Daily Briefing: Books That Speak To our Times Reviewed (September 20,2019)

Cover of the book Archipelago Gulag by Sozenicyn. Focused on the concentration camp universe of the Soviet Union, it was published for Mondadori in the series of essays in 1974, registering a consistent sales success.
(Source: Wikipedia)

Table Of Contents: 


How the Great Truth Dawned:  Gary Saul Morson, The New Criterion, Sept. 2019

Europe in Crisis:  David Pryce-Jones, National Review, July 10, 2019

He Remade Kings: A Scholar’s New Views:  George Prochnik, NY Times, June 6, 2017

Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing:  Pascal Bruckner, Quillette, Sept. 14, 2019








How the Great Truth Dawned
Gary Saul Morson
The New Criterion, Sept. 2019

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume opus, The Gulag Archipelago, which some have called the most important masterpiece of the twentieth century, is subtitled: “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.” Consider how odd that is. No Westerner would call such a work “literary,” lest someone discount its documentary value. Literature is one thing, truth another, isn’t that correct? But Solzhenitsyn insists that absolutely everything included is strictly factual, a claim validated when the Soviet Union fell and archives were opened. What, then, is literary about the book? It is worth noting that Russia’s most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich, also produced literary works that were purely factual. With these two writers, we encounter something essential to the Russian tradition.

Russians revere literature more than anyone else in the world. When Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina was being serialized, Dostoevsky, in a review of its latest installment, opined that “at last the existence of the Russian people has been justified.” It is hard to imagine Frenchmen or Englishmen, let alone Americans, even supposing that their existence required justification; but if they did, they would surely not point to a novel. Would we mention the iPhone? But to Russians Dostoevsky’s comment appeared unremarkable.

If Americans want the truth about a historical period, we turn to historians, not novelists, but in Russia it is novelists who are presumed to have a deeper understanding.

We usually assume that literature exists to depict life, but Russians often speak as if life exists to provide material for literature. Russians, of course, excel in ballet, chess, theater, and mathematics. They invented the periodic table and non-Euclidian geometry. Nevertheless, for Russians, literature is in a class by itself. The very phrase “Russian literature” carries a sacramental aura. The closest analogy may be the status of the Bible for ancient Hebrews when it was still possible to add books to it.

The “canon,” a term originally applied to authoritative Biblical books, still carries sacred significance for Russians, and even the Soviets did not challenge the status of nineteenth-century classics. Anyone who denigrates Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, is likely to be called, without irony, a blasphemer. We think of Stalin as a thug, but he read literary manuscripts and sometimes decided what should be published. His phone call to Mikhail Bulgakov, which allowed the politically suspect writer to keep working, achieved mythic status. The poet Osip Mandelstam observed that only in Russia is literature so important that one can be shot for a poem. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]


Europe in Crisis
David Pryce-Jones
National Review, July 10, 2019

Europe almost committed suicide by means of the two world wars, but managed to survive both times. Douglas Murray holds that a third attempt at suicide is under way. The context is rather straightforward. The order of the Muslim Middle East was always fragile, and hideous power struggles and Islamic rivalries have shattered it beyond recovery. Either fleeing from chaos or taking the chance to better themselves, Muslims numbering in the millions have come to settle in Europe. The initial humanitarian impulse of Europeans to come to the aid of the victims and the dispossessed was only right and proper. Something had to be done, as policymakers like to assure one another in the corridors of power.

The governments of Western Europe decided to admit these migrants more or less unconditionally, taking the simplistic view that they would integrate naturally, the way migrants are supposed to do. As far as is known, nobody in authority had the vision to ask whether it was wise to introduce a minority whose very strong religious faith and culture have a long history of opposition to Christendom and risked keeping them separate from the natives, to put it no more strongly. The failure to set any effective limit on admissions meant that the authorities were giving free rein to a mass movement with which they were already unable to cope. The imposition of quotas, closure of frontiers, erection of fences, and establishment of holding camps were desperate improvisations certain to generate a response of crime and violence of a kind and on a scale impossible to police. The Labour government of Tony Blair employed a bureaucrat who could have been speaking for every administration in Europe when she said about the task she had been given, “There was no policy for integration. We just believed migrants would integrate.” To welcome into the house people who will then make it unlivable is the stuff of some grim fable of moral instruction.

Perhaps the huge majority of migrants entering Europe thought that they should stay true to themselves, and they saw no harm in that. But along came exemplars of Islam, imams and mullahs who preached that Muslims could never be friends and good neighbors of the kafirs, the unbelievers, but had the religious duty to wage jihad, a campaign of conquest, against them. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a mainstream Sunni Muslim, showed how to lay the foundations of a war of civilizations in an address to an audience of 20,000 Turks in Germany at a time when he was prime minister of Turkey, not the president he subsequently became: “I understand very well that you are against assimilation. One cannot expect you to assimilate. Assimilation is a crime against humanity.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

He Remade Kings: A Scholar’s New Views
George Prochnik
NY Times, June 6, 2017

By Robert E. Lerner
Illustrated. 400 pp. Princeton University Press.

In 1949, when America was obsessed with the threat of Communist agents pervading and perverting the nation’s core institutions, the University of California introduced a compulsory loyalty oath. At a faculty session to consider the new political test, one professor in his mid-50s from the medieval history department, an exile from Germany known on campus as a gregarious dandy with an acid wit, rose to his feet and began declaiming in a strange, incantatory singsong, high-pitched with emotion. Recalling the oaths of allegiance in the early days of Hitler’s government, the speaker announced: “This is the way it begins. The first oath is so gentle that one can scarcely notice anything at which to take exception. The next oath is stronger!” Resistance had to start with the first oath, he asserted, for it was “a typical expedient of demagogues to bring the most loyal citizens, and only the loyal ones, into a conflict of conscience by branding nonconformists as un-Athenian, un-English, un-German.”

The audience was riveted; some were galvanized against the new rule. Presumably few knew that the speaker began his career as a militant German nationalist who is said to have declared after World War I, “Right of me is only the wall,” and who, while praising the Teutonic knightly virtues, once wrote that “since the dawn of time” true loyalty had been possible only for Germans.

In “Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life,” the distinguished medieval historian Robert E. Lerner presents a richly illuminating study of the German-Jewish scholar he calls “perhaps the most influential” medieval historian of all time. He also offers a timely meditation on the vicissitudes of abstract, purist ideals under the pressure of savage real-world events. Sometimes the loftiest convictions prove the most politically fungible.

Lerner traces the growth of the Kantorowicz family’s large fortune in the liqueur trade, details Ernst’s privileged childhood in Posen (he was born in 1895), recounts the future historian’s enthusiastic war service, reviews the different phases of his early historical researches (most notably into the life of Frederick II) and follows his long, mostly convivial exile in Britain and the United States. Until the loyalty oath controversy, Kantorowicz was happiest in California, where he marveled at the “completely unencumbered, completely pagan” students who turned everything into play and made him appear to himself “very old and terribly young at the same time.” But it was only after he moved to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton that in 1957, at the age of 62, Kantorowicz finally published the book that made his reputation: “The King’s Two Bodies.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]


Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing
Pascal Bruckner
Quillette, Sept. 14, 2019

We often forget that contemporary Europe was not born, as the United States was, in the euphoria of new beginnings, but in a sinking sense of its own abjection. The crimes of the Nazis affected the entire Old World, like a cancer that had long been growing inside it. Thus, the European victors over the Third Reich were contaminated by the enemy they had helped defeat, in contrast to the Americans and Soviets, who emerged from the conflict crowned in glory. Ever since, all of Europe—the East as well as the West—has carried the burden of Nazi guilt, as others would have us bear the guilt of North American slavery and Jim Crow. It has left us sullied to the very depths of our culture. Isn’t this what the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire contends when he de-Germanizes Hitler and makes him the very metaphor of the white man in general? In 1955, in his Discours sur le Colonialisme, Césaire points to:

[The] very distinguished, very humanist, very Christian bourgeois twentieth century man, who without realizing it carries within himself a little Hitler; Hitler haunts him, Hitler is his demon, and if he rails against him he is not being consistent; basically what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not his crime against man, it’s his crime against the white man, it’s the white man’s humiliation at Europe having been subjected to the colonialist practices that previously applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the negroes of Africa.

Let us disregard for a moment the gross comparison that equates colonialism with genocide, and the racializing of white people who thereby become the universal symbol of infamy, as witnessed today in the growing “anti-racism” movement. Not only did history provide Hitler with centuries of precedents, but he has never been anything but the true face of Europe—the Europe that confronted him even as it acquiesced in his rise to power.

The amazing thing is not that such masochistic theories should flourish, but that they are applauded by so many elites. For a few decades, the Cold War delayed the West’s self-examination, but since 1989 and the inclusion of ex-Soviet bloc countries into a widening European Union, the crisis of conscience has only deepened, and has partially, if not completely, guided political thought. Having scaled unprecedented peaks of barbarity, the Europe of Brussels has decided to redeem itself by privileging moral values over realpolitik. Henceforth, we were enjoined to adopt what Auguste Comte and Victor Hugo, each for his own reasons, called “the religion of humanity,” grounded in altruism and devotion. Western Europeans dislike themselves. They are unable to overcome their self-disgust and feel the pride in their heritage and the self-respect that is so strikingly evident in the United States. Modern Europe is instead mired in shame shrouded in moralizing discourse. It has convinced itself that, since all the evils of the twentieth century arose from its feverish bellicosity, it’s about time it redeemed itself and sought something like a reawakened sense of the sacred in its guilty conscience.

What better example of this proclivity exists than Angela Merkel’s embrace of about a million refugees fleeing war-torn Syria in 2015? Even though this gesture that would help replenish a shrinking labor force was not strictly disinterested, for this pastor’s daughter it was also a spectacular way to repudiate Nazism and escape its shadow. After the catastrophe of the Second World War, the Federal Republic would now offer itself as an ostentatious example to the world. Germany would practice open-heartedness in a single country, just as Stalin in the USSR had once practiced socialism in a single country. Already pre-eminent in Europe, Berlin would call the shots, whether exercising toughness or kindness. Merciless with the Greeks in July, when the Chancellery wanted to eject them from the eurozone, but beneficent with the Syrians in September, it could demonstrate severity or an ever so imperial charity. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]



For Further Reference:
Michel Houellebecq: Populism’s Prophet:  G. Gavin Collins, Quillette, Sept. 19, 2019 — In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, more newspaper op-eds and opinion pieces in magazines catering to the “well-informed public” have been written about the populist phenomenon than any other topic.
Trump — or What, Exactly?:  Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, Aug. 27, 2019 — In traditional political terms, there is always an alternate agenda to an incumbent president’s that reasonable voters can debate.
Israel’s Gantz Would Likely Maintain Netanyahu’s Foreign-Policy Stance:  Felicia Schwartz, WSJ, Sept. 19, 2019 — Retired Gen. Benny Gantz, possibly weeks away from being Israel’s next leader, would likely follow the same path as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on strengthening his country’s alliance with the U.S., securing its borders and countering Iran at a time of crisis in the Middle East.
The New York Times Still Doesn’t Understand What It Did:  David French, National Review, Sept. 17, 2019 — It was every writer’s dream — or it should have been. Two New York Times reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, wrote a book about one of the most controversial and most reported news stories of our time, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, and thanks to their due diligence, they uncovered a truly blockbuster revelation: Not only did Christine Blasey Ford’s key witness and friend — Leland Keyser — state that she didn’t recall the party where Ford claimed she was assaulted, she also says she doesn’t remember “any others like it.”
This week’s French-language briefing is titled:  Communique: Élections,Deuxième Round (Septembre 20,2019)