In April 1941 (long before the entry of the U.S. into the war), the British had had some success in the tank campaign in North Africa, and it became necessary for “a terribly important convoy of tanks . . . to risk the perilous Mediterranean route” at which point Winston Churchill “informed the Cabinet of the timetable, adding:
‘‘If anyone’s good at praying, now is the time.’’
Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (2011) (Kindle ed. loc. 2424-26).
Not everyone will like (or should like) this fascinating piece by Claire Dederer (@ClaireDederer) in The Paris Review: “What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men?” [link] She begins by contemplating the unassailable fact that many people who have created great art have also done monstrous acts (think of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen).
How do we deal with what they have made after we know what they have done?
As such, it is an interesting piece. What makes it more than another of the many think-pieces about the Trump-Weinstein-Spacey storyline is the fact that she becomes introspective about it without letting go of her appropriate moral outrage:
When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.
Reminder: not “you,” not “we,” but “I.” Stop side-stepping ownership. I am the audience. And I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation when I bitch about Woody and Soon-Yi, I know that, on some level, I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.
In the end, she properly calls attention to the fact that even in the midst of doing something apparently praiseworthy — finishing her writing project — she may do (does do!) some “little savageries” to come to the end of her work.
Either way, the questions remain:
What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters? Tiny voice: [Am I a monster?]
And the question is a fair one, not just about art, but about all accomplishment.
It is not a comfortable question, and the answer is not that their/your/my monstrosity is a fair trade for the art or the accomplishment, never that. The answer must include the incredible fact of the monstrosity in all of us.
Still, there is a grace that comes in the introspection itself. It is not the final grace, but it is an elegant beginning.
As you may have already read, Artemis is not The Martian.
This is not entirely bad, but I think that most who loved Andy Weir’s first novel will be at least a little disappointed in his second. Remember how you felt when you read The Pelican Brief after you read The Firm? Or Red Storm Rising after The Hunt for Red October? Or The Burden of Proof after Presumed Innocent? Or The Hotel New Hampshire after The World According to Garp? Or Dune Messiah after Dune?
When an author has done something truly surprising with a first novel, then I suppose we have to expect a little bit of reversion to the mean* on the second.**
Artemis still has some of The Martian‘s engineering geekiness (not as much); and a good bit of Mark Watney’s snark (in a young female voice); but it entirely loses the grand heroic aspect of the earlier book. The Martian showed the spunk and resilience of the engineer-hero placed in initial conditions beyond his control. Artemis‘ heroine, Jazz Bashara, creates most of her own trouble and so the effect is very different. Add to that the difficulty of writing a female lead, far more (and more diverse) characters, a more elaborate plot, and balancing new economic and social themes, and, well . . . okay, a little reversion to the mean is to be expected.
Still a fun book, and I enjoyed it.
It should be easier to follow than The Martian, too.
*”Reversion to the mean, also called regression to the mean, is the statistical phenomenon stating that the greater the deviation of a random variate from its mean, the greater the probability that the next measured variate will deviate less far. In other words, an extreme event is likely to be followed by a less extreme event.” Wolfram MathWorld, “Reversion to the Mean” [link].
**Actually The Firm was Grisham’s second book, coming as it did after A Time to Kill which was wonderful (after the horrifying first chapter), but not genre breaking, and not well known before The Firm. Frank Herbert had publications before Dune, but nothing even close in stature. Garp was John Irving’s fourth book. It is not always first and second books.
Sometimes it is nice to revisit a novel you have not read in a long time:
“The procedures of the law are much discussed, and people know about lawyers and courts and prisons and punishment and all that sort of thing, but that is just the apparatus through which the law works. And it works in the cause of justice. Now, justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to everyone his due. Every law student has to learn that.”
Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972) (p. 62 in the Penguin ed.).
Some people find the re-reading of novels to be odd, but it seems to me not unlike listening to a favorite piece of music, or viewing a well-loved painting, or returning to a known hike, or visiting an old friend. You do not return for an identical experience, for you yourself are different.
Another nice passage, this one about about advocacy from David Staunton’s legal mentor:
“I think you’ll make an advocate,” said he. “You have the two necessities, ability and imagination. A good advocate is his client’s alter ego; his task is to say what his client would say for himself if he had the knowledge and the power. Ability goes hand in hand with the knowledge: the power is dependent on imagination. But when I say imagination I mean capacity to see all sides of a subject and weigh all possibilities; I don’t mean fantasy and poetry and moonshine; imagination is a good horse to carry you over the ground, not a flying carpet to set you free from probability.”
Recommended to me by my brother-in-law (the polymath), an old* piece from Nick Carr on the values of reading:
In our day-to-day routines, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we are relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people and hence can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.
Nicholas Carr, “The Dreams of Readers” Rough Type (Jan. 9, 2014) [link] (Carr is quoting Norman Holland in the internal quotations.)
That seems to me to be exactly right. If we read properly, we are not immediately arguing with everything. We can listen to an author in a way that we too seldom listen to the people in the room with us. This is easier with novels than with history and easier with either than with newspaper editorials, but (I think) always easier with the written than the spoken word.
*Obviously, if I am just now reading blog posts from 2014, I am never going to catch up. Fortunately, this piece seems to be included in Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations (2017) [link]. That can be my next book of essays after The View from the Cheap Seats, which I continue to dip into when I am between books.
And, continuing the conversation started by LeCrae and John Piper, from Raymond Chang, The Exchange:
3. “Open Letter to John Piper on White Evangelicalism and Multiethnic Relations” [link]
(for earlier parts of this conversation — called to my attention by my older daughter — see LeCrae’s conversation at Truth’s Table [link]; and Piper, “My Hopeful Response” [link]. If someone has the link to LeCrae’s written piece, please send it to me).
And “The Yankees’ rotation will flounder: And being both unable and unwilling to land a top-flight starter via trade, the prodigious Yankees offense is wasted as New York hangs around .500 all year. (As do the Oakland A’s, which tells you everything you need to know about the Yanks’ campaign.)” per FOX Sports [link]