Review- Faye, “Archaeofuturism”

Guillaume Faye, “Archaeofuturism: European Visions of the Post-Catastrophic Age” (1998) (translated from the French by Sergio Knipe) – It’s been a while since I read an actually interesting book by a fascist. Guillaume Faye helped lead the French Nouvelle Droit in the seventies and eighties. To simplify greatly, the Nouvelle Droit exemplified the possibilities of the “suit” strategy in the far right’s “suits and boots” dichotomy. They were very “intellectual” fascists (they didn’t like being called fascists, but fuck them) looking to change politics by changing culture. The Nouvelle Droit achieved a great deal of visibility and prominence for a while in France, where they like their intellectual novelties. But it was in terminal decline for a while by the late nineties, with Faye having jumped ship some time before to work in mainstream media.

“Archaeofuturism” was Faye’s return to far-right political writing. In it, he attempts to both right the ship of the French far right and inject energy into its project. The Nouvelle Droit went wrong because it got too academic, too self-obsessed, too weird, Faye argues, citing in particular erstwhile ally Alain de Benoist’s odd religious ideas- pagan, anti-Christian, but friendly to Islam. Catastrophe is coming, Faye declares, and modernity, defined here as the combination of industrial society and egalitarian culture and politics, is doomed. One way or another we will get “archaeofuturism” – a return to archaic cultural values, social structures, and politics combined with ever-advancing science and technology. The role of the French (and broader European) far right is to help usher in and eventually rule the brave new archaeofuturist future.

Faye’s not wrong about catastrophe. As expected, he gets the valences wrong. The threat of climate change, the major thing he is right about, looms over the book, but typically low down on the list of things Faye worries about. Similarly, Faye highlights the rise of inequality, unemployment etc. He shared the anticapitalism of the Nouvelle Droit, which is to say, he was rhetorically opposed to capitalism’s culturally disintegrative tendencies and the rulers it promotes and pays lip service to its actual problems, while sharing many capitalist assumptions about worth and merit- the usual weak sauce bullshit of right anticapitalism.

But this is a right-wing book, after all, so his big worry is demographics, basically “the great replacement” the right goes on about. He takes it as given that European values and culture reside in some bio-mystical way in European genes and European land, and that allowing non-Europeans in means the death of Europe, etc etc. Islam plays the big boogie-man here, and as you often get with demon figures, there’s an admixture of admiration here. Islam, in Faye’s telling, is still a healthy, vibrant, “macho” culture, unlike weak, sickly, feminized, “ethno-masochist” Europe. If he didn’t see Islam as backwards (and wasn’t as attached to his European nativity), Faye might join his old pal de Benoist in being sort of positive about it. Of course, Faye lumps all billion or so Muslims together as sharing the same agenda, a real laugh after the last decade and a half of struggle within the Muslim world. Same with colonized people all over- they all want revenge on the colonizer and will get it through immigration. Faye doesn’t do subtlety or nuance.

Catastrophe will force archaic values to re-emerge, whether anyone wants it or not (Faye sees it as devoutly to be wished). Modernity, Faye argues, brings on the catastrophe, not so much through capitalistic profit motive but from its utopian promise that everyone can get along and live well. The planet can’t sustain it and people don’t want it- they want to advance their ethnic/religious interests, says Faye. Everything is ideology, for him and many on the far right. When modernity collapses, archaic values — hierarchy, order, valorization of warriors, a cyclical view of history, etc — will reimpose themselves upon the survivors. Faye waxes rhetorical about this at various points. He’s smart enough to avoid the usual “traditionalist” trap of valorizing everything old, or defining which culture’s folkways are really traditional and which aren’t (most of them are actually not that old in any event). Instead, Faye enlists the right’s best philosophical player, Nietzsche (and yes, he was on the right, sorry, don’t at me), and Nietzsche’s definition of the archaic values of classical Greece and Rome. That’s what we’ll all go back to, he says, though he also sees archaic values as those of medieval Europe, which doesn’t make a ton of sense and seems like a soupçon thrown to traditionalist Christians.

So does all this archaicism mean a return to archaic modes of production and technology? Yes and no. Probably Faye’s most important point and what really gets at the nut of what he contributes to the contemporary far right is that the great inequality for which the right should both prepare for and strive for is inequality in access to the fruits of science and technology. Most people should live at a roughly medieval technology level, Faye argues, but a minority should live with ever-advancing technology. Only a minority can truly benefit from technological society anyway, Faye insists. Any guesses as to the racial composition of who gets to follow a donkey cart and who gets to see the future? Well, here Faye vacillates a little. In some versions envisioning a racial hierarchy where whites and maybe East Asians get to live in future-world and browner people toil, more or less happily, in the primitive level they supposedly belong to, in others, every continental bloc/empire (it’ll all be empires, you see) will include both techno-people who run everything and a majority of happy peasants doing their folk dances in the villages, including the “Eurosiberian” empire he envisions.

This is, of course, daft, and has the classic tell of daftness (on the right, left, and center) that is overschematization- everything in the archaeofuture is clear, all could be understood easily from a simple map (like one for a video game) or PowerPoint presentation. It’s as utopian as the most hippie-dippie soft-left daydream and considerably more so than most Marxist ones, as it basically handwaves away any question of the means of production, as in, “where does the food come from?” or “where are the raw materials for all that tech coming from?” or “who cleans the toilets in the pristine future-cities?” Presumably, the peasants are farming, but Faye makes clear: intercourse between technoworld and peasant-lande is to be strictly limited, if not altogether forbidden.

Faye doesn’t bother with any of these questions. Part of this is that technology is just supposed to figure it out. The other part, I think, is more important. Faye humble-braggingly insists he’s not laying out a dogma or a plan, that the right of the future will have to sail the seas of uncertainty. That’s a smart move, both rhetorically and because it leaves unsaid his other implicit answer to questions of political economy: it’s supposed to be cruel. The techno-lords are better than the peasant-folke he patronizingly pats on the head, and so along with having nicer lives, the former will exploit and oppress the latter. They’ll do it for fun if not for profit. That’s the other part of “archaic values” – no sentimentality about the peasants and their dead babies, even while having a little sentimentality for their charming folkways. At first, in Faye’s telling, the violence of the archaeofuture would be defensive, beating back “the hordes” and making new ethno-empires. But we all know — I’m sure Faye knew — it would turn offensive, the quotidian, personalized violence of the plantation, the pimp and the john, the colonizer.

Reaffirming racialized (and gendered and class-based) inequality and its attendant cruelty as a positive value and the only meaningful response to the crises of the twenty-first century: this is what “Archaeofuturism” is about and is basically what the entire far right is about today. Take out some of the silly filigree and this is more or less what the entire right dreams of. In terms of laying out an agenda for the far right in the twenty-first century, Faye is much more lucid than many figures who get more attention than he did (he died last year). His writing makes a lot more sense and is much more applicable to today’s situation than anything Julius Evola (who died in 1974) wrote. Some of the snootier “identitarian” types, like Generation Europa, namecheck Faye as part of their inspiration from the Nouvelle Droite. But it’s Evola that gets the memes and his turgid “Revolt Against the Modern World” that zoomer fascists try to slog through, lips doubtlessly moving the while. This, when a fascist press went to all the trouble of translating Faye into English, complete with explanatory footnotes for readers who might not know what a Breton or a GDP is! Alas for him.

Many of the more interesting strategic/ideological points Faye makes “scan” from the perspective of an ambitious contemporary fascist organizer. Faye’s attitude towards homosexuality is that it’s deviant, but should be allowed to go ahead in (fun, kinky) secret but unprosecuted- sounds roughly like what Milo Yiannopolous would like. He departs from the Nouvelle Droit in seeing America less as an enemy and more as a potentially productive rival. Presumably, his American followers disagree with his assertion that America isn’t badly threatened by immigration, but that was a throwaway point, easily papered over.

Most controversially, he has little to say about Jews, and in other work came out in support of Zionism as a bulwark against Islam. On the one hand, this is a path some on the contemporary far right have taken. On the other, it illustrates one of the ways in which Faye is too clever for his own benefit. Without antisemitism, there’s a gaping hole in all far right thought: why did anything change, if premodernity was so great? Most fascists just say “the machinations of the Jews.” Faye doesn’t, and so squirms around alluding to “neo-trotskyites,” bitches about the Jacobins (the French right has a long memory), etc. The whole thing would be more wrong but also more consistent if he was an anti-semite, but given his other commitments, you can see why he took the stance he did.

So this was an interesting read. The French right has long been a source of some of the more interesting and readable right-wing writing, in spite of (because of?) never getting a unified fascist movement off the ground. In terms of reading experience, it was better than the average right-wing screed, but contained long sections of Faye just spit-balling opinions that bogged things down. The end was also disappointing, a fictional “day in the life” of a mover-and-shaker in the “Eurosiberian Empire” of the archaeofuture- this sounds like it could be fun but was just a dull recitation of the points Faye already made. Above all, this was a clear presentation of what the twenty-first century far right is about, not in the sense that many contemporary fascists follow Faye’s blueprint, but that he prefigured much of their vision. ***

Review- Faye, “Archaeofuturism”

Review- Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind”

Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind” (2007) – A lot of people like this book. There was huge hype and lasting affection around it when it came out in the late 2000s, that magical time when we thought we had seen how bad it would get. It came highly praised by the likes of Ursula Le Guin. I have a lot of friends who like it. The friends I have who like it (when I posted about it on my social media, other friends with other opinions emerged, but that’s neither here nor there) use words like “poetic.” And Patrick Rothfuss himself seems like a decent sort, a harmless, fun-loving nerd who doesn’t appear to be using that performance of self as a guise to exploit others, as we see done (:cough: Joss Whedon :cough:) elsewhere in the nerd-o-sphere. His blog is all raising money for charities and pictures of his nice family.

So you can see why I might want to go easy on this book. Respected writers like it. More importantly, friends like it, and use language for it I feel weird challenging- am I really going to just diss my friends’ sense of aesthetic? Most pertinent of all, most of the time, when I really gun for a book, the author sucks in some way, like Mike Ma being a fascist or Sheila Heti contributing to tweeness and pretense in literature, to cite two recent examples. I can’t really say that about Rothfuss, who, I reiterate, seems like a decent, blameless guy.

But I will not go easy. I will reflect my experience. This book baffled me with its utter mediocrity. It bored and frustrated me. A lot of the time, when millennial critics say something bored them, they mean it offended them. This is not the case here- I would have taken some offense if I could’ve gotten it, just to spice things up. Similarly, when they say a piece of writing frustrated them, they imply there was something else they wanted the piece to be, or in non-fiction, wanted the author to acknowledge some hobby horse of theirs. I guess I wanted this to be good fantasy, but I’ll damned if I can say specifically how other than “be more exciting and interesting, and maybe shorter.”

“The Name of the Wind” is, mostly, the tale of one Kvothe. Kvothe lives in what we could see as a generic post-George-RR-Martin fantasy land- roughly medieval European technology level and social arrangements (though with post-Columbian-Exchange crops, like chocolate- I will admit that took me out of things a little early on), magic and monsters largely in the background… for now. Because this was supposed to be a big deal trilogy, there is an extended framing device, a good seventy-five pages or so dealing with demon spiders emerging in this little rural town, before we get to the meat of the story. The owner of the inn in this little town isn’t all he appears. A Chronicler shows up who knows who he is- Kvothe, big time badass wizard warrior. Chronicler wants his story and Kvothe, after some back and forth, agrees to give it, and that provides the action for much of the rest of the book. The demon spiders don’t come back- presumably they do in the second book or in the third book that Rothfuss probably at this point won’t write.

The biggest problem, if I had to pick one, with this book is that Kvothe is, as pointed out to me by a fan of the book, an utter Marty-Stu, a wish-fulfillment of the most banal fantasies of badassery that the first decade of the twenty-first century could conjure up. Kvothe relates his upbringing amongst traveling performers. From the beginning, he’s whip smart and savvy. He also talks like a twenty-first century adult, but we’ll get into that issue later. He meets an old wizard who teaches him some magical basics and of course, he picks it up faster than anyone. His lows are heroic lows- his family slaughtered by mysterious wights from ancient lore, first he survives in the woods all on his own, then makes his way by his wits on the streets of the big fantasy city of Tarbean. He then makes his way to the University to learn magic (and about the wights) and impresses the masters so much they pay HIM for his first term! He makes enemies — a mean professor, Snap- I mean, Hemme, and a snooty aristocratic boy Malf- I mean, Ambrose — and shows them up magnificently with his magic chops and street smarts. He’s a musical genius, too, and girls totally want his fifteen year old self. Above all, he’s collected and self-contained.

“Well, it’s HEROIC fantasy,” I can hear some of you say. Sure. And there’s a number of ways to make such a character interesting. One would be to make him a less reliable narrator, like maybe he has to dial back some of his stories (there is an interlocutor character along with Kvothe and Chronicler). Even if you want to keep him that heroic, you can make the challenges he faces interesting, or ones to which he isn’t suited. You can also set him in an interesting world, worthy of the hero’s talents.

Rothfuss fails to deliver on any of those options. Kvothe is understood to be reliable throughout. The lack of interesting challenges and the failure of worldbuilding reenforce each other. Magic and science aren’t separate in this world, so Kvothe learns a lot of both, seemingly more of the latter, but he does so so effortlessly it’s basically uninteresting. The details of the magic system, laid out in pseudo-scientific trappings, were left underexplored but were also so dull I didn’t really want to know any more.

Rothfuss seems to have been going for “gritty,” which led to one of his more interesting decisions- making young Kvothe constantly worry about money. He’s poor and the University costs, at least after first term. This is something of a departure for fantasy, but it isn’t handled well. It’s sort of a low-grade irritant throughout the book, worrying about Kvothe’s finances and doing exchange rates on the various units of currency he uses.

Most of the action takes place in generic medieval city-space and while several cultures are mentioned and attributes ascribed to them, none of them are particularly distinct. There’s lore, intimations of old, deep mysteries (like the murderous wights), but none of it is anything fantasy readers haven’t seen many times before, interspersed with similarly anodyne action. There’s numerous songs and poems but I’ll be damned if I remember any of them, and I finished the book the day I’m writing this.

Then there’s the writing. He didn’t want to do exalted high-fantasy diction. I get that. He doesn’t make even as many concessions to it as does George RR Martin- fine, I guess, you want to stake your own territory. But god help me if Kvothe and basically everyone else in the book (except some yokels done in painful yokel-speak) don’t just talk like anodyne twenty-first century people, with the occasional lapse into flowery language of the kind a marketing intern would make up for a renaissance faire. If your magic is (mostly) science and your cultures aren’t any different from ours except for having lords and ladies (which we might as well have, given where inequality is going), and everyone is going to talk more or less like the people at your friendly local gaming store — a little more verbal and descriptive than at the other stores in the mall, but basically the same dialect — why the fuck did you bother writing fantasy? What was the point?

What this most forcefully reminded me of was less another given piece of literature and more a moment in my life. That’s the moment in college — around the time this book was probably being written, in fact — that it dawned me that most nerds are boring as shit. They might be good or bad, smart or dumb, but nerd culture as a whole did not represent what I wanted out of culture. Cruelly, one of the better things about nerd culture, the participatory element found in role-playing games, fan fiction, etc., bore this out the most. Given the vast scope of possibilities laid out before them, most nerds will ineptly reproduce what came before, the ones who won’t just turn the creative possibilities before them into their personal toilet, that is. Rothfuss presents himself as an every-nerd, and, god love him, after reading “The Name of the Wind” I can’t disagree. I feel about as good about this as I would about roasting some of the decent nerds I knew, but wasn’t friends with, in college- but the hell with it, he made his pile and is doing fine. I’ll give him the extra half star for being a decent dude and deserving more honor, for at least trying fantasy, than shitty litfic gets, not that he or anyone really cares. **

Review- Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind”

Review Links- Henry Adams bio and a new book on Traditionalism

I recently published two works on long-time hobby horses of mine, in part drawing from my birthday lectures.

In the San Antonio Review, I have a look at the newest biography of Henry Adams, one of the premier American intellectuals of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. I wrote about Henry Adams way back in 2012 for the first in my current series of birthday lectures. The biography was pretty good.

Over at Full Stop, I have a longer piece on Traditionalism and the far right, using a journalistic work on the subject as a springboard. I wrote about far-right Traditionalism and its, er, unique sense of history for my 2018 birthday lecture. If you’re interested in the subject or just in the history of weird ideas in general, both pieces and the book I review are worth checking out.

Review Links- Henry Adams bio and a new book on Traditionalism

Review- Wollstonecraft, “Vindications”

Mary Wollstonecraft, “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” (1790) and “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) – “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” exists simultaneously as a proto-feminist work and a reminder of historical avenues not taken. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote these essays during the French Revolution, when radical possibilities were flowering and before the reactionary fury against them set in in full force across Europe. By the time she died in 1797, both the revolutionary momentum in France was petering out and reaction in Britain was ascendant. I wonder if she would have found a publisher had she written much later.

Wollstonecraft’s vindications rest on the foundation of Enlightenment faith in reason and education, with a certain soupçon of the romantic ideas starting to arise at the time thrown in. Wollstonecraft is largely in agreement with misogynistic writers of the time in their depiction of women as useless and silly.In her telling, education (or lack thereof), not nature, produces the weak women of the upper and middle classes. Education is the solution, as far as she’s concerned, and what women are due as creatures with souls equal to those of men’s, if not bodies or minds (she’s agnostic about whether women are equally as intelligent as men). This is the diametric opposite of what Rousseau and other writers thought, that education is worse than useless for women, making them less “feminine.”

People go back and forth as to whether to call Wollstonecraft a feminist. On the one hand, she was an unstinting early voice for women’s equality in at least some spheres of life. On the other, she was not full-throated for the idea that women are equal in terms of intelligence to men, and seemed rather to despise women and the feminine in general as they presently existed in her time. I’m hardly the best judge of what’s feminist and what isn’t. What I will say is that by rejecting the idea that women have a special sphere — love, romance, domesticity, the subjective, whatever has meant to go into it over the centuries — Wollstonecraft avoided the gigantic cul de sac that contained women’s collective self-assertion for well over a century after her death. Feminists of the Seneca Falls generation and after picked up on many of Wollstonecraft’s arguments about education, but incorporated the Victorian gender ideology that placed women on a pedestal as naturally equipped to be guardians of morality and the home. Pedestals, as they say, are small, confining spaces, and feminists struggled with how to work within, expand, or explode that space. We still see echoes of that struggle today.

For her part, Wollstonecraft was apparently pretty prominent in life, and part of an important English radical family that included her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Her husband, noted proto-anarchist William Godwin, published her diaries after her death, and the reaction that was setting in across English life reacted poorly to the revelation that Wollstonecraft — gasp! — had premarital sex with men she didn’t marry. This, and her dismissal of the feminine, made her largely persona non grata in nineteenth century thought. It’s too bad. I wouldn’t say that her rejection of everything feminine — up to and including romantic love, which she thought should be indulged briefly and then swapped for nice, rational friendship betwixt married couples — holds up that well to scrutiny, though again, I say this from the cheap seats of manhood. It doesn’t seem popular with the feminist women I know. In keeping with the tropes of radical republican thought at the time, she paid little attention to the economic elements of liberation. But her basic points were important, she was among the first to articulate them at a critical time, and she got some solid, if Enlightenment-era-wordy, burns in on people who deserved it, like Burke and Rousseau. ****

Review- Wollstonecraft, “Vindications”

Review- Jones, “The Only Good Indians”

Stephen Graham Jones, “The Only Good Indians” (2020) – An old friend of mine sent this book my way. It’s a horror novel written by a Native American writer, set in contemporary times with mostly Native American characters. Interestingly, most of the characters refer to themselves and their co-ethnics as “Indians.” Jones seems to imply in one bit this is a generational thing- most of the characters are in their thirties, and it’s younger characters who prefer “Native American,” “indigenous,” and so on. I usually use “Native American” to be safe but have been corrected by people claiming authority for using both “Native American” and “Indian,” so, who knows?

The premise of this book is that four young men from the Blackfeet tribe of the upper Midwest go hunting the week before Thanksgiving. They bring their truck onto the part of the hunting grounds reserved for elders of the tribe, which is bad. They find a big herd of elk and blinded by greed, enthusiasm, and the joy of killing, fire rapidly into it, which is pretty bad. A game warden catches them and makes them throw a lot of the meat away, which would seem to make him a party to the badness, but that doesn’t come up- either way, more bad shit. Worst of all, one of the four gruesomely and gracelessly killed a pregnant elk and the calf inside her. He tries to make it right — even bargains with the game warden to let him take the corpse, to make use of all of it — but it won’t be that easy.

Ten years later, mama-elk-spirit comes back for revenge. I don’t feel like that’s a spoiler because it’s revealed in the first third of the book. Spoilers, I think, would be revealing exactly what she does and how to stop her. We’ll just say that she does more in terms of getting her marks to damage themselves and those around them than she does directly attacking people. She can shapeshift, and summon either a herd of elk or the spirit of her herd. It’s not entirely clear, but I think that’s ok, a good thing even. Fiction with monsters these days, influenced by role-playing games where monsters come with stats, often lay out exactly what it is monsters are and aren’t capable of. Good on Jones for keeping it uncanny.

I’m not much of a horror guy (though I probably read more horror this year than I ever have, given my birthday lecture was partly about Lovecraft) so I’m not the best judge, but the action seemed well-paced and horrific without being gratuitous. The character work is what really shone for me. Jones sketches out his characters quickly and completely without a lot of rigamarole, so it really has an impact when stuff happens to them. Even the monster feels real, especially for a vengeful elk spirit.

There is exploration of Native American identity here in a way that is genuinely interlaced with delivering the genre goods, no mean feat in this age of tacked-on morals. I was intrigued by the different ways the characters processed their Native American (invariably, in their inner monologues and conversations, “Indian”) heritage- omnipresent, a determinant factor in their lives (all were reservation-born), a source of both pride and impediments they wish to escape, an altogether different relationship with history, space, and race than white people like me are used to, but never presented by Jones in a reductive or essentialist way. Jones also isn’t so lazy as to make the character stand-ins for different ways of being Blackfeet or Native American. They’re all ambivalent in their own ways about their identities and how they intertwine with their personalities. In keeping with his highly competent interweaving of the themes with the genre action, this shows in how the characters deal with the elk spirit: not so “traditional” as to believe in it right away, not so “modern” as to dismiss it entirely, suspended between very real-seeming doubts and suspicions of the sort that would occur to people when the uncanny and horrifying occurs. All told, a strong genre work. ****’

Review- Jones, “The Only Good Indians”

Review- Stapledon, “Star Maker”

Olaf Stapledon, “Star Maker” (1937) – Do people still say that things “blow their minds?” I feel like you get a lot less of that sort of rhetoric now that it’s associated with online goobers and the hucksters who fleece them. Maybe it’s just an artifact of when I grew up. I knew teens and very young adults who were into getting their minds blown and expanding them in the various by-then traditional countercultural ways. Maybe it makes sense, in my thirties, I know fewer such enthusiasts. Seemingly every surprise since 9/11 has sucked pretty hard and I think this has made my generation skeptical of the idea you’re going to surprise them in a good way, which seems pretty basic to the concept of having one’s mind blown.

So, did Olaf Stapledon “blow my mind” with “Star Maker?” To a certain extent, yes, he did. I don’t know if I can still manage the sort of feeling of a thirteen year old seeing “The Matrix” for the first time, but I did feel a certain degree of awe. Perhaps the feeling could be compared to finding an old holy text in your tradition that is new to you. None of it was truly new to me but seeing it in its original form was an interesting and even moving experience.

The feeling is both tempered and encouraged by the simplicity and starkness of the text. As Stapledon himself put it, by most literary standards, it fails as a novel. It’s closer to a fictional report. An anonymous Englishman is standing on a hill in the 1930s when all of a sudden his consciousness is flying among the stars. After a few chapters of learning to control his flight, the narrator finds intelligent life somewhere and learns to cohabitate the brains of its inhabitants. After learning of these “Other Humans” and their ways, he teaches a local philosopher how to also zoom his consciousness around and they go exploring the galaxy. By and by, they form a group mind with representatives of all of the intelligent life they find. They realize that with their minds, they not only travel faster than light, but that they travel back and forth in time. They use this to bear witness to the struggles of life in the cosmos.

And struggles there are, as the group’s mental travel, at first, only takes them to worlds experiencing something like “the crisis” as understood by someone like Stapledon, a pacifist and (non-communist) progressive of the 1930s. Industrial society leads to class and national conflicts, scientific progress undermines old spiritual verities, ideologies of both extreme individualism and extreme collectivism run rampant. In many respects, what Stapledon is getting at is a lack of balance, a concept that will become important to this sort of thought later in the century but seems wasn’t part of the vocabulary at the time. The narrator reports on various planets full of varying life forms, including plant-folk and what amount to big sentient boats, and how they cope with crises that sound a lot like what was going on on Earth at the time.

But this is a story, for much of its run anyway, about ascendance- a sort of secular scientific/spiritual “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Eventually, the group mind learns how to contact more advanced civilizations. Lead among them are a symbiotic race of fish and aquatic arachnids that seem to have both their technological and their spiritual game pretty well figured out. They can do space travel, and their minds are clear of “attachments” and distractions and aware of the interconnectedness of things- that appears to be what Stapledon means by “spiritual,” missing out in the western Buddhism craze by a few decades. But at every level of ascendance, there are pitfalls- technological disaster, the temptation of interstellar empire. The group mind witnesses terrible wars, all the more terrible as they force the enlightened civilizations to become warlike and de-civilize themselves. But advancements in technology and in spirituality, including telepathy, eventually do away with war and lead to a galactic utopia.

This is very much a story of the apotheosis of mind. Stapledon values peace and love but sees neither as necessary properties of mind. As it turns out, even the stars have minds, and have violent objections to being manipulated by the planetary powers, which nearly leads to galactic catastrophe. The nebulae have minds. Everything has a mind!

In the end, the group mind (Stapledon switches between “I” and “we” pronouns for it) encounters the titular Star Maker at the end of the cosmos. The group mind has now spent millions of years contemplating the cosmos, the way the design of it seems to point towards higher and higher complexity and unity. Stapledon makes much of how the simple human mind of the narrator, separated from the group mind, can’t even adequately describe the utopian societies (or even the more highly advanced dystopian ones). This might seem like a cop-out, but together with what Stapledon does get across, it convincingly conveys a sense of scale and grandeur. But at the same time, the group mind has witnessed untold pain and misery. For every intelligent race that made it into the galactic utopia, hundreds more got close and perished, and thousands or millions more never got beyond their own planet. Moreover, the galaxy is dying. Energy is running out, the laws of thermodynamics doing their thing. It won’t be possible for all of the galaxies of the cosmos to commune, reaching that final level up. What was the point?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away. We’ll just say the Star Maker sets the mode for the cosmos, as Stapledon understands it- mind, all the way down. Not love and not life- mind. The answers the Star Maker gives to the group mind narrator prove both deeply unsatisfactory but entirely consistent, and while the narrator briefly protests, he/they ultimately accept. He then gets beamed back to England. He knows what’s going to happen to Earth and our species and knows it’s not the happiest (or worst) story, but he’s determined to play his part in it anyway. In 1937, the light was dimming throughout the world with the rise of fascism and the threat of world war, but he ends with the two lights to guide us: the inner light of love and creativity, and the outer light of the stars, pointing to infinity, or, anyway, as close as our finite minds can get.

This book is dated in a lot of ways. Seemingly everywhere, even with the fish-sea-spider-symbiosis people, there are two sexes and two genders and they more or less map onto human men and women as understood by a (progressive) man of the time. While Stapledon respects the speed of light limit on physical travel, his mental travel is pretty magical. He gets a lot of tech stuff ahead of his time — Freeman Dyson more or less ganked the “Dyson sphere” from him — but Stapledon completely whiffs on computers or anything digital, understandably enough for 1937 I suppose, but there’s not even Capek-style robots anywhere.

Most of all, there is the more or less unquestioned hierarchy of joint technical and spiritual achievement that structures the entire book. He doesn’t shit on “primitive” people, good liberal that he was, but does pity them and consider them less than in terms of complexity. This is a stupid idea. Yes, pre-industrial people would have trouble understanding the internet if you explained it to them. But I have trouble understanding agriculture and the woods, certainly in the way people who lived their lives by them understood them. The idea that earlier times were simpler, for better or for worse, is a fallacy. Complexity comes in a lot of guises. Of course, fans of science and space exploration insist their enthusiasms are the most specialest — I mean complex! — of all things, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy it.

Still and all- I couldn’t help but be impressed and even moved by this small, strange book. I don’t quite belong to the faith tradition — space utopianism, more or less — of which it is a foundational text. It sounds nice and if life goes that way I’ll happily go along, but I don’t quite believe in it. Among other things, I think values other than mind alone have some claim on us, even if I mostly live the life of the mind myself. But I’m not a Christian (anymore) and some parts of the Bible are pretty impressive, too. As various vernacular editions of the good book laid the foundation for their respective languages’ literary traditions, so did “Star Maker” set out many of the tropes and priorities of far-future “ideas” scifi, including Ursula Le Guin, Iain Banks, Vernor Vinge, and so on. That the ur-text of the genre was set out in this simple, report-liturgy way, makes it all the more poignant, to me anyway. ****’

Review- Stapledon, “Star Maker”

Review- Heller, “Catch-22”

Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961) – Thirty-five is an unusual age to read this particular classic. In fact, I was given my copy of “Catch-22” roughly half my life ago by a dear friend. I was the right age then, but circumstance intervened: the prose reminded me of the speech of my high school girlfriend, and I put it down. Having now read it, I don’t quite see what teenage me was thinking in that, the memories don’t quite add up- adolescence is another planet. I assumed for years I’d never pick the book up again, and carried it with me through multiple moves mostly because my friend wrote a sweet note to me in it.

Why did I read it at age thirty-five? Well, out of general interest in American literature, is part of the answer. But I pulled the trigger now because I just re-read “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and reacquainted myself with the tortured story of that book’s publication. John Kennedy Toole, author of “Confederacy,” had a long correspondence with Robert Gottlieb, editor at Simon & Schuster and one of the most influential literary editors of his day. In it, Gottlieb repeatedly praised Toole and “Confederacy” but insisted on sweeping changes in the work, and in the end, passed on it. Gottlieb rose to prominence initially on the strength of discovering Joseph Heller and ushering “Catch-22” into print. So I was curious: what was in “Catch-22” that appealed to Gottlieb, that “A Confederacy of Dunces” (supposedly) lacked?

I wouldn’t call “Catch-22” story-driven or character-driven in the usual sense, maybe a little more the latter- I guess I’d call it “scenario-driven.” The scenario is this: in the waning days of World War Two, US Army Air Force bombardier John Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more missions, because people shoot at him and try to kill him. No one else on his base, set on a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean, seems to understand this simple concept, except for possibly Yossarian’s friend, the chaplain. Plenty of Yossarian’s fellows look to avoid combat, but primarily because they’ve got other irons on the fire: playing the black market, getting laid, being a nefarious colonel looking to use their men to advance their careers. Realizing that getting in an airplane and flying out to drop bombs on people while other people shoot at you is crazy, as Yossarian does, leads to the original of several versions of the titular “Catch-22:” if you realize what you’re doing is objectively crazy, than you are sane enough to undertake it.

The narrative of the book proceeds non-linearly. We get chapters, mostly named after one or another character, that relate one or another anecdote of life on the base, of missions, or of leave spent in Rome or elsewhere in Italy. They illustrate a whole world of military screwballs, dickering with each other comedically in action that sometimes recalls the Three Stooges and dialogue that is sometimes a little “who’s on first?” Not that either is damning- that kind of humor can be funny, and while I didn’t laugh aloud much I can see why it appeals, especially when it was written. I don’t call the work character-driven because the characters, including Yossarian, are reasonably well-characterized but seemingly thin by design. This makes sense, given the here today, gone tomorrow nature of extended combat tours and the surreal world of the war (what Pynchon called “the zone”) around them. A narrative eventually reveals itself through the non-linear confusion, as we see the missions Yossarian went on, alluded to in previous chapters, that soured him on war, and as the nefarious colonels ratchet up their demands on their men, bringing Yossarian and many of the others to a breaking point. But I’d say the plot isn’t really the point, either.

What, then, is the point? An especially important question to me, as one of the main points Robert Gottlieb made against “A Confederacy of Dunces” was what he saw as the book’s pointlessness. Well, not to be reductive, but it seems to me the main point of “Catch-22” would be “war = bad.” A valid point, and one often eluded in mythology of World War Two, “the good war.” There’s also a fair amount of “bureaucracy = bad,” producing humor about the irrationality of machine society, which reached unheard of potency during the war and looked set to dominate the peace. Also reasonably valid, if overdone in subsequent decades. These points helped make it a favorite of the Baby Boom generation, and the man-vs-sick-society thing still resonates, especially but not exclusively with younger readers. It’s a classic for a reason.

What opened up the book some for me and helped with the “Confederacy” comparison was this simple question: What does Yossarian want? We all know he wants to not fly missions any more. He wants to live. Sometimes, he expresses concern for whether others live, primarily his buddies but also sometimes civilians he’s sent to bomb, but Heller is admirably circumspect in making Yossarian feckless, no paper Christ. What I didn’t know going in was how much Yossarian wants to get laid. Yossarian is both horny (he gets laid a lot with sex workers and nurses, and basically sexually assaults one of the latter with a buddy in a scene played for laughs) and romantic (forever falling in love with one or another of his scores). Other than officers, sex workers are the most prominent occupation of character in the world of the book, and one (mostly referred to as “Nately’s whore”) goes some way towards advancing the action of the plot.

This might be a bit of a reach, but Yossarian’s rejection of the military — an exclusively male institution, inhabited by men who seem to love being around other men, even as many of them also seek out women compulsively — strikes me as another instantiation of a theme in postwar fiction pointed out by academic and critic Michael Trask: a man “coming out as straight,” in opposition to institutional settings that would make him unnatural and queer. Yossarian just wants to be left alone to indulge the appetites every man has- sex with women, and indolence. In this way, Yossarian sets the pattern for the comedic Everyman for generations to come, from the characters in MASH to Homer Simpson. We know Heller influenced these later generations of comic writers- Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” wrote an amusing comic about meeting Heller, one of his favorite writers. “Catch-22” reminded me of nothing so much as the fourth season of “Arrested Development,” one of my favorite tv shows, and I’d be very surprised if the writers weren’t familiar with “Catch-22.”

From a distance, this doesn’t look all that different from “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which has had its own impact on comedy writing. Ignatius Reilly, the main character, also wants to be left alone, to rot in his room, eating, bothering his mother, writing down his untimely thoughts, and masturbating. Both “Confederacy” and “Catch-22” end with the promise of escape for the main character, flight to a promised land with sexual overtones. But there are important differences. Ignatius may be a slob, but he is no everyman. His sexuality — repressed, violent, fantastic, fundamentally solipsistic — is the furthest thing from the straightforward and frequently-gratified sexuality of a Yossarian. What Ignatius wants — either in his lazier modes or in the manias he goes into for much of the action of “Confederacy” — is not the sort of thing that would be considered normal or noble (those near-homophones!) by most American readers at midcentury.

Robert Gottlieb was (is, he’s still alive) a classic literary gatekeeper. You don’t get to be editor of the New Yorker unless you’re a safe pair of hands. Put it all together and you get a dispiriting picture of why “Catch-22” would appeal to him in ways “A Confederacy of Dunces” would not. You can slap a big moral — “war and bureaucracy = bad” — on “Catch-22” in a way you can’t with “Confederacy.” The non-linear aspect of “Catch-22” makes it more confusing and obscure and hence “literary” than “Confederacy,” which is basically linear in plot. Despite wallowing in death and futility, “Catch-22,” in its apotheosizing feckless everyman Yossarian, celebrates the agreed upon postwar values, at least of the literary set: peace, plenty, and heterosexual intercourse. That, and the moral he could put on it, was the “point” “Catch-22” had for someone like Gottlieb, I think.

“A Confederacy of Dunces” did not have that point and did not reaffirm those values. And those values, relatively recently, were pretty strongly challenged by a serious artistic avant-garde, many of whom chose the wrong side in the war that serves as a setting for “Catch-22.” Along with “Confederacy,” while reading “Catch-22” I kept thinking of the works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the French fascist who for my money wrote the best literary depictions of the Second World War. His outlook was at least as bleak as Heller’s and, while not exacting denying himself worldly pleasures, Celine no more thought they justified the world and human existence than he believed in democracy or equality. We know Celine influenced Joseph Heller’s friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut- I wonder if Heller read him? It’s worth noting that both Celine and Vonnegut present a ground-level take on the war (Celine as a refugee, Vonnegut as an infantryman), as opposed to Heller’s air war. The war was dangerous enough for American bomber crews, but you get a whole other look at the world and its quandaries from the perspective of people really in the meat grinder, like a Soviet infantryman, to allude to another ideological side of the war that postwar American literary culture strenuously sought to exclude.

John Kennedy Toole wasn’t a communist or a fascist, but “A Confederacy of Dunces” breathes just a little bit of that mephitic air of the tomb world of non-humanist ideology (reactionary Catholicism as practiced by Ignatius, the real old school stuff not this online “tradcath” horseshit, fits right in there). It emitted enough, I think, to scare someone like Gottlieb. Cynical and dark though “Catch-22” is, it would not ring the same alarm bells. None of this is to say that “Catch-22” is a less genuine book, or that it doesn’t deserve praise. It’s pretty good, though I think “A Confederacy of Dunces” is funnier and better. I guess I’m just interested in how the sausage of canon gets made, and I think the comparison of “Catch-22” with “A Confederacy of Dunces” illuminates the process. ****

Review- Heller, “Catch-22”

Review- Mahoney, “Fair Trade”

Jack Mahoney, “Fair Trade” (2020) – I’m not one hundred percent certain I know what a “thriller” is, and especially where the line is drawn between thrillers that depict crime and conventional crime fiction. As it happens, I know the author of this new thriller, so I asked him. He said “Fair Trade” and its predecessor, “Clearcut” (which I read as a manuscript- it’s good to know writers, sometimes!) are both crime fiction and thrillers, but what distinguishes “Fair Trade” from his other, non-thriller crime novels are the emphasis on generating the emotion of suspense and de-emphasis on figuring out a puzzle. Thanks for the clarification!

“Fair Trade,” the second of the Adrian Cervantes series, certainly does deliver suspense and thrills aplenty. Adrian is an Army Ranger whose unit was betrayed in Iraq during a delivery of cash. None of his squad survived a helicopter crash in the northern hills except Adrian. Nursed back to health by some friendly Yazidis, Adrian goes back stateside with a mission: deliver a fair share of the cash his squad got fucked over for to each of his squadmate’s families. He exists in a liminal space, not formally dead or alive, existentially AWOL, living off his share of the cash and his sense of mission.

This installment brings him to New York. It doesn’t look like his buddy Barry’s family needs the money- Barry’s wife married a rich agribiz dude who works “fair trade” deals in Central Africa. But just as Adrian meets the family, Barry’s son gets kidnapped by some very professional operators, who demand an oddly specific ransom amount out of Mr. Fair Trade’s price range. Adrian and Barry’s post-collegiate daughter Lori go into action and discover betrayal by a hipster-douche boyfriend, narrowly escape death at the hands of mercenaries, find out terrible secrets of the agricultural business, and have a fling. Adrian is a badass but not a superman, Lori is resourceful and insistent, and the action is fast-paced and more-or-less believable. The author provides the sort of interesting explanations of both combat situations and Adrian’s social engineering feats that make a feature of this sort of writing (think “The Bourne Identity”) without dragging the pace. In the end, Adrian is prepared to make another “fair trade” – him for the boy, as it seems whoever did the kidnapping might be tied in with whoever betrayed his Ranger squad, and wants Adrian for their own purposes.

One thing I wonder about thrillers, based largely on the Cervantes books and movies and TV I’ve seen: they seem tied to a realism so stringent as to verge on blandness, sometimes. Adrian moves through a world of high-end hotels and apartments, office complexes, abandoned lots and parks, among people dedicated to tasks. Their relevant attributes are largely those of tactical significance. Sometimes, this can be revealing of the character of a given person or place, as with the big bad in this installment. I understand that the thriller mode needs to be stripped down to deliver the pulse-pounding goods, but I did find myself cherishing the descriptive and character moments in “Fair Trade” and in other similar works. Michael Mann is good with this, often giving little background tid-bits on his characters that flesh things out within the attention economy of the stories he tells. How much color can a thriller hold before it ceases to be a thriller? I guess I’d ask if I had to frame it as a question. My impression is that some thriller writers “color” by throwing in a lot of gun-pedantry and militaria, which I’m glad the author does not, but I think the answer is “more than the Cervantes novels presently have.” Still, the core of the experience is there: if you like the experience of being thrilled, you should pick these books up. ****’

Review- Mahoney, “Fair Trade”

Review links – O’Connor, “Blood Red Lines” and Greenidge, “Black Radical”

As it happens, I had two reviews published in two different outlets on the same day.

I write about journalist Brendan O’Connor’s forthcoming book on nativism and the far right, “Blood Red Lines,” for Dissent here.

I write about historian Kerri Greenidge’s biography of Boston antiracist activist William Monroe Trotter for DigBoston here.

Review links – O’Connor, “Blood Red Lines” and Greenidge, “Black Radical”