Via Butterflies and Wheels – again, I know, but what the hell, you don’t come here for variety – Anne Applebaum does a masterful demolition of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a pseudo-pacifist tract full of clumsy moral equivalence and reprinted Nazi propaganda. Promoted as history written by a novelist, or a novel about history, Applebaum shows that Human Smoke is in fact counterknowledge – the antiwar equivalent of The Da Vinci Code.
Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the ‘mainstream media’ is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II. One cannot properly understand Baker’s book by comparing it to, say, Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies or to the latest work on the fire-bombing of Dresden. To understand Human Smoke properly, one needs to read Gawker, Wikipedia, and above all The Da Vinci Code. The latter comparison might sound odd, but the resemblance is actually quite striking. Like Baker, the author of The Da Vinci Code is not a historian. And also like Baker, Dan Brown is a man apparently obsessed by his belief in the existence of a widespread historical conspiracy. (For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, Brown’s theory goes like this: the church hierarchy, along with the world’s religious historians, art historians, and church historians, have been hiding the fact of Jesus’s wedding to Mary Magdalene, as well as his subsequent children, from the public for centuries, using a massive cover-up perpetuated by Opus Dei, and so on, and on, and on.)
Human Smoke, in other words, is not a conscientious pacifist tract. It is not a clever contribution to today’s debate on warfare, and it does not add anything to what we know about World War II. It is a cheerful contribution to the movement against scholarship–a movement which has advanced so far, in fact, that I fully expect these observations, too, to be condemned as ‘elitism.’ As one who does contribute (it’s pathetic, I know) to the mainstream media on a regular basis, I know that any author who expresses a sliver of doubt about the wisdom of amateurs risks bringing down a torrent of recrimination and insult upon his head. But if we have arrived at the point where a solemn and excited individual can cobble together anecdotes from old newspapers and Nazi diaries, and write them up in the completely contextless manner of blog posts, and suggest that he has composed a serious critique of America’s decision to enter World War II, and then receive praise from respected reviewers in distinguished publications, then maybe it is time to say: Stop.
There’s also this review by Adam Kirsch, which Richard at the Existence Machine describes as ‘extremely stupid’. It’s not, though. Kirsch argues convincingly, in that piece and this one, that Baker’s Human Smoke has more in common with the rightwing isolationism of Pat Buchanan than anything from liberal scholarship.