Books and Arts; 文艺；
Book Review; 书评；
Political philosophy; 政治哲学；
Mightier than the sword; 雄文胜武；
The collected thoughts on this, that and the other of two clever men;
When writers are grand enough, they can produce books by recycling their journalism, lectures, academic papers and other jottings. Sometimes that can seem dated and lazy. Sometimes it is a treat: the assorted pieces come together to create a great mosaic. Neither “Facts are Subversive“ by Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford-based writer and academic, nor “Gray's Anatomy“ by John Gray, a political philosopher, fall into the first trap (or at least very rarely). They are both good reads. But neither quite reaches the goal of the whole being more interesting than the parts.
Mr. Garton Ash is incapable of writing a dull article. Unlike some famous-name writers, he is proud to be a reporter: whatever the subject, he digs diligently. He observes sharply and with a dry donnish wit that deserves greater play. A remarkable wordsmith, at his best he has an echo of one of his great heroes, George Orwell. The pieces range from his first stamping-grounds of Germany and central Europe to the bigger themes he took on later (such as Britain's neurotic “don't know, don't trust, don't care“ relationship with Europe) and to more exotic places, including Brazil, Iran and Myanmar.
His aim is to chronicle the history of the “nameless decade“, the period that began with the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001 and ended with the election of Barack Obama last year. The subjects encompassed in that time include authoritarian governments, the challenge to liberalism raised by Islam and the corrosive combination of the Bush administration's bungled foreign policy and Europe's unthinking anti-Americanism.
But Mr. Garton Ash's silver nib wiggles past those constraints. The best essays in the book are timeless. One is a nuanced and convincing piece, both sympathetic and devastating, about Günter Grass, the German novelist, who revealed in his memoirs that he had briefly been in the Waffen SS. Did that taint Mr. Grass's books, or his role in public life, or both or neither? Was it the wartime service that was shameful, or its concealment over decades? Mr Garton Ash brings the reader sure-footedly through the thickets of Germany's post-war history and through the marshy ground of moral relativism. He points to the real scandal: that Mr. Grass was himself so casually splenetic over so many years about other people's shortcomings, while concealing his own.
Another excellent piece touches on a comparable issue: the list of suspected communist sympathizers that Orwell supplied to the British authorities in 1949. Again, Mr. Garton Ash is scrupulously fair, highlighting Orwell's sincere (and justifiable) fear of communist infiltration, as well as his fumbling feelings for Celia Kirwan, the British official involved.
Some of the reworked articles are commendable journalism, but do not quite stand the test of time. Mr Garton Ash's observations from his trip to Iran in 2005 seem a bit whiskery now. It is nostalgic to read about the fall of crony capitalism in Ukraine five years ago. But the reader is left hankering to know what Mr. Garton Ash thinks about the mess that has succeeded it. A fiercer editor might have left out such pieces, and pruned the author's occasional lapses into self-indulgence (using “proleptic“ once is fine, twice is tiresome). That may not matter in individual newspaper columns. It jars when collected in a book.
Mr. Gray's book is darker, grittier and more ambitious. Mr. Garton Ash is happy to lambast the West's specific shortcomings but Mr. Gray sets out to unpick the shallow philosophical foundations of the whole edifice, in particular the modern myths about progress and perfectibility. He demolishes the theory that we have reached the “end of history“, the dogmas of secular liberalism, the weaknesses of financial casino capitalism and the limits of energy-intensive economic growth. Such targets deserve his scrutiny and Mr. Gray's criticisms are cogent. But he tends to overdo it. Again and again (and again) he attacks the people he calls “neoliberals“ without pinning down whom (apart from Tony Blair) he is attacking. The reader is left feeling a straw man has been dissected.
The finest pieces in Mr. Gray's book are satire. One is a Swiftian essay in favour of torture (which some serious-minded lefties took at face value). Even better is a devastating parody of the Marxist approach to linguistics, involving a (fictional) visit by Ludwig Wittgenstein to the Soviet Union, and his relationship with an (invented) Hungarian academic, L. Revai, who idealizes the grunts of slave labourers as a proletarian Ursprache.
In Mr Gray's most substantial essay, “An agenda for Green conservatism“, he attempts to rescue conservatism from the ideological excesses of the 1980s. This is a thought-provoking enterprise, deserving a book on its own. But if it became a book, the author's views on such things as the failings of professional monopolies in education and health would benefit from more statistics and fewer assertions—calling, perhaps, for investment in a researcher.
As Mr Garton Ash rightly points out, it is facts, ultimately, that are subversive.