Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Updike, Stimuli (non-erotic), and Bad Banks

Okay, this is a shameless attempt to combine several distinct topics in a single post. First, John Updike. Certainly one of the most versatile figures in American literary history, prolific in all genres; stories, novels, poetry (mostly light, often bawdy), and criticism, scads of criticism, on literature, on art, on politics. There is no one like him today (though perhaps Joyce Carol Oates comes close), and its hard to think of anyone approaching his talents as a generalist, and he is up there with any of the great literary generalists, from Pushkin and Goethe to Henry James. And like Haydn’s 104 symphonies, what was impressive about Updike’s work was not just its quantity, but its quality, with a limpid and precise prose style that always made me think of Nabokov. I wasn’t a particularly avid reader of his fiction—I suppose I read about 8 to 10 of his novels—but I loved his criticism, and his abundant powers of critical sympathy with writers who were very different from himself; I can’t tell you how many books I placed on my “let’s try to read this one” list after reading a review. He has been a part of my intellectual life for as long as I can remember, and he will be greatly missed. James Wollcott’s hilarious and trenchant review of Updike’s latest Eastwick novel in a recent issue of the London Review of Books is worth retrieving on-line.

Topic two: One of the most striking aspects of Updike’s career is that, as far as I know, he never held a university position. He was just a writer, free and unattached. And one of the things that troubles me about the new bailout package, through the House with nary a GOP vote, for all of Obama’s bipartisanizings, is how much of the money is going to support institutional education, $150 billion of the $850 billion packages. Don’t get me wrong, schools, from K to 12, and from 13 to Ph.D seminars, are all great things, and all worthy of being supported. But what was so striking about the analogous New Deal programs is the extent to which they both supported existing institutions while at the same time creating new ones, like the WPA projects for writers and artists. I would love to see new kinds of support for scholars outside of the academy—employing historians to create new on-line state encyclopedias, a national gazetteer, an oral history corps. Given the dangerous situation journalism is facing, a national reporter’s project would be a wonderful idea, giving journalists a place to research and write important stories outside of the context of the shrinking resources of the great metropolitan dailies. As with the New Deal, we have a chance to rethink our cultural institutions, and I would hate to see all the money simply gobbled up by the insatiable financial appetites and perpetually open maws of our bigger colleges and universities.

This leads somewhat indirectly to topic three, another admonition on the creeping Obaian pusillanimity. Please, no “bad bank!” Certainly no bad bank where 1) the government overpays for assets, and 2) the banks are then freed to give their executives bonuses and eschew lending, under the unwatchful eye of federal regulators. Geithner needs to recognize he no longer works for the New York Fed. I can only hope the stories that the Treasury Department will avoid nationalization are not true. What needs to happen is that 1) the government buys the toxic assets for what they are worth, which is next to nothing 2) the banks fail, 3) the government takes them over, and manages them as prudently as possible, until, either a) the banks are recapitalized as private companies, or b) the First National Bank remains the First Nationalized Bank, or c) some combination therein. (This is what we did during the S & L crisis.) Taking over the banking system will be cheaper than the $3 to $4 trillion some observers are predicting it would take to keep the private banking system a going concern, and I see no reason to doubt that a government run banking would be at least as efficient (or at least no less inefficient) that our current crop of crappy capitalists. And if there is anyone who should have been around to capture and anatomize this current mood of middle class angst and foreboding, damn it, it should have been John Updike.

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