Plying Very Strange Cargo


On the back cover of the paperback edition of My Pilgrim’s Progress, George Trow’s second, and ultimately fatal, attempt to trace the line of Western Culture’s post-war descent into inanity, there is a blurb by the literary pundit, Sven Birkerts, that embodies the root of that inanity with uncanny perfection.

It reads:  Trow models the thrilling possibility that one can, from the stronghold of one’s own experience and knowledge, decipher something of the world.

As if there were any other way!

You might be thinking that that sentence could be taken a number of ways, but it’s even worse in context :

It’s an ambitious venture, especially as Trow proceeds with no authorized historical perspectives or terminologies. He goes forth solo, walking into the jungle with his compass and knife, a bit of an old-school anthropologist. What amazes me — and contributes to the true readerly excitement — is that in many ways he pulls it off. He models the thrilling possibility that one can, from the stronghold of one’s own experience and knowledge, decipher something of the world; that the murk of late modernity can be pierced and rendered at least partially comprehensible.

Here is an established public intellectual, one of the men our culture has specifically tasked as an arbiter and caretaker of creativity and free expression, and he is openly professing his amazement that someone could actually make sense of the world without the aid of authorized perspectives and terminologies. As if using one’s subjective experience in that way were somehow a form of illicit thrill-seeking. He might as well be wearing a sign that says, “Don’t think for yourself.” Disgraceful.

Pyramid of Night (Mackay)

Andy Mackay

8 Replies to “Plying Very Strange Cargo”

  1. I admit I find it hard to read this post without being driven into frenzies of theorizing (to paraphrase an old line from P.J. O’Rourke), but I’ll try to restrain myself.

    One thought: perhaps I’m just in a generous mood, but from what little I know of him, I would have taken Birkerts remarks to be ironic: that it is amazing for someone to be able to successfully break through the omnipresent Authorized-Speak that marks this low and lazy age. Or perhaps I just can’t believe that someone would actually say what Birkerts appears to have said.

  2. I dunno. I went over the original review many, many times to make sure I was reading it right. But there really isn’t any other interpretation. It’s a rave review, too — he gets what’s good about Trow’s courageous, quixotic enterprise, and even its rarity — he’s just slobbering with admiration that someone almost pulled of such a crazy stunt.

    People like Birkerts are inexcusably timid — afraid to have an unmediated personal response to anything. And when they do have one, they pooh-pooh it with dismissive terms like “anecdotal.”

    Of course, the larger point here is not about Birkerts (whose inanity has been well catalogued elsewhere, most hilariously by Dale Peck), but about the dominant intellectual consensus he represents, and the disaster that consensus has brought upon us — the idea that rational study, established theoretical frameworks, and the scientific method are the only legitimate ways of describing the world. That is as sad and scary a worldview as I can imagine, but we are all drowning in its impoverishments.

  3. Don’t you dare write any poetry, either. Only highly trained graduates of academic writing programs are allowed to do that. And be taken seriously, that is.

    Your timing is perfect, Philip, as I wander through Infinite Jest and wonder what in hell to say about it in front of an expectant, readerly audience. Maybe amateur isn’t necessarily a bad word.

  4. I think at this point “amateur” would have to be the highest of compliments, no?

    And yes, the oxymoronic (or just plain moronic) rationalization of poetry! It’s the old Platonic dismissal of “the passions” as inferior manifestations of the human soul. It’s a good definition of insanity.

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