Monday, November 14, 2011

The Folds of Irony in the Penny Press!

Oh, the multiplicitous ironies in the latest batch of the Penny Press I consumed at my little hole-in-the-wall periodical-reading restaurant! Everywhere I turned, it was inescapable!

Take last week's TLS for example. Nicholas Thomas reviews the new biography of Captain Cook by Frank McLynn and finds it wanting. That verdict itself might not be so surprising - McLynn can often run hot and cold even with the same reviewer - but the context in which it's delivered is positively riddled with irony, because in pillorying McLynn, Thomas (a specialist in South Pacific art and history and a very amiable guy) raises the spectre of that greatest of all Captain Cook biographers, John Beaglehole - only to pillory him too! We're told Beaglehole's book is "marred by an opinionated style" and actually has the temerity to draw conclusions about its illustrious subject:
Beaglehole's Cook is almost narrow-minded, an indefatigable, practical rationalist, remarkable for his clear grasp of geographic, navigational, or nautical problems, and his single-minded approach to solving them. He is great, in Beaglehole's mind, in part because he has none of the sentimental or philosophical frippery of the eighteenth century around him.

The irony here of course being that if Thomas finds a book like Beaglehole's - vast, authoritative, utterly absorbing, beautifully written - wanting, he undercuts any credibility he'd otherwise have in finding any other book about Cook wanting. We might listen to a critic who called the latest Boris Akunin novel a disgrace to the great Russian literary tradition, but we instantly stop listening if that same critic says War and Peace is also a disgrace to the great Russian literary tradition, and we don't just disbelieve him about Tolstoy - we associatedly disbelieve him about Akunin even if we haven't read him.

A similar piercing irony crops up in the latest Harper's. That issue features a long and leapingly enthusiastic review of Christopher Hitchens' Arguably by Terry Eagleton, and the piece contains ironies of its own, mainly deriving from the fact that like every other 'review' of this big fat essay collection, it's really a boisterous stiff-upper-lip encomium - for a guy who isn't even dead yet. "He could tell you just who to talk to about Kurdish nationalism in the southeastern Turkish city of Batman, as well as what to order in the only decent restaurant there. He can give you the lowdown on everyone from Isaac Newton to Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde to Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab..." Etc.... in every case, those 'can's are just itching to be 'could's - and it gets in the way of reviewers assessing the ample weak spots of this collection.

But the piece is part of a larger irony too. Hitchens has achieved most of his current notoriety for his brattish nose-tweaking to the concept of religion (particularly all the young people I know who adore him adore him for that reason), the sort of 'you adults are just DUMB to believe this stuff!' braying most of us got out of our systems in high school. But another essay in the same issue of Harper's could serve as good ammo for Hitchens' numerous droned-over debate opponents: Alan Lightman writes a piece about modern cosmology that contains a digression worth quoting in full:
... according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are require for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces an certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be "fine-tuned" to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine-tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it.

Carter's principle forms the basis for a 1988 book called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler, one of the most persistently thought-provoking books of the 20th century, and it's ironic to fin that principle being elaborated cheek-by-jowl with more regurgitated Hitchens Got-baiting.

And there's irony to be found over in the latest Atlantic, in which Benjamin Schwarz reviews Higher Gossip, the new posthumous collection of literary journalism from the pen of John Updike. I'm no fan of Updike's book reviews - too bland, too timid, too falsely everyman - but as he always does, Schwarz actually makes me think about perhaps revisiting the guy's work. Certainly Schwarz ranks that work - a vast collection - highly:
This huge body of work, 4,314 pages in all, secured Updike a place among America's few great men of letters (since Edmund Wilson's death, only Gore Vidal and Updike can be added to the pantheon).

The irony of that outrageous parenthetical should be abundantly clear already, but just in case it isn't, here's a bit from the second half of Schwarz' book-column this month, on the fourth volume of the official history of the Bank of England:
Nevertheless, this book contains probably the most revealing record of a central bank's struggles in the modern era. (Others might bestow that crown on Allen H. Meltzer's magisterial an plainly written multivolume A History of the Federal Reserve, but that great work is more strictly a monetary history, and Meltzer doesn't treat the Fed's other duties, such as bank regulation, in the same rich detail as Capie does the actions of the Old Lady.)

Hee. So: the choicest irony of all - Schwarz is certainly leaving at least one name off his list of great 20th century men of letters. It could just be an old-fashioned modesty, but I'm guessing otherwise. I bet the idea never occurred to him.



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