The Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World is almost superfluous: its arguments about the rise of other nations and how the United States should respond can be found, implicitly and explicitly, in The Atlantic, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, and other magazines. Most of its analysis is not particularly deep and didn’t reorient my worldview. But at the same time, I’ve not seen the whole package regarding how the world is changing through the growth of non-Western countries from a single source before, and if nothing else The Post-American World is a handy to have as a pointer—don’t follow my argument regarding the importance of international humility? Read The Post-American World!

Many of the book’s subsidiary claims are disputable—is geography really responsible for the imbalances of world power? How much of China’s lagging after the 17th century is due to its government?—but The Post-American World‘s central thesis concerning the almost inevitable rise of other countries in the political, economic, and social spheres is accurate and worth pondering, especially by the very politicians who seem most likely to ignore it. Indeed, its discussion of the problems of current U.S. politics is coherent and useful, and I observe some small manifestations of those problems on Grant Writing Confidential.

Zakaria stays admirably focused on the big themes, even as he tries to put the fear of Islamic-inspired terror in its place, which is a much smaller one than it currently occupies. He even cites James Fallows’ “Declaring Victory” on this subject. He also effectively ties together two seemingly opposite trends, one toward globalization, heterogeneity, and internationalism, and the other towards renewed nationalism: “But while economics, information, and even culture might have become globalized, formal political power remains firmly tethered to the nation-state, even as the nation-state has become less able to solve most of these problems unilaterally.” To what extent this reflects a minor and odd issue and to what extent it is a damning, fundamental problem is unclear, but raising it as an issue is worth doing and will perhaps curtail it.

Perhaps most refreshingly, Zakaria tries and succeeds at remaining neutral as he discusses the positive, negative, and descriptive attributes of the big three: China, India, and the United States. For example, although the United States comes under justifiable criticism for a wide array of offenses and blunders, including Iraq, Zakaria also points out that “For all its abuses of power, the United States has been the creator and sustainer of the current order of open trade and democratic government—an order that has been benign and beneficial for the vast majority of human kind.” Reconciling these two features—abuse like Abu Ghraib—with the overall positive effect—an increase in worldwide liberty—is too often lost in partisan debate, with the left focuses on abuse and the right on a rah-rah America orientation. It’s also worth noting that a book like this probably couldn’t be published in China.

This is particularly important because one point Zakaria makes and doesn’t emphasize as much as he perhaps should have is that, to a steadily larger extent, the new world demands “the growth of new narratives.” His is one. He also sees cable news stations and other outlets that focus on narrower market segments as examples of this, and to me this profusion of new frameworks for looking at the world, which vary by country, region, and individual, are a powerful subject that is hard to comprehend. Still, American business seems better at responding than government, As Zakaria says, American companies have done better in adapting to the new world than American politicians. To him, “Washington, which faces no market test, has not yet figured out that diplomatic imperialism is a luxury that the United States can no longer afford.”

Still, an examination of new narratives might be an entire book in and of itself just for one country; in China, for instance, the number of new narratives just over the course of the 20th Century seems staggering in how radical the breaks appear to an outsider and non-expert like me, ranging from the imperial domination of others in the early part of the century to Communism beginning in 1949 to the ironically named Great Leap Forward that destroyed much of China’s professional classes to the capitalist reorientation that began in 1979, and those are just examples at the broadest levels. And understanding China and India is going to become more important as time goes on; as Zakaria says, “China operates on so large a scale that it can’t help changing the nature of the game,” much as the United States changed the nature of the European game beginning in the early 20th Century.

So what can be done, or, to put it in less confrontational terms, how should America respond to this world? Zakaria argues that we should focus on our strengths in openness and education. He draws parallels between Britain and the U.S., saying that wealthier countries can lose their competitive edge in technology: “A wealthier Britain was losing its focus on practical education. Science and geography were subordinated to literature and philosophy.” But he doesn’t give convincing, non-anecdotal evidence to support this assertion, and I’m not sure its true, though it is certainly plausible. What he does convincingly show, however, is that immigrants have fueled America’s cultural and scientific achievements, and immigrants continue to be major players in post-graduate degrees, especially in science. “If America can keep the people it educates in the country, the innovation will happen here. If they go back home, the innovation will travel with them.” This problem is real and has been observed elsewhere, but Zakaria underlines how poor a job we’ve done evaluating trade-offs. In a similar area, “The visa system, which has become restrictive and forbidding, will get more so every time one thug is let in. None of these procedures is designed with any consideration of striking a balance between the need for security and the need for openness and hospitality.” Once again, terrorism unhinges us and a do-something syndrome sets in. Getting this issue wrong isn’t as spectacular as terrorist attacks, and yet in the long term might do far more damage to the United States than 9/11. But that hidden damage isn’t easy to cover by TV news and so goes mostly unheeded. Zakaria says that “[The United States] needs to stop cowering in fear. It is fear that has created a climate or paranoia and panic in the United States and fear that has enabled our strategic missteps.”

When friends ask why I don’t feel any affinity for either major American political party, I now have a good recommendation for an explanation other Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a book that studies the inherent problems with power seekers and their minions. Zakaria argues that today “A ‘can-do’ country is now saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.” Still, I’m not sure this is any different from normal politics, and Zakaria’s evidence isn’t enough to prove his point. Yet I can’t help but agreeing with his larger thesis regarding the United States’ dysfunctional politics, and I’m not optimistic that a fix will be forthcoming, or, if it is, that it won’t be worse than the disease. At least a do-nothing government will first do no harm, which seems like an improvement on the last eight years, but for the next eighty, we need something better, and someone is at least framing the issues in a positive way.

More on-line sanctioned ignorance: in defense of Tom Wolfe and others

James Wood wrote a typically fascinating piece to Nigel Beale defending “lifeness,” or sophisticated realism. As mentioned in my recent link post, it’s worth reading in full. I have to quote at length to set up my response:

It is perfectly possible to agree with Roland Barthes that realism is a set of codes and conventions (for all writing is a set of such codes, after all) and still try to defend that element in fiction — what I call “lifeness” — that eludes the nerveless grip of code. This is a defence both of that evanescence called ‘reality’ and of the artifice that makes it — and makes it up — and there is no contradiction in this doubleness: we read fiction with two eyes, as it were, one world-directed and one text-directed.

The review I just wrote about Joseph O’Neill’s superb novel,”Netherland,” in “The New Yorker,” praises the novel both for its deep and wise interest in life and lives, and for its high degree of artifice and style. That doubleness is entirely in keeping with my attacks on people like Tom Wolfe, John Irving, the more formulaic elements of John Updike, and so on, and in keeping with my praise, in essays and reviews, of writers like Cormac McCarthy (when he is not trying to write a genre thriller like “No Country for Old Men”), Saul Bellow, Roberto Bolano, Muriel Spark, Jose Saramago, W.G. Sebald, Philip Roth, Alan Hollinghurst, Milan Kundera, Norman Rush, V.S. Naipaul, Edward P. Jones, Michel Houellebecq, Anne Enright, David Means, Peter Carey, J.M. Coetzee, Bohumil Hrabal, Harold Brodkey (I was an early and pretty isolated English champion of Brodkey’s), not to mention earlier writers like Henry Green, Italo Svevo, Giovanni Verga, Knut Hamsun, J.F. Powers, and many others.

(Link added by me).

I see this in part as a facet of the long-running debate between whether one should understand the exterior world as reflective of the interior or whether the interior is perpetually hidden and most revealed through its own, psychological terms. This tension manifests itself in literary periods: the exterior world was more popular in the 18th Century with writers like Pope and Swift, and naturally lends itself to satire, while the Romantics brought acute focus back to the interior world through their poetry, while many of the modernists tried to reflect this shift to the inside through the shape of their prose itself. Some contemporary novelists think they’re doing one when they’re actually doing the other; although I hadn’t realized this at the time I wrote my review, it’s a malady Bridge of Sighs suffers from. And the greatest novels can go one way (Ulysses, I would argue, is radically interior) or find a middle path, as I think Bellow often does, but even he often veers interior, as in Henderson and Herzog, as opposed to the exterior-focused world of The Adventures of Augie March; I’m not sure where Ravelstein fits, but I take that subject up again later.

To be sure, some of these generalizations are overly broad, as they almost must be when describing grant literary trends. But some writers—like Tom Wolfe—can subvert the code they appear to be hewing to, and at his best in The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe accomplishes this and is a more sophisticated and better writer than many critics assume through his use of examining how the exterior reflects the interior. Being just slightly off makes him misfire completely: I Am Charlotte Simmons is a bad novel that parodies itself, and Wolfe’s symbolic and social purposes are utterly transparent, some of his details are wrong, and the whole effect falls apart. Wolfe has more lifeness than Wood credits him with, though perhaps not so much as some of the later writers on his list.

One way of avoiding the interior and exterior problem is to have a narrator observing someone else, thus allowing one to see the interiority of the narrator and the exteriority of the person being observed. I want to write a dissertation on what I call the nominal object or nominal subject, in which you have a first-person narrator observing another person who is the nominal object or subject of the story: think Ishmael and Ahab in Moby Dick, Carraway and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, or Jack Burden and Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. All three novels exhibit what I think Wood means by “lifeness,” and although they don’t achieve exclusively that effect through this technique, it can, when used well, give a sense of interiority from the narrator and exteriority in the object. Ravelstein has the same technique, alone as far as I know in Bellow’s novels.

Which is right, the interior or exterior focus? I haven’t the slightest idea and suspect the answer is “neither,” but the debate’s terms are so often manifested in specific examples but not often stated in more general form. To me, novels that elude codes, ideologies, formulas, and other kinds of algorithmic writing—the ones that are truly novel—are the ones most worth reading, provided that they don’t try to evade codes merely to evade codes, but rather as a way of advancing the story, expanding our understanding of reality, and the like. This is the distinction I draw between someone like Bellow and someone like Alain Robbe-Grillet, who seemed interested in difference only for the sake of being different.

Memorial Day Links

* Mark Sarvas appeared in Seattle, as announced, and… no one showed up except yours truly. Way to go. The good news, however, is that the Seattle Times interviewed him. Alas, the interview leads with a reference to a hatchet job in the New York Times, which I won’t deign to link to here. A snippet of the interview:

Q: I worry that the kind of reading, that trancelike state you achieve when you get deep into a book, is going away in favor of a different kind of reading on the Internet. And what do you think is going to happen with book reviews? Will they eventually migrate to the Net, and how will that affect them?

A: There are different kinds of reading. The kind you do on a couch with a book is different from what you do with your blog.

I share your troubled view of the future — but I think it has absolutely nothing to do with the Internet. This is not just about book reviews; it’s about classical music, architecture, movie reviews.

It’s not a crisis in book reviewing; it’s the fact that we live in an age that I find distressingly incurious — interested in material pursuits, unreflective, narcissistic, shallow. An age when the thing that’s on everyone’s mind is … “Did you see ‘American Idol’ last night?”

It’s nothing to do with the Internet or the loss of newspapers. It’s a much wider critical moment, one that I leave to the cultural anthropologists to figure out.

* James Wood further illuminates what he values and what he doesn’t in fiction while simultaneously (and justifiably!) criticizing bloggers for their too-frequent rush to judgment. If you leave this blog to read it and don’t come back because you’ve spent too much time meditating on what he’s said, I won’t blame you. I’ve got a response rumbling in me, but it’s not ready for publication.

(Hat tip TEV.)

* From Anecdotal Evidence, more preaching to the choir. Granted, I agree with the post, but I’m guessing that the people who should most read it won’t, much like the protests at the NBCC and elsewhere regarding the cutbacks in book reviewing, or those endless damning reports about how we don’t, as a society, read much.

(Hat tip Books, Inq.)

* This video isn’t book-related, but watch it anyway.

Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King is not my favorite Bellow novel: Henderson’s sojourn in Africa is unconvincing and borders on Orientalism, the novel’s symbolism is heavy, and some disjointed sections feel superfluous, as when Henderson writes letters to his wife, Lily, in Chapter 19, or when he discusses the lion hunts with King Dahfu. Still, even Bellow batting below average scores more hits than most writers at their best, and in rereading Henderson I remember why I like Bellow so much—he’s so alive, and his characters ceaselessly try to expand their own lives and learn to encompass this big thing we call life. Granted, they’re always unsuccessful at the latter, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s an impossible quest just to understand life—especially humanity in all its varieties—let alone encompassing it, is probably impossible.

This might feed into what Bellow, like some other great novelists, so disliked about academic research and writing, as academics by definition try to define and elucidate, while so much of Bellow’s writing shows why some major factors of life simply can’t be elucidated. Therefore, academics and critics like me are ourselves going on a futile quest in our attempts to comprehend Bellow, who wrote novels like Henderson that show why the explaining isn’t possible; as Sam Tanenhaus wrote regarding the Library of America edition of Bellow, “It may be heretical, or just foolish, for a book review editor to admit it, but there are times when criticism is beside the point.” Indeed, and it makes me wary in writing this. No wonder Bellow liked Blake’s poetry, as I see some of the same defiance of full explanation in Blake, especially his later work. Henderson is a particularly strong example of this tendency, with the protagonist’s constant drive toward something he can’t seem to articulate beyond “I want, I want,” forming a base for the unnameable: what does Henderson want? Life? Experience? Knowledge? Something else?

Much of Henderson is, I think, intended as comic, given its outlandish events. Still, those events, like the lion hunt or the moving of the statue, are too symbolically endowed for my taste. They seem more like a statement of Henderson’s character than necessary events to the novel. Such scenes also parallel to too great a degree Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. That book came out in 1949 and Henderson in 1959, and during the period between them Bellow might have read or at least heard about Hero. Many of its elements show in farcical ways: the call to adventure is through narcissistic desire that leads to departure from the United States for Africa; failure in the blown-up water cistern; initiation in the form of moving a statute; and eventual success, after a fashion. Henderson is more concerned with himself than anyone or thing else, however, and rather than reconciling himself with his society he thinks that, “this is the payoff of a lifetime of action without thought” when he’s forced to imitate a jungle beast. As he says elsewhere, noting the ridiculousness of his own situation, “If I had to shoot at that cat, if I had to blow up frogs, if I had to pick up Mummah without realizing what I was getting myself into, it was not out of line to crouch on all fours and roar and act the lion.”

Yet in Henderson those comic aspects are also a critique of the quest narrative, as Henderson can’t find wholeness or completion. He searches for an abstraction layer not available through travel, even when elements of home—the United States—follow him: “It was just my luck to think I had found the conditions of life simplified so I could deal with them—finally!—and then to end up in a ramshackle palace reading these advanced medical texts.” The issues keep coming: “And though I’m no expert I guess he’s [King Dahfu] thinking of mankind as a whole, which is tired of itself and needs a short in the arm from animal nature.” If that weren’t enough, he continues: “Anyway, I begin to ask (or perhaps it was more a plea than a question), why is it always near me—why! Why can’t I get away from it awhile? Why, why!” Why indeed: it’s a question religion doesn’t answer, or at least not satisfactorily anymore, and that philosophy seems to have failed at answering despite its numerous and increasingly verbose attempts, and that novels pose and don’t seem to answer. In the mythology Campbell discusses, you come back from your quest whole and ready to take your place in the adult community or you die and uphold the standards of that community or you transcend life; in Henderson and later, ironic texts, your quest is forever incomplete, because like Henderson, you can’t answer that pivotal question that becomes an exclamation: “Why, why!”

Why, why! indeed, and Bellow keeps setting up the questions through exploration without giving answers. The closest he comes, I think, is in Ravelstein, where Chick marvels at the “creature” that is Ravelstein while also being resigned to accept his fate. Whether this is an improvement on the manic energy of earlier Bellow novels or a depressing acceptance of the end is a matter of perspective on which I have no opinion. But, like the master, I will try to frame the issue, even if the issue has a habit of being larger than that frame. And so the critic struggles with Bellow like Itelo wrestling with Henderson, and even champion critics don’t seem able to win. But this preoccupation with trying to explain Bellow stays with me, and this is not, I suspect, my last word on the subject, even if my attempts are as futile as Henderson’s.


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