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August 28, 2004

Leon Wieseltier, You Blockhead

by Ron Hogan

Let us make every effort to be fair to Leon Wieseltier as he faces the printed criticisms of NYTBR readers in this Sunday's edition, in what will likely prove the tail end of the scummy Checkpoint review controversy. We have Jim Sleeper, who wonders why Wieseltier didn't mention that the neocons pushed for Saddam Hussein's removal even if no links to terrorism could be found. We have Barry Yourgrau, who calls the Bush administration "radical" and laments "the spectacle of our famed free press... sniffily pooh-poohing the fury and anguish we feel as our country gets carjacked down some bumptious and explosive dead end of fundamentalism." Robbie Lee and Nadia Berenstein wonder why the reviewer didn't give more thought to literary concerns when addressing "a work of fiction from one of America's most sensitive, sensible and observant writers." And Elaine Sagal didn't like the "scummy little book" opening.

So how does Wieseltier deal with all this? Essentially by spitting in Jim Sleeper's face and telling him that believing Saddam had WMD was a good enough reason for the war as far as he was concerned, even if it turned out to be wrong. "Did Sleeper know that Hussein was bluffing?" he sneers. "Then it was shameful of him to keep the information to himself." Furthermore, he continues condscendingly, it was necessary to destroy Iraq in order to save it--my characterization of his position, in all fairness, not his actual words--and maybe Saddam would've helped terrorists at some point even if no actual link to al Qaeda can be demonstrated at this time. But here's the kicker:

Anyway, it is not because one admires the president that one should recoil from a book about assassinating him. Once this would have been obvious.

Yes, that's right. The Day of the Jackal, The Manchurian Candidate, Libra, that Frank Sinatra film Suddenly...scummy little works, all. But let's extend the idea further--if assassination of the president (or similarly high authorities) is an unfit topic for literature, why not recoil from fiction that deals with the performance or contemplation of other distasteful acts? In fact, here's an open invitation to Leon Wieseltier to send in a list of subjects he deems unsuitable for tasteful literature, or publish such a list in the pages of The New Republic.

It's not so surprising that he'd duck Yourgrau and Sagal's shots, since there's little room for substantial dialogue with either one, but his refusal to acknowledge the concerns of Lee and Berenstein shows especial high-hattedness. They're absolutely correct to point out that his review made little substantial contribution to a literary understanding of Nicholson Baker's work, and that Wieseltier "seems pathologically unable to consider the book a novel." As they put it, "he locks horns with it as though it were a polemical work, or one of unmediated political commentary." Now, there's room for honest disagreement with them on this point, because Checkpoint is, in my opinion, a polemical work of fiction--not a novel, as I've said before, but a philosophical dialogue in the vein of Rameau's Nephew. And though it has certain interesting tangential dramatic flourishes, it ultimately does not succeed as fiction because very little is at stake; we know Bush isn't dead, so we know Jay didn't kill him, and we can reasonably certain that nothing will happen to Jay that would incapacitate him from taking part in the ongoing dialogue...or, for that matter, take him outside the hotel room as part of the story. (Here, of course, a reader could object, "Well, we all knew De Gaulle wasn't going to get it, either, so why isn't The Day of the Jackal a failure?" Several reasons: the Jackal does more than just talk about killing, so we have a dramatic interest in seeing how far he'll get, particularly once it's established that he'll stop at nothing along the way; Michel Lonsdale must not only stop the Jackal but uncover a flaw in his own organization; and so on.) But Baker's dramatic failures do not excuse the reviewer from thoughtful engagement with Baker's work as opposed to some social trend the reviewer would rather discuss--the simple point that lies at the heart of most thoughtful criticisms of Wieseltier's review. And that he apparently doesn't get that, and chooses to cling to his "my war on Iraq, right or wrong" reasoning, underscores how inappropriate a choice he was for the assignment in the first place.

Actually, you know who I'd have loved to have seen review this? Peter Singer.


I had a teacher who promoted the Tory view of morality in fiction --that "popular entertainment" in particular should avoid giving the masses ideas for doing dangerous things. He singled out Stephen Sondheim as an immoral artist. So I was interested to see that David Ehrenstein, in a weblog entry "fisking" Wieseltier, specifically cited Henry James, Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, and Sondheim as great artists who wrote of assassination.

Wasn't Jim Sleeper among the millions who did publicly express skepticism about the USG's causus belli? The whole "We were all fooled" claim is getting old.

Posted by: Josh Lukin at August 29, 2004 08:23 AM

This is Ehrenstein's blog item, by the way.

Posted by: editor at August 30, 2004 05:50 PM

Yeh --sorry for having left it to you to do the linking work, Editor. Was in hurry.

Posted by: Josh Lukin at August 30, 2004 06:44 PM
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