Moby Dick

By Herman Melville

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Classics are tricky. The truth is, some of them just don’t hold up. Whether they are mired too much in their time and context, and simply cannot translate centuries after their conception, or whether they were never really that good to begin with, is impossible to say. It’s just a fact, though, that it is not uncommon to roll up on a Great Book and find oneself disappointed.

You can’t ever tell, though, in advance which books will live up to their reputation and which will leave you cold. ‘Moby Dick’, for example, I was sure was going to underwhelm. It sounded boring, frankly: too much whaling, too much esoterica, too much rigging. It also sounded obvious, you know? One loony guy’s obsession with an uncatchable thing? The futility, the mortality, the what’s-the-point-of-it-all-ness – it all seemed a little on the nose. If I’m being totally honest, I sort of assumed that it was one of the books that people claim is good because it’s hard to read and they want to flex that they got through it.

I was wrong. ‘Moby Dick’ is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is a novel of grand, human scope, of despair and madness and hope. And it isn’t about what I thought it would be about: it’s not about existential futility – it’s about existential rage.

In the years since I first read ‘Moby Dick’, two passages have stayed close by me. These two passages are about the same thing, the whale itself, and Ahab’s pursuit of it. The first occurs only about a hundred pages into the novel, when a crewman challenges Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, the whale that took his leg, and Ahab answers him.

“‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.’

‘Hark ye yet again, – the little lower later. All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If a man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations.'” (p. 166)

The second passage happens only a few pages later, and it is Ismael’s description of Ahab’s obsession.

“And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice. Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in that his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperation. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (p. 181)

Ahab has become known in literature as a man on a single-minded mission of revenge. He has become a symbol of a man in quixotic pursuit, of fruitless obsession. The ‘white whale’, of course, has entered common parlance as the thing that can never be caught. Because Ahab is in pursuit of an animal, he is considered mad; even within the confines of the novel, even by his crewmates, he is treated as insane.

And perhaps he is, but not in the way you might think. 

Ahab’s obsession is not with a whale per se, I think, but with the malice of the universe. Behind the reality that we know, behind the world that we see, Ahab sees a vast malevolence. A malign, active intelligence, which erupts into our world (which is the pasteboard mask) and does us harm. It is what Ismael describes as “that intangible malignity which has been from the beginning”: evil.

Questions of cosmic unfairness (why do bad things happen to some people and not others?) have animated all cultures, all systems of religion and moral philosophy. We might think of misfortunes as accidents, as bad luck. We, perhaps, are not inclined to ascribe to the universe hostility against us, and we accept unhappy accidents as bad roles of the die.

But Ahab does not. He has lost his leg in an accident – why, he asks, should he not seek recompense against whatever force marked him for misfortune? That he does know what force it is that animated the whale will not stop him: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white while agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Herman Melville

Ahab is insane not because he wishes to revenge himself against the whale; Ahab is insane because he believes that he can revenge himself against the universe, that he is owed recompense for an accident of fate. He is searching not for a whale, but for a meaning, a coherence, which will give his suffering a context. He is railing not against the injury itself, but against the idea that he lives in a universe without justice.

“How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” For Ahab, his misfortune has shown him that the world he inhabits is a prison, a prison of unreasoning pain, where terrible things can happen without recourse for the victims. He refuses to be trapped in that kind of world; he will “strike through the mask”, break outside the boundaries of the world. And he will do that by striking not the whale itself, but by striking through the whale, to the intelligence he believes must exist outside it.

That Ahab is mad undeniable, but there is a grandeur in his madness. He is mad for his refusal to suffer dumbly the blows of fate. And I think that I have loved these passages for so long because, in a way, I cannot fault him. Why shouldn’t we rise up and strike back at fate, if we can find a purpose which persuades us? Why should we be content to suffer unfairness? Isn’t destiny, when viewed with clear eyes, enraging?

It is possible to see bravery in Ahab’s refusal to obey accident; it is equally possible to see cowardice. We all live with misfortune in some way or another; isn’t it narcissistic for one man to demand redress? Is Ahab strong, or is Ahab brittle? But I think that to love ‘Moby Dick’ is, in the end, to love Ahab himself, for his rage and for his pain (ultimately, they are the same thing). I love him – I have loved him for a long time now.

And, sometimes, I can see the world through his eyes. Everyone once in a while, when something terrible happens, some senseless accident which mutilates and crushes the innocent, I see a flicker in the fabric of the world. For a brief moment, I see the mask, and I sense the cruelty behind it, and I feel the sort of rage that might propel one to strike through it.

And in those moments, I see something else: that it isn’t Ahab who’s insane. It’s the rest of us.

The Dawn of Everything

A New History of Humanity

By David Graeber and David Wengrow

There is a certain kind of book – it may appear in any number of genres – which exists to ask a single question: do we really know what we think we know? Whatever the subject, these books share a moral viewpoint: namely, that we are obligated, in the face of our certain beliefs, to question the very substrate upon which they are founded. They are anti-canonical. They exist to problematize the things which we take for granted in whatever sphere they choose.

I love this kind of book. I love them. The truth is, I have never really been sure that I know anything at all about anything at all. I am obsessed with the idea that my beliefs are grounded in myth and error. I have spent my life peering around me for my own blindspots.

So, whatever the subject, I am drawn to these books. I don’t find them unsettling; rather, I find them exhilarating. I am thrilled to think that I have been laboring under a delusion, crippled by bad information or wrong analysis. I find this idea, that maybe we are wrong about everything, to be freeing. Because, if we are wrong about everything, than anything is possible.

‘The Dawn of Everything’ is a book about whether we know what we think we know about human pre-history. It was co-written over ten years by two friends, the archaeologist David Wengrow (at University College London) and the late anthropologist David Graeber (of the London School of Economics). According to the introduction, the two men began the book as a sort of thought-exercise, a conversation between them to express their frustration with certain dogma in their respective fields.

Now, you may not think you know anything about human pre-history – I certainly didn’t think I knew much. But the truth is, we have all been marinated in an idea of how social evolution works, an idea which is so ubiquitous that you probably don’t think of it as theory so much as common sense.

I certainly have. If you had asked me how “civilization” developed, I probably would have said something like: once, we were little bands of apes. Then we formed bigger bands; at some point, at different times in different places, those bigger bands started cohering into tribes; tribes became chiefdoms, large stable settlements of socially complex, pre-agricultural humans.

Then, wham, agriculture happened, ushering in kingdoms, private property, bureaucracy, specialization, written language, you name it. All the things which, to 21st-century humanity, characterize “civilization”.

David Graeber

Agriculture allowed rulers to feed standing armies and local police forces. Warfare, once a matter of local tribes raiding each other for whatever they could carry, became a profession, and conquest, subjugation, genocide, and colonialism were all born. Lifespans shortened, human health declined. Professional police forces were able to enforce private property, and economic classes, with all their attendant religious and bureaucratic supports, appeared. Agriculture enabled the development of all the means of persecuting each other now at our disposal: caste, bondage, debt, prison.

Wengrow and Graeber, frankly, don’t buy any of that. In ‘The Dawn of Everything’, they present a survey of human pre-historical civilizations which challenge every stage of this putative developmental trajectory. The humanity that they describe is more various, more diverse, less linear and more complicated than could possibly fit into that dogma. Some societies, they argue, developed bureaucracy without agriculture. Some developed agriculture without bureaucracy. Some pre-agricultural groups had kings; some agricultural societies seem to have abandoned agriculture and returned wholesale to hunting and foraging. There is, they say, no “progressive” trajectory to how human social complexity evolves, and we are wrong when we consider smaller groups to be less complex than larger ones. Human society, they argue, has been as diverse, complicated, and non-linear as humans themselves.

I have absolutely no idea whether or not this true, and I don’t care.

David Wengrow

Which is not to say that Graeber and Wengrow aren’t persuasive – they absolutely are. For what is, essentially, a survey textbook of human evolution, ‘The Dawn of Everything’ is incredibly readable: lucid, clear, brisk. I was persuaded, certainly, but books are usually persuasive within their own covers. Of course they are: they have unchallenged dominion in that space, complete control of the arguments, the narrative flow, and, most importantly, the evidence presented. It takes time to know whether a book is right, and it takes interest: you need to be willing to go out and look for other arguments, and I have not yet had time to do that.

But it doesn’t matter, to me, whether Graeber and Wengrow were correct about any one specific thing they said – the truth is, I will never have the expertise to say. But the exercise is a good one; the challenging of orthodoxy almost always has value.

There are a lot of things of substance and value to discuss in ‘The Dawn of Everything’, things that have to do with society and freedom and the human condition, but that is a discussion for a smarter blog. I am, as usual, less interested in the objective truth of the matter than I am in the fun of imagining that everything I have been taught is wrong.

I hope it is (wrong, I mean). I think, in general, we would be a better species if we let go of certain ideas of advancement, of complexity as a moral trait rather than an arbitrary one. But, mostly, I hope we’ve all been wrong all the time because it’s fun to be wrong. It gives you a chance to see the world fresh again, to start over from first principles and try out different ideas. If the development of our own cultures is totally different than we thought, then perhaps our cultures don’t mean what we think they mean. Maybe we have many more options that we supposed. Maybe nothing was destined, everything was improvised. Maybe, everything can change.

The Infatuations

By Javier Marias

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I love Javier Marías despite the fact that he is annoying.

I’m not trying to be glib or dismissive. I’m also not trying to insult Javier Marías, because I really do love him. I love reading his books. I respect him, I enjoy him, I think he’s wonderful writer. But he’s annoying.

It’s his writing style. Marías has as distinct a style of writing as any author I can think of alive today – his prose is recognizable almost instantly. It’s his great virtue, but, like most highly distinct styles of writing, it’s irritating to read.

It’s almost impossible to have a sense of what I mean if you have not actually encountered Marías’ prose, so, forgive me, but I will quote him at some length. Please trust me that this quotation is highly representative – the entire book is like this.

“…We think men will change their mind or their beliefs, that they will gradually discover that they can’t do without us, that we will be the exception in their lives or the visitors who end up staying, that they will eventually grow tired of those other invisible women who existence we begin to doubt or whom we prefer to think do not exist, the more we see of the men and the more we love them despite ourselves; that we will be the chosen ones if only we have the necessary staying power to remain by their side, uncomplaining and uninsistent. When we don’t arouse immediate passion, we believe that loyalty and our mere persistent presence will finally be rewarded and prove stronger and more durable than any momentary rapture or caprice…I know that it wouldn’t offend me to be a substitute, because we are all of us substitutes for someone, especially initially…Yes, we are all poor imitations of people whom, generally speaking, we never met, people who never even approached or simply walked straight past the lives of those we now love, or who did perhaps stop, but grew weary after a time and disappeared without leaving so much as a trace, or only the dust from their fleeing feet, or who died, causing those we love a mortal wound that almost always heals in the end. We cannot pretend to be the first or the favourite, we are merely what is available, the leftovers, the leavings, the survivors, the remnants, the remaindered goods, and it is on this somewhat ignoble basis that the greatest loves are built and on which the best families are founded, and from which we all come, the product of chance and making do, of other people’s rejections and timidities and failures, and yet we would give anything sometimes to stay by the side of the person we rescued from an attic or a clearance sale, or won in a game of cards or who picked us up from among the scraps…” (p. 120)

Marías lives inside the mind of his characters. He is interested in the intersection between our psyches and the world around us. He is fascinated not by what happens to his characters but in how they experience what happens to them, how they think and feel. His project is to represent that experience with fidelity.

I think that’s why he writes that way. Marías understands that our internal worlds are not linear, they are obsessive, recursive, tangential. We think in endless loops on the same problems, splintering off and coming back, and so, therefore, does his prose. You can see it in the above passage, the way he takes a single thought and iterates it, winding and rewinding, trying something a little different each time, adding, adjusting, tweaking and taking a slightly different stance. His writing is super clausal: every sentence layers itself on top of a theme, sometimes for whole chapters at a time. Nothing is simply stated once; rather, every thought is re-stated three or five times synonymously. Concepts are defined and refined in slow shadings until they have morphed into different concepts, which are then themselves refined, and so on.

It’s exhausting, but it’s effective. It is, perhaps, the best representation that I have ever encountered in prose of how we actually think. Psychically, humans are enormously complex, and it’s almost impossible to represent this complexity on the page. I have come to love his style, even while sometimes feeling winded by it. It has verisimilitude, an honesty. He is writing about nuance and ambivalence, and he is unflinching in his portrayal of human contradiction, of our multifacetedness.

But he requires a completely different style of reading. Some authors, most authors, need to be actively read: you need to push yourself through the text, paying attention. Marías is different: you need to trust him, let him carry you. If you try to stay alert the whole time, if you try to remember everything, you will exhaust yourself and lose patience.  If, though, you relax into his writing, Marías can become kind of magical to read. It’s the reading equivalent of letting your eyes unfocus. What seems at first like endless verbiage, like self-indulgent editorial failure, is, in fact, the deliberate and artful construction of a cadence.

Most annoying writers become more annoying the more you read. What differentiates Marías is that his prose becomes easier as you get into the flow of it, rather than more grating over time. By the end of one of his books, you are so used to being carried on his particular current that you almost don’t remember that it’s possible to write differently.

And, if you are interested, ‘The Infatuations’ is a great place to start. I started with ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, a trilogy of about 1300 pages which I came to love but which took me months to work my way through. ‘The Infatuations’, though, is short and gripping, a murder mystery-love story, riddled with uncertainly and moral relativism.

Javier Marías

It’s hard to represent the discursiveness of human thought and still have space to develop anything like a plot – that’s why most authors shorthand emotional experience. There are very few authors who really commit to thought, with all its reiterations and redundancies (Proust, for example, who, of course, is also exhausting to read). It’s really fun to see Marías’ particular lens come up against the normal constraints of a murder plot, which usually require exactly the sort of bright lines that Marías eschews.

There is a truism of relationship therapy, that the things which you love the most about your partner are the things which will come to irritate you the most, in other forms. The same is true of authors sometimes: the things which make them special, which stand out about them, are also the things that grate on you. Javier Marías is special – he’s difficult, he’s annoying – but he’s special. And the things that make him special (his prose, his observations), which make him annoying, also make him worth it.

The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’d like to talk about allusions.

An allusion, not to be confused with an illusion, is an implied reference to something else. It is often, but not exclusively, used to describe artistic allusion: the implicit or unstated gesturing, within one work of art, at another work of art. But there are all kinds of allusions: cultural, historical, religious. When you describe a task as Sisyphean, you are making an allusion. When you say someone has the patience of Job, you are making an allusion. When you describe something as your kryptonite, or compare it to the Kobayashi Maru, or call something your white whale, you are making an allusion. 

Allusions are very useful. Because they call to mind a shared cultural touchstone, they allow you, essentially, to flesh out an entire context with very little effort. If I make a joke: “To snack or not to snack – that is the question”, you know right away that I am referencing Hamlet. You know that Hamlet is asking his famous question about existence, about the nature of death and the meaning of life, whereas I am merely wondering whether to have a snack. You juxtapose the weightiness of his question against my triviality, and get the joke: I’m over-worrying about snacking.

It’s very powerful. In a world without Hamlet, I would have had to enumerate the levels of my agonizing to you: the wanting a snack, the not wanting to want a snack, my sense of genuine dilemma along with my meta-sense that my dilemma is minor in the grand scale of things, my own awareness of my ridiculousness and my awareness that you are also aware. Using an allusion, I can achieve all this complexity in a single phrase.

The reason this works is because we both know Hamlet. If we didn’t both know Hamlet – know it instantly – I would just be a person acting weird about snacks.

That’s the thing with allusions: the pay-off can be huge, but your audience has to get the reference. And cultural is local, both in space and in time. As anyone who has ever read Vergil will tell you, what the Romans considered obvious allusions would blow right by 99% of the reading public now. Likewise, we in the West tend to consider the Bible safe ground for allusions, but that’s awfully provincial of us. And popular culture, of course, is saturating but over in the blink of an eye (there are a lot of authors who, in about twenty years, are going to regret mentioning Kim Kardashian in their books). In fact, you can often date a piece of work by the cultural allusions the author seems to think everyone will get. Allusions require us to understand the same references, to live in the same world. The further apart our worlds are, the less likely we are to be able to communicate with each other this way.

All artists live with this tension when they deploy allusion: some people will get it, and some won’t. You need to balance the needs of the work with the likely scope of your audience. And, of course, for the audience, allusions are sort of terrifying. The idea that some crucial piece of meaning, some aspect or dimension of the work in which you are investing your time and energy might be lost to you, not through any fault of your own, but simply because you have not happened to encounter some other piece of culture? It doesn’t feel fair.

Which brings me to Paul Beatty. 

‘The Sellout’ is Beatty’s fourth novel, but the first that I have read. It won the Man Booker (side note: those Man Booker judges really are not fucking around). It is the story of Bonbon, a young Black man raised in Dickens California, a low-income high-crime neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. When Dickens is suddenly, inexplicably, dis-incorporated, Bonbon hatches a scheme to get his town back on the map: he will re-segregate it.

Beatty’s prose is among the most densely allusive prose I’ve ever encountered. There might be readers who are culturally informed enough to take in the full scope of the web of references that Beatty is constructing – I am not that reader. Which means that reading his work requires, on my part, a sort of surrender: the knowledge that I will not, cannot, comprehend the entirety of his project.

Paul Beatty

It’s daunting, but, in Beatty’s case, enormously worth it. Beatty’s prose is so fast, so sharp, so witty, that to grasp even a fraction is joyful. I was laughing out loud by page 13, when Bonbon describes a scheme he has to open a shop to translate personal mottos into Latin. He imagines people from Dickens coming to him for translation, so that they can get their mantras tattooed on themselves without fear:

“If it’s true that one’s body is one’s temple, I could make good money. Open up a little shop on the boulevard and have a long line of tattooed customers who’ve transformed themselves into nondenominational places of worship: ankhs, sankofas, and crucifixes fighting for abdominal space with Aztec sun gods and one-star Star of David galaxies. Chinese characters running down shaved calves and spinal columns. Sinological shout-outs to dead loved ones that they think means “Rest in peace, Grandma Beverly,” but in reality reads “No tickee! No Bilateral Trade Agreement!” Man, it’d be a goldmine…When business is slow, they’ll come by to show me my handiwork. The olde English lettering glistening in the streetlight, its orthodoxy parsed on their sweaty tank- and tube-topped musculatures. Money talks, bullshit walks…Pecunia sermo, somnium ambulo. Dative and accusative clauses burnished onto their jugulars, there’s something special about having the language of science and romance surf the tidal waves of a homegirl’s body fat. Strictly dickly…Austerus verpa. The shaky noun declension that would ticker-tape across their foreheads would be the closest most of them ever get to being white, to reading white. Crip up or grip up…Criptum vexo vel carpo vex. It’s nonessential essentialism.” (p.13)

Did you catch all that? No? How could you? The thing is, it’s funny anyway. The whole book is like that: funny, nimble, dense. Blink and you’ll miss something, but even if you keep your eyes peeled the whole time, you’ll still miss something because Beatty is moving too fast for you.

At a certain point, you just need to decide whether you’re willing to read a book knowing you won’t understand a lot of it. That there are in-jokes that will go right over your head, and that some of them might be important.  It’s hard.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth is because Beatty specifically is worth it, but it’s also worth it because that’s the only way to grow. If you only read authors you understood entirely, you’d never learn anything new. In general, the less challenging a work is, the less you learn from it. And the problem tends to compound itself: the more distance between your own experience and the scope of a novel, the less you will understand. The less you understand, the less likely you are to put in the effort to finish the novel, and, therefore, the more you become confined to your own experience.

Wading into someone else’s allusions is a good way to see the world through their eyes. And their world will necessarily be different than yours – that’s the whole point. If it weren’t, you’d have imagined the book yourself.

I couldn’t have imagined ‘The Sellout’, not with all the time in the world and a gun to my head. And books like that, books you couldn’t have imagined and don’t fully understand, those are the best books, in my opinion. Even if you don’t get every joke, don’t know every reference, those are the books that make your world bigger.

And bigger worlds are better, I think.

Gone Girl

By Gillian Flynn

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I know that everyone loves ‘Gone Girl’. I mean, I love ‘Gone Girl’. I read it, years ago, in one swallow: a beautiful summer afternoon spent inside, on the couch, unable to tear myself away. I have a lot of respect for it as a novel, the craft, the excellent execution of it.

But the other day I finally got around to watching the movie (which I also think was competent and gripping), and was reminded of something that tweaked me about the story, and, frankly, about the genre in general.

A little context, for the two people alive who haven’t read the book or seen the movie: On their five year wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne’s wife Amy vanishes from their home. The first half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a murder mystery, told both from Nick’s perspective in the days following her disappearance, and from excerpts of Amy’s diary during the years of their courtship and early marriage. As the days pass, more and more evidence emerges, all of which points to Nick having killed Amy. He has been having an affair. He has just taken out a large life insurance policy on her. Amy’s best friend comes forward and tells police that Amy feared that her husband would kill her.

It’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, and Flynn manages to wind her readers through almost two hundred pages of Nick Dunne’s first person account without ever revealing whether or not he murdered his wife. I can’t really understate how impressed I am by her ability to do that. Two hundred pages of first person narration without revealing, in either direction, whether or not that person is a murderer? It’s a real high-wire act of suspenseful dubiety, and it’s completely successful.

However, after a deft, tense first half, Flynn abandons her well-constructed ambiguity and turns to that favorite device of genre fiction: the psychopath.

Amy is alive, of course. She has elaborately, painstakingly framed her husband for a murder that has not happened. And now she is free, living in disguise and watching her brilliant revenge play out from a safe distance.

The psychopathic genius is a tempting plot device. He is a human without humanity  He is capable of any evil, smarter than his opponents, and conveniently unencumbered by normal emotional frailties.  There aren’t any characterological weaknesses to limit him, and so he can enact any outlandish deviousness his author dreams up for him.

However, there are two big problems with the meticulous psychopath.

First, he is totally unrealistic. In real life, antisocial personalities are characterized not only by a lack of empathy, but also by impulsivity, recklessness, and unlawful behavior.  Flynn’s psychopath, however, shares with her fictional brethren a distinct lack of impetuosity.  The premise of ‘Gone Girl’ rests on the ability of a flamboyant sociopath to plan minutely and far in advance, to mask their thoughts and emotions and to forego any short-term satisfaction in order to execute an elaborate and excruciating revenge.

In real life, this is very un-psychopathic behavior.  The diagnostic criteria of antisocial personality disorder include “failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”, “consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations”, and “impulsivity and failure to plan ahead”.  It is striking that these traits are not only absent in Flynn’s psychopath, they would severely limit, if not completely obviate, her ability to plan and carry out her scheme.

Gillian Flynn

Second, the literary psychopath isn’t actually interesting. While he may have the immediate magnetism of a car wreck, he isn’t actually a character.  He has no internal conflict; he is all plot. 

Now, that can be OK. When plot is all that matters, he’s fine.  That’s why he does such reliable work in cop dramas, soap operas, and beach reads. But he isn’t a person – he’s a tool that an author can use to advance action. And he’s very useful, obviously, but this utility has caused him to be badly overused in fiction.  Once, he was shocking, novel, outre. Now, he’s everywhere, committing ever more elaborate crimes, devising ever more esoteric tortures for the rest of us. He’s become predictable.

Which is a shame, because the beauty of the first half of ‘Gone Girl’ was how difficult it was to predict. The tension Flynn manages to build in the first half of the novel is effective and affecting.  The different early perspectives offered by Nick and Amy Dunne make the reader question not only the reality of their marriage, but also the ability of any two people to ever really know each other. The first, better, half of ‘Gone Girl’ is a completely different book: one about intimacy, about whether it is even possible.  It offers a view of marriage that is not a shared life, but merely coincident delusions.  It is a dark vision, and it is much more compelling than the Dances with Psychos that the book becomes.

Inside the Third Reich

By Albert Speer

In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Hitler out.

I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully.  Partly, this is prurient: monsters are fascinating.  But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.

But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them.  Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to satisfy ourselves. There is no window into the minds of our villains that will ever truly explain them.

Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility.  Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions. Nevertheless, he remains a cipher.  Why did he do the things he did?  Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Was he mentally ill? Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him?  How are we to understand him?

The question which has always most troubled me (and everyone else) is: did Hitler understand that his actions were wrong?  Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did Hitler understand that that was wrong? Even if he did not, did he get that other people would think it was wrong?  He employed euphemisms when discussing it, which implies that he did, but then, what did he make of that?  Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth?  Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him and that only he had the courage to admit it?  Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?

As I said, I don’t usually think too much about these questions, since I believe that they are unanswerable.  We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.

Speer, with Hitler, probably around 1938

But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question.  Speer was Hitler’s architect and then, later, his Minister of Armaments.  He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:

“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail.  If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history.  If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.”

Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious.  He may have thought they were wrong. He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable.  He saw that, in order to be seen as heroic, he would need to remake the world.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’.  Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemable.  His use of it suggests that he understood the scale of the problem. It means he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil.  And, to be frank, I sort of quail before the idea of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.

Of course, I am not sure I believe that Hitler actually said that. Speer is fascinating to read in part because he is totally untrustworthy. Clearly a sycophant, he managed to intercalate himself into Hitler’s innermost circles; nevertheless, in his memoirs (written from prison), he positions himself as an intellectual, and pretends to have been able to analyze the workings of the Third Reich from an emotional distance. He does not speak to the atrocities he helped commit, and does not offer a satisfying explanation for how he was taken in. He clearly understands that his proximity to Hitler is the selling point of his memoir, and he endeavors to highlight their closeness while shielding himself from calumny.

And this quote is exactly the kind of quote of which we should be skeptical: historical, self-aware, foreshadowing, significant, intimate. It’s too neat, too good. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Hitler never said anything such thing.

Which speaks to my original point: we will never know. And even if the quote is legitimate, even if it offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, it’s probably better not to peer too hard after it.  Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs.  Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

It’s a dodgy proposition, reading about a pandemic while living through one.

I had hoped that picking up ‘The Black Death’ would broaden my perspective, pull me out of the stress of the past few years and remind me that we are all subject to the great shiftings of history. Remind me that there have been other sufferings and that this, too, shall pass.

It worked, but not as I had expected. Rather than reconciling me to the vicissitudes of fate, reading ‘The Black Death’ reminded me, forcefully, that human history (including our own) is so often farce. That we are imperfect beings groping blindly after solutions to problems that we rarely even understand. That there isn’t much to do but learn to laugh at ourselves, even while we suffer.

So, in that spirit, as we limp through our own pandemic, I have culled from this book a list of tips for avoiding the plague, from people who lived through it:

  • Plague is carried by “miasmic air”, so avoid the coast – miasmic air might waft off the sea.
  • On the other hand, it might not.
  • Avoid marshes and windy places for the same (possible) reason.
  • Burn nice-smelling woods and plants – good smells may drive off the miasmic air. Ash, juniper, musk, cyprus, laurel, rosemary are all good.
  • Likewise, fill your home with flowers.
  • Bad smells may also drive off miasmic air, so hang your head over the latrine and breathe deeply (it does not say how often or for how long – better safe than sorry).
  • Sprinkle rose-water and vinegar on the floor of your house.
  • Carry around an apple – smell that.
  • Live in a house that faces north.
  • Avoid lepers: they are jealous and may try to poison you.
  • Lie around – do not exercise.  When you exercise, you breathe more heavily and will breathe more miasmic air (perhaps, if you are desperate, you may exercise in the latrine?).
  • For this reason, definitely do not have sex, under any circumstances. If you must, try not to exert yourself too much.
Philip Ziegler
  • Don’t sleep on your back.
  • Don’t sleep after eating.
  • Speaking of eating, don’t eat fish – they come from the miasmic sea.
  • Don’t eat hard-boiled eggs.
  • Don’t eat lettuce.
  • If you must eat, mix ten-year-old treacle with wine and chopped snake – eat that.
  • Grind an emerald into powder so strong that “if a toad looked at it, its eyes would crack” – eat that.
  • If you must drink, mix a drink of lemon, rose-water, peppermint, and apple-syrup – drink that.
  • Mix one ounce of gold with eleven ounces of quicksilver over heat, “let the quicksilver escape”, add forty-seven ounces of water of borage, store for three days over heat in an air-tight container, then drink that.
  • Take an amethyst, etch onto it a picture of man bowing and holding a snake, its head in his right hand, and its tail in his left.  Set the amethyst in a gold ring.  Wear that.
  • Definitely do not bathe.
  • If you must wash, only wash your hands with vinegar or rose-water.
  • Get bled – try to give eight pounds (say, three and a half liters) of blood.
  • Even though everyone around you is dying, don’t get sad.  This makes you more susceptible to the miasma.

And above all, stay calm.

Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’m not sure what to do about Marie Antoinette.

I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to actually be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined. But she is one of the more polarizing figures in European history (which does not lack for them), and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even a casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt urgent except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her: ‘Marie Antoinette: the Portrait of an Average Woman’, based largely on Antoinette’s own letters.  It’s a curious project: despite its title, it is a sympathetic biography (let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly), even a love letter of sorts, written by Zweig to a woman who, despite her imperfections, seems to have captured his heart centuries too late.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force an uncooperative subject into their narrative mold. Often, biographies of this sort feel less like historical documents than rhetorical exercises, advocacy rather than education. Reading ‘Marie Antoinette’ felt more than anything like listening to the closing arguments of a good defense lawyer. It was familiar – I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch.

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself (the image of her cavorting in her “peasant hut” in Petite Trianon is impossible to forget).  It is also clear that her own stupidity and cupidity contributed to the manner of her death: despite receiving a great deal of very sound advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was a self-involved moron, she was also more complicated than I had realized.  She loved her children (not a universal trait among European monarchs), and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen.  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

I certainly do not believe that receiving Great Love makes you a Great Person. But Zweig wisely realizes that Fersen is Antoinette’s best advocate, and devotes a lot of space to their love story. In fact, it is quite difficult to read Fersen’s letters and not feel your heart soften towards the woman who inspired them:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

Fersen was devastated by Antoinette’s execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades. He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

Stefan Zweig

Antoinette is an easy historical villain. She inhabited such extraordinary privilege before her death that it seems almost perverse to work to give her depth, post-mortem. Better to spend that effort investigating the lives of the millions of unremembered poor whose suffering funded her obliviousness. As a moral project, I’m not sure that a defense of Marie Antoinette should be a high priority for anyone. But Zweig is a literary author, not a moralist. And he is so clearly fond of Antoinette, which gives me pause. I respect him too much not to pay attention to his affections.

In the end, I’m not convinced by Zweig, but I am impressed with the exercise. In a way, Zweig’s project is no less romantic than Fersen’s: the construction of a monument to the woman they both seem to have loved, in their ways. If I am not moved by Antoinette herself, I am moved by their love.

And that’s not the worst fate in the world, is it? To be redeemed not by our own actions, but by the devotion of those that know and love us? Not a bad memorial, in the end.

Mao: A Life

By Philip Short

I’ve been wanting to read Philip Short’s biography of Mao Zedong for a while. I am, secretly, a sucker for historical biography, and I have a particular taste for humanity’s anti-heroes. I’ll brush right by biographies of inventors, statesmen, visionaries; my shelves are clogged with insane monarchs, conquerers, murderers and war-mongers.

Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary who would rule China for nearly 30 years, is a subject of intense fascination to those of us who like to peer into darkness. He is considered the greatest mass murderer of all time – it is possible that he is responsible for more deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined (high estimates place his death toll at around 80 million people). So Short’s biography was on my list.

It’s a great, whopping book: some 630 pages of dense biographical information. It’s beautifully presented: clear, thorough, persuasive. I learned a lot, but, having finished it, I find that I have been arrested by a single moment, and my emotional reaction to that moment has entirely dominated my impression of the book.

In 1918, a young Mao Zedong was a nobody from Hunan province. He moved to Beijing and went to work as a junior librarian in the Beijing University Library.  He (Mao) wrote later:

“My office was so low that people avoided me.  One of my tasks was to register the names of people who came to read newspapers, but to most of them I didn’t exist as a human being.  Among those who came to read.  I recognized the names of famous leaders of the ‘renaissance’ movement, men…in whom I was intensely interested.  I tried to begin conversations with them on political and cultural subjects, but they were very busy men.  They had no time to listen to an assistant librarian speaking southern dialect.” (p. 83)

This passage, Mao’s recollections of being ignored by the intellectuals he so admired, is excerpted very early in Short’s biography. However, having finished it, I find that this vignette has stuck with me more than any other from Mao’s life.

That clerk would go on to rule the most populous country on earth.  He would preside over a regime that killed tens of millions of people.  He is, more than any other figure, the architect of China’s current global position. But in 1918, he was being snubbed by men history has forgotten.  

How many people do you interact with every week?  How many people serve you coffee, check out your items, pump your gas, see you to your table, drive your Uber?

And those people, those are just the ones you see!  What about the people who clean up after you, fix what you break, prepare the food you eat, pick up your trash, deliver your packages?  How big is the army that serves you invisibly?  How many lives intersect with yours every day?

What if one of them will become Mao?

I’ve been disturbing myself with this concept for days now, rolling it around in my head.

Of course, it’s always unnerving to imagine that you might have been brushed by enormity. It’s disconcerting to imagine that history’s next great killer might be taking your order. But what’s even spookier, to me, is the fact that, later, when he was the Great Man, those men never even realized that they had met Mao. They would not have recollected his face, because we don’t remember people that don’t matter. They would never know that their lives had intersected with his, that they had slighted the man who would become Mao.

But what frightens me even more is the thought that, perhaps, Mao did not know he would become Mao. Maybe, if he had known, he would not have wanted to become Mao. We think of the great villains of history as born, but it is, of course, possible that they are made. The clerk in the Beijing University library would become Mao Zedong, we know now, but, in 1918, he had not yet.  And maybe he need not have.

There are two ways to see the future which lay ahead of that clerk: in one, Mao Zedong was inevitable. He would become the man we all know, would find his way to his role, would make space in history for himself.

But it is equally possible that he only might have become Mao. Perhaps Mao, as we know him, was the result of thousands of small accidents, the end product of innumerable coincidences. What if those moments hadn’t happened to him? What if they had happened to someone else? Perhaps many men might have become Mao – perhaps, under the right circumstances, most men.  Maybe history could make murderers of us all, if she chose.

Philip Short

This isn’t a movie: I don’t believe that Mao became a mass murderer because of those slights.  I don’t believe that, if one of these Chinese eminences had simply paid Mao Zedong the respect of answering him, the great storm of the Chinese Communist Party might have turned at the last moment and headed out to sea, that millions might have been saved.  And maybe this whole idea is wrong, and historical monsters, like other freaks of nature, just happen: maybe Mao came into this world broken and dangerous and nothing was going to change that.

But isn’t it frightening to think that, perhaps, some large number of us carry the potential for great or terrible deeds inside us, and we wait only for the right combination of events to draw us into the open, where we become the stuff of statues or nightmares?

I like to believe, as most of us do, that there are no accidents of fate which would twist me so badly. That there is no outcome in which I order millions of my fellows to their deaths.  There is no lower creature than a genocidaire – I choose to believe I could not become one. But that anonymous clerk in the Beijing University Library is dogging me and now, I see the future monsters of history everywhere I look, in the world all around me.  Because, even if we are not monsters yet, who knows what we will become?