T.S. Eliot’s Letters (from The London Review of Books)

Michael Wood, a professor at Princeton, has published a thorough but relatively brief review of the second volume of Eliot’s letters, which Faber & Faber just released.  Sigh, that means it’s expensive (Thirty-five pounds!  Pounds, not dollars!)  I’ll probably never actually read the book, since like everyone else I’ve got a thousand other things I want/need to get through.  However, the review offers an entertaining gloss on the volume, and if you’re the kind of reader who is interested in writers’ letters, you’ll like it.

Wood is particularly sapient–and grimly funny–when discussing the poet’s generally wretched marriage (“the competitive invalidism the Eliots have instead of a marriage”) and his grey-faced attitude toward life: “this is the writing of a man who thinks he has a vocation for unhappiness, who thinks unhappiness is a genuine vocation.”  That looks sanctimonious out of context, but Wood is actually a charitable reviewer who obviously likes Eliot.  Can’t blame him: while the life may have been miserable, the poems remain magnificent.



Jonathan Safron Foer is a prig

Let me make a distinction, a personal one that nevertheless applies to and frames the experience of anybody who reads seriously.  It has to do with why one dislikes what one dislikes–negative responses are as complicated as adulatory ones.  On one side of dislike, there are writers whom I personally find distasteful or don’t consider entertaining or elevating, but whom I nonetheless respect as writers.  In other words, although their work isn’t to my taste, I acknowledge that they are doing something worthwhile with language.  I place, for instance, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Toni Morrison in this category; other readers will certainly disagree and identify their own outliers according to their standards of taste.

Then there are the hucksters, the charlatans, the low-talent frauds, and the bad thinkers.  Here we are dealing not with matters of taste, but with the question of basic talent.  Jonathan Safron Foer, Brooklynite, hipster storyteller, media darling, and, now, ersatz moralist, has little to none, and so he falls into this category.  Falls hard.  Although he does pick nice fonts for his books.

In this essay, Jennifer Reese reviews–and largely eviscerates–his new, fatuous, astonishingly arrogant manifesto Eating Animals.  As she points out so elegantly, JSF, reputedly a strong thinker, somehow manages to conflate a perfectly sane argument (industrial farming is ecologically ruinous and morally almost indefensible) and a crude, pompous, whiny jeremiad against people who aren’t vegetarians (actually, aren’t vegans, as Reese shrewdly notes).  Eating Animals is a piece of agitprop disguised as journalism, and its “priggish, condescending, naive” tone, notwithstanding JSF’s claims that the book is objective and open-minded, does nothing so effectively as spur reactionary anti-intellectualism:

The populist conservative case against coastal liberals is that they are smug elites who think they know everything because they went to fancy colleges, eat arugula, and name-check Derrida. As a coastal liberal, I think the rap is often cynical and unfair. But Foer’s account of his field trip to the abattoir suggests how a folksy moose butcher like Sarah Palin gets on a presidential ticket.

His is the worst kind of specious argument, one whose high moral seriousness blinds him to counter-arguments that might contest and complicate his own: e.g. primates have always been omnivores (as Michael Pollan reminds us), and almost every aspect of modern life, our clothing, our cell phones, the fruits and vegetables we eat, buses we ride, are part of a manifestly unsustainable economy (see Elizabeth Kolbert on this).  Eating Animals evinces a troubling tendency of many of my fellow lefties:  a willingness to critique only certain limited, authorized facets of the world we all live within.  If Las Vegas is Official Fun, meat-eating is, for some people, ground for Official Opprobrium.  Apple makes products that are poisonous out of poisons, but one doesn’t expect JSF to mount an attack on iPods.

Instead, a myopic self-satisfaction stands in for real ethical debate.  Did you buy that organic salad pre-packed from the grocery store?  Then kudos to you, smiles Foer.  Are you a hunter who killed, dressed, and cooked the venison on your table?  Do you raise chickens in your backyard?  Do you fish?  Eat fish?  Buy organic half-and-half?  Ever step on a bug?  Then, he grumbles, you are morally despicable, that is to say not in line with Mr. Foer, whose career thus far provides an excellent example of how readily most critics and readers mistake sputtering emotion for genuine moral passion.   Fuck you, you sanctimonious dweeb.

Then again, we should be nicer.  After all, in fifty years nobody will remember the poor guy.


PS: Reese’s essay will be one of the last publications of Double X, the online women’s magazine that spun off earlier this year from a Slate.com blog.  The editors announced today that they’re shutting down.  For the usual current reasons.  Double X was never much good–although it was far less inane than glossier, celeb-obsessed Jezebel–but they did publish interesting pieces like this one from time to time.  Hard times, folks, hard times, especially if you work in the word business.

Pollan’s “Botany of Desire” on PBS

PBS has turned one of TGR’s favorite books into a good television documentaryThe Botany of Desire is a compact, lucid eco-cultural history of four plants–the tulip, the potato, the apple, and cannabis–that have been intimate partners in human civilization for the past few thousand years.  You could do the same thing with coffee or chocolate or any other plant humans take pleasure from; really, you could do it with any product that originates in nature (living or not), which is to say everything: the gas you put in your car, for example, wouldn’t exist without tiny prehistoric organisms that very, very slowly became oil.  The charm of Pollan’s approach is that he balances a wonder at nature’s wild fecundity with a careful respect for human inventiveness, which is itself contained within nature (our big-ass brains are essentially a multi-million year response to environmental conditions and stimuli).  And at the center of this is amazement–and a deep unease–at the increasing human ability to manipulate nature to our own ends:

“In the years since Darwin published The Origin of Species, the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred.  Whereas once humankind exerted its will in the relatively small arena of artificial selection (the arena I think of, metaphorically, as a garden) and nature held sway everywhere else, today the force of our presence is felt everywhere.   It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and pure nature begins.  . . . Partly by default, partly by design, all of nature is now in the process of being domesticated–of coming, or finding itself, under the (somewhat leaky) roof of civilization.”

(Botany of Desire, xxii-xxiii)

This has been dealt with more abstrusely by Heidegger, in “The Question Concerning Technology.” (Make sure to read the footnotes.)

Anyway, I watched the PBS version tonight, and it captures the original text quite well, mainly because the show is organized around narrative interviews with Pollan himself.  It is also shot magnificently: lots of close-ups of tulip stipplings and the droplets of resin-goo on marijuana buds.  Hurray for weed!

They will almost certainly replay the documentary soon.  Check the site for listings.  And if you want to read one of the many modern nature poets who are onto the same thing Pollan is, may I suggest the master himself?  Go near the back and dig on “The Bouquet,” then flip a few pages more and try out “The Planet on the Table.”  You will soon be fiending.  Those of you who enjoy the non-fiction side of things, get a copy of Uncommon Ground, the best available collection of recent environmental history writing.  All of the essays in there are well-written and clearly argued; delightful for the academic or the layperson, its theme is the state(s) of nature in modernity.  Plastic flowers in Disneyland, to pink flamingoes, to the fight to preserve the last American wilderness areas, y’all.