Strange Powers – Houses, Windows – The Joke, a story – with readings on language, freedom, censorship, identity, representation, community, access, justice, and loss (The following is a work of satire. The people and events depicted, including those based on real people and events, are all entirely fictional.)
The Joke, like virtually everything I write, is based on a hoary old conceit. When I started it, the idea was to dwell at unnecessary length over the gory details of the crime scene, though I have a pretty limited vocabulary for that sort of thing. I was surprised at where it went, but I’d been thinking a lot about the similarities and mainly the differences between Lovecraft, who is a pessimist, and Kafka, who only seems like one. Reading it now it looks I must have been thinking about Herzog too.
I feel like I should also point out that the strange, clumsy chapters above are where I first began to have some idea what I was really after with Coherence.
*On their surface, the comments that have recently gotten Lionel Shriver so much attention are the exact opposite of the ones that had earned Jonathan Franzen his a month earlier. What they have in common, I think, is a pretty stunning lack of empathy for the people they’re talking about—that is to say, as actual people, rather than as fictional devices. You might also call it a lack of interest, or plain laziness. Still, neither is without a point (although David Bromwich handles the entire debate much more thoughtfully here): Shriver is right if she’s only trying to say that censorship and the policing of language are bad; wrong if she thinks a writer or anybody else shouldn’t be criticized for insulting whole groups of people he or she doesn’t belong to, whether deliberately or not. (A little good faith on either side will go a long way, but it is often something the writer has to earn; and Shriver, as Jia Tolentino points out, didn’t do her argument any favors by sporting a novelty sombrero, or misstating the facts of the Bowdoin College incident). Franzen, for his part, is probably correct to say that a white, liberal author, no matter how well-intentioned, is still likely to fail in some way when he or she writes a person of color; wrong to suggest that this justifies not trying in the first place. It is our duty, not only as writers or readers, but as human beings, to attempt to put ourselves in each other’s places. The fact that it may not be entirely possible does not absolve us of the effort.
*Alan Jacobs’ observations concerning the decline of the Christian intellectual in America—what more or less amounts to their abandonment of the field—has parallels, I think, throughout the humanities. He also mentions the need of a society for some sort of metaphysical justification. The neglect of that pursuit, or perhaps of the pursuit of a society that can be so justified, may have something to do with the increasing, and increasingly dissatisfied atomization described by Hannah Black at the 9th Berlin Biennale, and by Barrett Swanson and Jonathon Sturgeon in American letters. (I have been reading On Revolution, by Hannah Arendt, as well. Arendt combines her interpretation of the Greek polis, which she sees a sort of space cleared for free and equal human interaction, with that of Kant’s “community of taste.” In a similar vein, the photographer Carrie Mae Weems, in conversation with Kim Drew of Black Contemporary Art and The Met, speaks of the need for those neglected by systemic indifference—or worse—to create new forms of expression in which they can be fully represented.) Again, such justification may be impossible, not least because the metaphysical may not exist; but that doesn’t quite let us off the hook.
*Jonathan Basile writes about how the humanities have been further stymied by the skewed economic priorities of academic publishers, and by colleges and universities themselves.
*Nick Cave has a new album out, his best since the double Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. It was recorded after the death of his teenage son, Arthur (“Isn’t it the invisible things, the lost things, that have so much mass, so much weight?”), and Justin Joffe spoke with Andrew Dominik, who filmed much of that process for the documentary One More Time With Feeling.
*I stumbled across a comic by R. Crumb about Philip K. Dick that touches on a few of these subjects.
*November’s issue will be posted the Tuesday after Election Day (the next after that will be January’s). I hope those of you in the US—and those citizens living outside the US—have voted or will vote on November 8th. More specifically, I hope you will vote for Hillary Clinton.
As I write this, there is some concern that a small percentage of millennials may vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, two comparably cynical and willfully ignorant protest candidates. Much more troubling to me are the far greater numbers of Baby Boomers and others prepared to vote for Donald Trump; but the consensus seems to be that these are beyond persuasion. Although I have personally never felt Hillary Clinton to be inauthentic or unlikeable (if anything I find her awkward nerdiness a little endearing, though I have to admit I have never liked Bill, and was pretty unhappy with the way both of them behaved during the 2008 Democratic primaries), she is certainly far more conservative and hawkish than I would prefer. And yet while there has never been a candidate closer to my own political views than Bernie Sanders, it never once occurred to me that he might make a good or desirable President.
Aside from the fact that a lone Democratic Socialist wouldn’t be able to achieve very much in our current political environment, and would likely only set the cause back with such failure, Democratic Socialism, by it’s nature, is not a top-down solution that can or should be imposed by the executive branch. This kind of change has to be effected from the ground up, starting with local business and government. As far as national policy goes, focus should be on Congress.
Of course, such a focus assumes the continued ability to vote. The Republican Party has a history of targeted disenfranchisement, either by means of redistricting and gerrymandering, voter I.D. laws, or even judicial activism as in Bush v. Gore. Now they have nominated a candidate for President who embodies none of the virtues they claimed to champion over the past fifty-two years, but who has finally made explicit the racism that had always been implicit in all their most cherished policies; a man who has promised to commit war crimes, and who has expressed open hostility to the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. There is no tenet of democracy to which he seems particularly attached, and I wouldn’t suppose there is a bottom to the cravenness of the party officials who have abetted him so far. If I have some very serious disagreements with Hillary Clinton, I have no doubt of her commitment to the constitutional system. And if it seems preposterous that Donald Trump would be allowed to destroy that system, remember how preposterous it seemed a year ago that he would get even this close.
It’s worth pointing out that Trump was able to win that nomination because the Republican field was so crowded; that a split opposition always worked to his advantage, though he repeatedly lost in head-to-head match-ups. It is also worth pointing out that if you really are considering a third party vote, you probably aren’t the kind of person who would suffer most if Trump won.
Anyway, Happy Halloween.