I’ve been reading Houellebecq’s new novel The Map and the Territory. As of about halfway through, I can report no sex. This means you have to take your nihilism straight, without any chaser of porn writing. It’s kind of exhilarating.
Since it’s my personal opinion that high school’s only truly valuable lessons were how to (a) talk back, (b) navigate subcultures, (c) expertly perform one’s (desired) gender, and occasionally, (d) hate one’s mom, I’d like to propose that all American teenagers give their copies of Please Kill Me and Letters to a Young Poet a rest and instead read Alice Echols’s impressive history of American radical feminism, Daring to Be Bad; it could teach them a thing or two about (a—c), and probably account for, if not undo, (d). Daring to Be Bad may only shed a splinter of light on what Shulamith Firestone called “the blackout of feminist history to keep women hysterically circling through a maze of false solutions,” but it’s certainly a start. Add this to the list of feminist texts that we should have read sooner, and that should be mandatory reading for everyone who cares about anything.
Jon-Jon Goulian’s memoir, The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, is marketed as the story of a man who wears a skirt, and it’s true that Jon-Jon often wears a skirt, and a scarf, and from reading the book I now know why he has such an unobtrusive nose, but really the book turns out to be about a refusal to specialize and professionalize, which causes the family of the refusenik to experience great angst and worry and trouble, which in turn causes the man who refuses to get a real job to be incredibly close to, in constant contact with, and in general very touchingly attached to his family. It comes to seem that in fact the only way to be a truly loving son and grandson is precisely to refuse becoming a brilliant and successful doctor or lawyer or intellectual anti-Communist. His grandfather, the philosopher Sidney Hook, and his grandmother Shammy on his other side, and his father, a hematologist, and his long-time boss, Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books (who happened to have been born on the exact same day as Dr. Goulian)—two generations of the much-admired New York capital “I” Intellectuals—all seem to say to Jon-Jon: Why can’t you follow in the footsteps of us, your distinguished family? And in the end it turns out that only Jon-Jon really has.
I recently picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in an airport Border’s—it was the correct length for flying cross-country and I had wanted to read it before seeing the movie. The book’s a page-turner. It speeds sharply along a nice tight story of rather standard intrigue: a withering, obscenely wealthy patriarch hires a private detective to look into a blackmail loosely connected to one of his two daughters, lithe, sharp-tongued heiresses running wild in a crime-ridden demimonde of Los Angeles. Murder follows closely on the blackmail, and soon the case spirals toward an unexpected denouement. The real craft is in the characters, basking as they do in intricate brands of studied cool. Chandler holds back, keeping them just opaque enough to give the whole work a nice romantic sheen.
Each year in mid-July, hundreds of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country pack their knapsacks and head up to the Bohemian Grove, a cultish retreat nestled in the redwood forests of Sonoma Country. There, for two weeks, they dine ensemble and swim au naturel at what amounts to a secretive summer camp for the ruling class. If you—like me—can’t think of anything you’d rather read about, then turn first to this article from the November 1989 issue of Spy and then to Significant Others by Armistead Maupin, in which you’re served up singing lesbians and a plus-sized model along with your Reaganites. Maupin’s sentences might not break hearts, but he deploys proper nouns (Reeboks, Ed Koch, Condé Nast) with an improbably tasteful sense of proportion. For those both tempted and eluded by the prospect of writing about their own time and place, Significant Others is a model of how to do it without taking yourself—or your world—too seriously.
In Outside Ethics, Raymond Geuss revives the art of the short, pondering philosophical essay. Geuss does not have a full positive theory, but in short speculative pages on a vast array of topics that range from “Liberalism and its Discontents” to “Virtue and the Good Life” and “Genealogy as Critique,” he does offer a powerful challenge to the political world as seen through the eyes of liberals.
Geuss is at his best when he is destructive, not constructive – and even though some of his barbs are hardly fair to their targets, it is difficult not to be won over by their acid wit. Writing about John Rawls’s statement that his experience as an officer in World War II led him on the course of investigation that culminated in A Theory of Justice, Geuss wonders:
One can easily imagine a person confronted with the events of the Second World War being motivated to ask various questions, for instance about European history, about the dynamics of political systems under stress, about the economics of competitive international markets, about human social psychology and the structure of collective action. What, however, would one have to believe about the world to think that “What is the correct conception of justice?” is the appropriate question to ask in the face of concentration camps, secret police, and the firebombing of cities? Are reflections about the correct distribution of goods and services in a “well-ordered society” the right kind of intellectual response to slavery, torture, and mass murder? Was the problem in the Third Reich that people in extermination camps didn’t get the slice of the economic pie that they ought to have had, if everyone had discussed the matter freely and under the right conditions?
The Waves by Virginia Woolf was recommended to me by my grumpiest college professor, a man who hated all displays of love or human sentiment but had excellent taste, so I assumed it would be aesthetically faultless and structurally inventive but an exercise in literary masochism. And indeed the book has no plot and no real characters, just a chorus of disembodied voices soliloquizing about their lives from childhood to old age, interwoven with a description of a day on the coast as the sun rises and falls. Line by line, though, the rhythm and the tactile, color-saturated language made it almost atavistically satisfying to read, like turning over the pages of a picture-book:“Here’s the sun; here’s a tree; here’s life. Now it’s done.”
Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, my reaction to Sodom and Gomorrah—the second time around, brought with me on a recent trip to France—belonged to a set of experiences that can conveniently be called “Proustian.” I got through the part where Marcel describes the secret natural laws by which homosexuals recognize each other, as bees are drawn to flowers, and flowers, themselves hermaphroditic or bisexual, draw others to them, and the marvelous turn the narrative takes when, as a reader, you realize that Proust is describing a natural law of desire rather than a natural law of “reproduction,” only using the reproductive wiles of plants to stand in for the desires of human beings. This was all more or less as I remembered it from my senior year of college. It was brilliant, it was Proust, but not unexpectedly so. Then, lying jet-lagged in my almost entirely white hotel room, not exhausted but pushed by lack of sleep and travel to a point of almost hyper-lucidity, or maybe it was the whiteness of the walls and the bedspread and the clean towels and the scent of the bath salts, or just being somewhere out of my world that drove me to keep reading until the scene when Marcel finds himself stood up by Albertine, after she’s agreed to meet him for a late night rendezvous at his apartment. Where I was caught out, surprised against my will, was at the moment when Marcel, hoping Albertine will telephone, breaks into a mini-essay on the very recent technology, la découverte d’Édison, as he calls it at one point, pointing out that each new technology brings out “unsuspected qualities or vices” in us, or exacerbates our customary ones in new ways. It ends with this amazing echo of the famous scene at the beginning of A la Recherche, of young Marcel waiting for his mother to come give him one more goodnight kiss, and the notes he sends down with the servant to try to summon her, reminding me that Proust’s work actually mimics the actions of memory it narrates, producing, as it were, a silent echolalia or involuntary memory in the reader of passages read, in my case, years ago, and yet simultaneously “recalling” every phone call I’ve ever waited for in my teenage distress or adult amours, the lover’s exquisite masochism that is also, as you’ll see, also a small essay on the effects of music. I’ll try translating it, for fun:
I was being tortured by the unceasing refrain of a desire ever more anxious and never satisfied for the sound of the phone; brought to the culminating point of a tormented ascent through the spirals of my lonely anguish, down to the depths of populous, nocturnal Paris suddenly brought near to me, next to my library, I heard, just like that, mechanical and sublime, like in Tristan the waving scarf, or the pastoral pipe, the burr of the telephone vibrator. I threw myself on it, it was Albertine. “I’m not bothering you, calling at such a late hour?”
“But no . . .” I said, hiding my joy, since what she was saying about the obscene hour was doubtless to excuse her coming in a moment, so late, not because she wasn’t going to come.