nonfiction

Recommended Reads: Writer’s Edition

 

The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer

Yellowlees Douglas

Cambridge University Press

Most books on writing have the same fatal flaw: They may be inspiring and informative, but they seldom offer The Reader's Brainpractical advice. Typically, you’ll get some variation of the following: write something every day; write what you know; active voice; character before plot.

Got it.

Yellowlees Douglas wants to change that with The Reader’s Brain. Drawing on science rather than Strunk and White, she offers tips on how to be a more effective writer, whether you’re penning the Great American Novel, writing a grant or constructing an internal memo.

I spent three years and thousands of dollars in an MFA program where it was bad form to talk about sentence structure. Seeing Douglas give it the attention it deserves was refreshing.

The Reader’s Brain is not just a collection of tips and tricks. Douglas provides a compelling narrative, sharing anecdotes from her years as an author and professor, to guide the reader through the chapters.

The difficulty with reviewing a book like this is that it’s hard to give details without giving away too much information. Since it’s on the book jacket, I can say that it centers around what Douglas calls the five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence. In exploring these concepts, Douglas shows how to utilize devices such as priming and causation to create narratives that capture the reader’s attention and keeps your words in their memory.

A worthy addition to any writer’s nook.

 

Metamedia: American Book Fictions and Literary Print Culture after Digitization

Alexander Starre

University of Iowa Press

Want to start a conversation with me at a party? Mention House of Leaves. I’ll wax ecstatic on Mark Z. Danielewski’s Metamediamasterpiece for hours. So of course I loved Metamedia, an exploration of literature in the digital age, which uses House of Leaves as its jumping-off point.

For those unfamiliar with Danielewski’s debut novel, it’s… well, it’s not easy to explain. The five-word synopsis I’d offer is that it’s a found-footage film in book form, but what does “book” mean here? Sure, it’s on paper, with binding, but with its manipulation of text (sometimes sideways or upside-down or spread over numerous pages) Leaves could never be reduced to just the words themselves.

This leads Starre to ask, “How does the idea of a literary work change when we think of it not as a text, but as an embodied artifact?”

As a lover of both physical books and digital technology, I have no bias in this area. I have a classic Nook, a Kindle tablet and boxes of books that I won’t get through in my lifetime. I’ll read any time, any place, any way, and I appreciate the tone with which Starre discusses the topic.

If you’re looking for a work that romanticizes the digital frontier or deifies the paperback, this is not it. Metamedia applies history and theory and offers a unique perspective that will be of interest to academics and general readers.

And will hopefully inspire those who haven’t to read House of Leaves.

 

Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

Eric Bennett

University of Iowa Press

As a survivor of an MFA program, there are a lot of ways I would describe writing workshops, but until reading this Workshops of Empirebook I never imagined a connection to the Cold War. Leave it to the University of Iowa Press, the publishing wing of the school that invented the Platonic form of the modern workshop, to offer this rich, counterintuitive history of the MFA.

These days, there’s nothing very revolutionary about a creative writing program. In fact, I still refer to mine as a conformative writing program, since anything that deviated from the cookie-cutter formula was dismissed.

But following World War II, Bennett argues, there developed an optimism that “the complexity of literature” would fend off the proliferation of simple sloganeering. Advances in science and technology had created weapons of terrifying power. It was time to advance the study of human nature, which happened to coincide with an increase in college attendance, thanks to the GI Bill.

“To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere,” Bennett writes.

I’ve often mused about how the World Wars produced more great fiction writers than any others, and Bennett helps explain (in part) why this was: “Veterans wanted to write, and taxpayers were willing to pay for it.”

Bennett’s focus is on the Cold War era, particularly two of the most influential figures in the history of the MFA: Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner (who founded the programs at Iowa and Stanford respectively).

It’s a fascinating read and should be required reading for anyone enrolled in or considering an MFA program.

Recommended Reads: August Adieu

As we careen toward September, let’s take a moment to reflect on some August titles you may want to add to your late-summer reading list.

Building God’s Kingdom

Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction

Julie J. Ingersoll

From Oxford University Press comes the most detailed account of Christian Reconstructionism I’ve come across. In Building Gods Kingdomfact, I hadn’t heard of many of the major players in Ingersoll’s insider account. Rousas John Rushdoony? Cornelius Van Til?

The names may be unfamiliar, but their influence lives on in the policies of the Tea Party and the Christian Right.

Ingersoll has a singular view of Reconstructionism. Now a professor of religious studies, she was once a pro-life activist and married into one of Reconstruction’s most influential families. Building God’s Kingdom is neither an outsider’s critique nor an escapee’s expose. From her unique perspective, Ingersoll offers a deep, honest look at the history of the belief, its adherents and rather than editorializing, she lets the movement’s leaders speak for themselves.

This is a fascinating, enlightening read that taught me new things and inspired me to research them on my own. Perusing the teachings of Rushdoony, his continued influence on faith-based politics is apparent.

This thorough study should adorn the nightstand of anyone interested in the intersection of politics and religion.

Code Grey

Clea Simon

Though cozier than my usual bedtime stories, if you love books, cats and mysteries more cerebral than chilling, CodeCode Grey Grey belongs on your bookshelf. This novel ticked the first two boxes for me (books and cats… I would have liked more chill factor).

Simon is a prolific author specializing in cat-themed mysteries. This is the ninth installment of the Dulcie Schwartz series. Schwartz, a grad student working on her dissertation over spring break, gets caught in the middle of a book theft, a wrongful arrest and receives guidance from a deceased companion animal.

To quote one of my heroes, Alice Cooper, “That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life” (if you didn’t sing the melody just now, do yourself a favor and listen to it ASAP).

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 2)

In May, Ensuing Chapters visited Paris and soaked up the books and culture of France. We’ve been celebrating this experience through the ongoing series, Littérature Francaise. Previous installments have covered Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and part I of a discussion of Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.

This week, we conclude our discussion of de Sade. In part I, we covered:

  • The international art scandal surrounding the original manuscript of Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome
  • The surface-level content of 120 Days, including layout
  • Some of the absurd fantasies explored in the text
  • Some critical commentary of the work from de Beauvoir and Georges Bataille

We closed with the assertion that despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

Marquis de Moralist

Let’s begin the reckoning with de Beauvoir, whose essay, “Must We Burn Sade?”, is arguably the greatest critical 120 Days2account of 120 Days. She writes of de Sade, “…though not a consummate artist or a coherent philosopher, he deserves to be hailed as a great moralist.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that conclusion. De Sade’s enduring legacy is having sexual cruelty named in his honor. His definitive work is an epic of non-stop debasement, dismemberment, torture, rape and murder. De Sade was imprisoned more than once for acting out some of these fantasies on prostitutes.

How does he make the leap from monster to moralist?

There is something in de Sade’s philosophy that predicts Nietzsche. Human nature has a cruel streak, but rather than dividing us, it creates a de facto relationship between sadist and victim. This relationship exists prior to and outside of moral or utilitarian judgements. Opinions may be imposed a posteriori, but de Sade is more concerned with the relationship itself — the moment the whip kisses flesh, without the labels of good and evil, in what Sartre would call the unreflective consciousness.

This is where we must consider the Marquis.

He developed his philosophy, de Beauvoir writes, in his youth, when the young aristocrat realized that his sexual appetites deviated from the norm. But he did not wish to be an outsider. “The immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community,” she writes.

I won’t pretend to fully grasp all of de Beauvoir’s reasoning (and recommend you read the source material for yourself), but my takeaway from her essay is that the body limits freedom of the mind and prevents connections between people (what Bataille would call discontinuous beings). This distance robs others of their individuality and leaves us indifferent to one another.

To accept this indifference would be lazy. And it must be said that though the kill count in 120 Days is high, each death itself is singular. The uniqueness of each murder gives meaning to the flesh of its victim.

This sets up a curious tension within de Sade’s narrative. Curval, a judge whose greatest pleasure came from sending innocent men to the gallows (and one of the novel’s four “heroes”), makes the following observation: “What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth?”

This sets him at odds with the prostitute-storyteller, Duclos, who, though she dutifully relates her 150 tales, says, “…there is an almost unavoidable monotony in the recital of such anecdotes; all compounded, fitted into the same framework, they lose the luster that is theirs as independent happenings.”

This is a philosophy that would evolve through de Sade’s later writings. Though he wrote 120 Days prior to the Reign of Terror, seminal works such as Juliette, Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and the third and final version of Justine were written following the Terror. In these books, de Sade revolted against the depersonalization of mass murder.

As de Beauvoir explains, “It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings.”

Rationalized or self-righteous murder, particularly in large, indiscriminate quantities, was not to be tolerated. Neither would the neutrality that left one’s conscience clean whilst atrocities took place.

“Is it not better to assume the burden of evil than to subscribe to this abstract good which drags in its wake abstract slaughters?” de Beauvoir writes.

The key phrase here is “burden of evil.” It’s not enough to act good or to avoid doing “evil.” It would be irresponsible to deny the dark side of our nature, and the consequences of willful ignorance are bloody. She adds, “He was sure, in any case, that a man who was content with whipping a prostitute every now and then was less harmful to society than a farmer-general.”

This is the brilliance of de Beauvoir writ large. Whether or not you agree with de Sade’s philosophy, de Beauvoir cuts through the complexity and offers coherence the narrative lacked. In one of philosophy’s more mind-blowing, yet erudite passages, she concludes that de Sade was a moralist for the simple fact that, “He chose cruelty rather than indifference.”

Voice of the Victim

Bataille takes a particular interest in de Sade’s use of language. What is the Marquis really saying with his fiction? What is he truly revealing about himself?

On the one hand, 120 Days is about logical consequences. In a subversive twist on Kant’s categorical imperative, his120 days3 characters strictly pursue Libertine philosophy to its logical end. This is the place where all dogmas and ideologies fail. Belief systems (be they moral, religious or political) belie their logic when strictly enforced and universally applied. The Libertine philosophy of living by no moral constraints, in particular, is on shaky ground.

“One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based,” Bataille writes in Eroticism.

Libertinism is a self-defeating philosophy. De Sade revels in its fictitious excesses, which Bataille views as paradoxical: “…de Sade’s sovereign man has no actual sovereignty; he is a fictitious personage whose power is limited by no obligations.”

(Without going too far into the weeds, he means the sovereign man is dependent on the subjects who consent to his rule. Absolute power requires no consent, which negates its sovereignty. I think. It’s complicated.)

Let’s bring this philosophy back to the level of language. Bataille observes something curious in de Sade’s narrative, which I missed in my read. Despite appearances, when his “heroes” speak, de Sade’s protagonists use the language of the victim.

“In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists,” he writes. “If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence.”

Violence is deed, not words. Words are the realm of the victim, “the ground of the moral man to whom language belongs.” (The song goes “Give peace a chance.” Nobody’s ever had to make a PSA to promote violence. It propagates itself.)

As a result, de Sade is not writing about violence, but rather “a reflecting and rationalized will to violence.”

Bataille admits that reading de Sade is no easy task, both because of the content and the layers of complexity. His preference, he writes, is not to converse with de Sade’s champions, but rather with “people who are revolted by him.”

Enlightenment is not all puppies and rainbows, in other words. To confront reality is to assume de Beauvoir’s “burden of evil.” It is accepting the full spectrum of human capability.

“And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path,” Bataille writes. “Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently — those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature.”

De Sade shed light on our violent impulses and how they can become tangled up with sexuality and liberation. He posed a moral challenge that continues to trouble anyone confronted with his work.

I cede the final word on that to de Beauvoir, who nails the legacy of de Sade and why his work is still relevant today.

“The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us,” she writes. “It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.”

Review: Exposure

Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment

Chauntelle Tibbals

From the opening essay in Exposure, you will laugh (a lot) and you will cringe (occasionally). Which is appropriate. ExposureAfter all, this is a book about porn — that laugh- and cringe-inducing industry of id. It’s the shadow market force that accelerates tech innovation and the economy as surely as it does libidos, and both mirrors and molds our culture in more ways than we realize.

Once relegated to shady theaters and sticky arcades, porn is now a billion-dollar business with crossover into the mainstream. Still, a stigma remains, and new hang-ups have emerged along with new media.

Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist specializing in gender, sex and media, is our guide through present-day Porn Valley in this collection of anecdotes, theories and observations from her decade-plus of researching the industry.

Tibbals is a prolific writer and commentator. In Exposure, she only skims the surface of her academic research, but you can find much of it online (and I highly recommend you do). Here, she gives us the broad strokes of the industry. Her essays raise more questions than they answer, and that’s the point. Pornography impacts us on many levels, and our relationship with it gets knotted up with our needs, values and feelings on gender, politics and social mores. Untangling these knots is beyond the scope of a single book.

Instead, Tibbals reveals the human side of adult entertainment that will reframe the way you think about the business — not in a judgemental way, but an intellectual one.

Tibbals traces her foray into porn scholarship to a provocative streak and a rejection of unscientific generalizations about adult entertainment. Sadly, she discovered this short-sightedness had infiltrated academia when her graduate advisor belittled her dissertation topic. However, this rebuke only further entrenched her scientific curiosity.

“Porn was capable of making people lose their common sense, analytic skills, and composure,” she writes. “It could scramble the smartest, most educated of brains. And that was it for me. I was hooked — porn for life.”

But it was more than the thrill of the maverick driving her interest. She was also fascinated with her own fear of pornography, which, once she delved deeper into the topic, she realized was actually a fear of “the socially constructed idea of it.”

Some of Tibbals’ finest work is when she’s exploring the meta-space between real and fantasy — real actors with fake personas having real sex presented as fantasy. What impact does this have on the performers? It’s complicated, of course, but the important thing is that Tibbals poses the question in a way that humanizes the participants.

Talk shows flock to porn-star tragedies and draw broad conclusions. Tibbals considers each performer as an individual being. One such star is Joanna Angel, a Rutgers graduate who runs her own production company and stars in its films. Tibbals found one of Angel’s more hardcore flicks to be both intense and empowering.

“It showed an educated woman business owner in control of exactly the kind of sex she wanted, all in order to make exactly the kind of creative product she wanted to sell.”

In her survey of the genre, Tibbals challenges her own assumptions of empowerment and exploitation. In spending time with performers and their fans at conventions, she confronts a complicated culture that she describes as “the strangest mix of human adoration and disgust.” There are earnest and endearing fans, but also stalkers, self-righteous assholes and seemingly well-intended folks who unconsciously break social norms (asking intimate questions or making lewd comments) simply because of the perceived intimacy they have with the performer.

And of course there are the insecure misogynists who simultaneously desire and degrade the women they adore, often in a flurry of bipolar comments (“I love you”/”You’re a whore”) on social media. As though porn actors didn’t have enough detractors on the outside, they also suffer the abuse of so-called fans who “slut-shame” them online.

And it’s not just anti-porn activists and misogynists who get in on the action. Media exploitation of the industry is as pernicious and predatory as it accuses Porn Valley of being.

Take as an example the recent documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which I enjoyed but which ultimately disappointed when it devolved into a patriarchal rescue narrative. The lead subject, Tressa, willingly and knowingly pursues a career in porn, but is infantilized by the documentarians. She starts dating a guy who is aware of what she does for a living, but then he whines about how her career is hurting him. He implores her to give up her job for him. Were you to replace “porn star” with any other occupation — say “ER surgeon” — the jealous, insecure boyfriend would be, at best, an unsympathetic character, if not an outright villain.

In Hot Girls Wanted, though, he is the white knight.

But don’t take my word for it. Tibbals happened to write a fantastic review for Uproxx, which explains the film’s failings far better than I could.

I have long been fascinated with this bizarro intersection of pornography, feminism and media, and Exposure did not disappoint. This book is proof of the importance of porn scholarship, and Tibbals’ is a welcome and needed voice in the field.

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 1)

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, but our most interesting cultural stop was at the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits, along Boulevard Saint-Germaine. Something was off from the moment we stepped inside. The entrance ramp was just a rickety plank of plywood set at an incline. Instead of the reverent whispers of the typical museum lobby, there was chatter and the rumble of movers and workmen.

Were they even open?

My girlfriend — fluent in français — was chatting with the woman behind the front desk. I had no idea what they were saying, but deduced that it wasn’t good news. Then the clerk uttered two words I understood: Bernie Madoff.

Sacré bleu!

Turns out the owner of the museum was on the run for defrauding investors and had to close down. (Madoff wasn’t actually involved, but turns out to be an international synonym for “con man.”)

This led me to revise the opening sentence of this essay:

No trip to Paris is complete without stumbling upon an international art scandal!

Mostly, this was better than the museum being open. Instead of exhibits, we got an experience. Still, I regret not 120 Daysseeing the one piece that had led me to the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits in the first place: the patchwork scroll on which the Marquis de Sade had penned his notorious masterpiece, Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, from within the walls of the Bastille.

Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read.

Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today.

Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen.

So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?

Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.”

This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist.

But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade.

Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and Salomight have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement.

However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage?

You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness.

In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.”

Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits.

But let’s return to de Sade.

What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about.

Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters.

It does not end well for most of them.

Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity.Eroticism Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book.

By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.)

Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished.

De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it.

“He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.”

Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

We’ll address that in the next installment.

Review: Independence Lost

Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

Kathleen DuVal

Where was this book when I was growing up? Surely an elementary teacher mentioned the existence of colonies Independence Lostbeyond the famous 13 in history class, but they apparently didn’t make much of a dent in the syllabus. Like most Americans, my founding geography is limited to the northeast.

In fact, there were another 13 or so British colonies in North America that did not partake in the revolution. Some of the most successful were along the Gulf Coast, and their history is as rich and fascinating as that of New England’s.

DuVal, an historian at the University of North Carolina, has revived their stories in this wonderful history of America’s “other” colonies. DuVal emphasizes narrative over trivia. Rather than a static recitation of dates and names, she tells the stories of nine citizens representative of the time, from Indian tribal leaders and English businessmen to soldiers and women trying to survive in the harsh environment.

In this respect, I found its structure similar to that of Dan Baum’s brilliant Nine Lives, which revisited Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of nine locals who experienced it.

The drawback to DuVal’s narrative is that, unlike Baum, she doesn’t have direct access (obviously) to the characters, and in the case of the women, it was particularly difficult to find source material.

What DuVal does with the little she has is marvelous. Through the crisscrossing lives of her characters, we encounter a vibrant South, very different from the one that emerges in the post-Revolutionary era. It is also distinct from the northeast. Rather than the us-against-them narrative of New England versus the British empire, the settlements along the Gulf Coast scrape together a tenuous coexistence with native tribes, the French, the Spanish and are more concerned with survival than revolution.

This is a fascinating look at American history forgotten, cobbled together from the disparate lives of the people surviving in the territories of East Florida and West Florida (which extended all the way to New Orleans).

You think you know your American history? Consider it incomplete if you’re just now learning about the importance of Pensacola.

And fill in the gaps with Independence Lost.

Recommended Reads: Historical Summer

What a wild month it’s been. Between politics, crime, World Cup football and my attempt to document the literary stops on my Paris trip, it’s been difficult to keep up with new releases. Here is a sampling of books you may have missed as spring turned to summer.

 

Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding

Steven K. Green

Oxford University Press

As America approaches its 25th decade, it’s only natural to look back and re-evaluate who we are and what we’ve done with our time in power. Inventing a Christian AmericaPerhaps it’s the mid-life crisis of empire, or just the build-up toward a presidential election, but coming out this summer is an arsenal of books regarding our nation’s founding.

I’m reading as many of them as I can, because it’s a fascinating study, and Steven K. Green’s Inventing a Christian America is an important contribution.

His attempt is to demystify the colonial and revolutionary periods to get at the truth of the religious origins of the country. He starts by addressing two of the most common narratives of the founding: the first being that of a country chartered by religious exiles in search of freedom to practice as they pleased, the other of Founding Fathers who established the separation of church and state.

Both of which he describes as myths, in the literal sense. “In providing explanations of events not personally remembered, myths legitimize the past while they provide a unifying narrative for a distinct people.”

The truth is that colonial life was more diverse than either narrative suggests. Sure, there were religious exiles, but there were people of many beliefs, not just protestantism. And there were many folks that were there for business, adventure or a new start in life.

But when it came time to unify the disparate colonies, a common tale was in order.

Green writes: “The idea of America’s religious origins is essentially a myth created and retold for the purpose of anointing the founding, and the nation, with a higher, transcendent meaning.”

Through his historical digging, Green reveals a pluralistic society that’s difficult to pigeonhole in retrospect. What they did record in founding documents, however, was both a respect for religious practice and the separation of church and state.

Green’s work is thorough and authoritative, and is certainly a book I enjoyed and would recommend. But whereas some academic books have crossover appeal, this is not a book that will translate well to a general audience.

Which is unfortunate, because most Americans would benefit from learning more about the founding and the role of religion in early America. Especially now.

Inventing a Christian America is a great place to start.

 

The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time

Jimena Canales

Princeton University PressThe Physicist and the Philosopher

This wonderful revisitation of the relativity debate was released on June 17. Or was it? Time is relative, of course, as Einstein taught us a century ago. While relativity is the rule these days, it wasn’t a slam-dunk sell in the early 20th century, and philosopher Henri Bergson appeared to have the upper hand in the debate. The notion that time can move differently for two people not in uniform motion (or that events can occur simultaneously — or not — depending on relative motion) had to sound a little like voodoo to a populace born in the 19th century.

Of course, we know that Einstein won out, and our notion of time has never been the same. Canales takes us back to when it all changed, not in the typically triumphant language that we often get from biographies of Einstein, but from the perspective of a skeptical inteligencia not yet acquainted with nuclear energy and quantum mechanics. An interesting and important read.

Littérature Francaise: Albert Camus

When I was 21, my best friend Todd lent me a copy of The Stranger, and my life’s trajectory hasn’t been the same Albert Camussince. To a self-identifying outsider, the story of Mersault, who exemplifies anomie, was a revelation.

A philosophy professor once told me, in a somewhat dismissive way, that Camus was the author for “angry young men,” and I certainly fit that description at the time. But I’ve re-read The Stranger in my 30s and 40s and have found it to be just as relevant, though speaking to me in different ways.

Ever since my first introduction, I’ve been obsessed with Camus. The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus remain two of my of top-five favorite books. The Plague and The Fall continue to haunt me, and The Rebel still confounds me.

It is no surprise, then, that my time in Paris was dominated by thoughts of Camus. In advance of the trip, I researched some of his favorite spots to compile a personal literary tour of the great existentialist (a great resource is Connect Paris’ In the Footsteps of Albert Camus).

Of course, the definitive Camus hotspot is the cluster of cafes in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres (Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore and Brasserie Lipp), which has unfortunately become much of a tourist trap. Nevertheless, this area has been home to some of the world’s finest thinkers. Prior to the Existentialists, such as Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the area hosted a collective of Enlightenment thinkers, the Encyclopedistes, led by philosopher Denis Diderot and mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert. Together, they compiled Encyclopedie, which featured contributions from the likes of Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marcel Proust wrote about the neighborhood, Richard Baldwin hung out in it and the world’s greatest skeptic, Descartes, is entombed there.

Bona fides, indeed.

There is no shortage of literary history in Paris, but for me, the Saint Germaine is most haunted by the Algerian author who resisted the Nazis, won the Nobel Prize and commented on the absurdity of the human condition with more acuity than anyone of his generation.

While I wasn’t able to retrace his steps through the city, I am able to view his works with fresh eyes. I even bought a copy of The Plague in the original French, with the intention of learning the language (and besides, I needed a third edition of this book!).

That remains a work in progress, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts on some of his English translations.

The Fall

Truly, all of Camus’ books are unsettling, in the truest sense of that word, because that’s his intent. These are not The Fallpastorals. Camus does not soothe the reader with hugs and rainbows. He couldn’t care less about easing your conscience.

Camus challenges the reader. He inspires the reader. Discomfited? Good. That’s a natural way to feel. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

The Fall is the long-form confessional of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who haunts the smoky confines of a lowlife bar in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. He tells his story to an unknown, unseen audience, and that juices the narrative with an intimacy and informality we don’t always get from Camus.

It’s also inherently unreliable. What do we make of Clamence and his wild tale of falling from grace? Can we believe it to be true? Is it the ravings of a madman or a drunkard? Clamence even says, when describing a motto for his house, “Don’t rely on it.”

I’ve read The Fall twice, and I’m still not convinced that “we’re” even there. At the end, there is a shift suggesting that Clamence has been having a dissociative episode and talking to himself the whole time: “Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one…”

Clamence takes us on a guided tour of Amsterdam, which is designed, he says, in the nature of Dante’s rings of hell. We move through the city via his dramatic monologue.

But though setting has an important part to play, it is the narrator’s interior landscape at center stage. Clamence presents the anxieties of his time, and they look very similar to modern anxieties. He speaks for the fragility of man, and how one’s descent is incremental.

Camus nails the pathway of anxiety and how we are our own worst interrogators. He touches on thought perseveration, self-sabotage and even has an incident of road rage — perhaps its first mention in literature?

In turns hopeful and hopeless, Clamence is a man buried beneath the rubble of his failings. It’s a reminder that we make poor choices, focus our attention on the things that scar us, and ultimately, author our own demise.

Now that’s an unsettling premise.

I don’t imagine a film version will displace It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday tradition, but for anyone curious about the workings of a mind in distress, you should wind your way into this twisted narrative.

The Stranger

What I remember identifying with in my two initial reads of this novel was the sense of alienation and inaction The Strangersurrounding Meursault. I thought of him as a passive character forced into action. I appreciated his indifference, his dispassionate observance of events.

Third time around, I noticed something new: Camus does not reduce Meursault to the one-dimensional figure I had considered him to be. He is not necessarily alienated or passive. He interacts with many people in the novel other than Raymond and Marie. He is not as passive as I recalled. This is significant because I think that’s why Meursault resonates so strongly more than half a century since the novel’s publication. It was my mental shortcomings (or perhaps the imposition of my own personality onto the narrator) that reduced Meursault to an idea rather than a vibrant literary figure.

Paying closer attention to Meursault’s interiority, I realized that his time in prison is hardly passive. Though physically confined, his mind is alert and active.

The point, I gather, is not action vs. inaction (which I initially thought), but rather the arbitrariness of action. Indifference is more than a passive stance. Meursault comes to represent what he refers to as “the gentle indifference of the world.” Existence is absurd and meaningless is the credo of existentialism, and so it goes with The Stranger. What is the rhyme or reason for Meursault’s murder of the Arab, a chance encounter for which he bore no bad blood? In terms of a causal relationship, we can trace the episode back to the narrator’s friendship with Raymond, his defense of him in court, the earlier melee with the Arabs, his random possession of the gun and Meursault’s naïve thought that the men wouldn’t return to fight again.

But in the larger scope of existence — “the gentle indifference of the world” — what difference does it make? The two men found themselves in that particular moment. They acted in that particular way (the Arab pulling his knife, Meursault the gun). For the narrator, the bright sunlight is as much to blame as he. He can’t even explain why he continued to shoot after the Arab was dead. He just did.

Camus is so successful in stating his case for the absurdity of existence that his masterwork has remained in print long after his death. The mark of great literature is its timelessness — the ability to revisit a beloved book again and again and to learn something new each time. So it is for me with The Stranger. Read first as an outsider, second as a philosophy student and lastly with an eye for form and technique, I realize that Meursault is a more rounded character than I first believed. Camus’ use of the interior infuses the book with an energy I felt but didn’t quite recognize on my first two reads.

I am certain I will read it again before I die, and I look forward to whatever fresh insights this, and his other books, have to offer.

Littérature Francaise: The Second Sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

In anticipation of visiting Paris, I wanted to bone up on my French philosophy. I’d devoured Camus and Sartre, but The Second Sexwas light on the third member of the Le Deux Magots triumvirate, Simone de Beauvoir. So en route to Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, I read volume I of her seminal 1949 book, The Second Sex.

It was intended to be a pleasure read, not a book to review, but then Vanity Fair published a cover photo of Caitlyn Jenner. This opened an interesting and unexpected dialogue about gender identification. If you stick to legitimate outlets, the discussion has been civil, informative and worthwhile. The New York Times, in particular, has provided engaging commentary.

I bring this up because, well, de Beauvoir was writing about gender identity nearly seventy years ago and her words remain relevant. Remarkable, really, when you consider that she wrote the first volume prior to the civil rights movement.

Disclaimer: This column is mostly a review of the book, not a commentary on Jenner, the cisgendered and transgendered communities, or the definition of a “woman.” Of course I have my opinions. I’ve had many transgendered friends, co-workers and clients, and personally, I’ll refer to you by whatever pronoun you’d like and recognize you as whatever gender you identify with.

But I believe the role of cisgendered, heterosexual men in this discussion is to listen and learn from it. The only edict I’ll deliver is that we all could benefit from reading de Beauvoir. Especially now.

In the first part of The Second Sex, de Beauvoir argues that mere physiology is not enough to define gender. One of the lines that most stuck out for me was, “It is not nature that defines woman; it is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life.”

Remember, this was more than half a century before cisgendered entered the layman’s lexicon.Cafe de Flore

De Beauvoir emphasizes that environment plays a profound role in gender development. Environment includes everything from external forces (de Beauvoir considers the role of psychology, religion and myth in identifying women as an “Other”) to internal feelings and expression.

“…it is not the body-object described by biologists that actually exists, but the body as lived by the subject. Woman is a female to the extent that she feels herself as such. There are biologically essential features that are not a part of her real, experienced situation…”

The breadth of The Second Sex is astounding. De Beauvoir surveys the fields of biology, psychology, literature and religion with a thoroughness that is impressive as much as it is purposeful. She’s not lecturing as she is constantly working through her thesis in excruciating detail. De Beauvoir isn’t discussing single-cell reproduction for the hell of it. She is constructing a logical stronghold that still stands.

Yes, it can be tedious at times, but her argument was meant to transcend its time, as it has. It’s worth the struggle.

Of course, existentialist thought permeates the book, but it plays different than that of Camus and Sartre. Whereas Le Deux Magotsthose guys, awesome though they were, often deal with abstracts and ideals, de Beauvoir is working at more of a gut level. She is fighting for privileges her two comrades take for granted.

While the continued relevance of The Second Sex speaks to the brilliance and vision of de Beauvoir, it’s also an unfortunate reality. It would be preferable if this book felt more dated, but as most commentaries on Jenner reference The Second Sex, I think we have not come as far as we should have.

But the fact that we’re having this conversation is progress, and we owe a great debt to de Beauvoir’s contributions. It’s best, I think, to let her have the final word on this topic and leave it at that:

“…it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is natural and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilisation.”

Review: The Jefferson Rule

The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have all the Answers

David Sehat

Cue the broken record. From now until November of next year, we’re going to hear a lot about the Founding Fathers, The Jefferson Rulethe Constitution and its authors’ intentions. You can be sure that Thomas Jefferson will be cited a time or two million. But be they coming from the right or the left, the middle or the fringe, all appeals to Revolutionary politics will have two things in common: they will be accurate and they will contradict each other.

The notion of the Founding Fathers as a single intellectual entity is post hoc myth-making, according to historian David Sehat. Though we have attached a unified set of principles onto the architects of our government, Sehat writes, “The founding era was, in reality, one of the most partisan periods of American history.”

In fact, it would be quite recognizable to the cable news generation. The Constitution was not a consensus of guiding principles, but rather a compromise, much like today’s Congress in which legislation that does manage to get passed is mutilated beyond recognition.

Likewise, there was dispute over the intention of the Constitution before the ink had dried on Rufus King’s signature.

“The Founders had agreed on the wording but did not necessarily agree on what it meant or even its purpose,” Sehat writes.

This was evidenced by the feud between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the former believing its intent was to limit federal power, the latter believing it emboldened a national government.

Jefferson won that battle, and with his presidential victory, “he rhetorically turned the founding era into one of political purity that he himself had channeled.” (Ironically, Jefferson eventually incorporated many of Hamilton’s ideas, and his Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country, was viewed by many at the time as unconstitutional.)

Though the myth was complete, the debate was not. The struggle between states’ rights and federal power festered until it went septic in the antebellum era.

The slavery issue was the litmus test for the Constitution. The Dred Scott ruling confirmed that the protections of the Constitution did not extend to slaves, who were considered property. A constructionist reading of the document would render the federal government powerless to intervene on slavery, and in addition to advocating for states’ rights, Jefferson himself had owned slaves, creating a challenge for Lincoln in his debates with Stephen Douglas.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Sehat writes, the litmus test was failed. “Constitutions are supposed to keep citizens from killing one another,” he writes. “But Americans killed Americans on a spectacular scale in the Civil War. And the Founders had left little guidance on what to do about it.”

The framers lost relevance for a time after the war, but like a pop group that invents a revolutionary sound, then falls out of favor, the Founding Fathers made a comeback in the 20th century. They have since become sacred cows — they are referenced on the campaign trail and their words wielded as weapons, but they are never questioned.

That’s an issue worth raising, Sehat writes. “Because the Founders do not offer a stable reference to make sense of the present, their presence in American political debate has long been problematic.”

The Jefferson Rule is a stellar work of historical research and narrative storytelling. Sehat’s prose flows with an uncommon ease, at times reminiscent of Nathaniel Philbrick. But he also digs into the philosophical ramifications of his subject. It’s not simply a revisitation of historical events, but a work that drops us into the Revolutionary era to see that the Founding Fathers were not a like-minded council of sages with all the answers.

The words of the Constitution were not etched on stone tablets from on high, but rather drafted by a group of headstrong men who clashed with one another, varied greatly in their viewpoints and were capable of the same grandstanding, short-sightedness and pettiness as today’s politicians.

This book brought to mind the timeless essay by Stephen Jay Gould, “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which studies the psychological need for origin stories. It’s an issue worth exploring, both in Gould’s classic essay and in Sehat’s book.

If you’re at all interested in political debate or American history, The Jefferson Rule is required reading.