Introduction #1: The Allegorical One
In a dim room, a slide clicks. For a brief moment, the room goes black. At the cha-chick of the next slide settling into place, the light returns, once again illuminating the curling smoke of four or five lit cigarettes and the outline of five or six graying heads. Are they old heads? Or prematurely aged? It’s difficult to tell. They are men and women, faces somber, all in suits, hats on their knees, ties loosened, glasses of whiskey forgotten and warming on the armrests of the fraying chairs in that small viewing room, barely large enough to call a theater. And what are they looking at? Slide after slide passes by: half-readable scraps of inscrutable lore; the front doors of long-ago demolished buildings; extinct birds. But the small audience does not react; their faces remain impassive; their hands rest unnaturally wherever they happen to lie, like discarded vestments. The pace of the slides never changes; click, click, click.
Suddenly, silence. The creak of a chair is like an iceberg cracking; someone leans forward. In disbelief? In excitement? It is difficult to say. One woman’s shaking hand reaches for a warm glass of whiskey, cups it, but never raises it to her lips; she too leans forward, gripping the glass; deep within the dark cocoon of the high rise where they have been sitting, watching, waiting, they each of them lean forward, the critics at The New Republic, toward the screen, as if struggling to make out through the haze of smoke an image, though it is clear enough what it is—a single unblinking eye, looming above an open book—and below that, what? Is it words? Is that what they’re trying to read? “The End of the Wor————.” The room goes dark.
Not that far away, in a warmly lit wood-paneled room, someone hurriedly pulls yet another crumbling edition of a little-read classic off the overflowing shelves that surround her. Sitting down at her crowded desk, she begins to flip through its pages; she glances briefly at a second book which already lies open in front of her and fingers a spot low on the page, possibly a footnote, as if to double check what it says. That finger travels back to her new acquisition and slips inside, parting it open at what she estimates to be the right point. A few flips forward, a few flips back, and aha! right there. She reads.
After long minutes, she rises and walks to a bookcase nearly opposite the one from which she retrieved the previous book, and after a brief scan of a high shelf, pulls down another. She pries open its stiff covers—this book is large and leatherbound, from a decidedly earlier century than the slim paperback she had been consulting before—diligently finds her page and, once the right passage is located, again bends her head to read. After another long interval, she rises and rushes to the shelves, pulling down yet another volume, finding yet another page. And on it goes.
From book to book she follows the citation, through footnotes and appendices and indices of colored plates; from maps to endnotes to works cited. Where will it end? What is the ultimate source? Slowly within the mind of the editor at The New York Review of Books an image begins to form, an image which grows brighter until it blots out the page in front of her…. an open eye, rising above an open book like a sun crossing the horizon……She whispers a name; but no one is there to hear it.
Meanwhile, a band of renegades is building a barricade in the street. They are under attack; on all sides, serious threats. A piece of trash, perhaps the torn cover of a circular, blows across the rampart and wraps temporarily around the knee of the hastily elected captain of the hastily erected fortification. The enemy advances and there is no time to dally; shouting orders to her troops, the captain of this division of The Drift brushes the annoyance away; if she had bothered to look at all, she would have just barely been able to make out the title of that foul rag: “The End of the Wor———” But the page is torn; the rest of the name, a mystery not worth solving.
At nearly the same moment but thousands of miles away, at a private club where visitors wear smoking jackets but no longer smoke, a woman in a gold dress walks into the reading room, crosses its plushly carpeted length in long but unhurried strides, stops next to a fat green armchair, bends down, and speaks into the ear of an editor at the London Review of Books, who stands up, walks out of the club, and is never seen nor heard from again.
And in a mid-sized American city, a graduate student needs a particular book to complete an essay. As he bends down to search for it in a dusty corner of his local bookstore, he notices a groove etched into the floor; it extends outward from the edge of the bookcase before him in a wide arc. The graduate student barely hesitates before grasping onto the edge of the shelf and pulling hard; the whole thing swings forward, revealing a staircase.
The graduate student begins to descend. Deeper and deeper he winds into the earth, his essay for The Point long since forgotten; nothing matters to him now but discovering the source of the faint sound echoing below, which he presently can discern is chanting; but whose are the voices? And what are they saying? “The End of the W….., The End of the W….” The graduate student finally reaches solid ground. The space around him is dark and possibly vast. It smells ancient. He fumbles for his iphone, draws it out of his pocket, raises it above his head, and reaches with his thumb for the button that will turn on the light.
Introduction #2: The Factual One
Here at the end of the world, like everywhere else, rent was due yesterday. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems like the kind of rent day that leads to a revolution; nobody has any money, and yet somehow we’re all supposed to pay.
Ah yes, you may have heard, I got laid off; but I’m still here, wherever this is! I feel like a ghost, haunting all my old subscribers. But hey you signed up for this. You all basically Ouija’d me into existence. I half-expected it not to work. I thought I’d just try it out, watch five people subscribe, watch two people unsubscribe, write the remaining three a weird letter, and sink back into obscurity.
Instead, I’ve taken this opportunity to write a weird letter to hundreds of people! Uh, hmmm, what I’m seeing here is that it’s… some sort of horror story about the literary reviews? Well, what can I say, you signed up for this!
Stay safe out there,
1. “It Was More Than a Notion” by Aaron Robertson, The Point
“When black Narcissus looks into the water and finds not even a distorted image of his face but nothing at all, what becomes of beauty?” asks Aaron Robertson at a riveting moment deep into his essay on the philosophy of Albert Cleage, Jr.—an activist and preacher of the civil rights era whose thinking at first glance seems to inhabit a contradictory place between Afropessimism and Liberation, but which in Robertson’s accounting comes to appear profoundly pragmatic. Like his friend Malcolm X, Cleage “identified white society as the active agent of black oppression, not merely an impassable obstruction,” but at the same time he eschewed the hardline separatist turn of groups like the Nation of Islam:
Whites weren’t otherworldly devils but conscious social actors, and neither excess violence nor geographical separation would destroy white power at its root….Cleage’s brand of Christianity, particularly his belief in an eventual but unforeseeable reckoning for white society, reconciled his embrace of a messianic end-times theology with his misgivings about the effectiveness of anti-racist struggles. Only a day of judgment, marking the end of injustice, would eliminate the need for black skepticism.
Until that day of reckoning were to come, the path forged by Cleage’s Black Nationalist Church resembled the kind of black utopianism practiced and philosophized by generations of black Americans who formed “intentional communities” organized on principles of mutual aid and communal living, including Robertson’s own family; eventually the essay turns around Robertson’s growing sense of detachment from the black utopian spaces of his ancestors: “By walking through too many doors, I have torn another temple veil in two, and places once full are being emptied.”
2. “Richard Wright, Masaoka Shiki, and the Haiku of Confinement” by Christopher Benfey, The New York Reviews of Books
Christopher Benfey writes that on their sickbeds, Richard Wright and Masaoka Shiki each discovered in the modern form of the haiku the perfect literary vehicle to express their new realities. “I believe his haiku were self-developed antidotes against illness,” wrote Wright’s daughter, “and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath.”
3. “Leo Tolstoy vs. the Police” by Jennifer Wilson, The New York Times
Apparently some people on Twitter formed a War and Peace quarantine book club, which I personally didn’t know about until I saw a tweet comparing Napoleon to Thanos, and which critic Jennifer Wilson finds a little ironic given that Tolstoy’s later output would be far more suited to reckoning with the sorts of upheavals we’re facing now. “War and Peace seemed to me insufficiently radical for the present moment, particularly given the breadth of Tolstoy’s social thought…..Of his own spiritual reawakening, captured in his memoir A Confession (1882), he described feeling as though the ground beneath him had collapsed,” making it a more rewarding read “at a time when the racial and economic inequities revealed by Covid-19 and police killings have inspired unprecedented numbers of people to begin questioning some of this country’s foundational myths.”
Which isn’t to say that War and Peace isn’t radical in its own way. “War and Peace was meant as a corrective to popular histories and fictions about war that glorified battle; Tolstoy instead showed war as disorienting, chaotic and humbling. Those views eventually turned into a broader critique of the use of violence, which he believed served to maintain a social order that benefited only the wealthy and ruling classes. ‘Violence no longer rests on the belief in its utility,’ he later wrote, ‘but only on the fact of its having existed so long, and being organized by the ruling classes who profit by it.’ Tolstoy’s late views were considered especially dangerous in part because he was not merely calling for reform, but for the abolition of institutions upheld and guided by the use of force.c
4. “Abolitionist Alternatives” by Angela Davis, Bookforum
Bookforum has done us all a favor and excerpted Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?, which is backordered everywhere at the moment. This is the book to read if you’re trying to imagine a way forward.
It is true that if we focus myopically on the existing system—and perhaps this is the problem that leads to the assumption that imprisonment is the only alternative to death—it is very hard to imagine a structurally similar system capable of handling such a vast population of lawbreakers. If, however, we shift our attention from the prison, perceived as an isolated institution, to the set of relationships that comprise the prison industrial complex, it may be easier to think about alternatives. In other words, a more complicated framework may yield more options than if we simply attempt to discover a single substitute for the prison system. The first step, then, would be to let go of the desire to discover one single alternative system of punishment that would occupy the same footprint as the prison system…..
Creating agendas of decarceration and broadly casting the net of alternatives helps us to do the ideological work of pulling apart the conceptual link between crime and punishment. This more nuanced understanding of the social role of the punishment system requires us to give up our usual way of thinking about punishment as an inevitable consequence of crime. We would recognize that “punishment” does not follow from “crime” in the neat and logical sequence offered by discourses that insist on the justice of imprisonment, but rather punishment—primarily through imprisonment (and sometimes death)—is linked to the agendas of politicians, the profit drive of corporations, and media representations of crime.
5. “Burned in Paris” by Rafia Zakaria, The Baffler
Rafia Zakaria writes about Marc Petitjean’s The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris. Zakaria zeroes in on Kahlo’s appalling treatment by her French hosts, Jacqueline Lamba and Andre Breton, who had promised to exhibit her work in Paris after she and Diego Rivera hosted them lavishly in Mexico City. “[Breton] had trotted back to Paris likely never expecting to pay on his promise. The pair’s luggage on their return trip was laden with a vast trove of objects he acquired all over Mexico. Ever the white man riding around in native lands, the effort had been to acquire, to take back his loot to where it could be transformed from object into artifact.” Not only was Kahlo sidelined and disrespected in her accommodations, but her work was treated by Breton like it was worth nothing more than the handicrafts and knickknacks he had acquired as a tourist.
For Kahlo, it must have stung, all of it: a child’s bed, no exhibition, and an apartment set up with a hoard of Mexican objects. In these first few moments of her dalliance with Paris, you can see something that is emblematic of the dilemma facing woman artists of color, who still struggle with the same stereotypes today. The reference point of art made by people of color was essentially loot, the material from raided graves of ancestors and plundered archaeological sites that was brought back to Europe by colonists. Breton’s bits and pieces, in not being “archaeological,” in being—worse still—produced after the arrival of colonists and possibly for the very market created by them, were not, like the wrested originals, the spoils of conquest…..
Breton wanted to show her paintings as part of an exhibition that would include “Mexican nineteenth century portraits, thirty-two Alvarez Bravo photographs, and a large number of everyday items.” In his insistence was the implicit suggestion that her work, too, was “craft” rather than art, simply exotic rather than inventive.
6. “Letting Jeffrey Epstein’s Pals Off the Hook” by Jacob Silverman, The New Republic
Jacob Silverman reviews A Convenient Death: The Mysterious Demise of Jeffrey Epstein by the journalists Alana Goodman and Daniel Halper, alongside James Patterson’s recent Netflix special. Dismissing the documentary, like many have done, as a whitewashing of Epstein’s crimes—the show portrays him as a sole perpetrator rather than embedded in ring of elite malefactors—Silverman writes that “A Convenient Death is about as up to the moment as the sluggish book-publishing industry might allow. A product of two conservative journalists, it’s not shy about indicting the liberal media’s complicity when it comes to burnishing the Epstein myth (he’s a demon now, but for years publications like New York magazine reported on Epstein as a mysterious financial savant). It also considers Bill Clinton’s close association with Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who played the roles of Epstein’s sexual partner, madam, and fixer.”
And yet A Convenient Death still doesn’t go far enough, as so few investigations into Epstein seem to do; it “only gesture[s] at the powerful networks of money, political power, and social privilege that helped sustain Epstein’s world.” So the rest of Silverman’s essay is dedicated to outlining all the aspects of the Epstein case that point to a wider plot.
7. “Chaos, Aggregated: A Pandemic Novelist Takes to Twitter” by Madeline Conway, The Drift
Madeline Conway profiles Rachel Graham, a pseudonymously published romance novelist who “was 50,000 words into a draft of a novel about a fictional pandemic when she first read that a new virus had emerged in China.” Because of all the research she’d done for her novel, she knew exactly where to look for new information, so Graham started a twitter account dedicated to aggregating coronavirus news. It quickly became one of the most prominent and widely used public resources of the pandemic.
But despite the insatiable appetite for corona-coverage these days, Graham doubts that such a robust audience will exist for her zombie-virus novel when this is all over. When I ask her how much detail she’s comfortable sharing, given that the book isn’t published yet, she stops me. “Please, no one will ever buy it now,” she jokes. “No one wants to read about a pandemic.”
8. “Teaching Shakespeare Under Quarantine” by Andrea Crow, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Andrea Crow writes that teaching Shakespeare’s Henry VIII under quarantine has caused her to feel “some of the strongest moments of solidarity with students that I have experienced as a teacher — a feeling arising from the fact that we have all had to recalibrate how we understand the narrative arc of our lives.”
“Modeled on the medieval de casibus genre — collections of tales of the downfall of great people — Henry VIII’s characters are a gaggle of would-be protagonists who hardly get an hour to strut and fret before they are ushered away. Yet its disordered and unpredictable plot makes the play perfectly shaped for our present moment.”
9. “The Government Can Afford Anything It Wants” by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein, The New Republic
Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein reviews Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, a book which defines and espouses Modern Monetary Theory, “a set of newish ideas that maddeningly reopen a question that you’d think only a novice stoner or seven-year-old would dare ask: Where does money come from, and what does it do?” MMT basically argues that money is a social construct, and that it can be, and is, deployed politically by government.
As Kaiser-Schatzlein explains, “the Federal Reserve does not dip its hand into a pot of ‘tax dollars’ to pay military contractors, nor is it required to check some mythical account where tax dollars live before it wires the money. In fact, that account doesn’t exist. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke once noted, when the government pays for things, it is ‘not taxpayer money. We simply use the computer to mark up the size of the account.’ Alan Greenspan, Bernanke’s libertarian predecessor at the Fed further clarified, ‘There’s nothing to prevent the federal government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to someone.’”
(Let’s all take a moment, in our mind’s eye, to set this fact—this incredible fact that the government just literally adds money to people’s bank accounts whenever it feels like it—next to the fact, mentioned in Jacob Silverman’s review above, that Jeffrey Epstein had an inexplicably large amount of money that nobody knows where it came from! These two facts, let us allow them to rest next to each other for a little while, in the mind’s eye.)
10. “On the Art—and Preservation—of Lushootseed Storytelling” by Jill La Pointe, Lit Hub
In an excerpt from her foreward to a new edition of Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound, Jill La Pointe writes, “We are fortunate that our ancestors… remained willing and determined to seize any opportunity to share their wisdom through what Swinomish elder Susie Sampson Peter called ‘a different canoe’ (the tape recorder), so it could be captured and made available to us.”
11. “Introducing Pierre Klossowski’s ‘The Suspended Vocation’” by Brian Evenson, Music & Literature
Music & Literature has excerpted Brian Evenson’s introduction to a new translation of the barely-remembered French figure Pierre Klossowski’s The Suspended Vocation, a novel which “presents itself as a long critical review of a book (that does not exist) also called The Suspended Vocation. The author of the review has strong opinions about that book, makes guesses about what the author intended, and harbors suspicions as to the relationship of what’s going on in the text to the politics of the 1940s.” The novel-within-the-novel is about a seminarian navigating an occult conspiracy within the Catholic Church.
Evenson says of Klossowski: “....there are those figures who seem to flit around the edges of movements without ever being fully involved in any of them, who pursue their own eccentric paths no matter what is going on around them. These are the writers who make up the secret history of literature, the hidden history that’s not easily reduced to movements or trends, and who always waver on the verge of invisibility until you stumble by accident onto one of their books and realize how good they actually are, and wonder, Why wasn’t I told to read this before?”
12. “A Rebellious Victorian Woman Rescued From History’s Shadows” by Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
13. “Mrs. Meredith Finally Gets Her Due” by Vivian Gornick, Lit Hub
Parul Sehgal reviews and Vivian Gornick introduces this newly reissued edition of Diane Johnson’s The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, which Sehgal calls “a foundational text” of a “new form of biographical criticism… which treat[s] a writer’s work as continuous with his private life, detecting the mythologies and political assumptions governing both.” As Gornick writes in her introduction, “The first time I read The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith (sometime in the late 70s) I was sitting in the blazing sun on a Caribbean beach, the book propped on my knees, and was surprised, whenever I looked up, to see that I wasn’t surrounded by the fog and cold of 1840s England. If I’d been asked then to explain what I thought the book was about, I’d probably have been struck dumb: all I knew was that the writing had cocooned me inside an atmosphere of emotional damage and existential heartbreak that felt large.”
14. “Interview with Saidiya Hartman” by Victoria Adukwei Bulley, The White Review
At some point I could probably just rename this newsletter the Saidiya Hartman fan club. In this interview with Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Hartman says:
…I think that repetition – or maybe I might say, the refrain, those circulating refrains – just echo and echo across time and space and we can think of the refrain as echoing from Harriet Jacobs inside her loophole of retreat, to Assata Shakur, or to #SayHerName. There are these utterances that are recurring and they continue to animate struggle, they continue to remind us of the possible…. The refrains of Harriet Jacobs or Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Bessie Head resound in my words and determine how we think about our condition, and the pasts that reside in our now… And the way in which we are still trying to make good the proclamations of over a century ago; the struggle to be treated as if human flesh. Those patterns or statements or refrains—this collective utterance—also provide an architecture or a grounding for [Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments]. This collective resource of black women’s thought that is Toni Morrison and Angela Davis and Maryse Condé and all the black women thinkers and writers whose words are tools for survival… It was exactly my intention for the text to be polyphonic, to conjure the multivocality of the chorus and the spoken character of utterance. One of the things that was really important for me to convey was the sensorium of black urban space, and that is so much about sound, right? The intimacy and proximity and overhearing of this shared utterance. I wanted to create that sense of not just a spoken text but a text that’s created by this multiplicity of utterance and that sometimes it speaks in multiple ways, like ‘girl, you’re too much,’ you know? The description of the ‘too much’ of blackness or the ‘too much’ of the wayward and not wanting to be disciplined by the disciplinary apparatus. In large measure, what the practice of citation does is reproduce intellectual hierarchies. Whose words must be accounted for? Whose words are endowed with autonomy or must be treated as if valuable and private property, as opposed to the kind of taken-for-granted utterances that are credited to no one in particular.
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