2020 in review, with a side of neoconservatism (just kidding) (or am i)
Welcome to my self-loathing newsletter, A Fête Worse Than Death, the name of which is an homage to a chapter from Norman Rush’s luminous Mating. Sincere thanks to all of you—except the ones whom I added to the subscription list, possibly against your will, in which case, sorry—for following me off the dungheap that is Twitter and into the brave new world of Substack. I hope that I can recover some intellectual integrity and purity of mind here. Nonetheless, it will probably take me a while to silence what I call, in conversations with myself, “the Twitter voice”—the screech of the internet’s collective outrage, which I have assimilated, despite myself, into my habits of thought.
Lionel Trilling is my guiding critical light, and I’m leaving Twitter in part because I recalled this wonderful quote about him from the neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. She writes,
He was able to resist the insidious ideological and political fashions of his time without the coarsening of mind that often comes with doing battle, and also without the timidity and equivocation that retreats from battle in an excess of fastidiousness.
Trilling was sensitive to the demands of his day, but he never capitulated to his contemporaries’ reflexive assumptions. His project was neither detached nor reactionary. He criticized his peers and his peers’ darlings when he felt they merited censure, but he wasn’t a knee-jerk contrarian. He had both courage to disagree when dissent was warranted and the composure to agree when assent was warranted. He did not shy away from live and messy issues—controversies, political scandals, cultural fads—but he also resisted the temptation to adopt the mental tics of his opponents. He was suspicious of self-satisfied liberals and irrational conservatives alike. (He memorably accused the latter camp of producing “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”) For all his engagement with the concerns of his era, he retained enough of a distance from his milieus’ default outlook to cultivate a genuinely original worldview. Though he had consistent commitments, he was not the sort to trot out the same theoretical apparatus time and time again, applying it to each artifact he analyzed without much discrimination. He’s not easy to categorize, politically. “Between,” he once said, “is the only honest place to be.” The contemporary mind balks at a figure without a readily legible ideological affiliation, which is why Trilling is often mis-categorized by leftists as a conservative and by conservatives as the normal kind of liberal. But his uncategorizability is precisely what makes him exhilarating to read. He thinks without a template. His arguments are always refreshing and unexpected. I admire him more than I can say, and I would like to be like he was: of my era, not hostage to it.
By now, of course, the Twitter voice is shouting, “THIS IS WHAT SHE DOES WITH HER FREEDOM? SHE QUOTES A BONA FIDE NEOCON IN THE VERY FIRST ISSUE OF HER NEWSLETTER? WHAT’S NEXT????? JORDAN PETERSON???” To which I reply: well, what's the point of getting off Twitter if you can't approvingly quote neocons? Just kidding. (Sort of. It does give me some real, meaty satisfaction imagine all the aggrieved Twitterati fuming, quote-tweeting with the eyeroll emoji, etc, etc.) To which I actually reply, in all seriousness: I am not, to the best of my knowledge, a neocon; in fact, I am a card-carrying member of the DSA, and I would describe myself as a Rawls-inspired socialist; but quoting someone is not tantamount to endorsing everything they ever said or thought, obviously. To suggest that someone reveals deep ideological affinities with anyone she quotes for any reason is flooringly stupid; it takes exactly one second to identify this particular exercise in illogic as flooringly stupid. But it would be at least equally stupid to become bitterly fixated on the offending stupidity. Indeed, to devote a lot of time or attention to the stupidity in question would be to make what Himmelfarb, neocon though she is, rightly identifies as the mistake that Trilling so brilliantly avoided. By which I mean, it is misguided to accept the guilt-by-association nonsense, but it is just as misguided to fashion yourself in the inverse-image of your enemy—to become one of those professional provocateurs (I won’t name names, but surely you all can imagine who I mean) who makes a career of militating for freedom of expression without ever expressing anything besides how good freedom of expression is. Do these people even have anything worthwhile left to express? If they once did, it’s long since vaporized. I don't want to be like that, and I felt myself becoming like that with each dumb Tweet I saw and reviled and internally railed against. So here I am talking about what I actually want to talk about, which is not only or even primarily freedom of expression but: BOOKS! B O O K S! They’re good! The classics are good! Books men write and recommend are often pretty good! Philip Roth is good! YEEHAW!
So let’s get down to it—to the books. Since it’s the end of this hellish year and all, I figured I’d start with some of the obligatory lists—of recent things I’ve read that are good, of the best books I read this year (unsurprising spoiler: not many published this year), and of everything I’ve written this year. (Don’t worry, I think most of my newsletters will be shorter than this. I envision them existing largely for the purpose of passing along my published pieces. But since this is the first one, and since sometimes you need a little neoconservatism, as a treat, I allowed myself the cranky preamble I’d been craving.)
Good non-books I’ve read or re-read recently:
Mark Fisher on the evils of the social media pile-ups (see? would a neocon link Mark Fisher? He’s a Marxist.): https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ so-called “terrible sonnets” about his bleak depression (there are more of them but these are the best, I think): https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44398/no-worst-there-is-none-pitched-past-pitch-of-grief
The best books I read or re-read in 2020:
Every Force Evolves a Form by Guy Davenport
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
The three books I reviewed for the NYT here
The Wings of the Dove by Henry James (strong contender for best book ever)
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Job by Joseph Roth (in my controversial view, superior to the Radezky March)
The Wandering Jews by Joseph Roth (Joseph Roth is another ideologically uncategorizable enigma)
The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
Everything by Kleist, best of all his essays
The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks
Things I wrote this year, in chronological order:
On Magda Szabo’s Abigail for the NYT Boook Review
On my patron saint, James Wood, for Bookforum
On Sally Rooney for The Point, as you may recall
On Marie Kondo for the Hedgehog Review
On Joann Wypijewski for the TLS
On Augustine and the Talking Heads for Cabinet
A flash fiction paragraph for this newsletter that publishes paragraphs, aptly called Paragraph
An interview with James Wood for Aesthetics for birds
On Daniel Mendelsohn, Namwali Serpell, and Brian Dillon for the NYT
On at-will employment and cancel culture for Jacobin (would a neocon write for Jacobin?)
On public philosophy for oxford public philosophy
A short story about heart attacks for Passengers Journal
On Henry James and Martha Nussbaum for Art in America
On Ann Quin for the New York Review of Books
I have a number of other essays and reviews in the works, but I doubt they’ll see the light of print until 2021. So, until January, pals. Until then, remember to subscribe to some magazines made out of paper, and have a relaxing and plague-free holiday.
"Thinking without a template" is a wonderful aspiration. Look forward to your future dispatches.
Hello! How trilling to read something not on Twitter, and incidentally, Trilling himself wrote a letter to a student from Oxford in 1953 on the same day you published this, addressing related themes. After reflecting on what he thinks an 'intellectual' is, as well as remarking on the general cultural malaise (with some probably racist jabs at Puerto Ricans), he ends on a more upbeat note: “You say that you find my description of the American situation depressing. I could easily find it so myself if I chose to. I think one makes a conscious choice how one is going to respond. My decision not to be depressed by the general situation is based on my feeling that all modern cultures must be unsatisfactory to the people who are conscious of them: maybe that peculiarly modern idea of a “culture” implies dissatisfaction with the object of our consideration. I find myself full of rejections and angers and sorrows and contempts, but now that I am old enough to look back over a significant chunk of cultural life, I don’t despair.”*
Sorry for the bad joke, long comment and good luck with all your future thinking and writing!
*Excerpt From Lionel Trilling. “Life in Culture”.