“The choices that an artist makes are not traceable back to a particular set of neurons firing. They’re choices made by the complete consciousness of a person. Art, in a way, validates free will, and thereby validates the notion of evil.”
Ron Rosenbaum returns to the show to talk about the new edition of his great book, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (Da Capo Press)! We talk Hitler, the meaning(s) of evil, determinism and free will, Hitler-as-artist vs. Hitler-as-suicide-bomber, “degenerate art,” the tendency to blame Jews for their misfortune, his search for the “Higgs Boson” of Hitler, and how internet culture has warped the meaning of Hitler in the 16 years since Ron’s book was first published.
“I just couldn’t bear being a graduate student, so I dropped out after a year and revolted against academia. I wanted to hang out with cops and criminals and write long form stories about America, about crimes, about strange things.”
Of course, we also get around to some other fun topics, like whether his studies of the Holocaust inspired him to become a “better Jew”, whether it’s possible to knowingly commit evil, how Bleak House changed his life, and just how he managed to become a unique voice in American nonfiction.
About our Guest
Ron Rosenbaum‘s work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, Esquire and other magazines. He is currently the national correspondent for Smithsonian Magazine, and was recently featured in the History Channel documentary, “The World Wars.” His books include The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and he edited Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism. You can find him on twitter at @ronrosenbaum1.
Credits: This episode’s music is Back to Black by Amy Winehouse (see, because Ron’s a fan of her stuff, and the episode is about his returning to the topic of evil, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded in a friend’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. (There was a loud air conditioner, so I did some noise removal, which may have tweaked the audio a little.) Photo of Mr. Rosenbaum by me.
Our first guest of 2013 is Ron Rosenbaum, one of my favorite living writers! This episode of The Virtual Memories Show is The Bomb!
I’ve been a fan of Ron’s writing (let’s call it “literary journalism”) since reading Long Island, Babylon (originally titled The Devil in Long Island) in The New York Times Magazine nearly 20 years ago, so having him on the show is a big honor for me.
Our conversation focuses on his most recent book, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, and what he learned in the course of researching the present danger of nuclear conflict. (It’s a pretty harrowing — and very important — topic, folks.) From there, we discuss Ron’s body of work, his literary influences, Nixon’s final lie, what he thinks of Harold Bloom, his opinions about contemporary literary journalism, and more.
About our Guest
Born in Manhattan, Ron Rosenbaum grew up on Long Island, got a degree in English literature from Yale, and dropped out of Yale Graduate School to write. Ron’s other books include Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, a collection of his essays and journalism from The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, The New Yorker, The New York Observer, and other publications. I highly recommend all of them; in fact, I have extra copies of The Secret Parts of Fortune at home and in my office, just in case I feel like reading one of what Errol Morris calls “metaphysical detective stories.” You can find Ron’s current work at Slate, where he’s a columnist, and Smithsonian Magazine, where he’s a National Correspondent. He’s currently at work on two new books.
Credits: This episode’s music is One of Our Submarines (extended mix) by Thomas Dolby. The conversation was recorded at the Inn on 23rd in New York City, on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. I recorded the other material on a Blue Yeti USB mic into Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo courtesy of the receptionist at the Inn on 23rd, whose name I didn’t catch.
New Jersey’s small size has a lot to do with both its much-inflated deficiencies and its virtues. A lot is packed into limited territory. Urban squalor is squeezed up against dairy farms; picturesque villages right out of a New England landscape are a sneeze away from sulfurous factories and malodorous highways. For a lot of people, caricature of the state’s deficiencies is an efficient way to reduce its multifaceted nature to a clear meaning.
The jumble of contrasts is, on the contrary, the source of Jersey’s remarkable harvest of talent. It drives certain people to either build a unified artistic sensibility out of the divisions around them, or to create art unhindered by a narrow identity.
and why Billy Joel sucks:
I decided to make a serious effort to identify the consistent qualities across Joel’s “body of work” (it almost hurts to write that) that make it so meretricious, so fraudulent, so pitifully bad. And so, risking humiliation and embarrassment, I ventured to the Barnes & Noble music section and bought a four-disc set of B.J.’s “Greatest Hits,” one of which was a full disc of his musings about art and music. I must admit that I also bought a copy of an album I already had â€” Return of the Grievous Angel, covers of Gram Parsons songs by the likes of the Cowboy Junkies and Gillian Welch, whose “Hickory Wind” is just ravishingâ€”so the cashier might think the B.J. box was merely a gift, maybe for someone with no musical taste. Yes, reader. I couldn’t bear the sneer, even for your benefit.
And I think I’ve done it! I think I’ve identified the qualities in B.J.’s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.