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Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays 1988-2001
Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays 1988-2001
by Stuart Klawans
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Cool, March 3 2002
For most of the past fourteen years Stuart Klawans has been the intelligent and amusing film critic for The Nation. Four years ago he wrote a column in which he joked that no-one would publish his book because he had not reviewed Titanic. Well, now we have the first collection of his film criticism. It is by turns sensible, sensitive, thoughtful, humane, very funny, cosmopolitan and internationalist in the best sense, and determinedly anti-parochial.
There is still no review of Titanic, a movie that can never be eviscerated enough. And Klawans did not include his review of Jurassic Park, with the unforgettable line "I think Theodor Adorno once reviewed this moview, around the time Steven Spielberg was born." But we do get his review of Jurassic Park: the Lost World" where Klawans suggests that it is best interpreted as a sequel to Schindler's List, since otherwise it would just be garbage. This review also shows his character of Rabbi Simcha Fefefferman, who is used to good effect in his reviews of The Last Temptation of Christ, and his properly indignant critique of Natural Born Killers.

So what does Klawans like? He is a firm advocate of foreign movies and does yeoman work in trying to get a complacent American media to appreciate the work of Abbas Kiarostami. There is a fine review of Time Regained, a film criminally under-released in the United States (and Canada as well). Klawans also provides thoughtful appreciations of Renoir, Godard, Welles as well as documentaries by Frederick Wiseman and a critical appreciation of the best films from Italy, Japan and France. This may make Klawasn appear highbrow, and he is. But like his colleague J. Hoberman he is more than willing to give popular culture its due. If there is nothing here like Hoberman's essays on the Honeymooners and Krazy Kat, we do get his praise of Magnolia and Ed Wood, as well as six reasons why you should watch Star Trek episodes for the 17th time rather than see The Accidental Tourist.
Among his other likes among recent films are Rushmore, Election, Topsy Turvey and Unforgiven, while he is quite cool towards Gladiator and Shakespeare in Love. It's unfortunate we don't get his praise of Matilda or Felicia's Journey or South Park, Bigger, Longer and Uncut. It's also unfortunate we don't get his pans of Dark City, Contact and his one sentence polemic on Das Boot ("`Nazi sailors were just regular guys!'") There are other one-liners one misses: ("Bram Stoker's Dracula is hardly that [a flawless movie], but who cares? It's not as if we were talking about George Eliot's Middlemarch.") and we don't get his acerbic critique of Michael Medved's Hollywood against America.
No-one should agree with everything here. There is Klawans' enthusiastic praise of Carrie 2 as an empowering feminist drama, when many people think such praise only plays into the hands of Stephen King and Brian De Palma. And I am inclined to believe that Moulin Rouge is suffocated by its own cheap irony about an hour and a half before Klawans does. On the other hand there is Klawans' praise of A.I., an underappreciated movie certainly much better than too many of the movies considered for best picture. Klawans is clever enough to argue that this movie is a parable of Spielberg's own intellectual failure to move beyond the visceral and the sentimental. It has been said (largely by me) that there are two kinds of movie critics: those who like the movies that win best picture and those that are worth reading. This book clearly shows that Klawans falls into the second category.

Snow Country
Snow Country
by Yasunari Kawabata
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Heart of Decadence, Feb. 20 2002
This review is from: Snow Country (Paperback)
Yasunaki Kawabata was the first Japanese novelist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He is not as good a novelist as his contemporary Juchiro Tanizaki or his predecessor Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). He was a extreme right-winger who committed suicide, not unlike his protege Mishima. His most famous work, the House of Sleeping Beauties, deal with an old impotent man who is introduced to a special sort of brothel filled with beautiful, drugged sleeping women. (Oddly enough, elements of this novel later appeared in a pornographic movie of the early nineties with the same name).
Snow Country is an interesting novel. The protagonist Shimamura is a married man and a dilettante, who has become an expert on the European ballet without actually ever seeing one. On a visit to the Snow Country he meets two beautiful young women; one is Yoko whom he sees on a train, the other is a geisha named Komako. He and Komako start on a relationship which both know will only last a few months. And so they do. Shimamura shows little passion, shows something more but not much more than polite concern, though he obviously sleeps with her. Komako clearly shows something different ("She walked ahead of him [to the bath] with her eyes on the floor, like a criminal being led away. As the bath warmed her, however, she became strangely gay and winsome, and sleep was out of the question.)
It is this deliberately ephemeral relationship which attracts Kawabata's interest, and it attracts ours. It is written in a typically austere and severe style, concentrating on a hypostatized Nature which does not relish in gross physical detail. Consider this description of a teakettle: "skillfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines. He could make out two pine breezes, as a matter of fact, a near one and a far one. Just beyond the far breeze he heard faintly the tinkling of a bell." This makes those details which do appear particularly striking: "Insects smaller than moths gathered on the thick white powder at her neck. Some of them died there as Shimamura watched." The novel ends with an image of nature. During a climatic fire Shimamura falls and sees the Milky May in the sky above him.
What is interesting in this novel is how Kawabata combines the tropes of classical Japanese literature, such as the aforementioned terseness and emphasis on an abstracted Nature, with a more modern interest in individual character. Obviously there is a gap between the Japanese and European right on the propriety of having mistresses, but in Kawabata there is no clear moral alternative mentioned to Shimamura's ultimately loveless behavior. Although Kawabata mentions the ideals of rural Japan existing the same time with time of modern tourism, this book does not obviously present an organic conservative ideal. The dialogue is terse, often unemotional. Like Jane Austen, it is a romance of pleasure, some desire, but little yearning and limited tenderness. As a portrait of cool if not cold lovelessness it is worthy of our attention.

Life and Fate
Life and Fate
by Vasily Grossman
Edition: Paperback
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A dissent, Feb. 16 2002
This review is from: Life and Fate (Paperback)
Suppressed in the early sixties, translated into English in the mid-eighties, and published under Gorbachev's rule, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate is the most famous Russian novel of the Second World war. Historians such as Richard Overy, Catherine Merridale and Robert Conquest have praised it for its realistic account of Soviet life and its courage in Stalinism. Reviewers from Italy to France to Britain praised Grossman and compared him to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
Now as Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, to be even compared to Tolstoy is no small achievement, so saying that Grossman does not meet this standard is hardly a damning criticism. Grossman, during the war a prominent journalist and later a novelists, was understandably horrified at the infinite cruelties and callousness of the Stalinist regime. That he is unsparing of the interrogations, the deportations, the tortures, the bureaucratic spite and viciousness, the way that political correctness encouraged cowardice and despair does credit to his courage. But courage is not enough, and one should beware those who believe it is a substitute for art. To say, as George Steiner, that Solzhenitsyn and Grossman "eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the West today," is unfair. These subjects are powerful and moving is true, but beside the point. How could such they not be? Grossman must do more, and ultimately he does not do it.
Grossman suffers the vices of a journalist. His writing resembles romantic magazine cliches ("His love for Marya Ivanova was the deepest truth of his soul. How could it have given birth to so many lies?) The sententious title, all too reminiscent of War and Peace, does not help. Passages are suffused with rhetoric ("No, whatever life holds in store...they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man's eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that every have been or will be.") and the comments about freedom are particularly hollow. ("Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom?" "Man's innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed.") Behind the suppressed liberal, a middlebrow is waiting to come out.
Grossman writes at one point of how in totalitarian countries a small minority is able to bully or brainwash the rest of the country. This point has two flaws: it is a simplistic description of how modern terror works and Grossman does not bring it aesthetically to life. True, there are some stirring passages as the protagonist Viktor Shtrum finds all his colleagues at the scientific institute he works with drop away from him once he is criticized for supporting modern physics. But Grossman cannot portray the mind of an Anti-Semite or a Stalinist torturer. This failure is particularly damaging when one considers that Russian literature has no shortage of profound portraits of this sort of corrupt mindset (Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, even Nabokov's Humbert Humbert). While it is true that Hitler was not the product of a primordial German anti-semitism, Grossman's picture of the Holocaust where almost none of the perpetrators are actually anti-Semites, just cogs in an automatic system, is seriously misleading. (One thinks of Omer Bartov's Hitler's Army in contrast).
Stalinism per se seems to be a caste separate from the population. This is misleading because it does not deal sufficiently with the internalization of Stalinism among the Soviet population. Viktor Shtrum seems surprisingly calm and composed towards the Germans who murdered his mother because she was a Jew. What is really odd is that most of the rest of the Soviet characters feel the same way. On both sides there is stoicism, a sense of comradely duty, thoughts about loved ones. There is not on the German side violent racist loathing towards the enemy. Likewise, there is surprisingly little rage, indignation, heartbroken grief and anger or lust for vengeance on the Russian side, though God knows there was no lack of provocation from the Germans. It would have been very easy, indeed one would think it unavoidable, to show reasonably decent Russians consumed with rage against the Germans. But that would complicate Grossman's picture of evil flowing down from a totalitarian state. It also says something that the Communists never win an argument in this book. (When a Russian prisoner of Tolstoyan pacifist opinions speaks of redeeming the world with acts of spontaneous kindness, no one actually points out that a lot more is needed to stop the Nazis.)
A comparison to Aharon Appelfeld's novels, or Gunter Grass's The Danzig Trilogy, or This way to the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, shows Grossman's weakness as a writer of character. He assumes that most people are like himself. (Consider the failure in his portraits of Hitler and Stalin). And so there are endless scenes of people thinking about their loved ones, because Grossman cannot provide much more. They are endless scenes of women portrayed as the objects of men's affections, rarely as subjects, and certainly without the depth of other writers. (One notices that in Stalingrad the German soldiers have love affairs with Russian girls. They do not rape them). Strikingly, Grossman's characters are overwhelmingly Russian. Although the Soviet Union was a multinational state, other nationalities are usually only mentioned as reminders of Soviet persecution. In the end one is reminded that whereas Dostoyevsky could convince a reader that it is just and humane for Dimitri Karamazov to suffer the punishment for a murder that was actually committed by someone else, Vasily Grossman is unable to bring many of his liberal good wishes to life.

The Changing Faces of Jesus
The Changing Faces of Jesus
by Geza Vermes
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best account of the historical Jesus, Feb. 10 2002
For the past two centuries historicans and scholars have been trying to find the real Jesus behind the Gospels. It is a commonplace that they have found their own assumptions and prejudices. Orthodox Christians find, naturally enough, the Christ of Orthodoxy. 19th century moderate liberals find a moderate liberal Christ. Slightly more left-wing twentieth century scholars find a slightly more revolutionary Jesus. This book by Jewish scholar Geza Vermes is a summary of three books he wrote connecting Jesus to the Judaism of his day. This account is an admirable summary; it is well written, clearly and thoughtfully presented. Not only does it provide a convincing account of the real Jesus, but it shows a convincing reason why Christian orthodoxy is wrong. The way that it does so is ingenious; by using orthodoxy's own sources.
The main problem for the historical analysis of Jesus is the limited number of sources. We are basically confined to the Testament; independent evidence (Josephus) tells us littlle more that he existed and was a religious leader killed by the Romans. Christian apologetics naturally emphasize the fact that several hundred people were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. They do not consider the 99% of people in Palestine who did not share this high opinion and who did not feel the need to write anything down to refute it. But aren't we apparently stuck with the New Testament?
As it happens, we are not. Vermes' procedure is to look through the Bible and unpeel the various accretions of Christian dogma like an onion's layers. First we look at the gospel of John, the gospel which most clearly states that the individual Jesus was in fact God. We then go through the letters of Paul, then the Acts of the Apostles and the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Then we get Vermes' own description of the real Jesus. Vermes' previous books emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus. This point should be clarified. Obviously Jesus grew up in the context of first century Judaism. For nineteen centuries Christianity has claimed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism. Vermes means something quite different. Nietzsche once said that the only real Christian died on the cross. What Vermes says is that when Jesus died, he died as a Jew. He was similar to other exorcists and healers of the time, the main distinction being that he was unusually eloquent. He lived in the rural world of Galillee, which was not as literate or sophisticated as Jerusalem, and the gospels do not even mention the cities of Galilee. He believed in the imminent end of the world, but he was not a political revolutionary. His execution was an accident, the consequence of paranoid officials overreacting to Jesus' scourging of the temple.
Vermes is excellent at supplementing the New Testametnt with information about first century Judaism. He is useful in explaining the practices of first century Jewish holy men. He helpfully distinguishes Christian from Essenes. Most helpfully he reminds us that the uses of "Lord" , "The Messiah", "Son of Man," and "Son of God," had very clear and distinct meanings in their first century context. To be precise, the four terms are not synonomous, and they are not synonomous with the Christian concept of God. Most important, the term "son of God," as it is used in first century Judaism and in the synpotic gospels does not mean the Christian concept of sonship.
With that in mind it becomes increasingly clear that the synoptic gospels, those sources that are closest to the actual Jesus, subtly undermine the Christian doctrine of Jesus. The gospels do invoke the idea that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Indeed, Vermes is very good on the development of the virign birth. Early editions of Matthew emphasize Jesus's Davidic descent, and indeed state or strongly imply that Joseph was his father. By the time we get to Luke we have the idea that Jesus was miraculously conceived, based on the famous mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14 where "a young women shall conceive" was wrongly read to say "a young virgin shall conceive." The early gospels are strongly contradictory on whether Jesus was to save all humanity: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," (Matt 15:24) "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel." (Matt 10:6). Other passages clearly counter the doctrine of the Trinity, shared by all of the most important Christian denominations. "But of that day and that hour [of the coming of the Kingdom] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father." (Mark 13:32; Matt 24:36) "The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God." (1 Corinthians 11:3). Paul and thecharacters of the Acts of the Apostles pray through Christ to God, and not yet to Christ. Jesus clearly shows his Jewish Orthodoxy: "Till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law' (Matt 5:18; cf Luke 16:17) This passage, Vermes notes, must be from the real Jesus, since it is so clearly contradictory to the Christianity of the Gentile Church. The Accounts of the Resurrection are contradictory, with the account in the earliest versions of Mark, the earliest gospel, abruptly ending without anyone actually seeing the ressurrected Jesus. Although Vermes praises Jesus' own eloquence and generosity, it is hard to believe Jesus as one's personal saviour. From the best evidence of this book, he did not believe it himself.

From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War Against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980
From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War Against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980
by Gerald Horne
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars Not good enough, Feb. 2 2002
This book detailing the liberation struggle has an unusual structure. It starts off with a chapter "Toward Zimbabwe," which raises three of Horne's themes in this book: racism, anti-communism, and the problem of "whiteness." It is often repetitive and padded and is the least interesting chapter in this book. The next chapter looks at the links between the Rhodesian government and its supporters in the United States. The third chapter looks at the ideological support of the white minority regime, concentrating on missionaries, anti-communist supporters and sexual violence. The fourth actually offers a summary of American diplomacy towards Rhodesia from the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 to Zimbabwe's independence. The fifth looks at business relations with the white minority regime. The sixth looks at the mercenary scum that came mostly from the United States to ravage Rhodesia and the indulgence they received from the American government. The seventh looks at links between African-Americans and the liberation struggle. The conclusion looks at modern Zimbabwe and the often pernicious effect Rhodesian mercenaries have had, mostly on South Africa.
Horne, of course, is thoroughly in favour of the liberation struggle and is properly angry towards those who obstructed and delayed independence. Yet this is a mixed book. One point to start off with is that Horne is affiliated with the Communist Party of the United States of America. Even by the standards of world communist party leaderships, the American party is notorious for its dogmatic, simple-minded, philistine and uncritical attitude. Many intelligent and thoughtful people have joined the American Communist Party and the vast majority have left (or been expelled from) it in disgust at its dishonesty. Horne, a rather prolific scholar, is one of the very, very few who remain.
What makes this issue important is that Horne is less than frank on a number of important issues. The CPUSA, of course, supported the Soviet Union and they, in turn, supported the ZAPU movement headed by Joseph Nkomo. By contrast the first elections were won by ZANU, led by Robert Mugabe, which had support from China and Tanzania. On the one hand Horne writes that ZAPU was more authentically non-tribalist, in contrast to ZANU, which was also affected by African-American middle class nationalist ideas. (There is little research provided about Zimbabwean politics which would allow the reader to decide the issue one way or another). On the other hand, Horne writes sympathetically of Mugabe's government, and certainly does not provide a refutation of those, like R.W.Johnson, who have vociferiously criticized it for its authoritarianism and violence. There is also a passage in which Horne writes about possibility of homosexuality among Rhodesian mercenaries. The passage has a disingenous quality and certainly does not go far enough to castigate Mugabe's demagogic homophobia and massive failure in confronting the AIDS Crisis (In a footnote, Horne writes of Zimbabwean support for a book which suggests that AIDS is the result of a South African germ warfare program, without clearly stating that such views are nonsense.)
Having said that the book has some virtues. Too much is made perhaps of the letter writers to prominent Southern senators, but their racist, anti-communist, and occasionally anti-semitic tone has a certain rebarbative quality. Surprisingly little is written about Kissinger's transition to a pseduo-majority rule, though the Nixon administration has tried to keep its records as obscure as possible. There are plently of amusing information about the supporters of the repulsive Salisbury regime, as prominent William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Robert Dornan and Jesse Helms mix shoulders with racists, the John Birch Society and the Liberty Lobby, while Richard Burton and Percy Sledge make idiots of themselves as tourists. It is rather horrifying to learn that Bayard Rustin, one of the heroes of the civil rights struggle, pacifist and homosexual, was so poisoned by anti-communist hatred that he gave his moral support to the farcical 1979 elections in which Smith tried to buck up his regime with a few pathetic Black puppets. It is alarming to think that so many American senators were willing to give this regime the benefit of the doubt, and that it took Jimmy Carter, Margaret Thatcher and Churchill's son in law to point out basic reality. While the chapters on business and mercenaries would undoubtedly have benefited from more systematic research (as Horne himself admits) there is much information about sanctions busting and the pathology of mercenary life. Horne is not able to provide much more than insinuations over whether the American government supported these mercenaries, but they were important, they did prolong the war, and it was alarmingly easy for the scum of the earth to cross the Atlantic. Considering that it was the official view of the United Nations and the United States that Rhodesia will still a part of the United Kingdom and the Salisbury regime in illegal rebellion against it, the government did give these people a surprisingly easy time (certainly more so than those who protested the Vietnam war and went into exile so as not to serve in it). Not a bad portait of a qualid episode of seventies diplomacy, but not good enough.

Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture
Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture
by Paul Nathanson
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Are men victims?, Jan. 27 2002
This book has a simple thesis. Over the past decade popular culture has shown hatred towards men, or misandry. An ideological, essentialist, separatist feminism has had remarkable success in denouncing men and masculinity, dehumanizing them and ultimately demonizing them. Nathanson and Young are very worried about these trends: "Popular culture both mediated and fostered the teaching of contempt for men. This was now the Establishment." This thesis is thoroughly flawed at every conceivable level. Essentially the book consists of potted movie reviews, combined with crude and tendentious interpretation.
But let us consider the problems with misandry as a concept. Most anti-semites are gentiles. Most misogynists are men. But most of the directors and scriptwriters accused of spreading misandrist ideology are not women. I am aware of the concept of self-hatred, and it has been used (often very crudely) against non-Zionist Jews and less than militant African-Americans. What Nathanson and Young ask us to believe, however, is that when Jay Leno jokes "You know how you can tell when pigs are drunk? They start acting like men," he is displaying the kind of sycophancy and abasement one associates with centuries of repression and slavery. We are asked to believe that these self-hating men include Martin Scorsese (for Cape Fear) and Ridley Scott (for Thelma and Louise). How, one may ask, does one reconcile this self-hatred on Scott's part with the masculine virtues of Gladiator (or the more recent Black Hawk Down)? If Nathanson and Young were merely arguing that there were misandric elements in popular culture their failure to discuss the many non-misandric and outright misogynist elements would not be so problematic. But as they say misandry has become the establishment, one must ask how this could have occurred when men make up the majority of every conceivable elite in North American society. How could misandry have flourished at the same time as pornography has boomed and become more explicit? Considering that Nathanson and Scott look at only a very few feminists one might ask how an eccentric theologian like Mary Daly and an abusive vitriolic polemicist like Andrea Dworkin could wrap Hollywood around their fingers?
So much for basic principles. As it turns out Nathanson and Scott are numbingly tendentious in their arguments and analysis. Home Improvement is considered an attack on men. But this obviously confuses an attack on a variety of masculinity with men in general. Nathanson and Scott's approach is that a work is misandric if all the men are bad and all the women are good. But clearly this is flawed. Consider the fifties sitcom "The Honeymooners." As every viewer knows the wife is considerable more sensible and thoughtful than her blustering husband. Does this make it man-hating? What about Vertigo, Forutnata and Jacinta or The Secret Agent? Emma Bovary is clearly superior to her two lovers, her ineffetive husband and the loathsome M. Homais. Teresa Durbeyfield Clare is much more deserving of our sympathy than her father, her seducer or her husband. Are we to conclude that Flaubert and Hardy are misandrist radical feminist ideologues?
More problems. At one point the authors suggest that wishing to be separate from men is man-hating. Before conservatives rush to ratify this argument, they should realize that this would imply that much male sociability, priestly celibacy and the male dominted worlds of the army and the Straussian conference are inherently misogynist. In criticizing the Simpsons, the authors state "Bart is, to be charitable, a fool." Actually although he is lazy and foolish, he is also sly, witty and on occasion very inventive and resourceful. Deceived, the 1991 Goldie Hawn vehicle, must be man-hating because the only male character is the villain. In spending seven pages on the 1990 movie He Said, She Said (!), the authors argue the movie is man-hating because it supports monogamy. In spending 10 pages on Mr and Mrs. Bridge, the authors assert that it is act like racism or anti-semitism to suggest that marriages are sometimes hampered by unimiginative husbands. One could go on about their tendentious interpretations (my favorite, the fact that the community the battered wife escapes to in Sleeping with the Enemy is so much nicer than her old one is a clear sign of Goddess Worship). The penultimate chapter is unforgiveably shoddy. In order to confute feminism with racism, Communism and Nazism, they discuss the concept of ideology in which only those four are discussed. That most scholars use the term "ideology" as a neutral description for any coherent system of political thought is conveniently ignored. In discussing feminist ideology they only (briefly) discuss the unrepresentative feminists mentioned above, and insinuate that feminists all believe the same thing. Stating that feminism is the product of Marxist Enlightenment and a romantic essentialism is ridiculously crude. (What happened to Wolstonecraft, Condorcet or John Stuart Mill?) The authors call feminists "collectivist," but when conservatives criticize their views on abortion, they ususally state that they are unforgiveably selfish. No reconiciliation of these arguments is made and it is at this point one loses all patience with this book.

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
by Ronald Hutton
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars The shocking truth about witchcraft..., Jan. 26 2002 that there is much less to it than meets the eye. This book is a brilliant scholarly study by a fine professional historian. This is important because much of the attraction of witchcraft or paganism, both to its adherents and to the wider society as a whole is that it appeals to deep intutions and fears about history and the past. Whatever happened to the pre-Christian religions of Europe? Are there people who consciously worship the Devil? Is there a continuous history of pagan religion that has lasted to the present day? What were the deep roots behind the savagery of the witch trials?
It is one of the invaluable merits of this book that Hutton answers these questions, which are, respectively, it died out, no, no, and not misogyny. Hutton shows considerable sympathy to the modern witches and pagans. Without them, after all he would not have been able to write this book. Yet Hutton is quite thorough that their main belief, that they are reviving a pre-Christian past that in some way or another is superior to Christianity and to our modern society, is false. "...the unique significance of pagan witchcraft to history is that it is the only religion which England has ever given the world."
Some historical context is needed, and Hutton provides it throughout the book. In the 1920s Margaret Murray came out with the thesis that the witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were actually directed against a real religion, an organized Pagan religion which was the common religion of Europe that underlay a superficial Christianity. Associated with this view and slowly developing later was that the witchcraft trials were savagely misogynist attacks against women. This view has been the backbone of pagan propaganda for decades and it is only now changing because it is increasingly clear that it is untrue in every major respect. To argue that there were really witch ceremonies, Murray deliberately excluded all the supernatural elements in the trial testimony, making it look more sober and rational (and non-coerced by torture) than it really was. Contrary to myth, 9 million women were not burned, but only 50,000 people in total. A majority were women (though in some areas of Europe most were men), but contrary to myth, midwives were not specifically singled out (indeed they helped to look for suspects), and many of the poor isolated people accused were themselves denounced by women. The idea that people were only superficially Christian is clearly inaccurate as scholars such as Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy have shown the strength of Roman Catholicism before the Reformation and its hegemony (scholars have also shown that the oral-literate distinction has been much overstated in modern England.) Hutton is quite good on how folklorists saw customs that clearly developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be pagan revivials. He points out how the distinguished archaeologist of the Baltic, Marija Gimbutas, became so obsessed with the idea of a Pan-European Goddess religion that she ignored that the supposedly "Goddess" English superhenges were actually a thousand years later than the supposedly "patriarchal" Irish Linkardsdtown cists that supposedly replaced them.
But Hutton is more than a debunker. The first half of the book goes into detail about the wider cultural influences that encouraged a revival of Paganism in 19th and 20th century Britain. He discusses as part of the decline of Anglicanism how even rather stalwart figures like Kipling and H. Rider Haggard looked to something more exotic. He discusses the enthusiasm for Pan and the belief in a primoridal Goddess. There is a very useful chapter on the origins of freemasonry, which should be read by all those who believe the myth that Jack the Ripper was somehow involved with the Prince of Wales. He also provides a chapter on cunning magic and low magic (were cunning men and white magic representatives of a pagan religion. Short answer: No. In fact they were just as religious (or no more religious)as the wider society.
This covers the first half of the book, and the second half covers the second half as an actual neo-pagan religion developed. Although many witches and pagans today emphasize their feminism and environmentalism, leading pagans like Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner were actually tories. (The one truly unforgiveable thing about Crowley in fact was his anti-semitism.) Although Hutton shows commendable patience and tolerance with his informants he does show that there is no evidence of a continous pagan religion. Indeed, there is little reliable evidence that any witches can date back their practices before the second world war. Gibbon once wickedly commented that one reason that Romans believed that Christians were guilty of preposterous crimes like incest and cannibalism was because Christian sects so often flung such accusations at each other. Hutton notes the same problems about modern witches, though he clearly points out that there is no evidence they were guilty of anything (promiscuity isn't even mandatory!) criminal. He is also properly sympathetic to those who were foully libelled and their lives damaged by irresponsible and malicious press campaigns.
One interesting point that Hutton does not fully emphasize is that both the interest in paganism and the paranoid fear of Satanism is both the product of the decline of Christianity. After all, before the Enlightenment Christians did not fear an organized conspiracy of Satanists. Either they feared other Christians (Protestants vs. Catholic vs. Orthodox) or they feared Islam. More could be said also about neo-paganism and the one really existing pre-Christian religion, Judaism. But otherwise this is a fascinating book and in the end Hutton points out that modern witchcraft is not a sect or a cult or a New Age Movement or a nature religion. Personally, I think we would all be better off reading Adorno.

A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity
A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity
by Keith Hopkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 32.35
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4.0 out of 5 stars An eccentric exercise in "popular" history, Jan. 20 2002
Keith Hopkins is an internationally respected classicist who decided that he would do something different for his book on pagan religiousity the rise of Christianity. He would go out of his way to make his book more accessible to a popular audience and at the same time adapt some postmodern elements. So in his first chapter he introduces two time travellers who visit pre-Vesuvius Pompei who make them some properly footnoted comments on the culture and lifestyle of the region. Later they go to Egypt, look at the temples, the man seeks a love spell directed at the woman who isn't talking to him, then he is unfairly arrested and barely escapes before being tortured. At other points Hopkins has a TV interview of an aged Jewish sectarian, and later has an imaginary conversation between a Christian and his pagan colleagues. At the same time there are (fictional?) letters from other scholars which criticize Hopkins' prejudices.
The result is certainly interesting. We certainly get a sense of the public, vigorous and somewhat misogynist sexuality of the Romans. The account of the ascetiscism of the Dead Sea Scrolls Sect is certainly interesting. Hopkins' discussion of Christianity emphasizes the potential alternatives to the central doctrines that became Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. He then goes into considerable details about the world-views of Manicheanism and Gnosticism, with its own elaborate geneologies and cosmologies. Hopkins also emphasizes the strong tendencies towards acesticism within Christianity. "It is ideal that we should feel no desire," says one Christian intellectual. Hopkins goes into considerable detail about the Acts of Thomas, with its miracles and its emphasis on newly converted Christian wives refusing their pagan husbands. The book also benefits from plates of thirty illustrations which are well chosen. One important fact that Hopkins properly reminds us is that the early Church did not emphasize the Gospels. ("It seems amazing now that the New Testament was not recognized as a single set of privileged Christian scriptures before the end of the second century.") Their major polemical tool was trying to find prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament. (The most famous of these is the classic mistranslation of Isaiah, in which the Hebrew, "A young woman shall conceive," was mangled into the Greek "A virgin shall conceive.") And so we get fascinating details about the topes of Christian martyrdom literture, about brother-sister marriages in Egypt, and pagan accusations of ritual murder against Christians.
At the same time one might want something more. The book is well researched but the contrast with Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians is striking. There Lane Fox patiently sifted through the whole range of somewhat scarce evidence to give a picture of surprising Pagan vitality on the eve of Constantine's conversion. By contrast Hopkins account is somewhat sketchier. Hopkins gives the most recent figures on the growth of Christianity, with perhaps 0.3% of the population of the Empire around 200 and maybe 10% by 300. But the reasons for this growth are not given in much detail. Hopkins suggests that Christianity offered a sense of community and structure (especially in charity) that allowed it to grow until Constantine's patronage ensured its triumph. It is not clear, however, from Hopkins' account, why only Christianity possessed these traits that allowed it to grow and why the Roman elite would look upon it as a new state religion. One wonders whether the emphasis on Gnosticism and Manicheanism really represent their importance at the time, though given the lack of evidence it is not surprising that Hopkins cannot tell us more. All in all, this is an interesting, somewhat eccentric book, which could use more sociology.

Fury: A Novel
Fury: A Novel
by Salman Rushdie
Edition: Hardcover
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3.0 out of 5 stars Despair, Jan. 19 2002
This review is from: Fury: A Novel (Hardcover)
Most critics have described the latest novel of Salman Rushdie as a failure. Very simply, they are right. The contrast with Rushdie's three eighties novels are striking. Midnight's Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses were not only amazingly inventive and ingenious, they were also both deeply moving and very cutting politically. Midnight's Children included a horrifying description of Pakistan's unspeakable brutality against Bangladesh in 1971 as well as the thuggishness of Indira Gandhi's State of Emergency. Shame, of course, was a damning portrait of Pakistani politics, caught between a vicious military and clerical elite and a demagogic populist pseudo-socialism. The Satanic Verses, in turn, was a brilliant attack on British racism and insularity, Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu communalism. And throughout all these books there was the alternative of a secular and leftist politics. After writing The Satanic Verses, of course, Rushdie was forced to spend his life in hiding from the death threat issued by the Iranian government. Although Rushdie has gradually been allowed to be seen more and more in public, he has been isolated from his native India and Pakistan, and from much of the plebian vitality that infused his novel. At the same time Pakistan and Indian politics have become even more hopeless. The possibility of either secularism or a leftism or even a politics seems increasingly remote.
The consequences of this on his fiction are clear. The New York that depressed academic and millionaire Malik Solanka arrives is the gaudy world of celebrity and power, the city as viewed by the writer on hiding on brief vacation. It is not the communities of Jewish, "working-class Catholic," black or Hispanic communities. It is not a city with a society or a history or a politics. The result, not surprisingly, is that his portrait of American consumerism is trite, uninventive, unmemorable, predictable. There are other problems. At times, we are told, Solanka is filled with rage, with venom. Indeed, the reason the 55 year old academic suddenly came to New York was because one night he found himself holding a knife over his sleeping wife. But we get no description of his rage, compared to Celine, or even Mordecai Richeler's Barney's Version, they are the mildest of reproofs. The linguistic inventiveness seems to have almost completely dissipated. There are still the long sentences, and the string of details, but there is no real force or passion behind them. There is nothing here like the throw-away paragraph on the Aliens Show that Rushdie wrote in the Satanic Verses.
During the novel Solanka conducts three love affairs, one with his younger wife, the other two with stunningly beautiful women young enough to be his daughters. Given that Rushdie is Solanka's age and has recently left his own wife, one might consider this an unpleasant self-indulgent fantasy. There is in fact good reason to think so, and the fact that the relationships fail do not remove the bad taste from the reader's mouth. Nor does the incest motif which also complicates one relationship succeed either, since it is almost impossible to write about the sexual abuse of children without appearing meretricious. (Yet this does lead to one of the book's few memorable images: "He [Malik] could barely speak to her [his mother] without provoking a howl of guilty grief. This alienated Malik. He needed a mother, not a waterworks utility like the one on the Monopoly board.")
Solanka has made his fortune, twice, because he has produced a series of dolls which have for reason we need not go into become wildly popular. Yet even here Rushdie's interest is slack. A related subplot about Fijian politics, on an island named Lilliput-Blefuscu in honor of Jonathan Swift, also seems weak and underdeveloped. (There is one good pun about eating eggs, though). So why, may one legitimately ask, does this book get three stars, and not two or one?
The answer is that although Rushdie's portrait is probably unconscious, and although the work is infused with an aesthetic illness that may well prove terminal, something of value is being described. The title is misleading, since what is lacking is fury, passion, a sense of injustice and indignation. (Again, one should note the contrast with Swift.) Solanka himself is not motivated by rage, but by its absence. Indeed, he increasingly lives in a society where such sentiments are inconceivable. If the New York of Fury is a world without politics or history or society, then that is partially because that is the way its rulers wish it, as democracy moves from the consent of the governed to finding ingenious ways of ensuring their acquiesence. If the hero of the Satanic Verses could redeem himself by civic duty and love for his dying father, that is increasingly not an option in today's world. Sheer greed and selfishness masquerade as Anti-Utopian principle, while invoking Orwell is a substitute for intelligence and moral courage. In such a world great sex is always possible for the rich, even for rich 55 year old Indian academics, but love and hope are truly utopian, (and ergo, truly evil in the world of Peretzspeak). In such a society, Solanka's self-pity, his solipsism, his brittle personality is all too realistic. And more like V.S. Naipaul than either author would like to admit.

The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000
The War Against Cliche: Essays and Reviews, 1971-2000
by Martin Amis
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 3.4 Stars, but should be soooo much better, Jan. 12 2002
Martin Amis is the son of the late Kingsley Amis. Half of England's literary critics consider Amis pere to be one of the greatest English novelists of the last half of the previous century. The other half don't disagree, they just find that fact enormously depressing. Martin Amis is the author of several novels which, highly influenced by Nabokov, are very funny, extremely mordant and much better than his father's. Martin Amis is also a skillful and intelligent and amusing journalist, as well as an accomplished memoirist. So surely this collection of literary criticism and essays should belong on the same high shelves with Christopher Hitchens' For the Sake of Argument, Dwight Macdonald's Against the American Grain, Alexander Cockburn's Corruptions of Empire, Conor Cruise O'Brien's Writers and Politics, Alan Bennett's Writing Home, James Wood's The Broken Estate or even Tom Paulin's Ireland and the English Crisis.
Yet there is something a bit off about collection. We start off with a collection of reviews on masculinity, looking at Iron John, Hillary Clinton, Nuclear War and Pornography. Then it's on to a collection of reviews of English writers, then to an extended defence of his father's closest friend, the poet Philip Larkin. We proceed to reviews of more canonical writers, then a review of popular novels, then a whole section on Vladimir Nabokov. We then go on to a section on American writers, a section labelled "obsessions and curiosities", a whole section devoted to John Updike, another section that is mostly about V.S. Naipaul and then five concluding essays on great novels. Surely there is much for everyone to enjoy.
It's not that Amis isn't amusing. Consider this passage on Michael Crichton's The Lost World: "Out there, beyond the foliage, you see herds of cliches, roaming free. You will listen in 'stunned silence' to an 'unearthly cry' or a 'deafening roar'. Raptors are 'rapacious'. Reptiles are 'reptilian'. Pain is 'searing'." Or consider this comment on George Steiner's book on the 1972 Fisher-Spassky match: "Yet one of the more attractive things about Steiner's new book is how refreshingly unSteineresque it is...Page after page goes by without any reference to Auschwitz." All this is well and good, but something about is palls. Perhaps there is something too easy in making fun about a book as unrelievedly wretched as Richard Rhodes' book on sex life. One can't help by comparing it to Katha Pollitt's review of the same book in the New Republic to note that something is off.
Sometimes Amis' attacks suffer from the passage of time. Did people really think two decades ago that John Fowles was one of the great living English novelists, and that D.M. Thomas was one of the most promising writers around? Good of Amis to recognize that wasn't true, but his criticisms lack the stylistic brilliance and moral indignation that marks Dwight Macdonald's polemic against James Gould Cozzens. And what is the point of writing four reviews about Iris Murdoch if at the end she is not perforated like a pincushion, but leaves her to write still more novels? Amis despises bad writing but he is kinder than his hero Nabokov to the offenders. But one does not sense a genuine sense of outrage at the sight of a literature slowly poisoned by the middlebrow and the bland. Karl Kraus's writings were once praised to be like "public executions." Amis' own comments are surprisingly genteel in contrast.
Other thoughts? There is a review of an anthology of modern humor that promises to be very cruel against the poor editor, the late Mordecai Richeler. But by the end of it Amis' review seems to have turned into an example of what he is criticizing. And one of his examples of bad humour, a passage by Stephen Leacock, undermines everything by showing signs of being amusing. The defence of Larkin does benefit from the fact that saying Larkin was one the last half-century's great English poets is less depressing that saying Kingsley Amis was one of the last-half century's great English novelists. But it is striking that Larkin and Amis sr were among the last people on earth who would look beyond the ungenerous, self-pitying and spiteful surface and praise the poetry. Can't imagine them being so nice about Brecht and Neruda, but then Brecht and Neruda had the misfortune of being dedicated Communist and superior poets. And I think Amis is quite wrong to think Martin Seymour-Smith unusually exotic and esoteric to consider Pirandello the last century's greatest writer of short stories. The praise for Ulysses does remind us of Joyce's considerable talent for the striking image. But literature is more than a series of brilliant metaphors and striking images. Amis does not really confront those like Dreiser, but also Dostoyevsky, whose style does not match Nabokov's peerless sheen but whose achievement is so much greater. At least Martin Amis appreciates Kafka, which is more than you can say for his father.

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