In the 1962 John Frankenheimer movie The Manchurian Candidate, U.S. Army Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) lives amid piles of books of every description, which he reads through the night to ward off sleep as much as possible—for in sleep his recurring nightmare returns, of a meeting of a genteel ladies’ garden club at which he and the soldiers under his command in Korea sit, bored with it all, until the club’s president instructs Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) to start killing his comrades, which Shaw calmly does. (The dream proves to be a clue in the story’s brainwashing plot.) When a superior officer drops in on Marco and asks about all the books, the captain sardonically claims to be interested in all the subjects they represent, but it is quite clear something else is going on.
By contrast, in Richard Condon’s 1959 novel on which the film is based, Marco is simply described as “a reader,” whose wide-ranging and apparently indifferent tastes predate his nightmares:
he transhipped boxes of books about anything at all, back and forth between San Francisco and wherever he was stationed at the time, because he was deeply interested in the problems of Bilbao bankers, the history of piracy, the paintings of Orozco, the modern French theater, the jurisprudential factors in Mafia administration, the diseases of cattle, the works of Yeats, the ramblings of the Bible, the novels of Joyce Cary, the lordliness of doctors, the psychology of bullfighters, the ethnic choices of Arabs, the origin of trade winds, and very nearly anything else contained in any of the books which he paid to have selected at random by a stranger in a bookstore on Market Street and shipped to him wherever he happened to be.
I have neither nightmares nor insomnia, so the book’s account of Marco resonates with me more strongly than does the movie’s. I sometimes feel as indiscriminate in my interests as he is—or almost so—and I doubt that among avid readers I am alone in this experience. I have taken an interest over the years in Christianity’s impact on imperial Rome, the life of film director John Ford, the essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, the science fiction of C. S. Lewis, the contemporary debates over Darwinian evolutionary theory, the First World War memoirs of Robert Graves, the papacy of Pius IX, the life of the first Duke of Marlborough, the perjury of Alger Hiss, the Hundred Years War, and the Russian mystery novels of Martin Cruz Smith. Again, I make no claim to a special eclecticism; many other readers could compile similarly diverse lists. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it keeps one’s mind alive to the horizons of the human experience.
Anyone who has spent his life in the academy, as I have, has another reason to keep his mind open and his interests broad—namely, friends who write. My professional association over the last dozen years with the Witherspoon Institute and Princeton’s James Madison Program has introduced me to a dazzling array of brilliant and productive minds. Just have a look at the roster of the James Madison Society, chiefly comprising those who have spent a year’s fellowship in the JMP, and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s a mixed blessing to have such a talented group of friends and colleagues. Collectively, they write so many books that one can’t keep up. Sometimes I wish they would slow down. But no, the intellectual riches just keep coming, and crowding my shelves. Herewith some of the books published in the last two years by authors I’m proud to call my friends:
Law professor Adam J. MacLeod, familiar to Public Discourse readers, thinks his way through the problem of principled, civil disagreement on moral questions in our fractious time, in The Age of Selfies: Reasoning About Rights When the Stakes Are Personal. This is no legalistic discourse, but an accessible, sensitive treatment of our present difficulties in reasoning together—across political divides and across generations. MacLeod’s hope is that what seem to us to be intractable disagreements can come to be seen as tractable ones, and that where practical reason cannot reconcile our differences, we can at least live with one another in an understanding of the common good that encompasses our plurality. This concise book of fewer than 150 pages (reviewed here at PD by Carson Holloway) has not received the attention it deserves.
In God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles, John D. Wilsey has revisited the life of a man who towered over American politics and diplomacy in the mid-twentieth century. Dulles, who served as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state but whose name today chiefly evokes thoughts of D.C.’s international airport, was an architect of American grand strategy in the Cold War, and Wilsey demonstrates how much his thinking on international relations was driven by his religious convictions. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Dulles saw the field of international politics as governed by God-given moral law—as a field of practical theology, if you will. Wilsey’s volume is part of the Wm. B. Eerdmans “Library of Religious Biography”; Allen C. Guelzo, the author of an earlier volume in that series (Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President), said of Wilsey’s book in National Review that it is “a careful, lucid study, by a sympathetic but sympathetically critical hand.” It is also a work of great value for the study of mid-century American foreign policy.
Guelzo himself, who seems to write as easily as he breathes, has just published a large new biography, Robert E. Lee: A Life. This is a work that will surely dominate the study of its famous subject for a generation or more (see PD’s review by Damian Bell here). Though Guelzo is a Yankee, a Union man, and a Lincoln man to the marrow of his bones, he has not produced a polemic or a screed of condemnation. Never leaving the reader in any doubt about “the overriding fact of Lee’s crime, which is not a word used idly,” Guelzo nonetheless has dealt fairly with his subject in all respects. He has sought to understand Lee—his familial and emotional make-up, his strong but ultimately misplaced loyalties, his thinking and his actions as a general—and yes, to judge him, not by anachronistic presentist standards, but by permanent moral norms as rationally knowable, and known, in Lee’s day as in ours. (For a conversation about the book between Guelzo and fellow historian James McPherson, presented by the James Madison Program, go here.)
Quite another kind of history has been written by Carl R. Trueman in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman, the author of numerous works in Reformation history and Christian thought, has undertaken to explain (in the words of his subtitle) “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” (PD’s review by R. J. Snell can be found here.) He begins with a very simple question: how did a declaration such as “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,” which in living memory would have been greeted with incomprehension or treated as a strange joke, come to be widely seen as a statement of an actual human experience? What accounts for this strange turn of human souls in our age, this search for a kind of self-willed “authenticity” that has taken our culture through the “psychologizing of the self,” the “sexualizing of psychology,” and the “politicizing of sex”? Leaning on insights from Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre, Trueman offers deeply considered analyses of Rousseau, the Romantic poets, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and Marcuse, among others. This is not a mere “ideas have consequences” claim; Trueman does not say that long-dead authors whom few people read have determined our fate. Instead he subtly traces their influences into everyday culture, political discourse, and even jurisprudence. This big book’s complex argument will be presented in more concise form in Trueman’s Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, available next month.
Trueman’s book may be profitably read alongside Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey’s Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment (reviewed here at PD by Adam Thomas). I confess I was a little skeptical at first that so much of our present predicament could be explained by a consideration of four French thinkers from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. But the Storeys drew me in completely, with a persuasive case that our modern restlessness springs from our inability to achieve happiness as “immanent contentment,” the teaching of Montaigne that we should live fully and completely in the present we know, rather than longing for a hereafter of which we can know little if anything. The Storeys present Pascal as Montaigne’s great critic, insisting on the efficacy of grace from a God who is largely hidden to us. And they give us Rousseau, making varied attempts to live authentically, from a politics that submerges the self to a life of solitude that exalts it. And finally they present Tocqueville, who sees in the emerging democracies of his time how much their emphasis on the individual threatens us with loneliness in a crowd rather than the comforts of community. Though this book has an apparatus of scholarly endnotes, I found it so beautifully written that I almost never turned to them, but simply kept reading.
Before I close, I’ll mention other friends whose recent books I have noted in previous columns such as Zena Hitz (Lost in Thought), and Andrew T. Walker (Liberty for All) and Michael D. Breidenbach (Our Dear-Bought Liberty, the subject of a James Madison Program lecture on Zoom next week).
No, I don’t want my writing friends to stop. They have given me much to ponder, and I look forward to what they will all write next. With friends like these, I don’t need Captain Marco’s hit-or-miss approach. Something interesting is always on its way.