Podcast • June 1, 2011

Ecstasy on 3 x 5 Cards: Lila Azam Zanganeh’s Nabokov

Lila Azam Zanganeh is lifting us from the effete to the exhilarating to the ecstatic in the beloved Vladimir Nabokov. But wait, I wonder. Wasn’t he teasing us with those tri-lingual puns? … disdaining us ...

Lila Azam Zanganeh is lifting us from the effete to the exhilarating to the ecstatic in the beloved Vladimir Nabokov. But wait, I wonder. Wasn’t he teasing us with those tri-lingual puns? … disdaining us from his lonely leisure, butterfly net in hand, in the Alps or in Arizona? …. keeping his distance in the memory of boyhood tennis on a great Russian estate, circa 1910? Teasing us, for sure, Lila says. “He is always teasing… always ironic, but the thrills he is describing become contagious.”

She is the first to spell out a notion that I was eager to hear: that the ecstatic (beside oneself, out of one’s head) frisson associated with Nabokov and all his evocations of erotic and other kinds of bliss fit also a religious context that Nabokov was perhaps too bashful to fill in explicitly. Ecstasy, we’re told, is the state of saints and mystics in prayer, and of martyrs in agony. It is the consciousness not of this world, but another. Nabokov, in his own style, is endlessly referring to that other plane of his awareness, hinting at a gleaming opposite face of the tapestry : “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more,” for example.

Lila Azam Zanganeh is giving us more than fan’s notes. She writes and talks with an unguarded blush of excitement, but it’s about something more than surpassing style. There’s conviction here, and years of close reading. Most of a decade ago, when we worked on a radio show together, Lila used to quote with passion Nabokov’s own afterword on Lolita: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

She wrote this elegant small book, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, to reassure us that the thrill we feel reading Nabokov’s manifesto is substantial and real. She is telling us a little more earnestly what Nabokov wanted us to believe about the seat of artistic delight, “…between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”

Happiness is about memory. Through the magic of memory, the past is ever-present. He says at one point in Speak Memory, “time does not exist.” And that’s really what Nabokov is about. It’s about observing, it’s about recapturing and reminiscing. And he talks again and again in Ada about the “radiant now.” Everything is there. That’s why observation is so important, that moment of capturing is about turning time on its head, and that’s where the magic begins. When one understands that by reading the book, that’s enchantment. If there’s one thing to be learned it’s not anything social or historical or political or of documentary value. It’s really to learn how to observe and parse the detail of the world.

Lila Azam Zanganeh with Chris Lydon, May 2011.

Podcast • December 23, 2010

David Bromwich on the “Disappointment in Obama”

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the ...

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the only commentator worth reading on Obama, precisely because they bring literary tools and imagination to a man who’s himself an almost literary invention. Professor Bromwich takes the study of our president, in effect, out of the White House press room, out of “political science,” whatever that is, into English class. The first premise is that language — scripted and impromtu — reveals the man. “Close reading” suggests further that something about his language is at the core of the low-lying invasive fog of “disappointment in Obama.” In the Bromwich reading, President Obama is “an unusually forceful politician, especially from a distance,” who underestimated the difficulty of his task and “characteristically overrates the potency of words, his words,” to get the job done.

“What he did in the first few months of his presidency, Professor Bromwich is observing in conversation, “was lay down any number of pledges — what the British call ‘earnests’ — of his good intentions about Guantanamo, about Israel and Palestine, about nuclear proliferation, about the environment… It was a wonderful list, and he made pretty good but very general speeches on all of them. I believe he supposed — semi-magically — that from the inspiring force of his speeches, a groundswell of support would arise from the bottom that made him do it. There something fantastic, something delusive, and something unreal about that idea of his role.”

DB: In an improvised moment in this latest campaign, October 2010, Obama talked about taxes and tried to be very understanding toward the Tea Partiers and other anti-tax fanatics and said something like, “That’s in our DNA, right? I mean, we came in because folks on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation…” Folks? … What was he trying to say? He was trying talk about George III, the tyranny of Britain in the colonial days and Taxation Without Representation. Those are specific names and references every literate American would have recognized, but Obama doesn’t descend into them, or rather doesn’t ascend to them, even though it’s ascending to an ordinary middle level. It was as if he were talking to rather primitive and silly and uninformed people. He has another register which is rather technocratic.

On the Health Care Bill he could talk about the need to “prioritize” and “incentivize” and “watch the trend lines” and so on. So these are two very different idioms. I think the technocratic one is Obama’s natural speaking manner most of the time, most of the day in his presidency, because those are the people he’s around. He learned to talk in the surroundings of the legal academy, corporate life and around bankers and technocrats, and on an honest day he’s one of them.

CL: You caught my attention in the London Review of Books many months ago just with the observation that he can sound like the president of the Ford Foundation, or something. It’s the sound of a vaguely anonymous board room voice, an intelligent mind among a lot of intelligent minds, representing some kind of anonymous consensus of the good people.

DB: Yeah. That’s sort of the good and competent elite who are meant to run things. I call him a Fabian non-socialist for that reason. The Fabians – H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw among them – believed in the reform of society by a group of technocrats, from above, in the direction of equality, but not with much consultation of the populace. And there’s nothing at all low about Obama, nothing the least bit vulgar or ill-bred. In fact, if he had just a dash of vulgarity it might increase the democratic quality of his charm.

He has said the Health Care Bill was a piece of “signature legislation.” That phrase caught my ear. It’s the sort of phrase that would be put into a write-up on the recipient of an honorary degree in a law school or university. And in fact, of course the Health Care Bill was anything but a signature piece of legislation; it worked through many committees, got delayed by Max Baucus and that search for bipartisan consensus, for months delayed by Obama’s personal wait for Olympia Snowe who never came across, and so on. If he had a signature, we don’t know what it looked like… And yet I think for him it was just one more exertion of this neutral, rather impersonal vocabulary that he’s very used to and that you read on the blurbs of semi-thoughtful best sellers.

What can any of us tell about a man’s character, talents, intentions from his words?

David Bromwich is finding the president more detached, perhaps dissociated, than the man he voted for and roots for; a man who’s elegant but not warm; who’s theoretically humble but practically haughty; a gifted writer and speaker who has a hard time naming the thing he’s talking about by its name; a man still hungering for approval and even legitimacy; a politician who does not enjoy the basic friction of politics. John F. Kennedy’s famous news conferences, Bromwich observes on listening again, were “full of human moods and quirks.” JFK spoke rapidly, “as we all do when we’re concerned to say what we really think.” President Obama, by contrast, very rarely ad-libs and speaks “very slowly, deliberately, often even brokenly — not for lack of linguistic skill but for lack of contact between him and what he really wants people to be able to hear of him.”

How strange, if Professor Bromwich is right, that a president who saw himself early, and successfully, as an author, who is still celebrated for his eloquence, is stumbling now on his own use of words.

Podcast • November 10, 2009

David Bromwich on Obama: Looking at Words Closely

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Bromwich (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3). It’s a measure of the change in the discourse that David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English who used to write ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Bromwich (41 minutes, 19 mb mp3).

It’s a measure of the change in the discourse that David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English who used to write op-ed in the New York Times, now keeps a sort of Times Watch in the Huffington Post, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. “I don’t have a particular grievance, or have it in for the Times,” Professor Bromwich says to me in conversation, “but they are an important mainstream paper, and the way they bent towards the war in Iraq, I think, was all-important in legitimating that war. So they bear watching, and when no one else is minding that watch, I do it.” He was the only writer I saw who broke through the “de mortuis” sentimentalism around the Times’ late language meister William Safire to nail the propagandist and congenital war-monger: “the true Safire touch — clever, punchy, alliterative, demagogic.” In a more consequential “close reading” of the Times through five days of late October, Bromwich wrote: “the conclusion draws itself. The New York Times wants a large escalation in Afghanistan.”

David Bromwich seems to me better yet at Obama-watching than at press criticism. He can write with penetration of Barack Obama as an American almost-literary invention, and he can make you feel you’re reading Nabokov on Don Quixote or Harold Bloom on Hamlet. In our gab, Bromwich’s essentially sympathetic but distressed view is that Obama “is a capitive of the inertia of the use of American power that he inherits.” To my taste, Bromwich does what the magisterial columnists of old like James Reston and Walter Lippman (the people I wanted to be when I grew up) used to do: pull the threads of news and impression and gossip and deep reading into a “mood of Washington” and some sense of where we’re going. Sitting in New Haven, Bromwich comes at it with the training primarily of the literary man, a biographer of the critic William Hazlitt and prolific interpreter of Rousseau, Burke, Lincoln and Mill. He adopted the old liberal prejudices when they were uncontested — in favor of peace, against torture; for civil liberties without cavil; for the republican virtues and constitutional standards. Bromwich’s finished work has an often chilling clarity and eloquence I find nowhere else these days:

Afghanistan is the largest and the most difficult crisis Obama confronts away from home. And here the trap was fashioned largely by himself. He said, all through the presidential campaign, that Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan was the right one. It was ‘a war of necessity’, he said this summer. And he has implied that he would accept his generals’ definition of the proper scale of such a war. Now it appears that Afghanistan is being lost, indeed that it cannot be controlled with fewer than half a million troops on the ground for a decade or more. The generals are for adding troops, as in Vietnam, in increments of tens of thousands. Their current request was leaked to Bob Woodward, who published it in the Washington Post on 21 September, after Obama asked that it be kept from the public for a longer interval while he deliberated. The leak was an act of military politics if not insubordination; its aim was to show the president the cost of resisting the generals.

The political establishment has lined up on their side: the addition of troops is said to be the most telling way Obama can show resoluteness abroad. This verdict of the Wall Street Journal, the Post and (with more circumspection) the New York Times was taken up by John McCain and Condoleezza Rice. If Obama declined at last to oppose Netanyahu on the settlement freeze, he will be far more wary of opposing General Petraeus, the commander of Centcom. Obama is sufficiently humane and sufficiently undeceived to take no pleasure in sending soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. He will have to convince himself that, in some way still to be defined, the mission is urgent after all. Afghanistan will become a necessary war even if we do not know what marks the necessity. Robert Dole, an elder of the Republican Party, has said he would like to see Petraeus as the Republican candidate in 2012. Better to keep him in the field (this must be at least one of Obama’s thoughts) than to have him to run against.

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.

David Bromwich, “Obama’s Delusion,” in the London Review of Books, 22 October 2009. Read it all here.

Podcast • March 26, 2009

The President of Flow… and the end of Hip Hop?

What if “My President is black” is a reset button, marking the end of a cultural era? Just talking here again about the hip hop pulse of Obama Nation. Tricia Rose says the President of ...

What if “My President is black” is a reset button, marking the end of a cultural era? Just talking here again about the hip hop pulse of Obama Nation. Tricia Rose says the President of Flow will be (surely ought to be) the death of commercial hip hop… of the last decade’s giant stars like Jay-Z, and of the iconic trinity of gangstas, pimps and ho’s in the lyrics of violence and carnal excess. Professor Rose, the Brown University author of Hip Hop Wars, loves the form of rap, quotes Nas as prophecy, reveres the art of Lupe Fiasco and Immortal Technique among many cult practitioners. But times have changed, she says, and the Obama – Hip Hop linkage (Adam Bradley’s theme) is mostly fantasy — a link of opposites, actually, not influences.

 The civil rights movement made Obama possible… Now there’s no question that hip hop encouraged the cultural comfort that Obama represents, but he really represents the fruition of a civil rights legacy. That’s what I think people see in him predominantly. We’re reading through a hip hop lens that has four generations of black culture behind it. Almost all of his gestures, his language, his connection to the church, everything he does is both “civil rights” and occasionally “hip hop generation.” Young people see the connection to hip hop. They see the “brush your shoulder,” the fist-bump and all these moments, and there’s a great deal of excitement about those symbolic points of continuity. I see that. But if he’s hip hop, how do we account for this sense of systemic belonging that he represents? …There’s really no rhetorical continuity between Obama’s political vision as an elected official in the system, in the highest office, and the cultural politics of marginality, outsider status, and a kind of perpetual speaking-truth-to-power type of politics. There’s no parallel.

Patricia Rose in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 24, 2009 at the Watson Institute.

Braunze, the embodiment of call-in radio wisdom, on the line from Birmingham, goes a step further.

I think that hip hop is the antithesis of Obama. What it has turned into is the antithesis of all the values and progressive understandings that black culture has had since we landed here 4 or 5 hundred years ago… It’s a “faux African-American” culture. This correlation, this conflation of hip hop culture with Barack Obama is all wrong. Barack Obama is just a brotha! I think all of us hope that the Obama Effect eclipses hip hop… The corporate conception of hip hop, when adopted by African-American youth, is an opportunity death sentence. These are my relatives and friends I’m speaking about. The aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, of hip hop is such that the opportunity they’d like to have is fated to be impossible.

Technologist and singer “Braunze” in conversation with Chris Lydon and Tricia Rose, March 24, 2009.