You’ll have to forgive me for having such a short newsletter this month. Are you exhausted? Me too. April really is the cruelest of months. Do all the Zoom calls leave you feeling fatigued? Same. There’s probably a reason for that by the way (see here for a theory on the causes of Zoom fatigue).
But there is one thing I always want to accomplish in a newsletter, no matter how long or thought out it is, and that is share with you all the things I’ve read that have really made an impression on me. These are the articles on literature and art that I keep thinking about and have a desire to return to. I’ll also be employing the typical newsletter-padding trick of pasting some of the best passages from these articles.
Let’s start with one I read pre-quarantine.
Possessed by the Past by Noah Millman is a bit academic and a bit reactionary, but Millman thinks so deeply about three different works of art and how they interact with American history, that I felt it was worthy of being shared no matter if the light political commentary is something you may cringe at. He states the thesis of his essay so well, there’s no need for me to attempt to regurgitate it:
“When we are not declaring that it is bunk, Americans have frequently claimed to be exempt from history’s laws, and have even declared it our national mission to bring history to a happy conclusion—something that, thirty years ago, we flattered ourselves that we had in fact done. If history was a nightmare, then to be an American was to wake up. While dissenting voices have long called for us to learn from history’s lessons, and to have a greater appreciation of the contingencies and calamities of the history we made on this continent, to describe our history as a nightmare would have seemed foreign to most Americans only a few years ago.
That may no longer be the case. As our politics has grown increasingly apocalyptic in tone, our understanding of history has grown more nightmarish. From the “woke” left comes the charge that 1619, the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia, was the true founding of America, our history from that point onward an extended effort to deny and compound our original sin. From the right, meanwhile, comes the suspicion that the liberal political order that defined our nation from its inception also planted the seeds of degeneracy and decay, and that by now we may have sunk so far into the quicksand on which we were founded that the best hope for concerned citizens might be to secede from national life and build communities able to survive a coming dark age.
How might that change shape art informed by a historical consciousness? I found myself confronted by that question attending three very different works of narrative art, taking three distinctive yet contemporary tacks as they approach a history whose nightmares have begun to invade our waking days.”
This essay hits multiple sweet spots for me: historical dialectics and the “end of history,” sociological responses to historical contingencies, and how that is then expressed through the art we make. It’s dense, no doubt, but if it sounds like it is for you, then please give it a read.
By the way, one of those works of art he writes about is the film The Lighthouse. I recently watched it (available on Amazon Prime) and found the movie to be perplexing but entertaining. Millman’s analysis is a helpful companion.
I have a confession: generational fights crack me up. I find all the “ok boomer” memes pretty funny. I’m a millennial that 100% feels like Boomers had it the easiest.
This essay, in particular, takes a cleaver to the art of Gen X and claims their nihilism comes off a little privileged in retrospect. I realize we may have some Boomer and Gen X readers, so let me say this: I still love The Beatles, Nirvana, Fight Club, etc. But I still can’t help but identify with this piece.
“Millennials have seen the return of history. The growth of the 1990s economy was short-lived, career options have declined while economic inequality has grown, the climate is trashed and we have been trained to survive in a world that no longer exists. White Gen Xers were relatively insulated from the social crises of their day. But the barriers that might have shielded Millennials from the brunt of oppression are breaking down.
If Boomer idealism was a false promise, then what was Gen X’s detachment? Was it just another failed attempt at authenticity? Or did it quickly erode as an “end of history” narrative that only appeared as such because a micro-culture was blind to the rest of the world? Either way, many of the “boring” artifacts of middle-class life the Gen Xers had rebelled against were increasingly unattainable for the downwardly mobile Millennials. While Gen X wanted to bomb the suburbs, many Millennials just wish they could afford to live there (or anywhere, for that matter). The world that Millennials were offered was simply not as stable as that bequeathed to Gen Xers. Consequently, Millennials understand that life is a battle.”
But how do we millennials begin to confront the history we are facing? Millman’s essay gives some guidance but there’s another author people are returning to that was well ahead of his time. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, it seems to be JG Ballard’s world.
“Ballard’s oeuvre is filled with enforced quarantines and self-isolations, with riots breaking out among the bored middle classes. His 1982 short story “Having a Wonderful Time” is narrated in the form of brief postcards from a young woman on holiday in the Canary Islands with her husband. As the cards progress over time, stretching out eventually over months, it becomes clear the Canaries have been converted by the governments of Western Europe into a kind of mass detention camp, where members of the managerial classes, for some unspecified reason no longer employable, are to live out their days in a state of suspended leisure. It’s hard to think about this story now without immediately picturing quarantined cruise ships and all those holidaymakers confined to their resorts, lounging by the pools in protective face masks.”
And some more highlights from the essay:
“Twenty-first century life was already Ballardian. The rapid transition, under the new viral order, into further extremes of technological alienation has only made it more so. Western Europe is now a vast quarantined sprawl of empty streets and deserted motorways. People are confined to their homes, communicating almost exclusively via electronic means. Face-masked shoppers in the aisles of Marks & Spencer keep a wary distance from one another while stockpiling halloumi and organic wines against the coming tribulations. There is widely shared video footage of a pampered little showdog being walked through abandoned streets by aerial drones, operated by a pet owner too fearful of contagion to leave the house. All of it is unadulterated Ballard.”
“…The lives he wrote about were insular, self-contained, contentedly devoid of real interpersonal relationships. The forms of human connection they yearned for are the fundamentally Freudian ones: sex and violence. And so there is an area of our current experience that remains outside the jurisdiction of his cataclysmic imagination. What the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated is that we don’t want to be isolated, communicating only at a technological remove. Suddenly thrust into this state of Ballardian suspension, what most of us want, most of the time, is to be out there, in the world of friends and strangers, together. Right now, we all live in Ballard’s world, but we are not all Ballard’s people.”
Give it a read. Can’t recommend it enough.
I wish you all good health. This too shall pass and we will be back out there in the world of friends and strangers, together once again, and I’ll be damned if I ever do another Zoom call.