Friday, June 30, 2006

gopnik scores points.

I kind of liked his review of the Disraeli biography. Despite playing fast and loose with the concepts of flaneur and dandy, this was, for me, very satisfying history.

(a) "Things worked out pretty much as he had planned, even though the plan was one of the most improbable ever devised by the mind of man: a debt-scarred, overdressed, effeminate, literary Jew set himself to become Prime Minister of England, and the leader of its right-wing party, at the height of the British Empire. [...] Any responsible historian can see that Disraeli couldn’t have happened. But he did." (72)

When I learned about Disraeli for the first time, in high school, I didn't stick my hand in the air and ask the teacher just how this happened, but I did wonder.

(b) "The English, he knew, have always liked to have one domesticated foreigner, a professional wild man, around to shock and entertain them (the painter Fuseli played a similar role in the time just before Disraeli), and the worst that could happen was that people would sneer at him, which they were going to do in any case." (72)

"But the fairy tale [D created as his own family history] was shrewd: he grasped what kind of Jew would be fascinating to an English audience, and what kind merely Jewish." (74)

I just cut the line about what Disraeli "fabulized" in his fiction from the first quote in this post, but actually, it's important that he did write pop fiction. Because it's fiction that certainly bears out these claims of Gopnik's. George Eliot and Wilkie Collins agree, those "domesticated foreigners" cause a lot of trouble. Whole plots hinge on them.

My usual gripe with Gopnik is his desire to understand the past through simple analogy to the present. This time, he watches his step,

(c) "There was also a handful of Radicals from the nascent industrial North. The closest thing to popular representatives in Parliament, they are sympathetic to us today, but, as true free marketers, they were actually the ones who fought hardest against industrial reform, including child-labor laws." (75)

Points for including the "but" - and, just to be contrary, I'd suggest that today all too many people in power ARE sympathetic to fighting industrial reform and child-labor laws. The irony of an ill-timed but.

Lots of historians are spilling ink over how we could possibly know what genders engaged in which sex acts with what genders when and Gopnik tries to tread lightly on the historical specificity of that one,

"[Disraeli's fiction] is also a land happily inhabited by strong and limber young men of good breeding, whose handsome looks are catalogued. A salacious imagination is not needed to wonder about the sexual orientation of a man who dresses up in pirate garb, writes novels gasping after gorgeous, ignorant young lords, enjoys a series of passionate friendships with handsome younger men, has his closest female relations with sisters and much older women, and defends, as Disraeli did, the love life of the Turks. Most of his biographers now settle on the formula that he was, in our sense, a closeted gay man, and the question is whether his inclinations were acted upon or not. Hibbert, like Blake, seems to think not, though it is hard to imagine so vivid a man utterly without an outlet, chastity being a stranger perversion than secrecy. Kuhn, on the other hand, is categorical and convincing: he has Disraeli come back from his adventures in the baths of Turkey announcing that he will never be married, and fully conscious of his love for men." (75)


FYI, this is not, of course, the only mention of pirates in the article.

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