The pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired

“Angry as I was, as we all were, I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his month. The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.”

My most recent reread of The Great Gatsby uncovered even more of its layers and riches, which is, as Maureen Corrigan maintains in So We Read On, as it should be. For the last week, I have tried to work some version of the following wry observation into all manner of conversations: “This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose.”

Since my post earlier this month, I’ve also reread four Shakespeare plays:

Edward III
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Taming of the Shrew
Richard II

In 2017, I participated in an online reading group that tackled all of his work over the course of a year, and I thought I might rejoin them this year, only to realize I’d be much happier rereading and studying the plays independently. Next up is Titus Andronicus.

Other books I’ve read this month:

This Is Your Time (Ruby Nell Bridges; 2020. Non-fiction.)
Heard about this on NPR in November and wanted to check it out. It took a while for the library to bring it in.

Paul Robeson (Phillip Hayes Dean; 1978. Drama)
Robeson was mentioned in the documentary Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (watched to prepare for a seminar about Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs.)

Do the Work (Steven Pressfield; 2011. Non-fiction.)
The War of Art (Steven Pressfield; 2002. Non-fiction.)
The Scientific Method of Practicing (Timothy Hagen; 2020. Non-fiction.)
Motivational reading as I prepared my practice goals for this year. Author Melissa Wiley recommended the Pressfield books.

The Tyranny of Merit (Michael J. Sandel; 2014. Non-fiction.)
p. 104
The relentless credentialism of our day has driven working-class voters toward populist and nationalist parties and deepened the divide between those with and those without a university degree. It is also lead to increasingly partisan views of higher education, the institution most emblematic of the meritocratic project.

p. 165
More to the point, higher education in the age of meritocracy has not been an engine of social mobility; to the contrary, it has reinforced the advantages that privileged parents confer on their children.

p. 166
Though far more inclusive in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, this meritocratic elite has not produced a fluid, mobile society. Instead, today’s credentialed, professional classes have figured out how to pass their privileges on to their children, not by bequeathing them large estates but by equipping them with the advantages that determine success in a meritocratic society.

One of the Good Ones (Maika and Maritza Moulite; 2021. Fiction.)
Heard about this on NPR, too.

The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1: The Apocalypse Suite (Gerard Way; 2008. Fiction.)
My younger daughter is enjoying the Netflix series and suggested I give it a try. I can see its merits, but it didn’t “stick.”

What Is Populism? (Jan-Werner Müller; 2014. Non-fiction)
p. 4
Populist governance exhibits three features: attempts to hijack the state apparatus, corruption and “mass clientelism” (trading material benefits or bureaucratic favors for political support by citizens who become the populists’ “clients”), and efforts systematically to suppress civil society.

p. 19
Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified — but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional — people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some way morally inferior.

p. 32
Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Jung Chang; 1991. Non-fiction.)
One of the virtual book groups I visit is reading this. I don’t know how I missed this gripping, often harrowing memoir.

p. 489
I found this environment unbearable. I could understand ignorance, but I could not except its glorification, still less its right to rule.

Front Row at the Trump Show (Jonathan Karl; 2020. Non-fiction.)
p. xxi
For Donald Trump, the taunts and personal insults are part of the game. He sees the public jousting with the press as a critical component of the Trump Show’s success. But this is a dangerous game. The president’s rhetoric, especially rhetoric that incites hatred or willfully distorts the truth, has consequences. (Boldface added.)

I think they call that prescient.

The War on Normal People (Andrew Yang; 2019. Non-fiction.)
p. 96
In the bubble, many of us came up through the meritocracy and we’ve internalized its lessons. The underlying logic of the meritocratic system is this: If you’re successful, it’s because you’re smart and hard-working, and thus virtuous. If you’re poor or unsuccessful, it’s because you’re lazy and/or stupid and of subpar character. The people at the top belong there and the people at the bottom have only themselves to blame.

p. 185
Scarcity research indicates that the best way to improve decision-making is to free up people’s bandwidth. People won’t ever make perfect choices. But knowing that their basic needs are accounted for will lead to better choices for millions of people each day.

Alas, poor Cromwell!

Weekend stack.

Last night, I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The Cromwell trilogy is, as so many others have already pointed out, a remarkable achievement.

Not pictured is my first book of the year, Stephen Greenblatt Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (2018). Brilliant.

p. 35
Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation. The unscrupulous leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor. Surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of under classes. In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable. But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions.

p. 41
He promises to make England great again. How will he do that? He shows the crowd at once: he attacks education. The educated elite has betrayed the people. They are traitors who will all be brought to justice, and this justice will be meted out not by judges and lawyers but in a call-and-response between the leader and his mob.

p. 43
But Shakespeare grasped something critically important: although the absurdity of the demagogue’s rhetoric was blatantly obvious, the laughter it elicited did not for a minute diminish its menace. Cade and his followers will not slink away because the traditional political elite and the entirety of the educated populace regard him as a jackass.

p. 53
Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the law-breaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency.