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In The Nation

Here's what I did during my Christmas vacation: I read all the reviews in nearly twenty back issues of The Nation. Including the "Spring Books" issue from May. When I get behind, I don't fool around! The Nation's criticism is so much more substantial than the trash that too often appears in the New York Times Book Review that I feel somewhat foolish for taking the latter to task every week. At the same time, I have a terrible headache. All that brainy thoughtfulness!

I clipped five essays. David Thompson's warm appreciation (May 29, 2006) of Alan Bennett's Untold Stories will be tucked into the book. I don't know where to tuck William Deresiewicz's brisk dismissal (October 9, 2006) of Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, but I had to hold on to it because it sums up succinctly my dissatisfaction with the one Powers novel that I have read, Galatea 2.2.

The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.

Mr Deresiewicz is particularly struck by the fact that Richard Powers wows his readers with unstinting displays of science. He's given a pass on affect because his material is "difficult." The review traces this back to a wistful yearning for science and literature to engage in fruitful conversation.

From Matthew Arnold to C P Snow to today, there's been a vague feeling afloat that if only somehow those two modes of knowledge could be made to talk to each other, science would be humanized (whatever that means) and art made relevant to the scientific age (as if it weren't already).

I doubt this demand will ever be satisfied, for the simple reason that no one really knows what it means, least of all the people who make it. But certainly one way it won't be satisfied is by treating the novel as a container for scientific ideas.

Jon Wiener's review of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S Brown (October 23, 2006), is valuable for cutting Hofstadter down to size, or at least for stressing the distorting effect that a dread of American fascism had upon the writer's work. Another reassessment of received truths, Eyal Press's "In God's Country (November 20, 2006), reviews nine recent books under a "church and state" rubric. Mr Press reminds us that strong religious convictions have done far more good than harm to American life, as the single issue of civil rights for Afro-Americans makes perfectly clear, and he thinks that secular liberals are too easily scared by extreme fundamentalists. In any case, religious conviction must be respected; it was to ensure that respect, for any and all creeds, that the Founders proscribed an established religion. Mr Press quotes Madison, who wrote that religion

"flourishes in greater purity without [rather] than with the aid of government." He was right. The level of religious observance in America has long dwarfed that in various European countries where official churches still exist.

One cannot hope to change the religious conviction that, say, homosexuality is wrongful without first taking it very seriously indeed.

Finally, Lynn Hunt's review (May 29, 2006) of two books about the Terror seemed worth keeping, because it makes a very important point that I hope that it's not paranoid of me to regard as extremely important these days. Writing of Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, Mr Hunt observes,

Scurr sets out to answer the same wrong question that has bedeviled so many accounts of the Terror. She asks how Robespierre could have come to incarnate the Terror and with it the entire French Revolution. The question rests on a double fallacy - that Robespierre is the Terror, that the Terror is the French Revolution - whose lure is easily understood.

In fact, Mr Hunt argues, Robespierre became a tyrant not by main force but by the consent of the Convention.

Robespierre undoubtedly turned many a memorable phrase because he believed that he spoke for the Revolution's most profound principles. But the other deputies only tolerated this pretension as long as the situation demanded what he offered: an ability to keep popular violence in check while indefatigably pursuing victory on the Revolution's multiple fronts and obscuring the fact that the "regime" lacked all the basic elements of rule. Once the French gained the upper hand in both the foreign and civil wars, Robespierre's days were numbered.

Mr Hunt concludes with chilling relevance.

Rumor, conspiracy, constant harping on imminent dangers, accusing political opponents of being unpatriotic, internment camps, even lists of suspects vaguely defined have all made a shocking reappearance in the US "war on terror," along with torture, a practice repudiated by the French even though they had grown up under a monarchy that routinely administered it under court supervision. If the leaders of the most powerful nation in the world can react in this fashion to the threats, albeit real, of small cells of terrorists financed by foreign powers, is it really so hard to imagine that the French responded as they did?



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