“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.”
— Albert Camus
“We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.”
— Stephen Hawking
“The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there.”
— Roland Barthes, Mythologies
“Sometimes I describe myself as a professional idiot.”
— Jia Tolentiono
Just how bad can it get, was a question The London Review of Books recently posed to some of its regular contributors.
In this case the bad was Boris Johnson and Brexit – sort of a Political version of Hannibal Lecter and Alfred E Newman, knocking at your front door to convince you to buy aluminum siding.
We mention this not because were going to jump into the shallow end of the pool and dissect the pathological mendacity of BoJo or how Brexit is yet another example of political self harm like, a land war in S.E. Asia, invading Russia, or voting for an orange tinted malignant troll.
Nor are we going to dwell (at length) on the eerie similarities between the Brexiters’ Brexit means Brexit mantra, and the trains have left the station chorus of August 1914. The lights may not be going out across Europe but your eventual electric bill in what used to be the UK may knock you on your ass.
What we are after is the notion that things are getting worse and to what extent.
Of course it’s crucial to keep in mind it’s not as if things weren’t always bad and or precarious.
As Henry Miller had it in, The Time of the Assassins, summing up the advent of the Modern in literature: Nothing but crises, hallucinations and breakdowns. Describing one of the luminaries of the era running from roughly the later part of the 19th century to the burned out shell shocked moment after 1945, he said: he (the writer) had managed to make it to 40 without blowing his brains out.
And Miller was offering that as both a compliment and an expression of disbelief.
For some time now plenty of people ranging from cranks on bar stools to scholars of legitimate intellectual gravitas, have been sounding the alarm about a general collapse of standards.
This of course is a baggy suit with too many sleeves and zippers in the wrong position.
Complaining about the collapse of standards has a long history and ranges from Plato, taking a break from running the beta test for what would become regular issue fascism, yelling about the sophists and their immoral, moral relativism, to Spengler, freaking out because he was convinced the “Yellow Hordes” were hiding under his bed, to the Lobster King of Toronto, warning everyone that the dreaded Neo Marxist Postmodernists are trying to steal our vital essences.
Needless to say there’s so much territory within the confines of those rants that like a rhetorical blunderbuss aimed at the side of a barn, the goons pulling the trigger are bound to eventually hit a target.
That Neo Marxist Postmodernists is as accurate as Neo liberal Bolsheviks speaks both to the narrow confines of the preacher’s imagination and to the nebulous expanse of humanities’ foibles.
In other words, it’s a rhetorical blunderbuss and amid the misdirected shrapnel there’s something important.
On the one hand Jordan Peterson is just another second rate demagogue and imitation intellectual who hilariously and with a great deal of authentic dread, is so ignorant, he seems blissfully unaware of how often he denounces people like Adorno and Foucault and then paraphrases them with approval.
Standards are tricky things.
Or as Groucho Marx said, these are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.
Standards are useful. If they survive scrutiny and stress tests they offer what we might call wisdom and wisdom is useful because it has the potential to keep people from doing stupid things like, starting protracted slow motion spasms of genocide by fighting land wars in S.E. Asia, invading Russia, or voting for a malignant troll.
On the other hand if things don’t change they become stagnant.
Learn the changes and then forget them, said Charlie Parker.
Most people, being lazy, focus on the forget and ignore the learning.
It’s a tension filled situation.
At the other end of the spectrum in stark contrast to charlatans on both sides of the political divide, authentic intellectuals make the same case but of course with more nuance, and attention to detail.
While there are plenty of reasons to distrust and disagree with, for example, Harold and, Allen Bloom (no relation beyond overlapping academic resumes, eras and a certain fussiness) and Alain Finklekraut, what is also true is that they have each in their own way, excavated a general decline in intellectual ability; a degradation of academic standards, and discourse.
Crucially one must remember that it’s not as if the middle of the 20th century was an Eden of enlightened debate.
Things may seem in retrospect to have been starkly delineated but as with Parker’s axiom, people tend to focus on the wrong end of the narrative.
After all Harold Bloom sounds like a refined version of any other cranky old man screaming at the kids to get off of his lawn when, in The Closing of the American Mind, he declares that many of the ills of our time can be blamed on Mick Jagger.
Being a neon fueled satyr is hardly original and however much someone might be annoyed or entertained, if being louche were a crime, and Bloom was the hanging judge of culture, the world as we have known it would be even more barren.
Add electricity and guitars and drums and Jagger really isn’t so different from Sinatra and Serge Gainsbourg. Or Lord Byron.
And the truth is, Bloom’s assertion is a dead on arrival idea.
The world is better because of The Rolling Stones and by better we mean more exciting, more entertaining, more charged, and disliking them based on some claim to aesthetic and thus moral superiority is essentially no different and thus just as atrophied as when the mob brayed for Manet to be burned along with his Olympia.
Here’s a lengthy quote from another Ivy League (conservative) culture critic, Paul Cantor:
“Now, there’s a lot that’s contemptible in popular culture, but my point is always that there’s a lot contemptible in any culture you’ll ever find. In retrospect, we single out the great achievements of any given culture and forget that every culture has had its trash. I mean, we now look back at the nineteenth-century novel and we see Dickens and Jane Austen and George Eliot and the Brontë sisters. But it was estimated there were 40,000 Victorian novels and 39,800 of them are terrible. We don’t read them anymore, we know nothing about them and they’re the equivalent of the worst television show you could ever find… But the bad stuff is unspeakably bad.
The worst play I’ve ever read from the period is Robert Daborne’s A Christian Turned Turk and if you want to see something as bad as the worst TV show you’ve ever seen, read it. Its highlight is a live circumcision scene on the stage and it’s as gross as anything you see in television today and it’s presented comically, by the way. So, we have an illusion of time that we look back at the past… At any point in culture, there’s a vast spectrum from the lowest to the highest.
When we look at the world today, we shouldn’t be looking at these dumb reality shows we have on television or the dumb sitcoms. You look at Deadwood and you look at Breaking Bad and these are masterpieces and they will be viewed as such hundreds of years from now. And again, most people who used to condemn popular culture, did it with no knowledge of what it was. “I’ve never watched television, but I know it’s bad.” You know, it’s a strange notion, as if this is a matter of media.
There are just as many bad books as there are bad television shows. You just have to walk into Barnes and Noble and see that. And people act as if the book is this high medium and television is this low medium. I will take the best show on television against the worst book in Barnes and Noble any day of the week. It’s not as if books are inherently superior to television shows. It’s just that again, we have this illusion that a lot of great books have been written, but they’re completely outnumbered by the bad books written.”
Of course while one may quibble or even disagree with some of his assessments on, for example the meaning of The Simpsons, or The X Files, what matters here is that he’s got a handle on the past which allows for a contextualization of the now.
Consider his point about contemporary anxiety about diminishing attention spans and young people being distracted:
“But then, there’s actually a sermon by Matthew Arnold’s father, Thomas Arnold, the head of Rugby School, who gave a sermon saying, oh, these books, they’re brought out in installments and our students, they just can’t wait for the next installment and it’s ruining their week. They’re not doing their schoolwork because they wanted to find out what happens next in The Pickwick Papers. That’s just the argument made about television serials and I was quite surprised. I always assumed that books were attacked on their content, but the book was actually attacked as a medium in the early 1800s.”
Come to the window and drop your damn iPhone.
And yet paradoxically nothing changes.
That’s mysterious and hard for many people to understand.
Get used to it.
The arguments occurring today are, upon close examination, identical to the arguments people had a thousand or three thousand years ago.
This in turn speaks to the habit people have of celebrating their ignorance but in being ignorant they have no idea that they are dancing around a bonfire as an accelerant.
All of which brings us to The Guardian, The New Yorker and Jia Tolentino.
The Guardian, as a leading light of Euro-left establishment anti-Semitism, and the dull end of the self-righteous “resistance” stick has been excavated in our previous missives.
That they would publish an article that suggests the aftermath of an episode of the delirium tremens crossed with the breathless stylings of Teen Beat should surprise no one who has been paying attention.
The New Yorker of course, as we’ve detailed elsewhere, should have been fitted for the literary equivalent of an adult diaper years ago.
Devoid of editorial commitment or effort it staggers along like one of the well dressed decadent drunks in an Arno cartoon from the magazine’s glory days – of course minus the self-aware sense of irony and wit.
In fact if it still wears a tux it has more in common with a man coming down from an ether binge than it does with a well healed Manhattan duchess or duke.
Operating as the enabler for apologists of stealth fascism and anti-Semitism, it has become the bastion of Vichy liberalism in the caliphate of Manhattan.
Opposed to Trump after having spent years paving the road for him by supporting neo liberal compromises and offering moral outrage with all the tepid pique of a damp squib, it has become rancid.
The mutated creature that combines all of these things emerged recently as Tolentino’s collection of “essays” was “reviewed” in the Guardian where we are told:
“An essayist who explores what it’s like to live right now, no – now, remains, at 30, rebellious and contradictory in ticklish ways.”
Well, thank god as we have no pressing need to connect the past to the present and – no qualms about reinforcing the media heroin that demands absolute loyalty to the “now” – and thus, in our loyalty there will be no consideration of how that fealty is toxic and a media fabrication designed to both force you into an emotional coma and a state of perpetual anxiety.
Of course, neither The Guardian or Tolentino would bother with this from the dark ages of the 1980s:
“It sometimes seems to me that a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty – that is, the use of words. It is a plague afflicting language, revealing itself as a loss of cognition and immediacy, an automatism that tends to level out all expression into the most generic, anonymous, and abstract formulas, to dilute meaning, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the sparks that shoots out from the collision of words and new circumstances.”*
And as for “rebellious in a ticklish” manner we assume the “writer” has in mind a reeducation camp combining Maoist discipline with the humor of Sponge Bob.
But that would be wrong.
Because what they really mean is to advance their street cred as a limp passive aggressive member in good standing of the generation who, as one of the tribal chiefs on The (not so) Young Turks put it in explaining their vision of a left of center society: I believe in universal healthcare but I don’t want the government designing my clothes and I still want my iPhone.
Left unsaid of course is the implication that this “radical” position is built on the idea that someone has to pick the cotton and as there are a lot of slaves in China, well, fuck’m.
The review continues:
“She treats all her subjects (recent essays include anti-abortion propaganda and the internet trend of fans begging celebrities to kill them) with equal care and precision, and such academic tenderness that the reader barely notices their mind being changed”
A notion Huxley in Brave New World would have found both depressing and hilarious and a notion Elrond Hubbard would have found both erotic and lucrative.
The writer of course means to convey Tolentino’s subtlety and that by being subtle she is persuasive.
Sadly many truths were harmed in the construction of that morbidly obese and flaccid idea.
That the readers should be unaware of changing their minds in regards to crucially important issues like abortion, anti-abortion propaganda and yet another morally questionable curio and artifact of history, not only hasn’t occurred to ether the writer, or if they exist, their editor, not only is enough to condemn both but, that it is celebrated as an example of intellectual efficacy should frighten any thoughtful person.
Assuming you can find one.
That changing your mind without being aware of it having been changed is the stuff of both retrograde fascism and dystopian futurism, seems not to have occurred to either Tolentino, the reviewer, or anyone else along the assembly line of unintended mordant wit.
That one might make an argument by subtle means is of course a given.
That however is not what’s going on with Tolentino or The Guardian whose approach is about as subtle as a napalm bath.
In keeping with the abandonment of intellectual and stylistic rigor, and the corollary celebration of a literary fast food chain we are also treated to this belch from the gut where, speaking breathlessly about Tolentino’s (manufactured and artificial) reputation:
“And they might not expect, in our interview of an hour-and-a-half, for “the Joan Didion of our time” (New York Magazine) to use the word “like” 1,035 times.”
Well, there is in a sense, no arguing with that.
No one who isn’t a pinhead or in a mental fog should expect someone anointed as the next Didion to be unable to construct a coherent sentence.
No one who isn’t some sort of emotional squeegee regurgitating greasy water from a rusty bucket full of irradiated linguistic tics, should expect an adult, working for what is supposed to be a major arbiter of culture, and is being compared to a writer (however undeserving) feted as a stylistic auteur, to communicate in a manner that is roughly the equivalent of grunting and leaving claw marks on the wall.
And of course not a word on the issue of how “the next Didion” isn’t a critical consideration but is the sloppy second coming of a marketing ploy designed by PR hacks, to fool the shallow end of the writing pool, into accepting their status as Borg Drones. Not a word about the fact that “the next Didion” is part of the machinery of night and the Culture Industry and that by designating x as the new y, the original is being erased as anything but another iteration of New Coke and thus worthless and in turn proving that there is in fact a linguistic plague destroying the ability to communicate.
But wait, there’s more.
“She has left her dog at home, which is sad. Luna is the size of eight dogs and appears often in her stories as comic relief.”
A seemingly minor point and yet, full of significance.
The reviewer is here imitating Tolentino’s (anti) style of being lazy and indifferent not only to their own lack of effort but to the idea that the reader is either too thick to care about the lapse or indifferent to the fact that the reader will have to do the heavy lifting for the otherwise somnambulant reviewer.
We assume these are meant to be Dachshunds or some other quirk of the breeding mills and long forgotten needs of people at war with armies of rodents.
On the other hand perhaps we are to assume Luna is roughly the size of the pooch that terrorized the Asgardians as they tried to flee across the Bifrost bridge.
In and of itself it would be a wrong note otherwise forgotten amid the symphony but it’s par for the course not only in the review but with Tolentino’s work to which we will turn shortly.
“She explores millennial issues with two hands, because, “Maybe this thing’s totally ridiculous, but also, secretly important. I enjoy those extremes.”
Two hands are good but one wishes she had brought along a backhoe.
And yes, this whole thing is indeed ridiculous.
And if it’s both ridiculous and important then explain how that’s true.
But of course it’s the dodge of the passive aggressive in over their head millennial who is embarrassed by their own existence, terrified an adult will call them out for giving the wrong answer, and at the same time starving for a piece of the pie and a seat at the table.
The statement is an attempt to deflect potential criticism by seeming to admit she is aware of how absurd she is while at the same time asserting both she and the subject have intrinsic value. This is Tween or teenage angst in the drag of sophisticated self- awareness.
Like a standard issue politician trying to win votes by avoiding having an opinion the line above is the moral and intellectual equivalent of the old SNL routine in which – it’s a dessert topping! No, it’s a floor wax!
Benjamin on hash and wandering through the arcades, this is not.
“It’s easy to write about things as you wish they were,” wrote Zadie Smith of Trick Mirror. “It’s much harder to think for yourself, with the minimum of self-delusion. It’s even harder to achieve at a moment like this, when our thoughts are subject to unprecedented manipulation, monetization and surveillance.”
Sadly for Smith, the spirit animal guide for bourgeois literary aspirants, it is in fact not easy to write about anything – well.
And while it is true that it is much harder to think for yourself, with a minimum of self-delusion (though one might wonder exactly what the minimum looks and sounds like) the idea that a radioactive Muppet, who has trouble writing her way into a wet paper bag, is in the mix with Didion let alone Calvino or Barthes, or Sontag, or Hitchens (at least until his Road to Damascus conversion and frankly even then as we shudder to image her being burned to a cinder as he turns his laser beams on her) would be funny were it not both so sad and sinister.
As to the suggestion that it’s even harder now then say when you had to worry about offending the emperor’s mistress, or the KGB, or the FBI, well, since NOW is what matters, who gives a fuck about history and why bother to let the dreary facts get in the way of a lucrative rant.
Lets meet at the end of Wigan Pier and jump into the muck together.
Her work, Smith added, “filled me with hope”.
Well good for her where as it fills us with gas and the makings of a migraine.
And here an example of what we are assured is Tolentino’s intelligence and observational talent describing her sojourn in the Peace Corps:
“Kyrgyzstan borders China, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. “And the feel is very strange. Like, I had no running water in my village, but they sold cookies shaped like iPhones. Nothing made sense, you know?”
No, we don’t know because in fact things can be understood and if we’re going to listen to you the least you can do is act like an intelligent guide.
But instead we get a kind of petulant harrumph as if that is on par with Chaos Theory.
And needles to say an intelligent writer might have said that there is a direct cause and effect between the absence of running water and the colonization of the local imagination so that they have been brainwashed into believing that cookies in the shape of iPhones are a kind of piece of the true commercial cross.
Or how about an examination of the colonizing plantation mentality of Apple and its fortune being built on the backs of Chinese slaves?
Or how about a mention of the abysmal political situation and the sense that it sounds like the sort of place the Marx Brothers would get stranded? (and then taken out and shot)
How about contextualizing the poverty in the “Stans” with some mention of the crack up of the Soviet empire, the Milo Minderbinder stylings of the American empire or for extra points some heavy lifting with Haji Murad?
But our intrepid reviewer marches on (emphasis added):
“Yep. And not just because of the kindness with which she approaches ideas, especially ideas we are used to seeing framed in black and white, but because the subjects she writes about today are the same subjects she once blogged about at Jezebel. What were once niche, women’s magazine themes – pop stars, beauty products, sex and rage – are now, in the New Yorker, mainstream, and recognized as valid topics for study. This is not the old world any more.”
Turning away from the serious deployment of “yep” in the same way you should turn away from a circus side show freak biting the heads off of small farm animals, we consider (briefly) the meaning of the signifier in which the New Yorker is the mainstream and thus good.
Reminded of Guy Debord and the crux of The Society of the Spectacle, we are being told that if it appears in The New Yorker, it is good, and what is good, appears in The New Yorker.
No discussion or even a cursory question of the value of “mainstream” or the anti-style of the huate bourgeois attitude of an establishment rag.
Just mantra in place of thought.
But while vile, that pretzel logic pales in comparison to the whopper with which the reviewer sticks the dismount:
“This is not the old world any more.”
Immediately followed, apparently with no irony, or at least intentional irony, by this beached Blue whale of ignorance:
“A lot of the book is about ‘the thing’ versus ‘the representation of the thing,’” she explains.”
Thank heavens that’s a “new idea” and not a relic from the “old world” and offers fertile terrain for a race into sunlit uplands of inquiry and debate.
Tolentino, Socrates, Kant, Duchamp and Baudrillard walk into a bar
It’s almost both too easy and the sort of thing that an umpire should call via some sort of mercy rule.
Alas, no such option is available.
Needless to say, the thing itself, is not just inside Kant’s wheel house, it is within the wheel house of civilization.
Postmodernity and its discontents?
New Wave films?
As always feel free to make your own list.
What is at work here is not just the sound of twisted metal grinding against a guard rail at speed but the enveloping stupefying mist with its echo chamber call and response; the catechism of duh.
The Guardian enables sloppy writing and third rate sham criticism about a third rate writer offering sloppy writing and third rate sham criticism.
It is a (faux) journalistic cycle of life or a self licking ice cream cone. Or both.
All authentic criticism is either shunted off stage (ahem) or subjected to the I saw you speaking with the Devil hysteria that substitutes the bonfire of the vanities anti-aesthetic for actual aesthetics and reason.
In other words, a collapse of standards. (notwithstanding Cantor’s points)
That it is being spaffed up the wall by the self proclaimed resistance speaks not just to their systemic hypocrisy but to their tradition of hypocrisy in the service of assisting the hard right with destroying an authentic left or an authentic opposition to hypocrisy regardless of the hypocrites politics.
This is then a evolution of Victor Serge’s point in his Midnight of the Century, in which the liberals in both their conservative reactionary and liberal iterations make common cause with the fascists.
The New Yorker coddles apologists for fascism and anti-Semitism, like James Wood, The Guardian coddles anti-Semites and reactionary hacks and both do so while Janus-esque, speaking out of the other side of their faces about how much they loath Trumpism.
Within this stew one finds halfwits being celebrated as heavyweights.
Here then a sample of Tolentino’s own work – recounting one of the episodes of Weinstein’s porcine assaults we are told about a victim wearing a wire courtesy of the late and well after the fact NYPD:
“Now you’re embarrassing me,” Weinstein says impatiently on the recording. Men who routinely humiliate women are easily embarrassed. When their targets assert even a sliver of personhood, it registers as a flustering, impermissible offense.”
We were under the impression that sociopaths are never embarrassed because they have neither a conscience, if one is in favor of the DSM approach to reality, or a soul, if one is more inclined towards the secular faith of the Ars Poetica.
While you could make the case that they are easily embarrassed what’s crucial here is that no effort is spared to not make the case and it’s given as a fact.
“For years—for centuries—the economic, physical, and cultural subjugation of women has registered as something like white noise.”
Well that’s tricky, isn’t it?
Mary Wollstonecraft was certainly not happy about a lot of things about which no reasonable person should have been happy and yet, white noise?
Simone de Beauvoir, Steinem, Friedan, Dworkin, and so on all on the one hand condemned to battle to move beyond second class status and yet, prominent and lauded as much as condemned and pilloried.
It’s easy to forget, or succeed in not remembering, that not so long ago women in America couldn’t have their own bank accounts or credit.
And then again “white noise” arrives encased in either a blind obedience to authority in which power is a question of who speaks last, or it’s bad writing reflecting limited cognitive ability and no ambition to learn.
In other words, nuance, and a more serious excavation but instead, simplistic bromides and accusation in place of the hard work of thinking.
Bringing us to a perfect example of the fault:
“This is why a month before the 2016 election the “Access Hollywood tape” didn’t sink Trump’s candicy”
That’s the reason?
Bigotry, misogyny, fascism, a devastated socio-economic gulag, where most people are trapped inside a Springsteen song, and a media saturated hellscape of screaming dunces and assorted ayatollahs of every political flavor?
How about some consideration of corruption, organized political mafias, and the staggering ineptitude of the media?
How about something on voter suppression?
Well, after all, it appeared in The New Yorker so the surprise would be to find thoughtfulness and a consideration of the media’s jizz soaked hand rather than platitudes.
Tolentino of course was not hired because she’s intelligent or talented.
She wasn’t hired because she’s young, a woman and from an easily identifiable ethnic cadre.
The New Yorker needs clicks, not ideas.
Which brings us to the general style of her pieces in the magazine.
She does not offer her own ideas, or opinions so much as she does offer college freshman Sparks notes on what she’s read.
Peruse any one of her reviews and you’ll find 75% of the space taken up by a summary of what she’s read with links to articles by other people telling you what they think.
Tolentino is not a critic or an essayist. She is an usher.
Speaking of another millennial swamp creature she repeats his talking points and the talking points of the marketing weasels selling him and who are in bed with the entertainment empire that owns The New Yorker, and takes a deep dive into the shallow musings about how millennials have been giving socialism a come hither look, while fossils like republican Ben Sasse are admonishing them to stay away from the red light district of ideas where they will encounter the unsafe intercourse of Karl Marx.
Occupy, Zuccotti Park, the gaslight anthem (sic!) of the depraved economy are all tagged on the checklist and yet at no point does she mention the “C” word – the issue that dare not speak its name.
This is essentially like describing The Sun Also Rises as a book about the beneficial uses of penile air pumps and prosthetics, or Gatsby as notes on The Black Sox scandal.
Technically true but as useful and enjoyable as sex through a blanket.
Of course The New Yorker is liberal and thus in favor of capitalism while threatening to collapse from the vapors every time Bernie Sanders starts talking about Wall Street.
And of course for Tolentino that’s a perfect petri dish in which to thrive.
Consider this from one of her faux book reviews:
“Three-quarters of the way through Claire-Louise Bennett’s début collection, “Pond,” there’s a story called “Morning, 1908” that altered my state of consciousness like a drug.”
A statement that should have come with a disclaimer:
Had this been an actual review you would have been instructed by an actual editor on how to write.
An editor would have said: What was your state of consciousness like before reading the book?
What sort of drug are we discussing – hash, coke, speed, blotter acid with a whippet chaser?
The drugs in this case obviously did not kick in somewhere near Barstow.
And of course there’s the issue of exactly what was the effect of the drug?
As Mark Twain said, don’t describe the old bat screaming, have her come on and scream.
But lazy is as lazy does.
“At other points, the book evokes the cottage hymns of Katharine Tynan, the pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson, and the dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W. B. Yeats.”
This of course is precious.
The lines read with all the authority of a salesman after three highballs and on his way to have his teeth whitened and his hair plugs adjusted.
These are not opinions, nor are they critical fatwas. They are marketing speak.
“The pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson” is what a hack writes on the back of a book written by a tenure starved lit prof staggering around at an MLA conference.
The “dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W.B. Yeats” suggests IRA malcontents tossing The Wild Swans at Coole into police barracks, as well as the sort of patois used by dilatants terrified someone is going to expose them as dilatants.
Not only is it insincere, and in bad taste, it is a sinister toxin designed to obliterate standards of knowledge while masquerading as the hip stylings of a graduate student trying to beat undergraduates into submission – and secure a fawning letter of rec from a thesis advisor.
And not one word of it is true or if technically true, it is a reminder of the punchline to the old joke about getting advice from Microsoft: You know it’s from Microsoft because it’s one hundred percent accurate and one hundred percent useless.
But even that is too kind.
The Second Coming certainly and even An Irish Airman foresees his Death, but what then of Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop or a dozen others?
Reducing Dickinson and Yeats or any other genius to a few finely crafted pieces of elevator music is not just in bad taste, it’s sinful.
And what about Yeats is uncertain?
His lust for Maude?
His passion for the Abbey Theater?
His contempt for ignorance?
His commitment to resurrecting the Celtic heritage in the face of colonial efforts at elimination?
His faith in the regularity of the gyres of history?
His flirtation with the Blue Shirts perhaps but even that is instantly attached to the winder context like a boat anchor in cement.
No, this wont do at all.
Tolentino is a third rate hack.
The Guardian is a joke.
The New Yorker needs to be put into a retirement home.
Or as The Guardian review tells us about Tolentino (emphasis added):
“It is also funny. “Morning, 1908” follows a four-sentence story called “Oh, Tomato Puree!” that is as silly as it sounds. A two-sentence story called “Stir-Fry” reads, in its entirety, “I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that, so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.”
Well at least we agree on something.
For a look at The Guardian (reprinted via The Observer):
For a look at the cool elevator music stylings of Tolentino:
And here is another comment from Paul Cantor (emphasis added):
“I asked two classes this year if they’d heard of T.S. Eliot. These are English majors and not a single person in the class had heard of T.S. Eliot. Now, I’ve always thought T.S. Eliot was a tad overrated, but I won’t get into that. Still, he’s certainly one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, and to think of an English major who’s never even heard the name T.S. Eliot!
You know, about three years ago, they had never heard of Matthew Arnold. Again, I can kind of understand that. He’s from the 1800s, but it’s really amazing, I had a class where no one had heard of Beethoven and it was so funny because I was teaching a play by Friedrich von Schiller and I understood none of them were going to have heard of Friedrich von Schiller. I said, you know, you’ve never heard of him, but of course, you know his poetry. And they stared at me and I say, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium,” quoting the “Ode to Joy” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and I knew they weren’t going to understand the German, but my joke was going to be, you know: “That’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” And they stared at me. They’d never heard of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and I said, you have heard of Beethoven, haven’t you? And they said “No, who’s Beethoven?” And if it weren’t for Chuck Berry’s, Roll Over Beethoven, they probably wouldn’t have a prayer of figuring it out.
I mean, I was stunned and in fact, I’m really annoying my students now because whenever I bring up a new subject, I feel I have to ask them, “Have you heard of X?” and they are thinking, “we have good educations, we’re college students.” But if you haven’t heard of Beethoven and you haven’t heard of T.S. Eliot it’s really amazing. You can’t teach if you don’t have reference points. I used to build my whole introductory course on comparative literature around T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I assumed they all know this poem and they love it, and it’s this great poem. I basically said, “take this course and you can understand this poem.” It quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and it quotes from Dante, it quotes from Richard Wagner. To understand this poem, you’ve got to go back to the past and understand all the things Eliot understood. Well, now they don’t even know who Eliot is. I’ve lost my little trick to get them interested in the course. So, I am really seeing even greater decline in what my colleague E.D. Hirsch calls cultural literacy in students and it looks to be getting only worse. Because that’s the other thing, that we’re now in a kind of cycle of forgetting.
For a while, I could get great discussions going on Breaking Bad. As recently as three years ago, my class on tragedy was faltering and I said, well, if you don’t understand what a tragic hero is, let’s talk about Walter White and we had the best class all semester, but now they don’t catch Breaking Bad references.”
“You know, you can still refer to Stalin and Hitler, for example. For some reason, they still know who they were, and that they were not nice people, but other moments in history have really blurred for them. It’s funny, they get things out of order in history.
Here’s an example: there is a recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade. It was one of the first recordings ever made of a poet reading and I was talking to a student about this and he said, “When did Tennyson live, around 1950?” And I kind of looked at him and I realized, he thought sound recording dates from 1950, not from Edison’s phonograph of the 1870s.
So, the fact we have his recorded voice meant, to this student, that Tennyson must have been born after 1950. And again, they know at some point there was a poet named Tennyson (although some of them don’t even know that). They know at some point, sound recording was invented, but which century these two things happened in, and in what order, escapes them. And this was one of my best students!”
*The quote is from Italo Calvino’s Charles Eliot Norton lectures, written but not delivered at the time of his death. Collected as, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, they are brilliant.
However, contrast Calvino’s concerns about a modern plague with the concerns of William Wordsworth, writing nearly 200 years earlier:
“For a multitude of causes unknown to former times are now acting with combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature of the atrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespear and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagent stories in verse.”
If you can tolerate it, below is a link to an interview with Tolentino in which she asserts that the tyranny of work is either new or has been so accelerated by internet culture as to be, essentially new.
One imagines her watching a few minutes of Metropolis but we suspect she wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough to watch the entire film.
And we take note of Tolentino’s comments about the negative aspects of capitalism – each one a more or less liberal talking point with safe edges that no doubt fit right in amid the edgy bourgeois radicals at The New Yorker.