Much like physics, international relations can be divided into two worlds: a stripped-down, normative world of theory, and a full-fat, often unclear and contradicting “real life.” Like the vacuumed, frictionless world of ideal physics, IR theory streamlines nations into hyper-rational, calculating “State As” and “State Bs” that make decisions predicated upon game theory modeling. These choices always result in the ideal outcome for one or both sides. Meanwhile, IR scholarship of the historical record, analyzing the messiness of the real world, is often content merely to explain how things are, rather than how they should be. Where an IR theory elegantly traces ideal models that vaguely echo real life, pure historical analysis steals bits and pieces of disparate theories to graft a sometimes-contradicting “model” onto the real world.
Midway along the path of life’s journey, I found myself lost in a dark wood.
This is how Dante Alighieri began his epic poem La Comedia, the so-called Divine Comedy, which tracks his journey of the soul through hell, purgatory, and finally into heaven, in a quest to better his own soul. Written in beautiful rhyming Italian and using complex imagery and intricate references, the poem is difficult enough to translate, let alone to reinterpret through dance.
Shirley Jackson was a middling writer of the 1950s—and the fact that she was so damn good at what she did must tell us something about writers and their times. Perhaps what it says is that Jackson has been unfairly ignored by the literary establishment, dismissed as a mere horror writer before her death in 1965 at age 48, and nearly forgotten for years after. Or perhaps what it says is that, although she was good, the era of American literature in which she lived was so rich, so thick with talented writers, that being good just wasn’t good enough.
The question won’t be settled by the new biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Written by Ruth Franklin, a former editor at the New Republic, the book comes resolutely down on the side of Jackson as an unfairly ignored writer.
In his notes for a review of Brideshead Revisited that he never completed, George Orwell remarked that Evelyn Waugh “is about as good a novelist as one can be…while holding untenable opinions.” Orwell puts it in the plural but identifies only one such opinion in Waugh’s Brideshead: His belief in God and assent to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. “One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.”
While not defending Waugh’s Catholicism, Christopher Hitchens took exception with Orwell’s couching of Waugh’s accomplishment in a 2003 piece for The Atlantic. Waugh wrote “brilliantly,” Hitchens argued, “precisely because he loathed the modern world”—a loathing that preceded his conversion to Catholicism (and was used to great effect in Decline and Fall). What Hitchens missed in an otherwise entertaining look at Waugh’s satirical gifts was how Waugh’s Catholicism gave his loathing fuel and complexity.
One does not have to struggle to find a polemic about cultural decline that focuses on the art world. However, Sohrab Ahmari’s The New Philistines stands apart because it examines these questions on serious, philosophic grounds, avoiding the complaining tone of similar works.
Ahmari (who is a London-based editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal) has written a finely argued volume that does not focus so much on the rote messaging inherent in most modern art today. Rather, he shows how the left’s increasingly strict demands for ideological orthodoxy has led to a dearth of creativity and dynamism.
Jack Reacher was one of 2012’s more pleasant surprises. Written and directed by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun), this tightly scripted and surprisingly funny thriller featured a compelling, no-nonsense hero in the form of Tom Cruise’s Reacher and a surprising, chilling, Teutonic villain in the form of legendary director Werner Herzog. It may not have been high art, but it was damn fun.
LAS VEGAS—I don’t know what I will be doing with my time four years from now. Maybe I’ll be in a house on the shore of Lake Superior writing a book that will sell modestly but receive glowing reviews. Maybe I will be playing pedal steel in a country-rock band. Maybe my family will move to Kenya. It is hard to say. Whatever it is, I hope it doesn’t include standing awkwardly in a loud and crowded room trying to ask people I dislike questions I know they can’t answer.