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If there was anything this year might have done, that we can take with us, it was to help us appreciate if not tragedy itself then the idea of tragedy, or what might be called "the tragic." In this "year in review," I won't try to give coherence to an incoherent year. It was a great year for reading, and for remembering what was more important. Reading, not nonfiction but novels, was a reminder that life is elsewhere, that there is a smallness to politics, and that so many other things—God, religion, family, friends, art, or whatever we find transcendence in—overwhelms that smallness.
Longtime listeners of Wisdom of Crowds will know that my favorite novel of the year was Peter De Vries' largely forgotten The Blood of The Lamb, published in 1961. I read it during the early peak of the pandemic, when what was becoming the new normal didn’t feel normal. In one heartbreaking section, the protagonist, experiencing the (temporary) remission of his daughter’s leukemia, marvels, “It seemed from all of this that uppermost among human joys is the negative one of restoration: not going to the stars, but learning that one may stay where one is.” I was looking back at my favorite works of fiction over the past months, and they seemed to return to this theme. I wasn't looking for it, but I found it.
I think there are two ways of contending with mortality—and if anyone still managed to avoid thinking about death this year, I envy them. One is to see politics as the salve for earthly ills, and the other is to see politics as necessary but corrupting, almost blaming it for being such a frail, human endeavor. Of course, it's possible to see both these things at once, but they are in tension. Is there privilege in looking down on politics? Perhaps. Which makes it all the more ironic that it is elite, traditionally, who have managed to wring the most romance from politics, often to devastating effect.
In his review of Christopher Hitchens’ last book before succumbing to cancer, David Runciman said of the romantics that “they want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.” To be at the heart of things requires a re-centering. And so, “above all, in place of God they substitute themselves,” Runciman writes. With this in mind, here are the most striking passages from the best novels that I had the pleasure of reading this past year. I hope some of it resonates with you.
Ian McEwan's Black Dogs:
"We couldn't free ourselves into the present. Instead we wanted to think about setting other people free... We used their wretchedness to mask our own. And our wretchedness was our inability to take the simple good things life was offering us and be glad to have them."
"Politics, idealistic politics, is all about the future. I've spent my life discovering that the moment you enter the present fully, you find infinite space, infinite time..."
"She was safe on this little piece of land which crouched under the high cliff of the plateau. She was delivered into herself, she was changed. This, now, here. Surely this was what existence strained to be, and so rarely had the chance, to savour itself fully in the present, this moment in all its simplicity—the smooth darkening summer air, the scent of thyme crushed underfoot, her hunger, her slaked thirst, the warm stone she could feel through her shirt, the after-taste of peach, the stickiness on her hand, her tired legs, her sweaty, sunny, dusty fatigue, this obscure and lovely place, and these two men, one whom she knew and loved, the other whose silence she trusted and who was waiting, she was certain, for her to take the next, inevitable step."
Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall
"Oh, little man. You have brought down your house not through passion but by neglect... You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes. You have failed in the most base and human of ways—you have not imagined the lives of others."
"Rage and despair are indeed carried about in the heart, but privately, to be let out on special occasions, like savage dogs for exercise, occasions in solitude when God is cursed, birds stoned from the trees or the pillow hammered in darkness. In the ward lounge itself, a scene in which a changing collection of characters are waiting for a new medicine that might as well be called Godot, the conversation is indistinguishable from that going on at the moment in the street, a coffee break at the office from which one is absent, or a dinner party to which one could not accept an invitation."
We might as well, however, end on a note of optimism:
"The world, as has been noted, is full of a number of things, and while they may not suffice to keep us happy as kings, the troubles in which they mainly abound are diverse enough for one to distract us from the other."