“Certain Normal Predicaments of Human Divinity”

A. Jay Adler
8 min readFeb 13, 2024
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Vladimir Nabokov did not like the novel of ideas. He made that known. Artists, great ones too, often have their idiosyncratic dislikes, usually contrary expressions of the unique aesthetic vision that drives their own work. Particularly, Nabokov did not like the work of those monuments of great-idea novels, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, though there is no reason his distaste should have excluded the novels of Albert Camus, say, or those of Andre Malraux, like Man’s Fate, which is, also, a political novel, something else Nabokov did not write. I have expressed my own wariness of political art, though I love all of the above mentioned, and don’t at all reject political art out of hand. “Political art” (I’ll now distance it, for consideration) represents some of the greatest artwork of human culture. Yet I am wary of political art in my initial regard because political art in its commonest form, which is common, tends to be long on the political and short on the art, and if what I seek is polemic, I’ll read one not disguised as something else. Polemics are the death of art. And yet — as with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, there are always exceptions: artistic vision will conquer narrow discourse.

Against all generalizations! ✊

Nabokov offered good reason for his distaste. By ideas he meant

general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate the so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales.

He himself preferred, evident in his own work,

the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to dear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

Any creative writing class will in some way teach this.

Political art that seeks to transcend the mere, sentimental “boo” or “yea” is a specific type of the work of big ideas, and in seeking to ascend to the intellectual ether, it generally leaves human particularity behind. “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Wallace Stevens wrote. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams.

Here, then, is an especially bold, exemplary contrast.

When James Agee and Walker Evans produced their landmark 1941 documentary work on the lives of three Alabama sharecropping families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, they famously presented the prose and images separately, not interspersed, as was and still is common, and Agee informs us further in the preface that Walker’s photos are not intended as illustrative of Agee’s text. In addition, after extended amounts of seeming throat-clearing about the nature of the project and the human and moral complexity of inserting oneself professionally and journalistically into the lives of an “appallingly damaged group of human beings,” Agee went on to produce prose that, at an extraordinary level of particularity, attempts to offer a verbal equivalent to photographic realism, but goes beyond the photograph to attempt to capture not only the texture of objects but even the multifarious contributors to the odor of a tenant shack or the smell of his own blood from a crushed bed bug.

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. [….] A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.” James Agee. (Walker Evans photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Agee writes in the preface,

The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families.

Actually, the effort is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.

The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word. The governing instrument — which is also one of the centers of the subject — is individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness.

Ultimately, it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem, left untouched, no relevancy avoided, which lies within the power of remembrance to maintain, of the intelligence to perceive, and of the spirit to persist in.

… If complications arise, that is because they are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.

The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative. By their fewness, and by the impotence of the reader’s eye, this will be misunderstood by most of that minority which does not wholly ignore it. In the interests, however, of the history and future of photography, that risk seems irrelevant, and this flat statement necessary.

The text was written with reading aloud in mind. That cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes.


This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.

(All emphasis added)

In the vaguest sense, any true work of art is a political statement, but Famous Men, through its subject, and in the reverence of its authors for their subjects, is both much more political than vaguely so, yet not remotely political in the manner to which Nabokov might object.

Agee is both febrile and puckish in his multiple hems and haws by way of beginning, and this, as epigraph, is his most provocative guttural clearance:

Workers of the world, unite and fight. You have 
nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win.

However, he footnotes this quote from the Communist Manifesto as follows:

These words are quoted here to mislead those who will be misled by them. They mean, not what the reader may care to think they mean, but what they say. They are not dealt with directly in this volume; but it is essential that they be used here, for in the pattern of the work as a whole, they are, in the sonata form, the second theme; the poetry facing them is the first. In view of the average reader’s tendency to label, and of topical dangers to which any man, whether honest, or intelligent, or subtle, is at present liable, it may be well to make the explicit statement that neither these words nor the authors are the property of any political party, faith, or faction.

Not the property of any political party, faith, or faction. Then what?

This is the book’s dedication:

To those of whom the record is made. 
In gratefulness and in love.

Those are the politics of the book, in detailed confrontation with “certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”

Regular readers of Homo Vitruvius may recognize some congruence between Agee’s (as I’ll call it) humanist-political concentration and some of my own expressed proclivities. They inspire the newest among my paid Monday series, Extraordinary Ordinary People. They are the ground from which grew my novel in progress, The Dream of Don Juan de Cartagena, which follows the history of the Ferdinand Magellan expedition’s circumnavigation of the earth. The novel provides the foundation for another paid Monday series, The Magellanic Diaries.

But you will notice that it is not Magellan’s name in the book’s title. The novel develops, in fact, as three overlapping, cyclical accounts of the expedition, with three different protagonists, who come in contact with each other.

The second of these, after the Portuguese Magellan, is Juan de Cartagena, a Spanish captain of one of Magellan’s five ships and the inspector general of the expedition, to Magellan’s captain general. Not much is known of Cartagena’s life before the expedition but that he was apparently an accountant and that there is no record of his having had any seafaring experience at all. He was also believed, even at the time, to be the bastard son of Bishop Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, of whom Cartagena was said to be the nephew, a common euphemism in those days in Spain for an illegitimate son. Fonseca headed the Casa de Contratación, the House of Commerce, which governed Spain’s New World exploration and administration and the commercial ventures there. Fonseca had played this increasingly influential role as a de facto minister of colonial affairs since the time of Columbus, nearly thirty years earlier. The relationship between Fonseca and Cartagena is crucial to the story. Why was such as Cartagena given the position he was, as inspector general — in his belief, co-equal in authority to Magellan — and for which Cartagena was actually paid more in salary than Magellan (though the captain general stood to gain great riches and land from a successful venture)?

In actuality, Cartagena thus challenged Magellan’s authority even before the time of departure, and onward, and even ultimately attempted three separate mutinies against him, priming the expedition’s disastrous course from the start.

The third of my protagonists is Diego Carmona, a Spanish able seaman who was one of only 18 men, out of an original 270, to return to Spain three years later aboard the sole remaining ship of five. Almost nothing is known of Carmona’s life but that he did, in fact, live, with the very few remaining crumbs of his existence — beyond a name on a departing ship’s manifest and on the list of returnees — requiring my pick, bore, and shovel to unearth. Beyond them, his occurrence on this earth disappears into the dark maw of time. Even more than Cartagena, I have had to imagine him, and he is the point of contact between the novel and the themes of James Agee that, for my own reasons, so interest me.

To close on those themes, Agee’s photographic collaborator, Walker Evans, was a formative influence on the career and work of Julia Dean, whose photography has a few times graced these digital pages. Over her photographic career, Julia has devoted herself to the kind of documentary work that Evans pursued, reflected in the mini gallery below.

American General Stores Series 1980s
Greece, 1984
Mexico, 1987
Guatemala, 1988
Nicaragua, 1990
India, Leper Colony, 1993
Morocco, 2008
Downtown Los Angeles, Jose Hernandez, “The Guardian of the Alley,” 2019


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Poet. Storyteller. Dramatist. Essayist. Artificer. “Not just words about the ideas but the words themselves.” ajayadler.com



A. Jay Adler

Writer. Reader. Roper of stars and Professor of English. New York and Los Angeles. Essays, poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, memoir. ajayadler.com