Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.

A Farewell to Arms (Modern Library #74)

(This is the twenty-seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Scoop.)

You likely know the basics: An American goes to Italy and enlists as a “tenente.” He drives a battlefield ambulance just before his nation enters World War I. He gets wounded. He meets a nurse at a hospital. He falls in love. He feels free as he recovers. He feels trapped as he returns to the front. He gets disillusioned. He flees. He finds her again. Bad things happen. But A Farewell to Arms is so much more than this. It is a heartbreaking love story. It is a remarkably subtle indictment of war. It shows how people bury their romantic longings behind duty and how there’s a greater bravery in fulfilling what you owe to your heart. It argues for life and love. Its final paragraph is devastating. It zooms along with masterly prose that is buried with treasure. It is one of the greatest novels of the early 20th century. This statement is not hyperbole.

It is now quite fashionable to bash Hemingway rather than praise him, as the flip Paul Levy recently did in his oh so hip and not very bright “hot take”: “The Hemingway corpus is full of artistic failure.” Well, sure it is. I’ve read it all three times at different periods in my life and I don’t think any honest reader would deny that. When I was an obnoxious punk in my twenties, I resisted Hem big time, feeling that he could not teach me to be a man in the way that James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald had, yet I somehow held onto his books, sensing that I could be colossally wrong. (I was.) Even today, I have to acknowledge that To Have and Have Not is an embarrassment. The Garden of Eden is an interesting but unconsummated train wreck. For Whom the Bell Tolls has its moments, but the Old English verbs and the lack of subtlety can be risible. I’ve never quite been able to leap into The Old Man and the Sea, but that says more about me than Hem. The upshot is that there are quite a few clunkers in Hem’s collected works and some of the Nick Adams tales ain’t all that, but one could make this claim about any author. In the end, when you have a masterpiece like A Farewell to Arms that never grows tedious no matter how many times you reread it, who in the hell cares about the misses? There’s no profit in calculating a shallow statement when the crown jewels shine bright in your face.

The other way that people ding Hem these days is by singling out his macho posturing or peering at his pages through the prism of unbridled masculine hubris. The naysayers dismiss Lady Brett Astley in The Sun Also Rises as an archetype without recognizing her enigma or the way she aptly epitomized the Lost Generation. They don’t acknowledge how Hem had to prostrate himself before Beryl Markham in a letter to Maxwell Perkins and that he did get on (for a time) with Martha Gellhorn, who neither suffered fools nor caved to condescension.

Yet there is certainly something to Hemingway’s women problem, especially as seen in the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In June 1929, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hem a letter and observed how, in his early work, “you were really listening to women — here you’re only listening to yourself, to your own mind beating out facily a sort of sense that isn’t really interesting.” (Hemingway’s reply: “Kiss my ass.”)

Scott’s warning remains a very shrewd assessment on what’s so fascinating and frustrating about Hemingway. I’d argue that one of the best ways to ken Hem is to recognize that he was a wildly accomplished giant when he placed his own ego last and that any transgressions that today’s readers detect only emerged when Hem became overly absorbed in his own self. And on this point, one can find a strange sympathy for the man, thanks in part to Andrew Farah’s recent biography, Hemingway’s Brain, which points to Ernest’s many head injuries (which included nine concussions) and concludes that he suffered from CTE, the brain disease seen in professional football players after too many years of violent tackles. This theory, which takes into account the decline of Hemingway’s handwriting in his latter years, would also offer an explanation for the wildly disparate writing quality and thus invalidates Mr. Levy’s foolish pronouncement.

* * *

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

A Farewell to Arms thankfully places us shortly after the rising sun of Hem’s career and, like its predecessor, the book contains razor-sharp prose, keen observations (ranging from Umberto Notani’s infamous The Black Pig, trains packed with soldiers, and the repugnant wartime indignity of a hopped up tyrant fiercely questioning a man who is fated to be shot), and a beautiful epitomization of the famous “iceberg theory” that Hemingway posited in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Much has been spilled over Hemingway’s declarative sentences, which are beautifully honed in this masterpiece. (Hem wrote 47 versions of the ending.) But I’d like to single out “was,” the most frequently used word in this novel. On a surface level, “was” is the most expedient way to hurl us into Frederic’s world: a simple verb of action and hard deets, but one that likewise deflects interior thought. It’s easy to dis Hem as a man’s man summing up life and the earth and the grit and all else that makes us want to ape him even though there can be only one, but the key to seeing the beauty of “was” is knowing that this book is all about pursuing a lost and deeply moving romantic vision, one kept carefully hidden from the beginning. Style advances the perspective and keeps us curious and lets us in and “was” is the way Hem gets us there.

Hemingway uses language with extraordinary command to clue us in on the distinct possibility that this story is in some sense a dream — indeed, a dream involving death based on what Hem was never able to make with the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while holed up in a ward. There’s the makeshift hospital office, with its “many marble busts on painted wooden pillars,” which is further compared to a cemetery. In the novel’s first part, there are very few adverbs — save “winefully” early on and “evidently” and “directly” in the same sentence as guns rupture Frederic’s existence. The first rare simile (“seeing it all ahead like moves in a chess game”) occurs when Frederic first tries to kiss Catherine and is greeted with a slap (which Catherine apologizes for). This is a far cry indeed from what The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra recently claimed, without citing a single example, as “flowery and overwritten.” A Farewell to Arms basks in the same beautiful realm between the real and the ethereal that The Great Gatsby does, albeit in a different landscape altogether, but it offers enough ambiguity to speculate about the characters while encouraging numerous rereads.

Language also carries the deep resonances of what people mean to each other. Catherine cannot stand a triple-wounded vet named Ettore and repeats “dreadful” twice and “bore” four times when she vents to Frederic. The words “She won’t die” are also repeated in one harrowing paragraph near the end. (Indeed, if you see a word or a phrase repeated in Hemingway’s fiction, there’s a good chance that something bad will happen.) Shortly after Frederic is moved to the freshly built hospital in Milan (itself a marvelous metaphor for the fresh start of Frederic’s blossoming love for Catherine), he takes to Dr. Valentini, who speaks in a series of short sentences over the course of a paragraph (a small sample: “A fine blonde like she is. That’s fine. That’s all right. What a lovely girl.”) and who Frederic later calls “grand.” The syntax, chopped and sheared and housed within manageable units, represents a telegraph from the human heart like no other.

Frederic acknowledges that he lies to Catherine when he tells her that she’s the first woman he’s loved. Now it’s tempting to roll your eyes over the “I’ll be a good girl” business that often comes from Catherine, but it’s also a safe bet to speculate that Frederic is likewise lying about what Catherine has actually told him, much as Hem himself has fudged the full extent of his “affair” with Agnes von Kurowsky through fiction. (“Now, Ernest Hemingway has a case on me, or thinks he has,” wrote von Kurowsky in her diary on August 25, 1918. “He is a dear boy & so cute about it.”)

An enduring romance is often built on a pack of lies. We often fail to recognize the full totality of who a lover was until we are well outside of the relationship. As for friendship, I’d like to argue that Miss Gage is a fascinating side character who stands up for this. She’s someone who ribs Frederic about not fully understanding what friendship is. Later, when Frederic returns to the front lines, Rinaldi tells him, “I don’t want to be your friend. I am your friend.” And if Frederic can’t recognize friendship, does he really know how to read the room when Cupid shows up with a puckish smile? Hem’s subtle acknowledgment of these basic truths allows us to trust and become invested in Frederic’s voice. And I’d like to think that even Hem’s opponents could get behind such idyllic imagery as Frederic and Catherine “putting thoughts in the other one’s head while we were in different rooms” or agreeing to sneak off to Switzerland together or even the funny “winter sport” business with customs. These are endearing and beautiful romantic moments that certainly show that Hem is far more than a repugnant hulk.

Love is a high stakes game, but it’s always a game worth playing. If you beat the odds, the payout is incalculable. Small wonder that the happy couple ends up throwing their lire into a rigged horse race. Indeed, Frederic’s early days with Catherine are a game like bridge where “you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes.” For all of Frederic’s apparent confidence in not knowing the stakes, he does not reveal his name for a while — on its first mention, Frederic only partially spills his name as he is drinking. He is also more taken with the allure of being alone — as seen later in a Donnean nod when he says that “[w]hat made [Ireland] pretty was that it sounded like Island.” His loneliness is further cemented when Miss Ferguson says that Catherine cannot see him.

Is this the loneliness of war? We learn later that Frederic came to Rome to be an architect, although this is likely a lie, given that it is repeated a second time to a customs officer. But it does suggest that Frederic cannot build his own life without another. Perhaps this is the solitude that comes from the relentless pursuit of manly vigor (boxing, bullfighting, hunting) that Hemingway was to explore throughout his life? There is one clue late in the book when Hemingway writes, “The war seemed as far away as the football game of someone else’s college,” and another midway through when Frederic wonders if major league baseball will be shut down if America entered the war. (Fun fact: There was indeed a World War I deadline put into place, but the two leagues squeezed in numerous doubleheaders to ensure that the season could play out.) If the First World War arose in part because humanity was involved in a vicious game, then Hemingway seems to be suggesting that further games rooted in play and peace must be promulgated to restore the human condition. Frederic cynically quips to the 94-year-old Count Greffi, “No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” But if being careful is the true measure of existence, why then do we celebrate valor that often emerges from reckless circumstances? Indeed, Hemingway sends up the very nature of heroism up when Frederic wakes up in the hospital and is greeted by Rinaldi, who presses him to confess the specific act he committed to earn his medal. “No,” replies Frederic. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

In an age where razor blade ads are urging us to question what manhood should represent, there’s something to be said about studying what’s contained within masculinity’s ostensible ur-texts and with how careful men are in saying nothing but everything. A Farewell to Arms is a far more sophisticated and deeply beautiful novel when you start examining its sentences and questioning its motivations. Caught in a mire between love and war, Frederic opts for the laconic rather than the prolix. And in doing so, he tells us far more about what it means to love and lose than most authors can convey in a lifetime.

Next Up: Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust!

Studies in Iconology (Modern Library Nonfiction #80)

(This is the twentieth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Face of Battle.)

Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (pictured above) is one of my favorite paintings of the 16th century, in large part because its unquestionable beauty is matched by its bountiful and alluring enigma. We see two versions of love at opposing ends of a fountain — one nearly naked without apology, but still partially clad in a windswept dark salmon pink robe and holding an urn of smoke as she languorously (and rebelliously?) leans on the edge of a fountain; meanwhile the other Love sits in a flowing white gown on the other end, decidedly more dignified, with concealed legs that are somehow stronger and more illustrious than her counterpart, and disguising a bowl that, much like the Kiss Me Deadly box or the Pulp Fiction suitcase, could contain anything.

We know that the Two Loves are meant to coexist because Titian is sly enough to imbue his masterpiece with a sartorial yin-yang. Profane Love matches Sacred with a coiled white cloth twisting around her waist and slipping down her left leg, while Sacred has been tinctured by Profane’s pink with the flowing sleeve on her right arm and the small slipper on her left foot. Meanwhile, Cupid serves as an oblivious and possibly mercenary middleman, his arm and his eyes deeply immersed in the water and seemingly unconcerned with the Two Loves. We see that the backdrops behind both Loves are promisingly bucolic, with happy rabbits suggesting prolific promiscuity and studly horsemen riding their steeds with forelegs in the air, undoubtedly presaging the stertorous activity to commence sometime around the third date.

Sacred’s backdrop involves a castle situated on higher ground, whereas Profane’s is a wider valley with a village, a tableau that gives one more freedom to roam. The equine motif carries further on Sacred’s side with a horse prancing from Sacred to Profane in the marble etching just in front of the fountain, while Profane’s side features equally ripe rapacity, a near Fifty Shades of Grey moment where a muscled Adonis lusts over a plump bottom, hopefully with consensual limits and safewords agreed upon in advance. Titian’s telling takeaway is that you have to accept both the sublime and the salacious when you’re in love: the noble respect and vibrant valor that you unfurl upon your better half with such gestures as smoothing a strand of hair from the face along with the ribald hunger for someone who is simultaneously desirable and who could very well inspire you to stock up on entirely unanticipated items that produce rather pleasurable vibrations.

There are few works of art that are so dedicated to such a dichotomous depiction of something we all long for. And Titian’s painting endures five centuries later because this Italian master was so committed to minute details that, rather incredibly, remain quite universal about the human condition.

But what the hell does it all mean? We can peer into the canvas for hours, becoming intoxicated by Titian’s fascinating ambiguities. But might there be more helpful semiotics to better grasp what’s going on? Until I read Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology, I truly had no clue that Titian had been influenced by Bembo’s Asolani or that the Two Loves were a riff on Cesare Ripa’s notion of Eternal Bliss and Transient Bliss, which was one of many efforts by the Neoplatonic movement to wrestle with a human state that occupied two modes of shared existence. Panofsky also helpfully points out that Cupid’s stirring of the fountain water was a representation of love as “a principle of cosmic ‘mixture,’ act[ing] as an intermediary between heaven and earth” and that the fountain can also be looked upon as a revived sarcophagus, meaning that we are also looking at life and love springing from a coffin. And this history added an additional context for me to expand my own quasi-smartypants, recklessly dilletantish, and exuberantly instinctive appreciation of Titian. In investigating iconology, I recalled my 2016 journey into The Golden Bough (ML NF #90), in which Frazer helpfully pointed to the symbolic commonality of myths and rituals throughout multiple cultures and across human history, and, as I examined how various symbolic figures morphed over time, I became quite obsessed with Father Time’s many likenesses (quite usefully unpacked by Waggish‘s David Auerbach).

Any art history student inevitably brushes up against the wise and influential yet somewhat convoluted views of Erwin Panofsky. Depending upon the degree to which the prof resembles Joseph Mengele in his teaching style, there is usually a pedagogical hazing in which the student is presented with “iconology” and “iconography.” The student winces at both words, nearly similar in look and sound, and wonders if the distinction might be better understood after several bong hits and unwise dives into late night snacks, followed by desperate texts to fellow young scholars that usually culminate in more debauchery which strays from understanding the text. Well, I’m going to do my best to explicate the difference right now.

The best way to nail down what iconography entails is to think of a painting purely in terms of its visuals and what each of these elements means. Some obvious examples of iconography in action is the considerable classroom time devoted to interpreting the green light at the end of The Great Gatsby or the endless possibilities contained within the Mona Lisa‘s smile. It is, in short, being that vociferous museum enthusiast pointing at bowls and halos buried in oil and doing his best to impress with his alternately entertaining and infuriating interpretations. All this is, of course, fair game. But Panofsky is calling for us to think bigger and do better.

Enter iconology, which is more specifically concerned with the context of this symbolism and the precise technical circumstances and historical influences that created it. Let me illustrate the differences between iconography and iconology using Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek.

Here are the details everyone knows about Kirk. He is married to his ship. He is a swashbuckling adventurer who gets into numerous fights and is frequently seen in a torn shirt. He is also a nomadic philanderer, known to swipe right and hookup with nearly every alien he encounters. (In the episode “Wink of an Eye,” there is a moment that somehow avoided the censors in which Kirk was seen putting on his boots while Deela brushes her hair.) This is the iconography of Kirk that everyone recognizes.

But when we begin to examine the origins of these underlying iconographic qualities, we begin to see that there is a great deal more than a role popularized by William Shatner through booming vocal delivery, spastic gestures, and an unusual Canadian hubris. When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he perceived Captain Kirk as “Horatio Hornblower in Space.” We know that C.S. Forester, author of the Hornblower novels, was inspired by Admiral Lord Nelson and a number of heroic British authors who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. According to Bryan Perrett’s The Real Hornblower, Forester read three volumes of The Naval Chronicle over and over. But Forester eventually hit upon a trope that he identified as the Man Alone — a solitary individual who relies exclusively on his own resources to solve problems and who carries out his swashbuckling, but who is wedded to this predicament.

Perhaps because the free love movement of the 1960s made the expression of sexuality more open, Captain Kirk was both a Man Alone and a prolific philanderer. But Kirk was fundamentally married to his ship, the Enterprise. In an essay collected in Star Trek as Myth, John Shelton Lawrence ties this all into a classic American monomyth, suggesting that Kirk also represented

…sexual renunciation, a norm that reflects some distinctly religious aversions to intimacy. The protagonist in some mythical sagas must renounce previous sexual ties for the sake of their trials. They must avoid entanglements and temptations that inevitably arise from satyrs, sirens, or Loreleis in the course of their travels…The protagonist may encounter sexual temptation symbolizing ‘that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell,’ as Campbell points out. Yet the ‘ultimate adventure’ is the ‘mystical marriage…of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess” of knowledge.

All of a sudden, Captain Kirk has become a lot more interesting! And moments such as Kirk eating the apple in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan suddenly make more sense beyond the belabored Project Genesis metaphor. We now see how Roddenberry’s idea of a nomad philanderer and Forester’s notion of the Man Alone actually takes us to a common theme of marriage with the Queen Goddess of the World. One could very well dive into the Kirk/Hornblower archetype at length. But thanks to iconology, we now have enough information here to launch a thoughtful discussion — ideally with each of the participants offering vivacious impersonations of William Shatner — with the assembled brainiacs discussing why the “ultimate adventure” continues to crop up in various cultures and how Star Trek itself was a prominent popularizer of this idea.

Now that we know what iconology is, we can use it — much as Panofsky does in Studies in Iconology — to understand why Piero di Cosimo was wilder and more imaginative than many of his peers. (And for more on this neglected painter, who was so original that he even inspired a poem from Auden, I recommend Peter Schjeldahl’s 2015 New Yorker essay.) Panofsky points out how Piero’s The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos (pictured above) differs in the way that it portrays the Hylas myth, whereby Hylas went down to the river Ascunius to fetch some water and was ensnared by the naiads who fell in love with his beauty. (I’ve juxtaposed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs with Piero so that you can see the differences. For my money, Piero edges out Waterhouse’s blunter version of the tale. But I also chose the Waterhouse painting to protest the Manchester Art Gallery’s passive-aggressive censorship from last year. You can click on the above image to see a larger version of both paintings.) For one thing, Piero’s painting features no vase or vessel. There is also no water or river. The naiads are not seductive charmers at all, but more in the Mean Girls camp. And Hylas himself is quite helpless. (The naiad patting Hylas on the head is almost condescending, which adds a macabre wit to this landlocked riff.) Piero is almost the #metoo version of Hylas to Waterhouse’s more straightforward patriarchal approach. And it’s largely because not only did Piero have a beautifully warped imagination, but he was relying, like many Renaissance painters, upon post-classical commentaries rather than the direct source of the myths themselves. And we are able to see how a slight shift in an artist’s inspiration can produce a sui generis work of art.

Panofsky is on less firm footing when he attempts to apply iconology to sculptures and architecture. His attempts to ramrod Michelangelo into the Neoplatonic school were unpersuasive to me. In analyzing the rough outlines of a monkey just behind two of Michelangelo’s Slaves (the “dying” and the “rebellious” ones) in the Louvre, Panofsky rather simplistically ropes the two slaves into a subhuman class and then attempts to suggest that Ficino’s concept of the Lower Soul — which is a quite sophisticated concept — represents the interpretive smoking gun. This demonstrates the double-edged sword of iconology. It may provide you a highly specific framework for which to reconsider a great work of art, but it can be just as clumsily mistaken for the absolute truth as any lumbering ideology.

Then again, unless you’re an insufferable narcissist who needs to be constantly reminded how “right” you are, it’s never any fun to discuss art and ideas with people who you completely agree with. Panofsky’s impact on art analysis reminds us that iconology is one method of identifying the nitty-gritty and arguing about it profusely and jocularly for hours, if not decades or centuries.

Next Up: Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt!

The Right to Work and the Shameful Devaluation of American Labor

In a world hopelessly committed to selfie sticks, endless cat videos, and Instagram posts memorializing the infernal ubiquity of avocado toast and overpriced mimosas, there are never enough thoughts and heartfelt sentiments for the American worker. Purchasing power has barely budged in forty years. There are endless statistics showing a pernicious inequality. This demands our swift correction. But we are very far away from the days in which the image of Sally Field boldly holding a UNION cardboard sign above her head represented a cultural symbol of inclusive American pride.

Now, thanks to the unfathomable hubris of a petulant President who cleaves to a government shutdown with all the grace and humanity of a sociopathic schoolboy holding a magnifying glass to a quivering fly, the American worker faces needless ruin and further humiliation as an estimated 800,000 federal workers have been asked to toil without a paycheck. This is, in short, a national disgrace: the kind of callous development that people used to riot in the streets over. In a prosperous nation such as ours, there is simply no excuse to settle for this indifference and to let anyone suffer.

Sure, there have been gestures – such as the seven restaurants in Phoenix offering free food to furloughed federal workers and the numerous companies in San Antonio that have gallantly stepped up to the plate. But this munificence, as noble and as considerate as it may be, doesn’t go nearly far enough in recognizing that a steady gig (rather than a rapacious gig economy) should be a basic American right and that the American worker must be granted an easy and human respect.

There are unseen stories of federal workers, many of them living paycheck to paycheck, who have been forced to take on loans to pay their bills. In some cases, workers may be lucky enough to land a zero interst loan from a credit union. But what of those who must approach predatory payday lenders? What of callous property managers in Arkansas who do not possess a shred of compassion for those facing hard times? And what of the loss of dignity to any American who is ordered to show up for a shift but who is denied the right of being promptly compensated?

The devaluation of American labor extends far beyond all this: it can be seen in the erosion of union power over the last four decades, the underreported fight for fifteen, and the ways in which “liberal” social media mobs call for perceived transgressors to lose their livelihoods. The noblesse oblige once granted to every American worker irrespective of who she was or where she worked has been replaced by a shameful notion that anyone who remains unemployed or underemployed should be able to fend for herself. And when the worker is this devalued, how then can she be inspired to fight on behalf of all Americans? 133 years after seven people died in Milwaukee to stand up for the eight hour day and in which the Haymarket Affair aroused national sympathy for the worker, we now find ourselves living in a nation in which such valor and courage is not only completely forgotten but entirely unfathomable.

On January 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opted to sidestep Congress and deliver his State of the Union directly to the people in the form of a Fireside Chat. In this famous speech, Roosevelt called for “a Second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

Roosevelt insisted that the first and foremost duty of this new pledge was “the right to a useful and reumnerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.”

In the decades since these more progressive times, Democrats have ignobly shirked their duties in standing up for the American worker and have lacked the smooth acumen to speak common language. Blue collar workers fled to a megalomaniac because they were ignored and abandoned by a party that refused to understand them and believed that it knew best. And this needlessly condescending and contradictory approach, perhaps best epitomized by Bill Clinton heartlessly signing the 1996 Welfare Reform Act into law, has rightfully caused the Democrats to suffer. A guarantee of full employment was once a cornerstone of the Democratic Party, but a 2013 analysis from The Daily Kos revealed that no Democratic presidential contender has stood up for this right since. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders picked up on this while Hillary Clinton (you will not find a right to work guarantee on her position page) could not ardently commit to this honorable tradition, leaving the idea of guaranteed employment behind with other bedrock principles. The last prominent display of consolidated demoracy was probably Mario Cuomo’s eloquent speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he declared that the heart of liberal constituency was:

the middle class, the people not rich enough to be worry-free, but not poor enough to be on welfare; the middle class — those people who work for a living because they have to, not because some psychiatrist told them it was a convenient way to fill the interval between birth and eternity. White collar and blue collar. Young professionals. Men and women in small business desperate for the capital and contracts that they need to prove their worth.

Last year, The Nation’s Ady Barkan called for progressives to adopt a good jobs guarantee, pointing out how the Service Employees International Union played hardball with Democratic candidates. The SEIU declared that it would not endorse any Democratic presidential candidate unless it made universal healthcare part of her platform. John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton were all forced to adopt this position. And within two years, the Affordable Care Act was written into law.

Progressive groups can and must do this again, especially as new candidates enter the 2020 presidential race. It is one thing for doddering dinosaurs like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to stand like stiffs and offer hollow platitudes before the American public. (Incidentally, the word “job” was never mentioned once in their rebuttal to Trump’s racist Oval Office address on January 8, 2019.) It is quite another thing to be pro-active like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who led a group to track down the missing Mitch McConnell, demanding a vote to end the shutdown. Ocasio-Cortez, despite being much younger, is apparently more “old school” than the old dogs.

Growing Up with a Hoarder

My mother was a hoarder. It didn’t start out this way, but it became more pronounced and more disturbing once she hit middle age and she started locking her bedroom.

We all knew that hillocks of clothes and bulky boxes of once-used items were being piled needlessly high on any spare inch of floor space behind that sealed entrance: an increasing sign that my mother did not have her life together and, in hindsight, a telltale indicator that she could not care for us.

She collected things much as she collected people: there was the initial delight followed by an ephemeral interest, followed by swift abandonment and a failure to finish what she had started. I was so unnerved by my mother’s packrat tendencies that I developed an anti-materialist lifestyle in which I assiduously avoided the accumulation of baubles. But I still held onto my notebooks and any creative scraps I generated. And I still wonder to this day if this is an entirely healthy tendency. I didn’t develop the confidence to buy a third pair of shoes without guilt until I was in my early forties and I only recently purchased a waffle maker, even though I have long possessed the desire to cook jolly breakfasts for friends. The greatly underrated writer Jessie Sholl has written about the way our parents pass along these deeply humiliating conundrums in her book, Dirty Secret. The shame of understanding or even remotely mimicking who our parents are causes us to take several serious missteps in our own lives. Our parents’s personality traits scar us in ways that we don’t often realize until we’re well into adulthood ourselves.

Perhaps my mother’s desire to cleave to doodads represented her need to take up space entirely on her own terms and no one else’s. This is very often what motivates a narcissist: a lack of mindfulness intertwined with a solipsistic impulse that is fragile and frangible enough to transform into self-destruction. But whatever the underlying psychological motives, my mother’s hoarding transformed from a manageable obsession into a monomania so suddenly and so unnervingly that I have only just realized, as I am in middle age and I am trying not to repeat the mistakes of my parents (with mixed results), that this was indeed hoarding and that much of my life was shaped by it. (Thankfully, I have mostly confined my “hoarding” to the more than three thousand books I live with, regularly purged and repatriated to ensure spare shelf space.)

In the early stages, in the comparatively innocent days, my mother bought clothes and her closets filled up. The dresses crunched up together so that fur and taffeta were flattened, resembling unassembled cardboard boxes in look and in texture and often never worn. The more space we had, the more it became devoted to my mother’s hoarding. Our garage was especially frightening. You had to climb over and leap across all manner of bric-a-brac just to get the mail. There were rats nesting in the crevices, rats that later set up camp throughout the house and scratched into the walls and scurried around the attic and nothing would be done about this and I would often stay up late and watch movies to drown out the noise of rats scraping loudly, relentlessly into the night. It is why I may be more terrified of rats than most people, although I have summoned the bravery, when called for, to dispose of rats like any bona-fide Brooklynite.

The weird thing is that, while my mother was inveterate in the way that she held onto things, she was completely incompetent in knowing when to go regular grocery shopping and replenish the cupboards. I have long wondered how someone who was supposed to be responsible for us could be so stunningly irresponsible. But examining the motives of a narcissist usually results in the same thrumming singular chord. What I did do was cultivate a fierce loyalty for my friends and anyone or anything I have ever loved. And I know that my exuberance can be scary, scary because it is both incredibly sincere and incredibly intense.

I have been afraid to own things. And that includes being afraid to own who I am. Because to do so would be to hoard, to succumb to the same myopic impulses that fueled my mother and to shamble through detritus, even though wading through the muck of one’s failings is the only way we grow stronger. My answer to this has been to embrace a state of existential obliviousness and hope for the best. It is not exactly hoarding, certainly not in the material sense, but it does represent a quality that is just as insalubrious.

Is Anna Gaca the Worst Writer Ever?

To read a piece of needlessly hostile “journalism” is to be a victim of circumstance — of unimaginative hyperbole, petty music nerd hatred completely disproportionate to, oh say, Trump’s racist speech last night, and other mediums where faux sophistication is derived from an outrageous sentiment, and does this fucking sentence ever end, and are there even copy editors at Spin to confiscate the endless clauses and the glaringly atrocious syntax, and is this even a sentence or a question. Spin regrets the error.

I could spend the rest of this essay thoroughly satirizing Anna Gaca’s hate-infested piece on Imagine Dragons. It’s easy as hell. But I won’t.

You probably came here for a hit piece. You came to follow the rabbit hole. You came to fritter away your time, perhaps seeking an inconsequential expression of enmity to make you feel superior to other people. Especially famous ones.

Well, I’d like you to consider instead a strain of Internet vitriol that you may very well be participating in, recently seen in a warped attack on the band Imagine Dragons.

Now I like Imagine Dragons. I’m far from a hardcore fan. Imagine Dragons is never my first or even my ninety-eighth choice when listening to music. But I have performed their song “Whatever It Takes” at karaoke to appreciative audiences. Imagine Dragons is a completely mainstream but perfectly respectable pop rock band. What was the band’s crime against humanity? To be successful and thus played everywhere. In supermarkets. On Lyft rides. On radio stations. I once heard “Radioactive” on the telephone while I was on hold. The band’s offense is to be inoffensive. Ubiquitously inoffensive.

So when the band bombed on Monday night during a college football halftime show in Santa Clara, California, the Internet pounced on Imagine Dragons and singer Dan Reynolds as if the new Nickelback had at long last emerged from some demonic realm beneath the earth. It was aided and abetted by Ms. Gaca’s Spin article, which gave many license to hate further upon a band that had done nothing wrong other than perform a bad set and have its music played over speakers seemingly against the public’s will. Or, as Ms. Gaca herself phrased it:

Since 2012’s breakthrough “Radioactive,” dynamics have been their blunt-force instrument of choice, each new single crashing through the hyperreality of pop radio to pound another bland hook into a powerless public.

The hyperbole here, driven by words like “blunt-force,” “crashing,” “pound,” and “powerless,” is truly ridiculous. First off, the public is not “powerless.” They can choose to not listen to Imagine Dragons. They can refuse to buy Imagine Dragons’s albums or see them live. They can politely ask the Lyft driver to turn the radio off if Imagine Dragons comes “crashing through.” I’ve done this myself with other bands. It neither impacted my Lyft rating nor did it result in acrimony. Furthermore, what could be more pedestrian and quotidian than pop radio? There is nothing “hyperreal” whatsoever about listening to Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” for the fifty-seventh time while grocery shopping. It is far from surreal and it is about as normal as you can get. To summon this bizarre level of rage and to suggest that there has been some violent imposition comparable to being viciously attacked in the streets by a thug are the telltale marks of a writer incapable of conveying a reasonable opinion.

Every band has an off gig. Every person has an off day. There isn’t a human being walking this earth who hasn’t made a mistake. And if you’re the kind of person who is just waiting for someone you despise to screw up, what does this say about you? Wouldn’t that time be better spent creating or making something? Or perhaps basking in culture that you enjoy or hanging out with friends that you do like?

I can’t imagine the level of pressure on someone like Dan Reynolds to be flawless at all times. But I really warmed up to the guy after seeing his Instagram videos:

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In these three videos, Reynolds is honest, sensitive, kind, strong, and objectively decent. How could you hate the guy? Even if you don’t like Imagine Dragons. He is, in short, a human being.

As for Anna Gaca, I don’t hate her at all. But I now know who she is and how she writes. And if I ever see her byline on an article, I’m not going to read it.

But I will still listen to Imagine Dragons.

1/10/2019 UPDATE: Hyperbole would appear to beget hyperbole. Writer Ed Burmilia has actually compared Anna Gaca’s hit piece to H.L. Mencken’s famous obituary of William Jennings Bryan.

I realize that Burmilia is nobly sticking up for a fellow media colleague. But there is a salient difference between the two writers. Mencken used tangible examples to uphold his opinion, such as Bryan’s waffling on Prohibition, whereas Gaca invents bizarre conspiracies such as the “‘recognizable young rock band’ benefits plan.” (And the original version of Gaca’s piece contained a prominent factual error about the Grammy Awards, which was later corrected by Spin.) Imagine Dragons, much like anything, is fair game for criticism. The question here is why the band requires such an extraordinarily aggro response completely disproportionate to its professed sins.

Mencken: “But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment’s notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.”

Gaca: “And there’s hardly a safer way to hold market share than being traditional enough to capitalize on the Recording Academy’s ‘recognizable young rock band’ benefits plan (they were nominated for two more Grammys in 2018), yet flexible enough to bend wherever the whims of popularity dictate.”