Monday, March 13, 2006


Imagine opening a volume of critical essays on "The Turn of the Screw" only to find that every single piece says-- I'd rather not say what, rather than even through a hint out to those who haven't read it (and "Lost" fans don't deserve the annotation anyway). Criterion's "Fanny and Alexander" booklet presents much the same unpleasant surprise and, judging from the online samples, the television edit has thrown commentators into a frenzy of reductionism.
At least Rick Moody doesn't write his essay the way he does his fiction. But it's galling to find so many latching onto that chair and furnishing the whole castle-- my enchanted castle which is the movie itself-- in reductive threads. While I'm agnostic enough to admit, for instance, that Harriet Anderson most likely did not call upon her sisters as she waited to rot away into the Beyond (it was only a fantasy/parable in Anna's imagination, true with the clearer truth of dreams, an "it is so, so it should be enacted so"-- "most likely" . . . ), I don't take that to be often the case in "Fanny and Alexander", and Bergmann always leaves his book wide open.
Yes, I'm still shuddering from its sublimities, even with that hyperrigor of exquisite dreams. But all that must wait, for one viewing does not make a man rich in argument, or at least not exhaustive, which is what all good diatribes must be.

This will not be a good one. My quote for the day was fished from last week's "US News" during those last-few-hours-before-the-post-brings-the-new-one crammathon (I want to milk my subscription for what it's worth). Here's Random House vice-president for 'new media' Keith Titan on today's reading habits: "People are reading more than ever-- screen-based reading, on mobile phone, BlackBerrys, computer screens, reading blogs, and gathering information on the Web." I'll just throw that last little cherry on top into the back of the freezer till I'm ready to hang the NCTE and its fellow-travelers out to dry for their particular brand of mental masturbation (yes yes, "gathering"!, veritably harvesting all that goodness, all that good information on the Web, good people go, go gather ye your information on the Web! The Web, yes!! . . . ). People are reading more than ever, reading menus, bumper stickers on the backs of cars, they're reading billboards, and church bulletins, and the dirty words tattooed on the backsides of the lay-of-the-night, they're gathering information from their digital watches. Random House, are you paying this putz well to put out these blurbs? Ah, then it's a gift . . . .
This put me in mind of a passage from John Podhoretz's memoir of the Bush pere White House, "Hell of a Ride". He writes: "The only book anybody thinks he read during his four years in office was Tom Clancy's novel about the drug war, and there's no evidence he finished it. . . . Given his thirty thousand handwritten notes, it's entirely possible Bush wrote more than he ever read." [229]
This is not entirely true, as the rumor was afloat in '92 that G. H. W. Bush was curling up with McCullough's Truman tome, though in Monica Crowley's "Nixon Off the Record" RN comments, "Now please. Bush is not really a reader, especially during the convention!" [108]. But it got me to thinking about frivolous communication, both the reading and writing of trivia, data, and all the yes/no/maybe-we'll-have-lunch crap that Random House perhaps considers to be marketable today.
More interestingly, it got me to thinking about Presidential reading habits, or their absence rather. Everyone knows presidents are not a well-read bunch. Edmund Morris didn't need to spot-check Reagan to see if he recognized the names of Goethe and Schumann! And yes I know Schumann is a composer, one of my idols in fact, but since I don't recall whether Stendhal or Balzac or Turgenev or Tasso or whoever actually made Morris' list whenever the quiz was administered, I won't put names in his mouth. Even Paul Johnson is down with the fact that the thinkers who made Thatcher a Thatcherite were quite off the radar of Ronald Reagan. And if Nixon listened to "Kreisleriana" or (as Stone's film would have it, anachronistically) a Harnoncourt recording of Schubert, or if Clinton could read "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (a work for which he could have little sympathy) should we sleep better knowing that the commander-in-chief is also the Culture Vulture-in-chief?
If anything, it's a shocking relief to see Dallek assure us that young JFK actually broke the spine on a hefty Walter Lippmann volume and half a dozen other serious tomes (though I'm frankly sceptical). An even greater oddity can be found in Carter's Presidential Papers, where he tells us, and the people of India, somewhere, what he has taken from the "Bhagavad-Gita". But can we discover this Dixie Arjuna anywhere within the arc of his Administration? Do Jimmy Carter's explorations of Hindu mysticism show themselves in the face of his policies? He must have found Krishna's wisdom a little sanguine for his taste!
By no means do I intend to endorse the Andrew Sullivan/Peggy Noonan take on the virtues of simpleminded Presidents. Tortured geniuses like LBJ and Nixon, so the argument goes, attract psychoanalytic liberals who are at once free to speculate on the complex inner workings of Presidential paranoia (thus feeling at once companionable-- he's a big neurotic too-- and smugly superior), all the while secretly, masochistically thrilling themselves with awe before these masterful males, whose apocalyptic powers and irrational implacability make them totemic surrogates for the Jehovah they have scorned. This is merely the negative theology of Reaganolatry, which locates its second coming in the second President Bush. Politically, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were surely as much unitary characters, true to their core convictions, as Reagan was; and the human Reagan, while not perhaps so odd as many of his peers, offers room for analysis, while George W. Bush is a Michael Lind screed born to life. More to the point, there is no brownie for being a foursquare character in the White House, any more than there is for mastering the Mortimer Adler library of classics.
Still-- obviously-- some effort should be made, and perhaps it is time the public begins to demand it of its candidates, as it should of its children, and finally of itself. What books should we thrust into the hands of a distracted chief executive? At the moment I fancy the idea of equipping the George H. W. Bush of '92 with Ferrero's "Characters and Events of Roman History", partly because I see something of him in Ferrero's portrayal of Tiberius (not the Saddamite monster of Tacitus' portrait), where he could identify himself in the misunderstood administrator and general, a man of simple virtues and complex skills but little trusted by a frivolous people, or even by the more charismatic predecessor who at once establishes and undercuts him; but more importantly as an examination of the broad sweep of those historical currents Conservatism and Cosmopolitanism, an examination that might have fortified him in standing firm by his martial and diplomatic record, his recognized virtues of experience and prudence, rather than carelessly following down the path cut by the officeless Buchanan. In the portrait of Nero (also more benign than Roman record) he might find comic forebodings of the imperial theatrics of Bill Clinton, and perhaps he might even dream of some Cleopatra of the East who would welcome and establish him as a new Antony when his people have discarded him. Didn't Bush once compare himself to some old gladiator of anecdotal fame? That's a lot of intellectual heft for a thin little book, and if I were ever fortunate enough to meet him, I'd press it into his aged hand. And perhaps Dr. Spock's baby book too.

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