Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Coming Soon: Doom in the USA?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Coming Soon: Doom in the USA?

Article excerpt

Richard Rorty, the distinguished American philosopher and the intellectual heir of John Dewey, is to publish a brief and controversial text next month called Achieving Our Country (Harvard University Press). In it he makes an old-fashioned appeal to America's (now rather old) New Left to forget its former quarrels and rejoin the political mainstream from which it has been banished, or self-exiled, at least since the 1960s. His message has some relevance to Britain.

What particularly intrigued me in Rorty's text was a reference to two recent works of American fiction unknown to me. These, Rorty noted, had given a notably downbeat version of what might happen in America in the next century. Both were powerful novels, he suggested, representing a significant (and pessimistic) strand in the nation's understanding of itself. Rorty suspected that the authors have probably read too much recent European philosophy, and concluded that "those who find Foucault and Heidegger convincing often view the United States of America as . . . something we must hope will be replaced, as soon as possible, by something utterly different."

Today's political elite in England thinks we can't have too much of America, so it comes as a jolt to be told of American writers who take such a view.

A large amount of interesting American writing (and quite probably art and film) never seems to make it to the eastern Atlantic. We receive what is easily marketable, but much interesting and purely indigenous material often fails to arrive. So in New York recently, I bought the books to which Rorty had referred. Signs of acute pessimism in a culture so characterised by supreme self-confidence ought to be acknowledged and perhaps even celebrated.

One of the books, Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko, was published by Penguin in the US (in 1992), though not in Britain. Silko has mixed ancestry: native American, Mexican and white. …

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