Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Not Quite the Usual Suspects in the Penny Press!

Long-time readers of "In the Penny Press" are probably ready to go cross-eyed the next time I natter on about some wretched tobacco addict in Esquire or the skimpiness of your average Atlantic feature article, but I can't help it: I go where my interests take me. Just the same, I ought to be more mindful of variety here at Stevereads - especially since there's quite a bit of variety to the magazines I read and enjoy regularly. Two of my old stand-bys, for instance, have scarcely ever been mentioned here: Arion and The New Republic.

Of course Arion's a natural fit: it's Boston University's square-bound Classics journal, and every issue is filled with essays on the kinds of topics only small and steadily-shrinking segment of the reading population would find interesting at all. That's too bad, because the quality of the writing in any issue of Arion is top-notch, and the current issue is no exception (in all the time I've been reading this journal - and that's all the time it's been published, a quite delightful little run - there have been no exceptions; even the mountebank Camille Paglia did superb work when writing under its aegis). The Spring/Summer 2011 issue has typically rich pickings, including a marvellous look at many of the various statues of Antinous, the Bithynian boy-toy of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The piece is written with delightful brio by Amelia Arenas, who points out that "although we know little about the young man, there are more images of him than of most Roman Emperors, so one can say that Antinous lives only in our visual imagination. Thus 'who was this boy?' and 'what did he look like?' are almost the same question. I've been thinking about Antinous for a very, very long time, and such an elegant phrasing never occurred to me. And Arenas has also given the subject a lot of thought - not only the subject of that one beautiful boy, but the subject of visual memory itself:
Consider what happens with those yellowing family photographs we keep in cardboard boxes under our beds - all those smiling strangers who will never make it into a frame simply because we don't know who they are. The same happens when we look at the pictures we took at our last party. They end up in the dump, if they don't match in some way what we think we look like or wished we looked like - whatever it is that we see in the mirror when we strike our flattering morning pose after we finish shaving or putting our makeup on.

Every issue of Arion features a handful of more ruminative pieces like this one, plus a scattering of original translations, and some book reviews that are toweringly magisterial - and that can be summarily devastating, as in this issue's long review of a book called Monotheism Between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity. You wouldn't think a book with a title like that could spark ire - let alone wit - in any critic, but the always-entertaining Colin Wells rises superbly to the challenge. His review - called "Spotting an Elephant" - is the single most entertaining piece in this issue (unless you happen to be one of the hapless editors of the book in question), and its opening salvo deserves to be quoted in full:
 Is it possible to say anything meaningful about a book on the spread of Christianity in which the word "miracle" does not appear even once? The nine scholars whose essays comprise Monotheism Between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity have a lot to say about modalities, hermeneutical processes, hegemonies of discourse, even "theopantistic" ideas. About miracles, however, not a sausage. Without a doubt, they are good academicians. They peck at the right buttons, they jump through the right hoops. They've apparently read the sources, though how they missed all those miracles is perhaps something of a miracle itself. As for what is obviously the main object of the exercise, I'm sure that most of those without tenure or its equivalent will find it forthcoming in due course.

Rightly so, I would add resignedly. As you may have guessed, this book comes out of an academic conference, one that was held at the University of Exeter in July 2006 and that also produced a companion volume, One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire ... Neither is an actively bad book, which is about the best that can be said.

Wells - who goes on to describe himself as a professor of Nothing at No University - goes on, in fact, to say a great deal that's meaningful about this book, and about the dangers of approaching a big, living subject while wearing academic blinkers and spouting academic jargon, and even though it's shooting fish in a barrel, it's a hoot to watch. There's a very large amount of intellectual rigor underneath his razor-sharp levity, and that kind of thing is to be embraced wherever it's found. I find it all the time in Arion.

I find it all the time in our other periodical today, the venerable New Republic. I've been a reader of The New Republic for a very long time (a dear old friend of mine used to write for them regularly and eventually wore down my resistance to overtly political periodicals), and just as with Arion, I don't think I've ever read an issue that didn't mentally thrill me in some way. The front half of every issue is devoted to fire-throwing essays and analysis about current political news stories, and the friends of mine who hate TNR hate it for those stories - apparently, they conform to some sort of political philosophy or other. Since my own political philosophy has, sadly, completely vanished from the Western world, I can view that half of the magazine with benign indifference. This frees me to concentrate on the back half of every issue, which is nothing short of amazingly stimulating, memorable, quotable, even ... dare I say it? anthologizable. The back pages of every issue are devoted to long-form book reviews, and those reviews are a positive joy to read whether I agree with the reviewer or not (of course, the long form makes it particularly trying when I disagree - earlier this year, a reviewer bashed a book I liked, and the bashing kept going on and on, and my agitated marginalia kept going on and on, the reviewer getting funnier and more serious, the marginalia getting shriller and more uppercased - the proprietors of the Chinese food hole-in-the-wall where I read my periodicals would have thought I was insane to get so worked up over a magazine article, except they've long since already decided I'm insane).

This latest issue has a long, virtuoso piece by Evgeny Morozov - it's ostensibly reviewing two books about Google, but it's really a magnificent meditation on the subject (but without slighting the job of actually reviewing the books - that's the trick of long-form reviewing, a trick that eluded many of that dear gang at the old Saturday Review), complete with caveats about the dangers of meditating on the subject:
Eric Schmidt once quipped that "the Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand." To a large extent, this is also true of Google. Even its founders ... must be profoundly confused about Google's impact on privacy, scholarship, communications, and power. It is for this reason that writing about Google presents an almost insurmountable challenge.

He meets the challenge, just the same. Likewise Franklin Foer, who takes an equally juicy subject - the literary feud between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman - and has a blast with it. He dramatizes the appearance McCarthy made on "The Dick Cavett Show" in which she infamously commented that every word Hellman writes is a lie, and he sets up the coming story with the wonderfully understated line, "When Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed." There follows a corker of a narrative that remembers to be dutiful toward the book it's nominally reviewing but that's unashamedly revelling in its own independent powers to entertain the reader. There aren't enough literary journalists in the world who can do that - it requires a maddeningly complex combination of relaxing and bringing your A-game, and since most writers consider those things to be opposites, they never manage it. Foer does it like he was born doing it.

And if these back pages of TNR scintillate and entertain more these days than perhaps they did in decades past, it's largely due to one man: the section's editor and presiding spirit, Leon Wieseltier. So it's very comforting to turn to the back page of the magazine and find another instalment of his "Washington Diarist" feature - comforting because (as I've relearned just in the last four years, at a certain other literary journal) there's something elementarily reassuring when the person in charge of a literary organ is also one of its strongest writers. It's not true in many other professions - you wouldn't expect a football coach to be stronger or faster than his players - but it's mighty pleasing when it happens in book journalism.

What Wieseltier does in these marvellous little pieces is even trickier than good book reviewing - it's in fact the trickiest kind of writing there is: the personal essay. The reason the personal essay is the trickiest kind of writing is because it's poised on a razor: a bit too much personal or a bit too much essay, and the whole thing gets shredded under its own weight. That's why although America has produced many good essayists it's produced very few great ones. I'm almost ready to nominate Wieseltier to that latter category, on the strength of entries like this one. It's titled "The Night Birds" and begins with a random observation: our diarist has noticed that the birds in his garden tend to talk late into the night, rather than during the day. From there the thing gently and wonderfully unfolds in just the way a personal essay should - smart but not show-offy, disparate but fluid. "... the smart rooms in which I may sometimes be found are not lacking in people who are lonely in society," he writes (I strongly nominate "The Smart Rooms" as the title of his memoirs), and like all really talented essayists, he subtly makes you realize metaphors where you never suspected them before.

These two periodicals delight endlessly, and it's mere oversight that I haven't been telling you that all these years! There are other poor neglected stragglers out there, and I'll get to them all in due time - but first, we return to a couple of more familiar members of In the Penny Press' Rogues Gallery!

1 comment:

Greg said...

Another great post, and a strange coincidence, since I just came into possession of several back issues of Arion, courtesy of the fine institution I work for.

But I'm mystified by the Wieseltier love-fest! Sure, he's done good work at the back end of TNR, and he's very smart and often insightful, but Good Lord does he want you to know it! Those tack-sharp lines of his require endless trekking through some of the most overgrown and pretentious sentences around. I'm ambivalent but I would have bet a hundred dollars you would hate him. Color me surprised!