Benjamin Moser on the Dutch Masters, Brazil, and Cultural Icons (Ep. 212)

What can Canadian sex toys teach us about art appreciation?

Benjamin Moser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer celebrated for his in-depth studies of literary and cultural figures such as Susan Sontag and Clarice Lispector. His latest book, which details a twenty-year love affair with the Dutch masters, is one of Tyler’s favorite books on art criticism ever.

Benjamin joined Tyler to discuss why Vermeer was almost forgotten, how Rembrandt was so productive, what auctions of the old masters reveals about current approaches to painting, why Dutch art hangs best in houses, what makes the Kunstmuseum in the Hague so special, why Dutch students won’t read older books, Benjamin’s favorite Dutch movie, the tensions within Dutch social tolerance, the joys of living in Utrecht, why Latin Americans make for harder interview subjects, whether Brasilia works as a city, why modernism persisted in Brazil, how to appreciate Clarice Lispector, Susan Sontag’s (waning) influence, V.S. Naipaul’s mentorship, Houston’s intellectual culture, what he’s learning next, and more.

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Recorded February 15th, 2024

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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m very happy to be chatting with Benjamin Moser. Benjamin Moser has no title. He is a writer. He is an author of a very recent book, which I liked very, very much. That book is called The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters. Benjamin is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Susan Sontag, and he also has the best-known English-language biography of the Brazilian author, Clarice Lispector. He has a home page where he writes on many disparate topics, whatever comes to mind for him. Benjamin, welcome.


COWEN: Your book on Dutch art — was Vermeer a Catholic?

MOSER: He was a Catholic, but not originally.

COWEN: He converted.

MOSER: Yes. Apparently, he did convert. He was from a Protestant family, but like a lot of families at that time, there wasn’t a clear dividing line because a lot of times, you would have people within the same family who — some of them would have gone over to the Protestants and some of them wouldn’t.

COWEN: Does he have Catholic paintings?

MOSER: Yes, he does. They’re his worst paintings, actually. There’s one in the Met in New York.

COWEN: You mean the Allegory of the Catholic Faith?

MOSER: For example. Well, that’s the big one. It’s kind of hysterical.

COWEN: Why is it a bad painting, or not a great painting?

MOSER: Well, I think it’s because we like Vermeers to be indirect, don’t we? We like the suggestion, the hint of something going on, the sexiness of the glance, the gaze, and not being beaten over your head with all this overwrought symbolism. At least that’s my impression.

COWEN: Isn’t The Art of Painting in some ways a Catholic painting? That’s a great painting. It’s probably Vermeer’s best work.

MOSER: Which one? The Art of Painting?

COWEN: Right. You have the map in the background —

MOSER: Oh, yes, that’s incredible.

COWEN: — with the 17 provinces from the century before. Isn’t that some kind of nostalgia for a distant Catholic past? Or not?

MOSER: No, not necessarily. Actually, if I can drop a name, I got to go to the Royal Palace in The Hague the other day. I’d never been there before, actually. They had not exactly the same map on the wall, but it was a very close relative of that map, where the country is on the side. Where you would be used to having north on the top, you have north on the right side. It was thrilling to see it in an interior that looks just like that.

I don’t think it’s a Catholic painting. It’s a painting that has a lot of symbolism and a lot of allusions to literature and to art, but it’s not necessarily Catholic. Quite a lot of people — Protestants would have done that as well.

COWEN: How do you account for the fact — as far as I can tell, Vermeer was not extremely well known until the late 19th century. Is that because it was hard to see them or because people didn’t get it?

MOSER: Well, it’s always usually a bit of both. There are only 35 Vermeers. He dies when he’s 43. He has 11 or 12 children, so there’s not really that much time for him to make that many paintings. They’re also bought up mostly by one guy who is his neighbor, who had something like 20 of them in his house. This was a local favorite. I think that he does get rediscovered, like a lot of the Dutch painters get rediscovered.

Actually, there are only two that don’t get rediscovered, and that’s Rembrandt and Jan Steen. Everybody else has some story about this. Paintings disappeared into people’s houses. You didn’t have museums. You didn’t have public places, really, except for churches. And in the Netherlands, the churches didn’t have very much art because they had whacked it in their Taliban-like movement of iconoclasm in the late 16th century. So, it just vanished into the ether.

COWEN: Did you see the big Vermeer show in Amsterdam last year?

MOSER: I did. I got to go three times, actually.

COWEN: What did you learn from it? You’ve lived there over 20 years. You already were studying Dutch art for the book. What did you learn from the show, per se?

MOSER: Well, I think I learned two things. I’d seen all the paintings except for one. There’s one that’s in Japan. It’s this copy of an Italian painting that I’d never seen. I think seeing them all together, you see the break in Vermeer. He goes from these very big formats at the beginning of his career. They’re big, like the one in Dresden or the early heroic Vermeers.

There’s this question about Vermeer, which is, what happens to him halfway through his life? He only paints for about 20 years, and there’s a really big break in the style about halfway through. He paints these big, very allegorical, mythological, religious paintings, and then all of a sudden, they shrink into these little bitty paintings that are the famous Vermeers, like the Girl with a Pearl Earring or the little scenes of people at a little table with the window. Those paintings look really different. You can see it’s the same painter, but it’s actually a really big break.

It’s interesting that during World War II — I tell this story in the book as well — this was a lacuna that invited a clever forger, because the question of how do you go from A to B is really interesting in Vermeer. This forger named Han van Meegeren, who was a Hitleresque . . . Hitler was an art school dropout. He wasn’t quite talented enough to make it, and he was quite embittered by that.

Han van Meegeren — he thought he was just as good as any old master, so he starts painting these fake Vermeers that are supposed to fill in this gap between A and B, and they’re tremendously successful. I think by the end of World War II, he owned something like 15 country estates, and he owns 50-something houses in the center of Amsterdam. He made bazillions, and they were all fake.

If you see them now — and you can see them; some of them are still on display in museums — you think, “You’ve got to be kidding me, right? This is just totally ridiculous.” It makes you wonder about what do you actually see when you see a Vermeer. Do you see a famous name? Because often, you see the huge line, the website that crashes, the people who flew in from Bangkok and Rio to see this stuff. You’re already prepared to see something that isn’t really there.

Since I know you’re a heterodox person, maybe you’ll like this comparison. But in Islam, there’s a famous cliche that every Muslim will tell you, that one of the miracles of the Quran is that it has the perfection of its style. It’s so beautiful, it’s so elegant, it could only have been composed by divine inspiration or by God himself.

Now, the thing about this that’s really funny is that if you’re a Muslim and you grow up hearing the Quran, you’re so used to hearing it your entire life, you hear it at every occasion. Often, a lot of really pious Muslims will memorize the entire thing. You’re prepared to think it’s beautiful.

When you see a Vermeer, you’re prepared to think this is the most fabulous thing in the world. This is so rare. There are only 35. It’s the only time they’ve ever left this collection in France that nobody ever gets to see. You’re prepared to see something by this legend and this name, and it makes it very hard to actually see it.

When you see the fake Vermeers, you think, “Come on, that’s ridiculous.” If you try to see it without the perfume, it becomes a real challenge.

On Rembrandt

COWEN: How was Rembrandt so productive?

MOSER: Well, he got to be quite old, first of all, by the standards of the Dutch. He was 63 when he died. As you know, in the book, a lot of these people die in their 20s, 30s. Vermeer dies at 43. So, Rembrandt gets a whole extra generation of work. He also, though, was just one of these obsessive creators, a kind of volcano. It’s completely dismaying.

I came to this country when I was a kid, and I would see the early Rembrandts in the museums here, and I’d realize he was younger than I was. He’s already painting these incredible masterpieces, and I was sitting here trying to write some article that wouldn’t get turned down by some terrible magazine that I didn’t even want to write for. He was painting these canvases, like The Anatomy Lesson in The Hague, these incredibly famous paintings.

I think he does, as I say somewhere in the book — we fill it in a little bit, but he basically died in front of his easel. He was an obsessive, driven creator. That’s why he died in front of the easel. He also died very poor and mostly forgotten.

COWEN: Do you think Rembrandt prints are still underpriced? As you may know, there was a London auction of quite a few of them a few months ago, and many went for 2x or 3x the estimates. Why aren’t Rembrandt prints just totally unaffordable? They’re very good, many of them. People don’t seem to care anymore —

MOSER: They’re unaffordable for me.

COWEN: I doubt if that’s true. I’m not trying to inquire into your personal finances, but some of the lesser-priced ones, I think, you could afford.

MOSER: Well, you have different states. You have the first, the original prints that are actually made by Rembrandt in his lifetime. And then you have the plates that are done afterwards or later on, and they’re a little bit fuzzier, and they’re a little bit . . .

People collected Rembrandt for a lot of reasons. The Dutch collected him later, really, and there were obsessive Rembrandt collectors who — actually would be a good book for someone to write about the collectors of Rembrandt because some of them were completely bonkers and obsessive, like a lot of collectors. I don’t know if you followed the auctions this week at Christie’s and Sotheby’s?

COWEN: Some of the old master ones, I looked at. Yes.

MOSER: The old masters auction. Well, the top, top of the top of the top is very, very expensive. It’s going for three or four times the estimate, but half of the paintings are not being sold. That means that whereas, with these contemporary auctions, you have this totally hideous-looking stuff that sells for $50 million, and you think, for $50 million you can buy a lot of Dutch paintings. You can buy paintings from the greatest masters.

What you see is that the scholarly approach to painting, what the French called amateur, the person who does it out of love and who does it out of study and out of historical scholarship and all that — those people are disappearing. Prints and drawings are the ultimate nerd thing in the art world. That’s for people who really know what they’re doing, who are really scholarly.

You can hang a drawing on your wall, but it doesn’t have the what I call — it’s not my phrase, but in the book I say “wall power.” It’s not like having a big Picasso on your wall that everybody thinks, “Wow.” You really have to have gone to grad school in art history to really know what all this stuff is. Maybe if educational standards continue to collapse, by the time I’m a little bit older, the prices will also collapse, and I can afford them.

COWEN: Do you think the growing size of homes and walls and sofas has hurt the market value of a lot of Dutch art? It looks better in a small home.

MOSER: Well, I don’t know. I was just reading an Edith Wharton story. Don’t ask me which one because I forgot which one. Edith Wharton refers to Dutch paintings — this is 1900 or something — as a typical show-offy, expensive thing that these millionaires on Fifth Avenue would have in their huge mansions. And you do have a lot of Dutch paintings that are quite massive, but you don’t always see them because they’re in storage, a lot of them, in museums. Maybe if you want to build a huge mansion somewhere, in suburban Houston or somewhere like that, you can drag something out of the basement.

COWEN: Who would be a Dutch artist who is good, but when you see them all together in the form of a single-artist exhibit, you think, “Eh, that’s actually pretty boring.”

MOSER: Well, that’s a sad fact, that there’s actually more of them than you think.

COWEN: Most of them, I would say. I like Ruisdael, I like Van Goyen, but if I were to see 50–60 together, I would start walking rapidly through the rooms, I suspect, and nodding my head and saying, “They’re all nice.”

MOSER: Well, the thing is, Dutch art is for houses. Coming back to your mansion that you’re building in suburban Virginia, Dutch paintings are for people who have 10 or 15 paintings on the wall. They would have different people and different artists and maybe a few same people. It’s true. I think I say it in the book, that if you go through Dutch galleries and museums, if you go through 20 different rooms and actually try to look at all the pictures, you’re going to get completely bored by the end of it because that’s just not the way they’re meant to be looked at.

But for me, when I first came to this country and I started looking at them, the more I looked, the more rewarding it got. Ruisdael, who you mentioned — that’s one I’d have to stand up for. Van Goyen, maybe not. Then you have some of them — not everybody is well served by overexposure. I think this is true of humans in general. Some people are fun to meet for dinner once, but you don’t want to marry them. There are a few that you want to marry.

Some of them are just tragic, like Jan Lievens, who is Rembrandt’s best friend/frenemy growing up. If you see too many of his paintings, you actually get almost disgusted by them. It’s more than just boring; it’s gross after a while. But if you see one or two of them, we would think, “Wow, this is great.”

COWEN: Maybe you would challenge the premise, but why does Dutch art become so boring by the early 18th century, maybe even sooner?

MOSER: Oh, see, I would challenge the premise. If you ever want to darken the door of this nation, I can take you to some absolutely beautiful places that were built in the 18th century, with beautiful paintings and beautiful interior design, which isn’t always preserved from the 17th century. There’s quite a lot of it, and it’s very decorative. It’s not quite the heroic thing.

By the end of the Golden Age, which is traditionally thought to be 1672, which is when Vermeer has to move in with his mother-in-law and things aren’t going very well — the country gets invaded, the economy collapses, and then this whole generation dies. But up to the present day, the Dutch were always good at visual stuff. They’re good architects, they’re good designers.

They make that weird coffee pot that costs $400, and you’re thinking, “Why am I spending $400 on a coffee pot?” But actually, somebody thought about how to put a screw in there so that the coffee comes out in the exact right way.

They were always visual. In the 18th century, they continue. Then in the 19th century, there’s a series of very great artists culminating with Van Gogh. There’s more continuity than people think.

COWEN: But post–World War II Dutch art, as far as I can tell, seems terrible. Or don’t you agree? Not design, not furniture, but actual paintings.

MOSER: Well, it’s not terrible. The Dutch — they’re good at photography. There are some very good painters. It’s not really my thing, so it’s not really the thing that I’m going to die on the barricade for this cause. Then up to Mondrian and De Stijl and Rietveld — those are pretty interesting artists.

I would much rather live in a huge, beautiful 18th-century house along one of the rivers than live in a super modernist house. But the Dutch — they were good architects and good designers.

COWEN: Does Mondrian still look fresh to you? Or have you seen it on too many shopping bags, so to speak?

MOSER: Oh, way too many. I live in Utrecht, and what I didn’t realize . . . Mondrian dies in New York. He’s presented as an American, at least on museum labels. It’ll say, maybe, Dutch-born American painter. You see him next to all these modernist painters from all over the world, including now, if you’ve gone to the MoMA lately and seen the new hang of the modern galleries, they have the big names. You have Rothko and Picasso and Mondrian, and now they’re next to a lot of Latin Americans and maybe some people from the Middle East and from Eastern Europe, so it’s kind of all mixed up.

But when you come to Utrecht, you see that Mondrian actually really comes out of this city. That sort of style is very typical of a very specific place and time. What I would say is fresh about Mondrian, if you ever get to go to The Hague and get to go to — it’s now called the Art Museum. It used to be called the Municipal Museum until like last week.

COWEN: It was called the Gemeentemuseum. Is that right?

MOSER: Yes, Gemeentemuseum, that’s the Municipal Museum. Now it’s called Kunstmuseum, just the Art Museum, I heard. I hope I’m getting that right. Anyway, it has a new name, but it’s an old modern museum, and it has all or a lot of the early Mondrians, which are absolutely beautiful. That is surprising because you would never think that he was going in this direction.

COWEN: That’s one of my favorite museums in the world, and how you see the expressionism turn into cubism and then pure abstraction. It’s phenomenal.

MOSER: It’s fabulous. It’s like an art history text book that you can actually see. It’s like walking through something. You understand where it comes from.

On why older Dutch writing is not widely read

COWEN: Why is Dutch fiction so hard to read over time?

MOSER: Well, I could give you an hour on that, but I’ll try to give you a couple minutes. There’s one thing that is really a characteristic. We talked about the design and the art, the visuals. First of all, the language is not only an unfamiliar language to most foreigners, but it’s also a language that has suffered quite a lot of modifications in terms of spelling and vocabulary.

If we read Henry James or Edith Wharton, we can tell it’s not written in the last week, but the language is totally transparent. That’s not true in Dutch, and that’s one thing that, in fact, somebody told me — I hope this isn’t true, speaking of the decline and fall of everybody’s civilization — you can’t actually assign a book from before World War II to any Dutch high school class because they just won’t understand it.

COWEN: Is there are any book you would want to assign?

MOSER: Right. The classic tradition of this country’s language is gone. People not only don’t bother to read it, they’re convinced that they can’t read it. This is totally not true, by the way. There are some spelling things, but if you’re a minimally literate person, you can read a book from 1935, but the kids won’t read it. My friends who are professors and high school teachers of Dutch really struggle with this.

COWEN: Besides your partner, Arthur Japin, who else should people read in Dutch fiction? Harry Mulisch or Rijneveld? Forgive all my pronunciations.

MOSER: I’m glad you mentioned Arthur. He’s a great writer, and we met, actually, because of his first novel, which is called The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi. It’s actually called The Black Man with the White Heart in Dutch, but that was considered too racially charged in America, even though it was a quote from a 19th-century letter. It’s about two African princes who were given as a gift to the king of the Netherlands in 1837.

I have actually never read Rijneveld, although a friend of mine has translated that. Mulisch is a great writer. He was somebody that I really enjoyed reading when I first got to this country.

In the New York Review Classics, there’s a book — I think it’s called Amsterdam Stories. It’s by someone called Nescio, which is a pseudonym. It’s 100 pages long, and it’s basically the only thing he ever wrote. It’s just some stories about some kids hanging out in this bad neighborhood in about 1890, and that I thought was one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s just one of those miracle things that somebody wrote one book.

Dutch literature is very rich, and it’s very old. There’s a lot of it, and it goes back all the way into the Middle Ages, deep into the Middle Ages.

COWEN: What’s your favorite Dutch movie?

MOSER: Actually, something I think you can see on YouTube, which I mentioned in my book. It’s called Dutch Light, Hollands Licht. It’s a documentary I saw years ago about how filling in the water . . . This country is a delta. People think it was all dried, it was drained. It wasn’t all necessarily drained, but the thing is, it sinks. You have to keep filling it up so that it doesn’t sink into the water — which is not going to go well, by the way, in parenthesis, in a few years. It’s going to be over with global warming.

As this land gets filled up more and more, the water that was on the surface is very shallow water; it’s not deep water. It’s shallow water, and it reflects light onto the clouds. It’s a cloudy country — northern, depressing, gray weather. But it has this amazing light that when you see the old landscape paintings, you really can see. Before, when there was a lot more water, it reflected more light and it was more radiant.

This movie — again, it’s called Dutch Light; I’m pretty sure it’s on YouTube. It shows how that process went and how the country was darkened, and how this is reflected in the painting. I thought it was fantastic. It was a very wonk sort of subject, but it’s true. The country — it has warmed up in my time here, but also, if you look at the light in the old paintings, you really notice the difference.

COWEN: How much do you feel you’re living in what is still, ultimately, a Calvinist country? Or not?

MOSER: They always say it. Every time somebody is a little uptight or conservative or not as fun, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s because you’re such a Calvinist.” It has a heritage of Calvinism, but don’t forget that half the country is Catholic. Fifty percent. It was always about 50/50. It’s not a purely Protestant country like Scandinavia or something. It was always a very mixed country racially, culturally.

It’s always been right in the middle of the three biggest countries in Europe. It’s managed to keep both open to the world, while also being its own thing. The Calvinist thing — I never even really know what that means. Calvinism is a very dark, very terrifying view of God and the world and mankind, and I don’t necessarily feel this is a very dark country.

On Dutch social tolerance

COWEN: I see some disparate facts about the Netherlands today, and maybe you can make sense of them for me in a kind of simple, unified theory. Drug use and sex work — they’re more legal in the Netherlands than in most other places. It’s a long-standing history of toleration, which you could even say is unparalleled, and yet in the latest election, Geert Wilders takes the greatest share of the vote. People claim, as of February 2024, if there’s no coalition formed and another election were needed, he might take even more of the vote. How does this all fit together? Explain it to me, an outsider.

MOSER: That’s a great question that I need to unpack a little bit to try to maybe explain it. It’s true that Wilders won this election. Winning an election in a Dutch system that has gazillions of parties — I don’t even know the names of the parties anymore because everybody secedes from the party, and then they start a new party, and then somebody dies, and then they get . . . It’s really very complicated.

But the fact is that Wilders only got about, I think, 16 percent or 17 percent of the vote. That means that 85 percent, roughly, of the Dutch did not vote for him. It’s a big result, but it’s still a minority.

The idea of Dutch social tolerance of things like drugs and prostitution and things like that — I think a lot of countries, including our country, have started to understand that . . . First of all, you’re in Washington, DC. How hard is it to get a joint or a hooker in Washington? It’s not that hard, and it never has been that hard. It’s just that they [the Dutch] wanted to regulate that, and so it got this reputation as a very free-wheeling place. I think they really just wanted to tax it, but even so . . .

As I’m sure you also know, the cocaine market in the United States is saturated, and so the cartels are pushing a lot of cocaine into Europe right now, particularly through the port of Rotterdam. Even though we have these laws here that are quite tolerant of the stuff, there is a real terrifying thing happening now, where people are even saying that it’s becoming a narco state. It’s true. People are getting killed in a way that didn’t happen before. I think every society tries to figure out how to regulate things and how to keep this side of things under control, and usually fails in different ways.

The real glory of Holland that is part of the 17th-century story is that they were much more religiously and socially tolerant in the 17th century than any place in the world. That doesn’t mean it was perfect. If you read the story of what happens to Spinoza and what happens to a lot of other people, it was not a completely free country by any means. This was a country in the 17th century where if you denied the existence of the Holy Trinity, you could get beheaded, and that was better than anywhere else.

It’s a kind of country that . . . I think they’re losing their minds in the same way that everybody else is, just a little bit of a delayed reaction politically.

COWEN: What makes the eastern Netherlands special? Would you try to talk people into visiting there? Arnhem, Nijmegen?

MOSER: The eastern Netherlands?


MOSER: I don’t think I’d talk them into going there. It’s nice. It’s rural. I think the real fascinating part of the Netherlands is never really the countryside. You wouldn’t go to Italy and not want to see the hills of Tuscany. You wouldn’t want to go to a lot of places and not see the rural landscape, but here it’s not so exciting. There are quite a lot of towns in the eastern Netherlands that are very pretty.

I have to say, I’ve become a worse tourist, as I’ve been here so long. I used to get on the train and go visit some nunnery that made special honey or something every weekend, and now I never do anything like that.

COWEN: If you’re trying to sell someone on living in Utrecht, how would you make the case?

MOSER: It’s the perfect city, is what I would say. It’s the most ideal place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived here for a long time. It is like Brooklyn in the sense that it’s about the same distance. If you go from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn, you have the same distance [as from Amsterdam to Utrecht]. It’s 40, 45 minutes door-to-door, but it’s much quieter and smaller, even though you also have everything because it’s a university town.

This country is small, physically small, but has a lot of people. Even in towns like this, I don’t really think there’s anything here I don’t have. There’s not much that I would think, “If only . . .”

I have to go to Amsterdam tonight, actually, for the Frans Hals opening at the Rijksmuseum. I’d love for the Rijksmuseum to be here in town, but the fact is, we don’t have the tourists. Amsterdam has really been struggling with the tourist question, just like Barcelona and Lisbon and Venice and, increasingly, so many cities. We don’t have that here. It’s quite nice.

COWEN: Brazil — why are Brazilians harder to interview?

MOSER: Brazilians harder to interview? They’re not for me. I’ve been doing it.

COWEN: Well, you said this once: In general, Latins are harder to interview.

MOSER: Oh, well, I know what I mean by that. Yes, Americans love to talk. It’s a question that you really feel . . . In countries that have had a long tradition of political freedom, where you can mouth off and not get into too much trouble, people are much more open to strangers. Edmund White once said that everybody in New York City should either be arrested or interviewed.

COWEN: Or both. [laughs]

MOSER: Or both. [laughs] Often, it’s both. But in Latin America, where they have a tradition that’s not old — people remember it; it was very recent — of dictatorship, and of censorship, and of the cops knocking down your door to find forbidden books and all that, people don’t talk quite as easily about sensitive subjects. They might be very warm and hospitable, and they often are, but when you interview them about anything sensitive, anything political, you have to gain their trust.

In Latin America, where they have a tradition that’s not old of dictatorship, and of censorship, and of the cops knocking down your door to find forbidden books and all that, people don’t talk quite as easily about sensitive subjects. They might be very warm and hospitable, and they often are, but when you interview them about anything sensitive, anything political, you have to gain their trust.

When I started interviewing people in Latin America, which was a long time ago, 25 years ago, I would barge in a little bit too aggressively, I think, in retrospect. I wouldn’t respect the “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” “Oh, yes.” “This is my grandson. He just went to third grade.” All that stuff that can often, in Latin America, take a long time. Eventually, I figured that it was about seeing if you’re an okay person, if you can actually be trusted.

Interviewing people, which is something I’ve done my whole career basically, is fascinating because you learn how different cultures are and how that gets expressed, and just what people will say and what they won’t say.

On whether Brasilia works as a city

COWEN: Does Brasilia actually work as a city?

MOSER: If you want to keep the great unwashed at a sanitary distance and live in a little colonial island where you don’t ever have to interact with the actual country, yes. People like living there. It’s a little diplomatic island. It’s surrounded by this “green belt” which is just a bunch of scrub. It’s not like a beautiful park or anything. Then at a very, very, very great distance, you have all the poor people, millions of them.

It’s quite disconcerting if you know Brazil because one of the things about Brazil that makes it both scary in certain moments, but also really dynamic in other moments, is that despite the massive class differences — which are humongous, of course, and that has a racial component as well — you’re always quite . . . If you’ve ever been to Rio, you know that right behind the fancy apartment buildings, you have the slums just right there. It’s segregated in a certain way, but it’s not really geographically segregated.

So, when you go to Brasilia, and it looks like some kind of architectural drawing but nobody’s on the streets, it’s very weird. I think it’s even weirder that people like it, but, apparently, people who grow up there —

COWEN: I like it. I’ve been twice. [laughs]

MOSER: Have you really?

COWEN: I think it’s beautiful.

MOSER: Robert Hughes said that the only reason anybody likes Brasilia is that they’ve never been there. You are offering a counterexample.

COWEN: It’s not an ambition I share, but it’s a monument to a certain kind of ambition that was seen through a consistent sense of how things should be, and it’s still that way, maybe even more so.

MOSER: Why did you go there twice? Why did you go there once?

COWEN: I wanted to see the modernist architecture, which to me is quite interesting, and then I wanted to show some friends, so that makes twice. I wouldn’t mind going again. I don’t think I will, but . . .

MOSER: I found that, first time I went I was really excited because I knew all those buildings because I was a Brazil person. I’d been in Brazil for a long time, and I’d never been there because it’s quite hard to get there. You have to be going there. You’re not going to ever be stopping by. I was so bored after a few hours, actually, but you liked it.

COWEN: I think it’s a wonderful place for two days, let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t live there.

MOSER: Okay. Well, that’s true. I had a week. I think maybe that was the first time I went a little bit stir crazy there.

COWEN: That’s far too much.

MOSER: Speaking of Dutch novels, a lot of the great Dutch novels actually take place in Indonesia, which was the Dutch East Indies. A lot of the thing is this colonial life. Everybody’s sitting around, waiting for tea at 2:00, and then somebody’s going to come over at 3:15. Then they’re going to have another cup of tea, and then they’re going to go on a walk for 15 minutes. They’re just really bored in these little hill station communities. Then there’s this threatening foreign country around them.

My experience in Brasilia was often, I felt that colonial boredom to it. I didn’t have a job. A lot of people who work there — they do have real jobs in the government or in the embassies.

COWEN: Isn’t it striking to you how much more colonized Brazil feels than Indonesia?

MOSER: Well, because Indonesia got rid of the Dutch, and the Dutch also never left their language there. But Indonesia is a colony of the Javanese. That’s something that I feel is not quite seen. When you go to the other islands, you realize they really impose themselves on these quite different nations, really, so it’s a different kind of thing.

COWEN: Now, as you probably know, at least in broad-brush terms, manufacturing used to be about a third of Brazilian GDP, and now it’s about a tenth. That’s a big drop, so Brazil is de-industrializing. What is the political economy of a future de-industrialized Brazil?

MOSER: I think you’re seeing it now. I think that the idea of free trade — and I know you’re an economist, so you know more about this than I do — but the idea of free trade is, “Let’s just figure out where it’s cheaper to make this. If we can make this in Guangzhou and ship it over to Sao Paulo for cheaper than it would cost to set up something in Sao Paulo, then let’s do it that way.”

Of course, it’s caused great, great instability. It’s caused a rise in extremism, as we’ve seen in so many countries. It has a slightly different tinge there, but it’s basically the same problem, I think. It’s fascinating that in the last 20 years, the main Latin American ideology since World War II, which was import substitution — gone, so you have the market just flooded with cheap shit from all over the place. That offers a seemingly attractive option to consumers, but ultimately, Brazil has not done very well in the last couple of generations.

COWEN: What do you think is the underrated Brazilian city to visit?

MOSER: Oh, Recife, I think. Have you ever been there?

COWEN: No, but it seems like such a mess. I’m even a little afraid to go. I’ve been to Salvador and that was possible, but I always had to have my guard up entirely. I’ve been to Rio and been shot at and have 11-year-olds chase me —

MOSER: You got shot at?

COWEN: Yes, I was shot at — chased me with pointed sticks. I was not shooting, to be clear. I love Brazil, it’s one of my favorite countries, but I always worry about where I should and should not go there. But make the case for Recife.

MOSER: You could be Brazilian. Physically, you could be Brazilian easily.

COWEN: People come up to me, they speak Portuguese when I’m in Brazil.

MOSER: Yes. You could fit in perfectly. I talk Portuguese, so it’s different, but no, go to Recife and Olinda. It’s fantastic. Listen, I’ve spent so much time in Brazil, I feel almost dishonest that I’ve never been mugged, but I really haven’t. I feel like I’m not a true Brazilophile until I’ve had a kidney removed by some drug lord, but I’ve always had a great time there.

COWEN: Is Recife the place you go to have that happen to you?

MOSER: To have a kidney removed by a drug lord?


MOSER: I’m telling you, I’m missing out. I’m hanging out with the wrong people. I think I need to run with a rougher crowd.

COWEN: I like the south in Brazil.

MOSER: The south?

COWEN: Even a city like Curitiba I think is very nice and has wonderful food. There’s not really anything to do there, right?

MOSER: I’ve only been there once. It’s not my favorite. I went to Porto Alegre again a couple years ago, where I hadn’t been in a long time. It’s totally decent, I think, to live there. It’s easier than it would be to live in the northeast, but I love the northeast. If I have to choose, I’ll always go up to the northeast.

COWEN: Why did modernism so persist in Brazil?

MOSER: I have a whole long theory about that. I have actually written a book about it in Portuguese, but a short book.

COWEN: This is the Autoimperialismo book.

MOSER: That’s right. Which I wrote a few years ago, and I thought I was going to finish writing it and make it a real book in English, and I never did. Maybe I will sometime.

But Brazil desperately wanted to be modern. It desperately wanted to join the modern world. It desperately wanted to project itself into the world. There’s a great sense of inferiority among Brazilian intellectuals that goes back, really, to the 19th century. They always write about this. Actually, all these books back here — this is all Brazilian literature behind me.

Brazilians found, I think, in art, and especially in architecture, a way to create a new identity for themselves. That’s my problem, I think, with Brasilia, the city, is that it creates a new look for something that doesn’t require changing any social structures. This was a great subject on the left — the Brazilian left — forever, that Brazil is actually an incredibly conservative country always. The great frustration was that incremental change of the kind that we would associate with maybe Franklin Roosevelt was just impossible.

I think a lot of that energy — this is just my bullshit theory; I don’t know if it’s true — but I think a lot of that energy gets subsumed into things that you can do. You can design a building. You can do these things. In Brasilia, you see that this modern design is actually the outward appearance of an incredibly authoritarian and very repressive state. Those things could go together. That was Niemeyer’s big discovery.

On appreciating Clarice Lispector (or any other writer)

COWEN: If you were trying to sell a reader on Clarice Lispector who had never read any Lispector before — how would you make the case, and where should they start?

MOSER: I’d, first of all, not make the case. I would say to read The Hour of the Star, which is her last book, which was the first book of hers that I ever read when I was in college. If you love it, then it’ll be one of the great things that ever happens to you in your life. If you don’t love it, then move on and read something else, because it’s so . . .

I once read this story about this Canadian sex toy, just to diverge for a moment here. It was this toy for women that was so big that it had to be brought over in a van and set up. [laughs] Don’t ask me where I saw this; this was a long time ago. I wish I could find this article, but apparently it was so complex, this thing, that it would either give these women these incredible orgasms that would last for weeks — would be the greatest experience of their life — or if it was just like the radio signal a little bit off, you’d feel absolutely nothing.

I always think about this Canadian sex toy because there’s some sorts of art that, just really, it can be the same art, it can be the same frequency that will blow someone’s mind; somebody else just won’t feel it.

I’ve known a lot of Brazilians who actually are quite troubled by their failure to appreciate Clarice Lispector because they feel she’s this great national and international icon. She’s this incredible figure. You feel stupid. It’s like not getting Shakespeare or something, but I do think it’s so specific, and it’s a specific kind of person. I think if you read The Hour of the Star — it’ll take you an hour; it’s 80 pages long — if you feel the frequency, then it’ll be one of the greatest things that you’ve ever read. If you don’t, then it’s okay. Everybody’s different.

On Susan Sontag’s influence

COWEN: You once wrote about Susan Sontag, and I quote, “So much of Sontag’s best work concerns the ways we try, and fail, to see.” Please explain.

MOSER: This is what On Photography is about. This is what Against Interpretation is about in Sontag’s work. Of course, in my new book, The Upside-Down World, I talk about how I’m not really great at seeing, particularly. I’m not that visual. I’m a reader. I’m a bookworm. Often, when I’ve looked at paintings, I’ve realized how little I actually see. Sometimes I do feel embarrassed by it. You’ll read the label and it’ll be three sentences, and it’ll say like, A Man with a Dog. You’re like, “Oh, I didn’t even see the dog.” You know what I mean?

On these very basic levels, I just think, “Oh, if someone doesn’t point it out to me, I really don’t see.” I think that that was one of the fascinating things about Sontag, that she was not really able to see. She was actually quite terrible at seeing, and this was especially true in her relationships. She was very bad at seeing what other people were thinking and feeling.

I think because she was aware of that, she tried very hard to remedy it, but it’s just not something you can force. You can’t force yourself to like certain music or to like certain tastes that you might not actually like.

COWEN: What was Sontag most right about or most insightful about?

MOSER: I think this question of images — what images do — and photography and how representations, metaphors can pervert things. She had a very deep repulsion to photography. She really hated photography, and this is why a lot of photographers hated her because they felt this, even though she didn’t really say it. She really didn’t trust it. She really thought it was wicked. At the same time, for somebody who had a deficit, I guess you could say, in seeing, she really relied on it to understand the world.

I think that tension is very instructive for us, because now, she already says 50 years ago, “There are all these images. We don’t know what to do with them. We don’t know how to process them.” Forget AI, forget Russian trolls on Twitter. She uses this word I really like, hygiene, a lot. She talks about mental hygiene and how you can clean the rusty pipes in your brain. That’s why I think reading her helped me at least to understand a lot of what I’m seeing in the world.

COWEN: Do you think she will simply end up forgotten? In my view, Against Interpretation is one of the great books. Many of the essays in there are amazing, but I don’t see it resonating with most people anymore. Will it just disappear? As you mentioned in your book, she spent what, seven years collecting Antonin Artaud into some kind of volume, and he did theater, and he’s forgotten. She must have thought he was quite important. Will she just meet the same fate?

MOSER: Well, I think, doesn’t everyone?

COWEN: It’s very New York stuff. New York is not really the cultural center of the world or even the United States anymore.

MOSER: Well, I can tell you a lot about that. I have many thoughts about that. I’ll try to give you a couple. The first one is that I’m from Texas, so I knew exactly that. I’m a New Yorker in the way that most New Yorkers are the valedictorian from Boise. I knew that people in Houston have heard of her, but they don’t read her, and I know that everybody in New York is obsessed with her, and they thought . . .

I can tell you, the sales of my Sontag book — it was reviewed everywhere, it won this prize, all that kind of stuff, but it didn’t sell that much because it sold to a few groups of people who care very passionately about her. That’s not to say it shouldn’t. I think that her legacy is very uncomfortable. It’s very spiny. It’s cactus-y. It’s like chewing the cactus without removing the exterior. It demands a lot of the reader.

I was saying about Dutch literature that you can’t read anything before World War II, and I don’t think it’s much different. Do you still teach?

COWEN: Sure, of course.

MOSER: Does this sound unfamiliar to you? All my professor friends say that the kids have read a whole lot less than they had 15 or 20 years ago.

COWEN: I think that’s true, but what I do find is there are certain superstar figures — Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Tolkien — who are probably read more. Overall, reading is probably down. Diversity of reading past the superstars is definitely down. That’s my impression.

MOSER: Well, I think that you see this with a lot of things all over the place. The big brand does really well. CVS is doing really well, but maybe all the shops that used to make up the rest of the city have been decimated. They’re not there anymore. They’re all replaced by chains so you have a few chain brands. I think that’s true in clothing, it’s true in media, it’s true in literature. But that’s not to say . . .

I don’t love reading Susan Sontag. It’s not what I want to read if I have an hour to kill and I’m sitting on my couch. She’s not the writer that I would want to pick up. That said, I’ve learned more from Susan Sontag than just about anybody else I’ve ever read. I think if you’re the kind of bootcamp reader that I always was — I always really liked difficult books. I liked studying things that were hard because I felt that there was something in there that I could maybe learn from them.

There’s a masochism to it, but at the same time, I would hate to think of my life without Sontag. I think I would be stupider. I think I would be less able to cope with the reality of the world. I have huge gratitude for having read all that stuff. When you read it all together, it’s not all so great. She’s quite prolific, actually. She writes a lot. People read a couple of books or a couple of essays, but there’s a whole lot of Sontag to read. I think if you look in the Library of America, they have a lot of it in those two volumes now. It’s just majestic altogether. It’s beautiful.

COWEN: Why didn’t Camille Paglia become the next Susan Sontag?

MOSER: [laughs] That’s a great question. She denies that she wanted to be. When I spoke to her…

COWEN: She clearly did.

MOSER: Yes, she clearly did. I think she had an identity, though. Camille is a complex subject of her own, but she has an idea of herself that she needed to stay in the academy because she felt that teaching and interacting with actual humans was a way of preventing the aristocratic excesses of people like Susan Sontag, which I think is absolutely fair enough. I can’t imagine Sontag as a professor. That’s just not who she was.

But I think that Camille — the reason she’s a fascinating person, I think, is that she both satirizes a lot of the aspects of the celebrity culture that Sontag was a part of — and a very successful part of — while also having quite a lot of excesses of her own.

I don’t know if you saw when Sinéad O’Connor died a few months ago, a few weeks ago. There was this clip going around the internet of Camille saying, “If I were Sinéad O’Connor, I would hate myself too, and I would want to kill myself.” This was before the internet. Now, if you say something like that, you’re putting yourself out there as a kind of “I’m an obnoxious person on the internet.” But this was 30 or 40 years ago.

In fact, Sinéad does kill herself and does have this very miserable life and was abused, and all this. I think Camille is . . . I’m not going to write a book about her, but I think that there is a book to write about her because she both criticizes and also embodies a lot of these questions.

COWEN: I once did a podcast with her, and I think of all the guests we’ve ever had, she produced the greatest number of words and greatest number of words per minute.

MOSER: Oh my God, I remember I had to type down the first time I talked to her. The first thing she said to me, which I thought was hilarious — I said, “Is this on the record?” She said, “Everything I say is on the record!” Which I thought was hilarious because so many people would whisper in the corridors and try to make themselves interesting. She owns it, and yes, she talks really fast.

On V.S. Naipaul’s mentorship

COWEN: Now to our final segment on the Benjamin Moser production function. What did you learn from V.S. Naipaul?

MOSER: Oh, you’ve been looking at my Instagram.

COWEN: I don’t know where I saw that, but you mentioned it somewhere.

MOSER: Oh, I mentioned him in the book as well. V.S. Naipaul — he’s probably the most symbolic figure in my head. He’s the person that occupies the most space of all the people I’ve known. He is an almost oedipal figure for me, a father figure, someone that I knew very well when I was younger. I venerated him, and I think I became a writer because of him.

I also stopped reading him because I wanted to be a writer, because his influence was so overwhelming on me. The sense of never being able to measure up to him was so depressing that I had to find my own way in the world to use the title of one of his novels. Having that as an example, that integrity and that self-immolating, self-sacrificing belief in the importance of literature and writing — I had to go away from it.

I started reading him again about four or five years ago. Actually, when I won the Pulitzer Prize — that’s when I thought, “Now I can read him again.” Rather than diminishing him in a sense — sometimes, like the writers that make a huge impression on you in adolescence or as a young person — you come back to them 20 years later, and it’s just not as much. It’s just not as important. He was in fact, even better than I remembered. Again, I had to stop reading him because the impression that he makes on an impressionable young person is too overwhelming.

COWEN: When I read A Turn in the South, I greatly enjoyed it, but over time, I somehow grew not to like the book, especially after I spent more time in the South. What’s the correct stance on that one? He strikes me in part — he was just a grump, but in a way that infected his writing. He disliked groups. Same about [India:] A Million Mutinies [Now] — quite an interesting book, but ultimately not willing to understand what makes India work.

MOSER: Well, I don’t think he thought India worked.

COWEN: It’s done relatively well since he wrote A Million Mutinies, I think, better than almost anyone had predicted, in some ways at least.

MOSER: Well, A Million Mutinies is a book about positive change. That’s a book about how the mutinies for the people who, instead of being imprisoned in their caste function, have liberated themselves. The son of the railway conductor becomes a dentist. It’s that story of mobility. But India is, of course, an increasingly repressive and increasingly dictatorial country, which Vidia did not see coming quite as much, and to a certain extent support it. When did you last read him?

COWEN: Not recently. Not in the last two years.

MOSER: Go back to even those early novels he wrote in his early 20s. They’re so incredibly good, like Miguel Street. A Way in the World is one of the great books.

COWEN: In a Free State is fantastic. As for Mr. Biswas —

MOSER: Fabulous. And there are so many of them. He writes these books. I’m sitting here trying very hard to write. If I can write a page a day, I feel like I can take the rest of the week off. He wrote books of a quality and of a penetration that I find . . . I wonder if he’s read much anymore. He’s been canceled every which way for all sorts of reasons.

COWEN: I don’t think he’s read much anymore.

MOSER: Do people read him?

COWEN: Not that I hear about.

MOSER: You don’t?

COWEN: Maybe some people my age, but I never hear about him from younger people.

MOSER: Well, we’ll see. I think it’s a body of work that’s produced in one lifetime, that — particularly, probably, in India and the Caribbean — will perdure. I just read The Masque of Africa about a year ago, which had made no impression on me at the time it came out. I thought he was old, and he was grumping around Gabon or whatever. He was obsessed with this idea of animal sacrifice and human sacrifice.

One of my main commitments, socially and ethically, is for vegetarianism. I knew that he was always thought of as a vegetarian, but he wasn’t actually a vegetarian. This is kind of funny. I don’t know why — I think it was the British thought, oh wow, he’s Indian. But there was sometimes meat in his house, which I always found quite shocking actually. He had a Hindu sense of the uncleanness of meat — not just the sinfulness of killing, but that meat was dirty.

He goes to Africa, and he goes all over the place. He is only really talking about this idea that power can be taken from the organ of a slaughtered animal or human. This is something that I know exists in Africa.

But in this book, he ties these ideas of sacrifice, of power, but also with this extremely shocking view of environmental destruction and what it means to kill animals and to destroy the forest. I put that book down with a chill. I’d missed it the first time I read it. I thought, “Eh, it’s boring.”

COWEN: What do you think of the biography, Sir Vidia? I’m sure you know it.

MOSER: Patrick French’s biography? Oh no, you mean Paul Theroux?

COWEN: Theroux, yes.

MOSER: Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

COWEN: Yes, it’s different titles, I think, in the US and UK.

MOSER: Well, no, there’s a Patrick French biography called The World Is What It Is. Patrick French who just died. Then there’s Paul Theroux’s book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

COWEN: That’s right.

MOSER: That book is 100 percent accurate if you knew him, 100 percent accurate — and yet, totally wrong. He was one of these people that if you want to put him through the kind of cancel culture filter and say this was an obnoxious thing to say about women, this was an obnoxious thing to say about Black people, this was an obnoxious thing to say about gay people — it’s all there. It’s all fair. He was a provocateur. He loved getting a rise out of people. He was funny. He was kind of bitchy. He was fun to talk to.

I’ll never forget. I’m from America, so I don’t understand cricket. We were in England. I was at his house, and he was watching cricket. He said, “Benji, I must watch the cricket.” I said, “Okay, but forgive my American ignorance, but I still don’t get cricket.” He sat there, and he was so patient. He spent two or three hours — because those cricket matches last forever — explaining everything. I retained zero of it. When I see cricket, I still have no idea what’s happening.

But he was very kind to me. He was very encouraging to me when I was young. God knows why. He was a wonderful man.

On Houston’s intellectual culture

COWEN: Why does Houston produce so few intellectuals? Or perhaps you’ll challenge the premise of that question.

MOSER: Well, I’m from Houston, and I’m something of an intellectual, but I won’t challenge the premise of the question. I think that when I was growing up — and Houston’s changed a lot since I was growing up, Houston is so much bigger than it was. It’s so much more diverse. It’s a huge, huge and fascinating city of which I know absolutely nothing anymore.

I think it’s Calvin Coolidge who said, “The business of America is business.” The business of Houston is business. It’s a business place. It’s a place where you go to ship 500,000 tons of crude from Equatorial Guinea to be delivered in Shanghai on Tuesday at 11:15 am.

Everybody I knew growing up, my parents’ friends and my teachers and all those people that were adults — I always thought that if you’re good at math, you became a doctor. If you’re good at English, you became a lawyer. That sounds almost like an exaggeration, but I didn’t really know about all these other professions that people could have.

The idea of culture was an imported phenomenon. It’s not now; it’s quite different now. My parents were pretty well-connected people in the art world, literary world. My mother had a bookstore. She actually had two bookstores, one for children and one for adults. My father was a lawyer. I had a pretty good introduction to the interesting people around.

But if I hadn’t gone away . . . My mother said she wouldn’t pay for me to go to college if I stayed in Texas. Her parents sent her to college in Texas, and I think she would’ve loved to have gone somewhere else, but that was back in those different times. It was different times.

I’m fascinated by this question. I think it’s a really good question. I think that places get a character impressed on them very early, and it doesn’t really change. I think they just attract a certain kind of people. I don’t know. I think I would be pretty lonely in Houston, intellectually, in a way that I’m not here. Even though this city — I’m talking about Utrecht here — I wouldn’t say I have this incredibly intellectual existence here at all.

I write books, but that’s me in my house. It’s not like some idea of Paris with Sartre at the next table or something. It’s not like that at all. I go get my dry cleaning every week, and I go to the grocery store. I don’t really have a social life like that. And yet, to think of being in Houston and trying to do this would somehow feel harder. I don’t know why.

COWEN: Before my last question, let me just present your book again. It is The Upside-Down World: Meetings with the Dutch Masters by Benjamin Moser. Very last question: What will you do next?

MOSER: Well, this is a secret; it is to be revealed very soon. For reasons dealing with my agent, I cannot tell you. Is that mysterious and sexy?

COWEN: That’s mysterious and sexy, but then I need a different final question. New project aside, what is it you will next seek to learn about?

MOSER: Well, because of Sontag, I spent a lot of time in the Balkans, and Bosnia especially, and then in Serbia and Croatia. I am now learning the language that is the only language that has two alphabets and at least four different names, which used to be called Serbo-Croatian in the old days. It’s now called Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. It’s all the same language, but I’ve been studying that for the last couple of years.

I feel like I’m really too old to learn another language, especially one that I don’t really have any . . . If I had learned it five, ten years ago, it would’ve been useful for this book. Now I’m just obsessively studying Serbo-Croatian. I have to say, I love it. Who knows? You learn so many things that have no point to them, and then their point is veiled in mystery. Then eventually, sometimes, they come in handy.

I studied Swedish in college, which was another story because I liked the professor of Swedish, who was the wife of a professor I knew and said, “You should take Swedish.” I didn’t have anything else to do in that afternoon, so I went. Swedish has never once in 30 years been of any use to me whatsoever.

Whereas Portuguese, which I also studied in college, also completely by accident, has been one of the most important things in my life. So, I think that when you study languages, you open up that possibility. Swedish — I’m still waiting for the moment that’s going to come in handy. [laughs] It hasn’t happened yet. It’s not going to be today.

COWEN: You’ll still be waiting. Maybe you’ll understand all the rules of cricket first. Benjamin Moser, thank you very much.

MOSER: Thanks so much.

Photo Credit: Philippe Quaisse