Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: prophecy, pornography, political economy, and more.

The editors

December 19, 2022

Houellebecq’s sexual apocalypse: Michel Houellebecq, a French novelist, poet, and essayist active since 1985, is increasingly treated like a political prophet. Take as an example his controversial 2015 novel Submission, which dramatizes a future Islamic rule of France and ultimately much of the world: it was coincidentally published on the same day that jihadists attacked the offices of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Writer Jacob Siegel reflects in a recent article for UnHerd magazine on the author’s hopeless and unrelentingly misanthropic view of the modern world, writing that Houellebecq “dramatises a connection between unrestricted sexual freedom, the rationalistic secular worldview, and civilisational suicide.” More than anything, Houellebecq’s concern, and even obsession, with sex and love provides an idea as to what might be the true civilizational glue—one that, in the age of online incels, hookup culture, and declining marriage rates, rings truer than many might have thought.

Porn wars: “Is pornography art? Yes. Art is contemplation and conceptualization, the ritual exhibitionism of primal mysteries. Art makes order of nature’s cyclonic brutality. Art, I said, is full of crimes.” So says unabashedly pro-pornography feminist Camille Paglia in her landmark work Sexual Personae. But while pornography, at least by some accounts, may have been central to literature and the visual arts for ages, social conservatives and feminists alike have always questioned whether it does more harm than good. Banning pornography is once again a serious political proposition thanks to new Ohio Senator J. D. Vance and, maybe even more so, to the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, Ye. Is pornography really just another form of free expression and even art? Or has it, especially with the help of the internet, become a vehicle for exploitation and depravity?

A fallen-off formalist: Clement Greenberg liked it flat. The mid-twentieth-century art critic, best known for his championing of Jackson Pollock, argued for a pure, “formalist” vision of painting—one that eliminated distractions from the necessary traits of the medium, such as rectangular canvases and flat surfaces. But in a recent essay for The New Criterion, writer and artist Pat Lipsky describes a more personal and less unforgivingly philosophical version of Greenberg. The critic “set the course of American painting for decades,” revolutionizing America’s aesthetic sense and authoritatively pronouncing artists good, great, or past their prime. But even though Greenberg came to question the hardline Modernism he originally espoused, Lipsky writes that “Clem is the only person I’ve ever known who stood for something.”

Church and state: We often speak of the separation of church and state, but in her new book Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State, Anna Grzymała-Busse argues that the institutions of the secular state actually find their basis in none other than the Catholic Church. Grzymała-Busse, a professor of political science at Stanford University, questions the idea that the wars of secular rulers served as the foundation of European statehood. Instead, she says, the complex legal theories of the medieval Catholic Church, complete with administration, taxes, and institutional procedures, gave rise to the modern European state. Sacred Foundations contributes to a recent rise in scholarship regarding state formation and historical political economy. The book is published by Princeton University Press and is set to release on January 31, 2023.