Below Paul discusses the review — “Theater of War” — by Christopher Hitchens of Frank Rich’s new book on the Bush administration. The review is one of the highlights of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here). I think the review is a literary masterpiece, harnessing Hitchens’s genius to a deep anger that Rich has aroused in Hitchens.
Hitchens’s review put me in mind of other such examples of master chefs carving up unsavory turkeys (to borrow Paul’s metaphor). The prototype is the review by Samuel Johnson of Soame Jenyn’s Free Enquiry Into the Origin of Good and Evil. Jenyns’s long-forgotten work combines deist fatalism and cosmic optimism in a manner that deeply provoked Johnson. Johnson himself had long struggled to reconcile religious faith with the problem of evil. He was enraged, among other things, by Jenyns’s aspiration to philosophic detachment through the imagination of superior beings who regard men as men do lower animals. In his biography of Johnson, Walter Jackson Bate acutely observes Johnson’s “surprising anger (no milder word will do) that he can suddenly show to anyone who denies…the radical unhappiness of human life.” Thus Johnson on Jenyns:
I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which, I think, he might have carried further, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown, that these “hunters, whose game is man,” have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps and kittens, they amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. As they are wiser and more powerful than we, they have more exquisite diversions; for we have no way of procuring any sport so brisk and so lasting, as the paroxysms of the gout and stone, which, undoubtedly, must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf.
Hugh Kenner provides the best modern example I know of anger provoking genius into a review that might stand on its own as a literary masterpiece. Kenner was the foremost expositor of literary modernism. In The Reactionaries by John Harrison, a forgotten critical mediocrity, Harrison had brought Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot and Lawrence before the bar of liberal judgment and found them all wanting on political grounds. In his review of Harrison’s book (“The Sleep Machine,” collected in William Buckley’s anthology Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?), Kenner noted that Harrison’s book had been a critical hit among the tastemakers (including Frank Rich’s forebears at the Times) despite Harrison’s utter cluelessness regarding the authors under discussion. Kenner was not amused:
This fatuity, this ignorance, this silliness, this stark insensibility, none of it would be worth five minutes’ attention but for the highly symptomatic fact that reviewers paid it no heed at all in their headlong endorsement of Mr. Harrison’s attitudes. The Reactionsaries is not only a tract of writing thought publishable in 1967, it’s something influential pundits in that year were willing to endorse. That is its interest. In itself it’s negligible. Were it a doctoral dissertation its contribution to knowledge would be this, that we should know how unqualified was its director. The author is imperfectly acquainted with his material, grossly unacquainted with the existing scholarship, and not always free from the suspicion of having leafed through big books for telling things to quote. And yet, that gratitude, those plaudits, those reviews! Can we conclude anything from those, beyond the fact that reviewers read rather fast?
Kenner’s anger, like Johnson’s, like Hitchens’s, is something to behold.
UPDATE: Reader John Studer offers the first two paragraphs of Macaulay’s review of Memoirs of the Life and Administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil Lord Burghley, Secretary of State in the Reign of King Edward the Sixth, and Lord High Treasurer, of England in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. Containing an historical View of the Times in which he lived, and of the many eminent and illustrious Persons with whom he was connected; with Extracts from his Private and Official Correspondence and other Papers, now first published from the Originals, by the Reverend EDWARD NARES, D.D., Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford. 3 vols. 4to. London: 1828, 1832:
THE work of Dr. Nares has filled us with astonishment similar to that which Captain Lemuel Gulliver felt when first he landed in Brobdingnag, and saw corn as high as the oaks in the New Forest, thimbles as large as buckets, and wrens of the bulk of turkeys. The whole book, and every component part of it, is on a gigantic scale. The title is as long as an ordinary preface: the prefatory matter would furnish out an ordinary book; and the book contains as much reading as an ordinary library. We cannot sum up the merits of the stupendous mass of paper which lies before us better than by saying that it consists of about two thousand closely printed quarto pages, that it occupies fifteen hundred inches cubic measure, and that it weighs sixty pounds avoirdupois. Such a book might, before the deluge, have been considered as light reading by Hilpa and Shallum. But unhappily the life of man is now three-score years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence.
Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation. There was, it is said, a criminal in Italy, who was suffered to make his choice between Guicciardini and the galleys. He chose the history. But the war of Pisa was too much for him. He changed his mind, and went to the oar. Guicciardini, though certainly not the most amusing of writers, is a Herodotus or a Froissart, when compared with Dr. Nares, It is not merely in bulk, but in specific gravity also, that these memoirs exceed all other human compositions. On every subject which the Professor discusses, he produces three times as many pages as another man; and one of his pages is as tedious as another man’s three. His book is swelled to its vast dimensions by endless repetitions, by episodes which have nothing to do with the main action, by quotations from books which are in every circulating library, and by reflections which, when they happen to be just, are so obvious that they must necessarily occur to the mind of every reader. He employs more words in expounding and defending a truism than any other writer would employ in supporting a paradox. Of the rules of historical perspective, he has not the faintest notion. There is neither foreground nor background in his delineation. The wars of Charles the Fifth in Germany are detailed at almost as much length as in Robertson’s life of that prince. The troubles of Scotland are related as fully as in M’Crie’s Life of John Knox. It would be most unjust to deny that Dr. Nares is a man of great industry and research; but he is so utterly incompetent to arrange the materials which he has collected that he might as well have left them in their original repositories.
Keep those cards and letters coming!
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