Still, I continue to believe that any critic who wants to write something lasting—who believes that criticism can be a species of literature—must write partly out of aggression. Or perhaps a better word is animus, in the sense of a fixed intention, a partiality. Literary journalism describes and explains literature and ideas as they are—the way Edmund Wilson, a master journalist, explained modernism in Axel’s Castle and Marxism in To the Finland Station. Criticism tries to move literature and ideas in the direction of what should be.
Few critics in history have been more successful in that endeavor than T. S. Eliot, whose poetry and criticism worked in tandem to redefine the way the twentieth century thought about literature. He was the rare writer whose best essays were as significant and influential as his best poems. In the years following World War I, he produced a clutch of masterpieces in both genres: poems like “Gerontion” (1919) and The Waste Land (1922) alternated with essays like “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) and “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921). In his 1932 Norton Lectures at Harvard, Eliot took as his subject “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” and the writers he focused on were almost all poet-critics, from John Dryden in the seventeenth century to Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth. That he himself was the latest, and perhaps greatest, member of this lineage was left implied, but by then it didn’t need to be stated outright.
How many of us today are able to free ourselves from the page and head out the door when we rise from our desks? Even abiding by the dictates of nature, breathing deeply out in the open air as we set our legs into motion, it’s likely we need to accomplish the undertaking as quickly and efficiently as possible. But in so doing, perhaps we still miss the essence of the activity itself. We forego the art of walking.
‘Walking with a purpose’ is usually regarded as a positive thing, taken as a sign that people are focused, with eyes on an end-goal or prize. But the art of walking is not about purpose or aim. As Immanuel Kant maintained, the creation and apprehension of beauty is embodied in ‘a purposiveness without a definite purpose’. The art of walking is all about this purposeless purpose.
Hopefully it hasn’t happened to you while reading this book, but you are probably familiar with the phenomenon of suddenly catching yourself daydreaming while reading. Your eyes travel back and forth across the text, but the information is not being processed. Instead, you are thinking about the vacation you have planned or the argument that you thankfully managed to resolve yesterday. Before you know it, you have reached the bottom of the page, but you have no idea what you have just read. Daydreaming doesn’t usually start at the beginning of a chapter but more likely halfway through (maybe even when you started this paragraph), when you begin to get tired. But don’t worry, you are not alone.
Confident in its brutality, yet contained rather than gratuitous, it introduces readers to both a memorably off-key narrator and a notable new talent.
In recent years, this vision has been challenged by new research and writing. No longer just a binary confrontation, the cold war is being reframed as something much more global and complex; a set of interrelated battles that touched hundreds of millions of lives on every continent.
Lorenz Lüthi’s ambitious Cold Wars is the latest major work to suggest that our understanding and collective memories of the conflict should be reassessed. With 700-odd pages of dense, dry text, it is a heavyweight contribution. Many works by serious modern historians have successfully bridged the gap between the lecture theatre and the airport bookshop without sacrificing intellectual rigour. Lüthi’s book is not among them. This is a shame, because his powerful insights deserve a bigger audience.
Rockland. Glen Cove. Strawberry Hill.
It’s all still there, and Leo Connellan too,