Supplemental: High praise for work which makes no sense!


Fratricide and Richard Nixon:
Do you believe there is any such thing as a “Los Angeles artist” named XVALA?

We ask that person because “Los Angeles artist XVALA” is currently in the news, if any such thing as the news exists. Emily Yahr has the story, or something like it, on-line at the Washington Post, if you believe in the Net:
YAHR (9/5/14): While news about hundreds of nude celebrity photos stolen from Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and others have thrown the Internet into a frenzy, one artist has decided to take advantage of the madness.

Los Angeles artist XVALA will showcase some uncensored images of the stars, among others, as part of his new exhibition, titled “No Delete,” next month at Cory Allen Contemporary Art’s The Showroom in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“We share our secrets with technology,” XVALA said in a statement describing the project. “And when we do, our privacy becomes accessible to others.”
Interesting concept! If we understand what XVALA is saying, when you put a photograph on-line, other people can sometimes see it. It “becomes accessible to others!”

We’ll assume that some person in L. A. has made the statements in question. We’ll assume he’s been “building a collection” of “personal, illicit celebrity images on the Internet,” just as Yahr reports.

That said, do you believe that the person in question is sensibly described as an “artist,” that his collection is sensibly described as an “exhibit?” Or is it possible that this whole thing is a bit of a con—that it’s built upon an XVALAian gamble that no one is currently able, or willing, to discern and name an act of fraud?

Are we humans able to make sensible judgments at all? Once the gatekeepers have gone away—once we’re left on our own, with no one to filter what we can think—do we have any ability to make sensible critical judgments? Or are we forced to find new authorities and then to recite their scripts?

We’ve been asking these questions as we read Fawn Brodie’s fairly famous 1981 psychobiography, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character.

The book is still alive in our politics, in ways we’ve described this week. But the book is full of very strange chains of reasoning and evidence, and it isn’t clear that people have ever been able to tell.

Let’s not overstate! Right from the start, people have sometimes noted the weirdness of Brodie’s book. But we’ve been struck by the fact that the New York Times couldn’t seem to see its essential weirdness in real time; by the fact that Rick Perlstein made it a major source for part of Nixonland, his 2008 best-seller; and by the way some elements of Brodie’s book seem to have transmigrated into the egregious press coverage of Campaign 2000.

Without gatekeepers to tell us what to think, can we humans reason at all? Let’s consider the New York Times real-time review of Brodie’s book, in which senior reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt actually praised some of the weirder parts of the text.

Credit where due! Yesterday, we noted that Lehmann-Haupt started his review by criticizing Brodie’s weird rumination on this question: “Did Frank Nixon kick his sons?”

What was weird about Brodie’s treatment? There was no evidence that Frank Nixon ever kicked his sons. In oral histories, no one had ever described such a thing, and Nixon had never said so either.

But so what? By the time Brodie was done, she was offering this twin-barreled conclusion:

“Whether Frank Nixon kicked his son or not is not as certain as that Nixon felt himself to be kicked around by his father.”

It was certain that Nixon felt himself to be kicked around by his father. Brodie warned that we couldn’t be as certain that Frank Nixon kicked his sons!

As scholarship, that was an act of insanity. In the Times, Lehmann-Haupt noted the oddness, saying the book contained “at least a few of those psychoanalytic passages that make a reader flinch with their simplistic presumptuousness.”

Lehmann-Haupt could see that something was strange about that part of the book. But on balance, he praised Brodie’s book, perhaps deferring to her authority as a well-known biographer.

Oddly, Lehmann-Haupt praised other parts of the book, sections which strike us as blatantly odd. As he was ending his piece, he said he was glad he got to hear a strange new “speculation:”
LEHMANN-HAUPT (9/5/81): The big drawback to Professor Brodie's painstaking, overarching approach is that it involves so much recapitulation of the sordid and, for the time being, too familiar, Nixon story. The only incidental compensation of hearing it all again is that by reviewing all the vast research that has been done on Mr. Nixon's career, the author is able to introduce certain details we may not have heard before, such as Leonard Garment's speculation to Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein that the real reason Mr. Nixon failed to destroy his office tapes was because he ''wanted the world to see him go to the bathroom,'' which Professor Brodie takes to mean he wanted to reveal ''his ineffable dirtiness.''

But the advantages to her leisurely rehashing approach far outweigh the disadvantages. By compiling so much evidence for her insights, Professor Brodie not only avoids (mostly) the glib insights that psychohistorians are so inclined to toss off, she also succeeds in creating a weighty portrait of Mr. Nixon as a remarkable man undone by forces that shaped his parents and his childhood...
Leonard Garment’s “speculation” does appear in Brodie’s final chapter. In notes, she says Woodward told her, in an interview, that Garment made the quoted remark to himself and Bernstein.

Richard Nixon “wanted the world to see him go to the bathroom?” This is one of the odder, wilder “speculations” about why the tapes weren’t destroyed. From Brodie’s text, there’s no way to know if Garment was speaking metaphorically, or if he might have been joking or speaking in exasperation, or just what he might have meant by this comment, which Woodward and Bernstein never quoted in their own books.

In Brodie’s book, she largely misstates what Woodward and Bernstein said about Garment’s view of the tapes in the relevant part of The Final Days. It’s odd to think that a major reviewer would regard this peculiar remark by Garment as one of the major “compensations” a reader receives for wading through the length of Brodie’s book.

Richard Nixon “wanted the world to see him go to the bathroom?” It’s odd to think that a major reviewer would single that out as a high point in a book he is praising on balance. That said, the strangest part of the Times review involved a very strange part of Brodie’s book—her treatment of “the theme of fratricide in Nixon’s life.”

As we’ll see tomorrow, Brodie’s treatment of that theme is almost completely incoherent. It’s never clear what Brodie thinks the word “fratricide” even means.

Brodie’s treatment of “the theme of fratricide” is one of the strangest parts of a very strange book. It’s even stranger than her claim that Nixon wrote a letter, when he was ten, complaining about being kicked.

In Brodie’s hands, “the theme of fratricide in Nixon’s life” is an utterly incoherent, utterly strange, very large mega-muddle. But look at the New York Times review! Lehmann-Haupt devotes a substantial chunk of his piece to the rewards of Brodie’s treatment of this theme, calling it “a particularly striking example of what makes Professor Brodie different and more challenging as a psychohistorian.”

Can we humans reason at all? Tomorrow, we’ll look at the gigantic muddle which led the Times to call down praise on an authority figure’s last book.

In the New York Times review, Brodie was treated like a gatekeeper. A well-known Los Angeles figure had said it. By law, it must be worthwhile.

For extra credit: Is it possible that a “Los Angeles artist” can, like the figures in his exhibit, possibly have no clothes?

Bare soul. Then, discuss.


  1. So what are we supposed to discuss, Bob? Your definition of an "artist" and an "exhibit" and how everything that doesn't exactly fit your rigid rules only shows how dumb we all are?

    You, sir, are an insufferable boor.

    1. That 6:17 post certainly only shows how dumb *one* person is.. but what were you supposed to do?

    2. It is also a hallmark of anti-intellectualism to feign lack of understanding to heap ad hominem ridicule and scorn on the expression of ideas found to be uncomfortable.

  2. But on balance, [Lehmann-Haupt] praised Brodie’s book, perhaps deferring to her authority as a well-known biographer.

    One problem with many NY Times non-fiction book reviews is that the reviewer is not an expert in the subject matter. Thus, the reviewer doesn't have the right background to point out all the errors.

    An example is William D. Cohan’s “The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities.” The Sunday Times book review wrote,
    The book is at once a masterwork of reporting and a devastating critique of a university that has lost its way

    In fact, this book is dreadfully one-sided and filled with inaccuracies. The reviewer, Caitlin Flanagan, who is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, evidently hadn't followed case closely enough to evaluate it properly.

    1. What? Your wife doesn't have a cousin who once had a friend who knew somebody who went to Duke?

    2. No, but at my wife's 50th class reunion at Wellesley, I met a spouse who's on the faculty at Duke. He said that he was pressured some to join the infamous Group of 88 statement, but he resisted and didn't sign the statement..

  3. BTW, it was this TV show in early 1972 that first revealed Nixon's taping of everything-- long before John Dean.

    Why it isn't remembered beats me. It's also fascinating to watch:

  4. "The book is still alive in our politics, in ways we’ve described this week."

    No Bob, it isn't. You haven't described it beyond this sentence in the post to which you link: "One unfortunate part of the book seemed to transmigrate into the press corps’ coverage of Campaign 2000."

    Whatever unfortunate transmigration "seemed" to happen in 2000 is never described. And 2000 is not "alive." It is history. Fourteen year old history.

    Fawn Brodie's book isn't even "fairly famous" although some might see that description as a downgrade from yesterday's label of it as "an influential book."

    But your series on it is fairly foolish.

    1. Her books are well known among historians in Academia. They were big sellers when they were released among the general public. She was like Doris Kearns Goodwin and was a professor at UCLA.

    2. Your comment demonstrates a wealth of ignorance, 11:37.
      You are right up there with a blogger who would put "high praise" in a headline about reviews of Brodie's Nixon book.

    3. @2:10, I swear you trolls aren't even trying any more.

    4. As opposed to all the thought and effort you put into that comment.

    5. "Her books are well known among historians in Academia."

      Well, there you go. Brodie's book is not only among the most influential in the past 30+ years simply because Bob says so, it is also "well known among historians in Academia."

      Goodness, the issue is settled. By all means lets spend the next six months repeating ourselves concerning this monumentally important work that forever change the course of political journalism and brought us the War on Gore.

    6. And not only that, she is "like Doris Kearns Goodwin" to boot.

  5. You do know the acronym for Cory Allen Contemporary Art is CACA don't you, Bob?