The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

This is the English novel that begins: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It tells the story of a boy named Leo who spends the summer of 1900 at the home of a wealthy friend. Without understanding the significance of his role, Leo begins delivering messages between his friend’s unmarried sister and a local farmer. He is told that the messages are secret and pertain to “business”, but of course there’s more to it than that.

The novel, published in 1953, was the basis for an excellent movie of the same name that starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s beautifully written, if a little verbose at times. The only odd thing about it is that it’s in the form of a memoir, as if the grownup Leo is describing events of 50 years ago. Since no normal person could possibly remember what happened that long ago in such detail, we have to assume that the narrator is unreliable or it’s a case of extreme artistic license.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

Before he became famous as the “gonzo” journalist who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and before he became the model for the drug-addled, gun-crazy Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, Hunter S. Thompson spent a year hanging out with the Hell’s Angels, the infamous California motorcycle gang. The resulting book was published in 1966. 

Much of it is devoted to downplaying the media coverage of the group as bloodthirsty savages who left a trail of destruction everywhere they went. On the other hand, Thompson depicts them as violent losers, not very bright, mostly interested in their motorcycles, being part of the gang and getting high. He got to know some of them fairly well, but that didn’t stop one of them from abruptly punching him one day, after which several more joined in, sending Thompson to the emergency room. That experience probably colored the last paragraph of the book:

It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer….I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!”

I read Hell’s Angels after reading an article in The Nation that said Thompson had predicted the rise of Trumpism, i.e. a movement of “left-behind people motivated only by ‘an ethic of total retaliation'”. There are, in fact, a few places in the book where Thompson takes a step back and provides that kind of sociological overview. Thus:

… nobody who has ever spent time with the inbred Anglo-Saxon tribes of Appalachia would need more than a few hours with the Hell’s Angels to work up a very strong sense of déjà vu. There is the same sulking hostility toward “outsiders”, the same extremes of temper and action… [159]

The attack [on a 1965 anti-war demonstration] was an awful shock to those who had seen the Hell’s Angels as pioneers of the human spirit, but to anyone who knew them it was entirely logical. The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic. [248]

To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old “individualist” tradition “that made this country great” is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are – not some romantic leftover, but the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment … and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a soft of isolated oddity, a temporary phenomenon… [258]

A toad who believes he got a raw deal before he even knew who was dealing will usually be sympathetic to the mean, vindictive ignorance that colors the Hell’s Angels’ view of humanity. There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency….[258-59]

Sociologists call it “alienation” or “anomie”. It is a sens of being cut off, or left out of whatever society one was presumably meant to be a part of…. In the terms of our Great Society the Hell’s Angeles and their ilk are losers – dropouts, failures and malcontents. They are rejects looking for a way to get even with a world in which they are only a problem… The difference between the student radicals and the Hell’s Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. [260]

Certainly, many Trump supporters are indeed fighting the future. Although the average Trump voter had a higher income than the average Clinton voter, many of Trump’s supporters are struggling and feeling left behind (as are many of Clinton’s). But just as many of his supporters are trying to hold on to what they have (e.g. nice lives in the suburbs) or what they think they deserve as white, “Christian” Americans (i.e. better lives than everyone else).

So the book was usually interesting, if a bit repetitious, and Thompson could certainly write, but as a guide to modern America, it doesn’t deliver much.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

The “Second American Revolution” in the title refers to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Before that, during most of the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a loose arrangement that Ellis compares to the European Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen colonies operated as separate nations. They cooperated in order to defeat the British, but few of the colonists expected to become one nation after the British left.

Ellis focuses on the four men he thinks did the most to convince their fellow colonists that the United States needed a real central government. They were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay and George Washington. Ellis writes well and tells a fast-moving, almost suspenseful story, which is divided about equally between describing the histories and psychologies of his four Founding Fathers (and a few others) and the issues that confronted them.

From his conclusion:

Perhaps the best way to describe their achievement … is to argued that they maximized the historical possibilities of their transitory moment. They were comfortable and unembarrassed in their role as a political elite, in part because their leadership role depended on their revolutionary credentials… They were unapologetic in their skepticism about unfettered democracy, because that skepticism was rooted in their recent experiences ass soldiers and statesmen…

They straddled an aristocratic world that was dying and a democratic world that was just emerging… The Constitution they created and bequeathed to us was necessarily a product of that bimodal moment and mentality, and most of the men featured in this story would be astonished to learn that it abides, with amendments, over two centuries later…

Their genius was to answer the political challenges of their own moment decisively, meaning that the confederation must be replaced by the nation, but also to provide a political platform wide enough to allow for considerable latitude within which future generations could make their own decisions. 

Ellis concludes with the words of Thomas Jefferson, written decades later, not because Jefferson played much of a role in creating the Constitution (he was Ambassador to France at the time) but because he wrote so well:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered … institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

PS: Anyone who reads this book will understand that the Founders would have expected the Electoral College to reject a demagogue like the current President; and that they intended the 2nd Amendment to make sure we would be protected by a well-regulated militia, not a standing army, and not to guarantee everyone the right to own the weapon(s) of their choice.

The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson

A few weeks ago, I read a startling article called “The Calvinist Roots of American Anti-Intellectualism” on a site called 3:AM Magazine. Here’s a selection:

…the Reformation was an open revolt against the Renaissance, against science, against any form of culture, activity, and political or scientific thought that was not directly and irreducibly grounded in some religious leader’s (*cough* Calvin’s *cough*) literal reading of the Bible. It had no truck with religious freedom, and its penalties for going off program only involved decapitation if you were LUCKY…. 

Famously, Voltaire wrote about Calvin and the theocracy he established in Geneva (and about Luther and the reformer Zwingli, who set up a similar operation in Zurich), “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent….

The sanitized story about Protestantism that has been passed down to us is that it represented a revolt against corruption in the Church and brought a focus on Biblical writing rather than Church traditions as a source of authority. And it was indeed about those things. Partly. But more than that it was a revolt against an idea, espoused by [St. Thomas Aquinas], that we can come to know nature without the aid of religion (in the insider terminology, we can understand nature without the help of grace). The idea that part of the world could be known and understood without aid of religion helped ignite the Renaissance, but was an idea that Calvin in particular could not tolerate. In his view, separation of grace and nature would lead to no end of troubles; every aspect of our lives (science, culture, etc.) needed to be brought under religious control.

Wanting more information, I took The Reformation: A History off the shelf. It’s a relatively short book written by Patrick Collinson, the Regius Professor of Modern History, Emeritus, of Cambridge University. As you might expect, Collinson treats the subject differently than the author of the 3:AM article.

What I mainly learned from the book is that the Reformation was too complicated to easily summarize. For example, it was helped along by the invention of the printing press and movable type in the 15th century. Although Martin Luther and John Calvin (actually a Frenchman named Jean Calvin) were the two principal figures, many others played important roles, including preachers, theologians, church officials, authors, soldiers, princes and kings, from one end of Europe to the other. Collinson’s chronology begins with the Great Schism of 1378 (which resulted in there being three Popes) and ends with England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (which gave more authority to Parliament).

Maybe this passage sums up the book and reinforces the thesis of the 3:AM article:

The Reformation was awash with words. The historian who tries to catch its essence finds his net breaking under the weight of words… The formulation “Word of God”, which among Protestants especially became a synonym for the Bible, made the elusive abstraction “the Word” hard and fast, more concrete, anchoring it in biblical texts, which were given a new and absolute authority…The Church was to be validated by the Bible; not the Bible by the Church… Words became as tablets of stone. [pp. 33-34]

There was a shorter passage I couldn’t find, something to the effect that truth was only to be discovered in the Bible. A strange and disturbing idea if you think about it.

The Subject’s Point of View by Katalin Farkas

In a nutshell, Professor Farkas argues that meaning is in the head after all. That’s the “internalist” position that most academic philosophers have rejected in favor of a newer position called “externalism”. That’s the idea that, in Hilary Putnam’s well-known phrase, “meaning ain’t in the head”.

Putnam argued for his position by describing a thought experiment in which two guys named Oscar are exactly the same in every way and live on two Earth’s that seem to be the same in every way too. They both call the clear, tasteless liquid around them “water”, but it’s years before anyone on either planet has figured out what water is made of. The thing is that, without anyone knowing it yet, the water on Earth is H2O (as we now know) but on Twin Earth it’s XYZ (i.e. not H2O). The question is: “What do Oscar and his twin mean by the word “water”?” Putnam and the other externalists think that they mean different things when they each use that word. (You can read more about the thought experiment here.)

Farkas, on the other hand, thinks that the great 17th century philosopher René Descartes was basically right. Meaning is a psychological phenomenon. If Oscar and his twin on that other Earth have the exact same conscious thoughts about what they both call “water”, the word has the same meaning for both of them, regardless of what water’s (unknown) molecular composition happens to be. 

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

I have defended a certain conception of the mental, one I regard as developing Descartes’s fundamental insight about the mind: that the mind is essentially revealed from the subject’s point of view. I have shown that this conception lies at the heart of contemporary internalist theories. I have considered an objection against the notion of internally individuated content [or meaning] and found it wanting. Hopefully, we can now give back the subject and her point of view the proper place they deserve.

I also accept the internalist position, which is probably the main reason I enjoyed the book. The author’s discussion of sense and reference was especially helpful, but it’s not a book for anyone unfamiliar with the topic.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964.

This is a book of Hofstadter’s collected essays. His famous essay gives the book its title; there are three other essays on the same topic. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” was written in response to McCarthyism. “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” were written in response to Senator Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to win the Republican nomination for President.

These essays may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are highly relevant today, given America’s disastrous election two months ago. Our next President ran a classic pseudo-conservative campaign, claiming to be a “conservative” but appealing to the same right-wing extremism that characterized the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. (The President-elect owes his greater success in 2016 to the fact that “normal” Republicans are much more extreme than they used to be.)

Hofstadter explores the history of right-wing extremism through the 20th century, but concentrates on developments since World War 2. He explains that as more people did well in economic terms, a reactionary minority grew angrier and angrier about changes in society. Conservatism became a form of radicalism, with seething hatred toward moderate politicians and deep resentment of the progress made by women and African-Americans. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to the current low point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.

I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman

Brian Wilson was the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys before his life went sideways. In recent years, he’s had a successful solo career, mainly because he found the right woman to marry and got the mental health treatment he needed.

This memoir is quite good, even better than I expected. Reading it feels like you’re seeing the world from Brian’s perspective, as his recurring thoughts and memories, good and bad, come and go. The book is divided into chapters that bring some organization and chronology to the story, but at times it’s like listening to his stream of consciousness.

Never having heard him speak for any length of time, because he is famously terse in interviews, I wondered if his “voice” was really coming through. I think it was. Brian and his co-writer should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished. They’ve given us an informative look into the mind of this extremely talented man.