Saturday, November 19, 2011

Great Paragraphs and Otherwise in the Penny Press!



When historians finally settle the dust of the last decade, it wouldn't surprise me if the most toxic legacy of the George W. Bush interregnum isn't an essentially unpayable 50 trillion dollar debt-chasm, or the entirely justified hatred of the rest of the world, or even the new knowledge that literally any imbecile can become President if he owns enough Supreme Court justices but rather something far simpler and far worse: the death of error. Bush famously disdained knowledge and expertise - he governed with his 'gut,' and the first and most important implication of doing anything with your 'gut' is that it's not susceptible to error. That's what the whole euphemism means: I'm consulting my heart, my instincts, my soul - because those things can't be fooled by statistics cooked up by Ivy League homosexuals. In fact, those things can't be fooled at all, because they come right from God. Aside from James T. Kirk, when's the last time you heard anybody say that something they believed with their 'gut' later turned out to be wrong?

It's a vile, preschooler's stance, and it's pervaded every inch of American society. It's especially prevalent among public figures, of course, and it always looks the same: Person X makes a stunning, jaw-dropping comment, listeners of every type express not only outrage but also scruple, pointing out factual errors and citing numerous irrefutable proofs, Person X acknowledges the outrage, acknowledges the irrefutable proofs - and then maintains that their original statement was right. A prominent radio personality says no Germans died in the concentration camps of World War II, a public figure says the American Revolution was fought over the issue of gun control, a Presidential candidate says he never said the country needs an electrified border-fence with Mexico ... within seconds, a) 4,744 historians step forward and say that quite a few Germans died in concentration camps, b) 10, 655 historians - and over a million grade school children - step forward and say that Paul Revere didn't ride from street to street saying "The British are coming for our guns! The British are coming for our guns!" and c) 16 news networks instantly produce film showing the candidate advocating an electrified border-fence just the previous day. And in all three cases - and so many more - Person X takes in the correction, blinks a couple of times, and then does a quick mental calculation: I spoke from the 'gut,' my 'gut' can't be wrong, so all these facty-things must be wrong, and the people saying them are just pinheads. Facts have become just slightly less flexible versions of opinions, rather than things that can precipitate correction.

Sadly, this toxic legacy has seeped even into the world of professional letters. Just recently we've seen Taylor Branch compare college athletes to slaves, have the manifest holes in that comparison pointed out to him - and then stand by the comparison anyway. And in the latest New York Review of Books, it happens again.

Some of you may recall the original incident, because I wrote about it here. In a review of Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child, Daniel Mendelsohn inserts a damning little footnote about something he thinks Hollinghurst is saying through the use of some of his characters:
I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne's marital history seems intended to suggest a descending arc: her second, untitled husband is a bisexual painter who is killed in World War II, and her third and final husband is a certain "Mr. Jacobs," a small-time manufacturer who did not, apparently, fight in the war. This seems to be a marker of the "plain old Sharon Feingold" sort. In this context it's worth mentioning that in the 1920s section of the book, the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances - he represents the distressingly crass "modern" world of publicity and celebrity - is called Jerry Goldblatt.

When I first read that, I wrote, not without dismay, that it was odious for a critic of Mendelsohn's calibre to stoop to making such insinuations of anti-Semitism. In the latest NYRB, my reaction is echoed by a reader named Galen Strawson, who writes:
I suppose this sort of prejudice - Mendelsohn's - will never end. But it requires a failure of ear, a narrowness of mind, an ignorance of the world, a capacity for unwarranted insult (the wearily regretful tone, the footnote as insinuation), that is in Mendelsohn's case surprising, and in any case squalid.

To which Mendelsohn responds by claiming that the 'old British literary habit' he was referring to was the habit of summoning the "Other-ness" of Jews, of treating them as "exotic" and "symbols of un-Britishness." Which is the most disingenuous thing I've read all week, and certainly the most pusillanimous thing I've ever read from this ordinarily bravely forthright critic. The 'old British literary habit' Mendelsohn refers to in his original footnote is anti-Semitism, plain and simple, not some lit-crit folderol about 'the Jew as Other.' He carefully doesn't name the habit in his original passage specifically because he wanted to preserve a little wiggle-room for himself should the comment draw criticism, and that's exactly how he's using it now. He goes on to write "I am a critic, and what I did was to offer a critical observation about a (small) aspect of the author's oeuvre"  - which is about as truthful as referring to John Wilkes Booth's little bullet as "a (small) aspect of the Lincoln's theater-going experience."

And this is what I meant by the death of error. What Mendelsohn should have written - what he would have written before George W. Bush got into all our drinking water - was "I am a critic, and sometimes immersion in an author's work can prompt critics to see things that aren't there. This was one of those times, and I apologize to Alan Hollinghurst." But alas, the gut wants what the gut wants.

Fortunately, most of the rest of the NYRB was superb, including a great paragraph from Charles Baxter's review of the new novel by Haruki Murakami:
This idea, which used to be the province of science fiction and French critical theory, is now in the mainstream, and it has create a new mode of fiction - Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City is another recent example - that I would call "Unrealism." Unrealism reflects an entire generation's conviction that the world they have inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.

That's really fine stuff, and even it is overshadowed by something over in the latest New York, a quick review of the new Broadway revival of Godspell starring the douchebag Hunter Parrish. The piece is by Scott Brown (no relation, one hopes, to the startlingly evil Senator from Massachusetts), and its opening paragraph is just about as perfect as anything you'll find in Gershwin:
I suspect - and this is just one Pharisee's opinion - that it's possible to outgrow Godspell, that right of passage for drama nerds and nascent thrift-store enthusiasts everywhere, which is now glorying in its first Broadway revival. Embalmed in patchouli yet insistently, sometimes gratingly ageless, the show began in the early seventies as a downtownish affair, a (very) vaguely provocative American-tribal-love-rock Jesusical featuring ultracatchy pop songs by a young Stephen Schwartz, a loose New Testament story arc by the late John-Michael Tebelak, and a company of charming, vocally frowsy near amateurs. Four decades and innumerable high-school and church productions later, Godspell is less a show than a songbook, a vitiated transcript of Matthew, and a brief: Be relevant to today's youth. (Translation: pack in more pop-culture cutaway gags than a season of Family Guy.) In other words: Come to Gleesus, who's here playe by Hunter Parrish, the blond Adonis of Weeds and Spring Awakening. His voice is Christly gentle to the point of featheriness, his manner ranges from very charming to practically pamphleteering, and his delivery is straight-up Montessori. He's surrounded by apostles who were clearly called from a conservatory, not a drum circle, and most sport voices strong and smooth as industrially milled fiberglass. Theirs is a Beacon's Closet Golgotha. To fully appreciate their rapid-fire eagerness to connect, it helps to have the mind of a properly medicated Nickelodeon viewer.

Hee. Something like that will cure just about any A-holery conducted elsewhere in the Penny Press. Until next time, that is.

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