Sunday, 30 April 2006

Joan Didion: A Tribute Which Will Read as Parody (Because I'm No Joan Didion) This afternoon I attended the Joan Didion talk at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair. A friend and I waited in a long line. It snaked from the entrance to Royce Hall around one building and half of another. When it finally crept forward we were greeted by a large security guard who could have been an extra in a film about a corrupt Los Angeles police force. Or New York. I made a list of things I would observe. I would observe: the capacity of Royce Hall. I would observe: the characteristics of the audience. I would observe: Didion's hands as she spoke about the death of her husband. In two minutes Didion would take the stage. Almost all of the 1,834 seats had been filled but people still shuffled in. Royce Hall had been modeled after the San Ambrogio Church in Milan. Construction on San Ambrogio began in the 4th century. A south tower was added in the 9th. A north in the 12th. The 12th century oversaw a interior remodeling in the popular Romanesque style. The rolling terrain of the young UCLA campus suggested northern Italy to the architects. Three years later they had completed their Romanesque basilica. Of the Westwood campus' original four buildings it is the only one which stands unrenovated. In the 15th Century Cardinal Ascanio Sforza ordered Bramante to add cloisters to the church. Sforza belonged to the ruling family of Milan. Its founder is rumored to have bent metal bars with his hands. Ascanio wanted to create what the 19th century American philosopher Josiah Royce would call "a community of hope." The community would be "constituted by the fact that each of its members accepts, as part of his own individual life and self, the same expected future events that each of his fellows accepts." The UCLA Fellows agreed with Royce and named a building after him. The building was filled to near capacity. In the audience were many older Californians, fans of her work in the '60s and '70s and naturally sympathetic to the lose of a spouse or a child. They too would have lost someone, or soon will. There were also many younger women finding seats, asking men who had rolled joints in Berkeley in the '60s if they could squeeze by. Her long blonde hair brushed his arm as she passed and you knew from his face he didn't mind. He could imagine her in an iconic yellow bikini as the Vietnam War raged. He could remember when he read in 1979 that Didion was not "the society in microcosm [but] a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old-fashioned bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come." You could almost see him sniff the air in her wake. That these young woman came to hear Didion speak initially surprised many. When Didion took to the stage she related how...
Historians, Start Your Engines... The same day I get tagged by the History Carnival for my post on "Useable Pasts" sees my friend, the UPS man, arrive at my door to deliver Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. How fortuitous. David Brown's book demonstrates one problem with the field of intellectual history: Intellectual historians often take the thinkers they write about at their word. I know you know the dead horse I wallop here.* For those who don't, a refresher course. The chapter on Social Darwinism and American Thought opens promisingly enough. "The New Deal changed everything," Brown writes. And it did. The influence of the New Deal and the reaction of those who, like Hofstadter, stood to Roosevelt's left cannot be quashed from any responsible intellectual history of the period. The New Deal shaped the dissertating Hofstadter's politics to a great extent, so much so that the former Communist critic of the New Deal created a mythic philosophical movement with which the New Dealers could pound their opponents. But from that point forward the quality of the chapter declines steeply. Example #1: But Hofstadter produced his thesis under the eye of Merle Curti, a pioneer in the emerging field of intellectual history. Liberated from the Progressive penchant for appointing heroes and villains, Hofstadter was able to merge both his politics and scholarship into a powerful critique of the great titans. (29) What? You want to know how Hofstadter "liberated himself from Progressive penchant for appointing heroes and villains," don't you? So do I. I've read few books as many times as I've read Social Darwinism and that statement so disconforms from my knowledge of the book that I'm barely able to type the following summary of Hofstadter's "Table of Contents": "The Coming of Darwinism": Summary of the period. "The Vogue of Spencer": Spencer is a big fat villain. "William Graham Sumner: Social Darwinist": So is Sumner. "Lester Ward: Critic": My Hero! "Evolution, Ethics, and Society": Huxley dreamy, Kidd nightmarish. "The Dissenters": My Heroes! "The Current of Pragmatism": Williams James and John Dewey! Give me a "P"! Give me an "R"! Give me . . . I could continue, but I think I've made my point. Hofstadter went to great lengths to create heroes and villains in his turn-of-the-century yarn. On some level, even Brown knows this: Hofstadter found a foil to Sumner's philosophy in the impressive scholarship of Lester Ward. (32) How, I wonder, does one have a foil without antipodes? And if Sumner plays foil to "the impressive" Lester Ward, how does that antipodal logic not cast Sumner as the villain and Ward as the hero? I'm baffled. I could continue all night, but I want to save some material for tomorrow. I'm only three pages into the chapter on Social Darwinism, but I should stop now, as I'm tempted to say, pace Ms. Parker, that this book should not be tossed lightly aside but hurled with great force. *Those with access to the OED can witness the fine pun I stumbled into...

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