It is a common thesis that the social/sexual changes of recent years are the flowering of the Sixties. This makes the best commentators and essayists of that era worth rereading. For me, that has meant Joan Didion's The White Album, a set of essays on her health; California; the Women's Movement; and travels around Hawaii, South America, suburban malls, and the Hoover Dam. Didion has the first virtue of the writer: to see the object as it is. That’s a hard task when the object is as complicated as Huey Newton and feminist mythmaking. But here’s an example from 1972:
To read the theorists of the women’s movement was to think not of Mary Wollstonecraft but of Margaret Fuller at her most high-minded, of rushing position papers off to mimeo and drinking tea from paper cups in lieu of eating lunch; of thin raincoats on bitter nights. If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature,’ the oppression, as [feminist] Shulamith Firestone saw it, ‘that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.’ I accept the universe, Margaret Fuller had finally allowed: Shulamith Firestone did not.
Last week I started reading Vasily Grossman’s World War II epic Life and Fate. The novel is similar in structure to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It centers on a particular martial struggle (in this case the Battle of Stalingrad), and leaps around between a large number of characters and settings, some historical, some fictional, crossing all walks of life and levels of Russian society, from the Soviet high military command to Nazi concentration camps. Grossman was a journalist for the Red Star during the war. He was one of the first journalists internationally to document the Holocaust (of which his mother was a victim) and he covered the siege of Stalingrad first hand. His writing is terse and unaffected. His chapters are brief. I cannot say the book makes for pleasant reading (it is frequently disturbing and sometimes heart-wrenching), but certainly it is enjoyable in a higher sense of the word—as a well-constructed and morally illuminating work of craft.
One passage I recently enjoyed depicts two men of literary habits making each other’s acquaintance in the apartment of a woman they are both trying to woo.
Limonov turned out to know Shargorodsky’s name from someone’s manuscript notes and from some letters in an archive. Sargorodsky had not read Limonov’s books but likewise he had heard his name—it was mentioned in newspapers in lists of those writing on military-historical themes. They began to talk, growing happy and excited as they discovered they shared a common language. Their conversation was full of names: Solovyov, Mereshkovsky, Rozanov, Hippius, Byeliy, Byerdyaev, Ustryalov, Balmont, Milyukov, Yevreinov, Remizov, Vyacheslav Ivanov. It seemed to Yevgenia as though these two men had released from the ocean-bed a whole sunken world of books, pictures, philosophical systems, theatrical productions . . .
The litany of names given reminded me of my appreciation for Russian literature generally. Life and Fate is my first encounter with Grossman, but since childhood I have enjoyed at various points the short stories of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky’s novels, Solzhenitsyn, Chekhov, and (most recently) the fragments of Daniil Kharms. There is something about these Russians that is closer to life and human nature than any of the American writers I have read. I am completely unfamiliar with all the names in Limonov and Shargorodsky’s list aside from Solovyov. Perhaps I shouldn’t be?
I recently saw the film Captain Fantastic, and enjoyed it immensely. The film stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a man raising and schooling his six children off-the-grid in a remote corner of Washington State forest. The family are Leftist, slightly pagan hippies (the eldest son informs his father that being a Trotskyist was just a phase, “I'm a Maoist now”), and yet their homeschooling experience absolutely reminded me of my own. Sure, I wasn't learning to hunt animals with a bow and arrow or celebrating “Noam Chomsky Day” in my heavily Christian homeschool community, but I totally recognize these characters’ family solidarity, their quirky erudition, and their combination of regimented learning with an anti-authoritarian streak.
The film’s plot is kicked off when Ben hears from the parents of his wife, who left the forest to be treated in a hospital for bipolar disorder. She has committed suicide. Ben’s father-in-law, who blames his daughter’s mental illness on the family’s unconventional lifestyle, orders him not to come to the funeral. But the children insist on paying respects, so the whole family climbs into a battered bus named “Steve”—and set out on a collision course with contemporary America.
While there are immensely satisfying scenes of Ben’s young children demonstrating how real their education has been to skeptical aunts, uncles, and cousins, the movie is also committed to questioning Ben’s model of homeschooling. His motivation for raising his kids the way he has is twofold: both a great love of learning, and a fear of the corrupting influence of modern mediocrity. The movie’s conclusion sees Ben and his kids try to reach some sort of compromise with society—so it’s finally a film about the Benedict Option as well, asking how we can stay part of the wider world while modeling a more humane culture.