Kass has long believed we face a worrisome “lack of cultural and moral confidence about what makes a life worth living.” His new book, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, is a collection of essays on that theme, many of which first appeared in magazines like First Things, Commentary and the New Atlantis. Different sections of the book deal with love and friendship, human dignity (primarily in the realm of bioethics), learning and teaching, and human aspirations for freedom, justice and righteousness. If you’re anything like me, reading the essays can initially feel like subjecting yourself to an elaborate scolding. Kass takes gratuitous swipes at universities (I’m guilty by association) and liberal intellectuals (guilty by aspiration). He is against wives who don’t take their husband’s last name (guilty), conceptions of marriage that are divorced from procreation (guilty even though I now have kids), gender-neutral individualism (probably guilty), the decline of womanly modesty (probably complicit), and sports fans who focus too much on wins and stats (go Tar Heels).
But it’s worth working past the feeling that Kass is condemning half your life, and trying to understand why he thinks these issues matter. In each case, his judgment is rooted in his sense that humans have a nature that points us toward specific forms of flourishing. This view of human nature comes partly from biology, but Kass derives the majority of it from his reading of philosophy and literature—Hawthorne as well as Aristotle, Shakespeare and Austen. What makes great books great, he believes, is that they contain wisdom about our nature and therefore about the ways we might fulfill it. To make this argument with conviction, as Kass does, is so unusual in contemporary intellectual discourse that it can be quite bracing—even if sometimes unpleasant—to read, like a brisk wind coming down from the mountains. In wrestling with his ideas you may find that you end up wrestling with your own.
“If there were a union for fictionalized characters, they would insist on having sex in a book at least every Friday,” said Allan Gurganus, famous among writing students for his enthusiastic “let’s get it on” philosophy about sex in fiction. “We love our main characters and they stick with us for 350 pages and the least we can do is give them one moment of sexual pleasure.”
It’s been 90 years since Lady Chatterley adulterously wove flowers into her lover’s pubic hair in D.H. Lawrence’s book, to the scandalized delight of readers wily enough to score early samizdat copies. But now that anything goes, now that we’ve seen it all, now that we have PornHub to amuse us on demand, is there anything left to get excited about? Should novelists try to counteract the numbing aspects of porn, as Gurganus advised in an interview, by giving the characters the gift of more active sex lives?
“Frankenstein” is four stories in one: an allegory, a fable, an epistolary novel, and an autobiography, a chaos of literary fertility that left its very young author at pains to explain her “hideous progeny.” In the introduction she wrote for a revised edition in 1831, she took up the humiliating question “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea” and made up a story in which she virtually erased herself as an author, insisting that the story had come to her in a dream (“I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision,—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together”) and that writing it consisted of “making only a transcript” of that dream. A century later, when a lurching, grunting Boris Karloff played the creature in Universal Pictures’s brilliant 1931 production of “Frankenstein,” directed by James Whale, the monster—prodigiously eloquent, learned, and persuasive in the novel—was no longer merely nameless but all but speechless, too, as if what Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley had to say was too radical to be heard, an agony unutterable.
The finest diarists are able to view themselves with the detachment they apply to others. They become, in this sense, their own sharpest biographers, dividing themselves into both observer and observed, audience and performer, hovering eagle-eyed above themselves, ever curious to record, however unfavorably, their own imperfect ways. As Claire Tomalin puts it in her biography of Samuel Pepys: “In writing it down, he detached himself from the self who acted out the scene.”
In her diaries of her years at Vanity Fair, Tina Brown is certainly adept at noting, with her unforgiving eye, the flaws in others. Revulsion brings out the best in her.
The book, through excavating ruins both literal and metaphoric, considers how the past becomes an instrument of the present, how we narrate history to give meaning to our individual lives and construct national mythologies. Accordingly, Radtke forgoes any pretense of objectivity, openly engaging with how she curates the events portrayed in her memoir for her own thematic purpose. Rather than striving for impartiality or uncontested truth, Imagine Wanting Only This presents a different path for memoirs, suggesting they can instead adopt subjectivity as their principal intent and, in turn, provide insight into how we construct personal meaning.
When asked what he thought of his son’s books, Kingsley Amis said: “Martin needs to write more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up and left the room.’” Amis père would approve of many of the sentences in Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, which steps through familiar Barnesian territory, giving us the English suburbs, an aged protagonist looking back over an unfulfilled life, all told in deceptively affectless prose.