I’ve recently become acquainted with n+1, an ambitious downtown New York magazine run by a pack of young intellectuals with advanced degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Yale. They write with passion and humor about serious subjects, and they stand defiantly against modern banality and techno-intellectual hype. They are clearly aware of the tradition of T. S. Eliot, who urged a similar return to traditional highbrow values in his Criterion, and these young bucks usually manage to live up to this legacy with their carefully put together biannual magazine.
Ironically, I only picked up the new Winter 2007 issue because of a noisy controversy that had something to do with n+1 claiming moral superiority over literary bloggers. We hashed that argument out, and I’ve got nothing more to say about that. But I was curious enough to pick up their journal at St. Mark’s Bookshop, and I’ve spent a couple of hours with it. Here are my findings.
The Cover is a boring and unexceptional abstract painting. I don’t know what the hell it’s supposed to represent, but it’s eminently forgettable.
Here’s a surprise: the tirade against literary bloggers that all the fuss was about is a humor piece. And quite a good one, actually. It’s called The Intellectual Situation, and it contains calibrated tirades against email culture and cell phone culture (“Whatever Minutes”) as well as blogs. What didn’t come across in the quoted discussions about this piece is that the anonymous authors are partially mocking themselves. It’s a cranky humor act — “see how retro we are”. I’ve heard the same routine in bars and restaurants many times, actually, so maybe the piece isn’t as original as all that, but there are a few very funny lines.
The now-celebrated young postmodern novelist Benjamin Kunkel came from the n+1 hood, and while I’ve never read his Indecision I’ve always intended to take a look at it. He contributes a quirky short story to this issue, My Predicament: A Fable, narrated by a spider with a Dostoevskian sense of tragedy. The spider-narrator describes the ecstasy of catching and eating an insect, but then becomes disgusted at his violent gluttony and tries to be a hunger artist (a slick shout-out to Kafka here). Then he kills and eats again. It’s an excellent story, and I’d bet you anything Kunkel dreamed it up after watching the new film of Charlotte’s Web. I wouldn’t mind seeing this piece show up in some end-of-year story collections.
Unfortunately, we’re only on page 16, and there are 159 pages to go, and Kunkel’s piece turns out to be the best thing in the magazine. But I go on. I skip a few short stories, not because I don’t want to read Rebecca Curtis and Imraam Coovaadia but because I’m already juggling a few novels and stories, so I’m skipping to the non-fiction sections. There’s an intense philosophy piece called Anaesthetic Ideology by Mark Greif, and I dig into this with interest.
I’m immediately disappointed. Sorry, Greif, but I’ve got a philosophy degree too (though mine’s just from a state school, not ivy league) and I can spot a recycled term paper when I see it. Mark Greif’s points are that a) we crave the negation of experience nearly as much as we craze experience, b) both Stoicism/ascetism and Epicureanism/aestheticism are identical in that they both pursue the aesthetics of experience and non-experience, and c) a lot of current TV shows really suck. What bugs me about this piece is that it’s textbook existentialism, but Greif presents it as something new. Is that what n+1 aims to be, a Philosophy 501 textbook? At least admit to us, then, that you’re just summarizing Sartre and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, like about 100,000 grad students before you.
Greif’s understanding of existentialism isn’t even complex enough to recognize the place of the self in these equations. For instance, he writes about drug/alcohol addiction as a yearning for negation of experience, but this misses the more difficult but more rewarding point that addiction is also a yearning for negation of the self. Just ask Soren or Fred. Really.
On the positive side, Mark Greif is a very skillful and passionate writer, as are most of the principals of this magazine. His attack on the permeation of television sets into every corner of America is quite good. I think he has a bright future as a writer, but I don’t think he should try to publish a philosophy piece until he gets some ideas of his own.
I then have an even worse experience (hah) with Torture and the Known Unknowns, Keith Gessen’s piece on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Jose Padilla and the practice of American terrorist interrogation through torture (half this piece is online, so you can check it out for yourself). Like Greif, Gessen writes well, but when you’re writing about torture it doesn’t really matter that much if you write well. Gessen clearly doesn’t realize this as he racks up points for precious sentences that express nothing, simply nothing at all, except for journalistic curiosity about the meaning of torture and interrogation. He spends several paragraphs setting up a description of the famous photo of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed after he was captured, in a tight t-shirt that showed off his hairy back: “This was Bluto Blutarsky.” Yeah, and this is celebrity journalism.
The piece is blessedly not long, but it’s still too long, since it expresses no ideas. Gessen’s basic take on the horrible enigma that modern intelligence organizations uses torture as a tool is to stare at this fact and say “wow, that’s really weird”.
He quotes from the United 93 flight recordings as a flight attendant is stabbed to death, and remarks on how this text might appear as drama. Well, I’ve got about a hundred political blogs to read, and this kind of thing wastes my time. I expect more resolution and more conviction in a political piece.
Earlier in his philosophy piece, Mark Greif wrote about the dulling sensation of watching terrorist beheading videos and remarks, regarding our terror-gripped world, “Certainly I can’t do anything.” That is the worst single sentence in this entire issue, and it describes why I dislike both Greif’s philosophy piece and Gessen’s political piece. I want to read writers who believe they can do something. My god, I am personally so deluded I think I can make Dick Cheney resign. T. S. Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre sure as hell thought they could do something about the problems of the world (one was a fascist dupe and one a Communist dupe, but still). It’s in these moments of awestruck philosophical passivity, in this “aestheticism” (as Mark Greif would call it) that these young intellectuals most strike me as callow, sophomoric, not quite ready for prime time.
But, then, who ever is? There’s at least one more good piece in this issue — The Argonaut Folly by former Hermenaut Joshua Glenn — and at least one more annoying one, a whiny letter to the editor by Jonathan Lethem. Having spent some time with n+1‘s Winter 2007, am I going to pick up their Summer 2007 issue? I can’t swear I’ll knock anybody over in my rush to the bookshop, but, yeah, what the hell, I’ll pick it up. At least these folks are trying to be on a mission, which is more than I can say for a lot of up-and-coming writers out there.