Hickey abandoned his book in 2015, a year that saw “cancel culture” pass from fandoms, via social media, into the mainstream of our civic life. What Oppenheimer calls the “blob,” the set of cultural institutions that Hickey denounced, appears ever more indifferent to beauty and ever more willing to submit art to demands for censorship, which often issue from just the sort of communities of shared enjoyment that Hickey imagined as the “pagan” basis of our democratic politics. It is regrettably no longer the case—if it ever was—that the democratic potential of our ordinary life of private and social enjoyments is primarily menaced from the outside by moralizing institutions and the persecutions of the state. Rather, the affordances of private life seem to be increasingly eroded from within, thinned out into intolerant, pleasureless resentments. It will be for a new generation of critics and creators to imagine, if it can still be imagined, how to restore a capacity for intense but tolerant pursuits of pleasure, and make America pagan again.
From a certain angle, Donald Trump’s presidency may not have moved the United States in entirely the wrong direction. One of the few areas to benefit from his stewardship, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen suggested in a New York Times op-ed last December, was American literature. Prior to 2016, he argued, Barack Obama’s “warmth” had lulled the literary world into a deep quiescence that amounted to imperial complicity. “It took Mr. Trump,” he wrote, “to awaken it to politics.”
As epoch-defining generalizations go, this is about as accurate as the solemn proclamations about the end of irony after September 11. The George W. Bush years, after all, gave us a crop of novels attempting, however awkwardly, to wring meaning from the catastrophe in lower Manhattan, to say nothing of the numerous Obama-era fictions marked by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are ambitious and profound writers such as Phil Klay, whose debut story collection, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award, apolitical? Nguyen casts him as a “veteran writer” distant from most Americans, who “are insulated from the deployment of the war machine and prefer not to think about their implication in it.” What about pressing existential questions such as climate change, environmental degradation, and the unsustainability of industrial agriculture? These subjects have been taken up by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, and Jenny Offill, but he shrugs off such concerns too, as “targets . . . acceptable to white liberal interests.” What about riveting, humorous depictions of evolving sexual manners and power dynamics such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? He is silent on this score. In one way or another, none of this work qualifies as genuinely political writing, because what Nguyen is really talking about is racial and ethnic identity.
Narratives of oppression, he insists, are missing from today’s “poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged.” Though some literature by immigrants and minorities also remains too accommodating for his taste in its failure to “rip off” the “mask” of American inequity, “explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.” Therefore, if the cruelty and ineptitude of the Trump Administration is to have a silver lining, all writers will have to take up overt activism.
This isn’t just a matter of questionable history, but of bad aesthetics. Nguyen would have every author become a strident advocate on and off the page. In recent years, “many writers, like me, texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration,” he declares with perplexing satisfaction, as if texting and posting were the moral equivalent of marching through billy clubs and snarling dogs in Selma. Of his similarly engagé peers, he cautions, “Their political fervor impressed me. But if these writers retreat to their pre-Trump selves, then the lessons of this era will have not been learned at all.”
With that said, it’s still important to remember that this is a work of literature that implores us to act. In Book X, Section 16, Aurelius writes, “No more abstract discussion about what a good man is like: just be one!” Which returns us to the giant column in the Piazza Colonna. You come away from reading Meditations: The Annotated Edition with the sense that the column was just the sort of thing the philosophical emperor would have disdained. Flattery and adulation. Cartoonish veneration of power and luck. What might a more appropriate monument to the values of Aurelius be? A couple thousand years after the erection of the Aurelian column, Navy pilot and student of Stoicism James Bond Stockdale was being regularly tortured in a Hanoi POW camp. In the process of taking a final stand against the torture of his fellow prisoners, he nearly died in a rather theatrical suicide attempt. “After a couple of months in a tiny isolated cell we called Calcutta to let my arms heal,” Stockdale writes in Courage Under Fire, “they blindfolded me and walked me right into the … cell block. The isolation and special surveillance were over.” The more brutal forms of torture, too. For everyone. After Stockdale’s return to the block, a fellow prisoner slipped him a note written with a rat turd on a piece of toilet paper. It was the last verse of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:
It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Stockdale’s bravery, inspired in large part by his study of Stoicism, and the response of his fellow prisoner, are more appropriate memorials to Marcus Aurelius than a column of marble photographed by tourists in a sunny Roman plaza.
Should students pay for at least part of their own educations? Hell no. It is and always has been immoral to make students, even from the richest families, pay for postsecondary vocational or professional education. The reason is simple: Most people in modern industrial societies are wage earners. To survive without depending on government welfare or private charity, they must sell their labor to employers. To tell most adult citizens that they must live by selling their labor, but that they must also inherit or borrow the money to purchase a credential permitting them to sell their labor in particular trades—even when the immediate beneficiaries of their skills in those trades are their employers—is sadistic.
In an ideal world, firms, agencies, or nonprofits—including legal services corporations, medical services corporations, and educational services corporations—would hire people right out of high school. Rather than hiring from outside for different positions at different levels, firms should be incentivized to pay repeatedly for the specialized training of long-term employees to help them climb up the intrafirm career ladder. With successive rounds of training paid for by hospitals, some talented nursing aides could become nurses, and a few of them could eventually become doctors. The most accomplished paralegals could work their way up to become senior attorneys within the same legal services firm.
Melody is a mystery that is not easily revealed. In it dwells a hidden but powerful force that operates inexplicably. We can penetrate to the sources of the rhythmic form; they lie concealed in our psycho-physical constitution and are explicable in rational terms. On the other hand, the nature of musical harmonics can be explained fully from the relationships of numbers, from physical proportions. But in melody there lies a certain fluidity which binds the tones among one another and lends to them a new, entirely unique character. For when one or more new tones are joined to a melody (this becomes the case most clearly in a short melodic thought), then all of a sudden the fluidity of the melody is stirred; it flows into the new portion and surrounds it. In melody the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Today one calls these structures “forms” [Gestalten]. They are not fully graspable logically, but are immediately and evidently meaningful. Thus in melody there lies an irrational, dynamic foundation, which raises music to a greater height, though also pushes it further into the distance.
“Do you denounce Trump?,” in some form or another, has been a common cry for over five years now. To my dismay this has been true in the spaces usually associated with the radical left as well as more explicitly Democratic environments. I have myself denounced Trump, in writing, a dozen times, and I held my nose and voted for the guy the liberals wanted. It’s never enough. Not because of a difference of policy, or even of politics, but of affect. I and others are constantly asserted to be Trump-adjacent because we have not gone through the performance of panic and devastation that liberals have demanded for half a decade.
The essential point I want to make here is this: elite liberals, as a class used to comfortable and orderly lives, were massively freaked out by the election of Donald Trump, and what they have demanded in turn is not a new and better political movement but for everyone else to be freaked out too. The cries of “this is not normal!” were always quite vulgar as well as wrong - reactionary demagogues have always been a major force in American politics, thank you - and revealed a caste of people for whom political discourse had become indistinguishable from group therapy. And if you declined to participate in the yelling, even if you openly rejected Trump and his party, you were held up as a agent of Trumpism. Feel the way that we feel or you will be exiled.
As with the United States, it is possible to look back on Nichols’s century considering what more he might have accomplished, and to regret his penchant for self-indulgence and self-sabotage. But perhaps it is better to revisit 1939 and imagine the range of possible life prospects for a seven-year-old refugee. Young Igor Peschkowsky—awkward, alien and precariously perched—would go on to make landmark contributions to three distinct art forms. He was also, as this new biography recounts, a cherished friend and a valued mentor. He lived an exceptional life, reflecting an extraordinary American experience.
The previous month in the New York Times an even more overtly Zhdanovite call for a new literature, as single-minded messaging rather than as free play of the imagination, was issued by the indefatigable Viet Thanh Nguyen (also recently using his space in that newspaper to request of us that, in spite of his MacArthur Prize, we not refer to him as a “genius”, a call I have no trouble heeding). Drawing support from the Palestinian-American writer Noor Hindi’s self-explanatory poem, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”, Nguyen insists that in the post-Trump era American writers must resist the temptation to go “back” to writing about “flowers and moons” (the latter in the plural, so presumably also including non-terrestrial natural satellites), on the grounds that, as Hindi puts it, “Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.” But they surely remember having seen the moon at some point in their lives, and on one understanding of poetry its power lies, precisely, in its ability to conjure to the mind’s eye what is not there, to make worlds, to bring about poiesis. On one common understanding, moreover, it is good to call the moon to mind in this way, because the moon is one of the basic things that orients human beings in the world, that places us in the cosmos and in nature, and consoles us. But to acknowledge such a thing as the moon to be among the human goods is to commit the sin of what Zhdanov would call “decadent romanticism”, which is characteristic only of “bourgeois imperialist” literature.
For my part I am not at all convinced that oppressed people do not have the “privilege” or “luxury” or “freedom” to write about nature, or to engage in romanticism; in fact I think they do have this privilege and this luxury and this freedom, and these are what makes literature so incalculably powerful: it generates worlds within worlds, which are quite often beautiful worlds within ugly ones. I am not convinced in part because much of the most powerful nature writing I know has in fact been produced by people enduring brutal political persecution, for example the Sakha national author Platon Oïunskiï, aka Bylatyan Oïuunskaï, executed in the Great Purge of 1939 under accusation of leading a “bourgeois-nationalist counterrevolutionary organization” (he was not). In spite of appearances, Nguyen’s call is not one that takes sides with the oppressed; he is not, himself, in a prison cell, and to be a recent MacArthur recipient with a regular column in the Times is to occupy a position rather closer to that of a leader of the All-Union Congress of Writers than to that of a political prisoner. To paraphrase something Perry Anderson said of Jürgen Habermas, this dude is out there racking up awards like medals on the lapel of a Brezhnevite general. It is not for Nguyen to say who longs to speak of the moon.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor