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Stagger onward rejoicing

Author: ayjay (page 1 of 161)

Hume and literature

As previously indicated, I will eventually return to Moonbound, but I need to think some things through first. For now, let’s go back twelve thousand years or so and revisit David Hume’s History of England.

When Hume was writing his History of England, the word “literature” only occasionally referred to a body of texts, or a kind of text; instead, it typically meant something like “learning.” For example, Samuel Johnson in his Life of Milton says that Milton’s father “had probably more than common literature,” because Milton addressed a complex Latin poem to him. The meaning here is not far from our “literacy.” When a person not only read but wrote, especially for publication, then that person would be “a man of letters,” or “devoted to the life of letters,” etc. 

Today “literature” means something more like “poetry, fiction, drama, and sometimes essays” — what might have been called in some earlier time belles lettres, fine letters, though the correspondence in meaning is rough rather than exact. Insofar as the learned had any concept of what we now call literature, it would certainly have included poetry, fiction, drama, and essays but also history and biography. Historians and biographers were composers of artful narratives and in that sense no different than the composers of novels and tragedies. Their material was different, but their objects and purposes often very similar. 

Academic historians today distinguish what they do from “narrative history,” a genre practiced by non-academics — and they do this even on the rare occasions when they admire the narrative historians. See for instance Anthony Grafton’s forward to C. V. Wedgwood’s history of the Thirty Years War: it is obvious that he reveres Wedgwood but equally obvious that he understands what she does as something quite distinct from what he does. But in the 18th century, readers and writers alike would not have had such clear distinctions in mind. They would have evaluated Hume’s History of England and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall by ways and means quite close to those they would employ in evaluating a novel by Samuel Richardson.

And Hume and Gibbon expected that kind of attention. They worked very hard to get their facts right and to assess them accurately, but they also strove to achieve the virtues that novelists and dramatists and epic poets pursued: to portray vivid characters, to generate narrative momentum and tension, to resolve such tension satisfyingly. 

Moreover — I have suggested this in my earlier posts — they saw the writing of historical narratives as a means of pursuing philosophical ends: the events and persons of the past serve as models, exemplars, and warnings. Historical figures enact philosophical positions and in so doing test them. 

Has historical knowledge progressed since Hume? Do historians today have a sounder understanding than Hume did of the facts and events of the past? Of course. But our historians today have neither the literary nor the philosophical ambitions that drove Hume. And it is because he had those ambitions, and fulfilled them, that I am reading him now. 

political proverbs

Nothing good ever comes from indulging the egos of old men. 

Nothing good comes from indulging the ego of any politician, but the you-can’t-tell-me-I’ve-seen-it-all arrogance of old men is especially dangerous. 

If you want political success, it’s better to be fortunate in your enemies than in your friends. An incompetent enemy can do more for you than a devoted friend ever could. 

When Congress will not do its job, attempts by the other two branches to do Congress’s job will always create more problems than they solve. 

It is said that Marcus Aurelius had a servant whose sole talk was to whisper in his ear, “You are but a man, you will die.” Every Supreme Court justice should have a clerk whose job is to whisper “The more times you tell yourself that you’re not a legislator, the more effectively you hide from yourself your temptation to legislate.” Not as terse, but just as needful.  

No one is less trustworthy in reporting on the Supreme Court than a periodical’s “Supreme Court reporter.” 

People elect performers rather than genuine representatives because they think our social and economic system will continue to function without human intervention, like a solar-powered street light. 

To put the same point otherwise: The besetting sin of the people who talk politics ceaselessly is a failure to take politics seriously. 

It’s later than you think. 

un-football

Barney Ronay:

Even England, this England’s version of hole-in-the-head football will give you dramatic interventions, trapped energy, last-minute overhead kicks. Somehow France entered this game as the only team at the Euros not to have registered an assist. Before this semi-final they played five games during which nobody on either team had scored from open play.

This isn’t “anti-football”. It’s un-football, non-football. It’s time being killed, athletically, talent reduced to furniture. Watching France is like watching someone do accounts, brilliantly, like watching a team of your favourite elite entertainers very diligently assembling a shed, and then realising towards the end that actually, they really are just assembling a shed. 

Watching France and England in this tournament first bored me, then frustrated me, then made me actually angry. Both sides played the whole tournament as though they had been told that excessive movement would deplete their oxygen supplies and cause them to faint. They just stood and passed the ball around until someone on the other side took the ball away from them, at which point they reluctantly trotted back to defend. 

Bukayo Saka has been almost the only English player to get exercise, and exercise produced a goal. For France, Mbappe occasionally tried, but when he did he got closed down by three or four defenders because they weren’t worried about what anyone else in the France jersey would do. It was dire.

The most frustrating thing is: There’s nothing that can be done when teams choose to play this way. It’s not against the rules, and you can’t change the rules in any way that would fix the problem, unless it’s possible to give players electrical shocks when they stand in one place for too long. 

But you have to ask yourself: Why do they choose to play this way? I think pressure is a relatively small part of it. The real issue is that these players play far too many games. If you want to have good Euros and World Cups, then you have to eliminate some of the competitions, both domestic and trans-domestic. 

Spain has been very good and sometimes fun in this tournament; the Dutch have had their moments; Switzerland, Austria, and Georgia were all great. So it’s not all bad news. But far too much of Euro 2024 has indeed been bad news, because it’s been played largely by exhausted players. 

UPDATE 2024-07-10: Today against the Netherlands England played much more positively for a half, after which they looked worn-out. It took Southgate a loooong time to make the necessary substitutions, but when he did — wow: two subs, Palmer and Watkins, combining for the winning goal. 

So: the Three Lions in the final! I am excited! Do I repent of my criticisms of Southgate? I do not. I have said all along that he (a) sets up his defense excellently, (b) allows or encourages too much caution in attack, and (c) is too slow to make changes. I still think all that. Because England defend so well, they are always in a position in which one goal can make the difference for them. But crossing your fingers and hoping for a late moment of brilliance isn’t a good strategy, even if you happen to get that moment of brilliance three matches in a row: Bellingham, 95th minute; Saka, 80th minute; Watkins, 90th minute. You’re trusting your luck too much, and even when luck shows up, there are better ways to play the game. 

But I will say this: the first half today, in which England were so much more dynamic and endeavoring and footbally than they have been all tournament, suggests that Southgate knows that he’s been too cautious. The problem is that the players simply couldn’t sustain that level of energy. So here’s my prediction for the final: If Southgate makes two or more subs before the hour mark, England will win … or at least take it to penalties. (Kinds hedging my bets there.) 

Moonbound revisited

A while back I said that I had read Robin Sloan’s new novel Moonbound and hoped to read it again. Wrong! I had not genuinely read it. Now I have, and I love this book


Several decades ago, the semiotician A. J. Greimas claimed that all stories are comprised of six actants, in three pairs: 

  • Subject/Object 
  • Sender/Receiver 
  • Helper/Opponent 

Moonbound is a book that readily lends itself to this analysis. 

We (you and I and the other humans on this planet) are the Anth — the Middle Anth, as it happens. Our descendants will do some amazing things but tragedy will eventually befall them. But, anticipating their downfall, they prepare a message, in the form of a girl in cryogenic sleep, for those who will occupy the Earth after them. (Sender/Receiver.)

The girl eventually joins forces with a boy, Ariel, the protagonist of our story, who wants to know how to combat the dragons who live on the moon and have cut earth off from the rest of the cosmos. (These dragons are made of information. It’s complicated.) The dragons have made Earth the Silent Planet, as it were, and Ariel wants to end that silence, that isolation. In this quest he is forever pursued by an angry wizard, but also regularly finds help from unexpected friends. (Helper/Opponent.) 

It is through the mediation of some of those friends, a college of scholars, that Ariel encounters the most important Helper of all, who makes for him the one thing he needs to deal with the dragons. (Subject/Object.) 

See? It’s brilliant. And the pattern is reinforced by constant references to another story, the one on which this one seems to be modeled: the matter of Arthur. But then, it’s a lot like many other stories as well. For instance, at one point our small hero is led through the wilderness by a rough customer he meets in a tavern, one who is called by a nickname beginning with S, and who provides him with a means of swift escape from his pursuers. It’s true that this fellow is a trash-picker rather than the descendent of kings, and that he’s called Scrounger rather than Strider, but the commonalities are strong and that’s what matters, isn’t it? 

Or is it? 

What makes a story matter to us? Does interest lie in the ways it resembles other stories, as Greimas’s scheme seems to suggest, or in the ways it differs from them? 

At one point, early in Moonbound, when Ariel is still living in the village of Sauvage, at a desperate moment he runs towards a prominent feature of the village: a sword plunged into a stone. His companion, the narrator of this book (again: it’s complicated), thinks, “I knew this story! The words inscribed on the sword read — The boy hurried past. Ignored it completely.” He retrieves a very different sword that, as it turns out, is much more helpful to him — though this greatly angers the wizard who has plotted Ariel’s life. (One man’s Helper is another man’s Opponent.) 

Having gone off-script, Ariel is confronted by the enraged wizard: 

“The stone is my design. As is the village. As are you.” The directness of his speech made the boy’s blood sizzle. “Yet you did not pull the sword. Why?”

“I found another,” Ariel said simply.

The wizard frowned. “Another sword ought not to have sufficed. The pattern is burned into your cells. Don’t you feel it? Or is my design so poor?” 

“Of course I feel it,” Ariel said quietly. First, triumph and terror; now, dread and calm. “But there are other designs, too.” 

And maybe not just designs. If you were to ask me why Ariel found the other sword, the sword that wrecked the plans of the manipulative, controlling wizard, I’d say that he just got lucky

Luck, this tale suggests, is a big factor in human affairs. From a conversation that happens later in the book, between Scrounger and Durga, the girl awakened from sleep, “the last daughter of the Anth”: 

“The way I’ve heard it, the Anth destroyed themselves,” said Scrounger. “Maybe you’re right, and maybe your future yanked you straight into disaster. Maybe there’s a lesson there.”

”The end of the Anth wasn’t hubris,” Durga said. “I know that’s an easy story to tell, but it’s not true. We were beyond that.”

”A lot of hubris, saying you’re beyond hubris.”

”Yet I am saying it.”

”All right, I’ll allow it wasn’t hubris. What was it, then? What doomed your cause?”

”Bad luck,” Durga said simply. “There is such a thing, in history, as miserable bad luck.” 

So, to sum up, what makes a story go off-piste? Luck, bad or good. Luck makes for stories rather than Story. Luck is the presiding spirit of the Garden of Forking Paths. Where Luck is present, you can’t map the scene with Greimas’s three pair of actants — that only gets you the X, Y, and Z axes. And as one of the characters — well, kind of a character: it’s complicated — explains to us, only a massive multidimensionality is genuinely adequate to the world.  

Perhaps most important: Luck defeats the would-be Controllers, the ones who would dictate every step in everyone’s story — or maybe even bring stories to an end. 

Well, probably. This too could be complicated.

  • Let us grant, per argumentum, that Ariel wasn’t destined to find the sword he needed, or to meet the Helpers he needed to find. There’s no wise elder to tell Ariel, “You were meant to find that sword, and not by the wizard. And that may be an encouraging thought.”
  • But Ariel, when we first meet him, says, “I know I am meant for something important. I can feel it. I have always felt it.” 
  • But the wizard programmed him to think this way: “The pattern is burned into your cells.” 
  • But the feeling persists in Ariel even after he liberates himself from the wizard’s tyranny. And if he is lucky, then his luck is extraordinary. 

I am not sure that there is an answer to this conundrum, but we may find a way of negotiating it by reflecting on what Robin calls “Gibson-Faulkner Theory.” (The name is explained in this interview.) In the novel we merely learn that the “central premise of Gibson-Faulkner Theory” is: “The present is a function of the future, not the past.” As Durga explains, 

“What I mean is — we have minds! We dream, and we plan, and then we take action. For that reason, our present is a function of the future we imagine. It is forged in response to vision. If we lack vision — well, then the ghosts will play, and that is our own fault. You can believe it or not. I know it is true, because I was born in San Francisco, the city the future reached back and made, because it was going to be needed.” 

Now, I could (and probably will, in another post) argue with this — and as one of the progenitors of Gibson-Faulkner theory, I think I have a right to say that Durga’s articulation contains too much Gibson and not enough Faulkner. But the point is a powerful one. We act towards the future we have envisioned. And “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  

We love the old stories — we love stories that do what we expect them to do, what we know in advance they will do. But we also love it when they surprise us. Repeatedly in Moonbound we are told that “the great question of the Anth” is: “What happens next?” And we only ask that question when a story is surprising us, or when we hope it will. 

We need themes, and we need variations on themes. And Moonbound provides both, and provides them delightfully. What a cool book. Hey Robin: More, please. I want to know what happens next. 

the arc of Hume’s history

I’ve been reading David Hume’s massive and magnificent History of England, and it’s generally fascinating — though there are, it must be said, extended passages in which he’s just dutifully relating what his researches have been able to discover about events which are not as well-attested as he would like. At the end of Volume II, when he has completed his narration of the Wars of the Roses with his account of the life and death of Richard III, he heaves a great sigh of relief: 

Thus have we pursued the history of England through a series of many barbarous ages; till we have at last reached the dawn of civility and sciences, and have the prospect, both of greater certainty in our historical narrations, and of being able to present to the reader a spectacle more worthy of his attention. 

That is, he’s about to enter the era in which increased political and social order (“civility”) and the invention and adoption of the printing press (“sciences”) yield far greater documentation of events. 

In a famous essay, Arnaldo Momogliano argued that Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, sought to unite two kinds of historiography that previously had been quite distinct: the antiquarian history of les erudits and the philosophical history of writers like Voltaire. Gibbon was a great fellow for archives and inscriptions and ruins, but he was also determined to tell a story that enlightened and instructed. Hume — writing roughly a generation before Gibbon: the History of England was published between 1754 and 1762, while the Decline and Fall appeared between 1776 and 1789 — is very much the philosophical historian. His virtues, in his own estimation, are those of critical judgment rather than antiquarian assiduity. When he has more documentation, documentation that needs to be sifted and assessed with a shrewdly philosophic eye, his distinctive excellences come into play. 

In one important sense his orientation is almost identical to that of Gibbon. Gibbon, famously, begins his history thus: 

In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle, but powerful, influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence. The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth. 

That the first centuries of the Empire marked the high point in human history is a view that Hume had already articulated, though he places the apex a little earlier. But the sweep of his account is somewhat larger:  

Those who cast their eye on the general revolutions of society, will find, that, as almost all improvements of the human mind had reached nearly to their state of perfection about the age of Augustus, there was a sensible decline from that point or period; and man thenceforth relapsed gradually into ignorance and barbarism. The unlimited extent of the Roman empire, and the consequent despotism of its monarchs, extinguished all emulation, debased the generous spirits of men, and depressed that noble flame, by which all the refined arts must be cherished and enlivened. The military government, which soon succeeded, rendered even the lives and properties of men insecure and precarious; and proved destructive to those vulgar and more necessary arts of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; and in the end, to the military art and genius itself, by which alone the immense fabric of the empire could be supported. The irruption of the barbarous nations, which soon followed, overwhelmed all human knowledge, which was already far in its decline; and men sunk every age deeper into ignorance, stupidity, and superstition; till the light of ancient science and history had very nearly suffered a total extinction in all the European nations. 

“Ignorance and barbarism” is Hume’s version of what Gibbon calls “Barbarism and religion.” But while Gibbon is content to describe what happened to the Roman Empire, ending with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Hume wants to describe the fate of “all the European nations.” 

Gibbon but briefly gestures at renewal. In his final chapter, having declared that his narrative describes “the triumph of Barbarism and religion,” he adds: “But the clouds of Barbarism were gradually dispelled; and the peaceful authority of Martin the Fifth and his successors restored the ornaments of the city [of Rome] as well as the order of the ecclesiastical state.”

Hume, though, wants to do much more in this line. So, to return to the conclusion of his second volume, he writes: 

But there is a point of depression, as well as of exaltation, from which human affairs naturally return in a contrary direction, and beyond which they seldom pass either in their advancement or decline. The period, in which the people of Christendom were the lowest sunk in ignorance, and consequently in disorders of every kind, may justly be fixed at the eleventh century, about the age of William the Conqueror; and from that aera, the sun of science, beginning to re-ascend, threw out many gleams of light, which preceded the full morning, when letters were revived in the fifteenth century. 

Fascinatingly, Hume believes that the key event, the one that more than any other turned the descent into an ascent, came when the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian was rediscovered, in (Hume believes) Amalfi. That provided a direct link to the wisdom of the ancient world: the Justinian Code, which was itself a summary and codification of much older Roman laws, became a standard against which the legal practice of the present day could be measured, found wanting, and, slowly, remedied. 

(Gibbon was so strongly committed to his narrative of decline that, though he wrote extensively about Justinian’s reign, he could not grant strong praise to anything that emperor did. If Justinian expanded his empire, that’s a sign of corruption and failure: “The fortifications of Europe and Asia were multiplied by Justinian; but the repetition of those timid and fruitless precautions exposes to a philosophic eye the debility of the empire.” Likewise the attempt to deal with moribund traditions: “Justinian suppressed the schools of Athens and the consulship of Rome, which had given so many sages and heroes to mankind. Both these institutions had long since degenerated from their primitive glory; yet some reproach may be justly inflicted on the avarice and jealousy of a prince by whose hands such venerable ruins were destroyed.” As for the great Code, there’s too much of it and it was badly administered: “The government of Justinian united the evils of liberty and servitude; and the Romans were oppressed at the same time by the multiplicity of their laws and the arbitrary will of their master.” Hume is always more generous.)

As already noted, Hume thinks that the ascent is due to the increase in power and influence of “civility and sciences,” which are both disciplinary: “civility” disciplines the passions of men and thereby brings increasing order to the political system and civil society alike, while “science” is a synonym for the disciplined, the methodical and orderly, pursuit of knowledge. Hume deplores religion because religion — coming as it does in two varieties, the superstitious and the enthusiastic — is consistently antidisciplinary. Superstition refuses the discipline of science, enthusiasm refuses the discipline of civility. 

(By the way, I have written about how Hume’s superstition/enthusiasm binary helps to explain our current politics.) 

In the first two volumes of his history, Hume covers around 1500 years; in the last four, fewer than 200. And increased documentation is only one reason for that disproportion: more important, for Hume the philosophical historian, is the fact that those 200 years reveal an inconsistent but unmistakable diminishment of enthusiasm and superstition and increase of civility and sciences. To discern the means by which that ascent occurred is, for Hume, the primary reason for studying that history. We know that we rose from barbarism — but how did we rise? If we know that, then we may be able to avoid sinking back into the mire; and should it happen that we do sink again, well, at least we can know the way out. 

human voices

My friend Rick Gibson makes a fascinating argument here. You need to read the whole thing, but a brief summary would go like this: No matter how vast the corpus of text on which chatbots currently draw, in order to be successful in the future they will need to have an ever-expanding and ever-developing corpus. They won’t be useful to us unless human beings keep adding high-quality information, high-quality ideas, high-quality text, that they can draw upon. 

I’m trying to decide whether this is right — or rather, I know that it’s at least partially right but I’m trying to decide how right it is. I can conceive of certain circumstances in which it would not be true. For instance, programmers often use chatbots to write code for them, and one of the things that they often say is that the code written by bots is verbose and ugly. It gets the job done, sort of, but in a bloated and inelegant way. But it’s easy to imagine that the bloated and inelegant code written by bots will eventually become the norm. Programmers who become habituated to getting their code written or at least drafted by chatbots will never develop a sense of what concise and elegant code is; and when they don’t have that sense they won’t value it and therefore won’t miss it when it’s absent. Elegance in code could just cease to be a thing. 

I guess what I’m asking is whether in programming — and in certain other areas, for instance business correspondence — what the bots provide could reshape our sense of what counts as good enough

I’m thinking here about something I wrote about a few years ago, also at the Hog Blog:  

Why can computers sometimes pass a Turing Test? Erik Larson, in his book, points out that in one test a few years ago people were told that the computer was human but not a native English speaker — which didn’t fool everyone who interacted with it but fooled enough people to make some of us worried. Why were the deceived deceived? I suggest that there are two likely answers, neither of which excludes the other.

The first was offered some years ago by Big Tech critic Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier writes that the Turing Test doesn’t just test machines — it also tests us. It “cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you’ve let your sense of personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?” That is, many of us have interacted with apparently thoughtful machines often enough — for instance, when on the telephone and trying, often fruitlessly, to get to a customer service representative, that we have gradually lowered our standards for intelligence. And surely this erosion of standards is furthered by situations in which, even when by some miracle we do get to speak to another human being, we find that they merely read from a script in a way not demonstrably different from the behavior of a bot. Lanier says flatly that “the exercise of treating machine intelligence as real requires people to reduce their mooring to reality.” 

What if that’s what the pervasive presence of AI does? — reduce our mooring to reality sufficiently that we cease to notice the difference between text written by chatbots (however out of date the corpus on which they draw) and actual human language? I think about the phenomenon of young singers singing like Autotune because that’s what they think singing sounds like. Standards of quality, like standards of beauty, are mutable. 

Will Baude:

The court is motivated by statesmanship, which the country sorely needs today. The problem is that this statesmanship is a form of the kind of outcome-oriented policymaking that the court disparages in other contexts. It trusts states to handle the homelessness crisis but not ballot access for insurrectionists, even though the Constitution trusts states with both. It trusts juries to handle fines for securities fraud but not punishment for abuse of the presidency, even though the Constitution trusts juries with both.

I think there are some better things to say about the majority’s decision in Trump — I might write at some point about how it slyly explains to courts just how to prosecute rogue Presidents — but overall I think Baude’s argument is compelling. 

re-humanization

A couple of years ago I wrote about a shift in my writerly focus from a decade-long inquiry into the enemies of attention to an inquiry into how we might live a human life at a human scale. Those are related themes, of course: identifying and critiquing what Tim Wu calls “the attention merchants” is indeed vital: an ethic and maybe even a theology for our time begins, as I have argued in an essay on Thomas Pynchon, with suspicion of our would-be overlords. But suspicion is only the first step, and a largely useless one unless we’re willing and able to redirect our attention to worthier objects than those being sold to us by the machinery of surveillance capitalism.

But the idea of living “a human life at a human scale” makes sense only if the human is a meaningful category, and therefore one of my related themes in recent years has been the need to recover a belief in the integrity of that category — that is, to help people believe that we have a distinctive bond with, and distinctive obligations to, our fellow humans. (N.B. This is not to say that we have no bond with or obligations to the rest of Creation: the key word in the previous sentence is “distinctive.”)

A Humanism of the Abyss,” my essay from last year on Oliver Sacks, is one contribution to this cause; my new essay in Harper’s, “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method,” is another. I’m looking to describe those moments in our experience when the various divisions of our current identity politics fade into the background and something more fundamental forces itself upon us.

Also: my mind continually returns to the Second World War, because I believe it was in that era — starting in the decade preceding the outbreak of hostilities — that our current antihumanism has its roots. That was the period when modern governments, with modern administrative structures and procedures, started building entire socio-political systems based on fundamental oppositions of race or class. That was the period in which we all became habituated to “seeing like a state.” (And, not incidentally, my writing about anarchism is an exercise in countering that panoptic gaze.) 

Another clarification: This is not to say that racism and class antagonism did not exist prior to the Second World War, but the intimate connection between race/class/sex and the administrative state is a necessary prerequisite for our identity politics today, and that began in the lead-up to the war, first in Nazi Germany and then elsewhere. I often wonder whether the internment of Japanese-Americans would have been thought of had the Nazis not provided a pre-existing playbook for such action. But then, of course, the Nazi system drew on the principles of Taylorism, which in turn drew on experiments in workplace management pioneered several decades earlier by Robert Owen — nothing in this world is wholly new, wholly without precedent, but I think the Nazis did a lot to show just how far Taylorist principles could go in organizing a whole society and especially in excreting its racial refuse. (And then, of course, in making us all self-Taylorizing, building our entire lives on principles of efficiency and productivity.) 

I often meditate on this passage from Antony Beevor’s history of the Second World War:

On 15 December [1944], Hitler and his entourage moved in his personal train to the Adlerhorst (Eagle’s Nest) Führer headquarters at Ziegenberg, near Bad Nauheim. Rundstedt’s headquarters were already in the adjacent Schloss. To the horror of the generals, Martin Bormann’s Nazi Party Chancellery came too, and Bormann complained that the facilities were insufficient for all his typists. Nazi bureaucracy, both in Berlin and at local levels, seemed only to increase as disaster threatened, no doubt to give the impression that the Party was still in control of events. Instructions, directives and regulations cascaded forth on every subject just when the transport and therefore also the postal system were collapsing under the weight of Allied bombing.

Of course, this entire system is built on maniacal hatred — I have heard historians say that the Nazis fought as long as they did in a hopeless cause because that was the only way to keep the trains going to Auschwitz — but I think it’s even more strongly built on a fantasy of perfect control, the channeling of hatred into a flawless System. And the very presence of the ovens, the need for them, is evidence of an imperfect system. 

Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face — forever” is something that will only happen when a system of control has failed. As long as it’s properly functioning it will produce — and produce via documentation — what Foucault called “docile bodies,” and what Auden, some decades earlier, had already envisioned as

An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Once the degenerates and subhumans have been exterminated, the “unintelligible multitude” remains.

I think we can all agree that such systems, even in imperfect form, are radically dehumanizing — we feel this to some degree even in our moist trivial encounters with bureaucratic administrivia — but what acts, what commitments, what beliefs, what loves, are required to begin a rehumanizing movement? That’s the key question I’m asking myself these days. And I believe the answers are to be found largely in the arts, especially works of art that precede the Tayorization of the world and the self. It is not the technological futurists who will show is the way out of this iron cage; it is our artful ancestors. 

A final word: this is a question everyone should be asking, I think, but especially my fellow Christians. For what is the Gospel if not a message to human beings? It is a message that concerns the whole of Creation, but human beings are the ones to whom the Good News is addressed. And I don’t know how people can hear that News if they don’t know themselves and their neighbors as fellow humans, under the same Judgment, and offered the same Salvation.  

donkey work

John Gregory Dunne, from The Studio

The Studio was simplicity itself to write. It was mainly a matter of transcribing and rearranging my notes. That there were no surprises—I knew exactly what I was going to do—was for me the problem. Writing is essentially donkey work, manual labor of the mind. What makes it bearable are those moments (which sometimes can last for weeks, months) when the book takes over, takes on a life of its own, goes off in unexpected directions. There were no detours like that in The Studio. My notes were like plans for a bridge. Writing the book was like building that bridge. 

This chimes with my experience. The two books I most enjoyed writing are Original Sin and The Year of Our Lord 1943, because they posed serious structural challenges. It was not obvious to me how those stories might best be told. 

Man Hunt (1941)

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In theory, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt faced the same problem that many other Hollywood films of the same era (Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, for instance) faced: How to be anti-Nazi while maintaining a fig leaf of objectivity — a necessary fig leaf, given the supposed neutrality of the United States. But this movie is about as anti-Nazi as it’s possible to be. That said, opposition to Nazism isn’t what the movie is about. To explain why I say that, I have to tell the story. 

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Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is a famous English big-game hunter who is caught in the woods near Berchtesgaden and accused of attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Under interrogation by a Nazi official (played with exquisite sliminess by George Sanders) he denies the charge, but is told that he will not be released, indeed will be killed, unless he signs a confession. He refuses, but eventually escapes to London, pursued by Nazis. 

Overall, the movie doesn’t have a very Lang-like look and feel, but there’s a terrific pursuit scene in the Underground that reminds me strongly of M.

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In any event: the Nazis chase Thorndike about the city and eventually, though quite accidentally, into the arms of a cockney girl called Jerry (Joan Bennett), whom he charms. She falls hard for him, though the feeling is not quite mutual. He’s attracted to her but not besotted; she’s a kid to him. In the end Thorndike kills his Nazi pursuers, though not before they find Jerry and kill her, because she refused to betray his location. (There’s a strong dose of poetic justice in the way he does this, but that’s one detail I won’t spoil.) 

Thorndike is wounded in the final confrontation with his enemy, and two scenes follow. In the first, Thorndike is in the hospital, deliriously replaying in his mind his time with Jerry; in the second, he parachutes out of an airplane — not under orders, but on his own initiative — and into Germany. His descent is accompanied by much bombast. It’s the same kind of pseudo-patriotic noise that defaces the conclusion of Foreign Correspondent.  

What the bombast (including a final voiceover) obscures is the real point of the story, which is this: Thorndike is on a suicide mission. At a moment when the Nazis control most of Europe and any meaningful contesting of their continental domination is years away, he floats down to German soil carrying only a high-powered hunting rifle. At the beginning of the film he had told his interrogator that he didn’t enjoy killing any more — he had come to prefer the “sporting stalk” in which he finds and targets his quarry but doesn’t bother to pull the trigger — but now his only thought is killing. He will not come back; he does not want to come back. 

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It is clear that he has but one goal: atonement. He had stumbled into Jerry’s life, charmed her, allowed her to assist him, and by those means he had led her straight to her death. And the only way he can think to atone is to kill as many Germans as he can and then suffer death himself. Man Hunt isn’t a patriotic drama; it’s an existentialist tragedy. 

on the edge

Above you see what I believe was the key moment in today’s match between Portugal and Slovenia. After having a penalty saved, astonishingly, by Jan Oblak, Cristiano Ronaldo collapsed in tears, and I mean collapsed: during the break between the two halves of extra time, his shoulders were shaking, he was inconsolable. Several teammates came up to hug him and pat him on the back, but only Palhinha gave him what he needed, which was a stern pull-up-your-socks talking-to.

Given the excessive deference Portuguese football exhibits towards Ronaldo — manifested today by allowing him to take several terrible free kicks which should have been taken by Bruno Fernandes, with Ronaldo in the box trying to get his head on the ball — Palhinha’s initiative was brave, and it may have saved the match. Without his intervention, would Ronaldo have been able to get himself together for the penalty shootout? Maybe. But I’m not sure. 

Surely Ronaldo is the most unlikeable of the truly great footballers. He has always been petulant, whiny, preening, and selfish, and has often been on the edge of losing self-control altogether. As a starlet at Manchester United, he took more dives than Greg Louganis … but eventually he realized that his behavior was counterproductive — he was not getting calls that he deserved because the refs assumed that he was diving once again — and he stopped. Just stopped. 

Ronaldo strikes me as a narcissistic asshole who wants so desperately to be great at football that he manages — with enormous difficulty — to control his bad disposition sufficiently that it doesn’t prevent greatness. His devotion to preparation is, I think, unparalleled. Consider for instance how good he is with his “off” leg — he’s scored around 175 left-footed goals in his career — and think about how many thousands of hours of practice enabled that success. His conditioning is likewise superlative: he’s 39 years old and just played 120 minutes, but of all the Portugal players he’s the one I’m least worried about being tired for the Friday match with France. 

It would have been so easy for his own temperament to destroy his career, but it didn’t. I don’t like him, I don’t like him one bit, but I have to admire him for that. I’m talking here only about his play, not about the rest of his life, but: Whether his demons are inbuilt or whether he has indulged them, they’ve been afflicting him his entire career, and yet in every essential way he has throttled them. That’s remarkable. 

All that said, I wish he’d have missed that second penalty as well, and that Slovenia had sent him home. 

P.S. Palhinha’s full name is João Maria Lobo Alves Palhares Costa Palhinha Gonçalves. 

UPDATE after the Portugal loss to France, from Jonathan Liew

In a way, it’s hard not to feel resentful of him: resentful of the way this grand, galaxy-sized occasion is ultimately reduced to a function of one man’s ego. This could have been an all-time great quarter-final, and instead a part of it was stolen: stolen ball possession, stolen attention, stolen minutes from better players who actually deserve to be there, rather than a pure anachronism trotting out simply because no one has the clout to tell him not to.

Liew points out that Ronaldo was the only Portugal player on the pitch not to console Joao Felix after the kid missed his penalty. He just turned and walked away, even though he had received consolations in the previous match. 

supple and athletic minds

Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (1871):

A new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers. 

A recommendation more important now than ever. 

Will Republicans Save the Humanities?

Jenna Silber Storey and Benjamin Storey:

At public colleges in red and purple states like Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah, about 200 tenure- and career-track faculty lines are being created in new academic units devoted to civic education, according to Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at Arizona State University. These positions are being filled by faculty members trained in areas including political theory, history, philosophy, classics, and English. Since there are only about 2,000 jobs advertised in all those disciplines combined in a typical year, the creation of 200 new lines is a significant event. […] 

Criticism of these new programs is both understandable and premature. Most of them have just been founded and have yet to demonstrate exactly how they intend to fulfill the mandates that have set them in motion. They have not had time to create a track record by which they might be judged, and they will each develop in different ways. For now, understanding the motivations of the faculty members who join them may be the best way to discern where those programs are headed. Who are the academics working in these programs? Why have they moved from other colleges? How do they think about their responsibility to the legislative mandates that created these projects? And how do they plan to build academic programs with integrity under intense and conflicting political pressures, from both on and off campus? 

A sharp and fair-minded report. I would add that almost all of these endeavors are rooted not in conservatism but in classical liberalism — which is how they attract non-conservatives. This is not a MAGA project but an Enlightenment project, especially the Enlightenment of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. (Thus the centrality of political philosophy — literature and the other arts just come along for the ride, but they seem to be welcome.) 

I especially appreciate this paragraph from late in the piece: 

The final challenge these schools face, in our view, is to articulate their programs as a renaissance rather than a reaction. Many of the faculty members moving to these schools bring with them powerful memories of elements of their own academic training that are underappreciated: great books programs at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, courses in grand strategy at Yale University, curricula that focus on the American founding or British constitutionalism. To be part of a renaissance that endures, efforts to revive neglected subfields and forgotten courses must resist the temptation of nostalgia for a lost golden age. The Renaissance we remember did not simply revel in old texts of Cicero, it gave birth to novel forms of art and thought that focused on the distinct challenges of its moment.

I’ve seen a number of comments from LPC* academics about these new programs, and their view, unsurprisingly, seems to be that they’d rather see the humanities destroyed altogether than see such programs succeed. I get it; it’s hard, when one has wielded unchallenged power for so long, to deal with resistance. 

* Left Purity Culture 

counterparts

More Trollopean spoilers here. 

One of Trollope’s more interesting habits as a novelist is the tendency to create counterparts: a character in one novel will mirror a character in another. The proper counterpart of Lady Arabella in Doctor Thorne, whom I discussed in my previous post, appears in the next Barsetshire novel, Framley Parsonage: I refer to Lady Lufton. Like Lady Arabella, Lady Lufton is a woman of high rank who treasures that rank, and a woman with one son who treasures that son and desperately wants him to marry appropriately. 

But whereas Lady Arabella is fretful and nervous, Lady Lufton is a masterful woman. Her circumstances are different: she is a widow and must make her own decisions; and far from being financially embarrassed she is quite rich. Moreover, she is exceptionally generous with her wealth. Mark Robarts, a clergyman who is a recipient of her patronage, thinks of her thus: 

He knew a good deal respecting Lady Lufton’s income and the manner in which it was spent. It was very handsome for a single lady, but then she lived in a free and open-handed style; her charities were noble; there was no reason why she should save money, and her annual income was usually spent within the year. Mark knew this, and he knew also that nothing short of an impossibility to maintain them would induce her to lessen her charities. She had now given away a portion of her principal to save the property of her son — her son, who was so much more opulent than herself, — upon whose means, too, the world made fewer effectual claims. 

But Lady Lufton’s habit of generosity has this effect on her: it makes her more accustomed to getting her way. She does not give with conditions, but she expects her generosity to be properly acknowledged. She loves Mark Robarts, who has been her son Lord Lufton’s closest friend since childhood; but she expects that a mere country vicar, the son of a provincial doctor, and his wife Fanny will know better than to think that his sister Lucy could be a proper mate for her son. Mark and Fanny do nothing to promote the match; but they don’t send Lucy away either. 

Lucy herself is mindful that she is far below Lord Lufton on the social scale, and, though she loves him, refuses his proposal of marriage; then, when he renews it, she tells him that she will only marry him if his mother explicitly endorses the marriage. When Lufton presses his mother to accept Lucy, she is in agony. She knows that her son loves Lucy, but all along she has hoped for him to marry the stately and elegant Griselda Grantly (daughter of Archdeacon Grantly, whom we came to know back in Barchester Towers). 

When pressed to explain her disapproval of Lucy, Lady Lufton feels that she can’t risk being too blunt. (“But her father was a doctor of medicine, she is the sister of the parish clergyman, she is only five feet two in height, and is so uncommonly brown! Had Lady Lufton dared to give a catalogue of her objections, such would have been its extent and nature. But she did not dare to do this.”) So she equivocates: 

And then at last Lady Lufton spoke it out. “She is — insignificant. I believe her to be a very good girl, but she is not qualified to fill the high position to which you would exalt her.”

“Insignificant!”

“Yes, Ludovic, I think so.”

“Then, mother, you do not know her. You must permit me to say that you are talking of a girl whom you do not know. Of all the epithets of opprobrium which the English language could give you, that would be nearly the last which she would deserve.”

“I have not intended any opprobrium.”

“Insignificant!”

“Perhaps you do not quite understand me, Ludovic.”

“I know what insignificant means, mother.”

“I think that she would not worthily fill the position which your wife should take in the world.”

“I understand what you say.”

“She would not do you honour at the head of your table.” 

Lady Lufton’s objections are largely pictorial — they involve her sense that the grace and stature and elegance of the Lufton family must be visually manifested in the next Lady Lufton, a personage so “exalted.” And these objections loom large in her mind; but, it turns out, not as large as her genuine love for her son, and her desire that he be happy. 

After much soul-searching and inward struggle, Lady Lufton visits Lucy Robarts — who has in the meantime (and Lady Lufton has noticed this) devoted herself to charity not through money but through self-sacrificial generosity, at some risk to her own health — to put a question to her: 

“He is the best of sons, and the best of men, and I am sure that he will be the best of husbands.”

Lucy had an idea, by instinct, however, rather than by sight, that Lady Lufton’s eyes were full of tears as she spoke. As for herself she was altogether blinded and did not dare to lift her face or to turn her head. As for the utterance of any sound, that was quite out of the question.

“And now I have come here, Lucy, to ask you to be his wife.” 

Trollope can be fierce, as I noted in my previous post, but he can also be sweet, and one of the sweetest moments in all his voluminous works comes in Lady Lufton’s final words, in this scene, to Lucy, when they agree on a time for Lucy to return to Framley Court: 

“Well, dearest, you shall be quiet; the day after to-morrow then. — Mind we must not spare you any longer, because it will be right that you should be at home now. He would think it very hard if you were to be so near, and he was not to be allowed to look at you. And there will be some one else who will want to see you. I shall want to have you very near to me, for I shall be wretched, Lucy, if I cannot teach you to love me.” 

Here Lady Lufton has wholly humbled herself: she is no longer “stern and cross, vexatious and disagreeable,” demanding and censorious. She does not insist on her status, but casts it aside and woos Lucy. “I shall be wretched, Lucy, if I cannot teach you to love me.” Her desire to love and be loved proves stronger than her image of Lufton greatness. 

Needless to say, Lady Arabella Gresham would be capable of none of this: not the self-critique, not even a moment of self-reflection; not the weighing of the claims of rank against the claims of happiness. Lady Arabella is by birth a de Courcy, and one of the regular themes of the Barsetshire novels is the sheer rapacity of the de Courcys. In the next novel in the series, The Small House at Allington, we see them ceaselessly working to consolidate their status, like a mafia clan. (The Countess de Courcy is like a British female equivalent to the mature Michael Corleone, only less decent.) They represent the British class system at its worst; in Lady Lufton we see — it is a rare enough thing in Trollope — a path to moral redemption for the rich and lofty. 

money is magic

Spoilers ahead, but come on, you know how books like this end.

Trollope’s Doctor Thorne is the classic story about the poor orphan girl who turns out to be a princess, but with a twist: Trollope asks how a poor orphan girl can become a princess, and his answer is: With money. Mary Thorne doesn’t have a fairy godmother; but she has an unexpected inheritance. That is to say: money is magic. Money is indeed the most powerful magic imaginable, at least in some circumstances, and all of the major characters in Doctor Thorne know it, and indeed talk about it openly.

Look for instance at this extraordinarily blunt conversation between Frank Gresham and his father. Frank is pressing his father to explain why, if he thinks Mary’s illegitimate birth so terrible, he allowed Mary to associate with his own children. At first Mr. Gresham is somewhat evasive:

“It is a misfortune, Frank; a very great misfortune. It will not do for you and me to ignore birth; too much of the value of one’s position depends upon it.”

“But what was Mr Moffat’s birth?” said Frank, almost with scorn; “or what Miss Dunstable’s?” he would have added, had it not been that his father had not been concerned in that sin of wedding him to the oil of Lebanon.

(Mr Moffatt is a rich man without birth whom the Greshams eagerly sought as a husband for their eldest daughter Augusta; and Frank’s mother and aunt had flatly ordered him to woo Miss Dunstable — one of Trollope’s finest creations, incidentally —, the heiress to a fortune her father acquired through inventing and selling a patent medicine.)

“True, Frank. But yet, what you would mean to say is not true. We must take the world as we find it. Were you to marry a rich heiress, were her birth even as low as that of poor Mary —“

“Don’t call her poor Mary, father; she is not poor. My wife will have a right to take rank in the world, however she was born.”

“Well, — poor in that way. But were she an heiress, the world would forgive her birth on account of her wealth.”

“The world is very complaisant, sir.”

“You must take it as you find it, Frank. I only say that such is the fact. If Porlock [a cousin] were to marry the daughter of a shoeblack, without a farthing, he would make a mésalliance; but if the daughter of the shoeblack had half a million of money, nobody would dream of saying so. I am stating no opinion of my own: I am only giving you the world’s opinion.”

“I don’t give a straw for the world.”

“That is a mistake, my boy; you do care for it, and would be very foolish if you did not. What you mean is, that, on this particular point, you value your love more than the world’s opinion.”

Mr. Gresham is simply pointing out to his son that birth and money alike are means of exchange — tradable in the social marketplace. (The social marketplace, in which people bargain and buy and sell to raise their position, is what Mr. Gresham means by “the world.”) That one must do one’s best in that marketplace is a given for all of the Greshams except Frank. Mr. Gresham is the only member of his family who in any way questions this view of things, the only one who, as can be seen in the quotation above, understands Frank’s love for Mary; but he will not rock that boat, even though he knows that he and his wife are wholly responsible for Frank’s financial difficulties. He expects Frank to blame him for his fiscal imprudence, perhaps even to hate him for making marriage with Mary impossible; but he also expects that Frank will acknowledge and obey the cold logic of the marketplace. “We must take the world as we find it.”

Similarly, Frank’s sister Beatrice, Mary Thorne’s most intimate friend, thinks it obviously impossible that Mary should marry Frank and is disconcerted to discover that Mary does not necessarily agree.

The great ogress in this story — or, the wicked witch who stands in the way of the hidden princess — is Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella, and she is truly horrible. But late in the book, when she is making one more attempt to dissuade her son from pursuing Mary Thorne, Trollope pauses in his narration to say this:

Before we go on we must say one word further as to Lady Arabella’s character. It will probably be said that she was a consummate hypocrite; but at the present moment she was not hypocritical. She did love her son; was anxious — very, very anxious for him; was proud of him, and almost admired the very obstinacy which so vexed her to her inmost soul. No grief would be to her so great as that of seeing him sink below what she conceived to be his position. She was as genuinely motherly, in wishing that he should marry money, as another woman might be in wishing to see her son a bishop; or as the Spartan matron, who preferred that her offspring should return on his shield, to hearing that he had come back whole in limb but tainted in honour. When Frank spoke of a profession, she instantly thought of what Lord de Courcy might do for him. If he would not marry money, he might, at any rate, be an attaché at an embassy. A profession — hard work, as a doctor, or as an engineer — would, according to her ideas, degrade him; cause him to sink below his proper position; but to dangle at a foreign court, to make small talk at the evening parties of a lady ambassadress, and occasionally, perhaps, to write demi-official notes containing demi-official tittle-tattle; this would be in proper accordance with the high honour of a Gresham of Greshamsbury. We may not admire the direction taken by Lady Arabella’s energy on behalf of her son, but that energy was not hypocritical.

Her position, and the “energy” with which she defends it, are not hypocritical because neither she nor any other member of her family pretends to think in any other way. Their vice pays no tribute to any virtue. When dissuading Frank from pursuing Mary, they could have found a thousand ways to camouflage their greed, to disguise it as something else altogether, but they never bother to do so. They simply say, in precisely these words, “Frank, you must marry money.” And when Lady Arabella says to Mary that Frank is regrettably pledging himself to “you who have nothing to give in return,” she doesn’t even think she is insulting Mary: she is merely describing the plain facts of the case, for Mary has neither family nor rank nor money — she has no currency.

Trollope’s forthrightness on these points is rarely matched in novelists; one of his few peers in this regard is his great predecessor Jane Austen. As Auden writes in his “Letter to Lord Byron,”

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

Ditto with Trollope. And both writers disguise with brightness of tone the fierceness of their condemnation.

But Trollope bites deeper than Austen does, at least in this novel. The scene in Doctor Thorne in which Lady Arabella tries to compel Mary to renounce Frank is closely modeled on the scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Lady Catherine tries to compel Elizabeth Bennett to renounce Mr. Darcy. Neither attempt works; in each case the socially inferior younger woman proves capable of resisting the demands of the socially superior older one. But Elizabeth benefits from no unexpected inheritance; in the end she is accepted simply because Mr. Darcy need please no one, and his enormous wealth ensures that everyone will want to please him. (Elizabeth’s father slyly notes this.) And her path is smoothed, to some extent anyway, by the social currency she does have: as she says to Lady Catherine about Mr. Darcy, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

In Doctor Thorne, by contrast, we enjoy the spectacle of an entire family who had found the bastard Mary Thorne unthinkable as a mate for Frank welcome her with hosannas as soon as she acquires a shitload of cash; not one of them learns a damned thing or changes in any way — indeed, if anything they are confirmed in the rightness of their views of the world, because in the end they get precisely what they want. And Trollope makes no comment on this at all; he reports, we decide.

when you’re ready to stop eating grass

This is a kind of follow-up to my previous post, in which I described this blog as a venue for conserving and transmitting what I believe to be valuable and worthy of our attention. But I don’t want to argue with people about how they spend their time and what they devote their attention to. Now, sometimes I forget this principle and end up arguing anyway. But why would I even try to avoid it? 

In 1940 C. S. Lewis gave a talk, later to be published as an essay, called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” Lewis begins this talk by discussing conscience, which makes sense, since pacifists often account for their position by appealing to their conscience. Their conscience tells them that fighting in a war is wrong. But to say merely this is to obscure a question that Lewis thinks important: How does one arrive at moral judgments, e.g. the judgment that fighting in a war is wrong? Lewis addresses this question by saying that arriving at judgments about right and wrong is functionally or structurally similar to arriving at judgments about truth and falsehood. So how do we do that?

Lewis says that there are three elements to “any concrete train of reasoning”:

Firstly, there is the reception of facts to reason about. These facts are received either from our own senses, or from the report of other minds; that is, either experience or authority supplies us with our material. But each man’s experience is so limited that the second source is the more usual; of every hundred facts upon which to reason, ninety-nine depend on authority. Secondly, there is the direct, simple act of the mind perceiving self-evident truth, as when we see that if A and B both equal C, then they equal each other. This act I call intuition. Thirdly, there is an art or skill of arranging the facts so as to yield a series of such intuitions which linked together produce a proof of the truth or falsehood of the proposition we are considering. 

Lewis is especially interested in the second step, intuition. (By the way, it is not just Lewis who uses the term in this way: he’s borrowing from Thomas Aquinas.) And one point he makes about intuition is especially important: 

The second, the intuitional element, cannot be corrected if it is wrong, nor supplied if it is lacking. You can give the man new facts. You can invent a simpler proof, that is, a simpler concatenation of intuitable truths. But when you come to an absolute inability to see any one of the self-evident steps out of which the proof is built, then you can do nothing. No doubt this absolute inability is much rarer than we suppose. Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they “can’t see” some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability is usually a refusal to see, resulting either from some passion which wants not to see the truth in question or else from sloth which does not want to think at all. But when the inability is real, argument is at an end. You cannot produce rational intuition by argument, because argument depends upon rational intuition. Proof rests upon the unprovable which has to be just “seen.” Hence faulty intuition is incorrigible. It does not follow that it cannot be trained by practice in attention and in the mortification of disturbing passions, or corrupted by the opposite habits. But it is not amenable to correction by argument. 

And as with rational intuition, so also with moral intuition. If you simply cannot see that, for instance, eating people is wrong, then no one will be able to come up with an argument to convince you. Your mind may be alterable, but not by that means. 

Think about the hundreds of millions of people who spend their days shitposting; dragging political enemies on social media; writing to complete strangers to tell them that they’re stupid or evil; scrolling through TikTok for endless hours — I can’t find the link now, but one person recently reported noticing that the person sitting just in front of her on a 10-hour transoceanic flight never stopped watching TikTok for the duration —; drooling enviously over perfect Instagram lives; constantly self-diagnosing their own manifold mental illnesses; constantly pursuing their porn preferences into darker and darker places … a properly functioning intuitive faculty would tell them that all this is an absolutely shitty way to live … but their intuitive faculty is broken, or has never been developed. 

You just have to wait for the moment when they realize that all this time they’ve been eating grass. And then, when that happens, you need to have something better, something that’s tastier and more nutritious, waiting for them. 

what love wants to say

Cheryl Mendelson is a philosopher, a lawyer, a novelist, and the author of a legendary book about housekeeping. (We’ve been using our copy for a quarter-century now.) And her new book, Vows: The Modern Genius of an Ancient Rite, stands somehow at the intersection of all those things. After all, a wedding ceremony, with vows at its center, is a peculiar rite indeed. To make such a vow is to promise; is to enter into a kind of contract; is the fruit of a decision for two people to make a home together. And of course, the events that lead up to a marriage, the events that constitute a marriage, and (sometimes) the events that end a marriage, are endlessly productive of stories. This is all to say that Cheryl Mendelson is probably the perfect person to write this book. 

(Disclosure: I don’t know Cheryl Mendelson but have known her husband Edward for many years now. He is W. H. Auden’s literary executor and has always been of inestimable aid and support to my work on Auden.)  

Mendelson begins the book by describing her first marriage, one made impulsively when she was quite young; she concludes by describing her happily enduring second marriage. And it is her belief that we can grasp why one marriage failed and the other succeeded by understanding how the couples felt about, how they thought about, how they understood (or failed to understand) the vows with which they began their lives together. It’s a brilliant notion and one that frames the whole narrative, which is largely historical but also sociological, psychological, moral — and (often) religious, since the wedding vows we all know arose through the long development of Christian rites of Holy Matrimony. 

After describing her hasty first marriage, Mendelson writes, 

It’s hard to imagine a world in which our absurd decision to marry wouldn’t have ended in divorce. But I could see that friends whose marriages had more propitious beginnings than ours had to fight many of the same battles. The general atmosphere of suspicion toward the institution seemed to me to seep into actual marriages, exaggerating their frustrations and minimizing their satisfactions. Most marriages in our circle of friends broke up. Social hostility toward marriage and even toward love, expressed in contempt, disapproval, and unfriendly theorizing, took a toll on both. 

This widespread social hostility to, or at best irony about, marriage is, it seems to me, the primary impetus for the book. Mendelson challenges it, and challenges it compassionately but forcefully. She knows that her celebration of marriage (and its classic vows) will be a hard sell for many: 

To write about the marriage vows … is to pick one’s way through a cultural minefield. Whether wedding vows need rethinking, updating, or, possibly, discarding is now a wide-open question. Having thought, read, and rethought, I concluded – for reasons that this book exists to lay out – that the answer is a solid no. The traditional marriage vows, though they contain phrases composed a thousand or more years ago, are a form of words that say exactly what love still wants to say. 

Vows is a remarkable book, and I hope it gets a wide readership. The defense and, more, celebration of fidelity (Chapter 9) is itself worth the price of admission, and I wonder how many readers will reckon seriously with the case Mendelson makes. More generally, I would be especially interested to hear how people who despise marriage reckon with the book’s arguments. They won’t find Mendelson easy to refute. 

unconditional love

Clare Sestanovich

I sat across from the missionary, pretending to drink a beer. I was new to beer, and it still tasted bad to me, the way it tastes to children. The second-floor boy was there, too, our shoulders touching. The missionary was talking about love again. The most important thing about God, he told us, was that he loved you unconditionally. For some reason, this startled me. It almost angered me. Who, I asked the missionary, taking a fake sip from the beer bottle, would actually want to be loved like that? All-encompassing, all-permitting love sounded indiscriminate. And what were we doing here — at our fancy school, in our charmed lives — if not learning to discriminate, to value things in and for their particulars? 

“All-encompassing” and “all-permitting” are not synonyms. God doesn’t permit everything; God doesn’t approve everything; God’s discriminations are infinitely subtler than ours. He sees all your sins and names them as sins; he sees all your errors and names them as errors. He is ruthless in His exposure of your deceptions of others and your self-deceptions. He doesn’t miss anything, and he doesn’t think your poems are as good as Keats’s, or your essays as good as Joan Didion’s, unless your poems and essays actually are that good. But he loves you anyway, all the time, and all the way — just as much as He loves that person down the street, that dimwit, that asshole, that person you never want to see again. The love of God shines on the excellent and the assholes alike. 

The Good News here is that if you ever stop being excellent and start becoming a dimwit or an asshole or both at once, God will see it, he will know it, he will know it better than you do, he won’t call it anything except what it is … but he will love you just as much as he did when you were excellent. Because Love doesn’t keep score

Robert Farrar Capon:

I said grace cannot prevail until law is dead, until moralizing is out of the game. The precise phrase should be, until our fatal love affair with the law is over — until, finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed. As long as we leave, in our dramatizations of grace, one single hope of a moral reckoning, one possible recourse to salvation by bookkeeping, our freedom-dreading hearts will clutch it to themselves. And even if we leave none at all, we will grub for ethics that are not there rather than face the liberty to which grace calls us. Give us the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, and we will promptly lose its point by preaching ourselves sermons on Worthy and Unworthy Confession, or on The Sin of the Elder Brother. Give us the Workers in the Vineyard, and we will concoct spurious lessons on The Duty of Contentment or The Moral Aspects of Labor Relations.

Restore to us, Preacher, the comfort of merit and demerit. Prove for us that there is at least something we can do, that we are still, at whatever dim recess of our nature, the masters of our relationships. Tell us, Prophet, that in spite of all our nights of losing, there will yet be one redeeming card of our very own to fill the inside straight we have so long and so earnestly tried to draw to. But do not preach us grace. It will not do to split the pot evenly at four A.M. and break out the Chivas Regal. We insist on being reckoned with. Give us something, anything; but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance. 

a numbers game

The Supreme Court of the United States has been busy this week (notes this SCOTUS-watcher, whose pinned tabs include supremecourt.gov). You hear a lot these days about a “polarized” and therefore somehow illegitimate court. A 6-3 court, we always hear, with six Republican appointees (Chief Justice Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett) and three Democratic appointees (Kagan, Sotomayor, Jackson). The Court has handed down nine opinions in the past two days. Let’s break down the votes, using the bold/italic formatting used above to make things clear:  

Texas v. New Mexico

JACKSON, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, ALITO, and BARRETT, JJ., joined.

Department of State v. Munoz

BARRETT, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, ALITO, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KAGAN and JACKSON, JJ., joined. 

Erlinger v. United States

GORSUCH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and BARRETT, JJ., joined. ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS, J., filed concurring opinions. KAVANAUGH, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined, and in which JACKSON, J., joined except as to Part III. JACKSON, J., filed a dissenting opinion. 

Smith v. Arizona:

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SOTOMAYOR, KAVANAUGH, BARRETT, and JACKSON, JJ., joined, and in which THOMAS and GORSUCH, JJ., joined as to Parts I, II, and IV. THOMAS, J., and GORSUCH, J., filed opinions concurring in part. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which ROBERTS, C. J., joined. 

United States v. Rahimi

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion for the Court, in which ALITO, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, GORSUCH, KAVANAUGH, BARRETT, and JACKSON, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KAGAN, J., joined. GORSUCH, J., KAVANAUGH, J., BARRETT, J., and JACKSON, J., filed concurring opinions. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. 

Gonzalez v. Trevino

Per curiam decision — that is, by the whole court with no one justice writing the opinion. A rare thing, done in this case for reasons too complicated to get into here.  

Moore v. United States

KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and JACKSON, JJ., joined. JACKSON, J., filed a concurring opinion. BARRETT, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which ALITO, J., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GORSUCH, J., joined.

Chiaverini v. City of Napoleon

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and SOTOMAYOR, KAVANAUGH, BARRETT, and JACKSON, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

This is a pretty typical set of SCOTUS decisions in one major way: only one of the decisions (Munoz) follows the 6-3 split that, we are told by almost all who write about such matters, shitposters and professionals alike, simply defines the character of the court. But as Adam Feldman has written on the invaluable Empirical SCOTUS blog, “While the justices often vote across predictable lines, less predictable individual votes often get overshadowed by decision outcomes that come down as predicted.” That is, Court observers simply ignore the decisions that don’t fit their simplistic ideological frame — it’s as though such decisions don’t happen. A decision in which the dissenters include Samuel Alito and Ketanji Brown Jackson? Unimaginable! A Court in which the supposedly all-powerful right-wingers, Thomas and Alito, are the most likely to be in the minority? Inconceivable! 

Sarah Isgur co-wrote that piece I just linked to, and Advisory Opinions, the podcast she hosts with David French, is consistently very good at pointing listeners to useful articles that explore some of these nuances, and usually very good at explaining those nuances directly.* Empirical SCOTUS, as I have said, is an excellent blog, and the place to start on any given issue or case is SCOTUSblog.  

If you have any interest in American law, these resources are worth exploring, because they can rescue you from the sheer infantilism that characterizes almost all commentary on SCOTUS, including most of what appears in such august venues as the New York Times. Our commentators are infantile because they have only one criterion for evaluating legal decisions on any level: Did this decision give me what I want? The law doesn’t matter to them, the facts of the cases don’t matter to them, legal reasoning is completely inaccessible to them. They just want what they want, and a judge who gives it to them is Good, and a judge who doesn’t is Bad. As I say: infantile. Don’t be that way.  


* Usually but not always. I have one major beef with the podcast: both hosts, but especially Isgur, use too many pronouns. I’m always hearing “it” and asking What?? Or hearing “they” and asking Who?? Isgur and French are good friends and each can often read the other’s mind, but we listeners are not so privileged — especially those of us who are not lawyers. Similarly, sometimes they’ll say of a given case “It’s pretty obvious where this one is going” — but then they don’t say where! Or they’ll say “So this one was 7-2” without saying which way it went. I think they’re assuming that their listeners are reading the opinions, or at least reading the news, before listening to their podcast, and while sometimes that’s true for me it isn’t always. I learn a lot, but I often find myself confused as I listen, and unnecessarily so. Sarah and David just need to slow down sometimes and establish the basic facts of a given case for their audiences before going on to their analysis. Isn’t that something good lawyers always do for juries and judges? 

the uncanny valley of blogging

I used to call my blog Snakes & Ladders, because that reflected my belief that culture – culture-as-a-whole – is never simply ascending or declining, but is undergoing in its various locations constant ups and downs. But beneath that point is an image of myself as an observer and critic of this cultural moment. Now I call the blog The Homebound Symphony, in honor of the Traveling Symphony in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, because I have stopped thinking of myself as an observer and critic and started thinking of myself as a preserver and transmitter. Another way to put this: Whereas I once tried to be a public intellectual, I now just want to be a … I dunno, maybe a convivial conservator.

There’s no money in being a conservator, no prestige either, and almost no attention. I am dramatically less visible now than I was a decade ago, or even five years ago. But for me that’s a feature, not a bug; I have consciously worked to make my audience smaller, chiefly by focusing on what interests me, especially when it interests almost no one else. (I have my number.) That focus warms my heart and gives me peace, so I’m going to keep doing it, even if nobody notices. Looking at the whole public-intellectual game now, I think: I’m way too old for that shit.

This change of focus has also led to a renewed commitment to blogging. If you’re a public intellectual, you may need to write books and essays to make arguments, and to intervene in the Discourse via social media, to change minds. If that’s your thing, then maybe you’d want to use Substack, since it pushes its writers towards (a) hosting comments and (b) engaging with readers via the comment section and Notes. But that is soooooo not my thing; by contrast, a blog is an ideal venue for what I want to do, which is preservation and transmission. It’s a great way to put ideas and images and musical compositions in meaningful relation, including creative tension, with one another. It’s an attention cottage

What’s funny about all this is that a blog is probably the least cool way to communicate with people. It doesn’t have old-school cred or state-of-the-art shine; it falls into a kind of uncanny valley. To be a blogger is sort of like being that Japanese guy who makes paintings with Excel. But that suits me. 

a parable

In 1969, when the Beatles were recording the album that became Abbey Road, Paul McCartney would come in every day to record a vocal track. (He lived near the studio, so it was easy for him to drop by.) The vocal he was trying to get right was “Oh! Darling” — a song that, some years later, John Lennon would say was better suited to his voice than Paul’s — and each day Paul would perform one take and one take only. There’s some serious shouting on that song, and Paul was taking care to protect his voice; several takes might do damage that would take time to heal. 

Six years earlier, when the lads were recording their first album, they did the whole thing — fourteen songs — in one day, and they saved “Twist and Shout” for the end because John knew that once he had done that one, he wouldn’t have any voice left to do anything else. 

Soyinka and the mythical method

I have an essay in the new issue of Harper’s called “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” It traces the interest in myth and myth-making from Giambattista Vico to George Lucas, tries to explain why myth has ceased to be an appealing and useful category to our intelligentsia, and asks whether there might be a case for restoring it to a place in our conceptual toolbox. 

I do think such a case can be made, and while I do not in this essay make that case in any formal way, I conclude by pointing to the example of Wole Soyinka, who (I’ve been saying this for decades) just may be our greatest living writer. If you don’t know anything about Soyinka, here’s an introductory essay I wrote about him more than twenty years ago. 

I’d love to make a few converts to Soyinka. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend two of the plays in the first volume of his Collected Plays: The Strong Breed and The Swamp Dwellers. Then move on to his greatest play, and one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, Death and the King’s Horseman

Soyinka has also written several volumes of memoirs, the best of which are the first two: Aké: The Years of Childhood and Ìsarà: A Voyage around “Essay” — “Essay” being the nickname of Soyinka’s father, S. A. Soyinka. The former is still in print and easy to find; the latter has been ignored, which is a great shame. They are wonderfully rich, evocative, and perceptive accounts of childhood, and a window into a certain class of Nigerian Christians around the time of the Second World War. (The passages in Aké about the widespread fear that Hitler would invade Nigeria are very funny. In fact, you will find yourself smiling often as you read these memoirs.) 

The next level of difficulty would be his more ambitious plays (A Dance of the Forests and — I discuss this one in my essay — his Yoruba/Christian/Greek version of Euripides’s Bacchae), and then his remarkable novel The Interpreters

Also, here are some photographs of the Soyinka family I put up for one of my classes and have yet to annotate. The third photo is of the formidable Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, whose women’s march for tax relief is the climactic scene of Aké — she was a pioneering Nigerian feminist and activist, Soyinka’s great-aunt, and the mother of the great Fela Kuti. Which means the one of the greatest African singer-songwriters and one of the greatest living writers are cousins. 

Finally, here are some photos I took in 1991 when I visited the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in the heart of Yorubaland. 

Thomas of London

The inchoate and incomplete “theology of the city” that I wrote about last week has always, is my mind, been connected to London as strongly as to Jerusalem and Babylon and Rome. Here’s a new entry in my longstanding if intermittent series about the great city on the Thames. 


He is known to us by another name, and linked in our minds with the city in which he was murdered, but throughout much of his adult life he would have been known as Thomas of London. Thomas, because he was born, probably in the year 1118, on the the feast-day of St. Thomas the Apostle, December 21; and London because he was born in that city, on the street called Cheapside. His father had come to England from Rouen, in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; his mother was from Caen. Later stories that Thomas was Anglo-Saxon are wholly untrue. He was, as his shrewdest biographer says, “perhaps the first of England’s great men to be essentially and professedly a Londoner.”

“Cheapside” is derived from Old English words meaning “marketplace,” and we know what people would have brought to sell at the market by the nearby street names: Bread Street, Milk Street, Poultry, Honey Lane. When Thomas was born the place was more of an open area in the growing town than what anyone today would call a street, but it was a major thoroughfare, and when the Kings of England made royal progress from the Tower of London at the eastern end of the city to the Palace of Westminster, arcing along the great bend in the River Thames, they always passed along Cheapside.

Just to the west of his birthplace Thomas would have seen, rising above the rest of the town, London’s greatest work in progress: St. Paul’s Cathedral. Construction had begun in 1087, after a great fire destroyed its predecessor and indeed much of the city — a story that would be repeated in 1666, leading to the building of yet another St. Paul’s, the great domed one that we know today. Scholars believe that the church Thomas saw going up, which is usually called Old St. Paul’s, was already the fourth church to be built on that site, which makes one wonder why the people of London didn’t give up and try elsewhere. But the site was both an intrinsically good one — situated on a small hill overlooking the Thames — and one hallowed by sanctity, for St. Erkenwald, a Bishop of London who died in 693, was buried there, and many pilgrims visited his grave to seek his intercession.

Later in life, when Thomas had become a great man, indeed the greatest churchman in England, he had learned clerks who worked for him, and one of them — William Fitzstephen, who was present at his murder — wrote a biography of Thomas that he prefaced with an account of the city in which Thomas was born. London was William’s native city too, and he took great pride in it and believed that its character explains a good deal about Thomas. London was the place of Thomas’s “rising,” as Canterbury was of his “setting.” William’s Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae — Description of the Most Noble City of London — ranges widely over the customs and practices of the city: for instance, we learn of a magnificent riverside restaurant that not only created lavish feasts but prepared takeaway meals for customers in a hurry. We learn also about commerce, sports and games, green meadows, wells of sweet water, and places of learning.

But William also wishes that we should know how pious a city London was, how “blessed in Christ’s religion.” Though we now believe that no more than 20,000 people lived there, William says that the city boasted thirteen major churches and 126 smaller ones. The major ones were monastic foundations of one kind or another, the smaller ones parish churches. It was this atmosphere of piety, William believes, that nourished the boy who would one day become St. Thomas Becket, St. Thomas of Canterbury. By the time Thomas was ten years old, William says, the boy already radiated holiness. At that age Thomas was sent for his schooling across the river to Merton Priory — situated in what is now a part of the metropolis but then was in the countryside, well beyond what William would have thought of as the boundaries of London — and when Thomas’s father Gilbert came to visit him there he found the prior, Robert, prostrating himself before the boy. When Gilbert expressed horror at this reversal of proper roles, the prior replied, “I know what I am doing. This boy will be a great man before the Lord.”

A likely story, one might be pardoned for thinking. And even at that time there were many in England who doubted that London could such an incubator of holiness. Richard of Devizes, a monk from Winchester and a contemporary of William’s, wrote bluntly: “If you do not wish to dwell with evildoers, do not live in London.” For him, and for many outside the capital, the city was already known as a place of all kinds of sin, but especially of naked avarice. And if one revisits William’s Descriptio with this in mind, one might notice that he spends more time describing the commerce and sports and games than the churches. He is never anything less than admiring of the worldly greatness of his native city. It was that particular greatness to which Thomas of London was a natural heir; but in the end he chose a different inheritance.

When Thomas was a very small boy, another Londoner had a vision. We do not know much with certainty about this man, not even his name. He is usually called Rahere or Raherius. He was clearly associated in some way with the court of King Henry I: in the fragmentary and confused records that have come down to us, he is sometimes referred to merely as a courtier, sometimes as Henry’s herald, though most often as the King’s jester. But in a document from 1115 his name is listed as one of the canons of (that is, priests attached to) St. Paul’s Cathedral. The taking of holy orders is not necessarily incompatible with playing the fool in a king’s court, especially in a period when kings had wide latitude to make gifts to their favorites; but the stories about Rahere do make for a curious amalgamation.

In any event, Rahere’s story now takes a turn: When he was on pilgrimage to Rome he fell ill, and when he was near death St. Bartholomew appeared before him and pledged to spare his life, but only on the condition that Rahere return to London and build a hospital. (In some versions of the story, Rahere in his vision is attacked by a terrifying monster, which the saint drives away.) Upon his return Rahere got busy. With royal and episcopal approval, he acquired a site next to the great livestock market of Smithfield, about half a mile north-west of Cheapside, and began, in 1123, to build both a church and a hospital, both named for the saint who has rescued him from death. He became the prior of the church, a position he held until his death in 1144; and there he is buried.

Thanks to the Great Fire of London in 1665 and the general depredations of time, nothing remains of the Cheapside of Thomas Becket, but some of what Rahere built remains to be seen. The site stands just at the northwestern edge of the City of London, which is why the Fire, which started in Pudding Lane in the eastern part of the city and near the river, never reached it; and when Henry VIII chose to re-found the hospital after he had dissolved England’s monasteries, it became formally known as the “House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London of Henry VIII’s Foundation.” The original hospital and its several chapels are long gone — though a late-medieval replacement for one those chapels remains as the church of St. Bartholomew the Less — so the chief embodiment of Rahere’s great project is the church known as St. Bartholomew the Great, or, more familiarly, Great St. Bart’s.

The visitor, or worshipper, today enters the church by passing along a walkway that is almost a tunnel — an urban version of a holloway, an old path sunk below the surrounding ground and overgrown by vegetation. For the city has been built up, level by level, in the nine hundred years since Rahere’s workmen laid the foundation for the church, and the surrounding streets run six fit or more above the entrance. Opening the doors, you find yourself in a tiny area, a dark wooden partition blocking any view. But you may well smell incense. And then you walk through one of the little interior doors and and ancient walls rise up around you, the heavy thick Norman stonework, the rounded arches, the windows that seem small if you have been in Gothic or new-Gothic churches recently. Around you is great mass, and a sense of the numinous, as though prayers that have risen up from this place for nearly a millennium have lest behind some invisible, yet palpable, residue.

I have visited Great St. Bart’s many times, but when I think of it I always recall the time I attended Evensong when a visiting Russian choir sang music from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. The somber and gorgeous music, which though composed in the twentieth century is shaped by ancient forms and tones of Russian music and prayer, seemed uncannily congruent with the dim and forbidding beauty of the old church. I was almost surprised when I looked around me to see people in modern clothing rather than robed and cowled monks.

Meanwhile, just a few feet away, the work of Barts (as the hospital is now generally called) went on, its multifarious electrical machinery humming, its practitioners generally oblivious not only to the worship going on in the church but to the curious and wonderful fact that that worship and their own labors on behalf of the sick arose from a single impulse, a single obedience, on the part of a man who once had found himself far from home and close to death and helpless in the face of his own suffering. The call of those who served in that hospital at its founding was “to wait upon the sick with diligence and care in all gentleness,” as the call of the monks was to pray for all who suffered in this life, and in the next too, if their place in the next life was Purgatory.

And we should remember too the goings-on a few feet on the other side of the church from Barts, in the great Victorian edifice of Smithfield Market, where the lorries come and go all day and most of the night, where the gods of commerce receive their proper worship as they did when William FitzStephen looked upon his city with such admiration. But this was also once a place of execution too; and also nearby was the site of Bartholomew Fair, that “school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate itself” (so the Newgate Calendar said). All the world’s wisdom and folly in a few square yards, with an ancient and beautiful church in the middle of it.

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

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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

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