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John Ruskin, Tracery from the Campanile of Giotto in Florence; in The Seven Lamps of Architecture
When the iPad came out, more than a decade ago, I tweeted that I didn’t especially want an iPad but would really love an e-ink tablet, one on which I could read books and magazines and PDFs, and then make annotations on them. That didn’t seem very likely at the time, but now some of those devices have been produced, and I recently tried a couple of them.
The first device I bought was a reMarkable tablet, which features
The one problem I had with it turned out to be an insurmountable one. The device has no light of any kind, and the color of the screen is a disconcertingly dark gray; I found the contrast between black type and the gray screen so limited that I couldn’t read anything on the device without strain, except in the very brightest light. It was perfect outdoors, but usable indoors only at my desk, where I could point my desk lamp directly at the screen. So I had to return the reMarkable – with regrets, because it’s a cool device in other respects. I’m sure people with younger eyes than mine can enjoy it.
So after returning the reMarkable, I bought the Kobo Elipsa, which seemed more promising largely because it does have a so-called ComfortLight, which works well. However, that was the only good thing about the device. The build quality is mediocre at best – it feels flimsy – and the software is so unresponsive that I just couldn’t use it. I would tap something on the screen, the software keyboard would either not respond at all or respond only after a delay of several seconds. Writing with the included stylus was painful, so long was the delay between the movement of the stylus and the appearance of text on the screen.
If the reMarkable tablet featured the same lighting that the Elipsa does, I would’ve kept it and been very happy with it. It’s better-designed and better-built.
Finally: both companies make it hard to return their devices. You really have to hunt on the reMarkable website to find the page that tells you how to initiate a return, though once you do find that page the process is relatively straightforward. Kobo, though, doesn’t let you initiate a return without engaging a representative in chat or on the phone. And that’s a very slow process – they seem to be hoping that you will get tired of the delays, give up, and keep the device you don’t really want. When you obscure and complicate the process of returning devices, you make me disinclined to buy anything else from your company.
An amazing show, but too short. The best versions I’ve ever heard of “Queen Jane Approximately” and “Forever Young” — the latter a tearjerker.
From the Met. Bernini’s Sant’Andrea al Quirinale in Rome is to me the most beautiful of churches. I am reading and thinking about Paradise Lost right now, and I have long thought that Paradise Lost is the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale of poems, and Sant’Andrea al Quirinale the Paradise Lost of churches. Maybe that analogy will make its way into my book.
I mean my title to describe a peculiarity of the current Pope, who speaks often of the need for charity but seems to have little for people he thinks err — or anyway err in a certain direction. Thus his new Motu proprio on the use of the Latin Mass.
Francis is not at the moment completely forbidding the Latin Mass, but only because he finds slow asphyxiation more convenient than summary execution. As he says in his accompanying letter, he wants “to provide for the good of those who are rooted in the previous form of celebration” — but he also insists that these people “need to return in due time to the Roman Rite.” Note the forceful distinction between the Latin Mass and the Roman Rite — there can only be one Roman Rite; the Latin Mass is not a form of it but rather something … different. Indeed, those who adhere to the Latin Mass do not merely depart from the Roman Rite but effectively from the Church itself: they violate the Church’s unity, and “This unity I intend to re-establish throughout the Church of the Roman Rite.” Again: slow asphyxiation. He has not killed the Latin Mass but he intends it to die, and not in the distant future either.
Why? Francis says that “ever more plain in the words and attitudes of many is the close connection between the choice of celebrations according to the liturgical books prior to Vatican Council II and the rejection of the Church and her institutions in the name of what is called the ‘true Church.’” An enormous weight is being placed here on the word “many.” I do not doubt that the attitude describes is held by some. But, for what it’s worth, the Catholics I know who are drawn to the Latin Mass are not drawn to it because it sets them apart from other Catholics but because it binds them to the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded them in their faith. They do not despise their Church but rather love it; the Latin Mass for them is an excellent means of expressing and strengthening that love.
It is sad and strange to me that Francis can be so warm in his sympathy for those who openly reject his Church and its teachings, but so icy-cold, so corrosively skeptical, towards some of that Church’s most faithful sons and daughters. Sad, strange — and, I believe, profoundly unwise.
This could lead to a Great Wokelash, and that could lead to genuinely conservative cultural politics (80%) or a redefined and newly-serious left-wing society (20%). This may very well come to pass. But I think it may be more likely that our elite institutions will just quietly get tired of it and gradually move on, in much the same way as those who spend their adolescence doing yelling social justice activism and then go on to get their MBAs and get less and less strident and eventually just become absentminded flavorless Democrats. There will still be an identitarian left, but it will develop new fixations and likely lose influence. When I was in high school and college Free Tibet and sweatshops were huge concerns with the exact same kind of people as the woke armies now, but you never hear a single word about those causes from the new generation. Politics is faddish. In five years 27 year old passionate midlevel nonprofit workers who yell about CRT for six hours a day will have become overtired soccer moms whose ascendancy to executive positions and executive paychecks inevitably dulls that old fire inside. The new kids will be too busy livestreaming their prescribed ketamine treatments to do all that social justice stuff.
I think this is almost certain to be correct. We as a culture just don’t have what it takes to stick with a set of core convictions for very long — our innate neophilia, or rather neomania, is too strong. Similarly, the hold of Donald Trump upon his worshippers is weakening — it’s not by any means gone, and I wish it were weakening faster, but it will decline year by year, if only because people will crave something new.
It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the hatemongers on the left and right alike, who will surely worry a bit that their occupation’s gone, but fear not: The one certainty is that whatever replaces the successor ideology on the left — the successor of the successor ideology, you might say, which is why we need a better term than Yang’s — will be met by shouts from the right that this is The End Of The World As We Know It, and whatever replaces Trumpdom on the right will be met by shouts from the left that this is The End Of The World As We Know It. Some things never change.
In the preface to Continuities, a collection of his reviews and essays written for magazines, the late great Frank Kermode makes a strong assertion: “Good literary journalism is valuable and rare…. [T]o dismiss it as irremediably ephemeral, and at the same time to promote the preservation of the average doctoral dissertation, is to fall into what could very well be named ‘the common cant’.”
One of the essays in the book concerns Edmund Wilson, and in that preface Kermode uses the example of Wilson to illustrate his point:
Wilson can deal justly with other writers without neglecting the meditative movement of his own mind, and he can satisfy, without loss of intellectual integrity, the nonspecialist’s urgent and entirely proper demand for amenity of exposition and fine texture. This is the kind of journalism I call valuable and rare. It is rare not because those who could easily do it have better things to do, but because it is more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship. It calls incessantly for mental activity, fresh information, and civility into the bargain. Of course I agree that they do not always come.
I’ve written a lot of literary journalism and will continue to do so — for instance, I have an essay-review on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Crossroads coming out in Harper’s in a couple of months — and I couldn’t agree more with Kermode’s general commendation. Literary journalism is often belittled by academics who haven’t tried to write it and couldn’t write it if they tried. To speak to interested nonspecialists “without loss of intellectual integrity” is an extremely difficult challenge, and while it’s not for me to say whether I have ever managed it, I have certainly made every effort to do so. And that effort seems to me not only worthwhile but often more worthwhile than to publish one more article for a scholarly journal. (Though of course many universities, including my own, don’t recognize the value of such work. My essay on Franzen will not “count” as scholarship because it’s not peer-reviewed.)
I especially admire Kermode’s list of the desiderata of good literary journalism: “mental activity, fresh information, and civility.”
This Stefani McDade report in Christianity Today about the post-Trump reckoning among charismatic Christian leaders is absolutely superb.
I am so pleased to be named (by my dear friend Richard Gibson) among my people, the idiosyncratic readers.
Re: this reflection on printed books: for the last decade, e-books have comprised about 10% of the sales of my books, and that’s been pretty constant.
Zito Madu, speaking strong and bitter truth:
The feeling of dread before Saka took his penalty betrayed a truth about the relationship between the Black English players and members of their country. The wish for Saka to score in order to avoid racist abuse only reveals a deeper truth: that respect for him as a person and recognition of his dignity is only possible if he and the other Black players keep making the people who hate them happy. A conditional respect of a person’s humanity, which means that it’s no recognition at all. […]
It was heartening to see some fans, teams and politicians push back against the bigotry by showering the players with love and support. A group of people decorated the defaced Rashford mural with hearts. Yet, while the players surely appreciate the support, and hopefully will one day have a chance to have success at the highest level, it’s not hard to imagine that they will never forget that many of their supporters see them as sub-human — and no level of sporting achievement will change that.
Above is a painting on the wall of the Commandery, a building said to have been built as a hospital by Wulfstan, then Bishop of Worcester, later St. Wulfstan. The painting is damaged — the chief injuries having been inflicted on it by iconoclasts who erased the faces of the people represented — but the story is easy enough to read. The central figure in the scene is the Archangel Michael, holding scales with which sinners are weighed in the balance. On the left you see a small demon, trying with all his might to drag that pan down to enforce damnation; but on the right the Blessed Virgin Mary lowers rosary beads onto her pan to ensure that the sinner, who seems to be tucked in quite snugly, will indeed be saved.
It is a vivid drama of our eternal destiny in which Jesus Christ plays no role whatsoever.
I am of course tempted to say “And that’s why we needed the Reformation!” — and I would say it except that Jesus is just as irrelevant to much Protestant theology and spirituality as he was to the debased pseudo-theology that inspired that wall painting in Worcester. H. Richard Niebuhr famously described the message of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” — but what need had those sinless ones for a Christ, with or without a cross? After all, “The Kingdom of God is within you”! (As someone once said, or near enough.)
Jesus is, generally speaking, a distraction and an embarrassment both to religious people and to those who want to be spiritual-but-not-religious — people who check “Christian” when completing surveys but who more truly affirm the Inner Light, or Natural Law, or Judeo-Christian Values, or Holy Tradition, or Mindfulness, or A Christian Nation, or My Personal Relationship With God — basically, anything but Jesus, who is perceived to be … shall we say, unpredictable? More than a little wild. It’s better to evade him, or set him aside, or just look the other way. It’s certainly safer — it leaves us free to make a religion that suits our preferences and our understanding.
Charles Williams’s book The Descent of the Dove is subtitled “A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” which is rather an ambitious description, and I have often thought of writing a companion book which I would call Evasions: A Short History of Jesus and the Church.
As for me, Jesus is the only reason I am in this game, half-hearted and inconstant a Christian as I am. I hang on to this one figure with desperation. When all else fails to console, he consoles me. In his famous Divinity School address, Emerson described, with a fastidious moue of distaste, “Historical Christianity” as a movement that “has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” May all the Emersons of the world say that about me! God forbid that I should fail to give them cause to say it!
I am drawn magnetically to the Jesus depicted in the canonical Gospels because it seems manifest to me that he is not someone any of us would have invented. (The contrast with the later narratives of his life, especially the Gnostic-inflected ones, is striking: The extravagantly thaumaturgic Jesus depicted therein is precisely the kind of figure a pinwheel-eyed enthusiast of mysteries would invent.) Given the uncompromising strangeness of the canonical Jesus — his oscillation between a prophetic fierceness that rattles us all and an infinite tenderness that may be in its own way even more disconcerting — I find myself warmly endorsing Auden’s statement: “I believe because He fulfills none of my dreams, because He is in every respect the opposite of what He would be if I could have made Him in my own image.” Which is followed by the real zinger:
Thus, if a Christian is asked: “Why Jesus and not Socrates or Buddha or Confucius or Mahomet?” perhaps all he can say is: “None of the others arouse all sides of my being to cry ‘Crucify Him’.”
Even those not compelled, as Auden and I have been, to kneel before this man — those who, as one might say, perceive him merely as “this swell figure from the East” — can be affected by the compelling, and in the ancient Hellenistic context utterly unique, depiction of him in the Gospels. Iris Murdoch, pausing in a philosophical exposition to reflect on these strange texts, notes that they “are in a sense easy to read, can seem so (even I would think for a complete stranger to them), because they are the kind of great art where we feel: It is so.” But what they narrate — is it so? “What happened immediately after Christ’s death, how it all went on, how the Gospel writers and Paul became persuaded He had risen: this is one of the great mysteries of history. It is difficult to imagine any explanation in purely historical terms, though the unbeliever must assume there is one.”
That is an assumption I have been unable to make. And so I cling to Jesus, and only to Jesus. And as I strive to do so, certain words have become touchstones for me, sources of strength and encouragement. Some of them are well-known, like a passage from one of George MacDonald’s novels, and the magnificent answer given by the Heidelberg Catechism to the question “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Others are perhaps less well-known: Reynolds Price’s wrestling with Jesus, in delight and terror, in his Three Gospels; many set-pieces from Romano Guardini’s The Lord; the entry on “Jesus” in Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures; the chapter called “Yeshua” in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. All these draw me back towards the center of things, towards the One who is the heart and soul of all Creation. Every day I want to evade him, to look the other way, and when I do my faith wanes and weakens; but when I look, when I draw near, I remember what I’m all about, what the world is all about. When I look towards Jesus I am caught and held, even if sometimes shattered by what I see.
Probably the most regular re-centering in my life comes when, in the middle of an Anglican Eucharistic service — for this is a distinctively Anglican thing — we hear what we call the Comfortable Words. I commend them to you all.
Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. (Matthew 11:28)
God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15)
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
In an age when the word “dialogue” has acquired so potent a charge of verbal magic, it is worth reminding ourselves that in Plato, who seems to have invented the conception, dialogue exists solely for the purpose of destroying false knowledge.
— Northrop Frye (1966)
Connie went slowly home to Wragby. ‘Home!’…it was a warm word to use for that great, weary warren. But then it was a word that had had its day. It was somehow cancelled. All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great, dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day. Home was a place you lived in, love was a thing you didn’t fool yourself about, joy was a word you applied to a good Charleston, happiness was a term of hypocrisy used to bluff other people, a father was an individual who enjoyed his own existence, a husband was a man you lived with and kept going in spirits. As for sex, the last of the great words, it was just a cocktail term for an excitement that bucked you up for a while, then left you more raggy than ever. Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out to nothing.
― D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
Nobody wants any more poems on the grander themes for a few years, but at the same time nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody wants them.
— Kinsgley Amis, introduction to Poets of the 1950s
When social media companies say they can’t do anything about filthy, racist abuse on their platforms, what they mean is: We can’t do anything about that abuse without changing our policies in ways that might inconvenience us. Right now the foulest abuse imaginable is being poured out on a 19-year-old English soccer player because Twitter and Instagram can’t be bothered to deal with it. Dealing with it would require money and resources, and might make people less likely to sign up to be surveilled (for financial purposes only, of course). And that’s why they won’t deal with it.
Around the world legislators are lazily considering laws that might force the social media companies to care. I doubt that many such laws will be passed, and I am sure that any that do get passed will first undergo a very thorough watering-down. But even the strongest proposals now being considered are not strong enough to suit me. It’s time for a Butlerian jihad against the social-media giants. Raze them to the ground and salt the foundations. It’s them or us.
UPDATE 12 July: Barney Ronay this morning:
The idea social media companies can’t police this abuse is laughable. This is their property, their coding. Never mind algorithms. A teenage intern could have policed these players’ accounts on Sunday night with a smartphone and a delete button. All that is required is the genuine will to do it. This is step one.
But given the bottomless moral corruption of the social media companies, can we even imagine step one happening?
I think the only thing that will change the behavior of these malicious, misery-dealing, greed-besotted people is if celebrities — let’s say, as a start, everyone with over a million followers on whatever platform — boycott those platforms. Those celebrities have the power that even governments don’t seem to have. But my suspicion is that they are as addicted as everyone else….
(Possible updates coming when it’s over.)
UPDATE: Saka is incredibly mature for his age, but I just don’t understand why Southgate put him in that situation. Southgate did a great job bringing this team together and keeping them together, but he got almost everything wrong tonight. Alas.
The better team won. And remember: Mancini took over a team that didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Whichever fate awaits us, Catholics and Christians of every political persuasion should remember that admonition and prove their fidelity by entering an uncertain future not just as disputants, but as friends.
Serious question arising from this: Are there any American Catholic thinkers for whom “fellow Christians” is a meaningful, operative category? I am inclined to think not. The frivolities of the so-called ecumenical movement of the previous century and the intensity of subsequent intra-Catholic disputes have combined put an end to that, at least for now. And this isn’t just a Catholic thing: as I have often commented in the past, the more strongly Christians feel that the faith is in decline, the less likely they are to think that we’re all in this together.
One thing about this wild, wild country
It takes a strong, strong
It breaks a strong, strong mind
— Bill Callahan, “Drover”
Planets which are tilted on their axis, like Earth, are more capable of evolving complex life. This finding will help scientists refine the search for more advanced life on exoplanets. […]
“The most interesting result came when we modeled ‘orbital obliquity’ — in other words how the planet tilts as it circles around its star,” explained Megan Barnett, a University of Chicago graduate student involved with the study. She continued, “Greater tilting increased photosynthetic oxygen production in the ocean in our model, in part by increasing the efficiency with which biological ingredients are recycled. The effect was similar to doubling the amount of nutrients that sustain life.”
“Orbital obliquity” is one of those scientific terms — like “persistence of vision” and “angle of repose” — that just cries out for metaphorical application.
All of the writers and thinkers I trust most are characterized by orbital obliquity. They are never quite perpendicular; they approach the world at a slight angle. As a result their minds evolve complex life.
P.S. Another of those metaphor-generating terms: “impact gardening.”
People keep asking, but I don’t have anything to add to the current brain-dead kerfuffle over “Critical Race Theory” that I haven’t already said.
The overwhelming majority of people who want to argue about CRT don’t know whether CRT is a man or a horse.
We teachers, caught between those who want to enforce a particular vision of social justice in our classrooms and those who want to banish that vision, are being told that everything that is not compulsory is forbidden.
Five years ago I published an essay arguing that the key to the renewal of the university is the rebuilding of bonds of trust, especially between teachers and students — but also among all the other stakeholders of higher education.
Asked for comment on Facebook Bulletin, Substack spokeswoman Lulu Cheng Meservey said, “The nice shiny rings from Sauron were also ‘free.’”
My friend Adam Roberts’s response to my Tiptree-and-difference post pushes me to clarify a few points. Or rather, to realize that I can’t yet clarify a few points and need to think further.
Imagine a sliding scale of sexual difference, ranging from, on the far left, … I don’t know, maybe having sex with a clone of yourself? — to, on the far right, “aliens in the shape of slime-blobs, or sentient piles of concrete blocks” (to quote Adam). Adam’s point is that the sexual xenomania of the man in “And I Awoke” is focused on aliens with a generally humanoid shape — aliens who, if you consider the possible morphologies of sentient life, manifest only minor differences from us.
So for any given person there will be a Point of Maximal Allurement — a point at which likeness and difference are balanced in such a way as to maximize desire. Tiptree suggests that if we humans ever do encounter aliens, that slider will, for many people, move to the right. New differences lead to new allurements. The question Adam asks is: Will it really happen that way? Is there, as Tiptree seems to think, a latent human xenophila just waiting for its chance to become manifest? (Adam has his doubts.)
But as I think about this I realize that Tiptree only occasionally suggests that such xenophilia is human — in the stories it is typically, rather, male. (The only exception I can think of is the unnamed, silent wife of the man in “As I Awoke,” and the strong suggestion is that her attraction to aliens is masochistic. The narrator’s sister in “A Momentary Taste of Being” is drawn to another world, another way of being, in a way that seems, to me anyway, unrelated to sexual desire.) And many of Tiptree’s stories represent male desire as a manifestation of male dominance: a man’s libido simply is the libido dominandi.
And that in turn makes me realize that I have not clearly defined allurement. Desire for intimacy ≠ desire for pleasure ≠ desire for conquest. And even if for men the third of those always displaces the other two, that doesn’t really answer the notorious Freudian question: “What do women want?” Tiptree’s stories — that is to say, stories written by a woman under a man’s name and almost always from the perspective of a male character — tell us a lot about what men want. But what do the women in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” want? In “The Women Men Don’t See,” what does Ruth want when she asks the aliens to take her away? She doesn’t say. Tiptree leaves such matters to the contemplation of the reader.
But did Alice B. Sheldon think she knew? She herself was twice married to men, but once said, “I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up.” One could draw any number of conclusions about how her own patterns of desire shaped her fiction, and about why she does so much more to represent male desire than female, but it’s impossible to be confident that any of them are right.
Lately I’ve been re-reading the stories that Alice B. Sheldon wrote under the name James Tiptree, Jr. and it occurs to me that almost all of them are meditations on the same theme: The way genuine difference, especially but not only sexual difference, simultaneously alienates and allures. Now, I should also add that the Tiptree stories seem unable to imagine this dialectic settling into a healthy tension; almost invariably the alienation and the allurement alike take pathological forms.
In “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” we meet a man and, eventually, his wife who are in the grip of a kind of sexual xenomania, obsessively lusting for aliens of various species in a way that the man perceives as pathological but inevitable. Sometimes the man sees in the aliens a kind of beauty, and traits that present in exaggerated form what he finds desirable in human women, but essentially it is the very alienness that obsesses him: His sexual passion is awakened by the impossibility of sexual union. (This is also the theme of Samuel R. Delany’s famous story “Aye, and Gomorrah.”) The story’s title, of course, comes from Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” in which a knight’s life is destroyed by his encounter with a beautiful fairy, an encounter with otherness that infects him with a permanent obsession that becomes a wasting disease.
But Tiptree’s stories often suggest that pathology dictates the typical patterns of relation between human men and human women. In “The Women Men Don’t See” the women of the title are not sexually desirable to the man who narrates the story and are therefore invisible to him; he only sees them at all when he’s trying to decide whether they are potential sex partners, or rather sex objects. One of the women, the mother of the other one, understands this, and says to him,
“Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City.”
I smile back with my neck prickling. I thought I was the paranoid one.
“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”
When, later in the story, Don discovers that the woman has planned an encounter with aliens and wants to be abducted by them, taken away from Earth, his first response is to try to shoot the aliens — but (of course; the story is very on-the-nose in multiple respects) he ends up shooting Ruth instead. She is not badly wounded, and later they have a final conversation.
“I think they’re gentle,” she mutters.
“For Christ’s sake, Ruth, they’re aliens!”
“I’m used to it,” she says absently.
Living with men, living with other terrestrial species, living with aliens — it’s all the same to Ruth. (It’s no accident that she shares a name with the biblical character who leaves her homeland to dwell among strangers.) To the aliens, who insist in halting and malformed English that they are students, that they want to learn rather than harm, she will be an object of intense attention — they will see her. But is that kind of being-seen any better, really, than being invisible? She stakes her life on the possibility, however remote, that it will be; because she has no hope at all for the world she was born into.
“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” — another haunting but schematic story — imagines a future in which, by some kind of time-accident, three astronauts are thrown forward into a future world in which all living humans are female clones. They are rescued from their ship and brought into one occupied by five women. Under the influence of a disinhibiting drug, the astronauts reveal their true impulses: one of them is consumed by a mania for domination, a second is consumed by violent sexual lusts, and the third, the classic “beta male,” feels both of those impulses but in a muted way. (I told you the story is schematic.) It seems obvious to the women — who observe these men with a kind of detached curiosity, as, perhaps, the aliens in “The Women Men Don’t See” will observe Ruth and her daughter — that the re-introduction of males into human society, a re-establishment of the old ways of sexual reproduction, would be a Very Bad Idea Indeed. Difference is interesting to them, perhaps, but after several hundred years of life without men it’s not interesting enough to make them want to change their social order. Much alienation, little allurement.
In the darkest Tiptree stories, the allurements of difference are depicted as fundamentally irrational impulses — irrational, but so powerful that they don’t allow for the calm decisions to separate and isolate that mark the decisive moments in “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” The fantastically weird “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” describes a species of creature, right on the cusp of sentience, one member of which tries to find ways to override the impulse to eat what you love. It turns out, though, that he, being male, isn’t one of the eaters; and that sometimes creatures do what they’d rather not do — if that’s The Plan. And in what seems to me Tiptree’s darkest story, “A Momentary Taste of Being,” the human passion to reach the stars is nothing other than the impulse that drives spermatozoa into a hostile environment where almost all of them will die.
Difference can be profoundly alluring, these stories seem collectively to say, but we should heed the countervailing feeling of alienation — if we can. It would be rational … but, in the end, how powerful is reason?
It’s fascinating to read these stories in our present moment, in which race occupies essentially the same cultural territory that sex occupied for Alice Sheldon and other women of her time. I suspect that Sheldon would have thought and maybe even felt differently about the alienation/allurement dialectic if she had had available to her our culture’s passionate commitment to gender as a social construct that is (therefore, so the faulty logic goes) amenable to infinite performative manipulation by individuals. For us, it’s racial difference that is especially often experienced in the way that Sheldon experienced sexual difference. When Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race she was basically making the decision that the women in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” make about men.
The homologies between racism and sexism are not new, of course, and we can trace them back a long way: for instance, it’s worthwhile, I think, to map the concerns of “The Women Men Don’t See” onto the similarly knotted tension between not-being-seen and being-seen-badly in Ellison’s Invisible Man. But because race is such a massive component of our current political disputes, people now commonly choose and indeed embrace alienation in that whole sphere. (I’ve have recently learned that a large family of my acquaintance, well known for its cheerful closeness, has now been divided and broken by disagreements over Donald Trump. And at least some members of the family feel that it would be morally irresponsible not to be so broken.)
I think it’s because race is so widely seen to be intractably binary — Whites and Others — while gender and even sex are seen as chosen and performative that racial tension has taken hold of our public imagination in ways that the #MeToo movement, in the end, didn’t. Think for instance of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: his behavior towards women has been despicable, but he easily survived the outrage, which proved to last only a few days. (Alice Sheldon would not have been surprised by the behavior or the tolerance of it.) If his sins had been equal in seriousness but racist in character — if he had demonstrably treated Black people around him with the same callous manipulative disregard that he treated the women who worked for him — would he have a job now? The question answers itself.
(Of course, if he had been a Republican governor, then he would have had the smoothest sailing imaginable. Openly, bluntly racist figures are perfectly welcome in today’s GOP; it’s only critics of Donald Trump who aren’t. But that’s a story for another day.)
By way of conclusion, I’m going to make a simplistic statement that I may perhaps be able to unpack later: I believe that what we need when thinking about all forms of difference is (a) a frank acknowledgement of both allurement and alienation, and (b) an ability to achieve a genuinely tragic sense of history that does not succumb to despair. We should begin, collectively, by reading James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village.”
Thomas Tuchel is known as a skilled practitioner of modern atacking football, but when he got to Chelsea in the middle of last season the first thing he attended to was his team’s defending. Under Frank Lampard the side had been leaking goals at an alarming rate, and Tuchel was content to set aside his tactical preferences for a while in order to plug the leakage. Chelsea’s first few games under Tuchel weren’t exciting, but they almost completely shut down opposing attacks, and then, with that foundation in place, Tuchel turned to the task of expanding his side’s offensive repertoire.
In these Euros, Gareth Southgate has done much the same for England. I complained in the group phase about his conservatism, but after today’s thrashing of Ukraine, it’s easy for me (and everybody else!) to see the wisdom of his approach. In the group stage they scored one, zero, and one; then against Germany they scored two; and now against Ukraine four. But they have yet to give up a single goal. It seems that this England squad, like Tuchel’s Chelsea, has learned that when you have well-earned confidence in your defending, then you can grow ever more ambitious and creative in attack.
So: a big thumbs-up to Gareth Southgate.
Looking ahead: On current form an England-Italy final is obviously the more likely, but all four sides are playing well and, even more important, are very well-balanced, with few evident weaknesses. I expect Italy to exploit Spain’s defensive limitations, and England to wear down Denmark; but no result would surprise me, and these are four very likable sides to boot. I will of course be cheering for England all the way, but I would be happy to see any of these four teams lift the trophy at tournament’s end.
The chief theme of my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 is that, in the midst of World War II, a series of Christian writers and thinkers discerned that the Allied victory over the Axis powers would be perceived not as a victory of democracy over tyranny but rather as a victory of technology. They sought to recommend humanistic models of education that would counterbalance the coming Novus Ordo Seculorum. But they were not successful, at least on their own terms; technocracy arrived, and dominated. Today’s surveillance capitalism is the product, in quite direct ways, of the particular form taken by the Allied victory in World War II.
I have just been re-reading some books that I first read almost fifty years ago — Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End — and am struck by how much they have in common, and how strongly they echo the themes of my story. Asimov’s three novels were originally published as stories between 1942 and 1950, then stitched together into novels; Childhood’s End was written in 1952. Clarke’s book is far, far more technically accomplished than Asimov’s creaky contraptions, and they differ dramatically in scale and setting: Clarke’s story treats of events that span a century on near-future Earth, while Asimov’s trilogy covers several hundred years and ranges around the entire galaxy. But their core concerns are remarkably similar, and are the product of the same historical moment to which my five Christian intellectuals in YOOL1943 were responding.
In the Foundation books a man comes to understand the historical development of humanity, past and future, and implements a plan for directing it; in Childhood’s End aliens who understand the historical development of humanity, past and future, come to Earth to implement a plan for directing it.
In both cases the new planned order successfully displaces an existing political structure quite like our own: unequal, decadent, sclerotic, tired.
In both cases satisfaction with the new order gives way eventually to a kind of complacency. In Asimov’s fictional world, the planet Terminus, guided by the science of the Foundation, comes to dominate its sector of the galaxy, but perhaps at the cost of its soul; in Childhood’s End, “The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art. There were myriads of performers, amateur and professional, yet there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting, or sculpture for a generation. … It was a much fairer, but a much smaller, planet than it had been a century before. When the Overlords had abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure.” Technocracy is powerful, and once a society experiences its blessings a return to an earlier status quo is unthinkable; yet as time goes by thoughtful people, knowing what technocracy enables, can’t help reflecting on what it inhibits or flatly disables.
The parallels eventually give way to significant divergences: Clarke is interested in imagining new and strange evolutionary pathways for humanity; Asimov wants to suggest that all empires follow the path Gibbon traced for Rome, energetic success giving way to decadence. But it’s noteworthy that both of them are so deeply invested in thinking about the ways old political orders give way to self-proclaimed Utopias; and both, also, see that the technocratic Utopia — as distinguished, I think, from the more traditional Utopias of authoritarian and totalitarian states — is a new thing in the world.
You know, we could really get into the spirit of modern administration and come up with a way to measure the influence of public intellectuals. Perhaps the scale could be based on the Hitchens unit, one Hitchens (h) being the amount of public mindspace occupied by Christopher Hitchens in one year. I could then say that in the most recent fiscal year I delivered 0.02h, down, alas, from the previous year’s 0.035h. I could also articulate a Five-Year Plan for getting annual delivery up to 0.1h, with my really long-term goal being the achievement of a lifetime score of 1h.
That brings us to a final problem with [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] statements in hiring processes. Selecting for “correct” social views increases incentives to flatter and lie. Most faculty job applicants have spent two or more decades impressing teachers. It should be no surprise if they know what academic interviewers want to hear. (Or at least what the administration says interviewers should want.) Some of the people speaking insincerely will no doubt be passionate teachers and scholars willing to jump through hoops for an opportunity to do good work, but others will be slippery careerists who thrive by flattering. Why give them more chances to leverage their skills?
This is correct. The demanding of DEI statements from academic job candidates has nothing to do with the pursuit of social justice. Its purpose, rather, is to test candidates for subservience; to weed out those who ask difficult questions or exhibit independence of mind.
Some colleagues and I joined those investigating the extent of link rot in 2014 and again this past spring.
The first study, with Kendra Albert and Larry Lessig, focused on documents meant to endure indefinitely: links within scholarly papers, as found in the Harvard Law Review; and judicial opinions of the Supreme Court. We found that 50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked.
People tend to overlook the decay of the modern web, when in fact these numbers are extraordinary — they represent a comprehensive breakdown in the chain of custody for facts. Libraries exist, and they still have books in them, but they aren’t stewarding a huge percentage of the information that people are linking to, including within formal, legal documents. No one is. The flexibility of the web — the very feature that makes it work, that had it eclipse CompuServe and other centrally organized networks — diffuses responsibility for this core societal function.
A very interesting article — I’m saving it as a PDF because who knows what may happen to the link? (Maybe I should print it out as well….)
Over at the Hog Blog, I’ve written about Herman Hesse — more specifically, about a passage from The Glass Bead Game, his novel about an archipelago of quasi-monastic institutions of learning:
When a member of the Castalian community completes his formal schooling, he (and yes, it’s always “he”) becomes free to pursue any course of study that he desires to pursue. Only one requirement is imposed upon him: Each year he must write a Life.
A what? A Life — an autobiography, and yet not an autobiography. The scholar must write a narrative of his life as it would have been if he had been born in another time and place. Some of the Castalian scholars enter into this task with great verve, deciding, for instance, that a Life of oneself as a medieval Dominican requires a composition in scholastic Latin. Some of the scholars who wrote such lives were led, in the end, to a belief in reincarnation — surely they had indeed lived the Life they had just written. But these were in the minority. For most “it was an exercise, a game for the imaginative faculties.” […]
The question I want to ask is simply this: Is the writing of a Life a game that, in our current moment, can be played? Hesse described each imagined Life as an “entelechy,” that is, the realization of a potential — but perhaps that assumes something like the pre-existence of souls, an Identity that somehow exists before it is embodied in, realized in, a particular culture, a particular gender, a particular ethnicity. In other words, it may be that the very concept of writing a life presupposes a humanism, an idea of the human spirit that precedes any particular embedding. Can we, dare we, think this?
I think belief in the social construction of the self is like denial of free will: these are positions that a skilled disputant can make a strong case for, but they remain outside the scope of lived experience. As Cardinal Newman might say, I may give nominal assent to the claim that my very self is wholly constructed by my social environment or that my every thought and act is determined, but I cannot give real assent to either claim.
But if you try — well, then, you absolve yourself from multiple human responsibilities. If you hold your actions to be predetermined, then you will never repent, and if you never repent you will never amend your life. And if you believe that your identity is wholly socially constructed, then you are unlikely be curious about, much less empathetic towards, those whose lives are constructed otherwise than yours. Their story is not and cannot be your story.
Of course, that selves are wholly social constructed is not a universally held view. As I note in the essay, our society is at the moment very confused about such matters: in general, educated people tend to think that even if race is a social construct the effects of one’s race are fundamental and unchangeable, while sex is (or in theory ought to be) infinitely malleable, but there is disagreement on both points and almost no one knows why they believe what they believe. The writing of a Life would make for a fascinating exercise in testing the limits of a belief in social construction and of a belief in total self-fashioning. I think I might write one myself.
Relatedly, I think, this powerful meditation from my friend MBD:
If people have an unmet desire for recognition, they can call attention to themselves by calling attention to their suffering. The thoughtless words, innocently ignorant slights, and verbal miscues of bystanders are reframed as a pervasive tyranny of micro-aggressions and mini-oppressions fraught with political meaning. This is the external crucible out of which identities are formed.
But as with so much else, I can’t help but see that the existential longing to become what you were meant to be, to somehow turn the sufferings you have endured into a transformative and liberating moment, is fundamentally religious. The experience of becoming what you were meant to be can only be a delusion in a materialist existence. It is the longing to discover Providence at work in one’s life, which is also the desire to discover a purpose that is given to you as a gift, but which has meaning and intelligibility in an objective universe. You find freedom in your predestined purpose precisely because the universe seems to open up to you when you discover it, fresh with new meaning, and deeper joys.
Identity politics the way we have them are the result of men and women who have been baptized into Christian longings, but who have been given only the intellectual and political tools of Whigs and Marxists for dealing with them. If political tyranny issues forth, it will only be an external reflection of the interior tyranny of lost souls, who are trying to get water to gush forth from a stone, even as they disclaim belief in the miraculous.
Because of his influential analysis of fascism, his complex critique of capitalist social structure and culture, and his advocacy for political and individual freedom, Adorno seemed like a natural ally to the student movement. But, as historian Philip Bounds puts it, Adorno “rejected the idea that radical intellectuals had a duty to serve as cheerleaders for … revolutionary students.” When he refused to support what he called the students’ uncompromising “actionism” — Adorno’s word for the students’ nihilistic desire to act without need of justification — his own lectures and reputation became a target. He was shouted down, badgered, and defamed. In one incident, Adorno called the police to clear student occupiers of the Institute.
I have written about the inept history linking the Frankfurt School to contemporary social-justice movements, but not in the kind of compelling detail that Stern offers here.
When, in August 1860, John Ruskin published an essay in Cornhill Magazine – an essay that would later become the first chapter of his book Unto This Last — readers were appalled by his argument that all workmen in a given profession should be paid the same, no matter whether they do their work well or badly. When he published Unto This Last, he said “it is a matter of regret to me that the most startling of all statements in them, – that respecting the necessity of the organization of labour, with fixed wages, – should have found its way into the first essay; it being quite one of the least important, though by no means the least certain, of the positions to be defended.”
But this insistence on the insignificance of his “startling” statement is belied by the title that he chose for the book. “Unto this last” is a line uttered by Jesus in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which the owner of the vineyard pays the people the workers who arrive at the end of the day the same that he pays those who worked all day long. This is of course a parable of the Kingdom, because all of Jesus’s parables are: the simplest point is that those who arrive late in the narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world, e.g. the Gentiles who hear Jesus’s message as opposed to the Jews who have been a part of this covenant history for hundreds and hundreds of years, are welcome to the same reward of eternal life that the old-timers are. It is not, most interpreters agree, a story about the principles of political economy. But nothing could be more characteristic of Ruskin’s thought that his belief that it is a principle of political economy, indeed the key principle of political economy, which is why he titles his book as he does.
Right from the beginning of Unto This Last Ruskin insists upon one governing point: that in thinking of political economy it is impermissible to treat human beings as what we today might call rational actors, people who simply maximize their own economic well-being, even when that comes at the expense of others. Or especially when it comes at the expense of others.
Disputant after disputant vainly strives to show that the interests of the masters are, or are not, antagonistic to those of the men: none of the pleaders ever seeming to remember that it does not absolutely or always follow that the persons must he antagonistic because their interests are. If there is only a crust of bread in the house, and mother and children are starving, their interests are not the same. If the mother eats it, the children want it; if the children eat it, the mother must go hungry to her work. Yet it does not necessarily follow that there will be “antagonism” between them, that they will fight for the crust, and that the mother, being strongest, will get it, and eat it. Neither, in any other case, whatever the relations of the persons may be, can it be assumed for certain that, because their interests are diverse, they must necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.
For Ruskin, human beings are never purely economic (in our usual sense of that term) in their motives and actions, but are always actuated in considerable part by their affections. Another way to put this is to say that Ruskin thinks that political economy needs to take the gift economy into account as well as the market economy, and his bizarre (or apparently bizarre) plan for paying workers is a natural outgrowth of this emphasis.
More on all this in due course.
I’ve been re-reading the book of Acts, and my chief response this time is: It’s wonderfully encouraging to see how bluntly and unapologetically Luke records a chronicle of confusion, ineptitude, and misdirected enthusiasm. The apostles are often a collective mess, and Luke does nothing to hide that from us. I find this strangely consoling.
It’s also fascinating to note how little the apostles understand the message they been entrusted with. They know that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, and they know that the Christ’s own people rejected him and demanded his death – but beyond that they’re a little fuzzy about what the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus mean. The idea that what Jesus offers them (and all of us) is God’s limitless grace is rarely mentioned. It’s there, but only in tentative and vaguely articulated form.
The Reformation’s idea of returning to the apostolic church is therefore, I think, only partly right. We want their spirit – their enthusiasm, their boldness in proclamation, their trust in God, their loving care for one another – but we don’t want their ignorance. How to develop theological depth and complexity without acquiring an accompanying institutional structure that tends toward sclerosis, that makes the communal life of the church stiff and inflexible and disconnected from its natural missional energies – that is the ongoing problem that Christ’s church faces, just as much as the structurally similar problem of navigating between legalism and antinomianism.
We don’t navigate those complexities very well, and never have, in large part because of pride. Every time a new Christian movement arises in a place where there is a dominant form of church, that dominant form should be grateful to the dissenters, because the dissenters – who are not necessarily correct to dissent – nevertheless reveal to the dominant church the ways it has fallen short, the needs and desires it has failed to meet or address. (The flip side of this point is Auden’s contention that Kierkegaard should have been grateful to the Danish Lutheran Church for teaching him the very Bible in which he found the standards by which he condemned it.) Every dissent contains a lesson for those with ears to hear, for those whose ears are not closed by pride.
One more noteworthy point about this narrative: Again and again, in their disputes with the new Jesus sect, the leading rabbis try to get management to take their side, to the ongoing puzzlement and frustration of the Romans, who repeatedly ask, “How is this our business?” A Roman official even has one of the rabbis beaten to discourage him from further approaches, yet still the rabbis return and demand Roman intervention. And of course this is what Paul, another rabbi, does as well: King Agrippa even comments to the Roman procurator Festus that Paul could have been freed and set on his way if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar (which seems to have set some unstoppable legal machinery into motion).
The Jews had a lot of practice dealing with hostile or at least semi-hostile occupying powers; they had been doing it for hundreds of years – though if N. T. Wright is correct they developed a particular hatred of the Romans when Pompey entered and desecrated the Temple in 63 BC. (This hatred apparently intensified when no equivalent of Judas Maccabeus appeared to resist the oppressor.) That said, Simon Schama, in his Story of the Jews, notes that before Pompey had even entered Jerusalem several rival claimants for Jewish leadership visited him, serially, to enlist his support against the others. So hatred there may have been, but hatred doesn’t preclude calculation, intrigue, and trying to get management to take your side.
The kind of work I’m doing right now — my critical edition of Auden’s book The Shield of Achilles — is somewhat unusual, but some readers might be interested in the tools I’m using to get it done.
The first thing I did was to go to AbeBooks and order four copies of early editions of the book, two of the American edition (Random House) and two of the British (Faber). These need to be scrupulously compared for differences.
I selected one of them — the earliest, which means an American edition (the book came out here several months before it did in the U.K.) — and made it my working copy. Before annotating it, I took photos of every page of the book. Then I went through the book with a highlighter, marking every word or phrase that I believe will require annotation.
I grabbed a pencil and, on the pages and on sticky notes, made initial comments on ideas that need to go into my Introduction, calling attention to related passages.
Then I returned to the photos of the text. I opened the Photos app on my Mac, navigated to the photo of the first page, and typed the keyboard shortcut I use to invoke TextSniper. TextSniper is a fabulous app. When you invoke it you get an area-selection tool. Draw a rectangle around any text on your screen and TextSniper OCRs the text and copies it to your clipboard. There are other ways I could do this: for instance, I could scan the book into a PDF and then use an app like PDFpen to OCR the whole text. But that brings in a lot of extraneous material, for instance anything in the pages’ headers and footers. With TextSniper I get precisely the text I want — and it is the most accurate OCR tool I have ever used, by a long shot. So Photos to TextSniper to BBEdit — and very shortly I had a complete text of the book to work from.
Next: Markup — in Markdown. In this case basically headings and italics — pretty simple work that only took a few minutes. I went from a bunch of digital photos to a clean, accurate working text in little more than half an hour.
As soon as you start the work of textual editing you need to generate comments (about formatting, for instance) and queries for the eventual copy editor. And since Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of publishing, I therefore had to convert my Markdown file to Word. Most of the time I use pandoc for such conversions, but I find that Brett Terpstra’s Marked does a better job of preserving line breaks — and a book of poems has a lot of line breaks.
(So why not just paste the OCR’d text directly into Word, instead of using a text file as the intermediate stage? Because, as you surely know, structuring text in Word is a nightmare. You try to turn one line into a header and Word decides to make the next paragraph part of the header and change the typeface of the previous paragraph. And then you can’t figure out how to fix it. A plain-text file structured with Markdown is precise. My primary governing rule of writing and text-editing: Never open Word until you absolutely have to.)
Okay, so then I had my accurate, ready-to-be-annotated text in a Word file. Which left me with one final workflow problem to solve: adding the annotations, which in the published edition will appear at the end of the text. There are several ways to do this, involving split screens or external monitors or even second computers. But here’s what I did: I got out my little-used iPad and connected it to my MacBook Air with Sidecar. Now I can look at the Word file of the book’s text on the iPad and add annotations in BBEdit on the Mac. Baby, I got a stew going!
John Rose, on classes he teaches at Duke University:
To get students to stop self-censoring, a few agreed-on classroom principles are necessary. On the first day, I tell students that no one will be canceled, meaning no social or professional penalties for students resulting from things they say inside the class. If you believe in policing your fellow students, I say, you’re in the wrong room. I insist that good will should always be assumed, and that all opinions can be voiced, provided they are offered in the spirit of humility and charity. I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting. What students discover is that they are not alone in their misgivings. […]
On the last day of class this term, several of my students thanked their counterparts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom. Not only is it possible, it’s what students pine for.
Please read the whole essay. After doing so, you may be encouraged, as Rose himself is. But you also may be depressed, as I am, to reflect that what ought to be the baseline norm of all university classes should be so much of an outlier that for many of Rose’s students it’s a one-time-only exceptional experience.
Also, there’s a mystery here, an important one: Many professors say that they’re all about open dialogue and the free play of ideas, but students are really good at discerning whether or not that’s bullshit. Like card players, all of us who teach have tells, quirks of speech or facial expression that let students know what we really think as opposed to what we say we think. Obviously John was able to convince his students that his commitment to civil discourse is real. How a teacher does that is the mystery I’m talking about, but the one essential step is for you, dear professor, to ask yourself whether you actually believe in the free play of ideas. Because if you don’t, you’re definitely not going to be able to persuade your students that you do.
Late Tuesday night, just as the Red Sox were beginning a top-of-the-eleventh rally against the Rays, my smart TV decided to ask me a question of deep ontological import:
Are you still there?
To establish my thereness (and thus be permitted to continue watching the game), I would need to “interact with the remote,” my TV informed me. I would need to respond to its signal with a signal of my own. At first, as I spent a harried few seconds finding the remote and interacting with it, I was annoyed by the interruption. But I quickly came to see it as endearing. Not because of the TV’s solicitude — the solicitude of a machine is just a gentle form of extortion — but because of the TV’s cluelessness. Though I was sitting just ten feet away from the set, peering intently into its screen, my smart TV couldn’t tell that I was watching it. It didn’t know where I was or what I was doing or even if I existed at all. That’s so cute.
I had found a gap in the surveillance system, but I knew it would soon be plugged.
I’ve written on several earlier occasions — e.g. here — about the delightful creativity of the good people at Crossway Books, who in my view don’t get the widespread love they deserve, and don’t get it simply because they publish a translation of the Bible, the English Standard Version (ESV), that some bien-pensant Christians denounce as too conservative. And maybe some of the choices those translators made are too conservative, but only a handful of passages are in dispute, and almost no one would notice any of them without prompting. The ESV is a fine translation and I find myself using it often simply because Crossway has created so many imaginative ways to engage with the text.
Consider, as examples, the two books pictured above, which I just purchased. The one on the left is the full text of the Gospel of Luke, printed like this:
The text is on the left page, with the right page reserved for annotation and commentary (something there’s never room enough for in a regular Bible). Note also the excellent typography, another element of book-making in which Crossway sets a standard few other publishers meet. I am very eager to begin a serious read-through of Luke with pen in hand.
The other volume is the Greek text of the three letters of John:
In this case we don’t have whole pages devoted to annotation, but rather widely-spaced lines so readers can make interlinear comments, a format ideal for noting distinctive Greek words. This one too I will soon start using.
These are simply fabulous resources for people who want to read the Bible in a serious way — a market that Crossway almost alone seems to have noticed and cultivated.
Matt Feeney’s Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age is a fascinating and provocative book that, in my judgment anyway, cries out for a sequel.
Before I go any further I should say that I’ve known Matt for years – we used to be co-conspirators at The American Scene – and we’ve corresponded occasionally since then, though not recently.
If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. This is the burden of Yuval Levin’s recent book A Time to Build, and Yuval (also a friend) makes this argument about as well as it can be made. We do not flourish either as individuals or as a society when there is nothing to mediate between the atomized individual and the massive power of the modern nation-state. That’s why it’s always, though especially now, “a time to build” those mediating institutions that collectively are known as “civil society.”
The really brilliant thing about Matt’s book — written by someone who, like me, possesses a conservative disposition but might not be issued a card by the people who authorize “card-carrying conservatives” — is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs — indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs:
What happens, though, when citizens direct their suspicion not at a coercive government but at their peers, with whom they find or feel themselves, as parents and families, in competition? I join a chorus of scholars and writers in observing that such a competitive mood abides among parents today. Less noticed is how such competition creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families. In this environment, the intermediate bodies of civil society, cornerstone of the conservative theory of republican liberty, sometimes become demanding bosses, taskmasters, and gatekeepers in the enterprise of winning advantage for our children in a system of zero-sum competition.
As a result,
Under these conditions, the anxious and competitive citizen-parent looks to certain “voluntary associations,” certain institutions within “civil society,” not as bulwarks against coercive government but as ways to gain advantage over other families, exclusive paths to better futures. From boutique preschools to competitive sports clubs to selective colleges and universities, desirable institutions become bidding objects for future-worried and status-conscious families.
Thus, “the era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family.”
Matt is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such — there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community — but looks with a gimlet eye, a Foucauldian gimlet eye, on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain and disseminate their power over families.
He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls. He mentions a Vice Provost at Emory who laments the imperfection of his knowledge of the inner lives of applicants, and continues:
If you recall that, twenty or thirty years ago, admissions departments weren’t even mentioning authenticity, were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Vice Provost Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But, laughable as this and other admissions testimony is, on its merits, I would like to present a good reason not to laugh. Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do.
Yes, it is. And I am glad to hear someone say it so bluntly.
In his conclusion, Matt admits his reluctance to give advice to parents in such a coercive and panoptic environment, and that’s perfectly understandable. In any case, the primary function of the the primary purpose of the book is diagnostic: he wants to show us the specific ways in which these various mediating institutions co-opt families, and even in some cases make the families hosts to which they are the parasites. I don’t think that the book would have held together as well if it had tried to include parenting advice in the midst of everything else. But it is obvious that Matt has thought quite a lot about what it means to be a responsible parent in our time – he has a great riff on why he’s okay with the fact that his oldest daughter is the only person in her class who doesn’t have a smartphone – and I would really like to hear more from him about how he conceives of the positive responsibilities of being a parent, the dispositions and actions which strengthen that little platoon. I don’t think he needs to do this in a pop-psychology self-help way; Matt is by training a philosopher and I think philosophical reflection on this topic, so essential to human flourishing, would be welcome from him.
But the book provides a great service simply by teasing out the ways in which families are not served by but rather are made to serve these parasitic institutions — and the ways in which we are manipulated to do so ever more intensely by our felt need to compete with other families. As we are always told, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem.
Chekhov came up with the idea of the shotgun above the mantelpiece. If there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1 of your drama, someone had better be firing it by Act 2. By the same token if you have an abundance of attacking talent – dribblers, speed-merchants, velvet-touch princelings – at some point you really do need to encourage them to show it on the pitch.
For now Southgate seems to have rejected this dramatic rule in favour of something more diffuse. We appreciate and welcome guns as a basic principle. We have a wealth of promising guns in the pathway. We will, in due course, be reviewing their use as part of a wider process. Now. Shall we talk about right-backs for a bit?
Gareth Southgate indeed has “an abundance of attacking talent” at his disposal, and clearly considers this his cross to bear. What he wants is an entire team of Jordan Hendersons.
UPDATE AFTER THE MATCH: If Southgate hadn’t acted decisively to get his three most creative and dangerous players (Saka, Grealish, Sterling) off the pitch, England might have scored again. What a nightmare that would have been.
The players have mostly been very good, despite their manager’s desperate attempts to stifle them. I’m looking forward to the 8-1-1, with poor old Harry Kane lumbering along at the front of the line like one of the Walking Dead, that Southgate will deploy in the knockout round.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
— from “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
— from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry
A tiny pendant to the previous post: One of the ways I try to maintain the very possibility of thinking of this blog in gift-economy terms is by avoiding all analytics. I don’t know how many people read this blog — I’d guess that regular readers are probably in the high two figures — ; I don’t know which posts get more attention and which get less. (Not posting to Twitter helps here also.) My ignorance protects me from playing to the crowd. Since I crave attention as much as the next guy, preserving my ignorance is an important discipline for me.
I also want to write at some point about how this blog can even potentially participate in the gift economy only because I do other things that participate in the market economy.
Today Americans live under two constitutions: the political constitution and the corporate constitution. The political constitution is functioning reasonably well. The corporate constitution, by comparison, is a lawless realm of out-of-control tyranny.
The American political constitution’s system of checks and balances is not perfect, but it has been vindicated during the four tempestuous years of the Trump presidency. Donald Trump lost power in a free and fair election. Numerous courts and state officials and his own vice president have rejected his claims that the election was illegally stolen. He has now been impeached a second time, and his violent supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 are being arrested and those who committed crimes against persons and property will receive due process under the law.
But if our political constitution is that of a flawed but functioning democracy, the same cannot be said of our corporate constitution. In our corporate constitution, giant oligopolistic firms that are essential to commerce, communications, and finance operate in many cases without any regulations other than those which they themselves make.
History in general is easily manipulable, and can always be applied for the pursuit of present goals, whatever these may be. It has long seemed to me that one of the more noble uses of history is to help us convince ourselves of the contingency of our present categories and practices. And it is for this reason, principally, that I am not satisfied with seeing history-of-philosophy curricula and conferences “diversified” as if seventeenth-century Europe were itself subject to our current DEI directives.
One particularly undesirable consequence of such use of history for the present is that it invites and encourages your political opponents likewise to marshall it for their own present ends. And in this way history becomes just another forked node of presentist Discourse — the foreign and unassimilable lives of all of those who actually lived in 1619 or 1776 are covered over. But history, when done most rigorously and imaginatively, gives breath back to the dead, and honors them in their humanity, not least by acknowledging and respecting the things they cared about, rather than imposing our own fleeting cares on them. Eventually, moreover, a thorough and comprehensive survey of the many expressions of otherness of which human cultures are capable in turn enables us, to speak with Seamus Heaney in his elegant translation of Beowulf, to “assay the hoard”: that is, to take stock of the full range of the human, and to begin to discern the commonalities behind the differences.
Anyone who happens to know what my most recent book was about will not be surprised at how vigorously I nod my head at this.
I obviously write about a good many things, but over the last decade my work has been largely devoted to a single overarching theme: what we attend to and what we fail to attend to. This started with the work on my old Text Patterns blog that fed into my 2011 book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and since then I have pursued the various connected issues and problems down several paths. My set of Theses for Disputation, “Attending to Technology,” is my most explicit articulation of these concerns, but even when I didn’t seem to be thinking about these things I really was. Even my biography of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to understand the prayer book as an instrument for the focusing of the attention of wayward Christians on that to which they should primarily attend. As the BCP almost says, “We have attended to those things we should not have attended to, and we have not attended to those things which we should have attended to, and there is no health in us.” The relevance of these questions to How to Think will be obvious to anyone who has read it, but I could say the same about the two books that I published since then, The Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. In each case I am concerned with the forces in our culture that inhibit enriching attentiveness, that enforce enervating distraction, that direct our minds always towards the frivolous or the malicious. (This is of course why I despise Twitter so intensely.)
The Invitation and Repair project might be understood as circling within this orbit of thought, but it’s also an attempt to go beyond my earlier, more purely diagnostic, thinking and to begin to understand how to embed concrete practices of life in concrete institutional structures. My most recent essay in The New Atlantis is likewise an attempt to forge a new and more constructive direction for thinking about and addressing our culture-wide attentional dysfunction. I have been interested in Chinese thought — looking into each of the Three Ways but especially Taoism — because the Chinese intellectual/spiritual traditions have always striven to identify and defeat the enemies of proper attention. Even something like the I Ching, which is commonly thought of as a straightforward manual of divination, is always said by its most eloquent and insightful proponents to be — as I have said the Book of Common Prayer is — a device for directing the attention. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what to do so much as tell you what you should be thinking about as you try to decide what to do – what your primary coordinates for judgment should be.
I’ve been intrigued by Chinese thought about these matters not because I think the Christian tradition, which I hold as my own, is deficient, though in fact I do believe that the Western church hasn’t been, well, sufficiently attentive to attention. Rather, I’m just trying to surprise myself. China Achebe used to say that he could write well about the traditional ways of the Igbo people because, while he observed them closely, they weren’t his ways, not when he was growing up. His Christian-convert father forbade him to consort with pagans, which just made pagans more interesting to him. He watched them more closely, and learned a lot from them, precisely because they were a step or two away from his ordinary beliefs and practices.
And that’s the goal, right? — not to think about attention, which is like thinking about your flashlight instead of using it to find your way in the dark, but rather to see more clearly — and, ultimately, direct your mind and heart and spirit towards what can nourish you. Indeed that is the goal; gut sometimes you might be forced to notice that your flashlight is running out of batteries, or isn’t very strong even at its best, so maybe you should try a different one, or see if you have any fresh batteries?
Such meta-reflection is dangerous, though. I find myself recalling Carlyle’s famous comment about talking with Coleridge: “He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out.” People who talk and write about “productivity” and even “attention” are like that, in a more mundane way. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to achieve ever-more-precise diagnoses of our attentional disorders; I don’t want to continue looking at the light, I want to look along it to see what it illuminates.
1. The Christian Eriksen story, of course, continues to loom large. It was a beautiful moment when his Inter teammate, Belgium striker Romelo Lukaku, ran to the camera after scoring against Russia to proclaim, “Chris, Chris, I love you!” And equally lovely when Belgium played Eriksen’s Denmark in the next match and the Danish fans, in gratitude, started chanting Lukaku’s name.
2. Harry Kane desperately needs some rest, and the smart thing would be for Gareth Southgate to sit him down, but I am quite confident that Gareth Southgate will not do the smart thing. England would be better at this point with Calvert-Lewin as striker, Grealish behind him as the number 10, and Sancho on the right wing, with Kane, Sterling, and either Phillips or Rice having a seat. And yeah, I know that Sterling scored England’s only goal so far, but overall he hasn’t been great, and I believe a front three of Calvert-Lewin, Foden, and Sancho would be very dangerous. (In the first two games England’s front three had a total of three shots on target.)
3. At the very end of France-Hungary, Endre Botka rugby-tackled Kimpembe in the box — ineptly, after which he fell to the ground in double humiliation, faking injury — and VAR said there was no foul. I am as sure as I can be that that happened because the game was played in a stadium full of delirious Hungarians. And after a year of players’ and coaches’ shouts echoing off empty seats, I’m kinda okay with that. The good thing about human error is that it’s human.
4. The two Ringer FC podcasts — Stadio and Wrighty’s House — are my very favorite podcasts, on any topic, and there was an especially <chef’s kiss> moment in the most recent episode of Wrighty’s House, in which Ian Wright, Musa Okongwa, and Ryan Hunn were discussing the England-Scotland draw. Wrighty opined that, in Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, Scotland might have the best left side in world football. Sensing that the time had come for a Game of Thrones reference, Musa said “They’re the Iron Bank” — and then, to make it better, “the Iron Flank.” To which Ryan: “They’re the IRN-BRU Flank.” Too good.
5. Barney Ronay: “The Italian anthem repeats the line ‘We are ready to die’ four times in its second verse. At the Stadio Olimpico Chiellini sang it like it was something beautiful and impossibly tender.”
Dear reader, I’m sure you have a tough job, but reflect on this: You don’t have to try to decipher Auden’s handwriting.
You probably don’t expect to see an essay that links John Betjeman and Bo Burnham. I certainly didn’t expect to write one, but I did.
When I first came across Bo Burnham’s videos, several years ago now, I didn’t care for them at all. I thought he was childishly eager to pluck all the lowest-hanging comic-satirical fruit, and was all too eager to flatter the sensibilities of his audience. So I stopped paying attention to what he was doing. But people were praising his new Netflix special so extravagently that I had to check it out, if only so I could say how wrong everyone is.
Instead, I loved it. I think it is a tremendously successful and genuinely significant work of art. I keep thinking: I’m having this reaction to a Bo Burnham show?? And yeah, I am.
Gorey’s first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953, the year he moved to New York. He was working for Anchor Books, a new imprint of Doubleday, set up for the production of ‘quality literature … in mass-market paperback format’. Despite his own literary ambitions and the fact that he was trying and failing to write a novel, Gorey wasn’t employed on the editorial side but in the art department, where he worked variously as a cover artist and book designer. It was here that he hit on the form and order that [his former teacher John] Ciardi saw he needed. Having no training in typographic design, he found marking up layouts for the printer difficult. In an early example of what Dery calls his avant-retroism, Gorey decided that rather than look up all the fonts and calculate the point sizes it was ‘simply easier to hand-letter the whole thing’. The use of manual processes to imitate technical ones became an essential feature of his work. The delicate cross-hatching that gives his monochrome illustrations the velvety depth of 19th-century engravings was all done by hand with a crow quill dip pen. Having worked out his modus operandi, Gorey became ‘fast and competent’ at his job and used the rest of his time at the office to produce his own books.
Here’s an example, from a copy I bought at a used book store in, I think, 1976:
People get paid to do minute-by-minute reports on matches, but they’re never as good as the ones my son and I do. The “Yorkshire Pirlo” is Kalvin Phillips, who has been the man of this match (England-Croatia), so far anyway.
Auden used to say that he had a kind of guardian angel who was always there to tell him what to read next. I sometimes I think I have one too, though my angel is rather less consistently attentive than Auden’s was. But she has one habit I like: she tells me when not to read something. Yes, you’ll want to read that, she whispers, but wait. Wait a while. Not now, but later.
One book she told me to delay the reading of is Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough — but recently she gave me permission, and I eagerly, um, devoured it. What an absolutely delightful tale! I recommend it to you all, as soon as your reading angel — you have one, I trust — gives you the O.K.
One of the great things about Sourdough is that it’s an utterly charming story that opens up, at the end, towards a future that could be quite utopian … or, marginal chance, quite dystopian.