Civilisation

(by Kenneth Clark) Really a compilation of scripts for a television series, this book, much ridiculed and parodied over the years (remember Monty Python’s “Are you civilised? Have you been civilised recently?”), is a wonderful, personal, informed view of humankind and culture from classical times to the then present (1968). Elegiac, nostalgic, pessimistic; almost everything in the arts since has borne out Clark’s view that “we can destroy ourselves by cynicism* and disillusion, just as effectively as bombs.” [* A cynic being a “man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s…

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Chomsky and Dershowitz

(by Howard Friel) Hysterical (yet deeply researched and readable) tract, designed to prove that Chomsky is Yahweh and Dershowitz is Satan. The author is obsessed with extrapolating individual examples of injustice (of which there are many) and rendering them into a damning case against Israel, without apparently considering the existential threat invoking these crimes and misdemeanors. [Peter notes: recently I received a comment from somebody called Hans, who said: “Obviously you’re a shill for the Israeli worldview.”  I mulled this one over, considered my usual response of either offering a grovelling apology or expression of gratitude for being noticed, but…

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Burr

(by Gore Vidal) A knowing, rollicking account of the early Republic. Vidal smashes the Jeffersonian myth but creates a more interesting figure of history in lieu. Burr’s uneasy, half-respectful relationship with Alexander Hamilton, whom he ultimately killed in a duel, is particularly interesting, although contentiously handled. Vidal paints a vivid, unflattering portrait of Thomas Jefferson, the ultimate effect of which is to confirm his stature.  But it’s a close-run thing: here is Burr reflecting on the 3rd President: “He was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful. Were the philosopher’s charm less, the…

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The Best and the Brightest

(by David Halberstam) Definitive parable of hubris leading to apocalypse. Whiz kids from the ivy-league encounter a Big Texas Democrat as their new boss; tragedy ensues in a companion piece to his earlier The Making of a Quagmire but which is wider in scope. Larded with mean detail, such as when LBJ enthuses to Sam Rayburn how brilliant all the new kids are, to which the paterfamilias of Congress replies that Lyndon might be right “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”  

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Animal Farm

Drawing of Squealer by Pett and Freeman

(by George Orwell) The best political allegory since Swift.  Venerable pig, Old Major (‘Willingdon Beauty’ as his show name), a Karl Marx figure, outlines an animal world of milk and honey and soft straw. The animals rise up, kick out the nasty farmer, see off the counter revolution, and settle down to run the enterprise themselves, in a workers’ paradise of co-operation, truth and mutual respect. But some animals are more equal than others… Who would have thought Napoleon the Pig, circa 1940, would look so much like Vladimir Putin?  Sorry, I mean Josef Stalin.  Don’t I?  Our mild suggestion…

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