Terror That Makes Knees Tremble, and Other News


On the Shelf

From an early edition of Absalom, Absalom!

  • Publishers: someone should print an affordably priced pocket-sized edition of the philosopher Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country (1998). Then every philosophy major could carry it at all times, and whenever anyone mocked you for having pursued this seemingly worthless degree, you could pull out Achieving and flip to the part where Rorty predicted—with such prescience that it’s almost painful now—the rise of Trump: “The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…” 

  • Someone to consider when you hear politicians (or just drunk libertarians at the bar) invoke reason and rationality with that lusty edge to their voices: Jonathan Swift. As John Gray writes, the author of Gulliver’s Travelswas a lover of reason who believed in God as the guarantor of rationality in the world … Swift’s work illustrates an irony of ration­alism. Unlike most rationalists, who use reason to prop up their conventional prejudices and opinions, Swift used it to judge the human world. The skeptical David Hume concluded that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.’ Suggesting that reason should serve life rather than rule it, this was a wise observation. But reason, for Swift, was a passion in its own right, and one to which he was enslaved. Gulliver’s Travels is full of incidents showing that human standards of size and strength are relative. Yet he was wholly unable to follow the imperturbable Hume in accepting that reason is powerless against nature, convention and the twists of human events.” (Our DON’T BE LIKE OL’ JOHNNY SWIFT T-shirts should be in stock soon.)
  • A. E. Stallings is here with a quick word for self-loathing poets: “Ultimately, angst over the popularity of poetry, or hatred of it for that matter, strikes me as a luxury. Lately I have been leading an occasional poetry workshop at a centre in Athens for female refugees—Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi women mostly. It is a halting affair, in English, in which none of the women is entirely fluent; a translator and translation apps on cell phones help us navigate the gulfs and gaffes and gaps of language.  They are living in camps where basic needs like food and shelter are scarcely met.  But they love the possibilities of poetry … Some of them have fled Taliban-controlled areas where song itself is forbidden.  What we are doing is perhaps not Poetry with a capital P, but I see in them a lyric longing for the beauty and power of language, and for speaking it in the first person.”
  • If you’d prefer to be alone right now, or if you’d prefer to imagine an America almost entirely devoid of certain people—a beautiful, half-empty country where we could start over again—pick up The Democratic Forest, William Eggleston’s new book of photographs, where people are nowhere to be seen: “Take his great photograph of the vacant concession stand. Painted pink with a yellow interior, the stand is flanked by matching plastic garbage cans and set back on cement painted in a four-square pattern of pale blue and yellow. The solemnity of this frivolous structure! It reminds me strangely of the villa of Pontius Pilate at background left in Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ, painted in the 1450s. The architecture of Pilate’s home, with its mathematical recession of floor and ceiling, is no more stately than Eggleston’s vacant refreshment booth. The dignity of Eggleston’s scene is enough to make one think of Piero having been commissioned to paint an altarpiece for an amusement park, only to have abandoned his would-be Madonna of the Sno-Cone Stand because of lack of payment, or a sudden war or plague, the painting remaining forever after with only the architecture and not the figures finished.”