Book Review: Four Freedoms

Heading into my read of an advance review copy of John Crowley's forthcoming Four Freedoms, I was unsure what to expect. The publisher's blurb told me that it was a book about "a disabled man...among a crowd of women" at "the height of World War II." It didn't seem obvious that this scenario would be a setting suited to the artful exploration of ideas I had enjoyed in the author's AEgypt cycle, a set of four novels that develop a complexly interwoven text about the human experience of magic and the magic of human experience. I needn't have worried.

The Four Freedoms of the title are the ones articulated in FDR's 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The fact that the novel is divided into four parts suggests a correspondence, but there's no obvious one-to-one relationship between those parts and the freedoms. They seem more like the four movements of a symphony, and here is the key to the esoteric dimension of Four Freedoms: the Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales (1808) of Charles Fourier. Crowley is very coy about this element of the novel--unlike his free admission of the historical and scholarly grist for his mill in AEgypt--he never even mentions Fourier by name, either in the novel or in the afterword that discusses his research sources. Still, the unavoidable fact is that Four Freedoms character Pancho Notzing's "Bestopianism" is Fourierist though and through: a magical ur-socialism founded in "Passionate Series" generating "Harmony" through the satisfaction of dynamic and heterogeneous desires. Pancho himself is even a biographical cipher for Fourier. Where Fourier was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had a career as a traveling salesman, Pancho is retiring from a career as a traveling salesman of luxury cloths.

The Theory of Four Movements is Fourier's earliest and most bewildering exposition of his system. The mouvements themselves are enumerated only in a footnote and some brief glossary material, where they are given as social, human, animal, and organic--in descending order. The hierarchy of the Fourierist movements perhaps accounts for the sparing but curious use of the first-person plural in the frame of Four Freedoms. The "we" narrating the novel could be the collective identity of the quasi-phalanx of the Van Damme Aero manufacturing plant, a "Temporary Harmonious Zone"--cousin maybe to Hakim Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone.

Both the little society of the Ponca City plant and the greater society of WWII America with its socialized command economy are especially worth readers' attention at a time when the US is confronted with a need to fundamentally reorganize its material and industrial bases. The historical setting of Four Freedoms is bracingly topical while we confront a "great recession" or even "greater depression" that seems bound to displace what "postwar" generations have been taught to consider the American "way of life." A gasoline ration of four gallons per week? That was a reality of the home front.

I cried once in the course of reading this book. If it has that effect on anyone else, I wouldn't necessarily expect it to be at the same place: there's a lot emotional power distributed through many personal stories over the course of the novel. As I have come to expect from Crowley, his narrative voice is sure--both efficient and beautiful--and his characters are compelling. The plot is largely subordinate to the characters, and tends to fan out from them in individual tributaries of memory, told to one another or simply recalled.

Crowley's AEgypt (especially as read backwards from the final realizations of Endless Things) can be considered a meditation on "neurodiversity": the idea that there are many necessarily partial and complementary ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Four Freedoms can be read as a corresponding exploration of physical diversity expressed through sex, age, disability, and race. But this is no moralizing, didactic exercise. I recently had a conversation with a literal fellow traveler on an airplane, regarding the importance of storytelling in the learning process. The stories in Four Freedoms can remind us of the kind of learning we all need to do, and that we will do whenever we remember our diverse radical passions.

race and the path to the Presidency

During this election's Democratic primaries, Clinton surrogate Geraldine Ferraro trotted out the ridiculous claim that Obama was "lucky to be black." She suggested that racial minority status of itself gave Obama an advantage with the electorate. That was and is false on its face: racism is alive and well throughout the US in varying degrees, and all other things being equal, a white candidate can be expected to trounce a black one in appealing to the voters. (What's more, Ferraro's remark was designed to cater to and inflame white resentment toward successful blacks.)

But I was reminded of that "luckiness" when reading what blogger Hilzoy recently wrote:
This season, Obama has had the good fortune to run against two people who held the peculiar belief that they were entitled to the Presidency, and who, as a result, badly underestimated him. The fact that he seems to never let that condescension get to him, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with luck, and everything to do with temperament and character. Since I agree with McCain that we will need a steady hand at the tiller in the years to come, I'm glad to see it.
It seems to me that the temperment and character to brush off such condescension could be the result of a lifetime staring white priviledge in the face and overcoming it routinely.

Elijah Siegler: "God in the Box: Religion in Contemporary Television Cop Shows"

Siegler's study was anthologized in God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture (eds. Mazur & McCarthy). I read and critiqued it for a seminar I'm just finishing.

Siegler states his goal at the outset: “This study is an effort to make sense of this kind of intrusion of religious language, symbols, and themes into the secular venue of the TV cop show.” (p. 199) He begins with a rueful review of the extent to which previous studies of television have ignored its content or assumed its uniformity. Siegler doesn’t seem interested in arguing for television as an overall cultural force for good, but he does propose to vindicate it as “a locus for real thought about serious religious issues,” using three critically-lauded 1990s police dramas as his case in point. (p. 200)

Read more...Collapse )

Since I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, current events have fueled my animus on the topic.

(no subject)

As I arrived home, I was climbing the dimly-lit back stairs to the apartment and saw something dark and shapeless at my feet. Picking it up, I saw it was a black t-shirt. I have a few black t-shirts of my own, and this path is one my laundry travels, so I brought it inside to better light in order to determine if it was mine. By the time I was through the door, I was already suspicious of the unfamiliar detergent scent, but I went ahead and turned it right-side-out to reveal the printing on the front: "I once was lost, but now am found."

I laughed to myself, not found by anyone that wanted you! And I tossed it back out on to the banister.

(no subject)

Months before Rowling's fans were able to blog their disappointment or outrage over the terminal Harry Potter book, my wife was expressing some rue and quiet lamentation over Endless Things, the fourth and final volume of John Crowley's Aegypt. These books have been published over a twenty-year period, and I read the first volume myself in the late 1980s, taking in the second and third each within a year of their issuance. In light of my intelligent wife's evident dissatisfaction, it was with some trepidation that I finally
embarked upon the last of them.

Crowley's prose is gorgeous as always, and littered with wonderful observations. The scholars of esotericism who have so informed the writing of the three previous books actually begin to intrude as characters in this one; the brief narrative presences of Frances Yates and Gilles Quispel were special treats for those who are familiar with the academic underpinnings of Aegypt. And protagonist Pierce's gnostic attainment in the antepenultimate chapter is a very wise and beautiful passage.

But it's not a happy ending--not as I reckon them anyhow. How can you expect a happy ending from a work with an explicit structure that works its way through the astrological houses from Birth to the Prison? Crowley metafictionally tips his hand in describing a manuscript within the novel that does not provide linear or cyclic resolution, nor even the sense of a completed part of an adumbrated whole: "It was without end but it was finished." Finishing Aegypt involves a great deal of calculated disenchantment that can feel like betrayal to those of us who have been so under the spell of the earlier volumes. Once or twice too often for my taste, the numinous is reduced to the neurotic.

At a couple of points in Endless Things, Crowley seems to intimate that genuine, world-transforming magic was only possible during the 1970s. Perhaps that was really true for him, although it would be a genuine shame if so. After reading the exercise in disenchantment of Endless Things, on behalf of 21st-century magicians, conventicled and unconventicled, I feel I may--in all readerly friendliness--rebuke him as a splitter.

pleasing some of the people

Choicest comments from my teacher evaluation returns this spring:

Compare: "Our TA was very unprepared for lecture. At 9 AM he simply asked the class if they had any questions, and didn't have a plan for discussion."
To: "He was always well prepared for sections but sometimes it would have worked out better if he would have gone with the flow more and not tried to stick to such a rigid game plan."
(One of these must be inaccurate, or else I was Dr. Jekyll in the afternoon and Mr. Hyde in the morning.)

"I got the impression that if I did not spend my whole evening reading the course materials than Matthew wouldn't be interested in my contributions, questions, concerns."
(The student resented being expected to read assignments, apparently.)

Elsewhere, I got the response I most hoped for: "He helped immensely in getting more out of the course packet readings. They always meant a lot more to me and made much more sense after the TA session."

Most flattering: "He really knew his stuff, but was one of the strangest people I have ever seen."