Author: James Livingston

Ahoy, Herman, hear you ran aground.

Jill Lepore’s lovely New Yorker piece on the “domestic” Melville reminds me of Lewis Mumford’s path-breaking biography, published in 1929, before he turned from literary history to the history of, well, everything else, from technology to architecture and cities, from Technics and Civilization (1934), perhaps his most important book, on toward The City in History (1962).  But then I grew up on Mumford, so almost all intellectual occasions point me back to the days in my 20s when I was first bedazzled by The Golden Day (1926), the brilliant study of American culture that completed the rediscovery and rehabilitation of American literature, by positing the authors of the 1850s—Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Thoreau, Dickinson—as the pinnacle of American literary achievement. Just as F. O. Matthiessen would follow Mumford’s lead in proclaiming an American Renaissance in the 1850s, so young Lewis was following the lead of Van Wyck Brooks, whose Letters and Leadership (1917) and America’s Coming of Age (1918 ) had unearthed a potential canon in the literary upheaval of the pre-Civil War decade.  But both Brooks and Mumford were consciously recapitulating and complicating the itinerary of D. H. Lawrence, whose Studies in Classic American Literature (1912?) had made the case for serious attention to the gothic extremities of these romance-besotted writers. Mumford’s biography of Melville is remarkable for the same reasons Lepore’s essay is.  First, they try to...

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Time, Dread, Apocalypse Now

I recently  read a piece in Wired about the impact of global warming on the bodies and minds of the Inuit (and the rest of us)—how profound changes in what we take to be the external world manifest as profound psychological (inner) changes, which are themselves somatic effects, registers of physical distress or debilitation.  Most of us know the lacerating, visceral effects of natural disaster, and now of political catastrophe in the form of the Trump White House.   But how do they go together?   Why do we feel penetrated by these events, as if our skin is just a porous veil and our guts have spilled into view?  Why these cramps and lesions and dizziness and anger?  In “the Use and Abuse of History,” Nietzsche announced that what distinguished the consciousness of modern Man was the notion that he had an interior to which no exterior corresponded, and vice versa.  Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer turned this idea into the premise of their Dialectic of Enlightenment(1944), and hundreds of other theorists enlisted it to explain “alienation.”  But it doesn’t sound like a self-evident proposition anymore.  Kant was closer to the truth of our times: “But through inner experience I am conscious of my existence in time (consequently also of its determinability in time), and this is more than to be conscious of any representation. It is identical with the empirical consciousness of my existence, which is...

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Easter Sermon

I’ve told this story a thousand times. “Big Stinky,” my fraternity brother—that’s what we called him, and yeah, as a mere youth I joined a fraternity—he cracks open a Budweiser on Easter morning, looking out at the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi, at 9:30 AM, and says, “Big day for you Christians.  Get the fuck up.” Now, over the half century since Big Stinky announced the dawn of a new day at such a remove from his home in Wisconsin, I’ve often wondered why his remarks made such an impression on me.  To my knowledge, he was, in fact, a Christian, a Lutheran of German descent, which is how he landed at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a Lutheran affiliate, on a basketball scholarship.  (He had a great jump shot, by the time he released the ball it was already eleven feet off the floor—he was 6″ 4″–making it impossible to defend, but he couldn’t stand the coach, so his college athletic career ended early and ignominiously, just like mine did.) “Big day for you Christians,” he says, though, as if speaking to a congregation he’s left behind. I knew I wasn’t a Christian, then or now, in the sense that I thought Jesus was the Son of God—give me a fucking break—and I hadn’t been since junior high school (when I discovered Freud), but, like Big Stinky, I...

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Good Friday: Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

My Father, I get it, I know why you’d want to deny my existence, forsake me and all that.  I’d do the same if I were you.  Who wants a bastard son, someone who claims God is a man? That kind of puts you out of business, doesn’t it?  Since when is God right there beside you, your neighbor, the man with the automatic weapon who’s about to kill these innocents?   What then? So here I am on this cross and I can see as far as you can into the future.   It’s not a pretty picture.  These people, these human beings, are mostly vile, always sinful.  They seem determined to kill themselves one way or another, by self-imposed famine and vicious wars, whatever.  Still, they can be kind and gentle, even creative.  Hell, I spent 33 shoeless years among them.  They’re interesting. Yeah, I call myself the Son of Man, but you sent me here, didn’t you, to redeem yourself, you, the tough guy who tortured Job almost unto death and decided that was a big mistake. You’re right, Father, it was a mistake, and now I’m nailed to this cross to make up for it.   What else can you do to tell these people, these human beings, that you’re sorry for what you’ve done to them? I don’t know, it’s up to you, but no more floods, OK, that...

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Banned from Facebook

I write this in response to inquiries about my 29-day suspension from Facebook, determined, as far as I can tell, by algorithmic authority rather than human intervention. I can’t post, I can’t message, I can’t comment.  All I can do is hit “Like.”  It’s frustrating, especially since I have to ask friends, who have more pressing matters on their minds, to post what I’m writing at FB, where it gets more play than at P/L. Here’s what happened. A dim-witted law professor accused me of racism because I called John Brown, the purest of abolitionists, a terrorist.  I responded in kind, calling him “a holy fool” and “a fucking moron,” citing the authority of no less than Frederick Douglass and W E. B. Du Bois—Douglass declined to join Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, thinking that it was a dangerous fool’s errand, and Du Bois, in his biography of Brown, characterized him as a man obsessed, a man who had given up on politics.  (John Stauffer’s more recent book on these subjects verifies their judgments even as it praises Brown’s fierce devotion to the abolition of slavery.) The professor complained, or somebody did, and that was that. Now then.  The dim-witted law professor kept saying that slavery is terrorism, and therefore opposition to slavery can’t be.  By calling Brown a terrorist, he suggested, I was siding with slavery, and that choice...

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