Sady Doyle’s review of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire — whose first volume, Game of Thrones, was recently adapted for television by HBO — is a classic example of literary criticism done badly: i.e., it says little about the work being reviewed and much about the reviewer.
Doyle’s thrust is that Martin is a raging sexist whose female characters are imprisoned by male conceptions of the proper role for women while being under the constant threat of gang rape, all for our entertainment; in short, J.R.R. Tolkien with Joe Francis’s aesthetics. Martin’s fans (male) fans devour the misogyny and mayhem with neither examination nor scruple.
To be sure, the people of Martin’s Westeros do have traditional gender roles for women. These women are, moreover, the victims of a nearly endless series physical and sexual assaults, which Doyle summarizes at length. The summaries are – in fairness to Doyle – quite funny in how they undercut Martin’s penchant for melodrama. For instance, her summary of Lady Catelyn Stark, a very serious and important character in the series, begins:
Meet Catelyn! She’s a dutiful, obedient wife and mother. Also, her husband is the hero. She will, therefore, be a sympathetic figure. Catelyn’s an all-around swell gal, and seems pretty sharp and competent, too, except when she is (a) getting all hysterical and non-functional because [of] HER CHILDREN, (b) stupidly kidnapping members of the royal family on a whim because HER CHILDREN, and (c) being a total bitchface to Ned’s illegitimate son because he is not HER CHILDREN.
Taken out of context like this, one can make a seemingly-persuasive case that Martin has issues with women. But as Alyssa Rosenberg argues at ThinkProgress, this analysis fails because it assumes 1) that Martin’s description of such a society is an implicit endorsement of it, 2) that his readers are incapable of rudimentary moral examination, and 3) that there is no literary value for writing about characters struggling against (or within) their society’s expectations, to say nothing of their own identities.
It fails for another reason as well, one Rosenberg either missed or left out entirely: that any society with strict gender roles for women is fated to have reciprocally restrictive ones for men. Indeed, armed with a perspective equally myopic to Doyle’s, male characters fare no better than the women (spoilers ahead): Read the rest of this entry »
Many years ago, our old Professor, Jack Pitney, wrote a shrewd assessment of Newt Gingrich that relied heavily on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Each section described a facet of Gingrich’s personality, opening with a quote from Leaves of Grass. Pitney began the section on pragmatism thus:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself;
(I am large–I contain multitudes.)
In fact, he reminds us very much of a certain someone we adore — a say-anything kind of guy who’ll throw a principle under the bus in a heartbeat if he thinks it will curry favor or benefit him politically. A guy whose motto is: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” and goes right on singing his song of himself before the cameras without the slightest embarrassment.He is large, he contains multitudes, Mr. Newt does, and you wingnuts ought to cut him some slack. After all, look how well it all turned out for Barack Hussein Obama.
Perhaps the only way to describe the Newtster is to rehash old Walt.
Provoked by my earlier reference to The Prince, I got out my copy (Mansfield translation, natch) to see what further insight I could draw out regarding the Libyan conflict. It occurred to me that of the two sides in the Libyan civil war, one (Gadaffi) is relying on mercenaries, and the other is relying on non-mercenary foreign soldiers, what Machiavelli would call “auxiliaries.”
As always, NM is timeless and cutting. On mercenaries (from chapter 12):
Mercenary and auxiliary arms are useless and dangerous; and if one keeps his state founded on mercenary arms, one will never be firm or secure; for they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; bold among friends, among enemies cowardly; no fear of God, no faith with men; ruin is postponed only as long as attack is postponed; and in peace you are despoiled by them, in war by the enemy. The cause of this is that they have no love nor cause to keep them in the field other than a small stipend, which is not sufficient to make them want to die for you. They do indeed want to be your soldiers while you are not making war, but when war comes, they either flee or leave. It should be little trouble for me to persuade anyone of this point, because the present ruin of Italy is caused by nothing other than its having relied for a period of many years on mercenary arms. These arms once made some progress for some, and may have appeared bold among themselves; but when the foreigner came [i.e. the French invaded in 1494], they showed what they were.
He’s even more biting about using the soldiers of a foreign sovereign (from chapter 13):
These arms can be useful and good in themselves, but for whoever calls them in, they are almost always harmful, because when they lose you are undone; and when they win, you are left their prisoner. . . . Let him, then, who wants to be unable to win make use of these arms [HAH!], since they are much more dangerous than mercenary arms. For with these, ruin is accomplished; they are all united, all resolved to obey someone else. But mercenary arms, when they have won, need more time and greater opportunity to hurt you, since they are not one whole body and have been found and paid for by you. In them the third party whom you may put at their head cannot quickly seize so much authority as to offend you. In sum, in mercenary arms laziness is more dangerous; in auxiliary arms, virtue is.
Just to clarify, in Libya we are the auxiliaries. NM says, then, that we are more dangerous to the rebels than Gadaffi’s mercenaries are to him. I think that’s right – we don’t know what the rebels’ post-war plans are, but does anyone think we won’t subject them to our democracy project? Gadaffi might actually prevail in this war, and if he does he’ll once again have the run of the place. But the rebels will either lose or be under our thumb. They’ve asked for American help, and they’re going to get it good and hard.
Or are they?
I shall never hesitate to cite Cesare Borgia and his actions. This duke came into Romagna with auxiliary arms, leading there entirely French troops, with whom he took Imola and Forli. But when such arms no longer appeared safe to him, he turned to mercenaries, judging there to be less danger in them; and he hired the Orsini and Vitelli. Then in managing them, he found them doubtful, unfaithful, and dangerous; he eliminated them, and turned to his own arms [i.e. native soldiers]. And one can easily see the difference between these arms if one considers what a difference there was in the reputation of the duke when he had only the French, and when he had the Orsini and Vitelli, and when he was left with his own soldiers and himself over them; his reputation will be found always to have increased, but he was never so much esteemed as when everyone saw that he was the total owner of his arms.
That’s also from chapter 13. We don’t know whether the Libyan rebels have a Cesare Borgia in their midst, but certainly if they were able to win with our help and then unite the country (i.e. raise their own arms) independent of us, they would be able to resist our influence and rule as they saw fit. I find that unlikely; Cesare was what a statistician might call an “outlier.” It’s much more probable that the rebels will either lose, or be undone by pressure from the western allies. Which of these is better for the Libyan people is, I’m sure, covered in a different book.
This is superior historical fiction: obviously well-researched, strongly narrated, with excellent characterization and some of the most effectively subtle prose I’ve ever encountered. If you can imagine the grit lack of sentimentality of The Sandbaggers set in Poland during WWII, you’re close.
The Polish Officer is the story of Captain Alexander de Milja, a military cartographer recruited into the Polish secret service at the 11th hour, literally as Warsaw burns around him. The novel follow de Milja as through various assignments throughout Europe, punctuated by love affairs, friendships, betrayals, suspense, and death — always death, which seems to potentially lurk behind every page. Most of characters in this book are intelligent and worldly enough to realize when an assignment is likely to bring a death sentence and the inverse dramatic irony is phenomenally affecting.
I wondered throughout how he was going to end the novel, as I couldn’t tell where Furst was going with all this (it only stood to reason that someone of his skill had to be leading the reader somewhere). It wasn’t until the last couple of paragraphs that it became clear and it was well worth the wait.
Later on I read The Fountainhead several times and lots of other books as well before writing a few of my own, which is why I am always glad when anybody reads anything at all. However, to tea partiers who have just discovered Ayn Rand, I give warning: You are approaching her backwards.
You are presently hooked on her third and final novel, her tour de force, Atlas Shrugged, because it demolishes socialism and exalts capitalism. The trouble is, it reads like a first novel by a writer who has yet to learn control. It’s much too long, her characters talk too much, and she talks too much, i.e., she commits that most mortal of literary sins: She “tells” instead of “shows.”
Her second novel, The Fountainhead, shows vast improvement, but the characters still talk in philosophical tracts instead of dialogue. For the best of Ayn Rand you must read her first novel, We the Living. Set in early Bolshevik Russia, its narrative thrust is flawlessly timed, the heroine has two lovers, an aristocrat and a Communist cast in the Ashley Wilkes/Rhett Butler mode, and it has a heart-wrenching final scene reminiscent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s description of Eliza crossing the ice in Uncle Tom’s Cabin— except it’s even better.
Hubbard posted this at 12:43 PM CDT on Monday, October 18th, 2010 as Belles Lettres
The mafia rule is useful to remember, namely that just because a random person looks defenseless and ridiculous, he might have relatives in the mob. A corollary to this rule for directors: never be rude to an audience member, as he might be a theater critic for the New Criterion:
In contrast, the extraordinarily rude couple seated next to me at Orlando was a bother and a bore. After about ten minutes worth of their incessant whispering, I very politely asked the fellow if they would be so kind as to knock it the hell off before I choked them (nicely, though). “She’s the director!” he hissed back. And so she was, and the two were discussing the play and taking notes during the performance. What I found perplexing about his riposte is that he seemed to think that I should be less angry at being treated rudely by the director of the play, rather than more angry. She’s not some clueless prole! She’s The Director! Her being the director of course explained her arrogance, but not her stupidity: The Classic Stage Company is a reasonably large venue—the last action I saw performed there was the Trojan War, for pity’s sake—but the director, Rebecca Taichman, apparently saw fit to sit and chat and generally behave like a yokel from Teterboro among people who had paid $65 a ticket rather than sequester herself in a remoter corner of the theater. I mention this mostly as a curiosity—we theater-goers are accustomed to being treated with contempt by directors, but they usually express it through their work, not in person—and as evidence for my longstanding hypothesis that theater companies regard their audiences mostly as a source of revenue and then only as a necessary evil, something to keep the actors from feeling ridiculous while they perform.
I feel I should explain my political position in some detail. This is not an easy task. I fear it is not enough to claim that I am—perhaps it would be wiser to say, “believe I am”—a liberal. The term itself raises the first complication. As you well know, “liberal” has different and frequently antagonistic meanings, depending on who says it and where they say it. For example, my late beloved grandmother Carmen used to say that a man was a liberal when referring to a gentleman of dissolute habits, someone who not only did not go to Mass, but also spoke ill of the priests. For her, the prototypic incarnation of a “liberal” was a legendary ancestor of mine who, one fine day in my native city of Arequipa, told his wife that he was going to the main square to buy a newspaper and never returned. The family heard nothing of him until 30 years later, when the fugitive gentleman died in Paris. “So why did that liberal uncle flee to Paris, Grandma?” “Why else, son? To corrupt himself of course!” This story may be the remote origin of my liberalism and my passion for French culture.
The best reason to read National Review is Florence King. She has a column and a book review in this issue, making the magazine twice as good. Her review is of P.J. O’Rourke’s Driving Like Crazy, and she has this gem:
This man really does love cars, so some readers will be lost when he lapses into good-ol’-boy mode, e.g., “a hydraulic-fluid-filled device with variable pitch blades that delivered power from the 322-cubic-inch V-8 . . .” I have no idea what that means, but I can see Russia from my house.
His prose occasionally goes over the top, as in his description of the pink goo oozing from Ralph Nader’s crushed skull, but he atones for it with this: “The American automobile industry . . . will live on in some form, a Marley’s ghost dragging its corporate chains at taxpayer expense.” I forget whether that’s called a simile or a metaphor, but an English sentence never had a better tune-up. P. J. O’Rourke might be mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but he can write like an angel.
On screen he held so much authority so that he was not even being ironic when he explained his theory of acting: “Don’t act. React.” John Wayne, you see, could react. Others actors had to strain the limits of their craft to hold the screen with him. There is this test for an actor who, for a moment, is just standing there in a scene: Does he seem to be just standing there? Or does he, as John Wayne always did, appear to be deciding when, and why, and how to take the situation under his control?
And the Duke himself, expressing his thoughts on the greatest American art form:
But when you think about the Western–ones I’ve made, for example. ‘Stagecoach,’ ‘Red River,’ ‘The Searchers,’ a picture named ‘Hondo’ that had a little depth to it–it’s an American art form. It represents what this country is about. In ‘True Grit,’ for example, that scene where Rooster shoots the rat. That was a kind of reference to today’s problems. Oh, not that ‘True Grit’ has a message or anything. But that scene was about less accommodation, and more justice.
They keep bringing up the fact that America’s for the downtrodden. But this new thing of genuflecting to the downtrodden, I don’t go along with that. We ought to go back to praising the kids who get good grades, instead of making excuses for the ones who shoot the neighborhood grocery man. But, hell, I don’t want to get started on that
Of course, it’s Ebert, and the Duke was one of the great Hollywood right-wingers of yore, so politics can’t slip past unnoticed. Ebert’s fair enough, except for observing “I believe [Wayne] would have had contempt for the latter-day weirdos of the Right.” Yeah, right. Wayne supported Nixon and the war, he supported Reagan’s runs for governor. He was a through-and-through reactionary, and it’s impossible to imagine him any other way.
Bait liberals with an insulting title and then allow their outrage to raise the book’s profile. This was the raison d’etre behind Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home, and Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death, all of which had titles that were roundly denounced in the liberal blogosphere.
Mark Levin may grate, but at least his Liberty and Tyranny has bucked the trend of inflammatory titles (though the book itself might be—[the royal] we haven’t read it yet).
Lytton Strachey, debunker of Victorians, once argued that “discretion is not the better part of biography.” Christo Buckley has apparently taken this to heart, airing a good chunk of dirty laundry in The New York Times about a visit from Caitlin Buckley and Kate Kennedy (granddaughters of WFB and RFK):
At some point, Mum turned to — on might be the more exact preposition — Kate, informing her that she (Mum) had been an alternate juror in the murder trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel. Skakel, nephew of Ethel Kennedy, Kate’s grandmother, was (as you might be aware) the defendant in a sensational murder trial in Stamford several years before, for the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley. Having presented this astonishing and perfectly untrue credential, Mum then proceeded to launch into a protracted lecture on the villainy of Kate’s relative.
Leave aside the issue of Skakel’s culpability, for which he is, at any rate, currently serving a 20-years-to-life sentence. Over the years, I heard Mum utter whoppers that would make Pinocchio look button-nosed, but this one really took the prize, in several categories, the first being Manners. Why on earth would you inflict a jeremiad on an innocent 18-year-old girl, your own granddaughter’s best friend? The mind — as Mum herself used to put it — boggles.
Over at The American Scene, Alan Jacobs admits he hasn’t finished the essay, but says, “But if we don’t go on to learn just how much—oh, how much—Mum had done for which she bloody well needed to be forgiven, and therefore learn just how gracious and forbearing her son had become, I will eat every hat I own.” Mr. Jacobs really should finish the essay. Buckely writes about excoriating his mother, to the point where she wouldn’t open his letters any more. The last words that would describe Buckley’s conduct towards his parents are “gracious” and “forbearing.” Indeed, it is quite clear that Buckley regrets not being more gracious and forbearing.
A larger point of these things is the sometimes peculiar relationships between parents and children. Even the happiest family has rocky patches, largely because families are still composed of human beings—and part of being human is making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, accidentally hurting someone, burning when one meant to singe. Biographies have two related flaws: the first is to gloss away every unpleasant aspect of a man’s life, the second is to focus on nothing but the ugly. What comes through with Chris Buckley’s piece is that yes, his parents had their flaws—but Pat Buckley was a remarkable woman who livened up most of her parties and dearly loved her son despite his flaws. WFB had his weak points, too, but he was a good man who did great things.
If there is a family trait, all three Buckleys seem a touch stuck on himself (or herself). It causes them to drive each other crazy, but they still love each other despite all this. Christo Buckley has tried his best to write an even handed family biography; the excerpt shows that he is, in ways good and bad, his parents’ son.
It is a truth to be universally acknowledged that few pleasures in life are so exquisite as a book review hatchet job. Chesa Boudin appears to be the Communist equivalent of a Capitalist tool, as New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner observes:
Because of the interesting contradictions of his life thus far — son of militant radicals! Rhodes scholar! — you might expect Mr. Boudin to have interesting things to say about himself and perhaps even about the places he visits. If only.
His mistakes begin with his book’s epigraph. He’s chosen lines from Paul Theroux’s “Old Patagonian Express,” and they aren’t bad; they’re about how travel writers are “essentially optimists.”
But Mr. Boudin seems unaware that Mr. Theroux is, at heart, the obverse of an optimist; his writing’s baseline swat comes from its misanthropy, its cruel accuracy. And Mr. Theroux is an acid stylist, not at all the sort of writer Mr. Boudin wants to place up against his own bland sentences.
Christo Buckley might not be writing for NR any more, but he can still take apart hacks as his father could. Today he shreds Joe Eszterhas and Anne Rice:
If it weren’t for Eszterhas’s bare-knuckled prose and his willingness, even eagerness, to strip himself buck naked and appear perfectly ridiculous, his book wouldn’t amount to much more than an extended bar rant — albeit without the booze, inasmuch as Eszterhas switched from gin to cranberry juice when he accepted Jesus as his personal trainer. Anne Rice is also sober, we’re told, though she went teetotal long before she returned to the fold. I doff my hat to anyone who sells 75 million books, and have no doubt that her admiring legions will cause this one to ascend to the best-selling heavens, and all power to her. But I confess — or profess — with all due humility toward and respect for a clearly good and kind and decent woman, to have found her book a crashing, mind-numbing bore. This is the literary equivalent of waterboarding.