This book was enlightening, not only about America but to the perspective of Robert D. Kaplan. Watching somebody describe themselves, you get a feel for what they think is noteworthy and important. You understand better the lens through which they judge that which is around them. For a writer, it then allows you to reinterpret their other observations.
Kaplan is a civilizational writer. He sees the world through the slow movement of culture over immutable geography. Layers upon layers of stories written by ordinary people or exceptional figures, each part of the developing plot. Some are a letter or a sentence or a paragraph. There are those who are important who wouldn’t seem to be so; others who we think are epic figures who turn out to be sub-plots or minor characters in the story of somebody else (sort of how it turns out that Putin is only a minor character in Zelensky’s epic).
America, for Kaplan, is a land which has preferential geography. “American exceptionalism” he writes “is the possession of the last un-inhabited chunk of the world’s temperate zone”. But a land upon which no stories are written. The ancient Anasazi or Navajo didn’t leave anything (unlike the Inca or Aztecs); because there was no need for epic acts of engineering which created totalitarian bureaucracies in those places, or Rome – for water was everywhere and taming it is only a modern American problem – there has been no need for centralized government and the violence that accompanies it. Sort of Tocquevillian, but different. For Kaplan, stories of America are wiped away as soon as they are finished to be rebuilt by somebody else into something different. Unlike Tiwanaku or the Roman aqueducts which retain vestiges of the past in the constructs of now, ours are wholly different and erase that which came before. The rust belt become condos; the Chicago Projects become a Whole Foods.
“Empire Wilderness” is a book of tremendous scholarship; it is Kaplan after all. A writer of great learning. It is probably the closest that he will come to an auto-biography; he is after all writing about his own land. I wonder if he sees himself in the characters of his book? If so, that is telling as well. It’s a good book, as everything Kaplan writes is good. And there is some wonder in it; wonder is Kaplan’s calling card. But the book is strange, because it does not evince a love of America. It is not even written with nostalgia or sympathy of the familiar. It does not echo with stories of little league games or ball parks or summers at the beach. It is a hard book, about race more than my generation thinks; and Kaplan seethes with contempt for some of the walk-ons. The denizens of the bus stops; the slot-players in the casinos. The romanticism he has for Romanian peasants – his favorite – he does not share for our own. It’s natural, that which is exotic we sometimes feel is more pregnant with meaning than that which is around our corner or sitting on our front step. But I would have expected more tenderness for our rough-and-tumble land and the epic stories we also have – Bisbee and Tombstone and Dodge City. New York and Hollywood. Reading this book, one would wonder how in fact America came to command the world. And that, I think, is probably a fault. Stories need to answer the central theme or question from which they are aroused. That is America’s question. I’ll have to look somewhere else for the answer.