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The New New York Review of Books

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The New York Review of Books has been around since the 1960s. It’s always had a clubby feel, with many repeat reviewers. That wasn’t necessarily bad, although over the past decade, some of the elders seemed to be losing touch.

Over the past year, I’ve seen a big change in the NYRB. Reviews I’ve learned a lot from. Books I had no idea existed. A lively feeling of, dare I say it, youth. I’ve even been reading the reviews of fiction, and I gave up on fiction some time ago. Fintan O’Toole comments on US politics.

Emily Greenhouse has been editor since 2019. It’s possible that she is only now fully realizing her vision of what the NYRB can be. It’s good.

In addition to the Review itself, in paper and online, there are online-only interviews of contributing writers and artists and occasionally other fascinating matter. Here’s a sampling of articles from the last month or so. Sadly, I think that most of these links are paywalled.

An Orchard for a Dome(Nicole Rudick, online only). In his diaries and paintings, the American artist Charles Burchfield worshipped the natural world. 

Burchfield is best known for his ecstatic watercolors of intimate landscapes—“an unrepentant, gnostic vision,” as the critic Dave Hickey once put it—inspired by his surroundings in rural Ohio and Erie County, New York, near Buffalo. His paintings most frequently depict nature: all kinds of weather, times of day, and seasons; local flora and bird life; and the inexhaustible variation of the sky. “There is nothing in nature that will ever fail to interest me,” he wrote in his journal on March 25, 1911, the first entry in The Sphinx and the Milky Way, a selection of Burchfield’s journals edited by the poet Ben Estes and introduced by the preeminent Burchfield scholar Nancy Weekly.

The Trouble with Reality(Meghan O’Gieblyn, March 21 issue). William Egginton’s intellectual biography of Borges, Kant, and Heisenberg takes place at the intersection of physics and religion, and traces the errors that result when we forget the limits of our human point of view.

[Egginton’s] new book, The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, is a joint biography of three figures who called attention, much as Dostoevsky did, to the problems and paradoxes that emerge when we try to extend our ordinary way of seeing the world beyond the human scale. These contradictions—or what Kant called antinomies—arise when we try to eject ourselves beyond space and time, imagining earthly life from an eternal perspective. (Egginton calls this illusory vantage “the god of very large things.”) They also arise when we zero in too closely on things at a minute scale. (Egginton calls this, borrowing a phrase from Arundhati Roy, “the god of very small things.”)

Whether large or small, the point of view is presumed to be objective, unmoored, and impartial: hence the false divinity. This is not a new problem, but Egginton argues that it slyly persists in many thought experiments and theories, including the multiverse hypothesis, interpretations of quantum mechanics, and debates about free will. Borges, Kant, and Heisenberg each cautioned against such confusions and, as Egginton puts it, “shared an uncommon immunity to the temptation to think they knew God’s secret plan.”

Russian Exceptionalism (Gary Saul Morson, February 22 issue). After the fall of the USSR, liberalism, considered foreign, was overwhelmed by various types of nationalism, one of which, Eurasianism, seems to have achieved the status of a semiofficial ideology. This is the best explanation of Eurasianism and its influence on Putin that I have read.

Unlike European colonial empire-building, therefore, the Russian conquest of Siberian, Caucasian, and Central Asian peoples was entirely “friendly”—an argument so preposterous it occasioned some of the Eurasianists’ most imaginative historiography. Ukraine proved an obvious sticking point because, from the beginning, Eurasianists had to confront Ukrainian nationalists in the diaspora. From their perspective, all the Eurasianists had demonstrated was that Ukrainians, who share European culture, do not belong with Russians.

What exactly ensured a common destiny for a group of people? The answer was geography, what Savitsky called mestorazvitie—“topogenesis” or, more literally, “place-development.” Geographical environment shapes culture, he argued, so the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, which extends from Hungary to Manchuria, are bound to display common psychology and therefore to have harmonious relations. By the same token, Savitsky reasoned, an unbridgeable chasm must always divide “oceanic” and “continental” cultures. The former embrace risk, entrepreneurship, and individualism—think of Renaissance Italy or republican Holland or imperial Britain—while the latter prefer tradition, conservatism, and collectivism. The continental world favors centralized authoritarian rule, which is why “geography itself” has preordained Russian rule over the vast territory extending from Poland to the Pacific. “Continentality” dictates isolation from alien influence through economic and social “autarky,” or self-sufficiency.

Fintan O’Toole is one of the most perceptive analysts of US politics and Donald Trump. As I wrote recently, for everyday politics it’s enough to take what Trump says at its worst. But I am also fascinated with the multiple ways his discourse (or word salad, if you will) can be taken. I suspect it’s not intellectual depth, but that he has found, by trial and error, ways to use language that benefit him. O’Toole analyzes into some of it in his latest column:

What is new in the development of antidemocratic politics is that Trump brings all this comic doubleness—the confusion of the real and the performative, of character and caricature—to bear on the authoritarian persona of the caudillo, the duce, the strongman savior. The prototype dictators of the far right may have looked absurd to their critics (“Hitler,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer, “can gesticulate like a clown, Mussolini risk false notes like a provincial tenor”), but within the community of their followers and the shadow community of their intended victims, their histrionics had to be taken entirely seriously. Trump, on the other hand, retains all his self-aware absurdity even while creating a political persona of immense consequence.

This comic-authoritarian politics has some advantages over the older dictatorial style. It allows a threat to democracy to appear as at worst a tasteless prank: in the 2016 presidential campaign even liberal outlets like The New York Times took Hillary Clinton’s e-mails far more seriously than Trump’s open stirring of hatred against Mexicans and Muslims. Funny-autocratic functions better in a society like that of the US, where the boundaries of acceptable insult are still shifting and mainstream hate-mongering still has to be light on its feet. It allows racial insults and brazen lies to be issued, as it were, in inverted commas. If you don’t see those invisible quotation marks, you are not smart enough—or you are too deeply infected by the woke mind virus—to be in on the joke. You are not part of the laughing community. The importance of not being earnest is that it defines the boundaries of the tribe. The earnest are the enemy.

In this age of enshittification, it’s nice to find a publication that is improving.

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