Sunday, March 29, 2009

Absence of Mind: Marilynne Robinson at Yale

[Since this post is getting linked to a bit, I feel some clarification may be necessary; the larger argument in which Robinson's lecture participates is part of a highly contentious and typically peremptory nature. To diffuse some of the contention and peremptoriness, please read the second update at the end of the post.]

I attended what were the first two of an eventual four lectures given by Marilynne Robinson; her chosen topic is "Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self." I am not sure I will be attending the last two, which are scheduled for next week. I am not sure what the use would be, other than perhaps disillusioining myself further.

I read Gilead last year at some point, and Housekeeping maybe a few years ago; I've picked up her new novel Home twice, but each time I have been distracted by other books—I guess the switch from Gilead's rich, gentle voice to the much more mannered tone of Home's narrator threw me. I've been telling myself I'll pick it up later, and I still hope to—Marilynne Robinson is one of the finest living American writers, and the two novels I've read have each touched me profoundly in rare and (for me) unusually personal ways.

The Terry Lectureship is given every year to address "issues concerning the ways in which science and philosophy inform religion and religion's application to human welfare." Terry Eagleton's series last year attained some notoriety on campus, for various Eagletonian reasons. His lecture title was "Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation?" Marilynne Robinson picks up in the same neighborhood: she has spoken on both afternoons about Dawkins and his cohorts in what she calls "parascientific literature"—Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazzaniga, and their predecessors Darwin, Spencer, Comte, Malthus, and (getting a whole lecture to himself next week) Freud. She pronounces the word "parascientific" in such a way that you are almost certain she will be saying "parasitic;" this homophony gives nearly the whole of her argument.

The first lecture, modestly titled "On Human Nature," was congenial as far as it went; Robinson nursed what she assured the audience was a long-stemmed glass of ginger ale, and she said very nice things about many human people, including William James, various Christians, and her audience. She dwelt emphatically on the deficiencies of a collective protean myth and its effects: she dubbed it the myth of the threshold, the idea that the "world of thought has undergone an epochal change" after which "everything is transformed." This myth is repeated in various intellectual subcultures as the flood myth in the Near East: "there are any number of thresholds which initiate any number of conceptual eras." Robinson especially deplored the "assertive" popular/popularized literature which springs up just beyond these thresholds; she twisted Paul Ricoeur's phrase around a bit and dubbed this collective of intellectual mushrooms "a hermeneutics of condescension."

It is particularly the condescension toward the "mind as felt experience" that she doesn't like, and as you might infer from that (W.) Jamesian phrase, she finds a large part of that "felt experience" to be religious in nature. More than just its disdain for religion, however, she felt that this hermeneutics had simply turned away from any concern with subjective experience: she asked of the deconstruction of metaphysics, "how is it lived in the hundreds of millions of minds that must actualize this concept?" (I was blinking while she was thus supplicating, and I half-imagined that upon opening my eyes, I would find Saul Bellow at the lectern, or his ghost.)

She dallied there for awhile in comparisons of Science and Religion; she graciously conceded that Science was the younger and more zestful of the two, but pointed out its poor choice of friends, hanging about too much with War for the past few centuries. Science was also almost exclusively a Western phenomenon (sorry, China, you're not getting your gunpowder or compass back). Religion, on the other hand, was "ancient and global," and evidently had no regrettable friendships. Its tremendous age was, however, a problem insofar as it tended to skew perceptions of its past behavior; Robinson fulminated against the (evidently common?) argument that Christians had killed more Christians than the Romans ever had: you have to remember, she admonished, that the Romans were killing from a much smaller pool. She lavished praise on the Christianity she has encountered throughout her life, but she noted with a quiet sentiment approaching regret that "others have encountered other Christianities."

Science's young turk nature has led it to see religion as (collectively but not mutually exclusively) "a problem, an anomaly, or an adversary." It prefers, if it can, to relegate religion to a prior form of antiquated existence, and she picked out a damning example from popular scientific literature (Pinker) to show how poorly "science" dealt with antiquated conditions: Pinker had evidently inserted a misleading and even nonsensical graph into The Blank Slate to prove something about "primitive" men being more violent (per capita) than European men of the 20th century. Pinker being generally inexcusable, I found this demonstration of one specific failure to suggest something less than comprehensive fraudulence among the scientific community.

Yet she soldiered on: science and other recent intellectual discourses laid claim to "insights so deep as to be ahistorical;" their "flood of neologisms seems meant to signal" the crossing of the threshold; this "modernist consensus" had reached a "core assumption," namely, that the "experience and testimony of individual mind is to be explained away." However, "the march of the modern has many stragglers," and she spent a few minutes describing the contempt with which the "modernist consensus" disciplined anyone who threatened to, for instance "backslide into Cartesianism."

In the finale of her address, she invoked the example of James L. Kugel, the author of How to Read the Bible, as an example of the precipitously eager attitude by which our age is beset. Men like Kugel are so anxious to display those "bold strokes of intellect that burn the fleets of the past" that they end up "misinterpreting an earlier tate of knowledge or simply failing to look into it." She compared Kugel's triumphant recitation of the other Near Eastern flood myths similar to (and often preceding) the Hebrew one to Hugo Grotius' much more sober analysis of the same phenomenon from 1622, attempting to demonstrate by this gap that Kugel's triumphalism was not only scholarly unseemly, but also seriously undermining to his project. "Contempt for the past surely accounts for the consistent failure to consult it," was her closing line.

Hugo Grotius was, like many people in 1622, considered vaguely heretical by most of the people living in close proximity to him; in this case, it was the Dutch that couldn't stand his exegesis, and he had to escape from Holland in a book chest after being sentenced to life imprisonment. The book he wrote that included the analysis of flood myths was very popular across the continent, but I'm not sure he really represents the pinnacle of untrammeled Christian self-criticism, if that's what she was going for. But of course she wasn't: what she means by "contempt for the past," it seems, is "contempt for Protestant intellectuals."

None of this is new; William Deresiewicz ran over all this in his review of Home in The Nation back in September. I was not, shall we say, blindsided by this first lecture. I was knocked on my ass in the second.

The nadir for me was when Robinson insisted that "none of this has been proven" in reference to neo-Darwinian notions of human behavior, sounding more like Michael Behe than Paul Tillich. Robinson smugly (she chuckled otiosely through almost every quotation she drew from any "parascientific" author) ran down a litany of the ways that the parascientific worldview has failed to account for human subjectivity: "the emptiness of modern life," she said, "is not the 'death of God' but the exclusion of felt life in both parascientific literature and in art;" the inability to depict or represent subjectivity has "evolved into principle and method."

Robinson circled around the challenge of altruism to neo-Darwinian thought and the various ways it has tried to account for ostensibly altruistic behavior. Her recitation of these arguments neglected some important treatments (including Dawkins, though she referenced him in other capacities), while it cast about for the worst possible couchings of the arguments against altruism extant. She also took on memes, which was brave and generous, since she thought that the theory of memes was incompatible with genetic study; tackling both at once seemed like giving science two completely distinct shots to prove her wrong, but in her mind she prevailed.

She did have a strong argument against the use of a particular anecdote which has been cited a number of times by her antagonists: she proved that instead of being just brain damaged, the infamous Phineas Gage might have also been angry.

At the end of the lecture, two young men, evidently confused by this attack on parascience without any effort to distinguish it from real science, asked her if there were any scientists she admired and, when she replied only with the names of the scientific magazines she reads (Scientific American, Discover, and Science News), inquired if there was a primary characteristic of parascience that made it different from science. She replied that "science always wants to break through something" and that "loyalty" to certain ideas characterizes parascientific thinkers. I felt the ghost of T. S. Kuhn breathing down my neck.

To encounter Robinson's idiosyncratic Calvinist form of contrarian Christianity was neither unexpected nor unwelcome; to find such sheer indifference masquerading as principle was absolutely petrifying. Robinson's complete absorption in the annals of "parascientific literature" without any reference to a literature that she would call properly scientific showed her to believe, like the intelligent design folks, that the only good science is science that smiles at God.

I am always wary of people who read a great deal of literature which they have already rejected as being flawed, evil, or asinine, and who do so not to test their arguments but to load their weapons, reading widely in order to think the more narrowly. Robinson is just as much one of those people as Richard Dawkins, and the pleasure she takes in rolling her eyes at whatever she wants to call "parascientific literature" is just as repellant as Hitchens's scabrous little philippics. She wants to browbeat her antagonists with the charge of condescension, well, condescension is a sort of instinctive response toward anyone who thinks that your death may be her last, irrefutable argument.

It is never a pleasant experience to be deprived of admiration, though it often happens with writers (the novelist Marlon James has a lovely post on this). I suppose I do not feel that I have been deprived so much as I have been warned. The words one loves in a novel do not come from the writer's mouth, even at a reading, and to think otherwise is painful and obtuse.

Update: You can now judge for yourself if I'm giving Robinson too hard a time: let's go to video. (h/t Mark Athitakis)

Update 2: Just to make sure that this post is not taken the wrong way, I'm going to expand upon a comment I left below in clarification: There is a big difference between saying that Marilynne Robinson is "anti-science"—which is not what I'm saying—and that she believes that the hypothetical, "unproven" nature of some scientific conjectures requires artistic or religious alternatives. I am very much of the belief that the study of art and religion are critical parts of the great project of human self-exploration and self-critique, but I do not believe that the reasons for art and religion's persistent value has anything to do with past, current, or future scientific deficiencies in accounting for human behavior. Furthermore, I do not see any such deficiencies as sufficient reasons for science not to probe into these regions, or as sufficient grounds to laugh at scientists when they do. Marilynne Robinson, I have reason to believe, is making her case on those grounds: that "parascientific literature" (which she does not distinguish meaningfully from science in general) not only cannot address some problems satisfactorily, but because it cannot it should not try, and that the only response to its attempts is an eye-roll and a reiteration of the ineffable mystery of "the mind as felt experience."

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Twitter and Side Reading

I've recently joined Twitter—not as addictive as advertised, but really helpful finding new books from the awesome likes of New Directions, Yale Press, Knopf, NYRB Classics, UMinn Press and Verso. But I'm even more interested to see what other bloggers are doing with the site.

Most publicize their new posts with a tweet, which seems redundant if you read by RSS, but I guess a lot of people still don't, so perhaps it's a sort of auxiliary feed.

But many are also, it seems, using it not to reproduce their blog but to supplement it: to offload the quick-link type posts to Twitter, rather than ginning up a full post to say that I wish this would happen more often, for instance, that this is a fun exercise, and that this review looks good.

I think I'd like to do that as well, but I also think I'd find it kind of amusing to "tweet" about my side reading as well—books that, for one reason or another, don't really need a full post, or to speak more honestly, books that I haven't been creative enough to post about. Starting off, I'll post them here, and not on twitter, although in the future I'll probably just post them there.

Here they are, in 140 characters or fewer:

Y Last Man: the ending isn't dissatisfying b/c i wanted something else, but b/c a self-pitying author shouldn't be his own deus ex machina.

Top Girls, Churchill: overlapping dial - bizarre, why - williams-like plot - ogue - did she need the - weird first scene - confusion?

Venus, S-L Parks: is a comparison to Lynch's Elephant Man out of place? Victorian exoticism, strange attractions, physical "deformities."

Anna in the Tropics: of all the narratives of adultery, why Anna K? Doesn't this undermine the idea that Latin culture bestows its own gifts

Alexander Plays, Kennedy: Ohio and Fanon--fascinating range. Need to read Senghor. Powerful stuff--reminded me of Wallace Shawn (?)

Cane, Toomer: the best is in the middle; last section got away from me. alternating poetry and prose almost too regular; needs more chaos.

Sentimental Journey, Sterne: Some say better than Shandy; not close. Moments of sentimentality are more moving, but comedy not as sharp.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Kindly Ones

In his post on The Kindly Ones, Stephen Mitchelmore zeros in on the exact passage that I consider to be the fulcrum of the book, but he stops quoting just before the specific sentence that I take to be the passage's precise point of contact with what actually happens in these 992 pages:
This was what I couldn't manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradition between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying. For us, it was another dirty day's work; for them, the end of everything. (82-83, my emphasis)
The opposition of work and death is the single most crucial element of this novel. Merely at the level of structure, the novel cleaves cleanly into two halves: the first taken up with the question of death as work, the second with work as death.

The embarrassing facility of this chiasmus makes me pause: can it be this easy? But there is nothing easy about it.

To be more precise, in the first half of the book Aue and the SS generally are consumed with the problems—logistical, strategic, even ontological (what is a Jew?)—of the labor required to murder—how best does one mobilize a workforce that will murder efficiently? In the second half, Aue becomes wrapped up in the effort to turn the death camps into productive units, but he finds that this work has already been done for him—the only problem is that the product of these camps is death, and it is manufactured relentlessly. There is even a proper German name that Littell gives us: "Vernichtung durch Arbeit, annihilation through work" (645).

Yet in both sections it should be said that death is much more than the absence of life: death is a capacious category, a state that bleeds far into biological processes: the discourses of Agamben's "bare life" and Bauman's "social death" shadow each page (unsurprisingly, but nonetheless powerfully—few novels, I think, have made those categories more conceptually potent). Hunger and starvation, in particular, expand death's domain well into life. I have written elsewhere (sorry, it's at the end) about how shocked I am to find that no one is talking about Littell's work with the NGO Action against Hunger, which immediately preceded his years of researching for this novel. The incessant presence of hunger, starvation, and malnutrition in The Kindly Ones was, I thought, unmissable. Intense hunger is a more prevalent trope than even death, and the worst of the atrocities that the novel depicts are crimes of malnutrition and starvation.

I believe that by counting work and this enlarged sense of death as the two most salient and inclusive themes of the novel, most of the problems critics have had trying to conceive the novel as a unity dissipate, and the outrage and objections hurled against it can be understood anew. I will try to proceed by taking a number of passages from the novel which seem to play right into the commonest assessments of Littell's intentions or supposed missteps, then reading them through the dialectic of work and death (hopefully) to generate a more valuable insight about what this novel means to do, and what it has done.

***
Aue stresses early on that the distinction between genocide and war was "artificial":
for it should be noted that in our century at least there has never yet been a genocide without a war, that genocide does not exist outside of war, and that like war, it is a collective phenomenon: genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labor, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn't have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law. The shooter knows that it's chance that has appointed him to shoot, his comrade to guard the cordon, and a third man to drive the truck; at most he could try to change places with the guard or the driver. (18-19)
Such a passage (there are a number of others like them) is, on its face, a defense of the Nazis, but I think it must be read through as, instead, an argument about the conditions for genocide: Littell (not Aue, who is making an argument that can be read if not as a defense, then as an accommodation of a supposed inevitability of murder) is making the case that the mobilization of war is a necessary condition for the complex logistics of carrying out a genocide. The addition of the phrase "in our century" is a mark of Littell's presence: he is intervening to let us know that he is not arguing that 21st century genocides have been or will be necessarily related to periods of war—which is true only because wars have stopped looking like WWII.

This argument is different from Schmitt or Agamben's "state of exception," I feel, because for Littell, it is not as important that the State be temporarily empowered with extra-juridical authority, but that it be actively arming its citizens and moving them around, enmeshing them in a new order of labor, directed to a monumental and concerted task—the production of death. This project is alienating (distancing) like any other segmented, transindividually complex task; one can always pretend to be a stranger to its larger meaning.

Littell does not see effective totalitarianism as a necessary element of the inauguration of such a project; he on many occasions suggests that the popular conception of German efficiency and industry is not a successful way of describing the Nazis in action; the supposed orderliness, cold and routinized, that is regularly associated with the Nazi execution of the Final Solution is shown in the novel to be highly inaccurate.

In fact, Littell goes out of his way to illustrate the weakness of the supposedly hyper-efficient, hyper-centralized Nazi regime. One of Aue's former professors, Ohlendorf, argues (convincingly, for Aue) that "Our State is so far an absolute, national, and socialist Führerstaat only in theory; in practice, and it's only getting worse, it's a form of pluralist anarchy. The Führer can try to arbitrate, but he can't be everywhere, and our Gauleiters know very well how to interpret his orders, deform them, and then proclaim that they're following his will when actually they're doing whatever they want" (222). The Führerstaat is much closer to our own governments than it is to an Orwellian regime; genocide is, as Littell insists, "a collective phenomenon," not an autocratic fiat.

***
If the collectivity of genocide as a massive, labor-intensive project is a necessary condition, so is the individually targeted focus of the socializing forces of enjoyment and success, or more succinctly, "pride in one's work."

The novel abounds in men who deeply enjoy a variety of jobs and vocations which we noble citizens of mostly good states would applaud: Osnabrugge is a fairly nerdy engineer who specializes in bridges (Brugge = Brücke); Voss is a charming linguist who is quite devoted to the minorest of Caucasian languages; Hohenegg is, generally speaking, a good doctor who takes great pleasure in the incremental advancement of science brought about by his research. That all these men are not as peripheral to the SS's Actions as they would like to be is for each a matter of concern, but none leaves his post: each is more devoted to his work.

The SS, at least as Aue depicts it, finds the enjoyment of the job of murder much more problematic, however:
it must have been this that was disturbing the hierarchy, the idea that the men could take pleasure in these actions. Still, everyone who participated in them took some form of pleasure in them—that seemed obvious to me. Some, visibly, enjoyed the act itself, but these could be regarded as sick men, and it was right to ferret them out and give them other tasks, even punish them if they overstepped the bounds. As for the others, whether the actions repelled them or left them indifferent, they carried them out from a sense of duty and obligation, and thus drew pleasure from their devotion, from their ability to carry out such a difficult task despite their disgust and apprehension: "But I take no pleasure in killing," they often said, finding their pleasure, then, in their rigor and their righteousness. (98)
Not all that many pages later, Aue is tasked with compiling a scrapbook of sorts of the Babi Yar massacre; some soldiers are amateur photographers, and he arranges to have their prints developed and pasted into a handsome leatherbound folio, which his superiors present to their superiors. Aue is congratulated for the sterling craftsmanship and flair of his work, but he is unsettled by this task and even more by having done it well. Osnabrugge consoles him: "Every man must do his work with love." (135) Many pages later, Aue has become grateful for the pleasure he can take in his work:
For awhile I thought I had drowned, submerged by the things resurfaced from the depths of my past. And then, with the stupid, incomprehensible death of my mother, this anguish too had disappeared: the feeling that dominated me now was a vast indifference--not dull, but light and precise. Only my work engaged me; I felt I had been offered a stimulating challenge that would call on all my abilities, and I wanted to succeed--not for a promotion or for any ulterior ambitions, I had none, but simply to enjoy the satisfaction of a thing well done. (570-571)
***
This form of enjoyment is, of course, not the one generally associated with the Nazis' Actions. Aue is not silent on the question of sadism: there is the quote above, and many very similar to it, in which he asserts a frequent sternness about any intimation of perversion. He also, however, shows a large number of Nazis and Eastern Europeans who are perverse, who are undeniably sadists. Yet Aue has two fairly specific answer regarding the relationship of perversion to the Nazi 'character.' One is that sadism is a part of humanity, not a special condition particular to genocides or murder:
There have been hundreds of thousands of us whom you still judge as criminals: among them, as among all human beings, there were ordinary men, of course, but also extraordinary men, artists, men of culture, neurotics, homosexuals, men in love with their mothers, who knows what else, and why not? None of them was more typical of anything than any other man in any other profession. There are businessmen who enjoy fine wine and cigars, businessmen obsessed with the bottom line, and also businessmen who hide obscene tattoos under their three-piece suits and go to work with a rubber plug up their anuses: all this seems obvious to us, so why wouldn't it be the same for the SS or the Wehrmacht? (23)
This certainly sounds like pleading for sympathy by an obscene invocation of a shared humanity ("O my human brothers…"), and it is such an invocation, but again there is a better reading than seeing this as some kind of authorial depravity—as a gross overextension of the novelist's prerogative to ask us to inhabit her characters. When Aue argues that "Nazis are humans too!" the point is not to bring Nazis into the human fold, nor is it to suggest that all humans are, deep down, as sadistic as we imagine the Nazis to have been, but to suggest that the imaginary division we readily grant between the private and the public life of business professionals was applied by SS men to their own and to each others' lives; they too believed that their "private" perversities had nothing to do with their "work." In other words, the fact that a man privately took sadistic pleasure in killing did not and does not exhaust all the reasons for his having murdered someone, and Littell argues that we must account for those other reasons, not contenting ourselves with a monocausal explanation.

Therefore, I think we can read the following quote, which has been used many times in reviews, to enter not a plea for the humanity of the Nazis nor for the baseness of the human species, but as a reminder that in order to disrupt the types of rationalizations that can produce mass death or mass misery, we must keep straight the categories which make us comfortable with ourselves, and those which made the perpetrators able to countenance their deeds.
There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity. (589)
"Inhumanity" is an empty set, Aue believes, because no one nominates themselves for membership. The evasions are so numerous: who chooses to believe they are inhuman, regardless of what they do? There are more damning and more descriptive explanations for these actions, and the victims are owed more than an insanity defense submitted on the Nazis' behalf.

***
The other Nazi defense, that of "Befehlnoststand, the just-obeying-orders" (18), Aue explicitly rejects, and also rejects as an explanation for the career of Adolf Eichmann, who plays a prominent role in the novel. At one point Aue takes a step back from the narrative to remark,
A lot of stupid things have been written about him: he was certainly not the enemy of mankind described at Nuremberg (since he wasn't there, it was easy to blame everything on him, especially since the judges didn't understand much about how our services functioned); nor was he an incarnation of banal evil, a soulless, faceless robot, as some sought to present him after his trial. He was a very talented bureaucrat, extremely competent at his functions, with a certain stature and a considerable sense of personal initiative, but solely within the framework of clearly circumscribed tasks: in a position of responsibility, where he would have had to make decisions, in the place of his Amtschef Müller, for example, he would have been lost; but as a middle manager, he would have been the pride of any European firm. I never perceived that he nourished a particular hatred of the Jews: he had simply built his career on them, they had become not just his specialty but, in a way, his stock in trade; later on, when they tried to take it away from him, he defended it jealously, which is understandable. But he could just as easily have done something else, and when he told his judges that he thought the extermination of the Jews was a mistake, we can believe him; many people, in the RSHA and especially in the SD, thought similarly—I've already shown this—but once the decision was made, it had to be seen through to the end, he was very aware of that; what's more, his career depended on it. (569-570)
Eichmann, it should be noted, is tremendously aware of what he is doing throughout the book, and it is his knowledge of the camps' functioning that drives him to perform well—he knows if he does his job well, more Jews will die, and he might get a promotion. Aue's labelling of him as a "middle manager" type is, then, in absolutely no way exculpatory. Aue indicates that what holds true for Eichmann was true to greater or lesser degree with other SS officials: their knowledge of the nature of their work was part of their drive to do it well. They knew that killing Jews was a way to advance their careers. In fact, this is why Aue has such a difficult time negotiating with anyone in the SS hierarchy; tasked with making the camp inmates more productive workers, he can't find anyone whose interest isn't best served by starving, beating, robbing, and killing them. Yes, it was following orders, but as Aue says, "What I did, I did with my eyes open"—if their eyes were open enough to see a promotion, they were open enough to see what they were doing to get it. Or, as Aue's friend Thomas says,
"Look," he finally went on, "for a lot of people, anti-Semitism is an instrument. Since it's a subject that means a lot to the Führer, it has become one of the best ways to get close to him: if you manage to play a role in the solution to the Jewish question, your career will advance much more quickly than if you concern yourself say, with Jehovah's Witnesses or homosexuals. In that sense, you can say that anti-Semitism has become the currency of power of the National Socialist State." (458)
I am uncomfortable with the "one among many" nature this attributes to the Jews, implying that the prioritization of the killing of the Jews was merely one of Hitler's caprices. Such a theory neglects the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, and when Aue addresses this later (669-72), he does so with a sense of fatalism: "a certain aspect of European history, unfortunate according to some, inevitable according to others, has made it so that even in our days, in times of crisis, it is natural to turn against the Jews, and that if you become involved in a reshaping of society through violence, sooner or later the Jews will end up on the receiving end… and that this is not entirely by chance" (672). The history of anti-Semitism is absolutely much more complex than that, but Littell seems to have been content to let Aue remain undisturbed in this pat explanation.

***
However, Aue later returns to this question in the light of a (if it were possible) more incomprehensible decision:
people couldn't understand why the Germans, when they were losing the war… still persisted in massacring Jews, in mobilizing considerable resources, men and trains, especially, to exterminate women and children, and thus since people couldn't understand, they attributed it to the anti-Semitic madness of the Germans, to a delirium of murder that was very remote from the thinking of most of the participants, for in fact, for me as well as for so many other functionaries and specialists, the stakes were essential, crucial, to find labor for our factories, a few hundred thousand workers who might have let us reverse the course of things, we wanted Jews who were not dead but very much alive, able-bodied, preferably male… (780)
Aue tenders an explanation which focuses on individual motivations, but it is mostly a repetition of what I have outlined above. He also pulls back and delivers what for me was the most piercing moment of the entire book: the murder of millions is shown to have been a sort of opportunistic solution to a simple logistical problem:
because of the loss of the Ukraine Germany had to face a grave deficit in food supplies, especially in wheat, and so had turned to Hungary, a major producer, according to him that was even the main reason for our pseudo-invasion, to secure this source of wheat, 360,000 tons more than in 1942, or an increase of 400 percent, but the Hungarians had to take this wheat from somewhere, after all they had to feed their own population, but precisely, these 360,000 tons corresponded to rations for about one million people, a little more than the total number of Hungarian Jews, and so the specialists in the Ministry of Food saw the evacuation of the Jews by the RSHA as a measure that would allow Hungary to free up a surplus of wheat for Germany, corresponding to our needs, and as for the fate of the evacuated Jews, who in principle would have to be fed elsewhere if they weren't killed, that didn't concern this young and all in all pleasant expert, a little obsessed with his figures though, for there were other departments in the Ministry of Food to take care of that, feeding the inmates and other foreign workers in Germany, that wasn't his business, and for him the evacuation of the Jews was the solution to his problem, even if it became someone else's problem in turn. (783)
***
There is one further (lesser) element which is still quite important, and that is the condition of interminability—the war is something which no single person can define nor accurately foresee the end. The perpetual horizon is a powerfully vitiating force, particularly when that horizon holds such a disorienting blend of tedium and danger. Such conditions lead to an even greater sense of accommodation, exemplified in the novel by the character Döll, who is a euthanist:
"On one hand, it wasn't very pleasant. But on the other, it wasn't the front, and the pay was good, my wife was happy. So I didn't say anything." -- "And Sobibor?" He had already told me that's where he worked now. He shrugged his shoulders: "Sobibor? It's like everything, you get used to it." (589)
I have no idea if Littell had this quote in mind at any point in writing The Kindly Ones, but in Blanchot's recit Death Sentence, we read, "I was working, and the hazards of work are excuse enough for any evasion" (64). Something like it comes with Aue's grumbling about "the dullness of bureaucratic routine, the permanent tension of underhanded intrigues: (770). To me, this sums up a great deal of the book both in substance and in intention.

***
One important quasi-tangent: Colonization is a frequent touchstone for Aue (e.g. 261-2, 707), who compares the brutality of colonial regimes in Africa and Asia to the German slaughters in order to assert a sort of collective, pervasive guilt which diminishes the German case to being part of a series. But again, we can read a deeper argument behind this that we can attribute to Littell: the Holocaust was like the colonial project insofar as both were presented to the home populations, to the colonized peoples, and to the direct colonial agents themselves as massive, labor-intensive, transindividually complex tasks which therefore were beyond the judgment of any single person inside the project, but which opened up immense opportunities for individual success and enjoyment.

***
I've tried to explain what I think is at the core of the novel, but I haven't touched on Littell's ostensibly gratuitous inclusions of Aue's sexual fantasies, which, as you may have heard, are extraordinarily vulgar. Not, I think, "first time in print" vulgar, but distinctly unpleasant. I also have said nothing about the supposed mythic substructure that undergirds the novel and gives it not only its title but allegedly its ultimate meaning.

Daniel Mendelsohn's theory is that the book enacts a dialectic between Greek and Christian morality (the old "Athens and Jerusalem" two-step—someone get a Straussian in here!). He argues that Littell is using his novel to argue for the greater applicability of the old Greek morality, a claim that is well supported textually (e.g. 589, 592).

Yet how original is this insistence on the primacy of deed over intention with regard to the Holocaust? The judgment set against Eichmann stated as much, and Arendt considered such an application in some detail (e.g. 277 in the Penguin edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem). The notion of a "crime against humanity," she argues, is premised on the insuperable factor of the severity of the deed, regardless of the individual's capacity to be judged guilty as an individual.

I think that rather than overselling the meaning of the mythical origins of this ethical system, we should read Littell's argument for the primacy of the deed and the irrelevance of intention as the mooring of a worldview that holds work and death so closely together; it is the only ethics that makes sense with such categories. I do not seriously believe that Littell re-read the Oresteia and said, "Boy, do I have an idea for an ethical system!" It seems to me much more likely that his views found purchase and resonance in Aeschylus, and that he recognized that the power of the old myth would continue to resonate in his creation. (I have a few more thoughts about this in the other post I wrote about the novel.)

But this still does not resolve the question of why there is so much of the incest fantasies and wanking and sex with trees in the novel (not to mention the likely matricide/step-patricide). The sheer length of the "Air" section makes me extend this hypothesis with some trepidation, but it seems to me that the point of Aue's sexual deviance is precisely to confront the reader not with "sacrilege" or "impiety" or "transgression" but with a variation of the personal/professional split that I described above. "But why couldn't an SS-Obersturmbannführer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man?" Aue asks, meaning not that he deserves to have an inner life, but that he perceived himself as if he did.

Just think of how absolutely successful Aue is at cordoning off his personal life from his "job"—is there no meaning in this? And it is actually the threat of the collapse of this division—when he is arrested for homosexuality in college or law school—that brings him into the SS, and the insinuation that he is unable to keep his personal affairs to himself in Piyatigorsk that gets him sent to Stalingrad. The line between the private and the professional is of absolute importance to Aue, and I believe that this importance is meant to raise the question of how much of Aue's actions really can be attributable to the psychological mess inside his skull. Isn't this supposedly the whole point of the Orestes theme—Aue is not, ultimately, defined by his incestuous desires, he is defined by his participation in the massacre of his human brothers. It is his actions, not his psychological issues that make him a monster.

The great test this is, of course, the matricide. Can we, given the evidence in the novel, judge Aue guilty for the death of his mother when the deed is blank but the motives are abundant? The aburdity of his "blackout" now becomes a little clearer, I think: it is crucial to this very question that Aue be factually unaccountable for the crime: the evidence is entirely circumstantial, though very compelling. Littell is using the blackout also as a way of underlining the fact that no one "blacked out" the war—this amnesia is as much a myth as Orestes, and he is asking how consoling or adequately explanatory we still find this myth to be.

I believe that with the matricide, Littell is asking us if we are not much more comfortable confronting this type of crime—the motives, intentions, psychology of which are all completely overdetermined, the action almost undefined—than we are with the crime of the Holocaust—the actions of which are sickeningly overdetermined; the motives contradictory, varied, ultimately incapable of being exhaustively defined. The opposition of these crimes in these terms yields a powerful question: where does the witness stand in either crime? and a more vexing one: to which crime do we stand as witness more readily?

I believe Littell is challenging us to be a witness not to crimes of pure pscyhological speculation, but to the crimes that take place immediately in front of us, and never to forget that it is the action we must bear witness to above all.

(x-posted)

The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

[This is the first of two posts on this novel; I feel compelled to address other responses to the novel, and I cannot find a way to bring that into some kind of coherent whole with the reading I want to create. Think of this as "The Part about the Critics." Update: Here is the second, fuller post.]

A book that creates enormous divisions not only of opinion and judgment but also of experience is not necessarily a tremendously complex book, harboring chthonic rivers of underground meaning and moment. More likely, it is a work that draws on deeply disjointed cultural categories which will have variable resonance for varied readers: one element will rise to dominate the reader's experience, but its lack of common or ordinary connection to the other elements of the novel means that they will not necessarily rise with it, and will be either ignored or quickly forgotten.

Reading reviews of The Kindly Ones during and after my reading of the novel was a deeply estranging experience for me. Perhaps it is naïve of me, but I try very hard not to assume bad faith on the part of any reviewer—I assume that, absent a direct claim not to have read the entire book, they have at least given every page a decent glance. It was astounding to me, however, to find that even an ordinarily good reader can come away from this book with the unshakable belief that its "readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies." I am not trying to accuse anyone of not having read the book; I believe that Garth Risk Hallberg and the others who have foregrounded either the sex or the brutality which Littell depicts were being completely honest—this is what they "walked away" with. (I have other problems with GRH's review—he seems to have been expecting The Holocaust, by Richard Yates, and is generally aggravated to come into contact with a voice that belongs to something less than a potential student at the Iowa Writing Workshop.)

But these sicknesses are not what I walked away with, though I do not believe I was predisposed to ignore them nor immured against them by prior reading. The discourse of "transgressive fiction" is one I am perhaps half-familiar with: I've tried it, but I generally can't stand it. I have been repelled a number of times by Kathy Acker, I can't really read Bataille, I find reading Genet unpleasant and Burroughs repugnant—I didn't even like Portnoy's Complaint for G-d's sake! I am a perfect square when it comes to literature. Yet I did not find the various sexual fantasies and interludes overbearing in this novel, and the scenes of intense violence are usually so brief that by the time your lungs have received the breath from your gasp, your eyes have moved past the sharpest words. My experience of reading the novel was not, I would say, determined by the inclusion of these supposedly transgressive elements, and I believe that I will mostly remember these only because so much fuss has been made about them. So Aue uses a tree to fuck himself—have you really read nothing more surprising than that?

I mostly tend to wonder what the outrage is about: I refuse to believe that no one remembers the scene in Portnoy's Complaint that Aue's infamous self-violation-via-sausage act is so obviously cribbing from, and I'm surprised no one has mentioned that there is a scene of coprophagy in another beast of a WWII novel, Gravity's Rainbow (I'm not misremembering that, am I?). Littell's "transgressions" haven't really broken new ground simply in terms of what they depict, and I would even argue that the context of these depictions—the Holocaust—has been for some time a less than pure space in literature. (Doesn't Nathan Zuckerman have a sexual fantasy about Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer?) And as for violence, as non-transgressive a work as Spielberg's Schindler's List seems to me to be far more dependent on the threat and pervasiveness of violence than Littell's novel; that movie relies immensely more on the suspenseful presentiments of violence than does The Kindly Ones. Every new frame in that film seems to promise wholesale murder; I turned relatively few pages in The Kindly Ones expecting to read a Holocaust-related death. War and war-related deaths do saturate the book, but no one considers that transgression, do they?

***
Reading Daniel Mendelsohn's review in the NYRB, I found that someone else at least noticed what I took to be the dominant mode of the novel: the meticulous mundane.
Indeed, the large success of the book, the way in which Littell draws us into Aue's mental world, has much to do with a striking technique he employs throughout, which is to integrate, with more and more insistence as the novel progresses, scenes of high horror (or scenes in which characters coolly discuss horrific acts or plans) with quotidian, even tedious stretches, conversations about petty military intrigues and official squabbling and so forth that go on and on, thereby weaving together the dreadful and the mundane in an unsettlingly persuasive way—the tedious somehow normalizing the dreadful, and the dreadful seeming to infect the tedious. (There is a remarkable and entirely characteristic passage, fairly early on, in which the topic of conversation among a group of officers yo-yos between extermination policy and the quality of the roast duck with apples and mashed potatoes that they're eating. "'Yes, excellent,' Oberländer approved. 'Is this a specialty of the region?'")

At first these juxtapositions horrify, and you may resent what feels like a striving for shocking effects; but then you get used to them—the sheer length and banality of the "everyday" stretches (of which there are far too many: some readers will give up) numbs you after a while. But this is, of course, the point: Littell has written a Holocaust novel that renders evil just as banal as we have been told it is—which is to say, not "banal" in the sense of boring or ordinary, but banalisé : rendered quotidian, everyday, normal.
I think this is right in impulse but wrong in diction. "Juxtaposition" has become almost overuseful for describing just about any act of combination, opposition, integration, amalgamation, or comparison. Mendelsohn starts talking about Littell's "integration" of brutality or references to brutality with petty talk and pettier intrigues, and goes on to use an even better word, "infect," and provides an excellent example of this technique in action. But then he backs off to the more generic "juxtaposition" which can mean as little as "placing things next to one another," leaving the dynamics and character of the relationship limp and unspecified. He tries to explain its nature after that, but the critical term "integration" has dropped out, and we are left imagining that violence and tedium simply sit beside one another like jars on a shelf, and that all Littell wants from his readers is to get used to (or numb to) the arrangement. I have more to say about what Littell does want to do with this "infection," but that will come in the second post.

Mendelsohn ultimately does get back to the novel's sexual vulgarities, though he tries to account for them not as an exercise in authorial indulgence, but as part of a questionable decision to create a mythical substructure for the novel's historical narrative. Mendelsohn says this doesn't work. "Littell's insistence on developing the fantastical, the grotesque, and the motif of extreme sexual excess that grow out of his Orestes theme is clearly the result of a choice; and he himself has carefully planted clues about the meaning, and the justification, of that choice, one that has little to do with the Holocaust per se, or with novelizing history, and everything to do with something very French and very literary." Mendelsohn at this moment isn't very different from the Francophobia of Michiko Kakutani's review—"Look, you went all French and ruined it!"

He then proceeds down a reading of Blanchot which I'm not going to question: I've read the essay, and I don't think his interpretation is terrible, just kind of beside the point. I don't think that what attracted Littell to this particular Blanchot essay was its emphasis on transgression and freedom—there is a serious disconnect between what Blanchot refers to as Orestes's "innocence inside evil" and the character of Max Aue. Regardless, Mendelsohn wants to believe Littell found his particular image of his Orestes in Blanchot's interpretation of Sartre's appropriation—this seems far too constrained, too thirdhand for an author to draw the whole of his "large intellectual aim," it seems to me. Rather, I found the following quote to be particularly relevant:
If at certain moments one perceives a dissonance between the work and the myth inside which it resounds, this rupture, which was in any case probably desired by the writer, does not stem from an absence of initial unity, of some superficial imposition of new themes on the legendary story, but on the contrary from the extraordinary coincidence that allowed a completely new way of thinking to align with ancient truth with only a minimum of changes; thus the contradictions and differences of expression are made more obvious. (60 in the Mandell translation)
Could this not describe The Kindly Ones itself better?

Mendelsohn is trying to read The Kindly Ones as if it is Ulysses and The Oresteia its Odyssey, as if we are supposed to be constantly monitoring the text for departures from its mythical foundation, as if we could find occult "clues" to recreate The Oresteia within The Kindly Ones. The nature of justice, the unfortunately human desire for domesticating the ghosts of the past—these are the truths locked in The Oresteia which Littell believes are coincidental to the truths about the Third Reich and about the conditions for genocide and mass death more generally. But they are not Aue's truths. In fact, there is a great deal in Blanchot's essay that I feel attaches much better to Aue than to Littell, but more on that later.

Mendelsohn is more right than he knows when he says "the overlaying of the Oresteia parallel, with its high intellectual allure and literary allusiveness [is] just the kind of thing that Max himself would appreciate." I absolutely loathe the type of criticism that treats every narrator as Nabokovian-level unreliable until proven otherwise, but we have to remember that the text we hold is Aue's creation, and, while he is nearly actuarial in his accounting for (most of) his actions as an SS officer, he was and remains absolutely bewildered by the possibility that he killed his mother and stepfather. I would never go so far as to say that we are to believe Aue invents elements (the spookily artificial Clemens and Weser, for instance) to create an Oresteian parallel to solace his guilty conscience, but I think we should see his hand in some of what gets told and how.

At any rate, Mendelsohn's argument grows incoherent: he thinks the depictions of sex and violence exist "not to somehow defend Aue because he is outside of morality, but to show us, horribly, what a life outside of morality looks, feels, sounds, and smells like"—if Aue is still "inside" morality, how does showing his life at its most graphic illustrate what a life outside of morality looks like? Doesn't it rather show how far a life still inside morality can be stretched from what we consider the norm or the average? And then Mendelsohn argues that what Littell really wants to do is "complet[e] Sartre's unfinished task, 'pushing the abjection far enough,' struggling to show 'impiety against real piety'—the 'piety,' in this case, being our own conventional pruderies and expectations of what a novel about Nazis might look like." When Mendelsohn does not repeat "real" as the adjective for "piety," he has lost the whole argument: Blanchot's point is that the gods of Les Mouches are not godly enough: surely, Mendelsohn can't be suggesting that our "pruderies" are an improvement, that our "expectations" constitute "real piety." There must be some other way of accounting for the presence of these ugly elements in the novel; ravishing our petit-bourgeois expectations and pruderies would not take nearly 1,000 pages, nor would it be well-served by forests of pages devoted to the minutiae of Nazi bureaucracy.

***
The Nation had the shocking intuition that having a historian read the book might be a good idea, and not just any historian, but Samuel Moyn, a professor at Columbia who has published a book titled A Holocaust Controversy, and whose "research interests are in modern European intellectual history, with special interests in France and Germany, political and legal thought, historical and critical theory, and sometimes Jewish studies" (his Wikipedia page). So, in other words, a guy who should be able to call bullshit on Littell pretty effectively, if that is indeed the case.

Moyn suggests that it isn't the case, but that like Aue's complaint about Eichmann's violin playing, "he didn't make any mistakes, but didn't seem to understand that that wasn't enough." In this case, though, Moyn is faulting Littell not for a lack of imagination but a profusion of it; he argues that Littell's accuracy doesn't counterbalance the extreme idiosyncrasy of the narrator's persona:
The details are assured throughout, and--despite the irritation of some European historians--Littell is rather impressively up to date; at times the novel reads like a fictional précis of the most recent scholarly research on the Third Reich. To take just one example, Aue's scattered reflections on the Soviet invasion as a colonial project, and how it might compare with its American, British and French precedents, comport with my colleague Mark Mazower's masterful Hitler's Empire, published last year.

But in the end, no matter how absorbing, Littell's thousand pages are hardly an easy or obvious substitute for historical scholarship or narrative history. The chronicle Aue presents is told from his idiosyncratic and self-interested point of view; more important, it is entangled with his wholly fictional--and perhaps even more gripping--personal story. There is too much else going on for "real" history to be the main event.
I think that Moyn is actually downplaying the importance of the historical facts for the effect of the narrative, but perhaps his familiarity with the facts has dulled the feeling of slight surprise and piqued interest that I had in reading the sections, for example, about Germany's colonial aspirations for the Ostministerium. Littell's inclusion of up-to-date scholarly interpretations of the relevant history, I feel, greatly enriches the novel and deepens its relevance, particularly on the question of colonialism and its relation to violence. (Speaking of which, I'd like to point out that Moyn too finds the shock reactions to the novel's violence overstated: "Actually, almost no violence is depicted in the novel, at least outside Aue's family"—I wouldn't go that far, but I'm relieved to see someone else didn't think they had the script to Hostel 4 in their hands.)

I don't find Moyn's conclusion that Littell's book is valuable insofar as it re-energizes the "mystery of [the] connection" between the personal and the political to be compelling or necessary. Aue's frequent invocations of the concept of "total war" bring that point home loud and clear, but not in such a way that this theme could become the moral pearl we are meant to extract from the scaly jaws of the narrative.

Moyn also insists upon an interpretation that Aue "stands for Nazism as a whole. Indeed, at several critical points, Aue tries to link his family story with the larger saga of his nation." This claim splits along an interesting line: Aue does try to shape his family narrative into a parallel for Germany's history, but he also is challenged on a number of occasions with not being sufficiently German—his mother is French (Alsatian, he protests). Indeed, his mixed heritage provides him with unique perspectives and abilities; it is his mother's heritage that allows him to hide after the war, passing as a Frenchman. And I do not believe it is for nothing that Littell insists on sending Aue back to Paris to reacquaint himself with Maurras and other members of the right-wing press. Aue is no perfect Adrian Leverkuhn or Oskar Matzerath, an exact metaphor for the Faustian bargain and horrifying deformation of National Socialism. If Aue is a symbol or a figure for some abstract category, it is either buried deeper or spread over more than Mitteleuropa. He is less a German than a European, and I do not imagine Littell wants us to stop there. Moyn's eagerness to contain Aue in German history writes off the many ways The Kindly Ones makes clear that the "World" in World War II was not just a victor's boast.

Moyn is, however, one of the only reviewers to point out what was to me a fairly crucial fact for the reading of The Kindly Ones, a point that is foregrounded with almost exclusive attention in the author biography on the book's dust jacket: prior to beginning a career as a writer, Littell spent seven years working for the NGO Action Against Hunger (or Action Contre la Faim), working in (according to his Wikipedia page), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chechnya, the Congo, Sierra Leone, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Moscow.

I do not understand how one can simply neglect to talk about this aspect of Littell's personal history—is it not the most basic background and most likely impulse for the writing of a novel about mass murder, a great deal of which was the result or the corollary of starvation? To ignore or pass over the novel's overwhelming prevalence of malnutrition, hunger, and starvation in favor of some relatively isolated scenes of (nonetheless intense) violence is to miss an enormous part of the novel's substance, meaning, intention, and effect. I cannot imagine that Littell did not fail to note that the first word of his group's name—Action, in French or English—is the very term used by the SS to designate the project of extermination. To miss the reason this single word could be used for such horrifyingly different ends is to have missed the novel, whole and entire.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih

This extremely intriguing passage comes along late in the book, but what I have quoted gives away nothing of the mystery and enigma, though it reveals something I found at the heart of the book which I found more curious even than the charismatic figure of Mustafa Sa'eed.
I became bored with reading the bits of paper. No doubt there were many more bits buried away in this room, like pieces in an arithmetical puzzle, which Mustafa Sa'eed wanted me to discover and to place side by side and so come out with a composite picture which would reflect favourably upon him. He wants to be discovered, like some historical object of value. There was no doubt of that, and I now know that it was me he had chosen for that role. It was no coincidence that he had excited my curiosity and had then told me his life story incompletely so that I myself might unearth the rest of it. It was no coincidence that he had left me a letter sealed with red wax to further sharpen my curiosity, and that he had made me guardian of his two sons so as to commit me irrevocably, and that he had left me the key to this wax museum. There was no limit to his egotism and his conceit; despite everything, he wanted history to immortalize him. But I do not have the time to proceed with this farce. I must end it before the break of dawn and the time now was after two in the morning. At the break of dawn tongues of fire will devour these lies. (154)
This is the narrator speaking, looking through some writing left by Sa'eed. What is interesting to me about this passage is the centrality of the word "discover," which appears twice here. This word or one of its inflections makes four other appearances in the book, uses which guide us to how to think of its presence above.

The wife of Sa'eed's patron, a sort of mother-figure to Sa'eed, writes to the narrator of her husband: "I shall write of the splendid services Ricky rendered to Arabic culture, such as his discovery of so many rare manuscripts, the commentaries he wrote on them, and the way he supervised the printing of them" (148). The narrator also finds an old newspaper which informs him that many years ago, "The Discovery, Captain Scott's ship, has returned from the Southern Seas" (150). And elsewhere in the book, the word is used twice to suggest an interior exploration: Sa'eed says of his childhood, "Soon I discovered in my brain a wonderful ability to learn by heart, to grasp and comprehend" (22), and the narrator describes one of Sa'eed's relationships with British women: "Then she met him and discovered deep within herself dark areas that had previously been closed" (140).

It probably does not require this exhaustive accounting to note that "discovery" has a distinctively Orientalist connotation, a sort of mass delusion that the initial moment of white presence in some non-white sphere constitutes a "discovery," regardless of whether the "discovery" happened to be common knowledge or even practical knowledge among a non-white people. It is a Romantic foolishness which Sa'eed is particularly given to after his migration to England, and I think that Salih is suggesting in the long passage I quoted above that Sa'eed has largely orientalized himself into an inscrutability (fragments which portend a whole but do not create it), that even his return to the Sudan and his self-imposed solitude and exile is completely contained, contaminated by the orientalism he made such devastating use of while in England to capture the notice and inflame the desires of the English. Sa'eed is his own best Edward FitzGerald, and that fact is marvelously destabilizing for the text and for the reader—how do you begin to read him otherwise?

The way that Salih keeps the reader circling Sa'eed, and complicates this movement by the interferences of the narrator is, as one critic noted, Conradian, and it is absolutely worthy of that comparison. It is a fast book even more than it is a brief book, and its pace creates extraordinarily powerful delayed-reaction recognitions of what, precisely, are the stakes and the import of its narrative.

I actually had put Season on my queue before Salih died, but I moved it up when I read some of the tributes to him (thanks, Aaron!). I am now sort of dismayed and bewildered by the fact that he wasn't much more famous, that this book isn't considered an immovable cornerstone of contemporary world literature along with Cien Años de Soledad, Midnight's Children and Things Fall Apart. Of course, my ignorance of it is entirely cultural: it is not as if it doesn't have that valuation elsewhere, and the lifting of my ignorance does not betoken a restitution of a hidden gem to its rightful place. Read it, enjoy it, but don't call it a discovery.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Boat, by Nam Le

A review I wrote about Nam Le's excellent debut short-story collection The Boat is now up at The Quarterly Conversation.

Also be sure to check out some of the excellent essays and reviews from the last issue, especially those on Zone, by Mathias Énard; Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra; and Ghosts by Cesar Aira.

Here is a part of my review:
The first story of The Boat, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” does overwhelm with the force of its experience and the audacity of its ideas. It is Le’s greatest success of the collection. A story about a writer appropriately named Nam struggling over whether to use his father’s account of surviving My Lai and North Vietnamese prison camps for a creative writing assignment, “Love and Honor” is pulse-quickeningly perfect in its delicate forcing of the many questions surrounding immigrant or ethnic lit—what counts as authenticity, what counts as exploitation, what is a personal narrative and who can write it. In 26 pages, Le not only invigorates the debates about these questions but manages to excite the reader that they are being asked.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Prefixated on Postmodernity

I'm returning to Perry Anderson's short study, The Origins of Postmodernity, to address a specific issue I have with the way Anderson (along with nearly everyone else who addresses "postmodernism") makes use of prefixes to simplify more complex analytical work by deploying a combination of spatial or temporal metaphors, figured as prefixes ("post-", "pre-", "citra-", "ultra-"). This simplification has the added bonus of a masked illocutionary force that often directs an affective response predicated on the spatial and/or temporal relationship established in the prefix. The prefix moves the reader to a new spatial or temporal position in relation to the term prefixed, using this reconfiguration to gesture toward an appropriate attitude or (more literally) stance.

This strategy is not just Anderson's, nor did he invent it, but it is particularly noticeable in a critic who is otherwise so rigorous. The relative weakness of other critics makes this particular weakness disappear; in Anderson, it obtrudes.

***
Of course, at its most basic lexical level, a prefix like "post-" does imply a simple temporal relationship: post-x is an event or complex of events that comes after x. Of course, "after" has different valences; it is a word that is highly dependent on context and affect. Louis Menand gets at this in his recent New Yorker review of a new biography of Donald Barthelme: "Considers two possible definitions of postmodernism. It can mean, 'We’re all modernists now. Modernism has won.' Or it can mean 'No one can be a modernist now. Modernism is over.'" Even this really does not open up the spectrum of connotations that can attach themselves to such a simple prefix.

Anderson's study is, in effect, an attempt to determine what the proper connotation of "post-" is: as I pointed out in an earlier post, Anderson builds up a narrative of the history of the idea of postmodernity such that it culminates with Fred Jameson's comprehensive formulation of the term: "[Jameson] redrew the whole map of the postmodern at one stroke—a prodigious inaugural gesture which has commanded the field ever since" (54). The book is divided into kind of oddly named sections emphasizing this basic arc: "Prodromes," which excavates the prehistory of the term; "Crystallization," which takes a longer look at the dominant conceptual paradigms for the postmodern immediately preceding Jameson's "prodigious inaugural gesture"; "Crystallization," which concerns the specifics of Jameson's revision of the term; and "After-effects," which measures subsequent theorists against Jameson and also takes note of Jameson's responses to his own work, most of all to a slight adjustment to his aversion toward explicit judgments about the value or danger contained in postmodernity. But the last section also contains Anderson's critique of Jameson on just that latter point—what Anderson refers to Jameson's "reserve towards the political conceived in a strong sense" (128). That notion of 'reserve' is precise; it reveals that Anderson's critique amounts to a (justifiable) frustration with Jameson's refusal to give the "post-" in "postmodern" a direct and politically actionable connotation. Anderson doesn't really accuse Jameson of quietism, which would constitute in itself a connotative weighting of the term, just of reserve—a suspension of solid valences of any sort.

***
Jameson's reserve is, however, far more politically aware than Anderson gives him credit for, I feel. Within Anderson's argument lies a crucial equivocation about a term that is superabundantly relevant to conceptions of both modernity and postmodernity: that is, hegemony.

In many instances, Anderson insists on a definition of hegemony as a non-total system: referring to Raymond Williams as his source, at one point he argues "Any hegemony… was a 'dominant' rather than a total system, one virtually ensuring—because of its selective definitions of reality—the coexistence of 'residual and 'emergent' forms resistant to it. Postmodernism was a dominant of this kind, and no more" (64). Later, in reference to Harvey's formulation of "flexible accumulation," Anderson notes approvingly that Harvey is not arguing for any notion that flexible accumulation has suddenly usurped all prior modes of production; despite the emergence of this new regime, "[n]one of this amounted to any fundamental change in the mode of production as such… Nor, indeed, could flexible accumulation itself be described as universally dominant; more typically, it coexisted in mixed patterns with older Fordist forms, and even the shifts from one to the other were by no means always irreversible. What had critically altered, however, was the position and autonomy of financial markets within capitalism, outflanking national governments, which spelt systemic instability of unprecedented kind" (79-80). (One may now feel that such a prediction understated the case.)

Similarly, Anderson at various junctures derides the notions of a radical epistemic break between modernism and postmodernism: "postmodernism as a distinct set of artistic practices—let alone a cultural dominant—was largely a figment. Virtually every aesthetic device or feature attributed to postmodernism—bricolage of tradition, play with the popular, reflexivity, hybridity, pastiche, figurality, decentering of the subject—could be found in modernism. No critical break was discernible here either" (80). Elsewhere: "The postmodern had never completely superseded the modern, the two being always in some sense 'deferred', as so many prefigured futures and reclaimed pasts: (101). When Anderson is speaking from this position, the hegemonic force of postmodernism or postmodernity is not absolute: it is not an all-inclusive condition of time or space. Fragments of the past remain and resist being subsumed by the present; spatially, the strength of postmodern forms varies and can even be itself dominated by 'residual' or 'emergent' forms antagonistic to postmodernism.

Yet at other times, Anderson beats the drum for a ludicrously totalized notion of hegemony, and even temporalizes this notion as the explicit effect of the emergence of postmodernity: "Where modernism drew its purpose and energies from the persistence of what was not yet modern, the legacy of a still pre-industrial past, postmodernism signifies the closure of that distance, the saturation of every pore of the world in the serum of capital" (55). An absolute hegemony is, in other words, the grounding condition for postmodernity; postmodernity is only emergent once hegemony as a categorical condition can lay claim to potential absoluteness. "Modernity comes to an end, as Jameson observes, when it loses any antonym. The possibility of other social orders was an essential horizon of modernism. Once that vanishes, something like postmodernism is in place" (92). Elsewhere, Anderson focuses this "vanishing" in the evaporation of a distinctive bourgeois culture: "Postmodernism is what occurs when, without any victory, that adversary [the bourgeois] is gone" (86). At one point, he even boils it down to marking when men stopped wearing hats (85), sort of echoing George W. S. Trow, among others.

At two points, it seems Anderson is trying to split the difference from a steroidal version of hegemony that is predicated on the absence of alternatives or "antonyms" and Williams's understanding of hegemony as something that inevitably produces alternatives by the strange particularities of its representation of reality. In speaking of Ernest Mandel's book Late Modernism, a vital influence on Jameson, Anderson (in one of his limited hegemony moments) says: "Uneven development is inherent in the system, whose 'abrupt new expansion' has 'equally unevenly' eclipsed older forms of inequality and multiplied new ones 'we as yet understand less well. The real question is whether this unnevenness is too great to sustain any common cultural logic'" (121, my emphasis). This may in fact be the "real" question that Jameson is asking ("cultural logic" here referring explicitly to the title of Jameson's book), but it is not always the question Anderson seems to be asking. A "common cultural logic" is a long way from the absolutism of "closure" or "saturation" or "victory."

The other point is when Anderson ventriloquizes Jameson a little, responding to the idea that "[i]nfluence, however, is not necessarily dominance. The presence of significant groups of artists, or clusters of buildings, whose references are clearly postmodern does not ensure any local hegemony. In the terms Jameson himself uses, after Raymond Williams, the postmodern could well be only 'emergent'—rather than the modern being 'residual'" (121-122). Anderson's response is that "[i]t would be open to Jameson to reply that the global hegemony of the postmodern is just that—a net predominance at world level, which does not exclude a subordinate role at the national level, in any given case" (122). Anderson then makes an argument about television—that its existence solely in postmodernity and its consequent lack of a "modernist past" along with its geographic penetration opens up postmodernity to a potential hegemony even stronger than the "net predominance at world level." Television is, at the very least, what makes postmodernism a more pervasive—and invasive—"common cultural logic" than modernism ever was.

That is, I suppose, a fairly strong argument, but I still don't see it as a justification for the even more potent notions of hegemony which Anderson descries: television's role in eroding a distinctive bourgeois culture was not definitive, and certainly not causal, and if it's the absence of that particular "adversary" that he wants to hang the possibility of a totalized hegemony around, I don't really think television is up to the task.

***
Related to the hegemony problem, there is also a persistent periodization problem at work in the act of defining postmodernism. It's sort of a chestnut of scholarship of the postmodern that everyone has a different date for when it began or emerged or hatched or whatever. The problem emerges in full force in the inevitable move from simply picking a date to isolating a set of attributes which can be analyzed together as a coherent package; once you start combining these attributes, you find that they don't match up temporally, like a handful of straws of different lengths. Or as Anderson has it, "The history of the idea of the postmodern, as we have seen, starts well before the arrival of anything that would readily be identified as a form of the postmodern today. Nor does the order of its theorization correspond to the order of its phenomenal appearance. The origins of the ntion of postmodernism were literary, and its projection to fame as a style was architectural" (93-4). "Historically modernism was essentially a post facto category, unifying after the event a wide variety of experimental forms and movements, whose own names for themselves knew nothing of it. By contrast, postmodernism was much closer to an ex ante notion, a conception germinated in advance of the artistic practices it came to depict" (93).

Immediately after these statements, Anderson goes into a rather tedious but masterful account of painting's particular transition from modernism to postmodernism. This narrative ends in frustration, though, precisely because of the periodization problem:
However the transformation of the visual is mapped here, connexions and oppositions are intertwined. This history is still too recent for detached reconstruction, that would give all its contradictions their due. But a mere ad hoc nominalism is clearly insufficient too. The shifts in painting suggest a wider pattern. Some provisional way of conceptualizing what seems to be a constitutive tension within postmodernism is needed (101).
What is this conceptualization? Well, it looks like nominalism to me: Anderson on the very next page suggests that what is needed to untangle these conflicting connections is "another pair of prefixes—internal to postmodernism" (102). In fact, he gets the pair from the French Revolution: "citra-" vs. "ultra-". Anderson defines these prefixes in light of the fact that "the ubiquity of the spectacle [is] the organizing principle of the culture industry in contemporary conditions, which above all now divides the artistic field. The seam between the formal and the social typically lies here. The citra-modern can virtually be defined as that which adjusts or appeals to the spectacular; the ultra-modern as that which seeks to elude or refuse it" (105).

The fact that I haven't really seen this picked up and run with by any other theorist probably says more about the necessity of this conceptualization than any critique I could make, but I was rather taken aback by Anderson's out-of-nowhere faith in mere prefixes as a tool—no matter how "provisional"—for arranging the most crucial terms of a terribly complex "pattern" into some productively interpretable shape.

The particular prefixes he chose, however, reveal the origins of his precipitous leap into nominalism: citra- and ultra- are (as you could probably tell from the French Revolution context—they were used by Robespierre) about the creation of partisanly fierce divisions (simple translation: "on the near side of" and "on the far side of"). It is at this juncture in the book that Anderson is beginning to marshal his arguments for a critique of Jameson's "reserve," and a vocabulary needs to be created that will equip his arguments for an action on behalf of division ("Postmodernism, like modernism, is a field of tensions. Division is an inescapable condition of engagement with it" {135}.) Anderson's deployment of new prefixes to loosen an analytical knot in postmodernism is really a way to move the pieces into a new, metaphorically rich arrangement that strongly suggests a proper position to be taken with regard to the whole—a correct stance which can now be occupied once things have been "mapped" appropriately—this side, that side—where do you stand?

The need for a proper stance—particularly one that is affectively appropriate—is clearly applicable to many more concepts than modernism/postmodernism. We are beset by an obstacle course of prefixes in every analytical endeavor, but the question of what function the appendage of a prefix serves rarely seems to be part of those endeavors. I believe that it is highly tied to the same problem that Anderson runs into—he needs to arrange everything so everyone knows what the proper stance is. In many instances this is even more affectively overdetermined than "postmodernism"—think of the emotional valence of a term like "post-racial" or "post-feminism" or even more, "post-feminist." The words hosting these prefixes carry enormous affective charge, and the addition of a prefix seems to me to be a way of testing out a societally approved stance to be taken toward the original term. "Are we 'post-racial'?" is actually a coded way of asking if we can establish a stance of wary self-congratulation toward the history of racism and race-making. I'm not sure that Anderson isn't caught up in a similar venture with regards to modernism and postmodernism.

The desire to establish specific positions within postmodernism will lead, ultimately, to a desire to occupy the most privileged position—viewing it from above, a position which will tend to emphasize the extent and pervasiveness of postmodernism rather than its irregularities and its unnevenness. Could Jameson's 'reserve' be seen as a way of refusing to establish specific positions or stances within postmodernism in order not to be tempted to rise above it and overlook those irregularities and unnevenesses? Could his notion of cognitive mapping be a true alternative to the type of critique Anderson begins to employ in the last fifth or so of the book? Anderson accuses Jameson of being interested only in "monitoring" postmodernism, not "adjudicating" it—but Anderson's path to the judge's bench skips over some enormous gaps. Jameson's path seems much more open both to the Williams understanding of hegemony (with its apparent emphasis on lived experience—the idea of a "net global dominance" is kind of pointless if you don't know how it's lived in specific locations) and to a non-coercive arrangement of the elements of postmodernism—one which doesn't force you into positions or stances by a crude lexical tool like the prefix.

(x-posted)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Kindly Ones Resource

I am planning a fairly lengthy post on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones; I finished the novel earlier this week, but I required a small rest before I plunged back in. The post itself will no doubt take a few days to write, as I want to get this right and not rush off with the first few things that come to mind.

In the meantime, as many of you are interested in this book, please check out this site, which has a number of pages devoted to the novel, including an invaluable list of annotations (scroll to the very bottom for a full index of other pages). It is in French, but I have found (since I still, shamefully, cannot speak French, no matter how many Nouvelle Vague films I see) that Google Translate renders remarkably clear and even mostly grammatical approxlations.

Of particular interest is a letter from Jonathan Littell to his translators. After addressing the title (which he encourages be translated from the Greek Eumenides, not the French Bienveillantes) and the chapter titles (which he encourages be left in the French), Littell instructs his translators (bracketed text is when I overrided Google in my attempt to improve the translation—please, someone who knows what they're doing double-check me):
Turning now to the text itself. The book, in my view, is only one thing: the tone, the voice of the narrator. We must not think here, first in terms of style, grammar, cultural levels of language, but tone, pitch in English. This tone you have to find and keep for the duration of the translation as it is the unique key (in minor mode, of course) of the various pieces that make up this suite. If you find it - and nothing says it will be the same in French - then everything else, changes in rhythms, cadences, melodies, will come [by itself]. It should not be too "high" - translating the voice of Max as an Oxford graduate would be a mistake - or too "low" - it's not Céline, no banter here, no familiarity. It can not float, [that] would be the worst of pitfalls. Beyond that, the essential qualities that I see are of course the [iciness—"froideur"], [that's] rather obvious, but beyond it a kind of transparency [of the] real, an erasure behind what is said or described, what Blanchot [might] call [the] neutral.

This does not mean that this tone does not change, and you must respect these differences. You see, I think, that the rhythms of Max's voice vary depending on the degree of tension or fatigue: for example, some states do [switch to a phrasing that is] almost Bernhardian, [composed of] [grand,] panting parataxes (run-on sentences), such as the massacre at Babi-Yar, in Posen in October 1943, in Hungary in spring 1944; others [are phrased] in dry and short sentences, or [are] long, but [are split up by] semicolons or colons, and are quite [loose]; while others prefer to make sentences with a quite classic architecture, with ternary or binary rhythms fairly marked… As for punctuation, rightly, I must say I've [always envisioned] a rhythmic, respiratory, and not [necessarily] grammatical mode; my punctuation often violates the "rules" established, and it looks much more like a punctuation of the French eighteenth century [than it does] the twentieth or even the nineteenth. This, too, should be respected, without falling into excesses, of course.

There is also a discreet effort to make different voices for other characters, resulting in different styles in dialogues, sometimes horribly dry and bureaucratic, sometimes at the edge of incoherence. I['m] think[ing of] Blobel's diatribe in Kharkov, for example, or [of] Eichmann's long monologues in which his grammar [is] extremely vague and sometimes even incorrect; in French, [I've tried] to [render that] particular inconsistency, [just] on the edge of [the] understandable, [that makes up the] "bureaucratische amtsdeutsche." Those of you who know a little German should refer with profit to the film The Specialist, [by] Rony Braumann and Eyal Sivan, where you can hear Eichmann himself speak in his native language, and [see that] the judges [were] unable to follow him. [sorry--that last part is really inexact]…

About the dialogues: it goes without saying that the decision to merge the dialogues in the body paragraphs, without going on [individual] line[s] as usual, and not separated by dashes, is mine, and must be respected even if it is [has been] little use[d] in your language. The text should form blocks, blocks asphyxiating for the reader who [ought] not [to] get away so easily. In addition, it gives a great sense of rhythm to break paragraphs there - the single line, or three lines of white - and must also be respected…
The second letter contains a spoiler, but if you've already read the book, it contains a highly amusing note about a late development in the story.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Postcolonial Melancholia, by Paul Gilroy

I was able to see Paul Gilroy speak last fall, by which time I had already read part of this book and a little bit of The Black Atlantic. Gilroy was in town at the same time as Tony Blair and was in fact delivering his lecture the same day as Blair, a coincidence he remarked upon a number of times.

Gilroy was a strong speaker: rhetorically powerful, very lucid, returning to his best points at significant junctures not just to recap but to propel himself into the next section or argument. I found him occasionally difficult to follow occasionally only because he seems to use references to other theorists and writers less to add to his argument as to note the presence of a parallel line of thought. DuBois or Fanon, for instance, would be invoked not to work from or build off (in the typical quote-interpretation-expansion-extrapolation pattern), but to acknowledge the presence of a prior construction of similar model. If it didn't sound like I was accusing him of arrogance (which it seems to me would be an incredibly off-base characterization), I would say that these allusions were rather like pauses placed sporadically in the speech in order to hear an echo from the past or from a peer.

Postcolonial Melancholia (published in Britain and maybe elsewhere as After Empire) is, in fact, very much like what I heard—it was first a series of lectures given at UC-Irvine (the 2002 Wellek Library Lectures). Discoursing on the need for a more robust sense of multiculture as a counter to the new formations of white supremacy and racial hierarchy (if you want a sense of what Gilroy is attacking, think of the driving instructor from Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky), Gilroy makes a striking case on a number of grounds, particularly in identifying the points of greatest timidity and incoherence in the already existing arguments for and affirmations of multiculture and tolerance. Gilroy is also eloquent and uncompromising in denouncing exactly what is noxious and malignant about the racial atavisms of imperialist nostalgia. But he is best at articulating goals and aspirations:
  • "We also need to consider how a deliberate engagement with the twentieth century's histories of suffering might furnish resources for the peaceful accommodation of otherness in relation to a fundamental commonality" (4);
  • "Recalibrating approaches to culture and identity so that they are less easily reified and consequently less amenable to these misappropriations seems a worthwhile short-term ambition that is compatible with the long-term aims of a reworked and politicized multiculturalism" (5-6);
  • "the continuing pursuit of a world free of racial hierarchies… If we are seeking to revive that goal, to make it sound less banal, more attractive, and more political by showing where it touched and still transforms modern dreams of substantive democracy and authentic justice, then we will need to reconstruct the history of 'race' in modernity" (30);
  • "the ability to imagine political, economic, and social systems in which 'race' makes no sense is an essential, though woefully underdeveloped part of formulating a credible antiracism as well as an invaluable transitional exercise" (54).
But the project Gilroy is most intent on inaugurating in this text is the creation of "'a pathology of cultural communities'… a particular form of inquiry directed at the psychological poverty and pathological character of groups that understand their collective life and fate in specifically cultural terms." (65, quoting Freud). The project I am personally most interested in is "a revised account of European modernisms and their complex relationship with colonial and imperial experiences at home and abroad" (147).

The material he presents is rich, and the titular concept is, to my mind, extremely fertile, but the translation to textual argument erodes a bit of Gilroy's eloquence. The patterns I noted above—the echo-listening and the periodic return to the strongest points to gather energy for the next section—come out differently on the page, I feel, and make the book seem more repetitive and more abstract than, say, The Black Atlantic, still undoubtedly one of the finest works of scholarly synthesis of the past two decades.

Postcolonial Melancholia is also much more difficult for an American reader because Gilroy's arguments about empire and post-imperial collective psychology are almost entirely restricted to the British case, and use British examples. Many of them are by now very familiar to American audiences: the music of The Streets (aka Mike Skinner), Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G, The [British] Office. But Gilroy's use of these cultural products is highly temporalized, and this intense contextualization creates a large degree of dissonance. Even accounting for the cultural adaptations these products encountered making the transatlantic migration, the sense of acute tension Gilroy skillfully imparts to these cultural moments was dropped completely when translated to America: the intense discomfort of Ali G and David Brent became the docile awkwardness of Borat and Michael Scott. The sense of taut anxiety that Gilroy draws on with these examples just does not translate to this side of the pond, unfortunately.

The concept of "postcolonial melancholia" is, as I said, fertile, although Gilroy barely pauses to define it, but what is there is extremely provocative, and ready to be applied more concretely.
I want us to consider the political and psychological reactions which attend the discovery that imperial administration was, against all the ethnic mythology that projects empire as essentially a form of sport, necessarily a violent, dirty, and immoral business. We need to know how that deeply disturbing realization has been managed and, in particular, to consider what consequences follow from the need to maintain the moral preeminence and progressive momentum that define colonial power as the redemptive extension of civilization into barbarity and chaos. (93-94)
A little more explicitly, he remarks upon the "chain of defensive argumentation that seeks firstly to minimize the extent of the empire, then to deny or justify its brutal character, and finally, to present the British themselves as the ultimate tragic victims of their extraordinary imperial success" (94). Most directly, postcolonial melancholia is "a widespread desire—to allocate a large measure of blame for the empire to its victims and then seek to usurp their honored place of suffering, winning many immediate political and psychological benefits in the process" (95).

Gilroy cites the work of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich (rather than Freud himself) as the primary basis for his theory of melancholia, or at any rate, the inspiration for his use of the term. For the Mitscherlichs, melancholia is prompted by "the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence" (99) and exists as a defense mechanism enabling the subject in this case to avoid "the painful obligations to work through the grim details of imperial and colonial history and to transform paralyzing guilt into a more productive shame that would be conducive to the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness" (ibid.). Melancholia's "signature combination" is that of "manic elation with misery, self-loathing, and ambivalence" (104). Gilroy sees this most clearly in the type of individual who is so patriotic that he refuses to believe his country is racist or even harbors racists, yet who is convinced that the nation's problems stem from the presence of racial minorities. These individuals exist in a pattern of "identification with the victims of racism, a guilty dislike of them and the changes they have made to the country, and tormented self-disgust at the prospect of being implicated either in the problems they import or in their colonial and postcolonial sufferings" (106).

It is obviously tempting to start applying this particular notion of melancholia—the inability to enter mourning for empire, the denial of its death—to other ostensibly similar arrangements: postfrontier melancholia certainly sounds like a winner. An essay I recently read by Ned Blackhawk, "Recasting the Narrative of America: The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching American Indian History," certainly describes a condition quite similar to this form of melancholia, and what else is the industry of the western but a persistent deferral of the death of the Frontier? This isn't by any measure a new thought (see Richard Slotkin and some interesting new work by Stephanie LeMenager), but to my knowledge (and Google's), such a term has not been used to describe this condition. However, the relatively diaphonous nature of Gilroy's application of the term and its distance from the original Freudian definition probably means that I better do a little bit more homework before I plant both feet in the concept.