Stagger onward rejoicing

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adult children

I think there’s a strong causal relationship between (a) the overly structured lives of children today and (b) the silly political stunts of protestors and “activists.”

As has often been noted, American children today rarely play: they engage in planned, supervised activities completely dictated by adults. Those of us who were raised in less fearful times spent a lot of time, especially during school vacations, figuring out what to do: what games to play, what sorts of things to build, etc. To do all this, we had to learn strategies of negotiation and persuasion and give-and-take. I might agree to play the game Jerry wants to play today on the condition that we play the game I want to play tomorrow. You could of course refuse to negotiate, but then people would just stop playing with you. Over time, therefore, kids sorted these matters out: maybe one became the regular leader, maybe they took turns, maybe some kids opted out and spent more time by themselves. Some were happy about how things worked out, some less happy; there were occasionally hurt feelings and fights; some kids became the butt of jokes.

I was one of those last because I was always younger and smaller than the others. (Story of my childhood in one sentence.) That’s why I often decided to stay home and read or play with Lego. But eventually I would come back, and when I did I was, more or less, welcomed. We worked it out. It wasn’t painless, but it wasn’t The Lord of the Flies either. We came to an understanding; we negotiated our way to a functional little society of neighborhood children.

But in today’s anti-ludic world of “planned activities,” kids don’t learn those skills. In their tightly managed environments, they basically have two options: acquiescence and “acting out.” And thus when they become politically aware young adults and find themselves in situations they can’t in conscience acquiesce to, acting out is basically the only tool in their toolbox. So they bring a microphone and speaker to a dinner at someone’s house and demand that everyone listen to their speech on their pet issue. Or they blockade a bridge, thereby annoying people who probably agree with their political news and giving decision-makers good reason to condemn them. Or they dress up in American flags and storm the U. S. Capitol building. And they act out because they can’t think of anything else to do when political decisions don’t go their way. After all, they’ve been doing it all their lives.

When kids do this kind of thing, we’re not surprised; we say, hey, kids will be kids. When adults do it, we call them assholes. We raise our children in such a way – this is my thesis – that we almost guarantee that they’ll grow up to be assholes. Congratulations to us! We’ve created a world in which, pretty soon, the Politics of Assholery will be the only kind of politics there is.

P.S. This is why I’m interested in anarchism! As I have said several times, the difference between libertarianism and anarchism is simply this: the goal of libertarianism is to expand the realm of individual freedom, while the goal of anarchism is to expand the realm of collaboration and cooperation. We need more anarchic childhoods today to have a more mature and constructive politics tomorrow.

The Internet’s New Favorite Philosopher | The New Yorker:

Maret is part of a growing coterie of readers who have embraced [Byung-Chul] Han as a kind of sage of the Internet era. Elizabeth Nakamura, a twentysomething art-gallery associate in San Francisco, had a similar conversion experience, during the early days of pandemic lockdown, after someone in a Discord chat suggested that she check out Han’s work. She downloaded “The Agony of Eros” from Libgen, a Web site that is known for pirated e-books. (She possesses Han’s books only in PDF form, like digital samizdat.) The monograph argues that the overexposure and self-aggrandizement encouraged by social media have killed the possibility of truly erotic experience, which requires an encounter with an other. “I’m like queening out reading this,” she told me, using Gen Z slang for effusive enjoyment—fangirling. “It’s a meme but not in the funny way — in the way that it’s sort of concise and easily disseminated. I can send this to my friends who aren’t as into reading to help them think about something,” she said. 

“This guy’s thinking has changed my life but of course that doesn’t mean I’m willing to pay for his books.” 

Wystan and Erika

Erika Mann WH Auden.

The couple above are W. H. Auden and Erika Mann. The photo was taken by a student at The Downs School, where Auden was then teaching. Erika, the daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann and an ardent opponent of Nazism, had been living in England but was in imminent danger of being repatriated to Germany. To prevent that from happening, Auden agreed to marry her. (Both were gay and not otherwise interested in matrimony.) On June 15, 1935 they were married in Ledbury, a town near the school. This photo was taken around that time, perhaps even on their wedding day.

Thomas and Katia Mann were very worried about Erika’s safety: had she been repatriated, a lengthy prison term was the best that she could have hoped for, especially since on her mother’s side she was of Jewish descent. Thomas and Katia were themselves safely on their way to New York City, traveling by ocean liner, when, on June 16, they received a terse and to-the-point telegram:


Eventually the Mann family would be reunited in America, and Erika and Klaus would write a book about their deliverance from Nazism.

Mann erika klaus escape to life.

In January of 1939, Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood arrived in New York City and were greeted at the pier by Erika and Klaus. They all drove down to Princeton to meet Papa and Mama Mann, and Life magazine sent a photographer to capture a family photo:

Carl mydans christopher isherwood and w.h. auden with thomas mann and his family at mann home, princeton, nj.

A happy reunion!

Wystan and Erika never divorced, so for decades Auden got to enjoy making jokes about “my father-in-law.” When Erika died in 1969 some of the obituaries noted that she was survived by her husband, the poet W. H. Auden — a piece of information that came as rather a shock to some of her friends, and his.

All that said, after their marriage Auden was very eager for his parents to meet Erika and insisted that she travel to Birmingham with him so they could receive the parental blessing. (“My husband is a tyrant,” Erika sighed in a letter to a friend, not thinking Birmingham a sufficiently interesting or beautiful city to make a visit worthwhile.) They remained friends always, and Isherwood thought that later there was even “a touch of eroticism” to their relationship. So to call it a “marriage of convenience” is perhaps not to tell the whole truth.


The essay by Maria Farrell and Robin Berjon on “Rewilding the Internet” is absolutely essential — and you might know that I would think so if you read my essay from a few years back on “Tending the Digital Commons.” (See also my reflections on “manorial technocracy” and the tag, visible at the bottom of this post, “open web.”) Our metaphors are slightly different but our theme is the same. 

It’s noteworthy, I think, that those of us who care about the internet and love the best versions of it tend to think ecologically

Farrell and Berjon: 

Ecologists have re-oriented their field as a “crisis discipline,” a field of study that’s not just about learning things but about saving them. We technologists need to do the same. Rewilding the internet connects and grows what people are doing across regulation, standards-setting and new ways of organizing and building infrastructure, to tell a shared story of where we want to go. It’s a shared vision with many strategies. The instruments we need to shift away from extractive technological monocultures are at hand or ready to be built. 

Just as a diverse “pocket forest” is the surest way to regenerate urban vegetation, a global network with multiple different ways “to internet” is the best insurance policy for future innovation and resilience. We need to rewild the internet for the future, for our freedom to build tools and spaces, and to share knowledge, ideas and stories that haven’t been anticipated by the internet’s current overlords and cannot be contained. 

This is precisely why this blog is on the open web rather than on Substack or any of the other walled gardens. To be sure, I can afford to do it this way, with the occasional contribution from my Buy Me a Coffee page — I have a day job and don’t depend on blogging to feed my family and pay my mortgage. If I were utterly dependent on this blog I might do things differently — but only after I had tried every way possible to make it work on the open web. 

I really do think that the internet, in its original open form, is an amazing thing and a genuine contributor to human flourishing — but the occlusion of the open web by the big social media companies has been a disaster for our common life and for the life of the mind. My plan, and my hope, is to keep going here long after I have lost the ability to publish anywhere else. This is my home on the web and also the place where I can most fully be myself as a writer. And that’s worth a lot

Narayan’s Malgudi

In his newsletter today, my buddy Austin Kleon mentions in passing the Hindu concept of the ashramas or stages of life, which is funny because I’ve just been thinking about a novel based on those stages: The Guide, by R. K. Narayan

Narayan was a great, great genius, and maybe the best comic novelist since P. G. Wodehouse. His comedy is different than Wodehouse’s — it’s pretty quiet and gently ironic. But he’s very funny! Narayan’s novels and short stories — he’s a masterful writer of short stories — are set in the fictional town of Malgudi in southern India. See the map above, from my old copy of his short-story collection Malgudi Days, which is bad because it’s just an iPhone photo. (I need to buy a flatbed scanner.) 

Here’s one example of Narayan’s humor, from one of my favorites among his novels, The Painter of Signs (1976). Rajan, the sign-painter of the title, is a man with strong views about his profession — he knows precisely the kind of lettering appropriate for every commission — and considers himself a “rationalist”: “I want a rational explanation for everything. Otherwise my mind refuses to accept any statement.” (He’s always arguing with his aunt, who insists that his actions should be governed by the mandates of astrology.) 

But his rationalism starts to fray when he agrees to paint a sign for the local Family Planning Centre, because said Centre is run by a highly progressive and single-minded young woman who rejoices in the improbable name of Daisy. Raman goes weak in the knees at his first sight of her. 

Having written signboards for so many years, it was rather strange that he should be presented with a female customer now, and that it should prove so troublesome. He was going to shield himself against this temptation. Mahatma Gandhi had advised one of his followers in a similar situation, ‘Walk with your eyes fixed on your toes during the day, and on the stars at night.’ He was going to do the same thing with this woman. He would not look at her eyes when he met her, nor involve himself in any conversation beyond the strictest business.

Unfortunately, he almost immediately runs into Daisy when he has no time to prepare himself. On impulse, just before entering the Family Planning Centre to discuss his commission, he buys a cheap pair of sunglasses, recommended to him by the vendor as made in Hong Kong. When he enters her office he’s wearing the sunglasses:

He had been talking to her with his eyes looking away, but now he lifted his eyes in her direction, looked through his glasses. He noticed that she seemed heavy-jowled and somewhat ridiculous, with her forehead slightly tapering. The Hong Kong optician has excelled in his art, he thought. She looks terrible. This is even better than Gandhi’s plan to keep one’s mind pure. She seemed to grin, and looked like a demoness! 

I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens next. 

Another great Malgudi novel is Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), which concerns a printer named Nataraj who makes the catastrophic mistake of renting space in his attic to Vasu, a taxidermist (that “nefarious trade,” thinks Nataraj) who, it turns out, is very well-connected among Malgudi’s professional dancing-girls. 

But perhaps my favorite is the aforementioned The Guide (1958), which concerns an utterly corrupt tourist guide named Raju who, after being released from prison, finds himself wandering in search of a new home and a new life. He camps out in an abandoned temple, at which point some of the local villagers take him for a holy man. And why should he disabuse them of that notion? 

Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice: Pay a visit to Malgudi. You won’t regret it. 

everyone knows

Reading this Jessica Grose piece — so similar to ten thousand other reports made in recent years — on the miseries induced or exacerbated by digital technologies in the classroom, I think: Everyone knows all this.

Everyone knows that living on screens is making children miserable in a dozen different ways, contributing to ever-increasing rates of mental illness and inhibiting or disabling children’s mental faculties.

Everyone knows that engaging creatively with the material world is better for children — is better for all of us. 

Everyone knows that Meta and TikTok are predatory and parasitical, and that they impoverish the lives of the people addicted to them. 

Everyone knows that social media breed bad actors: each platform does this in its own way, but they all do it, and the more often people engage on such platforms the more messed-up and unhappy they become. 

Everyone knows that the big Silicon Valley companies do not care how much damage they do to society or the environment; they care only about what Mark Zuckerberg likes to call DOMINATION. The occupational psychosis of Silicon Valley is sociopathy. The rise of LLMs is simply the next big step in this sociopathic program. 

Everyone knows all this. Some people, for their own reasons, choose to deny it, but even they know it — indeed, probably no one knows all that I’ve been saying better than Mark Zuckerberg and Shou Zi Chew and Sam Altman do. 

So our problem is not a lack of knowledge; it’s a deficiency of will and a malformation of desire. St. Augustine explained it all to us 1600 years ago: My actions are determined by my will, and my will is driven by what I love. We do badly by our children because we do not love them sufficiently or properly; we do badly by our neighbors for the same reason; we do badly by ourselves for the same reason, because narcissists — and one of the things everyone knows is that all the forces named above breed narcissists — do not rightly love themselves. 

Those of us who care about the future of our children, our neighbors, and ourselves don’t need to repeat what everyone already knows. We need to devote our full attention to one question and one question only: How do we love rightly and teach others to love rightly? If that’s not our constant meditation, we’re wasting our time. If we cannot redirect our desires towards better things than Silicon Valley, AKA Vanity Fair, sells, then nothing, literally nothing, will get better. 

P.S. Why didn’t I remember Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” when I wrote this post? Austin Kleon reminded me. This is what in footy is called “missing a sitter.” 

to be a pilgrim

I’ve been teaching The Pilgrim’s Progress, something that always gives me great joy. I find it simply wonderful that so utterly bonkers a book was so omnipresent in English-language culture (and well beyond) for so long. You couldn’t avoid it, whether you loved it — as George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver did, and lamented the sale of the family’s copy: “I thought we should never part with that while we lived” — or found it puzzling, as Huck Finn did when he recalled the books he read as a child: “One was ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, about a man that left his family it didn’t say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.” 

One of the “tough” things about the “statements” is the way they veer from hard-coded allegory to plain realism, sometimes within a given sentence. One minute Moses is the canonical author of the Pentateuch, the next he’s a guy who keeps knocking Hopeful down. But the book is always psychologically realistic, to an extreme degree. No one knew anxiety and terror better than Bunyan did, and when Christian is passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and hears voices whispering blasphemies in his ears, the true horror of the moment is that he thinks he himself is uttering the blasphemies. (The calls are coming from inside the house.) 

It seems likely that the last major cultural figure to acknowledge the power of Bunyan’s book is Terrence Malick, who begins his movie Knight of Cups with a voice declaiming the full title of the book: “The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream; wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.” 

Those words are uttered by John Gielgud, because they are taken from a 1990 performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Bunyan Sequence, which is a work that Vaughan Williams wanted to compose for his whole life, but only got to near his life’s end: it is his final operatic composition. And it’s wonderful. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress is almost always illustrated, and prominent among those illustrations are maps. Here’s a post about those maps. From that post I learned that Garrett Taylor — an artist and animator who has worked for Pixar and on The Wingfeather Saga TV series — has mapped The Pilgrim’s Progress is four prints that you can buy here. I bought them and had them framed and they now adorn a wall of our house. I stop to look at them three or four times a day. 

It would be wrong for me to post the full-resolution images here, but I think I can risk one portion of one image: 

Now, if Mr. Taylor can just convince Pixar to film the whole book…. 


J. R. Ackerley, author of that remarkable book My Dog Tulip, worked for the BBC for many years and in that capacity oversaw the production of The Scoop (1931), a detective story written by six authors, each of whom read his or her contribution on-air. Dorothy L. Sayers coordinated the project; she was probably the only person who could have gotten the shy and retiring Agatha Christie to participate. But she and Ackerley continually butted heads, as he wished to provide editorial oversight that Sayers flatly rejected.

Some years later Ackerley wrote in a BBC memo

So far as I recall Agatha Christie, she was surprisingly good-looking and extremely tiresome. She was always late sending in her stuff, very difficult to pin down to any engagements and invariably late for them. I record these memories with pain, for she is my favourite detective story writer.

Her success as a broadcaster has made less impression upon me. I believe she was quite adequate but nothing more; a little on the feeble side, if I recollect aright, but then anyone in that series would have seemed feeble against the terrific vitality, bullying and bounce of that dreadful woman Dorothy L. Sayers. 

Whether Sayers was indeed “bullying,” or simply a woman who refused to be dictated to by men who were accustomed to dictating to women, is a matter of dispute. Later, when she was writing the plays that would become The Man Born to be King, she responded to an interfering producer thus: “Oh no you don’t, my poppet!” That producer was removed from the project — and replaced by one of the greatest theatrical producers of the twentieth century, Val Gielgud (brother of the actor John). However “difficult” she might have been, she couldn’t be dispensed with; in the end, it was almost always her critics who had to give way. 

But “vitality, bullying and bounce” is a great phrase, and many people found DLS similarly intimidating, and too energetic for comfort. But not everyone disliked the bounciness. On her death, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation — as I like a high wind.” And in a memoir Val Gielgud wrote, “Miss Sayers is professional of the professionals. She can tolerate anything but the shoddy or the slapdash. Of all the authors I have known she has the clearest, and the most justifiable, view of the proper respective spheres of author and producer, and of their respective limitations. She is authoritative, brisk, and positive.” 

Vitality, bounce, zest, edge, authoritative, brisk — a high wind indeed. No wonder responses to her were so mixed. She’s gonna be so much fun to write about.  

The Gardener

I am very pleased that my colleague Philip Jenkins has written about Rudyard Kipling’s “The Gardener,” one of the finest short stories in the world. His care not to spoil the story is exemplary, but it’s virtually impossible to say anything meaningful about the story except in light of its conclusion. 

So you should read the story as soon as you can. 

There’s one element of the story that’s hotly debated, and I want to weigh in on that, but I also want to avoid spoilers, so I am posting my thoughts on another page: this one

a letter from Karl Barth

On 7 September 1939, a week after the Wehrmacht invaded Poland and thus began the Second World War, the great theologian Karl Barth wrote, in German, from his home in Switzerland to a woman in England. “You too must be shocked by the events of our day,” he wrote. “But I am happy that this time England did not want to let another ‘Munich’ happen, and I hope also for the poor German people that now the end of its worst time (which I have witnessed intimately) has at least begun.” Tragically, war had returned to Europe — but the hapless policy of of appeasement was over, and now the end of Hitler, and of Nazism, could, however dimly, be foreseen. 

But to acknowledge the war was not the purpose of Barth’s letter. Rather, he wanted to ask this woman for permission to translate two of her theological writings, and also to seek answers to a few questions about the texts. Barth did not make a habit of translating non-German texts — in fact, the only translation he had published was of a sermon by John Calvin — but in these contemporary writings he had found something that he thought his audience would particularly benefit from reading. Moreover, this woman’s fiction had helped him to learn English better; perhaps even more to the point, he had read her novels “with particular interest and admiration.” 

The author to whom Barth wrote was Dorothy L. Sayers. Twenty years later he remarked that, in 1939, she had been “familiar to me as the author of a whole series of detective novels — at once thrilling, cultured, and thoughtful. The fascinating thing about these books for me was the visible connection in them between a humanism of the best Oxford tradition and a pronounced mastery in the technique which is essential to literary engagement in this genre.” But at that time he had no idea that she was a Christian, and when a Scottish friend suggested that he read some of her theological essays, he was surprised to learn of their existence — and even more surprised to find them stating most clearly and forcefully certain points about the beauty, power, and sheer drama of Christian doctrine that were dear to his own heart. (However, he did discern, and even in that introductory letter told her that he discerned, a strain of “semi-Pelagianism” in her theology, a comment that she found amusing and inaccurate.) 

The works he sought to translate had originally appeared in 1938 in the Times of London: “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” and “The Triumph of Easter,” later published together in a short book. Barth, having had his questions answered by Sayers, duly produced his translation, but in the chaos that inevitably accompanies wartime set it aside and did not return to it until 1959, two years after Sayers’s death. At that time he wrote, 

The special gift of the author, which is evident in her earlier work, certainly remained with her in this later phase of her writing as well — something to which the present little book bears witness. In the following pages, she has spiritedly and successfully come out against dogma’s reputation for “tediousness”; in her manner of taking it up and discussing it, its effect is certainly anything but tedious! … For having vigorously made the message of the gospel her own in breathless astonishment over its central content, and for having recounted it in a way that is open to the world, yet undaunted, quick-witted, and without any hint of apology — but above all, in a way that is joyful and that causes joy in turn — for all of this, regardless of how one might relate to the ins and outs of her thinking at particular points, one must be grateful to her. 

“In a way that is joyful and that causes joy in turn” — what a lovely tribute. The source of that joy may be found described in that essay on Easter. Here’s an excerpt:

“Then Judas, which had betrayed Him, when he saw that He was condemned,… cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” And thereby Judas committed the final, the fatal, the most pitiful error of all; for he despaired of God and himself and never waited to see the Resurrection. Had he done so, there would have been an encounter, and an opportunity, to leave invention bankrupt; but unhappily for himself, he did not. In this world, at any rate, he never saw the triumph of Christ fulfilled upon him, and through him, and despite of him. He saw the dreadful payment made, and never knew what victory had been purchased with the price.

All of us, perhaps, are too ready, when our behaviour turns out to have appalling consequences, to rush out and hang ourselves. Sometimes we do worse, and show an inclination to go and hang other people. Judas, at least, seems to have blamed nobody but himself, and St. Peter, who had a minor betrayal of his own to weep for, made his act of contrition and waited to see what came next. What came next for St. Peter and the other disciples was the sudden assurance of what God was, and with it the answer to all the riddles.

If Christ could take evil and suffering and do that sort of thing with them, then of course it was all worth while, and the triumph of Easter linked up with that strange, triumphant prayer in the Upper Room, which the events of Good Friday had seemed to make so puzzling. As for their own parts in the drama, nothing could now alter the fact that they had been stupid, cowardly, faithless, and in many ways singularly unhelpful; but they did not allow any morbid and egotistical remorse to inhibit their joyful activities in the future.

Now, indeed, they could go out and “do something” about the problem of sin and suffering. They had seen the strong hands of God twist the crown of thorns into a crown of glory, and in hands as strong as that they knew themselves safe. They had misunderstood practically everything Christ had ever said to them, but no matter: the thing made sense at last, and the meaning was far beyond anything they had dreamed. They had expected a walk-over, and they beheld a victory; they had expected an earthly Messiah, and they beheld the Soul of Eternity.

It had been said to them of old time, “No man shall look upon My face and live”; but for them a means had been found. They had seen the face of the living God turned upon them; and it was the face of a suffering and rejoicing Man. 

The refusal to “allow any morbid and egotistical remorse to inhibit their joyful activities in the future” is a key point for Sayers, and something essential for understanding certain elements of her own life — but that’s a story for me to tell in my biography of her. 

The story of this correspondence is well-told in an article by my former colleague David McNutt. In this post I have used David’s translation of Barth’s reflections on Sayers. 

against the factory of unreason

Dear readers, I have returned! — and I say unto you, it might be interesting to read my reflections on my students’ reading ability in conjunction with Emma Green’s report on classical Christian education.

The report is a curious one. She clearly strives to be fair, and acknowledges that the supporters of classical education are more diverse — racially, culturally, and politically — than the typical New Yorker reader is likely to expect. That said, there is an unintentionally comical moment when she confronts classical Christian homeschoolers with their failure to teach Hebrew — this, in a society which every year graduates hundreds of thousands of students from high school who can’t read or write basic English, and in which three-fourths of the population are completely monolingual. (You call yourself a school and you don’t teach Hebrew? Gotcha!) And Green’s conclusion is disappointingly hand-wavy, as though to say that while Those People may not be all we thought they were, still, we ought somehow to be worried about them.

Now, Green isn’t writing about American education in general, rather about one specific movement. But I think we should pull back a bit from that movement to see the larger picture, which is this: A surprisingly large and rapidly growing body of Americans have looked at what the educational establishment is offering and have said, No thank you. From kindergarten through university, that establishment has decided that its job is not to teach any particular skills or bodies of knowledge, but rather to perform certain quite specific political attitudes; to strike poses and teach students to strike the same poses. (It’s a purely performative leftism — it has nothing to do with implementing any policies preferred by the left, you know, as they existed back in the day when the left and right actually had preferred policies instead of contenting themselves with tribal hostilities. This is especially true of elite institutions, which are, after all, hedge funds with attached universities. DEI and similar endeavors are merely ways to camouflage the actual principles that govern such institutions. And the rhetoric trickles down to the non-elite schools, which reflexively copy those whose status they aspire to.)

However, it seems that many parents would prefer their children to learn something substantial. And this enrages the educational establishment and its enablers in the political sphere, who will brook no criticism, even when what their favored groups choose to perform is plain racial hatred, especially of Jews. A “factory of unreason” is what they’ve built, and they’ll do anything they can to prevent people from opting out of labor in that factory.

I am a fan of almost anything that disrupts the hegemony of this fatuously self-righteous and profoundly anti-intellectual educational establishment, which exists not to lift up the marginalized and excluded but rather to soothe the consciences of the ruling class. May the forces of disruption flourish.

Class Notes: Two Renewals

In my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century class, we’re reading, back-to-back, passages from Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1920) and Karl Barth’s 1922 lecture “The Word of God and the Task of Theology” (reprinted in this excellent collection of writings by Barth, edited by Keith Johnson). It’s interesting to compare these two vital figures, because their tasks are in some ways quite different but in other ways very similar. 

It is noteworthy, first of all, that Maritain and Barth, born just four years apart, grew up in a generally liberal Protestant world, a mild environment in which pietism and evangelicalism were either embarrassing or totally unknown, and Catholicism known but alien and unthinkable. 

Barth’s lecture was given in response to critics of his great commentary on Romans, and is basically a defense of his “dialectical” method against the gentle anthropological pieties of liberal Protestantism. He wants German Protestants to realize that their project is doomed: it is neither fish nor foul, neither fully Christian nor fully secular; it is mealy-mouthed, tepid, timorous. Nietzsche had made the same point several decades earlier in his evisceration of David Strauss, but Nietzsche wanted the pastors and theologians to cast aside the last vestiges of supernaturalism and move forward boldly into a world freed from the “slave morality” of Christianity. (This move forward is also a move backward in the sense that Nietzsche wants to draw on the energies of a long-marginalized paganism, a paganism ripe for renewal and a final victory over Jewish and Jewish-inspired thought.) 

Barth also wants theology to move both forward and backward: forward fearlessly into a modernity which has no time for warmed-over moralism, and backward to reclaim the radical and essential insights of Luther and Calvin. We have to be as fearless as Luther and Calvin, he thought, if we are to speak convincingly to the watered-down world liberal Protestantism had (largely inadvertently) created. 

Maritain’s challenge to his readers is similar in that he believes that figures from the Christian past, especially Thomas Aquinas, speak to modernity more powerfully and effectually than any self-proclaimed “modernist” theologian or priest possibly could. But in another sense he has a very different problem than Barth — and the problem arises largely because Maritain is interested in the renewal of art

Once he became a Catholic, Maritain entered a church that for the previous century had not been following the liberal Protestant line of cultural accommodation — reconciling itself to its cultured despisers — but rather had been doing something like the opposite: insulating itself, protecting itself, from modernity. Thus the famous last item in Pio Nono’s Syllabus of Errors: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” (Pio Nono: Nope.) 

For Maritain this is in one essential sense vitally correct, indeed necessary to the survival of Catholicism. But Maritain knows that however necessary such self-protection may be, it can lead to a generalized prejudice against the new and different. So in this little book he takes pains to insist that even by the standards we acquire through the study of medieval Scholastic thought, Stravinsky and Satie are outstanding composers whose music is worth our most serious attention. (He struggles a bit with certain visual artists, and I may do a post on that.) 

So, in short: Barth wants to lead liberal Protestantism away from an accommodationist tendency that had become sheer cultural capitulation, while Maritain wants to lead orthodox Catholicism away from its tendency to mere reaction against the new, to reflexive revulsion. But both of them think that the cure for the intellectual diseases of their ecclesial communities is: Ad fontes! Back to the sources! 

Terry Teachout and the Last of the Conservative Critics | The Nation:

But Teachout, whose natural inclination was toward equanimity and collegiality, perhaps never fully confronted the politics of his conservative peers. Unlike Didion and Wills, Teachout never stopped writing for National Review. His review of a biography of Graham Greene ran in the magazine last year — a magazine that is no longer that of the Goldwater or Reagan right but one that that seems to have settled on a position of being anti-anti-Trump. Not only that, but Teachout eschewed a larger reckoning with the question of how Trump took over the GOP so quickly. It would have been a major contribution for a writer of Teachout’s caliber to make an inquiry into how the right had gone haywire, but he never made the effort. 

Why should Teachout have made that effort? He “eschewed” political controversy so he could write about the things he most cared about: the arts. Seems a reasonable decision to me, and one I wish more writers made. There aren’t enough writers who are conservative in Teachout’s mode. 

(Teachout was a terrific writer in so many ways, but I must pause to note that the one great outlier in his body of work was his absurdly unfair, tendentious, and just plain hostile biography of Duke Ellington. I’ve never understood his attitude towards the Duke. Ethan Iverson’s detailed critique of the biography, mentioned in the Nation essay, is very good, and is usefully supplemented by an equally detailed response by the Duke’s nephew.) 

Ceci N’est Pas une Current-Events Post

No no no, this is not at all about a current controversy. Hang in there, you’ll see what I mean. 

Recently some people — including grifters, but also a few people who want to have a reputation for responsible thinking and writing — have been promoting a re-interpretation of the death of George Floyd, an alternative account in which Derek Chauvin is not guilty of murder. So Radley Balko looked into the matter, and … well, as far as I can tell, after Radley has done his thing there’s not much left of the revisionist case. 

Let me correct that: there’s nothing left of the revisionist case. 

But I’m not writing here to refute that case, or rejoice in its refutation. I’m writing because if you read Balko’s piece you’ll see what it takes to do something like this the right way. It requires persistence, patience, extreme attentiveness, and the willingness to turn over every stone. Read that piece and you’ll see that Balko has studied the materials that the revisionists have never bothered to look at: he’s read police-procedure manuals — not just current ones, but also older ones, and has noted the changes from one to another; he’s watched police training videos; he’s surveyed court documents, and shared illustrations that were provided in court testimony, as well as the associated verbal testimony; he’s looked into the history of Minneapolis police actions against black members of the community; he’s watched with minute scrutiny the documentary that has made the revisionist claim popular, and has found the hidden seams in the presentation. Basically, he has done it all. 

It’s hard to find journalists as thorough as Balko has been here — and in many other writings over the years — because journalists know that almost no one cares. Well more than 99% of readers/viewers/listeners have one question about a work of journalism: Does it or does it not confirm the views I already have about this case? That is all they know on earth, and all they (think they) need know. But if you’re one of the <1% who care about the truth, a journalist like Radley Balko is an invaluable resource. 

And not just because he’ll help you find out what really happened — no, there’s another benefit to reading pieces like this one. It’ll will help you to a better understanding of where, when, and how other journalists (or “journalists”) cut corners. You’ll see the very particular consequences of motivated reasoning: selective attention, question-begging, concealment of evidence, faulty logic of every variety. And that’s an education in itself, whether you care about the particular case at hand or not. 

Robinson Meyer:

This sincere interest in geoengineering and climate modification represents a broader shift in climate science from observation to intervention. It also represents a huge change for a field that used to regard any interference with the climate system — short of cutting greenhouse gas emissions — as verboten. “There is a growing realization that [solar radiation management] is not a taboo anymore,” Dan Visioni, a Cornell climate professor, told me. “There was a growing interest from NASA, NOAA, the national labs, that wasn’t there a year ago.”

At the highest level, this acceptance of geoengineering shows that scientists have seriously begun to imagine what will happen if humanity blows its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

I think this development is wholly welcome, and overdue. 


People often talk about comic timing, but what does that mean, exactly? Well, here’s an example, from one of the best comedy routines ever: Elaine May as Bell Telephone (in several personae) and Mike Nichols as a self-confessed “broken man.” Watch it just for fun, because it carries a lot of fun. 

Then watch it again and note pace: note that sometimes they rush, sometimes they pause, sometimes they talk over each other. It’s so musical — they’re like two jazz musicians who’ve been playing together forever and have mastered each other’s natural rhythms. 

And then: not on the matter of timing, but rather delivery, you see the genius of Elaine May in three lines, one by each of the characters she plays: 

  • At 2:10: “Information cannot argue with a closed mind.”  
  • At 4:10: “Bell Telephone didn’t steal your dime. Bell Telephone doesn’t need your dime.” 
  • At 6:30, when Miss Jones is told that “one of your operators inadvertently collected my last dime”: “Oh my God.” 

Absolute genius, I tell you. 

Class Notes: Enchiridion

Second in a series of reflections on what I’m teaching. 

Late in his life, Augustine wrote his Enchiridion in response to a request from someone named Laurentius. What Laurentius wanted was a handy summary of Christian teaching that he could “always keep beside” him, to have ready when questions arose. He also wanted the handbook — for that is what enchiridion means — to contain refutations of other philosophies and theologies, but Augustine tells him that that kind of thing wouldn’t fit in a handbook, but rather would require several bookshelves full of books; and in any case, if one wishes to refute falsehoods, what one needs most of all is “to have a great zeal kindled in one’s heart.” 

Augustine doesn’t say this, but in his day the best-known and most influential Enchiridion was that of Epictetus — which was, to be precise, a selection from Epictetus’s writings made and organized by a disciple of his named Arrian. It’s clear (if unstated) that Augustine thinks that Epictetus got it all wrong by starting from inadequate initial principles. Epictetus says that we need to begin by learning what is within our power and what isn’t. Augustine, by contrast, says that we have to begin by understanding that “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.” Nothing is within our power; everything comes from the Lord, and returns to him. (Exitus et reditus.) To fear the Lord is to worship him, and the “graces” by which we worship him are faith, hope, and love. Therefore a proper Enchiridion must be a guide to faith, hope, and love. Q.E.D. 

And of course “the greatest of these is love.” For Augustine, human flourishing is never about assessing the scope of our power and adjusting our expectations accordingly. It’s about altering the direction and force of our loves, about turning away from self-love — ceasing to be incurvatus in se, uncoiling our self-constricted mode of being — and turning outwards, towards an ever-expanding love of God and neighbor. 

Class notes: Anarchy, Law, Pain

I’m thinking that this term, when I’m teaching a number of things I haven’t taught before, or haven’t taught in a long time, I might use this blog to lay out some of the things I’m thinking about — not in a systematic or final way, but in what I hope will be a generative way (for myself, my students, and maybe even my readers). This will be the first such installment. 

I would very much like to say that the anarchists in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday aren’t really anarchists. I am, after all, at least anarchism-adjacent myself, and value the movement because of its peaceful and patient resistance to centralizing and domineering powers, especially, in our moment, the Power that’s sometimes called Technopoly. But, as Maya Jasanoff has pointed out, in 1881 the International Anarchist Congress officially adopted a strategy of “propaganda by deed” — i.e., terrorism. 

Still, there is a distinction to make, and a learned constable, early in Thursday, makes it. When Gabriel Syme asks him “What is this anarchy?” He replies: 

“Do not confuse it,” replied the constable, “with those chance dynamite outbreaks from Russia or from Ireland, which are really the outbreaks of oppressed, if mistaken, men. This is a vast philosophic movement, consisting of an outer and an inner ring. You might even call the outer ring the laity and the inner ring the priesthood. I prefer to call the outer ring the innocent section, the inner ring the supremely guilty section. The outer ring — the main mass of their supporters — are merely anarchists; that is, men who believe that rules and formulas have destroyed human happiness. They believe that all the evil results of human crime are the results of the system that has called it crime. They do not believe that the crime creates the punishment. They believe that the punishment has created the crime. They believe that if a man seduced seven women he would naturally walk away as blameless as the flowers of spring. They believe that if a man picked a pocket he would naturally feel exquisitely good. These I call the innocent section.”

“Oh!” said Syme.

“Naturally, therefore, these people talk about ‘a happy time coming’; ‘the paradise of the future’; ‘mankind freed from the bondage of vice and the bondage of virtue,’ and so on. And so also the men of the inner circle speak — the sacred priesthood. They also speak to applauding crowds of the happiness of the future, and of mankind freed at last. But in their mouths” — and the policeman lowered his voice — “in their mouths these happy phrases have a horrible meaning. They are under no illusions; they are too intellectual to think that man upon this earth can ever be quite free of original sin and the struggle. And they mean death. When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave.

“They have but two objects, to destroy first humanity and then themselves. That is why they throw bombs instead of firing pistols. The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody.” 

I think the constable is making an essential distinction, though I do not believe that either of his groups is actually anarchistic. Rather than two “rings” of anarchism, what the constable has described is the difference between libertines and nihilists

That’s my view, anyway. What GKC wants to show in Thursday is that while people fear the “anarchists” who assassinate, even the assassins share with ordinary folks the belief that the world is in many ways bad and ought to be better — it is in that sense that they are “innocent.” We should be more concerned about those who randomly kill, randomly throw bombs, because at heart they reject the whole of Creation — they think that the world itself is not worth the candle, every law (natural law, moral law, whatever) is inevitably an insupportable tyranny, that nothingness itself is less bad than a world governed by law. Under law people suffer; and to end them, and ultimately end the world, is at least to end suffering.

Thus at the end of Thursday the “real anarchist” cries out, 

I know what you are all of you, from first to last — you are the people in power! You are the police — the great fat, smiling men in blue and buttons! You are the Law, and you have never been broken. But is there a free soul alive that does not long to break you, only because you have never been broken? We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. 

Therefore, he says, “I am a destroyer. I would destroy the world if I could.” 

Now, GKC rejects all of this. For one thing, as he says in Orthodoxy — the book he wrote immediately after writing Thursday — people wrongly think of Law as a cold dead hand imposing itself on Life: 

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. 

That’s one of my favorite passages in Chesterton, a vital re-conceiving of the meaning of repetition. But it’s not the point he chooses to emphasize in Thursday. What turns out to be the whole point of that novel is the re-conceiving of the relationship between law and suffering. The policemen, i.e. the upholders of the Law, are said by the Accuser to be safe, to be free from fear and pain. But precisely the opposite is true. As Syme says to that Accuser, “We have been broken on the wheel.” It is a hard calling to become strong enough to exult in monotony — and, while doing so, to restrain the destructive impulses of those who believe that repetition is an infringement on their freedom, an imposed pain. 

Noah Millman:

You can’t just hate the present and long for the past, any more than you can make the future better by demanding of some nonexistent authority that they make it so. To make the future, you have to actually learn about the past, its glories and its follies alike, its conflicts and its contradictions. If we want to be like our forebears who successfully made it new, we have to, you know, be like them. We have to mine the incredibly rich resource of our past, and use that resource in whatever way we need to create new forms of art and politics, forms that are relevant to us. And then we have to hope that the future will treat us the same way, because then it will be alive. 

Noah is absolutely right about this, because, you know, when is Noah not right? But I will just add that if you suggest that there is anything, anything at all, that we can learn from the past, a vast loud chorus will show up to shout: NOSTALGIA! 

Effectual Art

David Brooks: “Does consuming art, music, literature and the rest of what we call culture make you a better person?” Answer:

  1. No. Consuming art can’t make anyone better.
  2. But experiencing art certainly can make you a better person.
  3. So can experiencing anything else. It depends on you. 

But, okay, there’s more to say. Anything we experience may, depending on the circumstances, help to make us better people, but we have to be disposed to change, willing to change for the better. And maybe one thing art can do is to shape our dispositions, put us in a frame of mind or heart to live differently. (That’s what happened to Maggie Tulliver when she read The Imitation of Christ, which is not a work of art exactly but is a book artfully shaped.) 

I still think one of the most useful approaches to this whole set of questions is Nick Wolterstorff’s early book Art in Action. Here’s a quote: 

What then is art for? What purpose underlies this human universal?

One of my fundamental theses is that this question, so often posed, must be rejected rather than answered. The question assumes that there is such a thing as the purpose of art. That assumption is false. There is no purpose which art serves, nor any which it is intended to serve. Art plays and is meant to play an enormous diversity of roles in human life. Works of art are instruments by which we perform such diverse actions as praising our great men and expressing our grief, evoking emotion and communicating knowledge. Works of art are objects of such actions as contemplation for the sake of delight. Works of art are accompaniments for such actions as hoeing cotton and rocking infants. Works of art are background for such actions as eating meals and walking through airports.

Works of art equip us for action. And the range of actions for which they equip us is very nearly as broad as the range of human action itself. The purposes of art are the purposes of life. 

I think these statements provide a great entry into the conversation about what art does and is, because they make the notion of “becoming a better person” less abstract. A mother whose lullaby soothes her baby and also calms herself is, perhaps, making herself a better person in that context, at that moment. 

As a kind of pendant to my previous post, I comment to you this by Adam Roberts, which I thought of as I was writing:

When I was a kid I memorised — don’t laugh — the Bene Gesserit ‘Litany Against Fear’, and used to repeat it quietly to myself when I was in a place of terror. I was eleven or twelve, and my family had moved to Canterbury in Kent, from London SE23. Where we lived was about a mile’s walk into town, and the only way was down the narrow pavement alongside the Dover Road, on which enormous lorries and trucks would hurtle at incredible, terrifying speeds, on their ways to and from the port at Dover and London town — nowadays the city has built a ring-road to relieve its city centre of this burden of traffic, but that postdates me. Walking along this road as these T.I.R’s roared and howled inches from me was scary. Repeating the litany helped me cope with that fear. 

I mean, sure: by all means laugh at me if you like … I was a massive SF nerd, not skilled at making friends, quite inward and withdrawn. I can see this little story has its ridiculous side. Then again, if I’m honest, when I look back at my younger self I find something touching and even, in its miniscule way, heroic about it, actually. I made it into town. I went to the Albion bookshop and spent my pocket-money on yet another pulp SF book. I got home again without being swallowed or consumed by my fear, although the fear, which perhaps looks trivial to you, was, inside me, vast and pressing and lupine, and was given prodigious materiality by the howling hundred-ton trucks speeding inches past me and whipping their trailing winds about me. I wasn’t really scared of the lorries; the lorries only gave temporary physical shape to something more pervasively in me and my relationship to life. I was a much and deeply frightened kid, as, in many ways, I still am, as an adult. Stories for kids should be beautiful and moving, but they should also furnish kids with the psychological wherewithal to understand and navigate the world and their own feelings about it.

Maggie and her Books

There’s a really extraordinary moment in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, a moment that says something profound about what we might call the ecology of reading in the age of print.

First, some background: Mr. Tulliver – the father of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the two central characters in this novel – embarks upon a rash lawsuit which fails, and its failure sends him into bankruptcy. His family lose almost everything. As they are trying to adjust to their economic and social fall, Tom Tulliver receives a visit from his childhood friend Bob Jakin. Bob is a packman, a kind of traveling salesman who goes about on foot bearing a pack full of random goods which he sells mainly to the working poor. Bob is little better than working poor himself, even if through diligence and shrewd bargaining he is rising in the world: certainly he is constantly aware of his social inferiority to the Tullivers, despite their distressed circumstances; he always refers to Tom as “Master Tom.” Bob visits to try to give the Tullivers some money which Tom’s pride will not allow him to receive (probably he wouldn’t receive it from anybody, but he certainly won’t receive it from Bob). During their visit Tom’s younger sister Maggie comes in to the parlor and discovers that in the recent auction of their goods her books had been sold. Her eyes fill with tears; she is especially grieved over the loss of the family copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress: “I thought we should never part with that while we lived.”

Maggie is a devoted reader, much more so than her brother, and earlier in the book, when Maggie visits Tom at the pastor’s house where he is a paying pupil, we see that her intellectual interests are far stronger than his own and her capabilities far greater. But this was not an era in which young women of such gifts were reliably provided with an education adequate to them, so Maggie must remain largely self-educated. Thus she treasures so greatly the handful of books she owns and is so grieved at their disappearance.

Bob, who adores Maggie, though as a creature far above him in the Great Chain of Being, notices her distress and some weeks later pays her another visit. He has brought with him some books that he has scavenged in the course of his labors. Some of them are illustrated books – Bob himself thinks the illustrations quite fine and likely to interest Maggie – but he’s also aware that Maggie likes books with words in them and so makes sure to bring her a parcel of those: “I thought you might like a bit more print as well as the picturs, an’ I got these for a sayso, – they’re cram-full o’ print, an’ I thought they’d do no harm comin’ along wi’ these bettermost books.” (Bob, being illiterate, can’t tell you anything about the content of the books, he can only judge quantity of print.) Maggie receives these gifts gratefully but sets them aside; she has much on her mind and it’s not until later that she thinks to take up one of the volumes.

She does so at a time of great personal and familial distress. She has been forced to leave school — where she had been learning at least a few rudimentary skills that a young woman might need — in order to tend to her father, who has collapsed in the aftermath of his financial defeat and its consequent shame. All her life now is caring for her father’s needs, but she is a teenage girl of high intellect and great passion, and the consumption of her whole being in the dreary round of daily service is of course a struggle to her. Among the books in Bob’s parcel, the one that catches her eye is an old translation of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. She feels that she has heard the name but knows nothing about the book; she picks it up and begins to read.

And here is where something extraordinary happens.

She took up the little, old, clumsy book with some curiosity; it had the corners turned down in many places, and some hand, now forever quiet, had made at certain passages strong pen-and-ink marks, long since browned by time. Maggie turned from leaf to leaf, and read where the quiet hand pointed: “Know that the love of thyself doth hurt thee more than anything in the world…. If thou seekest this or that, and wouldst be here or there to enjoy thy own will and pleasure, thou shalt never be quiet nor free from care; for in everything somewhat will be wanting, and in every place there will be some that will cross thee…. Both above and below, which way soever thou dost turn thee, everywhere thou shalt find the Cross; and everywhere of necessity thou must have patience, if thou wilt have inward peace, and enjoy an everlasting crown…. If thou desirest to mount unto this height, thou must set out courageously, and lay the axe to the root, that thou mayest pluck up and destroy that hidden inordinate inclination to thyself, and unto all private and earthly good. On this sin, that a man inordinately loveth himself, almost all dependeth, whatsoever is thoroughly to be overcome; which evil being once overcome and subdued, there will presently ensue great peace and tranquillity…. It is but little thou sufferest in comparison of them that have suffered so much, were so strongly tempted, so grievously afflicted, so many ways tried and exercised. Thou oughtest therefore to call to mind the more heavy sufferings of others, that thou mayest the easier bear thy little adversities. And if they seem not little unto thee, beware lest thy impatience be the cause thereof…. Blessed are those ears that receive the whispers of the divine voice, and listen not to the whisperings of the world. Blessed are those ears which hearken not unto the voice which soundeth outwardly, but unto the Truth, which teacheth inwardly.”

The quiet hand – Eliot repeats the phrase: “She went on from one brown mark to another, where the quiet hand seemed to point, hardly conscious that she was reading, seeming rather to listen.” Her reading of this book becomes a kind of three-way conversation: this miserable adolescent girl in Lincolnshire, the old monk, and the long-dead reader whom Maggie thinks of as her “invisible teacher.”

Maggie has been deprived of visible teachers, at least ones who would teach her the things that she most cares about, but here she finds one – in the margins of an old book picked up in some dingy provincial shop by an illiterate packman – who is able to guide her in her time of greatest distress. I find myself remembering here the motto of the Everyman’s Library editions, words that in the medieval morality play Everyman are spoken by Knowledge:

I will go with thee,
and be thy guide,
In thy most need
to go by thy side.

So the publisher, by gathering these great books together and making them both presentable and affordable, can become itself an “invisible teacher.” 

By the time she wrote The Mill on the Floss, Eliot had (to my regret) left behind the evangelical piety that dominated her own teenage years; but that does not reduce her admiration of The Imitation of Christ:

I suppose that is the reason why the small old-fashioned book, for which you need only pay sixpence at a book-stall, works miracles to this day, turning bitter waters into sweetness; while expensive sermons and treatises, newly issued, leave all things as they were before. It was written down by a hand that waited for the heart’s prompting; it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust, and triumph, not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet on the stones. And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and human consolations; the voice of a brother who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced, – in the cloister, perhaps, with serge gown and tonsured head, with much chanting and long fasts, and with a fashion of speech different from ours, – but under the same silent far-off heavens, and with the same passionate desires, the same strivings, the same failures, the same weariness.

That heartfelt and heart-prompted book was once found by a reader whose own heart responded to it; and he (or she) recorded that response with a pen; and that record, many years later, gave direction and comfort to a friendless and miserable girl in a small English town.

This idea of books and their readers as friends and teachers, as a silent fellowship extending across time and space, is a very dear one to me. Like Francis Spufford, I was a child that books built; in a childhood with its own deep unhappiness, books were my best companions and almost my only real teachers. And at a moment when our educational system is in such disarray, when it so often does ill rather than good to its students, it’s important to remember that these resources are available – and available in radically more extensive forms than Maggie Tulliver could have dreamed possible. The world of print, publication, and distribution holds together an ecology of reading, a vast circulatory system by which mind speaks to distant mind, and heart to distant heart.  

That old copy of The Imitation of Christ and the invisible teacher within it guide Maggie through a great crisis in her life. Through them she learns the discipline of self-renunciation, and while she later comes to question – is forced by a man who loves her to question – whether self-renunciation is indeed her call, there is no question that what she learned from that book truly saves her in that crisis. And she never wholly forgets what she learned in that season of life, through the book’s text and through the patient directions of the quiet hand.

The lessons of the old monk and the invisible teacher might have been valuable to her much later in life, had she been granted a long life. But that is a longer and a darker story, one that I will take up elsewhere.

a small parable

Occasionally I find myself in groups populated by business people, technologists, consultants, people who work in nonprofits, practitioners of various kinds — and academics. Such groups gather to figure out how to respond to certain major social problems. Because the participants come from various professional worlds, it can sometimes be difficult to discover a common language, but one theme is always quickly settled on: It’s totally fine to talk about how useless academics are — especially academics in the humanities.

I’ve experienced this so many times over the years that I have to make a point of reminding myself of how curious it is. I mean, why invite people to a gathering only to tell them that they have no contribution to make? But I never respond to the dismissal and mockery; I just sit there and smile. I am only tempted to reply in one situation: When people say that academics “have their heads in the clouds.” Or that we humanists are always taking “the view from 50,000 feet.” That’s when I want to say: No. We’re not taking the view from 50,000 feet, we’re taking the view from ten feet underground, and from long long ago.

Once there was a man named Jack who owned a nice house. One day, though, Jack noticed that one end of the house was a little lower than it had been. You could place a ball on the floor and it would slowly roll towards that end. Jack was a practical man, so he called Neil, another practical man he knew, who worked in construction. Neil said that he could jack up that end of the house and make everything level again. Jack agreed, and Neil got to work.

Jack had a neighbor named Hugh. Hugh was interested in many things, and watched closely as Neil jacked up the low end of the house. With Jack’s permission, he looked around the basement of the house. All this made him more curious, so he walked down to the town’s Records Office and got some information about Jack’s house: when it had been built, who had built it, and what the land had been used for before. Hugh also learned a few things about the soil composition in their neighborhood and its geological character.

Hugh paid Jack a visit so he could tell Jack about all he had learned. He stood at Jack’s door with his hands full of documents and photographs, and rang the bell. But when Jack answered he told Hugh that he didn’t have time to look at documents and photographs. He had a very immediate problem: that end of his house was sinking again. In such circumstances Jack certainly couldn’t attend to Hugh’s ragbag of information and discourses about ancient history. After all, Jack was a practical man.

a note on plagiarism

The Claudine Gay plagiarism scandal — or, depending on your point of view, “plagiarism” scandal — has me thinking about How We Write Today. John McWhorter has recently written that there really is a meaningful distinction between plagiarism and “duplicative language,” and I suppose there often is, but it’s all because of technology, innit? 

That distinction arises because of what people do when they read as well as write on a computer. “Duplicative language” arises when scholars (presumably in something of a hurry) see something in a digital book or article that they want to use, copy the relevant text, and then paste it into Word with the intention of editing it later to in some sense make it their own. (Part of McWhorter’s argument is that maybe we don’t need to do that, or do it as often. I don’t think I agree, but I’ll waive the point for now.) 

At least some of these issues arise from a general sense that one’s work should not contain too many long quotations, an idea that Adam Roberts has explored and questioned here. (I might disagree with Adam also, but I’ll waive that point as well as McWhorter’s.) The tendency to overquote becomes a problem when professors don’t have a lot to add to an existing scholarly conversation but need publications for tenure or promotion. In such circumstances, the bulk of any given article will likely be the collecting of other scholars’ work, and if you quote too much, it might become obvious that there’s not a lot of you in your article. So you need to rework the quotations to make the extent of your debts less obvious. 

But note that all of this is a result of the pressure to publish, a pressure that people might feel especially strongly if their stronger interests are in teaching or administrating. That Claudine Gay has never written a book, and has produced only eleven journal articles in twenty years, one of those co-authored, and moreover moved quite early in her career into administration, all suggests that we’re dealing here with a person whose primary calling is not the production of scholarship. And that’s totally fine! By all accounts Gay has been an effective administrator, and Lord knows academia needs more of those. Heck, maybe Gay even has some scholarly humility, something I have heard of, occasionally. 

So if you’re a person who is publishing under pressure, and not really extending the scholarly conversation in dramatic ways, and perhaps not even very excited about writing, then you’ll probably be more prone to (a) copy and paste that digital text and (b) forget later to make the necessary changes. 

I don’t think I do this? I hesitate to assert too strongly, because I may be deficient in self-knowledge. But I will say this: whenever I copy and paste from some existing text, primary source or secondary, I paste it as a quotation. I never ever paste it into the body of my work. When I’m drafting an essay or article or book chapter I just don’t worry about whether I have too many quotations or whether the quotations are too long. That’s something I assess in revision. 

Which makes me wonder whether some of the plagiarism (or “duplicative language”) we’re now seeing so much of is a result of one small habit common to digital writing: pasting wrongly. Pasting as body text and not as quotation. Maybe this should be part of what we teach our student writers: If you think you can just drop a quotation into the body of your text and and then go back to fix it later, you’re may well be fooling yourself.  

placing bets

The last four of Ted Gioia’s seven hypotheses about meaningful progress:

4. The discourse on progress is controlled by technocrats, politicians and economists. But in the current moment, they are the wrong people to decide which metrics drive quality of life and human flourishing.

5. Real wisdom on human flourishing is now more likely to come from the humanities, philosophy, and the spiritual realms than technocrats and politicians. By destroying these disciplines, we actually reduce our chances at genuine advancement.

6. Things like music, books, art, family, friends, the inner life, etc. will increasingly play a larger role in quality of life (and hence progress) than gadgets and devices.

7. Over the next decade, the epicenter for meaningful progress will be the private lives of individuals and small communities. It will be driven by their wisdom, their core values, and the courage of their convictions — none of which will be supplied via virtual reality headsets or apps on their smartphones. 

The ongoing existence of this here blog is based on almost exactly these assumptions. It’s a bet that people want what’s best about the world


I’ve written before about how my own history as a fabulist makes me reflexively skeptical about certain kinds of stories that people tell. But it’s not my history as a fabulist, it’s rather my belief in original sin that makes me skeptical of one particular kind of story: the “Doing this hurts me but darn it I simply must stand up for my principles” story — which is the tale that a number of former Substackers are telling these days. “Substack is great for me but I simply can’t be on the same platform with all these Nazis” — though as many people have pointed out, Substack has maybe half a dozen Nazis among its zillions of users, and none of the platforms these people are decamping for are Nazi-free either. 

Here’s what I believe: This has absolutely nothing to do with Nazis. The purpose of the campaign is not to expel Nazis from Substack but to create a precedent. If Substack said “Okay, the Nazis are gone, the response would not be “Thanks!” It would be, “Cool, now let’s talk about Rod Dreher.” And then Bari Weiss, and then Jesse Singal, and then Freddie DeBoer, etc. etc. The goal is not to eliminate Nazis; the goal is to reconstitute the ideological monoculture that Substack, for all its flaws — it’s not a service I would ever use —, has effectively disrupted. 

head start

CleanShot 2024-01-15 at 20.58.51@2x.

The Vikings was the first movie I ever saw — not in a standard movie theater, but some years after its release, at a drive-in. I remember being at once bemused and excited by the rituals of finding a parking place, hanging the speaker over the car door .. and the movie itself? I adored it. What four-year-old wouldn’t? 

I also remember quite clearly the first movie I saw in a proper movie theater, not too long after I saw The Vikings. It was this: 

So what I’m saying is that I had a good start on my movie-watching career. 

Things got even better a few years later when my ne’er-do-well uncle — a ladies’ man, a snappy dresser, a driver (and occasional seller) of exotic automobiles —  decided to take his 12-year-old nephew to the movies, in fact to a double feature. And what were those movies? Why, Dirty Harry and The Wild Bunch, of course. Food for the spirit of a growing boy. 

ADD revisited

On the first day of my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century course — mentioned here — I played for my students a few minutes of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. We paused to talk a bit about the musical language of late Romanticism, about Rachmaninoff’s gift for lush melody, etc. Then I played them this: 

Hard to believe it was composed by the same man, isn’t it? But (I suggested) that’s the difference between a young Russian composer in 1901 — he wrote that concerto when he was 27 — and a middle-aged Russian composer living through overwhelming political turmoil and world war. In time of desperate need Rachmaninoff, not a churchgoer, turned to the liturgical and musical inheritance of Orthodoxy to make sense of his world, to begin the long healing that would be necessary. 

But the healing didn’t happen. Russia was further broken by the war, then entered the long nightmare of Bolshevik rule, and Rachmaninoff became one of many exiles. In some ways he never recovered from this experience. Many years later, while living in California, he lamented his inability to compose music: “Losing my country, I lost myself also.” (Exile versus homecoming — one of the themes of my class.) But the All-Night Vigil remains, for me, one of the transcendent works of music. Rachmaninoff himself thought it perhaps his best composition. 

But I have another motive in having my students listen to this music, which is to get them to listen to music. People these days, especially but not only young people, have music on all the time, but that’s not the same as listening to it. Indeed, as Ted Gioia and Damon Krukowski have documented repeatedly, Spotify — and pretty much all my students use Spotify — positively wants its users to unlisten, to merely have music on in the background, in part because that allows the company to shift from actual music made by human musicians to AI-generated neo-Muzak. The tiny amount that Spotify pays musicians  is already shameful, but it’s too much for a company that doesn’t have a workable business model, so the best way to limit costs is to cut human musicians out of the game altogether. But this will only work if Spotify can habituate its users to empty, mindless schlock, made up of endless variations on the same four chords

I’ve made it a classroom practice in the last year or so to indulge in theatrical rants against Spotify, which is fun for me and for my students. They argue with me and I denounce them, all in good humor. But for all the smiles, I am quite serious. Spotify is creating in millions and millions of its users a new kind of Attention Deficit Disorder, not one that has them jumping from one thing to another, but rather has them in a kind of vague trance state. Spotify is like soma from Brave New World in audio form.  And to be in such a state is to experience a deficit of attention, an inability genuine to attend to what one is hearing. 

So one of the things I am doing in this class, and will be trying in other classes, is to get my students to spend five minutes listening to music. I forbid digital devices in my classes, so they just have their books and notebooks in front of them — they can of course be distracted from the music, but it’s not automatic, not easy. If listening is the path of least resistance, then maybe they’ll listen. I’ve started with five minutes, but I hope to work our way up to longer pieces. My dream — and alas, it is but a dream — is, one Holy Week, to sit together with my students and listen to the single 70-minute movement that is Arvo Pärt’s Passio

DHH is exactly right: Apple has become too powerful, and with that power has come a sense of entitlement, and with that sense of entitlement has come a shortsighted pettiness and vindictiveness. I don’t want to support such a company, in part because I don’t have the bandwidth to go full Linux at the moment, but in. Larger part because, while I don’t want to support Apple, I do want to support the amazing developers who have created the software that makes my Mac a joy to use: people like Bare Bones, Panic, and Rogue Amoeba

It’s noteworthy, I think, that all three of those developers are either exclusively or primarily focused on the Mac as opposed to iOS, and it’s with regard to iOS that Apple has behaved most despicably. So maybe the best approach for me is to try to go all-in on the Mac and avoid iOS — a move I’ve long been tempted to make anyway. 

Also: I just realized that I first wrote about using Linux twenty-two years ago. If breaking from the Mac was hard then, it’s nearly impossible for me to contemplate now. 

Jaroslav Pelikan

Origen may … have been the first church father to study Hebrew, “in opposition to the spirit of his time and of his people,” as Jerome says; according to Eusebius, he “learned it thoroughly,” but there is reason to doubt the accuracy of this report. Jerome, however, was rightly celebrated as “a trilingual man” for his competence in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and Augustine clearly admired, perhaps even envied, his ability to “interpret the divine Scriptures in both languages.” […] But it seems safe to propose the generalization that, except for converts from Judaism, it was not until the biblical humanists and the Reformers of the sixteenth century that a knowledge of Hebrew became standard equipment for Christian expositors of the Old Testament. Most of Christian doctrine developed in a church uninformed by any knowledge of the original text of the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever the reasons, Christian theologians writing against Judaism seemed to take their opponents less and less seriously as time went on; and what their apologetic works may have lacked in vigor or fairness, they tended to make up in self-confidence. They no longer looked upon the Jewish community as a continuing participant in the holy history that had produced the church. They no longer gave serious consideration to the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament or to the Jewish background of the New. Therefore the urgency and the poignancy about the mystery of Israel that are so vivid in the New Testament have appeared only occasionally in Christian thought, as in some passages in Augustine; but these are outweighed, even in Augustine, by the many others that speak of Judaism and paganism almost as though they were equally alien to “the people of God” — the church of Gentile Christians.

Surely this de-Judaizing is the most important (and troubling) way in which the era of the early Church Fathers differed from the Apostolic beginnings of the Church. It is fascinating to contemplate an alternate history of Christendom in which Jews and Christians remained in regular conversation and debate. 

looking ahead

Lately I’ve been posting in How to Think mode — HTT as the tag here calls it: I’ve been writing about various common-all-too-common errors in reasoning and how they might be avoided. But I’m about to change direction for a while. 

When I was a young faculty member at Wheaton College, a college that prides itself on “the integration of faith and learning,” I quickly realized that there was a fundamental mismatch between my knowledge of my academic discipline, which was fairly sophisticated, and my understanding of the Christian faith, which was woefully underdeveloped. I was only 25 years old when I began teaching at Wheaton; I had not grown up in a Christian home and indeed had only been a Christian for around five years; I had a lot to learn. But at least I grasped that point. 

And I was richly blessed in my neighbors, for I worked in the same building with Mark Noll, Roger Lundin, Bob Webber, and Arthur Holmes, among others. I relentlessly peppered them with questions, and especially sought recommendations for books I could read to give me an adequate understanding of the full range of Christian thought. I did not understand that I was asking for something that I couldn’t achieve in a lifetime. Gradually it dawned on me that Christian thinking about the arts and humanities was richer and deeper and more extensive than I could have imagined; and then, also gradually, my scholarship and non-scholarly writing too became more and more informed by and rooted in that great and complex tradition. 

My experience was somewhat like that of the Methodist theologian Thomas Oden, who when invited to teach and write about pastoral care could but draw on what little he knew about then-contemporary models of psychological counseling. It was only when he asked himself whether Christians, who had been doing pastoral care for 2000 years, might know a little bit about the subject that he began the great series of books on pastoral theology for which he is best remembered. Like me, Oden discovered that the Christian tradition in his chosen field was more extensive and powerful than he had anticipated, and he drank deeply from the well of that tradition for the rest of his life. 

Well, for me one thing led to another, and I now have one of the longest job titles in the American academy: the Jim and Sharon Harrod Endowed Chair of Christian Thought and Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program. The second half of that title I’ve had for a decade now; the first half is new. I am pleased and honored and excited by the prospect of becoming an official advocate for the great Christian tradition that I have been talking about in this post. 

Partly because of this new role, and partly by accident, I am this semester — for the first time, in a teaching career that now exceeds forty years — teaching only Christian writers. (I have had many semesters in which I didn’t teach any Christian writers at all, though usually there’s been a mix.) I am teaching, for Baylor’s Great Texts program, a course called Great Texts in Christian Spirituality; and I am teaching a new course, one I designed to express my chief interests as the new Harrod Chair: The Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century. 

The new course is devoted to exploring the extraordinary outburst of distinctively Christian creativity — in all the arts and humanities — that occurred especially in the first half of the twentieth century, but has continued in certain forms ever since. It is a ridiculously ambitious and indefensibly wide-ranging course, since we will look (sometimes briefly, sometimes in detail) at painting, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, philosophy, and filmmaking. Basically we’ll go from G. K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain to Marilynne Robinson, Arvo Pärt, and Terrence Malick. (Though as it happens, on Day One we’ll discuss Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.) It’s gonna be utterly insane, and also, I think, a lot of fun. I hope to learn much in this first iteration that I can apply when I teach the course again — and I hope to teach it every year, student interest permitting. 

Between that course and the Christian Spirituality one — which will go from the Didache and Maximus Confessor to Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm — I will have on my mind, for the next few months, an vast agglomeration of works in Christian theology, philosophy, and all the arts. There will be a lot to process, and this here blog is where I do much of my processing, so — if you like that kind of thing, then this will be the kind of thing you like. If not … well, sorry about that. 

Silence, Violence, and the Human Condition

I don’t believe that “silence is violence,” ever. And I doubt that anyone else would either, if they were to spend a bit of time thinking about it. People remain silent when they see violence (either threatened or performed) for a wide variety of reasons: sometimes they are indifferent to the sufferings of others, sometimes they enjoy the sufferings of others, but sometimes they have quite legitimate fears that any protest will lead to violence being inflicted upon them without anyone else being saved. Protest is not inevitably successful, and truthful accusation does not inevitably lead to arrest and conviction. Moreover, there are ways other than speech of responding to, or striving to prevent, impermissible violence.

Even when one’s silence does make it more likely that someone will be hurt, we do not benefit from erasing the distinction between sins of omission and sins of commission. Indifference to the suffering of others is a grave sin, but there are sins still graver. And different. As Auden wrote in his poem “The More Loving One,”

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

So, no: it is untrue that silence is violence. 

Shall we say, then, that silence is complicit in violence? It’s obvious why that is a more defensible argument, but it is not as dispositive as people who use it believe. I recently wrote something about Israel and Gaza, but I didn’t do it because people told me that otherwise I would have been complicit in the violence done there – though indeed people did tell me that. I wrote it for my own reasons, not because I felt that I was complicit in anything.

There are more evil things going on in the world than any one person can respond to. You could spend all day every day on social media just declaring that you denounce X or Y or Z and never get to the end of what deserves to be denounced. If my silence about Gaza is complicit in the violence being done there, what about my silence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighurs? Or the government of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya? Or what Boko Haram has done in Nigeria? Or what multinational corporations do to destroy our environment? Or dogfighting rings? Or racism in the workplace? Or sexism in the workplace?

There are two possible responses to this problem. One is to say that I am inevitably complicit in every act of violence I do not denounce, even if it would be impossible for me to denounce all such acts. But that position leads to a despairing quietism: Why should I denounce anything if in so doing I remain guilty for leaving millions of violent acts undenounced?

The second way is better: pick your spots and pick them unapologetically. It’s perfectly fine for people to have their own causes, the causes that for whatever reason touch their hearts. We all have them, we are all moved more by some injustices than by others; not one of us is consistently concerned with all injustices, all acts of violence, nor do we have a clear system of weighting the various sufferings of the world on a scale and portioning out our attention and concern in accordance with a utilitarian calculus.

Some effective altruists, especially the so-called longtermists, try to do this, but their endeavor is full of errors. One is longtermism’s inevitably speculative character, its belief that future dangers to humanity can be predicted with sufficient reliability to guide our actions. A greater error inheres in the great unstated axiom of effective altruism: Money is the only currency of compassion. (As the Archbishop of Canterbury says in Charles Williams’s poem Taliessen through Logres, “Money is a medium of exchange.”)

The silence-is-violence crowd, to their credit, don’t think that money is the only commodity we have to spend: they think we can and must spend our words also. And they always believe they know what, in a given moment, we must spend our words on. What they never seen to realize, though, is that some words are a debased currency. As the Lord says to Job, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” To speak “words without knowledge” is to “darken counsel,” that is, confuse the issue, mislead or confuse one’s hearers. The purpose of counsel is to illuminate a situation; one does not illuminate anything by speaking out of ignorance or mere rage. 

Above all we need to acknowledge that no one — no one — operates with consistency in these matters. As David Edmonds writes in his recent biography of the philosopher Derek Parfit, Parfit refused to meet with a dying friend, Susan Hurley — a fellow philosopher who was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford — because he considered it more important to work on his philosophical writing. Yet Edmonds reports on several acts of generosity by Parfit, acts which also deprived him of work time. Similarly, as Julian Baggini writes in a review of Edmonds’s book,

He objected to the effective altruism movement’s Giving What We Can pledge to donate at least 10 per cent of signees’ incomes to relieve poverty, because he thought it was obvious that people could donate more. He also objected to the word “giving” for implying that this was optional, when he thought we were not morally entitled to our wealth. Yet in the years when he pursued photography as a serious hobby, he would spend thousands of pounds on a single print. Obsessed with typesetting, he offered to reimburse his publisher Oxford University Press for the extra costs of following his strict instructions, on one occasion paying £3,000 for wet proofs to check how the pages would actually come out from the plates. He also overpaid for a house by £50,000 just because he fell in love with it.

I am sure that Parfit thought of himself as a principled actor, but he certainly wasn’t: like almost all of us, he acted according to his own preferences. I’m sure that when he was kind and generous it was because that felt good to him, and I’m sure that when he declined to meet with a dying friend he declined not for philosophically defensible reasons but because he found such a meeting unpleasant.

Now, I am not suggesting that Derek Parfit should be a role model for anyone. To judge from Edmonds’s biography, he was an exceptionally unpleasant man, though Edmonds treats him not as wicked but rather as profoundly strange. I am merely pointing out that, for all his fierce labor to identify and describe the objective roots of morality, Parfit’s own behavior was as inconsistent and unprincipled as yours and mine or the Effective Altruist next door.

I think what we should learn from all this is simply that one should have principles — ideally better ones than Derek Parfit had — but we should not be ashamed of the subjectivity inherent in them. I know people who care for abandoned dogs, and whose attention to those abandoned dogs makes them effectively, if not theoretically, indifferent to matters that many people believe to be much greater concern: what’s happening in Gaza, who the next President of the United States will be, global climate change, etc. I think that’s just fine. The world has so much more suffering than any of us could possibly address that any remediation, any limiting of harm and pain and suffering, is a good thing. And we are not wired in such a way that we can maintain our commitment to undoing or preventing harm that (for whatever reason) doesn’t really touch our hearts. We should not feel guilty for failing to think about — still less for failing to speak about — climate change when there is something else, some other suffering or violence right before us that we can to some degree ameliorate. That’s the human condition and we ought to embrace it. In enables us to leave the world in at least a slightly better condition than we found it. 

Legal Sauce for the Legal Goose

From an an interview with Jill Lepore:

I’m working on a long book about the history of attempts to amend the Constitution. And on the one hand, we have a Constitution that has a provision that allows for generativity and invention and adjustment and improvement and alteration and remedy and making amends, and all of these wonderful, beautiful ideas that we associate with the idea of the future. And yet, we live in a world where we can’t actually use that provision because our politics are so overridden with the idea of the past. Consider the Supreme Court’s history-and-tradition test, under which we can’t do anything that doesn’t derive from the past. The week that we’re speaking, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on the question of whether people who have restraining orders against them due to domestic abuse can be prohibited from buying or owning weapons, and the test that the Supreme Court uses is to ask: “Was there an analogous law like that in 1787?” That is plainly nuts. In that sense, we are held hostage by the dead. 

This is a mess. Lepore means not “history and tradition,” but “text, history, and tradition” (THT for short) — see e.g. this article. (THT may or may not be a coherent model of interpretation. One complication, raised by some legal hermeneuts, is whether “history” and “tradition” are always compatible: sometimes legal tradition can be shown to be indifferent to or ignorant of the relevant history. But we won’t get into that here.) In a far more important error she is confusing the THT standard of interpretation with a different one, originalism: “Was there an analogous law like that in 1787?” is not a THT question but a question about original meaning. Originalists don’t care much about how their judicial predecessors have interpreted the law. They care primarily about what the text’s original public meaning was. They think that that should be the essential interpretative canon. (Originalism can sometimes be in tension with textualism, but that’s another matter to ignore for now.) 

So Lepore is writing “a long book about the history of attempts to amend the Constitution” but doesn’t have even the most elementary knowledge of the rival schools of legal interpretation. We just have to hope that she learns as she goes along. 

But let’s continue by posing a hypothetical. Suppose Donald Trump becomes President again; suppose also that he has a majority in the House and Senate. In light of what he says is an unprecedented influx of dangerous illegal immigrants, Trump declares a State of Emergency and invokes the Alien Enemies Act. (That might have its own interesting legal consequences, but let’s set those aside for now.) Then Congress, with the President’s support, passes a law deeming criticism of the President’s policies in this time of Emergency a form of sedition, to be punished appropriately. The law is challenged and the Supreme Court rules that the law violates the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of the press. Some of the justices employ THT principles to articulate their case, and some of them use originalist canons, but they agree on the decision. 

“That is plainly nuts,” Trump then says. “We’re being held hostage by the past. We’re looking to achieve generativity and invention and adjustment and improvement and alteration and remedy and making amends, and the Courts are getting in our way!”

And Jill Lepore would have to agree, wouldn’t she? 

The answer is: No, of course she wouldn’t agree. Because, we would learn, many of the legal protections that Lepore admires, reveres, and relies on were also made in the past. Indeed, any existing law is by definition the product neither of the future nor the present but the past. If existing laws prevented her from being arrested and tried for sedition with (say) her New Yorker articles used as evidence against her, she would not feel that anyone was being “held hostage by the past,” but rather that the Founders, in making the Bill of Rights, had shown remarkable foresight, wisdom, and commitment to freedom. 

So Lepore’s actual position is not “We should not be held hostage by the past,” because that would be to say that we should not have any laws. What she means is something more like this: “It should be easier for us to change the laws to get what we want.” But — the eternal question returns — who are “we”? And it’s obvious that by “we” Lepore means “people who share my politics.” Which would be fine if people who share Lepore’s politics are the only people who will ever be elected to political office in this country. But they aren’t. If we ever get a MAGA President and a MAGA Congress, and they set out to implement their vision of “generativity and invention and adjustment and improvement and alteration and remedy and making amends” — another word for “making amends” is “retribution” — then you can bet that Lepore would be one of the first people insisting that those political ambitions be forcibly restrained by law, i.e., that they be “held hostage to the past.” 

I suspect that Lepore was formed in an environment in which leftish people like her wanted change, which is good, while people on the right wanted sameness, which is bad. She hasn’t adjusted her thinking to the rise of MAGA populism, which wants change as much as she does, and feels the restraint of existing law and legal interpretation as much as she does. They just want different changes than the ones she prefers. MAGAworld ain’t conservative.  

Basically what I’m saying is: Jill Lepore hasn’t thought this through. She hasn’t thought it through because — here again she is like her MAGA counterparts — she lives in an intellectual monoculture. And one bad consequence of living in an intellectual monoculture is that it makes you incurious. THT, originalism, whatever, it’s all the same to people who want the same changes and don’t like having their desires thwarted. 

People whose political desires are thwarted by judges are always quick to declare the legal system illegitimate. Today it’s leftists who think the Supreme Court lacks legitimacy, but in the Clinton era it was the right that felt that way — and in both cases the feeling arose directly and uncomplicatedly from disliking judicial outcomes. But there’s a lot more to the evaluation of the judiciary than looking at outcomes. It would be nice if a distinguished historian writing a book about attempts to amend the Constitution knew that.  

P.S. The domestic-abuser-weapon-ownership case that Lepore mentions is United States v. Rahimi. I think that this situation should be and will be decided in the way that Lepore prefers, but if you read some of the material I’ve linked to you’ll discover why the question has made it all the way to SCOTUS. “Why is this even a thing?” is usually an exclamation rather than a question, but if you really ask you can learn a bit. 


Some years ago I read an article about sociopathy – I don’t remember the author or where it appeared, but I do recall the description of a boy who began to show signs of sociopathy from an early age. Once, as he and his parents gathering with family and friends at a house that had a swimming pool, a younger cousin, a toddler or barely older, fell into the pool at a moment when no one was paying attention – just this boy. As the toddler flailed helplessly in the water, the boy watched. He didn’t try to help, or even call for help; he just watched. Eventually an adult noticed, and rescued the small one. When the boy was asked why he didn’t do anything but watch a child drowning, he replied that he had wanted to see what happened.

I think about that boy when I watch the films of Bernardo Bertolucci. Maybe that’s not fair; it’s hard to say. Dramatic films are just that, dramatic – their makers do not provide authorial commentary on the action. They portray, we judge. So I am not saying that Bertolucci was a sociopath; I am instead saying that his movies feel to me that he’s asking me not to empathize, but to watch. And because his images are so compelling, it’s hard not to watch.


Like Antonioni, Bertolucci tends to make movies about lost souls. But when I’m watching L’Avventura or La Notte, I feel that the director has compassion for these souls in their lostness, and is inviting, even encouraging, me to have compassion for them also. By contrast, Bertolucci seems to be setting up his camera at the end of the pool and simply pointing it at the drowning child. 

Arsenal mid-season report

This side is not a contender for the league title — not even close. At this point I’m not confident that they can hold on to a Champions League place: they’re far behind Man City and Liverpool, noticeably behind Aston Villa, and probably behind Spurs (though Spurs’ lack of depth could haunt them in the months to come). 

Because Arsenal are so toothless in attack, the temptation will be to think that they have to sign a striker in the January transfer window. But (a) they will almost certainly have to overpay dramatically for anyone worth having; (b) strikers rarely settle immediately into a new side — they need time to get adjusted to new teammates and a new style of play; and (c) there’s not a game-changing striker available. Succumbing to this temptation would lead to heartache — but I fear that that’s what the club will do. 

It’s true that Arsenal don’t have a top goal-scorer, but that’s not their primary problem. After all, they had a fine season last year while spreading the goals around quite widely. Their primary problem is this: Arteta has wildly over-reacted to the way that last season ended. Last season’s side was a high-energy, high-risk, excitable, even manic show. Every time they won a game they shouted and leaped into one another’s arms, and the game’s self-appointed Celebration Police tut-tutted and said, in unison, “They act like they won the league.” 

It seems obvious that the club’s leadership decided that this emotional intensity caused the team to run out of gas late last season. So they — or maybe it’s just Arteta — decided to take a different approach this season. 

The first move in this direction was eminently sensible and has been quite successful: signing Declan Rice means that the team now has a physically commanding and highly intelligent defensive midfielder to play in front of the two excellent centerbacks, which means that Arsenal are very difficult to score against. 

The second move was to replace the most excitable member of last year’s side, the keeper Aaron Ramsdale, with the calmer and somewhat more technical David Raya. This decision, I think, has been as bad as the signing of Rice has been good. It’s not that Raya has performed poorly; he hasn’t. He’s been about as good as Ramsdale, though not noticeably better as distribution (which is supposed to be his big advantage). The problem is that Raya is a pretty quiet and undemonstrative guy, while Ramsdale was the emotional leader of last year’s side. He was the spark plug that ignited the fuel, and without him the team seems to be playing mechanically and joylessly. (The other really fiery player from last year’s side, Granit Xhaka, now plays in the Bundesliga. The club might do better to bring Xhaka back than sign an overpriced striker.) 

In Sunday’s mostly listless — after the first ten minutes anyway — performance against Liverpool, the crowd at the Emirates was virtually silent. Watching on TV, you could hear everything said on the pitch and sideline through most of the match. At one point Martin Odegaard — a fine captain, about whom I have nothing bad to say — tried to rouse the crowd, but they responded halfheartedly. This was, to put it mildly, not a problem last year. If the team is excited and energetic the crowd will be too; if not, not. 

The player who has suffered most from this new emphasis on restraint and discipline has been Gabriel Martinelli — who is a shadow of his last year’s self. But I think everyone’s less intense this year, and other teams are just outworking them.  

When the team has had energy this season, it’s been negative energy, generated by Mikel Arteta’s constant whining about officiating. Indeed, I suspect that Arteta’s complaining has hurt the team’s spirit as much as the tamping down of enthusiasm. 

Can Arteta make the necessary adjustments both to his tactics and his mood? Can he reignite the fire from last season and become a more positive figure, keeping in mind that he still has a very young side, with many players who are highly influenced by his example? Maybe; he seems to be an exceptionally stubborn person, but I think the organization as a whole is strong and that there’s a good opportunity here at the brief winter break to part with some bad habits. I think we just have to hope that he learns from experience and admits his mistakes. I wish I had a better answer than that. 

beyond the SCT

My 2021 essay on “cosmotechnics” begins thus:

In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of thinkers, beginning with Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan, began to describe the anatomy of our technological society. Then, starting in the 1970s, a generation emerged who articulated a detailed critique of that society. The critique produced by these figures I refer to in the singular because it shares core features, if not a common vocabulary. What Ivan Illich, Ursula Franklin, Albert Borgmann, and a few others have said about technology is powerful, incisive, and remarkably coherent. I am going to call the argument they share the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. The one problem with the SCT is that it has had no success in reversing, or even slowing, the momentum of our society’s move toward what one of their number, Neil Postman, called technopoly.

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections – but they also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects – and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The point of this essay was to say that (a) the SCT is absolutely correct and (b) there’s no point in continuing to restate the SCT, even if you shift the terms around a bit or employ alternate ones. (For instance, Paul Kingsnorth talks about “the Machine” — but it’s precisely the same set of concepts and critiques.)

That essay, for me, marked the end of a decade or so of articulating my own version of, or elaborations on, the SCT. For much of that decade I wrote about Technopoly’s demands on our attention, and insisted that we can attend otherwise.

But how many times can you say that?

Since I wrote that essay I have (mostly) refrained from saying “We should attend to things other than those Technopoly wants us to attend to” and instead have tried simply to attend to other things. In other words: I’ve given up on making arguments about where our attention should go – not primarily because such arguments are useless, though they may well be, but because I have made them already – and have instead pursued demonstration. Hey, look at this fascinating thing I’ve been looking at. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2021, and it’s what I plan to keep doing. 

Basically, I’m just a simple caveman; your modern world confuses and frightens me. But one thing I do know: That I ain’t buying what Technopoly (or the Machine, or whatever you want to call it) is selling. 

The Next Turn of the Wheel

This is the novelist Janet Burroway, writing about her experience making a fifth edition of a textbook for creative writing classes:

Unusually, this time around my publisher asked for no refreshing of my ideas, no major swaths of rewriting, only that I conform to the new sensibility. I was asked to change the binary “he/she,” for example, and to substitute they as a neutral nonbinary, or to refashion the sentence so that the plural made sense. The latter was often easy. The former not so much.

My instructions suggested that even if I was positing a hypothetical stage scene, I should not designate an actor as male or female. I was asked not to say “pregnant woman” since trans men can sometimes give birth. I was asked to substitute “home” where I had said “house,” on the grounds that some people don’t have houses. (What of those who have a house but no home?) I was to add “or caregiver” to every mention of mother, father, or parents. “Heroine” and “hero” are out. “God” should not be referenced, since different people have different gods, or none. Likewise, “Him” should not be capitalized. Noah’s Ark should not be mentioned, since non-Bible-savvy students might not know the story. “First year” must be used instead of the sexist “freshman.” “Foreign” and “foreigners” are offensive in any context. “Nerd,” “tribal,” “naïve,” “’hood,” “ugliness,” and “race” should not be said. Don’t mention shame, straitjacket, suicide, Donald Trump, or Kevin Spacey!

To virtually all of these admonitions, even when I thought them misguided or silly, I agreed. My own prose was not after all sacred. But when it came to the imaginative prose of other writers, trouble began. 

Trouble began because whenever those authors — many of whom are racial or sexual minorities — had written, or simply had made their characters say, something deemed offensive, then Burroway was instructed to delete that example of their writing and find another example, one that could not possibly offend any member of any protected group. The previous edition of her textbook had quoted one memoirist describing the nasty names he was called as a child, so she was asked to remove that quotation and choose another (properly sanitized) one that avoids potential harm to an imaginary reader. 

Burroway doesn’t say this, but these principles, consistently followed, would prevent people who have suffered racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and any other form of trauma from writing honestly about their experience, since such honest writing might perpetuate the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. etc. Every offense is The Offense That Dare Not Speak Its Content. 

As I read, I was reminded of a book I wrote about many years ago, Ruth Bottigheimer’s The Bible for Children. Here’s a passage from my essay: 

Problems usually arise for the makers of children’s Bibles not because they are uncertain how to interpret a story, but rather because they do not know how bluntly they dare relate that story. No one questions the evil of David’s adultery with Bathsheba; but how do you explain that adultery to children who may not yet know anything about human sexuality? Some writers, Bottigheimer shows, said that David “took another’s wife,” leaving the concept of “taking” ambiguous. Others (especially in the nineteenth century) made no reference whatsoever to the sexual nature of the sin: David committed “a shocking offense,” one said, while another noted still more vaguely that “he grew tyrannical and began to sin.” 

But those were Bibles for small children. Burroway’s publisher (like many others) thinks that university students are children; maybe that we all are. 

I happened to read Burroway’s depressing account immediately after reading a wonderful essay by Witold Rybczynski on ornament in architecture. Rybczynski describes 

a lecture given in Vienna on January 21, 1910. The venue was the Akademischer Verband für Literatur und Musik, an association of university students and their friends that organized avant-garde concerts by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and exhibits by young firebrands such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. The lecturer that January evening was not so young, a 39-year-old Moravian-born architect named Adolf Loos, but he was definitely a firebrand. He titled his talk “Ornament und Verbrechen” (Ornament and Crime), and his theme, encapsulated in the title, was that ornamentation was both uneconomical and morally wrong; therein lay the crime. The lecture, which was actually more like an extended harangue, consisted of stirring if unproven pronouncements: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use” — an assertion difficult to prove, since in 1910 both machine tools and steam locomotives often incorporated ornament. Nevertheless, to Loos, ornament was a throwback to a primitive time and had no place in the modern world. “Ornament is wasted labor and hence wasted breath,” he declared. “That’s how it has always been.” One can hear the outrage in his voice. 

What do Adolf Loos and Janet Burroway’s publisher have in common? The belief that one can achieve virtue through omission and excision. This is the belief shared by all forms of purity culture — and purity culture always leads to katharsis culture, that is, the practice of cleansing yourself, restoring your purity, by casting out the unclean thing. 

But what if that’s not how virtue works? What if after having cast out every unclean thing you can find you just end up in the foul rag and bone shop of your own heart? What then? 

That’s why these periods of desperate and manic katharsis always burn themselves out — why Robespierre ends by executing the executioner. And when they’ve done all they can do, they are succeeded by a bacchanal, an era of pseudo-festive delight in transgression. Our culture oscillates between “cast out the unclean thing” and “let us sin the more that grace may abound” — that is, between legalism and antinomianism, the very pairing that St. Paul in his letters is always trying to subvert.

Paul is the greatest of psychologists: he knows that human beings perfectly well understand legalism, which they rename “justice,” and perfectly well understand antinomianism, which they rename “freedom.” What we can’t understand is the grace of God

So we keep turning our simple wheel. Today it’s justice prized and freedom despised; tomorrow will be the opposite. The bacchanal is coming. Get ready. 


The Real Value of a Catholic Modernity

In 1996 the philosopher Charles Taylor delivered a lecture – later to be published with several responses – called “A Catholic Modernity?” But do you know what the truly essential value of a Catholic modernity is? It was a Catholic modernity that defeated Dracula.

The Catholic elements of the story are memorable. Most readers will readily recall Dracula shrinking back from a crucifix thrust in his face; many will also remember the consecrated Hosts with which Dr. van Helsing “sanitises” the big boxes filled with Transylvanian earth in which Dracula plans to hide himself; or the moment when, in the Transylvanian wilderness near the Count’s castle, he crumples more Hosts into powder that he uses to form a protective circle around Mina Harker.

But Dracula’s biggest mistake is to enter the world of technocratic modernity.

We know why he does it: he lives in a sparsely populated backwater, whereas London is the largest city in the world and offers an endless supply of victims: victims he can kill and victims he can make into an army of the Undead. But this man of the early modern era can only enter London by obeying the procedures of modernity, which is to say, by acquiring a modern identity. As James Scott has taught us – and this is a theme I pursue in an essay nominally about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple – the modern state makes people legible. And it is because Dracula becomes legible that he is thwarted, discovered, and killed.

Because Dracula cannot move freely in the daytime, he must have a place of refuge and safety while the sun shines. So he needs both the aforementioned boxes – temporary coffins – and homes (“mansions”) or warehouses in which to keep them. To buy these things he needs money, which he has plenty of; but he also needs to follow the administrative procedures of the modern capitalist state. He can’t ship anything without giving a name and an address, and – more important to the story – without employing people, from real estate agents to plain old carters, who keep records. Our heroes’ long pursuit of Dracula is largely a matter of tracing the written records of everything Dracula does in England. Note also that the enemies of Dracula coordinate their plan of action with reference to the sequence of events that they have recorded using typewriters and phonographs. (Dracula is the first novel featuring voice memos.) 

Dracula doesn’t understand this world. At one point he breaks into Dr. Seward’s office to destroy the handwritten journals and letters that document his evil deeds. But what he doesn’t know is that Mina Harker has made typewritten copies of it all. Dracula is like the Bishop of London in the sixteenth century who bought and burned copies of Tyndale’s New Testament, not realizing that Tyndale could use the proceeds to make more copies. 

And modernity reigns not just in England: even in eastern Europe the pursuers are greatly aided by Mina’s knowledge of when the trains run — and by telegraphs they receive from London. Railway timetables, telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, invoices, bills of lading, double-entry bookkeeping: these are the instruments by which Dracula’s pursuers draw their net around him. (And money – let’s not forget money. As Mina Harker writes in her journal, “Oh, it did me good to see the way that these brave men worked. How can women help loving men when they are so earnest, and so true, and so brave! And, too, it made me think of the wonderful power of money!”) 

Dracula’s own powers – superhuman strength, the control of local weather, the ability to summon and direct brute creatures – cannot match the powers of his Enemy. And that Enemy is not Dr. Van Helsing or Jonathan Harker or any of the other people who chase him, but rather technocratic modernity itself — supplemented and strengthened by the spiritual technologies of the Church, that is, material objects sanctified for holy purposes.

Poor Dracula, he never had a chance – not against the double-reinforced power of a Catholic Modernity.

Who’s Counting?

I’m not doing an end-of-year roundup of what I’ve written this year, or what I’ve read, or what I’ve watched, or what I’ve listened to, or where I’ve traveled, or the museums I’ve visited, or the concerts I’ve attended – that last one because I didn’t attend any concerts in 2023, not even Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. But I’m not writing up any of that other stuff because I don’t know: don’t know how many books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, etc. etc. I couldn’t tell you what the most-read posts on this blog are because I don’t have analytics enabled. I don’t know what my Top Ten Books of the Year are because I just don’t think that way.

I used to; when I was a teenager I kept a list of the Ten Best Books I’ve Ever Read and every time I read a book I felt obliged to sit down and think about whether it broke the top ten – and if so, where did it belong? (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End reigned unchallenged at the top for quite some time – and then I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.) But then after a few years I realized that some of the books that meant the most to me were, unaccountably, not on the list; while some books that I had put on the list … I squirmed just seeing the titles. And the whole business was so much work. I now think of the day I crumpled up the sheet and threw it in the trash as my first real step towards maturity as a reader.

But it took me a lot longer to rid myself of that year-end feeling of accountability, of the calendar-turning responsibility to make a report. Now that I’ve put all that behind me, it seems odd that I ever thought that way.

Micro.blog has a great feature called Bookshelves, which I often – though not altogether consistently – use to note what I’m reading, less for myself than for those who ask. You can note what you want to read – which I never do, because I read at whim – what you’re currently reading, and what you’ve finished reading. But there are (blessedly) no dates on that page I just linked to, only book covers. I could figure out how many of those books I read in a given year, but I never have and never will. And in any case those three categories are insufficient: something important is missing.

I am inspired by my buddy Austin Kleon’s list of the books he didn’t read this year, the idea for which, he says, he got from John Warner. Inspired not to do that, exactly, but some year – not this year, mind you – to make a list of Books I Abandoned This Year.

I think one of the most interesting things you can do as a reader is to sit down and think about why you abandon a book, when that happens to you. Many, many pages in my notebooks discuss just this question. Over the years I gradually came to an awareness: the kinds of book I am most likely to abandon are history and theology; the kinds I am least likely to abandon are novels and biographies. It turns out that while I am deeply interested in both history and theology, my mind needs a human story to hook itself to. (Thus the great narrative historians, like Gibbon and C. V. Wedgwood, command my attention in precisely the same way that novels and biographies do.) Novels and biographies raise certain questions for me that I pursue by mining works of history and theology for information and insight, which means that I read quite a bit of history and theology; I just don’t read those books from beginning to end. I don’t read them the way I read narratives.

If you ask yourself why you’re abandoning a book you can learn a lot about your own intellectual habits, preferences, needs. The books you don’t finish can be even more important to you than the ones you do, if you learn to inquire into your own responses. And that’s one reason why I don’t make these year-end lists: they tell a misleading story.

And I’ve only noted one of the ways they mislead: What about short stories and poems and essays and even blog posts? In any given year, those short-form genres may shape your thoughts and feelings, may contribute to your flourishing, more than any work that happens to be book-length. One of Pascal’s pensées or one Psalm may matter more than a dozen books.

A few years ago, I started the practice of taking one hour each week to reflect on what I read and wrote in the previous seven days; and one morning each month to reflect on what I read and wrote in the previous month. I think that has been infinitely better for my intellectual and spiritual orientation than any year-end list could be. Something to consider, maybe?

A blessed new year to you, to me, and to this poor wounded world.

Venkatesh Rao:

Much of the social energy of the old internet has now retreated underground to the cozyweb. Except for a few old-fashioned blogs like this one, there’s not much of it left above-ground now. But there’s an odd sort of romance to holding down a public WordPress-based fortress in the grimdark bleakness, even as almost everything (including the bulk of what I do) retreats to various substacks, discords, and such. 

Amen to that. Though I really do believe that there will be a slow and perhaps not readily noticeable renewal of blogging. I’m keeping my eyes peeled. See the “blogging” tag at the bottom of this post for more thoughts along these lines. 

on Wagner


As part of my ongoing project to understand myth and mythmaking in the modern era I have been sitting down to a full encounter with Wagner’s Ring cycle — which I’ve never before listened to completely and in sequence. I’m doing this by listening to the legendary Georg Solti Decca recording and following along with the excellent Penguin Classics bilingual edition of the libretto. I have some reservations about John Deathridge’s translation, but fortunately my German is (barely) good enough that I can make it through without only occasional consultations of the English version. (I’ve got the beautiful hardcover edition, which I think may have been printed only in the U.K.) 

I’m not finished yet but I have gotten far enough along to say with some confidence that Wagner’s celebrants who think him a nearly incomparable genius are absolutely correct, and Wagner’s detractors who think him unforgivably self-indulgent are also correct. And I’ve also come to some conclusions about why both of these things are true. (Probably many other people have come to the same conclusions, but I have read very little Wagner criticism, with one major exception noted below.) 

Again, I am not fluent in German but anyone with even minimal competence in the language can see how brilliant a poet Wagner is, and especially how skillfully he employs alliteration and assonance to create his effects — and with a remarkable economy of language. Nietzsche’s inclination to compare Wagner as poet only with Goethe is remarkable but not utterly extravagant.

But in a way Wagner’s greatness as a poet is a problem — or perhaps I should say that it became a problem when he made the fateful decision to write the entire libretto before composing a single note of music. Why was that decision so fateful? Because Wagner knew he was a great poet. He knew that he had written magnificent poetry and he didn’t want to sacrifice any of it once he got to the stage of musical composition

That isn’t that big of a problem in Das Rheingold, which in fact moves with remarkable fluidity and pace: it has almost none of the longeurs that the later dramas in the cycle suffer from. The difficulties kick in with the first act of Die Walküre. If you haven’t heard this work … well, imagine something like the Prologue to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, except instead of lasting six minutes it lasts more than an hour. More than an hour of pure exposition, in which characters — well, mainly one character, Siegmund, tells us his entire history. C. S. Lewis (famously) wrote that the final books of Paradise Lost, in which the archangel Michael tells Adam of the future of humanity, is an “untransmuted lump of futurity”; likewise, the first act of Die Walküre is an untransmuted lump of historicity, with only occasional orchestral coloration to enliven matters. 

Wagner trusts overmuch in the power of his own verse, or is simply overly attached to it — which is a reminder that often it’s good to divide the labor of the librettist and the poet. When Auden was writing his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, he did so hoping that his friend Benjamin Britten would set it to music. But when he gave to Britten the magnificent fugal chorus on Caesar he had written, Britten couldn’t help laughing. He told Auden that if he wanted an actual fugue to be written, and a figure that would set a single scene in an oratorio with many scenes, then he should have written three lines, not seventy. So Auden kept the poem as written and gave up on the idea of having it set to music. By contrast, Wagner never had anyone to remind him of the necessary constraints; so he ignored them. 

And there’s another problem as well. Recently I read Walter Murch’s famous meditation on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye, and was taken by his articulation of one of his chief rules: “You want to do only what is necessary to engage the imagination of the audience — suggestion is always more effective than exposition.” It’s interesting that Wagner understands this principle so well in his music, which often is rich and deep with suggestion, without understanding it at all in his writing. Exposition often dominates. I think his addiction to detailed exposition has something to do with his belief in himself as a sage and a mythographer. 

I may have more to say as I move through this extraordinary work of art — though maybe not, because the experience is tiring. Right now I feel about it much as Virginia Woolf felt about Joyce’s Ulysses, which she called “a memorable catastrophe — immense in daring, terrific in disaster.” But it fascinates me as a myth, especially as a humanist myth — a myth about the ending of the gods and what Bonhoeffer would later call the “coming of age” of humanity. I think that is why Roger Scruton — a man convinced of the absolute necessity of religion to humans but without any firm faith in Christianity — loves the Ring cycle so much. His book about it is magnificent, I think, but also somewhat depressing, because as a Christian I certainly don’t think that a humanist myth has the power to sustain us. But Wagner put an enormous charge into his effort to make it do so. 

Francis Spufford on picking through the ruins of Christendom:

Those of us who, despite everything, think there’s something precious in the words jumbled-up now among the rubble, do not do so because we are pro-tyranny or anti-self discovery. We do so because we know that what was written on those towering walls wasn’t the credo of an authoritarian certainty at all. But instead — mixed up, yeah, with some heterogenous other stuff over the centuries, some questionable — a song of liberation, a startling declaration that power, that love, that justice, that order, that God the creator of all things, weren’t what we thought they were, but came closest to us in paradoxes. Wisdom, in foolishness; strength, in weakness; sovereignty over the immense empire of matter, in helpless self-sacrifice, in a choking man brought to death by a shrugging government. What’s written on the bricks still has the power to shock, when you join them together. GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS turns out to lead to, THAN THAT HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIEND. Not very positive, is it? LOVE YOUR EN- continues, -EMY, AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU. What’s that about? How will that help me to be thinner, richer, stronger, more sexually successful? It won’t. It will only help you to be kinder, braver, more tolerant of our inevitable imperfections, and more hopeful; more convinced that the worst than can happen to us, as humans, is not the last word, because there is a love we should try to copy in our small ways, which never rests, never gives up, is never defeated.

Man, Moon, Book

My family gave me a wonderful Christmas present: the Folio Society edition of Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. In chronological terms, Chaikin’s book basically picks up where Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff left off, but Chaikin is the anti-Wolfe: restrained and businesslike, rather than flamboyant and hilarious. Still, he tells the story well, and this edition is magnificently complemented by dozens and dozens of perfectly-chosen photographs. What a delight. 

And, like many Folio Society editions — I have about a dozen of them — this book prompts me to reflect on what an extraordinary thing a book can be. When a book is well-written, well-edited, well-designed, well-printed and bound, so many skills have been practiced at a high level, from journalistic research to paper-making to photographic reproduction, that it amounts to a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk. To me, few things are as beautiful as a beautiful book. 

Also, you have to love the fact that the book’s text is set in Adrian Frutiger’s Apollo, with Futura for display. 

the good earth

Fifty-five years ago, on Christmas Eve 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were orbiting the moon. It was while in lunar orbit that Anders took the photograph above. Later he would say that the irony of their mission, for him, was that they went to explore the moon but ended by discovering the Earth. 

On that Christmas Eve the three astronauts made a transmission to their home world, which began with a reading, done in turns: 

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. 

Then, the reading concluded, Frank Borman said this: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” 

The good Earth. 

When I think of that phrase, and the enormous load of meaning it bears, I remember something John Ruskin wrote

God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath. And this the more, because it is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.

Christmas gifts

In introducing the writings of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis made a fascinating point which can only be quoted at length:

What [MacDonald] does best is fantasy — fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art — the art of myth-making — is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version — whose words — are we thinking when we say this?

For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish me if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all — say by a mime, or a film. And I find this to be true of all such stories. […] 

Most myths were made in prehistoric times, and, I suppose, not consciously made by individuals at all. But every now and then there occurs in the modern world a genius — a Kafka or a Novalis — who can make such a story. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words… . Nor can it be fitted into any of the other arts. It begins to look as if there were an art, or a gift, which criticism has largely ignored.

Lewis is prompted to this reflection in part by the fact that MacDonald was not a very good stylist — his prose is often clunky or awkward. But the myths he made were to Lewis extraordinarily powerful. I think that Lewis is right not only about Macdonald but also in his more general point, and that the phenomenon deserves more reflection that it has received. 

I may come back to this intriguing idea some day, but I only mention it now because it gives me license to tell briefly, in my own words, one of MacDonald’s stories, “The Gifts of the Child Christ.”

The story centers on a six-year-old girl named Sophy — “or, as she called herself by a transposition of consonant sounds common with children, Phosy.” Phosy’s mother died giving birth to her and her father has recently remarried. He had been in various ways disappointed with his first wife and now he is well on his way to becoming disappointed with his second wife; and he neglects Phosy because she reminds him too much of the wife whom he had lost, and who had not made him happy.

Phosy’s stepmother is pregnant and that means that Phosy is ignored even more than usual; but she doesn’t seem to expect anything else. When at church with her parents she hears a preacher telling the congregation that “whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” Phosy wants the Lord to love her and therefore prays that he will chasten her, for this will prove His love. She is too young and too innocent to realize that her life is already a kind of chastening, though one she does not deserve. Phosy becomes obsessed as Christmas draws near with the idea that on that day Jesus will be born — Jesus is somehow born anew each year on Christmas day, she thinks, and she hopes that when he comes again this year he will bring her the gift she so earnestly desires. 

So she’s anxious as the day draws near, and her parents are also anxious, but for a different reason: her stepmother’s pregnancy is coming to term. On Christmas morning the stepmother gives birth to Phosy’s little brother, and in all of the stress and anxiety — and, as it turns out, tragedy — of the event, Phosy is completely forgotten. So she dresses herself and comes downstairs and wanders into a spare room of the house … and she sees lying there, alone and still, a beautiful baby boy. It is, she knows, the baby Jesus, come to give her the gift of Himself, and, she devoutly hopes, his chastening also. So she takes the little boy in her arms: he’s perfectly beautiful, but he is also, she realizes, very cold. And so she holds him close to herself to give him her warmth — and it is in this position that her father finds her. And for the first time Phosy weeps. She weeps because there was no one to care for the baby Jesus when he came, and so he died.

It is an extraordinary image that George MacDonald has conjured here, for this is of course a Pieta. It is Mary bearing the body of her dead son, conveyed to us through a small English girl bearing the body of her dead baby brother. Here superimposed on Christmas Day, that most innocently festive of days, is the immense tragedy of Good Friday.

But we do call it Good Friday, do we not? 

When Phosy’s father sees her holding her infant brother he sees something in Phosy that he has never noticed before: he discerns the depth and the intensity of her compassion. And he has already been altered in his attitude toward his wife by seeing her grief at the loss of her child. Throughout this story he has only thought of the women in his life as either meeting or failing to meet — though in fact always failing to meet — his expectations; but when he sees his wife and daughter so wounded, their tenderness of heart draws out his own, and a great work of healing begins in this damaged family, a family damaged above all by the absence of paternal love.

“Such were the gifts the Christ-child brought to one household that Christmas,” says MacDonald. “And the days of the mourning of that household were ended.” A knitting up of their raveled fabric begins, and the extraordinary thing is that the chief instrument of that mending is death: the death of Jesus as a man on a cross, or the death of Jesus as an infant in Victorian London, it is one Sacrifice. This is what Charles Williams pointed to when he wrote that the Christian way is “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” 

In his beautiful book Unapologetic Francis Spufford has Jesus say, “Far more can be mended than you know.” And this is what “The Gifts of the Child Christ” tells us also. George MacDonald made for himself a personal motto — an anagram of his name, imperfectly spelled because in this world things that are mended still show the signs of their frayed or broken state. Mended but not yet perfected are the things and the people of this world, at their very best. MacDonald’s motto was:  

The richest of Christmas blessings to you all.  

Brian Eno, from a 1995 diary entry:

Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. 

It’s the sound of failure: so much of modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them. 

Wish I had seen this before I wrote my “Resistance in the Arts” essay. But I think if I had read a lot more Eno I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to write the essay at all.