Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Mark Helprin’s Furious Treatise

Ross Douthat writes an amusing (and very critical) review of Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto. He thinks the book--a furious reaction to Internet reactions to something he wrote--"is a vindication of the aphorism about the perils of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty; the pig likes it.) Helprin can be a wonderful wordsmith, and there are many admirable passages and strong arguments in this book. But the thread that binds the worktogether is hectoring, pompous and enormously tedious." Or, "’Why talk to the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room?’ he wonders, quoting Churchill; the answer, he explains, is that in this case only the monkeys really matter." Duothat thinks that Helprin has given in to "the spirit of perpetual acceleration," which "threatens to carry all before it, frenzying our politics, barbarizing our language and depriving us of the kind of artistic greatness that isn’t available on Twitter feeds." I guess we should be warned about "wrestling with the monkeys" and paying to much mind to "mouth-breathing morons." Sometimes, maybe often, we need not respond.

Discussions - 6 Comments

I heard an interview of Helprin who seems to think that the book was about more than you, or Douthat, think it is. His conversation was about property and an author's right to profit from his work. I thought he had a point, but have not looked into the book and may have misunderstood.

If the book is about what he said, even if tendentiously expressed, he is right, there is a hazard. Ideas freely expressed on the Internet, like mine, are probably worth every cent made on them. I make a living doing other things, mostly being a wife. If my ideas were worth something and I sought to make a living from expressing my ideas, I would work harder on the expression. Given that labor, I would resent having my words and work taken and freely published, taking my livelihood from me. What would be the incentive to produce?

As I said, I have not seen the book, only heard an interview, but in the interview, Helprin had a point.

Kate: I agree with you, and even Douthat states that, in large part, that is what the book is meant to be about. I didn't mean to sound as though I am beating up on Helprin; truth be told, he is one of the most interesting guys writing (see Soldier of the Great War) and I like him (even in his oddities); and I certainly agree, as you state it, his views on property rights. I will read his book.

Will you buy it? I can't afford to, though it is not expensive. I will get it from the library and hope requesting it (digitally) will give it a boost. This is one reason using the library is a guilty pleasure, any number of people share the book bought once. I am not directly paying for the benefit. The second-hand books I thrive on do nothing for the author. Is it a similar theft? I try not to think so.

Yes, I like Helprin's books, too, and the one you mention, especially. It is on my reading list and the boys who read it loved it, too.
A Winter's Tale is my favorite and the set of books for children are only barely for kids and worth reading.

Douthat's review is amazingly measured and thoughtful. I think he gives Helprin his due but is clear-eyed enough to see both the good of his argument and the mistake of his method. The capacity to do that is something to be admired and the thing we'd all do well to strive for. It does not surprise me that a man of Helprin's literary genius (for that's certainly what it is) would grow impatient in a detailed argument like the one that prompted this book. Artists and geniuses tend to see arguments in wholes and in fits of inspiration in which the details are skipped (and unnecessary to them) as a rock skims the water. Maybe they do grow weary when attempting to give a rigorous explanation to the rest of us monkeys.

Julie, have you read the book, then, or are you just appreciating the review without comparison to the book? I still have not seen Digital Barbarism, though it is waiting for me to pick up. Yesterday's phone message from a librarian said, "Kate, your stack is growing; when are you coming in?" Some of the stack is summer recipe books, but Bradbury and Helprin are in the lot, because of curiosity stimulated by NLT posts.

Just appreciating a fine book review--for it made me want to read the book even in spite of the noted and notable flaw. But then, it is not hard to persuade me that I should read anything by Helprin. It is good to read something critical of him that also understands that central fact.

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