The Economist reviews a new book by Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age; A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. The central device of the book is the assumption that by knowing more about England in Shakespeare's day, we can better understand him.
Of course, with great writers it often goes the opposite way: their perception about their time is so clear it becomes prescience. The problem, of course, is figuring out in real time which of them has it right, and should be heeded, and which are merely bloviating; most of us resolve the matter by projecting prophetic significance on the artists who say what we think, while decrying the blindness or obtuseness of everybody who doesn't agree with us and our preferred artists.
So, in that spirit, you might want to go read Adam Kirsch, Life on Venus: Europe's Last Man, at World Affairs Journal. His article has a decidedly 2003-ish tone to it, with echoes of the Old-Europe-New-America argument: Europe is dying, America is vibrant. Yet it's an interesting read because while two of his exhibits were written in the 1990s, his central exhibit, Ian McEwan's Saturday, would probably be tagged as more American than European in the parameters of that argument. Kirsch's reading, however, is that McEwan is fundamentally European, and moreover, dying European, in the way he resolves the tension between the barbarians and the civilized with a poem, the beauty of which mesmerizes the barbarian. Bollocks, says Kirsch (well, not with that word).
Maybe it's not such a 2003-ish topic. Earlier this week I poked fun at the Guardian for deceiving itself about Obama's intentions for Afghanistan; since it was the Guardian-wing of America that propelled Obama forward in the initial Democratic primary race (though not all the way into the White House: they don't have that power), the issue may soon surface again; if Kirsch is right, it's the meta-narrative of our generation.