The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The March

I received, for my birthday, a copy of E.L. Doctorow's new novel THE MARCH, about Sherman's march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Like many of his books, it's narrated from the point of view of multiple characters who occupy multiple rungs in the novel's social and economic (and, in this case, military) ladder of rank. I read it quickly, and with a mind to the upcoming holidays, so perhaps I didn't give it the full attention it deserved. But as I finished it, I kept thinking "so what is all the fuss about?" In the TIMES, Kakutani wrote that Doctorow "manages to weld the personal and the mythic into a thrilling and poignant story." Most of the other reviews were similarly positive; check out a few here.

I didn't see it. I love Doctorow, but I'm finding that I like his earliest stuff best. While I was working in publishing in New York I managed to finagle myself a copy of THE WATERWORKS (publishing peons in those days did a lot of book trading--I suspect now, with people more able to sell their swag on the Net, that publishers keep better control of their inventories--back then it was the Strand or nothing). I hoped to love it like I'd loved THE BOOK OF DANIEL, RAGTIME, etc. But I didn't. I read THE ALIENIST at the same time and actually preferred it. THE MARCH I thought was good but not great: it moved along nicely, driven by a plot (a march to a point) that was predetermined, and with characters that kept my interest. I ended up liking the sleazy Confederate soldier posing as a photographer and the black assistant he inherits better than anyone--the characters at the center (Pearl, etc.) didn't hold my interest.

Reading L'ASSOMMOIR now, my third Zola this quarter. Liking it.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Zola's Nana

For some reason, I bought about a dozen Emile Zola novels this summer while trolling used bookstores in NY State. I'd just never read the guy, and figured that I probably should. A few weeks ago I wrote about GERMINAL, which I really liked--the mine scenes are quite claustrophobic. About two weeks ago I read another of his big hits, NANA, about a "courtesan" (prostitute) in 1870s Paris. It's a rise and fall and rise and fall story, really; the book opens with Nana's debut in a racy stage show--Zola is great with the set pieces, and his description of the theater backstage is fantastic--and her use of that celebrity to hook up with wealthy men. She has a fall, which is inevitable, but rises again, which is unexpected, and then dies of smallpox, which is very nineteen-century.

I'm a little troubled by the politics of the novel, and found it strange. Zola seems to endorse the idea, put forth by a newspaper-reporter character in the novel, that Nana is the embodiment of a lower-class “disease” or parasitism that hooks onto aristocratic Parisians and drains them of vitality. Huh? The aristocracy create the conditions for their own demise, he seems to be saying, by creating a society of pure leisure, and then when a well-evolved woman from below comes along there are no defenses against her.

Seems like a strange argument to make, almost as if he feels that the lower classes are somehow carriers of, well not evil but of attenuation and corruption. Of course, this might just be Nana herself; she comes from the family (the Macquart) that Zola chronicles in his novels and who have some kind of a bad-seed gene in them.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

More on Trilling and the little magazine

Back to Trilling, the little magazine, and blogs:

Where Schlesinger was sanguine about how modernist art could coexist happily with liberal democracy, Trilling looked at the actual situation of the times and saw potential contradictions. Modernist art, he perceptively argued, was “indifferent” to “the liberal ideology,” which Trilling identified as “a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation.” Liberals—to Trilling the term encompassed most on the left in the 1920s through the 1940s—valued literature that had a social conscience, that explicitly examined social and political problems. (The overvaluation of the naturalist Theodore Dreiser and the reluctance to discuss the conservative, formalist Henry James, whom Trilling felt was far superior a writer, was a symptom of this.) Modernists—“those writers who, by the general consent of the most serious criticism, by consent too of the very class of educated people of which we speak, are to be thought of as the monumental figures of our time”—avoided what Trilling saw as the simplistic practices of literary realism, and because of this, the political importance of the best works of the imagination of the time was not recognized:

"Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats, Mann (in his creative work), Kafka, Rilke, Gide—all have their own love of justice and the good life, but in not one of them does it take the form of a love of the ideas and emotions which liberal democracy, as known by our educated class, has declared respectable. So that we can say that no connection exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary minds of our time. And this is to say that there is no connection between the political ideas of our time and the deep places of the imagination."

The solution, as Trilling saw it, was the little magazine—by which he specifically meant Partisan Review. Little magazines, descendants of the publications of the 1910s and 1920s that initially pioneered modernism, were, by virtue of their interests in both politics and serious art, an important counteragent to what Trilling saw as liberalism’s failure to appreciate the political power of great art. Partisan Review “has devoted itself… to organize a new union between our political ideas and our imagination” and it would, moreover, be a fallacy to think that a magazine with a circulation of 6000 cannot be “powerful.”

Here is where I think the blog and the little magazine DO have important similarities. Blogs don't even need to have a "circulation" (hit count?) of 6000 to have an enormous effect, simply due to the power of links and cut-and-paste. Hell, Dan Rather lost his job because of one!

Santorum's prospects

Bad, but rising, apparently. The latest poll has Casey leading Santorum 50 to 38. In October, Casey led 52 to 34. This is probably just a case of people becoming more familiar with Casey, but let's hope the trend doesn't stay steady.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Liberal Imagination

In the process of researching the new project, I've been reading many of the important works of the late 1940s-early 1950s dealing with the intersection of art and politics, especially in the context of the "totalitarian threat." Last week the text in question was Lionel Trilling's THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION (1950). I was also drawn to read this by an interesting post on Amardeep Singh's blog, where he looks at Trilling's essay on "little magazines" and how blogs, today, might fulfill the same role that PARTISAN REVIEW or POLITICS did back in that era.

I'm not convinced by the equivalence, however--although this might be because blogs are still a little immature. In suggesting this, Singh writes that

"In short, there should be a place where people write, freely assuming their audience knows way more than the average reader of USA Today. Serious writers and thinkers should feel free to take advantage of such an intellectually enlivened -- if rarefied -- space to work out complex ideas. And if that means a few thousand readers a day rather than a few million, then so be it. The circulation of your magazine (or today, your hitcount) is not everything; if it is, you're probably not doing your best thinking."

True. He also leaves out an important similarity, brought home to me recently when watching the documentary ARGUING THE WORLD (about the New York Intellectuals): the sense of constant discussion in real time that underlay what actually got printed. The offices of DISSENT, COMMENTARY, PARTISAN REVIEW, whatever, must have been stimulating places to be. They also had to have been vicious and sexist at times--in the documentary Todd Gitlin complains about how aggressive people like Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell and Irving Howe could be when in a debate, and Diana Trilling remarked that the NY Ints. tended not to listen to the women (like Mary McCarthy and herself) who attended those parties and frequented those editorial offices.

What I don't see, though, is what we might call "quality control," or the filter between brain and keyboard. Blogs are autocracies; magazines, although they can be controlled to the point of ideological purity by a powerful editor (Marty Peretz at the NEW REPUBLIC, Buckley at the NATIONAL REVIEW), do incorporate in their makeup a give-and-take that occurs before anything hits print. Blogs, not so much. Although not half-baked, I think that even the best blogs are often characterized by... partially-baked posts and ideas and even copy.

Trilling's book is amazing for how vividly it brings to life a different era in literary studies--one in which literature was such a part of daily discourse (and of course that word isn't used) that it was used to make political arguments. Trilling's fondness for Henry James, against the demands of leftist critics who preferred "realist" writing, even inferior writing, like Dreiser or Farrell, got him characterized as a conservative although he really would be considered a liberal today. (As I pointed out in my post on THE VITAL CENTER, what these gentlemen call "liberal" as opposed to conservative would be "moonbat leftist" today.) Responding to Singh's post, John Oliver Perry notes that Trilling respects "complexity," which he calls "the refusal to tear down one's enemy." I like that--it makes sense, and fits well with what Schlesinger also argues about the place of liberalism--this time meant in the cultural, broadly inclusive sense--in politics.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

even Hitch, now

The Brit writer Christopher Hitchens, the former visiting faculty member at Pitt, has been a constant supporter of the Iraq war and an attack dog against those who oppose the war. At the same time he's managed to keep some of his intelligence and critical thinking intact, for the most part (that is, he never drank fully from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Kool-Aid). Although he's not turned against the war, he does seem to be turning against its conduct, or at least facets of it. His column in today's Slate is harshly critical of the military's policy of planting stories in Iraqi newspapers, calling it "disgraceful."

Monday, December 05, 2005


to zp and for their suggestions on the films—I'm going to check those films out and include several of them in the class. Very helpful.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Help! Suggestions solicited

I'm teaching a class on American culture of the 1920s and, obviously, I need to address film. But I know next to nothing about film of that time. Can anyone--thinking of you, zp, and your film friends--recommend easily available and representative films of the time that would work well for undergrads? Obviously I'm going to show parts of THE JAZZ SINGER and that Harold Lloyd film SAFETY LAST where he hangs from the clock. What else? Marx Brothers? Pre-code and Hays Office films? Did D.W. Griffith make popular films in the 1920s? Chaplin?

Santorum's office lying?

An internet ad that began running last week in support of Sen. Santorum uses the same footage that an ad by a group called "Americans for Job Security" placed on TV stations also last week. Now, this wouldn't be news, of course, if it were not borderline unethical. It seems clear that two ads--one for Santorum directly, and one in support of Santorum--that used EXACTLY THE SAME FOOTAGE were probably cooked up by the same people. But no! say the parties. Just a fantastic coincidence.

According to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton NEWS-LEADER, "Michael Dubke, president of the Republican-leaning third-party group, and John Brabender, Santorum's media consultant, each denied that the two sides had collaborated in any way. They each said it was a coincidence they used the same stock footage in their respective ads."

Americans for Job Security is no stranger to trying to skirt rules, laws, and truthfulness. See this, this, or this.


Now even the Republicans see it! From Sen. John Warner's (R-VA: aka Mr. Elizabeth Taylor) press conference today:

"Now, they're confronted with a serious problem over there in Iraq -- I've now finished my sixth visit just two months ago -- and that is disinformation. An enormous amount of information is being fed the Iraqi press, both written and television, that is just plain factually wrong... The disinformation is going out in that country is really affecting the effectiveness of what we're achieving and what our troops are fighting and dying for and being wounded. And as a consequence, we have no recourse but to try and get the truth and the facts out."

Warner, on Wednesday, pointed to what could most charitably be called "disinformation" and what could more accurately be called "lies" when he confirmed TIME reporter Michael Ware's refutation of Bush's assertion that Iraqi troops "led" the way in the battle of Tal Afar.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Disinformation, pt. 2

Caught for paying Iraqi papers to run PR for the US forces, the military has now unleashed its explanation: we're not as bad as Al Qaeda.

"We don't lie, we don't need to lie, we do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public," said US military spokesman Major General Rick Lynch. "What Zarqawi is doing continuously is lying to the Iraqi people, lying to the international community," he said at a press briefing, referring to Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Colonel Barry Johnson, head of the US military's press department, countered that the Iraqi press has traveled a long hard road from total control under Saddam Hussein to the current period characterized by a lethal insurgency. "There's outright intimidation and many murders and other ways of manipulating the press, so it was felt operationally that it was necessary to make sure the facts were out," he said.


"Empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public" = give officers money to pay to plant stories
"it was felt operationally that it was necessary to make sure the facts were out" = we needed to pay to plant stories