Gail Bederman, “Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Race and Gender in the United States, 1880-1917” (1996) – This is a good work of history that makes good points, but like some other recent(ish) historical works — thinking Herf’s “Reactionary Modernism” here — suffers somewhat from its own success, read twenty-five years after its release. It has somewhat an inversion of Herf’s problem: his book’s title became almost a cliche, but the arguments within it are varied enough to reach beyond the cliche. Bederman’s work constitutes a substantial pick-blow in the excavation of the sheer weirdness of the white world between 1870 and the outbreak of WWI. None of her phrases or ideas became cliches, and “Manliness and Civilization” still represents vital work, but the text itself tends towards a repetitive thesis-heavy show-and-tell. It probably doesn’t help that Bederman was publishing a decade or so after Herf, which is to say, a decade further into academia’s slide into caution and irrelevance. This was probably Bederman’s dissertation and those are generally cautious and schematic.
Wow! I’m making “Manliness and Civilization” sound bad, and also not saying what it’s about. It’s not bad! It’s good. And it’s about the extended freakout around race and gender that overtook the white bourgeoisie throughout the world in the last third of the nineteenth century, and running into the early twentieth. White men were in decline, people started thinking. They were under siege, supposedly, from the “lower races,” the lower classes, women, and most of all, their own comfort and prosperity. No more could manliness be understood as the sort of relatively sober-sided dispensation of responsibility. No, it had to get aggressive. It had to get primal! It had to rebuke femininity and softness and be outwardly aggressive. In many ways, we live with the masculinity we inherited from this period- it probably helps that mass culture as we know it came about during its high tide. The specifics fade in and out, or soft pedaled and hard-sold depending on circumstances, but the core is still there.
The great thought-worlds of the bourgeoisie draw strength from interactivity and choice-opportunities. I wouldn’t call the big bourgeois freakout “great” as in “good” but it was “great” as in “important and generative.” There was no one set way to participate in the freakout, to combine and recombine the elements. With education and platform, you could do what you wanted with them. Bederman discusses how four important cultural figures played with the central lineaments of the freakout.
Black journalist Ida B. Wells used racialized ideas of civilization to combat lynching. How can white men claim to have a monopoly on civilization (as they now did- earlier variants of civilization-thought were usually also racist but more involved) when they did such notably uncivilized things to black people? Psychologist Stanley Hall got in trouble for telling Chicago schoolteachers they had to let their boy children act like “savages,” on the basis of some needlessly complicated bullshit about how boys act out the racial past of their various races, and if they don’t, they get “neurasthenia” i.e. sad, soft, and potentially gay? Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of high school classic “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was apparently a racist psycho who thought that she had to stay unmarried so she could focus on uplifting the race, and that the problem with sexism is that it didn’t let women like her advance the white race? And of course, there’s Teddy Roosevelt, who LARPed his idea of white manhood all the way from a sickly boyhood to a belligerent presidency.
These are all interesting and compelling stories. This would probably get a higher rating if Bederman allowed their stories to breathe a little more away from the schemas she cautiously laid out in the introduction (which is mainly about boxer Jack Johnson, who became an obsessive focus for many of these questions- could have used more on him, his case is fascinating). Race, gender, and ideas of “civilization,” the three frames and by god each section will laboriously bring in all three, cite the relevant authorities, tie in with earlier examples, and then say that all that was said, no matter what it does to the flow of the book. Class gets wedged in there with the slightly panicked air of someone who forgot to add the bay leaf to the roast (can you tell this a feeling I have experienced, because I have?). And I’m like… just let loose, Professor Bederman! I believe in you! Hell, I’m probably a victim of having thought too much (and I bet too loosely- I am no expert on the period) about this freakout. If I had read it back during comps when I was supposed to… still. A good and important book! ****
Sally Rooney, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” (2021) (read by Aoife McMahon) – What does Sally Rooney, the great hope of Millennial letters, have for us this time? Well, once again, a story of two contemporary young Irish people having a mostly bad time. And once again, it’s pretty good. Does it live up to the hype (that Rooney makes plain in this book she wishes she didn’t have surrounding her)? Who’s to say?
As people have pointed out, this one is a little more directly autobiographical, as one of the two main characters, Alice, is a successful novelist, with many identifiers connecting her to Rooney herself. There’s also been speculation on some critics’ part that making Alice so baldly similar to herself was Rooney’s way of maliciously complying with critics who insist most of her female leads are self-portraits. The other main character, Eileen, is not a successful novelist, but toils away at a Dublin literary magazine. They write each other long emails about all kinds of stuff. I used to do similar email chains with people! Maybe, some day, again.
They both have men in their lives, and the men and their reactions to them and the men’s reactions to their reactions cause a lot of grief. Alice moves to the countryside after a nervous breakdown and starts hanging out with Felix, a working class guy. Eileen, for her part, is just one lover to Simon, a childhood friend who is very attractive and has lots of lovers, but both clearly want something more but various things keep them from getting it.
I gotta hand it to Rooney- she really does nail a lot of the neuroticism, here defined as psychological inability to get what one wants, that defines a lot of millennial life, among really verbal people. Felix isn’t as formally educated as the other three but he’s smart and online a lot, so approaches things in somewhat similar ways. All of them somehow manage to think themselves into misery and inability to reach for things, mostly meaningful, honest contact with others. Alice and Felix circle each other like new cats, each convinced the one looks down on the other (and like cats, both are right). Eileen invests tremendous meaning into her relationship with Simon, to such an extent she scares herself into acting indifferent, which then “let’s” Simon go date much younger beautiful women, despite the fact it doesn’t make him happy and a real relationship to someone who knows him well might. What a set of predicaments! They’re not the most exciting or original emplotments in the world. But there is a reality to them I recognize in the people I know, complete with self-aware self-hatred of these predicaments, and how it doesn’t help). Like a lot of stuff I both read and encounter in the emotional life of my age group, there’s a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God (well, really, medicine and “finding my people” early and holding on to them)-go-I quality. It’s tough out there.
Rooney arranges some decent set-pieces- bad parties, bad parties where some good stuff happens, travel. There’s some good will they or won’t they. It’s less will they or won’t they bang — they all have sex, that part is understood — but will they or won’t they make an actual effort to be with someone who makes them happy? For a little while, I was wondering if Felix was a hustler, looking to get money out of Alice, maybe Rooney being a little self-consciously outrageous by summoning up the shade of the class-inappropriate lover. But no, nothing like that. The book was sufficiently interesting and well-written, in a spare and matter-of-fact sort of way, that I wasn’t disappointed that Rooney missed the turn-off into Crime Fiction Land.
Alice and Eileen email back and forth about the Bronze Age Collapse, and how it resembles our times, and how irresponsible it is for them — and for culture — to obsess over individual feelings and relationships when the world is at stake. One of them reads something other than the Wikipedia article on said collapse, and finds that a lot of people in the Eastern Mediterranean probably barely knew it when the palaces who took some taxes from them collapsed, or were occupied by new Sea People or whatever. They went on living their lives. The four protagonists more or less figure their shit out. She doesn’t come out and say it, but each relationship has one person with a lot of money (Simon comes from money), so, that helps with the whole moving-on-in-life thing. Anyway! This book was pretty decent. I don’t think Rooney has to save literature, or be the great leftie millennial writer. She can just keep doing what she’s doing as far as this rando is concerned. ****’
Milton Friedman, “Capitalism and Freedom” (1962) – What’s worse- the pedant or the spin doctor? The bitter pill or the shitty candy coating? That’s what I found myself thinking reading this, probably the last libertarian book I’ll read for “general education” (as opposed to “get a load of this fucking freak”) purposes for some time, and comparing it to others I’ve read recently. Von Mises and von Hayek (I like to add the “vons” – let’s make sure everyone knows their class status), especially the former, wrote dense, stormy tracts. Von Mises especially insisted that all forms of knowledge other than that based on his “praxology” were suspect. They were going to tear down knowledge and build it back up from scratch on the basis of first principles. People say stuff like “you have to admire their ambition,” and you don’t, really, but it’s clear why people say stuff like that.
Milton Friedman had more or less the same social goals as von Mises or von Hayek- win the class war for the bourgeoisie, first by beating back the Keynesian alliance between (collaborationist) labor/left leadership and government institutions, then by making sure bourgeois interests would stay on top of what was left after that. But Friedman went about it in a different way. He didn’t assail the knowledge-order around him so much as try to correct it in his direction. He mastered a peculiarly American rhetorical mode where disaster — in his case, Soviet-style totalitarianism, economic collapse, or nuclear war — is always around the corner but the sun still shines through the discourse of the speaker (the master of this, of course, was Ronald Reagan). There’s no “praxology” here, just good old American common sense! Or, rather, what most American nonfiction book buyers want- nonsense dressed up as common sense, with just enough truth to sugar the pill and the little thrill of the counterintuitive. There’s a reason “Freakonomics” came out of the same profession as “Capitalism and Freedom.”
Thinking about the rhetoric of this book is a lot more interesting than thinking about the content. Business is freedom, government isn’t, blah blah. I try to make a good faith effort to project myself to the early sixties. The left as we know it — opposed to capitalism, and the government that serves it even if it also demands concessions from said government — is basically dead, even deader than it is now. People believe in a sort of militarized, big government Keynesianism in a way that’s hard to conceptualize today. The economic tide was rising and… no, still don’t really get it. I still can’t get how you could look at capitalist practices, except if you’re on top of or deeply sheltered from them, and say, “yeah, this is freedom. If I don’t like my job I can just quit! And not have any money until I find some other bullshit employer I also hate!!” “Hey, I can choose fifty bajillion types of toothpaste, and of the sodas that necessitates it’s urgent use! Get out of the way of my joyful choices, bureaucrats!” I guess, for a higher percentage of readers, the other half of the story — “but I can’t afford decent healthcare or housing” — wasn’t there, but like… it was also wasn’t for a lot of people outside of either the middle class or the really privileged sectors of the working class we’ve let stand in for “The Working Class” in that period (and, for all too many, our own).
And that kind of gets down to the nub, doesn’t it? Friedman was relatively sunny about it. People opposed to the free market solutions are just confused, that’s all. If they could just see their best interests clearly they’d be “classical liberals” like him, and that’s why he’s writing this book. That in and of itself is a measure of difference between him and von Mises and the von Hayek of “The Constitution of Liberty” (the old Austrian word-monger went more pop in “The Road to Serfdom”). The real old school Austrians aimed at the elite notionally smart enough to understand them. Anyone confused, especially if they weren’t devoted to their idea of greatness, wasn’t worth their time. Their real heirs would be people like Murray Rothbard and the Internet anarcho-capitalist those who came after them, squalidly looking for a vanguard of freedom to take them past the goal post and ending with “the red pill.” Friedman watered down the product by offering it to a broad educated public, but it got better results. It played better with American suckers.
But Friedman gets caught in the same place they all do, and why so many libertarians, once the bills started coming due circa 2008 or so, downed that red pill and became open, committed racists and fascists (the better ones fled into our increasingly weak-tea liberalism). A lot of people are distinctly unenthusiastic for “freedom” as they conceive of it, and many of them are people of color or otherwise marginalized. Friedman swears up and down that the free market is actually better for black people and everyone else than they sort of infringements on said markets they call for through movements like the civil rights movement then reaching a crescendo in the South. Segregation is irrational because it cuts off customers from segregated businesses, he insists. Strike down segregation laws but don’t “force” integration and let the market deal with it! Soon enough everyone can sit at the lunch counter.
But that doesn’t work. First, because you’d still have armed agents of the state hauling people out of public establishments because they’re the wrong race and that’s fucked up and wrong no matter how you look at it. Second, because it does what all free market thought does and ignores history except as a series of just-so stories (did you know that oppressed minorities like Quakers and Jews did better from markets than they did from nasty old politics?!). You can say all ideologies read history selectively and you’d be right, but libertarianism more than any other ignores power differentials — pretty much every single power differential other than who happens to hold public office and what they can do that non-officeholders can’t — and how they shape history, and the present. There’s a history in the South whereby the whites hoarded not just political office but also money and power. The struggle against de jure segregation in public accommodations was an attack on an instantiation of this system, one that struck at the dignity of black people and that everybody — everybody except utter ding dongs like Friedman, that is — could see was wrong. That was not the core of the system, and most civil rights campaigners knew it, and knew they had many more battles ahead of them.
That Friedman couldn’t countenance even that first battle… well, people talk about how nice and positive and non-bigoted in person he was. I can even believe it. But fast forward a few decades and you basically have to believe in some deficiencies of race in order to hold on to a belief in the free market. This is less in the face of long-standing wealth and income differentials based on race, though that’s part of it, and more on a simpler basis. Most people of color still don’t want what libertarians are selling, and neither do most working or poor people. Most people might like the stuff about decriminalizing certain behaviors or not getting in wars, but they still see politics, broadly speaking as a struggle over power, as necessary and even vital. And so, naturally, there has to be something wrong with most people. We wind up back with the more open elitism of von Mises. And there’s something more wrong with any given group the more it rejects the basis premises of the “free market,” therefore, there’s something very wrong indeed with most marginalized peoples. Most of the dysfunctions of libertarianism as a movement that we’ve seen since the Obama election, I think, stem from this dynamic.
Friedman says little of this, though the “market-based solution” to segregation would be enough to get him “cancelled” in most circles today. He, probably genuinely enough, saw it as a solution less to segregation and more to his real bete noir, disorder, or rather, two birds that could be killed with one stone. That runs like a thread through “Capitalism and Freedom,” and through most of libertarianism- fear of disorder, fear of disruption. I am well aware they like to present themselves as freewheeling, thriving on chaos, using “disrupt” as the most sacred verb in the dictionary. But try delaying their sushi delivery an hour and then tell them someone “disrupted” DoorDash with an brief work stoppage, and see how much they like disruption then. White people were really, really scared of the sit-ins and marches, as scared as they were of riots. In many respects, Friedman was assuring the “white moderate” King wrote derisively of to relax- once we get rid of those pesky laws (both segregation and labor) everything will work out. And Friedman would be dead by the time the jig was well and truly up and the libertarians dropped the mask. Lucky to the end, the wily little Econ-gnome. *
V.S. Naipaul, “Miguel Street” (1959) – This is one of Naipaul’s earlier novels, depicting life on the titular slum street in Port of Spain, capital of his native Trinidad. Slum life depictions can get real dicey, real fast, between catastrophizing and sentimentalizing and tortured oscillations between the two. Naipaul, even that early in his career, craftily avoids both. In what I suspect is a riposte to left-leaning “social” writers, he makes an apostrophe early on against those who depicts areas like Miguel Street as “just slums,” just poverty and degradation, but he doesn’t make the lives of its inhabitants out to be constant sunshine and roses. It is a fairly typical Naipaul world, perhaps a little more honest than most in that few really pretend to believe the lies everyone tells, more for amusement than for anything else. People are self-serving, but insufficiently consistent to be called truly selfish much of the time. They pursue drives that make sense in context but probably aren’t “the right play” according to someone sitting in an easy chair in London or America. They’re human, but not in the grottily sentimental way of most humanists (or the equally silly nihilistic way of most anti-humanists).
Most of “Miguel Street” is made up of little vignettes about specific inhabitants. Most of them are about dreams they have to put away, or that blow up in their faces- in the case of a man who dreams of making a living making fireworks displays, literally. They dream of glory, borrowed from afar- boxing championships, American wives, lotteries, passing exams and going away to London (which the viewpoint character, like Naipaul himself, eventually does). When the dreams collapse, as they generally do, they find themselves back with the gang on Miguel Street, not starving or in fear but poor and not doing much, or else they disappear to another island to work in obscurity. Even Hat, who serves as the voice of the neighborhood and something of a Greek chorus, commenting on all of the stories, has his moment where he comes close to going mad when he feels he’s being cheated at gambling, winds up going to jail, and when he’s gone the narrator knows it’s time to make his way out.
Here’s something I found interesting: there’s not a lot of talk about race. Trinidad is a racially divided society. Naipaul is descended from Indians brought to the islands to provide labor post-abolition, most of the rest of the population is descended from black slaves, and there’s a small remainder of white (sometimes “off-white,” like Portuguese or Middle Eastern) people with disproportionate control over resources. Other inhabitants of Miguel Street are referred to as Indian or black or Portuguese or whatever when it’s important to the story- but a lot of the time, it’s not. I’m used to narrators in slum stories informing the reader of the race of every introduced character, unless it’s assumed that most people in a given space they’re describing are one race or another. They do this because it’s central to the dynamics of the interactions. Hell, I’m reading one memoirs set in Chicago in the thirties where the narrator reports the skin shade of every black person who he comes across- and it’s germane to the story, not (or not just) a private fixation of the author. I wonder, was Trinidad just less race-obsessed than the US? I do know Naipaul deeply resented the black power movement that came to Trinidad in the sixties. Anyway! This is a good little book, well worth reading. ****’
Hao Jingfang, “Vagabonds” (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) (read by Emily Woo Zeller) – Here’s the thing with Ursula Le Guin: she didn’t go on for six hundred-odd pages at a pop. I know, I know, Saint Ursula could do no wrong and if she did write about the feelings of scifi people for six hundred pages we’d all eat it up and ask for seconds, but, the point stands. We should not neglect something that differentiates genre fiction from literary fiction, historically: a keen awareness of the reader’s patience. True, many a SFF classic strains that patience, but it usually does so with worldbuilding and action sequences, and a lot less with attempts to plumb the depths of character.
Critics sometimes compare Chinese scifi writer Hao Jingfang with Le Guin, which is where this opening gambit comes from. But even leaving aside the fact that Hao’s freshman effort weighs in at a robust 624 pages, the comparison shows the weak chops of a lot of genre criticism these days. You don’t need to hate “Vagabonds” to see the differences- I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I’m confident in saying Hao is no Le Guin (which she doesn’t claim to be, as far as I know). “A woman writing scifi that’s not about space battles and has characters with inner lives and social commentary, must be a second coming of Le Guin!” is just dumb even if you think Hao has the chops to merit the comparison on quality grounds.
“Vagabonds” is about a small group of kids raised on a Martian republic in the 23rd century or so, who go visit Earth for a few years, and then come back. Hao depicts Mars as a sort of technocratic utopia; Earth, meanwhile, is its capitalistic, nationalistic self. You don’t see much of the trip, except as flashbacks narrated by the main character, Luo Ying. What you see is their homecoming. Most of them went out when they were thirteen and came back eighteen. And now they’ve got feelings and opinions about the comparative merits of Mars’ system versus that of Earth!
Given that this is a writer from China, it’s pretty impossible to avoid seeing some overlay of comparisons between China and “the west” here. Ken Liu, the translator and a big SFF writer himself, downplays these comparisons in an essay somewhere, but it came off pretty literal-minded. The strict technocracy of Mars — everyone lives in one big (glass! Lot of sand on Mars) city, everyone’s basic material needs are met, everyone joins an “atelier” workshop when they graduate and they’re all coordinated according to master plans established by engineers and scientists — does not strongly resemble China’s current system. But it kind of does seem like the symbolic relationship between the two systems does rather resemble that of contemporary China and contemporary US/Western Europe. Hao represents Mars as serious, planned, aimed towards high values, but also authoritarian (though not notably violent) and conformist. She depicts Earth as free, fun, valuing the individual, but also corrupt and shallow.
Well… the kids have feelings about it. There’s an interesting bit early on where Luo Ying interacts with a film director from Earth. The director is starting to dislike Earth’s shallow consumerism as Luo Ying starts to disdain Mars’ authoritarianism, they pass like ships in the night, both idealizing the systems the others are trying to escape. Time goes by and Luo Ying and her peers grow more and more restless with a life of assigned workshops and such. They act out by doing stuff like “borrowing” planes and flying around Mars’ valleys and so on without permission. They get angst, make plans. Luo Ying finds out terrible things about her parents, who were also dissenters, and her grandparents, who helped engineer the Mars system and possibly her parents demise.
It’s not bad, but it’s also not great. There’s a lot of characters, and most of them are hard to distinguish, especially the rebel Martian kids. Hao does a lot more telling than showing when she wants to get across the heightened emotional states of her characters, and you gotta figure translation isn’t helping. But also, like… no one seriously addresses a serious believablity question. A fragile ecology in a place where the atmosphere and temperature could kill you — Mars has not been terraformed, in this story — easily seems kinda like not the place to complain about “authoritarianism”? Especially when said system isn’t that violently repressive and mostly sticks to managing the technical systems keeping everyone alive? I get that these are kids and kids complain and act up. And they don’t really overturn anything- that would be besides the point, which seems to be, every system has it’s good and bad points but people need to express themselves etc etc. All well and good but it kind of seems impertinent when the wolf (or radical decompression) is at the door, and isn’t an interesting enough idea to really rocket the book past it’s sleepy pace and uninteresting characters… or to Le Guin comparisons, though Hao is young yet. ***
Halldór Laxness, “Independent People” (1935) (translated from the Icelandic by J.A. Thompson) – I took my time reading this, and I’m glad I did. Critics complain — I complain — about books, mainly literary fiction, where “nothing happens.” For some critics, this means stuff needs to be as action-packed as a thriller (or incident-packed as a romance novel) to be worth their time. While I do like a lot of action/incident, it’s not a requirement for me, or rather, I might have a broad understanding of incident. This novel of rural life in early twentieth century Iceland does have a few humdinger scenes, like a man who winds up taking an unplanned reindeer-back ride into a just-barely-above-freezing fjord river, but for the most part, the incidents we see are the quotidian ins and outs of just barely getting by on an Icelandic farm. But it’s riveting all the same. It wasn’t (just) poor time management that had me reading “Independent People” mostly in dozen-page dollops- I wanted to savor this book.
To the extent we think about Iceland much these days, we think of it as a quirky tourist destination, conveniently located on the flight path between the northeastern US and Britain. It’s an extension of Scandinavian civilization way up north and west, complete with a high standard of living, stability, democracy, free sexual mores, etc. Well, it is indeed an extension of Scandinavia, settled by Vikings in the late ninth century AD, but that meant something very different from hot spring tour buses and pricey Reykjavik beers for most of its history. It meant profound isolation and poverty. It means a couple-ten thousand descendants of the Vikings stuck on a small volcanic rock, with only intermittent boats back to the distant metropole in Denmark, trying to scrape a living as the rest of the world mostly passed them by. Shit gets weird in that kind of setting.
There wasn’t really a “native” population when the Vikings got there, but there were a few people, most of them Irish monks and other religious hermits who wanted to be well and truly alone to contemplate their dark, moody Celtic variant on Jehovah. Our story begins with the Viking settlers driving off one of these monks from a particular valley, and over the centuries, they expanded his memory into a hiberno-papist demon, Kolumkilli (presumably named after the great Irish hermit saint Columbkille), who curses the valley and anyone who tries to make a go of it. Is it the curse, or just the fact that scratching a living from volcanic rock, cut off from all the trade routes, is a precarious proposition? Icelanders tend not to think in those terms. People leave Iceland — a fair number go to America once that’s on option, often via work on whaling ships — but once you leave, you’re gone for good, as though you’ve died, at least as far as those who remain when this story begins are concerned. This makes the remainders an odd breed.
And Bjartur, the main character of “Independent People,” is odd, but in a relatable way. When the main action of the novel begins, he’s just gotten done with eighteen years of indentured servitude to a landlord, debt peonage still being a major institution in Iceland at the time. He takes his accumulated savings and buys some land smack dab where Kolumkilli supposedly cursed things. He doesn’t care. He bows before neither ghost, gods, or men. He will go to almost any length to maintain his status as an “independent man.”
It’s not just economic dependence, or even primarily economic dependence, even if he avoids debt like the plague. One of Laxness’s master strokes is depicting an actual pedant- which is to say, someone who makes himself and everyone around him miserable on principle, but who doesn’t actually follow through all the implications of those principles (John Kennedy Toole was another master of this). Bjartur’s farm isn’t an autarchy- that’d be borderline impossible. He sells his wool and sheep to a small port town merchant, who advances him the rye flour, preserved “refuse fish” and minor household goods he needs. There’s no getting ahead. But as far as Bjartur is concerned, it’s the natural order of things. His real independence isn’t economic- it’s in his refusal to accept any connection or obligation other than the bare minimum sanctioned by longstanding Icelandic custom as what a man ought to have. And so you have brilliant scenes of Bjartur grudgingly doling out coffee (coffee and tobacco seem to be the only foreign products these people seem to have) by the bucket to his neighbors when they walk or ride by, snidely insulting them all (and receiving insults) the while in between rounds of quoting epic poetry (almost none of them have books, even bibles) at each other and comparing the rate at which their respective sheep flocks are being decimated by intestinal worms.
Family is an obligation, but not the haven from the world that we think of it as today. Bjartur is married to a woman with whom he escaped indentured servitude. She gets pregnant — possibly with a landlord’s kid — and dies in childbirth because Bjartur would rather chase one lost sheep up into the wilderness during a blizzard than stay at home and listen to her talk. The daughter survives, Bjartur wrangles some hired peons for himself, knocks one of them up a few times, and soon has a small gaggle of kids… both because that’s what happens when you have sex, and because he wants and needs the labor. Bjartur and the other adults around — his peon-wife (this was apparently considered normal at the time), other hired long term laborers — aren’t entirely unsentimental about children. He especially loves his oldest daughter, Asta Sollilja, in a way that only avoids being super creepy through Bjartur’s hard-assed personal qualities. But the absolute best Bjartur is going to offer them is the opportunity to replicate his own life- endless, unremunerative toil, and after he dies, one of them (one of the boys that is) gets to call himself “independent” and keep the cycle going. The girls and the other boys can go screw. “It’s no business of mine,” as Bjartur would put it.
Much of the middle of the book is told from the kids’ perspectives, mostly Asta Sollilja’s and that of the youngest boy, Nonni. Both are dreamy children who want to experience worlds beyond the miserable sod croft — building a house is a distant glimmering dream — they’re stuck in. That’s another element of Scandinavian culture, the imaginative flights of fancy, waking dreams of elves, trolls, ghosts, and what might as well fall into that category for a 1910s Icelandic child, “the counties” – anywhere not Iceland (or, I guess, Denmark, which sends officials and takes money). The imagination can be as active as you please, but utter monotony threatens to starve it. It’s hard to imagine just how monotonous it was, and conveying this is one of the miracles Laxness accomplishes. Obviously, there’s no media beyond oral tradition- even newspapers are a thing only the landlords bother with. There aren’t schools except private religious schools Bjartur only sends one daughter to, for a little polish. Beyond that, there’s an extraordinarily deprived “material culture.” There’s just not a lot to work with, considering how poor and isolated the Icelandic countryside is. You see the same shit every day and it’s all the same colors. The natural environment is beautiful, but in a stark (and somewhat predictable) way, with an extremely limited color palate and so few animals that cows are some of the most exciting things you’ll ever see. Nonni, for lack of anything else to imagine, spends hours in bed before rising for his fourteen hour work day to fantasize the small stock of metal goods in the croft — a few pots and pans, a coffee service — talking to each other.
Bjartur (and the circumstances he fights in a never ending doomed war that makes mock of the concept of “independence”) dominates the kids but can’t keep them on the farm forever, especially with the tendency of his wives to die. Nonni gets a relative to send him to America. Asta Sollilja comes back from confirmation school pregnant. Bjartur can’t stand the shame, denounces her as a landlord’s bastard, and casts her out, after which she carries on her own doomed struggle for independent survival as a poor single mother in a small port town.
Laxness also shows what change does to such a situation. Cooperative societies arise, and Bjartur refuses on principle to have anything to do with them, especially because the big shots up the hill who used to employ him as a peon are big coop players. Laxness never gets so lazy as to let either Bjartur or his rivals gain the moral upper hand- the big shots foist a cow on him at one point. The cow changes everyone’s life on the croft with its milk and niceness. Bjartur hates the cow and eventually slaughters it wantonly, and the shock helps kill his second wife. Who’s the asshole? It’s an asshole move to kill your kids one source of food other than rye bread and shitty old fermented fish. But he didn’t want the cow, and in a world where everything runs on debt and clients he (it’s worth noting that some libertarians see the old Icelandic social/political structure as a role model for an “anarchocapitalist” utopia), you can see why he may be leery of his former almost-owners, who are always trying to get him indebted to them, bearing gifts.
Coops get big anyway, with or without Bjartur. Then World War One rolls around and all of a sudden people want Icelandic wool for uniforms and mutton tallow for greasing rounds. Even Bjartur starts to make money. In a pretty classic “stubborn asshole” move he suddenly decides he wants in on the Coop, and it’s lending capacity, to finally build a house (among other things, it might get Asta Sollilja to come back home, not that he’ll admit it). But of course, somewhere between Bjartur’s asshole, standard capitalist bad luck, and living in the valley cursed by Kolumkilli, his house sucks, and the war ends, and the market collapses, and he has to sell out and start all over again, and he’s down to the one “practical” son, who wants to go to America but then falls in love with a rich neighbor girl who hates him.
This is positional economic, social, and existential warfare, and I love it. You’d figure depictions of futility would bother me, given everything, but when they’re honest and well-done, I like them better than almost anything. I was a little cautious coming in, used as I am to sentimental American literary portrayals of rural people by urbanites who shower multiple times a day. Especially because I knew Laxness was a pretty big lefty, and some of the worst excesses of American rural sentimentalizing come from American “popular front” type writers… but no, Laxness neither sentimentalizes, or goes in for Faulkner-style (or the many cheaper kinds on the market) of rural gothic. All in all, a great read, one worth savoring. *****
Bronze Age Pervert, “Bronze Age Mindset” (2018) – I decided to take a look at this one because people on the contemporary far right talk about it a lot, including people close to Donald Trump, people with security clearances. “Gaze upon the terrible and stupid shit supposedly serious people are taking seriously.” Well, I had my little gaze, but I also do antifascism and watch street-level and internet fascists on my own. It might be important that the likes of Michael Anton (author of the “Flight 93 Election” essay) take “Bronze Age Pervert” seriously. But I have the inkling it’s less likely that BAP will directly advise on policy or something, and a lot more likely — in fact, is already a fait accompli — that BAP expresses a way of thinking that has already filtered outwards into the broad contemporary right.
For those of you unfamiliar, “Bronze Age Pervert” is a social media personality. He hollers about the corruption of our current age, harkens back to a period when men were men (there were a few such periods but as you’d guess, the Bronze Age is his favorite), and caterwauls about the relationship between physical strength/classical beauty and virtue. In 2018 he put out some of his stuff in ebook format. As far as where he fits in contemporary reactionary circles goes, his influence mostly runs in the “manosphere” and in “neoreactionary” circuits. Some even speculate that BAP is actually Curtis Yarvin, aka “Mencius Moldbug,” a neoreactionary writer I reviewed a while back. Whether he is or isn’t Yarvin, BAP fits in- while a screaming reactionary, he’s also pedantic and, like many in the manosphere, urges a peculiar vision of self-improvement over real-world political action. Scream online, whisper in the ear of the powerful (if you can get them- this isn’t 2017 anymore), and “cultivate yourself,” the main MO of this type.
A brief detour: what seems like a long time ago, when this book was likely being conceived and before she took her “heel turn,” Angela Nagle cut a reasonably high profile in the land of left-wing altright-explainers. We all should have seen how thin that pretense was (plenty of people did- but we all should have) between her needless cheap shots at tumblr teens, the distinct absence of the deep research into altright forums she claimed she did from her written work, and from the sort of pseudo-clever, Twitter-sound-bite quality of even her best points. One of those points was this: in no way did the altright, as we called it then, resemble patriarchy of yore. It was juvenile, vulgar, polymorphously perverse. Nagle would assure us that growing up in rural Ireland (another tell- for someone who hated identity politics, Nagle was not above making use of her Irishness for authenticity points) she knew from patriarchy, and it wasn’t that. As usual, even her relatively good points were more about scoring points against enemies on her left, in this case Internet feminists throwing charges of “patriarchy” around. Moreover, the point lands and then mires in the context of twenty-tens Internet debate like a two ton anchor in swampy bottom muck.
I say all that to say this: it should be a given that Internet misogynists (racists and other reactionaries too), even when they harken back to one or another period of the past as a golden age of gendered order, should not be expected to actually live up to even their own picture of said golden age, let alone what the time was “actually” like. It can be good for “owns.” The failure of people to live up to the standards they set themselves seldom fails to provide targets for criticism and abuse, and if the standards are ludicrous to begin with and they scream and abuse others for not accepting them, all the better. But there’s limits to that, too, and arguably that’s where books like “Bronze Age Mindset” come in.
The word “mindset” is a vague one. Most users of the word would be better served trying a variety of nouns ranging from “attitude” to “ideology.” BAP and those like him are a (likely accidental) exception. Vagueness serves them, and if you think the mind is a sort of simple input-output device you can “set” or program, then the word is perfectly cromulent. Set your mind on its course and let it fly! Don’t think too much about how you had to think — at least a little! — to get yourself on this set course. That should be your last thought! “You’ve been thinking thoughts your whole life!” As Super Hans put it in that one Peep Show episode where he and Jez join a cult. “Look where that got you!”
That’s roughly the sort of thing BAP would say, though he might use fewer conjunctions, to get across the idea he is a hulking caveman, or else throw in some dumb Internet-speak. That’s not to say he recommends something so simple as just not thinking. Oh no! He’s a Nietzschean, you see. He’s the real thinker! He sees past the skeins of lies put out by vampires who seek to prevent the true spiritual elite — who are also the intellectual elite, and the physical elite, the strongest and the prettiest — from living out their destiny. You can guess what ethnic group most of those vampires come from, though BAP has a lot more to say against the Chinese and Shia Muslims (not sure how that bee got in his bonnet but who cares) more than he does about Jews.
Biology is everything; history is mostly falsified and in fact men and monsters and weird gods coexisted, maybe (he strikes many more poses than he stakes claims, but says readers should look into hollow earth ideas). The real conflict is between those who’d “domesticate” people by getting them to live in cities, and then those who want to live wild and free with the strong taking what they want, as nature supposedly intends. The nonsense of it all is apparent and not really that necessary to rehearse here- science is true when he wants it to be but a tower of “bugmen” (domesticated people) lies when it says something he doesn’t like, history is mostly lies except the back third of the book is mostly tediously-retold stories of heroic men from history, most of whom came from at least partially agricultural/urban societies, blah blah.
Stupid to expect much sensible here. To the extent he has anything to say, it’s about the farce that is most of contemporary masculinity. He uses “gay” as a casual insult, but advances an interesting, sympathetic theory as to why boys turn out queer: they get a look at the parody of masculinity prevailing around them, abd don’t like it. Without any “real” masculinity to model themselves after, they become effeminate and hence gay and/or trans, etc. I reject a lot of the premises involved, but I do tend to think a lot of people, by no means men and boys only, have discovered themselves somewhere on the spectrum of queer because of just how awful and rotten conventional sex and gender roles are. But he doesn’t sustain any real train of even half-interesting thoughts — one wonders if he included that bit about gay boys to appeal to rich reactionary gays like Peter Theil — and like I said, spends a lot of the book telling “epic fuckwaffles”-toned versions of old stories about pirates and conquistadors and shit. He gets that contemporary Internet-based life is awful, but he doesn’t write like it.
Like I said, I think this book is less important for its potential to reach important shitheads — they’ll do awful and stupid things whether or not they read BAP or anyone else — and not really directly his impact on more everyday fash, either, at least not directly. I guess what I’d say is that BAP is an example of an emerging attitude towards truth on the part of some reactionary sections of our society.
In recent years, being wrong has not proven to be a problem for our elites. Everything from the Iraq War to the 2008 crash to the Clinton presidential campaign shows that they just don’t suffer meaningful consequences for fucking up, and often recieve greater rewards when they do. I’ve come to think that in lieu of any better explanations for the world around them, certain sectors of society have more or less decided that being factually right or wrong about things is for suckers, and even having a standing attitude towards the rightness or wrongness of most given ideas beyond personal convenience is just unnecessary. If they just carry on that way with enough conviction, then they, too, can be like our elites, consistently rewarded. They too can fail upward. That most of these same people claim to hate postmodernism, while adopting distinctly postmodern attitudes towards truth claims and towards the relationship between appearances and reality… well, that’s just the sort of factual reality they don’t have to care about.
I see this pretty frequently in street practice. Political types generally try to minimize their losses (it takes discipline to follow Amilcar Cabral’s motto, “mask no defeats”) but contemporary fascists really take it to a whole other level. What does it matter if they get infiltrated, routed, humiliated again and again as long as they can cut video for their few hundred followers on right-wing-only social media that makes them look (their peculiar version of) cool? Real world failure seldom embarrasses them. If you can really get them at their ethos, that embarrasses them, sometimes- a big manosphere figure got shamed, “cancelled” if you will, because someone dug up an essay on how he enjoyed his girlfriend having sex with other men, thereby making him a “cuck” (his outsized emotional reaction, directed at a player in the scene bigger than himself, didn’t help). But even that’s inconsistent. Reality as you and I understand it, with some relationship between cause and effect and everything that implies, is for bugmen. Supermen make their own reality, with kickass elves and magic and shit in it.
“They’re immune!” you might find yourself crying out. Well, they may be immune to facts and logic, but we already knew that, didn’t we? Immune to mockery most of the time too- well, we’ve seen that, too. Really, as unsettling as seeing people who really think the Earth is flat, or that there’s microchips in vaccines, or that physical strength is the same as personal virtue is, it’s probably a good thing. It’s good that we see what we’re dealing with. Think about eras when embarrassment actually did work, when people didn’t pipe up with their worst ideas because they were afraid of being mocked- the sixties and the nineties come to mind, that is, rising tides. Once they stop handing out shiny apples for being good rational types, it’s no surprise that people — many of them only a few generations removed from hex signs and tent revivals (or darker things yet) — decide they won’t play along.
Beyond showing the seriousness of our situation, there’s another… maybe not happy, but positive message here. People of this type lose to people who can see reality and drag the others into it. Sometimes, it’s even relatively easy- the original altright became a punchline because one dude decked Richard Spencer on TV, and because we dragged the rest of them off their forums and into real, public space, and made clear we wouldn’t put up with their shit. It’s unlikely that this form of reactionary post-truth, and others like it (QAnon probably most troubling of all) will be out to bed that easily. But if we can adhere to reality harder than they can adhere to fantasy, I think we can do what needs to be done. *’
James Forman, Jr., “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” (2017) – There’s a lot of annoying cliches that have either arisen or taken on new life since the Black Lives Matter movement began, but maybe the “why don’t they protest black on black crime?” one is the most irritating. Among other things, it reveals the utter isolation of the speaker from any kind of black community. I’m not saying my social situation isn’t very white, and to the extent it’s not white, it’s not very black. But go to any march or rally pertaining to anything black — or if that’s not your speed, read a book by a black author, or hell, listen to even more or less any music by black musicians — and you will get an earful about black criminals harming and exploiting their communities. Every BLM action I’ve been to has had speakers denouncing gun violence in their communities, with loud affirmations from black people in the crowd. Inter-communal violence is a clear source of angst in black culture and has been for a long, long time, and you need to be profoundly, willfully ignorant not to see that (or so offended by the ways in which many black people are unwilling to take shit off of white people chiming in on the issue these days that you just shut down).
In fact, law professor James Forman, Jr. (son of a civil rights legend) argues that we can’t really understand our current mass incarceration crisis without understanding black anti-crime politics. He focuses on Washington, D.C., the premier “chocolate city” of that time, starting in the early seventies, when black mayors started getting elected in largely-black cities and walls keeping black people out of civil service jobs started coming down. DC also had a serious crime problem, concentrated in poor black parts of the city, and it only accelerated in the period when the official rulership of the city passed into largely-black hands.
People were pissed. Black people were extremely pissed. Suburban whites weren’t, aren’t, mad about crime, not really (whites who actually lived or live in areas with high crime rates often enough are). A lot of them are scared, and a lot of them feel shame about that, and want to experience either the vicarious thrill of someone “cracking down,” or else do it themselves, or feel shame that they or their politician/cop surrogates aren’t doing enough… but black people who live in areas with a lot of crime were and are pissed off about it, understandably so. You didn’t need to be a socially conservative black person to feel that way, either- many movement veterans, as the high water mark of both civil rights and black power receded into the past and they found themselves with crumbling cities on their hands, were profoundly depressed, angry, and ashamed at the contrast between their high hopes and the grim realities of cities in the seventies.
Organizers and politicians in DC and other cities called for many of the things progressives and leftists still call for in response to high crime: more jobs, better education, stuff to keep young people (especially young men) busy, medical solutions to addiction. They also called for more policing to deal with existent thieves, drug dealers, gangsters, and others making urban neighborhoods unlivable. As Forman puts it, most of them had an “all of the above” approach. They often wanted policing to be undertaken by police forces that took on more black recruits. This took a while, given the prevailing racism in police departments, but by the eighties they were getting their wish.
A combination of bad circumstantial political calls, pervasive lack of funds for social programs, and fundamental misapprehensions about the role both of police and of class divisions within black society brought about this tragic situation, where black people who sincerely thought (and think) of themselves as pro-black, contributed — continue to contribute — to a situation that sees more black people in some stage of incarceration than were enslaved in 1850. It didn’t happen overnight, it was more of a consistent series of botched reactions to awful situations- you see that a lot when people lack resources and political room to maneuver. So the newly-formed DC city council refused to decriminalize marijuana in the early seventies- a white “hippie” brought it up, heroin was ravaging the black community, it just didn’t seem right. DC passed draconian gun restrictions, but couldn’t get any kind of alternative to the illicit economy in front of its citizens, so people still had guns and used them. DC empowered it’s police to act like warriors in an occupied land when the crack epidemic spread out of control, and black cops — many of them drawn from a black middle class both long accustomed to looking down on the black poor and not much more knowledgeable about poor black communities than their white fellow officers — unleashed a stream of violence on black DC that goes on to this day.
Plenty of black voices opposed these things, in DC and out, but there was no consensus on these issues (and I doubt there is one today, though maybe things are a bit better when even a lot of conservatives admit the carceral state is out of control). It’s unlikely that any but Clarence Thomas-style authoritarians would have approved of the tough-on-crime course of action had they could have seen the end result. Many black leaders called for a “Marshall Plan for Black America.” What they got from the white elite that still holds the purse strings was a much harsher military-style occupation than the US Army gave Germany and barely any of the economic reconstruction.
Safety is still a substantial concern in a lot of neighborhoods, disproportionately black and brown neighborhoods. The police aren’t helping, and for many populations, especially young people and particularly young men, are a frequent danger to their safety and a constant drag on their dignity and sense of belonging to anything other than a throw-away community. Forman criticizes the police, and he includes scenes from his own interactions with cops and the legal system from his time as a public defender and as a founder of a school for kids within the juvenile justice system in the book. I won’t soon forget his descriptions of cops routinely rousting his students for nothing more than standing outside the school during their lunch period, screaming at them, slamming them down on the ground or on car hoods, finding nothing at all. Forman and his fellow teachers painstakingly arrange a “community forum” with the police. Officers come, almost all of them black, and robotically repeat the same talking points about “high crime areas” etc., and how the students should all wear big lanyards so the cops know they’re ok. Needless to say, Forman and his students aren’t impressed with the idea that they need to carry a “pass” to avoid police harassment.
But Forman also sees the police as a necessary part of a better future for black communities. He is not an abolitionist, it seems. Well… I am, but I get it, from two angles. The first is that we need a robust alternative safety system of our own in place before just ditching the cops and calling it a day. It isn’t fair. Think about everything that capitalism — that policing! — fucks up every day, to crickets and shrugs from most people, and then think about the hue and cry every time a reform effort screws up or simply has a slow or rocky start. But fair gets you on the bus. We can’t afford to fuck up. The second and more depressing angle… where are the police going? Forman probably thinks of them the way more advanced political thinkers in the early modern period thought of the aristocrats. The armed, organized people aren’t going anywhere, not on their own, they’re not. You can pull their leash a bit by messing with their money, but what else can you do in this system? Well, we probably have to figure out something better than that. But Forman isn’t there to paint pretty pictures, just to show us the deep and gnarled roots of our current situation. ****’
James Ellroy, “Widespread Panic” (2021) – James Ellroy returns to his bread and butter in this story of blackmail and obsession in fifties LA. You can argue he’s never left his bread and butter, but his most recent series, which he interrupted with this book, is a little off the beaten path. “Perfidia” and “This Storm” take place during WWII, involve more geopolitical intrigue, an effort at a sort of Balzacian encapsulation of the whole time and place of wartime Southern California, and also get into the strange and unlikely master plots that animated arguably his single greatest novel, “Blood’s A Rover” (don’t go off and read BAR if you want to start reading Ellroy, read the beginning of its series, “American Tabloid,” first)… but can’t quite nail it like that book could.
I’m still along for the ride wherever Ellroy, to my mind the great living American crime writer, wants to go… but it was nice to reunite with the more mundane LA scumminess that’s his old go-to. Our narrator this time is Freddy Otash, a (version of) a real life Hollywood private dick, supposedly one of the bases for Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown.” As in real life, Otash in “Widespread Panic” is an ex-LAPD cop who works for “Confidential” magazine in the 1950s. “Confidential” turned the scandal rag into an art form and an ideological statement, and is among the main influences on Ellroy’s famous telegraphic/bebop-inflected writing style. Otash has the run of fifties Hollywood, gathering gossip on the stars for “Confidential,” arranging blackmail and shakedowns using the information he finds, threatening or just mauling anyone who threatens the business, etc.
If you’re looking for tightly-plotted detective work ala Ray Chandler or whoever, you won’t find it here. The plots here are mostly forgettable. Otash gets tangled up with figures ranging from JFK to James Dean. Importantly to Ellroy’s whole thing, he also gets tangled up with a variety of women- a floozie actress who leaves him for one of the bad guys, a giant college basketball player who flirts with him but refuses to have sex with him, an ex-communist with a deadly grudge, and one of Ellroy’s classic good hardass Midwestern women who have to make it in this awful town types.
The women are important thusly: in Ellroyland, like I discussed in my Jacobin piece on him long ago, romantic love for women constitutes the highest good a man can reach for, and what distinguishes good men from bad. Otash feels himself superior to the main villains in this novel, the minor actor Steve Cochran and Nick Ray, the guy who directed “Rebel Without A Cause,” despite the fact that, from most readers’ perspective, they’re a lot alike. They’re depicted as violent men who are obsessed with control and with voyeurism. They obsess over women and pursue them both openly and on the sly- they are stalkers. Otash is friends with James Dean for much of the book, but loses him to Nick Ray’s evil cadre surrounding the “Rebel Without A Cause” production. Ellroy puts a lot of weight on a scene where Otash finds the “Rebel” crew — Dean, Ray, Sal Mineo, etc. — do a frat-style “raid” on a sorority house. It’s a little more violent than what Animal House would get up to, but mostly involves yelling at women and stealing their underwear. Bad behavior, no doubt, Otash is right to be disgusted… but he does the same shit! He routinely breaks in places and does weird voyeuristic shit! All Ellroy protagonists do, and Ellroy used to himself! He’s a weird dude!
How, then, does Ellroy cop a judgmental attitude towards his villains? It comes down to a few differences that would register to most of the people reading this as aesthetic more than anything, but which for Ellroy make up the heart of his romantic-noir ethics. It’s in the way you go about things, and what backstops what you do. If you love the right kind of woman — a hard, difficult, protagonistic woman who is just off on her own weird trajectory — then you are among the blessed. Steve Cochran and Nick Ray just run around fucking whatever, which Ellroy protagonists also do, but you know, they either stop when they meet The One (or A One, anyway) or view all future assignations through the lens of one of the Divine Women.
I found myself wondering what the relationship between Ellroy’s protagonist-thugs, the divine (whether expressed as a woman or more conventionally), and rebellion as I read this curious book. Like “Confidential,” Ellroy does not love or necessarily even respect duly appointed authority, but he tends to despise those who rebel against it. Ellroy protagonists, Otash included, routinely rip off their (invariably crooked and thuggish) bosses in police departments or wherever else… but they don’t make a principle out of it. Rebellion as a principle is verboten in Ellroy. Much of the early part of “Widespread Panic” concerns Hollywood communists. They’ve already been raked over the coals by HUAC, and can’t really do much, but Otash and Ellroy still give them some juice. The runaround he gets into with them, politics aside, is a little… it’s fine, but not as good as the other parts.
Considerably more compelling in this vein of rebellion is Otash’s disgust for the (somewhat anachronistically early- the main action of the book ends in 1956) emerging counterculture. He doesn’t hate gay men, like his erstwhile pal James Dean, or drug abusers (Otash pops benzies like they’re going out of style). But he does hate people who go around acting like they can upset the applecart, morally or culturally speaking. Part of that might be good business- a blackmailer has much less to do in a morally permissive society. But beyond that, it seems to me that maybe Ellroy thinks copping an attitude of rebellion — whether it’s riding motorcycles too fast and making “blue movies” or following the Moscow line — means abandoning the straight and narrow, not defined by staying away from booze, drugs, sex, violence, and betrayal — that’s boring — but defined by certain patterns of devotion, like those Ellroy’s protagonists have for the divine women.
Satan was the first rebel, after all, and whatever else you want to say about the politics of Ellroy’s takes, there’s few better at getting across the airheaded but vicariously vicious posturing of rich, decadent types who think they’re above morality or respect, let alone devotion. This comes out in Ellroy’s treatment of the case of Caryl Chessman, a convicted (and confessed) rapist who became a Hollywood cause celebre. I’m also opposed to the death penalty, but Ellroy made opposition to gassing (they used gas in California back then, creepily enough) the guy seem like pure envy- they love Chessman, these Hollywood liberals, Nick Ray included, because they want to be bad like him, because they lack the sort of moral rectitude that differentiates an Ellroy protagonist… even when said protagonist is also a murderer and a creep. That Otash tells this all from Purgatory, where telling his stories brings him closer to salvation… well, it’s a weird and thought-provoking book, and I’d say upper-mid-tier Ellroy, which at this point means top-tier of contemporary fiction. ****’
Arthur de Gobineau, “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races” (1855) (translated from the French by Adrian Collins) – French right-wingers are generally more interesting than right-wingers from the Anglosphere, I’ve found. Something about that always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride thing- they never really wound up in charge, the only time they came close was Vichy, a parody of French nationalism installed by their worst enemies… and the worst part was, by that time, that parody probably was the best they could do. Among other things, French right-wing thought is interesting because it’s diverse, which means it never coalesced around one movement or figurehead, not even Papa Petain.
So the work of the Comte de Gobineau, one of the fathers of “scientific” racism, is better than it has any right to be… but still not “good.” An aristocrat who was buddies and pen pals with that other big French aristocratic intellectual name of his era, Alexis de Tocqueville (your original liberal-chud pairing, like how some left-libs pat the likes of Dreher or whoever on the head now sometimes?), the Gobineaus were pretty big losers during the Revolution. Not big enough, if you ask me, but apparently Mama Gobineau started defrauding people to keep little Artie in book money, and you gotta figure that “defraud” might be a euphemism for selling what she had to sell, so…
He’s pissed! He’s pissed at society for being insufficiently deferential to its betters, and pissed at all the theories that imply either equality of peoples, or that inequality is the product of environment, ideas, or any of that (needless to say, the idea that hierarchy might not be the best way to order our comparative understandings of society doesn’t enter into his head, or, to be fair, most nineteenth century heads). He has a good old time showing the many inconsistencies in various theories of history from Herodotus to Rousseau to contemporaries like Guizot. They had a lot of them, as theories of history, and especially theories of history before people really knew how to do archival research, often do. This is the best part of the book.
But then he goes into his big theory of history. It’s all blood, people! Good blood, bad blood (you know I’ve had my share/my woman left home with a brown-eyed man/and I actually really care a lot because his brown eyes are a sign of racial impurity etc etc). All of civilization comes from a small coterie of people with good blood, and most of that good blood comes from “Aryans,” that horrible conceptual gift the advance of linguistics accidentally gave to the world. Why, then, do “civilizations rise and fall,” as one of the central question of nineteenth century thought somewhat unhelpfully put it? Because good blood mingled with the bad blood it conquered! Thereby diluting the bloodlines, thereby leading to the decline of civilization. Gobineau also makes entirely clear he’s talking about France- the nobles, his people, had Germanic Aryan blood, the peasants had Celtic blood, and those peasants only got the better of the nobles because the nobles mixed blood and became degenerate.
This is stupid, and has about the kind of “evidence” behind it as you’d expect, but the kind of stupid that proves, for lack of a better word, “catchy” with some kind of people. It doesn’t convince so much as it burrows a groove in the head of those who want such a groove there. It has embedded in numerous projects into which stupid people with mental energy to spare can invest themselves. They can try to chart where exactly the blood went wrong, or try to explain China, Japan, the Mayans, or whichever non-whites they find impressive as being, somehow, Aryan. They can try to come up with schemes to preserve that blood, which almost always involve shedding somebody else’s.
Interestingly, Gobineau didn’t have an issue with the Jews. He sees them as a strong race, as possibly Aryan even! There’s no big puppet master behind decline, in Gobineau’s book- just horny aristocratic conquerors and hustling low-borns. It makes you wonder why, if they’re such hot shit, the master races can’t maintain, but that’s sort of part of what makes French reaction both smarter and less able to take power than the versions you see in the Anglosphere and in Germany. The latter often say they have a tragic sensibility, but with one or two exceptions, they don’t. Gobineau’s work is spiky with hatred — for black people, for the masses in general, and especially for intellectuals who think the masses are anything other than dross — but it’s also basically resigned to the inevitable tragedy that is life. It’s a stupid, needlessly cruel, and ultimately self-flattering version of tragedy, but at least connects up to it, somewhere, and French reactionary thought from Maistre to Celine to Faye does a lot with that, or anyway, more than other (one is tempted to say “more Aryan,” from the ironically-named Rosenberg to Breivik) do.
Of course, a Hitler is always in the wings to gussy it up and give violent racists something to do other than ponder the tragedies of decline and horniness, and that’s how you get the inevitable blood-farces of reaction. C’est la vie, as Gobineau might sigh to his pen pal Tocqueville. *’