Monday, June 02, 2008

TLS May 23 2008

from A. N. Wilson's review of Patrick French's The World Is What It Is: The authorized biography of V. S. Naipaul:

"Doctored truth is not truth", Naipaul said; "I think the completeness of the record is what matters."


As Pat Naipaul saw in her often anguished diaries, the writing life puts an extraordinary strain on anyone who is attempting to share it. There are two sorts of marriage for writers: the ones such as Pat Naipaul's or Vera Nabokov's, where the wife enters, almost sentence by sentence into the writer's composing life; and the other sort, where only by keeping her distance can the writer's partner survive. ("Keep your hearts together and your tents separate", was the well-turned motto of Mrs R. S. Thomas, Elsi Eldridge.)


from Adam I. P. Smith's review of Walter Russell Mead's God and Gold: Britain, America, and the making of the modern world:

His core thesis is that the most important development in the past 400 years is not the rise and possible decline of "the West", but the rise and rise of the "Anglo-Americans", who, either singly or together, have won every major geopolitical conflict since the Seven Years War in 1763. The cause and the consequence of this repeated military success, argues Mead, is that the "Anglo-Americans" have developed a distinctive perspective on the world. Their open societies, freedom of speech, and tradition of religious toleration enabled them to embrace markets and the dynamism of capitalist development more readily than other people.


One of the most thought-provoking sections of God and God is Mead's brilliant argument that Adam Smith's metaphor of "the invisible hand"--the notion that order and meaning somehow emerge out of innumerable individual self-interested or seemingly random decisions--describes the deepest assumptions of Anglo-Americans about every aspect of life: not just how markets work, but also how the British Constitution or the Anglican Church evolved, or the value of contentious party politics.


Ultimately, Mead's argument is most vulnerable at three points. First, he overstates the monopoly that the "Anglo-Americans" have on liberal capitalist values. . . . Second, Mead's argument is sometimes rather circular because this book is a prime example, as well as an analysis of, Whiggish thinking, with all the pitfalls of teleological reasoning that implies. Finally, and most seriously for a book which is ultimately intended to be of contemporary relevance rather than exclusively a work of history, the policy implications of the thesis are unclear. . . . It is appealing to imagine an American President exercising such Niebuhrian self-awareness, but equally difficult to imagine what it would mean in practice. Can one run an empire (or whatever one chooses to call it) with humility?

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