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What I've Been Reading -- April 2009

With this post, I'm inaugurating an occasional feature on the blog. Think of it as an idiosyncratic monthly book review section. The books I'll mention will often be new(ish), but not always. They will simply be a sample of what I've been reading and thinking about in recent weeks. Hence the unassuming title of the post. 

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009). One of the intellectual highlights of my time as an editor for First Things magazine was publishing the work of David Bentley Hart. Yes, he can be insufferably pompous. (And yes, he was quite happy to serve as Roger Kimball's hit man when it came time for the New Criterion to do its part for the conservative movement and savage my "extremely boring" book.) Still, there is no denying Hart's polemical gifts or his brilliance as a theologian and as an intellectual historian of Christianity. With Atheist Delusions, he has written a learned response to the "New Atheists" (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens) -- writers who, in Hart's view, exhibit astonishing ignorance and superficiality compared to the greatest atheists of the past (Hume, Gibbon, Nietzsche). His book aims to transform the New Atheists' straw-man version of Christianity into a warrior capable of defending himself against antagonists both sublime and ridiculous. Anyone interested in taking the debate about God to the next level should read and reflect on Hart's spirited brief on behalf of Christian truth.   

Michelle Goldberg, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin, 2009). Author of one of the first (and still the most richly reported) books about the American religious right during the early years of this decade (Kingdom Coming), Goldberg has now turned her attention to the rest of the world. In a series of engaging and troubling chapters, she examines the "one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world" -- namely, the view that "women's equality and self-possession" is "unnatural, a violation of the established order." Her book is a sharply critical (and deeply informed) examination of the misogynistic ideas and fears that link Protestant fundamentalists, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics into a global inter-religious movement that aims to curtail the rights of women and stamp out feminist ideals. Highly recommended for those interested in understanding the culture war and/or waging it from the secular-liberal side. 

Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard, 2006) and Open-Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Harvard, 1998). Do you know the work of Jonathan Lear? You should. In an age when a motley crew of feminists, evolutionary and cognitive psychologists, right-wing culture critics, and pharmaceutical and insurance companies have formed an unlikely alliance in furious opposition to Freudian psychoanalysis, Lear (an accomplished philosopher at the University of Chicago and a practicing psychoanalyst) has taken on the important but thankless task of defending Freud against his critics and mounting a sophisticated defense of psychoanalysis as a highly effective method for achieving the ancient philosophical goal of self-knowledge. Open-Minded contains some of his most accessible (and stimulating) essays, one of which was originally published in TNR back in 1995. Radical Hope is something very different -- namely, an attempt to explore (using a mix of philosophical and psychoanalytic concepts) the meaning(s) of a haunting, elliptical utterance of Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Native-American Crow Nation: "When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened." What might Plenty Coups have meant in saying that "nothing happened" after the culture of his people had been destroyed? Lear uses this question as an occasion to reflect both on the fate of the Crow and more broadly on the human capacity to cope with the most shattering of experiences: cultural annihilation. It is a remarkable book, as profound as it is original.

Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh (written in 1939). In the wonderful American Experience biographical documentary of Eugene O'Neill, long-time TNR drama critic Robert Brustein describes The Iceman Cometh as having a "nihilistic vision," and he pairs it with Shakespeare's King Lear, calling them "twin plays." I couldn't agree more. Not to diminish the awful, wrenching greatness of Long Day's Journey into Night, the play usually ranked as O'Neill's finest, but in my view the Iceman surpasses it in both dramatic impact and humanistic depth. O'Neill's ambition in the Iceman is nothing less than to subvert one of the core assumptions of the Western philosophical (and scientific) tradition: that the true and the good are one, or at least compatible with one another. (For more on this theme, see here and here.) The Iceman, in other words, is a profoundly Nietzschean play -- and like Nietzsche's greatest works, it will shake you to the core if you let it. On paper, the play is powerful, but O'Neill's needlessly fussy stage directions and overuse of exclamation points can become a distraction. Much better, of course, is seeing it performed. Unfortunately, though, the play is rarely revived, and even more rarely revived competently. (That'll happen with a four-hour play with an extraordinarily demanding lead role and a dozen significant characters.) The 1973 film is a failure. That leaves the 1960 teleplay version, available on DVD in the magnificent Broadway Theatre Archive series, as your best bet. The image is grainy and the sound often muddy. And some of the performances (including a young and largely unknown Robert Redford in the difficult role of the tortured and treacherous Don Parritt) are uneven. But Jason Robards, in a role he perfected on Broadway, is simply electrifying as salesman Theodore Hickman ("Hickey") -- the "iceman" of the title who makes his friends miserable by insisting that they give up their pipe dreams and face the dark, unadulterated truth about themselves and the world, and who reveals in the course of the play that his own life and sanity are held together by a single, horrible, ineradicable illusion. No one who cares about fine theatre and acting -- or who is fascinated by the seemingly infinite human capacity for self-loathing and self-deception -- should miss Robards's definitive, and chilling, performance of Hickey's 25-minute confession speech in Act 4, which forms the climax of the play. (And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can watch it on YouTube: first here, then here, and finally here.)