Other Peoples' Indians; or Why the Soviets Loved James Fenimore Cooper for All the Wrong Reasons

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The Paris Review is first mystified by the Soviet Union's love of American frontier novelist James Fenimore Cooper, but is soon set straight by someone who points to the ideological jockeying it represented:

I was perplexed to learn that the Soviet Union, in its waning days, produced a series of five vivid postage stamps devoted to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It seemed as if some lazy Soviet bureaucrat must’ve made a mistake. Why, after all, would the USSR want to commemorate some of the foundational texts of American lit, especially when Natty Bumppo stands as a paragon of rugged individualism? In other words, how had one of our folk heroes found an audience in a place where he should’ve been reviled?

Sandra Nickel, an author of young-adult novels, got the answer from her daughter’s Russian godmother, whose youth was apparently filled with totally authorized American classics:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of twelve—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words.

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life.

As I've said before and will say again, other people's Indians.


Trump and Musil's Moosbrugger

David Auerbach compares Trump to...Moosbrugger (!), the lust-murderer from Musil's The Man Without Qualities:

Musil’s core insight is that Moosbrugger possesses a cosmic sense of himself that removes him from the world of human agency and responsibility, akin to Strawson’s objective attitude. Moosbrugger’s indifference to all values and to the very idea of values threatens yet fascinates, since it offers us the freedom to give voice to our most egregious selves and see them reflected back at us not as human qualities but as forces of nature. So it is with Trump, a catalyst that transforms resentment and worship into fame. Elsewhere, Musil describes Moosbrugger’s dissolution of self into universe in this way:

Anyone can conceive of a man’s life flowing along like a brook, but what Moosbrugger felt was his life flowing like a brook through a vast, still lake. As it flowed onward it continued to mingle with what it was leaving behind and became almost indistinguishable from the movements on either side of it. Once, in a half-waking dream, he had a sense of having worn this life’s Moosbrugger like an ill-fitting coat on his back; now, when he opened it a bit, the most curious sort of lining came billowing out silkily, endless as a forest.

This is a kind of super-solipsism, not just a conviction that no one else exists but an inability to conceive of one’s own self as a separable agent in the world. Trump’s psychology only makes sense after this traditional conception of ego is discarded. I do not think that theADHD-addled Trump cares how he is remembered; all there is for him is the attention, the worship, the now. For Trump, who defines himself only against his immediate surroundings, liminal forms of relating take precedence over any and all values, facts, or even goals. This lack of temporal awareness and planning may be his downfall, since all he knows is immediate escalation and pandering in pursuit of the immediate win. If he amassed an army of brownshirts, he couldn’t be bothered to give them orders.

As cosmic entities, Moosbrugger and Trump are only human as far as we perceive them to be. As raw forces of narcissism, they demand that we perceive them. And yet because they are empty, they are constitutionally incapable of taking responsibility for anything they do, or of having any intuition that words and thoughts should tend to accord with an external reality. Trump’s profound and sweeping ignorance of all things serves his narcissism; knowledge would only put constraints on his ability to be what people want him to be and what people will love him for.

I'd call this an interesting failed argument. Not because Moosbrugger is a serial murderer and Trump isn't, that's too obvious. The real problem is that, as the passage describing Moosbrugger's adaptation to prison shows, Moosbrugger is insane. Musil was quite knowledgeable about psychiatry, and portrays many different symptoms of schizophrenia in these passages: delusions of reference (statements directed at the general public are meant for me alone), command hallucinations, and of course voices:

Moosbrugger heard voices or music or a wind, or a blowing and humming, a whizzing and rattling, or shots, thunder, laughing, shouts, speaking, or whispering. It came at him from every direction; the sounds were in the walls, ill the air, in his clothes, in his body. He had the impression he was carrying it in his body as long as it was silent; once it was out, it hid somewhere hi his surroundings, but never very far from him. When he was working, the voices would speak at him mostly in random words or short phrases, insulting and nagging him, and when he thought of some- thing they came out with it before he could, or spitefully said the opposite of what he meant. It was ridiculous to be declared insane on this account; Moosb~gger regarded these voices and visions as mere monkeyshines. It entertained him to hear and see what they did; that was ever so much better than the hard, heavy thoughts he had himself. But of course he got very angry when they really annoyed him, that was only natural. Moosbrugger knew, because he always paid close attention to all the expressions that were applied to him, that this was called hallucinating, and he was pleased that he had this knack for hallucination that others lacked; it enabled him to see all sorts of things others didn’t, such as lovely landscapes and hellish monsters. But he found that they always made far too much of it, and when the stays in mental hospitals became too unpleasant, he maintained outright that he was only pretending. The know-it-ails would ask him how loud the sounds were; a senseless question, because of course what he heard .was sometimes as loud as a thunderclap, and sometimes the merest whisper. Even the physical pains that sometimes plagued him could be unbearable or slight enough to be imaginary. That wasn’t the important thing. Often he could not have described exactly what he saw, heard, and felt, but he knew what it was. It could be very blurred; the visions came from outside, but a shimmer of observation told him at the same time that they were really something inside himself.

Other people in the novel (especially Rachel) project qualities onto and into Moosbrugger, which is somewhat analogous to Trump. But Musil makes it clear that Moosbrugger is simply insane. Unusually intelligent and self-aware, but clearly nuts.

Whatever else you might say about him, Donald Trump has no real problems with reality-testing, to use the psychiatric phrase. He may be a narcissist, but this simply means he has a distorted view of how the world should treat him and what he's entitled to, not a distorted perception of what is real and what isn't.

So, I say Auerbach fails, but fails interestingly. 


Bestselling Olympian of all Time: Dr. Spock

...is Dr. Benjamin Spock:

Spock ... won an Olympic gold medal in rowing in 1924 while attending Yale University....

In 1946, Spock published his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which became a bestseller. Its message to mothers is that "you know more than you think you do."[1] By 1998 it had sold more than 50 million copies. It has been translated into 39 languages. Later he wrote three more books about parenting.[citation needed]

According to The New York Times, Baby and Child Care was, throughout its first 52 years, the second-best-selling book, next to the Bible.[6] According to other sources, it was among best-sellers, albeit not second-best-selling.

I came from a Spockian family. My mother swore by the book, which is still a refreshing, reassuring, jargon-free guide, despite the fact that it was written under the influence of psychoanalysis. Spock had the practical intelligence that teaches you not to be impressed by jargon, but also to realize that there may be useful ideas concealed beneath it. Our family talked about "Dr. Spock" so much that I always called Mr. Spock from Star Trek Dr. Spock, and thought they were somehow related, perhaps even the same person.

Spock also came out swinging against the Vietnam War, denouncing it every chance he got and getting himself arrested during protests. I'd be willing to wager that this is one of the rare cases in modern history in which a writer has actually influenced mass opinion on an issue of actual importance. Dr. Spock found it objectionable that an entire generation of young men he had helped raise were being sent across the earth to fight, kill, and die in some steaming jungle in a pointless, savage war. 

So writers, if you really want to influence the world, all you have to do is write one of the best-selling books in history addressing a topic of concern to every living human!


Quote of the Day: Dostoevsky on Virtue Signalling

The narrator describes an article by the writer Karmazinov, Dosteovsky's satirical portrayal of Turgenev:

"A year before, I had read an article of his in a review, written with an immense affectation of naïve poetry, and psychology too. He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved, and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: 'Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen. Why look at that drowned woman with the dead child in her dead arms? Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear that sight and turned away from it. Here I stood with my back to it; here I was horrified and could not bring myself to look; I blinked my eyes—isn't that interesting?'"

Dostoevsky, The Possessed


Marcel Broodthaer's Poetry in English

Marcel Broodthaers was a poet before he was an artist, and two of his early collections have now been translated:

What comes across insistently in both collections is Broodthaers’s attraction to thresholds, to points of transition that equally signify ends and beginnings. He makes reference to voyages undertaken and to midday, daybreak, and other such points of passage in our experience of time. Midnight ends not in darkness but at dawn, as its concluding poem “The Morning” closes with a gift of visionary illumination: “A light filters through to me, a / light of the crests of grasses.” One of the more moving poems in the Siglio volume is simply called “Final Poem,” coming at the end of My Ogre Book, suggesting that the book’s particular journey has reached a kind of terminus:

The streets enter from all sides. Blue flies begin to circle. They cast their eyes down to the pavement. They cry out :

That it is morning

That it is war

That life is costly

That it doesn’t fail to run too fast

That a storm has come quick

That it isn’t surprising

And that one has said it well.

Telescoped here is a sense both of distilled experience and of pride: the poet has made it through, at a cost. But on the opposing page, as a kind of envoi, we’re told that the storm has subsided and “That which had been lightning / became the zigzag of my steps”—the finality of the book’s last poem has now been transmuted into new, animated movement, leading to an unknown beyond.

There’s a restlessness on display in Broodthaers’s poetry that reveals something integral about what he achieved through his career’s varied projects. The poems seem to come from a radically different place than the later visual and conceptual work, but what unites all of it is an emphasis on renewal, reinvention, moving onward in the wake of what one has brought to completion.


German Literary 'Great' Inflation

Lithub has a feature on a German literary festival:

This weekend, the Neue Festival Literatur is offering a crash course in the best of contemporary German literature, with panels and readings from some of the most notable writers currently working in German. This year’s festival theme is “Seriously Funny.”

The post features English-language excerpts from recent work by Vea Kaiser, Xaver Bayer, Sibylle Berg, Iris Hanika, Pedro Lenz, Christopher Kloeble. Inspiring to see so much new German fiction getting a hearing in English.

My only objection is to the title of the post, which is 'Six Great Contemporary Writers Working in German'. No, these writers aren't great. They may be talented, interesting, innovative, wryly funny, or challenging, but they're not great. They're all way too young to have earned that adjective yet.

It looks like LitHub has been struck by what I call 'great' inflation: the tendency in German cultural circles to label about 60% of Germany's total literary production in a given year 'great'. Writers you've never heard of are described in German Feuilletons as 'great', as are books that sold 457 copies, won the Johann-August-Nepomuk Schleifenbumser prize from the town of Pflängenholz, and then disappeared.

I get it: the German urban haute bourgeoisie is terribly proud of the fact that it still Reads Books, and believes its mission on this earth is to convince as many people as possible to Read Books. One of the tactics they've settled on is 'great' inflation. Perhaps if we keep describing all books not directed at a mass audience as 'GREAT' often enough, people will begin reading more of them.

But it backfires. I've read some of the books described as 'great' over the years by German critics, and none of them was. Don't get me wrong: some were quite stimulating and very much worth reading. But not 'great'. Others, frankly, were crap -- which leads me to believe that many of these 'greats' are being doled out as favors to friends inside some incestuous literary clique. Reviewers should be required to reveal if they're friends with the people who wrote the book under review. 

German critics! Please stop the great inflation. If you apply the word 'great' to any but the most overwhelmingly magnificent 2-3% of literary productions, you drain it of all meaning. Look in your thesauri for other ways to express approval. Think long and hard before bestowing the title 'great' on a book or a person. The result will be clearer, more honest, and more lively reviews.


'Emily's Magical Bejeweled Codpiece'

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"Tom, museum curator and expert in Renaissance jewelry, doesn’t think his boyfriend Peter is 'The One.' Peter is perfectly happy with Tom, but Tom is obsessed with the artist Benedetto Emilio Nesci—exciting, passionate, extraordinarily talented… and dead for over 400 years. 

Tasked with researching a bejeweled codpiece, Tom abandons his professional ethics—and his sanity—to try on the codpiece and is transported halfway around the world and back in time, right into Florence, Italy and Nesci’s workroom."

Read more here.


Arab Spring and Arab Immigration

Marc Lynch is an American professor and Middle East expert who blogs at Abu Aardvark. Late last year, he wrote a disarmingly frank and honest article for the Washington Post on what scholars of the Middle East had gotten wrong about the Arab Spring of 2011. Many of them had high hopes at the time, which were later dashed. As I read it recently I thought to myself: 'Some of this wishful thinking and distorted perception reminds me a lot of what I am seeing currently in Germany.'

See if you agree:

I asked a group of the authors from my edited volume “The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East” to write short memos assessing their contributions critically after having another year to reflect. Those memos have now been published as POMEPS Studies 10 “Reflections on the Arab Uprisings” (free PDF available here). Their auto-critique is full of worthy observations: We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment. That’s a fine quality in activists, but not so helpful for academic rigor.

...

As for me, there are a number of areas where I’ve been rethinking things over the last year or two. There are some negative developments that did not surprise me, I should add, even though I had hoped they would be avoided. My earlier book, “The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East,” devoted an entire chapter to demonstrating how each previous round of popular mobilization in modern Arab history had ended up with the consolidation of even more heavy-handed authoritarianism. The disastrous results of the decision by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate were easily foreseen. So were the catastrophic consequences of external support to the Syrian insurgency, which has produced unbelievable human suffering but few real surprises to anyone versed in the comparative literature on civil wars and insurgencies. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the problems of Yemen’s transition.

...

New Arab Public: For a long time I believed that a mobilized Arab public would never again allow themselves to be manipulated and dominated by autocrats. Whatever the tactical setbacks and inevitable ups and downs of difficult transitions, I thought that the generational transformation would keep trends moving in the direction of more open politics. It was this new Arab public that gave me at least some optimism that the region could avoid repeating the failures of the past.

That conviction suffered a near-mortal blow in Egypt, where a shocking number of the youth and public voices who had made the uprisings proved more than willing to enthusiastically support the restoration of military government and violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not simply the military’s successful coup that was shocking – such a denouement was always a possibility. The shock was the coup’s embrace by many of the popular forces upon whom hopes of irresistible change had been placed. The new Arab media and social media proved to be just as capable of transmitting negative and divisive ideas and images as they had been at spreading revolutionary ones. Egypt’s military coup traveled just as powerfully as had its revolution. The pan-Arab revolutionary unity of early 2011 has long since given way to sectarianism, polarization between Islamists and their enemies, and horror over the relentless images of death and despair in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

The media generally played a highly destructive role in the post-uprisings environment. For a brief, tantalizing moment, independent television stations and newspapers seemed to constitute a genuine Egyptian public sphere. But that quickly collapsed. Unreconstructed state media offered up a relentless stream of propaganda. Many private media outlets were captured by the state or by counter-revolutionary interests and the airwaves filled with the most vile forms of populist incitement. Meanwhile, transnational broadcasting descended into little more than transparent vehicles for state foreign policies, a change most noticeable – and damaging – with the once proud Al Jazeera. And while social media and new Web sites have certainly offered a plethora of opportunities for information to flow and opinions to be voiced, they have largely failed to supplant mainstream media as a source of news for mass publics.

"[W]e understated the importance of identity politics...we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment."