Bald: 35 Philosophical Short Cuts by Simon Critchley (Yale), £16.98.
Would Montaigne have approved of the current vogue for “personal essay-writing”? For all his enormous genius and deep learning, assuredly he would have, for the French philosopher was the original blogger par excellence, as comfortable in writing about kidney stones as he was Stoic philosophy. He would also surely have approved of the English philosopher Simon Critchley, whose direct style, wisdom and wit, is on show in his latest book Bald: 35 Philosophical Short Cuts, a collection of his essays and columns written for The New York Times.
For Critchley, baldness is at once a teenage personal affliction and a useful metaphor for his status as a trained philosopher taking to op-eds. No room for academic pretension here – just the bald truth (not his joke). Critchley wears his learning lightly. His essays swing easily between diversions into difficult philosophy and the stuff of diary marginalia. And he takes in an engaging array of contemporary themes: anti-Mormonism as the last fashionable prejudice; the problem with political optimism; the true meaning of happiness.
He gets credit for only occasionally being pulled back into the philosophical mindset reflected in slightly too-clever allusions which can lend the writing a po-faced quality. Philosophers can’t quite do what we do. Journalists everywhere can sleep easy. But Critchley makes it a damn close run thing.
Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, And Con Artists Are Taking Over The Internet – And Why We Are Following by Gabrielle Bluestone (HarperCollins), £16.99.
In 2017, five thousand people turned up to The Exuma islands in The Bahamas expecting a luxury festival. Entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule had spent months marketing Fyre Festival as an exclusive event that anyone worth knowing would be attending. The reality was very different. Attendees who had paid anything between $5,000 and $100,000 to attend, found themselves abandoned on the island with little more than rain-soaked mattresses and unappealing cheese sandwiches.
When the festival’s CEO, Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to forfeit $26 million, he earned himself a place on the wall of scammers. It is a title which, former VICE Journalist and executive producer of Netflix’s FYRE documentary, Gabrielle Bluestone, argues has done little to teach the “hedge funder who dealt solely in social media clout” his lesson. While on bail for his first set of felonies, McFarland committed a second set and has recently been in solitary confinement for producing a podcast inside prison. He is also, unironically, planning a memoir titled ‘Prometheus: The God of Fyre’.
Hype: How Scammers, Grifters, And Con Artists Are Taking Over The Internet – And Why We Are Following is a history of scamming in the 21st century. Bluestone explores the wellness scam, the Silicon Valley scam (Adam Neumann, WeWork and his “new age mysticism”), the influencer scam (what is influencing if not catfishing?) and every other way we set ourselves up for being hoodwinked by an internet culture that celebrates the appearance of success over any actual success.
Following the story of Fyre Festival, from conception to disaster, each chapter weaves a web of the most prolific scammers of our time. The book is overambitious and, at times, convoluted in its reference of digital culture, but it serves as a timely reminder that when it comes to the internet, everything is not always as it seems.
To Kidnap A Pope by Ambrogio A. Caiani (Yale University Press), £20.
In a few weeks, on 5 May, it is the bicentenary anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death during his exile in St Helena in 1821. Ambrogio A. Caiani’s To Kidnap A Pope marks the occasion by presenting an examination of Napoleon’s long-standing confrontation with Pope Pius VII, which has previously been neglected by literature on the subject. The relationship that began with an attempt to bridge the schism left from the French Revolution, with Pope Pius travelling to Notre Dame for Napoleon’s coronation, rapidly deteriorated when the Emperor’s ego left him hungry for the church’s powers, feeling he had no choice but to send troops to apprehend the religious man.
The story of the French Empire, the relationship between church and state, and the characters involved in this saga are brought to life here. Etienne Radet, a brigadier general of the Imperial Gendarmerie, who, despite being introduced as a military man on a mission to apprehend Pope Pius at Napoleon’s instruction, briefly swaps stealth for clumsiness. When going up a ladder he was using to climb the 30 feet ascension into the Quirinal Palace where the Pope was to be found, its sturdiness betrayed him. It snapped, causing quite the commotion and giving away their cover.
The wife of General Henri-Gatien Bertrand is described in similarly colourful terms. She was, catastrophically, already on board the ship taking the Emperor and his entourage to his second exile in St Helena when she learnt of the vessel’s destination. Upon hearing the devastating news, she attempted to take her life by, unsuccessfully, throwing herself out of a porthole.
Caiani uses newfound research from the Vatican Archives and isn’t afraid to provide readers with the unusual conclusion that neither Napoleon nor Pope Pius emerge as the victor of the decade-long confrontation. Napoleon’s health slowly deteriorated on the island of his exile, and Pope Pius returned to his papal throne a changed man, reinstating the Inquisition and imprisoning Rome’s Jews.
Historian Munro Price, in Literary Review, wondered whether with 200,000 titles already published on the Napoleonic era there is anything left to say. He quickly, and rightly, concludes that Caiani has proved there is.