Art in America

From Alexander Chee in The Paris Review on becoming an American writer:

"Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time. By the time I found that Auden quote— 'poetry makes nothing happen'— I was more than ready to believe what I thought he was saying. But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic.

I wrote to them that weekend and told them that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art—even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness—is not weak. It is strength. I asked them to disregard the cultural war against the arts that has lasted most of their lives, the movement to discredit the arts and culture in American public life as being decorative interruptions of more serious affairs, unworthy of funding or even of teachers. I told them that I can’t recall the emperors of China as well as I can Mencius, who counseled them, and whose stories of them, shared in his poetry of these rulers and their problems, describe them for me almost entirely. And the paradox of how a novel, should it survive, protects what a missile can’t."

Manuscripts

This article on lost books is interesting. I don't share the author's fascination with "book-shaped holes in the intellectual firmament," but I do love manuscripts. An excerpt:

"Why does a manuscript hold more value to us than a published, finished product? 'It depends on what you want to experience,' says de Hamel. 'It is quicker to read Chaucer in a modern edition. But that personal thrill of touching and turning the pages of the original is incomparable. We all want to touch hands with history.'"

Does the Book of Kells lose any of its allure when a mass-produced paperback version is available to buy just feet away, in Trinity College Dublin’s gift shop? No, says de Hamel: 'There are things you’ll see in an original manuscript that even a microfilm or digitised surrogate cannot convey – drypoint glosses, erasures, sewing holes, underdrawing, changes of parchment, subtleties of colour, loss of leaves, patina of handling – even smell and touch and sound, which can transform knowledge and understanding of the text when its scribes made it and first readers saw it.' So, when we mourn lost manuscripts, it’s not just over the disappearance of words, we are also losing an understanding of the process of their creation – the author’s scribbles, their hasty additions, their fraught deletions."

Letter from Birmingham Jail

I read Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail every year around this time, but I was struck by its truth and eloquence and importance even more this year, in this age of Trump. I wonder if the President has ever considered just and unjust laws or read Augustine or Aquinas. Has he ever concerned himself with the underlying causes of oppression in America? Would he scoff at the notion of creative extremism? All we know of late is that he's obsessed with cable news, that he questions U.S. policy on immigration from "shithole countries," and that he pigeonholes staff based on ethnicity. I urge you to read MLK's letter in full -- this excerpt is one of my favorites:

"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."

Tales of War and Redemption

An insightful article from Phil Klay, author of Redeployment (for which he received the National Book Award in fiction in 2014). The discussions on witnessing violence and suffering were interesting to me, as were those on the stories of saints, which I think Catholics especially will relate to. An excerpt:

"The violence I have seen has left me feeling hollowed out, unable to gild all the agony with some beautiful meaning. As I watch the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq, it now seems absurd to cheaply suggest that it built toward any greater purpose, or paved the way for greater peace and prosperity, or that it is anything more than a net increase in the suffering and horror of a world awash in blood, or that there is even a realistic prospect for any kind of justice, some kind of restitution or payment or balancing out, even in a small way, for what has been erased.

In the modern era, we do not want to hear of death as a sacrifice, as an atonement or a gift. Religious claims are tenuous, and pain is certain. Pain provokes our sympathy, and our outrage, while hope of the resurrection serves as little more than a hypothesis. German writer Ernst Jünger once declared pain the “authentic currency of our age.” Perhaps this is why many consider it something of an embarrassment to speak of God in public, or to speak clearly and forthrightly of our experience of transcendence. We’re much more comfortable talking about trauma. Physical trauma, done to bodies."

The First White President

A very powerful essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An excerpt:

"The American tragedy now being wrought is larger than most imagine and will not end with Trump. In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off 'moderate' whites. This has proved to be only half true at best. Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump… The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it."

To Keep Watch

I keep coming back to this beautiful New Yorker piece by Kathryn Schulz. An excerpt:

"All of this is made more precious, not less, by its impermanence. No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. As Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep."

The State of Things

From Harper's Weekly, last week: "U.S. president Donald Trump, who was once implicated alongside a Saudi arms dealer in a scheme to avoid paying sales taxes at a Manhattan jewelry store, visited Saudi Arabia, where he ate steak with ketchup, participated in a sword dance, and announced plans to sell the country more than $110 billion in U.S. arms. Trump then visited Israel, where he said in a meeting in Jerusalem that he had 'just got back from the Middle East,' canceled a speech before Israel's parliament because he didn't want to be heckled, and visited and signed the guestbook of the country's Holocaust museum. 'SO AMAZING + WILL NEVER FORGET!' wrote Trump, whose administration once omitted mention of Jewish people in a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump visited Belgium, where he reportedly ate 'lots of' chocolates and then complained he did not have a positive impression of the European Union because it took him two and a half years to get a license to open up a golf course in Ireland."

To Lift Mens' Souls

From William Faulkner's Nobel speech in 1950, an apt and important reminder:

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

American Names

From Philip Roth in The New Yorker:

"A Newark Jew—why not? But an American Jew? A Jewish American? For my generation of native-born—whose omnipresent childhood spectacle was the U.S.A.’s shifting fortunes in a prolonged global war against totalitarian evil and who came of age and matured, as high-school and college students, during the remarkable makeover of the postwar decade and the alarming onset of the Cold War—for us no such self-limiting label could ever seem commensurate with our experience of growing up altogether consciously as Americans, with all that that means, for good and for ill. After all, one is not always in raptures over this country and its prowess at nurturing, in its own distinctive manner, unsurpassable callousness, matchless greed, small-minded sectarianism, and a gruesome infatuation with firearms. The list of the country at its most malign could go on, but my point is this: I have never conceived of myself for the length of a single sentence as an American Jewish or Jewish American writer, any more than I imagine Dreiser and Hemingway and Cheever thought of themselves while at work as American Christian or Christian American or just plain Christian writers. As a novelist, I think of myself, and have from the beginning, as a free American and—though I am hardly unaware of the general prejudice that persisted here against my kind till not that long ago—as irrefutably American, fastened throughout my life to the American moment, under the spell of the country’s past, partaking of its drama and destiny, and writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed."

Welcome Home

Thought-provoking and well-written article on refugees, identity, gratitude, and "home." Nayeri's position is powerful and coherent, and in many ways I agree with her. Does national generosity of this kind come with certain obligations? What are they? Here's an excerpt:

"Despite a lifetime spent striving to fulfil my own potential, of trying to prove that the west is better for having known me, I cannot accept this way of thinking, this separation of the worthy exile from the unworthy. Civilised people don’t ask for resumes when answering calls from the edge of a grave. It shouldn’t matter what I did after I cleaned myself off and threw away the last of my asylum-seeking clothes. My accomplishments should belong only to me. There should be no question of earning my place, of showing that I was a good bet. My family and I were once humans in danger, and we knocked on the doors of every embassy we came across: the UK, America, Australia, Italy. America answered and so, decades later, I still feel a need to bow down to airport immigration officers simply for saying “Welcome home”.

But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need."

Dead Metaphor

From The New Yorker on J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy:

"It’s true that, by criticizing 'hillbilly culture,' 'Hillbilly Elegy' reverses the racial polarity in our debate about poverty; it’s also true that, by arguing that the problems of the white working class are partly 'cultural,' the book strikes a blow against Trumpism. And yet it would be wrong to see Vance’s book as yet another entry in our endless argument about whether this or that group’s poverty is caused by 'economic' or 'cultural' factors. 'Hillbilly Elegy' sees the 'economics vs. culture' divide as a dead metaphor—a form of manipulation rather than explanation more likely to conceal the truth than to reveal it. The book is an understated howl of protest against the racialized blame game that has, for decades, powered American politics and confounded our attempts to talk about poverty."

I'm not sure I understand why so many think this book is so significant (e.g. "You will not read a more important book about America this year." --Economist; "Never before have I read a memoir so powerful, and so necessary." --Reihan Salam), nor, on the other hand, do I understand the fierce criticism it has received. Thoughts? A review may be forthcoming.

"Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome. . .

Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

Talk -- No Action

In the news this week, ladies and gentlemen, our President-elect:

"Donald Trump, the former host of Celebrity Apprentice and president-elect of the United States, referred to Georgia congressman John Lewis, one of the Big Six civil-rights leaders of the 1960s, who was once assaulted as a Freedom Rider testing a federal law banning segregation on public transportation, and who, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or sex, as 'talk--no action.' Trump called NATO 'obsolete,' referred to Brexit as 'a great thing,' and said it was a 'catastrophic mistake' for German chancellor Angela Merkel to accept refugees from the five-year civil war in Syria that has killed at least 400,000 people."
-Harper's Review

Also of interest: Trump's Errors on Europe and Kompromat vs. Maskirovka

Moral Courage

From Susan Sontag in At the Same Time:

"At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve... Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of 'moral courage' -- because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too."