August 29, 2011
In The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (Harper Collins, 1991) Paul Johnson tackles two theories at once. He wants to show (and largely succeeds) that what we know as the ’modern age’ was shaped over one fifteen year period in the 1800s. He also wants to deal with the whole world and employ “no one angle of vision” (p.xviii). He ranges over the whole world, not neglecting chronology, but not limiting himself to grand political movements, literary history or personal remembrances from peoples of the time. In a single section of the book he might deal with literary and musical genius, medical schools, body snatching and surgery, alcoholism, the weaknesses of Chinese government and ‘the invention of the Great Game’.
His book came to mind a lot for me this summer as I took on reading the monumental Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer (Random House, 1991), a ’novel of the CIA’ which I had thought about trying but was spurred into action by a kind person delivering a copy to our parish summer book swap called ‘Trading Graces’. It is not a world history with no single perspective, but it had the same all-encompassing feel as Johnson’s history. It covers major events of the sixties (Castro, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy assassinations and so on) from the perspective of a handful of memorably drawn characters, all of whom are patrician New Englanders and who work for the CIA. It is not a spy novel in any traditional sense, although the writing, color and atmosphere are recognizable from John Le Carre and Robert Littell. It is also, (surprisingly at nearly 1300 pages) not a novel in which I was able to ’lose myself’. It was less summer escapism and more being drawn into a world of characters with all of the complexity of real life in a time I remember from my own early years and a places I do not.
In a way this time was the beginning of so much that makes up for modern politics: the place of secrecy and the ubiquitous presence of ‘spin’ as those with power seek to control how a story is told. I remember seeing the original film about the Cuban missile crisis in a seminar reflecting on ’leadership in response to a crisis’ (The Missiles of October, 1974) and being aware how different (and how much more complicated) the whole crisis would have been with today’s political realities in play.
Mailer’s novel is beautifully crafted with real historical reality and extraordinary psychological depth. He neither avoids nor over simplifies the moral dilemmas of personal or international relations. His prose sometimes enters the realm of poetry. Overall I’m not sure I enjoyed the book, but I’m glad I read it, as we watched the old social compact of political life in this country be overturned by right wing politicians who declined to play by the old rules and made the debt ceiling debate into a manufactured crisis for everybody. I don’t think there is anything particularly marvelous or moral about having ‘an establishment’ run things, but I prefer it in many ways to the anarchic effects of the radical (and far from ‘conservative’) right.