Émile Zola, “L’Assommoir” (1877) (translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon) – My understanding is that “L’Assommoir” was Zola’s breakthrough, as far as selling the series of which it is the seventh volume, the Rougon-Macquart novels, to the public. He was popular, but this one was a real hit. Whether this is down to the French public finally getting behind Zola’s experiment in extended-form literary naturalism, prising what he saw as the hereditary and environmental factors determining human existence out of the web of mystification around it, or just that people like depictions of low life and few had been served up to them like this before, is for wiser commentators than me to say.
“L’Assommoir” tells the story of one Gervaise (yes, it took a while for me to stop seeing her as Ricky Gervaise in a dress), a low-ranking member of one of the titular families (the Macquarts, for anyone keeping score) of the series. She starts out poor, working as a laundress in a north Paris slum, with two little kids from a dude, Lantier, to whom she wasn’t married and who ditches her early on. Life in the slum is crowded, dirty, and violent, not just physically but emotionally. Everyone is in everyone’s business. It’s the worst of both worlds in terms of people engaging in disapproved behavior — drinking, illicit sex, petty crime — but everyone still being highly moralistic about it all. Like I’ve said before, poverty and trauma don’t, on their own, ennoble- they fuck you up. People in “L’Assommoir” are pretty badly fucked up.
Towards the middle of the book, things look up for Gervaise. She gets married to a roofer, Coupeau, and makes/borrows enough money to open a laundry shop of her own. Zola understood himself as a naturalist, not a sentimentalist ala Dickens. There is, supposedly, a logic to what happens. It’s too much to say it’s the opposite of Dickens, that morality doesn’t enter into it, it definitely does, but in some weird late-nineteenth-century way I don’t fully grasp. So when the downfall starts, there seems to be multiple reasons. One is that Coupeau falls off a roof, hurts himself, and finds out he prefers chilling (and, eventually, drinking a lot even by prevailing standards) to working. If that were all, it would imply that Zola was making a commentary on bad luck. But there’s more to it. Gervaise can’t stop herself from “greed,” which in Zola’s usage means it’s old sense- she wants to eat a lot, and good food too. She also wants to laze and gossip with her workers rather than really attend to the neighborhood’s dirty laundry, and she likes throwing parties, even with her in-laws who hate her.
So as you can see, there’s a weird mix of dynamics going on in this Petrie dish Zola set up. Things get weirder when Lantier re-enters the picture, with mysterious money, political opinions (opposed to the Emperor, but not in an especially helpful way), and good lines of shit. Zola depicts Lantier as a sort of boarder-parasite (not a few social scientists from this period described the horrors that come in the wake of having to take on boarders, especially men) who men and women both find irresistible. He takes back up with Gervaise and also starts borrowing money from her. Coupeau doesn’t care, but he doesn’t care about much by that point besides going down to L’Assommoir, the lowest dive in the neighborhood, and swilling rotgut. Eventually, between Coupeau’s drinking, Gervaise’s laziness and gluttony, Lantier’s depredations, and factors like the utter lack of care options for elders or children, Gervaise is pretty badly fucked. Zola strings this out for hundreds of pages, not sparing details: humiliations at hands of vicious in-laws and former enemies, madness, free-falling standards of appearance and hygiene, eventual demise.
What to make of all this? Well, it held my interest pretty well, more than in-jokes about Second Empire politics or weird Genesis-allegories like you got in earlier installments of the series. Zola claimed this was “the first novel about working people that does not lie” and it scandalized many readers for its (relatively) frank references to sex and low life. The French is, supposedly, in the slum argot of the time, not just the characters’ dialogue and thoughts but much of the omniscient narration as well. The introduction warns this makes “L’Assommoir” notoriously difficult to translate. The translator of this edition made the interesting choice to basically turn it into cockney, which took me out of it some. I’m not sure what a better choice would be, but constantly hearing things described as “not half” this or that, “bleedin’” as a modifier, etc., felt wrong.
I’m also not sure what Zola meant me to carry away from the book. I should reign in my habit of compulsively politically classifying literary writers, but I guess I’d slot in Zola as a left-Republican (in the French sense, though American Republicans were a bit closer to that sense circa 1877). He’s sympathetic to the poor but also thinks they by and large do it to themselves. Character, as transmitted by heredity and shaped by environment, will out. Gervaise and Coupeau’s kid, Nana, subject of a later novel, is the result of slum breeding and slum environment, neither of which can result in anything good as far as Zola is concerned. Workers’s self-assertion in the world of “L’Assommoir” is usually either empty boastfulness, as in the case of the slacker Coupeau, or a grifter’s cover, like with Lantier. Meritocracy and striving don’t do much either. Would Gervaise had made it with a better husband? Zola definitely gets across that women are screwed way worse than men in the slums, structurally screwed. Well- it seems a thing with French social novelists they don’t do much with solutions. A lot of French social theorists used to, at the time, and their solutions were novelistic enough (see Comte, Fourier). This was a pretty good book in any event. If you’re not a weird Rougon-Macquart completist like me, there’s worse places to jump in, despite the translation issues. ****
I had a look at a book by a pair of liberal hawks prognosticating war with China. Come for me getting pissed at how dull and poorly written it is, stay for me getting pissed at how, despite the writers’ liberal bona fides, they still contribute to the anti-Asian climate in this country! Thanks to San Antonio Review for running it, read it here.
Michael Trask, “Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought” (2003) – I enjoyed Michael Trask’s latest two books, “Camp Sites” and “Ideal Minds,” so thoroughly I decided to have a look at his first book, “Cruising Modernism,” which examines notions of sexuality and class within American modernist literature and social sciences between the nineteen-aughts and the twenties.
It, too, is quite good, and I say this as someone with next to no connection to the literary writers Trask takes on: Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and Willa Cather. I’ve either tried them and not liked them (James) or just haven’t tried them and should. I’m something of a cartoon-addled little kid when it comes to literary modernism, preferring the flashy (and wicked) Celines and Wyndham Lewises to the rest, but who knows, maybe I’ll like the others? Either way, Trask makes some compelling points. It’s not enough to talk about these writers as being on one “side” or another of a contemporary culture war read back into the past (this was written in the gay-marriage-fight era). Trask would probably take me to task for my lumbering historiographical take — he’s got the finesse (and digs) of a literary critic who knows his business — but I see all of the writers he talks about as responding to dynamics that upset established class and sexual hierarchies.
The sheer speed and dislocation of movements of people, capital, goods, ideas, etc. that defined the early twentieth century posed problems for both literature and social science. Both fields were used to thinking in terms of “statics”- fixed rules of society, fixed ideas of what literature was, fixed morality (that a lot of these fixes were quite new didn’t seem to bother them, or did it? They don’t seem now). Then all of a sudden (i.e. the Second Industrial Revolution hit) everything was “dynamics” and people didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. Social scientists located mobility as a major source of numerous “ills,” from labor agitation to homosexuality. They weren’t shy about sort of stirring these ills into one big degeneracy stew, and locating these in specific people, namely hobos/tramps and immigrants, especially the newer waves coming from the Mediterranean. Good (poor) people stay put, quietly work for (whatever offered) wage, and marry someone of the opposite gender. Bad poors wander around, looking for kicks.
Writers had different reactions to these bad poors and their cousins, the neurasthenic and newly-extra-mobile (witness Henry James and his characters flitting across the Atlantic) rich. I’ll be honest here and say I didn’t fully keep score and the close readings of writers I haven’t read and probably wouldn’t like that much threw me a little, but the chapters still held my interest. As far as I can tell, Henry James thought the new mobility made people sad and weird and got them in bad marriages. Gertrude Stein (and many social scientists) preferred nice, reliable, obedient dogs to flighty, self-motivated people (she would have loved doggo memes, I bet, the more misanthropic the better). Workers made Hart Crane horny, and Cather had something going on with the erotics of Catholicism? Either way, interesting stuff to think about. I will grant the work is a bit “dissertation-y” in places, but Trask already showed the ability to play with schema while getting his points across brilliantly that would characterize his later work. I’ve invited him to chat with me on zoom for a YouTube video- hopefully he replies! ****’
Tom O’Neill, “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties” (2019) (narrated by Kevin Stillwell) – I picked this book up because I had heard it proffers a new idea of the Manson murders. As it happens, (former) entertainment reporter Tom O’Neill is quite careful not to advance a thesis on what happened those days in the summer of 1969 or why. Instead, he blows holes in the established story, presents circumstantial evidence pointing to other potential stories, and most of all tells the story of his investigation. What started as a five-thousand word assignment for a now vanished entertainment magazine in the late nineties became a twenty year obsession for O’Neill, and eventually, this book.
I don’t know when exactly I learned of the Manson murders, sometime as a child. Like I’ve said in this space before, one thing my sisters and I agreed upon as kids was that cults were fascinating, and we all heard sixties stories from our parents (neither of whom were hippies or anywhere near California at the time). Truth be told they interest me more as a cultural phenomenon than as a set of murders as such. Maybe Manson is more interesting to me than most serial killers because he’s not really a serial killer- arguably, he was the commanding officer of a very peculiar death squad. War always interested me more than murder and the Family had in mind something like war, according to the official narrative.
For those who have not made the choice to know about Manson, that official narrative, set in place by Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, in his case against The Family and in his crime classic “Helter Skelter,” goes like this: foiled in his attempts to become a rock star, Charles Manson became obsessed with the idea that The Beatles were communicating with him via “The White Album.” Convinced the song “Helter Skelter” (one of my favorite Beatles tunes) predicted a race war that Manson and his group of acid-casualty followers, “The Family,” would profit from somehow, Manson had his followers commit two house invasion murder sprees with knives. They were instructed to make the crimes messy, and to daub messages on the walls of the houses in blood to implicate the Black Panthers, thereby initiating a race war. The Family would then stand back, let society collapse, and allow Charles Manson to emerge from the wreckage as king. This convinced a jury to convict Manson for murder, despite his not having killed anyone at either house, and generations of true crime fans.
Manson and his followers always insisted the “Helter Skelter” motivation was bullshit, but then, they seldom said much coherent except that they disapproved of society as such. According to his account, O’Neill didn’t think much of it either way. He makes clear from the beginning, in the somewhat panicked tone of a man trying to convince someone of something they’re worried won’t be believed, that he does not believe that Manson and the Family are innocent. They murdered those people in those houses and others. But O’Neill comes to dismiss the “Helter Skelter” theory, and that’s probably his biggest achievement in this book.
There’s too many twists and turns and nooks and crannies both in the angles on the case O’Neill found and in O’Neill’s story to relate them all here. There are also some blind alleys in the book. O’Neill reports how his early investigations led him to the criminal milieu that hung around Cielo Drive, the posh house where the first and most celebrated Family mass-slaying occurred. Rather than innocent actress Sharon Tate lounging around in her underwear massively pregnant, waiting for husband Roman Polanski to come home but getting The Family instead, we get a whole lot of drug dealers and violence around the house, some of it Polanski’s directed at Tate. They don’t really enter into O’Neill’s larger thesis, though, except in two related ways: they first bring in the hints of military, intelligence, and organized crime involvement in the story, and they basically begin O’Neill’s descent into something like madness.
The two biggest holes in the establishment “Helter Skelter” story seem to be these: that key witness Terry Melcher, a record producer who angered Manson by refusing to sign him, severely understated his relationship to Manson, before and after the murders that happened at Melcher’s former address; and the way the cops could have locked up Manson, a parolee from the federal prison system, any time. They, especially the LA County Sheriff’s Office, knew he was dealing drugs, stealing cars, having sex with underage girls, etc. Why didn’t they bust him back? Or at least suspect him sooner for the crimes? The Family was free for weeks while the LAPD and LASO bungled, and it was only Family member Sadie Atkins bragging about murdering Tate while in jail for some other crime that sent the cops out to pick up The Family in their post-race-war-hideout in the Arizona desert.
The LA cops treating Manson with kid gloves is only the most spectacular and surface-level peculiarity of Manson’s dealings with authorities after he was paroled in the early sixties. There was also the fact that his parole officer, Roger Smith, had precisely one parolee, Manson, while the rest of the federal POs in California had dozens. Manson spent a year or so in San Francisco, just after the famed “Summer of Love,” and this is where he started The Family, but Bugliosi barely refers to it in “Helter Skelter.” O’Neill looked into it and found that Manson and his early girls (like “Sexy Sadie” Atkins, who had connections with the Church of Satan) spent a lot of time at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. HAFMC, in turn, was host to people who basically saw hippie-fied San Francisco as a great big social science laboratory. This included Louis “Jolly” West, known for his experimenting on unwitting people with amphetamines, LSD, and more (not just people, either- he fed a fully-grown elephant LSD until it died, for science, supposedly). As meth hit the Haight and the Summer of Love turned into a spiral of violence and madness (even Manson felt compelled to leave, though presumably there was also a pull factor to LA, Manson’s dreams of stardom), guys like West just sat back and watched, or tried stuff out, with the HAFMC as something of a base.
Jolly West was a certified sociopathic creep and almost certainly connected to the CIA’s MKUltra experimentation program. Motivated by (racialized, mostly bullshit) accounts of Chinese “brainwashing” of UN prisoners during the Korean War, the CIA decided it would be cool to figure out how to do brainwashing of their own, including for the purpose of creating untraceable assassins. Why this supposed “intelligence agency” couldn’t just hire local thugs to do stuff like that is a mystery to me and probably catnip to conspiracists- you’re not gonna get a local thug to kill a US President, for instance. In any event, for at least a decade, the CIA got scientists to seriously fuck with people with drugs, including the recently-discovered LSD, to learn how to “reprogram” people. This isn’t conspiracy theory- this is public record, stuff the CIA admitted to during that brief window in the seventies when Congress tried to reign them in.
Also in the public record we find the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and the CIA’s Chaos project, both of which were aimed at disrupting political dissidents, overwhelmingly on the left. COINTELPRO set up Fred Hampton for assassination, tried to get MLK Jr. to commit suicide (and might have greenlit his assassination), used violence to sew discord in militant groups, and that’s just what we know about (thanks largely to an analog wikileaking by a group of brave militants who burgled an FBI field office). Chaos was in much the same vein but even more illegal- the CIA is not supposed to do clandestine operations in the US. A fair amount of the book “Chaos” is dedicated to O’Neill relating the facts about MKUltra, COINTELPRO, and Chaos to his presumed true-crime readership, all with the caveats that O’Neill was learning this as an entertainment writer now way, way past deadline for his thirty-year anniversary of the Manson murders piece.
Ultimately, we’re left with more tantalizing questions than answers. Could Manson have been a product of MKUltra-style experiments run out of the Haight? We know MKUltra experimented on federal prisoners around that time and earlier. Whitey Bulger spent his time on Alcatraz being dosed with LSD and reading Machiavelli. Could Manson have learned a crude version of CIA brainwashing techniques and used them on The Family to turn more-or-less normal kids into killers? Could the LA authorities have been warned away from Manson because someone in a high place wanted to see what Manson and The Family would do? Could the Tate/LaBianca killings have nothing to do with “Helter Skelter,” but have been a hit, aimed at countercultural Hollywood and its support for left/liberal causes? Surely, the Manson murders “ended ‘The Sixties,’” as writers from Joan Didion on down have insisted so often it’s become a cliche.
O’Neill, ever-worried about becoming a conspiracy theorist, does not answer in the affirmative for any of these. His book ends with dangling questions, a few additional questions thrown in (did Manson or The Family kill a young drifter in the Arizona desert before getting arrested? Are the cops covering it up?), and a call for the truth. Talking to Manson briefly on the phone from jail didn’t help. And neither did Vincent Bugliosi, who proves to be a first-class weirdo and martinet, not the calm, thoughtful guide through the muck, blood, and chaos he presents himself as in “Helter Skelter.” Bugliosi, in O’Neill’s account, repeatedly threatened and harangued them in tones both ridiculous and ominous, especially as O’Neill dug up fairly compelling evidence that Bugliosi suborned perjury during the Manson trial. It’s also on public record that Bugliosi is a woman beater, attacking his mistress after she refused to get an abortion, something that probably helped scotch his political career but didn’t stop the crime networks from putting Bugliosi on tv until he died a few years before “Chaos” came out.
What do I think? Well, there’s definitely something fishy about the way the authorities treated Manson pre-murders. Ethically speaking, there is literally nothing I would put past the CIA, then or now. Admittedly, hitting at the counterculture when you’re aiming at “the left” doesn’t make much sense to me — if anything, hippie shit was an impediment to doing real organizing — but it’d probably make perfect sense to the idiots at Langley or to J. Edgar Hoover. The closest thing I could see them quailing from would be murdering Sharon Tate, the pregnant daughter of an Army Intelligence colonel, not quite a “made guy” in their mafia but close. There’s no way to prove any of this and probably won’t be- the thing that made much of this possible was O’Neill finding Jolly West’s papers at UCLA, untouched. That’s the kind of thing you’d figure a big conspiracy wouldn’t let happen, but in this Coen Brothers movie we live in, who knows… for my money, I can buy Manson was fucked with by MKUltra types, and in his imitative way, could’ve tried it on with the girls. I really can’t get around LASO not bouncing him back to the fed pen numerous times, which does indicate protection… but protection from some Jolly West figure who just wanted to see what they’d do — for science, of course — seems more likely to me than a master plan to kill various Hollywood types and through them, the general Sixties vibe. Fuck knows, though.
Why this angle on Manson, why now? That’s an interesting question to me as someone more interested in the phenomena around the murder than the murder itself. Well, O’Neill worked on it since we thought Al Gore might be President, so presumably, he didn’t have a current-zeitgeisty reason behind it. I do think it has been assimilated to a wave of pop-left conspiracy theory backed by podcasts like “TrueAnon,” seizing on the traditional right-wing terrain of conspiracies. The stern intellectual leftist in me disapproves. The somewhat less stern historian knows that the left was never immune: for every antisemitic theory running around nineteenth century France, for instance, there seems to have been an equal-but-opposite Jacobin-left theory that everything that went wrong was down to the Jesuits. This could all be a sign that the left is reaching more people, including people given to this kind of thinking? The very real existence of certain conspiracies doesn’t help. I don’t know. “Stick to the documented,” I punt.
Experientially, listening to this book is pretty fun. You have to figure O’Neill “leaned in” a little to the naif-investigator angle in terms of his personal story, but it works. There’s a lot of baroque detail about Tate and Polanski’s Hollywood scene, which is fun if you like that kind of thing, and about the dirty details of MKUltra/COINTELPRO/Chaos style shenanigans. The freaks — the Hollywood “live freaky, die freaky” types and the even freakier freaks in white coats and ties like Jolly West — truly come out and alive throughout the text. I don’t usually say much about the narrators of audiobooks but actor Kevin Stillwell does a wonderful job conveying O’Neill’s curiosity, skepticism, and dawning realizations. All in all, I can by saying of “Chaos” that “it’s a real trip, man,” both in the sense of being interesting and informative and in the sense that a somewhat cliche sixties saying from a known square is an appropriate end point to a discussion of this fascinating and at times frustrating book. ****’
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Andy Ngo, “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Plan to Destroy Democracy” (2021) – I know I’ve lamented before the lack of interesting voices on the contemporary right. This constitutes a problem for me on a number of levels: one of my tasks is to read this shit, good or bad, and it would be nice if more were good; historically, there have been plenty of good right-leaning writers; and I suppose some part of me still wants to find worthy opponents. I knew Andy Ngo, grifter and professional victim, wouldn’t be the guy to provide any of that stuff, when I picked up his big leap from Twitter to bound paper books. My expectations were not high. Ngo still managed to disappoint.
Remember when people talked about how slick right-wing media was, back when cable news and talk radio were still a-forming and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were taking the world by storm? Well, presumably now that they know that their base exists in the decaying minds of the old (and the pre-decayed minds of the willfully ignorant young), it seems they don’t really try that hard anymore. Or maybe books are such loss leaders, something to give an uncle for Christmas, it just doesn’t matter?
In any event, I went in expecting slickness. I thought it would be a smooth propaganda pill. It wasn’t. “Unmasked” is a poorly organized, underedited mess. Speaking as someone who has given some thought to the mixture of reporting, political polemic, and memoirs that Ngo is attempting here, “Unmasked” is mostly a good indicator of what not to do.
The usual question in the culture at large and when dealing with the right in particular is “is this person lying, or stupid?” I asked myself that plenty of times reading “Unmasked,” but structurally, the more relevant question is often “Is Andy Ngo (and his editors) completely incompetent, or is he/are they trying to be fancy?” The ways in which this text arranges reportage, history, polemic, and Ngo’s personal story (it leans a lot on Ngo getting his ass kicked by antifa once, and his parents fleeing Vietnam after Uncle Ho stole his mom’s slaves or something) make zero sense, and there’s no introduction that tries to explain. The chapter order seems like they put them through random.org to make a table of contents, and within chapters, there’s often little rhyme or reason as to what paragraph goes where. The dispiriting conclusion I came to is that Hachette, a mainstream press (they also published antifascist Talia Lavin’s “Culture Warlords,” in the same catalog!), decided that their audience just didn’t give a damn. You’d figure Regnery might have more pride of workmanship, if not respect for their readership.
This is basically “Spooky Stories To Tell In The Dark” but aimed towards Fox News grandpas instead of towards pre-teen children. You’d figure trying to appeal to an audience that had completed their formal education, not just begun it, would make Ngo and his editors more attentive to form, not less, but alas. You could make something, not necessarily “good,” but at least interesting and provocative out of this. But no. And really, why bother? No one is reading this to learn anything, except maybe for me and some other antifascists trying to dope out what the other side is thinking.
They aren’t thinking. This is a dangerous thing for me to think- surely someone somewhere is thinking something, and if I assume they’re not I could get complacent. I’ll buy that some cops are thinking. Maybe some think tank types, and perhaps someday I’ll find an actually interesting contemporary right-wing thinker toiling away in obscurity, probably on a blog somewhere. But for the most part, no. They’re feeling and reacting. This is a Fox News segment in prose. Ever try to read the transcripts of a Fox News show? Ever try it for three hundred pages? You’re not going to get any actual thought there. The thought comes from behind the scenes- what combination of (small, often false, always decontextualized bits of) information, images, and sounds will make our target audience’s lizard brain react the way we want it to? Without images and sounds, not only does it lack anything for the human brain, but the lizard brain within the human brain is left hungry, too.
Among other things, Ngo made the baffling choice to try to do riot porn (at one point he tries to ding the left for calling it that but basically forgets his point midway through the paragraph) in text. That’s hard even for good writers. Andy Ngo is a bad writer, and his attempt to document seemingly every time a Portland teen winged a water bottle at a riot cop line just makes the whole thing tedious. To the extent there’s a method here, I guess it would be just sheer repetition to get across a sense of crisis and beat down resistance to it. It’s another Fox News standby that might work in prose from a good writer, but again, we’re stuck with Ngo.
Lying, or stupid? That question comes into play with what rhetoricians might call “ethos”- how Ngo sells himself to sell his story. The most effective post-Watergate anglophone right-wing propaganda has relied on humor. You can do gravitas and danger to get across a specific point — like “we need to invade Iraq” — but it was humor that laid the groundwork, like the meme “anyone who cares about peace is an idiot, a pussy, and a hypocrite, and poorly-dressed to boot.” Reagan’s smile, Stone and Parker’s and Judge’s jokes, the altright’s memes… well, Ngo goes in a different direction. He is completely humorless throughout. GIS reveals an older millennial who can, indeed, smile, but it’s the smile of lost livestock, not that Reaganite sneer. Ngo is harmed, not harmer. He insists he is merely center-right, whatever that means now. He probably means it, no matter how much cover he gives the likes of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys.
The closest thing to an intrinsic interest to “Unmasked” is in how Ngo weaponizes gormlessness. Graduate students don’t have a ton of analytical advantages beyond just time to develop them, but they’ll have an edge in understanding this: Ngo is that student who wanders into your cubicle genuinely unsure of why he got that patronizing, generous B. He deserved a B- but he wants an A- at least. He tried so hard! You can point out a few things he got wrong, some bad writing tics like overuse of passive voice (Ngo likes his passive voice). But you can’t just tell him “you said nothing and repeated cliches for five pages” without literally reading the whole damned paper aloud to him, with commentary. So you bump him up to B+ so he’ll leave your cube, unless the passive voice was so egregious you can hold on to that unadorned B.
Put a camera in your cube, and who do you think a viewer would sympathize with? The overeducated lout trying to get back to his Twitter browsing or the nice clean cut kid explaining how hard he tried? It’s precisely that dynamic Ngo tries to exploit. It’s the closest to smart he gets. Are the gormless really gormless or do they fake it for effect? One of the good lessons of the wonderful “The Good Soldier Svejk” is that it doesn’t have to be either/or. Few people are so gormless they can’t figure out basic patterns, like that when they lean into their gormlessness with a sucker, they get sympathy, or money, or better grades, and so it is with Ngo. And there’s no bigger bunch of suckers than the Fox News audience he’s cultivating.
So Ngo acts shocked, shocked! That angry people in groups he routinely denounces maybe don’t want him around and are willing to physically chase him from their presence. Shocked, shocked! That people don’t like capitalism or think maybe it has a relationship with racism. Is he really shocked, really that gormless, or is it an act meant to help get him over, differentiate him from real right-wing ideologues? Does it matter? For my money, only if you can operationalize the difference. Let know if you can.
How bad is it when a non-historian’s half-assed historical section is the best part of a book? Not a good part, mind, but it’s less actively mendacious than the rest of the book. When Ngo relates that the East German government made a big deal out of being antifascist while deploying the Stasi (the ORIGINAL cancel culture!) against its people, does he actually think that has anything to do with antifa, or is he being cynical? Who cares. One place that seems to hint against gormlessness is his consistent habit of misgendering and deadnaming. If he was that simple and non-ideological, Forrest Gump with a GoPro, he could show some basic respect. He doesn’t even bother with fun conspiratorial cork board stuff! Just notes Democrats are less febrile about antifa than Republicans and that the NLG bails them out of jail. Jesus. When you can’t even bother with that, what can you do? ‘
Steven Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac” (2018) – I read this one as part of a piece I’m writing prompted by another (better, shorter) book on millennial religious/spiritual practices. I’m going to be reading some speeches and writings by Senate creep Josh Hawley next for that project, so really treating myself here!
At first, I was excited for this book. Reviews and the author of the better millennial spirituality book made it sound intelligent. “Aha, perhaps here, we will get a contemporary intellectual conservative!” I was thinking. Still that Michael Mann impulse to find worthy opposition, a Neil in a world of Waingros… This Steve Smith guy is no Waingro, no reichsadler tattoo and (probably) no dead sex workers (one of the weaknesses in “Heat,” they just… threw that in and did nothing with it- I love “Heat,” but it has holes you can drive a truck through). He’s a Christian conservative law professor. Alas, he is no Neil. He’s… I dunno… one of the people ducking when the big gunfight spills into a grocery store parking lot? It’s just a metaphor.
Beyond reviews, I thought “Pagans and Christians in the City” sounded promising because it seemed to promise a look at the perennial political problem of how people with radically different ideas of the sources of authority and rules of conduct might live together. I dreamed it might get into the nitty-gritty of how different cosmopolitan societies arranged these things, and used that knowledge to analyze the culture war situation of today. It is that relationship between millennial spirituality and civic life — such as it is today — that I intend to interrogate in my piece.
Alas, what I got instead was… well, I’ll say it was an interesting experience, my emotional state through reading this book. We begin with excitement. Smith says he’s going to show that today’s culture wars align with the culture wars in imperial Rome, a conflict between Christians and pagans. More abstractly, the conflict is between believers in a transcendent spirituality — the ultimate source of power and authority comes from something outside of the world, as believed by the Abrahamic religions (my understanding is that it might be a bit iffier than that in Judaism, but ok) — and believers in immanent spirituality: the idea that the sacred inheres in this world. Most of the “pagans” don’t worship ye olden gods nowadays, and, as Smith and many others note, neither did many of the pagans of antiquity, especially the educated types who left their ideas for us to read. But they do have a distinct attitude to the world and the hereafter that transcendent spirituality does not share. Ok, so far, so good- maybe not all the way “right” but coherent and interesting.
Then, the erudition. I’m fine with people flashing their learning around. It’s fun. I do it. But A. the sententious gentleman-scholar affect conservative intellectuals put on gets old, fast and B. it’s tone unsuited to content. Don’t come the classics scholar when you’re not reading in the Latin and Greek originals. All of Smith’s arguments about what Rome was like come from secondary sources. As best I can tell, they’re mostly legitimate, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with structuring an argument from them. But I’m relating the subjective experience of reading, and it got annoying as he went on and on in this performatively judicious tone (lawyers gonna lawyer I guess) that he hasn’t got the erudition for…
So, disappointment is, I guess, the theme going forward. Especially once he stops noodling on the classics and gets down to brass tacks, several different types of disappointment hit at once. First, he quickly dismisses the concept of secularism. Very few people are truly secular, he says, because it’s too hard to face the universe that way. There’s some truth in that, the first part, anyway, and there is a long list of supposed seculars, from smart people like Richard Dworkin to stupid people like Sam Harris, who find their way back to some acceptable spirituality. Smith says that spirituality tends to be a worldly, “immanent” one, and while that’s true in some cases, the Harrises of the world, for all their flirtation with things like Buddhism, also clearly believe in forces at work transcendent and vengeful enough for any bearded Semitic sky god… but the real stupid line Smith uses is that you can tell no one’s secular because so few people agree with strict utilitarianism- so few are fine with violent eugenics, basically. It’s basically “you can’t be a good person without god” gone to law school.
It’s basically downhill from there. Things get more lawyerly and myopic as Smith focuses on his instances of the ways in which transcendent-Christians (and Jews and sometimes Muslims, he hastens to add) and immanent-pagans can’t live together without conflict over public space, and how it’s all the latter’s fault for pushing their immancence-religion-posing-as-secular-fairness on people. At this point, I was mainly hoping for some entertaining freakouts. If the dude couldn’t bring real insight, at least he could amuse us all with some good shrieking about “ethical sluts” and trans people in bathrooms, right? That’s an established pattern- pseudo-erudite maundering followed by the freakout. But no such luck. There’s just the amusement factor of him fighting the last war, the gay marriage war. Forget Japanese soldiers abandoned on Pacific islets still thinking the war is going on- this is like a salaryman at Mitsubishi not getting the war is over after the side that won agreed to reconstruct his country (like how gay marriage has partially domesticated queerness).
The stupid thing is, there is a story here. There are legitimate questions of collective life that “live and let live” — my go-to answer — doesn’t answer. You’d figure the right, with its interest in the details of hierarchy, one of the main arrangements used in organizing society, would have something to say, here. But no. I’ve said before how the right’s embrace of sentimentality since the Reagan era has kneecapped it intellectually, and this exposes another liability of power to thought: they fuel their rule-making machine with the petty grudges of pedants and martinets, letting them climb the ladder and telling them they’re smart when really, they’re just widgets. I give this an extra star for groping towards a real set of questions, but ultimately, it was a big disappointment. **
Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander” (1969) – In many respects, my decision to read this book (to the extent it was mine- it was elected by the Citizens of Melendy Avenue Review, a fine body of people you should join!), came down to genre homework. The Aubrey-Maturin sea adventures, of which this is the first, have had an outsized effect on adventure fiction of all kinds. It’s fair to say I’ve read people doing Patrick O’Brian in space (David Weber), Patrick O’Brian with dragons (Naomi Novik), Patrick O’Brian in weird alternate history scenarios (S.M. Stirling), etc. So I figured it made sense to read the original article, though of course you’ll have people saying I should go back to C.S. Forester and the “Hornblower” novels, or back before them, or back and back until you wind up with Homer… but most seem to agree O’Brian in particular had a special stamp. His work might have been my biggest single gap in my genre education, other than the gaping lacuna of romance, the English language’s biggest genre… someday…
But “Master and Commander” wasn’t just homework. It turned out to be a lot of fun. The year was 1800! The Napoleonic Wars were raging and things are going pretty well for France and not so great for Britain. But the latter have the Royal Navy (and the English Channel, arguably the most consequential twenty-one miles of water in history). Big sailing ships were almost certainly the most complex technological systems then in existence. Building, crewing, maintaining, sailing, and fighting them involved massive expenditures of both capital and labor, and the development of complex systems of control. If you could make the investment, it paid off big, like it did for the British and eventually the Americans. If you couldn’t, catching up was damned near impossible, as the French and later the Germans found. Just putting guns, even a lot of guns, on something that floats won’t do it.
What you needed were institutions, a culture even, to run such big, complex systems in the absence of a lot of the technological and administrative aids we take for granted, even mass literacy. “Master and Commander” takes you right into that culture and into those systems. I guess that’s a dorky way of saying that O’Brian immerses the reader in how the Royal Navy and its ships worked. We learn of the different types of ship, and especially sloops, smaller ships of the type with which we spend the most time in the book. There’s a lot about rigging and sails, masts, ropes, spars, navigation, stuff being at port and starboard and leeward and windward. We see the rituals of the service, both above decks with the officers and below with the men. There’s a lot of gritty detail about how the Royal Navy operated, which I’ll get into when I discuss plot. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash,” as the Churchill quote (and much better Pogues album) put it, are all present and accounted for to one degree or another.
Of course, most historical fiction readers (and I understand this as paradigmatic historical fiction- is that right?) aren’t reading for systems, though immersion in the rich details of the past are definitely an appeal. At the heart of the book lie relationships between men. The most important is that between Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin. It starts out with Stephen shooshing Jack at a concert, but they soon wind up bosom buddies. Jack has a ship, the sloop “Sophie,” his first independent command, but senior officers stripped her of most of her better men, including her surgeon. So he hires on Stephen, who’s overqualified but glad to get off Minorca, the tiny Mediterranean island where things start, and have adventures with Jack and see new animals and plants and stuff. Stephen is a man of learning, a naturalist, something of an Enlightenment philosophe type (but no damned radical); Jack is a bluff, honest, impulsive Englishman, who likes women, food, a good fight, and prize money.
One of the more interesting things to me in this book is the way in which money moves things (not too different from that other perennial favorite depicting manners and mores of the same period, Jane Austen). The Royal Navy had an entrepreneurial streak certain management writers of today would admire- they would send ships out cruising for enemy shipping, and let the officers and men keep much of the loot they took. It turned out to be a pretty good system when your goal was to disrupt the Europe-wide economic bloc Napoleon was trying to create, and had crews of poor (often kidnapped) men with few options led by officers, like Captain Aubrey, from the petty nobility or bourgeoisie who could use the scratch to launch themselves up Britain’s greasy social pole. Of course, O’Brian and his characters don’t really see it that way- they see it as great fun. Men out on their own, in a hierarchy of real talent and respect, cruising the seas and mixing it up… and O’Brian gets the reader to have fun with it, too, and seeing the system behind it is just part of the fun. These are worldly men who accept the world and make the most of it.
There’s a lot of fun action, from early “shakedown” cruises where Captain Jack gets his misfit crew to work together on the rigging and the guns properly, to battles with other ships (often bigger and more heavily-armed, but clever strategy and brio wins the day… usually), to sneaking up on coastal fortifications and blowing them up. There’s false flags (which I thought weren’t allowed, but apparently were?) and other mischief. Stephen serves as our landlubber eyes, asking Jack and other sailors how stuff works, but there’s way, way too many sails and masts and ropes and decks and widgets and whatevers to actually keep track. You just let it wash over you. The character work is quite good in its way, unobtrusive and effective- you learn to like the other officers from small interactions.
They get a year or so of fun doings until Royal Navy politics rears its ugly head. Jack is a simple man who enjoys simple things, like sex, including with an important naval bureaucrat’s wife (Stephen, for his part, seems only to have oh-so-platonic eyes for his bestie, Jack). Said bureaucrat screws Jack out of a big score “Sophie” took and puts him on a milk run, escorting a mail ship. Saucy Jack takes some scores on coastal Spain, tipping off some big ass French and Spanish ships, and gets captured (O’Brian knows where to draw the line in terms of what dash and elan can accomplish).
And then… well, it’s not a big problem, but it is pretty anticlimactic. After some amusing scenes where both Jack and Stephen become bros with their captors — officers and doctors can always talk shop, even if they were trying to kill each other not so long ago — they get swapped out, and Jack looks like he’ll get in trouble for losing his ship (and pissing off too many other officers by showing them up/sleeping with their wives)… but he doesn’t. There’s another anticlimax earlier, where some intrigue involving Stephen, the ship’s second in command James, and the United Irishmen (rebels in colonized Ireland, just recently suppressed), basically comes to nothing after having been built up for a while.
Still and all, it’s fun times. I could see people getting tired of the nautical terminology, or just wanting Jack and Stephen to hurry up and bang already, but clearly both the terminology and the suppression of the homoeroticism involved is part of the genre fun. I think it more or less fully earns the hype and its exalted place in genre fiction, and I look forward to reading the next one. ****’
Yaa Gyasi, “Homegoing” (2016) (narrated by Dominic Hoffman) – Historical fiction, as a category, eludes me somewhat. A friend defined it for me reasonably well, but I confess that I had been drinking and most of what I remember was that it’s fiction set before living memory but still within historical time i.e. not in a mythical undated past. I feel like there’s more to it than that, a certain relationship to the past, but I never solidified my thoughts on this; maybe it is just as my friend (who reads more historical fiction than I do, I’m pretty sure) has it and that’s it.
For instance- “Homegoing,” which made quite a splash when it came out in 2016, first novel by a writer in her mid-twenties… is it historical fiction? It does, indeed, take place in the past, ranging from the eighteenth century to close to the present day. It’s also definitely literary fiction. I suppose genre boundaries are generally looser these days, but all the same I can’t shake the idea that real, on-the-button historical fiction is… more romantic? More detail focused, really embedding you in the past? More populist? I don’t know.
Anyway! “Homegoing” is a story of two lineages. They are descended from half-sisters on the eighteenth century Gold Coast, in today’s Ghana. Effia, raised among the Fante people, marries a British officer overseeing the slave trade; Esi, raised semi-illegitimately among the Asante, winds up enslaved, sold out of the fortress that Effia’s husband oversees. We then follow the two half-sister’s descendants, Effia’s in Ghana, Esi’s in the United States, through two centuries or so of history.
Critics have described “Homegoing” as closer to a collection of short stories than a novel, and there’s something to that. Not only do the chapters focus on separate individuals as we follow the lines through the generations, they’re usually cut off from whoever became before. The previous generation in any given story is usually dead, sold away, missing, otherwise absent from the action with few exceptions, where the previous generational character is old and beaten down by life. The traumas of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow will tend to do that. The lines come together in the end, thanks to the magic of university education in the late twentieth century. There’s no happily-ever-after promised for the last two of their respective lines but they do gain a certain degree of self-knowledge… that feels like a common trope in contemporary literature but I wouldn’t stake too much on it.
Truth be told, the characters started to run together some as Gyasi hit various historical beats. More than individuals, there was “the post-Reconstruction guy,” “the lady around when they introduce cacao production in Ghana,” “the college kids,” etc. That could be part of the point- history and it’s long-neglected, now-attention-grabbing personal-level cousin, intergenerational trauma, determines these characters more than interiority. It also could be that such a work is less suited for listening to as an audiobook, though the voice actor, Dominic Hoffman, does a decent job (note- I’m no judge of African accents so don’t get mad if you listen and don’t like his).
Trauma and history interact to make character- self-knowledge, and knowledge of one’s lineage, maybe provides a key to a meaningful life; as far as I can tell, these are the points of the book. It’s kind of similar to “Roots,” in a way, though the feel is entirely different. “Roots” came out of the black pride moment (written by a Republican who was, arguably, trying to corral black pride to an at least moderately conservative end); “Homegoing” comes out of contemporary social justice and fiction workshop milieus. Gyasi’s prose is finer than Haley’s, by a wide margin; Haley’s prose was generally more vigorous than Gyasi’s.
Trauma, history, lineage-knowledge as self-knowledge… white people tried this script, in the twentieth century, sometimes with real pathos (Jewish writers coming to terms with the Holocaust), sometimes more with bathos (“white ethnic” stuff amongst gentiles, and not a few Jews too). I think it is different from PoC writers, frankly, I’m not about to call them bathetic unless they go really overboard, but we’ll just say it has little to do with my idea of history. As far as I’m concerned — and I know this puts me at odds with leftists of more of a socialist stripe, as well as lineage-knowledge-power types who tend to be more left-liberal — I don’t believe there is a redemptive arc in history. I don’t believe it in personal history and I don’t believe it in global history and I don’t believe it for any history in between. Even if we achieve global or galactic utopia, that won’t have any bearing on what happened before. Each moment of the past has its own validity, its own goodness or badness not transfigurable into something else by the future…
Well! We’ve gotten off the beaten path and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gyasi more or less agrees but still sees power and healing in ancestry stories. And why not! She hasn’t got my long line of potato-diggers and pogrom-dodgers and, eventually, settlers of stolen land and wage-slaves to look back on. I’m just relating why this maybe didn’t move me more. It wasn’t bad but I didn’t get that much into it.
I will say, I have some interest in the increasing intellectual/cultural prominence of immigrants from Africa and their children (presumably, soon enough, grandchildren et al) in American life. Yaa Gyasi is one such, the daughter of academics who came to the US from Ghana, and who has lived on both sides of the pond. Two funny tells of the “West African moment,” beyond the Nigerian and Ghanaian et al names you see on bestseller lists and TV. I used to listen to a podcast hosted by black men who made much of the supposedly privileged status of immigrant Africans and how they supposedly don’t play well with “American descendants of slaves,” which apparently is a buzz-phrase with online black reactionaries now? Also, the fell Amy Chua, jurist, pop-sociologist, possible procurer for Brett Kavanaugh, named Nigerian-Americans as one of six or so, like, “power-ethnicities” to look out for in the next few generations. Interesting portents! ***