Editor’s Note: The Sun’s Reader at Large, a.k.a. David Goodman, dedicates his leisure to reading voraciously and eclectically about politics, government, society, culture and literature. Every two weeks or so, the Sun will post for your pleasure and edification the Reader’s digest (pun intended) of some of the best and most thought-provoking articles, books and podcasts that Goodman has recently enjoyed. Please note that the italicized text is quoted and that some of the linked articles may be in publications that impose a pay wall. Neither the Sierra County Sun nor the Reader at Large endorses all the views expressed in the featured books and articles.
In my previous column, I mentioned how eagerly I was looking forward to reading the new novel “The Magician” by Colm Tóibín, based on the life of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. I have finished it, and it fulfilled my best expectations. Tóibín deftly interweaves Mann’s extraordinary personal and family life, his novels and essays, and the troubled and turbulent history of Germany, Europe and the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Throughout World War I, the rise of the Nazis, World War II and the early years of the Cold War, Tóibín portrays Mann ever reexamining his roots in German history and culture and striving to understand how the glories of its literature and music could have coexisted with the germs of the Third Reich.
What he wished to say was, he thought, perhaps too complex to matter in this time of simple polarities. He was insisting that all Germans were to blame; he wished to argue that German culture and the German language contained the seeds of the Nazis, but they also contained the seeds of a new democracy that could be brought into being now, a fully German democracy. For his example, he went to Martin Luther as an incarnation of the German spirit, an exponent of freedom who was also a set of opposites in which each element contained its own undoing. Luther was rational, but his speech could be intemperate. He was a reformer, but his response to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 was insane. He had in him all the fury and foolishness that inspired the Nazis, but he also contained a willingness to change, to see reason, to want the sort of progress that might inspire a new Germany.
Though the novel describes the genesis of Mann’s major works (e.g., “Buddenbrooks,” “The Magic Mountain” and “Death in Venice”), this is not a literary history, and one need not have read those works to appreciate this novel.
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Though George Orwell would probably have rebuffed reverence, I revere him. Fortunately, so does the writer and social activist Rebecca Solnit. In her new book “Orwell’s Roses,” Solnit enables us to view Orwell not only as the prescient, truth-telling, anti-totalitarian author of “1984” and “Animal Farm,” but also as a man for whom the natural world and the simple joys of life, even during its most horrendous times, were of essential importance. She quotes a passage from Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” that she describes as having become a credo for her:
“But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Solnit also uses Orwell’s life and his love of gardening as a springboard for discussions of topics to which her pursuit of Orwell led her (e.g., the global trade in flowers and the exploitation of its workers), but these forays always seemed to me to enhance, rather than distract from, the life of Orwell at the book’s core.
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
Guardian (10/23/21): “Why Is the Idea of ‘Gender’ Provoking Backlash the World Over?” by Judith Butler
In this article, philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler examines the question why the concept of gender and “gender ideology” have globally become the object of intense hatred.
For this reactionary movement [i.e., the attack on “gender ideology”], the term “gender” attracts, condenses, and electrifies a diverse set of social and economic anxieties produced by increasing economic precarity under neoliberal regimes, intensifying social inequality, and pandemic shutdown. Stoked by fears of infrastructural collapse, anti-migrant anger and, in Europe, the fear of losing the sanctity of the heteronormative family, national identity and white supremacy, many insist that the destructive forces of gender, postcolonial studies, and critical race theory are to blame. When gender is thus figured as a foreign invasion, these groups clearly reveal that they are in the business of nation-building. The nation for which they are fighting is built upon white supremacy, the heteronormative family, and a resistance to all critical questioning of norms that have clearly restricted the freedoms and imperiled the lives of so many people.
Racism and White Guilt
New York Times (NYT) (10/29/21): “I’m With Condoleezza Rice About White Guilt” by John McWhorter
I always find the views of Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter thought provoking, even when I do not agree with him. This is one of his arguments with which I do not agree, but nonetheless find interesting. McWhorter seems to be creating a straw man by setting up the questionable premise that causing white guilt is the purpose of much of what is now broadly (and wrongly) attacked as “Critical Race Theory,” and he then attacks that purpose. I believe the purpose behind the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and other such efforts to examine the extent to which we continue to be afflicted by racism and segregation and their consequences is not guilt mongering, but rather education aimed at greater awareness, regardless of whether it causes white guilt. Nonetheless, I think the article is worth reading.
But presumably, the goal is to make America “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution has it. And if that’s the goal, our collective efforts to reach it presumably would be about addressing societal conditions rather than these more soul-focused endeavors. One might argue that a realer, not to mention healthier, manifestation of Black affirmation would come from more concrete markers of progress than the dutiful hand-wringing of well-meaning white people about their forebears’ sins.
Those Damned Leaf Blowers!
NYT (10/25/21): “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Leaf Blowers” by Margaret Renkl
I look forward to the columns of Margaret Renkl in the New York Times for their gentle descriptions of nature and their reminders of the joys of observing it, but she goes on attack in this column about the scourge of gas-powered leaf blowers. As our neighborhood’s—totally unsuccessful—crusader against leaf-blowers and their horrendous noise pollution, I cheered her on.
But the trouble with leaf blowers isn’t only their pollution-spewing health consequences. It’s also the damage they do to biodiversity. Fallen leaves provide protection for overwintering insects and the egg sacs of others. Leaf blowers, whether electric or gasoline-powered, dislodge the leaf litter that is so essential to insect life—the insect life that in turn is so essential to birds and other wildlife.