Making Darkness Light

By Joe Moshenska

When the biographer Edmund Morris was given the job of writing an authorized life of Ronald Reagan he found himself at a bit of a loss as to how to draw an honest and accurate picture of the man. In what was a highly controversial move he decided to write Dutch as a fictional historical memoir, telling Reagan’s story from the point of view of a made-up character. Some scenes were also dramatically embellished while others were simply made up.

I had to think of what Morris did in Dutch when reading Joe Moshenska’s new biography of John Milton, Making Darkness Light. Given how much has already been written about Milton, Moshenska found himself feeling a bit like Samuel Johnson, who a quarter-millennium ago faced the same task. Was there anything new to say? And how, in pursuit of that holy grail of every biographer, could he get inside the man?

Moshenska’s answer is to adopt a highly personal approach, and to use a lot of dramatic imagination.

These are both important points that need to be explained. In the first place there is the personal or subjective approach taken to the subject. “The way in which Milton matters to me is now entangled with the whole of my life,” Moshenska begins, “and this means that to write about him, to make any kind of sense of him, is partly to think of his place within this whole.” That is, within the whole of Moshenska’s life, which is what gives this biography its true intellectual context.

I can only write about Milton’s life in his times by reckoning along the way with his place in my own life, in my times. This will mean bringing Milton’s life and his writings into contact with the personal and public worlds that he inhabited, but also showing along the way how his writings have come alive for me . . . If this means staying less than fully focused on the facts of Milton’s life and work, I hope it will be truer to what I see as one of his deepest preoccupations: the place of literature in a life.

What this means in practice is that, for example, Moshenska will not only travel to many of the places where Milton lived or visited, but that he will write directly about his (that is, Moshenska’s) experience as a twenty-first century literary tourist.

Does it work? Only some of the time. The idea that any biographer or historian or literary critic approaches their subject from a particular, personal point of view that colours their interpretation and understanding of the evidence seems trite to me, and doesn’t justify this amount of self-awareness. Reading non-fiction, one cares about the story being told more than finding out about the storyteller. That said, the blending of biography and memoir is a powerful current in our own time, something seen most obviously in the true crime genre recently.

The second point has to do with dramatically imagining scenes from Milton’s life that may or may not have happened. For example, the question of whether Milton actually got to meet Galileo on his trip to Italy is one that’s argued for centuries by scholars, but Moshenska goes ahead and gives us an account anyway, even having the Tuscan artist let the visiting poet gaze through his optic glass. Might this, or something like this, have happened? We can only say that it’s possible. Similarly, when visiting Paris it’s not known if Milton was at a dinner where he sat next to Sir Kenelm Digby. So after presenting an account of the same Moshenska has this to say:

At this point I need to put my cards firmly on the table. What evidence is there that this dinner, or one like it, ever took place? None at all. What evidence is there that he ever met Sir Kenelm Digby, the man next to whom I seated him? Again, none. So why have I troubled you with it? On one level I must own up to some self-indulgence, though of a sort I am happy to defend. Digby is another figure from Milton’s era in whom I have invested many years of thought, whose writings I have read and in whose footsteps I have sometimes travelled. I’ve often been thinking about the two of them at the same time, and so of course they are braided together in my own mind: in this sense, bringing in Digby reflects my own interconnected preoccupations . . .

Because Moshenska has spent a lot of time studying Digby he finds the idea of such a meeting of intellectual opposites, “the polar extremes of seventeenth-century life,” intriguing. It can also help illustrate the nature of those extremes. In this way, like a good historical novel, the dinner scene can be said to aid our understanding of the social and political milieu of Milton’s life, even if it’s wholly imaginary. But one still wants to object: is it true? And if it isn’t, how misleading might all this be?

These two directions taken by Moshenska are what set Making Darkness Light apart as a Milton biography. I will be honest and admit (in a manner that I think Moshenska, who is interested in how reading happens, would appreciate) that they made me feel at times, especially in the early going, like giving up on the book entirely. There are moments when it becomes impossibly precious. What are we to make of a chapter that begins like this:

Where are we?


Vision is doubled, split, one possibility layered over and vibrating with another, but the two refusing to coalesce into a single scene. As if the two eyes are each seeing something different, peering in different directions like the revolving eyeballs of a chameleon, but into entirely different spaces, worlds.

When are we?

No clearer.

Time is what we’re not supposed to notice; it’s what allows our attention to take place, not something to which we attend. But that seems impossible, here. It too is divided; no, rather, it’s overstuffed, full; there seems to be too much of it. Somehow the flow of time wants and manages to do impossibly different things all at once. It races eagerly ahead like a river swollen after rain; it curls around and back on itself like that river’s eddies and whorls, its turbulent pockets and vortices; it seems to want to freeze into ice, hard enough to skate upon, and pause at the moment of its sudden crystalline stillness. None of these can happen, but none of these possibilities will surrender to the others.

This, to make use of a very technical word, is mush. It’s at moments like these that you have to remind yourself you’re reading a critical biography. A subjective, dramatic approach has collapsed into a sort of poetic expressionism, and it’s a long way from telling us anything about Milton.

That said, I can now happily add that I’m glad I stuck with Making Darkness Light. The thing is, when he gets down to talking about Milton, Moshenska proves himself to be an adept, well-informed, insightful, and sensitive reader. When he has a bit of text between his teeth he can really pull. I learned quite a bit, and found myself being led into thinking about Milton in interesting new ways. There were moments of disagreement – I doubt Edward King ever made any kind of an impression on Milton at all, for example – but I can see where Moshenska is coming from. Indeed, where he’s coming from is often, as we’ve seen, the point.

That can be off-putting and overdone, but given the dilemma faced by any scholar writing on a figure as canonical as Milton, labouring under the weight of centuries of critical overload, one has to accept that some risks must be taken in order to create a Milton for our own time. This is something that Moshenska has done, and as co-creators of the cultural moment I think we have to take the good with the bad.

Review first published online February 14, 2022.

When America Stopped Being Great

When America Stopped Being Great
Nick Bryant

Another effort, this time by a Brit, to try to understand what went wrong with America in 2016 and thereafter. That is, how the Age of Trump happened. As the title indicates, the post-mortem looks for continuity, and addresses the question of how much of Trump’s rise was continuous with trends in the Republican Party and how much was a clean break. Bryant sees a through line, calling Trump’s election a revolution “decades in the making.” His was less a hostile takeover and more “a merger and acquisition, with shareholder support and buy-in from a large portion of the customer base.” This is something that had been “brewing for years,” and only came as a surprise to those who had misunderstood and downplayed “the transformative changes that had been overtaking America – politically, economically, culturally and technologically – for the past 50 years.” The roots, in other words, lay in the Reagan revolution. What’s even more disturbing than the process of how we got here, however, is that the “economic, technological and demographic trend-lines all point to politics becoming more polarised and extreme” moving forward. “I fear more American carnage,” Bryant concludes.

Speaking of Universities and The Tyranny of Virtue

By Stefan Collini

By Robert Boyers

Headlines about universities, and the Humanities in particular, being in crisis have gone through several phases just in my lifetime. When I was in university in the late 1980s and early ‘90s what I’ve since come to call the first wave of political correctness was all the rage. Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Sex and Race on Campus (1991) was a founding document, with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) being ur-text. What most of this first wave boiled down to was attributing the crisis in the Humanities to their drifting away from teaching the classics of Western Civilization while taking on a lot of postmodern critical theory.

There was a fuss for a while, but the first wave subsided and for many years after political correctness seemed a spent force: little more than a fad without any lasting relevance or impact.

Honestly, at the time it felt like a safe bet.

But new threats were soon discerned on the horizon. Canadian sociologists James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar wrote a couple of books surveying some of the biggest challenges: Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis (2007) and Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011). The main problem, in their view, had to do with declining academic standards and the value (liberally conceived) of the university experience dropping as a result of government underfunding and the “massification” of higher education. This latter was a messy term that basically just meant there were too many unprepared, unqualified, and unmotivated students entering the system. My response to this at the time was to say that while there may be a lot of negative effects that went along with massification, it was unlikely our system of higher education could continue without it. This is one reason I’ve never been all that upset about bad students, or even students behaving badly (being rowdy on campus, cheating in their courses, etc.). Their tuition helps keep the universities going just as much as anyone’s.

Underlying these different waves of critiques and analyses, the most essential fact to take note of is that university enrollment in the Humanities has been experiencing a pretty steady decline since the 1970s. Indeed, I’ve been reading about this for so long that I only wonder how it is that many departments, like mainstream churches with aging congregations, still manage to keep going.

Item: In December 2021, the CBC reported that at the University of Western Ontario undergraduate enrollment in the department of Arts and Humanities had dropped by 28 per cent over the last decade.

Item: Writing in the New Yorker, also in December 2021, Louis Menand casually dropped the following alarming numbers:

Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in English fell by twenty-six per cent, in philosophy and religious studies by twenty-five per cent, and in foreign languages and literature by twenty-four per cent. In English, according to the Association of Departments of English, which tracked the numbers through 2016, research universities, like Brown and Columbia, took the biggest hits. More than half reported a drop in degrees of forty per cent or more in just four years.

Forty percent (or more!) in only four years? So . . . in another six years there effectively won’t be any degrees being awarded? Or will things level off at some point? A point, I might add, well below where these departments could be sustained.

An earlier signpost was the 2005 PBS documentary Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, which had a companion volume of essays edited by Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow. Declining by Degrees looked at the higher education industry from a bunch of different angles, beginning with the observation that most people don’t really know what’s going on at universities these days, leaving them “Teflon-coated [and] remarkably immune to criticism.”

If that was true in 2005, and I don’t think it was, it’s certainly no longer the case today amid the tsunami of second-wave PC. Meanwhile, the higher ed industry has been finding itself under increasing financial pressure at the same time as its consumer base, the middle class, was being squeezed more than ever. Those declining enrollment numbers? They’re also an accounting problem.

My use of words like “industry” and “consumer base” in this context is deliberate. That isn’t the sort of language we feel is appropriate to define the mission of our universities. But as David L. Kirp puts it in his Declining by Degrees essay, lacking

a principled defense of nonmarket values, higher education may degenerate into something far less palatable than a house of learning that – as a prophetic report on undergraduate education put it nearly two centuries ago – is “attuned to the business character of the nation.” It may degenerate into just another business, the metaphor of the higher education “industry” brought fully to life. Should that scenario come to pass, America’s undergraduates will be among the biggest losers. But if there is to be a less dystopian future, one that revives the soul of this old institution, who is to advance it – and if not now, when?

It’s a question that’s been hanging now for nearly twenty years. And in truth it’s been kicking around for longer that. One person who has tried to come up with a response is Stefan Collini, whose essays on the subject are collected in Speaking of Universities. What Collini focuses on are the metaphors Kirp mentions, the language of free-market fundamentalism and of instrumental vs. ideal visions of higher education. The adoption of the language of the market is part of a “great mud-slide” in the vocabulary we use to talk about universities, making it “difficult to find a language in which to characterize the human worth of various activities, and almost impossible to make such assessments tell in public debate.” This is key for Collini, a literary scholar by training and someone sensitive to the different ways language can be used to frame a debate (one chapter in Speaking of Universities is given over to a brilliant close-reading of a government White Paper). For example, the particular debate he’s most invested in, the funding system of British universities, is one now conducted largely in the terms of the market economy, with universities being defined in terms of their contributions to economic growth and how well they serve the needs of industry and commerce.

The matter of funding is indeed important, and ties in with related questions like that of student debt relief in the U.S. No amount of idealism and appeals to nonmarket values will make these issues go away, and there seem to be no practical solutions available. The rising costs of higher education might beggar any attempt at funding or relief. For years now university has been becoming more expensive at a rate far outstripping inflation. Between the end of the Reagan and Obama presidencies, the period of crisis that most of these analyses cover, the cost of attending higher education rose eight times more than wages. Thomas Frank in Rendezvous with Oblivion is worth quoting at length here:

One thing defenders of the humanities don’t talk about very much is the cost of it all. In the first chapter of her 2010 book Not for Profit, for example, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum declares that while the question of “access” to higher ed is an important one, “it is not, however, the topic of this book.”

Maybe it should have been. To discuss the many benefits of studying the humanities absent the economic context in which the humanities are studied is to miss a pretty big point. When Americans express doubts about whether (in the words of the Obama pollster Joel Berenson) “a college education was worth it,” they aren’t making a judgment about the study of history or literature that needs to be refuted. They are remarking on its price.

Tellingly, not a single one of the defenses of the humanities that I read claimed that such a course of study was a good deal for the money. The Harvard report, amid its comforting riffs about ambiguity, suggests that bemoaning the price is a “philistine objection” not really worth addressing. The document produced by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences contains numerous action points for sympathetic legislators, but devotes just two paragraphs to the subject of student debt and tuition inflation, declaring blandly that “colleges must do their part to control costs,” and then suggesting that the real way to deal with the problem is to do a better job selling the humanities.

Ignoring basic economics doesn’t make them go away, however. The central economic fact of American higher ed today is this: it costs a lot. It costs a huge amount. It costs so much, in fact, that young people routinely start their postcollegiate lives with enormous debt loads.

This is the woolly mammoth in the room. I know that the story of how it got there is a complicated one. But regardless of how it happened, that staggering price tag has changed the way we make educational decisions. Quite naturally, parents and students alike have come to expect some kind of direct, career-prep transaction. They’re out almost three hundred grant, for Christ’s sake – you can’t tell them it was all about embracing ambiguity. For that kind of investment, the gates to prosperity had better swing wide!

No quantity of philistine-damning potshots or remarks from liberal-minded CEOs will banish this problem. Humanists couldn’t stop the onslaught even if they went positively retro and claimed their disciplines were needed to understand the mind of God and save people’s souls. The turn to STEM is motivated by something else, something even more desperate and more essential than that.

What is required is not better salesmanship or more reassuring platitudes. The world doesn’t need another self-hypnotizing report on why universities exist. What it needs is for universities to stop ruining the lives of their students. Don’t propagandize for your institutions, professors. Change them. Grab the levers of power and pull.

What change does Frank want to see the professoriate effect by grabbing those levers of power though? Lowering the cost of higher education isn’t going to be in their self-interest. And while I think Collini’s analysis of the language we use to frame the way we talk about universities is spot on, I agree with Frank that the cost, and even more than that the inflation in the cost, of a university degree is the woolly mammoth in the room. When I attended university nearly forty years ago I could easily make enough to pay for my tuition, rent, and supplies (meaning everything from books to groceries) with the money I made working at a park over the summer, and part-time during the school year doing odd jobs. I don’t think that’s remotely possible for most students today.

The current state of debate over universities has gone in yet another direction, however, taking us back to relive an earlier crisis in the Humanities. What I mean is the furor over wokeism and cancel culture and Marxism in the academy, which first crested in the early 1990s with that first wave of political correctness. Those glory days are back with a vengeance now, making the idea of universities as Teflon-coated and immune to criticism seem positively quaint. It’s hard to think of a more public battleground.

Why? Because the cannonades of the culture wars are immensely popular. As the Internet has shown, pushing the buttons of outrage is like a drug. No surprise then that The Tyranny of Virtue by Robert Boyers (another English professor) only takes flight when he starts banging his enemies on the head. Those enemies are the commissars of a new political orthodoxy or groupthink consensus “that takes it to be an unconscionable violation of propriety to raise serious questions about anything that has even remotely to do with race or identity when the relevant issues have been officially agree on by a duly constituted, administratively sanctioned program or committee.” Diversity has become a loaded buzzword, as “at most institutions ‘diversity’ does not refer to diversity of opinion, and . . . diversity officers are often appointed chiefly to ensure that a party line be promulgated and enforced.” What this leads to is a “total cultural environment” (Boyers borrows the term from Lionel Trilling) that sounds like something out of 1984:

What does “a total cultural environment” look like? In the university it looks like a place in which all constituencies have been mobilized for the same end, in which every activity is to be monitored to ensure that everyone is on board. Do courses in all departments reflect the commitment of the institution to raise awareness about all of the approved hot-button topics? If not, something must be done to address that. Are all incoming freshmen assigned a suitably pointed, heavily ideological summer reading text that tells them what they should be primarily concerned about as they enter? Check. Does the college calendar feature – several times each week, throughout the school year – carefully orchestrated consciousness-raising sessions led by human resources specialists trained to facilitate dialogues leading where everyone must agree they ought to lead? Check. Do faculty recognize that even casual slippages in classrooms or extracurricular discourse are to be met with condemnation and repudiation? See to it. Is every member of the community primed to invoke the customary terms – “privilege,” “power,” “hostile,” “unsafe” – no matter how incidental or spurious they seem in a given context? Essential. Though much of the regime instituted along these lines can seem – often does seem – kind and gentle in its pursuit of what many of us take to be a well-intentioned indoctrination, the impression that control and coercion are the name of the game is really hard to miss.

Has it really come to this? I honestly can’t say, as most of what I know about what goes on in universities – meaning what really goes on, on a day-to-day basis, and not the sort of stuff that gets reported on – I only pick up second hand. But my gut feeling is that the kind of thing Boyers describes, an almost violent insistence on performative virtue as the coin of the academic realm, is like the twitch of a death nerve. Tests of moral purity have become a proxy for a sense of public relevance and self-worth.

The future of the Humanities, at least in their academic form, can be summed up in a word: contraction. This is the reversing of the movement toward “massification” that characterized the boom years of academe. It is, in fact, a process that is already well under way, as evidenced by the declining enrollment numbers. The experience of contraction, on the ground as it were, is both depressing and painful to experience for academics, and making matters even worse is the fact that the workplace has become more bitterly divided than ever between the haves and have-nots. In such a toxic environment it’s no surprise that the temperature has risen so much.

I’m glad I went to university when I did. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun now, and the new directions taken by the Humanities seem to me to be less politically (in)correct than a total waste of time. Talking with today’s undergraduates, it seems as though they’re not reading much of anything. I recently talked to one second-year history student who honestly didn’t know how to sign a book out of the library. This is another major contributor to the crisis of the Humanities: our turning away from a culture of reading. Whatever else they may be, the Humanities are essentially text-based courses of study, which makes them seem positively archaic now.

But even the diminished rump that’s left of the Humanities today is probably unsustainable. In other words, things are not likely to get better. All the railings against cultural Marxism and woke campuses may be inspired by legitimate causes for concern, but in the end they are only sound and fury. Postmodernism is as much a bogeyman today as it was in the ‘90s, and that’s coming from someone who was no fan of it then either. But even better models for funding, however well-intentioned, will do nothing to arrest the current decline. The crisis of the Humanities is being driven by broader economic and cultural forces, ones that universities can do little to influence and nothing to stop.

We might still, however, find something worthwhile in the final episodes of what has been a long-running drama that was not without some good seasons. If we live in an age of diagnostics and elegies, these are at least respectable intellectual and artistic occupations, and can be of some consolation in dark times.

Review first published online January 25, 2022.

Liar’s Circus

By Carl Hoffman

I wasn’t expecting much out of Liar’s Circus, a bit of investigative and immersive journalism by Carl Hoffman that recounts his time spent on the road attending a series of Trump rallies in 2019. I’d read so many books on Trump, Trump voters, and the Trump phenomenon that I didn’t think there was anything new to be said.

But after setting out on his “journey into the heart of darkness” and by the end concluding that he had indeed “been to Hades, to Mordor, had looked darkness in the eye,” Hoffman had managed to make me think the trip worthwhile. To be sure, the interviews with all the kooks and crazies and conspiracy nuts have by now become commonplace. One suspects that the rally attendees are performing as much as their leader. Do these people really believe in Satanic baby-killing rituals presided over by Hillary Clinton? Or that Michelle Obama is a man? It seems that at least among the crowd Hoffman chose to hang out with the answer is yes. Is that “terrifying” though, as the subtitle would have it, or just sad? Sad in an individual I think, but terrifying in the mass.

As familiar as the crazy seems, it’s fair to ask how representative it is. This is a point that Hoffman himself puzzles over. The die-hard Trump followers he engages with, who travel about the country going to every rally they can, might not be typical Trump voters. “In a way they all seemed too extreme to represent a good cross-section of Trump’s supporters,” he says at one point, before immediately checking himself. “But that’s wasn’t true. They were only slightly exaggerated versions of archetypes I came across repeatedly.” “The nonsensical conspiracy absurdity wasn’t espoused by some tiny percentage of rally goers, but by the vast majority of them.” Which makes sense when you think that they were getting it directly from the president himself.

The most valuable parts of the book, however, come from Hoffman’s deeper analysis, undertaken in the spirit of cultural anthropology. “I’d spent much of my career traveling the globe to understand cultures that were deeply unfamiliar to me, and suddenly my own felt nearly as foreign as that of the pygmies in the Ituri Rainforest of the Congo.” This alienation is not unlike that of the people he immerses himself among, who also feel as though the America of a previous generation had disappeared, but while Hoffman can empathize to a degree, and understand their cultural dislocation and alienation, he finally has no sympathy for the Trump fanatics. A Trump rally is a sort of religious revival, a Third Great Awakening, but the people have come to worship a Bronze or Orange Calf.

This is fine as far as it goes, and Hoffman is particularly good on the religious angle and the way a shift in the economy has affected an entire culture. There are people who desperately want to feel like they have more control over their lives, who want politicians more responsive to their needs and who will listen to them. But I think the identification of the Trump voter as “working-class white males without a college education” doesn’t go far enough. If this is all there was to Trump’s support then he would have disappeared long ago. The fact is, Trump also has his supporters among the affluent and well-educated, and even among minorities. I think the key question to ask is what he represents for them.

I say “represents” because Hoffman’s conclusion is that Trump himself is a complete zero.

Trump’s rise to power showed that America was just like everywhere else. We were no more immune to COVID-19 than we were to autocracy, corruption, and base idiocy. Trump was, in fact, the opposite of heaven-sent. A no one. He had cheated at everything. He had lost enormous sums of money, his own and other people’s. He didn’t read. Knew nothing of history. Had no judgment or honor. So much of his identity was simply the creation of a reality television producer, Mark Burnett.

It was Burnett who gave America the mythical figure of Trump the successful businessman. He wasn’t, but he played one on TV and I think for a lot of people that honestly came to the same thing. But I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Trump was a blank slate for his followers to project upon. This brings me back to the point about Trump voters being a broader coalition than just a group of bitter losers in the new economy. He certainly appealed to this demographic – a notorious scofflaw who could offer a kind of absolution from personal responsibility while blithely insisting that failure was winning – but there was more to it than that.

What Trump tapped into was an anger that cut across socioeconomic and even racial lines. That said, Trump’s rallies are overwhelmingly white, and the most disturbing scene in Hoffman’s book comes when a Black woman is hounded out of the line waiting to get into one of the rallies. “It was the purest racism I’d ever witnessed,” he writes, as the mask of bonhomie slips from the crowd.

Four years earlier Alexander Zaitchik had followed a course very similar to Hoffman’s, covering Trump’s 2016 campaign in The Gilded Rage and describing a group psychology dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. This has become a chronic condition in what Pankaj Mishra identified, correctly I believe, as an Age of Anger. It’s present on the left and right, among liberals and conservatives (whatever those terms mean today), and in the U.S. among Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s great achievement was in managing to seize the commanding heights of the anger economy. The rage machine of Twitter fit him perfectly, and he was someone that many people who had quite justifiably found traditional politicians unresponsive and unrepresentative could identify with.

Hoffman is “strangely optimistic” that America can move on. “From the great wound of Donald J. Trump, I hoped there might be an opportunity for wisdom.” I see no good signs. The conditions that gave rise to the politics of rage and resentment are going to get worse, and Trump did much to knock down the existing political and moral guardrails. We haven’t reached the bottom yet. In fact, I think we’re just getting started.

Review first published online January 17, 2022.

The Apollo Murders

By Chris Hadfield

It’s tried-and-true advice for authors, especially new ones, to write about what they know. As Chris Hadfield is probably Canada’s best-known astronaut, and a former commander of the International Space Station, it’s a rule he was happy to follow in writing his first novel, The Apollo Murders.

The year is 1973, and in this alternate history the Cold War is still burning hot and is now being projected into space with the Soviets building an orbiting spy station while looking to mine the Moon for precious radioactive minerals. With Apollo 18 (the real Apollo missions ended at 17) the U.S. is out to frustrate these plans. It may be that the Soviets are one step ahead though, as they already have someone inside the Apollo program.

That’s the basic plot, and it’s solid. Where The Apollo Murders really sets itself apart though is in the level of detail Hadfield includes. And this isn’t just the usual hard-SF business of explaining fancy technology and dropping loads of acronyms on the reader (though there is plenty of that). Instead, what Hadfield brings to the table is how such a space adventure might feel.

It’s experiential SF brought home on a practical, tactile level. Things begin with a rush: a prologue written in the first person with a jet pilot having to make an emergency landing after losing his eye in a mid-air collision with a seagull. From there we proceed to the launch of Apollo 18 and the “Wham!” “Slam!” of staging, a physical gut-check which is likened to “crashing into a wall.” Then there are such mundane matters as the flatulence caused by the drop in air pressure in the cabin and the effect of throwing up inside one’s spacesuit (“the stink, the smeared visor, the stomach acid getting into their eyes, and trying not to inhale any of the floating chunks and bile”).

This isn’t window-dressing. The question of what to do with a corpse in space comes up at one point, and how it is dealt with plays a part in the plot. In such a confined space the smell and bloating are matters that have to be addressed.

None of this detail slows the book down. Time and again Hadfield shows how little things, like a missing lock wire on a nut or a sneeze while soldering one of the spaceship’s communications devices, have a huge impact. And some of the technical details can be fascinating in themselves. The description of the damage caused by bullets fired in space really freshens up one action scene.

The Apollo Murders is a hefty first novel but Hadfield’s clear enthusiasm for the subject is its rocket fuel. At one point in the early going a pair of characters turn away from watching a lunar training vehicle doing a practice run to look at a jet taking off because “Pilots like airplanes.” Hadfield obviously likes airplanes, and rockets and spaceships too. It’s a feeling that’s infectious, and one that takes us on quite a ride.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, October 14 2021.

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife
Bart Ehrman

The concept of an afterlife that includes a judgment resulting in our eternal reward and/or punishment is so much a part of the Western cultural tradition that it’s hard to think ourselves back into its original historical context. Bart Ehrman presents that context with admirable clarity, though I think he strains a bit too hard in his insistence on some points. The afterlife was a concept that evolved over time, and the Bible, a book (or books) written over a long period shows some of that evolution, as do the writings of the early Church fathers — who were trying to forge a theology that was moral and just — in the second and third centuries CE. It should come as no surprise then that a lot of the language reflects a theology in flux, as can be seen in Ehrman’s discussion of what Paul might have meant by being raised a spiritual body.

As great a job as Ehrman does in giving order to a complicated story, it’s not possible to smooth out all the wrinkles. From my own reading I think it likely that Jesus did share in the belief, which was current at the time, of some sort of posthumous reward and punishment. I get the feeling that the notion of death as simple extinction fits better with Ehrman’s own, contemporary point of view. But as always when discussing these matters, much remains open to interpretation.

On Consolation

By Michael Ignatieff

Even the happiest life is filled with disappointments, heartaches, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And in such dark times we turn to others, both the living and the dead, for consolation, comfort, hope, and understanding.

Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation presents a series of thoughtful essays on some of the great works of consolation in the Western tradition, from essays and speeches to painting (El Greco) and music (Mahler), taking us chronologically from the Book of Job to Cicely Saunders, a British doctor who was a pioneer in palliative care.

The fact that there is such a tradition is essential to Ignatieff’s argument about how consolation connects us. The authors of the Psalms are our contemporaries, even if we don’t share their faith. A “chain of meaning” going back over two millennia carries the message that “we are never alone when we face pain and loss. There is always someone who has been there before, who can share the experience.”

If consolation is social in this sense, it is also intensely personal. Ignatieff deals with both private and public forms of consolation but clearly thinks the former more important, taking his cue from Samuel Johnson’s boast that “Public affairs vex no man.”

This might seem an odd position to take given Ignatieff’s own involvement in politics, but Cicero’s public spiritedness is here characterized as a kind of toxic masculinity, Condorcet is shown being destroyed by the Revolution that betrayed him, and Marx’s vision of a transformed society is written off as a delusion neither attainable nor to be desired. Political leaders can offer words of comfort at moments of crisis, but more often what we need is consolation from politics, an affirmation of the value of the individual in the face of oppression.

As you should expect in any book looking at 2,500 years of big questions relating to the meaning and purpose of life, there are some blips along the way. The idea that Stoic philosophy made no universal claims and was exclusively written by and for a Roman elite might have surprised Epictetus, for one.

Then there is the problem of fuzzy language. Words of consolation are notoriously easy to say, and unless they move us through force of rhetoric or the speaker’s character they only register as platitudes. Anyone writing about consolation will have trouble avoiding this, and Ignatieff can slip into banality, like quoting the words of a “wise friend” that “doubt is to certainty as shadow is to light.” That’s not a bit of wisdom for the ages.

Does consolation work? The passage of time probably does more to assuage the pain of grief and loss. Ignatieff also admits that today we are more likely to speak of self-help and therapy, as “consolation has largely passed out of the modern vocabulary.” What this erudite and heartfelt survey reminds us of though is that the need for consolation is timeless, as are the inspiring words and examples of those who walked this path before us.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 12 2021.


By Steve Benen

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, gearing up for that year’s presidential election, the Republican Party took the remarkable step of not issuing any kind of party platform, choosing just to recycle what they ran on in 2016. This became known as the “whatever Trump says” platform.
Give Steve Benen high marks for prophecy then, as the convention took place after he had finished writing Impostors, which concludes with a chapter criticizing the GOP for now being a post-policy (and hence post-platform) political party.

Clearly then what happened at the Convention wasn’t any kind of a break with the direction things had been going for some time. Trump was an accelerator but didn’t change a trajectory that Benen sees Republicans as having been on for some time. About the only change is in the shamelessness of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican Party. If hypocrisy is the price vice pays to virtue then in the twenty-first century the cost had become too high. When it came to governing responsibly, the words “not even interested,” “didn’t even care,” and “not even trying” become almost a mantra in Benen’s book. “On climate policy,” for example, the GOP made it “clear that it is unwilling to even pretend to be a governing party.” Uninterested in data or facts or really much of anything, they are without positions that can even be debated. They govern, in so far as they govern at all, in profoundly bad faith.

But perhaps this isn’t being quite fair, or not cynical enough. If one takes as a starting point the view that sees the GOP as being a wrecking crew, looting the till, determined only to dismantle the state and sell off whatever’s left for scraps, then that counts as a sort of anti-policy. This was what being the Party of No meant. President Obama had enacted what were generally successful policies with regard to Iran (the nuclear deal), border security, and health care. Trump, who hated Obama much as he tended to hate everyone and everything, set about tearing all of this down, but with no apparent intention of “even trying” to replace it with anything. There’d be no “beautiful” new Republican health care plan, no new deal with Iran, and no wall on the Mexican border.

It’s telling that under Trump the party had two overarching goals: tax cuts and deregulation (dismantling the state) and stacking the judiciary (not in order to enact any kind of policy agenda but to stay in power). Once these had been achieved, however, “the governing cupboard was bare.” Even conservative commentators expressed surprise at how little there really was on the agenda. “It would be a mistake to assume Republicans are incapable of effective policy making,” Benen concludes. But aside from rigging elections through voting rights legislation and gerrymandering (the point of the judicial appointments) they’re not much interested in anything else.

Impostors is a damning indictment of the contemporary Republican record. Whatever one thinks of the Democratic policies adopted during the Obama years, they were at least substantive and serious enough to be engaged with. One could judge them on their merits, and tweak them where needed. A post-policy party is a different beast. “Ours is an ailing political system that needs more than one governing party to recover,” Benen concludes. I think it more likely that this is how it all ends.

Review first published online December 6, 2021.

Dante’s Indiana

By Randy Boyagoda

Written in the early fourteenth century, the Comedy of Dante Alighieri (only later designated as “Divine”) is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in any language. One test of that status in our own time is the continuing popularity of its many translations into English and its widespread presence in contemporary culture.

Randy Boyagoda’s Dante’s Indiana, the second volume of a projected trilogy about a Toronto academic named Prin, takes that ongoing process of cultural assimilation as a starting point.

Following closely on the events of the previous novel, Original Prin, things kick off here with Prin experiencing a full-blown mid-life crisis. He has, in the language of Dante, lost his way. His marriage is under stress, and when a trip abroad leaves him with PTSD and unemployed he finds himself taken on in an advisory capacity by a family-run packaging business whose patriarch is building a Dante-inspired theme park in Terre Haute, Indiana whose goal is “to put fun back in the fear of God.”

Chaos ensues as the opening of the theme park runs into the buzz saw of life in twenty-first century America. Terre Haute is caught in the grips of the opiate epidemic and race riots break out when a young Black man is killed by the police. All of this has an immediate impact on the team Prin has joined at the park, and while he tries to keep everything on schedule he has to also juggle his disintegrating life. Prin’s family is threatening to come apart as he has to manage a long-distance relationship while an old boyfriend is making moves on his wife.

It’s the emphasis on family that connects all of the different stories in Dante’s Indiana. One of Prin’s co-workers has a daughter who is a heroin addict. The family of the murdered teen is another focal point, as is a Sri Lankan family that wants to adopt Prin.

Dante himself was married with children, but they don’t figure at all in the Comedy. He was interested in genealogy, but not family in the nuclear sense.

This is enough to let you know that Boyagoda isn’t interested in writing a modern version of the Comedy, on the order of what James Joyce did with Homer in Ulysses. He’s telling a story of redemption, but not following any formal model laid down by Dante, or even alluding to the Comedy much beyond a few obvious winks.

Still, given the precedent being invoked it’s clear that Boyagoda set himself a challenge, and it’s one that he’s up to. It is, for example, notoriously hard for writers to represent or evoke the sense of smell, but Boyagoda makes it seem easy with a series of apt similes: tap water in a public school that “smelled like flat Coke,” a truck interior that smells “like a lemon grove of baby wipes,” and fast food that gives a car an odour “like steaming bodies.”

This is the sort of imaginative verbal panache that in our own vernacular pays tribute to Dante as literary guide. As a spiritual guide the link is harder to make out, mainly because Boyagoda wants to explore domestic virtues – caring, mutual support, stability – that Dante was less interested in. The classics, however, are always reimagined in ways that respond to the personal anxieties and public crises of our own time. In the shattered funhouse of the twenty-first century we have to to redefine the content of a faith that sustains.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 3 2021.


Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland

At the funeral ceremonies for the “dashing” Germanicus Julius Caesar in 19 CE the mood of the Roman populace started turning ugly – something his uncle, the princeps Tiberius, couldn’t help but be aware of. “Clinging as he was to the ears of the wolf, Tiberius could feel the rising of its hackles, sense the baring of its teeth, smell the hunger on its breath. He knew that it wanted meat.”

That sort of writing is typical of Tom Holland at his worst, the sort of thing that I described in my note on Millennium as being “stuffed with overwrought scenery and repetitive rhetorical emphases.” You could argue, however, that the style suits the tabloid/soap opera subject matter. The lurid history of the Julio-Claudian line is gone over again here with lots of dash and brio but in a way that will probably leave readers wanting something more substantial.