The Homebound Symphony

Stagger onward rejoicing

Archives (page 3 of 160)

the nature of the transaction

Ross Douthat addressing prospective donors to universities, the kind who keep giving to Harvard and Yale: 

If you want actual influence over American academic life, you’re just much better off finding a smaller or poorer school where your money will be welcomed, your opportunities to effect real transformation will be ample and your millions can build something dynamic or beautiful without always fighting through the thicket of powerful interest groups that grows up around powerful institutions. And to harp again on a frequent theme, if you’re absurdly, obscenely rich and care about higher education, you should Google “Leland Stanford” and then go and do likewise. 

Ross goes on to talk about donors who are motivated by the warm, fuzzy memories of their undergraduate days at such institutions — and tells them that they need to get over that — but I wonder: How many big donors are in fact thinking of their Happy College Days? Maybe they were happy, maybe they weren’t; maybe they appreciated the education they received, but more likely they don’t think about that at all. And how many genuinely desire to influence American academic life? Almost none, I suspect. I tend to think that the situation is more purely transactional: 

  • Assuming that these donors did attend an elite university, attending an elite university was for them a ticket to social capital and financial capital; 
  • Having acquired more financial capital than they could ever spend in a dozen lifetimes, they nevertheless find themselves longing for ever more social capital, more cultural approval, more cachet
  • And so they contribute to the universities that can give them that, which is to say, the most elite universities — no lesser school can provide what they’re willing to pay for. (How many of them have even had one instant’s thought about the future students they could help along the way? You don’t get that rich by thinking about other people.) 

Maybe in some general and theoretical sense they’d like to have influence over those universities, and maybe they complain when they discover that they don’t have it, but that’s like discovering that there’s no valet parking at the elegant restaurant where you’ve booked a table: annoying, but hey, you’re not there for the parking. 


This piece from the Dispatch (possibly paywalled) on how The New York Times misled its readers with an overly “Hamas-friendly” headline makes a valid point, I guess — but I think much of the problem here is baked-in to minute-by-minute journalism. You don’t have to be a hard-core opponent of Israel to get a headline like that wrong — in the heat of the moment even a slight lean towards the people living in Gaza might be enough to influence your headline. If you have to post something on your website, and post it right now, you’ll not be consistently judicious and fair-minded. 

[UPDATE: The Times has published an apology.] 

I didn’t know that the Times had perpetrated this headline because any political crisis strengthens me in the habits I have been trying to cultivate for some years now: to watch no TV news at all — that part’s easy, I haven’t seen TV news in the past thirty years, except when I’m in an airport — and to read news on a once-a-week rather than a several-times-a-day basis. My primary way to get political news, national and international, is to read the Economist when it shows up at my house, which it does on Saturday or Monday. (I don’t keep the Economist app on my phone.) I have eliminated political sites from my RSS feed, and only happened upon the Dispatch report when I was looking for something else at the site. 

The more unstable a situation is, the more rapidly it changes, the less valuable minute-by-minute reporting is. I don’t know what happened to the hospital in Gaza, but if I wait until the next issue of the Economist shows up I will be better informed about it than people who have been rage-refreshing their browser windows for the past several days, and I will have suffered considerably less emotional stress. 

It’s important to remember this: businesses that rely on constant online or televisual engagement — social media platforms, TV news channels, news websites — make bank from our rage. They have every incentive, whether they are aware of it or not, to inflame our passions. (This is why pundits who are always wrong can keep their jobs: they don’t have to be right, they just have to be skilled at stimulating the collective amygdala.) As the intervals of production increase — from hourly to daily to weekly to monthly to annually — the incentives shift away from being merely provocative and towards being more informative. Rage-baiting never disappears altogether, but books aren’t well-suited to it: even the angriest book has to have passages of relative calm, which allows the reader to stop and think — a terrible consequence for the dedicated rage-baiter. 

“We have a responsibility to be informed!” people shout. Well, maybe, though I have in the past made the case for idiocy. But let me waive the point, and say: If you’re reading the news several times a day, you’re not being informed, you’re being stimulated. Try giving yourself a break from it. Look at this stuff at wider intervals, and in between sessions, give yourself time to think and assess.

UPDATE 2023–10–23: One tiny result of the Israel/Gaza nightmare, for me, is that it has revealed to me those among the writers I follow via RSS who are prone to making uninformed, dimwitted political pronouncements. Those feeds I have deleted without hesitation. 

But even at night …

Tom Johnson:

Clockmakers, flush with commissions, let their horological imaginations run wild. They mounted every last thing they could think of on their clocks: trumpeting angels, wheels of fortune, planets and stars wheeling around in epicycles – take that, astrolabe – and panoplies of bells to add to the din of holy clanging. The still-extant clock of Wells Cathedral, constructed about 1390, is a carnival of time. A face of three concentric circles shows the 24 hours, the position of the sun and the phases of the moon, all decorated with stars, angels and depictions of the four cardinal winds. Every fifteen minutes, four knights come out to joust. Above the clock an automaton (‘Jack Blandifer’) kicks his heels on bells every quarter hour. In the 15th century an exterior clock was geared onto it: two axe-men stand and strike two more bells on the hour. Nequid pereat, runs the inscription – let nothing perish, no matter how whimsical. 

Here is the marvelous clock of Wells Cathedral: 

Wells clock

(Larger version, well worth inspecting, here.) And here, at least as admirable, is Simon Armitage’s glorious poem “Poetry”: 

In Wells Cathedral there’s this ancient clock,
three parts time machine, one part zodiac.
Every fifteen minutes, knights on horseback
circle and joust, and for six hundred years

the same poor sucker riding counterways
has copped it full in the face with a lance.
To one side, some weird looking guy in a frock
back-heels a bell. Thus the quarter is struck.

It’s empty in here, mostly. There’s no God
to speak of — some bishops have said as much —
and five quid buys a person a new watch.
But even at night with the great doors locked

chimes sing out, and the sap who was knocked dead
comes cornering home wearing a new head.

diseases of the intellect

Twenty years ago, I had an exceptionally intelligent student who was a passionate defender of and advocate for Saddam Hussein. She wanted me to denounce the American invasion of Iraq, which I was willing to do — though not in precisely the terms that she demanded, because she wanted me to do so on the ground that Saddam Hussein was a generous and beneficent ruler of his people. That is, her denunciation of America as the Bad Guy was inextricably connected with her belief that there simply had to be on the other side a Good Guy. The notion that the American invasion was wrong but also that Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule was indefensible — that pair of concepts she could not simultaneously entertain. Because there can’t be any stories with no Good Guys … can there? 

This student was not a bad person — she was, indeed, a highly compassionate person, and deeply committed to justice. She was not morally corrupt. But she was, I think, suffering from a disease of the intellect

What do I mean by that? Everyone’s habitus includes, as part of its basic equipment, a general conceptual frame, a mental model of the world that serves to organize our experience. Within this model we all have what Kenneth Burke called terministic screens, but also conceptual screens which allow us to employ key terms in some contexts while making them unavailable in others. We will not be forbidden to use a word like “compassion” in responding to our Friends, but it will not occur to us to use it when responding to our Enemies. (Paging Carl Schmitt.) 

My student’s conceptual screens made certain moral descriptions — for instance, saying that a particular politician or action is “cruel” or “tyrannical” — necessary when describing President Bush but unavailable when describing Saddam Hussein. But I seriously doubt that this distinction ever presented itself to her conscious mind. It worked in the background to determine which thoughts were allowed to rise to conscious awareness and therefore become a matter for debate. To return to a distinction that, drawing on Leszek Kołakowski, I have made before, the elements of our conceptual screens that can rise to consciousness belong to the “technological core” of human experience, while those that remain invisible (repressed, a Freudian would say) belong to the “mythical core.” 

I could see these patterns of screening in my student; I cannot see them in myself, even though I know that everything I have said applies to me just as completely as it applies to her, if not more so. 

Certain writers are highly concerned with these mental states, and the genre in which they tend to describe them is called the Menippean satire. (That link is to a post of mine on C. S. Lewis as a notable writer in this genre, though this has rarely been recognized.) In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye wrote, 

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent…. The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect. [p. 309] 

Thus the title of my post. 

I think much of our current political discourse is generated and sustained by such screening, screening that an age of social media makes at once more necessary and more pathological. Also more universally “occupational,” because in some arena of our society — journalism and the academy especially — the deployment of the correct conceptual screens becomes one’s occupational duty, and any failure so to maintain can result in an ostracism that is both social and professional. And that’s how people, and not just fictional characters, become “mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.” 

None of this is hard to see in some general and abstract sense, but it’s hard to see clearly. What Lewis calls the “Inner Ring” is largely concerned to enforce the correct conceptual screens, and because those screens don’t rise to conscious awareness, much less open statement, the work of enforcement tends to be indirect and subtle, and perhaps for that very reason irresistible. It’s like being subject to gravity. 

In certain cases the stress of maintaining such conceptual screens grows to be too much for a person; the strain of cognitive dissonance becomes disabling. Crises in one’s conceptual screening, as Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, were of particular interest to Dostoevsky:

In the menippea there appears for the first time what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man — insanity of all sorts (the theme of the maniac), split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth. These phenomena do not function narrowly in the menippea as mere themes, but have a formal generic significance. Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself. [pp. 116-19]

This deserves at least a post of its own. But in general it’s surprising how powerful people’s conceptual screens are, how impervious to attack. But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, since those screens are the primary tools that enable us to “mean only one thing” to ourselves; they allow us to coincide with ourselves in ways that soothe and satisfy. The functions of the conceptual screens are at once social and personal. 

All this helps to explain why the whole of our public discourse on Israel and Palestine is so fraught: the people participating in it are drawing upon some of their most fundamental conceptual screens, whether those screens involve words like “colonialism” or words like “pogrom.” But this of course also makes rational conversation and debate nearly impossible. The one thing that might help our fraying social fabric is an understanding that, when people are wrong about such matters — and that includes you and me —, the wrongness is typically not an indication of moral corruption but rather the product of a disease of the intellect.

And we all live in a social order whose leading institutions deliberately infect us with those diseases and work hard to create variants that are as infectious as possible. So my curse is straightforwardly upon them

I don’t want to pretend that I am above the fray here. I have Opinions about the war, pretty strong ones at that, and I have sat on this post for a week or so, hemming and hawing about whether I have an obligation to state my position, given the sheer human gravity of the situation. But while I’m not wholly ignorant, I don’t think that my Opinions are especially well-informed, and if I put them before my readers — well, I feel that that would be presumptuous. (Even though I live in an era in which most people find it disturbing or even perverse if you hold views without proclaiming them.) There are thousands of writers you could read to find stronger and better-informed arguments than any I could make.

But I do think I can recognize and diagnose diseases of the intellect when I see them. That’s maybe the only contribution I can make to this horrifying mess of a situation, and I’m counting on its being more useful if it isn’t accompanied by a statement of position.   

I hope this won’t be taken as a plague-on-both-your-houses argument, though I’m sure it will. (I have made such arguments about some things in the past, but I am not making one here.) When you write, as I do above, about the problem with a conceptual screen that requires one purely innocent party and one purely guilty party, you will surely be accused of “false equivalency” or “blaming the victim.” But you don’t have to say that a person, or a nation, or a people is utterly spotless in order to see them as truly victimized. Sometimes a person or a nation or a people is, to borrow King Lear’s phrase, “more sinned against than sinning” without being sinless. And I think that applies no matter what role you assign to which party in the current disaster. 

With all that said, here are some concluding thoughts: 

  1. A monolithic focus on assigning blame to one party while completely exonerating the other party is a sign of a conceptual screen working at high intensity. 
  2. Such a monolithic focus on blame-assignation is also incapable of ameliorating suffering or preventing it in the future. (Note the use of the italicized adjective in these two points: the proper assessment of blame is not a useless thing, but it’s never the only thing, and it is rarely the most important thing, for observers to do.) 
  3. If you are consumed with rage at anyone who does not assign blame as you do, that indicates two things: (a) you have a mistaken belief that disagreement with you is a sign of moral corruption, and (b) your conceptual screen is under great stress and is consequently overheating. 
  4. It is more important, even if it’s infinitely harder, for you to discover and comprehend your own conceptual screens that for you to see the screens at work in another’s mind. And it is important not just because it’s good for you to have self-knowledge, but also because our competing conceptual screens are regularly interfering with our ability to develop practices and policies that ameliorate current suffering and prevent future suffering. 
  5. A possible strategy: When you’re talking with someone who says “Party X is wholly at fault here,” simply waive the point. Say: “Fine. I won’t argue. So what do we do now?” Then you might begin to get somewhere — though you’re more likely to discover that your interlocutor’s ideas begin and end with the assigning of blame. 

Mark C. Taylor:

I do not think human beings are the last stage in the evolutionary process. Whatever comes next will be neither simply organic nor simply machinic but will be the result of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between human beings and technology.

Bound together as parasite/host, neither people nor technologies can exist apart from the other because they are constitutive prostheses of each other. 

But which one’s the parasite and which the host? Add odd point to be omitted, considering its importance. 

only mostly dead

The other day I wrote about the absolute cataract of essays and articles these days proclaiming the death of something — something, anything, everything: capitalism, liberalism, Trumpism, tradition, conservatism, the novel, poetry, movies … the list goes on and on.

Today I’m wondering how much this habit of mind arises from an economic system built around planned obsolescence and unrepairable devices. If we are deeply habituated to throwing away a bought object when it is no longer performing excellently, then why not do the same with ideas? Hey, this thing I believe in no longer commands universal assent. Let’s flush it.

And for that matter why not take the same approach to people? If you’re in Canada and having suicidal thoughts, then you just might have a counselor suggest medically-assisted suicide. You’re hardly worth repairing, are you? Let’s just ease you into death and get you off our books.

It shouldn’t take a Miracle Max to tell the difference between dead and mostly dead, which is also slightly alive. But our social order can’t even tell the difference between dead and imperfect — because the Overlords of Technopoly profit when that distinction is unavailable to us. And we should always remember that when someone declares that one object or idea is dead, they’re probably quite ready to sell us a new one.

Where there’s life, there’s hope; and where there’s hope, there’s the imperative to repair. Technopoly is a system of despair.

UPDATE: My friend Austin Kleon sends me this, a 2012 entry from the late Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter: “So people are going to the movies less frequently. Really, things have been dying and changing since forever. People don’t buy Big Little Books anymore; people don’t walk on the promenade anymore; people don’t go to roller derby. Actually, they do all of those things; they just don’t do them in great numbers. One of the wonderful things about treating art as an art rather than as a public commodity is that you focus on the quality of the experience and benefiting the artists directly; you don’t worry about the size of something for the sake of worrying about the size of something.” So, so much agree.

begin here

The essay that I published earlier this year on “Resistance In the Arts” was largely inspired by my reading of one book, Ian MacDonald’s simultaneously maddening and magisterial Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. It’s important to to pay attention to that subtitle. McDonald wants to argue that the music that the Beatles made exemplifies the cultural movement that we call “the Sixties” better than anything else does, and he makes a very good case for that idea, in which I’m quite interested. But I’m even more interested in the final words of the actual narrative of the book, words written by way of introduction to a chronology of the 1960s. (That chronology, which serves as an appendix to the book, consists of four columns: what the Beatles were doing; what else was happening in pop music in the UK; key political and social events; and developments in the arts more generally — for instance, cinema, jazz, classical music, poetry, etc.) Here’s what MacDonald says to conclude his narrative and introduce that chronology:

There is a great deal more to be said about the catastrophic decline of pop (and rock criticism) — but not here. All that matters is that, when examining the following Chronology of Sixties pop, readers are aware that they are looking at something on a higher scale of achievement than today’s — music which no contemporary artist can claim to match in feeling, variety, formal invention, and sheer out-of-the-blue inspiration. That the same can be said of other musical forms — most obviously classical and jazz — confirms that something in the soul of Western culture began to die during the late Sixties. Arguably pop music, as measured by the singles charts, peaked in 1966, thereafter beginning a shallow decline in overall quality which was already steepening by 1970. While some may date this tail-off to a little later, only the soulless or tone-deaf will refuse to admit any decline at all. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

So that’s MacDonald’s blunt assessment. And what launched my essay was a double response to that paragraph. On the one hand, I thought that in relation to pop music, he is 100% correct. But the sweeping judgment I have highlighted, about “the soul of Western culture,” is less readily defensible. He wrote those words in the mid or late 1990s. In retrospect, it seems to me that classical music was in a much, much better place in the 1990s than it had been in the 1960s; similarly, the architecture of the Nineties was significantly more varied and inventive than architecture in the Sixties, partly as a result of certain technical changes, including CAD (computer-assisted design). I could give other examples.

Thus MacDonald’s Grand Narrative about Western culture — his assumption that Western culture is one giant, uniform Thing that is always on a single trajectory, either ascending or descending — is just nonsense, if also an all-too-common form of nonsense.

But: at any given moment in history in any given location, certain specific arts may operate at a higher level than they do at other times, or in other places. So I began my essay by noting how much better English drama was in the period between 1590 and 1620 than it ever had been before or ever would be again — and that is true even if you factor Shakespeare out of the equation. (You still have Marlowe, Webster, Jonson, Beaumont & Fletcher, etc.) Ditto the outpouring of genius in pop music between, say, 1962 and 1975, an outpouring that’s astonishing even if you factor the Beatles out of the equation. And what such stories suggest, or anyway what they suggest to me, is that circumstances can conspire to make a particular art form more dynamic at some moments than it is at others.

I’m not sure that I made myself perfectly clear in that essay. I’m a bit frustrated with it. But I still think that the chief point that I was pursuing is an absolutely vital one. We need to think about what kinds of circumstances encourage outstanding art and what kinds militate against outstanding art. In the essay I argued that there must be a balance between forces that enable and forces that resist, and that that balance is at once technological, economic, and social. You have to be able to do and make certain things, but the making should not be too easy, just as you should not be totally blocked from achieving what you’re trying to achieve. I mentioned the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which creates special effects through the use of five tape loops, loops which are placed within the song in a cunningly designed sequence. The loops (made by Paul McCartney on a tape recorder he had at home) were not easy to create, which is why there were only five of them; but five turned out to be the perfect number, because that allowed both repetition and variation, both of which are key to successful art. Moreover, while the Beatles were free to add those tape loops to the song, they were not (yet) free to spend six months in the studio or to make 10-minute songs.

The Beatles were immensely talented, to be sure, and were surrounded by equally talented support in the producer George Martin and the engineer Geoff Emerick; but Taylor Swift is also extremely talented and knows how to surround herself with gifted producers, engineers, and musicians, and yet, for all her enormous popularity, she isn’t changing the face of music. Her musical language is basic and predictable: given any two consecutive chords of a Swift song, the listener can predict with a high degree of confidence what the next one will be. She has not, to my knowledge, written or performed a single song that alters even in the tiniest way the landscape of pop music, while, by contrast, there was a period of five years during which the Beatles were doing that every few weeks. Maybe those conditions simply can’t be recreated; maybe Taylor Swift, and indeed everyone working in the aftermath of the Beatles’ meteoric career, is, in Harold Bloom’s term, belated. But, on the other hand, maybe we’re too quick to accept belatedness.

One of the reasons we still listen to the Beatles (one of the reasons we still read or watch Shakespeare) is that for them, in their time and place, they discovered the ideal balance between enablement and resistance; the stars aligned for them. (When the Beatles broke up the stars went out of alignment, forever; even if John Lennon had lived and the band had reassembled, they wouldn’t have been able to come close to what they achieved in the Sixties. The balance of resistances had altered, and for the worse.) I tried — and, I think, failed — to figure out what specifically it looks like when the stars so align for artists, and then to go beyond that to ask a question: Is there anything that we can do to help those stars to align?

You know, when absolutely staggering greatness shows up, I don’t think we can pay too much attention to it. We should not just look at it and applaud it, but also try to ask ourselves, in the most serious and intense way possible, What enabled that, and how can we enable something else that’s equally great?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I keep thinking about a tossed-off comment in Ian MacDonald’s book. He’s writing about a song that John and Paul wrote together — I don’t remember which one, but it doesn’t matter — and in that song there’s a moment when the standard, the expected, harmonic progression calls for an A major chord — but the Beatles go to A minor instead. Many sophisticated musicologists, MacDonald says, have studied this moment and written with analytical rigor about the harmonic language the Beatles employ at this moment and the different ways one might conceptualize it. But that’s all wrong, MacDonald says.

The key point is this: John and Paul were sitting in a room and each of them had a guitar on his lap. That’s the thing to remember, because every guitar player knows how much easier it is to play an A minor chord than an A major one — and, even more important, how much easier it is to riff on an A minor chord, to introduce hammer-ons and pull-offs that make the song sound better. (This is true when using standard tuning anyway — what I like to call Em7add11 tuning — which the Beatles almost always did.) Almost certainly, MacDonald says, at the moment when the A major chord would’ve been the most obvious thing in the world to play, either John or Paul went to the A minor instead — and lo and behold, it sounded cool. So they kept it.

Handmind at work.

You have to remember that neither of those guys could read music; neither of them wanted to read music. Nor did they have access to modern digital tools for music creation. What did they have? Four things:

  1. guitars
  2. ears
  3. hands
  4. musical memories

And those were the tools they needed.

And maybe that’s Step One. If we want to reinvigorate the arts, if we don’t want culture to come to a standstill, maybe we need to start with a radical minimalism. Artists: deprive yourselves of everything except the absolutely essential tools. You can’t stream, you can’t use a DAW, you can’t look anything up online, you don’t have an iPad. You have your sensorium and you have the most basic tools imaginable — a pencil, a lump of clay, a pennywhistle or a ukelele. Go

the wisdom of Sturgeon

It seems that literary fiction is dead — it even has a gravestone. Capitalism? Also dead. Tradition and conservatism apparently achieved a murder-suicide pact, which I guess makes it inevitable that the Judeo-Christian tradition is equally defunct; the fact is pushing up daisies; a consensus of some kind has shuffled off its mortal coil; the metabolic processes of socialism have long been history; liberalism joined the Choir Invisible some time back; even Trumpism has expired and gone to meet its maker. At this point, wouldn’t it be simpler for someone to write to tell us what isn’t dead? Maybe something out there is merely pinin’ for the fjords? 

It’s a regrettable rhetorical tic, closely related to others, like the claim that “the internet” — all of it! All trillion pages! — is no fun any more, or the even vaster claim that “culture” — all of it! Everything that humans do together! — has come to a standstill. These vast sweeping hand-wavy universal assertions … is there no end to them? Why can’t they come to a standstill? Why can’t they shuffle off their mortal coil? 

You need a generalization you can rely on, and I’ve got one for you. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” You can do the hand-wavy thing and moan the words “over” and “dead” and “no fun,” or you can follow a better path: sift through the cascade of human productions that come your way to find, and then preserve, the small percentage of it that’s golden.

My name for that pursuit is the Gandalf Option, and I recommend it to you, because (to shift metaphors) it is always better to light a candle than curse the darkness. 

back to my books

Pretty much all my life I have been fighting against my instinctive introversion, and now that I have turned 65, I’ve decided to stop fighting. I hope people will see this as the legitimate prerogative of a senior citizen.  

When someone – anyone, except those I know very well indeed – asks me to have coffee or a beer, I am filled with a feeling not far from dread. But I have always thought that I shouldn’t give in to the anxiety; instead I have tried to push back. It’s just grabbing a cup of coffee and having a little chat, for heaven’s sake! I tell myself. You’re not being taken in by the Stasi for interrogation. So I make myself say yes, and I make myself go … and while I can manage to be friendly and engaged during the meeting — indeed, more than friendly, way too talkative, out of sheer nervousness — when we’re done I want to go home and sleep for a day or two. 

There’s nothing wrong with the people who invite me — indeed, they’re often interesting or even charming, which is the primary reason why I feel I should push back against my instincts. But it’s still taxing to push back. If I were invited to dinner by Bob Dylan or Thomas Pynchon, I’d think, Do I really have to? (But I doubt I can make you believe how serious I am about that.)  

There’s a passage in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s delightful book Ruined By Reading that I think about at least once a week:

Were books the world, or at least a world? How could I “live” when there was so much to be read that ten lives could not be enough? And what is it, anyway, this “living”? Have I ever done it? … Reading is not a disabling affiction. I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. Can I go back to my books now? 

I will continue to attend required meetings, and make plans with my colleagues, and connect with my students during my office hours; and I will with great delight have coffee or beer or dinner with my dearest friends, of whom I am blessed (despite my weird disability) to have a few. 

But the main thing is this: I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. I have a house full of books and music and movies, and I shall go back to them now. If you write to invite me out for coffee or a beer, I will probably send you a link to this post. So please remember: It’s not you, it’s me. 

vehicles to devices

Here is Ivan Illich, from Energy and Equity (1974), his book written in the midst of a global energy crisis that heightened everyone’s sense of our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation:  

The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed. He has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. He can no longer face the remote by himself. Left on his own, he feels immobile.

The habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world where both liaisons and loneliness are products of conveyance. To “gather” for him means to be brought together by vehicles…. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. 

It’s interesting to reflect that you could replace just a few words here and have a good description of our current moment. For instance, “To ‘gather’ for him means to be brought together by vehicles” would make perfect sense today if you substituted “devices” for “vehicles.” In “He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role,” the term “passenger” could be replaced by “user.” A technological regime centered on the automobile has been replaced by one centered on smartphones. This is why teenagers today absolutely must have smartphones but are often indifferent to the possibility of learning to drive. 

For Matt Crawford in Why We Drive (2020), to drive an automobile is to assert one’s freedom and responsibility. Crawford’s vision is compelling to many of us in a way it would not have been to Illich, and that is because we live in the Smartphone Era. For those of us who live under technocracy, to contemplate a previously dominant technology feels like sniffing the air of freedom. Which suggests to us, or ought to, that technological development may bring certain kinds of ease and speed but also strongly tends to bring constraint — certain procedures of use are enforced, and variations in such procedures are discouraged or forbidden. We move closer and closer to a world in which all must use the same devices, and in which those devices can be used in one way and one way only. 

the danger of eulogy

In 1975 Seamus Heaney’s second cousin Colum McCartney — whom it seems he did not know personally — was murdered by members of the Glenanne Gang, Ulster Protestants engaged in a campaign of terror that largely involved killing Catholics at random. McCartney and a friend were returning to their homes in Ulster from a football match in Dublin when they were stopped at a police checkpoint — which turned out to be not a police checkpoint at all. Both were shot in the head. 

Soon thereafter, Heaney wrote a poem, “The Strand at Lough Beg,” in memory of McCartney. (It is in his collection Field Work.)  In the poem’s final stanza the dead man appears to the poet, appears not where he was killed — that happened “Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew” — but at Lough Beg, a place familiar to the family: 

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud. 

A scapular, worn primarily by monks and priests, offers here an image of prayer and hope, and the poem is prefaced by a quotation from Dante’s Purgatorio. In caring for the body of his dead cousin, then, Heaney is preparing him for his final journey. 

Some years later, in Heaney’s harrowing sequence “Station Island” — a sequence shaped more thoroughly by long meditation on Dante than the earlier poem had been — the poet is again visited by his dead cousin, and the visit is not pleasant. In the first poem the poet speaks while the murdered man is silent; in the second the poet must listen to the voice of man he had eulogized. The sequence narrates a pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a journey involving several encounters with the dead, very like those Dante experiences in his voyage through the Three Realms — except often more uncomfortable.

We have reached the eighth station. Heaney is conversing with “my archaeologist” — Tom Delany, his friend, who died of tuberculosis at age 32 — when suddenly his cousin Colum appears, with a word of accusation: 

But he [Delany] had gone when I looked to meet his eyes
and hunkering instead, there in his place
was a bleeding, pale-faced boy, plastered in mud.
‘The red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red
In Jerpoint point the Sunday I was murdered,’ 
he said quietly. ‘Now do you remember? 
You were there with poets when you got the word
and stayed there with them, while your own flesh and blood
was carted to Bellaghy from the Fews.
They showed more agitation at the news
than you did.’  

(The Fews is the part of County Armagh where McCartney was murdered; Ballaghy is the village in County Londonderry where Heaney was born and raised and where McCartney was buried.) You did not clean my body and lay me out for burial. You remained in the company of your fellow poets. Heaney pleads for himself, says that the news made him “dumb,” describes the image of Lough Beg just outside Bellaghy that rose unbidden to his mind. (His mind went to the home town they shared, but his body did not.)

Colum is not appeased.

You saw that, and you wrote that — not the fact.
You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
For the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio 
and saccharined my death with morning dew. 

You confused evasion and artistic tact. You told yourself you heeded your calling by shaping the story artfully, festooning it with imagery; in fact you merely whitewashed the ugliness of my murder. To this charge the poet makes no response — except, of course, the poem itself, which is in fact made of Heaney’s own words, not Colum McCartney’s. 

And this is both the problem and the wonder. Philip Larkin once said, in response to a comment about how “negative” his poems are, that “The impulse for producing a poem is never negative; the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done.” Colum’s accusation against his cousin is just this, that he has done a positive thing — but then, the accusation itself, being couched in masterful verse, is also a positive thing. The poet’s eulogy must be beautiful, even (especially?) when the dead one’s murder was hideous beyond our ability to confront it. It is only in the language of poetry that the poet can acknowledge the limits of the language of poetry. 

Austen and parents

One of the most notable traits of Jane Austen’s fiction is its gently ironical attitude towards many of its own readers. Consider Emma, for instance. Here is Austen’s description of the key event in Emma Woodhouse’s life: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Every reader of the novel (myself included) will tell you that this is a glorious moment. But note: the novel consists of 55 chapters, and this decisive moment occurs in the 47th of them; in the 49th Mr. Knightley proposes to her and is accepted; and so everything that the reader most cares about is wonderfully sorted out. But six whole chapters remain. And why is that? Because Jane Austen is interested in certain matters that her audience is not especially interested in – but (she thinks) ought to be.

Or consider Mansfield Park, in which Austen signals her deviance from popular expectation in a different way. Fanny Price has carried her torch for her cousin Edmund helplessly and hopelessly for several hundred pages – this is the longest of Austen’s novels – and then, a mere seven paragraphs from the end, we get this:

I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.

As much as to say: “Oh, you still want Edmund and Fanny to marry, do you? Well, if you insist, be it so – but I really can’t be bothered to narrate their courtship.”

What Austen cares about – what she devotes her extraordinary intellectual energies to – is the moral and intellectual formation of young women. Austen perceives her society to be one in which people have great expectations for young women, and place exceptionally great demands upon them, but does almost nothing to prepare them to meet either the expectations or the demands.

In Mansfield Park Sir Thomas Bertram, the head of the family with whom the story is concerned, is a good man, an admirable man in many respects, but is regularly described as “cold” and “severe”; his wife, Lady Bertram, is called “indolent”; and Lady Bertram’s sister, the Mrs. Norris, who has the greatest influence over their daughters precisely because the parents are either cold or indolent, is “indulgent.” In Emma, Emma’s mother is dead and her father a hypochondriac whole manifold sensitivities make him, in his own way, as indolent as Lady Bertram.

Pride and Prejudice is more conventionally structured around the marriage of its heroine – which is perhaps why Austen thought that “The work is rather too light, bright and sparkling: it wants shade” – but even there one might argue that Elizabeth Bennett suffers in several ways from the moral idiocy of her mother and the ironic detachment of her father. But these, I submit, are not the typical dispositional errors of parents: the typical ones are laid out in Mansfield Park: severity, indolence, and indulgence. 

Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse from their childhood have older men in their lives who provide them guidance, counsel, and (in the end, as we have seen) matrimony. But along the way to that conventional Happy Ending they suffer many vicissitudes, painful episodes that, Austen suggests, they might not have suffered if their parents had provided them with consistent and loving guidance. When parents are badly formed, Auden consistently indicates, their children will be badly formed as well; and while poor moral formation is unfortunate for any children, in that particular society the girls consistently paid a bigger price. And not many girls are fortunate enough to have the regular attention of a Mr. Knightley or cousin Edmund. 

a path forward

  1. It’s certainly true that power corrupts, but it’s more true that the corrupt are drawn to power, so ultimately it doesn’t matter whether power is concentrated in government or in the market. (Assuming that “government” and “market” can be distinguished, which I doubt.) Wherever power is, the corrupt will be drawn to it by an irresistible magnetic force. So the only answer is to reduce the scope of power everywhere. That’s why I’m drawn to anarchism.
  2. Anarchism is the only possible means by which metaphysical capitalism might be resisted. By promoting emergent order it promotes cooperation and negotiation, which are forms of actual relationship that involve us in The Great Economy. Libertarianism, by contrast, leaves us related to one another only in the market economy, which means not truly related at all — just oppositionally positioned in a zero-sum game.

I’m with “the bloggers”

Noam Scheiber’s report on the controversies surrounding the work of Francesca Gino is … well, it’s terrible. Let me count (some of) the ways. 

Let’s start with the title: “The Harvard Professor and the Bloggers.” Now, journalists typically don’t title their own pieces, but throughout the report Scheiber refers to the people who run Data Colada as “the bloggers.” The point seems to be to contrast a Figure of Recognized Authority (“the Harvard professor”) with her online critics (“the bloggers”) — a tactic reminiscent of the days when journalists sneered at people who sit around in their pajamas typing on their laptops. But these critics are also professors, at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, the Wharton School at Penn, and the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley. It’s only late in the report, after an extensive and fawning portrait of the suffering Professor Gino, that Scheiber acknowledges the academic credentials of those who have called attention to apparent anomalies in Gino’s research. But he still calls them “the bloggers.” 

Second: Scheiber writes, “Even the bloggers, who published a four-part series laying out their case in June and a follow-up this month, have acknowledged that there is no smoking gun proving it was Dr. Gino herself who falsified data.” What does “even the bloggers” mean? There’s nothing unusual or noteworthy about “the bloggers” not directly accusing Gino of dishonesty, because that’s not what they do. They point to apparent anomalies — often, inconsistencies between (a) the conclusions drawn by scholars and (b) the data they claim to be drawing on — in research papers; it is not their job to figure out how the anomalies got there. They aren’t looking for a “smoking gun” in the hands of Professor Gino. 

In general, Scheiber seems to have seen it as his job to take up Gino’s sense of outrage. He says very strange things, like “She did not present as a fraud.” Well, of course. One cannot succeed in deceiving people if one presents as a fraud. The statement is an irrelevance. Similarly, Scheiber says that Gino often provided “a plausible answer” when he questioned her. But what his questions were, what her answers were, why he found them plausible, and how all that relates to the evidence provided at Data Colada — we’re not told any of that. 

Finally: Scheiber seems not to have asked what, to me, would be the single most obvious question: Why is she suing “the bloggers”? Apparently the cause is “defamation,” but how does the think they have defamed her simply by pointing to anomalies in her published research papers? The closest Scheiber comes to approaching the issue is in this passage: 

… the bloggers publicly revealed their evidence: In the sign-at-the-top paper, a digital record in an Excel file posted by Dr. Gino indicated that data points were moved from one row to another in a way that reinforced the study’s result.

Dr. Gino now saw the blog in more sinister terms. She has cited examples of how Excel’s digital record is not a reliable guide to how data may have been moved.

“What I’ve learned is that it’s super risky to jump to conclusions without the complete evidence,” she told me. 

Nothing about this makes sense. First of all, what is “sinister” about noting a manipulation of data in an Excel sheet? If that’s wrong, what’s wrong about it? What “conclusions” did the Data Colada investigation “jump to”? And above all, even if all of her criticisms are correct, why not offer a rational refutation rather than file a lawsuit? Suing her employer, Harvard, makes obvious sense, since Harvard has suspended her from her job without pay and is seeking to revoke her tenure. Faced with similar circumstances I might also sue. But suing people for writing that the data meant to support certain conclusions seems to have been manipulated by person or persons unknown? That requires some explanation. 

Scheiber doesn’t ask any of these questions. He’s not interested in anything except a profile of a wounded person. But I agree with the lawyer for “the bloggers” who says that such a lawsuit is “a direct attack on academic inquiry.” What Gino is doing certainly looks like a straightforward attempt to intimidate into silence anyone who might ask hard questions about her research. I came away from Scheiber’s pseudo-inquiry thinking that I need to contribute to Data Colada’s legal defense fund. I don’t believe that’s what Scheiber intended. 

Auden, fifty years later

Auden Getty

W. H. Auden died fifty years ago today.

He is the single most important writer and thinker in my life, and has been ever since, in my very last class in graduate school, I read his collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand. (Though it’s more than a collection of essays: it’s Auden’s Ars Poetica or Biographia Literaria.) The prose led me to the poetry and then there was no going back.

I wrote my first book (a book that had a peculiar route to publication) about Auden, featured him as one of the central figures in my The Year of Our Lord 1943, and have now produced three critical editions of his books: The Age of Anxiety, For the Time Being, and (forthcoming) The Shield of Achilles

Some of my essays and reviews about Auden available online: 

He was, shall we say, quite a character, and the anecdotes about him — about his titanic messiness and equally exceptional kindness — may readily be found. I do wish I had known him personally, but his work is so filled with his distinctive personality that I always feel that I do.  

Auden has done more than anyone else to help me understand what it means to be a Christian in my own moment — one neither hankering after a vague Utopia or pining for an illusory lost Arcadia. In poetry and prose alike, he has given me great pleasure and inexhaustible food for thought. One of the great themes of his work is the necessity and the blessing of gratitude, and thus he has been my primary instructor in how to be grateful. Today, especially, I am grateful for him. 

KCO Spread 1 copy scaled jpg

Michael John Goodman:

For me (though I am sure others will disagree!), the artistic power of the Kelmscott Chaucer is in the harmonious balance that is achieved between Burne-Jones’ illustrations and Morris’ frames, borders, typography and the visually striking double-page spreads. And users can investigate each of these aspects individually in turn on the website. The decision to make it a primarily visual experience is both practical and editorial. Practically, it just would not be worth the time and effort to digitize nearly 600 pages, especially when the complete works of Chaucer are available for anyone to read almost everywhere and for very cheap. Even if this aim was desirable and could have been achieved efficiently, it would have changed the very nature of the project, bloating it out into a project where the focus became so broad that the visual aspects would have become, if not diluted, then certainly more obscured amongst a sea of similar-looking text-based pages.

department of corrections

danah boyd: “Over the last two years, I’ve been intentionally purchasing and reading books that are banned.” The problem here is that none, literally not one, of the books on the list boyd links to have been banned. Neither have they been “censored,” which is what the article linked to says. That’s why boyd can buy and read them: because they’ve been neither banned nor censored. 

What has happened is this: Some parents want school libraries to remove from their shelves books that they (the parents) think are inappropriate for their children to read. You may think that such behavior is mean-spirited or otherwise misconceived — very often it is! — but has nothing to do with either banning or censorship. 

But, of course, the American Library Association has been quite effective in redefining the words “banning” and “censorship” to include actions that are far less drastic — less drastic and not especially common: as Micah Mattix has documented here and here, there simply is no widespread movement to keep books off school library shelves.

In a sane world, the term “ban” would be reserved for books whose sale and circulation are illegal in some given place, and “censorship” would refer to the removal, by some legal or commercial authority, of certain portions of a text or film or recording. (I say “commercial” authority because sometimes companies that own the rights to works of art decide, without legal pressure, to delete some lyrics in a song or change certain words in a book.) But thanks to people who want to smear their RCOs, it is now common to use precisely the same words to describe (a) what the nation of Iran did to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and (b) a polite letter from a parent to a school librarian asking that books that offer anatomically detailed descriptions of sexual practices not be readily available to third graders. Of course, many concerned parents are not polite, but polite letters on this topic still count, for the ALA, as a “challenge,” and the organization defines a challenge as an attempt at censorship or banning.

This failure to make elementary distinctions is neither politically nor intellectually healthy. 

I sometimes wonder whether this kerfuffle isn’t something of a smokescreen, intended to distract our attention from more serious and troubling attempts at what George Orwell called “the prevention of literature” — for instance, removing books from sale altogether, pulping offensive books, or ensuring that they aren’t published at all. (In some cases that means that the authors aren’t published at all.) You can buy books that some parents have protested; you can’t buy books that, because of political pressure, have never seen the light of day. So you know what I’m craving today? A little perspective

my testimony

This is an except from my least-read book, a small treatise on narrative theology called Looking Before and After. Much of the book concerns the question of what it means, if it means anything coherent, to say that I have a “life story.” At one point I tell a bit of my own story, as I understand it, and that’s what follows. 

The summer before I was to begin high school, my family moved from one end of Birmingham, Alabama, to another. “Zoning” had begun in Birmingham a few years before, and had we remained in our old neighborhood I would have been one of ten or so white students in a high school with a total population of more than a thousand. My parents didn’t believe that would be such a good thing for their son, so we moved to an all-white neighborhood within the “zone” of a mostly white school. My parents considered that the move encouraged fresh starts in other ways too, so within a few weeks they had picked out a nearby church, 85th Street Baptist, and we became fairly regular attendees — at least on Sunday mornings. (Sunday evening services or Wednesday prayer meetings remained well beyond the scope of our discipline.) This lasted only about a year before we lapsed back into our old habits of rare attendance, but in the meantime I got myself saved. Or so I think.

Southern churches — I have learned that this is a source of amusement to many of my fellow Christians from outside the South — often schedule revivals, bringing in guest evangelists to stir up the faithless and backslidden. But even with a revival a week away, our pastor, Brother McKee, still conducted his usual invitation at the end of the Sunday morning service. (I was an adult living in the Midwest before I ever heard the term “altar call.”) I had sat throughout the service with my friends, giggling and whispering as usual, and in silent moments doodling on the little magazine of devotional articles for teenagers that had been handed out in Sunday school an hour earlier and for which I was always thankful, since it provided fifteen minutes or so of distraction. The sermon eluded my attention, but I stood up with everyone else as the choir sang “Softly and Tenderly” — or perhaps it was “Just As I Am.” I was thirteen years old.

At that moment the Holy Spirit, with overwhelming force, called me to walk down the aisle and make my profession of faith. My will was clearly being commanded by something not me — something I knew could only be God. When, years later, I read John Wesley’s account of how in a meeting his heart was “strangely warmed,” I thought I knew just what he meant: I seemed for those moments to be heated from within. I had never experienced anything remotely like it before; nor, I must say, have I since. It was all I could do not to run down the aisle; but I did not run down the aisle. In fact, I remained fixed in my place. I stood as the choir and congregation sang, gripping the pew in front of me fiercely — I can see even now, in my mind’s eye, my knuckles going white with the effort of restraining myself from flying toward the pastor.

I was ashamed. I knew that I had paid no attention during the service, that I had snickered with my friends, and I feared their mocking judgment and that of any adult observers of my antics. I felt certain that if I walked down the aisle and “made my profession of faith,” everyone would be puzzled — they would wonder if I was joking, or, worse, mocking. So I stayed rooted at my pew.

Nevertheless, the experience shook me. I tried all week to forget it and was able occasionally to put it from my mind; but I could not pretend that I had any other explanation for what had happened to me — I knew that the power that had invaded me was not me, and I knew its real name. The sense of being strangely warmed remained with me through the week.

The following Sunday, as I walked once more with my parents into the church, a large banner outside proclaimed that the revival would begin that evening. Our pastor’s sermon topic, in his last message before the revival, was an interesting one: he said that sometimes God gives you only one chance to repent; we cannot presume upon his grace, we cannot count on His offering endlessly repeated opportunities to turn aside from our evil ways and dark paths. He told a story about a young man who rejected an opportunity to repent and was almost immediately thereafter struck by a car and killed — not as punishment, mind you: it was just that the fellow’s time was up, and he had wasted all of his chances.

The service drew to a close; we sang a final hymn; and Brother McKee did not issue an invitation, but merely dismissed us with a prayer and a reminder of the evening service.

At home, over lunch, I told my parents that I thought I would like to go to the revival that evening. They looked blankly at me. My father shrugged; my mother said, “Well, good for you.” I walked the eight blocks to the church, taking extreme care when crossing streets; I arrived early and took a seat on the right side, in the second row. I heard as little of this sermon as I had of the one preceding my unexpected Call, though for very different reasons. When the preacher began to intone the familiar words of invitation from what I now think of as the Southern Baptist revival liturgy — “with every head bowed and every eye closed” — and asked for a show of hands from those interested in repenting, my arm shot upward. At the first opportunity I bolted for the front. A few Sunday evenings later I was baptized.

And that was all. I had my insurance; if I wandered into the street and got hit by a car, I would be OK. Before long we stopped going to church. I gave God no thought for another six years. 

The Child of Nature and the Citizen

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Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child is a truly remarkable movie that has never gotten the attention it deserves. And so I’m going to begin this post by saying that (a) it deserves a place in the Criterion Collection and (b) I hereby volunteer to write an essay introducing it. (Actually, my suspicion is that Criterion would’ve created such an edition a long time ago if they had been able to get the rights.)

The movie’s story is based on a historical event, the discovery of the so-called Wild Boy of Aveyron and the attempts of a physician named Jean Marc Itard — played in the movie by Truffaut himself — to educate him. One tiny, easily-missed element of Truffaut’s version of the story provides what I believe is the key that unlocks the whole narrative. 

Occasionally Dr. Itard takes Victor (as he names the child) to visit some friends of his who live on a farm. We’re never told why, but the obvious suggestion would be that their rural life is for Victor a return to something like the open, free, “natural” life that he lived before he was discovered. Dr. Itard and his friend sit inside and play backgammon while — we see this sometimes through an open door — the friend’s child pushes Victor in a wheelbarrow. 

But the key point is that Itard consistently refers to his friend as Citoyen — which reminds us, and is very much meant to remind us, that these events are unfolding in the aftermath of the French Revolution. That is to say, the Wild Boy was discovered within the country that had gone further than any other in ordering itself by the inexorable strictures of Reason. This, I think, is the primary source of Truffaut’s interest in the story. He is fascinated by the contrast between two models of ideal humanity: on the one hand, the Natural Man uncorrupted by society; and on the other hand, the Citoyen governed by pure Raison — reason understood as requiring the elimination of the church, the proposed redrawing of the departments of France into geometric forms, the renaming of the months and regularizing of the calendar, and so on. As Simon Schama has convincingly argued, “If one had to look for one indisputable story of transformation in the French Revolution, it would be the creation of the juridical entity of the citizen.” 

(Not germane to this particular post, but it’s perhaps worth saying that the combination of this emphasis on the universal equality of citizens with the determination to overcome Nature with Reason helps explain the profound ambivalence of the Revolutionaries towards Rousseau: in many ways he lays the groundwork for the Revolutionaries’ political project while utterly repudiating their understanding of human nature.) 

These two images are placed side by side, in fierce opposition to each other. And thus the most interesting character in the movie is not Victor — though he is fascinating, as played by the young Romani boy Jean-Pierre Cargol, who is compelling throughout — but rather Dr. Itard himself. Throughout the story the good physician is quietly torn between his desire to “transform” Victor into a rational man, a potential Citoyen, and his natural compassion. At times he treats Victor with a harshness that he hates to perform, but he does so anyway, because he believes that he is acting in accordance with the demands of reason. After all, the stakes for Victor are so very high. Schama again: 

Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new thing, this nation of citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could be not only expected but required. By the same token, should it not materialize, only those who had spurned their citizenship, or who were by their birth or unrepentant beliefs in capable of exercising, yet, could be held responsible. Before the promise of 1789 could be realized, then, it was necessary to root out Uncitizens.

Dr. Itard could not allow Victor to become, or rather to remain, an Uncitizen. 


All his life Truffaut was fascinated by wayward children and outraged by the social structures devised to control them. He himself had always struggled in school and spent much of his adolescence bouncing between school and institutions for “troubled youth.” He dramatized his experiences in his first feature, The 400 Blows, and returned to such themes often in his later films. (In this post I mention Truffaut’s interest in a man named Fernand Deligny, who devised imaginative ways of aiding neurodivergent children. Truffaut had consulted with Deligny in making The 400 Blows and consulted him again when making The Wild Child.)

As Truffaut sees it, French society’s standard way of dealing with difficult children can be summed up in two words: Discipline and Punish. The whole strategy is one of negative reinforcement, and the most touching thing about Dr. Itard is that he is an immensely kind man who, thanks to his intellectual formation, has only those tools at his disposal. His own character — his own nature, we might say — is at odds with his professional commitments. As a physician he is a Skinnerian avant le lettre, believing that Victor can be turned into a rational man and potential Citoyen simply through operant conditioning. He doesn’t seem to realize that what Victor craves is affection. He loves to touch and to be touched. And while Dr. Itard does not by any means withhold such touch from him — he often holds his shoulders or embraces him — he does not realize how essential such physical affection is to Victor’s upbringing and improvement. 


What is essential, for Dr. Itard, is to constrain Victor’s nature — to bring it, as it were, within a frame, and here we should notice how many scenes in the movie are framed by windows and doors. Sometimes we are on the outside looking in, and sometimes on the inside looking out. Sometimes the frames are multiple, especially when we consider that the cinematic image constitutes its own frame. There’s an extraordinary moment early on when the still-wild boy climbs a tree to escape some pursuers, and the camera, positioned at the height of the forest canopy, pulls back to show the boy in this vast unbounded wilderness. But when he is brought to Paris, and then to Dr. Itard’s house on the outskirts of Paris, he is surrounded by right angles that enclose small spaces.


(This distinction is powerfully dramatized through the magnificent photography of the great Nestor Almendros, who in the wilderness scenes gives us a world of light and shade captured fleetingly by a moving camera, while in Dr. Itard’s house all is still and lit with a Vermeer-like gentleness and evenness. This movie should be on anyone’s short list of masterworks of black-and-white cinematography.) 

Near the end of the movie, Victor, frustrated by Dr. Itard’s rigid and incessant lessons in the rational order of language, runs away, and finds himself once more in a State of Nature. But, after a brief period of delighting in his freedom, he discovers, or rediscovers, that human life in the State of Nature is pretty much what Hobbes said it was: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Victor struggles to find food: because he is now in a place that is at least sparsely populated, and perhaps because he has forgotten some of the skills that he had developed when living alone in the wild, he finds his primary option is theft — and theft is both difficult and dangerous. So eventually he returns to Dr. Itard.

Dr. Itard is thrilled to have him back and sees this return as a sign that his program is working, that Victor is becoming more rational. And so as Madame Guérin — the kindly housekeeper, who had already warned the doctor about his overly harsh methods — leads Victor up the stairs to get him a bath and a change of clothes, Dr. Itard cheerfully calls out to Victor, “We will resume our lessons tomorrow!” And in the very last shot of the movie, Victor looks back at his benefactor — or his jailer — with an utterly inscrutable expression on his face. You might perceive it as obedient, or sullen, or resentful, or even hateful. It’s impossible to say. Victor still cannot speak. But he surely knows he has given up his freedom, his wildness, for a civilized life. In a civilized world, he has safety, and cleanliness, and food, and even companionship and affection. These are all wonderful things, great achievements of the kind of social order that ultimately produces Citoyens. But he can’t seem ever to forget the very different world that he has left behind; nor can we. This finely-poised ambivalence is the essential achievement of a very great film. 

a silent adventure

Whenever people speak in L’Avventura I find their talk intrusive. I imagine a Phantom Edit of the movie that removes all the scenes in which people speak, and in which all sounds are replaced by one of Eno’s ambient compositions, so I could then contemplate the evocative images without distraction. 

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Lavventura 11

Lavventura 8

A letter from François Truffaut to Jean Renoir, telling the old master how much The Rules of the Game meant to him. Truffaut had lovely handwriting, I think, and made use of it in The Wild Child, where we see him, as Dr. Itard, writing in a journal about Victor’s progress, or lack thereof.

Truffaut wrote thousands and thousands of letters; he seems to have found it easier to speak his mind, and heart, in letters than in either phone calls or face-to-face meetings. Had he lived in the Age of Email I am certain that he would have continued to communicate by handwriting.

gardening strategies

I love this by John Holt, transcribed by my buddy Austin Kleon:

You learn to teach by teaching. I never had any educational training, luckily. I say “luckily” because I went into the classroom knowing that I didn’t know anything, and therefore realizing that if I wanted to learn something, I’d better keep my eyes and ears open and think about what I was seeing and hearing. The only way you learn about teaching is to do it and to see which of your inputs into this environment produce helpful results and which don’t, and maybe to talk about your problems with other teachers and say, “How are you making out?” 

I would just add one point: What you can do might be something different than what another teacher can do.

Many years ago, I was asked to observe the teaching of one of my colleagues, Christina Bieber Lake. I walked into her classroom, saw 32 students, and thought Hmmm, I wonder how she’s going to handle this. I thought that because I knew that Christina strongly preferred leading discussions to lecturing, and how do you manage a discussion with that many people in the room? 

The answer was: Easily. The conversation flowed both smoothly and energetically, and in the one-hour-plus-change that I sat in the back of the room, 27 of the 32 students spoke up — without prompting. I think my jaw literally dropped. My first thought was: I want to teach that way

But upon some reflection I had a second thought: I don’t think I can teach that way. I realized that just don’t have the skills, or, maybe more accurately, the feel for the thing. Now, to be sure, I knew I could be better at leading discussions. But I wasn’t going to be a better teacher by trying to imitate Christina, even if I could learn from her. 

I often think of something Bob Dylan once said

I’d like to drive a race car on the Indianapolis track. I’d like to kick a field goal in an NFL football game. I’d like to be able to hit a hundred-mile-an-hour baseball. But you have to know your place. There might be some things that are beyond your talents. Everything worth doing takes time. You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things that you might not be prepared for. Like it or not, you are in this alone and have to follow your own star. 


I was a fabulist as a child, and indeed, well into my adolescence. It was perhaps the signal trait of my character. I have a fairly elaborate justification for my habitual lying: it begins with the fact that I was two years younger than my classmates through most of my school years. I had started first grade at age five and then skipped second grade, something that would not be done now because of a greater awareness of the psychological and psychosocial damage such a practice inflicts on a child. But in my now-distant youth, I guess people didn’t know any better. I was also quite small for my age – I didn’t get a growth spurt until I was fourteen, at which point in just a few painful months I went from five feet to six feet tall. Before that, in comparison to the people I spent my days with I was tiny, and that gave them ample opportunities to bully me. The bullying happened day after day and year after year, and it never occurred to me to think that anything could be done about it by an authority figure. So I had to find my own way of addressing the problem, and the strategy I came up with was to become a teller of tales – a fabulist.

On the way to school, I might see a couple of cars barely avoid each other at an intersection; but by the time I got to school that had turned into a violent collision that left dead bodies sprawling out of the open windows of their automobiles. Certainly there would have been blood, perhaps a severed limb or two. All the way to school I would silently elaborate and edit the story, trying to find that sweet spot where the spectacular shakes hands with the believable. After a while lying became more normal to me than telling the truth. After all, what would be the point in telling the truth if you could make up something better? It made life always interesting.

Moreover, I discovered that the better I became at lying, and indeed the more consistently I lied, the more attention I got from my classmates. They wouldn’t be yanking my hair or punching me in the stomach as long as they were waiting to see how the story came out. It took me a very long time to break the habit of lying; it was only after I became a Christian, during my college years, that it dawned on me that this habit might be morally questionable. (Before that I had only considered the possible reputational damage of getting caught in a lie. My category was shame, not guilt.) And I’ve never broken the habit of internal fabrication. I still see ordinary everyday events and instinctively create a more dramatic narrative – I just don’t share that invented reality with other people.

One of the consequences of this history of fabulism, for me, has been an instinctive and unsuppressable skepticism towards stories told by other people. Whenever anyone writes about some extraordinary experience they’ve had – well, I simply don’t believe that it happened. I don’t think about it; I don’t consciously make a judgement. That’s just the immediate response that springs up in me wholly unbidden.

I remember being very surprised to learn that other people were surprised to learn that David Sedaris’s stories are mostly invented. I had never imagined that a single word of them was true. It never occurred to me to believe that he had sung the Oscar Mayer Wiener theme song in the voice of Bille Holiday to his music teacher, or that he had been Crumpet the Elf. Just the other day, I was reading an essay by Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, about an accident he had while hiking in the Swiss mountains and I assumed, unreflectively, that he had made up the whole thing, simply because for a long time that’s what I would have done.

I find that this skepticism is most intense – actually rising to the level of conscious disbelief – whenever I encounters writers talking about writing. Oh, how they love to narrate spectacular personal drama: extended periods of profound misery, depression, antisocial behavior, substance abuse, irrational and compulsive actions of a hundred kinds. You listen to their stories, and if you take them seriously, you think nothing could be more dramatic than being a writer. But I am a writer and I don’t believe a word of it.

I don’t think that these people never get drunk, never abuse drugs, never suffer depression. What I cannot believe is that any of this behavior has anything to do with their creative process. I think their writing lives actually go something like this: They set an alarm for a reasonable hour of the morning, they get up and made themselves a cup of coffee, they browse through social media, and then they sat down to write, promising themselves a cinnamon roll or a smoke if they get through 1000 words. And they just do this most days. They’re like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, they can’t write until they drop a lit cigarette into their tumbler of rye to make it undrinkable. That’s how they work, I’m sure. I simply lack the capacity to assent to their more dramatic tales. 

It’s possible, of course, that I’m wrong about all this, that my skepticism is unwarranted. And maybe that’s the price that I pay for being a reformed fabulist. I’ve lost my ability to trust other people’s stories, unless of course, they explicitly own them as fiction. As Sir Philip Sidney wrote more than four hundred years ago, “the poet” – by which he means the teller of tales – “never maketh any Circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true, what he writeth … and therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not.” And in turn is wholly believable.

But all that I told you at the outset about my own career as a fabulist? Every word is true. You believe me – don’t you? 

UPDATE 2023-09-21: “Emotional truths.” 

Auden on Ischia

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I’m in the final stages of editing my critical edition of Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, and I’m finding myself thinking often about Ischia, the island in the Bay of Naples where he lived when he wrote most of the poems in the volume. The more time I spend with those poems the more I am struck by the role the island — its geography, history, and culture — played in shaping them. I’ve never been there, and while I’m not the kind of guy to have a travel “bucket list,” I’m thinking that I need to find a way to visit. And after all, I think it’s fair to say that the island is not without its own charm, regardless of Auden. 

Things to see in Ischia Italy

repetition and summation

When you blog for a long time, as I have done, you inevitably repeat yourself. Sometimes this is conscious and intentional, as you work to develop themes: I have listed some of the main themes of this blog here. At other times you just forget that you’ve said something before. 

But there’s a third kind of repetition: the kind that arises when similar events prompt you to respond in similar ways. This has a good side and a bad side. If you do respond to these related provocations consistently, that suggests a certain stability of outlook; you’re not just blown about by the winds of mood or whim, you have a genuine point of view. On the other hand, you could’ve just saved yourself some time and effort by citing one of your earlier posts on the subject. “I refer the honorable gentlemen to the reply I gave some months ago.” 

I just realized recently how often I have responded in very similar ways to the desperate-times-demand-desperate-measures Christians, the ones who believe that our current circumstances are so horrific that we have to throw out our historic practices and habits out the window. To cite just one common topic of recent years: There are a great many Christians who say that Tim Keller’s approach to evangelism and apologetics might have been okay Back In The Day — you know, fifteen years ago, in a previous geological era — but simply won’t work in our current Negative World. I have of course questioned the Negative World thesis — I’ll return to that in a moment — but more than that I have insisted that such people are making a category error: the question to ask is not whether this or that approach works, but rather whether it’s faithful, whether it’s obedient to Jesus. As I said in that post, 

To think only in terms of what is effective or strategic is to fight on the Devil’s home ground. As Screwtape said to Wormwood about the junior tempter’s patient: “He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.” Christians who evaluate Keller not by asking whether his message is faithful to Jesus’s message but rather by asking whether it’s suited for this moment are inadvertently following Screwtape’s advice. 

And in another, closely related, post, I called attention to this challenging statement from George Macdonald: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you.” 

That is what counts, whether this is a Negative World or a Positive World or any other kind of world. Our obligations remain the same in every world. What we need is to stop trying to read the tea-leaves of politics and instead learn to be idiots

Obedience is both difficult and boring; and the boring part is especially challenging in our neophilic age, in which we cannot readily perceive the renewing power of repetition. It’s no wonder that people would rather think about plans and strategies than to strive to practice obedience. But “strategic thinking” is the classic excuse for disobedience

Finally, I have consistently found it useful (or sometimes just fun) to see the various stances I’ve described here as exemplified by characters from The Lord of the Rings, e.g.: 

  • Denethor: the evangelist of despair who’d rather blow everything up than be faithful through hard times; 
  • Boromir: one who thinks that if he could just seize the reins of power then everything would be great, because he is committed to all the Right Things and therefore couldn’t possibly rule badly or tyrannically;  
  • Faramir: one who has immersed himself in ancient lore and by so doing has learned humility and mercy;  
  • Aragorn: one who understands that we must judge between “good and ill” today as we have ever judged; they don’t change their character, nor is the need for discernment ever abrogated; 
  • Gandalf: one who is content to be a steward rather than a ruler, and to strive to give to the next generation “clean earth to till.” 

Okay, thus endeth the summing up. Now whenever these issues come up again in the future, I will try to remember to link to this post, rather than write a new one that makes the same points.

x nay

I’ve deactivated my X account and won’t be coming back. I’ve despised Twitter for several years, but I have been willing to keep the account active in order to promote the journals and publishers I write for — my own writing and that of others. But I’m done with that. Why? 

  1. X is now owned by one man. 
  2. That one man doesn’t just tolerate but promotes straightforwardly antisemitic discourse — he’s increasingly open about his own hostility towards Jews, and is ready to sue people who criticize him for it. 
  3. That one man also — and let’s think about the merits of a system that grants to one private citizen this power — intervened meaningfully in the Russia-Ukraine war on the side of the aggressor. We could debate whether, and to what extent, the U.S. should directly support Ukraine, but there is no question about who invaded whom, and Musk is directly aiding the invaders. 

I don’t see how, in the circumstances, I can keep an account on that man’s platform. So I’m out, for good. 

UPDATE: See also this by David French: “Twitter isn’t so much a free speech paradise as the generalissimo’s playpen, and the generalissimo’s values shape everything about the place.” 

UPDATE 2: Turns out that Musk did not cut off Starlink service to Ukraine in Crimea: it was already deactivated, and Musk declined to activate it in response to a request from the Ukrainian government. Walter Isaacson, in his biography, got that wrong, and has admitted it. A pretty significant error. 

mechanical writing

Cory Doctorow:

A university professor friend of mine recently confessed that everyone in their department now outsources their letter-of-reference writing to ChatGPT. They feed the chatbot a few bullet points and it spits out a letter, which they lightly edit and sign.

Naturally enough, this is slowly but surely leading to a rise in the number of reference letters they’re asked to write. When a student knows that writing the letter is the work of a few seconds, they’re more willing to ask, and a prof is more willing to say yes (or rather, they feel more awkward about saying no).

The next step is obvious: as letters of reference proliferate, people who receive these letters will ask a chatbot to summarize them in a few bullet points, creating a lossy process where a few bullet points are inflated into pages of puffery by a bot, then deflated back to bullet points by another one.

But whatever signal remains after that process has run, it will lack one element: the signal that this letter was costly to produce, and therefore worthy of taking into consideration merely on that basis. 

See this post by me

I must admit that I hadn’t thought of this particular use of AI, but it raises an interesting question: When do we turn to AI for help with writing? — especially those of us who are competent writers? We don’t do it for every writing task, only for some — but which ones? 

Here’s my hypothesis: Competent writers seek help from AI when they’re faced with 

  • an obligation to write, in situations in which 
  • certain phrasal formulas are expected, and 
  • any stylistic vividness is useless or even unwelcome. 

Why write as a human being when humanity is a barrier to data processing? 

some thoughts on habitus

For quite some time I haven’t been posting here about focal practices, but I’ve been thinking about them. I’m going to share some of those thoughts now, in a discursive, associative, Adam-Robertsy kind of way.

Let’s start by looking at a passage from Jacques Maritain’s 1920 book Art and Scholasticism:

There is … a fundamental incompatibility between habitus and egalitarianism. The modern world has a horror of habitus, whatever ones they may be, and one could write a very strange History of the Progressive Expulsion of Habitus by Modern Civilization. This history would go back quite far into the past. We would see – “a fish always rots by the head first” – theologians like Scotus, then Occam, and even Suarez, ill-treat, to begin with, the most aristocratic of these strange beings, namely the gifts of the Holy Spirit – not to mention the infused moral virtues. Soon the theological virtues and sanctifying grace will be filed and planed away by Luther, then by the Cartesian theologians. Meanwhile, natural habitus have their turn; Descartes, with his passion for levelling, attacks even the genus generalissimum to which the wretches belong, and denies the real existence of qualities and accidents. The whole world at the time is agog with excitement over calculating machines; everybody dreams only of method. And Descartes conceives method as an infallible and easy means of bringing to the truth “those who have not studied” and society people. Leibniz finally invents a logic and a language whose most wonderful characteristic is that it dispenses from thinking. And then comes the taste, the charming curiosity, the spiritual acephaly of the Enlightenment.

Thus method or rules, regarded as an ensemble of formulas and processes that work of themselves and serve the mind as orthopedic and mechanical armature, tend everywhere in the modern world to replace habitus, because method is for all whereas habitus are only for some. Now it cannot be admitted that access to the highest activities depend on a virtue that some possess and others do not; consequently beautiful things must be made easy.

If we’re going to grasp what Maritain says here, we’ll need some context for this passage. Early in his argument, Maritain makes a distinction between the speculative order – which requires virtues directed towards one end: knowledge – and the practical order – which sometimes requires other virtues. He then argues that “the practical order itself is divided into two entirely distinct spheres, which the ancients called the sphere of Doing (agibile, prakton) and the sphere of Making (factibile, poiêton).”

In his next chapter, on “Art as an Intellectual Virtue,” Maritain gets to the point that I am especially interested in here:

The ancients termed habitus (hexis) qualities of a class apart, qualities which are essentially stable dispositions perfecting in the line of its own nature the subject in which they exist. Health, beauty are habitus of the body; sanctifying grace is a habitus (supernatural) of the soul. Other habitus have for their subject the faculties or powers of the soul, and as the nature of these faculties or powers is to tend to action, the habitus which inhere in them perfect them in their very dynamism, are operative habitus: such are the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues.

The Wikipedia page on this complicated word habitus is quite useful. It rightly points out that contemporary use of the term is almost wholly due to the influence of Pierre Bourdieu, and adds that Bourdieu seems to have used the term for the first time in writing about Erwin Panofsky’s 1951 book Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which he translated. Here’s a key passage from his “postface” to that translation:

Mais en outre, en employant pour désigner la culture inculquée par l’école le concept scolastique d’habitus, M. Erwin Panofsky fait voir que la culture n’est pas seulement un code commun, ni même un répertoire commun de réponses à des problèmes, ou un lot de schémas de pensée particuliers et particularisés, mais plutôt un ensemble de schèmes fondamentaux, préalablement assimilés, à partir desquels s’engendrent, selon un art de l’invention analogue à celui de l’écriture musicale, une infinité de schémas particuliers, directement appliqués à des situations particulières.

My translation:

Moreover, by employing the scholastic concept of habitus to describe the culture inculcated by the medieval Schools, Panofsky shows that culture is not merely a common code, or a common repertoire of answers to problems, or a set of particular and particularized schemes of thought, but rather a set of fundamental schemes, assimilated beforehand, from which are generated – through an art of invention analogous to that of musical composition – an infinite number of particular schemes that can be directly applied to particular situations.

Panofsky’s book doesn’t use the word habitus but rather the phrase “mental habit”; also, Panofsky never mentions Maritain, even though some of his comments on “mental habit” seem to be drawing on connections between moral/spiritual formation and artistic practice that (I believe) Maritain first made. For example:

During the “concentrated” phase of this astonishingly synchronous development, viz., in the period between about 1130–40 and about 1270, we can observe, it seems to me, a connection between Gothic art and Scholasticism which is more concrete than a mere “parallelism” and yet more general than those individual (and very important) “influences” which are inevitably exerted on painters, sculptors, or architects by erudite advisers. In contrast to a mere parallelism, the connection which I have in mind is a genuine cause-and-effect relation; but in contrast to an individual influence, this cause-and-effect relation comes about by diffusion rather than by direct impact. It comes about by the spreading of what may be called, for want of a better term, a mental habit — reducing this overworked cliché to its precise Scholastic sense as a “principle that regulates the act,” principium importans ordinem ad actum. Such mental habits are at work in all and every civilization.

The sentence I quoted from Bourdieu’s Postface to his translation of Panofsky is a kind of expansion of this passage, an unpacking of its implications. Maybe Bourdieu hadn’t read Maritain, but, like Panofsky, he sure sounds like someone who has. Bourdieu unpacks further in his book The Logic of Practice:

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor.

Okay. So where are we?

  1. The medieval schools were strongly formative institutions: through their commitment to certain spiritual and moral practices – prayer, memorization, contemplation, withdrawals and constraints of various kinds – they formed in their members certain strong dispositions of attitude and behavior.
  2. This is not a matter of making people follow rules; indeed, a rule-based order relies upon a debased or degraded model of shaping human behavior, and in the end can, as Charles Taylor has written, do nothing more or other than inculcate “code fetishism” or “normolatry.”
  3. If instead of articulating and enforcing rules, institutions emphasize being formed by certain ongoing disciplined practices, then a genuine habitus can emerge. And one way to know that someone exhibits genuine habitus is to see in him or her what Bourdieu calls “transposable dispositions”: that is, we’ll see a thematic consistency in that person across various contexts. If a person behaves one way at work and a wholly different way at home, or one way in person and a wholly different way online, then we have good reason to suspect that that person has failed to develop a genuine habitus and is at best following certain rules. (I feel seen.)
  4. As Lauren Winner has shown, practices, however necessary, are dangerous.
  5. Nevertheless, habitus is a step towards having something to do rather than a merely a set of responses to stimuli.

All this deserves further reflection.

Ophuls’ dancers

Above you’ll find a justly famous scene from one of the greatest of all films, The Earrings of Madame de… — and it’s also a perfect illustration of how deeply Max Ophuls loved dancing, how for him dancing is the ideal kinetic embodiment of love, the very image of intimacy. Circular movement was endlessly fascinating to him — see his film La Ronde for the obsession at its most obsessive — and he returns to it repeatedly, and what I love most is what the theme does for his camera work. Surely no one before the advent of the Steadicam has made a camera flow the way Ophuls did; and it would be difficult to find a Steadicam scene that excels Ophuls’ camera in elegant economy of motion.  

(Also: note, late in the scene above, how the camera follows the musicians and attendants, so that we see the dancers primarily in mirrors. Ophuls was fascinated by mirrors also, especially in that movie, which begins by denying us a clear view of its protagonist except, fleetingly and partially, in a mirror.) 

The Earrings of Madame de… appeared in 1953, when Ophuls had returned to Europe after a somewhat frustrating decade in Hollywood. His penultimate film in the U.S. was a noir-ish movie called Caught, which Ophuls seems to have conceived of as a way to say what he really thought about Howard Hughes. (Spoiler: nothing good.) But James Mason is fabulous as an idealistic doctor who works among the poor of Manhattan, and this scene in which he and Barbara Bel Geddes dance … well, IMHO it’s the best dance scene ever filmed by the all-time master of dance scenes. Just pay attention to the movement of that camera. 

an exercise in branding

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I decided to take a flyer on this — and am kinda wishing I didn’t. It’s fun to get a newspaper in the mail, and I like the look; the parodies of the way headlines were written 125 years ago (several layers deep) are well-done, though they’re imitating what Harry Smith did better in his famous Anthology of American Folk Music

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(That’s a photo of my copy.) 

The problem is that in this first issue the writing is largely indifferent, and once I saw the puff piece on RFK Jr. I knew that this is an exercise in branding — and trolling — more than a serious attempt to finding a new (old) way of doing journalism. 

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Yeah, I get it, you want to own those smug coastal elites. And that’s fine, I guess; but I’m not interested in subsidizing it. I’ve read some excellent writing from David Samuels, but this really is a puff piece, and any responsible editor would’ve asked Samuels to tone down the worshipful rhetoric or at least to ask some serious questions. Unfortunately, Samuels is the editor, or one of them, along with Walter Kirn. Other pieces (some of them also by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past) lack clear structure, or are poorly paced, or succumb to sentimentality and cliché. Maybe things will get better, but I’m not exactly looking forward to the next issue. 

bureaucratic sustainability

Matt Crawford:

The example of China’s explosive growth in the last thirty years showed that capitalism can “work” without the political liberalism that was once thought to be its necessary corollary. The West seems to be arriving at the same conclusion, embracing a form of capitalism that is more tightly tied to Party purposes. But there is a crucial difference in the direction given to the economy by the party-state in the two cases. In the West, the party-state is consistently anti-productive. For example, it promotes proportional representation over competence in labor markets (affirmative action). There are probably sound reasons for doing so, all things considered, but it comes at a cost that is rarely entered into the national ledger. Less defensibly, the party-state installs a layer of political cadres in every institution (the exploding DEI bureaucracy). The mandate of these cadres is to divert time and energy to struggle sessions that serve nobody but the cadres themselves. And the Party is consistently opposed to the most efficient energy technologies that could contribute to shared prosperity (nuclear energy, as well as domestic oil and gas), preferring to direct investment to visionary energy projects. The result has been a massive transfer of wealth from consumers to Party-aligned actors. The stylized facts and preferred narratives of the Party can be maintained as “expert consensus” only by the suppression of inquiry and speech about their underlying premises. The resulting dysfunction makes the present order unsustainable. 

This is an incisive essay by Matt, as always, and I agree with almost all of it — the exception being the last sentence quoted here. It seems to me that the current system is indeed sustainable, for quite some time, at least in many arenas.

For instance, in the American university system the vast expansion of DEI apparat simply follows the previous (and not yet complete) expansion of the mental-health apparat, all of which siphons resources away from the teaching of students. But that’s okay, because almost no one — least of all students and their parents — thinks that learning is the point of university. The university is for socialization, networking, and credentialing, and I expect to see a continuing expansion of the bureaucracies that promote these imperatives and a corresponding contraction of the number of teachers. And anyway, insofar as teaching and learning remain a burdensome necessity, if an annoying one, much of that work can be outsourced to ed-teach products and, now, to chatbots

Genuine teaching and genuine learning will always go on, but for the foreseeable future it will happen at the margins of our universities or outside the universities altogether. Meanwhile, the symbolic work of the party-state will grind on, because it must

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 

once brothers

The fascinating and deeply sad documentary Once Were Brothers concerns the career of The Band — primarily as seen through the eyes of Robbie Robertson. Levon Helm, dead lone before the documentary was made, would have told a rather different story, and for damn sure wouldn’t have subtitled the movie “Robbie Robertson and The Band.” For Levon they were always The Band, five equal partners. But that’s a debate for another day. 

In the documentary, the one song that gets the most attention is “The Weight.” And for good reason. It was a step forward for Robertson as a songwriter – there’s a touching moment when he describes playing it for Dylan and notes how proud Dylan was of him. You can tell that that pride meant a lot to Robbie. But it was also a step forward for The Band. In an old interview clip Richard Manuel says that in making that song “we found a vocal thing that we didn’t know we had,” and he’s surely talking primarily about the harmonies on that song, especially the rising “and-and-and” at the end of each chorus. (There’s a great passage in Mystery Train where Greil Marcus recalls living in San Francisco when Music from Big Pink was released: “The day after the record hit the stores you could hear people on the street singing the chorus to ‘The Weight’; before long, the music became part of the fabric of daily life.”) 

Elsewhere in the documentary Bruce Springsteen marvels at the presence in a single group of three singers as extraordinary as Manuel, Levon, and Rick Danko; and George Harrison muses on the boon to a songwriter of being able to compose for such singers, knowing that any given song might be a better fit for one than for the others. But the three voices complemented one another so beautifully, with Danko as an absolute master of bluegrass-style high harmony singing, Levon somewhere in the middle, and Manuel able to go high or low as the situation demanded. (One of the amazing things about “The Weight” is that, right in the middle of the song, Danko picks up the lead vocal from Levon — and it sounds fantastic.) 

So “The Weight” was the moment The Band discovered what it could do in songwriting and singing, and maybe arranging as well. Soon after recording Music from Big Pink Danko broke his neck in a car accident and was immobile for quite some time, so instead of going on tour the guys continued to hang out in Woodstock and made another record: The Band, or, as it’s commonly known, the Brown Album. And this is when they put into practice everything they learned when making their first album; this is when they came into their inheritance. 

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It’s an astonishing record, in my view one of the half-dozen best in the history of rock music. Not one song is anything less than superb — and that makes it different than any of their other albums, including Big Pink, all of which are very much hit-and-miss. Nothing else they ever did comes close to this masterpiece.

I have occasionally referred to a distinction made by Bill James in his work on evaluating the quality of baseball players: career value vs. peak value. How do you compare a player like (for example) Eddie Murray, who was a superb if not absolutely great player for a very long time, with Pete Reiser, who was transcendently great but (because of injuries) only for a short time? Similarly: The Band’s career value can’t compare with that of U2 – but no rock group’s peak value has ever been higher.

Did it have to be that way? Did they just have it in them to make one great album? Sometimes that’s all a group, or a musician, has. But I think they were so deeply immersed in what Dylan used to call “historical-traditional music” that they could have and should have produced much more excellent work. Drugs did them in, frankly, and in an especially ugly way. 

In Once Were Brothers we hear from the wonderful photographer Elliot Landy, who did so much to document life in Woodstock in those days. What struck him is how “grounded” the members of The Band were, how “gracious” — the way country people are gracious, he said. He was taken with their evident love for one another, and — here I think of something Robbie said somewhere else, that “We were rebelling against the rebellion” — their determination to put a photo of their families in the album gatefold. 

Yet they came to hate one another, or something close to hate. When two guys (Robbie and Garth Hudson) are coming to work every morning while the other three are in bed till mid-afternoon, sleeping off the previous night’s festivities … well, that’s not a recipe for fellow-feeling. Robbie loved Richard Manuel – everybody seems to have loved him – but when Manuel insisted on driving while dead drunk, with Robbie’s wife Dominique in the car, and then crashed it…. “Richard could’ve killed my wife,” Robbie says in the documentary — not angrily, but, the point is, that’s not something you easily forget, easily set aside. And there were many such events in Woodstock in those days. 

My suspicion is this: if they had stayed off the drugs, or even kept their use to a reasonable level, then I think we would have gotten much more great music from The Band. And then maybe some guys who really loved one another would have had friendships to sustain them in their later years. As I say, it’s a deeply sad story. 

The Scriptural BCP

The Scriptural Book of Common Prayer is a wonderful resource that does its job a little too well. That job is to lead readers to the biblical sources that underlie almost every phrase in the prayer book. But some biblical sources are more important than others. 

The famous first line of the Collect for Purity is: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid….” At the Scriptural BCP page, if you click on that line, here’s what you get: 

Gen 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.

1 Sam 2:3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

1 Kings 8:39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know–according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart—

1 Chron 28:9 “And you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve him with single mind and willing heart; for the Lord searches every mind, and understands every plan and thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will abandon you forever.

Job 42.4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’

Ps 38:9 O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you.

Ps 44:21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.

Ps 139:1-4 O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Jer 17:10 I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Ezek 11:5 Then the spirit of the Lord fell upon me, and he said to me, “Say, Thus says the Lord: This is what you think, O house of Israel; I know the things that come into your mind.

Matt 12:25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.

John 2:24-25 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

1 Cor 3:20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

Heb 4:13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Rev 3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.

Rev 3:8 “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Rev 3:15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.

Acts 1:24 Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen.” 

Just having so many sources listed is daunting. And some of them, like the passage from Job, seem unrelated to the collect, while others (1 Samuel 2:3, and the passages from Revelation, which are about our works, not our heart) are only tangentially related at most. I think all this might be more useful — especially for people new to the prayer book, or new to the Bible — if the references were confined to the essential ones. 

Nevertheless: a wonderful resource, and a testament to how skillfully and sensitively Thomas Cranmer and the other authors of the prayer book wove the words of Scripture into their liturgies. 

against apps, for wander lines

In 1980, a curiously polymathic Jesuit priest named Michel de Certeau (1925–86) published a provocative book called, in English translation, The Practice of Everyday Life. (The original and more evocative French title is L’invention du quotidien Vol. 1: Arts de faire.) In the book’s introduction he lays out a simple and yet wonderfully generative opposition between strategy and tactics; and that distinction will be key to what follows.

The terms are of course borrowed from warfare: strategy (the term derives from the Greek strategos, “army leader”) concerns the overall goals and general plans of a military campaign. It is the view from 30,000 feet. But when we speak of tactics we are viewing the situation from ground level: military tactics are the specific ways and means by which the overall strategic goals are pursued. Only strategoi formulate strategy, and they may have a good deal to say about tactics as well, but because conditions on the battlefield may be unexpected or volatile, subordinate leaders will be largely responsible for tactical decisions.

De Certeau looked around him and saw a world determined by the strategoi of multinational corporations, national governments, and what the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser called “ideological state apparatuses.” (Depending on the country, examples of such apparatuses might be educational and health-care systems – not necessarily directly controlled by the government, but regulated and overseen in ways that serve governmental purposes.) These Powers, as St. Paul might have named them, call the shots. In de Certeau’s terms, they identify an “environment” which they stand outside of and manipulate; they determine what within that environment is “proper” – and propre is a key word for de Certeau. What are the proper activities in environment X? What is the proper environment for activity X? The Powers organize and channel the energies of ordinary people into the proper, and do so according to their strategic purposes.

So what is left for ordinary people to do? Well, they can become mere drones, acting wholly and unthinkingly within the channels set by those Powers. But, de Certeau believed, few human beings are drones. Even in dire circumstances people can prove amazingly resilient and creative:

The ambiguity that subverted from within the Spanish colonizers’ “success” in imposing their own culture on the indigenous Indians is well known. Submissive, and even consenting to their subjection, the Indians nevertheless often made of the rituals, representations, and laws imposed on them something quite different from what their conquerors had in mind; they subverted them not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they had no choice but to accept.

For example, these Indians could not decline to become Christians; but they could interpret the Christianity imposed on them in ways that harmonized with their traditional beliefs and practices – as long as they did not do so in open defiance of the boundaries of the “proper.” They could not defy the powers; but they could “make of” what the Powers imposed on them something other than what the Powers intended. This, de Certeau says, is tactical thinking, tactical practice.

In our own context, then, by employing similar tactics those who are designated as mere “consumers” can become “unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.” In describing how this works de Certeau employs a fascinating analogy, which will take some time to explain. He invokes the work of the maverick educator Fernand Deligny (1913–96), an extraordinary figure so completely neglected that, as I write, he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. But in addition to providing a key metaphor to de Certeau, Deligny provides also a model for the practices I think essential our moment. Think of what follows not as a digression from my presentation of de Certeau, but of de Certeau’s work as a way into the “Arachnean” (spider-like) thought of Deligny.

Deligny and his colleagues, living and working in the Cévennes Mountains of southern France, intentionally separated from the institutional structures (the strategic structures) of French culture, tried to find new and more humane ways of supporting autistic children – especially those who did not speak, who were hors de parole (outside of speech). Deligny treated this silence as a choice to be respected rather than a disability to be overcome, and paid close attention to what such children did instead of speaking.

Leon Hilton, in a fascinating essay, explains that Deligny and his colleagues

began to follow their autistic counterparts as they made their way through the Cévennes’s rocky terrain, making rudimentary line drawings to indicate their direction of movement across the rural encampment and into surrounding wilderness.

The tracings soon became a central aspect of the group’s activities, and the maps grew steadily more detailed and elaborate. They developed visual systems for designating the various sounds and gestures encountered along their pathways, and started to use transparent wax paper to trace the children’s daily routes. No attempt was made to interfere with their movements, or to explain or interpret them. The focus remained on the process of tracing itself.

Deligny called these drawings lignes d’erreerre not in the sense of “erroneous” but in the sense of the “knight-errant,” the wandering knight without fixed abode. Lignes d’erre are unstable because in motion, perhaps like a pilgrim’s path, which may have more order than it initially appears to. Wander lines, which precede the regularized and disciplined forms of letters. Hilton: “Yet distinct patterns began to emerge: certain trajectories tended to be repeated from one day to the next, and Deligny noted that some of the wandering lines seem to correspond to the conduits of underground waterways.” The children were wordlessly making their way along the paths of life, and and the adults let them do it. Or: rather than imposing a strategy on the children, they allowed the natural world to form the environment, and this empowered the children to become more than mere consumers, mere drones in the “proper” channels. The children became, to return to de Certeau’s language, “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality,” and though hors de parole they became also documenters of their wayfaring. If I thought it possible to rehabilitate a greatly-abused word, I’d say that they were networking.

One of the most famous moments in all of movies comes at the end of François Truffaut’s first feature, The Four Hundred Blows (1959). Antoine Doinel, a Parisian boy who has repeatedly been in trouble – with his mother, with his teachers, with the law – is sent to an institution for troubled youth, where he is subjected to a series of interviews with a psychologist who wants to excavate the causes of his unhappiness. But one day, when playing with some of the other children, Antoine crawls under a fence and makes his way, running, running, to something he had always wanted to see: the ocean. Truffaut freezes the camera on Antoine as he gazes at the wandering, drifting waves of the sea. As Leon Hilton explains, Truffuat worked out the concluding scene of the movie with the help of Fernand Deligny. 

What is the value of Deligny’s work to de Certeau? The “wander lines” of the autistic children exemplify

‘indirect’ or ‘errant’ trajectories obeying their own logic. In the technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which the consumers move about, their trajectories form unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space.

The autistic children Deligny worked with are admirable improvisers: pens and paper are for writing words, they serve the purpose of bringing people “inside written language,” but these children made something else of the tools, adapted the instruments to their own needs and desires. (This is what in my “Filth Therapy” essay, following yet another French thinker, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, I called bricolage: making do, employing what is to-hand, inventing new purposes for old materials.)

It is vital to de Certau’s argument to insist how commonplace such activity is – we fail to see how much we are like those autistic children in the mountains of France, how we too are tacticians:

Many everyday practices (talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.) are tactical in character. And so are, more generally, many “ways of operating”: victories of the “weak” over the “strong” (whether the strength be that of powerful people or the violence of things or of an imposed order, etc.), clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, “hunter’s cunning,” maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.

But what de Certau, writing nearly fifty years ago, did not foresee is the rise of a Technopoly, an ever-extending regime that unites the old forces of state and corporation into an unprecedentedly extensive endeavor with a Grand Strategy – a strategy I have called metaphysical capitalism. (See the relevant tag to this post.) Technopoly tells us that we own ourselves, and that everything we need to fulfill our own (unchallengeable) desires is available for sale in the marketplace. But of course this is a system that only works if what we desire can in fact be purchased; and since that cannot in advance be guaranteed, the initial imperative of Technopoly is to train our desires, to channel them towards what the system already has for sale.

And the greatest instruments ever devised for such channeling are our internet-connected devices, especially when we connect to the internet through apps. The reason? Because while pens and paper can be used in extraordinarily varied and unpredictable ways, apps can’t: the ways in which we can interact with them are determined with great specificity and no deviation from the designed user-interface paradigm is permitted. You can use a pen to write a poem in elaborate cursive, sketch a tree, play Hangman, or, in moments of desperation, scratch a mosquito bite or skewer a chunk of watermelon. (I am describing, not recommending.) With TikTok, you can … make TikToks. The app is so far the ultimate extension of what Albert Borgmann called the device paradigm

In short: in relation to the Grand Strategy of Technopoly, the essential purpose of apps is to eliminate the sphere of the tactical. It is to make the kind of improvisation I celebrated in my essay on Albert Murray impossible. It is to transform us all into drones, and then to make us like it – to make us (a) accept a universal strategic imperative as desirable, and (b) promise that our lines never shall wander.

what the bird said

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Many spoilers follow.

Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City begins with a framing story: We seem to be watching a television show from the 1950s, and in that show our Host — something like the Stage Manager from Our Town — presents to us a new play called Asteroid City. From time to time we return to this framing story, in which we learn (in nonconsecutive order) how a playwright named Conrad Earp came up with the idea for his play, how the play was cast, how changes were made to it, how its director came to live backstage amid the props, and so on. We’re even told that the playwright died in an accident.

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The play itself is presented to us in full color, featuring a slightly more-pastel-than-usual version of the typical Wes Anderson color palette. Though, as noted above, there is a backstage, and at one point we even see an actor leave the scene he’s playing to go backstage and ask the director whether he’s playing his part properly, the moment we’re placed within the world of the play we’re given a 360º camera rotation — in 90º increments: quarter-turn, stop; quarter-turn, stop; etc. — to demonstrate that the play’s world completely surrounds us, that for us there should not be, cannot be, any “backstage.”

Here’s what happens. It’s 1955. Many people converge on a meteor crater in the desert somewhere near the convergence of California, Arizona, and Nevada. Some teenage student scientists, along with their parents, have come to receive awards (from a general in the U.S. Army) for their inventions; a busload of younger students are there on a field trip; a country-and-western band get stuck when they miss their bus out of town. (Or “town” — the population is 87.) In the middle of the award ceremony a spaceship arrives and hovers over the crater; an alien descends from the ship and takes a basketball-sized chunk of the meteorite; the government confines everyone to the site for a week and forbids communication with the outside world. Tentative romantic relationships begin. One of the teenage scientists manages to get word out to his high-school newspaper; with the information embargo broken, the government decides to let everyone go home; before everyone can leave the spaceship returns to drop off the meteorite; the general re-imposes lockdown; chaotic resistance ensues; the actor has his motivational crisis and goes backstage; the lockdown is lifted; everyone goes home. So it’s a comedy, basically.

Or not. Many of Wes Anderson’s movies are tonally awkward, and this one more than most. The awkwardness here arises from one major plot point that I have omitted. That actor who has a crisis about his motivations? He’s playing a photojournalist named Augie Steenbeck … hang on. Let’s pause a moment to pursue clarity. You’ll see a lot of commentary on this movie saying that Jason Schwartzman plays Augie Steenbeck. This is not true. In the movie Asteroid City Jason Schwartzman portrays an actor named Jones Hall who, in the play Asteroid City, portrays a photojournalist named Augie Steenbeck who visits a town called Asteroid City. All clear now? Okay.

Well … perhaps I should add that, depending on how you understand this TV-show framing, it’s possible that Jason Schwartzman is playing an unnamed actor who, for the purposes of television, is playing the stage actor Jones Hall, who plays the photojournalist Augie Steenbeck. But let’s pretend I didn’t say that.

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Augie Steenbeck has come to Asteroid City because his son Woodrow is one of the teenage scientists to be honored. He brings Woodrow and also his three younger daughters. He has a big problem, though: his wife, the mother of his four children, has been dead for three weeks and he hasn’t told them. Now, under pressure from his father-in-law, whom he talks to on the phone, he decides to tell them — and does, in the flat tones that all of Wes Anderson’s characters typically use, while holding her ashes in a Tupperware container.

Jones Hall, the actor playing Augie, doesn’t understand Augie. He’s doesn’t know what’s going on his Augie’s head — that emotionless flatness of tone hides Augie from the man performing him. He’s also confused about some of Augie’s actions, especially one odd thing: after he convinces Conrad Earp to cast him as Augie, he asks “Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quickie Griddle?” (Quickie Griddle pictured above, at the bottom of the frame. Augie is just about to touch it.) Augie has toasted a sandwich, and when talking to the woman he may be falling for, he suddenly places his palm on the hot griddle. But Conrad Earp doesn’t know why Augie does that: “He just sort of did it while I was typing.” Hall’s ongoing puzzlement about Augie then takes him backstage to talk to the director. “I still don’t understand the play,” he says. “Doesn’t matter,” the director replies. “Just keep telling the story.”

Hall is not satisfied. The big chaotic scene of resistance to the general’s diktat is still going on, and he doesn’t think he’ll be missed if he stays away a few moments longer. “I need some fresh air,” he says, to which the director replies, “You won’t find any.” But Augie goes out on the fire escape anyway and lights a cigarette.

Think of a movie like The Grand Budapest Hotel. How might one defend treating a subject like the Bloodlands of the mid-twentieth century in this peculiar way, with its chocolate-box colors, farcical action, exaggerated and anti-naturalistic acting styles? Asteroid City is, I think, Wes Anderson’s attempt to answer that question. That’s what I’m slowly getting around to explaining.

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We primarily see Augie interacting with Midge, the woman he may be falling for, as they look at each other across the gap that separates his tiny motel cottage from hers. Each of them is framed for the other; they speak but are separated by the walls. And now, when Jones Hall goes out onto the fire escape, he finds himself immediately opposite another fire escape, one attached to another theater, and he is looking at another actor, another person who has left the theatrical space for some fresh air and a smoke — and it’s a person he recognizes. “Ah,” he says, it’s you, the wife who played my actress.” The inadvertent switch of nouns is of course telling.

In some earlier version of the play Asteroid City Conrad Earp had written a scene between Augie and his wife, a scene in which she advises him how to navigate his life without her. Jones Hall has forgotten the scene, but “the wife who played his actress” remembers it word for word, and quietly recites it to him as they look at each other across their respective fire-escape platforms. Jones Hall has traveled from the brightly-colored environment of Asteroid City to the disorderly backstage collection of props and makeup to what is for him the “real world” — the world of “fresh air.” Was the director wrong to tell him he wouldn’t find any?

What’s the opposite of “fresh”? One opposite is artificial, and it’s noteworthy that the actress who recites her discarded lines, her discarded part, is dressed for a period drama, wearing the rococo costume of a seventeenth-century aristocrat. Jones Hall learns something he needs to know about his character not through inhaling fresh air, not through re-entering the “real world,” but through a chance encounter with words of explanation, words rejected because they were too explicit, because they said too much — and delivered to him by a Goddess of Contrivance, the very embodiment of artifice.


Again, this is all part of the frame story, and the final part part of the frame story involves a flashback to a visit paid by Conrad Earp to a place very like the Actors Studio, an institution created in the very period in which our story is set. There Conrad Earp and the movie’s equivalent of Lee Strasberg encourage the actors gathered there — several of whom eventually make up the main body of the cast of the play Asteroid City — to “workshop” the dialogue of the play. Some of them enter, or feign to enter, a kind of trance state, in the midst of which the camera closes in on Jones Hall, who looks directly at us and says a single sentence, a sentence then taken up and chanted by the whole room: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep. I think this is as close as Wes Anderson has ever come to explaining and defending his very peculiar style of filmmaking. What he’s telling us is that the most vital and the most painful things in life cannot be confronted directly, explicitly, artlessly. There must be masks — contrivances, artifice — that distract us, lull us, distract our agitated minds. Tragic experience, to be properly worked through, must wear the mask of comedy. And perhaps for the deepest griefs a single mask is insufficient; you may need several. So here we see layer after layer being peeled away, but no matter how many layers we remove we just find more artifice.

And I think this is Anderson saying that he wants to make art about some of the most profound of human experiences — but doesn’t know how to make it explicitly and directly about those experiences. Or doesn’t want to. Or doesn’t believe in doing so. In some ways, then, you can see this movie as a kind of a commentary on his other films, above all, I think, The Grand Budapest Hotel. If you want to know why Wes Anderson takes such a mannered and apparently frivolous attitude towards matters of the greatest depth and significance, I think he’s explaining that in Asteroid City. He’s obeying Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” And he’s doing that because, as the bird says, “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”

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Tirzah Garwood


Regular readers of this will know of my fondness for the art of Eric Ravilious. Ravilious was married to another highly gifted artist, Tirzah Garwood, whose work I have posted a couple of times; but she deserves more attention than I have given her. (In the Ravilious painting above, that’s her on the right, accompanied by her friend Charlotte Bawden. I will write at some point later about the Bawdens, Charlotte and Edward.) Here they are together:


Here’s something of a self-portrait:


(Compare Ravilious’s “Train Landscape.”) Garwood worked in several media, and when you look at the image below you’ll wish she had done more in that curious medium, embroidery.


(Also perhaps a bit of a self-portrait?) Larger version here

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Alas, neither Eric nor Tirzah were blessed with long life. In the Second World War Eric was an official “War Artist,” and in August 1942 his plane was lost somewhere over Iceland. He was 39. Tirzah suffered from recurrent cancer and died in 1951 at the age of 42. Their three children survived them, and their youngest, Anne Ullmann (born 1941), still celebrates and advocates for her parents’ work.


Dylan’s conversion

Conversion to folk music, that is. From the 1978 Playboy interview

PLAYBOY: Just to stay on the track, what first turned you on to folk singing? You actually started out in Minnesota playing the electric guitar with a rock group, didn’t you?

DYLAN: Yeah. The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in ’58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.

PLAYBOY: What was so special to you about that Odetta record?

DYLAN: Just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record. It was her first and the songs were “Mule Skinner,” “Jack of Diamonds,” “Waterboy,” “Buked and Scorned.” 

Though with Dylan you can never tell, I hope this is true. (Especially since Odetta and I share a home town.) 

Odetta sings ballads and blues vinyl front cover

Odetta sings ballads and blues vinyl back cover

Twenty-five years ago I wrote an essay about Dylan that was published first in Books & Culture and then at bobdylan.com — the former of which was a pleasure to have published and the second rather disorientingly exciting. (I got paid in CDs.) I think this is the B&C version. 

outreach and generativity

Over at the Daily Nous, Alex Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, argues that the traditional three branches of academic work — teaching, research, and service — needs to be augmented by a fourth: outreach or engagement.

Colleges and universities are supported (1) by the general public, through government funding; (2) by students and their families, through tuition and fees; and (3) by rich people, through donations. What education and what knowledge will be pursued in colleges and universities is not set in stone; it is, rather, a function of what those three groups want and demand. If we want philosophy to be part of the education and part of the knowledge that is pursued in the years to come, we need people in those three groups to want and demand philosophy. And for people in those three groups to want and demand philosophy, we need to reach out to them, engage them, make them aware of what philosophy is and why it is wonderful and valuable. Given what philosophy is, and given our contemporary situation, that task is monumental, and must be undertaken at many different levels, in many ways. No small number of us can do it on our own. Therefore, it should be a part of all of our jobs — quite literally — to do this work.

Such outreach can be accomplished in several ways:

There are obviously central enterprises: exposing children and adolescents to philosophy and serious humanities in K–12 education, for example, something that many are already doing. Writing “public facing” philosophy that appears in newspapers, broad circulation prestige venues, trade books, and so on. Creating online philosophy courses and videos and other broad access materials like podcasts. There are also more local, more intimate efforts: organizing a public philosophy week at a public library, running a philosophy club or ethics bowl team at the local high school, organizing community book groups and “meetups” to discuss philosophy, running “ask a philosopher” booths at the train station, farmers’ market, or mall. These activities bring philosophy to people outside of the academy and bring people into philosophy, giving them entry points and a better sense of what the subject is and why it is of value. They also are a lot of fun. And a ton of work to do well. And, for the most part, they are treated as outside of one’s job, falling outside of the big three: research, teaching, and service.

Obviously this idea would apply to many other disciplines (most of them? all of them?) and it certainly applies to mine. When I write here on my blog, or for non-academic magazines and websites, I am certainly and quite consciously practicing such outreach — but none of it has any value in the eyes of Baylor University. My position at Baylor is wholly due to my academic work. You could of course argue that that’s as it should be, that strictly academic work is what universities ought to value and support; but for what little it’s worth, I think that’s shortsighted.

I could cite several reasons for my view. For instance, some students want to attend the Honors College here at Baylor because they have encountered the public work, the outreaching work, that I and several of my colleagues do. We can in a similar way help with the recruitment of faculty also. But I suspect that there may be other benefits to my kind of public-facing work, benefits that are more strictly academic — even if the work itself isn’t academic, or not in the familiar ways.

Consider the career of the great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra. Cal Newport recently wrote about Dijkstra’s work habits in a post that’s interesting in several ways — but I just want to call attention to one thing: what Dijkstra did after he received a research fellowship from the Burroughs Corporation. Newport quotes one colleague of Dijkstra’s: “The Burroughs years saw him at his most prolific in output of research articles. He wrote nearly 500 documents in the EWD series.”

But hang on a minute. His entries in “the EWD series” were not in any conventional academic sense “research articles.” They were, basically, letters, originally typewritten and later handwritten with a Mont Blanc pen, which Dijkstra photocopied and mailed to colleagues. (He numbered and labeled them, and each label began with his initials, EWD, thus their familiar name. “I got a new EWD today!”) The initial recipients numbered only in the dozens, but since they had photocopiers too, it’s estimated that each EWD had hundreds or even thousands of readers.

Sometimes EWDs developed into proper research articles, but, as the home page for his archives notes, “the great majority of his manuscripts remain unpublished. They have been inaccessible to many potential readers, and those who have received copies have been unable to cite them in their own work.” The archive was created precisely in order to enable proper academic citations, since “personal communication from the author” is not a recognized form of documentation in the CS world.

So Dijkstra’s EWDs were not proper academic research, were not the sort of thing that one can put on a CV or include in a year-end report; nor were they “outreach” in Alex Guerrero’s sense, since they were directed to Dijkstra’s colleagues and peers rather than to the general public. Yet, as thousands of computer scientists over the decades have testified, the EWDs were enormously generative: they inspired and guided research throughout the field of computer science.

Universities know how to reward the dissemination of ideas through standard peer-reviewed publication; what they do not know is how to reward generativity. And, to be fair, that’s true at least in part because it’s hard to know in advance what ideas will generate other ideas, what projects other projects. It took a corporation to risk supporting Dijkstra, not knowing what the results would be; but perhaps there are expansive and stimulating thinkers in disciplines that no current corporation would care to support. Maybe that “fourth branch” should, in addition to outreach or engagement, also seek to discover and reward generativity.

The best service I could provide through this blog is to stimulate others (and not just, or even primarily, academics) to pursue ideas that I don’t have time to pursue myself, and while I don’t expect Baylor to reduce my teaching load so that I might have more opportunity to hand-write letters to twenty or thirty colleagues — or, um, blog a lot — a guy can dream, can’t he?

Nick Cave:

ChatGPT rejects any notions of creative struggle, that our endeavours animate and nurture our lives giving them depth and meaning. It rejects that there is a collective, essential and unconscious human spirit underpinning our existence, connecting us all through our mutual striving.

ChatGPT is fast-tracking the commodification of the human spirit by mechanising the imagination. It renders our participation in the act of creation valueless and unnecessary.  That ‘songwriter’ you were talking to, Leon, who is using ChatGPT to write ‘his’ lyrics because it is ‘faster and easier,’ is participating in this erosion of the world’s soul and the spirit of humanity itself and, to put it politely, should fucking desist if he wants to continue calling himself a songwriter.

Nick Carr:

Well-turned sentences had a decent run, but after TikTok they’ve become depreciating assets. Traditional word-based culture — and, sure, I’ll stick Twitter into that category — is beginning to look like a feeding ground for vultures. Tell Colleen Hoover to turn out the lights when she leaves. 

Part of Nick’s post is about the proposed purchase of Simon & Schuster by one of the nastiest corporations in the world, KKR. Cory Doctorow explains (a) just how vampiric KKR is and (b) why the purchase might not be approved by the FTC. 

R.I.P. Robbie

09robertson superJumbo

I’ve written before about the waves of death that are coming for some of our cultural giants, but this is a big one. Robbie Robertson’s influence has always been vastly underrated, and the music he and his bandmates made at the end of the Sixties is some of the most lastingly wonderful of that era. I would be hard-pressed to name five rock records better than the Brown Album, which I’ll be listening to tonight. Only Garth Hudson remains from a group that really did deserve to be called The Band.  

The band robbie robertson flashback last waltz


Wendell Berry, from The Unsettling of America

Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order — a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery.

What Berry has done both as a farmer and a writer is to practice this nurturing; and I have tried as both a writer and a teacher to do the same, within my rather different sphere of effective action.

Since I do not have a farm I am more of a hunter-gatherer — my practice of nurture is perhaps better described by Ursula K. LeGuin in her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”:  

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again — if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. 

And for me the challenge has always been to become more cunning in my gathering, more scrupulously attentive to objects and ideas that others have discarded as worthless. To nurture the neglected, the forgotten. 

Justin Smith-Ruiu:

The risk of attempting such a thing is that one will appear unserious and will accordingly begin to lose the professional and social advantages that slowly began accumulating throughout all those years of pretending to be an adult. I don’t mean to overdo the curious parallels between art and faith, but it does seem to me that to be willing to take this risk is somewhat analogous to the choice Saint Paul said one must make to become a “fool for Christ”. The sixteenth-century Muscovite saint known as “Basil Fool for Christ”, for whom the world’s most iconic onion-dome church is named, was also known as “Basil the Blessed”: it comes out to the same thing.

I want, I mean, to spend the rest of my life, consciously and willfully, as a fool, at least in those domains that matter most to me. Of course I can still “clean up real nice” whenever the circumstances require, but I now see those circumstances more or less in the same way I see filing taxes or updating my passwords — just part of the general tedium of maintaining one’s place in a world that pretends to be built around the interests and expectations of sober-minded grown-ups, but that in the end is a never-ending parade of delirious grotesques.

I have in effect undergone a double conversion, then, to both faith and art, which in the end may be only a single but two-sided conversion, to a mode of existence characteristic of children and fools.

Reading more poetry? That’s a great thing. Reading a book of poetry a day? That’s a 100% guarantee that you will get almost nothing from your reading. Better: Read one lyric poem a day, but read it five times.

Prologue to an Anti-Therapeutic, Anti-Affirmation Movement:

As a leftist, my core political assumption is that we are all responsible for each other’s material well-being, that we have a duty to build the kind of society where everyone’s basic needs are met, where everyone enjoys a certain degree of material comfort, and where our rights are respected equally regardless of race, religious, sexual and gender identity, ethnicity, or creed. That is the kind of mutual caring that I signed up for when I became politically conscious as a teenager. I never signed up for a vision of a society that helps everyone out there to constantly feel valid, mostly because society could never achieve such a thing. Nobody walks around feeling good about themselves all the time! Where on earth did people get the idea that human beings are meant to enjoy a permanent sense of mental security and social validity? That’s a totally unworkable and in fact quite cruel standard. If you want to be good to yourself, I suggest that you stop expecting society to be your therapist and go see licensed medical professionals in private to address the issues in your life that are appropriately treated that way. And if you want to be good to your society, I suggest you help to defeat the medicalization of everything, the casualization of the concept of trauma, the celebration of mental disorders, the assumption that everything that makes us unhappy is an injustice, the insistence that all conflict is abuse, and the infantilization of the human animal. That’s the best way to help. 

One of Freddie’s best posts ever. 

Encyclopedia Babylonica 6: Ellul

Ellul’s The Meaning of the City is a book in six chapters. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, the subjects of the six chapters are, in effect:

  • Chapters 1 and 2: Babylon
  • Chapter 3: from Babylon to Jerusalem
  • Chapters 4–6: Jerusalem

Ellul’s exposition of his themes is oddly meandering, and there are points where he flatly contradicts something he had written just a few pages back. So it can be difficult to identify the main line of the argument, but I think I’ve managed it. What follows is my summary of his argument specifically about Babylon — because that’s the part of the book that I’m especially interested in.

(By the way, I have the old Eerdmans edition of the book, not the newer Wipf & Stock edition, which has different pagination.) 

In Ellul’s reading of the Bible, Babylon is the very type and image of The City — indeed, one could say that every city is included in Babylon (20). This is a vision that persists from the historical books and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible all the way through to the final chapters of the book of Revelation. Among many other things, Revelation depicts and interprets the condition of the Christian church at Rome, but it does’t refer to Rome; instead it refers to Babylon, because that’s Rome’s true identity. Augustine, as I noted in an earlier post, calls Rome “the second Babylon,” but in Ellul’s reading it simply is Babylon. As (in Paul’s letter to the Romans) all humanity is somehow contained in Adam, all cities are somehow contained in Babylon.

The builder of the first city was Cain, and Cain called that city Enoch, but its real name is … well, you get the picture. Ellul tells the story this way: Cain, having murdered his brother, is cast out of his own society, but is permanently marked by God, in a way that’s meant to protect him from those who would claim the right to take vengeance on him. Cain, though, “went away from the presence of the Lord” — was not sent away, but chose to depart, and built a city whose walls would protect him. That is to say, the point of his building a city is to refuse the protection of the Lord and instead to insist upon his own independence (5–6).

And, given the fallen human condition, the idea of the city-as-protection is inevitably, and rapidly, converted to the idea of the city-as-aggression. The city is the first, the most powerful, and the one necessary instrument of war (13).

So the city (AKA Babylon) is created in order to enforce and maintain human self-sufficiency, which is deeply entwined with the libido dominandi. The city is intrinsically defiant of God — it is in a sense the instrument not just of war on other human beings but war on God, whom it hopes to kill (16). And therefore, in the end, Babylon will perish. It will not be transformed, will not be converted; as the book of Revelation (chapters 17-19) tells us, it will be destroyed. And this must happen because its entire purpose is to refuse the protection of the Lord and trust instead to human power, human control. All this may be considered an expansion and justification of Augustine’s clam that the end of the City of Man is destruction — though, oddly, Ellul barely mentions Augustine in this book. Because of what Babylon necessarily is, God’s curse is upon it (44–48, 53).

(A possible topic for another day: Ellul struggles to fit the city of Nineveh into his account [69–70], because, as we see in the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh repent and God takes pity on them. Ellul likes to say that there’s a distinction between the way God talks about cities — he curses them unconditionally — and the way God talks to people — he invites them to repentance — but in Jonah God says “I take pity on Nineveh, that great city.”)

So Ellul’s first major point is that Babylon, and Babylon as the type and image of the city simpliciter, is destined for destruction. The second part of his argument — and this is especially interesting — begins thus: Babylon is where we live. And, he says, Babylon is not a place that we are at liberty to escape from. His exegesis here begins with an unambiguous statement from Jeremiah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” For Ellul the key points here are:

  • Our exile is determined not by our captors but by the Lord himself;
  • We are not to flee the city but “seek its welfare”;
  • Whatever good comes to this city of our exile will come to us as well;
  • Our seeking for the city’s welfare is characterized primarily by prayer.

For Ellul this last point is especially important. When we pray for Babylon, we say that human beings are indeed dependent on God, which means that our prayers for Babylon undermine the very rationale for its existence — which, as noted above, is the establishment of human self-sufficiency. By praying for Babylon, we say: In the end, you cannot defy God, you cannot even escape God. So we we live within the city and we pray for it to flourish, but we deny its own account of what true flourishing is (73–76).

Moreover, since God is the one who sent us into this exile, we are not at liberty to abandon this city until one of two things happen: either we are cast out of it (in which case we shake the dust off our feet as we leave that city) or the Lord returns and deals with it himself. It is not our job — Ellul says this repeatedly — it is not our job to be judge or executioner of Babylon. That’s above our pay grade. It is our job to be, as James Davison Hunter might put it, faithfully present in Babylon. This idea is absolutely foundational to Ellul’s vision of how we live in the city of our exile (78–82, 182).

So in one sense, you could say we don’t rebel: we live peacefully in the city, we do not try to escape it, we don’t try to thwart it. But in another sense, we underminine it by praying for it. By praying, by asking God to bless the city, we deny its self-understanding, and we invite it to rethink itself — indeed, to die to itself and rise to new life in God. (The story of Nineveh, again, suggests that this can happen.) And we are to continue in these practices until we are forced — by the Lord’s return or by, as it were, exile from our exile — to stop. Voluntary departure is not to be considered; we must remain at our post.

One final point: Ellul says that when Jerusalem consents to the crucifixion of Jesus, it becomes Babylon — and therefore, is subject to Babylon’s destruction (49–50). The New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 alone is the city that will not be destroyed. And if Jerusalem can through sin become Babylon, then the task of the Church is to pray that Babylon will become Jerusalem — Jerusalem as God meant it to be, Jerusalem as, in the New Creation, it will be. This, it seems to me, is what makes the example of Nineveh more important than Ellul thinks it is.