The German Disappearance, How to Do Nothing, and a History of Greece
I’ve decided this morning (while sipping my Italian coffee and thinking of today’s Tour stage) that it’s International Day here at Prufrock. First up, we’ve got Nick Burns on Roderick Beaton’s history of Greece: “In his sweeping, sympathetic history of modern Greece, which ought immediately to become the standard history of the modern nation, Roderick Beaton describes how factions soon emerged among the rebellious Greeks. On one side were warlords like Mavromichalis, who represented the old, lawless kind of freedom; on the other were educated men who looked to Europe for a model of centralized order for their fledgling nation.”
Sahil Mahtani makes a pretty darn convincing case that we should go all in on reparations: “To those who suggest we might be better spending our time righting the injustices of today rather than of the distant past I say: shame on you. If these wrongs are not righted through compensation they will live on in our collective shame and the descendants of the victims will continue to suffer. Far from abandoning the principle of restorative justice we should be expanding it and exploring what other injustices might be put right through financial compensation. One glaring example is the great evil visited on the Anglo-Saxon population by the Normal Conquest of 1066. By any standard, the effect on indigenous English society was enduring devastation.” Don’t stop until you get enough.
Francesca Aran Murphy reviews a new history of France’s Nouvelle Théologie: “Jon Kirwan presents the Nouvelle Théologie as a movement with three successive generations of leaders: those directly involved in the Dreyfus Affair and the Modernist Crisis (Maurice Blondel, Auguste Valensin, Joseph Huby); their apprentices and students, who fought in and were haunted by the Great War (Henri de Lubac and Gaston Fessard); and their younger confrères, who emerged in the shadow of the War (Jean Daniélou). In this story, the Nouvelle Théologie was fated to wrestle with and ultimately subjugate a very different movement, which Kirwan calls Neo-Scholasticism. It’s ironic, then, that the book reminded me of Charles Péguy’s assessment of Thomas Aquinas: ‘Un grand docteur considéré, célébré, consacré, dénombré. Enterré’ (‘A great doctor who has been considered, praised, numbered amongst the saints . . . and solemnly buried’).”
Seamus Perry takes stock of the life and work of W. S. Graham: “Many poets end up having a hard life but W.S. Graham went out of his way to have one. His dedication to poetry, about which he seems never to have had a second thought, was remorseless, and his instinct, surely a peculiarly modern one, was that the way to nurture his creativity was to have a really bad time.”
This piece has nothing to do with a foreign country or writer, but the title would be perfect for a book about Italy. Charlie Tyson reviews Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: “‘Doing nothing,’ Odell argues, can be a way of resisting a version of untrammeled capitalism that demands ceaseless labor. This labor includes the uncompensated privilege of generating ‘content’—rage-fueled tweets are her paradigmatic example—that hurts our psyches while feeding the profit margins of tech platforms. But Odell, an artist and a lecturer at Stanford University, wants us to do more than stare out the window. Rather, we should withdraw our attention from commercial social media and commit our energies to contemplating, and caring for, the people and other creatures around us. Readjusting our attention so as to sharpen our sensory awareness of the natural world is crucial, because the individual capacity to pay attention is prerequisite to collective action. (While we rage-tweet, the earth burns.) In place of virtual content stripped of context, Odell celebrates local ecological stewardship as a promising future ground for humane politics. Yet as I read this earnest blend of activism, nature writing, art criticism, and self-help, I began to have the discomfiting feeling that I’d encountered something like it before. Not between the covers of a book, but late at night, browsing Twitter, scrolling and skimming. For Odell’s method of presentation is recognizably lifted from the very medium she criticizes: the online world of circulating content, ripe with bromides, targeted less toward the curious reader than toward the algorithms that coordinate literary distribution in what now passes for our public sphere.” Ouch.
Matt Labash is a foreign country. Read about his life since the demise of The Weekly Standard.
Essay of the Day:
In Modern Age, Samuel Goldman has a wonderful piece about the state of modern Germany:
“As the title suggests, Finis Germania is haunted by melancholy—perhaps to the point of banality. Among other complaints, Sieferle laments the mediocrity of German society since the end of World War II. He blames for this not only the leveling effects of mass media and consumerism but also the separation of political from economic and social power produced by successive episodes of defeat and occupation. ‘If the “political class” is not rooted in an organic “ruling class,”’ he observes in a Burkean vein, ‘it cannot be expected to perform with the casual self-understanding that can only be acquired and habituated over generations.’ Sieferle sneers that politicians of Germany’s mainstream right can’t shake off the bratwurst fumes from the local festivals where they campaign, while those of the left reek of cigarettes chain-smoked at late-night committee meetings.
“Sieferle is equally scathing in his analysis of today’s high culture—or what passes for it. ‘Where everything is art and everyone can be an artist,’ he writes, ‘the recognition of artistry is a question of charisma.’ In the destructive wake of modernisms, avant-gardisms, and postmodernisms, the only surviving object for appreciation is the artist himself. Once an attempt to evoke transcendent standards of beauty and morality, modern art devolves into a species of the will-to-power.
“Sieferle’s critics have pointed out precedents for such observations in the old German tradition of Kulturpessimismus. But his fascination with contradictions and inversions owes as much to the Frankfurt School as it does to Oswald Spengler. There is no cyclical theory here. Like Theodor Adorno, Sieferle is fascinated by the way modern life undermines the principles of rationality and freedom that its great initiators were attempting to secure. ‘The completion of civilization is the cultural animal kingdom,’ he concludes in a remark that evokes Adorno’s masterpiece, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘the empire of lower needs and their immediate satisfaction.’
“Among his contemporaries, perhaps the closest analogy to Sieferle is the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. Like Houellebecq, Sieferle sees Europe as a kind of vast geriatric home whose population wants only to die in comfort. In Das Migrationsproblem, another of his posthumous works, Sieferle describes this planned obsolescence as ‘the politics of disappearance.’ For Sieferle, it is not only Germany that is in the process of abolishing itself, as the former Bundesbank official Thilo Sarrazin charged in his bestselling Deutschland schafft sich ab. The history of modern Europe is little more than a story of self-destruction.
“If the ‘politics of disappearance’ is Continental, however, it has particular intensity in Germany. Germany labors under a burden of guilt that France, for example, does not. Thanks partly to Charles de Gaulle’s talent for mythmaking, the French congratulate themselves on being among the righteous victors of the Second World War. The Germans, by contrast, were not just losers on the battlefield but also cast as the incarnations of human evil. The French might choose cultural and political surrender as a result of exhaustion—a scenario that Houellebecq has explored in Submission and other novels. Many Germans, on the other hand, seem to believe that they deserve to disappear.”
Photo: Paris solstice
Poem: Anon, “Ruin” (translated by Matthew Hollis)
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