While reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I realized that an older book, one I had encountered in the past and debated in younger days, was groping its way out of my memory. The book whose specter had been raised by The Swerve was Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966). But why was the one book calling to the other? This question remained with me for weeks.
Two stories compete for our attention in “The Elizabethans.” One recalls an intense period of discovery, creativity and strife; the other is a polemic about what lessons can be salvaged from the past. Only in the final paragraph of the book do the two converge.
Cultural studies has always been a democratic project. This is true in several complementary senses. On the one hand, the first function of cultural studies is arguably simply this - to put into question what is apparently fixed, to bring it out into the open to de-sediment it, to make it public and to make visible its contingency, to put it up for discussion. Cultural studies is also a democratic project to the extent that it was itself a product of what now looks to have been democracy’s high moment: the decades following the second world war, which saw the representative political systems of the West achieve a degree of democratic efficacy which, albeit very far from perfect, was nonetheless impressive compared to anything that we have seen before or since: the moment when Raymond Williams could still look back upon the whole history of modernity and see it, albeit with some obvious interruptions, broadly as a history of progressive democratisation of the cultural, political, economic, and social spheres; as one ‘Long Revolution’.
After two and a half of years of wandering in the wilderness of, well, not mediocrity exactly, but second or third best-ness, after climbing the small foothills of adversity, a twingey back, a few disappointing chokes, a couple of kids, after going four sets with Britain’s first Wimbledon finalist since Bunny Austin, Federer is once again the number one player in the world. Terrific.
Eight days before Christmas, on the last non-holiday weekend before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican candidates for President darted across the state, dropping in at factories and shopping malls and pizza parlors, like birds surveying a beach and swooping down for food. But not Newt Gingrich. He was sitting in front of a portrait of George Washington and his horse in the gift shop at Mount Vernon, drinking a Diet Coke next to his wife and a man in an elephant costume. “I’m Callista, and this is Ellis the Elephant,” Mrs. Gingrich told one person after another. About two hundred people had lined up to have the wife of the former Speaker of the House sign a copy of “Sweet Land of Liberty,” a children’s book she wrote about a patriotic elephant who travels through American history, delivering lessons in rhyming couplets: “Independence was not so easily won. / It would take years of fighting and fighting’s not fun.
Thomas Hobbes declared that all laughter depends on sudden contempt, that flash of superiority when the other chap slips on the banana skin and we don’t. When we smile, we show our teeth. For this reason he warned against the self-deprecatory gag, for after all who wishes to pull down contempt on himself? No one seems to have toldWoody Allen.
The films of Woody Allen are dedicated to the proposition that life is both alarming and boring. Is this possible? Surely alarms are at least interesting? Nothing is interesting in Allen’s imagined world except the nervousness of the mind observing the banality, the sheer invention with which the imagination pictures its cage. The comedy arises constantly from the gap between where we might have been and where we ended up. In the film Love and Death (1975), the hero’s idea of a miracle is that his Uncle Sasha should pick up a check. In one of Allen’s stories, the lack of a sense of humour is defined as believing that Zeppo was the most amusing of the Marx Brothers. When a man tries to rob a bank in Take the Money and Run (1969), he is foiled because he gets into an argument about the handwriting of his stick-up note. In Manhattan Murder Mystery(1993) the Diane Keaton character has a wild idea and is advised to save some of her craziness for the menopause.
Last year, I found myself mildly obsessed with a cache of YouTube clips, featuring the novelists Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace and Nathan Englander at a 2006 literary conference in Italy called Le Conversazioni. Part of what interested me, in a gate-crashing kind of way, was the backdrop: midsummer on the Isle of Capri, with flora aflame and a sky the color of Chablis. Another part, inevitably, was watching Wallace with the knowledge that he would kill himself two years later. Mostly what I kept coming back to, though, was how lighthearted, how loose — how young — these writers seemed here. It’s not that they weren’t already an accomplished quintet, with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award to their credit. But in 2006 the gravitational center of Anglo-American letters still lay back on U.S. soil with Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy and John Updike and Toni Morrison and Philip Roth — those towering figures who, according to a Times survey released earlier that year, produced the greatest American fiction of the previous quarter-century. By comparison, Le Conversazioni might as well have been “The Breakfast Club” and Capri a weirdly paradisiacal high-school library.
In “The West Wing,” employment at the White House was an invitation to a fizzy world of noble intent and screwball comedy. The spawn of William Powell and Myrna Loy aced their F.B.I. security clearances, did the world-altering work of civil seraphim, and strode endless hallways, cracking wise in pools of amber light. As it happens, to work at the White House is to wake each morning in darkness and in dread. It is not only the crises of global moment that shred the nerves. The constant tide of trivia cascading down the BlackBerry screen each morning, through Twitter and Politico, makes an aide’s first sip of coffee taste of acid reflux.
Since the 19th century, the common conception of “the author” has gone something like this: A young man, in his garret, writes furiously, crumpling up papers and throwing them on the floor, losing track of time, heedless of the public, obsessed with his own imagination. He is aloof, elusive, a man whom you know only by his writing and the portrait in his book.