Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin
Peter Ackroyd

Not all biographies are of much help in understanding or interpreting an artist’s work, but in the case of Charlie Chaplin some knowledge of where he was coming from is useful. The man’s creative output was a direct consequence and reflection of his unhappy childhood. Raised in poverty, with an alcoholic (soon deceased) father and a mad mother, he quickly had to shift for himself by going on stage. And so in later life he would be obsessed with money and mistrustful of others, becoming a distant father and a self-directed control freak. He was also hard on women (who he both sentimentally idealized and lusted after). As Peter Ackroyd points out, there was much of Dickens here, and a little of Hitler as well. An auteur — and Chaplin was as total an auteur as one could imagine — is a dictator. Ackroyd briskly covers the bases in this short bio, though he avoids any penetrating critical judgments. In preferring to be suggestive, however, he suggests enough.

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Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
Peter Pomerantsev

The most disturbing line in Peter Pomerantsev’s account of his adventures in modern Russia comes right at the end, in an interview with a lawyer fighting Russian corruption. “We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end-point of evolution,” the lawyer explains, and that in their interactions with countries like Russia the West would be negotiating from a position of strength. The Cold War was over, after all, and it was the end of history.

But in fact the West has proven to be highly vulnerable to exploitation by the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-rule of law regimes of the post-Communist world. Indeed, it is the condition of modern Russia that many in the West now openly aspire to: a “postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.” This is all very sad, and more than sad.

Pomerantsev’s Russia is mainly Moscow, a city that seems to be both imploding (with construction projects competing to be ever closer to the imperial centre of the Kremlin) and spreading everywhere at the same time (Pomerantsev works in the television business, TV being “the only force that can unify and rule and bind” such a giant nation). I suppose today we’d also want to include the Internet, but in any case Moscow is where the magic happens. Black magic to be sure, but it’s still not clear how any society can fight the real fake media.

On Saudi Arabia

On Saudi Arabia
Karen Elliott House

Karen Elliott House has several different ways of imagining Saudi Arabia. It is, for starters, “a family corporation,” one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. It is also likened to “a grand hotel,” with Saudi citizens checking in at birth and being kept in an artificial but luxurious lifetsyle by an army of poorly-paid foreign workers. And finally it is a 747 jet, “richly appointed but mechanically flawed . . . losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel.”

Each of these reflects a different characteristic of the truly bizarre Saudi political regime. The real question then becomes how such a dysfunctional state has managed to keep going for so long. There are obvious answers: oil wealth, for starters, and the fact that nobody wants to see the state fail. But House also indicts the character of the people: a “somnolent and passive” population without any tradition of individual initiative or enterprise. In both politics and religion submission to authority is paramount, and freedom is undervalued, when it is given any value at all. House thinks many Saudis find freedom frightening. There is something in this that is more ancient or antique than medieval, but in either case it’s anti-modern and suggests a terrible reckoning when the plane inevitably runs out of gas.

Transparent City

Transparent City
Ondjaki

A work as singular as Transparent City left me with a lot of questions. Foremost among these was where Ondjaki drew his strange prose style from, which abandons all initial capitals and periods.

Whatever its origins, it gives an impression of collage, which fits with the nature of the novel itself: not so much a story as a collection of vignettes relating to life in Angola’s capital, and particularly within one apartment building.

The meaning of transparency is the other major question I was left with. Does Ondjaki mean something like the invisibility of the lower classes — that, as one character puts it, “we’re invisible because we’re poor”? Or is it, as later expressed, that transparency symbolizes a certain authenticity among the people? I think both, and the overlap is probably significant. In the novel it is only one character who is slowly disappearing but he represents a more general cultural erasure, and senses that he suffers “the illness of national malaise.”

War of Attrition

War of Attrition
William Philpott

The First World War is usually described as a war of attrition, and in this general history of the conflict William Philpott takes that as his guiding theme, especially as attrition developed into the war’s “determining strategic principle.” Attrition, however, is more a default setting that any war reverts to when equal sides find themselves in a drawn-out struggle. In 1914 it was a type of war that nobody wanted or initially planned for, and when it finally came to pass with the lockdown on the Western front the opposing sides simply had to make the best of it.

I like how Philpott takes an expansive notion of the concept of attrition, bringing factors like morale into the equation. I don’t go all the way with him, however, in his defence of the generals (most notably Haig) and their hit-and-miss execution of a grim strategy they were forced into. Attrition was a strategy, but perhaps not the only or the best one available. It quite easily could have been a losing strategy for the allies had the U.S. not entered the war. And while the generals are often unfairly criticized for being donkeys, I think equally mistaken is the notion that they were doing as well as could be expected and were at least learning all the time. Some did learn, but some didn’t. Some of those who did only did so very slowly. A fair assessment probably lies somewhere in between. We might at least observe that among the generals few stood out, and there were no heroes.

The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring
Nancy Jo Sales

One’s first thought is that nobody could be so stupid. Not because of the gang’s crimes — which, after all, they managed to pull off without ever being caught — but for the way they talk about themselves. Whatever they were taught in school, if they even went to school, the Bling Ring have to be seen as pure products of reality television and social media.

Then one begins to wonder. This is Hollywood (or close enough) after all. Many of their parents worked in the industry. Could it be that they were just playing at being stupid? Could Paris Hilton be as stupid in real life as the version of herself she plays on TV? And how hard would it be for the role to take over, especially if you imagined your life not as a movie (Neal Gabler had already alerted us to this a decade earlier) but as a reality TV performance? After all, the same transference also happened in the case of the adults, police and lawyers. And while we’re wondering about things,  why don’t the stars lock their doors? It seems there was a lot of stupid to go around.

Nancy Jo Sales seeks to understand. She keeps asking why. The monster of fame? Narcissism? One feels nervous at how much has changed just since 2013. Reviewing some of the research into narcissism presented in The Narcissism Epidemic, Sales expresses concern at how “many of the leading representatives of our dominant culture may have seriously dysfunctional personalities.” Only three years later one of them would be president of the United States.

Obviously celebrity played a big part in the moral calculations made by the gang, but maybe not in the usual way. Of course the only reason anyone cared about these crimes, the reason they were in the news and the reason there was a book and then a couple of movies about them, was because of whose houses were being broken into. But then that was a reason not to care as well. Fame was all that mattered, and in the end it didn’t matter much (even the sentences handed down were derisory). This is the unbearable lightness of being, American style. It’s a true crime story where nothing is real.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire

The Ruin of the Roman Empire
James J. O’Donnell

I like how the subtitle here is “A New History.” It’s such an old story you really have to throw that in. But is it all that new?

The main point O’Donnell wants to make is that Justinian was the author of Rome’s decline and fall with his program of “mad restorationism.” When Justinian came to power it was “arguably the last moment of genuinely ancient history when . . . the totality of what Rome created could still be thought of as one community.” When he died that world lay, if not in ruins, at least irremediably fractured. This, however, is not a wholly original thesis. Justinian has always had plenty of critics, even in his own day. O’Donnell’s own spin is to make Justinian out to be a Hamlet figure.

That’s an interesting analogy, and one of many O’Donnell indulges. Theoderic, for example, is likened to Othello, Theodahad “is a character straight out of Evelyn Waugh,” and Cassiodorus is Doctor Zhivago. You didn’t get as much of this in the Old Histories of the fall of Rome, and while some of it is interesting I felt it mostly to be a distraction from a narrative that didn’t have much new to say.