Eduardo Galeano, “Open Veins Of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” (1971) (translated from the Spanish by Cedric Belfrage) (narrated by Jonathan Davis) – I first became aware of this book during a walk in Harlem as a stripling grad student. I bought a copy of Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power” from a sidewalk used bookseller (one of the best things about New York, those booksellers), who, having spotted a fledgling white lefty buying a Black Panther memoir, tried to upsell me with a copy of “Open Veins of Latin America.” I’d’ve taken him up on it, too, if he hadn’t pegged me for the rich kind of grad student and charged full cover price for both (used) books. He was mistaken, and I went away with only “A Taste of Power,” which is well worth reading.
Either way, I knew “Open Veins” as an old lefty classic and finally got around to listening to it (changes in my work duties have me back listening to audiobooks for the time being). Eduardo Galeano, one of the grand old men of the Latin American literary left, goes through Latin America’s history and explicates a few simple principles that guided it from the Spanish conquest onward. Exploitation of Latin America’s natural wealth and the labor of its people enriched other parts of the world, mainly Europe and the United States; this exploitation left Latin America with a pittance and, seemingly intentionally, delayed its economic and social development; the Latin American class structure, topped by a numerically small landowning and mercantile bourgeoisie, prevents progress and only overthrow of this class structure from below can improve things.
Galeano drives these points home with gusto and, considering the geographical and temporal scope in play, with respectable elegance. American exploiters replace British ones who replaced Spanish conquistadors and encomenderos; cheap manufacturing (this was just as multinational manufacturers were figuring out the maquiladora strategy, perfected after NAFTA came into effect) supplemented cash crop cultivation which partially supplanted the mining of precious metals; civilian rulers, reformers, conservatives, and military dictators replace each other in varying rhythms and patterns in the different nations of Latin America; always, always the same dynamics. Always, exploiters plunder the land (often leaving it depleted, in the cases of mining and some types of destructive agriculture), and work the people to the bone for a pittance, brutally repressing them when they complain. Always, the exploiters overseas grow ever richer and cement their competitive advantage over Latin America. Always, the native elites of Latin America come up with half-hearted (and soon reversed) reforms at best, and at more frequent worst, gladly accept the roles of brutal lieutenants to foreign capital, to fund their lifestyles and keep society as it is. Nothing will change as long as they are in charge.
Relatively little of this was new to me (more would have been had I bought the book that day in Harlem and read it soon after); as a student of the history of American foreign interventions, I had learned much of it along the way. But it was well presented, combining history, stories from Galeano’s travels across Latin America, literary references, etc. The prose partakes some of the vaguely mystical Latin American literary trends of the day, evoking the outsized happenings, lavish booms and bottomless terrors, and endless cyclical repetitions that characterized the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of the “Boom” in Latin American letters then going on. Galeano later indicated some regrets about the prose style he used, but I think it worked fine. The penultimate part of the book, describing how Latin America fit into the political economy of the time, is somewhat more technical and necessarily dated, but still interesting.
Galeano received the honor of having his books banned in the military dictatorships of the Cono Sur, including his native Uruguay. The right never forgave him for making his points about Latin America clearly, poetically, and to a mass audience. Pundits grumbled when Obama accepted a copy of “Open Veins” from Hugo Chavez at a conference in 2010, and no less a literary light than (ex-leftist) Mario Vargas Llosa contributed to a volume which called “Open Veins” “the Bible of idiots.” But really, how much has changed since Galeano’s day? Most of the Latin American countries are now at least notional democracies. Drugs have joined the more traditional cash crops as drivers of the patterns he relates. The “pink tide” promised much, delivered some, and has not broken the class structure Galeano saw at the center of the whole thing. The work remains undone. As that bookseller in Harlem made clear, the book still has relevance- he could’ve tried to upsell me on some other volume, after all. ****’
Fritz Leiber, “A Specter is Haunting Texas” (1969) – Fritz Leiber is probably best known for his sword-and-sorcery books, which I should read some day. I picked up this scifi volume of his at a library sale, amused by the title. I knew nothing about it going in.
It turns out to be the story of Christopher “Scully” LaCruz, a ham actor from Circumluna, an orbital society of scientists and “longhairs” who escaped from a mid-twentieth century nuclear war, two hundred fifty years before the action of the book. Scully goes down to Earth (wearing a special exoskeleton to cope with the gravity) to lay claim to a mine in Canada that he inherited. He winds up in Dallas, where he finds out that Canada, and much of the rest of North America, got taken over, post-apocalypse, by Texas. Now, Texas was an empire, inhabited by hormone-fed eight-foot-tall (Scully is also tall from having lived in zero G, but skeletally thin where the Texans are beefy) back-slapping, gun-toting yahoos, every Texas stereotype come to massive, cartoonish life. I couldn’t help but picture the first Texan Scully meets, the political fixer Elmo, as a gargantuan Hank Hill. The Texans run a sort of neo-feudal empire, enslaving the Mexicans and making cyborgs out of many of them (and all of them run about four feet tall).
Scully doesn’t really care about this, he just wants his mining claim so he can have enough money to save his theater troupe or something. But he gets sucked into various plots. First, one Texan faction tries to use him against the President (every President of Texas dies by assassination, traditionally). Then ragtag revolutionaries who want to overthrow the Texans and liberate the Mexicans enlist him in their cause. He’s a reluctant revolutionary at best, but as a ham, can’t resist a crowd that sees him as El Esqueleto, the skeletal harbinger of Death- redoing the old trope of Mexicans as greeting white people from abroad as gods. Also, he wants to get laid with two revolutionary women, one a tiny Mexican and another a huge Texan. So he goes on a tour northwards towards his mining claim, inspiring uprisings and learning ghastly truths about what the Texans are doing to the Earth’s mantle.
Leiber was closing in on sixty when he wrote this book and altogether it feels somewhat painfully like a middle-aged man trying to be With It circa 1968. Though, in a way, as both a scifi writer and an actor (he came from a theater family and acted some himself), Leiber could probably claim better hedonism and mind-expansion bona fides than most of the youth at the time. I think his sympathies were probably with “the youth,” both in the novel and in society at large, but from a foggy and at times patronizing distance. Both Scully and, I think, the author, treat revolution as essentially a child’s game, theater.
The whole thing is played as farce — like the sort of comedy Scully might put on with his company, get it?! — and you get the thing you get in a lot of writing by men circa 1960s-2000s where there’s a lot of stereotyping going on and you’re not sure how much of it is “genuine” vs satirical. You’re also not sure how much it matters. The whole premise of the world of the book is reversion to type on a racial scale. The Texans are the whitest white yahoos, having assimilated the rest of the white people of the continent to their empire. Mexicans are spicy, superstitious, physically small, and given to revolutions launched by dramatic gestures. Black people have “hip republics” on the coast, and the one black character is a jive-talking Buddhist monk. Native Americans live in teepees, Russians have genetically engineered themselves into bear-people, there’s a ranting genocidal German-Texan engineer, etc. Luckily for us all the book didn’t have any Jews or Asians. Leiber would presumably point to his farcical white characters as proof he’s an equal opportunity offender. Meditations on gender, or anyway, the mentality of women, in a similar vein pop up throughout as well.
I’m less interested in offense here than I am in the fact that two hundred odd pages of ethnic farce with a bit of sex farce thrown in for variety gets old. I can almost feel people out in readerland thinking “aha! A writer who cares not for restricting moralism in prose! It must be good!” I, too, find the social moralism in a lot of contemporary criticism constraining but to borrow a contemporary phrase, “this ain’t it, chief.” The book didn’t lack for zip and it was oddly prescient, in some ways, like the prominence of Texan (and other southern) tropes and practices in reactionary white American manhood going forward. But in general, there’s not enough going on, ideas- or action-wise, to really justify the broad farcical elements. ***
Jonathan Coe, “The Closed Circle” (2004) – I very much enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s “What A Carve Up!” (published in the US as “The Winshaw Legacy” – I prefer the British title), his breakout novel, when I read it a few years back. I also remember liking “The Rotter’s Club,” his look back at life in Birmingham in the late seventies, right at the precipice of the Thatcher era, though I have to say I don’t remember it that well. It came in handy that this sequel, “The Closed Circle,” came with a brief synopsis of its predecessor.
Coe possesses an Old Labour sensibility and social conscience. If “The Rotter’s Club” presents life on the edge of Thatcherism, “The Closed Circle” takes the same characters into the ideology’s realization, when New Labour institutionalized Thatcherism-with-a-smile as the ruling ethos of Britain at the turn of the twenty-first century. The characters mostly managed to ride the wave of neoliberalism into professional jobs, as accountants, journalists, one of them is a member of Parliament, etc. This isn’t a story of working class devastation, even if plant closures and corporate abuse form an important part of the backdrop. It is a story of distinctly middle-class ennui.
It’s also a story about looking backwards. Benjamin, arguably the main character in the ensemble cast of “The Rotter’s Club,” is obsessed with a teenage fling he had in that book, twenty years later, and can’t move on, even though he’s married to someone else. Another character lives in the shadow of her sister, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, also in the first book. Characters gain fixations on figures from the school they all went to, and try to track them down. It’s understandable, given that “forward-looking” in Blair’s England seems to mean shallow platitudes covering over base greed and power-mongering, as is the case with Paul, who went from an annoying brat in “The Rotter’s Club” to an unprincipled New Labour MP in “The Closed Circle.”
I intermittently enjoyed reading “The Closed Circle,” but I don’t think it’s as strong as the others I’ve read of Coe’s work. In part, this is due to his choice of topics: gray middle-class Englanders with ennui tend to blend together more than younger adults do. The big surprise ending does indeed “close the circle” of a love mess that makes up one of the central plotlines of the novel, but in a coincidence-heavy way that summons up for me bad memories of Oscar-bait “we’re all connected” movies of the same period, like “Babel” and “Crash.” Coe has chops and his book is better than either of those movies, but the ending really didn’t do it for me. I’ll still keep my eye out for the sequel that came out recently. ***’
Richard Allen, “Skinhead” (1970) – My readings on the right have brought me to this underground cult classic. It is part of the “youthsploitation” wave of pulp novels of the era, where cheap publishers rushed out material on the range of youth subcultures then making the news. Many of them were written by a middle-aged alcoholic Canadian hack named James Moffat, who wrote under numerous psuedonyms, including Richard Allen. As Allen, he wrote a dozen-odd skinhead novels that became quite popular within the subculture and became both passed-around artifacts and subjects of artistic parody.
No one has ever accused skinheads of being the most sensitive readers, and part of me is a little surprised they took to these books the way they did, given the undisguised contempt the author has for the subculture. For Moffat/Allen, skinheads were a symptom of modern culture gone awry, barbarians at the gates of a civilization too weak (due to egalitarianism and the welfare state) to fend them off. At the same time, he has a sickly fascination with the virility and violence of Joe Hawkins, his skinhead main character. Joe is something of an East End ubermensch, who takes what he pleases, be it blood, money, or sex, with violence and cunning. He does lose a fight or two but always gets revenge. One can see how the character would appeal to a certain type of young man.
This book was published in 1970, relatively early in the career of the skinhead subculture. As such, the politics involved were much more muted. Joe and his friends are racist and hate hippies and radicals, to be sure, but they care about beating up black people and Asians about as much as they care about beating up rival soccer fans. Moffat/Allen doesn’t seem to really make the connection between his preferred social order, where men are real men, hierarchy is gladly accepted, and Britain is great again, and the sickly fascination he has for Joe’s violence against shared enemies, but others would, and I wonder if the author does in later books.
Moffat/Allen clearly had some pulp writing chops and the novel zips right along. I don’t think I encountered a single sentence where the only verb was a variation of “to be,” a good sign for pulp. But there’s two major problems here that prevent me from recommending it as (highly, highly “problematic”) fun. The first is the author’s ideological hectoring. No one was (is, afaict) as attached to orderliness and The Rules as the Anglo-Canadian pedant, and Moffat/Allen makes sure to point out for every bad thing happening (which he leers and drools over), there is a social welfare policy encouraging it. This attachment to order, presumably, is what prevented him from seeing the Joe Hawkinses of the world as allies, as later far-right nerds would. More importantly, there basically isn’t a plot. The book begins with a depiction of Joe’s father and his corrupt docklands milieu, where faux-radicalism and pilfering go hand in hand and dock leaders plan strikes for malicious reasons. I thought that it would end with the skinheads attacking strikers. That would have been interesting and have dramatic unity, but no. Instead, Joe just does a bunch of crimes and gets away with them, the end. I guess that’s all you need for “youthsploitation,” but I prefer my voyeurism to at least have the decency of a plot. This is an interesting literary artifact but that’s about it. **’
Richard Rothstein, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” (2017) – This book has come to constitute part of the new canon for antiracist activists, or, anyway, people looking to heed the call to “educate yourself.” It covers an important part of American history — the creation and maintenance of our regime of residential segregation and everything it entails — and as Richard Rothstein points out, you won’t learn about this sort of thing in standard high school American history textbooks. I remember teaching community college students — mostly kids of color — about how the government backstopped, in many instances created, housing segregation, and I got a lot of surprised looks. They knew about the segregation- they didn’t know about the causes. This book serves a valuable public purpose.
The main idea Rothstein, a law professor, looks to upend is the idea that there’s something natural about residential segregation by race. He shows how government policy, from World War One onward but ramping up around World War Two, reaffirmed existing segregated residence patterns and often created them where they did not exist. Like most aspects of American awfulness, the creation of our segregated reality came about as something of a kludge, a mashing together of private and public, local and federal, written and unwritten policy. Presumably, historians debate over how much weight to give private versus governmental actors, but Rothstein makes clear that the federal government (along with state and local governments) was there every step of the way. For war production in both world wars, the federal government (acting through private builders and real estate people) built huge public housing works for defense workers, and kept them segregated, even after desegregating many key defense industries in WWII. Most famously, the Federal Housing Administration institutionalized redlining, the designation of neighborhoods by race. Here as in so many other instances, the government both tailed private actors — especially the real estate moguls building the new postwar suburbs — and led them, for instance by declaring even pre-existing integrated neighborhoods bad loan risks. Even when things like discriminatory housing covenants were outlawed, the damage persisted and got worse. Even when black people were able to surmount these difficulties and buy a home in a white neighborhood — and these black people were generally at least a notch or two above their white neighbors on the profession/class scale, given how much more expensive real estate was for them — police forces stood by and let white mobs terrorize the new homeowners, when the cops didn’t join in themselves.
The postwar suburban experience acts in many respects as the crux of the story. It’s not just that black people missed out on living in white suburbs. Appreciating home values built white wealth — I know for a fact houses bought by previous generations in the postwar period act as socioeconomic anchors for otherwise downwardly mobile white families I know of — and levered open the wealth gap between white and black America. Then there’s all the add-on effects that result from the absurd amount of things our society predicates on real estate values: black people either miss out on jobs in the suburbs they couldn’t live in, or pay higher transportation costs. Black homeowners pay more in upkeep for dilapidated housing stock, proportionately higher property taxes (decent housing black people are permitted to live in is generally more expensive), and are often the targets of subprime loan banksters. Black renters paid proportionately more in rent or lived in depressing housing projects. Black children go to segregated schools underfunded by depleted tax bases. On and on. Meanwhile, white (and increasingly non-black PoC) suburbanites can pat themselves on the back for their good life choices in avoiding poverty and crime, secure that all the privileges they had and have are “natural.”
Rothstein places a lot of chips on the supposed unconstitutionality of all of these structures. This makes sense, as he is a law professor, but I wonder at the effectiveness of this argument. It seems to me to join a series of tropes that take on load-bearing weight in this generation of (relatively) mass-market antiracist books, and that might not be able to bear up. I’m thinking here also of Ibram Kendi’s definition of antiracism as believing there is nothing wrong with black people, or the mother of them all, the (re)definition of the word “racism” to mean the upholding or reenforcing of oppressive race-based power structures. I basically agree with the latter rhetorical move and it seems to be catching on, but such maneuvers risk fundamental miscommunications with interlocutors who do not accept your premises. In the case of the constitutionality of segregation, Rothstein points to the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Segregation violates due process and equal protection clauses, he argues, and moreover the intent of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, two of the Reconstruction amendments, were to abate the consequences of slavery. Anything that goes against that goal goes against them, and courts and government officials from the downfall of Reconstruction in 1877 onward have been going against the Constitution.
I’m no lawyer, but these arguments seem to range from plausible (the application of due process) to very thin. The Reconstruction amendments only mention slavery to ban it and make no reference to any specific race of people. Again, we come to the kludge of American institutional life- the Constitution was kludged together, and is a vague document in many cases, and the Reconstruction amendments had to please racists and free marketeers in the Republican Party at the time and so they’re vague, too. As you so often get with monotheism, the people who insist The Book sanctions something awful are at least part right.
Luckily, unlike Rothstein, I don’t place many chips on the US Constitution. I guess I see it a lot like the federal highway system: some impressive engineering (for its day) kludging disparate elements together, in some cases vaguely approximating the form of something that should exist and usable for some purposes, but ultimately built for ends we will need to get past to proceed into a better future. We can house everyone, safely and equitably, and we should. All of the things we predicate on real estate, from education to job prospects, also belong to everyone regardless of where they were born or where they live. I don’t know whether such a scenario would result, in the short or medium term, in racial integration in neighborhoods and schools (I tend to think in the long term, real socialism would erode the significance of race). From the cheap seats, I get the impression people of color are less dying to have white neighbors than they are struggling to gain substantive equity in society. I am suspicious of anti-integrationist arguments from the left — they seem to think generations of civil rights campaigners were sell-outs or morons, and it just generally raises my hackles, especially when white people do it — but in general, place less emphasis on integration than on redistribution. As it turns out, the Constitution isn’t super helpful for either goal. Oh well. ****
Guillaume Faye, “Archaeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age” (1998) (translated from the French by Sergio Knipe) – It’s been a while since I read an actually interesting book by a fascist. Guillaume Faye helped lead the French Nouvelle Droit in the seventies and eighties. To simplify greatly, the Nouvelle Droit exemplified the possibilities of the “suit” strategy in the far right’s “suits and boots” dichotomy. They were very “intellectual” fascists (they didn’t like being called fascists, but fuck them) looking to change politics by changing culture. The Nouvelle Droit achieved a great deal of visibility and prominence for a while in France, where they like their intellectual novelties. But it was in terminal decline for a while by the late nineties, with Faye having jumped ship some time before to work in mainstream media.
“Archaeofuturism” was Faye’s return to far-right political writing. In it, he attempts to both right the ship of the French far right and inject energy into its project. The Nouvelle Droit went wrong because it got too academic, too self-obsessed, too weird, Faye argues, citing in particular erstwhile ally Alain de Benoist’s odd religious ideas- pagan, anti-Christian, but friendly to Islam. Catastrophe is coming, Faye declares, and modernity, defined here as the combination of industrial society and egalitarian culture and politics, is doomed. One way or another we will get “archaeofuturism” – a return to archaic cultural values, social structures, and politics combined with ever-advancing science and technology. The role of the French (and broader European) far right is to help usher in and eventually rule the brave new archaeofuturist future.
Faye’s not wrong about catastrophe. As expected, he gets the valences wrong. The threat of climate change, the major thing he is right about, looms over the book, but typically low down on the list of things Faye worries about. Similarly, Faye highlights the rise of inequality, unemployment etc. He shared the anticapitalism of the Nouvelle Droit, which is to say, he was rhetorically opposed to capitalism’s culturally disintegrative tendencies and the rulers it promotes and pays lip service to its actual problems, while sharing many capitalist assumptions about worth and merit- the usual weak sauce bullshit of right anticapitalism.
But this is a right-wing book, after all, so his big worry is demographics, basically “the great replacement” the right goes on about. He takes it as given that European values and culture reside in some bio-mystical way in European genes and European land, and that allowing non-Europeans in means the death of Europe, etc etc. Islam plays the big boogie-man here, and as you often get with demon figures, there’s an admixture of admiration here. Islam, in Faye’s telling, is still a healthy, vibrant, “macho” culture, unlike weak, sickly, feminized, “ethno-masochist” Europe. If he didn’t see Islam as backwards (and wasn’t as attached to his European nativity), Faye might join his old pal de Benoist in being sort of positive about it. Of course, Faye lumps all billion or so Muslims together as sharing the same agenda, a real laugh after the last decade and a half of struggle within the Muslim world. Same with colonized people all over- they all want revenge on the colonizer and will get it through immigration. Faye doesn’t do subtlety or nuance.
Catastrophe will force archaic values to re-emerge, whether anyone wants it or not (Faye sees it as devoutly to be wished). Modernity, Faye argues, brings on the catastrophe, not so much through capitalistic profit motive but from its utopian promise that everyone can get along and live well. The planet can’t sustain it and people don’t want it- they want to advance their ethnic/religious interests, says Faye. Everything is ideology, for him and many on the far right. When modernity collapses, archaic values — hierarchy, order, valorization of warriors, a cyclical view of history, etc — will reimpose themselves upon the survivors. Faye waxes rhetorical about this at various points. He’s smart enough to avoid the usual “traditionalist” trap of valorizing everything old, or defining which culture’s folkways are really traditional and which aren’t (most of them are actually not that old in any event). Instead, Faye enlists the right’s best philosophical player, Nietzsche (and yes, he was on the right, sorry, don’t at me), and Nietzsche’s definition of the archaic values of classical Greece and Rome. That’s what we’ll all go back to, he says, though he also sees archaic values as those of medieval Europe, which doesn’t make a ton of sense and seems like a soupçon thrown to traditionalist Christians.
So does all this archaicism mean a return to archaic modes of production and technology? Yes and no. Probably Faye’s most important point and what really gets at the nut of what he contributes to the contemporary far right is that the great inequality for which the right should both prepare for and strive for is inequality in access to the fruits of science and technology. Most people should live at a roughly medieval technology level, Faye argues, but a minority should live with ever-advancing technology. Only a minority can truly benefit from technological society anyway, Faye insists. Any guesses as to the racial composition of who gets to follow a donkey cart and who gets to see the future? Well, here Faye vacillates a little. In some versions envisioning a racial hierarchy where whites and maybe East Asians get to live in future-world and browner people toil, more or less happily, in the primitive level they supposedly belong to, in others, every continental bloc/empire (it’ll all be empires, you see) will include both techno-people who run everything and a majority of happy peasants doing their folk dances in the villages, including the “Eurosiberian” empire he envisions.
This is, of course, daft, and has the classic tell of daftness (on the right, left, and center) that is overschematization- everything in the archaeofuture is clear, all could be understood easily from a simple map (like one for a video game) or PowerPoint presentation. It’s as utopian as the most hippie-dippie soft-left daydream and considerably more so than most Marxist ones, as it basically handwaves away any question of the means of production, as in, “where does the food come from?” or “where are the raw materials for all that tech coming from?” or “who cleans the toilets in the pristine future-cities?” Presumably, the peasants are farming, but Faye makes clear: intercourse between technoworld and peasant-lande is to be strictly limited, if not altogether forbidden.
Faye doesn’t bother with any of these questions. Part of this is that technology is just supposed to figure it out. The other part, I think, is more important. Faye humble-braggingly insists he’s not laying out a dogma or a plan, that the right of the future will have to sail the seas of uncertainty. That’s a smart move, both rhetorically and because it leaves unsaid his other implicit answer to questions of political economy: it’s supposed to be cruel. The techno-lords are better than the peasant-folke he patronizingly pats on the head, and so along with having nicer lives, the former will exploit and oppress the latter. They’ll do it for fun if not for profit. That’s the other part of “archaic values” – no sentimentality about the peasants and their dead babies, even while having a little sentimentality for their charming folkways. At first, in Faye’s telling, the violence of the archaeofuture would be defensive, beating back “the hordes” and making new ethno-empires. But we all know — I’m sure Faye knew — it would turn offensive, the quotidian, personalized violence of the plantation, the pimp and the john, the colonizer.
Reaffirming racialized (and gendered and class-based) inequality and its attendant cruelty as a positive value and the only meaningful response to the crises of the twenty-first century: this is what “Archaeofuturism” is about and is basically what the entire far right is about today. Take out some of the silly filigree and this is more or less what the entire right dreams of. In terms of laying out an agenda for the far right in the twenty-first century, Faye is much more lucid than many figures who get more attention than he did (he died last year). His writing makes a lot more sense and is much more applicable to today’s situation than anything Julius Evola (who died in 1974) wrote. Some of the snootier “identitarian” types, like Generation Europa, namecheck Faye as part of their inspiration from the Nouvelle Droite. But it’s Evola that gets the memes and his turgid “Revolt Against the Modern World” that zoomer fascists try to slog through, lips doubtlessly moving the while. This, when a fascist press went to all the trouble of translating Faye into English, complete with explanatory footnotes for readers who might not know what a Breton or a GDP is! Alas for him.
Many of the more interesting strategic/ideological points Faye makes “scan” from the perspective of an ambitious contemporary fascist organizer. Faye’s attitude towards homosexuality is that it’s deviant, but should be allowed to go ahead in (fun, kinky) secret but unprosecuted- sounds roughly like what Milo Yiannopolous would like. He departs from the Nouvelle Droit in seeing America less as an enemy and more as a potentially productive rival. Presumably, his American followers disagree with his assertion that America isn’t badly threatened by immigration, but that was a throwaway point, easily papered over.
Most controversially, he has little to say about Jews, and in other work came out in support of Zionism as a bulwark against Islam. On the one hand, this is a path some on the contemporary far right have taken. On the other, it illustrates one of the ways in which Faye is too clever for his own benefit. Without antisemitism, there’s a gaping hole in all far right thought: why did anything change, if premodernity was so great? Most fascists just say “the machinations of the Jews.” Faye doesn’t, and so squirms around alluding to “neo-trotskyites,” bitches about the Jacobins (the French right has a long memory), etc. The whole thing would be more wrong but also more consistent if he was an anti-semite, but given his other commitments, you can see why he took the stance he did.
So this was an interesting read. The French right has long been a source of some of the more interesting and readable right-wing writing, in spite of (because of?) never getting a unified fascist movement off the ground. In terms of reading experience, it was better than the average right-wing screed, but contained long sections of Faye just spit-balling opinions that bogged things down. The end was also disappointing, a fictional “day in the life” of a mover-and-shaker in the “Eurosiberian Empire” of the archaeofuture- this sounds like it could be fun but was just a dull recitation of the points Faye already made. Above all, this was a clear presentation of what the twenty-first century far right is about, not in the sense that many contemporary fascists follow Faye’s blueprint, but that he prefigured much of their vision. ***
Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind” (2007) – A lot of people like this book. There was huge hype and lasting affection around it when it came out in the late 2000s, that magical time when we thought we had seen how bad it would get. It came highly praised by the likes of Ursula Le Guin. I have a lot of friends who like it. The friends I have who like it (when I posted about it on my social media, other friends with other opinions emerged, but that’s neither here nor there) use words like “poetic.” And Patrick Rothfuss himself seems like a decent sort, a harmless, fun-loving nerd who doesn’t appear to be using that performance of self as a guise to exploit others, as we see done (:cough: Joss Whedon :cough:) elsewhere in the nerd-o-sphere. His blog is all raising money for charities and pictures of his nice family.
So you can see why I might want to go easy on this book. Respected writers like it. More importantly, friends like it, and use language for it I feel weird challenging- am I really going to just diss my friends’ sense of aesthetic? Most pertinent of all, most of the time, when I really gun for a book, the author sucks in some way, like Mike Ma being a fascist or Sheila Heti contributing to tweeness and pretense in literature, to cite two recent examples. I can’t really say that about Rothfuss, who, I reiterate, seems like a decent, blameless guy.
But I will not go easy. I will reflect my experience. This book baffled me with its utter mediocrity. It bored and frustrated me. A lot of the time, when millennial critics say something bored them, they mean it offended them. This is not the case here- I would have taken some offense if I could’ve gotten it, just to spice things up. Similarly, when they say a piece of writing frustrated them, they imply there was something else they wanted the piece to be, or in non-fiction, wanted the author to acknowledge some hobby horse of theirs. I guess I wanted this to be good fantasy, but I’ll damned if I can say specifically how other than “be more exciting and interesting, and maybe shorter.”
“The Name of the Wind” is, mostly, the tale of one Kvothe. Kvothe lives in what we could see as a generic post-George-RR-Martin fantasy land- roughly medieval European technology level and social arrangements (though with post-Columbian-Exchange crops, like chocolate- I will admit that took me out of things a little early on), magic and monsters largely in the background… for now. Because this was supposed to be a big deal trilogy, there is an extended framing device, a good seventy-five pages or so dealing with demon spiders emerging in this little rural town, before we get to the meat of the story. The owner of the inn in this little town isn’t all he appears. A Chronicler shows up who knows who he is- Kvothe, big time badass wizard warrior. Chronicler wants his story and Kvothe, after some back and forth, agrees to give it, and that provides the action for much of the rest of the book. The demon spiders don’t come back- presumably they do in the second book or in the third book that Rothfuss probably at this point won’t write.
The biggest problem, if I had to pick one, with this book is that Kvothe is, as pointed out to me by a fan of the book, an utter Marty-Stu, a wish-fulfillment of the most banal fantasies of badassery that the first decade of the twenty-first century could conjure up. Kvothe relates his upbringing amongst traveling performers. From the beginning, he’s whip smart and savvy. He also talks like a twenty-first century adult, but we’ll get into that issue later. He meets an old wizard who teaches him some magical basics and of course, he picks it up faster than anyone. His lows are heroic lows- his family slaughtered by mysterious wights from ancient lore, first he survives in the woods all on his own, then makes his way by his wits on the streets of the big fantasy city of Tarbean. He then makes his way to the University to learn magic (and about the wights) and impresses the masters so much they pay HIM for his first term! He makes enemies — a mean professor, Snap- I mean, Hemme, and a snooty aristocratic boy Malf- I mean, Ambrose — and shows them up magnificently with his magic chops and street smarts. He’s a musical genius, too, and girls totally want his fifteen year old self. Above all, he’s collected and self-contained.
“Well, it’s HEROIC fantasy,” I can hear some of you say. Sure. And there’s a number of ways to make such a character interesting. One would be to make him a less reliable narrator, like maybe he has to dial back some of his stories (there is an interlocutor character along with Kvothe and Chronicler). Even if you want to keep him that heroic, you can make the challenges he faces interesting, or ones to which he isn’t suited. You can also set him in an interesting world, worthy of the hero’s talents.
Rothfuss fails to deliver on any of those options. Kvothe is understood to be reliable throughout. The lack of interesting challenges and the failure of worldbuilding reenforce each other. Magic and science aren’t separate in this world, so Kvothe learns a lot of both, seemingly more of the latter, but he does so so effortlessly it’s basically uninteresting. The details of the magic system, laid out in pseudo-scientific trappings, were left underexplored but were also so dull I didn’t really want to know any more.
Rothfuss seems to have been going for “gritty,” which led to one of his more interesting decisions- making young Kvothe constantly worry about money. He’s poor and the University costs, at least after first term. This is something of a departure for fantasy, but it isn’t handled well. It’s sort of a low-grade irritant throughout the book, worrying about Kvothe’s finances and doing exchange rates on the various units of currency he uses.
Most of the action takes place in generic medieval city-space and while several cultures are mentioned and attributes ascribed to them, none of them are particularly distinct. There’s lore, intimations of old, deep mysteries (like the murderous wights), but none of it is anything fantasy readers haven’t seen many times before, interspersed with similarly anodyne action. There’s numerous songs and poems but I’ll be damned if I remember any of them, and I finished the book the day I’m writing this.
Then there’s the writing. He didn’t want to do exalted high-fantasy diction. I get that. He doesn’t make even as many concessions to it as does George RR Martin- fine, I guess, you want to stake your own territory. But god help me if Kvothe and basically everyone else in the book (except some yokels done in painful yokel-speak) don’t just talk like anodyne twenty-first century people, with the occasional lapse into flowery language of the kind a marketing intern would make up for a renaissance faire. If your magic is (mostly) science and your cultures aren’t any different from ours except for having lords and ladies (which we might as well have, given where inequality is going), and everyone is going to talk more or less like the people at your friendly local gaming store — a little more verbal and descriptive than at the other stores in the mall, but basically the same dialect — why the fuck did you bother writing fantasy? What was the point?
What this most forcefully reminded me of was less another given piece of literature and more a moment in my life. That’s the moment in college — around the time this book was probably being written, in fact — that it dawned me that most nerds are boring as shit. They might be good or bad, smart or dumb, but nerd culture as a whole did not represent what I wanted out of culture. Cruelly, one of the better things about nerd culture, the participatory element found in role-playing games, fan fiction, etc., bore this out the most. Given the vast scope of possibilities laid out before them, most nerds will ineptly reproduce what came before, the ones who won’t just turn the creative possibilities before them into their personal toilet, that is. Rothfuss presents himself as an every-nerd, and, god love him, after reading “The Name of the Wind” I can’t disagree. I feel about as good about this as I would about roasting some of the decent nerds I knew, but wasn’t friends with, in college- but the hell with it, he made his pile and is doing fine. I’ll give him the extra half star for being a decent dude and deserving more honor, for at least trying fantasy, than shitty litfic gets, not that he or anyone really cares. **
I recently published two works on long-time hobby horses of mine, in part drawing from my birthday lectures.
In the San Antonio Review, I have a look at the newest biography of Henry Adams, one of the premier American intellectuals of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I wrote about Henry Adams way back in 2012 for the first in my current series of birthday lectures. The biography was pretty good.
Mary Wollstonecraft, “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” (1790) and “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) – “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” exists simultaneously as a proto-feminist work and a reminder of historical avenues not taken. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote these essays during the French Revolution, when radical possibilities were flowering and before the reactionary fury against them set in in full force across Europe. By the time she died in 1797, both the revolutionary momentum in France was petering out and reaction in Britain was ascendant. I wonder if she would have found a publisher had she written much later.
Wollstonecraft’s vindications rest on the foundation of Enlightenment faith in reason and education, with a certain soupçon of the romantic ideas starting to arise at the time thrown in. Wollstonecraft is largely in agreement with misogynistic writers of the time in their depiction of women as useless and silly.In her telling, education (or lack thereof), not nature, produces the weak women of the upper and middle classes. Education is the solution, as far as she’s concerned, and what women are due as creatures with souls equal to those of men’s, if not bodies or minds (she’s agnostic about whether women are equally as intelligent as men). This is the diametric opposite of what Rousseau and other writers thought, that education is worse than useless for women, making them less “feminine.”
People go back and forth as to whether to call Wollstonecraft a feminist. On the one hand, she was an unstinting early voice for women’s equality in at least some spheres of life. On the other, she was not full-throated for the idea that women are equal in terms of intelligence to men, and seemed rather to despise women and the feminine in general as they presently existed in her time. I’m hardly the best judge of what’s feminist and what isn’t. What I will say is that by rejecting the idea that women have a special sphere — love, romance, domesticity, the subjective, whatever has meant to go into it over the centuries — Wollstonecraft avoided the gigantic cul de sac that contained women’s collective self-assertion for well over a century after her death. Feminists of the Seneca Falls generation and after picked up on many of Wollstonecraft’s arguments about education, but incorporated the Victorian gender ideology that placed women on a pedestal as naturally equipped to be guardians of morality and the home. Pedestals, as they say, are small, confining spaces, and feminists struggled with how to work within, expand, or explode that space. We still see echoes of that struggle today.
For her part, Wollstonecraft was apparently pretty prominent in life, and part of an important English radical family that included her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Her husband, noted proto-anarchist William Godwin, published her diaries after her death, and the reaction that was setting in across English life reacted poorly to the revelation that Wollstonecraft — gasp! — had premarital sex with men she didn’t marry. This, and her dismissal of the feminine, made her largely persona non grata in nineteenth century thought. It’s too bad. I wouldn’t say that her rejection of everything feminine — up to and including romantic love, which she thought should be indulged briefly and then swapped for nice, rational friendship betwixt married couples — holds up that well to scrutiny, though again, I say this from the cheap seats of manhood. It doesn’t seem popular with the feminist women I know. In keeping with the tropes of radical republican thought at the time, she paid little attention to the economic elements of liberation. But her basic points were important, she was among the first to articulate them at a critical time, and she got some solid, if Enlightenment-era-wordy, burns in on people who deserved it, like Burke and Rousseau. ****
Stephen Graham Jones, “The Only Good Indians” (2020) – An old friend of mine sent this book my way. It’s a horror novel written by a Native American writer, set in contemporary times with mostly Native American characters. Interestingly, most of the characters refer to themselves and their co-ethnics as “Indians.” Jones seems to imply in one bit this is a generational thing- most of the characters are in their thirties, and it’s younger characters who prefer “Native American,” “indigenous,” and so on. I usually use “Native American” to be safe but have been corrected by people claiming authority for using both “Native American” and “Indian,” so, who knows?
The premise of this book is that four young men from the Blackfeet tribe of the upper Midwest go hunting the week before Thanksgiving. They bring their truck onto the part of the hunting grounds reserved for elders of the tribe, which is bad. They find a big herd of elk and blinded by greed, enthusiasm, and the joy of killing, fire rapidly into it, which is pretty bad. A game warden catches them and makes them throw a lot of the meat away, which would seem to make him a party to the badness, but that doesn’t come up- either way, more bad shit. Worst of all, one of the four gruesomely and gracelessly killed a pregnant elk and the calf inside her. He tries to make it right — even bargains with the game warden to let him take the corpse, to make use of all of it — but it won’t be that easy.
Ten years later, mama-elk-spirit comes back for revenge. I don’t feel like that’s a spoiler because it’s revealed in the first third of the book. Spoilers, I think, would be revealing exactly what she does and how to stop her. We’ll just say that she does more in terms of getting her marks to damage themselves and those around them than she does directly attacking people. She can shapeshift, and summon either a herd of elk or the spirit of her herd. It’s not entirely clear, but I think that’s ok, a good thing even. Fiction with monsters these days, influenced by role-playing games where monsters come with stats, often lay out exactly what it is monsters are and aren’t capable of. Good on Jones for keeping it uncanny.
I’m not much of a horror guy (though I probably read more horror this year than I ever have, given my birthday lecture was partly about Lovecraft) so I’m not the best judge, but the action seemed well-paced and horrific without being gratuitous. The character work is what really shone for me. Jones sketches out his characters quickly and completely without a lot of rigamarole, so it really has an impact when stuff happens to them. Even the monster feels real, especially for a vengeful elk spirit.
There is exploration of Native American identity here in a way that is genuinely interlaced with delivering the genre goods, no mean feat in this age of tacked-on morals. I was intrigued by the different ways the characters processed their Native American (invariably, in their inner monologues and conversations, “Indian”) heritage- omnipresent, a determinant factor in their lives (all were reservation-born), a source of both pride and impediments they wish to escape, an altogether different relationship with history, space, and race than white people like me are used to, but never presented by Jones in a reductive or essentialist way. Jones also isn’t so lazy as to make the character stand-ins for different ways of being Blackfeet or Native American. They’re all ambivalent in their own ways about their identities and how they intertwine with their personalities. In keeping with his highly competent interweaving of the themes with the genre action, this shows in how the characters deal with the elk spirit: not so “traditional” as to believe in it right away, not so “modern” as to dismiss it entirely, suspended between very real-seeming doubts and suspicions of the sort that would occur to people when the uncanny and horrifying occurs. All told, a strong genre work. ****’