Welcome to The Time of Monsters
What to do while the old world is dying and the new struggling to be born.
The title of this newsletter is from Antonio Gramsci, an Italian journalist and political leader. While imprisoned by Mussolini in 1930, Gramsci wrote in his notebook, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has rendered this sentence in looser and more suggestive phrasing: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters."
Gramsci’s words resonate now because we too are living in an interregnum, an in-between time where many of the older political certitudes are crumbling but the shape of the future is still murky. Amid the gridlock, paralysis and stodgy thinking that still dominates politics, we’re getting a glimmer of the very different future in rising social movements that are both hopeful (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion) and scary (a revanchist authoritarianism that Gramsci would recognize, an emergent eco-fascism using climate change and pandemics as justification for ethno-nationalism).
The Time of Monsters will be a home to essays and podcasts that diagnose and chart the symptoms of our era, both the morbid ones but also signs of resilience, recovery, and robustness.
It’s easy enough to name off the monsters who endanger us, larger, deadlier and harder to defeat than any Frankenstein or Godzilla: plutocracy, pandemics, mobilized bigotry, authoritarianism, the climate emergency. In political debate, there’s always a need for sharp polemics against the wrong-headed, but they need to be balanced by more introspective self-questioning about areas of uncertainty. We can agree, I hope, that climate change and authoritarianism are real problems. This means there’s room for debunking and mocking those who would deny or obfuscate these problems. But the solutions to these crises aren’t obvious to me, nor are they obvious to most people.
There are also subtler but no less real monsters in the form of despair, loneliness, a loss of meaning or purpose. These monsters of the heart have many sources, but they are also all too common symptoms of the current interregnum. Political solutions are also only partial because our interregnum has an emotional side, one best explored by writing about art.
William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” I would suggest that good essay writing tries to balance the competing impulses that Yeats names rhetoric and poetry.
Precisely because we are in an interregnum, the essay—whether done in extended reflections or short jottings—seems like an ideal form. An essay is, as the literal meaning of the word makes clear, an attempt: a provisional stab at the truth, not a dogmatic assertion but an exploration that seeks to come to terms with the new experiences, new events, new emotions.
I would ask for your support as I try to make sense of the politics and culture of The Time of Monsters. For a taste of what to expect, I would point to my writings in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation and elsewhere. Here’s a sample: on terrorism and mental illness, on liberal racism and the history of The New Republic, on Trump and postmodernism, on how the CIA used a comic strip to promote a coup in Iran, on Trump as a bullshit artist, on the movie “Hail, Caesar!,” on the dangers of a new Cold War with China, on the folly of becoming a Twitter personality.
I hope these articles give a sense of the range of topics we’ll be exploring and also the spirit of curiosity that will govern this experiment in thinking in public.
Surviving The Time of Monsters will necessarily be a collaborative and cooperative effort. I welcome input from readers of the newsletter on what I write, where I should rethink an argument, where I should push it forward, what I’m missing out on, and when I’m being rigid or obtuse. On Twitter, I’ve enjoyed and been enriched by the engagement I’ve received for my twitter essays. It’s my goal to bring here that spirt of honest, hearty give-and-take and open-mindedness.
Without claiming either the mantle or gravitas of Gramsci, his model of notebook taking is worth emulating. Join me as I try to figure out how we can help the new world struggling to be born and leave behind The Time of Monsters.
Readers should expect at least 3 posts a week plus, in the near future, a weekly podcast. Some of these posts will be free for everyone, and some will be only for paying subscribers.
I would ask anyone intrigued by this to not only subscribe but share with friends.
(Drawing of monsters done by Seth).