Monday, November 05, 2012

Simplistic and Inaccurate

I'm sitting here minding my own business, decidedly not working on the various reviews or essays or other blog items I have rotting in the queue, not writing, and I glance at this week's New York Times Book Review, noticing as I do a generally very favorable review by John Jeremiah Sullivan of Nicholson Baker's new essay collection, The Way the World Works. And I am caught up short by an extended bit about an essay called “Why I’m a Pacifist", "Baker’s answer to the storm of opprobrium he endured after publishing" Human Smoke. Sullivan calls Human Smoke
a book-length argument that the United States was wrong to get involved militarily in World War II, and that we, along with the other Allies, only increased the overall number of dead by refusing to support a “dignified peace” with Germany. That’s a simplistic but I don’t think inaccurate version.
Now, John Jeremiah Sullivan seems like a nice enough writer. I've only previously read one piece by him, his essay about Axl Rose, which I found enormously sad and often moving, though also at times a bit cloying, in that sub-David Foster Wallace way that seems all too common anymore. I've heard overall good things about his book Pulphead (which I understand also contains the Axl piece). But, yes, his characterization of Human Smoke is indeed simplistic; unfortunately, it is also inaccurate.

Readers will no doubt vividly recall that I wrote two very long posts about that very book. I have no desire to recapitulate the arguments contained in them; they can be read (re-read!) at your leisure, here and here (plus, see also this shorter post of additional material). The point I wish to re-make here is simply that Human Smoke is no such "book-length argument". Granted, Baker seems to think it was, too! At least one could be forgiven for thinking so, based on the apparent content of his "Why I'm a Pacifist" essay. About which, Sullivan says the following:
Baker concentrates his defense (some would say restatement) on the idea that we may have hastened the Holocaust by joining the fight, or worsened it, or even helped to bring it about. There’s an entry in Goebbels’s diary in which he paraphrases a speech Hitler gave in December 1941, just after America’s entry into the war: “The world war is here,” Hitler supposedly said. “The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.” Baker quotes one historian’s theory that when we chose to engage, Jews living under the Germans “lost their potential value as hostages.”

Some of Baker’s critics have claimed to find his argument historically vapid. They drive right past the fact that he was thinking along completely different lines, reading history not as a pragmatist but as a moralist, and asserting as he did so that this is a legitimate way to read history. He moves forward from the position that it’s wrong to kill people, to take life, and that wars are first and foremost large, organized killings of human beings, to be avoided whenever it’s in our power to do so. Thus far we don’t fault him. But the logic of Baker’s claim that we acted against those principles in responding with force to Hitler’s prior aggression, that we succeeded only in increasing the planet’s suffering, depends too much on an attempt to predict the thoughts of a Hitler — the behavior of a psychopath, in other words. Perhaps it’s true that Hitler unleashed the Final Solution, in its full horror, only out of desperation, but perhaps it’s the case that he would have done it later, and that he would have gone even further, once he’d entrenched his power, and that he would have killed people we don’t even know he had an interest in killing. To say that we have more than a guess at which of those hypotheticals is right amounts to sheer hubris. And when you are writing about the attempted massacre of an entire people, survivors of which are still living, more intellectual caution is in order. “War never works,” Baker might say (and writes here). And he’s right — war brings suffering; to say that it “works” is glib to the point of obscenity. But we lack the variables to play the alternative-­history game. We don’t get to find out how the world would look otherwise, if some dictator or madman had been left alone instead. (All the more reason not to go to war, Baker might reply.)
In this case, I'm prepared to take Sullivan's description of the essay more or less at face value, since I do remember Baker making similar sorts of noises by way of explanation when the book was being so fervently denounced. He'd have been better off not bothering. Again, I would refer readers back to my original essays on Human Smoke, linked above, for detailed reasons for why I think so, and indeed, back to Human Smoke itself. It is a damn good book, and Nicholson Baker has done it no favors by writing this defensive essay; his book is vastly more interesting and useful, and for that it remains important, than a "pacifist" argument against American involvement in World War II. And as usual, readers are under no obligation to read any book through the lens of the author's own interpretation.