Monthly Archives: June 2016

The Hedgehog Recommends: Summer Reading

A member of the editorial staff on vacation. Calle Eklund via Wikimedia Commons.

A member of the editorial staff on vacation. Calle Eklund via Wikimedia Commons.

Hedgehogs have scattered far and wide for the summer—but we’re determined to get through that stack of books. Here are some of the things we’re reading. What about you?

Jay Tolson (Editor)

russo coverIf you want a good a take on the inner lives of the people who are said to be the core supporters of Donald J. Trump—that is, the underemployed and deeply discouraged members of America’s white working class—then you could do no better than pick up a copy of Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. Take this not on my own authority but the author’s. He recently said so, with a touch of ruefulness, in an interview on NPR. Russo has been exploring this social terrain long before Trump became a serious (did I just say serious?) contender for the presidency, in eight previous works of well-wrought fiction and a memoir.

This, Russo’s most recent novel, revisits the same fictional territory (the upstate New York town of North Bath) and takes up many of the same characters he explored so compellingly in Nobody’s Fool. Donald “Sully” Sullivan (played by Paul Newman in the 1994 film adaptation of the earlier novel) is back, the stoic anti-hero who retains his quiet philosophical calm as things human and physical (including one of the town’s major buildings) fall apart. The novel opens fittingly with a description of the town’s cemetery, the only thing that seems to be growing in North Bath: “The plot of land set aside on the outskirts of town became crowded, then overcrowded, then chock-full, until finally the dead broke containment, spilling across the now-paved road onto the barren flats and reaching as far as the new highway spur that led to the interstate. Where they’d head next was anybody’s guess.” That, we soon learn, is not the only way the dead affect the lives of North Bath’s struggling survivors. If the novel is elegiac, it is also deeply funny, a comedy for our times.

 

Leann Davis Alspaugh (Managing Editor)

barkskins-9780743288781_hrThe great book upheaval after moving house continues and I’m rediscovering several old favorites that I want to re-read. A friend mentioned that he’s re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree for the fifth time and while that is one of my favorites, too, I read it (for the third time) about a year ago. This summer, I plan on heading into the sunset with another McCarthy novel, Blood Meridian, a happy tale about marauding scalp-hunters led by the quasi-mythical and brutally violent Judge.

New reading will include one (or all) of the three Barbara Pym novels that I recently found at the Decatur Bookstore in New Orleans: The Sweet Dove Died, Quartet in Autumn, and A Glass of Blessings. I also have Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Arthur Lewis, World War I flying ace and BBC co-founder. I just finished Y.T. by Alexei Nikitin, a short novel about surveillance, conspiracy, and nostalgia for the past. Nikitin’s book has hilarious elements of surrealism blunted by the banality of Soviet bureaucracy still lingering in 1980s Ukraine. Ultimately, the book was a little 9781612195124disappointing, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that that was the part of the author’s intended effect. (Extra credit to Melville House for a fine new English translation by Anne Marie Jackson)

At present, I’m working my way through Annie Proulx’s latest, Barkskins. This generational saga of early settlers and native people in New France (Canada) progresses—gallops, really—from the seventeenth century to modern times, traveling between the New World, Europe, and Asia. At times, one senses that Proulx is trying to keep the horse from bolting, but, she still has a knack for detecting human absurdity and I’m grateful that she keeps what is surely a novel disguised as an environment admonition from becoming a tiresome screed. (Thanks, William T. Vollmann, for the spoiler in your New York Times review.)

 

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The World Our Parents Left Us

Roosevelt and Churchill, 1941

Roosevelt and Churchill, 1941

On this day after the majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union; in this absurdly long American electoral season when the presumptive nominee of a major political party threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of an international order created after the most devastating war in human history; in this world in which nationalist sentiments are being brought to a boil by ranting opportunists  who seek to turn a sensible patriotism into virulent chauvinism; in this age when the possibility of a decent global comity of nations is being threatened by fearmongering and the most abject zero-sum thinking—at this moment, in short, when the best lack sufficient conviction and the worst truly brim with passionate intensities, I feel shame for those generations (my own boomer one, as well as those that followed) that have variously enjoyed the incalculable benefits of the relative security and prosperity bequeathed to them by those who fought through and prevailed in that now-distant war and who, afterwards, went about building, if often imperfectly, a set of institutions and ideals intended to avert the recurrence of a similar global catastrophe.

We legatees may, in good will, differ strongly on what is good or bad about the order that was left to us. And many of us have pitched in and done our parts to sustain and improve it, even at the highest cost. But for all that we have done, too many of us have fallen short in what we should have done, through failures of commission or omission.

Of such failures, the worst may have been the selfishness and self-indulgence that contributed to the rise not just of the Me Generation but also of a more enduring cult of the self, one that comported all too neatly with the dominant consumerist and therapeutic strains of our national (and then our increasingly global) culture.

This failure might properly be laid at the feet of middle-class boomers, the earliest and fullest beneficiaries of the postwar order, raised in the secure idyll of the fifties and early sixties, coming to think that anything or any experiment was possible, yet believing, far too uncritically,  that we would always have a secure and predictable world to return to if our experiments failed. I say this not in self-loathing or in disparagement of the good that came out of the pushing, testing, and venturing—including the contributions to the long-overdue victories in civil rights for people long denied those rights—but in honest reckoning with the harms that were done through the excesses of so much heedless thinking and doing, heedless, above all, of how so much self-indulgence might give rise to a culture of self-indulgence, and of the harms that such a culture might inflict on the larger—and not so privileged—society.

Those harms have come to roost, in the growing fragility of institutions, families, and communities, and in the loss of faith in the values that shore up such institutions. As we lost a sense of the importance of human ties, first in our families and communities and then in our nation, and as this loss engendered a further decline of confidence in the world beyond our own individual heads, the nation’s leaders and elites came to be viewed as what Daniel Bell called “a class apart,” out of touch with their fellow citizens, out to serve their own interests above all others.  (The growing suspicions of these elites and the meritocratic system that creates them is the subject of the forthcoming summer issue of THR, “Meritocracy and Its Discontents.”)

Throughout an increasingly fractured nation—and not just America, but other Western nations—too many citizens felt that they were being left behind, left out, even cast aside, in the name of a booming global prosperity from which only the privileged elites were benefiting. If the postwar order was only a neoliberal construct built upon technocratic schemes to maximize free trade and commerce to increase productivity and growth—and, above all, to increase the wealth and privilege of the cosmopolitan elite at the top the global casino economy—then were resentment, distrust, and fear not bound to be the eventual and growing consequences?

This, I realize, is far too sketchy an account of our failings, of why we have come to such a scary pass in modern history, when gaping social and economic divisions are not just weakening trust  within nations but also destroying comity and aggravating tensions among them. My account only gestures toward the deepest cultural failing: namely, the erosion and neglect of beliefs and ideals (including the very idea of truth) that sustain our institutions, from the most intimate and local to the most distant and global. The price of ignoring that cultural failing—not only for the world our parents left to us but for the one we hope to leave to our children—is far too great to imagine. But the signs and warnings should be clear.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Lessons from the Ring—Then and Now

Photograph by Mike Powell, Allsport Concepts; Getty Images.

Photograph by Mike Powell, Allsport Concepts; Getty Images.

Years ago, I had the honor of interviewing David Mamet, who, in addition to being a fine playwright, is a longtime practitioner of the martial arts. After our conversation, I asked him to give me one piece of advice I might pass along to my students. He said, “Tell them to pick some physical art—ballet, boxing, judo, yoga, whatever—and to stick with it. It will make them feel grounded and better able to deal with adversity and rejection in this world.” By moving your body in a certain way, he was saying, you will shape the way you feel and who you are.

Philosophy professors (including me) assume that we learn to negotiate these things only by reflecting on them. It is as though we have become oblivious to the lessons we can learn on the path leading from the body to the brain. Once, I confided about an emotional problem to a yoga teacher. She replied, “The answer to the problem is just to breathe.” At the time, I was deeply and rather unreflectively committed to the belief that it is only by thinking that we can solve problems. The yoga teacher’s words awakened me to something I should have known already.

After all, I had been training boxers for decades, learning and imparting some of the lessons Carlo Rotella writes about so eloquently in Cut Time: An Education at the Fights:

The deeper you go into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons…about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy…boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences.

In the sweat-and-blood parlor of the boxing ring, young people deal with feelings they seldom get controlled practice with, such as anxiety and anger. And make no mistake—the kind of people we become is largely determined by the way we negotiate those dreadnought emotions. Continue reading

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Two Cultures, At Least

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this year, connoisseurs of higher-education horror stories were introduced to Simon Newman, the erstwhile president of Mount St. Mary’s University. Descending on this small, Catholic liberal-arts college from the world of private equity, Newman made a few things clear: It was too Catholic and too “liberal arts.” He referred to some students as “Catholic jihadis” and—according to one tenured faculty member he’d fired—proclaimed that “Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

That’s not why Simon Newman made the news. He landed there because he’d tried to weed out students who could turn out to be low-performers—before those students had a chance to perform well or badly. Because Newman illustrated his thinking by comparing students to bunnies that needed to be killed, and because he responded to public criticism by firing tenured faculty, he found himself national news.

How does a small Catholic liberal-arts school end up with someone so unsuited to its particular mission? Why was someone from the world of private equity presumed to be so immediately suitable to the task? The answer lies in the kind of people who made up the board of Mount St. Mary’s. They, too, came from that kind of world. It is, to them, the real world of sensible people. Less important: Catholic education, the institution of tenure, the mission of a liberal-arts college, or the obligations an institution has toward struggling students.

But it’s also a truism, even to people who disapprove of Newman’s actions, that his is the real world of sensible people—that (as a friend said to me while the story was unfolding) in dismissing liberal-arts education, Newman wasn’t saying anything untrue. Even if the liberal arts (or tenure, or Catholic education, or students) are the important things, they can’t survive on their own. They require a sensible overseer. And that overseer cannot come from within the university. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: June 3, 2016

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]

Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“In Between Daze,” Michelle Dean
“I thought writing for a living would be a racket, and I’d be paid to pick out good art and go to parties, but since then I’ve learned it’s the art people who have the real scam going.”

“Gawker Smeared Me, and Yet I Stand With It,” Stephen Marche
“Such childish hostility notwithstanding, I believe that Gawker serves an essential function in a celebrity-obsessed culture, and if it were to disappear the world would be poorer and the cause of journalistic truth would be damaged.”

“Comfort and Joy,” Rohan Maitzen
“It’s hard to know how (or even whether) to try to tackle the larger problem. But one thing we can do—those of us who want a better conversation about romance—is, bit by bit, to correct the ‘error’ Regis identifies: to meet sweeping generalizations with specifics, looking not at “the romance novel,” but at particular romance novels.”

“Love on the Run,” Terry Castle
“The Highsmithian lover becomes that crazy-making contradiction: both the criminal genius and the doomed malefactor—ecstatic rebel and cast-off, terrified child.”

“Antiheroic Feminism: An Interview with ‘UnREAL’ Co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro,” Karen Tongson
“And that’s the thing I was trying to say about reality TV and its effect on the world. Sure, shows like that feel like a guilty pleasure. They even feel like fun. But when you start ripping people apart that way, you’re eventually going to turn that lens on yourself.”

“The Sun Is Always Shining In Modern Christian Pop,” Leah Libresco
“I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Nadar’s highs and lows,” Leann Davis Alspaugh
“Although Eduardo Cadava’s introduction to this first-ever complete English translation of Quand j’étais photographe positions Nadar’s photography as a form of mourning, the subject himself refuses to take this line.”

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