Stewardship of the Reader’s Eyes

From Web Exclusives

The central paradox of censorship, according to the historian Paul S. Boyer, is that however sane and fair-minded your set of standards might be, the people who end up doing the censoring will always be the last ones you’d trust with the responsibility. Considered in the abstract, Boyer’s rule makes sense. Continue Reading »

Their Decadence and Ours

From Web Exclusives

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw movements calling themselves “decadent” in both England and France, and from the modern reader’s perspective there is very little that separates Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons, on one hand, and Joris-Karl Huysmans and Villiers de L’Isle Adam on the other. They wrote in the same exquisitely mannered prose, embraced the same cult of artifice and ornament, took as their anti-heroes the same dissolute aristocrats bemoaning the same prevailing philistinism. At the end of Villiers’ play Axël, the hero withdraws from the world with the parting cry, “As for living, the servants will do that for us.” That is a line Walter Pater would have applauded from his box, if he could have bestirred himself to do something so vigorous. Continue Reading »

The New Nonconformist Conscience

From Web Exclusives

Mozilla’s Brendan Eich, the Miami Dolphins’ Don Jones, HGTV’s Benham brothers: 2014 has been a good year for those seeking to enforce the new moral orthodoxy by depriving others of their livelihood. It’s bad enough to see people joining these bandwagons without pausing to reflect on dark side of such feeding frenzies, but even more dispiriting are those who argue, in the cold light of their own reflection, that such tactics are righteous. Continue Reading »

Counterfeit Goods

From the August/September 2014 Print Edition

Republishing the early work of a novelist who has hit it big is usually a bad idea, but there are exceptions to the rule. It is interesting, for example, to learn that Patricia Highsmith’s second novel was a sympathetically drawn lesbian love story with a happy ending, since the psychological thrillers she otherwise wrote (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) feature neither love stories nor happy endings nor any sympathetic female characters.One such exception is Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief, which was published by a small press in Nigeria in 2007 and has just been re-released by Random House. The novella is nothing to crow about as a piece of fiction, but as a data point in its author’s development, it is ­valuable confirmation of something many readers have suspected for a while: Teju Cole is not the real deal. Continue Reading »

Bloodless Moralism

From the February 2014 Print Edition

Dame Rebecca West had a theory that the history of civilization since Christ could be divided into three panels like a triptych. In the first panel, stretching roughly from the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages, the language of theology so dominated learned debate that all complaints were expressed in religious terms, even when the problem at issue was economic or political. The poor and discontented “cried out to society that its structure was wrong … and said that they did this because they had had a peculiar revelation concerning the Trinity. The hungry disguised themselves as heretics.” After a few brief centuries of clarity, mankind proceeded to the third panel, in which the opposite problem prevails: “Those suffering from religious distress reverse the process, and complain of it in economic terms. Those who desire salvation pretend that they are seeking a plan to feed the hungry.”West, writing in 1949, was thinking primarily of communism. From the Stalinists recently ascendant in her beloved Balkans to Fabian grandees Sidney and Beatrice Webb in England, from whose dinner parties she had lately been banned for being too argumentative, the socialists of her day were united in their endorsement of the Marxist axiom that all human behavior can be traced back to material motivations. The purpose of this logical razor was to discredit their opponents by attributing all bourgeois beliefs to class interest, with religion and morality reduced to power plays designed to keep the proletariat in subjection.West was clever enough to realize that vulgar Marxism was just as likely to be directed inward. A socialist, especially a Western European one, was often someone who had perceived within himself certain longings that an earlier age would have properly identified as moral or religious, but whose intellectual equipment could only process these longings as commitment to social justice. An entire generation had developed a warped idea of what moral seriousness sounds like, and they ended up pledging their souls to economics as a result. Continue Reading »

Cronyism’s Charms

From the May 2013 Print Edition

Against Fairness ? by Stephen T. Asma? Chicago, 224 pages, $22.50 Stephen Asma buries in the endnotes of Against Fairness the information that he is from Chicago, but I think it ought to be mentioned up front. His book is a counterintuitive defense of favoritism, nepotism, tribalism, and patronage, . . . . Continue Reading »