In Memoriam

The Painful Sum of Things

The Painful Sum of Things

On V. S. Naipaul

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.

Ordinary Faithfulness

Ordinary Faithfulness

Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Philosopher Stanley Cavell, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, who died on June 19 at age 91, published his first book, Must We Mean What We Say?, during the strike. The book’s essays cover a broad range of subjects, from modernist music and Beckett’s Endgame to Kierkegaard and King Lear. But one area—political theory—is noticeably absent. And yet, two essays, which were composed over the course of the ’60s, speak directly to the most pressing political issues of the decade: civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Workers Full of Poems

Workers Full of Poems

On Eddie Sadlowski, 1938–2018

Sadlowski embodied the wish for organized labor to wake from its postwar slumber and again throw its weight behind a great movement for a different country, as it had done in the 1930s and before. The AFL-CIO had shamefully backed the Vietnam War; Sadlowski opposed it and denounced the growth of “the weapons economy”—of which steel was very much a part. Many of the unions in the federation, including the USWA, had dragged their heels at best on racial integration of their workplaces; Sadlowski called for strengthening the union’s civil rights apparatus, attracting the support of Jesse Jackson and members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Much of organized labor met environmentalism with hostility; Sadlowski dissented. “It’s one hell of a thing for me to say—we just don’t need any more steel mills. We don’t need that kind of industrial growth, at the expense of what the environment should be.” He followed the thought where it led: “Enough with the car!” What more radical claim could a blue-collar worker make about postwar society than to doubt the automobile?

The Church of Food

The Church of Food

On Anthony Bourdain, 1956–2018

The episodes about regions of great migration, which frequently covered cities outside of Europe, revealed that Bourdain’s sense of food could follow a people beyond their national borders and recent history. In an episode on Tanzania, a snack of Mandazi (a fried dough Swahili dish) and Bagias (a fried lentil dish) became a way of describing Indian migration and Zanzibar’s multi-ethnic history. In Houston, conversation over a meal at a restaurant that blends Indian and Pakistani food transitioned smoothly to a portrait of Houston, as a city in which people from all over the world are co-mingling. The mixing of culinary cultures for Bourdain was the best record we had of ethnic migration and mixing. In this, Bourdain was like Hortense Spillers in “Peter’s Pans.” After pages of dense criticism attempting to reckon with a history of physical, economic, and epistemic violence against African-Americans, Spillers sketched a culinary tour of the food of African-derived people as evidence of the past’s lingering, far-reaching and ever-changing grasp on the present. For Spillers and for Bourdain, the blending of flavors on a plate was history in motion.

The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone

The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone

On Philip Roth, 1933–2018

For an age where more people are porn-literate than literature-literate, the nerdy Roth may prove to be his most transgressive persona in posterity, although there’s another candidate for the role. As all the tributes pour in and multiply in thousands of bytes on our screens, there’s another thing that no one has really mentioned: his political astuteness.

Peter Stories

Peter Stories

On Peter Mayer, 1936–2018

His indifference to luxury distinguished him from his peers and seemed to ground him in the present tense. An often ancient-seeming man who spoke with the long vowels of the American midcentury, he always kept moving. He invested in young people—in us—a remarkable degree of trust and authority. The past was invoked often, but always as the punchline to a good story: his sordid adventures in the Merchant Marines; the time Allen Ginsberg got into the cab he was driving and asked him to take him cross-country (Peter of course obliged); a visit with Yukio Mishima in Tokyo too bizarre and nightmarish to explain with any succinctness. He once said he published a photography book, New York in the ’70s, because he had spent that decade in his office and needed a visual guide. But the stories suggested otherwise.

The Blaze

The Blaze

On Daniel Quinn, 1935–2018

I persuaded my three best friends to read Ishmael, and they were similarly affected. At night we convened a kind of book club in a motorboat parked in my friend Matt’s garage, smoking cigarettes and stacking empties of Milwaukee’s Best Ice, discussing how best to spread the word about the Civilization problem.

I Write Because I Hate

I Write Because I Hate

William Gass, 1924–2017

It is not hard to imagine young Gass chafing at the bit that midcentury analytic philosophy had sought to place in his mouth. In interviews he sometimes compared metaphor to junk food, which is of course dangerous, but also hard to define. In a broad sense any food is junk if you eat too much of it, or at the wrong time; in a narrower sense, junk food is delicious, and can be very good for the soul.

Indian Liberals Must Die

Indian Liberals Must Die

On Gauri Lankesh and the vernacular Indian left

Liberal snobbery is real, and it’s worth dismantling, but real elitism is claiming that the vernacular radical, the secular laboring man, the socialist with military service, or the atheist with bad English cannot exist; as if those subjectivities can only be produced by Moet and a master’s degree.

Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can

Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can

On Denis Johnson, 1949–2017

For all of its glorious derangement—hallucinatory tales of druggies and low-lives and murderers and fuck-ups, including a guy so far gone his friends all call him “Fuckhead”—Denis Johnson’s writing is always rooted in the conviction that life is sacred, that evil is a symptom of suffering, which is to say of estrangement from the sacred.