Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: astral abstraction, bestselling books, CCP censorship, and more.

The editors

December 5, 2022

Speaking out?: In the past week, thousands of Chinese civilians took to the streets to protest the Communist Party’s draconian “Zero Covid” policy. In a surprising twist, the protestors’ picket signs and banners were blank—just white sheets of paper, both dodging and critiquing China’s censorship laws. It’s a move that, oddly though it may sound, recalls French critical theory. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argued that protest, speech, and outcry—“the maximum production of meaning”—constitute “the current argument of the system.” Therefore, he writes, “the strategic resistance is that of the refusal of meaning and of the spoken word.” Demonstrators in China are crying out, but not with words, ideas, or arguments. Their refusal to produce meaning, in a strict sense, and yet still express their discontent poses an acute and evasive challenge to the CCP.

Dan Brown’s deep state: The top ten bestselling books of all time include works by Charles Dickens, J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and… Dan Brown? The author’s 2003 hit The Da Vinci Code has sold over 80 million copies, putting it alongside A Tale of Two Cities, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yet Brown’s book seems to have a diminutive cultural legacy compared to these classic texts and even to the only other contemporary books of blockbuster status, those of the Harry Potter series. In an essay for the journal American Affairs, writer Geoff Shullenberger argues that the mystery thriller novel proved less influential because there is less demand to read about the “gonzo hermeneutics” central to the story when you, as a conspiracy theorist on the internet, can practice them yourself.

Miss mystic: “Hilma af Klint’s paintings are essentially colored diagrams,” one disdainful critic wrote in 1986. It has taken several major museum exhibitions since then to revive—or rather, to establish in the first place—the legacy of turn-of-the-century Swedish painter af Klint, who is credited as the first abstractionist in Western art history. But af Klint has finally gotten her due, and her work has since brought record-breaking numbers of visitors to museums. In a recent book published by the University of Chicago Press, biographer Julia Voss gives the English-speaking world brand-new insight into the artist’s life. Af Klint was not just a painter but a mystic and clairvoyant who saw herself as an amanuensis of the astral plane. At the heart of her pastel geometries was Theosophy, a spiritual teaching popular among abstract artists whose motto was that “there is no religion higher than truth.”

“The Grand Inquisitor”: “The Grand Inquisitor” is a story within Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov that remains an enduring political symbol of Russian nihilist philosophy. But even as the story’s critiques of materialism and rationalism have become commonplace today, many have not had the chance to explore the story in depth. On the podcast Classical Stuff You Should Know, hosts A.J. Hanenburg, Graeme Donaldson, and Thomas Magbee make the more than 800-page novel accessible to listeners. They discuss the Inquisitor’s interrogation of Jesus, which echoes the Temptation of Christ; its relevance to Dostoevsky’s work; and its implications for the relationship between the Catholic Church and politics.