Friday, February 17, 2006

John Dolan

Years behind the curve (at my age change is no longer an option, if it ever was) I’ve discovered the book reviews and articles of Doctor John Dolan. You can find a great store of them on the excellent Exile site, and for those of you who don’t know his work, here are few samples.

The first is a cool insight that isn’t found in the biography of Stalin he’s reviewing:

We want the great killers to have the mark of the beast somewhere on their preserved pelts. And they don't. They aren't monsters. Nor are they "banal," in Arendt's idiotic, endlessly misapplied cliche. They're just prime specimens of their type -- smart, ruthless, tough guys. Attila was a great steppe chieftain, no more and no less. You could put him through a thousand CAT scans, strap him down on a shrink's couch for a month, and learn nothing -- because there's nothing to learn. All that can be said of him is what Sam Elliot says of the Dude: "He's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there."

The next one is from a surprisingly sympathetic piece on the life and times of radical feminist Andrea Dworkin:

Dworkin's fatness and madness hardly disqualify her from intellectual distinction. If we excluded the fat and/or crazy from recent intellectual history, we'd be left with a very bland, Clinton-style consensus. And that, of course, is the goal, the point of these non sequiturs. They're great for dismissing loud, unbroken voices. American academics have a habit of skipping to the slur with disconcerting speed, as I found out a couple of years ago when I mentioned my love for Wallace Stevens' poetry to a Film professor. She winced, then said, "Wasn't he a racist?"

She didn't really know or care whether Stevens was a racist. As I realized later, that wince meant that she hadn't read Stevens, didn't want to be shown up and so had simply reached for the nearest available non sequitur. The notion that Stevens might be a racist AND a great poet, just as Dworkin might be a fat loon AND a crucial figure in feminist intellectual history, is simply beyond our Beige compatriots.

I’m pleased to note that the good doctor shares my views of the great Doctor Hunter S Thompson himself:Well, he hadn't lost it. He kept writing well -- better than they could. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best post-1945 American novel I know, with Dog of the South and Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch its only real competition. Thompson, waxing boastful in his old age, claimed it was as good as Great Gatsby; I say he was being absurdly modest. It's vastly better than that rusting hulk welded of Preppie bathos…

…Thompson took all that was good about the South: personal honor, toughness, gun love, jokes; and abandoned, once and for all, the vile baggage that went with it, without whining about his loss. He backed Ron Dellums for VP in 1972, and never even thought about going back to Dixieland schmaltz when it became fashionable again at the turn of the millennium.

And finally, some honesty about the classics emerges from an article on the fraudulent memoirs of James Frey:

He gave his readers more than enough clues to realize he was a complete fraud. Nobody with an ounce of sense, with a trace of integrity or the slightest attachment to reality, could have read that paragraph and continued to believe. Even the list of great books begs you to call its bluff! Every one of those books is in the class of unreadable classics. I've spent my life reading and yet never managed to get past the first chapter of Don Quixote. Comedy has a short shelf life, and what wowed 'em in Castile a few centuries back is now paper pulp.

And Leaves of Grass? Oh, come ON! Porterhouse would either have taken Whitman's hint and sodomized Frey to those King James cadences or simply whopped him with a tray again to stop the noise. Ah, but the crowning lie is that Porterhouse loved War and Peace. Again, this is the old noble savage, cultural virgin myth. Ever try to make somebody read that book? Unless they're Slavic majors, they can't even get the names straight, and unless they're born phonies they'll admit they're rather have six root canals on a time-dilating drug than be forced to slog to the end with that "moralizing infant" Tolstoy.

Amen! Nobody, but nobody reads classics as difficult as those for pleasure. You read them because you have too, because they are on the syllabus, or because you need a long quote or two to pad out the essay that must be in at 9:00AM tomorrow morning. Even at the time, you dimly realise that old classics comprise some sort of weird late adolescent rite of passage that has sod all to do with literature or illuminating the human condition.


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