Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: English majors, French mystics, the American Mint, and more.

The editors

February 1, 2023

The present humanity: The great dilemmas of international politics are not battles between good and evil, reporter and author Robert Kaplan claims. Rather, they are contests between good and good, in which every choice is a tradeoff of the greatest consequence. In his new book The Tragic Mind, Kaplan argues that tragedy is the essence of geopolitics. The journalist, who has spent a lifetime reporting across Eurasia, uses the works of ancient Greek tragedians to explore the themes of order, disorder, loyalty, and ambition in international politics. Kaplan is the author of the 1994 Atlantic article “The Coming Anarchy,” which argued that the struggle between primitivism and civilization marked world conflict in the present day. Kaplan’s article continues to be considered one of the fundamental theses on foreign affairs in the post-Cold War era, alongside Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.

Critical history: Who wants to be an English major? Literature is neither central to today’s public life, nor is it a profitable course of study in an age when college degrees are supposed to directly translate to increased salaries. John Guillory, professor of English at New York University, grapples with the history and present of literary studies in his recent book Professing Criticism. Guillory explores the relationship between literary criticism, the greatest practitioners of which have been amateurs as much as Ph.D.s, and the increasing professionalization of the academic study of literature. He makes a powerful case for the importance of criticism in a world that sees literature as a specialist’s pursuit; as one reviewer writes, to read this book is “to scan new horizons for the second coming of the critic.”

Factory-made: As a six-year-old child, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil would not eat sugar because the soldiers at the front lines of World War II couldn’t afford any. Perpetually self-sacrificing, Weil sought not only to sympathize with the suffering of others but to experience it for herself. Though frail and clumsy, Weil decided to take up unskilled factory labor for a year to attempt to understand the working conditions of the poor. She affirmed not only her intense identification with the working class, but also declared her spiritual affinity to Christianity. Costica Bradatan writes about Weil’s journey to Christianity through factory labor in her piece “Christ at the Assembly Line” in Commonweal Magazine.

Pocket change: Two weeks ago, Congress blew past its statutory debt limit, or “debt ceiling,” which limits the amount of money that the federal government can borrow relative to its tax income. The U.S. Treasury has resorted to so-called “extraordinary measures,” a grab-bag of accounting tricks and bureaucratic loopholes that keep the government from entering default. But a small group of legal scholars are calling for what might be the most extraordinary measure of them all: the minting of a one-trillion dollar platinum coin to resolve outstanding debts. The director of the U.S. Mint has the legal authority to issue a coin of any denomination, a right codified by Mint policy and congressional law. Legal scholars argue that the debt ceiling could be erased if the Mint coined a trillion dollar coin and handed it to the Treasury, which could simply deposit it in its bank account.