book, the problem isn’t that Snyder lacks intellectual firepower- just that he has seemingly no conception of what a real target would be. So we’re treated to a discursus on the Green Revolution, which replaced Hitler’s preoccupation with the struggle for survival with plentiful cheap food (true), how food might be getting scarcer again (true-ish), and how China, Russia, and “the Middle East” could take up Hitler’s strategy of making scapegoats for ecological change and seek out new realms (Africa, for instance) for biopolitically-driven conquest. Quick, someone’s going to get genocidally, globally violent rather than face climate change, who is it? If you answer anyone other than America you’re a rube. That’s not to exclude others, but we’ve already done it by tearing apart the Middle East in part to secure an energy supply. How are you going to talk about water wars in the Middle East, as Snyder does, while neglecting Israel’s control over Palestine’s water? Talk about a stateless, vulnerable people! The real subject of climate-driven violence (one Arendt wouldn’t have neglected, say what you will about her) are the refugees it is generating, and we get very little from Snyder about that. But nope, Snyder only has eyes for states and ideologies.

We need to see the Holocaust as about ecologically-ideologically-driven state destruction, Snyder tells us, to avoid doing it again. The “left” and the right both blame the state from their various perches (“postmodernism” gets thrown around as a bad guy here) for misinterpreting the Holocaust and not getting the importance of states. We’re in grave danger, Snyder tells us, of failing to learn our lessons. I actually tend to think that’s true, even as I disagree with ehat exactly the lesson is. But again, not due to a left-right conspiracy to induce anarchy, but due to a much simpler explanation- distance in time from the events, and the Holocaust’s cooptation by Hollywood and American ideology into something bad people did because they were bad. That said, aren’t there a million other models for how states — or non-states — could engage in future atrocity? Don’t some of them seem closer than Snyder’s version of the Holocaust, or anyone else’s? I’m in favor of learning from the Holocaust. I’m also in favor of seeing it in the light of a long history of genocide and atrocity, especially against colonized and indigenous peoples, that seem to offer more immediate lessons than the very peculiar circumstances of 1930s-1940s Europe. **’

Review- Snyder, “Black Earth”

Review- Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids”

John Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids” (1951) – I’ve heard this called the grand-daddy of post-apocalyptic fiction. On the one hand, this sounds wrong — I feel like there are earlier examples, like “The War of the Worlds” — but on the other hand feels right in a genre relevance sense. The apocalypse, unlike most, is a two-parter. First, a species of carnivorous plant called the triffids appear. This isn’t much of a problem at first, because people can control them, despite their deadly poisonous stingers and increasingly apparent ability to communicate with one another. Then one day, a mysterious shower of comets — or something that look like comets — blind the vast majority of people on Earth (one wonders if Jose Saramago read this one).

Biologist Bill is one of the lucky ones with sight- he was in the hospital with a triffid sting to the eyes and hence couldn’t see the comet shower. By the time he’s able to get up and out of the hospital, civilization is already collapsing. Wyndham effectively describes the pathos of roving gangs of blind people attempting to loot to survive, the sighted either lording it over the blind as kings, trying and failing to help them, or trying to secede from the rest of the species.

If “Day of the Triffids” created post-apocalyptic conventions, it did a very good job, as it all colors within the lines: Bill rescues a sighted girl and they promptly fall in love; they entertain but reject various humanitarian theories of how to deal with the crisis as doomed, through no fault of themselves, of course, they’re still the good guys; they meet up with a group of like-minded survivors led by someone making philosophical/sociological points that all lead to “free love;” Bill and Josella get separated and Bill undertakes all kinds of adventures getting her back.

It’s all well done. The triffids are genuinely creepy, even if a lot of surviving in the early parts of the book is more about avoiding disease and hunger than avoiding them. The anti-humanitarian lessons are contrived but not forced, in a literary sense. The characters are well-realized, especially for midcentury science fiction that doesn’t make a display of literary qualities. It’s worth reading both from a history-of-genre perspective and on its own merits. ****’

Review- Wyndham, “The Day of the Triffids”