Foreign Affairs

What an idiotic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Alison Lurie’s 1984 novel has been recommended twice to me in the past few months, and although I initially tasted and discarded it, this time I gave it the full read. Nothing could be more of a waste of time. I’m not sure if it’s the vast gaping chasm that separates this type of book from the quality 1940s British fiction I’ve been reading, but it was pure tripe. The book alternates chapters following two Americans in London, one the 54-year-old spinster professor, Virginia/Vinnie, and one the 28-year-old married English professor, Fred Turner, who has movie-star good looks. You know a book is just going to go off the rails with these two at the helm. Vinnie’s got an imaginary dog that trails her, fed on her own self-pity. Fred’s wife (a photographer) exhibited photos of his penis without his consent, so left in a huff and supposedly they were separated; he finds love in the form of older actress Rosemary, who shockingly turns out to BE the Cockney Mrs. Harris drunkenly hitting on Fred as he sneaks in to get his clothes before heading home to American. Vinnie also picks up an American cowboy boyfriend, married, who she loses her heart to completely. He dies. This book makes me seriously wonder what qualifications are considered for the Pulitzer.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century

Paula Uruburu dives into the historical record and various memoirs of the main characters to pull together a comprehensive and entertaining recap of the murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw in front of hundreds of people on June 25, 1906 in Madison Square Garden (the original one). As Harry shoots Stanford, he shouts that he’s done it because Stanford “ruined his wife.” This is a reference to the fact that Stannie took advantage of underaged beauty, Evelyn Nesbit and eventually raped her virginity away. Thaw had already been obsessed by White, building a case for Comstock on White’s luring of nubile chorus girls. Thaw aggressively pursues Nesbit, and on one particularly gruesome night in Europe, he makes her confess what White did to her. Thaw then goes on to brutally whip and rape her himself a few weeks later in an abandoned castle he’s rented for a few weeks. It’s a stark tale of the excesses that money could buy during a time when the haves were flaunting it in front of the have-nots, a pre-income tax era where Thaw pays for a drink at the bar with a $100 bill and walks away without his change. Very brutal treatment of Evelyn in the press during the murder trial(s). She never escapes the rumors or ruin to her reputation.

People At Play

What a weird novel by Elizabeth Berridge! I much preferred her collection of short stories from the 1940s, which only had a tinge of madness, not the full-on display we have in this tale of antique dolls that appear all over the place, and people treated like dolls by the main characters. A woman leaves her husband in Germany, pretends she’s lost her hearing, comes back home to England and stays in the upper floor of her old house, where the son of the housekeeper is now in charge. Her mother has taken control of an old folks’ home, managing it with Stani’s mom, the housekeeper. Death, drugs, teenagers whose legs are painted and then their neck (just like dolls?), a party by 15 year old Lucy that went out of control and a guy took LSD and jumped from the roof. Not enjoyable, but I’ll give Berridge another chance.

Every Good Deed

A slender, first edition volume of this book came wafting through the Interlibrary Loan system from Dartmouth College to San Francisco. First published in 1946, this story played the one-note chord hard, over and over, the (dis)chord of two old maid sisters whose lives are turned upside down by a girl who comes to stay from the orphanage. Gwen is a bag of trouble, luring the old aunts into her web and deceiving them mightily. Various escapades ensue, and she eventually runs off with a man and gets married, only she gets pregnant and he dies before they marry. So back to the aunts’ home, the baby is born, Phillip is taken under the aunts’ wings and Gwen sits back and is waited on hand and foot. She eventually escapes again, goes to America and tells the aunts they can have Phillip. He’s raised in the lap of luxury, nothing denied him. Twenty years later, she returns with a new husband and son in tow, demanding the money to buy up a business to run. The aunts give her £3,000 and find that once you tap into the capital, your interest payments go way down. Instead of the bookshop she claims to buy, Gwen opens a dance hall, and Phillip goes to play piano there. One treacherous night, Phillip drives his half-brother and the girl they’re fighting over home, swerves to avoid hitting a man on the road and topples the car, killing his passengers. The aunts’ brother James arrives to help sort out all the mess and becomes friendly with Philip, helping to keep him out of trouble and preparing the whole crew for a move to London where living will be cheaper.

I didn’t like the pull pull pull on the heartstrings so heavy and hard, the reader wild-eyed with warning about Gwen trying to tell the sisters to boot her from the house. Very manipulative, and what I didn’t like about her other work, Someone at a Distance.

The New Normal

Stumbled into the arms of this delightful book by way of hunting more Sophie Calle. This is the post-exhibition catalog published in 2008 with essays about privacy and life post-9/11. The artists include Sophie Calle, Miranda July, Corinna Schnitt, Jill Magid, and Angie Waller, ranging from video to websites, sculpture and found objects/photos. Michael Connor writes the main essay, discussing the art in The New Normal while railing against the surveillance state. “The rise of state and corporate surveillance has not been the only, or perhaps even the most definitive, factor affecting the privacy sphere since 2001. Equally remarkable has been the willingness demonstrated by millions of us to document and reveal our own behavior and the behavior of others, in personal photos and video clips posted on blogs and online dairies, or just sent via email.” This self-narc’ing behavior has only gotten worse in the 8 years since this book came out.

Calle’s work in the exhibition was a video work titled Unfinished (2005) that shows how she grappled with the project for decades after a U.S. bank invited her to take images from their ATM machines and make art, including stills from a woman being mugged at the Minneapolis ATM machine in 1983. The images she was mesmerized by are of people who know they are alone, giving unfiltered expressions. This work is shown in contrast to the MySpace intro playlists that another artist (Guthrie Lonergan) pulls from their context and presents as stand alone; the people here are acting for an audience, being as socially aware as possible.

The other work I was extremely interested in was Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience: JSA/2005. As a brown man post-9/11 he’s put on a watchlist and hassled by the FBI too many times to count. He passes a lie-detector test nine times before finally being “cleared,” and asks for a written letter stating this to avoid any further detention. When they refuse, he begins a project of “aggressive compliance” by putting up a website with images of everywhere he goes and everything he does, showing his exact whereabouts, as a digital alibi. The site’s still up, although it’s redirecting here now.

Found out via his essay about the AOL release in 2006 of 20M web searches that were “anonymized” by changing usernames to IDs. Within 3 days, the NYT has tracked down AOL user 4417749 as Georgia resident Thelma Arnold.

There’s an interesting piece by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy that purchases all the objects listed out in rock star (or other celebrity) riders. Dick Cheney required decaf coffee, temperature setting of 68 degrees, and that all televisions be tuned to Fox News.

Clay Shirky has an essay in here as well: Private, Public, and the Collapse of the Personal. In the “digital dark ages of 1980 or so” we could assume that our behavior wasn’t being recorded, but now it’s cheaper and easier to record everybody all the time. He cites Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the contents of the new medium are the old media” since the Internet carries more and more of our phone calls. “Making things public has gone from difficult to easy and from expensive to cheap. Keeping things private has gone in the opposite direction. And the personal sphere-which used to be the envelope that contained most of our speech and action-is slowly disappearing.”  And this gem, “if people are acting out more, it is in part because they understand, correctly, that they are onstage more.”

The Bibliography of this book was a godsend… giving me at least 5 books to check out (Presentation of self in everyday life-1959- by Erving Goffman, Toward a feminist theory of the state-1989- by Catharine MacKinnon, Coming of age in Samoa by Margaret Mead, M’as-tu vue?  by Sophie Calle, and Lincoln, Ocean, Victor, Eddy by Jill Magid). Also a slew of NYT articles, Atlantic article from March 2001 about privacy, How Publicity Makes People Real by David Bromwich, a 1994 Bruce Sterling speech, and the discovery of The New School’s journal, Social Research.


The Medium is the Massage

Another zippy work from Marshall McLuhan, so fresh and relevant in 2016 and yet published in 1967. Quintin Fiore did the graphic design for the book, which helps it tremendously. McLuhan coined the oft-quoted “medium is the message” and the mis-titling of this book as “massage” instead of “message” is claimed to have been due to a printer’s error on the cover that breathed fresh life into what had been quickly becoming a cliché. If in 1967 we were already talking about “electronic information devices for the universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance” that caused privacy issues, where on earth are we now, 50 years later? “What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?” McLuhan asks… it very well might be my cellphone vibrating with messages. He’s highly literate, dropping in Joyce quotes and wordplay while striving to outline the disease that loomed large on the horizon. It’s fun to read, like all of his stuff.

Once again, as in Mechanical Bride, he references Poe’s mariner in the Descent into the Maelstrom who avoids disaster by understanding the whirlpool’s action. “His insight offers a possible stratagem for understanding our predicament, our electrically-configured whirl.”

“We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction… At the high speeds of electronic communication, purely visual means of apprehending the world are no longer possible; they are just too slow to be relevant or effective. Unhappily, we confront this new situation with an enormous backlog of outdated mental and psychological responses. We have been left d-a-n-g-l-i-n-g. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us—they refer only to the past, not to the present.”

“Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for instance, we was the fear ofhte new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.”


Marjory Fleming

Oriel Malet fictionalizes the short life of a real 19th century child prodigy, Marjory Fleming. The 1946 book begins by listing the sources she drew from to create the picture, Mr. Macbean’s 1904 Pet Marjorie, Dr. Brown’s 1863 Pet Marjorie, etc., so we know that this real life child created quite a stir in her time. Next, the complete listing for Marjory Fleming from Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography, 1889 volume. (Stephen, of course, was Virginia Woolf’s pops). Marjory’s life (1803-1811) was the shortest recorded in the National Biography.

Malet lays out a dreamy, tempestuous brief life of Marjory, filled with tantrums and poetry and wonder. Marjory shows her distinction early on, is rescued by an older, wealthier cousin and taken under her wing for a few years where she blossoms, but then her mother demands her return home. Once home, she’s miserable, catches measles, dies of water on the brain as she approached her ninth birthday. She left behind scads of precocious journals and poetry, from which her legend is nourished.

Fierce Attachments

Vivian Gornick’s memoir about growing up in the Bronx, her mother, their still-continuing walks around the city where they talk and experience the teeming life around them. Utterly charming and engaging, the type of memories and passionate relationship between mother and daughter that makes others pale in comparison. Gornick describes growing up in the Bronx ghetto in a building full of Jews and the occasional Italian/Irish/Polish family that stuck out as “other.” Her father dies suddenly, her mother relishes her role of widow, throws herself into it head over heels, embraces it fully. The neighbor, also a widow, teaches Vivian about sex and how to pull herself together to look good. The escape to City College great for Vivian as a way to finally talk about books with others for hours and hours, all of them cooped up in the cafeteria, reluctant to return home to their cramped Brooklyn or Bronx apartments with their families. Brief life in the Bay Area where she studied at UC-Berkeley, met an artist, married, found that to be empty. She returned alone to NYC, tramps through life with various affairs and the ever-present mother.


Noel Streatfeild wrote books for adults, too! I realized when I was about 100 pages in that this was the same Noel Streatfeild who wrote the famous “Shoes” books for kids– Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theater Shoes, etc. Saplings is yet another Persephone title, the tale of a family thriving pre-war and surviving during it. Alex and Lena are the adorable parents, but Lena goes to pieces when Alex is flattened by a bomb on their London home. The kids go to various pieces as well, and the four are farmed out to the aunts who aren’t terribly pleased to see them either. Lena takes up drinking, and cavorts around with a married American, Walter. Aunt Lindsay arrives to tell her she’s a drunkard who needs to shape up immediately, and Lena tries to kill herself, passed off to the kids as a nervous breakdown. The two oldest seem to suffer the most, but the younger two develop twitches and quirks of their own. It ends with Laurel expelled from school for a tale that her American solider lover gave her pearls when they were in reality a present from Aunt Lindsay’s hubby who runs off with Ruth, the kids’ ex-governness. Plots, drama, excitement, among war-time clothing shortages, gas rations, and other deprivations.

Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

Marshall McLuhan’s first book, his first deep dive into pop culture, published in 1951; this is a hodgepodge of essays alongside examples of advertisements or newspaper front pages. Delicious, sharp stinging commentary pointing out the idiocy of the barrage of exhortations to buy buy buy. He excoriates an ad that claims to have a letter from soldiers who witnessed the dying of one of their own while holding a poster of Betty Grable—”an alert and conscious public would have repudiated this ad emphatically,” but “[the American nihilist is] unconscious, illogical, and inarticulate… must destroy because of the vacuum and self-hatred within him… he is born of the social conditions of rapid turnover, planned obsolescence, and systematic change for its own sake.”

“When people have been accustomed for decades to perpetual emotions, a dispassionate view of anything at all is difficult to achieve.” This, from 1951. Sixty years later, the swirl of perpetual emotions is even stronger, the onslaught of images ever more constant.

“A very able person may often choose to freeze or anesthetize large areas of his mind and experience for the sake of social and practical success or the pleasures of group solidarity.”

“Freedom, like taste, is an activity of perception and judgment based on a great range of particular acts and experiences. Whatever fosters mere passivity and submission is the enemy of this vital activity.”

Terrific takedown of the book of the month clubs and their advertisements that claim “Perhaps you have often wondered how these truly great books ‘got that way.’ First, because they are so readable… And of course to be interesting they had to be easy to understand. And those are the very qualities which characterize these selections: readability, interest, simplicity.” Apparently books were subjected to Gallup Poll type activities where a manuscript was boiled down to a one-hour reading and recorded then played to various segments who recorded their impressions while listening. He quotes Sterling North, “gaping at these wondrous totalitarian techniques for mashing the public into process cheese,” as saying “this is a way of consulting the collective wisdom of the American people.” McLuhan’s best line yet: “Which gives the cube root of pink toothbrush, at least.”

In analyzing an ad to help you develop your executive ability, McLuhan questions the person who’s being built up. “The successful executive has to strip himself of every human quality until he is nearly mad with boredom. Then he can work, work, work without distraction. The work is the narcotic for the boredom, as the boredom is the spur to work.”

He mentions a 1947 editorial in Fortune about the flood of advertising, “The American citizen lives in a state of siege from dawn till bedtime. Nearly everything he sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells is an attempt to sell him something. Luckily for his sanity he becomes calloused shortly after diaperhood; now to break through his protective shell, the advertisers must continuously shock, tease, tickle, or irritate him, or wear him down by the drip-drip-drip or Chinese water-torture method of endless repetition.”

Finally, he questions education. “Why train men if there is only a market for robots? Why train individuals, if the only available life is the collective dream of uniform tasks and mass entertainment? Why make life difficult? Why be different? Why use your brains to ensure poverty? To put the whole thing briefly, a power economy cannot tolerate power that cannot be centrally controlled. It will not tolerate the unpredictable actions and thoughts of individual men.”

Tell It to a Stranger: Stories from the 1940s

Oh the delight of discovering Elizabeth Berridge’s writing! Fantastic collection of short stories that you assume will be upstanding British tales but that lead you through strange twists and jerks and gaps.

  • Snowstorm – A doctor witnesses one of her pregnant patients struggling with the idea of having a child, “preparing for a little stranger,” and the woman somehow is able to get rid of it.
  • The Bare Tree – Gorgeous first lines: “The grandmother sat in the sun. It was the only thing free of her daughter’s influence.” Struggles of three generations to understand each other.
  • Firstborn – A woman takes her baby to visit first her mother and then her mother-in-law; she’s overwhelmed by the idea she has just become a thing to tend to her hubby and baby; she returns home and her husband tells her not to mind about the baby for once, just have some tea.
  • Woman about the House – Henpecked man leaves his wife for a few weeks to get a job, comes back to find she’s left him which causes much happiness.
  • Tell It to a Stranger – Loved this story- Mrs. Hatfield has gone away to a safe spot during the war, discovers her home has been ransacked while she was away and she’s pleased because it will give her something to tell the folks back at the home. She trains back, and the train is under attack by the Germans, yet another thing to tell them. As she walks up the street to the home, she thinks she’s gone the wrong way, but no, the house has been bombed, all her friends are dead. She has no one to tell her tales to.
  • Lullaby – A gut-punch in 4 pages. Woman records herself singing a lullaby, leaves the record playing for her baby while she goes out (reluctantly) with her husband. The baby left alone, a storm hits, wind turns a night light candle into a fire that kills the kid.
  • Subject for a Sermon – Lady Hayley does her duty during the war effort to the detriment of her son while he’s on leave. Great sentence in here: “One spent so little time alone; looking back it was a lifetime of chatter.”
  • To Tea with the Colonel – A woman from London who acquired a limp during a bombing of her house moves to the country, is asked to make tea for her friend’s father, the Colonel, who’s deaf. She tells him (knowing he can’t hear her) that it’s terrible how his family has treated the poor; he’s nothing but gracious, telling her he can’t hear. She feels guilty, leaves in tears.
  • The Notebooks – A woman’s husband dies of pneumonia after a tetanus infection weakened him; he’s an author, he leaves behind a manuscript and some notebooks that the museum wants to buy. The widow admires his sketches of people in the notebooks and recognizes that “you can only see people if you relax and forget yourself.”
  • Chance Callers – A husband and wife visit a man about a house during the post-war crunch for housing. The man’s brother dies upstairs, the man makes out his will leaving the house to the couple.
  • The Prisoner -German prisoner of war come to dig drainage ditches for the fields strikes up an acquaintance with an old maid.

In Gratitude

I absolutely loved Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, so was interested in her memoir of dealing with her life-ending cancer, mostly because the first section details how Doris Lessing took her in as a teenager and maintained a relationship with her for the next fifty years. Unfortunately, there’s not enough Lessing to pull this book through; too much cancer treatment stuff, at least for someone who’s not dealing with it at the moment. Maybe if my circumstances were different, it’d be great to get the writer’s perspective of chemo and pills and exhaustion and slow decline.


Another Persephone imprint that I gobbled down in a few hours, losing myself in E. M. Delafield’s story of hapless Alex, who is unable to make her life into anything much. Failure to be a normal teenager, failure to fall in love with a man, she does get a marriage proposal but then breaks the engagement after she realizes she isn’t in love, sequesters herself for a decade in a convent in Belgium where she loses her health and a few teeth. She finally breaks free, comes home to her siblings (parents have died in the interim, leaving no provision for her in the will), pingpongs between households then escapes to a shabby room, kills herself by walking into the marsh with rocks in her pocket. Decent story, not terrific but a good escape for 400 pages.

American Salvage

Fantastic collection of short stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, recommended by way of NPR. Quiet, disturbing tales of life in Michigan, hard women and hard men, metal-workers, junkyard workers, meth-heads, marginal living. Some favorites:

  • The Trespasser: a family finds that their summer cabin has been broken into, the woman flees quietly out the door when they enter, she helped three strange men cook meth and managed to save enough for herself to have a binge for a week. The daughter of the family finds her missing mattress thrown outside, covered in the men’s fluids and the girl’s blood.
  • Family Reunion: a girl stops talking for a year, and we gradually find that her uncle raped her. She becomes an excellent hunter, knocking down 8 point bucks left and right. Story ends when she aims & gets her uncle’s pecker as he’s peeing in the yard.
  • The Solutions to Brian’s Problem: several solutions outlined to help Brian deal with his meth-addict wife who leaves all the time to score and Brian stays at home with their baby.
  • The Burn: down-on-his-luck guy spends his dwindling cash on a girl at the bowling alley, drives her home but only gets a peck on the lips. He runs out of gas a few blocks from the gas station, has to fill up a container which he spills on himself. Pulled over for running a red light later, he lights a cigarette and sets himself on fire accidentally. Instead of staying overnight in the hospital, he insists on leaving, yells at his lesbian neighbors for having too loud sex, apparently goes off his rocker as he tries to take care of his burn.


The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

I’ve been meaning to read Christopher Lasch, finally got around to it. What better gut punch than this 1979 book that lays out the outlines of what our vastly-more decayed society in 2016 looks like? He lays it all out in the preface, accusing bourgeois society of having “lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it.” This is derived from our widespread rejection of the past and he quotes David Donald about “a sense of the irrelevance of history and of the bleakness of the new era we are entering.” We assumed that we would learn from our mistakes, but the lessons taught are “not merely irrelevant but dangerous.” A glimmer of hope in the wreckage comes from the revival of local action in the face of modern bureaucracy, but the biggest threat comes from narcissists among us. “The narcissist has no interest in the future because he has so little interest in the past…. [living in] a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” Now that I’m finished reading it, I can summarize by saying this book has a few good chapters but seems to go off the rails after a hundred pages.

The Awareness Movement and Social Invasion of the Self

“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future. It is the waning of the sense of historical time—in particular, the erosion of any strong concern for posterity—that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the seventies from earlier outbreaks of millenarian religion, to which it bears a superficial resemblance.”

Why are we so angry?
“Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it… Twentieth-century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defenses with so much of the energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated by desire. They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which derives from defenses against desire and gives rise in turn to new defenses against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can devise few legitimate outlets.”

The void within – blame it on the media
“The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made Americans a nation of fans, moviegoers. The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the ‘herd,’ and make it more difficult to accept the banality of everyday existence.”

“Experiences of inner emptiness, loneliness, and inauthenticity… arise from the warlike conditions that pervade American society, from the dangers and uncertainty that surround us, and from a loss of confidence in the future. The poor have always had to live for the present, but now a desperate concern for personal survival, sometimes disguised as hedonism, engulfs the middle class as well.”

The Critique of Privatism: Richard Sennett on the Fall of the Public Man
Sennett criticizes narcissism and says that the best things in the Western cultural tradition come from “conventions that once regulated impersonal relations in public.” This is the crux of it for me, the decline in civility. Need to read Sennett’s book next.

The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time

Lasch rails on the idea that we’ve come to equate narcissism with the baseline of human condition. It’s not the normal, although it’s what is encouraged in the corporate offices of middle managers everywhere. What’s causing all this narcissism? First off, bureaucracy. “For the corporate manager on the make, power consists not of money and influence but of ‘momentum,’ a ‘winning image,’ a reputation as a winner. Power lies in the eye of the beholder and thus has no objective reference at all.” Another factor, the idea that one must go in for periodic medical checkups, no longer feeling secure until you get a “clean bill of health.”

What else is causing the spike? (This bit is almost too much to handle, forty years later when things have gotten so much worse:) “Another influence is the mechanical reproduction of culture, the proliferation of visual and audial images in the ‘society of the spectacle.’ We live in a swirl of images and echoes that arrest experience and play it back in slow motion. Cameras and recording machines not only transcribe experience but alter its quality, giving to much of modern life the character of an enormous echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. Life presents itself as a success of images or electronic signals, of impressions recorded and reproduced by means of photography, motion picture,s television, and sophisticated recording devices. Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions—and our own—were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera!’ The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage. ”

Changing Modes of Making It

“What a man does matters less than the fact that he has ‘made it.’ Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity—the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves—is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines…” Now success shifts from task mastery to controlling others, feeding narcissism. And you get no respite outside of work, either. “Personal life, no longer a refuge from deprivations suffered at work, has become as anarchical, as warlike, and as full of stress as the marketplace itself. The cocktail party reduces sociability to social combat. Experts write tactical manuals in the art of social survival, advising the status-seeking partygoer to take up a commanding position in the room, surround himself with a loyal band of retainers, and avoid turning his back on the field of battle.”

“The propaganda of death and destruction, emanating ceaselessly from the mass media, adds to the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity… The impression of arbitrariness in the reporting of disaster reinforces the arbitrary quality of the experience itself, and the absence of continuity in the coverage of events, as today’s crisis yields to a new and unrelated crisis tomorrow, adds to the sense of historical discontinuity—the sense of living in a world in which the past holds out no guidance to the present and the future has become completely unpredictable.”

Banality of Pseudo-Self-Awareness

Advertising has a few negative effects—it pushes consumption as a way of life instead of protest or rebellion. In Nystrom’s words, “industrial civilization gives rise to a philosophy of futility, a pervasive fatigue, a disappointment with achievements.” Purchasing happiness is the easy way out. With the rise of ads, the rise of lies. “Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.” As Boorstin points out (in his The Image, which I also read and enjoyed), we live in a world of pseudo-events and quasi information, “In which the air is saturated with statements that are neither true nor false but merely credible.” Politics has become spectacle (AHEM!), and Lasch cites Nixon as the example, having “an indifference to truth that goes beyond cynicism—an indifference that can be explained only on the assumption that the concept of truth, for men exercising irresponsible powers, has lost most of its meaning… words chosen purely for their public effect quickly lose all reference to reality. Political discussion founded on such principles degenerates into meaningless babble…”

Beyond advertising and politics, the actual theater shows the sickness of humanity with the rise of the theater of the absurd. “The contemporary playwright abandons the effort to portray coherent and generally recognized truths and presents the poet’s personal intuition of truth. The characteristic devaluation of language, vagueness as to time and place, sparse scenery, and lack of plot development evoke the barren world of the borderline.”

Degradation of Sport

Apparently at one time, sport was considered a good thing, centered around “play” and “teamwork.” Television has ruined this among other things, rearranging the sporting event calendar to suit its needs and “deprive sports of their familiar connection with the seasons, diminishing their power of allusiveness and recall.” Plus, as spectators become less knowledgeable about sport, “they become sensation-minded and bloodthirsty.”

Schooling and the New Illiteracy

A somewhat controversial chapter; Lasch smacks down public education pretty hard, saying that instead of bringing intellectualism to the masses, we’ve dumbed down schools. Yes, while everyone is technically literate, they suffer from a new form of illiteracy, “unable to use language with ease and precision, to recall the basic facts of their country’s history, to make logical deductions, to understand any but the most rudimentary written texts, or even to grasp their constitutional rights.” By giving everyone education, “instead of creating a community of self-governing citizens, [we’ve] contributed to the spread of intellectual torpor and political passivity.” Why? Because of the way we teach, forcing all children to go to school for a certain amount of time, and bringing down the standards of what we teach. Lasch rails against “multiversity” and the inclusion of black studies and women’s studies into colleges.

One thing he points out is quite interesting—because we’ve entirely rejected religious study for the most part, “biblical references, which formerly penetrated deep into everyday awareness, have become incomprehensible, and the same things is now happening to the literature and mythology of antiquity—indeed, to the entire literary tradition of the West, which has always drawn so heavily on biblical and classical sources. In the space of two or three generations, enormous stretches of the ‘Judaeo-Christian tradition,’ so often invoked by educators but so seldom taught in any form, have passed into oblivion. The effective loss of cultural traditional on such a scale makes talk of a new Dark Age far from frivolous. Yet this loss coincides with an information glut, with the recovery of the past by specialists, and with an unprecedented explosion of knowledge—none of which, however, impinges on everyday experience or shapes popular culture.”

The rest of the book

There’s a dumb chapter on Socialization of Reproduction and how because our mothers aren’t close to us, we become narcissistic. :-/

Next an even dumber chapter on feminism, how women really shouldn’t ask for men to be both tender and sexual. The only sane thing he says in the chapter is that the battle between the sexes has intensified because of “the irrational male response to the emergence of the liberated woman.” One of the worst things he says: “it appears that the exploitation of women by men… antedates the establishment of production based on private property and may well survive its demise.”

Right on the heels of the woman problem, the elderly problem. Now that we’re not valuing the wisdom of our old people, they’re not connected to the life cycle, not handing down their knowledge. Not sure the narcissist connection.