NAMING THIS BLOG was a bit of a struggle. I tend to neglect formalities, and when I decided to start the project, the main thing I wanted to do was get content online. The name didn’t have to be nifty.
My first thought was to call it The Griesheim Review of Books, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to similar goings on in New York and London. The ironic lilt of it, though, would have been lost on most folks, who would not know of Griesheim, my dull, dear home. The pleasure would have been strictly a private one.
Well, one doesn’t start a blog to remain private, so that was the end of TGRoB. I briefly entertained simply The Griesheim Review, a nod to the ancient and admirable Partisan Review, but the “Griesheim” problem remained.
I also gave a moment’s thought to The Great Stars, from an observation that Saul Bellow puts in Augie March’s mouth when the humble Chicagoan meets Trotsky. The old revolutionary seemed, in Augie’s eyes, to be “guided by the great stars” and to make no apologies for elevating any topic to its Hegelian heights. In a way, that’s what I wanted my blog to do, to connect everyday life to big ideas through great literature. But on its own, without the backstory from Bellow, The Great Stars just sounded pompous and abstract.
I took a new direction, toward my home turf of philsophy. For the existentialist philosopher Heidegger, imagining the hour of one’s death, die Todestunde, was the most reliable way of clarifying one’s ultimate values. Ultimate values might help with naming a blog, right? So, looking back from the (imaginary) deathbed, one asks: what was it that really counted? Weighty stuff, but what a downer. I was not going there.
Still, Heidegger pointed in a promising direction. Don Qixote on his deathbed reproaches himself for small-mindedness. He had traveled widely and striven mightily for high honors, but his whole existence had been constrained by books of a single genre, on dogmatic chivalry. And at the end, he realizes it had all been a delusion–the monsters, the magic spells, the beckoning damsels, the divine plan that gave sense to it all. Qixote wishes bitterly he had read other kinds of books, “that they might be a light to my soul.” One of the things that makes the prospect of my own death bearable is that I have already had Qixote’s epiphany; I did not have to wait until the end for the light to break through. It’s better than finding a million dollars.
So I thought I had it: the La Mancha Review! Qixote had repaired to his hometown before he died, and that’s where he realized what he had missed out on–the real, ambiguous, versicolor world that literature bestows on us and where the blooming, buzzing confusion of life submits to no cosmic scheme of order. It was exactly the vantage point from which to survey all the books I would read–I still had time! La Mancha was the center of my literary universe.
But then little things derailed it. ‘La’ was already a definite article. Calling it theLa Mancha Review put me in mind of Joseph Smith’s unlettered references to “the Al-Koran,” or a friend’s annoying query once whether I wanted to go to the Die Kartoffel for dinner. I could just drop the ‘the’ and call it La Mancha Review, but the English noun ‘review’ called out for an English article to render it definite. Perhaps a fully literal translation?–The Stain Review? It sounded like a death metal blog.
That’s when Orwell came to the rescue, as he always does. From the first time I read his observation that strong Indian tea could make one feel “wiser, braver and more optimistic,” I relished the thought as my own. Afternoon tea affords a calm, steady surge of stimulation–different from and in some ways more satisfying than dark coffee’s raw morning jolt–which prepares one in the best way possible for the world that opens up through good books. The experience is a light to the soul. Hence the name.
ALMOST EVERYONE ENJOYS hearing their prejudices read back to them as theories. Atlas Shrugged, for example, gave substantial aid and comfort to two generations of selfish louts who felt that their attitude somehow came off better if it had an ideology behind it.
I am, I suppose, prone to the same kind of indulgence. I like seeing my sentiments show up as ideas in the books of my betters. So it was with an expectation of cozy warmth that I settled in to Andrew Bacevich’s 2005 The New American Militarism, a critique of the United States‘ increasing use of military force as its power instrument of first choice. This passage is from a peroration, toward the end of the book:
Several decades after Viet Nam, in the aftermath of a century filled to overflowing with evidence pointing to the limited utility of armed force and the dangers inherent in relying excessively on military power, the American people have persuaded themselves that their best prospect for safety and salvation lies with the sword.
As an empiricist, I am encouraged by Bacevich’s thrust. One’s beliefs should be determined by the evidence available to one‘s senses, and the history of America‘s military actions since Viet Nam certainly seems to yield the conclusion that the offensive use of military force rarely achieves the goals for which it is chosen and almost always produces chaotic, unintended consequences, including, of course, human suffering. War seems well worth avoiding as far as possible.
For the most part Bacevich develops a clear, robust argument in support of this position, lucidly laying out a narrative of how the Washington establishment and—crucially—the American people came to endorse the possession of a global military empire as a desireable status quo. The book is, as Tony Judt would call it, opinionated history.
But first: why, if I am already convinced of the truth of the proposition, would I bother reading Bacevich’s restatement of it? For two reasons. First, because I am always interested to know if my position is wrong, and critiquing a stranger’s arguments in support of my beliefs is more effective than scouring my own. One’s own thoughts are immunized from critical introspection by an army of stealthy biases. (With luck, I’ll have the chance to review Daniel Kahnemann in the future on precisely this topic.) Furthermore, I expect Bacevich, a soldier and historian, to do a professional job of gathering and evaulating the evidence, something I have only done as an amateur, in the vague, scattershot way allowed by barroom discussions. If Bacevich’s arguments are weak, mine are likely weaker still.
Second, because in addressing the main question, “What is the new American millitarism?” Bacevich exposes a fascinating subsidiary question, about our national identity. Understood through their speeches and letters, our Founders clearly evinced an attitude toward military power radically different from, and more modest than, the one most Americans espouse today. How did we stray so far from their vision, and why are so few Americans curious about this tangent we have taken? It threatens to consume all our wealth, and more. It also causes much of the world to hate and fear us. August Renan theorized that nations do a certain amount of calculated forgetting in forging their collective identities. Are we determined to forget that our founders were profoundly skeptical of military power? Or, not liking to read books, are we simply becoming too stupid to wonder about such things? Welcome to Costco, I love you.
But to the book. It provides a crisp, compelling history of the wars, government decisions and social movements that led to our adoption of military supremacy as the measure of our greatness. It all started with Viet Nam. That overseas military catastrophe interacted on the domestic front with the hippie- and the civil rights movements to challenge and corrode the the political authority of the nation’s leading insitutions. The result put Americans in a deep funk. They had just lost a major war and found themselves sapped of the ideational wherewithal to reclaim their strength. The establishment had been thoroughly discredited. Who would make the country great again?
In response to the crisis, the U.S. military’s officer corps decided to take its fate into its own hands. Viet Nam had been a nightmare made by politicians, in their eyes. Never again, the officer corps resolved, would its soldiers languish in slack unprofessionalism, nor would generals‘ rulings on the optimal use of force be overridden by inept civilians. I should take a moment as a veteran to comment on this position, which is not quite the power grab it appears to be. The U.S. military has never had, nor does it seek, the authority to decide whether to employ force. This is a sacrosanct power reserved for the country’s civilian leaders. But when it comes to questions of how to use force and what size and shape of organization is needed to meet politicians‘ stated goals, the military is as defensive of its turf as any other highly specialized profession. Asked to plumb a house, for example, a master plumber would not seek or benefit from the advice of a non-plumber. He has the specs; let him do his job. And so it is with the military profession. This feeling intensified among officers after Viet Nam and has become deeply ingrained as a professional value.
So the military did have a plan for recovering from Viet Nam. But the nation at large remained adrift. Oil crises had caused the economy to tank, and Americans were feeling not just disoriented, but economically precarious as well. President and Chief Communicator Jimmy Carter stepped up to give his citizens a dose of bracing medicine in July 1979, in the form of a national address. It became known as the „Crisis of Confidence“ Speech. Americans were suffering from an amorphous malaise, Carter said, which ran deep into our soul. Yes, the economy was bad, yes, OPEC had us over a barrel, but at the core of our sickness was “a growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives.” In the speech Carter did something politicians have since discovered to be fatal: he asked the people to get real and deal with things. “This is not a message of happiness or reassurance,“ he intoned, “but it is the truth.” Americans would have to steel their wills, ennoble their minds, and focus on non-material wealth. Later, a Carter aide would say the speech was more of a sermon. Whatever spiritual import Americans took from it, its political message was clear: expectations should be reduced.
The problem with malaise, as anyone who has read Sartre or Camus knows, is that it has no address. Carter himself called it “invisible.” The speech about it didn’t go over well. After a spate of increased approval for the president—possibly because he had spoken to his fellow citizens as adults: that must have felt good to them—his ratings dove. Americans, it turns out, did not like having their problems blamed on their core values, consumerism and materialism. As it happens, though, a clique of conservative thinkers led by the formidable Norman Podhoretz, founding editor of the arch-conservative magazine Commentary, had been toiling away for years on an ideology that would shield Americans from the burdens of self denial. Real Americans don’t reduce their expectations, preached Commentary; they dream bigger and bigger. Strong and bountiful as America was, any government that could not clear the way for the limitless pursuit of happiness was simply unworthy of the People’s consent.
Morning was about to dawn in America. Carter, fatally off message, would be steamrolled.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980 all he really had to do to win was to contest everything Carter had said in the “Crisis” speech. And he duly did so. Podhoretz, who had long been forming the words for such a rebuttal, backed Reagan mightily. The result was foreordained.
Reagan succeeded spectacularly as the conservative movement’s frontman because he so clearly “solved” the malaise problem. Unlike the introspective Carter, who sensed a tenebrous cloud of despond drifting somewhere abroad in the nation’s soul, Reagan named specific enemies and drew clear battle lines. There was an evil empire on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and it was our duty to defy it. Even better, Reagan relieved Americans of the Carteresque fear that they might not be able to have it all. A little credit would get them through the rough patch, and then capitalism’s inevitable growth would cover the bills. I suppose It sounded good at the time. (Did our love affair with war have the same genesis as our addiction to debt? Bacevich leaves this captivating question unaddressed.)
For Bacevich, the Carter-Reagan chapter of American history is seminal, because it is where the main drivers of American militarism took shape. Buffeted by doubt, then bouyed by optimism, the American people made the choices, unremarkable at the time, that would lead to our present belief that a “peculiar genius” for war and an outsized means for prosecuting it together provide “the truest measure of national greatness.”
Despite the heavy moral overtones of Bacevich’s history, it is not, strictly speaking, a morality tale. All that Americans knew when they embraced Reagan, implies Bacevich, is that they were tired of feeling like losers, and he gave them succour. What they could not (quite) have known is that Reagan`s bright-burning star was fueled by a neocoservative ideology centered on the military confrontation of evil, a fight that feels so right it turns out to be habit forming. Once a nation tastes the thrill of facing down devils, it has embarked on a path toward permanent war, or at least a permanent desire for war. The rational, human adversaries of Clausewitzian Realpolitik come and go with circumstances, but evil exists forever, part of the Firmament. And the only thing required for evil to prevail—as Podhoretz believed and Reagan mouthed—is for strong heroes to falter.
By 1990 the U.S. military was turning out great columns of strong heroes. For 15 years since Viet Nam the military services had professionalized extensively and kept their powder dry by repeatedly warning America’s political class away from unwinnable wars. They also found themselves, from the Reagan years onward, the beneficiaries of a lavish stream of funding that had proved, for domestic political reasons, impossible to tamper with. Well, that’s not exactly true: the money could always be increased, just not reduced. When the U.S. Blitzkrieg of Operation Desert Storm expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, it presented the world with the stunning results of all these developments. And in a flash, the Viet Nam effect was over.
Humming in the circuitry behind the political story of America’s return to military greatness was a school of defense intellectuals convened at the dawn of the Cold War to work out whether a nuclear war might be winnable. Bacevich argues that this school, once it had deduced the main axioms of game theory in a nuclear scenario, transposed the same logic to conventional war scenarios. Thus the defense theorists‘ commitment to strategic deterrence—clearly the best approach to a potentially suicidal nuclear war—ultimately came to dominate the Defense Department’s thinking about all conflict. It was always best to signal one’s intent to do ruinous harm to any potential adversary, and the only way to render this threat credible was to maintain a large, highly lethal standing army. War was thus no longer a merely periodic crisis for which one could call up new troops to be demobilized later.
Without knowing the longterm ramifications of their choices, the proponents of a large standing army, the “strategic priesthood,” as Bacevich dubs them, turned a corner in the 1950s toward “a fully developed argument for preventive war as the cornerstone of U.S. strategy.” Thus when the younger Bush inked the National Security Strategy of 2003 committing us to precisely this doctrine, he was not making it up on the spot, as he has occasionally been villified for doing. He was drawing on a theory that had been incubating in the Pentagon and in Washington’s military think tanks for half a century.
While not wishing to give short shrift to the rest of the history of America’s new militarism, its development after Desert Storm became much more deliberate and, therefore, open to public view. For one thing, our growing preference for military intervention blended with the tenets of evangelical Christiantity. Billy Graham became the counselor of presidents, the last voice on many occasions to cry “Let slip the dogs of war.” “Policy options that policymakers advocated as feasible and necessary,” writes Bacevich, “Christians discerned as right and good.” This gave significant cultural depth to the politics of militaristism. Today, if one wished to reduce our appetite for war, one would have to persuade the nation’s evangelicals—some 150 million—to undo the marriage of their faith to militaristic bloodlust.
The deadly gravity of Bacevich’s book does not become clear until the last chapter, in which he outlines ten meausres to break our additction to militarism. Those Americans who hold on to even a crumb of hope that our country might return to being a peaceful republic—that the American eagle, as Twain put it, would stop sinking ist talons into foreign nations—will despair at Bacevich’s prescriptions. Of the ten, half are non-starters. For one, Bacevich recommends we pull back from almost all our foreign bases, and that we drop”power projection” as a normal means of interacting with the world. We should dramatically trim the size of the force as well, he says, and organize it for its original role of territorial defense. It almost goes without saying that such measures would be seen by almost everyone who counts as heresy. This is how far down the road we have gone.
The constellation of politicians, military reformers, defense intellectuals, media kings and reactionary voters that have gifted us militarism as a national identity trait simply would not allow such measures to be seriously considered. The world needs us, we believe, and because we are on the right side of history, the world needs our terrible swift sword.
Insightful and revelatory overall, Bacevich’s history presents one major distraction and a nagging, recurring weakness.
In the next-to-last chapter Bacevich reviews at length the United States’ increasing Middle East entanglements over the last 35 years. He believes the region has become both a new, quasi-permanent strategic focal point for the U.S. and a live-fire laboratory for our ongoing experiments in militarism. Although the analysis of the Middle East amplifies his central claims about militarism, they do not expand on them or illuminate them especially. One senses that he is on to a new topic, which he should merely outine and hasten onward. Indeed Bacevich himself came to see that his new subject deserved its own, more comprehensive treatment, which he provides in his 2016 America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Although I look forward to reading it, contending with its core argument at such length in The New American Militarism detracted from the main narrative of the 2005 book.
Had Bacevich left out the chapter on our protracted Middle Eastern war, he would have had room to make up for the small logical elisions that occur too frequently in the book to allow one to call it a masterpiece. Judgments like the two below call out for evidence that Bacevich does not provide:
“For the armed services, [military] dominance constitutes a baseline or a point of departure from which to scale the heights of ever greater military capabilities” (18).
“Even for the participants [in war], fighting no longer implied the prospect of dying for some abstract cause, since the very notion of ‘sacrifiice in battle had become implausible and ironic'”(20).
The first proposition seems plausible, but where or what is the evidence for it? Is it a claim about what young officers are taught, what their attitudes are, what the military propagates in its doctrine, or something else? By leaving the proposition unsupported, Bacevich gives the impression he is merely dispensing intuitions rather than drawing an informed inference.
The second proposition is from a passage arguing (but not very well) that war became a spectator sport after Desert Storm. While war certainly did become more surgical in some ways, I have to believe that even Bacevich’s experience as a soldier rails against the idea that the troops after 1991 could sit back and watch the fighting happen. I have several friends and comrades would would contest this claim severely. More to the point, though, what evidence could Bacevich have possibly adduced for his implied claims about soldiers’ subjective experiences of warfighting? Is it in case studies? War memoirs? Hospital records? Again, Bacevich should not have stepped on to such slippery ground without a critical point to argue and a credible body of evidence to support it.
There are probably fewer than twenty such missteps throughout The New American Militarism, but they remind me that, nice as it is to have my sentiments read back to me as theories, hardly any theory is watertight, especially about war and politics.
THE LAST BOOK I READ was Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a fictionalized history of the early CIA, published in 1991, just as the Cold War was coming to a rather spectacular end. I read it over the visceral objections I felt toward Mailer as a person. I’d never read any of his novels, but his reputation was too big and in some ways too ugly to ignore. I knew, for example, that he regularly picked fights with feminists, that he had tried, in various ways, to out-macho Hemingway, and that he had stabbed his second wife nearly to death in 1960 and felt famously little contrition for it. Most critics assume it is fitting—derigeur, even—to draw a cold distinction between the artist and his art. One doesn’t stick on Shakespeare’s purience, for example, if the task at hand is to air a theory on Lear’s existential irony. P.G. Wodehouse is a loveable master of farce, his writings utterly innocent of politcs, but in 1941 he really did walk into a Berlin radio studio and broadcast what can only be decribed as Nazi propaganda.
It is one thing to discover such things in retrospect, after one has read good books by flawed men. But as I said, I disliked Mailer going in to Harlot’s Ghost. If I am not quite able to maintain the critic‘s serene neglect of the author’s personal flaws, it is at least in part because I believe the artist and his art are of a piece. Nietzsche reminds us there is an essential bond between the two: “It is the work of the artist,” he wrote, “that invents the man who created it. ‘Great men,’ as they are venerated, are subsequent pieces of minor fiction.” Thus I cannot help but fear that I will glimspe Mailer the moral wreck flitting through the pages of everything he wrote, no matter how diverting the stories might be.
All that said, I was still prepared to find a great novel in Harlot’s Ghost. Its formidable length—1,200 pages—and weighty topic—the influence of elite, secretive powerbrokers on the American national identity—suggest that Harlot could birth a modern day Balzac, as it seems intended to do. And it almost does, rolling out an engrossing portrait of America’s cultural history in an era when—we didn’t know it yet—culture wars were starting to eclipse our political discourse. An American citizen today cannot read Harlot’s Ghost without feeling, as Thomas Mann did, that history is all the more luminous for being recent. A distance of some few decades reveals that one’s childhood contained great events which were able, at the time, to masquerade as non-entities because of our proximity to them. I had this feeling often while reading Harlot’s Ghost.
The plot is both simple and complex. On one hand it is simply a Bildungsroman that tells the story of Hal Hubbard’s upbringing among connected Northeastern Wasps and a career full of louche scenes and moral compromises made possible by the CIA. His icily distant father, a career spy, treats Hal as one would imagine Hemingway treating his sons, occasionally summoning them to a bar to warn them, tersely, away from the sins of unmanliness and to recommend flyfishing spots in Idaho.
Harlot’s plot is also, perhaps unnecessarily, complex, featuring an epilogue as prologue and using an extended flashback to advance most of the narrative. As the action opens, Hubbard’s life, seen from its midpoint, is (almost literally) imploding around him. He is driving home at midnight from a lovers’ tryst and almost crashes on an icy road. Mastering himself, he arrives to find his ancient castle of a house (grandly named “the Keep”) in rural Maine has been staked out by CIA men, his wife Kittredge, an off-balance, ivory-skinned, raven-haired beauty who sees ghosts, is hiding deep inside, just apprised of dreadful news. Which is this: Hubbard‘s Olympian, sage-like CIA mentor Hugh Tremont Montegue—Kittredge’s ex-husband—has been found dead near Washington. Unhinged, Kittredge flees with an old rival of Hubbard’s. Hubbard burns the Keep down, before flying off to Moscow carrying the microfiche documents that we are led to believe will reveal how things came to such an awful pass.
But before summing up the story’s main events, I should point out that Mailer’s feminist critics will not have to wait long to find their nemesis in top form. In the opening scenes, Hubbard’s inner monologue as he navigates the icy roads homeward concerns his decision to bed a friendly, fleshy waitress from a nearby truckstop. The choice is an unnusal one in light of Hubbard’s sacred regard for his formidably beautiful wife, who also happens to be a specialist in theoretical psychoanalysis. Women are so great, Hubbard (and, we suspect, Mailer) raphsodizes, because they come in so many types of sex object. Kittredge the impossible beauty, locked away in her castle, is a font of holy sacrament. I once heard a Jesuit priest opine that sex could be a kind of prayer: I suppose this is something like what Hubbard/Mailer has in mind for Kittredge. Chloe the booby waitress is, and can only be, great for a lusty romp. It is a crime against aesthetics, Hubbard pleads, to make her keep her clothes on. With so much game afield, come on girls, you can’t expect us to choose, can you?
But back to the plot. Hubbard is groomed by Montegue (codenamed Harlot), recruited into the Agency, and after learning a few special warfare skills at the Farm, he sets out to Berlin Station. There he learns that there are underground bars where you can urinate on a tied-up man and that the CIA’s preferred spying partner in West Germany is Reinhard Gehlen, a former Third Reich military intelligence officer who brought a sizeable network of ex-Nazis with him when he approached the CIA in friendship after World War II. Both discoveries seem to say something about a good spy’s need to take his sources where he can find them. And so begins Hubbard’s education in what spies must do to advance a higher cause. The moral license stamped by deep officialdom enables strange new pleasures, he finds. “Is there any state more agreeable than living and working like a wicked angel?” he muses, as one supposes, most spies do early on.
After Berlin Hubbard is ordered to Montevideo, Uruguay. One might have expected it to be a quiet posting, but Hubbard discovers that his government is busily containing Communism at all points on the globe, and his pampas backwater is no exception. It is awash with Soviet spies and Latin revolutionaries. Hubbard learns Spanish, has an affair with a superior’s wife, and starts the long epistolary relationship with Kittredge that lays the groundwork for their eventual betrayal of Harlot. Intelligence professionals will find this section trying, not for its longeur, but for the rank implausibility of Hubbard’s casual disclosure of highly classified information to Kittredge, in letters no less, and for no higher cause than flirtation. I suppose Mailer is using this device to illustrate how elites presume themselves exempt from the usual rules, but it simply does not jibe with reality. High officials might occasionally leak vetted secrets for an intended effect (I surmise), but the working stiffs in the world of intelligence don’t go sloshing around classified information at the risk of their careers, as Mailer would have us believe Hubbard does.
From Montevideo Hubbard is assigned to Miami, where his spy games start setting hooks into historical events. Not only is he deeply involved in preparing the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he is also running sources so sensitive that he embarks on a professional seduction of a flight attendant who is also sleeping with JFK and considering sleeping with a mob boss who may or may not be helping Camelot gear up for its Cuban adventure. Needless to say, this effort is the one that relieves Hubbard of his last delusions about his employer and whether all is well with the men moving its levers. But he stays with the Agency, because he has become a good spy, which makes him not quite the right fit for life on the outside.
In the end Harlot’s Ghost does succeed as a great morality tale even if it is not a great novel. It has, as great morality tales must, a defining moment—something of a surprise in a book of 1,200 pages. In the pivotal passage Montague the arch spymaster has finished dispensing all his collected wisdom on tradecraft to Hubbard; now he is positioned to reveal what the CIA is ultimately for. The Agency does not merely gather the information that will keep the U.S. power elite a step ahead of their competitors. The CIA’s ultimate duty, Harlot intimates, is to “become the mind of America.” If this notion sounds like it is based in a “standard” conspiracy theory, its verbiage should be compared with the rather flashier concepts underwriting U.S. security services‘ ambitions to achieve “total information dominance” or some other such superlative. No appeal to skullduggery is needed to make moral sense of Harlot’s revelation. What would it mean for the CIA to become America’s mind? Simply that most of our citizens would come to view the world primarily in terms of threats. This perspective is a necessary one for the CIA, but for our citizens on Main Street, it is a wholesale surrender to fear, a retreat from the hopeful, bountiful world which the fully human person ought to inhabit. And we seem to be partway there. Mailer could hardly have asked for a better recommendation for his novel, than that someday it would illumine us in flagrante delicto, seeking and longing to be like the CIA. Do we not see danger everywhere? Do we not profess that we will take any measures, consort with any actors no matter how loathesome to eliminate those who hate our freedoms?
Mailer nicely anticipates the younger Bush’s formulation “by any means necessary” when he puts these words in the mouth of Harlot, describing an earlier life-or-death battle: “We‘re in an ultimate struggle with the Russians, and that means we have to use everything. Not only the kitchen sink, but the vermin that come with the sink.”
This theme is where my appreciation of Harlot‘s Ghost runs deepest. I read the book very much as a sequel to Gore Vidal’s Empire and The Golden Age, novels that document how America first blundered into militarism and then consciously chose to have a national security state rather than the republic we had before, which, if not paradise, at least did not seek war as its natural condition. Mailer, for all his faults, joins Vidal, heroically, I have to say, in forcing us to acknowledge the deliberate choices and willful delusions that led to this pass. We chose military supremacy as the measure of our greatness, and the choice is on the record. You may read it in the National Security Act of 1947. If novels like Mailer’s can help us see that the way is still clear to win back the roads, schools and hospitals that military primacy cost us, then long live such novels.
My main quarrel with Harlot’s Ghost as great literature is that, in many places, it is not even good literature. One unfriendly reviewer remarked that Mailer needed a better editor to slim his tome down. I feel he could have benefited even from a poorly turned out writers‘ workshop. Such ghastly phrases; something could have been done! Before I get to cases, though, it is worth recalling some principles of novel writing. Martin Amis holds that each sentence of a novel should be perfect. And why not? It is an inhuman task, but one routinely accomplished by the masters. Proust, Dostoevsky, James, maybe even Amis himself—they all go on a great length, but without ever giving the reader pause to wonder whether what is happening behind the word flow is less than sublime.
Mailer, for his part, is forever trying out blustering, bizarre similes and metaphors. He should altogether flee situations where the intensity of a thing calls out for a figure of speech to give it scale. At their most benign, these situations involve him in curiosities like, “Drunk, miserable, hollow as a gourd, I could hear the silences where unseen judges gather.” I cannot for the life of me work out what this means, but maybe I’ve just never been that drunk. Sometimes the effect is just blankly banal, as in, “A wall arises within my memory as black as our incapacity to know where death will lead us.” Or: “It started to snow, and I felt as if I were in the last reel of a movie about Alaska.” But there are also too many jagged errors or plodding missteps. Hubbard alludes thus to the ubiquitous smell of barbeque in Montevideo: “It gets into everything you eat, fish, chicken, eggs, all those great galloping beef on the pampas.” Enough. Beef simply do not gallop. Nor do they trot. Prodded or frightened they can work up to an ungainly jog, a motion which, in a group, can impress one with fear, but cattle do not gallop or otherwise move as horses do.
I feel slightly small spirited ending on quibbles such as these, but it is perhaps due to my disappointment over what Mailer might have achieved with Harlot’s Ghost. It is a truly prohpetic novel in its attempt to warn the American people that they might not wish to have a secret army doing God’s work across the globe. It is also full of historical insights, for example into the role played by JFK’s valorization of expertise in expanding shadowy services—like the CIA’s—done for the sake of national security. It is a novel that sets out, as I said, to be Balzacian, and in long stretches it seems to succeed. All the more discouraging, then, when its flaws remind one that the tale is not in the hands of a master. A very good novel but not a great one.
HARDLY ANY DISCUSSION of books and ideas starts without some ritual throat clearing, so here goes. I am not a professional critic. If you are not a friend or family member, you will have little notion of where I’m coming from. It would seem like a good idea, then, to start on a paradigmatic note. I could, for example, review my favorite novel. Several titles come readily to mind. Cervantes’ Don Qixote and Kafka’s The Castle are the most important novels I’ve ever read. They diagnose the human condition with more wisdom and sympathy than can be found in a hundred other outstanding works. Together they bookend the tradition and history of the novel.
But my appreciation of Cervantes and Kafka is lifted largely from Milan Kundera—who made an explicit case for their greatness—and from Albert Camus, who came at their works more obliquely but still raised them to he status of gods. Perhaps I’d better start with them.
Then again, if I have a patron saint, it is Orwell. I read him these days as I once read the Bible, fervently, avidly, sometimes in great swathes to catch the big themes, often in small snatches before sleep. Orwell’s words, still vivid 70, 80, 90 years after he wrote them, inspired the name of my blog and the sentiment behind it. He pressed his readers to believe the world, troubled and corrupt as it was, was still ameliorable. This mortal life was not merely a vale of tears, worthy in the end only of pious indifference; it was worth struggling over. In a diary Orwell kept during World War II, he recorded that he had “so much to live for, in spite of poor health and having no children.” To expand a bit on Orwell’s terse expression of things: he was dying slowly of tuberculosis; his home, London, was being bombed on a daily basis; Hitler had conquered much of Europe and showed no signs he could be defeated. And, Orwell lacked children, the only thing most of us have that promises our passions and beliefs might survive our death in some form. If Orwell could make an appeal for optimism under such circumstances, we owe him a hearing.
Oh, yes, the blog’s name. As I said, it comes from Orwell. Tucked away in one of his shortest essays, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” he makes a case for drinking strong Indian rather than delicate Chinese tea. Chinese tea is fine in flavor, Orwell says, but unlike Indian tea, “there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.” When I read that line the first time I immediately felt that good books often produced a similar feeling, and, short as life is, I wanted to concentrate on reading more books of precisely that sort. My passion for reading is an unsupervised one; I’ll read just about anything with a reputation. The best books, though, are the ones that leave me feeling the way Orwell felt after his nice cup of tea.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to my starting point. We instinctively draw frames around our thoughts, lay out gridworks where the coordinates will fall. In many pursuits this instinct is a sound one; a plan of some sort is almost always better than no plan at all. But the best decisions in my life have come from just plunging in. So that is what I will do here. I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this collection of book reviews, or if I’m even going anywhere, but in any case I will start where I think best, in medias res. The last book I read was . . .