Category: Literature

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons

Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill: English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache…The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself… William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy: In this work I have attempted to treat Economy as a Calculus of Pleasure and Pain… I hesitate to say that men will ever have the means of measuring directly the feelings of the […]

At this year’s seder, don’t turn Trump into Pharaoh: treat him as a plague

Today is Purim, and so we begin the spring cycle of Jewish holidays that will culminate in Shavuos (the subject of my favorite line in all of Martin Scorsese’s films, but I digress). Naturally, I’m thinking about Passover, which we’ll be celebrating in about a month, and the meaning of the Passover story this year. At progressive and liberal seders in the US this year, there’ll be a tendency to interpret the story through the current political moment. How could there not be? Immigrants will be cast as the ancient Hebrews; Trump as Pharaoh. And just as Pharaoh is depicted in the story as a sudden appearance out of the blue—remember, for years, things had been good for the Hebrews, and then a […]

God Is an Accelerationist

At shul today, my eight-year-old daughter Carol asked about the parsha we were reading, from Exodus 10-11, which details the last of the three plagues before Pharaoh lets the Jews go. Up until that final moment, God is “hardening Pharaoh’s heart,” stiffening his tyrannical resolve so that he won’t let the Jews go. Which prompted this exchange: Carol: Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why doesn’t He soften it? Me: I have no idea. Why do you think? Carol: Maybe if He did, the Jews would get too comfortable and wouldn’t want to go. Me: That’s what people call “heightening the contradictions.”

David Hume in Defense of Judith Butler’s Writing Style

David Hume—a man who, when he wanted, had little difficulty making himself understood—also had no problem with the notion that public writing should sometimes be difficult, even a tad inaccessible. From his essay “On Commerce“: THE greater part of mankind may be divided into two classes; that of shallow thinkers, who fall short of the truth; and that of abstruse thinkers, who go beyond it. The latter class are by far the most rare: and I may add, by far the most useful and valuable. They suggest hints, at least, and start difficulties, which they want, perhaps, skill to pursue; but which may produce fine discoveries, when handled by men who have a more just way of thinking. At worst, what […]

Named and Inhabited Evil

Someone posted on Facebook this article from November 2015, making the parallels between the current refugee crisis and the plight of Anne Frank and her family. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, began exploring options and seeking visas to come to the United States (and Cuba) just as those visas were becoming increasingly impossible to get. Now that Trump has announced his intentions to cut the admittance of refugees even further, the parallel becomes even more painful and apt. Twenty years ago, in a devastating piece for The New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick wrote about what a literary masterpiece Anne Frank’s diary is, and how it has been distended and distorted by all manner of humanitarian and high school tripe, such that we […]

Edmund Niemann, 1945-2016

Edmund Niemann, the pianist, has died. He was a member of Steve Reich and Musicians. The New York Times said, upon his debut in 1984, that “his playing was technically dazzling, his musicality unquestionable.” I wrote this about Ed, who was my piano teacher when I was younger, thirteen months ago on Facebook: In 1979 or 1980, when I was 12 or 13, I started taking piano lessons on the Upper West Side. I rode the train from Chappaqua to Grand Central, and then took the Shuttle and the Broadway/7th Avenue line (I don’t know what it was called back then) up to 92nd and Broadway. The neighborhood was sketchy; looking back, I’m surprised my parents let me do this on […]

Private Goods, from Florence Nightingale to Wendy Brown

Yesterday, Berkeley political theorist Wendy Brown gave a once-in-a-lifetime talk at the Graduate Center—the kind that reminds you what it means to be a political theorist—about the way in which financialization—not just privatization or corporatization—had transformed the academy. Through a deft re-reading of Max Weber’s two vocation lectures, Brown showed how much the contemporary university’s frenzied quest for rankings and ratings has come to mirror Wall Street’s obsession with shareholder value. In the course of her talk, Brown briefly dilated on the suspicion of public goods in today’s academy. She referenced one university leader saying, with no apparent irony, that the problem with state funding is that it comes with strings attached. The unsaid implication, of course, is that private funding is somehow free of […]

My Colin Kaepernick Moment: On not standing for the State of Israel in shul

With every passing year, the Israeli propaganda machine whirs more vigorously at shul. Israel gets praised more, soldiers get mentioned more, and Israelis in the congregation get featured more. Occupation becomes an abstraction, Palestinians an absence, oppression a metaphor. At Yom Kippur services today, Avinu Shebashamayim, the prayer for the State of Israel that is recited every week, took on a weird liturgical fervor, the kind I usually associate with the medieval piyyutim and prayers we recite. Avinu Shebashamayim features lines like these: Guide its leaders and advisors with Your light and Your truth. Help them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who defend our Holy Land. Deliver them: crown their efforts with triumph. Pretty profane stuff. Yet in the way the prayer was orchestrated today—led by […]

Bowling in Bratislava: Remembrance, Rosh Hashanah, Eichmann, and Arendt

In synagogue over the last two days of Rosh Hashanah, I was struck by a passage that I never really noticed in previous years. It’s from Zikhronot, the prayers or verses of remembrance in the Musaf Amidah that we recite on the holiday: You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time. Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation. Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze; You remember every deed, and nothing in creation can be hidden from You. Everything is revealed and known to You, Adonai our God; You see to the end of time. It is You who established a […]

Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron on Nat Turner: Have we moved on from the Sixties? The Nineties?

Last night, I had a bout of insomnia. So I picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and after reading a rather desultory piece by Robert Gottlieb on his experiences editing Lauren Bacall (who I’m distantly related to), Irene Selznick, and Katharine Hepburn (boy, did he not like Hepburn!), I settled down with a long piece by Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron and his Confessions of Nat Turner. A confession of my own first: I read Confessions sometime in graduate school. I loved it. Probably my favorite work by Styron, much more so than Sophie’s Choice or even Darkness Visible. I say “confession” because it’s a book that has had an enormously controversial afterlife, which Tanenhaus discusses with great sensitivity, even poignancy. Anyway, […]

Power Behind the Throne

Why are advisers to men of power—the vizir, the counselor, the chief of staff—such shifty figures? From Haman to Iago to Rasputin to Cheney, the adviser is often depicted as the source of evil, rot, and decay. Is this just a way of preserving the myth of the good king, corrupted by the whisperer in his ear? Or is there something suspicious and untrustworthy about someone who would subsume his fate to the fortune of a king? Or hide his power behind the power of another? Perhaps that makes a man, in the traditional view, too much like a woman, too much like a wife? Perhaps that’s why such figures are sometimes treated as sexually ambiguous, gender-bending freaks of power, and why characters like Lady Macbeth are conscripted to play the roles that […]

Bad Books

I’ve been reading many bad and/or badly written books of late. One by choice, the rest by necessity. I think it was three or four birthdays ago that I vowed I would never do that again. Speaking of which, I always took it as a mark of a great book—not the only or a necessary mark, but a mark—that it contains certain passages that, because of the vividness of an image, power of an argument, or stylishness of the prose, you remember years later. Read them once, they’re with you forever. Foucault’s opening description of the execution of Damiens the regicide; Arendt’s meditation on the 1957 launching of Sputnik and how it was greeted not as a celebration of human power […]

My Resistance to Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel’s death has prompted much discussion on social media. I’ve written—quite negatively—about Wiesel in the past: It’s long been remarked that the Holocaust and Israel have replaced God and halakha as the touchstones of Jewish experience and identity. The Holocaust is our deity, Israel our daily practice. You get a sense of this in a New York Times oped Elie Wiesel wrote on the day that NBC first aired its mini-series Holocaust. That was in April 1978. All Jewish families, mine included, watched it. One Jewish magazine even said that watching it “has about it the quality of a religious obligation” for Jews. Like the Six-Day War, it was a founding moment of contemporary Jewish identity. I remember it vividly. […]

From the Talmud to Judith Butler: Audiences as Co-Creators with—and of—the Public Intellectual

The Talmud tells a story: the reason God covenanted with the Jews was that they were the only ones who were willing to take the deal. According to a commentary on Deuteronomy, “When God revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He revealed Himself not only to Israel but to all the nations.” First God goes to the children of Esau, asking them if they will accept the Torah. They ask him what it contains, God says, “Though shalt not murder,” they say, no thanks. God goes to the Ammonites and Moabites. Same response, only for them the prohibition against adultery is the deal-breaker. He goes to the Ishmaelites, to all the peoples of the earth. Each time, they turn him down. They can’t accept some portion of the Torah’s instructions […]

Writer’s Block

I hate writer’s block. I know, I know: Who doesn’t? But writing about writer’s block is like what Virginia Woolf said about describing pain. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There’s no easy language for it. I’ve been sitting here, in front of the computer, for weeks, trying to get going on this next section of the Thomas book. Just one false start after another. Every sentence falls flat, every paragraph is dead on arrival. And those are the good days. When the writing is happening, there are few […]

Daniel Aaron, 1912-2016

Daniel Aaron, the literary scholar, has died. Though Aaron was one of the last of the greats who made American midcentury letters what it was, I only truly came to his work (after dipping in and out of it for years) recently. This past summer, in fact. I was preparing for my talk on public intellectuals, so I read Writers on the Left. I thought I knew the broad outlines of American writers and the left in the first half of the twentieth century. Ten pages into the book, I realized I didn’t know anything. I remember long rides on the subway, from Coney to Forest Hills and back, taking notes on the back pages of the book. I felt like I was in […]

John Palattella: A Writer’s Editor

Last week, an announcement went out from The Nation that, while barely mentioned in the media-obsessed world of the Internet, echoed throughout my little corner of the Internet. John Palattella will be stepping down from his position as Literary Editor of The Nation in September, transitioning to a new role as an Editor at Large at the magazine. For the last nine years, John has been my editor at The Nation. I wrote six pieces for him. That may not seem like a lot, but these were lengthy essays, some 42,000 words in total, several of them taking me almost a year to write. That’s partially a reflection of my dilatory writing habits, but it also tells you something about John’s willingness to invest in a writer and a piece. John is not just an […]

What’s a Jewish holiday without a little pressure or guilt? Maybe it’s not a holiday at all.

NB: Like the matzoh the Jews prepared in ancient Egypt, this post was written in great haste. A few weeks ago, I invited my friend Lizzie to our seder Friday night. I knew that Lizzie had some ambivalence about the seder, so I stressed in my invitation that she should only come if she wanted to. Her response gave me a big laugh: “Only if I want to? How is it a holiday if there isn’t a little guilt and pressure thrown in?” Which got me thinking about the Passover story and guilt. I originally was going to write something much longer on this, but I’m so exhausted at this point—having been shopping and cooking for a few days, with 26 […]

True confession: Sometimes I feel bad for Hillary Clinton

Went to Russ & Daughters early this morning to pick up some smoked fish. Riding back on the F train, I got engrossed in this piece in the LRB about, among other things, the relationship between Margot Asquith—about whom the only thing I had previously known was that she supposedly once said to Jean Harlow, after Harlow kept incorrectly pronouncing the “t” in Margot, “No, no, Jean. The ‘t’ is silent, as in Harlow.”—and Virginia Woolf. After Woolf killed herself, Asquith wrote: When I last wrote to her I felt lonely and depressed. I told her that at one time I was arrogant enough to think that I was the hostess at the festival of life, but that now I was not even a […]

For Any Leftist Who Has Spent Too Much Time in Meetings…

…You aren’t alone! This was the utopian conclusion to visionary Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1922 poem “All Meetinged Out.” It’s early morning; I greet the dawn with a dream: “Oh, how about just one more meeting regarding the eradication of all meetings!” Lenin was not a fan of the experimental Mayakovsky (Stalin, on the other hand, would later write that “Mayakovsky was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.”) Even so, Lenin valued “All Meetinged Out” for its anti-bureaucratic sentiment.