Reviews: Books

Review: Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015) by Timothy Snyder

blackearthTimothy Snyder’s history of the Holocaust is situated within the framework of his academic speciality: (post)modern Eastern Europe. Snyder’s previous work of popular history, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2013), focused on the hellish reality of Eastern European countries caught between two mass murdering empires in WWII. Black Earth can be read as an extension of that project, only from the perspective of the 5.5 million Jews murdered by Germany in the stateless zones of Eastern Europe. Perhaps unavoidably when one considers the tangled history of the states in question, the reader risks getting lost in the minutia of rival political parties, internal schisms, disputed borders, and ancient ethnic prejudices. Yet despite the expository density, the central tenets of the book are repeated frequently and clearly enough to be condensed easily.

The overwhelming majority of Jews who perished in the Holocaust were murdered in Eastern Europe. Black Earth is a retelling and interpretation of those events, seeking to answer why and how the “heartland of world Jewry” became the staging ground for its extermination. While typical historical analysis has attributed this phenomenon to the fanatical anti-Semitism of Eastern Europeans, Snyder argues that prejudice alone cannot account for why so many people began murdering their neighbors in 1941. Rather, he argues, the true culprit walked away from the war largely unscathed in public opinion and conventional historical narratives: the Soviet Union.

Building his thesis, Snyder first draws a distinction between states that experienced consecutive vs. double occupation. Poland, for example, was subjected to consecutive occupation: invaded by Germany and the USSR from both directions in 1939, and subsequently split between the two aggressors. By contrast, Baltic and Eastern European countries experienced double occupation: first occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and then by Germany after Hitler betrayed Stalin and initiated Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

By the time the Germans began their occupation of Eastern Europe, the region had already been devastated by a Soviet campaign of annihilation that included mass murders by the NKVD and large-scale deportations to gulag camps. Indeed, the Soviet atrocities of WWII are much more difficult to fathom or scrutinize, given the capricious nature by which the state murdered and imprisoned millions of civilians. When the Germans arrived and repelled the Red Army, they could convincingly present themselves as liberators. The governments of these ravaged states having already been toppled by the Soviets, the conditions were ideal for Hitler to enact his Final Solution. It was only in such an expansive stateless zone that the Nazis could translate ideology (the Judeo-Bolshevik Myth) into politicized action (the extermination of all Jews—men, women, and children).

Eastern Europeans, anxious for a scapegoat that would obscure their own complicity in the Soviet horrors, gladly bought into the Nazi credo: all Jews are communists and all communists are Jews. This created an arena for performative Nazism, with Eastern Europeans murdering Jews in order to prove themselves to the new regime. Imprisoned Soviet collaborators were told that they could buy their freedom and redeem themselves by killing a single Jew. Greed was another common motivation, as many of the murderers were able to plunder Jewish capital already confiscated by the Soviets. Somewhat less convincingly, Snyder promotes a psychoanalytic interpretation, suggesting that many Eastern Europeans participated in the mass killing of Jews so as to absolve their own conscience of the sins of Soviet collaboration.

Snyder should consider releasing the concluding chapter of Black Earth as a long-form essay. It is in these final pages that he issues the warning of his subtitle, parsing out similarities between our own time and the late 1930s. The modern Right has been radicalized, deriving from its anti-government extremism an erroneous belief that freedom comes from the dismantling of state authority. By way of example, Snyder cites the American invasion and toppling of a sovereign government in Iraq—a march of folly marketed as a campaign to bring freedom to the Iraqi people, but in actuality unleashing total chaos and laying the foundation for the rise of Islamic fascism. Across the ideological spectrum, the Left has been caught in a rising tide of anarchism, exemplified by the various “Occupy” movements. Both factions now crave the destruction of order. As Snyder eloquently observes: “A common ideological reflex has been postmodernity: a preference for the small over the large, the fragment over the structure, the glimpse over the view, the feeling over the fact.” Snyder writes most ominously about climate change, ecological disasters, and imminent conflicts over land and food. However, in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, his warnings about Vladimir Putin’s ongoing assaults on the postwar order (then isolated to Western Europe and Crimea) feel the most immediately dire. We are undoubtedly entering a new cycle of extremism and global unrest, with challenges that in many ways exceed those of the interwar period. It remains to be seen whether or not we have learned the lessons of history.


Review: Alexis (1929) by Marguerite Yourcenar (Tr. Walter Kaiser)

alexisSuffering turns us into egotists, for it absorbs us completely: it is later, in the form of memory, that it teaches us compassion.

Alexis, or the Treatise of Vain Struggle, published in 1929, was Marguerite Yourcenar’s first novel. The book was not published in English translation until 1984, well after the success of Memoirs of Hadrian. It seems safe to assume this work is now largely forgotten, with copies being produced by FSG on demand (the last page indicates that my copy was printed on 29 November 2016—the date I ordered it).

In more accurate terms, the book is an epistolary novella, taking the form of an extended letter written by the title character to his estranged wife, Monique. The letter is a confession in which Alexis recounts his lifelong struggle to accept his homosexuality. The internal world that Alexis describes is one of fundamental binary oppositions (instinct vs intellect, pleasure vs. suffering, body vs. soul), making the novel an optimal text for structuralist analysis.

One fundamental question that preoccupies Alexis continues to fuel most modern debates on homosexuality: are his urges the result of nature or “external influences”? In support of the latter, he notes an unhealthy attachment to his mother and sisters in adolescence, which led to a “veneration” of women that made it impossible to love them. These conditions, he writes, certainly influenced his temptations, “yet I see clearly that one should always go back to much more intimate explanations, much more obscure ones, which we understand imperfectly because they are hidden within us.” Thus Alexis interprets his instincts as conditioned behavior, compounded by subconscious forces. In her 1963 preface, Yourcenar writes that she no longer remembers whether or not she subscribed to Alexis’s environmental view of homosexuality at the time of writing, but that she has since rejected any interpretation that situates sexual orientation within the “psychological methodology of our age.”

Any reader shocked that a book of such forthright (albeit abstract) inquiry into the nature of same-sex attraction could be published in 1929 should recall that André Gide published the last of his Corydon dialogues in 1920 (the subtitle of Alexis alludes to an earlier lyrical work of Gide, La tentative amoureuse, ou le traité du vain désirThe Attempt at Love, or the Treatise of Vain Desire). By the interwar period, homosexuality was a topic of open conversation and debate, and Yourcenar was writing in the freest atmosphere for exploring such questions since the capitulation of the Greco-Roman world to monotheism. Yourcenar writes that not only was the subject “in the air at the moment,” but that it was also in the “fabric of a life”—that is, her own life. Here one draws a comparison with the British historical novelist Mary Renault. Not only did both women feel the allure of antiquity, but each shared her life with a female partner, and each wrote a modernist novel (in Renault’s case, The Charioteer) exploring homosexuality through the eyes of a male subject.

Yourcenar herself described the prose of Alexis as “decanted language.” This austere delivery, which so perfectly channeled the voice of a fading Emperor Hadrian, feels slightly overdone in the case of Alexis. That said, the asceticism of the novel is in keeping with the essence of Yourcenar’s oeuvre: a world of melancholy stoicism in which characters express themselves not through dialog, but intense introspection. With subsequent readings, this characteristic formality does not impede emotional response, but rather enhances it. We find in Yourcenar’s philosophic prose reverence for the durability of corporeal man in the face of spiritual despair. Alexis, for his part, embraces the lessons of suffering, and praises his body, “which cured me from having a soul.”

Review: The Glass Menagerie (1945) by Tennessee Williams

The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle on the wings.

41dxoww0bslIn a couple of months, I’ll be spending the night of my 30th birthday at a preview performance of Broadway’s seventh revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. Sam Gold will direct Sally Field as Amanda Wingfield. This production opens just three years after the most recent revival closed on the afternoon of my birthday in 2014. In anticipation of the upcoming performance, I decided to revisit the reading text for the play that made Tennessee Williams a household name.

The Glass Menagerie is, in Williams’s own terminology, a “memory play.” Each scene constitutes a murky flashback conjured from the mind of our narrator, Tom Wingfield, as he recalls the final weeks before he abandoned his dependent mother and sister in their St. Louis tenement in 1937. The mother, Amanda, is an aging southern belle who, like her son, is caught in a vise of memories and regrets. She obsessively rehashes the glory days of her debutante youth when she could attract seventeen gentlemen callers in a single day, and hopes to redeem her own degradation by securing the future of her daughter, Laura. By contrast to the two Wingfield pugilists who rage at life’s inequities (and one another), Laura is a quiet girl, painfully shy and overcome with insecurities due to a minor limp resulting from a short leg. She leads a hermetic life, devoting all her attention to a cherished collection of glass figurines. The aspiring poet Tom supports the family with a dead-end job at a shoe warehouse, scribbling verses on box lids by day and escaping every night into a world of adventure at the movies. A large photograph of the Wingfield patriarch, “a telephone man who fell in love with long distances” and skipped town, observes their misery from above the mantel.

After an explosive argument between mother and son in Scene 3, Amanda makes a plea to Tom: find a nice, “clean-living” coworker to introduce to Laura. Tom relents and brings home Jim O’Connor, the fabled Gentleman Caller. Jim’s appearance in Scene 6 shocks the reader out of the bottled up, self-fabricated world of the Wingfields—characters whose lives form what Robert Bray calls a “triangle of quiet desperation.” Jim is an agent of insurgent banality. The reader is recalled to reality by the plainness of his speech and unaffected manner. Jim’s enthusiasm for life stands in stark contrast to the fatalism of the Wingfields, and his faith in technology and progress contradicts the family’s self-imposed displacement from time. Tom’s opening monologue confirms Jim’s disruptive normality in the hallucinatory universe of the play’s triad: “He is the most realistic character in the play, being an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.”

What follows in Scene 7, as Laura, left alone with Jim by candlelight, is drawn out of her anxious mistrust of the world and blossoms before our eyes, only to have her hopes crushed, is among the most tragic scenes in theater. What reader, regardless of his familiarity with the plot, can help but feel some spontaneous elation at the breaking of the glass unicorn—only to realize its symbology is not liberation, but final defeat? Moreover, if the play is Tom’s memory, and given that Tom is not present during the intimate meeting between Laura and Jim, then the substance of the encounter is suspect. Perhaps in reality Laura passed the evening alone, too afraid to join the dinner party and never experiencing even a momentary glimpse at happiness. I’m not sure which is more heartbreaking.

Tennessee Williams once said that his only influences were Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, and his own life. The Glass Menagerie, more than any other of his works, draws extensively on autobiographical elements. Williams’s real name was Thomas, thus Tom (whose fiery confrontation with Amanda in Scene 3 is precipitated by her disposing of his copy of Lawrence, which she deems filth). Williams’s schizophrenic sister Rose was the inspiration for Laura, whose high school nickname was “Blue Roses.” In 1943, the year before the play premiered, Rose was lobotomized and spent the rest of her life in an institution. In light of this personal tragedy, one better understands the 1947 essay that Williams wrote for the New York Times on “The Catastrophe of Success,” which serves as the epilogue to the New Directions reading text. While the wild success of The Glass Menagerie brought him fame and money, Williams found the security of wealth “a kind of death,” and determined that privation led to “compassion and moral conviction,” and was thus the foundation of authentic artistic expression. Appropriately, Williams turned the success of a play about wasted time into a warning: “…time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”

Review: Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1999) by Richard Rorty

86103Richard Rorty’s William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization have been rediscovered, almost two decades after they were delivered, in light of the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. And with good reason. For those of us who watched the 2016 election night results materialize in utter stupefaction and horror, Rorty would inveigh that the Left has been flippantly ignoring the potential for a Trump presidency since the collapse of the leftist reform movement in the mid-1960s. This will seem counter-intuitive to many, as the 1960s are now ingrained in the cultural consciousness as the apotheosis of the American Left. Rorty, however, draws a distinction between earlier 20th century iterations of leftist activism (which were were bonded with workers’ unions and won political victories that furthered social progress and fair standards of labor) with the cultural politics that became the driving force of the Counter-Culture Revolution, and which dominates leftist discourse to this day. The crucial distinction, in Rorty’s words, is between “agents and spectators.”

In the first lecture, “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey,” Rorty uses those two eminent American philosophers as counterweights to the pervading modern influence of fatalist Europeans such as Foucault, Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida. What Rorty sees as a source of inspiration in Whitman and Dewey is their ability to reconcile the potential for American national pride with their secular liberal humanism. Rorty makes what I found to be a provoking argument: that leftists who view the most shameful events of American history, such as the American Indian genocide or the killing of over a million Vietnamese, as irrevocable stains on the United States, events so grave atonement is impossible, fall into the trappings of a metaphysical sinner complex better suited to the followers of St. Augustine. Dewey, by contrast, “wanted Americans to share a civic religion that substituted utopian strivings for claims to theological knowledge” (38). Instead, on the wings of Foucault and Lacan, American leftists have become apocalyptic martyrs and the rationalizers of hopelessness.

The second lecture, “The Eclipse of the Reformist Left,” is a retelling through Rorty’s eyes of how the cultural Left, fueled by university unrest, usurped the reformist Left in the mid-60s. He opens with a bold proclamation: Marxism at the end of the 20th century is as morally bankrupt as Roman Catholicism at the end of the 17th century. Rorty proudly proclaims himself an anti-Marxist, and levels language as strong as any right-winger’s against Stalin’s “evil empire” and its insidious global influence. He offers a defense of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (of which his father was a member), which the New York Times exposed as a CIA outfit in 1966. The CCF’s endowment is still a point of contention for cultural leftists who were molded intellectually in the mid-20th century (I most recently came across an ominous allusion in a review of Matthew Spender’s 2015 memoir, in reference to his father the poet Stephen Spender, editor of the CCF-funded literary magazine Encounter). Rorty agrees with Todd Gitlin that the watershed moment for the splintering of the Left occurred in August 1964, when the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was denied seats at the DNC in Atlantic City, and Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Young leftists were left with an impression of their country as inherently stained, corrupt, and irreparable, thus bringing an end to the leftist reformism that defined the so-called Progressive Era. In place of reforms, the New Left called for revolution. This type of thinking is perhaps best illustrated in Rorty’s critique of Christopher Lasch’s 1969 polemic, The Agony of the American Left, a book which “made it easy to stop thinking of oneself as a member of a community, as a citizen with civil responsibilities. For if you turn out to be living in an evil empire (rather than, as you had been told, a democracy fighting an evil empire), then you have no responsibility to your country, you are accountable only to humanity” (66).

For those readers who are most curious about Rorty’s anticipation of Trump, skip to the third and final lecture, “A Cultural Left.” This lecture will be a bitter pill for many young academics to swallow, ensconced as they are in the rhetoric of identity politics (I write this as a recent humanities Ph.D. dropout). Rorty’s diagnosis of the current malaise requires something the cultural Left deplores: nuance. While he praises the advances the New Left has made in curbing the dominance of stigma and sadism (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) in American culture, he draws attention to the glaring fact that, while we have made much headway in social equality since the 1960s, economic inequality has increased in tandem. It’s as if the Left lacks the focus to address dual initiatives. While recent achievements in socio-cultural progress have been nothing short of heroic, by taking our eyes off the fight for socialist economic reforms, we were effectively asleep at the wheel in the 1980s as the Reaganite neo-liberals waged their campaign of annihilation on the meager welfare state accomplished by the reformist Left. By the end of the century, we had also lost the minds of the voters, and the only democrats who stood a chance at national election were the advocates of lukewarm centrism like Bill Clinton.

So, the reader must ask, if the Left has proven historically unable to pursue multiple objectives simultaneously, then which is more important: cultural or economic reforms? Rorty, while not dismissing the fight against all forms of cultural prejudice, warns that a globalized economy run by an entrepreneurial elite is far more likely to upend the American political system and augur an authoritarian future. For, as he rightly points out, many of the Progressive Era champions of socialist economic reforms—labor union members, farmers, unskilled workers—undoubtedly included many racists, sexists, and homophobes. However, by coalescing those groups around the banner of shared economic interests, leftists were able to achieve upward social mobility for all Americans. By contrast, in the absence of a strong, politicized movement for workers’ rights and fair wages, the white working class, prone as we all are to tribalism, will inevitably fall under the spell of populism. Enter Trump:

…members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly optimistic. (90)

The election of Donald Trump is a travesty, though one we should have seen coming. My initial reaction (disgust, hopelessness, defeat) is emblematic of the dangerous sense of resignation that made it possible for the Far-right to consume every branch of the American government in the first place. Those of us on the Left now have two options: give in to our anguish and become spectators to the dismantling of a century’s worth of progress, or once again become agents for change. We should never forget the more sinister chapters of America’s past, but in recognizing the potential for even darker days ahead, our energy is best spent not in doleful reflection, but in working to achieve a country worthier of our pride. As Rorty writes, “we should not let the abstractly described best be the enemy of the better” (105).

Perhaps mercifully, Richard Rorty did not live to see the events he predicted transpire. He finished his career at Stanford University, and died in 2007 at the age of 75.