One of my most useful recent reads was Gary Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era (2022). I eagerly awaited this publication, having made much use of his 2018 Royal Historical Society “The Rise and Fall (?) of America’s Neoliberal Order,” in my doctoral studies. As the title indicates, the monograph deals with the slippery concept of neoliberalism which is so often used pejoratively to describe contemporary socio-economic problems. Gerstle sets out a useful working definition of neoliberalism which he views as descended from classical liberalism and is centrally concerned with the promotion of free markets. Furthermore, he presents an interesting case for viewing neoliberalism as a political order which lasted roughly from the 1970s to the late-2010s. He suggests that the order peaked in the 1990s under the presidency of Bill Clinton whose acceptance of the order made him a Democratic Eisenhower. The monograph charts the rise of neoliberal ideas in think-tanks and intellectual circles, before considering the impact of the collapse of communism on the ascent of neoliberalism, and finally analyzing the recent economic crises which undermined the neoliberal order. It provides a valuable overview for recent American political history and is essential reading for those grappling with neoliberalism in their work, or those who simply want to better understand the recent global political events.
Over the Christmas break, I continued my rather slow progress through the meandering lines of Don Quixote while also taking up a more contemporary novel, The Romantic by William Boyd. The latter begins with a philosophical challenge to the realm of history: when the archive can produce only a scant few documents, could a fictional biography, in this case of an eighteenth-century Irish-born figure, better capture the essence of a past, largely lost life? The epic of the fictional Don Quixote by Cervantes remains the greatest exemplar of this approach: it throws the reader into a different context, capturing the early modern experience of the growing chasm between past and present times. My historical instinct protests, but there is something to be said of the fictional biography. Meanwhile, back in the safe cloisters of history and Cambridge, I came across James Alexander’s now seven-year-old article, ‘The Cambridge School, c. 1878 to 1975’. As Alexander was part of the first cohort in the MPhil I now take at Cambridge, ‘Political Thought and Intellectual History’, I was personally struck by the four ways of thinking about history and politics that have recurred or disappeared across the past lives of the Cambridge historical tripos—political thought, political science, political philosophy, and political theology. In present-day Cambridge, we must pay greater attention to Alexander’s call to revisit the earlier iterations of history and politics before the rise of the so-called “Cambridge School” to better grasp our subject and the current place of political thought.
For readers interested in a novel that has a unique blend of seriousness and wit, I recommend Evelyn’s Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945). It was a pleasure to read over the holiday break, and might just be a contender in my top-10 list. Considered by many critics to be one of Waugh’s great masterpieces (if not, the masterpiece), Brideshead Revisited skillfully weaves together themes of faith, family, (though the reader will soon see how many ‘problems’ quickly ensue from these first two areas), art, sexuality, and even the everyday experience of growing up. Set in Great Britain during World War II, the story follows the life of Captain Charles Ryder, a reserves officer in the British military. His regiment, in a strange turn of events, happens to be stationed on the grounds of the Brideshead Estate—the site of some of Charles Ryder’s most profound and life-changing moments as a younger man. The story is primarily composed of a number of pre-war flashbacks by Charles when he first encountered the noble yet mysterious family of the Brideshead Estate, the Marchmains. First developing a romantic relationship with Sebastian Flyte (son of Lord Marchmain), he later forms a romance with the sister, Julia. Beneath the surface-level sexual tensions, lies a deeper and far heavier tension of religious conversion. The Marchmains are Catholic while Charles Ryder is an atheist, at best, an agnostic. The decisive question that looms throughout the entirety of the novel is whether or not Charles will convert. Through a dynamic blend of imagery, metaphor, psychology, and no lack of humor, Waugh crafts a story in which Charles’s “leap of faith” (for the reader to decide) cannot be separated from an understanding of the Marchmain family, the romances with Sebastian and Julia, the role of the arts, and the frames of mind that come with adulthood as Charles grows up. Does Charles convert? Does he not? Can one be Catholic and at the same without faith; and vice versa? Who are “the builders,” and is the Chapel actually real? Are Julia and Sebastian alter-egos? Is conversion logical or artistic? These questions and many more will keep the reader captivated throughout. For those who have enjoyed the 1981 cinematic reproduction of Brideshead Revisited (with Jeremy Irons) but have not yet read the book, I assure you that the book is even more rewarding than the show. And, for people who have done neither, do both!
Over the holidays, I gave myself a gift: I took a break from work and allowed my brain to pursue pleasure. I picked up a copy of T. J. Clark’s If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present, anticipating that the book would bring me a thorny, complicated kind of pleasure. Nothing Clark writes is straightforward. He plays with language, with perspective, inserts bits of poetry where you expect to find argument. But the real joy of reading Clark–a joy I remember from taking his classes at Berkeley–is the way that he spurs you to look carefully at everything, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, he pushes you to look again. I still remember our very first class assignment. He sent us to the university art museum to look at a painting. He wanted us to really learn to look at a work of art. This wasn’t supposed to be the sort of drive-by visit that undergraduates typically make. We were supposed to sit with the painting, draw it, over and over–I remember producing sheets of diagrams, dissecting how the painting directed the gaze, how the painter distributed values of light and dark across the canvas, the placement of trees, the placement of vanishing points, etc. If These Apples Should Fall brings that intensity of looking to bear on Cezanne’s oeuvre. It delights in the movement between excavating the Cezanne’s processes–of looking, making, constructing–and Clark’s own processes of looking, beholding, and ultimately, of trying to make sense of all these processes.
I like to think that Clark’s book primed me to decide–after reading Leanne Shapton’s descriptions of visiting the 28th Street Flower Market in Manhattan, and looking at the watercolors that she painted, inspired by the plants she found at the market–that I also needed to pull out my brushes and watercolors, and spend the rest of my holiday thinking over Clark’s various proposals about painting, Cezanne, and modernity, while happily painting away. The painting, I found, helped me form a different relationship to visuality, to my sense of what it means to look at something. I found myself letting my hand take over, letting my eye be seduced by pure chroma, by the way that the watercolor pigments flowed and spread across the paper–and allowing these things, points of physical pleasure, guide my next move. In painting, as in looking, it is easy to lose all sense of time, and it is just as easy, as I found this winter, to dawdle over them, to start another painting as soon as the last one is complete. All of this close looking, I found, added up to more than just pure pleasure, though it was indeed very pleasurable. It also amounted to a disciplining of the eye, mind, and hand. So this is why Clark keeps returning and looking, I think. So this is how you develop a theory of painting.
Featured Image: Apollo and the Nine Muses on Mount Parnassus, Attributed to Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.