Reviewing the Review: July 22 2007

Sometimes the New York Times Book Review deserves a whole lot of praise, and when this happens I’m not going to skimp on the positive reinforcement. This weekend’s issue contains plenty of brain food, including a solid endpaper on American philosopher Richard Rorty, whose death last month occasioned numerous articles by people who seemed to have never read a word he wrote (and could thus only refer to him as “influential” or “highly regarded”). Thankfully, James Ryerson actually takes the trouble to tell us what Rorty stood for as an ethical philosopher:

Typically, he would draw a connection between the matter at hand (say, the Bosnian victims of Serbian aggression) and the unimportance of certain venerable philosophical notions (say, inalienable human rights) to understanding it.

In our ethically overheated age — what am I saying, in every foolish human age — we tend to confuse our public debates with sanctimonious concepts (like, yes, inalienable human rights, which are obviously not inalienable since they are violated everywhere we look) that fail to connect with the intuitive and dynamic notions of ethics that actually motivate our actions and judgements and decisions. As a good “Pragmatist”, Richard Rorty worked hard to demystify and disentangle these confusions. Ryerson’s article is bright and funny as well as informative, and is a good reminder that we should care about modern philosophers not because they are “great” (this “greatness” being, really, just another sanctimonious notion) but because they can actually help us think more clearly about important matters.

Marcel Theroux delivers a rave review for The Exception, an existential crime novel by Christian Jungerson that takes place inside a fictional “Danish Center for Information on Genocide” and stirs up the question:

Does evil lurk equally in everyone, or are some people driven to exceptional acts by their own twisted natures? Isn’t there a profound qualitative difference between even the nastiest office politics and the epic degradations of Omarska?

It’s a Rorty-esque question, in fact, and since at least one smart person (other than this NYTBR critic) has already recommended this novel to me, I’m going to read it and let you know what I think.

I said this is a good issue of the Book Review, but that doesn’t mean some of the articles shouldn’t be better. Ross Douthat is all too eager to write about scandal politics in slamming Sammy’s House by Kristin Gore, spending the last full third of his full-page review pondering the effect Bill and Hillary Clinton’s public marital problems had on the author’s father’s presidential hopes, and mystifyingly doing so in the “coded” form a journalist might use when hinting about a secret scandal (“I’ll just say that things turn out slightly better for R. G. than they did for another ethically upright vice president faced with a similar quandary a decade or so ago”). In fact, Douthat is only pretending that there’s something to “whisper” about here — the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is not secret, nor is it news, nor is it relevant to Kristin Gore’s novel.

A star turn by French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy on Testimony by incoming French President Nicolas Sarkozy isn’t as disappointing as Douthat’s dumb display, though it raises as many questions as it answers. Take this blowsy opening, which tells us that French politicians have a strange habit of writing books while running for office:

It’s truly a French specialty. I do not know a ranking French politician who has not considered at one time or another writing and publishing a book, one with ideological and often even literary ambitions, as an essential rite of passage in his or her career.

Is it the prestige, more acute in France than elsewhere, accompanying the creation of a book, a real book, and not merely a political platform?

Is it the link between the pen and the sword, between politics and literature, which has been particularly close ever since the Encyclopedists and the French Revolution?

Could it be because of writers who, like Chateaubriand, dreamed of being in the cabinet? Or those who, like Malraux, wanted to be renowned for their use of arms as much as for the books they wrote? Or could it be the opposite, Stendhal’s syndrome of lamenting the battle of Waterloo, since because of it he missed by a few days being named prefect of Le Mans?

From Richelieu, who wanted to be a playwright; to de Gaulle, who was fascinated by Malraux; from Clemenceau, our prime minister during the First World War, who wrote an opera (“The Dream Veil”); to Francois Mitterrand, whom I personally heard say several times that nothing was more enviable in this world than being the author of “The Charterhouse of Parma,” France is this bizarre country where if the writers are often failed men of action, the men of action are always failed writers.

Wow. Can Bernard-Henri Levy, who has written entire books about American society, not realize that these paragraphs can only be met with laughter here in the USA, where every politician also gets a book deal, where even woebegone John McCain has a new book coming out, and where you can’t even get on line for a Harry Potter book without being barraged by the latest tomes from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Bill Richardson and everyone else? Know your audience, Levy! (I also wonder why the NYTBR editors, who certainly recognized this misfire, didn’t ask the writer to rewrite his opener — are they so timid with their celebrity writers that they won’t request a fix even where it’s so obviously needed?)

At least this article about France’s new president is impassioned. So is James Longenbach’s acrobatic consideration of four new books of poetry, Silence Fell by Josephine Dickinson, Tom Thomson in Purgatory by Troy Jollimore, Why Speak? by Nathaniel Bellows and Vellum by Matt Donavan. The New York Times Book Review seems to chew up poetry critics and spit them out — and in recent years, spitting them out has been the right decision — so I hope Longenbach will stick around for a while. I like his style.

Novelist Uzodimna Iweala reviews The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan but I’m not sure he’s found the right note here:

In a provocative twist, “The Unknown Terrorist” also questions whether there is truly anything left in our society for the terrorists to destroy — anything, that is, other than a lust for instant gratification and material things.

Well, hmm, let’s see — our buildings? Our cities? Our lives? Our children? Anyway, moving on …

The cover article is a fluffy but very lively review of Wilfred Sheed’s history of the golden age of the Broadway jazz musical The House that George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty by Garrison Keillor. Keillor rhymes “pedantic” with “frantic”, as he well should, and lavishly appreciates Sheed’s book. I’m a bit perturbed that both Keillor and Sheed seem to be advancing a strange view that Irving Berlin should be ranked higher in the songwriter canon than the great team of Rodgers and Hart, and also seem interested in hyperbolizing and canonizing George Gershwin (Broadway’s golden age doesn’t need beatification; we just need better revivals). Still, Keillor’s article is a welcome read on a pleasant summer day. And so, in fact, is this entire issue of the Book Review.

* * * * *

Maybe I’m just in a good mood because I start a weeklong vacation right now. Jamelah’s going to be in charge while I’m gone, and what she’s got in store for you I simply have no idea.

One Response

  1. Ah, that is the
    Ah, that is the question…

    “We confuse our public debates with sanctimonious concepts that fail to connect with intuitive and dynamic notions of ethics that actually motivate our actions, judgments and decisions.” That’s quite a mouthful, what does it mean? Particularly, what are – intuitive and dynamic notions of ethics. Seems by definition, you couldn’t have a dynamic ethic, much less intuitive.

    Ethics is based on the concept of an ideal or universal “rightness.” Practicality or pragmatism, is based on expediency, what’s right or best at the moment. I would be very interested to hear how Rorty resolves these two.

    For further discussion, I recommend a story by Rusty Barnes which is currently at Small Spiral Notebook. It embodies the current issues that Rorty refers to.

    In a general sense, this is one of your most important posts, highlighting the place of philosophy in our lives. The central question we must resolve is – how do we properly balance ethics and practicality. I would like to (need to) hear more.

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