...

The Homebound Symphony

Stagger onward rejoicing

more on beauty

Ted Gioia:

Ortega y Gasset’s entire essay [on “The Dehumanization of Art”] is brilliant, and should be required reading in college humanities programs — it’s more relevant now than ever before…. But instead it’s almost never read. Instead, grad students are assigned Walter Benjamin’s essay from 1935 on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” — which embraced mass production as a “progressive” way to provide “visual and emotional enjoyment” in an “intimate” manner to millions of people. I have sympathy for Benjamin, but he was betrayed by the mass producers — much as we are getting betrayed by today’s tech overlords of creative ‘content’.

A great post by Mr. Gioia, and consistent with my recent comment that a Ruskinian account of contemporary culture must begin by attending to beauty. And we might begin that endeavor by considering Aphorism 19 from Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture: “All beauty is founded on the laws of natural forms.” 

starting over

Around a month ago, I mentioned that I had just read and really enjoyed Robin Sloan’s novel Moonbound. And that’s true! But what I didn’t say at the time is that I definitely didn’t get the most out of my reading experience, didn’t have full concentration as I read. And I know why. It was because of one page near the beginning of the galley I read, a page with three words on it: 

As I read, I kept looking back at that page, as though hoping that the words would dissolve and be replaced by the promised cartography. Because when I am reading a work of fiction there are few things I love more than a map

I think I would have missed the map even if I hadn’t been told that there would be one, but to know that a map was being made but I did not have it was agonizing. Thus my inconsistent attentiveness. 

But today, this very afternoon, my very own hardcover copy of the book arrived, and when I opened it up I saw this: 

Ah. Ah yes. I will now be re-reading Moonbound, and this time I’ll get the full and proper experience. 

the wanderers and the city

My earlier posts in this series (which began by reading Genesis but has since expanded) are: 

The Pentateuch concludes with the death of Moses and the arrival of the children of Israel at the doorstep of the Promised Land. As in the next books (Joshua and Judges) they consolidate their position, we’re moving, as I noted in an earlier post, from a world of nomadic pastoralists to a world of city dwellers — or, anyway, a world in which the embodiment of the Israelite identity is a city, Jerusalem, conceived first as the residence of the King and only later as the center of the cult of Yahweh. 

This change raises certain questions about the theology and ethics of building, especially building a city, and as it happens I wrote a series of posts about that some years ago on my old Text Patterns blog: 

The invocation of the Diaspora leads to a reflection on the city that in Scripture opposes Jerusalem: Babylon. Here are the entries in my Encyclopedia Babylonica:

I stopped writing then because I was confused about a number of things. But I am now seeing certain connections. The series on building (which focused on the Davidic era) and the series on Babylon (which focused on the era that ended the Davidic line) are, properly speaking, elements in a larger theology of the city, which I explored by writing about Augustine’s City of God

(There’s some overlap to these series because they were written independently of one another and sometimes in forgetfulness.) And I have many other posts and essays that seem to be on unrelated subjects but may not be. For instance, Ruskin — my admiration for whom I recently reaffirmed — begins The Stones of Venice by claiming that three cities associated with the mastery of the sea stand above all others: Tyre, Venice, and London. His theology of art and architecture is also a theology of the city, meant for Londoners, as the successors to the Venetians, to heed. There’s even a strange passage early in Stones in which Ruskin claims that all three of Noah’s sons founded cultures that contributed to the rise of architecture, thereby reconnecting the theme of the City to the book of Genesis.

Related: there is a long and powerful tradition of writing about London as the city, the paradigmatic or exemplary city, the city as a “condensed symbol,” to return to a theme from my last post: this is what Blake does repeatedly, and Dickens, and H. G. Wells, especially in Tono-Bungay. There are some powerful connections between Tono-Bungay and Little Dorrit that I want to explore in a future post. 

It’s strange that I have written a book’s worth of reflections on all this stuff. But what does this non-book say? Heck, what do I even mean by “all this stuff”? 

I think these concerns arose in my mind because (a) I was, and still am, frustrated by the ongoing dominance of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, a book that still establishes the categories for thinking about how Christians live in “the world”; and (b) I felt that a richer, deeper picture is offered, however obliquely, in the poetry and prose of W. H. Auden in the decade following the end of the Second World War. (It’s noteworthy, I think, that Auden’s work is contemporaneous with Niebuhr’s: that WW2 prompted full-scale reconsiderations of the ideal character of culture and society is what my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 is all about.) Auden, instead of writing about “culture,” writes about “the city,” and that reformulation strikes me as especially resonant and full of promise, especially given the prominence of the Jerusalem/Babylon opposition in the Bible. 

Now, Auden writes about these matters in The Shield of Achilles, which I have edited — but he writes about them more extensively in his previous book Nones, which I may also edit. Even if I don’t get the chance to make a critical edition of that collection, I’m going to be re-reading it, and maybe after I do I’ll have a better idea of how to put all these thoughts, which have obviously been occupying my mind for quite some time, into better order. 

But whether I should try to turn all this into an actual book? I have my doubts about that. For one thing, few if any publishers would be interested in publishing something that is largely available online for free. For another — and this actually may be more important — do all these thoughts really belong in a book, between covers, with a beginning an ending? Some projects ought not to be closed and completed; some projects ought to be ramifying and exploratory. I suspect this is one such project. I may have more to say about that in future posts. 

character

The book of Genesis features a large number of distinct and memorable characters: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Esau and Jacob, Joseph. Our attention is captured for the longest periods by Abraham and Jacob, but often we see them in relation to their children and other family members. They rarely occupy the stage alone. But the rest of the Pentateuch really only has one character: Moses. A few others hover around the margins, but they are mere sketches of persons. Only Moses is fully a character

After the Pentateuch, with Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, the narrative resumes its proliferation of personages — only to narrow its focus again with David. We stay with David for a very long time before the story pulls back out to describe the wide range of kings and prophets who follow him.  

So in the Hebrew Bible we see this regular alternation of (a) sweeping narrative that emphasizes ongoing familial or cultural patterns and (b) intensely focused stories that trace the development of individual lives. Sweep is the default, but you never know when the story will zoom in for an extended close-up. 

One way to think about this: Certain patterns of behavior — most of them involving waxing and waning devotion to YHWH and obedience to His commandments — characterize the children of Israel; but some people seem to embody these patterns in powerful, profoundly exemplary ways. You could say that someone like David is, to adapt a concept from the anthropologist Mary Douglas, a human condensed symbol. (Cf. p. 10: “For Christian examples of condensed symbols, consider the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist and the Chrisms. They condense an immensely wide range of reference summarized in a series of statements loosely articulated to one another.”) The complicated and inconstant history of Israel is condensed and made visible and comprehensible in a handful of key figures. This is how Abraham functions in Paul’s letters: a condensed symbol of faith in action. 

And I wonder if a character can only serve as this kind of symbol if he or she is complex, with hidden depths. Here I am thinking of Erich Auerbach’s famous contrast between the Homeric poems and the Hebrew Bible. The “basic impulse of the Homeric style” is

to represent phenomena in a fully extemalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations. Nor do psychological processes receive any other treatment: here too nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed. With the utmost fullness, with an orderliness which even passion does not disturb, Homer’s personages vent their inmost hearts in speech; what they do not say to others, they speak in their own minds, so that the reader is informed of it. 

By contrast, the narration of Genesis features 

the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and “fraught with background.” 

Perhaps only the character “fraught with background” can become a condensed symbol. 

the Pentateuch in brief outline

CDN media


  • Prologue to the whole: The Creation (Genesis 1) 
  • The history of humanity (Genesis 2–11) 
    • Making and naming 
    • Commanding and disobeying
  • Zooming in: Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12–36) 
    • Hospitable and inhospitable 
      • Abraham and the three visitors 
      • Lot in Sodom 
      • Abimelech
      • Dinah and the family of Hamor   
    • Barrenness and fertility
      • Sarai/Sarah
      • Rebekah
      • Rachel
    • Elder and younger 
      • Ishmael and Isaac 
      • Esau and Jacob 
      • The children of Leah and the sons of Rachel 
  • The children of Israel in Egypt (Genesis 37-Exodus 12) 
    • Beneficiaries: Genesis 37–50 
    • Slaves: Exodus 1–12 
  • The children of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 13-Deuteronomy 34)
    • Wandering begun (Exodus 13–18) 
    • Ascent to Sinai (Exodus 19-Leviticus 27)
    • Response to Sinai (Numbers 1–8) 
      • Ordering
      • Cleansing
      • Dedicating 
      • Remembering 
    • Wandering resumed (Numbers 9-Deuteronomy 33)
    • Ascent to Nebo/Pisgah (Deuteronomy 34) 

This kind of thing can seem reductive, and if you rely on it overmuch it certainly will be, but note how it calls attention to the relentless patterning of the narrative. As Robert Alter has pointed out, the long-time obsession with sources among scholars of the Hebrew Bible — their slightly mad-eyed teasing out of the contributions of their posited authors J, E, D, and P — led them to the assumption that “the redactors were in the grip of a kind of manic tribal compulsion, driven again and again to include units of traditional material … for reasons they themselves could not have explained.” Yet if that were true, why does an outline of the Pentateuch look so orderly — indeed, almost excessively so? 

Gabriel Josipovici has argued in his wonderful and lamentably neglected The Book of God that “the inventors of the documentary hypothesis” — the leading biblical scholars of a century to a century-and-a-half ago — 

believed that by trying to distinguish the various strands they were getting closer to the truth, which, in good nineteenth-century fashion, they assumed to be connected with origins. But in practice the contrary seems to have taken place. For their methodology was necessarily self-fulfilling: deciding in advance what the Jahwist or the Deuteronomist should have written, they then called whatever did not fit this view an interpolation. But this leads, as all good readers know, to the death of reading; for a book will never draw me out of myself if I only accept as belonging to it what I have already decreed should be there. 

What my little outline shows is what anyone can see if they read the text — that however many authors and redactors worked on the Pentateuch, it’s anything but a chaotic assemblage of contradictory traditions; rather, it is almost obsessively built upon readily identifiable patterns, patterns that work like musical themes or Wagnerian leitmotifs

I’ll conclude with a more general point. You should not be able to get a doctorate in the humanities without having this declaration tattooed on the back of your hand: “A book will never draw me out of myself if I only accept as belonging to it what I have already decreed should be there.

excerpt from my journal

I want to write a post about why my “Cosmotechnics” essay ended up being a dead end for me. Though I need to think harder about just why I believe that’s the case. I was looking for a way to think about technology that did not involve critique or enthusiasm but rather a kind of ironic detachment. But having made that point I think I exhausted the relevance of Daoism to me. Daoism could teach me ironic detachment from Technopoly but it could not teach me how to get from such detachment to the love of God and my neighbor. 

N. B. I’m posting this excerpt instead of writing that post. 

automating bullshit jobs

Me, a year ago:

Of course universities are going to outsource commentary on essays to AI — just as students will outsource the writing of essays to AI. And maybe that’s a good thing! Let the AI do the bullshit work and we students and teachers can get about the business of learning. It’ll be like that moment in The Wrong Trousers when Wallace ties Gromit’s leash to the Technotrousers, to automate Gromit’s daily walk. Gromit merely removes his collar and leash, attaches them to a toy dog on a wheeled cart, and plays in the playground while the Technotrousers march about. 

And lo, this from Cameron Blevins (via Jason Heppler): 

There is no question that a Custom GPT can “automate the boring” when it comes to grading. It takes me about 15-20 minutes to grade one student essay (leaving comments in the margins, assigning rubric scores, and writing a two-paragraph summary of my feedback). Using a Custom GPT could cut this down to 2-3 minutes per essay (stripping out identifying information, double-checking its output, etc.). With 20 students in a class, that would save me something like 5-6 hours of tedious work. Multiply this across several assignments per semester, and it quickly adds up.

In an ideal world, this kind of tool would free up teachers to spend their time on more meaningful pedagogical work. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, I worry that widespread adoption would only accelerate the devaluing of academic labor. Administrators could easily use it as justification to hire fewer instructors while loading up existing ones with more classes, larger sections, and fewer teaching assistants. 

Alas, I must agree. “Now that we’ve automated grading, we can hire fewer instructors and give them more students!” But then (thinks the same administrator) “Why not train bots on all those lectures posted on YouTube, create professorial avatars — maybe allow students to customize their virtual professors to make them the preferred gender and the desired degree of hotness — and dismiss the instructors also? That’ll free up money to hire more administrators.”  

That will surely be the deanly response. But there’s another way to think of all this, one I suggested in my post of last year. Think about the sales people who use chatbots to write letters to prospective clients, or prepare reports for their bosses. People instinctively turn to the chatbots when they see a way to escape bullshit jobs, or the bullshitty elements of jobs that have some more human aspects as well. For most students, writing papers is a bullshit job; for most professors, grading papers is a bullshit job. (Graeber, p. 10: “I define a bullshit job as one that the worker considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious — but I also suggest that the worker is correct.”) 

What if we all just admitted that and deleted the bullshit? What if we used the advent of chatbots as an opportunity to rethink the purposes of higher education and the means by which we might pursue those purposes? 

But I suspect is that what universities will do instead is to keep the bullshit and get rid of the humans. 

Genesis: the country and the city

Raymond Williams, in his great The Country and the City, shows how ancient this contrast is, and how standardized its terms are. The contrast is almost always between (a) the innocence and simplicity of the countryside and (b) the noisy corruption of the city. Juvenal begins his third Satire thus: Quid Romae faciam? mentiri nescio — What will I do in Rome? I don’t know how to lie. 

In Genesis, it is Cain, the first murderer, who builds the first city (Chapter 4). Surely the building of the Super-Tall Tower is a classic urbanist project (Chapter 11). In the patriarchal narrative, to visit a city is to expose yourself to sexual temptation (Chapter 39) or assault (Chapter 19). The definitive urban societies of the Hebrew Bible are Egypt and Babylon, morally chaotic places that allure, ensnare, and enslave. (See my earlier Encyclopedia Babylonica, in which I also point out how Rome becomes the New Babylon.) 

But I think the City in the Pentateuch is most fundamentally an image not of corruption but of human self-reliance.

In Chapter 15 of The Country and the City, Raymond Williams says of Dickens’s London that “its miscellaneity, its crowded variety, its randomness movement, were the most apparent things about it, especially whe seen from inside.” But “this miscellaneity and randomness in the end embodied a system: a negative system of indifference; a positive system of differentiation, in law, power and financial control.” The “miscellaneity” is the means by which people are removed from their familial context and made vulnerable to the depredations of the System. The rulers of a city, aided and abetted by most of the residents, build a controlling system that seeks to eliminate uncertainty, to bring everything under human control. 

(It’s not really appropriate here, but at some point I’d like to write about Dickens’s Dombey and Son, which concerns the desperate struggle of those Londoners who have no means of escape from the city to avoid being dehumanized by its incitements to pride, its scorn of all human dependency on one another. The City wants us to depend, not on human kindness and compassion, but on its own financial and social System — and to call that enslavement “freedom.” Williams’s introduction to the Penguin edition of Dombey and Son, borrowed in part from The Country and the City, is one of the best critical essays I have ever read, and it touches on just these themes, and others of great import.) 

By contrast, the pastoral life — the life of those who herd animals and live in tents — is continually aware of its own fragility. The standard-issue pastoralist can but placate the gods and seek their aid, which may or may not come. The children of Israel place their trust wholly in the LORD. They live by faith; that is to say, they entrust their lives and goods to the promises of the LORD. 

I’m looking well ahead, but … is it not significant that when the Israelites finally have a home, when the LORD brings them out of their Egyptian enslavement and their subsequent years of wandering are finally over, they want to build a city and be ruled over by a King? That is: finally to be able to trust in themselves and their own powers of self-protection and self-governance?

It’s impossible to deny the central place of Jerusalem in the Biblical story: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” But is not the connection between the city and human “cunning” somewhat problematic? (The right hand is cunning, that is to say, dexterous, capable of manipulation and control.) I understand of course the eschatological hope of the New Jerusalem, that ecstatic vision of the concluding chapters of the book of Revelation, but I can’t help reflecting on the odd fact that from the perspective of the Pentateuch, settlement in a city looks like a catastrophic error and a failure of trust in the LORD. 

Genesis: fertility

If the defining axes of Genesis 1–11 were making/naming and commanding/disobeying, those of the Patriarchal narratives are fertility/barrenness and pastoral/urban.

Over and over again the LORD promises fertility to the barren, and to the childless a multitude of descendants. The primary sign of the LORD’s covenant with the children of Abraham is circumcision, the marking of the organ of generation. But the women these circumcised men fall in love with are all beautiful but barren — barren for a long time anyway. Sarah is, famously, ninety when Isaac is born, but it’s not often noticed that Rebekah is childless for twenty years before giving birth to Esau and Jacob. (We’re not told how old Rachel was when she finally gave birth to Joseph, but internal evidence suggests that she was in her late thirties.) The line of descent of the covenant promise is perilously thin at first but then grows thicker: first one son, Isaac; then two, Esau and Jacob, though in effect only one, because Esau sells his birthright to his younger brother; then a dozen; and from that dozen, the Twelve Tribes in their multitudes.

But though this line of descent is the key one in the story that is to follow, it’s not the only one that matters. Re-reading the story this time, I was especially drawn to Chapter 21, and struck by the LORD’s great compassion for Abraham’s other family (as it were). Because Sarah was barren for so long after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, and because Ishmael is by one reckoning Abraham’s eldest son, she despises both of them and will not even call Hagar by name, instead referring to her contemptuously as “this slavegirl.” (This will be repeated in the next generation when Rebekah will only refer to Esau’s wives Judith and Basemath as “the Hittite women.”) When she demands that Hagar be cast out of the household and into the wilderness, “the thing seemed evil in Abraham’s eyes,” but

God said to Abraham, “Let it not seem evil in your eyes on account of the lad and on account of your slavegirl. Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice, for through Isaac shall your seed be acclaimed. But the slavegirl’s son, too, I will make a nation, for he is your seed.”

And when Hagar and Ishmael run out of water in the wilderness, and she sets the child aside and goes to sit “at a distance, a bowshot away” so she will not have to hear his dying cries, the LORD speaks to her (“What troubles you, Hagar?”) and consoles her with a mighty promise: “Rise, lift up the lad / and hold him by the hand, / for a great nation will I make him.”

What’s fascinating about this story is how closely it mirrors the much more famous story from the next chapter, the binding of Isaac. In that second story “Abraham rose early in the morning” to take Isaac to his death; in this one “Abraham rose early in the morning” to send his son Ismael into the wilderness where he is likely to perish. In each story there is a moment of hopelessness, when death for “the lad” seems inevitable. In each story that hopelessness is banished by a sudden providence: a ram appears to take Isaac’s place, and a hitherto unseen well of water appears to rescue Ishmael and his mother. Each “lad” survives, and thrives, and inherits his promise.

In Chapter 16, which recounts the birth of Ishmael, the Lord’s messenger appears to Hagar and says,

“Look, you have conceived and will bear a son
and you will call his name Ishmael,
    for the LORD has heeded your suffering.
And he will be a wild ass of a man —
his hand against all, the hand of all against him,
    he will encamp in despite of all his kin.”

(The ambiguity of this blessing is echoed in Chapter 27. There Esau, having had the blessing meant for him pre-empted by the deceitful Jacob, pleads for some blessing at least, and all his aged father Isaac can manage to say is “By your sword you shall live and your brother shall you serve. And when you rebel you shall break off his yoke from your neck.” These “blessings” are really prophecies of lives of struggle and conflict.)

The name Ishmael means “God has heard” — God has heard Hagar’s pleas even when Sarah would not. God does not forget her, nor her son, though he warns her that his way will be hard, and his kin will not accept him. This conflict between the children of two divine promises will continue throughout the history of the Ishmaelites, the ancestors of those whom today we call Arabs. But the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael have one father. In Genesis 25 we are told that at his death “Abraham gave everything to Isaac” — one cannot doubt that Sarah and her child are essential to him in ways that Hagar and her child are not — but we are also told that

Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Machpelah cave in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite which faces Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites, there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.

And what follows this burial is an account of the lineage of Isaac — and that of Ishmael. Both lineages matter because Isaac and Ishmael, and later the Israelites and Ishmaelites, are alike the children of Abraham. Whether they realize it or not, whether they accept it or not, they are bound together forever by this common lineage. 

Genesis: orientation

The story begins with creation, and creation is largely a matter of dividing: dividing the region of order from the region of chaos (tohu wabohu), then light from darkness, then the waters above from the waters below, then the waters below from the dry land, then “the lights in the vault of the heavens to divide the day from the night,” then the system of division that we call time (“the fixed times and … days and years”).

Once this creation (bara’) is complete, nothing like it ever happens again. The Lord himself does not create any more, but rather engages in yatsar – making or fashioning or fabricating, that is, working from pre-existing materials. He is now no longer a Creator but a Craftsman. He “fashions” a man from the dust of the earth, and then a woman from the rib of the man. (“The LORD God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman.”) He also names what he has fashioned.

After fashioning and naming, he gives commands, which are disobeyed – and with that we have the elemental axes of the first eleven books of Genesis:

  • making/naming
  • commanding/disobeying

Almost everything that happens until the appearance of Abram can be understood in these terms. When Eve gives birth to her first son, she declares “I have got me a man with the LORD,” and Robert Alter (whose translation I am using here) points out that the verb “got” can connote “make” – like God himself, Eve may be saying, I have made a man. Cain’s name means “smith,” and so the third human being becomes the first technologist: the builder of a city (4:17) whose descendants include “the first of tent dwellers with livestock,” “the first of all who play on the lyre and pipe,” and one “who forged every tool of copper and iron”: the pastoralist, the artist, the metalworker, all people dependent on technology, though very different technologies. Makers and doers.

It is perhaps significant that this first technologist and first urbanist is also a disobeyer, indeed a murderer. (Did he use a tool to murder his brother, I wonder?) Later, in Chapter 11, when we see the massive coordinated effort to build a great Tower that reaches up to Heaven, we see perhaps the inevitable tendency of technological urbanism, as Garrison Keillor suggested many years ago in a piece on the Tower Project:

In answer to concern voiced by personnel about the future of the Super-Tall Tower project, the Company assures them that everything is fine. Also, all questions raised by Tower Critics have been taken care of: 1) While it’s true that money is needed for cancer & poverty, it will create 100,000 new jobs. 2) We’ll be able to see more from it than from any other tower. 3) With the Communist nations well along with the development of their tower, national prestige is at stake, & our confidence to meet the challenges of the future. 4) In answer to environmentalist groups, there is no viable data on which to base the whole concept of the “unbearable” hum of the elevator; anyway it would provide a warning to migrating birds. The problem of its long shadow angering the sun can be taken care of with certain sacrifices.

Re: building and making, we may – employing the strategy of division and distinction that characterized the Creation – say that the kinds are:

  • What the LORD himself makes
  • What He commands people to make (the Ark being the first example; there will be others)
  • What he allows people to make (e.g. clothing woven from fig leaves to cover their nakedness)
  • What he punishes people after the fact for making (e.g. a Super-Tall Tower)
  • What he pre-emptively forbids people to make – e.g. a graven image to worship – after which he punishes them for making it anyway

In any case, these are the great themes, as I see them, of the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

I might add one more theme (one which appears in Chapter 10), a development that will fundamentally shape the Patriarchal narratives: the rise of a diversity of human cultures, including the Sea Peoples, the Babylonians, the Ninevites, Sodom and Gomorrah (the “cities of the plain”), etc. This diversity is counterbalanced by the fact that there was on the earth only one language (11.1). When that changes, then diversity forever after exceeds commonality. And thus confusion and mistrust grow.

Genesis

I was disappointed by Marilynne Robinson’s Reading Genesis, though that may have less to do with the quality of Robinson’s book than with my way of thinking about the Bible. Robinson proceeds by a kind of Lockean association of ideas: on one (typical) page a thought about Joseph and his brothers reminds her Adam and Eve, who remind her of Jacob and Esau, who remind her of Hagar, who leads her back to Adam and Eve … the connections are of course perfectly legitimate, but to treat the text in this leaping sort of way causes me to lose sight of the actual linear development of the narrative. My buddy Austin Kleon has taught me in these circumstances not to take out my frustrations on the book but to say with a gentle shrug, “It wasn’t for me.” 

So I thought I should take this as a Divine Hint: I decided to go back and, for the first time in many years, read Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch. I am not sure I have ever read it cover-to-cover. I see that I have a good many notes inscribed in my copy … notes I don’t remember making; and almost all of these are from his introductions to the books. So perhaps I have never read the actual translation, and I certainly haven’t done so from beginning to end.  

Anyway: I’m going to read Alter’s Pentateuch — just that: no commentaries, no scholarly treatises — and I’m going to blog about reading it. Intermittently, maybe. But if you’re interested, stay tuned. 

clichés, yes or no

Amanda Montell:

Since the moment I learned about the concept of the “thought-terminating cliche” I’ve been seeing them everywhere I look: in televised political debates, in flouncily stencilled motivational posters, in the hashtag wisdom that clogs my social media feeds. Coined in 1961 by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, the phrase describes a catchy platitude aimed at shutting down or bypassing independent thinking and questioning. I first heard about the tactic while researching a book about the language of cult leaders, but these sayings also pervade our everyday conversations: expressions such as “It is what it is”, “Boys will be boys”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “Don’t overthink it” are familiar examples.

From populist politicians to holistic wellness influencers, anyone interested in power is able to weaponise thought-terminating cliches to dismiss followers’ dissent or rationalise flawed arguments. 

This seems exactly right to me. But perhaps it’s worth noting here that two years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education, of all journals, published an essay by Julie Stone Peters, a Professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, arguing that thought-terminating clichés are super-cool because they are politically effective and because students aren’t smart enough to do any better. No, seriously:

Not all of our students will be original thinkers, nor should they all be. A world of original thinkers, all thinking wholly inimitable thoughts, could never get anything done. For that we need unoriginal thinkers, hordes of them, cloning ideas by the score and broadcasting them to every corner of our virtual world. What better device for idea-cloning than the cliché? 

Note here a doozy of a false dichotomy: either applaud clichés or have a world of people with “whole inimitable thoughts.” Sure, Peters concedes, sometimes academic clichés “may go rogue” and “might explode on you.” But that’s the chance she is willing to take. The alternative — expecting students to think and trying to help them do that better — is so much more unpleasant. I have to give Peters credit for being willing to say the quiet part out loud, because this really is how a lot of professors think. 

This might be a good time to remind y’all that, as William Deresiewicz writes, some interesting groups of people are abandoning universities not because they disdain the humanities and the liberal arts, but because they love them. 

Odd Man Out

Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out is a brilliant movie about … well, that’s the question. Some people say it’s a movie about the IRA, but that’s certainly wrong, and not because the name of the organization and the name of the city in which the action is set are never mentioned. This is obviously Belfast, and the organization whose members at the outset plan a heist is obviously the IRA. But within the world of the movie doesn’t matter what cause Johnny McQueen (James Mason) serves — it never matters, to the writer or director or characters or audience. 

So what is it about? I think the movie explores how people try to understand the kind of story they’re in. And Reed wants to sow confusion on that score.

The movie’s look is pure noir — and as beautifully photographed a noir as you’ll ever see, by Robert Trasker, whose work here is even better than in The Third Man, which is saying a lot — and the plot seems for quite a while to come straight out of the desperate-manhunt playbook. But for the kids on the sidewalk who pretend to be Johnny McQueen, it’s a heroic-rebel-against-the-Man story. For some of the ordinary people drawn into the event, it’s a why-can’t-I-just-live-in-peace story. For the painter Lukey (Robert Newton) it’s a great-suffering-makes-great art story. For Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), it’s a star-crossed-lovers story. For the scavenger Shell (F. J. McCormick), it’s an opportunity-knocks-and-I-answer story. And so on down the line. 

Everyone projects their own sense of the story onto Johnny, because after the first few minutes of the movie Johnny doesn’t act; he is acted upon. Wounded, sometimes unconscious, often delirious, he becomes a kind of package passed from person to person, a problem to be solved — a mirror into which people look and learn something about themselves. Whose side are they on? — a question to be asked with the understanding that in this fractured world there are always many sides.

Meanwhile, in his moments of mental clarity, Johnny tries to understand what his story is to him. And he ends in a very different place from the one in which he begins, even if the seeds of his ending are already planted by the time we first see him. 

Odd Man Out

Ruskin revisited

What follows is a kind of sequel to the introduction to Ruskin I published several years ago.

Ruskin begins The Stones of Venice by identifying what he believes to have been the essential characteristics of Venetian society in its heyday – which is to say, the twelfth century through the fourteenth:

The most curious phenomenon in all Venetian history is the vitality of religion in private life, and its deadness in public policy. Amidst the enthusiasm, chivalry, or fanaticism of the other states of Europe, Venice stands, from first to last, like a masked statue; her coldness impenetrable, her exertion only aroused by the touch of a secret spring. That spring was her commercial interest, — this the one motive of all her important political acts, or enduring national animosities. She could forgive insults to her honor, but never rivalship in her commerce; she calculated the glory of her conquests by their value, and estimated their justice by their facility.

Yet even as they calculated in this crassly financial way,

The habit of assigning to religion a direct influence over all his own actions, and all the affairs of his own daily life, is remarkable in every great Venetian during the times of the prosperity of the state; nor are instances wanting in which the private feeling of the citizens reaches the sphere of their policy, and even becomes the guide of its course where the scales of expediency are doubtfully balanced.

Ruskin goes on to say (somewhat wryly, I think) that this influence of private piety on public policy only happened when the leaders of Venice were rushed — whenever they had time to think they would suppress piety in favor of commercial self-interest.

Nevertheless, the piety of the great Venetians — and Ruskin believes it was sincere, that these men were not hypocrites but rather inconstant and/or skilled in compartmentalizing (as who among us is not?) — seemed to have the power to shape the city’s spirit and to sustain its prosperity, because “the decline of her political prosperity was exactly coincident with that of domestic and individual religion.” When that religion waned, so too did Venice’s political and commercial influence. Ruskin explains that precise correspondence between private piety and public success thus:

We find, on the one hand, a deep and constant tone of individual religion characterising the lives of the citizens of Venice in her greatness; we find this spirit influencing them in all the familiar and immediate concerns of life, giving a peculiar dignity to the conduct even of their commercial transactions, and confessed by them with a simplicity of faith that may well put to shame the hesitation with which a man of the world at present admits (even if it be so in reality) that religious feeling has any influence over the minor branches of his conduct. And we find as the natural consequence of all this, a healthy serenity of mind and energy of will expressed in all their actions, and a habit of heroism which never fails them, even when the immediate motive of action ceases to be praiseworthy. With the fulness of this spirit the prosperity of the state is exactly correspondent, and with its failure her decline, and that with a closeness and precision which it will be one of the collateral objects of the following essay to demonstrate from such accidental evidence as the field of its inquiry presents.

And he pauses at this point in his exposition to suggest that this history might have some relevance to British subjects who have ears to hear. The idea that London is the New Venice is a muted but constant refrain in The Stones of Venice.

This account of politics and religion in Venice is quite interesting, but the thing that makes Ruskin Ruskin is where his thought now takes him: “I would next endeavor to give the reader some idea of the manner in which the testimony of Art bears upon these questions, and of the aspect which the arts themselves assume when they are regarded in their true connexion with the history of the state.” And this is what the rest of The Stones of Venice, all three big volumes of it, does: to explain how the art of Venice — its painting, its architecture, its ornaments and designs in every medium — reveals the rise, the health, the majesty, the decline, and the humiliation of the city of Venice. Which is, I think it’s fair to say, an astonishing project. 

File:The Casa d Oro Venice Ruskin.jpg

The question I keep asking myself — that I’ve been asking myself for years — is: How can I think in a genuinely Ruskinian way about our own time and place? What would that look like? What would be the … I dunno, the ingredients I guess? The only thing I know for sure — and this goes back to the last sentence of my earlier Ruskin essay — is that we must begin by attending to beauty, and to the absence of it, in our public life. But that’s an abstract answer to a question that demands specificity.

Journeys

CleanShot 2024-05-17 at 09.33.42@2x.

Early in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece A Hidden Life (2019), Franz Jägerstätter and his wife Franziska (Fani) sit at the kitchen table in their Austrian farmhouse and reminisce about their first meeting. Fani thinks back to Franz’s arrival in the village, and as she does we cut to a shot, seen from behind and slightly above, of Franz on his motorcycle riding on a dirt path that weaves through the fields. The shot lasts five seconds. 

Two-and-a-half hours of screen time later, as the story draws to its agonizing end, Franz sits in on a bench in the courtyard of a prison, awaiting his call into the room of execution. We see a closeup of his grieving face; his eyes fill with tears; his jaw works almost imperceptibly. And then: we suddenly return to Franz on his motorcycle, riding towards the village. Quietly celestial music shimmers. Through the fields he goes and goes; trees rise up alongside the road to obscure the sun. The motorcycle continues its silent voyage, to a beginning or an ending. This time, the shot lasts a full forty seconds. 

The moment is, for this viewer anyway and for several other people I have talked to, deeply moving — but indescribably so. I have hinted at what it calls to my mind by saying that what had been, at the outset, a voyage to a new beginning becomes a voyage to an ending — but I also must say that for the faithful Christian death is to be understood as a new beginning also, one as definitive as our birth. I find myself thinking about the journey home, the nostos, about those paths we must take alone, about Eliot’s “In my end is my beginning,” about anticipation, about how this delaying of the inevitable feels not like a tease but an offer of grace, an opportunity to take a breath and process what is about to happen. A thousand resonant things, really, go through my mind. 

I can describe all these sequentially, and I suppose that’s not a wholly worthless thing to do, but I do not have any words to capture what it feels like to sit in the movie theater and watch those forty seconds of a man on a motorcycle riding through mountain meadows. The simultaneity of it all, the instantaneous and complex interactions of mind and heart and sensorium. 

And this is the problem I am confronting as I try to write about Malick’s movies: Everything I write seems, to me anyway, to diminish those great works of art. Perhaps I should feel this way when I write about music or fiction or poetry, but I don’t. I don’t even feel this way when I write about other movies. But every sentence I write about Malick seems false to me. I keep wanting to say, Forget all this crap I’m writing, just go see the damned movie! 

a petty resentment

My paternal grandfather, Elisha Creel Jacobs, was for many years an engineer on the Frisco railroad. His standard route ran from our city, Birmingham, to Memphis and Kansas City — and then back home. Our house was about a mile from the big freight yard on the west side of Birmingham, so that commute was easy, but things got a little more complicated when he took the route that ran between Amory, Mississippi and Pensacola, Florida. Grandma needed the car while he was away, so she would drive him to Amory (or pick him up there at the end of a run) and I would go along for the ride. That was also an opportunity for us to visit his sister Lillie, who lived in Amory. She was a very sweet old lady who lived in an ancient rambling tree-shadowed house that smelled like her. I liked Aunt Lillie and her house. 

When I was around ten, Gran was forced to retire after a horrifying accident: he had a stroke while driving to work and smashed up his car and his body, both beyond repair. Soon thereafter he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and I tried my best to help Grandma care for him. He was always very loving towards me, and as he lay dying, was oddly insistent that I be given the beautiful pocket watch he had received from the railroad on his retirement. I desperately wanted that watch, but my mother said that she’d keep it safe and give it to me when I got older. 

Some years later, when my father got out of prison, he wanted to get drunk but had no money. So he fished out that watch, pawned it, and used the proceeds to go on a bender. Afterwards he couldn’t have redeemed it, even if he had had the money, because he didn’t remember where he had pawned it. And of all the bad things my father did to me, to all of us, many of them objectively worse than his stealing and pawning that watch, that’s the one I have had the hardest time forgiving him for. 

editing

A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to re-read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, which I hadn’t read since high school. I picked it up and saw the first sentence: “From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist.”

He means “At the outset.” “At the outset” represents a single point in time, while “from the outset” refers to an ongoing sequence of events. If you say “At the outset of our trip the weather was miserable” you say something only about that moment. Maybe later on the weather got better, and indeed that’s what the phrase suggests. But if you say “From the outset of our trip the weather was miserable,” you’re indicating that the weather started bad and stayed that way. Mailer is using an ongoing-sequence phrase to refer to a point-in-time experience. 

So Mailer has messed up the first sentence, indeed the very first word, of his book.

One page later:

On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. That was not characteristic of Mailer.

So this phone rang on one morning of a day? What happened on the other mornings of that day, I wonder. Also: Hi, I’m Norman Mailer, and my own principle is war games and random play. – What the hell does that mean? I don’t even know if I could turn these sentences into comprehensible and coherent English, but here’s my best effort:

One morning in early September 1967, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, the phone rang and Norman Mailer picked it up. That was uncharacteristic, but on principle Mailer sought out random events and war games.

That’s better, but still doesn’t make much sense. For one thing, if Mailer really did, on “principle,” seek out random events and war games, then wouldn’t he regularly pick up the phone when it rang, in those days when you couldn’t tell who was calling? Wouldn’t picking up the phone in fact be characteristic of him? 

After a few more pages of this, I put the book down. But I left my mark in it, a mark I’ve been using for several years to annotate books: EP. EP is short for “editor, please.”

There are four levels of editing:

  1. Structural
  2. Stylistic
  3. Mechanical (grammar/syntax/spelling)
  4. Factual

That first sentence of The Armies of the Night needed mechanical editing; the second stylistic editing. (Whether it received any structural editing I can’t say, though I suspect that at this stage in his career Mailer wouldn’t have allowed that — hell, he might have considered himself above any kind of editing.) In book publishing, the mechanical editing and at least some of the stylistic editing is usually done by a person called the copy editor – perhaps an employee of the publisher but more often, in my experience, a freelance. The person called simply the editor will rarely comment on mechanical matters, and may or may not get into the weeds of style, but will certainly have things to say about structure: how the book is organized, whether some matters deserve more or less treatment than you’ve given them, whether a given passage needs to be excised, etc. The great Robert Gottlieb was a fastidious, not to say compulsive, line editor, but this kind of attentiveness is by no means universal.

As for factual editing, that would have happened to Mailer when he wrote an earlier version of his experiences for Harper’s, but not when he submitted it to his book publisher. Sometimes people reading a book will ask “Didn’t anyone fact-check this thing?” — not realizing that the answer, typically, is No. In special cases (for instance, books whose claims might result in legal action) lawyers can get involved to demand justification of certain claims. When I wrote The Narnian the HarperCollins lawyers went over the manuscript with the finest-toothed of combs, and asked me, for instance, whether Charles Williams might take offense at some of the things I said about him. Since he had died in 1945, on balance I though it not likely.

So most books aren’t fact-checked, though many magazine pieces are. The fact-checking at Harper’s, at least since I’ve been writing for them, is relentless, and the experience of justifying your claims and statements arduous.

But there’s a fuzzy line between the editing of mechanics and fact-checking: the spelling of names, for instance. Right now I’m reading the first volume of Clinton Heylin’s biography of Bob Dylan, and while I sympathize with a writer who has to deal with as many names as Heylin does, he gets too many of them wrong: It’s Samuel R. Delany (not “Delaney”), Jackie DeShannon (not “Deshannon”), Kenneth Rexroth (not ”Roxreth“), etc. Each of these is faithfully recorded in the index (”Roxreth, Kenneth”) but didn’t get checked by the copy editor.

Heylin is not the most careful of stylists, either. He writes sentences like this, when describing what a guy named Steve Wilson thought about a friend named Paul Clayton, who had become obsessed by Dylan:

In Wilson’s view, ‘Bob was everything [Paul] wanted to be’, save heterosexual.

What Heylin means is that Clayton, who was gay, wanted to be like Dylan in every respect except sexual orientation; what he says is that Dylan is homosexual. Me in margin: “EP.”

Writing about Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Heylin is critical of Dylan’s condemnation of William Zantzinger as a murderer — Heylin thinks the facts don’t bear out that charge.

What he was, to Dylan’s closed mind, was guilty. And guilty he would remain, the songwriter insisting to Bob Hilburn forty years later, ‘Who wouldn’t be offended by some guy beating an old woman to death?’ Answer: any halfway decent investigative journalist.

What Heylin means is that any halfway decent investigative journalist would be sure to have the facts right before condemning anyone; what he says is that such a journalist wouldn’t be offended by the murder of an old woman, as though sociopathy were a prerequisite for journalistic competence. Me in margin: “EP.”

As I have often lamented, almost every book contains errors on the last three of the levels I’ve identified; it is the blight we writers were born for, to paraphrase Hopkins. (Some books, The Great Gatsby or Gilead for instance, are structurally perfect.) But the more times I have to write “EP” in the margin of a book the more likely it becomes that I will abandon the book. Not in high dudgeon, but because it’s just tiring to have my concentration interrupted by error after error after error, most of which could have been avoided if the responsible parties had taken proper care. I want to keep reading Heylin’s biography of Dylan, because the subject is extremely interesting to me and because Heylin is by far the best-informed biographer of Dylan I have come across, and in many respects — especially the difficult matters of chronology, made more difficult by Dylan’s compulsive lying — the most scrupulous. But I don’t know whether I’m gonna make it through.

the attention cottage

In the last few days I have come across, or had sent to me, anguished cries from people who have recently been dragged on social media and cannot fathom the injustice of it, and I find myself thinking: You haven’t figured this out yet? You complain about your words being taken out of context when you post them in an environment whose entire structure — as we have all known for fifteen years now — demands context collapse? How many more times do you plan to smack your head against that unyielding wall? 

I wrote recently about some things that everyone knows, and here are two more things that everyone knows:

  1. Our attentional commons is borked, it’s FUBAR; it’s not stunned or pining for the fjords, it has ceased to be, it is bereft of life, it is an ex-commons.
  2. The death of the attentional commons has had dramatic and sometimes tragic consequences for every individual’s store of attentiveness.

What I want to argue today is that the attentional commons cannot be rebuilt unless and until we rebuild private and local/communal spaces of attentiveness. Consider this my response to this call for ideas about building from TNA.

What might this look like?

A handful of interesting examples come from this recent Ted Gioia post: There we see directors, actors, and other Hollywood figures buying and restoring old theaters to make shared attentional spaces that offer refuge from the ex-commons. Surely every community has something of this kind, and not necessarily theaters; old libraries, for instance, are ideal candidates for restoration as such spaces.

But maybe people won’t be willing to contribute to such restoration until they better see the value of it; and maybe they won’t see that value until they begin repairing their own personal attentional world. So maybe the place to start is not with the commons but with me — to go inside-out, as it were.

What I need, what I am trying to build, is — I coin this phrase by analogy to a memory palace — an attention cottage. This could be an actual place, like the boathouse in which E. B. White wrote:

photo by Jill Krementz
photo by Jill Krementz

But few of us will be so lucky. Most of us will have to build our cottage from scraps, and a good bit of it will need to be virtual. When I sit down in a chair with a book in my lap, a notebook at my side, and no screens within reach or sight, I am dwelling in my attention cottage. Sometimes even these resources can be hard to come by: In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction I wrote about scholarly children from big noisy families who developed the skill of surrounding themselves with a “cone of silence.” You do what ya gotta do.

For the past few years my writerly attention has been focused on three artists: John Milton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Terrence Malick. All three of them in one way or another have a lot to say about the social concerns of their own era — though while Milton wrote extravagantly confrontational political pamphlets and Sayers wrote (rather less polemically) about highly contentious social questions, Malick has approached our current common life wholly through filmmaking, and especially his three movies with contemporary settings: To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song. (There are contemporary scenes in The Tree of Life, but the movie ie effectively set in the past.) The key point, though, is this: Each of these artists regularly steps back from the immediate to consider permanent questions, the questions that arise from — here’s a phrase that we need to recover — the human condition.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the Collect for the fourth Sunday of Trinity runs thus:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

To care only for things temporal is to lose the things eternal; but to attend rightly to things eternal is the royal road to constructive thought and action in the temporal realm. The great artists and thinkers cultivate a systolic/diastolic rhythm, tension and release, an increase and then decrease of pressure. In the latter phase they withdraw, by whatever means available to them, to their attentional cottage for refreshment and clarification — and then they can return to the pressures of the moment more effectively, and in ways non-destructive to them and to others.

But most of us, I think, get the rhythm wrong: we spend the great majority of our time in systolic mode — contracted, tensed — and only rarely enter the relaxed diastolic phase. Or, to change the metaphor: We think we should be living in the chaotic, cacophanous megalopolis and retreat to our cottage only in desperate circumstances. But the reverse is true: our attention cottage should be our home, our secure base, the place from which we set out on our adventures in contemporaneity and to which we always make our nostos.

I often think how much easier, how much more naturally healthy, life was even just a couple of decades ago, when the internet was in one room of the house, when the whole family had one computer connected to a modem that was connected to a landline, and movies arrived in the mailbox in red envelopes.

netflix

I’m trying to build my way back to that balance, through how I organize the space in which I live and how I apportion my attention. Systolic, diastolic; inhale, exhale. Balance. Almost everything I write, including my newsletter, is meant to help people rebalance their attention — to give them another piece of furniture for their attention cottage.

crushed again

Https   substack post media.s3.amazonaws.com public images 05fec3a6 9ddb 41d9 b66e 83d86a20f0c6.heic.

Two of the best things I’ve read in response to the horrific “Crush” commercial Apple recently put out and half-heartedly apologized for: Mark Hurst and (especially) Mike Sacasas. I have to say that I’m finding it difficult to get over this: the ad has, I feel, given me a peek into the company’s soul, and what I see is a company that despises and mocks many of the things I most love. It’s scarcely more subtle than Mark Zuckerberg shouting “DOMINATION” to conclude Facebook meetings

Honestly, I just want to stop using Apple products altogether. But if I did, (a) that would complicate the lives of family and friends who rely on Apple; (b) since I never have managed to get on the Linux train, my practical alternatives would involve relying on companies (Google, Microsoft) that are ethically no better than Apple; and (c) I would be unable to support the work of independent Apple developers (Bare Bones, Panic, Omni, Rogue Amoeba, etc.) whose software has been enormously beneficial to me over the years. 

As I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that that third consideration is a big one for me. David Smith (known to many as Underscore) is a longtime iOS developer who wrote recently about traveling to Cupertino for the upcoming WWDC — something he’s been doing for sixteen years. When he started attending the conference, he was excited about Apple, but now … not so much: 

It isn’t necessarily that Apple itself is the root of this community, but moreover (especially in those early days) they provided a focal point for like-minded developers and designers to coalesce around, which became this community. Apple aspires toward many of this community’s values, but as they have expanded their reach and scope, they feel more like the multi-trillion dollar company they in fact are. There are still countless folks within Apple who are absolutely my people, but over time, I’ve noticed that there is a growing separation between the corporation and the community.

I’ve heard a version of this sentiment from a number of Apple developers, bloggers, and power users: They used to love the things Apple made, they used to love what they could see of the company culture, but now they just enjoy the community of people who work on the same things they do. Apple has become almost incidental to that community — and indeed, it often seems that one of the strongest forces holding that community is a shared frustration with Apple’s indifference or even hostility to its developers, its increasingly problematic software, its bizarre neglect of some of its central products. For instance, no one has been a bigger booster, or more creative user, of the iPad than Federico Viticci, but just look at how frustrated he has become with iPadOS

Does Apple really want to create a community of developers and users bound to one another largely by anger at them? Probably not. But do they care to address anyone’s concerns? Certainly not. They think they’re invulnerable. Time will tell whether they’re right about that. But for the time being I will continue to use my Apple devices, in large part because I so admire the ongoing work of those developers whom Apple seems determined to discourage. 

accountability

So here’s yet another story on how students today can’t or won’t read

Theresa MacPhail is a pragmatist. In her 15 years of teaching, as the number of students who complete their reading assignments has steadily declined, she has adapted. She began assigning fewer readings, then fewer still. Less is more, she reasoned. She would focus on the readings that mattered most and were interesting to them.

For a while, that seemed to work. But then things started to take a turn for the worse. Most students still weren’t doing the reading. And when they were, more and more struggled to understand it. Some simply gave up. 

I’ve already written on this topic, here. But this gives me a chance to add something I thought I had written about already … but maybe not? If I have, my apologies.

(N.B. That Chronicle article also discusses pedagogical problems faced by professors in the sciences, but I don’t know anything about what they face, so my comments here are only about my own neck of the woods, the humanities.)  

What I would like to ask Theresa MacPhail is: Do you do anything to ensure that your students do the assigned reading? Or do you just give them the assignments and hope for the best? 

Here’s what I do, and have done for my entire teaching career: I give pop reading quizzes. I tell my students why I give such quizzes: I do it, I say, because y’all are Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizers.

Students have many demands on their time, and they would also like to spend at least some of that time enjoying themselves, so when they look at what they’re supposed to do in any given week, they triage: What has to be done first? That is, what will I pay a price for not doing? Whatever would cost them the most to skip is what they do first, and then they work their way down the line. If you have assigned your students some reading but they pay no price for neglecting that reading, then students will neglect that reading. It’s as simple as that. When I was in college I thought in precisely the same way. I rationally maximized my utility, according to what was utile by my lights. (That is to say, I never underestimated the utility of smoking pot and going bowling, or smoking pot and listening to music, or … just smoking pot.)  

Now, the students rarely tell themselves that they won’t do the reading at all. They declare that they’ll get caught up next week, when things are a little less harried. But here’s where the “self-deceived” part of Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizer comes in: next week will of course not be less harried. And if there’s still no cost to neglecting the reading … well, we all know how things will work out, don’t we? 

This is why I give reading quizzes: to move my assignments up in the queue, to force the practitioner of triage to reckon with me. And there’s another reason: We go over each quiz in class — I make them grade their own quizzes — and in the process I discover what they noticed and what they missed. That’s useful information for me, and not just when I’m making up future quizzes: I’m able in our discussion to zero in on those overlooked passages. “Why did I ask about this? Why is this passage important?” I also encourage them to tell me when they think a question is too picky — sometimes I even agree that it is, though whether I do or not it’s helpful to explain why I asked it. 

This whole process is an education in attentive reading, or that’s what I try to turn it into anyway. And one of the major reasons I think it works is that my students’ quiz grades tend to rise over the course of the term. They get better at noticing; they get better at recognizing what really matters in the texts we read. Not all of them, of course; but most of them.

(Yes, of course I know that some of them are reading SparkNotes and Wikipedia summaries and the like; but I try to take that into account when making up the quizzes, and even if they can get a few questions right based on reading such summaries, well, that’s better than not reading at all. At the very least they get a good deal more out of the classroom discussion than they would have if they had come in knowing nothing.) 

You can assign reading to students; but if you don’t develop strategies for holding them accountable, then it doesn’t really matter what you assign. They’re Self-Deceived Rational Utility Maximizers after all, and if there’s one thing you can never change about them it’s that. 

So when people say “My students can’t read any more,” I want to ask what they’re doing to hold them accountable — and what they’re doing to help them become more intelligently attentive readers. That Chronicle of Higher Education article didn’t focus on those questions, but they’re essential. (We do hear something that Adam Kotsko, whose essay in Slate kicked off this season of conversation, does to make sure his students are reading and assess how they read. It’s very different from what I do, but it’s interesting.) 

If teachers do have strategies for making their students accountable and are consciously working to teach better reading skills and the students are still not doing the necessary work, then we definitely have a big social problem. And we very well might. But some vital information is missing from these exercises in lamentation. 

From John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, Letter 7:

You are to do good work, whether you live or die. It may be you will have to die; — well, men have died for their country often, yet doing her no good; be ready to die for her in doing her assured good: her, and all other countries with her. Mind your own business with your absolute heart and soul; but see that it is a good business first. That it is corn and sweet peas you are producing, — not gunpowder and arsenic. And be sure of this, literally: — you must simply rather die than make any destroying mechanism or compound. You are to be literally employed in cultivating the ground, or making useful things, and carrying them where they are wanted. Stand in the streets, and say to all who pass by: Have you any vineyard we can work in, — not Naboth’s? In your powder and petroleum manufactory, we work no more.

last words

From Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox:

For three days he lay in a coma, but once Lady Eldon saw a stir of consciousness and asked whether he would like her to read to him from his own New Testament. He answered very faintly, but distinctly: ‘No’; and then after a long pause in which he seemed to have lapsed again into unconsciousness, there came from the death-bed, just audibly, in the idiom of his youth: ‘Awfully jolly of you to suggest it, though.’

They were his last words.

My favorite story about Knox, about whom there are many many stories, is that when he had a private audience with Pope Pius XII the chief thing that the Holy Father wanted to talk about was the Loch Ness monster. (I guess that’s more of a Pope story than a Knox story, but anyway.) 

Ruskin on Color

The Basilica of St Mark's, Venice, Interior.

The perception of colour is a gift just as definitely granted to one person, and denied to another, as an ear for music; and the very first requisite for true judgment of Saint Mark’s, is the perfection of that colour-faculty which few people ever set themselves seriously to find out whether they possess or not. […]

The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn. We speak rashly of gay color and sad color, for color cannot at once be good and gay. All good color is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most. 

– John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice 

Ruskin thought about color all the time, and wrote about it often. See for instance this post. He seems to have thought color itself a mystical and revelatory thing, something he was surprised and delighted that God took the trouble to create. 

I believe every man in a Christian kingdom ought to be equally well educated. But I would have it education to purpose; stern, practical, irresistible, in moral habits, in bodily strength and beauty, in all faculties of mind capable of being developed under the circumstances of the individual, and especially in the technical knowledge of his own business; but yet, infinitely various in its effort, directed to make one youth humble, and another confident; to tranquillize this mind, to put some spark of ambition into that; now to urge, and now to restrain: and in the doing of all this, considering knowledge as one only out of myriads of means in his hands, or myriads of gifts at its disposal; and giving it or withholding it as a good husbandman waters his garden, giving the full shower only to the thirsty plants, and at times when they are thirsty; whereas at present we pour it upon the heads of our youth as the snow falls on the Alps, on one and another alike, till they can bear no more, and then take honour to ourselves because here and there a river descends from their crests into the valleys, not observing that we have made the loaded hills themselves barren for ever. 

— John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice 

the archetypal future

mythical method

Next month I have an essay coming out in Harper’s called “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” In it I look at the rise — a rise that started a looong time ago — of myth as the central category of discourse among poets, novelists, and humanities scholars; and then I look at the rapid decline of that category and its replacement by others. (Spoiler: the replacement categories are, mainly, overtly political.) Then, near the end, I ask whether “the mythical method” — a line I borrow from T. S. Eliot — has any literary future. 

But along the way I also talk about the places where the language of myth and archetype still survives, and even thrives: in movies, for instance, and in many forms of what academics call “genre fiction.” A form of discourse, a vocabulary, a set of terms and images, might be passé in the academy without having lost its power elsewhere. (A fact that academics try not to notice.)  

And here’s another implication of my essay, one which I have only since writing it become aware of: If, as celebrants from Vico to Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell have said, myths and archetypes are deeply and pervasively embedded in all our cultural productions — and pause for a moment to reflect on the enormous significance of this — then, per necessitatem, they are also deeply embedded in our large language models. Which means, first, that GAI endeavors will be thoroughly shaped by those myths and archetypes; and second, that if human beings are able to create artificial general intelligence, if the Singularity really does happen, then it will be foundationally constituted by those very myths and archetypes

Had you thought of that possibility? I hadn’t … until I read Robin Sloan’s delightful soon-forthcoming novel Moonbound, whose own spectacular narrative is generated by the double thought that (a) human beings are creatures made of myths and (b) whatever succeeds us twelve thousand years from now — however strange to us, and whether biological or digital or both — will be made of the same myths.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I’m having a nice long toke even as I write. 


P.S. If you want to get a little deeper in the weeds re: AI and myths, read this characteristically smart post by Samuel Arbesman

temporary storage

Drafts is a fantastic app, so well-designed, so capable, so powerful. For my money it’s the best “bucket” app, ideal for holding onto chunks of text. 

But I have a problem: I put things into Drafts and then forget about them. Yes, I tag them, but that doesn’t help. They just disappear into the bucket. 

Which is why over the past few months I’ve been using Tot. I bought Tot when it first came out, but didn’t use it much. Now it’s vital to my organizational system. Here’s why: it has a single window with seven tabs, each tab a different color. That’s it. Seven is all you get.

And that’s what I love about Tot. I put things there and they’re easy to find; and when I’ve filled all the tabs, I have to decide whether (a) to delete something or (b) to put it into an proper text file to make something useful of it — a blog post, a reminder, a note for my students, whatever. 

This is yet another situation in which I’ve learned to make friction my friend. Drafts is absolutely frictionless, brilliantly so, but for whatever reason my mind doesn’t thrive in frictionless conditions. Back to the rough ground! 

try not to think

Fraudulent academic papers are on the rise, and will continue to be on the rise as long as academics substitute counting for judgment. The fetish for sheer numbers of publications should have ended decades ago, but the professoriate can’t confront its addiction, or accept its responsibility for creating this vast system of perverse incentives. It’s always interesting to see what elements of their wobbly structures academics are simply unable to reconsider, no matter how dire the situation. In this case, I think people who have climbed the greasy pole to tenure can’t bear the thought that some younger people might be less miserable than they and their cohort were. 

UPDATE: Useful commentary on this subject by Victor Mair

Perfect Days

The Richard Brody review of Perfect Days is a tone-deaf review by the most reliably tone-deaf reviewer out there. Every reviewer has limits to his or her catholicity of taste, because every human being is thus limited, but Brody’s cinematic sweet spot seems to be tiny, and when he doesn’t like a movie he simply doesn’t pay attention to it. I just don’t think Brody likes movies enough to review them for a living. 

Brody wants everything in Perfect Days to be revealed, including (especially?) our protagonist’s politics. I mean, sure, how can we know what we’re supposed to think about another human being unless we know what their politics are? The idea that Hirayama might be utterly apolitical is one that seems not to have crossed Brody’s mind. Nor has he considered the artistic and moral possibilities of narrative reticence.

What’s wonderful about the movie is that it reveals just enough about Hirayama for us to understand that his simplified and repetitive life is both a comfort — a stabilizing power for a person who (for reasons only imperfectly glimpsed by us) desperately needs it — and also a kind of impoverishment. He is a lonely man who has many loose ties, which are unquestionably good things in his life, but no really strong ones, and we get a sense of what that lack of strong ties protects him from and what it deprives him of.

“Mama,” the woman who runs the little izakaya where Hirayama is a regular, wonders why everything can’t remain the same. Well, it can’t; but stability happens too. What we see at the end of Perfect Days is a kind of re-establishment of the rhythm of Hirayama’s life, but not without change, and not without the possibility of betterment. His new work partner seems to be a significant upgrade from the old one; his kindness to his niece Niko just might reconnect him to her and to his sister; and who knows, maybe he and “Mama” will forge the kind of relationship that he tells her ex-husband he doesn’t currently have with her. Change isn’t always bad. But a structured rhythm of life, a settled disinclination to chase novelty, an appreciation for what we can count on, including our friends the trees — that’s a very good thing indeed. 

Christian Spirituality: categories

The Great Texts program here at Baylor, where I teach about half my classes, begins its course of study with a series of periods: Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Twentieth Century. Then it diverges into genres, themes, and topics. I’ve just concluded teaching Great Texts in Christian Spirituality — for the third time — and while that’s a very interesting and enjoyable course for me to teach, it’s quite a challenge to design. There are so many texts to choose from that (I tell my class) I could probably teach it five times with five completely different sets of texts and do equal justice to the theme. 

And, of course, it’s very difficult simply to define the topic. What is Christian spirituality, for heaven’s sake? I always start with this: Christian spirituality is the application of Christian theology to the challenge of living — and then we work through various other definitions as the term goes on. But the boundaries between spirituality and theology never can become precise, and indeed, some key Christian thinkers would deny the distinction. As Jaroslav Pelikan has noted,

It was in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon that Maximus Confessor attained his historic importance, both for the history of spirituality and for the history of dogma (a distinction that he would not have accepted since, as every one of these treatises makes abundantly clear, there was for him no spirituality apart from dogma, and no dogma apart from spirituality).

Anyway: when I’m choosing texts, I’m careful to (a) cover the historical ground as best I can and (b) draw upon the three major streams of Christian writing on spirituality: Roman, Orthodox, Protestant. But over my three times teaching the course, I’ve come to think that certain other distinctions are important to acknowledge as well. I think especially of three axes: 

  • apophatic ↔ kataphatic 
  • individual ↔ communal 
  • encounter ↔ obedience 

That is, any given Christian writer might emphasize the apophatic — what cannot be said about God and the experience of God — or the kataphatic — what can and must be said; might emphasize the individual or the communal and ecclesial aspects of the Christian life; might see the Christian life primarily in terms of an encounter with God or obedience to God. And you can sort Christian writers or texts accordingly. For instance: 

  • Julian of Norwich: apophatic/individual/encounter
  • The Imitation of Christ: kataphatic/individual/obedience 
  • Eliot’s Four Quartets: apophatic/individual/encounter 
  • C. S. Lewis’s sermons and talks: kataphatic/communal/encounter 

These classifications are arguable, of course! Also of course: they can’t be strictly distinguished from one another, for example, one’s obedience to God may have a great impact on one’s ability to have a genuine encounter with God. But as indicators of tendencies, as guides to emphasis, I think the categories are useful. 

Some figures are difficult to classify: Maximus tends to cover all the possibilities, which is perhaps key to his uniquely powerful place in the whole tradition. (His Centuries are very much about communal life and obedience within that life, but he also wants to demonstrate the ways that an obedient life can lead to an encounter with the Divine that cannot easily be put into words.) But trying to place writers or books in this scheme has, in my experience, been a great way to generate conversation about them. Maybe some of you will find it useful. 

intrinsic values

Adam Kirsch:

In his poem “Little Gidding,” written during World War II, T. S. Eliot wrote that the Cavaliers and Puritans who fought in England’s Civil War, in the 17th century, now “are folded in a single party.” The same already seems true of Vendler and Perloff. Today college students are fleeing humanities majors, and English departments are desperately trying to lure them back by promoting the ephemera of pop culture as worthy subjects of study. (Vendler’s own Harvard English department has been getting a great deal of attention for offering a class on Taylor Swift.) Both Vendler and Perloff, by contrast, rejected the idea that poetry had to earn its place in the curriculum, or in the culture at large, by being “relevant.” Nor did it have to be defended on the grounds that it makes us more virtuous citizens or more employable technicians of reading and writing.

Rather, they believed that studying poetry was valuable in and of itself.

I like this essay, but I’m mentioning it here because Kirsch makes use of a common phrase that has always puzzled me: “valuable in and of itself.” Variants: “intrinsically valuable” and “valuable for its own sake.” I have never known what that means — or even could mean. Because: if you ask people to say more about valuing something for its own sake, they end up saying that it gives them pleasure or delights them or fascinates them. But to pursue something because it delights or fascinates you is not pursuing it for its own sake — it’s pursuing it for the sake of the delight or fascination.

When people say that something is “valuable in and of itself,” I think what they mean is simply that it has no economic or social value — note Kirsch’s contrast between intrinsic value and something valued because it “makes us more virtuous citizens or more employable technicians of reading and writing.” Someone might say that when we say some artifact or experience is intrinsically valuable we’re saying that it does not have any instrumental value — but isn’t a song that delights me instrumental to that delight? And isn’t that okay? 

So I think that when we describe something as having intrinsic value, what we really mean is that the value it provides is higher than or nobler than any furthering of crassly economic or social ambitions. We’re indirectly and somewhat sloppily appealing to a hierarchy of goods. And maybe — especially in the context of debates about liberal education, which is at least partly the context of Kirsch’s essay — we should be more explicit about that, and conscious of what our hierarchy is and why we affirm it. 

Dan Kois:

Most alarmingly, kids in third and fourth grade are beginning to stop reading for fun. It’s called the “Decline by 9,” and it’s reaching a crisis point for publishers and educators. According to research by the children’s publishers Scholastic, at age 8, 57 percent of kids say they read books for fun most days; at age 9, only 35 percent do. This trend started before the pandemic, experts say, but the pandemic accelerated things. “I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how disruptive the pandemic was on middle grade readers,” one industry analyst told Publishers Weekly. And everyone I talked to agreed that the sudden drop-off in reading for fun is happening at a crucial age—the very age when, according to publishing lore, lifetime readers are made. “If you can keep them interested in books at that age, it will foster an interest in books the rest of their life,” said Brenna Connor, an industry analyst at Circana, the market research company that runs Bookscan. “If you don’t, they don’t want to read books as an adult.” 

Obviously this is bad news, but let’s remember the context: Do kids do anything for fun these days? They’re not allowed to play, only to have “supervised leisure activities.” Everything is grinding and striving and measured performance. Are they even given enough time alone to make reading possible? If kids go from school to music lessons to the sport of the season, or to various after-school programs, and they’re given phones to occupy their every free instant, of course they won’t read. But then, in such cases not-reading isn’t the worst of their problems. 

back to the brows

After reading various writings about the brows — including, first of all, this unsent letter by Virginia Woolf and this 1949 essay by Russell Lyne, I find myself impatient and wanting to cut to the chase. I’ll come back to these matters later when I’ve had more time to think them over, but in the meantime, some Theses:

  1. A work of art can largely confirm the expectations of those who encounter it, largely thwart those expectations, or touch any point between those extremes. This is true of all the arts, but for present purposes I will speak only of fiction.
  2. These expectations can be of many kinds, but the most commonly invoked expectation involves difficulty: How hard-to-track, hard-to-comprehend do we expect and want a book to be?
  3. The reader who demands that all of his or her expectations be met is often called a lowbrow reader; the writer whose work habitually meets such readers’ expectations is often called a lowbrow writer.
  4. The reader who craves surprise, excess, extremity, who is impatient with work that confirms typical expectations, is often called a highbrow reader; the writer whose work consistently violates norms and transgresses standards is often called a highbrow writer. 
  5. N.B.: Higher-browed readers often want to have their aesthetic expectations challenged, but not their moral ones. Almost no one wants that. (But they get it sometimes, from some writers. George Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov are good examples — I’ll write about them, in this regard, one day.) 
  6. “Highbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “lowbrow” are all characteristically pejorative terms, meant to insult, though in some cases (e.g. the piece by Woolf above) a writer will claim and even treasure the insult. See for comparison the history of such words as “Quaker” and “Methodist.” If Virginia Woolf does not think that your novel sufficiently resists your readers’ expectations, she will call you and your readers middlebrows; Graves and Hodges in the same circumstance will call you and your readers lowbrows. (They don’t mention C. P. Snow in their book, but if they had they’d probably have called him a lowbrow writer, but something like The Search is clearly meant for the educated reader.) 
  7. The three brow-terms are most commonly used by people who are or believe themselves to be highbrows, though they may dislike that language and (implicitly or explicitly) put ironic scare-quotes around it.  
  8. Even the most challenging writer will not always want to read works that constantly challenge or repudiate his or her expectations. Auden used to say that great masterpieces demand so much of their readers that you simply can’t take one on every day, not without either trivializing the experience or exhausting yourself. 
  9. It is characteristic of highbrows’ use of these distinctions — see the Woolf letter quoted above and T. S. Eliot’s encomium to the music-hall entertainer Marie Lloyd, which employs the related socio-economic terms “aristocrat,” “middle-class,” and “worker” — that they articulate some alliance of themselves and the lowbrows against the middlebrow.
  10. Lowbrow readers do not know, and if they knew would not care, about this supposed alliance.
  11. Middlebrow readers and writers alike are often aware of the disdain of them felt by highbrows, and may respond either by defensiveness or mockery. (Think of Liberace’s famous response to his critics’ scorn for his music: “I cried all the way to the bank.” Funny to think of that line having a known origin, but it does.) 
  12. For a long time now there has been no genuine lowbrow reading. Those who insist on all their expectations being fulfilled can get that hit much more efficiently through movies, TV, Instagram, TikTok, etc.
  13. The brow-discourse is conceptually distinct from, but overlaps considerably with, genre-discourse. For instance, detective novels that adhere strictly to the conventions of the genre — the Ellery Queen stories, for instance — will often be called lowbrow, while those that frequently deviate from the conventions — the later novels of P. D. James, for instance, or Sayers’s Gaudy Night — may get called “highbrow” or, more likely, “literary fiction.”
  14. The tripartite brow-discourse is much less useful than a more nuanced and more detailed account of readerly expectations, one which is sensitive to the ways different genres can generate different sets of expectations, and respond to those expectations in diverse ways. 

UPDATE 2024–05–27: It suddenly occurs to me that I have been confusing two quite different things: the three-brow distinction as a way of talking specifically about reading books and as a way of talking about culture then as a whole. If you’re talking about reading, then of course there are lowbrow readers, lowbrow books, etc. But if you’re talking broadly about culture, then in an age when the popularity of movies, TV, and social media is at least an order of magnitude — I use that term with care; most people use it to mean “a whole lot” — I repeat, at least an order of magnitude greater than the popularity of reading, then anyone who reads books at all is ipso facto a middlebrow. 

UPDATE 2024-06-05: I have received a salutary word of criticism from my friend Francis Spufford: 

It is slightly nerve-wracking saying this, Professor Jacobs, but you are uncharacteristically misreading the Woolf. Yes, she’s a vile old snob in literary as much as in social terms. But I don’t think you can adduce what she says here about the ‘common reader’ as proof of that. To my ear, she’s being ironic throughout. She says, with stagey astonishment, that the common reader fails to measure up to proper critical standards, insisting on reading for such low satisfactions as pleasure, amusement, and a sense of meeting real human beings. She observes, as if baffled, that the survival or otherwise of literature over the long term is determined by the reputation of a work among these amateurs, and not among professors or theoreticians at all. How ghastly! Just for once, I’m sure the irony here means that Woolf is putting herself on the side of what’s common. There is a hole on her snobbery, a subject on which she feels like an insurgent rather than a possessor, and it’s to do with her lack of a university education. Unlike Sayers at Somerville, Virginia Stephen did all her reading at home, devising her own critical standards based on her own reactions. She is a common reader, by her own lights. Indeed she publishes two books of critical essays called The Common Reader and The Common Reader 2. She’s claiming the right to read Cervantes for fun, rather than the right to borrow three romances a week from the Boots Circulating Library, but it’s still a claim to centre pleasure. Virginia on the barricades! Virginia ‘Che’ Woolf! 

I think Francis is almost wholly right here, though I do believe Woolf’s irony is not united with snobbery. Anyway, criticism taken gratefully on board, to be deployed later. 

elegance personified (really)

Last night Teri and I watched Swing Time, and afterwards played a little game: We went back to the dance scenes and tried to pause at instants when Astaire and Rogers didn’t look elegant. Couldn’t do it. At every moment they are balanced and poised, they’re perfect images of grace.

002 ginger rogers theredlist.

the integrity of science

I haven’t forgotten about middlebrow matters, but right now my mind is on something else. Something related, though. 

Readers of Gaudy Night (1935) will recall — stop reading if you haven’t read Gaudy Night and don’t want any spoilers — that the plot hinges on an event that occurred some years before the book’s present-day: a (male) historian fudged some evidence and a (female) historian caught him at it and reported the malfeasance, which led to his losing his job. Late in the book, but before the full relevance of this event to the plot has been revealed, there’s a conversation about scholarly integrity, which I will now drop into the middle of: 

“So long,” said Wimsey, “as it doesn’t falsify the facts. But it might be a different kind of thing. To take a concrete instance — somebody wrote a novel called The Search — “

C. P. Snow,” said Miss Burrows. “It’s funny you should mention that. It was the book that the — ”

“I know,” said Peter. “That’s possibly why it was in my mind.” 

A person has been vandalizing Shrewsbury College and a copy of that novel, with certain pages torn out, has been found. The novel, by the way, appeared in 1934, around the time that Sayers began writing Gaudy Night. It would be interesting to know whether it was the direct inspiration for her story, or whether she read it after some elements were already in place. I hope to find out more about that.

And by the way, I am going to be spoiling that novel far more thoroughly than I will spoil Gaudy Night — but it’s not one that many people read, these days. 

 

“I never read the book,” said the Warden.

“Oh, I did,” said the Dean. “It’s about a man who starts out to be a scientist and gets on very well till, just as he’s going to be appointed to an important executive post, he finds he’s made a careless error in a scientific paper. He didn’t check his assistant’s results, or something. Somebody finds out, and he doesn’t get the job. So he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all.”  

“Obviously not,” said Miss Edwards. “He only cared about the post.”

Neither the Dean, who has read the book, nor Miss Edwards, who hasn’t, is quite accurate. The scholar, whose name is Arthur Miles, probably would have gotten the post even without the paper; but it’s perfectly possible that he rushed the paper, failed to be appropriately self-critical, because he knew that the vote for the Director of a new scientific institute would be coming soon. Miles doesn’t know; he can’t be sure; maybe he would’ve made the mistake anyway. But in any case, as soon as he is told that there’s a problem with his paper, he runs the numbers again, sees the error, and immediately admits that he was wrong. 


Let me pause for two digressions: 

  1. Sayers specifies what pages were torn from the book — but I don’t have access to the edition that Sayers had read, which I assume was the first hardcover edition, so I don’t know what exactly was excised, but I suspect that it was the part where Miles admits his mistake. (The whole business is a flaw in Sayers’s plot, because it’s impossible to imagine the Responsible Party having read Snow’s book and known which pages to tear out; but DLS clearly was determined to get a discussion of The Search into her own novel, so she found a way.)   
  2. As it happens, this is Snow’s most autobiographical novel: what happened to Miles also happened to him. He began his career as a chemist, and wrote a paper (published in Nature) which was then discovered to contain an embarrassing mistake — upon which he abandoned his work as a scientist and became a novelist and bureaucrat.    

Now, back to Gaudy Night

“The point about it,” said Wimsey, “is what an elderly scientist says to him. He tells him: ‘The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.’ Words to that effect. I may not be quoting quite correctly.“

Wimsey’s summary is a good one. This is indeed what the “elderly scientist,” a man named Hulme, says to him. And Miles does not disagree. What’s more on his mind, though, is the picture of his future laid out for him by another senior scientist: 

“You’ve got to work absolutely steadily, without another suspicion of a mistake. You’ve got to let yourself be patronised and regretted over. You’ve got to get out of the limelight. Then in three or four years, you’ll be back where you were; though it will be held up against you, one way and another, for longer than that. It will delay your getting into the Royal [Society], of course. That can’t be helped. You’ll have a lean time for a while; but you’re young enough to get over it.” 

Faced with this prospect, Miles realizes that he could only manage all this (“Watching the dullards gloat. Working under Tremlin. Having every day a reminder of the old dreams”) if he had a genuine devotion to science. But: “It occurred to me I had no devotion to science.”

N.B.: the point is not that the event has taken away his devotion to science, but rather, “I am not devoted to science, I thought. And I have not been for years, and I have kept it from myself till now.” The revelation of his error leads to a revelation of what had been true about him all along: “There were so many signs going back so far, if I had let myself see, if it had been convenient to see.” Indeed, it now becomes clear to him that his desire to become the director of a scientific institute — an administrative position, not one that would involve him directly in research — precisely because on some unconscious level he didn’t want to be a scientist any more: “I had thrown myself into human beings — to escape the chill when my scientific devotion ended.” 

It should be clear, then, that “he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all” is not an adequate explanation of what happens. 

But there’s also a twist in the tail of this story, which in Gaudy Night Sayers calls attention to: 

“In the same novel,” said the Dean, “somebody deliberately falsifies a result — later on, I mean — in order to get a job. And the man who made the original mistake finds it out. But he says nothing, because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.”

”These wives and families!“ said Peter.

”Does the author approve?“ inquired the Warden.

”Well,“ said the Dean, ”the book ends there, so I suppose he does.” 

Or does he? And is that an accurate description of the case? Several facts here are relevant:

  • The man who has falsified the data, Sheriff, is one of Miles’s oldest friends.  
  • Miles got Sheriff his current job and has been guiding his research, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow — he’s a feckless fellow, and a habitual liar, but Miles had hoped that he was ready to reform.   
  • Sheriff had promised Miles, and also his own wife, that he was working on a safe project when he was in fact working on a high-risk, high-reward one — one he thought likely to lead to a prestigious position that, now that the paper has been published, he is indeed about to be offered.   
  • Miles has a sense of responsibility for Sheriff because he had hoped to hire him for a position at the aforementioned Institute, but gave up on the idea when he realized that his own position was compromised. He thinks perhaps he should have pushed harder for Sheriff anyway. 
  • Early in his career Miles had had the opportunity to consciously fudge data himself, and seriously considered it — he thought that he might eventually be found out, but only after achieving a brilliant career from which summit he could just say “Whoops, I made a mistake” — but instead abandoned the research project. He thought, though, that in the future he would have compassion for any scientist who succumbed to a similar temptation.  
  • And most important of all, Sheriff is married to Audrey, Miles’s former lover, for whom, though he himself is now happily married, he cherishes a strong and lasting tendresse — despite the fact that Sheriff basically stole her affections while Miles was abroad.  

The Search is not a great novel, but this is perhaps its best element: the faithful portrayal of Miles’s complex and ever-shifting and deeply human responses to Sheriff’s lying. (It reminds me a bit of the greatest scene of this kind I know, the moment in Middlemarch when Lydgate has to decide how to vote for the chaplaincy of a new hospital. I wrote about that thirty years ago [!!] near the end of this essay.)

On the one hand, he knows exactly what Sheriff did and why:  

I had no doubts at all. It was a deliberate mistake. He had committed the major scientific crime (I could still hear Hulme’s voice trickling gently, firmly on).

Sheriff had given some false facts, suppressed some true ones. When I realised it, I was not particularly surprised. I could imagine his quick, ingenious, harassed mind thinking it over. For various reasons, he had chosen this problem; it would not take so much work, it would be more exciting, it might secure his niche straight away. … But I must not know, half because he was a little ashamed, half because I might interfere. So [his research assistant] and Audrey must, for safety’s sake, also be deceived.

All this he would do quite cheerfully. The problem began well. … Then he came to that stage where every result seemed to contradict the last, where there was no clear road ahead, where there seemed no road ahead at all. There he must have hesitated. On the one hand he had lost months, there would be no position for years, he would have to come to me and confess; on the other his mind flitted round the chance of a fraud.

There was a risk, but he might secure all the success still. I scarcely think the ethics of scientific deceit troubled him; but the risk must have done. For if he were found out, he was ruined. He might keep on as a minor lecturer, but there would be nothing ahead. 

Miles does not excuse Sheriff at any point; he knows that the man’s dishonesty is habitual, perhaps pathological. But he also knows that Sheriff and Audrey have reached a certain accommodation in their marriage, that Audrey understands who her husband is but loves him and needs him anyway. Miles writes a letter that would expose and run Sheriff, and then, realizing that it would also ruin Audrey, … 

I shall not send the letter, I was thinking. Let him win his gamble. Let him cheat his way to the respectable success he wants. He will delight in it, and become a figure in the scientific world; and give broadcast talks and views on immortality; all of which he will love. And Audrey will be there, amused but rather proud. Oh, let him have it.

For me, if I do not send the letter, what then? There was only one answer; I was breaking irrevocably from science. This was the end, for me. Ever since I left professionally, I had been keeping a retreat open in my mind; supervising Sheriff had meant to myself that I could go back at any time. If I did not write I should be depriving myself of the loophole. I should have proved, once for all, how little science mattered to me.

There were no ways between. I could have held my hand until he was elected, and then threatened that either he must correct the mistake, or I would; but that was a compromise in action and not in mind. No, he should have his triumph to the full. Audrey should not know, she had seen so many disillusions, I would spare her this.

The human wins out over the scientific. Maybe, Arthur thinks, it always does. But Gaudy Night shows that sometimes the scientific — in the sense of a strict commitment to the sacredness of honest research — can sometimes have its own victories. And Gaudy Night also suggests that the choices might not be as stark as Snow’s story suggests. More on that in another post. 

P.S.A.

A number of people have asked me for my thoughts about the current university campus protests. I have very few. As the novelist John Barth said when asked why he hadn’t been involved in the anti-war protests of the Sixties, “the fact that the situation is desperate doesn’t make it any more interesting.” People who aren’t interested in learning (or in politics either, in any meaningful way) have thrown a monkey wrench into the works of universities that don’t care about teaching them. Not my bag. 

I think this Ross Douthat column is good, though. I’m grateful that Ross writes about things like this so I can write about very different things. 

refuge

Bryan Garsten

Liberal societies, I want to suggest, are those that offer refuge from the very people they empower. The reach of this formulation will become evident when we allow ourselves to use “refuge” in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, so that institutions and practices can offer refuge from a powerful person as much as a fortress can. […] 

Because liberal societies offer within them different sorts of refuge, they should not produce many refugees fleeing elsewhere. The United States does not generally produce large refugee flows, but those it has at times produced — as when enslaved Americans fled to Canada before the American Civil War — have offered good indices of weaknesses in its liberal credentials. Liberal societies themselves should by their nature appreciate the plight of foreign refugees and err on the side of welcoming them, but the facts do not allow us to say that liberal societies are always more welcoming than nonliberal societies. The crucial indicator of liberalism is whether a society produces refugees. A society becomes more liberal when it reduces the reasons that people have to flee — not by converting all people to one outlook or identity, but by offering them the chance to find refuge internally. Liberal societies aim to generate no exodus. 

It is in this sense that many of the recent developments I have regularly decried on this blog — surveillance capitalism, panoptic governance, coercive administrative practices (especially in academia) — are straightforwardly anti-liberal, sometimes consciously, sometimes blindly. I like the framing of refuge. From Florida’s “Stop WOKE” law to the anti-bias “teams” and “task forces” that populate American campuses, the common theme is: You have no refuge from us. Resistance is futile.

Garsten’s essay is trying to do a lot of things, and I think he gets tangled up at times, in interesting ways. For instance, on page 143 he moves seamlessly from celebrating the founding of cities to celebrating the spread of markets, in a way that suggests that he thinks that the reason we have cities is to spread markets. There are other views on that point. But the major themes involve certain claims about healthy societies. Such societies 

  • do not generate many refugees 
  • are hospitable to refugees from elsewhere 
  • provide means of exit from their internal systems and structures 
  • provide means of exit from the society altogether 

Thus the conclusion: 

Some critics worry that if we are given the choice to flee evils in the many ways a liberalism of refuge protects, our mobility will turn us into “rootless” beings. This concern has been given too much weight since Heidegger and Arendt. We are not trees who flourish when deeply rooted in the soil. We are human beings with legs, meant to explore. What we need to flourish is not roots so much as refuges from which we can venture forth and to which we can retreat. Often, we end up returning to where we started with new insight or appreciation, like Odysseus gratefully coming home. Sometimes we do not, or cannot, return home, and so we begin again and find, in those beginnings, a distinctively liberal adventure — the noble work of building a new society that refugees know so well. 

I have reservations. For one thing, whether “building a new society” is “noble work” depends on the kind of society you’re building. (See: the Taliban.) More important: Is “exploring” the main thing that legs are for? Again, it depends on why you’re exploring. If Garsten had said that legs are for exploring to find food for your family and community, and to bring that food back to those who hunger, I’d have been happier. And in general, I think it’s more important for our minds to explore than our legs, even if when doesn’t create new markets. 

In general, Garsten’s vision is a libertarian one, whereas I prefer anarchist models. In my view the primarily difference between libertarianism and anarchism is that the former wants to expand the scope of individual freedom while the latter wants to expand the scope of collaboration and cooperation. What if we were to re-frame “refuge” and “exit” in anarchist, or at least communitarian, terms? 

An interesting book in this regard is Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, and especially the character of McPhee. McPhee is basically Lewis’s old tutor, William Kirkpatrick, AKA Kirk or the Great Knock, and I have always found it touching that Lewis sought to find some way to offer that dour atheist the blessings of Christian community, but without as it were forcing him into a false conversion. 

The community of St. Anne’s — an attempt by Lewis to embody the themes of his great essay “Membership” — is not quite anarchic, and I say that not because it has a Director but rather because no one else but Mr. Fisher-King could be the Director. Still, it is a collaborative and cooperative endeavor, and no one is coerced into participation, nor is anyone who wishes to belong excluded — though they may not choose their own roles: the community strives to make charitable but honest assessments of what its members are capable of, and especially what risks they can be expected to take. 

No community is perfect, of course. When the people of St. Anne’s become aware of the gifts of Jane Studdock, one of them goes to far as to say “You have to join us” — but that is immediately recognized not only as counterproductive (Jane flees at the first hint of coercion) but also contrary to the character of the community. One must enter freely or not at all, and the damage done by that moment of impulsiveness is almost irreversible. 

St. Anne’s is of course an intentionally Christian community or “body” through and through, which leads to the question: Why is McPhee there? He is no Christian, and for all his respect for the Director, he believes the man prone to nonsensical words and thoughts. 

The answer is that McPhee is there because he wants to be. Eccentric though he is, the community gives him refuge — indeed, it would violate its character as much by exclusion as by coercion. He is given tasks appropriate to his abilities, though he cannot participate directly in the spiritual warfare which, in this story, comes to be the chief business of St. Anne’s. As one who does not believe and therefore does not pray, he lacks the protection he needs against supernatural Powers. He cannot — as the Apostle, or John Bunyan, might say — “put on the armor of God.” If McPhee resents this, he doesn’t say much about it; after all, he has found a place where he is respected and loved, and where his service is welcomed with gratitude. And what better refuge can any of us hope for? 

attention please

Nathan Heller:

“Attention as a category isn’t that salient for younger folks,” Jac Mullen, a writer and a high-school teacher in New Haven, told me recently. “It takes a lot to show that how you pay attention affects the outcome — that if you focus your attention on one thing, rather than dispersing it across many things, the one thing you think is hard will become easier — but that’s a level of instruction I often find myself giving.” It’s not the students’ fault, he thinks; multitasking and its euphemism, “time management,” have become goals across the pedagogic field. The SAT was redesigned this spring to be forty-five minutes shorter, with many reading-comprehension passages trimmed to two or three sentences. Some Ivy League professors report being counselled to switch up what they’re doing every ten minutes or so to avoid falling behind their students’ churn. What appears at first to be a crisis of attention may be a narrowing of the way we interpret its value: an emergency about where — and with what goal — we look.

This is really badly written, and I had to spend a good deal of my own attention trying to figure out what it’s saying. The quotation from Jac Mullen is hard to parse — I think he’s saying, “I have to try to teach my students that multitasking doesn’t really work, but it’s hard to get them to accept that point.” And if I understand that point correctly, then doesn’t the next sentence contradict it? If “multitasking and its euphemism, ‘time management,’ have become goals across the pedagogic field,” then aren’t teachers trying to teach something (multitasking) that Mullen has just (and rightly) said is impossible? Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe Heller needs to say that Mullen has problems convincing his students because all the other teachers are promoting multitasking. Also: since when is “time management a euphemism — “euphemism”? What does Heller think that word means? — for “multitasking”? I’ve never thought those words were synonymous. And then the following sentence, about the redesign of the SAT, has nothing to do with either multitasking or time management, so I believe some kind of transition was needed there. The most unclear sentence of all is the last one — I have no idea what it means. I don’t know what he means by “narrowing” or what the phrase “emergency about where we look” could possible denote.

What a mess!

What’s going on here? How did Heller, a professional writer, and his editors let a passage this inept make its way into print? My guess: They don’t want to say that our society is gripped by a “crisis of attention” because that’s the kind of thing that Moms and Dads and Boomers and Luddites and … well, conservatives say, so they disavow that language and try to replace it with something else, anything else. But if you look at the whole paragraph, the only conclusion you could reasonably draw is: Holy shit, we’re in the midst of a crisis of attention!

Sayers the middlebrow writer

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, in The Lost Week-End (1940), their generally fascinating and informative social history of Great Britain between the world wars, make a great many Olympian pronouncements. They say, for instance, that Auden “perhaps never wrote an original line,” a claim that, to the person who has read even a handful of Auden poems, is instantly revealed as one of the most dim-witted statements in the history of literary criticism. (“Who stands, the crux left of the watershed” — oh goodness, that hoary old chestnut?) And they declare that by the 1930s “low-brow reading was now dominated by the detective novel.”

Well … if the detective novel is “low-brow reading,” then how to describe magazines devoted to movie stars or Mills & Boon romances? “Such things,” we can imagine Graves and Hodge saying in the plummiest of tones, “scarcely deserve the name of ‘reading.’” But people who read such books really are reading, and contra G&H, detective novels, in their literary ambitions and expectations, are an ideal example of middlebrow literature.

I tend to think of middlebrow writing as the kind of thing that highbrows would never write but still enjoy. Auden, for instance, whether an original poet or not, loved detective stories, as did T. S. Eliot (among many others).

Dorothy L. Sayers — my current biographical subject — strikes me as a paradigmatic middlebrow writer, possessing the intellectual equipment of the highbrow but believing implicitly in the capabilities of what Virginia Woolf condescendingly called “the common reader.” Woolf was highly aware of the deficiencies of the common reader:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Not well educated, not generously gifted, instinctively (not consciously) moved to create a whole but capable of constructing only the “rickety and ramshackle,” the common reader can only form “insignificant” ideas and opinions. Lovely.

Sayers would agree with some of this. But she did not think the ideas and opinions of the common reader insignificant; indeed, she thought them typically superior to the opinions of highbrows. More important: while Woolf takes the shortcomings of “the common reader” as givens, almost as natural phenomena like mushrooms or cloudy days, Sayers, by contrast, sees any such deficiencies as remediable — and sees such remediation as part of her responsibility as an intellectual.

Let me just make a few pronouncements of my own:

  1. Woolf is a truly great writer; Sayers is not.
  2. Woolf is a highbrow; Sayers is not, and indeed frequently makes highbrows the butt of her satire.
  3. Sayers in her fiction regularly shows an interest in a wide range of social classes, with their accompanying habits, inclinations, and modes of speech; Woolf is interested in none of these things: all of her characters are of the same social class.
  4. Sayers is far better-educated than Woolf, more learned, and has a wider intellectual capacity: Woolf could not have managed cryptograms in a novel, or forced herself to learn the biochemistry of poisons, or translated Dante and and Song of Roland … but of course Sayers couldn’t have written Mrs. Dalloway either.

(Digression: I might add, in relation to that last point, that while Sayers was only eleven years younger than Woolf, a major transformation in the possibilities of education for women in England accelerated between Woolf’s adolescence and Sayers’s. Virginia Stephen was largely educated at home, though she did get to attend classes at King’s College London for a time; Sayers took a first-class degree at Somerville College, Oxford: when she completed her studies in 1915, women could not yet receive Oxford degrees, but she was awarded hers retroactively in 1920. The whole business of women’s education was immensely complicated in this era, with different universities changing their policies at different rates. For instance, Flora Hamilton, later to be Flora Lewis and the mother of C. S. Lewis, took a first-class degree in logic and a second in mathematics at Queen’s University Belfast in 1885. But by the time Sayers took that belated degree openness to both sexes was nearly universal, though of course informal bigotry would continue.)

I would further suggest that Sayers’s translations of Dante, and her sequence of radio plays The Man Born to be King, are classic middlebrow endeavors: attempts to render old, difficult texts and ideas comprehensible to a general audience. (A project in remediation.) I will also argue in my biography, though probably not in detail here on my blog, that her detective novels do some of the same work, as she tried in them to do what Wilkie Collins had done in the previous century: marry the story of detection with the social novel.

But wait: I haven’t defined my brows, have I? What do I mean — what should one mean — by highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow? As it happens, that was a central question of mid-twentieth-century intellectual life — and it gave us some categories that we still use today. So I’ll be exploring that in future posts.

St. Mark’s Place

The Five Spot

The Five Spot, on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, hosted most of the great jazz musicians of the middle part of the twentieth century — Charles Mingus, for instance:

It was also a block-and-a-half from 77 St. Mark’s Place, which is where for a long time Auden lived for about half of each year. (Leon Trotsky also lived there for a time, and a section of the street provided the image for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.) I often find myself wondering how often Auden passed Miles Davis or John Coltrane on the street, or sat next to them at a local bar.

Photograph of AUDEN on St. Mark's Place by Richard Avedon

more rational choices

My recent posts on how I choose what fiction to read and what’s going on with the publishing industry share a theme: perverse incentives. (Indeed, it seems that a lot of my writing is about perverse incentives, but more about that another time.) The intellectual/political monoculture of the modern university leads to an intellectual/political monoculture in the major media companies, and when you combine that with the many ways the internet has disrupted the economic models of all the arts, you get a general environment in which interesting, imaginative work is not just resisted, it’s virtually prohibited. All the incentives of everyone involved are aligned against it.

Thus the thesis of this essay by James Poniewozik: “We have entered the golden age of Mid TV”: 

Above all, Mid is easy. It’s not dumb easy — it shows evidence that its writers have read books. But the story beats are familiar. Plot points and themes are repeated. You don’t have to immerse yourself single-mindedly the way you might have with, say, “The Wire.” It is prestige TV that you can fold laundry to. 

Or you could listen to a Sally Rooney novel on Audible while chopping the veggies. Same, basically. This is what I think about almost everything from current big-studio Hollywood movies to new literary fiction to music by Taylor Swift or Beyoncé: it’s … okay. It doesn’t offend.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have something better? Wouldn’t it be cool to be surprised? Crevecoeur famously described early America as a land characterized by “a pleasing uniformity of decent competence.” But after a while the competence isn’t all that pleasing. As Wittgenstein famously wrote in the Philosophical Investigations: “We have got onto slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” I wrote an essay about this.

Of course I think about this stuff all the time

The good news is that these production-line periods tend to produce a reaction: Romantic poetry was one such; punk rock another; the Nouvelle Vague in French movies yet another. Indeed, so was Wittgenstein’s philosophy. But the bad news is that today our manorial technocracy makes the project of finding cracks in the walls more difficult than it has ever been. So I’ll be watching the rough ground to see who turns up there, but in the meantime, here’s how I make my decisions about watching movies: 

  • If someone I love wants me to go to a movie with them, I do. 
  • Otherwise, I don’t watch movies produced and/or distributed by the big studios. (I had been leaning in this direction for a while, but I didn’t make it a guideline until three or four years ago.) I just don’t, for the same reason that I don’t read novels by people who live in Brooklyn: it’s not a good bet. The chance of encountering something excellent, or even interestingly flawed, is too remote. Not impossible — I really enjoyed Dune, for instance, and Oppenheimer, both of which I watched with my son — but remote. 
  • I don’t subscribe to Netflix, or HBO, or Amazon Prime. (I do have Apple TV as part of my Apple subscription, but I primarily use it to rent movies. I did try watching For All Mankind and Masters of the Air, but both of them were too … Mid for me.) The only service I subscribe to is the Criterion Channel, because it allows me to watch (a) classic movies, (b) independent movies, and (c) foreign movies. All of which are much better bets than anything the current big studios make. 
  • I never hesitate to watch a favorite movie again when that’s where my whim takes me. In fact, I watch movies from my Blu-Ray/DVD collection more often than I stream anything. 

advancing

Elle Griffin seems to have carved out a niche for herself telling hard truths to would-be writers – which is an unpleasant but useful service, I think. But there’s one troublesome point I think she actually understresses — though it will take me a few minutes to get to that point.

Griffin cites this chart from Penguin USA:

Category 1: Lead titles with a sales goal of 75,000 units and up
Advance: $500,000 and up

Category 2: Titles with a sales goal of 25,000–75,000 units
Advance: $150,000-$500,000

Category 3: Titles with a sales goal of 10,000–25,000 units
Advance: $50,000- $150,000

Category 4: Titles with a sales goal of 5,000 to 10,000 units
Advance: $50,000 or less

Four times in my career I have received Category 3 advances; in two of those cases (The Narnian and How To Think) I ended up with Category 1 sales, thus significantly overperforming my advance. In one case (Breaking Bread with the Dead) I have achieved sales to match the “sales goal,” though not (yet?) enough to earn back my advance; in the fourth case (Original Sin) I underperformed the sales goal.

All this assuming that the above information is correct, which, I dunno.

Anyway, this track record should make it possible for me to get another Category 3 advance, should I want one, and if I can come up with the right proposal. I’m not a sure-fire winner, but I’m a decent bet when I do get a big-house contract. (My academic books don’t figure into this discussion, because while they sell well for academic books, even taken together they don’t make enough money annually to pay my property taxes.)

And if the numbers Griffin cites are correct, the sales of my more successful books put them, to my surprise and puzzlement and discomfort, in the top 5% of published books. It’s true that How to Think has sold more copies than books from the same period by Billie Eilish and Justin Timberlake, which should tell you something – mainly that fans of Billie Eilish and Justin Timberlake don’t read books. I should also add that How to Think really took off for a little while because Fareed Zakaria loved it and hyped it on CNN. Funny old world, ain’t it. But still … the “top 5%” thing just feels wrong

Anyway, let’s imagine that I receive a $100,000 advance for a future book. Not impossible by any means. The thing is, and this is the point I think Griffin should lean on more heavily: “advance” is a misleading term. Advances don’t come all at once, they come in stages, either three or four of them, for instance:

  • $25,000 at contract signing;
  • $25,000 at submission of an acceptable (but still to be edited) manuscript;
  • $25,000 at publication of the hardcover;
  • $25,000 at publication of the paperback, or, if the publisher chooses not to make a paperback, one year after the publication of the hardcover.

(Sometimes the unit payments vary: for instance, for Breaking Bread with the Dead my agent negotiated bigger payouts for the first and third stages, smaller ones for the other two.) In a typical situation, after you sign the contract you might need two years to write the book. Supposing that your manuscript is pretty good and just needs editing, that process can take several months, and then getting the book ready for publication can take several more months. And the final payout will come a year after that initial publication. So while a $100,000 advance sounds like a lot of money, it often ends up being $25,000 a year; not nearly enough to live on. 

The moral: Writing books can be a nice supplement to your day job, but it is virtually impossible for it to replace your day job, even if you’re in the top 5% percent of sales. That I, several of whose books appear to be in that category, couldn’t make a decent living if I sold three times as many of those books as I do, should suggest … not, as Griffin keeps saying, that no one buys books, but that the whole industry is smaller than most people think and a money machine for only a handful of writers. You probably have to get into the top 1% of published-by-publishers writers to make a living solely by writing. Probably only a few hundred, or at most a few thousand, people in the entire world manage that. (Griffin seems to think Substack offers a better chance for success, but I bet the percentages there are roughly the same.) 

 

P.S. I’m probably not going to get another significant advance, because I doubt I will ask for one. I can’t at the moment imagine wanting to write a book that a Big Five publisher would want to pay for. That could change, of course, but I don’t expect it will. I decided to write my Sayers biography for a university press rather than a trade house primarily to write the book I wanted to write — not the book I needed to write to earn back an advance.  

P.P.S. I see Freddie has weighed in also. Some good thoughts there, but I’m not sure about the title: “Publishing is Designed to Make Most Authors Feel Like Losers Even While the Industry Makes Money.” Maybe that’s right. It’s certainly that advances used to be smaller for the biggest sellers and larger for the mid-list writers, which made it possible for mid-list writers to make a modest but firmly middle-class living — especially when they could supplement their book income with writing for periodicals that, in inflation-adjusted dollars, paid much more than they do now. (Why could so many magazines back in the day pay so much more? Because they got much higher ad revenue in periods when ad money didn’t have nearly as many places to go.) The publishing industry has clearly borrowed the Silicon Valley venture capitalists’ practice of hoping for one or two hits in a thousand investments, but I don’t understand how that affects their decisions about how to distribute the money they have available for advances. I wish I did. 

influence and citation

I have an essay coming out in the July issue of Harper’s which I titled “The Mythical Method” but which will probably end up with the title “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” It concerns the rise and fall of myth as a central, or perhaps at times the central, concept of humanistic study; and therefore it has some things to say about Northrop Frye’s former influence over the humanities and especially over literary criticism. 

Perhaps the most prominent scholar of Northrop Frye’s work is Robert D. Denham, who has repeatedly written — see for instance this 2009 essay — that the rumors of Frye’s repetitional demise are greatly exaggerated, and that “if Frye is no longer at “the center of critical activity,” as he was in the mid-1960s, he still remains very much a containing presence at the circumference.” Denham continues, 

In 1963 Mary Curtis Tucker wrote the first doctoral dissertation on Frye. The period between 1964 and 2003 saw another 192 doctoral dissertations devoted in whole or part to Frye, “in part” meaning that “Frye” is indexed as a subject in Dissertation Abstracts International. The number of dissertations for each of the decades falls out as follows: 1960s = 5; 1970s = 28; 1980s = 63; 1990s = 68; and in the first four years of the present decade, 29.3. These data obviously indicate that during the twenty-year period following the height of the post-structural moment, interest in Frye as a topic of graduate research substantially increased. 

I mention all this because this is an interesting case of how statistics can mislead when context is eliminated. In citing these numbers Denham omits some important information: 

  • The rise of literary theory as a subset of literary studies. When Mary Curtis Tucker wrote that first dissertation on Northrop Frye, people in English studies simply didn’t write dissertations on other academic literary critics. The rise of theory as a sub-discipline changed that. 
  • The overproduction, especially in the humanities, of PhDs — something that has been worried over since I was in grad school

If in 2009, when Denham published that essay, we saw (a) far more PhDs in English being produced than had been the case in in 1963 — a trend that, inexplicably and indefensibly, continued for several more years — and (b) a far larger percentage of dissertations focusing on contemporary literary criticism and theory than had been the case in 1963, then it becomes clear that citations of Frye could rise in absolute numbers during the same period when Frye’s influence was significantly decreasing proportionate to the whole discourse

In a recent book, Denham goes beyond his 2009 argument to say that there has been an “exponential progression” to Frye’s influence. But here he is relying on dissertations from places like the University of Peking and even the University of Inner Mongolia in Hoh-Hot (now known as Inner Mongolia University). But how many dissertations on any topic in English literature or literary theory and criticism would have been produced in those universities forty or forty years ago? Denham is making comparative judgments without a fixed or appropriate baseline of comparison. “People say that the Sega Genesis console is obsolete, but far more people use them today than used them in 1987!” 

(In so doing — I say this only in passing — Denham is missing what could be a really fascinating point: I’d be willing to bet that Chinese students of Western literary criticism and theory will, generally speaking, find Northrop Frye more interesting and useful than, say, Judith Butler. That would be a topic worth exploring.)  

There is another issue also: “citation” is a word that captures a wide range of possibilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, Frye’s work could be cited to clinch a point — if you could get Northrop Frye on your side you could win an argument. But since then Frye has typically been cited in North America and Great Britain as a representative of a Eurocentric false universalism, a residual Christian imperialism, a putatively apolitical totalizing discourse of patriarchy — that kind of thing: citing him not because he’s on the winning side but because his side isn’t winning any more, thank God. 

But of course, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. 

more on costs and choices

Isaiah Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli”:

The ideals of Christianity are charity, mercy, sacrifice, love of God, forgiveness of enemies, contempt for the goods of this world, faith in the life hereafter, belief in the salvation of the individual soul as being of incomparable value – higher than, indeed wholly incommensurable with, any social or political or other terrestrial goal, any economic or military or aesthetic consideration. Machiavelli lays it down that out of men who believe in such ideals, and practise them, no satisfactory human community, in his Roman sense, can in principle be constructed. It is not simply a question of the unattainability of an ideal because of human imperfection, original sin, or bad luck, or ignorance, or insufficiency of material means. It is not, in other words, the inability in practice on the part of ordinary human beings to rise to a sufficiently high level of Christian virtue (which may, indeed, be the inescapable lot of sinful men on earth) that makes it, for him, impracticable to establish, even to seek after, the good Christian State. It is the very opposite: Machiavelli is convinced that what are commonly thought of as the central Christian virtues, whatever their intrinsic value, are insuperable obstacles to the building of the kind of society that he wishes to see; a society which, moreover, he assumes that it is natural for all normal men to want – the kind of community that, in his view, satisfies men’s permanent desires and interests. […]

It is important to realise that Machiavelli does not wish to deny that what Christians call good is, in fact, good, that what they call virtue and vice are in fact virtue and vice. Unlike Hobbes or Spinoza (or eighteenth-century philosophes or, for that matter, the first Stoics), who try to define (or redefine) moral notions in such a way as to fit in with the kind of community that, in their view, rational men must, if they are consistent, wish to build, Machiavelli does not fly in the face of common notions — the traditional, accepted moral vocabulary of mankind. He does not say or imply (as various radical philosophical reformers have done) that humility, kindness, unworldliness, faith in God, sanctity, Christian love, unwavering truthfulness, compassion are bad or unimportant attributes; or that cruelty, bad faith, power politics, sacrifice of innocent men to social needs, and so on are good ones.

But if history, and the insights of wise statesmen, especially in the ancient world, verified as they have been in practice (verità effettuale), are to guide us, it will be seen that it is in fact impossible to combine Christian virtues, for example meekness or the search for spiritual salvation, with a satisfactory, stable, vigorous, strong society on earth. Consequently a man must choose. To choose to lead a Christian life is to condemn oneself to political impotence: to being used and crushed by powerful, ambitious, clever, unscrupulous men; if one wishes to build a glorious community like those of Athens or Rome at their best, then one must abandon Christian education and substitute one better suited to the purpose. 

I think Berlin is right about Machiavelli, and I think Machiavelli is right about Christianity too. The whole argument illustrates Berlin’s one great theme: the incompatibility of certain “Great Goods” with one another. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the inability to grasp this point is one of the greatest causes of personal unhappiness and social unrest. Millions of American Christians don’t see how it might be impossible to reconcile (a) being a disciple of Jesus Christ with (b) ruling over their fellow citizens and seeking retribution against them. Many students at Columbia University would be furious if you told them that they can’t simultaneously (a) participate in what they call protest and (b) fulfill the obligations they’ve taken on as students. They want both! They demand both

Everybody wants everything, that’s all. They’re willing to settle for everything. 

See my recent post on costs and the “plurality” tag at the bottom of this post. 

Matt Crawford, on Substack:

Probing his riding companions, Robert [Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] comes to understand that John and Sylvia’s attitude of non-involvement with “technology” is emblematic of a wider phenomenon that was then emerging, a countercultural sensibility that seeks escape from the Man and all his works: “the whole organized bit,” “the system,” as they put it. The solution, or rather evasion, that John and Sylvia hit on for managing their revulsion at technology is to “Have it somewhere else. Don’t have it here.” The irony is that they ride their motorcycle out into the countryside to escape this “death force” that is trying to turn them into “mass people,” and it is precisely in these moments that they find themselves most intimately entangled with The Machine – the one they sit on. This dependence is an affront to their own sense of themselves as cultural dissidents. The problem, then, cuts rather deep. They are living a contradiction. It’s a bit like using Substack to write critiques of technology.

rational choices

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet. 

Hugh E. Keogh 

There’s too much to read, right? Especially contemporary fiction. Too many choices. You have to develop a strategy of selection, a method of triage. I will always read more old books than new ones, as I think everyone should. But I don’t neglect what my contemporaries are doing. This summer, for instance, I plan to read Jon Fosse’s Septology and Zito Madu’s memoir The Minotaur at Calle Lanza. (Memoir is not fiction, of course, but it uses some of the same techniques and, for me, scratches some of the same itches.) 

My own strategy for deciding what to read arises from these facts: Literary fiction in America has become a monoculture in which the writers and the editors are overwhelmingly products of the same few top-ranked universities and the same few top-ranked MFA programs — we’re still in The Program Era — and work in a moment that prizes above all else ideological uniformity. Such people tend also to live in the same tiny handful of places. And it is virtually impossible for anything really interesting, surprising, or provocative to emerge from an intellectual monoculture. 

With these facts in mind I have developed a three-strike system to help me decide whether to read contemporary fiction, with the following features: 

  • The book is set in Brooklyn: Three strikes, you’re out
  • The author lives in Brooklyn: Three strikes, you’re out
  • The book is set anywhere else in New York City: Two strikes
  • The book is set in San Francisco: Two strikes
  • The book’s protagonist is a writer or artist or would-be writer or would-be artist: Two strikes
  • The author attended an Ivy League or Ivy-adjacent university or college: Two strikes
  • The book is set in Los Angeles: One strike
  • The author lives in San Francisco: One strike. 
  • The author has an MFA: One strike
  • The book is set in the present day: One strike

I am not saying that any book that racks up three strikes cannot be good. I am saying that the odds against said book being good are enormous. It is vanishingly unlikely that a book that gets three strikes in my system will be worth reading, because any such book is overwhelmingly likely to reaffirm the views of its monoculture — to be a kind of comfort food for its readers. Even books as horrific as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life — a novel I wish I had never read, and one of the key books that made me settle on this system — is comforting in the sense that we always know precisely whom we are to sympathize with and whom to hate. Daniel Mendelsohn is correct: “Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel than like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.” I would delete “sometimes.” 

(Author graduated from Smith College, lives somewhere in New York City, book is set in New York City in more-or-less the present day: at least five strikes. I shoulda known.) 

My system does not cover every eventuality. Among other things, it only applies to American writers, though the monoculture I have described extends overseas: for instance, Sally Rooney doesn’t live in Brooklyn, but she might as well; and her books aren’t set in Brooklyn, though they might as well be. I need to extend my system to account for this kind of thing. But I can continue to work on that. 

I have a similar system for deciding whether to watch a movie; maybe I’ll write about that in another post. 

Gilead revisited

The way we speak and think of the Puritans seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism. Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry. I know from experience that if one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating. Unauthorized views are in effect punished by incomprehension, not intentionally and not to anyone’s benefit, but simply as a consequence of a hypertrophic instinct for consensus. This instinct is so powerful that I would suspect it had survival value, if history or current events gave me the least encouragement to believe we are equipped to survive.

– Marilynne Robinson, “Puritans and Prigs” (1996)


I’m re-reading Gilead now, in preparation for teaching it, and I am struck all over again by what an extraordinary book it is, what a gift it has been to so many readers — millions of them, maybe. (Promotional material for the book has long shouted A MILLION COPIES SOLD, but the count might be two million by now, and of course many thousands of people have read used and library copies.) Really, it’s some kind of miracle. The novels that have followed it are excellent novels indeed, but they aren’t miraculous. Gilead certainly is. 

But today, twenty years later, would Gilead even be published by a big trade house? As long as the author could say that she teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, probably. Would it be widely read and celebrated? Almost certainly not. The self-appointed cultural gatekeepers would denounce it as a project of white cis-het imperialism, and trepidatious reviewers would either ignore it or offer, at best, muted praise. And if it were a first novel, it might not get published at all — though perhaps an outfit like Belt Publishing would take it on.

As I read Gilead today it still feels like a great gift, but also an artifact of a lost era. 

costs

A brief follow-up to this post from last week: In our current climate of political assholery, no self-described “activist” can answer what I think of as an essential question: If you get what you want, what will be the costs? Every choice — every choice ever made by every human being — carries costs. Some of the costs are easily borne; some, though, are unmanageable, or even catastrophic. Especially if you’re a political activist, you have a responsibility to anticipate the costs of your preferred policy and develop a plan for dealing with them. But if you ask people who call themselves activists the question above, you’ll only get two responses: dumfounded blankness or sheer rage.

CDN media

Peace, Peace

N.B. This post is spoilerful. 

A few years ago I read a fascinating post by my colleague Philip Jenkins about Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novel Peace. I had read Peace many years ago but didn’t remember anything about it, and Philip’s post reminded me that there’s a complicated discourse surrounding the book. I decided that I wanted to re-read the book without looking at the interpretations … and only now have I gotten around to it. Here are some things that struck me:

It seemed obvious to me that our narrator, Alden Dennis Weer, is dead and is revisiting his life. (Wolfe has cheerfully confirmed that Weer is a ghost.) He clearly lives, or “lives,” in a rambling memory palace of his own making, each room of which is related to some season of his life. But the palace is not complete, and he can temporarily or permanently lose access to some of its rooms.

Severian, the protagonist and narrator of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tetralogy — which Wolfe began almost immediately after writing Peace — claims to have a perfect memory, and perhaps he does, but he does not tell us everything he remembers. When he remains silent about some episode in his life, the reader has to sift the evidence to figure out what really happened, or wait for later evidence. The same is true of Weer’s narration in Peace. Often he leaves stories unfinished — and by “stories” I mean both his direct narration of his life’s events and the book’s many tales (some of them fairy tales, some of them anecdotes told to him by others). It’s possible that he has forgotten how some stories end, but in many of the cases he simply does not want to say what happened, and we are left to draw inferences. He does not narrate the death of his Aunt Olivia, but we can piece together an account of her death. He explicitly says that he will not tell us what happened when he and the librarian Lois Arbuthnot visited a farm outside of town to search for an old document, but later it becomes pretty clear what happened: Weer killed her. (And she may not be the only person he murders.)

When declining to tell that story, Weer writes,

You must excuse me. I can write nothing more now about the trip Lois and I made to Gold’s, or our search for the buried treasure. Everything we do is unimportant, I know; but some things are, if not more important, at least more immediate than others, and so I must tell you (writing alone in this empty room, my pen scratching on the paper like a mouse in a wall) that I am very ill. Sicker, I think, than I have ever been before — sicker, even, than I was this winter, before Eleanor Bold’s tree fell.

The falling of that tree — called Eleanor Bold’s because she planted it, but the key point is that she planted it over Weer’s grave — is what awakens his spirit (Wolfe confirmed this in an interview) and inaugurates his assessment of his life. Trees can live a long time, and there’s a hint early in the book that Weer knows himself to be a ghost, and a ghost haunting the place where he had lived long, long before:

And as if by magic — and it may have been magic, for I believe America is the land of magic, and that we, we now past Americans, were once the magical people of it, waiting now to stand to some unguessable generation of the future as the nameless pre-Mycenaean tribes did to the Greeks, ready, at a word, each of us now, to flit piping through groves ungrown, our women ready to haunt as lamioe the rose-red ruins of Chicago and Indianapolis when they are little more than earthen mounds, when the heads of the trees are higher than the hundred-and-twenty-fifth floor — it seemed to me that I found myself in bed again, the old house swaying in silence as though it were moored to the universe by only the thread of smoke from the stove.

This narration, then, may take place hundreds of years in the future.

What is the term of Weer’s haunting? Will he forever be a ghost? Or is he, perhaps, like Hamlet’s father, “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night … Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away”? I am inclined to believe the latter. That is, I think that Weer will wander through the rooms of his memory until he remembers, and faces, it all. His old house is a purgatorial mansion. (That word makes me wonder whether there is a thematic connection between Peace and an even weirder book by Wolfe’s fellow Roman Catholic SF writer, R. A. Lafferty: Fourth Mansions.)

Those who know Alden Dennis Weer best call him Den, which is interesting because that’s the second half of his first name and the first half of his second name. Den/Den. I take this to indicate that he is a doubled self — like Dr. Jekyll, and like the Major Weir (!) Philip discusses in his post — and may be liberated from his complicated prison only when he has confronted and acknowledged all that he currently denies or evades. Then and only then will he have peace. The title of the novel thus points to what’s missing from it.

The various interpolated tales in Peace comment in various ways on the events that Weer narrates and the people that he knew. For instance, one story about a princess and her suitors clearly mirrors Aunt Olivia and her suitors. And late in the novel the bookseller and forger Mr. Gold reads a tale to Weer that I think is meant to describe to Weer his own situation. The tale comes, Gold says, from a book called The Book That Binds the Dead, though he comments that “It may not be as easy to hold the dead down as we think.” Be that as it may, in the passage Gold reads a man describes how he and a friend tried to summon the spirit of a dead man. They stand over his grave, and eventually he rises before them:

The flesh of his head was as the dust, and there remained only his hair, which hung to his shoulders as in life, but had lost its luster and had in it certain of those small animals which the sun engenders in that which no longer has life. His eyes were no more; their sockets seemed dark pits, save that there flickered behind them a point of light that moved from one to the other and often was gone from both, and appeared just such a spark as is seen at night when the wind blows a fire that is almost gone, and perhaps a single spark, burning red, flies hither and thither in the black air. From what the spirit, that mighty one, had whispered to me, I knew this spark for the soul of the dead man, seeking now in all the chambers under the vault of the skull its old resting places.

Then, gathering all my courage, and recollecting what the spirit had divulged to me — that the dead man was not like to harm me save I set my foot upon his grave, or cast aside one of the stones that had sheltered him from the jackals — I spoke to him, saying, “O you who have returned where none return. You waked from the death that men say never dies; speak to us the knowledge of the place from which you have come.”

Then he said to us, “O shades of the unborn years, depart from me, and trouble not the day that is mine.”

What does he mean by “the day that is mine”? It is, I think, the day of his purgation. We should remember Pope Adrian V in Dante’s Purgatorio, who speaks briefly the pilgrim but then asks him to go away: “Your presence here distracts me from the tears that make me ready.” The spirit the men in this tale have raised is a true image of Alden Dennis Weer.


I have tried in the above to outline what I think is fundamentally going on in Peace — but what I say has relatively little overlap with the vast online literature about the novel, which, now that I’ve looked it over in the aftermath of my reading, seems mainly concerned to trace the staggeringly dense and complex web of reference that Wolfe weaves into this novel, as he does into most of his stories. To mention just one tiny example that I noticed as I read: Weer early on mentions his childhood fascination with Andrew Lang’s Green Fairy Book, which (I reminded myself by checking Wikipedia) contains a version of the old French fairy tale “The Blue Bird,” in which a man is transformed into a bird. And then one of the characters in Peace narrates his encounter with a man who is gradually being transformed into stone — a man whom he meets in The Bluebird Cafe. This led me to notice the number of characters in the novel who are compared to birds; and I also started thinking of the characters’ various metamorphoses. Aunt Olivia, for instance, once described as being “all bird bones and petticoats,” eventually becomes a corpulent woman whom Weer sees naked in her bath. Plus, “The Blue Bird” also concerns magic eggs, and a major event in Peace involves the quest for a rare and beautiful painted egg.

There is no end to this kind of thing in Wolfe’s fiction: he knits and purls, always stitching stitching stitching, ever complicating the weave, to a degree that seems to me compulsive and often, frankly, counterproductive. The (largely online) discourse about his books is obsessed with these fancy stitchings, and you can read thousands and thousands of words about this connection and that, this allusion and that, without ever finding anyone who asks what a given book is about, why it exists.

I’m reading a lot of mysteries these days, in preparation for a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, and readers of mysteries may be divided into two camps, those who want to find a good puzzle to solve and those who want to read an interesting story. You can also, generally speaking, divide the writers of mysteries into two camps: those who want to please the puzzle solvers and those who want to please the story lovers.

Gene Wolfe is likewise a maker of puzzles and a teller of tales, and I often find myself wondering which he cared about more. If you look at the online commentary on Wolfe’s novels, you might think that the puzzles are the only things that matter, and certainly Wolfe gives us a superabundance of teasing clues. I call that superabundance “counterproductive” because I like stories more than puzzles — which is also why I’d rather read Dorothy L. Sayers than John Dickson Carr. When reading Wolfe’s fiction I am often frustrated, because I find that the complications of the weave obscure the design of the story. In my reflections above I have tried to set aside many of the puzzles in order to focus on the matters I find essential. But maybe occluding the distinction between the essential and inessential is just what Wolfe wants to do.

css.php