Two years have passed since Eric Larsen’s A Nation Gone Blind was published—two long years during which time I, and doubtless many others, would have been less pained had I, we, known that another soul had penned these words of truth, nowadays so seldom heard. For it is truth which is central to Larsen’s book, his solitary search for it, and his well-wrought conclusion that the public at large and even our so-called intellectual classes—including writers, editors and academics (in the humanities no less—are no longer able to think well due to a preponderance of feeling and zeal which has largely crowded out clear reasoning based on empirical evidence and logic.
In the Brave New World which is the present-day United States, we must be transfigured, disfigured, into something less than human. “The ideal consumer could be identified as the person who never votes but always buys, who never thinks but always wants. This wanting should always be kept, insofar as possible, on the sensory, emotional, and voluptuary level: It must be, as with food or sex, a desire that results in its own gratification but awakens again as desire soon afterward.” As an American living in the UK, I would say—to the displeasure of Britons who by and large (blindly) consider themselves to be above the American fray—Larsen’s words hold as true here as well. Why wouldn’t they when the U.S. and the UK have long operated as conjoined twins?
A retired English professor, prize-winning novelist, and critic—and, I daresay, a philosopher—Larsen traces the advent of the Age of Simplification to 1947, the year, he points out, which heralded in the National Security Council. I hasten to add that the same National Security Act which established the NSC also and simultaneously created the CIA, the permanent and, by its nature, secretive and extralegal agency which serves not to protect our national security so much as it precludes the very possibility of any semblance of open, transparent democracy—that is to say democracy, period—whose people are secure from arbitrary lawlessness and tyranny, from without, yes, but more so from within. Further, the agency’s exploits abroad have a history of at-home blowback.
In follow-up to his discussion that television must not broadcast content of any “significance or importance” which “might trigger emotion or inspire thinking, thereby harming or endangering the sponsor’s interest by jeopardizing the continued acceptance of the half-truth as whole,” Larsen asks, rhetorically:
Would HBO, on the other hand, run a noncomic and nonfictional dramatic series about U.S. government figures or agencies assassinating foreign statesmen and American citizens, laundering money for corporate interests, importing drugs into the United States, or “allowing” catastrophes like 9/11 to occur, if only by not preventing them, for the purpose of reaping political benefit therefrom?
Clearly Larsen therein refers, in great part, to the CIA, which it is worth noting is but one of 16 member agencies of the U.S. intelligence community.
Like a philosopher of old before philosophy itself was shut up, split up and stifled within the academy, Larsen’s purview spans the whole of what it means to be human, and his sweep of subject matter exerts itself as an opposing force against the tendency to arbitrarily truncate, categorize and proscribe. (Sean M. Madden, Online Journal,April 10, 2008)
Read the whole review here.
[Larsen]. . .takes on virtually everything in the current political, cultural and intellectual landscape of America, in order to figure out how the democratic republic has morphed, before his eyes, into an . . . Orwellian dystopia. In three lengthy essays, Larsen diagnoses. . . the mass "blindness" that allows politicians and newsmakers to get away with passing off lies and half-truths as fact, and academia unknowingly to embrace indoctrination over education. . . Larsen's position. . . will anger many in the government, media and university, but his theses are all backed up by clear-eyed observation, copious evidence and meticulous literary commentary. . . [His] book is a rare intellectual page-turner: fascinating, convincing and consciousness-raising. It deserves to be read by anyone who thinks—or thinks they think—for a living.
(Publishers Weekly, Online Edition (Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved)
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..........In his 2000 analysis The Twilight of American Culture, [social critic Morris] Berman cited. . . Marshall McLuhan's analogy on the pervasive nature of culture: "If you could ask a fish what was the most obvious feature of its environment, probably the last thing it would say would be 'water.' In the case of the United States, the 'water' is corporate consumerism. This is our ethos, our civilizational essence."
..........Berman's "Twilight" has become Eric Larsen's "Age of Simplification." In an invective on the intellectual deterioration after 60 years of mass-media exposure, Larsen believes that, like McLuhan's fish, Americans have become blinded by a "corporate-government" takeover in which half-truths erase an individual's freedom and need to perceive the true nature of his or her surroundings. . . . [Larsen argues that what he calls the "aesthetic" of the mass media], which is about [the] quality, flavor and the experience of life, has pre-empted truth. . . [and led to] the destruction of our sense of self and [our] inability to perceive truth. (Brian Ayres, The Tampa Tribune, June 11, 2006)
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Eric Larsen's A Nation Gone Blind is a passionately argued, meticulously documented assault upon the culture of political correctness which has, Larsen argues, reduced the study of literature at the university level to politicized ritual. I cannot do justice to the elaborate case he lays out in each of these three essays, but he makes it clear that this is no arcane academic issue. He sees the abduction of the humanities by a generation of militant politicos (who, ironically, found their voices during the anti-war, anti-establishment sixties) as a manifestation of a pervasive blight within American culture. Our vitality as "free agents" has been sapped by group-think within the university and by obsessive consumerism and mass media mind-candy without, putting our democracy itself at risk. Thus, with our long tradition of "intellectual liberalism" now comatose and a radical minority in power, it is no wonder that we tend to doze with the pack as folly after folly, from Washington to Baghdad, flashes across our screens. This is indeed a rarity—a book about ideas that manages to be a page-turner. It is as provocative, timely, and exhilarating as The End of Faith by Sam Harris—another essential read for those still paying attention. (Tom Doherty, online review at Amazon.com, June 3, 2006)
"During the same week that I was reading [Don] Watson's book [Death Sentences] I came across Eric Larsen's equally fine A Nation Gone Blind: American in an Age of Simplification and Deceit, which approaches its topic from the perspective of a college English teacher alarmed by the progress that the last two generations of his students have made toward the notion of the classroom as petting zoo. The young inheritors of the world's supreme military and economic power apparently take it as an insult if anybody invites them to think. Why should they? Thinking isn't advertised on television. This is America, where everything good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right.
"Read as telltales in the prevailing wind of our multitasking systems of global communication, the books by Watson and Larsen point toward a world in which, as Simone Weil once noticed, 'It is the thing that thinks, and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing.' It's conceivable that her premonition will prove well founded." (Lewis Lapham,"Notebook," Harper's Magazine, May 2006)
These are difficult times for people whose cast of mind is essentially religious, and by this I mean . . . people who crave the certainty, the set of definite answers to life's large questions, that organized religion in its many stripes has long provided.
These are the people, the true believers, . . . who so vividly wander the groves of academe in Eric Larsen's distressing new screed A Nation Gone Blind: America in an Age of Simplification and Deceit. . . . Larsen is a longtime English professor [who is] . . . sharp on the intellectual dry rot that has spread through our universities, and when he deplores the totalitarian impulse of today's feel-good, sanctimonious young professors who speak openly about "reshaping" the minds of students to make those minds ideologically acceptable, he is really describing a kind of quasi-religious indoctrination in which "right thinking" is valued and the habits of mind of the Enlightenment, of the Age of Reason—skepticism, empirical observation, the ability to accept multiplicity, paradox, and, yes, uncertainty without panicking—are not . . . (Paul Reidinger, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 30, 2006)
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I AM ZOË HANDKE
“The formal qualities of Eric Larsen’s art mirror his subject matter. He writes with controlling precision about the most destructive and terrifying of childhood emotions: abandonment and loss. Mr. Larsen’s style is remarkable for its density and elegance, the protean intricacy of its richly recurring metaphors: windows become mirrors; water, blood; silence, sound. The inspiration of a haunting prairie breeze blows through his narrative, ‘the presence of time itself, moving, continuously flowing, unending.’ . . . In the course of the novel, Zoë is relentlessly drawn ‘by a voiceless siren call in my own frightened and responding blood’ to replicate her mother’s fate. The words ‘I am Zoë Handke,’ which begin the book’s final paragraph, are a daughter’s cry of self-defining survival: I am not you, mother; I will live.”
......... ..............—Diana Postlethwaite in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1992
“[It’s] all spellbinding and wonderful and absorbing and so startlingly different you relish each delicious page. . . Plot does not carry you forward, but rather a mesmerization. You are held by some of the most shimmering prose ever put on paper. . . This is the life of a girl growing up in the Midwest caught between her mother’s madness (‘I was a mirror. My mother wanted me broken.’) and her grandmother who lives in their attic, dropping one shoe, but not the other. This book is like that waiting for the other shoe to drop. . . “Marvelous, marvelous work. If you love literature, writing so wonderful it makes you catch your breath, read Zoë Handke.”
xx.......... .........—Ruth Moose in The Greensboro News and Record, April 12, 1992
“In his evocative second novel. . . Eric Larsen proves a literary architect of quiet but high ambition, drafting a book with rich passages and still rooms that make the reader linger on the tour. . . “With the blunt title of his book, ‘I Am Zoë Handke, Larsen suggests the sum of memory is what makes us. In the slow but steady accretion of flashback, recollection and dream, this skillful writer carefully creates an intriguing character study and haunting episodes that settle like real memories in the reader’s mind.”
.........................—Dale Neal in The Asheville Citizen-Times, April 19, 1992
“Exquisite, elegant, exceptional, eloquent—just a few of the words which all together do not add up to an adequate description of Eric Larsen’s companion novel to An American Memory, his prize-winning first novel about Malcolm Reiner. “His accomplishment speaks to us on levels that leave no doubt of his mastery. That accomplishment begins, and ends, with a good story.”
.............. .........—Bob Moyer in The Grand Rapids Press (Michigan), September 6, 1992
“Larsen’s style is lyrical and even elegant, and his writing is filled with unique and startling images. His understanding of human nature, as in his penetrating picture of a child’s reaction to death and his portrait of a child’s life with an elderly relative in the household, is noteworthy. This new novel is a worthy successor of An American Memory and likely will share its literary success.
.......... ..............—Rickie Pierce in The Chattanooga News-Free Press, June 7, 1992
“[Larsen’s] non-linear multi-threaded plot often is more of a reverie and a collection of images than a novel in the traditional sense. Spare images evoke the brittle cold of Midwestern winters, the humid head of summer and the cool sadness of fall, but amid the words, images and even the violence lies the stillness of the land and the stillness which gives Zoë her peace.” xx
.........................—Joan Hinkemeyer in The Rocky Mountain News, May 10, 1992
AN AMERICAN MEMORY
“. . . An American Memory is a beautiful work. Mr. Larsen. . . has written this novel in language as sparse and wind-riven as the Midwest of his imagination, ‘a frozen wilderness that reached outward to the low circle of the horizons,’ in which only the very strong, capable of bearing great loneliness, can endure.”
.......... ..........—Dinitia Smith in The New York Times Book Review, May 29, 1988
"This is a serious, worthy novel, and of how many among the countless put out each year can that be truly said? It is Larsen's first book. Judging from the copyright dates of sections [previously published] . . . he has been assembling it for at least the last eight years. With its publication he exhibits a weight and accomplishment uncommon to first novelists."
xx...................— Douglas Seibold in the Chicago Tribune Book Review, May 1, 1988
“Much about this novel is extraordinary—the elegant prose, the meticulous descriptions of winters on the farm and of the father’s coldness. Larsen doesn’t fake melodramatic events, but instead remains true to the subdued tones characteristic of such an emotionally restrained family. And he never lets the narrator lapse into self-pity. The tone throughout is compassionate rather than accusatory.”
xx.......... .........—Richard Smith in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 4, 1988
[An American Memory] is the work of a fresh and powerful new talent.”
xx ....................................... .........
......... ...............—James Marshall in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 4, 1988
“Panning a stream of first novels, a reviewer occasionally finds a gold nugget. Eric Larsen’s first novel is one of those. As delicately and sweetly written as a lullaby, it comes as close to poetry as fiction can get.”
xx ....................—Mary Ann McKinley in The Kansas City Star, July 31, 1988