The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber


Sometime in the 1990s, literature became captured by its own parasitic industry that pumps out MFAs and the resulting “serious” books at an alarming rate, yet seems to produce no books that resonate with an audience. A sort of publishing underground has emerged in response where oddball writers confront issues that terrify us, as opposed to the self-congratulatory empathy teaching circle of “official” literature.

Michel Faber emerges as a strong voice within that new frontier with The Book of Strange New Things, a confrontation with the emptiness of modernity and its rapidly accelerating decay. Set in the near-future or an alternate present, it chronicles the passage of a man into deep space to encounter another civilization. In doing so the book evokes two other works of highly metaphorical fiction, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As in Conrad, this book involves a journey into the world of the Other in order to understand ourselves, and as in Calvino it separates the human psyche into different possibilities represented by different cities.

Written in sparse functional modern prose with a number of elegant passages, The Book of Strange New Things merits not being spoiled by additional revelations of its plot. It moves quickly and becomes engrossing and, while the latter half may run a bit long, it provides the type of disorienting immersion that serves the plot well as earth becomes a distant memory. It directly confronts the collapse of human civilization on earth and the emptiness of life, using some Biblical passages as a guide and contrast but not in an advocacy role. The resulting is a startling unearthing of the question of purpose in human affairs and how our lack of it has made us marooned in an alien wasteland of our own loveless, faithless and self-doubting souls.

In theory, this book could be categorized as science fiction, and while it borrows much from that genre like postmodernist Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, and more recent meta-modernists like Michel Houllebecq, the fundamental aspect of this book is the descent into the human psyche itself more like a novel from Conrad, Celine or Robertson Davies than any science fiction. It is subtle, almost like the touch of a ghost on the skin, but the meaning saturates the novel in an atmospheric sense and provides both total escapism and inexorable collision with the many necessary things we moderns ignore. Cache a little extra time for this and enjoy departing into deep space that curiously resembles a venture into the space within.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen


Jane Austen specialized in writing books that on the surface were the type of social chatter one might find in a tabloid for Oxford-educated upper middle class people, but underneath the skin, argued a philosophy of human excellence which unites morality and natural selection in a harsh judgment of humanity akin to Nietzsche’s analysis of man as a bridge to the superman.

In Persuasion, Austen revisits a timeworn tale: boy and girl fall in love but have no immediate future together, so being sensible people, they avoid a Romeo and Juliet and avoid marriage. Boy then ventures out into the world and makes his fortune. When he returns, girl wonders if boy still cares. Both are now caught in a high society version of the prisoner’s dilemma: the first person to offer himself or herself puts that person at great risk of being denied and crushed, but if both somehow meet in the middle they can begin the happily ever after.

Unlike earlier books from this author, Persuasion features fewer scenes of people interacting through dialogue, and instead describes these through an omniscient narrator closer to what Laurence Sterne used in A Sentimental Journey or Celine’s nearly omniscient narrator-protagonist in Journey to the End of the Night. This is a story told, not “shown” as every idiot creative writing instructor demands, which enables it to move quickly, make more pointed comments on the nature of the people involved, and save conversational points for — in what is almost a return to her earlier drafts of epistolary novels — lengthier communications where characters address points of interest in long soliloquoys. If you ever wondered what Ayn Rand would look like in the hands of an actual master, it is Austen’s dense but informative prose that shows a clearly female voice in its use of multiple dependent clauses in long sentences which elaborate on inter-related concepts. The writing has more in common with Kant than stereotypically “female” voices in modern literature, but preserves a female perspective by approaching from context and slowly getting to the point, in contrast to male characters who are very objective-driven.

Austen elaborates on her perspective of gender differences throughout the novel, culminating in an analysis of the reasons for the differences between the sexes:

I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were only known by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forebearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone. (233)

This follows up on an earlier soliloquoy where Anne expresses the idea that men are based in conquest of objective, where women seek to frame themselves in a context and make that balance. Through this continuing analysis, she opines on the differences between men and women and which roles befit both as a result; this complex analysis sprawls in dialogue throughout the novel. A more interesting line of inquiry arises from Austen’s analysis of good versus great in terms of people, picking up on another thread in the novel which is the crisis within the “First Families” (titled aristocracy) over their own quality control, a line of thought which in Austen’s view is tied closely to the question of who marries and what children result, and whether people should be accepted merely for social position or for something more. She does not attack the aristocracy, but calls for filtering within it to keep picking the best, in a method of eugenics which emphasizes the positive aspects of promoting the best more than a desire to smite the worst:

Lady Russell confessed that she had expected something better; but yet ‘it was an acquaintance worth having,’ and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr. Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,

‘My idea, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’ (147)

Much of the language has been altered since the writing of this book by our egalitarian times. In Austen’s parlance, clever means intelligence instead of merely shrewd; well-informed means an ability to analyze and retain information; great deal of conversation refers to a constant intellectual activity and ability to creatively analyze situations and people. Society has since dumbed down these terms to mean entertaining, memorization and chatter, but in the context of this book their meaning is unmistakable and is elucidated in earlier dialogues.

Persuasion will confuse any reader who thought The Lovely Bones or Flight Behavior were profound books, and baffle Randian readers who like one-dimensional characters and scenes where only one idea is transacted at a time. But in this elegant and engrossing novel ideas more akin to what Plato or Nietzsche might discuss emerge from the everyday of society both high and low, and for this reason Persuasion lives on among those who wonder if, after all, there is a solution to the human problem.

The Wump World by Bill Peet


The Wump World (1970)
by Bill Peet
Houghton Mifflin, 44 pages. $9

On the surface, this serves as a parable for children about the environmental damage that humans can do. Underneath however as in most of Bill Peet’s work another agenda is at play, which is a confrontation between humanity and the doubt, emptiness and fear that makes the empty pursuit of status and material prestige seem a tempting option.

The Wump World features a planet inhabited by Wumps, who are friendly capybara-like animals who are not particularly exceptional. Like Hobbits, or most people, Wumps specialize in nothing in particular except existence itself. They munch the sweet green grass and frolic in the sun and probably think very little about the big questions of life. Like small children or other innocents, they are still somewhat in love with life itself and concern themselves with nothing greater.

A spaceship lands and discharges a new species, called — in the kind of dead-hand obvious imagery one can use in children’s books — the Pollutians. They have come from a “worn-out world” and are glad to have found a new one for their use. In short order, they tear down the trees and rip up the grass and replace them with concrete, on which they build giant cities complete with “hundred-story skyscrapers.” They are noisy, frenetic, and dump trash in the rivers and fill the skies with smoke.

The Wumps retreat to underground caves where they cower and await deliverance. In the meantime, the cities expand to cover the entire world. The Pollutians work hard at this transformation, but also bicker among themselves and generally seem aimless outside of their hard work in transforming the new world. In the meantime, their own pollution makes the world uninhabitable for them, so they declare it worn-out as well and seek another one. Spaceships explore and find a new place. Then the Pollutians leave.

The story is unexceptional and obvious, even manipulative at its core. To most of us, it seems a preachy parable of environmentalism and nothing more, about what we might expect from the late 1960s and the hippie era. But there is more to this than meets the initial eye. The story of the Pollutians is not so much the external effects of their actions, but the internal hollowness which propels them. These are people without purpose for whom consumption and destruction have become a life quest, even if a suicidal one.

Within the bright colors didacticism of this story lurks the story of emptiness in the soul. The Pollutians have no depth to them and no concern for anything but their own comforts and wealth. This void propels them forward into outer space as it sucks them into inner space, turning them into a type of yeast which consumes all resources and then either moves on or dies. They are their own self-destruction but, unable to suicide, they perpetrate that destruction on others.

For those of us who grew up in Generation X, both stories were familiar. We saw firsthand as our childhood play areas were consumed by an endless procession of condominiums, apartments, factories and skyscrapers. We were told by well-meaning but fatalistic adults that this was simply progress, or humanity advancing, and that all these new people needed places to sleep, work and live. But it also rang hollow, because we saw the haunted looks on the faces of adults going to work and the misery and rage they took out on us after another fun day at the office. Soon it became clear that the plan was no plan except more, more and more of everything to conceal our lack of direction and even more, our absence of a Wump-like innocence and enjoyment of life. It was as if the curse of Eden’s apple finally bit us back.

This book remains vivid in the imaginations of those who read it because it perfectly diagnoses our modern morass, which begins in the soul and not the fingertips. We have no purpose. Lacking any motivation for something larger than ourselves — something for which God is a surrogate, since to know God we must first love the process of life itself or we are simply projecting self-interest into the realm of the spirit — we have fallen into our inner voids and like Stockholm Syndrome victims, have embraced that dark emptiness and now wield it as a sword, consuming all that falls under our control and replacing it with literal garbage as if in the image of our discarded hopes. The innocents, children born into this age, have carried this burden for too long. Either we end it or it ends us, but not first before purging all goodness and innocence wherever we go.

“Accommodating Molly,” by Candida Crewe


Under the guise of a novel about manners, Candida Crewe assaults one aspect of the fundamental problem causing the “death of the West.” In this case, she focuses on the misery created by the replacement of courtship with sexual liberation and its method of “dating,” in which men and women escape mutual obligation and make themselves miserable through an inability to commit, dooming themselves to loneliness and existential misery.

Accommodating Molly takes place through the eyes of a young woman working as an assistant in a bookstore, her boyfriend Dominic De’Ath, her employer Nick Winter and her parents. During her interactions with the publishing industry, Molly contacts the different circles in which these people move and sees the past and resulting present situation of each. Without giving too much away, Accommodating Molly follows very much in the tradition of Hardy, Celine and Houellebecq in showing us a kind of nocturnal landscape of despair united by a single commonality: the loneliness of people expressed through their inability to maintain stable relationships.

Somehow Ms. Crewe managed to sneak this one by the critics, who refer to it as “a comedy of manners” and other euphemisms, but at its core lies an attack on one of the great assumptions of modern time, which is that liberation of the individual to make arbitrary choices has positive results. Instead, Crewe shows us that as manifested in sexual liberation, this modern behavior results in isolation and self-hatred.

But I’m not going to admit that I, too, want to be a wife. You don’t admit things like that. Not ever. The rule is that you don’t let on. Not ever. Women in the latter part of the twentieth century have feminist ideals. They don’t think about marriage, unless it slaps them in the face. They certainly don’t tell people that marriage is the thing they aspire to more than anything else….Play the game. The game is that you’re fine as you are. Take it or leave it, frankly. (210)

As in the fiction of the 1930s, Crewe bypasses politics and issues to show that the fundamental root of modernity is loneliness through self-sufficiency. People rely on accomplishments, wealth and power, but have no connection to each other because they are armies of one. Each person is a self-interested agent who cannot admit any weakness, including a desire for more than themselves. The Enlightenment freed us to place the human form above all else, not realizing (apparently) that the human individual becomes a prison of itself.

Molly proves a likeable character because she is ordinary but well-intentioned, thoughtful and intelligent. She does not stumble through life so much as try what others are doing, and when it goes wrong, accommodate what others thing is the right thing to do even though it results in her own misery. Men in particular are portrayed as faithless creatures who refuse to commit for fear of limiting their freedom, and thus move on from one woman to the next, only learning too late that they too desire companionship and loyalty.

One compelling inclusion is the narrative of Molly’s parents’ marriage and its own betrayals, frictions and eventual failures prompted by the self-absorption of her mother. Through this device, Crewe shows how the best of intentions lead to the worst possible results. Like other characters in the book, her mother keeps up a constant flood of actions for self-interest, personal drama and theatrics to maintain her independence. Ultimately she reveals an emptiness so profound that it absorbs and destroys everything around her, much like the unnamed character in the book, which is our basic philosophy of life in the modern era in which the individual is king for a day hoping for his fifteen minutes and then retreat to solitary self-sufficiency.

‘Modern feminist ideals mean well, I’m sure,’ Helen said, sceptical, ‘but they conflict, you see, with that fundamental feminine instinct. We all bleat about independence, but we all want to be loved by men deep down. Our bodies, our minds, crave freedom, apparently. But they also ultimately crave security, husbands, children. Modern life is a sore test.’ (104)

Accommodating Molly cannot provide a happy reading experience. Its humor is of the sort that provokes a smile and grudging acknowledgment more than laugh out loud absurdity, but as these characters collide and dissipate, the only conclusion is that we are watching a tragic play in which absurdist laughter is the solitary possible response. Like the best of our literature, it peels back the fog of everyday events and denial that we use to conceal our actual motivations, and shows us the bigger picture in an amusing and provocative way, forcing our minds to admit that many of the crutches we rely upon are instead gravestones for our happiness.

Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed by Sandra Grimes and Jean Vertefeuille


The most popular assumption among human beings proves to be a defense of inaction. The threat is not real; the dangers are overstated; nothing must be done. Just sit back here and enjoy the fruits of our — well, that of others, actually — labor. During the Cold War this mentality allowed the public to conveniently forget about traitors like Kim Philby in the UK and Aldrich Ames in the United States.

As the veil of secrecy has been lifted from those tumultuous years and it has become clear how much social, economic, political and environmental damage the Soviets did in addition to their unparalleled legacy of mass murder, the American public has for the most part conveniently switched off its brains and ignored the importance of that revelation. But long before we could comfortably doze off in our chairs and pretend that the torture, executions and enslavement did not exist, the Cold War was still a going concern in which it was not clear that the force of “better” would prevail over “outright evil.” I say the Soviets were evil because, in the name of the individual they created a regime that not only committed numerous crimes, but broke the spirits of those within it and unfortunate enough to fall under its control. In comparison, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Franco and every tyrant short of Genghis Khan seems gentle if not inconsequential. Twenty-five years after the fall of the USSR we are still uncovering bodies. But not everyone saw the evil as evil. Many chose to see it as good, or at least convenient and Ames will go down in history as one such malignant useful idiot.

Ames worked at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and from a fit of pique and not being recognized as more important than he was, for over a decade years he smuggled secrets to the Soviets that led to the execution of a number of high-ranking American “assets” or double-agents within the Soviet government. He was well-paid for this venture, receiving $2.5m in 1980s American dollars, which were worth quite a lot back then. Two analysts, Sandra “Sandy” Grimes and Jean Vertefeuille, found themselves tasked with finding a mole but had no idea that Ames was the culprit. All they knew at the start was that the Soviets were systematically rounding up double agents, or employees of the Soviet government who were secretly working for the CIA, and executing them after torture. At first, the analysts were uncertain that a human leak, or mole, existed, but after testing other parts of their network it became clear the Soviet KGB was receiving inside information.

Spy stories like this are difficult to tell because in addition to the “fun” cloak and dagger stuff, spycraft is fundamentally a war of brains. Poring over documents, obtaining information, and comparing it to reveal the big picture are as important as creeping around in the field with only a Walther PPK and gumption to save the day. Analysts remain the largely unsung workers of this task because voters glaze over when the role of analysts is explained. Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed was written with the cooperation of its authors and the CIA, so it necessarily skips over some facts, but on the whole captures the vision of these two analysts as they systematically eliminated possibilities and zeroed in — often with gut instinct as a guide — on the identity of the leaker, and then began the arduous task of finding proof. This was complicated by the fact that both knew Ames.

To Sandy the Rick Ames of the 1970s and early 1980s was simply a nice guy — easygoing, a good conversationalist, and comfortable to be around. Like an absent-minded professor, he was unpretentious in dress and manner. His hair was unkempt, his sock colors often did not match, his shirts were rarely pressed, and he was often late for the carpool whether he was the driver or the rider. However, none of that really mattered to his contemporaries at the office. Rick was just Rick — a gentle sort whose fellow officers enjoyed while laughing at his goofy physical appearance. This is not to say he was always happy-go-lucky. Occasionally he became irritated, particularly if his operational judgment was questioned by those at his level. They might be equals, but he was a greater equal. (178)

Grimes and Vertefeuille, as much as they can given the need for secrecy to this day about Cold War spying, reveal the painstaking exploration of the connection between the leaked data and how it eventually revealed Soviet double agent Aldrich Ames. The story grips the reader mostly because of the intense sense of consequence at every turn. People are dying; vital secrets are being lost from the US or taken from the Soviet Union, enabling the West to fight a war against Communism that at that point it was not at all clear it would win. The authors do not demonize Ames but they do not have to: his deeds speak for themselves and the trail of bodies and shattered lives of those who resisted Communism in Russia shows us the work of conscientious (and sometimes, merely opportunistic) people who saw the power of that horror and fought back against it. A compelling narrative and a revelation of the depth and intensity of this point in history, Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed provides an inspiring and instructive reading experience.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre


A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
by Ben Macintyre
384 pages, Crown, $17

When the Cold War came grinding to an end, the thought struck many of us that it was not over. As long as there are potential superpowers competing for the throne, there will be some form of a Cold War.

President Bill Clinton did not agree and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about securing or dissolving the former Soviet Union, and now the disaster rears its head in a new form that barely obscures the old. As we watch Edward Snowden leak more documents than were related to the point he was ostensibly making, and then run back to Moscow, the names of Aldrich Ames and Kim Philby come to mind. A generation ago, those names inspired a queasy sense of helplessness among those of us who knew how difficult it is to find traitors within our ranks.

For that reason, we are fortunate to have books like A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal to remind us of the absolutely devastating effect such betrayals have. As a member of a ring of Soviet double agents who converted to Communism in college, Kim Philby forged the greatest breach ever into Western intelligence services, sent many of our agents to their graves, and helped bring down the old school network of which he was part. Ben Macintyre peers into this subject with the skills of a novelist but the mind of a researcher.

To those who have been living in the happy bubble of illusions that insists the Cold War ended and all will turn out just fine as long as we keep globalist commerce in control, this book serves as a wake-up call. Not only are our enemies brutal, but our traitors are glib, self-congratulatory and morally self-affirming in what ultimately are selfish acts of revenge that have consequences far beyond their own lives. We forget what it was like to be locked in constant unstated combat with an enemy who had no compunction about starving, shooting and beating to death over 20 million of its own people. Nor can we forget how fanatical and maniacal the drive of this enemy was to crush, subvert and destroy us, or how willing to deceive their double agents were. Imagine for a moment that the threat of nuclear missiles still holds the sky, that an Iron Curtain keeps millions in starvation and ideological obedience, and that the West has just escaped a disastrous World War only to find itself in a new kind of conflict where rules remain unclear and casualties pile up in silence.

Philby grew up among the privileged to an iconoclastic father and neurotic mother, then went to the best schools in England where he picked up the social fashion of Communism. Unlike others, perhaps driven by a desire to eradicate his own origins, he took it further and trucked down to the local KBG recruiter. At their instruction, Philby joined the UK intelligence services and began passing vast hoards of documents on to his KBG handlers. During that time intelligence services were our eyes and ears much sonar serves that purpose for a submarine, revealing a murky series of abstract patterns. Travel was closed inside the Soviet bloc and details were few, so brave men and women penetrated that enigma to reveal what they could. Since Soviet doctrine threatened Europe with a rolling army of 50,000 tanks at any moment, American and UK intelligence services took the lead in trying to assess Soviet strength, intentions and degree of penetration in our own lands.

McIntyre writes of Philby much as one would of a business leader or politician: the gregarious, drunken, imaginative and playful Loki who haunted social circles and succeeded powerfully at his job. This performs an important role in our postmortem of this penetration as it shows us not only how human the mole was, but also how human and humane it was that the people searching for the anonymous traitor were blinded to the fact that their close friend was reporting to Moscow. Philby spent his evenings bleeding secrets from them over drunken dinners and parties, then went home to encrypt his transmissions back to the Borg. He was invisible in part because he was so socially adept, despite somewhat odd personal habits. McIntyre puts us in the minds of those around Philby at the time to reveal how difficult it was to discover Philby. The result approximates fiction in style but arises from relentless research and expert sources that McIntyre uses to construct his tale.

Philby did not seem concerned or even aware of the impending crisis. He was the same charming, cheerful figure, roué enough to raise the eyebrows of the more straitlaced members of the diplomatic fraternity but not nearly so wicked as to damage his career prospects in the secret services. In the eyes of MI6: “He was both efficient and safe.” And besides, he was doing important work, taking the fight to the Reds, even if the results of his efforts to penetrate the Soviet Union were proving less than successful (117).

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal traces the double agent through his friendship with Nicholas Elliott, an earnest member of MI6 who defended Philby multiple times throughout his career. One theme of the book is the hampering effect of both bureaucracy and public politics on the Western intelligence services, and how in comparison the Soviets and their Western enablers moved quickly and decisively. The ideologues turned out to be more fanatical and committed than the employees of capitalismland for the time being, but eventually, the fox gets caught in the henhouse. McIntyre reveals both the difficult pursuit and the consequent disaster for both US and UK intelligence services with efficient chapters that avoid wallowing and allow the book to complete its intense emotional journey without feeling like an after-action report.

As we gear up to go yet again into the breach, books like this communicate important knowledge lost in the passage of generations, not only about spycraft but about human psychology. As McIntyre deconstructs him, Philby is a privileged child who was never heard as a youth and thus boils over with resentment and an impulse to destroy in adolescence. After his indoctrination to ideology, and the consequent salve to his ego, he could never turn back. From that point the disaster remained assured despite the inevitability of loss of many good people, years and mountains of secrets. McIntyre is humane enough to without issuing an apology for Philby reveal the personal tragedy of Philby that led him to destroy all that he ambivalently loved to die alone and drunken in a foreign land that ultimately proved even more alienating to him.

Enjoy the Decline by Aaron Clarey

Enjoy the Decline
by Aaron Clarey
218 pages, CreateSpace, $14

enjoy-the-decline-by-aaron-clareyTo even the typical half-asleep voter-citizen-consumer the downfall of the West is obvious. The US in the New World and the EU in the Old World represent similar decisions and, with their foundations in liberalism, a shared direction. Both have also chosen to deny reality in favor of socially popular decisions that have essentially created social chaos, destroyed the family, gutted culture and ruined their futures.

So what do you, the individual, do about this? The vast majority of people are sleepwalking into suicide because they can’t understand or are afraid to face it. The nature of liberal societies is to destroy the intelligent first because those are the ones who notice how vastly the civilizational framework is failing. Because people do not recognize that civilization itself needs defending, it is impossible to motivate the majority to unite or to recognize that it is defending its own social and the rules that liberals strip away help maintain that social order. Majorities wake up very slowly if at all because unlike the attackers, majorities have many motivations, where the attackers have only one. As liberals gain more power in the West and it starts to feel like the Soviet Union before 1991, the question is what you should do. Aaron Clarey comes up with an excellent description of the downfall of the West, specifically the USA, and a Ran Prieur-style minimalism and drop-out solution for the individual. The first is convincing.

Clarey’s thesis begins with the observation that Americans electing Barack Obama a second time was a very bad omen. Not just what Obama will do, but that We The People have officially announced that we can be bought for pennies on the dollar and will simply pass the buck on to the future. When you reach that stage, there is no recovery; there is only collapse and then a small breakaway group making a functional civilization again. Clarey accurately renders judgment that the US has failed not because its government is bad, but because its citizens are greedy and will gladly vote for the public purse to be spent on them. This opens the door to charlatans of all sorts of which Obama is just the latest.

For example, deep down inside every liberal wishes they could drive a Ford Cobra Mustange, but they can’t. Their ideology mandates they drive the Prius. Deep down they wish they could afford that McMansion, but they can’t. Their ideology mandates they live in some crummy “diverse” neighborhood. They would like to look at real works of art, but post-modernism mandates they faux-fawn over the latest minimalist garbage. And while they would love nothing more than to watch The Expendables, their ideology commands they applaud the latest boring indie film.

The result is what we can all visually see. The sad, never-smiling leftists. The “vegan-parents” who send their poor kids to “drum circle camp” instead of “corporatist” Disney World. The ugly hipsters trying their best not to conform, only to become the epitome of conformity. The worthless liberal arts doctorate who can’t find a job, but sublimates it all through bragging about her green credentials. All the while keeping up an air of condescension when it comes to rubes, you hicks, who couldn’t possibly have the intellect to understand the finer and deeper points of their obviously-superior culture. (188)

Clarey, who blogs at Captain Capitalism, has the liberal elite pegged as the hollow men they are. He knows what happens to any countries in the grip of such insanity and connects with the opposite, which he calls “Real Americans”: conservative realists who trust nature more than ideology and common sense more than the media. He sees this group as the last marginalized group since they are not only the dreaded white heterosexual majority, but also those among that group who choose not to just turn off their brains and go along with the trends. His advice to this group is to recognize that a liberal government will take everything they have or produce and hand it over to its favorite pitied groups in order to buy votes, thus the only sensible response is to have nothing.

As a result, Clarey advocates living on under $15,000 a year; not having children; owning very little; not owning a house; rejecting a career for self-employment. I wondered, “Where have I heard this before?” Oh: “How to Drop Out” by Ran Prieur, an essay whose flaws I dissected at the time of its release — but even more importantly, we heard this in the 1960s. Before that, we heard it in the 1950s. It probably goes back even farther. The point that is being made is to view life through a personal filter only, and to throw in the towel and live a drop-out life. The problem with it is that then you have zero power and nothing will ever change, and you will also live in poverty. I imagine that Clarey knows his audience and realizes that this is popular advice for young people. Older people may be less inclined to accept his wisdom as being powerless is to truly endorse those who want power over you.

However, he does make a good point in counseling people against being obedient. He urges young people not to waste their younger years chasing careers, and to some degree, this is very good advice although it will leave you in your 40s with nothing established. He notes that escaping jobs produces better mental health and allows you to have flexibility of mind again, thus if you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s a good first step. He also correctly diagnoses the weaknesses of many American habits including owning too much stuff and caring too much about what the neighbors think. The best parts of this book however are the diagnostic and not prescriptive parts, in which Clarey reveals the dysfunction in its many forms and why it is moribund.

While this may have been the case at the founding of the country, unfortunately the relationship between the state and its citizenry has become parasitic. This fact is no better highlighted than in the previously mentioned chart showing a full 70% of government spending going to income transfers. These income transfers are parasitic in nature in that they benefit a specific group of people instead of investments, infrastructure, roads, defense, and other public goods which benefit everyone. Sadly, this relationship is becoming even more parasitic as per the wishes of the American electorate. (57)

During the diagnostic sections of this book, which are scattered throughout, Clarey describes elegantly and with good use of facts the failings of the consumerist-socialist hybrid that is modern society. He has the understanding of an old conservative here and can articulate himself well. As a reader, my impulse is to say that rather than going through the downfall of collapse, we might just work on those things and/or disenfranchising the parasites he identifies. While this book covers a lot of similar ground especially in the second half, it is written as a low-impact introduction to this kind of thinking and if it reaches newly disillusioned hands could be a powerful wake-up call.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, by Ted Morgan

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs
by Ted Morgan
W.W. Norton, 768 pages, $18

literary-outlaw-the-life-and-times-of-william-s-burroughs-by-ted-morganSociety possesses us, both as individuals obligated to do things, and as iconography. William S. Burroughs for example is a “counter-culture icon,” associated with the beats and the hippies, but also the darker side of counterculture which rages against the complacency of society and threatens it with images of apocalyptic discontent and dysfunction: junkies using each other like apes in the jungle, cops predatory like praying mantises, control structures like brain-parasites that take over our will and choice.

Like all things which are touched by mainstream culture, and thus in turn by the lowest common denominator of thought which amounts to wishful thinking and personal adornment, Burroughs gets dumbed-down in the mainstream narrative. To the average chattering smile, Burroughs represents dark things for their own sake, and dropping out of society because it isn’t dark enough. Few have actually looked into the motivation and beliefs of the man, but Ted Morgan’s biography of Burroughs attempts to that in addition to chronicling his complex, circuitous and often obscure path through life.

Morgan’s method is to talk to the actors involved in extensive and probing interviews and to then assemble a mass of details, which he lays out in a roughly linear fashion and correlates wherever possible to moments in Burroughs’ work, including alluding to and quoting passages from Naked Lunch, Junky, Queer and other books. This enables him to tie together the many threads, and Burroughs as a man who wrote in vignettes using symbolic characters like a radio play did nothing if not create many overlapping threads, and from them allow a narrative to emerge which can then be commented on. In the case of the biography, the ongoing narrative is the motivations behind Burroughs’ art and chaotic personal life.

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs begins with a depiction of the younger years of the author, with extensive probing into childhood incidents that were revelations for him of degrees of his alienation. We hear about childhood sexual abuse, his unhappiness at school, his revelation of homosexuality, and his fascination with all things criminal and drug-related. From this Morgan builds up to his real triumph which is unpacking the years during which Naked Lunch, which is universally acclaimed as Burroughs’ best work, was written including the method of its production and the involvement of others. After this, many biographers would drop off, but what Morgan does is continue following the threads and characters in Burroughs’ life, showing where each one came to an end and contrasting its results with its initial promise. Without being judgmental, it’s a provocative picture of the Beats and of Burroughs himself, because it shows at the end of the day what worked and what didn’t, and what regrets persisted because of bad decisions made long ago.

Grafted onto the Western genre are Burroughs’ usual preoccupations with mutation and space travel. Man is like a fish about to exchange gills for lungs, but for some reason he is stalled and cannot quite make it. Burroughs wants to give him the final push, which he believes will come as the result of infection by a new virus. The antidote to the virus will help forge the new man, who will have thoughts and behavior patterns that are not imprinted or prerecorded. “Everything we have been taught,” says Kim Carsons, “all the conventional feelings, do not apply.” (593)

Those who study our crisis in the West will note similarities to others thinkers. Burroughs identifies the spoken/written word as a “virus,” pointing out how it takes on a meaning unrelated to its referent and that this meaning manipulates our ability to conceptualize it. This is strikingly similar to Nietzsche’s observations in “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” where he speaks of our interrupted knowing which is reprogrammed by the corrupted definitions of words.

Further, like many in the postmodern era, Burroughs obsesses about control. Who is in control, and how do they control people who are acting through what they believe is free will? Where lesser authors wrote about imaginary totalitarian regimes, Burroughs was busy writing about how the power of human language and manipulation would create an invisible power structure that controls people without them even noticing it. The themes of control, power, addiction and manipulation run throughout all of his works but are most vivid in Naked Lunch, and Morgan picks up on those threads here and expands them.

Morgan also proves an insightful observer of the social backdrop to Burroughs’ experience:

The mutation from Beat to hippie meant a switch from grass to acid, from literature to music, from a small group of writers and artists and jazz musicians to a mass youth movement, from an anti-political stance to a coalition of antiwar, civil rights and environmental movements, a great nest into which flew birds of every feather, from yippies to radical nuns and priests. (365)

Part of the unconscious mission of this book is to set the record straight, and liberate a complex character from the public fiction about him into a space where he can be understood. That requires sacrificing the public image of him as created by industry, social pressures and the need of people to mythologize and impose narrative in a simple form where a more complex truth is actually at work. Morgan does this by tracking his threads in such a way that the actors in them come to face the public opinion of themselves, and then reject it not directly but by acting in such a way that their contrary intentions are revealed.

“All liberals are weaklings, and all weaklings are vindictive, mean and petty.” (164)

Morgan presents the heretical Burroughs in raw form as he was, both offensive to mainstream society and unyielding to the wishful thinking of others in the counter-culture who just wanted to space out and join the great vapid. Burroughs exists in this book in a steely-eyed world where every good deed is actually a manipulation, every positive gesture reveals a hidden fear, and the only game in town is power derived through control of others. While Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs is also an excellent literary biography, its primary purpose may be to explicate the ideas of Burroughs by showing us how they influenced events during the author’s life.

We are… Generation Identity, by Generation Identity

Generation Identity
by Generation Identity
Arktos, 45 pages, $13

we_are_generation_identity-generation_identityGeneration Identity leapt into the public mind when they occupied the top floor of a mosque in Poitiers and took a number of pictures of normal, healthy and unafraid people who clearly believed they were doing what was right. There was not anger or other denial or compensation behavior, only a clear-eyed attempt to do what needed to be done.

Since reading Generation Identity: A Declaration of War against the ’68ers by Markus Willinger, I have wanted to read more from this interesting movement. They are above all else practical and base their ideas not on restoring the past, but on having a future worth experiencing for those who are currently young. The future and the past dovetail of course because what worked in the past will work in the future and vice-versa, since the really big questions of human life are timeless and independent of technology, but the focus on building a future instead of looking backward to something for inspiration frees the Generation Identity movement from the encumbrances that have bogged other movements in futility.

We are… Generation Identity is an odd collection of documents that maintains the breathless, flyer tossed your way in the street feel that all of their writing has. Whether they agonize over its editing or not, it has the sense of being dashed off in the heat of battle. This book includes articles, letters, propaganda leaflets, interviews and other interactions between Generation Identity and the world in which they state the reasoning behind their viewpoints. Since this group took most of us by surprise and emerged fully organized and with a full complement of members, it’s interesting to see the coalescing of ideas that precede its origin. Equally interesting is seeing the articulation of a newer type of political movement:

As an identitarian, daily life in the Maghred, the Near East or New Guinea is not my problem; they are free to live according to their traditions (and unfortunately, multiculturalism, combined with an overall process of homogeneity, tends to erase cultural particularity). We are young people ‘living amid the world,’ to borrow a religious expression, who have chosen the love of our people and of our neighbors as our vocation. We are secondary school and university students and young working people integrated in this society by force of circumstance. We wish to live together, of course — but without them. (17)

The sentiment is rarely expressed this bluntly, but here it is: without identity, society is pure obligation and control. With identity, the outsiders cannot exist among us. And in the present time, where we cannot face this truth, our society tears itself apart with contortions of moral reasoning and euphemism. Generation Identity commendably avoids trying to play this game and speaks plainly instead about quality of life.

Underneath the skin you will find many of the same ideas shared in the nexus between New Right, archeofuturist, traditionalist, paleoconservative and far-right movements. They desire nationalism and reject internationalism and participation in any empire or at least, any empire but Europe (a term which sometimes includes Eurasia). The point is for a triple identity: first as European, then with conventional nation-states, and then with locality. Thus someone might be European, French and a Parisian at the same time and see all three as integral to his or her identity.

Today again Europe must unite itself in a common act of political construction that respects local identities. Against the Europe of merchants and bankers, against the integration of Turkey in the European Union, let us realise a powerful Europe which can stand up to any and all imperialisms. In friendship with our Slavic brethren and Russia, we must clearly affirm: neither Alla, nor the USA — Europa Nostra! (38)

This reads like something straight out of Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism, where Europe is united in a long federal entity from Siberia to Ireland and yet is somehow based on local entities. This faces a challenge from the nature of modern politics, which is that those who do not form federal identities that can field impressive fighting forces soon end up being captives of the Mongols. However, what is important about Generation Identity is that they are not here to solve every problem but one: how to unite people toward a vision in which they can see themselves participating.

Thus the power of this small book is that it isn’t complete. It’s a work in progress that calls for participation, if only someone to shuffle the pages and see how they look from different directions. It’s a call to action for a future which is a thinly disguise now and forevermore, a scream for a solution to the modern problems which have wracked the West and turned it against itself for decades. They don’t need to have all the answers. In fact, it is better if they do not. This is the first step of a new type of journey, and the beauty of it is that its incompleteness draws us in and compels us to push feet forward to the next step.

BOBOS in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, by David Brooks

BOBOS in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There
by David Brooks
Simon & Schuster, 284 pages, $11 (2000)

david_brooks-bobos_in_paradiseThe maturation of the “Me Generation” who brought us the shift to liberal-leaning regimes across the West received little coherent exposition before this book. However with BOBOS in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, David Brooks explicates the rise of Bobos — “bourgeois bohemians” — as a fusion of 1960s values and 1980s methods.

In exploring this fusion, Brooks carefully and humorously reveals the underpinning of the ideological motivation of these people, which is 1968 itself — albeit tempered with a taste for what we hoped won the Cold War, which is the cornucopia of the fruits of personal liberty and free markets. the “bourgeois bohemians” are actually hybrids of yuppies and hippies.

This group appeared in the 1990s and that is where Brooks centers his book. In his view, they came to power as a replacement for the old WASP hierarchy in America. While that ancient regime operated by knowing the right people, and having the right family, this new regime accelerates those who have the right education, the right careers and the right beliefs and lifestyle choices. Brooks shows us a new elite trying to justify itself with claims that it morally deserves what it has.

As Brooks ably and humorously reveals, however, the downside of being in this new elite is inanity and pretense. Inanity, in that the trends they follow are even more boring than those of the WASP hierarchy before them. Pretense, in that the constant moral posturing by having to play nice with conspicuous consumption creates a useless, posturing and haughty lifestyle that is still just as product-oriented as the lives of the middle classes that its adherents disdain.

Bobos turn out to be the parsons of the pubic region. Nearly gone are 1960s traces of Dionysian wantonness. Instead, “Play Safe” and “Play Responsibly” are the slogans that are repeated again and again in sophisticated sex literature. The practicioners talk so much about how healthy it all is you’d think they were doing jumping jacks…Today’s Marquis de Sades don’t want to create an immoral underground society. They’re not trying to subvert normalcy. They’re trying to join it. They want to win mainstream acceptance and so gain a respectable place in the middle-class world. (192)

BOBOS in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There is a personal favorite of mine because it demonstrates how the individualism of the leftism spectrum — Communism, progressivism, Socialism, anarchy and liberalism are different only as a matter of degree — quickly leads to the type of blind obedience we see in panicked crowds, faddish trends and lynch/witch-hunting mobs. This isn’t deliberate behavior, but defensive behavior designed to justify an inner selfishness arising from a total lack of purpose. Brooks hints at this through numerous satirical examples and tongue-in-cheek comments.

Parts of this read a lot like Tom Wolfe and Bret Easton Ellis fiction that notice in excruciating detail the products that people use to compose their lives. For American Psycho‘s Wall Street bankers, the products are luxury goods and high-performance tools; in BOBOS in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, as in A Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities, products are passive-aggression defenses of lifestyle. They aren’t there to be used, but to explain a life. In the case of the Bobos, it’s how they are morally superior and therefore deserve what they have.

Conservatives should read this book because it reveals the nature of what opposes us. Liberalism is after all a social mentality that spreads by threatening people with ostracism. You join the club, and you’re accepted; you don’t need to do anything else. But even liberals hate a flat hierarchy, so soon the club fragments as we see in this book. The “bohemian bourgeois” movement is a postmodern keeping up with the Joneses, where you’re not so much conspicuously consuming as consuming specific things so that a narrative about your lifestyle is created. As a result, it’s more cryptic and twisted like a hipster conversation consisting of namedrops only.

In this spirit we sometimes even reintroduce the old WASP styles into our eclecticism. The WASPs may have been racist and elitist. They may have been the establishment that we Bobos destroyed. But at least they weren’t consumed by ambition. So when we look at those calm beautiful faces in the Ralph Lauren ads, we can’t help feeling that they have something we long for. And so mixed in with our multicultural decor may be an item or two that could have come right out of the New York Yacht Club, maybe a faded leather chair or a dark wooden desk. The WASP Establishment is dead, and irony of ironies, the Protestant Establishment has been transmogrified into one of those extinct cultures destroyed by technology and progress. (97)

Underneath the laughs, BOBOS in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There shows us a society in deep trouble. It has lost its direction, and is trying to fill that void with ideology and lifestyle choices that exhibit that ideology, like Sovietism modulated into a consumerist ideology. Much like the millennials, the “Me Generation” who adopted this philosophy show a radical individualism that consists not of a desire to achieve things oneself, but to be part of the winning social group. This suggests in turn a society so fragmented that it has turned on itself, and people are looking for some reason to justify shutting out the rest and ignoring the certain path to collective doom.

Witty, imaginative and insightful, Brooks’ writing bounces lightly through these otherwise crushingly heavy realizations. Instead, he chooses to help us laugh at the irony of the hippies and the Gordon Gekkos of the world merging into a single voice, attempting to fill the void of a lack of purpose with pretense and purchases, and finding the emptiness of that approach as everpresent as before.