Once in a while, and with increasing frequency, climate change rises to the forefront of popular consciousness. A critical mass of people aided by the notion that others are doing something similar can break through the powerful psychological resistance and look the blinding thing in the face. It’s devastating and painful; you grieve and you panic. Even so, there’s relief in bringing something so painful into view, in holding it with your mind. But you can only look for so long. Resistance reasserts itself, and you slide back behind it. Next time you come out a tiny bit further before you retreat. This is how understanding happens, through a series of breakthroughs and retrenchments and consolidations, as with all efforts toward intentional growth.
The Intellectual Situation
Peace is possible, if just barely, on the Korean peninsula neither thanks to nor in spite of America’s leadership, but because America isn’t leading at all. The country’s ruling party has been thrown into such chaos by Trump’s election that it lacks a coherent geopolitical strategy, and the State Department is a nonfunctioning husk of its former self. What Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in have done is recognize America’s geopolitical incoherence as an opportunity to act on their own behalf. The peace process is primarily of South Korean design, it was underway months before Trump flew to Singapore, and it illustrates the kinds of space that open up, and the kinds of diplomacy that become possible, as the US begrudgingly starts to cede its place at the head of the world’s table.
After enduring years of mockery — a young Tony Blair once quipped, “You really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over” — the Labour left might now form the next government. What would they do with power? Much of the answer hangs on the challenges of Brexit and the ordinary traumas of state administration and class conflict, which threaten to derail any radical bid for power. But less attention has been paid to the shape of Labour’s vision. John McDonnell talks as if the zeitgeist is at last with the socialists again. If he is right, his thinking tells us something of the world to come.
Fiction and Drama
This was my ritual birth to celebrate with all the others. It was my luck to be reborn to turn the distant nebulae American.
He eats, cuts more. A thick coin of marbled purple slithers across the counter and over the lip to the floor. He scoops it up, gobbles. Five-second rule, he says. She stares at the tiles that haven’t been mopped since they moved in: Are you looking for food poisoning? Don’t believe in it, he replies, setting his bottle back on the squid stain. I don’t endorse your obsessive fixations, he says, turning back to his spitting pan, tossing in a ring and tentacle to test the oil’s heat. Charlotte arrives at last, via Uber, straight off the flight, fashionable, strangely neat, with a hard little mouth.
If you went to an American high school with an average parental tax bracket in the “comfortable” range, there’s a good chance you know Bryant Grober. Bry: cute and popular, on the teams it was cool to be on, kind of a dick around his friends but perfectly cordial when you were lab partners. Somewhere in your yearbook, there’s a picture of him. It’s a close-up reproduced large, because the yearbook editors wanted everyone to appreciate Bry’s amazing eyes. Chris, with his equally amazing but soul-freezing eyes, might seem a more unheimlich figure. Both boys were rapists, not just the one who had the brio to announce it so insouciantly.
A reckoning. A detangling. An unearthing. A veteran unlearning the meaning of America’s wars, of America’s “democratizing” projects, of America itself.
Oh! I thought. This sounds like the kind of man for me! I didn’t know at the time that he was interested in how jokes work because he wanted to figure out how humor could topple dictators and children of former dictators, specifically South Korea’s president at the time, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Korea’s old strongman dictator, Park Chung-hee.
My childhood was, in many ways, a walled garden constructed in accordance with 19th-century notions of innocence and autonomy. I was aware on some level that there was a broader culture from which we had deliberately exempted ourselves. My mother called it the World, which was neither the planet nor the cosmos, but a system of interlocking ideologies that were everywhere and in everything. Of all the things she taught me, this was the most formative: that life concealed vast power structures warring for control of my mind; that my only hope for freedom was to be vigilant in recognizing them and calling them by name.
I have admired Naipaul as much as I have found him difficult to admire, a murky admixture that I find difficult to explain or clarify, and which I find with no other writer, to anything like the same degree. (Edward Said referred to his “pained admiration,” and dissonant phrases of that kind are scattered through appreciations of his work.) I know, too, that you knew him, which I did not. I don’t know if that makes him more or less difficult to appraise.
To love Zimbabwe from afar is an all-consuming task. Your virtual tool kit includes Twitter, Facebook, and an endlessly bleeping string of WhatsApp groups, each of which you curate to have overlapping but nonidentical networks of people in the know. These threads will be interspersed with frank confessions of despair over the future of democracy given the Zimbabwean leadership’s latest broken promise, and perhaps the occasional photo of a lion shot by an American dentist. It’s not easy to be a Zimbabwean writer abroad: in addition to having to answer familiar questions about who speaks for whom, writes to whom, and by whom their books are published, writers in the diaspora have to negotiate citizenship from a distance. For better or for worse, those who have “made it” and those who have not converge in the digital commons, where the prestige economy of global literature meets the more frenetic literary scene of the World Wide Web. This convergence is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it makes diasporic Zimbabwean writers some of the most interesting thinkers about the role of virtual worlds in intellectual life, and a curse because of the surging, even manic pace it entails.
The cancellation of both services, at this point, seems like the end of the long tail. The blockbuster model has reasserted itself and as usual seeks to muscle everything else out of the way. At the height of corporate capitalism you pay full price for bad movies improperly projected in ugly theaters whose business is selling large sodas at a 1,000 percent markup. If you want to watch a movie at home, there’s Netflix, now mostly a streaming television service, or Amazon. It’s all an insult to cinephiles and to film history. Going mass means living in the moment and throwing away what came before. The moment is crap.
The interesting thing about McCain was not his politics, which were, by and large, predictably Republican. His sanctimony masked nepotism, self-interest, and political expediency. His concrete political legacy is not the timeless virtue of sacrifice, but catastrophic war. Yet for decades he has remained interesting as a figure of myth, and that mythology invites something like a literary analysis. One is speaking here less of McCain himself than of McCainology. It is a slippery subject; McCainology usually says as much about the McCainologist as it does about McCain. The aura of a unique ordeal followed him from his captivity in Vietnam into politics, and McCain himself (the first and most devoted McCainologist) cultivated that aura. The question of authenticity has been McCainology’s main preoccupation, but it is a red herring. I am asking other questions: If McCain were a fictional character, which he kind of was, then what is his story about? And when was it written? And why did we read it?