Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Hypocrisy Weighed; the Kamasutra Commodified; and Pestilence Personalized

For a subtle, impressively intelligent discussion of a topic that’s on just about everybody’s mind these day, see David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy (Princeton, $29.95). Mr. Runciman, a lecturer in political theory at Cambridge, begins with the assumption that hypocrisy is inevitable in politics, and eventually argues that it’s also salutary, if only in the limited sense that hypocrisy implies a private sphere where the government can’t, or shouldn’t, reach. (When no one has anything to hide, he warns, “that is where terror lies.”) He looks at individual thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to George Orwell, and even individual politicians (including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), but the passage I want to share is a shrewd appraisal of Orwell’s opinion of two fellow writers, P. G. Wodehouse, who made some dubious broadcasts for the Nazis when he was interned for a year at the start of World War II, and Rudyard Kipling, a “prophet of British imperialism,” as Orwell called him:

“[W]hat Kipling and Wodehouse had in common for Orwell was that there was a kind of integrity to their double standards, though of very different kinds. Kipling deliberately concealed something of himself, but did not seek to conceal the truth about the nature of imperial power; Wodehouse exposed himself, and thereby inadvertently exposed something of the double standards of the system of power in which he unthinkingly believed. Kipling, in this sense, knew what he was about and Wodehouse did not. … But it is also worth noting that what rescued Kipling and Wodehouse in Orwell’s eyes was that they did not share the other’s vice. The easiest way to illustrate this is to consider what would have happened if their positions had been reversed. It is inconceivable that if Kipling had found himself in Wodehouse’s position, broadcasting for the Nazis for the sake of a quiet life, then Orwell would have defended him; there was nothing innocent about Kipling, and therefore there was no way of imagining that he might have been self-deceived in such circumstances. Stupidity might just retain its integrity in the face of totalitarianism, but knowingness never could. Equally, it is impossible to imagine Orwell defending a P. G. Wodehouse view of British imperialism, because there was nothing innocent about imperialism, and political naivety in that context was always culpable. Kipling could write about empire because he was in no sense naive about it; what made Orwell despair of British imperialism was that it was not on the whole staffed by Kiplings, but by Bertie Woosters.”

Now picture that same perspicacity trained on Republican and Democratic candidates. …

 

JAMES MCCONNACHIE’S THE BOOK OF LOVE (Metropolitan, $27.50), a “biography” of the Kamasutra, traces the history of the Indian treatise on the erotic from its birth in the third century A.D. to its current debased status as a byword for gymnastic sex. It’s a curious tale, well told by Mr. McConnachie, enlivened by the presence of the indefatigable Victorian explorer Richard Burton, who arranged for the publication in 1883 of the first English-language edition—which was promptly suppressed. Then begins the book’s long exile in the “semi-darkness of brown-paper packaging,” as Mr. McConnachie puts it. Only in the early 1960s did the Kamasutra become ubiquitous and earn the deadening epithet “classic”—but by then the book had been too long associated with smut. You won’t be surprised to learn that in 1991 an enterprising Indian company introduced the new “KS” brand of prophylactic with this slogan: “It’s your revolution. It’s your condom. It’s KamaSutra.”

 

AN UNEASY MIX OF SCHOLARLY research and fiction, John Hatcher’s The Black Death: A Personal History (DaCapo, $27.50) attempts to tell the story of the devastating 14th-century plague—which killed off at least a third of the population of Europe—from the perspective of a single English village, Walsham, in Suffolk. There are extraordinarily detailed court records that give a good idea of what life was like in Walsham in 1349, the year in which fully half of the village’s population died of the pestilence, but Mr. Hatcher decided that to give these horrific events a “personal” resonance, to try to convey how ordinary people experienced the Black Death, he had to invent characters (such as the parish priest) and plant thoughts in their medieval minds. Though he’s successful, on the whole, in imparting a sense of daily life in plague-struck Walsham, the book remains an ungainly beast, stiff and uncertain of the liberties it’s taking. The suffering of those terrified villagers was buried with them six and a half centuries ago—and better left unexhumed.

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Hypocrisy Weighed; the Kamasutra Commodified; and Pestilence Personalized