Author: Jared Marcel Pollen

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe—A Review

A review of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson. Allen Lane, 496 pages (May 2021) Viewed from a certain angle, history appears to be the legacy of our errors—the record of humanity risking too much and anticipating too little, getting things wrong and getting them wrong all over again. If there is a fatal flaw (in a Greek sense) that underwrites our experience of history and gives it a tragic aspect, it is—to appropriate a phrase from Kierkegaard—that we are doomed to live it forwards and understand it backwards. In his novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth called this “the relentless unforeseen,” the treadmill of the unknowable on which we are forever running. Roth’s novel—in which the isolationist celebrity Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and signs a peace treaty with Imperial Japan and the Third Reich—inverts our conception of catastrophe: America avoids the disasters of Pearl Harbor and the Second World War, but inherits other kinds, as the country finds itself insidiously neutral towards Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism festers, …

Oscar Wilde’s Utopia

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes See nothing save their own unlovely woe, Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,— This is the opening verse of Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet to Liberty.” Beyond its apparent cynicism, it elegantly encapsulates the acute miseries of youth—solipsistic, impatient, devoid of knowledge, and desperate for change. Published when Wilde was 27, the poem already bears the traits of his signature style: the lyric brevity, the cool aloofness, the effete fatigue, which is swept up by passion—“But that roar of thy Democracies… thy great Anarchies… give my rage a brother—!Liberty!”—only to settle on a note of human solidarity: and yet, and yet, These Christs that die upon the barricades, God knows it I am with them, in some things. This captures the torpor of a much older man, unable to summon the revolutionary energy himself, but not yet jaded enough to dismiss the effort. Though the poem seems to end with a shrug, its compassion stems from the fact that Wilde despised the aristocracy’s treatment of the …

Inside Story—A Review

A review of Inside Story by Martin Amis. Knopf, 560 pages. (October 2020) As literature’s cultural relevance washes out on the high tide of digital media, self-absorption becomes the order of the day. Those who can still be bothered to write “serious” books aren’t interested in telling other people’s stories. They want to tell their own. And in the age of profiles and self-promotion, it’s not surprising that auto-fiction—or what I like to call the ME novel—is the literary genre with the most purchase. ME writing, while centuries old, has exploded in the last decade: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (to name a few in fiction); Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering (for non-fiction novels)—while other excesses, like blog novels and memoirs written by 28-year-olds have even managed to find their way to audiences. Now Martin Amis’s new novel Inside Story joins this club of “life writing” (a genre he describes as “rather dubious”). Inside Story is a ME …

The Right Side of History—A Review

A review of The Right Side of History by Ben Shapiro. Broadside Books (March 19, 2019) 288 pages. In the prologue to his epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton wrote that the purpose of the book was to “justify the ways of God to men.” The story, in other words, would be a dramatization of theodicy, a key question of the Enlightenment that would clearly demarcate the intellectual and moral boundaries between the traditional religious morality of some thinkers and the emergent secular ethics of others. Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1667, in many ways anticipated one of the biggest philosophical problems of the eighteenth century, and its protagonist, Lucifer, is arguably its finest exemplar. Lucifer is the archetype of man at the edge of modernity, stranded in a Godless void, facing the abyss, with only his reason to understand himself and his new position in the natural order. Milton contrived to portray Lucifer as a proud and spiteful figure—his reason was merely an instrument to rationalize his hatred. But something happened that Milton either …