by Cal Revely-Calder
A review of Against Everything: On Dishonest Times by Mark Greif (Verso, 2016)
When the Brooklyn periodical n+1 (‘a magazine of literature, culture, and politics’) was brought to life in 2004, co-founder Keith Gessen signed off his ‘Endnotes’ with a rallying cry: ‘we’ve begun by saying, No. Enough.’ The first issue was named ‘Negation’; it was mostly written by its young graduate creators, and took aim at Dave Eggers, The New Republic, George W. Bush – a variety of icons, cultural or political, who were inhibiting the march of the avant-garde. High on self-belief, Issue 1 was forceful and pithy – Mark Greif, for instance, wrote of how Dubya’s presidency ‘speaks of a time of perfection, when even an idiot might rule’ – but thirteen years later, casting around in the aftermath of the recent presidential election, all they have left is dismay.
Beneath the shock, guilt creeps in alongside the sense of failure. Everyone here has volunteered for the Democratic Party. Could we have done more? Should we have done more? Pushed harder, launched ourselves more fervently and earlier into more difficult places? One’s sense of agency begins to weaken. This is a room of doers, achievers, people used to seeing their efforts rewarded.
The disappointment is total, plaintive, more than a little stagey – though it’s also understandable, given how much everyone seems to have expected from themselves.
How much seriousness can you bear? Only two issues prior, in the midst of the party primaries, ‘The Intellectual Situation’ (n+1’s current-affairs op-ed) found these same editors at an unexpected peak of hope. Spring 2016 seemed ‘an exciting time for the American left’, with Bernie Sanders bringing ‘authentically liberal’ policies into mainstream debate; yes, they admitted, ‘November almost certainly promises the restoration of the Clintons, and significant political victories remain far off’, but even so the USA feels, from the waterfront of DUMBO, to be aflame with ‘a kind of bitter, raging “optimism of the will”’. Bracing stuff. Notice how that quotation is slipped into play with minimal effort: you won’t be told that it’s Gramsci, because that would spare you the labour of working things out for yourself – and after all, as the editors had cautioned in their inaugural issue, ‘thought adds something new to the world’, while it’s mere ‘simple intelligence’ which ‘wields hardened truth like a bludgeon’. But Gramsci, who died after a decade in Mussolini’s prison, had balanced that ‘optimism of the will’ with a ‘pessimism of the intellect’. And it turned out that a little intellectual pessimism might have been more in tune with America’s hip new mood, which was plenty ‘bitter’ and ‘raging’, but not in a progressive way. (Whatever that would be, if you stop to wonder; but never mind, lap up the Gramsci.) This editorial, collectively signed and titled ‘Bernie’s World’, excoriates ‘the failure of the antiwar Sanders to emerge’, and takes aim at ‘Clinton’s murderous certainty’, but amid the invective, nobody once speaks the name ‘Trump’. The ‘doers’ and ‘achievers’, these ‘people used to seeing their efforts rewarded’, would not do, or achieve, or get anything they expected. At the turn of 2017, the Democratic Party is routed, burned out. Still, at least the New Republic is dead.
A.O. Scott was sent by the New York Times to cover the story of n+1, about a year after its birth. He compared it to The Believer, suggesting that whatever their differences, they represented a new ‘demand for seriousness that cuts against ingrained generational habits of flippancy and prankishness’. This was a valuable counterpunch to what he called ‘the nonchalant, knowing sarcasm that has become, elsewhere, the dominant form of cleverness’. One of the virtues of Scott’s profile, read ten years on, is its coolness; he surveys the pitted turf between these two young magazines, and adds, ruefully but generously:
Their arguments are likely to continue, and then, eventually, to cool, as the journals themselves turn into institutions or fade into oblivion. Either way, they will serve as incitements to future projects – whether as lost possibilities in need of revival or missed opportunities in need of correction. In the meantime, what they provide is space – room for the exploration of hunches, experiments, blind alleys and starry-eyed hopes, by readers and writers whose small numbers can be a source of pride.
(Such a comradely generosity must have been absent in Brooklyn when the editors of n+1 wrote, again in Issue 1, that ‘The Believer is a book review. It has attracted writers we admire. It does differ in at least one particular from, say, the New York Review of Books, in that its overt criterion for inclusion is not expertise, but enthusiasm’.) Whereas The Believer’s way of critiquing cultural affairs is (in Scott’s phrase) ‘to care about them’, n+1’s is to react to them, negating and declaring “enough”; but a fascination with your own positions might distract from seeing what’s really going on around you. As Scott writes, n+1’s ‘index of seriousness is thought for its own sake, which can sanction an especially highhanded form of intellectual arrogance’. It’s easy to look back from the vantage of hindsight, and know that whatever was bitter and raging in the spring air of 2016 was not what these Brooklynites wished; there were good sane reasons for having a modest belief in Sanders and the flexibility of the Overton window, just as some people who aren’t entirely unhinged continue to think Jeremy Corbyn might win the election. But a little more filthy reality might, in the end, turn out to be salutary for a magazine that would like to believe, with a kind of tweedy cultishness, that ‘political progress resembles the movement of a train, the front car chugging toward a still-distant horizon of possibility’.
A founding editor of n+1, Greif has contributed articles and essays to the magazine since its birth; most of the sixteen pieces in his new book, Against Everything: On Dishonest Times, first appeared in its pages. These pieces cover politics and culture across the years from 2004 to 2015, and since Greif touches on subjects from gym-users to rap, from online pornography to police brutality, he’s felt an occasional need to update his old work, on the basis that he’s learned something new since first writing, or has been left behind by everyone else’s habits. Initially, the will to change comes as a welcome break from the ‘high-handed’ business of n+1. For instance, near the end of his 2008 essay on YouTube, Greif describes ‘vlogs’ as being, ‘by and large, awful’, and opines ‘I think they are so bad because they’re monologues addressed to an audience which cannot give immediate feedback and force adjustments’; in 2015, however, an adjustment of his own is offered: ‘An update: I suspect I was wrong about vlogs… I don’t really like them, but plenty of people do, and I suspect they’re ultimately pretty good. Seven years later, they still remain a blind spot for me’. This return to a near past is a symptom of the book’s greater preoccupation, namely timeliness and its ephemerality; and in his best moments Greif is able – as n+1 frequently isn’t – not only to capture a moment but to tread with care around its finitude. Take his clever and compelling ‘Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy, or Heroes Without War’ (2004), a reflection on the aftermath of Iraq, which ends by lighting a moral fire under the precarity of its present tense:
…“resolve” is a word that has been grossly misused in recent months, and yet is most relevant. The administration makes it mean resoluteness, a steadfast quality of refusing to change course, in war, regardless of events. The siege of Fallujah in April was even called “Operation Vigilant Resolve” or “Iron Resolve”. Yet the word has a more honorable place in our democracy. It is the oral formula in which all acts of public deliberation are put forward, from town councils to the Congress: “Be it resolved, that…” The significance of a resolution is not its finality, but that deliberation goes on. At this moment, war once again becomes a cause for thinking. The thinking must go on in public. Our administration’s certainties are not America’s. Our resolve is a public self-discovery that has yet to be made.
‘goes on’, ‘becomes’, ‘must go on’; resolve which ‘is’ and is ‘yet to be made’; in moments like these, Greif shows an adeptness with and of time, feeling his way into how in sync his words are with the issue, the crisis, the subject of concern. And as he writes in his preface, Against Everything (published by Verso) is a book with bold social ambitions:
By the book’s end, I will have asked what we call “experience” today and what we name “reality”. Where glimmers of hope come from, especially within the popular culture, and why you might be embarrassed to own them. And what sight and the body could have to do with a nation’s armies, police, and democracy. […] I speak as myself now, still learning to be different than I am. To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us. No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else.
He steadfastly maintains that to be “against everything” can be a productive, hearty activity, rejuvenating our characters and our acts, rather than making a bonfire of cultural habits. The appraisal of contemporary America will start with watching Americans act, and thinking not only on these actions, but also on how we watch them. As a child, he tells us, he wanted to learn from Thoreau’s example, ‘to overturn, undo, deflate, rearrange, unthink, and rethink’. Two of the essays in Against Everything – which operates proudly under the sign of Thoreau – are among the five Greif contributed to the ‘Negation’ issue: they sound relaxed, measured, unlike the bitchy salvos around them. Greif’s criticism is designed to be constructive.
Design and reality are different things, however, and the unevenness of Against Everything may yet be the curse of its genes. As Scott warned, cultivating ‘thought for its own sake’ runs the risk of assuming that ‘especially highhanded form of intellectual arrogance’; Greif’s essays frequently drift up there when they retreat into a first-person voice, one that overcooks its indecision and strains the reader’s patience. For instance, on watching television news:
I say I watch the news to “know”. But I don’t really know anything. Certainly I can’t do anything. I know that there is a war in Iraq, but I knew that already. I know that there are fires and car accidents in my state and in my country, but that, too, I knew already. With each particular piece of footage, I know nothing more than I did before. I feel something, or I don’t feel something. One way I am likely to feel is virtuous and “responsible” for knowing more of these things that I can do nothing about. Surely this feeling is wrong, even contemptible. I am not sure anymore what I feel.
This is taxing to read. An essay is only a meaningful conversation as long as someone can listen to its voice; otherwise it may as well be a tree falling in the Walden woods. But to listen to Greif’s proliferating ‘I’, turning and turning upon itself, is to receive the impression of a performance not of the self, but for it: an eerily sterile puppet-show, where the essayist can balance ‘I feel something’ with ‘or I don’t feel something’ while the world is screaming and burning on the screen before him. The clause is perfected, and the idiots misrule on twenty-four-hour TV. As Michael Hamburger wrote in 1975, the ‘point’ of an essay ‘always lies in the author’s personality and always leads back to it’ – yet this is a licence not for self-indulgence but sincerity, in the sense that Lionel Trilling meant it: the opening of one self to being reworked, vitally and fundamentally, by another. The end of the path back to the author, the exposure (as Greif wishes) of our private worlds to renewed public scrutiny, is something that can affect and overwhelm us only if there’s room for us to breathe there. Instead, the ‘I’ of Greif’s work, in the lines above and elsewhere, makes completions of its indecisiveness, builds a private world without a public door; the grammar feigns openness but is, upon touching, hermetically sealed. The book’s ambitions, at the outset, had been to reach out to its reader from an ‘I’ to a ‘you’:
This is not a book of critique of things I don’t do. It’s a book of critique of things I do. Habits in which I am joined by a class of people, call them the middle classes, or people in the rich nations, or Americans and Europeans and their peers the world over. Call them us, or call them you. I want to talk about you.
All dextrous, and the more unconvincing for it, tapping from pronoun to pronoun with ease. Call them ‘us’ – or ‘you’ – yes, go with ‘you’. At least the ‘I’ is sure of itself; and Against Everything seems all too often to be I talking about I to I.
The blame can be laid on Thoreau. Greif is forever chattier and warmer than the writer whose childhood classmates, years before Walden or ‘Civil Disobedience’, nicknamed him “the Judge”; there’s a similarity of style, however, in how both of them pass off insubstantial thought under an illusory simplicity. Greif writes about Thoreau, by which he largely means Walden, throughout Against Everything, and focuses most closely on him in a series of essays subtitled ‘The Meaning of Life’, which are cut into four instalments and spliced into the book like a moral spine. In them, Greif reanimates his idol’s wish to ‘front only the essential facts of life’, and in doing so, he begins to assume that inescapable Thoreauvian air of an adult not talking to other adults, but talking down at them:
I can imagine someone asking: “Against everything?” I’ll tell you what the impulse means to me. My mother used to take me to a pond, when I was small, because it was a place to swim and walk in the suburbs where I grew up. Its name, Walden, also named a scandalous book.
My mother had never read the book. I was too young to read it. We circled the pond, many afternoons, and speculated. In olden days there had been a man named Thoreau. He walked and thought here. He had written in his book that the things people considered superior were often inferior. The best things might be in nobody’s possession. Trash was treasure. Work was overrated, insofar as most people worked at the wrong things for the wrong reasons. Walking without a goal was superior to running. Conversation was the true purpose of everything, even of solitude and reading and thinking.
Greif hits the mark by ventriloquising Thoreau so well: this sounds just like what Kathryn Schultz has characterised as quintessentially Walden, namely ‘insufferable’. It’s not that the string of propositions is wrong, it’s just that they’re so weightless they barely matter; the terms in which they’d reward our reading, our dwelling within and with them, are so thin. ‘Trash’ might be ‘treasure’, but the pithiness is a way of selling emptiness as enigma, avoiding the business of saying what treasure is, or should be, or indeed trash, or how to re-evaluate that trash, or what a value is, or why we’re being told all of this. There’s something disquieting about how well Greif assimilates his forebear, and relays to us his patter like a messenger from an oracle. Reviewing Against Everything recently in the LRB, Stefan Collini wondered aloud ‘whether Greif’s lifejourney so far, from Walden to Brooklyn, represents a fashionable migration from one bohemian watering-hole to another’:
There is, of course, something seductive about the idea that we might each of us find a way to release our inner Thoreau, but somehow this existential quest has to be made to connect up with collective modes of responding to a world in which global capital threatens to pollute the waters of the pond, build condos around its edge, and prevent access for all but the very rich. I already feel impatient to see how Greif will negotiate these tensions in the next phase of his journey.
Collini’s ‘of course’ comes across kindly, but it hints at a species of obviousness which frequently acts in Thoreau’s writing, and the most sterile of Greif’s introspections too, as an alluring but ultimately holographic representation of depth. If you tell the reader that their ethical re-fashioning is both existentially crucial and a task for themselves alone, while you act out only a frictionless version of that same interior work, it becomes difficult for them to muster the faith on which a sincere reading of you depends.
In Against Everything Greif writes (truly enough) that ‘all of [Thoreau’s] words can be hard to bear, but no American is spared’ a confrontation with them: ‘it is hard to remember what Thoreau said because it is all so disturbing’. But ranters and trolls are disturbing too, and Walden’s author is as much a bully as a guru because his writing relentlessly shies away from practical usability while demanding its readers rebuild their lives in toto according to its mantras. Thoreau himself was unable to live up to the puritanical standards that Walden preaches; while living in his cabin and variously refining his obsession with squirrels, complaints about the railroad, and contempt for those unlucky enough to be poor, rustic, or Irish – in the case of neighbour John Field, all three – he was writing a book which would mythologise its way over the facts that his mother still washed his clothes, Emerson cooked him dinners, and his aunt paid the tax on which he martyred himself for that famous night in jail. All of this was hidden under the cover of homespun wisdom: ‘I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude’; ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it’; ‘All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be’. The most well-tuned lines of Walden are, like motivational posters and memes, contentless in order to repel any intellectual contest; they’re simultaneously so quotable and so pernicious because they exert a lofty force without putting tangible substance behind it. And with Thoreau taken as a lifelong medicine, that empty compulsion comes to influence the temper of Greif’s ‘Meaning of Life’ pieces too, such as (to pick on one instance) when he writes about writers’ ennui:
Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books. Or they find they can double their own little experience, and make a second pass at the day-to-day, by writing it down. Poor scribblers! Such people are closest to a solution, and yet to everyone else they seem to be using up time, wasting life, as they spend fewer hours “living” than anyone, and gain less direct experience. Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures. These poor dissatisfied people take photographs, make albums, keep souvenirs and scrapbooks. And still they always ask: “What have I done?”
All these sentences seem to command a harmless assent, but it’s hard not to be frustrated about just how difficult it is to disagree with them, or untangle them, or have any significant response without extracting more material than the sentences bother to offer. ‘Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living’ has the ring of Thoreau precisely because it sounds like a man disagreeing with nobody and feeling comfortable with winning the argument. Greif ends the essay – the first of the series – by proposing two solutions to our contemporary crisis in experience, our ‘concept of experience that gives us the feeling we are really living, but makes us unsatisfied with whatever life we obtain’; they are ‘aestheticism’ and ‘perfectionism’, or, roughly put, the treatment of life (respectively) as if it were a constant response to art and as being a constant renewal of self. These modes share some affinities, and might have been twined into a complicated, rewarding dialectic, pitted with gambits and unsureties; but Greif’s writing constantly reserves a distance between itself and commitment, as he continues:
I think each of us winds up obliged to answer what would give life meaning, no matter what we do. Many of us say today we live for happiness. The defects and vagueness of happiness lead to the choice of experience as the method of our lives. Experience, when we begin to seek it self-consciously, causes its own trouble, bringing back the permanent conditions of life – brevity, isolation, multiplicity, mortality – with renewed vehemence, and making us blame ourselves for them.
He shares with his idol the kind of detached calm that leaves you vexed by his inertia. There’s a difference between the sensitively restrained and the disappointingly recalcitrant: in the wake of ‘I think’, ‘many of us’, the pressure on ‘experience’, ‘the permanent conditions of life’ – these phrases that demur and dodge and feint – the taste of vanilla all becomes a little much.
Elsewhere in the ‘Meaning of Life’ series, there are better cadences breathing a richer air, less that of Thoreau than of Emerson: ‘We cannot take advice from ourselves, and so we take it from men and women with very strange ways. The stranger the better, so estranged are we from our fellow citizens, who can see no problem.’ And the value of this writing, of Greif’s better work from Against Everything, is in what he’s willing to risk, the spaces in his prose he’ll mark out for a reader’s interaction: a tussle can ensue between writer and reader where language is nailed to the mast to be tried, and tested, and bought or found wanting. Schultz wrote of Thoreau that he was ‘insufferable when fancying himself a seer’, yet ‘wonderful at actually seeing’, at telling us about the ice on Walden Pond or the sounds of animals in the night air; likewise, when Greif writes that the Antiques Roadshow is ‘a cavalcade of preserved garbage masquerading as history lessons’, or (in the book’s standout essay) that Radiohead’s aesthetic of ‘environing fear’ dares us to forge a ‘closed space’, to mount a ‘re-creation of privacy’, we see him ‘actually seeing’ his world too, all the contemporary mores and agents he wants to anatomise and give back to us. It’s at these moments, infrequent but enlivening whenever they appear, that Greif’s writing becomes suddenly convincing, necessary; even – in the essays on Iraq and the police – weighted with earnestness and punch. But too often the book seems to know how to hold a position, yet not how to show it to those who want to access it, contest it, or play with its form. Self-sequestered in a wilderness, whether rural or academic, any voice becomes inaudible, and its words will fall flat. Greif is sharp enough to notice that ‘the most important grammatical tic in Radiohead lyrics, unlike the habitual lyrical “I” and apostrophic “you” of pop, is the “we”’, and that since ‘the pronoun doesn’t point to any existing collectivity’, the question Radiohead’s music begs is a pressing one, to him the most pressing of the moment: ‘So who is “we”?’ This is a world in a water-drop, a possible bridge between reading the symptoms of cultural malaise and diagnosing them anew; but it’s a question Against Everything, in the spirit of n+1 and Walden alike, too rarely takes the time to digest for, and of, itself.
[Forthcoming in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 14.]