He Just Ate a Pastrami Sandwich, and Other News


On the Shelf

Ilya Repin, Duel Between Onegin and Lenski, from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, 1899.


  • I went to a party this weekend. It was boring. People talked about books all night, and no one threw a punch—or even a low kick to the shins. I wanted to stand on a chair and yell, People, people, we’ve got important work to do! Our forebears would be disappointed in us! In a new profile, Norman Podhoretz, the eighty-seven-year-old former editor of Commentary, sets an example when he remembers the adversarial literary culture of yore. Podhoretz tells John Leland: “It was a really passionate intellectual life. It’s hard to imagine today, but people actually came to blows over literary disagreements … In the case of The Adventures of Augie March, I was the one who nearly came to blows … [After my review,] Bellow wouldn’t speak to me for years. It was only when he decided he couldn’t stand Alfred Kazin anymore that we became sort of friendly. We were sitting together in a meeting, Saul and I, and Kazin was over there, and he said, ‘Look at him, he looks like he just ate a pastrami sandwich out of a stained brown piece of paper’ … John Berryman, who was a friend of Bellow’s, came up to me—I didn’t know who he was, this drunken guy—and he said, ‘We’ll get you for that review if it takes ten years.’ I was twenty-three years old. I go, What?”

  • Since Milton turned out Paradise Lost, Lucifer has gone on to assume a prized role in Western culture—put on any heavy-metal record from the eighties and there he is, all swaddled in darkness and leading the gnarliest legions of hell. Edward Simon argues that Lucifer, in Milton’s evocation, presaged a very American vision of heroism: “Milton’s Lucifer can be read as a kind of modern, American antihero, invented before such a concept really existed. Many of the values the archangel advocates in Paradise Lost—the self-reliance, the rugged individualism, and even manifest destiny—are regarded as quintessentially American in the cultural imagination. Milton may be a poet of individual liberty and conscience, but he was also one of the most brilliant theological explorers of the darker subjects of sin, depravity, and the inclination toward evil. Nothing demonstrates that inclination more than the long-standing appeal the charismatic Lucifer has had for audiences, an appeal mirrored by the flawed but alluring protagonists of some of TV’s greatest American dramas.”
  • Not unrelatedly, in the massively popular video-game franchise Doom, which has been around for nearly thirty years now, Ajay Singh Chaudhary recognizes a kind of existential anger: “Doom thinks you will learn to love rage again, to experience its visceral pleasure. Doom wants you to unlearn all those lessons in civility, in comportment, in tone, in the ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Doom wants you to consider that when ‘they go low,’ you will scrape the pits of Inferno to go ever lower. Doom wants you to feel more. But—and perhaps this is sheer, irrational hope on my part, a shard of redemption in a game of bleak glee—Doom wants you to remember that it is all so stupid. That all of this is instrumental, that the only way out is through, but that this is brutalizing to the world and to yourself. In my most hopeful moment, I think Doom has old Spinoza on the mind: learn to feel joy in the world again and yes, learn to feel joy in the pain of enemies but remember that it is just—in a measure of mere magnitude—a lesser joy than in the flourishing of friends.”
  • In the 1840s, a band called the Hutchinson Family Singers scored a big hit with “Get Off the Track!,” an abolitionist tune that aroused fierce passions, and, yes, plenty of death threats, making it more divisive than anything on the radio today. Tom Maxwell writes, “It grafted an original antislavery lyric onto the borrowed melody of a racist tune, and the result was not just a hit, but a newfound popularity for the abolitionist movement. It’s not too much to say that the Hutchinson Family Singers helped invent pop stardom and punk rock; they subverted tired old tradition, turning it into successful new expression … ‘Get Off the Track!’ was an immediate hit, at least with the abolitionist crowd. At its debut in May 1844 for the Anti-Slavery Society meeting, people danced in the aisles, including speaker William Lloyd Garrison. Soon there were Abolitionist Frolics and picnics. People protested with music and dance, making the process altogether more enjoyable … ‘And when they came to the chorus-cry that gives name to the song,’ wrote N.P. Rogers, who witnessed the debut performance, ‘when they cried to the heedless proslavery multitude that were stupidly lingering on the track … standing like deaf men right in its whirlwind path, the way they cried “Get Off the Track,” in defiance of all time and rule, was magnificent and sublime.’ ”