the classics are all right

Re: the recent kerfuffle over the vandalism of Roald Dahl’s books, Walter Kirn tweeted “I ran into two used book stores today and grabbed classics like I was saving them from a fire.” In fact “the classics” are fine — they’re in the public domain and thanks to endeavors like Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive they are unlikely to be disappeared or bowdlerized. If you’re worried about them, just download the ones you most care about and do what you can, when the supersensitives come with their digital X-Acto knives and their infinite smugness, to let people know how to access the originals.

Likewise, living authors are safe: the supersensitives can demand changes to their works but they don’t have to agree. And if they do agree, well, that’s their business. (But if they agree against the prickings of their conscience, shame on them.) 

No, the supersensitives have a rather narrow target: dead writers whose works are still in copyright. Those are the ones vulnerable to vandalism — by those who control the copyright. 

his harshest critic

I recently re-read Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in the third edition of 1880. Ruskin had originally published the book in 1849, when he was 30 years old, and though it had proved quite popular, later in life Ruskin was reluctant to authorize a new edition. His reason? He hated the book.

He finally gave in, but insisted to the publisher that he be given the opportunity to annotate it. The resulting ongoing ill-tempered commentary is very entertaining. 

Even when he liked what he had written, he could be cynical. For instance, he approved of the glorious and justly famous passage in which he repudiates the tearing down of old buildings: 

Of more wanton or ignorant ravage it is vain to speak; my words will not reach those who commit them, and yet, be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate. What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss, we have no right to inflict. 

On the phrase “my words will not reach those who commit them” the older Ruskin wrote, “No, indeed! — any more wasted words than mine throughout life, or bread cast on more bitter waters, I never heard of. This closing paragraph of the sixth chapter is the best, I think, in the book, — and the vainest.” 

But he is rarely as kind to himself. Of a passage on the Gothic architecture of Venice he noted, “I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their contexts or development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this.” And one of the funniest moments comes in response to a passage about neo-Gothic architecture, which was just getting started in 1849: 

The stirring which has taken place in our architectural aims and interests within these few years, is thought by many to be full of promise: I trust it is, but it has a sickly look to me. 

Ruskin’s comment in 1880: 

I am glad to see I had so much sense, thus early; — if only I had had just a little more, and stopped talking, how much life — of the vividest — I might have saved from expending itself in useless sputter, and kept for careful pencil work! I might have had every bit of St. Mark’s and Ravenna drawn by this time. What good this wretched rant of a book can do still, since people ask for it, let them make of it; but I don’t see what it’s to be. 

This wretched rant of a book — why didn’t I practice drawing instead? 

Albert Murray and me

From my new essay for Comment on Albert Murray’s “blues idiom”: 

For white North American Christians who perceive themselves as marginalized, disparaged, despised, maybe even persecuted — well, a road map for that territory is all around us, in the experience of black Americans, especially as formulated by the great Albert Murray. And I think Murray would have been glad to see his work applied in this way: he thought, and said all the time, that the lessons of the blues idiom are universal human lessons. “When the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is … making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.” 

The essay is behind a paywall for another month — unless you subscribe to Comment, of course. (Nudge nudge wink wink.) By the way, I love the artwork the editors and designers chose to illustrate the essay, e.g.: 

IMG 1508



It’s been widely reported that the U.K. children’s book publisher Puffin is producing a new edition of Roald Dahl’s books with all the wrongthink – or as much of it as possible; this is Roald Dahl, after all – taken out.

Sometimes they’re editing Dahl-as-such and sometimes his characters. The gluttonous Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no longer described as “fat” but rather as “enormous,” thus leaving readers free to imagine that he’s a powerlifter in a high weight classification. Dahl himself is the insensitive one there. When a character says of another character “I’d knock her flat,” Puffin’s supersensitives replace that fierce language with “I’d give her a right talking to.” (But what if the character speaking is the type to use strong language? Or do bad things? Shall we have a version of Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov skulks around St. Petersburg fantasizing about giving his landlady a right talking to?)

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what offense the supersensitives imagine: It’s not clear that calling someone a “trickster” rather than a “saucy beast” makes an improvement in manners; what is clear is that the meaning is completely different. But: while Dahl referred to Mrs. Twit as “ugly and beastly,” she is now just called “beastly,” though I cannot imagine why calling someone a “beast” is unacceptable but calling them “beastly” is hunky-dory.

One could go on about this silliness all day, and many are doing so, but I actually think there’s an important point to be made in response to these changes: the people doing it have no right to do so. They have the legal right, but what they’re doing is morally wrong.

It’s morally wrong first of all because it’s dishonest. The books will still be sold as Roald Dahl’s – it is his name that will draw readers to these volumes – but they are in fact Dahl’s involuntary collaboration with people who find some of his words and phrases intolerable. That this is so should be announced on the book’s covers – but you may be sure that it will not be. If you own the rights to Dahl’s books but passionately believe that what Dahl wrote is too offensive for today’s readers to face, then your only honorable option is to stop selling the freakin’ books.

This may sound like an odd digression, but bear with me: I’ve been re-reading The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which Ruskin confronts the widespread practice, in the England of his time, of either dramatically renovating or tearing down old buildings.

First, Ruskin says, when a building is stripped down to its shell and given an entirely new interior, those who do it should call it what it is: destruction. “But, it is said, there may come a necessity for restoration! Granted. Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms. It is a necessity for destruction. Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place.” So also I say: Do not set up a Lie in place of Roald Dahl’s actual books. If they are intolerable, do not tolerate them. Let them go out of print, take the digital editions off the market, and force those of us who are bad enough to desire the books to scour second-hand bookstores for them.

But let’s pursue Ruskin’s argument a bit further. Sometimes a building is torn down altogether, razed to the very ground. What does Ruskin say about that?

Of more wanton or ignorant ravage it is vain to speak; my words will not reach those who commit them, and yet, be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate. What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss, we have no right to inflict.

As astonishingly eloquent and impassioned declaration, which, in regard to architecture, one might plausibly disagree with. (Though not easily, I think. I may return to this in another post.) Buildings take up a good deal of space, and the maintenance of them can be expensive; there certainly are circumstances in which demolition is indeed necessary. Ruskin, remember, grants this point, though not without certain hedgings.

But Ruskin’s argument is irrefutable when it comes to the other arts of the past – poetry, story, music, painting, sculpture. There can be no justification for mutilating or destroying them to suit “our present convenience.” We do not know whether later generations will think as we do, will share our preferences and our sensitivities; to preserve the art of the past is to show respect not only for that past but also for our possible futures. And it is to establish a standard for how we wish to be treated by our descendants.

Even the Victorians (and some of their successors) who thought sculptures of naked men too offensive for ladies to see merely covered the pudenda with plaster leaves — the penises themselves remained untouched, for later generations, and less delicate viewers, to see if they wish. (Some years ago I published an essay on this practice — and related matters.)

Perhaps Puffin — since there’s no way in hell they’re gonna give up the chance to make bank — can provide two versions, sort of like like New Coke and Coke Classic, clearly differentiated by label. They could advertise the one and not advertise the other; they could make their preferences clear; they could say “If you are a Good Person you will purchase our sanitized versions rather than the nastiness written by Roald Dahl himself.” And then people could buy the version they want.

Wanna place bets on which version readers would choose? But I don’t think we’ll find out. The one canonical rule of the supersensitives is: The reader is always wrong. Because any genuine reader is, by definition, not a supersensitive.


Inside the Bro-tastic Short-Term Rentals Upending an Austin Community:

Almost anywhere you find tourists in Texas, from waterfront neighborhoods on Galveston Island to the ghost towns in the western reaches of the state, locals are bemoaning the changes unleashed by short-term rentals and the visitors who temporarily inhabit them. In Dallas, where one neighborhood STR was turned into a raucous wedding venue, infuriating neighbors, the city council is weighing a plan to outlaw STRs from residential neighborhoods. In Fredericksburg, the popular Hill Country getaway, locals have blamed STRs for exacerbating a severe housing shortage. In Wimberley, about an hour southwest of Austin, they’ve been accused of encouraging debauchery. But when it comes to STRs in Texas, there is no place quite like Austin. The influx of STRs is inextricably linked to the city’s transformation, in just over a decade, from one of the most affordable cities in America to one of the least. Between 2000 and 2010, Austin was the only city in the U.S. experiencing double-digit growth that also saw a decline in the percentage of its Black population — a decline that continued over the next decade. No longer a countercultural haven for artists and independent thinkers, Austin has embraced a new role as the tourist-obsessed, bachelor party–dependent STR capital of Texas — a kind of Las Vegas with tacos in which it can feel as if the real world has been subsumed by the digital one being marketed on Instagram by newly-arrived influencers and real estate agents. 

This is incredibly depressing but also utterly unsurprising. 

Nick Catoggio:

Dominion might win its suit notwithstanding the general truth of what Kevin [Williamson] said in his piece, that “nothing short of a signed and notarized statement of intent to commit libel seems to satisfy judges or juries” in modern defamation litigation. What the company aimed to show in its nearly 200-page brief is that, by word and deed, Fox personnel from management on down did all but openly confess their intent to commit libel. They acknowledged privately that Trump’s conspiracy theories were false; they were warned repeatedly that those theories were false; they pressed ahead on the air with the big lie anyway.

But even if Dominion loses, it’ll have extracted a measure of moral compensation. Whatever else one might call programming that suppresses the truth if it might offend the audience, “news” ain’t it. (“Propaganda” sounds about right.) No one who reads Dominion’s pleading will ever look at Fox the same way. That’s why the company filed it. 

I’ve been reading the pleading and … it’s something else. If Dominion doesn’t win this suit, then there is no law against defamation in this country, and “news” outlets can say anything they want about anyone at any time with absolute disregard for the truth. Which, come to think of it, is what they do already, I guess. Does anyone really believe that the NYT didn’t demonstrate “actual malice” against Sarah Palin when it repeatedly lied that she played a role in Gabby Giffords’ shooting? Of course not. It’s just that a lot of people believe that Palin is an official Bad Person and therefore deserves to be lied about.  

Which is why Operation Diogenes must go on! 

question and answer

Question: How bad would the whole AI/search/chat situation have to get — how much real-world harm have to be done — before any of the tech companies pulled their version from the market? 

Answer: The publicly-held companies might pull theirs in response to a stock-market collapse, but the privately-held ones? I can’t imagine any circumstances short of legislative action that would cause them to pull back. They believe in the “move fast and break things” mantra, they think no publicity is bad publicity, and their technological justification is that the bots will improve only through iteration. 

UPDATE: So Microsoft — one of the public companies in this racket — hasn’t taken down Bing Chat but has “lobotomized” it. Sydney, we hardly knew ye. 

strings and bows

Making the Sausage – Freddie deBoer:

That said, I feel that the only value proposition I really offer is my writing, the writing itself. The fact of the matter is that anybody could come along and offer the exact same political perspective; it’s a weird lane, but one that could certainly be replicated. What’s not so easily replicated is my writing ability. I have worked very, very hard on my prose for a long time. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. I became a fairly good guitar player, as a young man, but never good enough; I’m bad at almost all athletics and almost preternaturally shitty at team sports; I’m a disaster at most video games; I cook and cook and cook and never get any better; it takes me approximately seven hours to learn any given boardgame; my drawings and handwriting are genuinely indistinguishable from those of a 7-year-old; in the extremely unlikely event that you can get me to dance, kind witnesses will likely ask me if there’s someone they can call to come help me. I’m terribly clumsy even when I’m not on meds, and meds make it even worse. My bike was my primary means of transportation for four years and I still can’t look to my left or right while biking without turning in that direction. And after I got fired from Brooklyn College in 2020 nine months of applications in all kinds of fields got me nothing but a single offer for a $15/hour job. This is all I’ve got. 

A terrific essay from Freddie. 

I often wonder how I would do in Freddie’s situation. I am blessed in that I have two strings to my bow rather than one: My day job is teaching, and I’m past the publish-or-perish stage, so I could just teach if I wanted to. (And I love teaching.) Vital though my writing is to me, I haven’t pushed all my chips to the middle of the table the way Freddie has. 

One of the topics of Freddie’s essay is the response to a recent essay of his on growing up in the Nineties. It was widely read and shared and admired, but there were of course some naysayers. And — also of course, even more of course — most of the naysayers hadn’t read the essay. Some of them, it seems, didn’t even manage to read the entire title

There are millions and millions of people like this on social media, and especially on Twitter — I can’t count the number of times I saw people responding to the first half of a tweet, not having been able to make it all the way to the 200-character mark before blessing the world with their Opinion. (I think those people are pretty much the only ones left on Twitter now.) But that’s par for the social-media course; you can’t expect anything better. 

What bothers me is the extension of these habits of mindlessness into longer-form writing and even into professional journalism. Genuine critique is a great gift to a writer — maybe the single most helpful response to How to Think that I received came from Jonathan Rauch, in a conversation at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who was gracious and friendly but also quite critical. Made me want to run back home and write the Revised and Improved Edition. But criticism of that kind is relatively rare, because it depends on a careful reading of the work in question. You’re much more likely to get a review based on a more superficial reading, which is perhaps inevitable given the tyranny of deadlines. 

But occasionally I have seen a review of a book of mine written by someone who quite evidently hasn’t read the book at all. I mean, maybe they’ve skimmed a few pages, but that’s it. And such reviews are not always negative! — some reviewers have been quite complimentary towards the book that they inaccurately assumed I probably wrote. That sort of thing annoys me in a weird way, but not as much, of course, as the review that attacks an argument I didn’t make — an argument I explicitly repudiated on page 49 — or that wags an admonitory finger at me for leaving something out of my book that in fact is right there on page 73 you dumbass. 

This sort of thing annoys me enough that years ago I stopped reading reviews — though that doesn’t prevent people from writing to me to ask What do you think about the bad things so-and-so said about you? So I end up anyway hearing more than I want to about such responses. And it annoys me even though it can’t really hurt me — so imagine how strongly I would feel about such things if, like Freddie, I were depending on my writing to feed myself and my family. 

I go on about this because it’s a recent theme of mine: the perils of a media culture that’s indifferent to truth. Thus my argument about truth as a commons; thus Operation Diogenes. I’m going to be mulling over these matters  often in the weeks or months to come. 

Continuing the recent reflections on fantasy, it me:

Like many other fantasy writers, [Hope] Mirrlees is interested in what happens if the power of Fairyland cannot be wholly excluded from our well-buffered society. In this case, we see what happens when magic begins to creep back into well-ordered and well-buffered lives. To figure this as essentially a drug war — an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to prevent the smuggling of what one character in the story significantly calls the “commodity” of fairy fruit — is a wonderful conceit and developed with delightful panache, tracing an elegantly oscillating line between the economic and the metaphysical. When one character tells a senator that he should be more aware of the high levels of consumption of fairy fruit among the poor, I find myself murmuring, Fairy fruit is the opiate of the masses.


David Sax, from The Future Is Analog

“The ideas that come to our mind are around curiosity, creativity, exploration, which come to you when you’re out and moving around,” said Joseph White, the director of workplace futures and insight at the office furniture company Herman Miller. White is a professional fabric designer (he owns a loom), who moved from Brooklyn to Buffalo in the midst of the pandemic, but the longer he worked remotely, the more White noticed how much physical, sensory information his work was lacking. He missed wandering around the rambling Herman Miller campus in Michigan, moving his body, walking between buildings, touching, seeing, and even smelling the company’s different ideas as they took shape in wood, plastic, metal, and fabric. “I used to work from a dozen different spots throughout the day,” White said. “Now I look at the same piece of art all day. I miss the variety of experience. My mind connects to concepts like embodied cognition — our mind connects to the world around us, and by the process of moving around it, we get information that we’re not consciously aware of, and have meaning. We lose that when we’re stuck in the same place over and over again.” Working from home was pitched as liberating, but as my neighbor Lauren discovered each day, glued to her desk, it can easily become a type of incarceration. “[Remote work] degrades the human experience,” White said. “I worry about sensory atrophy. I worry about curiosity, because as soon as curiosity ends, that is the beginning of death.” 

Hmmm. I have some questions: 

  1. Joseph White says he “used to work from a dozen different spots throughout the day” but at home works at one spot. Has he thought about moving around? Maybe working elsewhere in his house, or going to a coffee shop? 
  2. Does White think that most workers have the freedom to work from a dozen different spots in their workplace? 
  3. Or, to put essentially the same question another way: Where are we more likely to be “glued to a desk,” at the office or at home? 
  4. How has White shaped his home life such that his home afflicts him with “sensory atrophy” and “the end of curiosity”? Maybe he could rearrange his furniture or something. 
  5. If we have families at home, then the more analog and connected our work lives are, the more virtual and disconnected our family lives will be; and vice versa. But is it obvious that it’s more important for us to be connected to our co-workers than to our families? That might be great for Capitalism, but not so great for Humans. 

Costică Brădăţan:

As she pondered and internalized the meanings of slavery, affliction, and humility, Weil stumbled upon a central Christian idea: when he was incarnated, Jesus Christ took “the form of a slave” (morphē doulou), as we learn from St. Paul in Philippians 2:7. Weil went into the factory to find out more about the social conditions of the modern worker in capitalism. Instead, she found Jesus Christ.

Weil may have been raised in a secular Jewish home, but her whole education was shaped by France’s Catholic mindset. In the factory she started to use Christian notions, symbols, and images liberally to make sense of what she was going through. First among them was affliction itself, which defines both the slave condition and the Christian experience. In her “spiritual autobiography,” she describes how the “affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul.” Because of her profound empathy for the oppressed, she felt the suffering around her as her own. That’s how she received la marque de l’esclavage, which she likens to “the branding of the red-hot iron the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves.” That’s also how she was transformed: “Since then,” she wrote, “I have always regarded myself as a slave.”

An intense religious experience, which occurred soon after her factory stint, sealed the transformation. Finding herself in a small fishing village in Portugal, she witnessed a procession of fishermen’s wives. Touring the anchored ships, they sang “ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.” Weil froze in place. There, a conviction was “suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is preeminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” Nietzsche, too, had said that Christianity was the religion of slaves. He was right, but for all the wrong reasons. 

self-sacrifice and despair

Adam Roberts:

And in the middle (round about the two-thirds point, actually) there is the odd, striking scene of Denethor’s suicide. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, actually. In one sense he has to die, in order for the rule of the Stewards to end and the rule of the King to begin. But suicide is a semiotically tangled and troubled a thing for JRRT’s imagination. He doesn’t want to parse it as a nobly Roman action, and strains it into the straight-jacket of over-coded pseudo-Christian moralising: ‘Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death’ snaps Gandalf — perhaps forgetting that he himself effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum in order to save his comrades. Or perhaps it’s one law for wizards, another for Gondor. ‘Only the heathen kings, under the dominion of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair …’ [III:129]

It’s tempting to see this as a double standard. For in point of fact one of the general trajectories of this book is precisely that pseduo-samurai or Horatius-at-the-Bridge sacrifice of self: Frodo and Sam going (as they think) into certain death; the Rohirrim galloping will-nill towards a massively larger army; Gandalf rejecting the truce terms and dooming (they all think) the entire army to destruction. More, Gandalf does not lecture Denethor to prevent him from ending his life, only to stop him from doing so by his own hand: ‘your part,’ he tells the Steward, ‘is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.’ If you want to die, fine: go out into the city and get cut down by an orc. That would be OK! This sees to me a strange logic, as if we might say ‘suicide is wrong, but suicide-by-cop is fine’. 

I think Adam is wrong about this. (As I’ve said before, he is rarely wrong; maybe it’s only about The Lord of the Rings that he’s wrong.)  

Let’s make some distinctions — but before I jump in, let me say this: I don’t think that suicide is always (maybe it is not even usually) the result of despair. Many people who take, or try to take, their own lives have not come to a conclusion about the meaningless of life, or of their lives. When someone tells a suicidal person that things will get better, the suicidal person doesn’t necessarily disagree with that — doesn’t necessarily have a view about it at all. Often, those who take their own lives simply cannot bear their pain any longer and will do whatever they have to to make it stop. 

Okay, having made that sobering statement, now let me move on. 

Point the First: There’s a difference between fighting a battle you’re sure you’ll lose and “suicide-by-cop.” The point of the former action is not to be killed by an orc, but to kill orcs — and by killing them maybe saving a friend from being killed, or slowing the advance of your enemies long enough for some of the women and children to escape. You may be certain that eventually an orc will kill you, but you’re going to try to take as many with you as you can, and you’re doing that for a cause larger than yourself. Similarly, even if we grant that Gandalf “effectively threw himself into the chasm at Khazad-Dum” (a point that as it happens I do not grant), the fact that he did it “to save his comrades” — to keep the Quest going, to give Frodo a chance to make it to Mount Doom with the ring — makes it an act not of despair but of hope

Point the Second: It is important to note that Denethor is the Steward of Gondor, which is to say, he has sworn vows to preserve and protect that land. This is what Gandalf is reminding him of in this exchange, in which Denethor speaks first: 

“The Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.” 

“Unless the king should come again?” said Gandalf. “Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for.”  

To accept the mantle of the Steward of Gondor is like getting married in that one does it “for better or worse.” By taking his own life Denethor is simply, and disgracefully, renouncing and mocking his own vows. (It is telling that he refers to himself simply as “The Lord of Gondor,” whereas Gandalf more precisely refers to him as “my lord Steward.”) By contrast, if he were to go out and fight, even in the certainty of his own death, he would be faithful to his vows, for reasons noted above. 

Point the Third: Denethor couldn’t be more explicit that his despair arises from the thwarting of his personal preferences: 

“I would have things as they were in all the days of my life … and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.”

My way or the fire way, as it were. This is not a decision born of intolerable pain but rather one born of a childish indulgence in ressentiment.

In all these ways we see that even by the standards of his own pagan warrior culture — as opposed to Tolkien’s own Christian standards — Denethor’s despair is clearly blameworthy, and Tolkien doesn’t have to tie himself in knots or smuggle in Christian ethics in order to show that. As Aragorn says much earlier in the novel, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others. There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” 

Point the Fourth: But there is an interesting difference between the pagan understanding of despair and the Christian one. The pagan denunciation of despair is not, as we have seen, based on a commandment to have hope, for yourself or for others. This is a point that C. S. Lewis often made when he described his own deep attachment to the ethic of the Norse gods. In his late book Letters to Malcolm he wrote, 

You know my history. You know why my withers are quite unwrung by the fear that I was bribed — that I was lured into Christianity by the hope of everlasting life. I believed in God before I believed in Heaven. And even now, even if — let’s make an impossible supposition — His voice, unmistakably His, said to me, ‘They have misled you. I can do nothing of that sort for you. My long struggle with the blind forces is nearly over. I die, children. The story is ending’ — would that be a moment for changing sides? Would not you and I take the Viking way: ‘The Giants and Trolls win. Let us die on the right side, with Father Odin.’ 

(I suspect that in writing that last sentence Lewis had in mind this fable by Robert Louis Stevenson.) The key thing here is not the belief that the Good will win out — that’s as may be — but rather the belief that the Good is the Good, and deserves on that account alone our loyalty. 

But Christianity raises the stakes by asking us to believe not just that Good is Good, but that Good will in the end prevail. For the Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the prefiguration and guarantor of one’s own personal resurrection and also, and more important, the renewal of the world, the eventual coming of the New Creation. Despair in this account is the loss of hope for one’s own future and for that of the world. (And again, though Christian theology has often associated suicide with despair, I deny that there is any necessary association. Many people have left suicide notes asking for God’s forgiveness and — rightly, I think — hoping that He will raise them up on the last day.)

Is this understanding present in The Lord of the Rings? A question to be asked. In the great chapter called “The Last Debate,” the one in which our heroes decide to take the battle to Sauron even though his armies dwarf theirs, Aragorn says that their decision “is the last move in a great jeopardy, and for one side or the other it will bring the end of the game.” This holds out more hope for the triumph of the Good than Norse mythology does, but not much more. Gandalf had said something similar a couple of pages earlier: 

“We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless — as we surely shall, if we sit here — and know as we die that no new age shall be.” 

That’s as much as to say: We have a tiny chance (“only a fool’s hope,” he says elsewhere) of prevailing, but if we do not fight, then Sauron will most certainly win — he will eventually get the Ring, and “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” Whether there might be something more to come after this world ends Gandalf does not say, though surely he knows something more than Aragorn and the others do.

It seems to me, though, that we’re not really invited to speculate about such things here: the whole context of the story is the life of Middle-Earth, not any other world that lies beyond it. The calculations to be made are purely this-worldly, and therefore one makes one’s decisions about which side to take not from prudential calculation but from a clear-eyed perception of the difference between good and evil. When Eomer asks “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” Aragorn briskly replies: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden wood as in his own house.” 

Terry Eagleton:

For a slim volume, [Peter Brooks’s] Seduced by Story covers an impressive array of topics: oral narrative, the function of character, the role of narration in law, storytelling’s affinity with child’s play, what narrators know and don’t know, those raconteurs who calculate the act of narrating into their stories and those who refuse to be authoritative. In the end, however, there is a touch of desperation about demanding so much of fiction and narrative while acknowledging the ease with which they are abused. It isn’t that Brooks thinks fiction can save us, as I.A. Richards believed poetry could; it’s rather that he can think of nowhere else to turn. Story and poetry are important, to be sure, but not that important. Literary types, unsurprisingly, have often overrated their power, loading them with a pressure to which they are unequal. The hope that value and insight are to be found mainly in art is a symptom of our condition, not a solution to it. 

I strongly endorse this view. Story may seduce us but it can never save us. 


‘Satan viewing the Ascent to Heaven’ from The Paradise Lost of John Milton with illustrations by John Martin, London, 1846, pl. facing p.83. Mezzotint on steel, 19.6 cm x 15.3 cm. Photo: ©Royal Academy of Arts, London

Paul Ford: “The real reason Twitter lies in ruins is because it was an abomination before God. It was a Tower of Babel.” This would be a lot more convincing if Ford didn’t then go on to praise Mastodon, which is an earnest attempt to rebuild Babel, just by using stones from several different quarries. 

Blake domesticated

The Vision of the Last Judgment

John Higgs’s William Blake vs the World is a real disappointment. Higgs writes vividly and is a fine storyteller, but like most people who write about Blake, he’s simply not willing to take Blake seriously. He wants to like Blake, and so he has to make him safe. The curators of the 2019 Blake Exhibition at the Tate Britain sought to diminish Blake to a merely political figure; Higgs wants to make him merely a proponent of “imagination.”

You can see the problems emerging in the first pages. Look, for instance, at these two sentences:

Blake himself recognised that the entities he saw weren’t ‘really there’ in the everyday sense. He knew that the people he was with did not see the things he saw.

Everything about this is confused. Of course Blake knew that others didn’t see what he saw — he talked about this all the time. Once he wrote to a friend, “What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” But Blake didn’t think that the “round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea” is really there and the “Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” aren’t really there. Indeed he thought something close to the opposite.

Higgs over and over again contrasts Blake’s visions to the “objectively true.” Blake wouldn’t have used the word “objectively” — and in general no one should, because it’s an incoherent concept — but if he had, he would have said that his vision of the Heavenly Host is more objectively true, more real, than his friend’s perception of a round disk of fire. As he wrote in the Descriptive Catalogue for an exhibition of his works,

A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce.1I think this idea may underlie CSL’s conceit, in The Great Divorce, that the denizens of Hell are vaporous and translucent, while the Blessed are infinitely more substantial.

Higgs doesn’t recognize this at all; by the end of the book (p. 342) he has reduced Blake’s magnificent visions to an example of thinking with the right hemisphere of the brain. But Blake wasn’t a proponent of a properly balanced holistic psychology; he was a visionary and a prophet. All his life he saw a rich, complex, glorious but also terrifying spirit world that he believed to be infinitely more real than what the rest of us perceive with our five senses. And he believed this with an absolute and unshakable conviction. Any genuine encounter with Blake has to begin by grasping that point; but that’s precisely what almost no one who writes about him is willing to do.

Paul Kingsnorth

Everybody is talking these days about the decline of the West, and with good reason. Some people think that Christianity should have something to say about this: that as the faith was the rock on which the West was built, so the faith should rebuild it again, or defend it against its enemies. We need a Muscular Christianity! they insist in the comment sections. Bring on the Christian knights! they shout on YouTube. But I don’t think this is how it works. When the last empire collapsed, the Christians of Europe weren’t trying to build, let alone defend, some construction called “Christendom.” They didn’t plan for the dome of St. Peter’s or the Battle of Lepanto. They were just trying to do the humblest and the only thing: to worship the true God, and to strip away everything that interfered with that worship. They took to the deserts to follow Christ and to battle the Enemy. Their work was theosis. They had crucified themselves as instructed. What emerged as a result, and what it turned into — well, that wasn’t up to them.

In a time when the temptation is always toward culture war rather than inner war, I think we could learn something from our spiritual ancestors. What we might learn is not that the external battle is never necessary; sometimes it very much is. But a battle that is uninformed by inner transformation will soon eat itself, and those around it. Why, after all, were the cave Christians so sought after? Because they were not like other people. Something had been granted to them, something had been earned, in their long retreats from the world. They had touched the hem. After years in the tombs or the caverns or the woods, their very unworldliness became, paradoxically, just what the world needed.

frictionless ignorance

Andy Baio:

Google used to take pride in minimizing time we spent there, guiding us to relevant pages as quickly as possible. Over time, they tried to answer everything themselves: longer snippets, inline FAQs, search results full of knowledge panels.

Today’s Bard announcement feels like their natural evolution: extracting all value out of the internet for themselves, burying pages at the bottom of each GPT-generated essay like footnotes. 

Yep. Similarly, Joanna Stern thinks the new AI-powered search at Bing is terrific, but note this: When she asked Bing’s AI a question, “Bing’s chatbot typed out the answer, with a bulleted list of winners and a mention of Beyoncé’s most-Grammys-ever record. The answer also contained clickable citations, noting the source of the listed information.” 

My question: Who’s gonna click through to the links? Almost nobody. People who use such services will simply assume that Bard and Bing, that classic comedy duo, provide the correct answers and thus will never leave the search page. Ease of use and superficial plausibility will leave users in a state of frictionless ignorance; sites that contain genuinely useful information will remain unvisited; and the various AI “services” will comprise a new power/knowledge regime. 

Robert Joustra:

I think the importance of [Katelyn Beaty’s Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church] is the conversation it opens about ethics in institutions, not (just) pious personal practices. The scandal at the heart of her book is not the celebrity pastors; their corruption and scandal is the least interesting and most predictable part of the package. The scandal is the enabling organizations and the collapse of institutional ethics — a dangerous pragmatism married to a startlingly idealistic naïveté. 

Thus the need for the repair of institutions, something that I think requires the cultivation of piety

Operation Diogenes

I don’t usually think much about things I have already published, but I have continued to meditate on the subject I wrote about here — and there’s good reason for that, I believe. You read a story like this one and you realize how pervasively the people who profit from minors who (supposedly) suffer from gender dysphoria lie. They lie about the conditions of the children who come to them, they lie about the likely effects of their interventions, they lie about what they do and don’t do — they lie about everything and it seems that they never stop lying. But then, we in this country also spent four years with a President and a White House staff who lied virtually every time they opened their mouths — lied even when there was no clear advantage to lying, evermore pursuing the preferential option for bullshit.  

I could provide ten thousand examples, but I don’t think it’s necessary: we all know that this is the situation we’re in. There’s a lot of talk right now — thanks to this op-ed by Leonard Downie — about “objectivity” in journalism, which term I think is a red herring: nobody has any clear idea what it means. I have never asked whether a journalist is objective; I have often asked whether a journalist is telling me the truth. And when Downie says that renouncing objectivity is a newspaper’s path to “building trust” with readers, what he clearly means is that you gain your readers’ trust by sending a strong message: We will never tell you truths you don’t want to hear; we will always tell you consoling lies; and that’s how we’ll get you to give us your money. He means nothing more or less or other than that. 

So I think there is no more important question for us to ask than this: Given that almost everyone in the media is lying to us constantly, how can we discover what is true — especially when the truth hurts?  

Many years ago there was a huge investigation in Chicago into systemic corruption in the judiciary. It was called Operation Greylord, and it had several offshoots, because more and more corruption was uncovered. My wife ended up on one of the grand juries — for eighteen months she took the train into Chicago every Wednesday to hear testimony — and one of the occasional topics of discussion was what the prosecutors should call their inquiry. They ended up calling it Operation Lantern, because someone thought the original suggestion too fancypants: Operation Diogenes. The prosecutors felt that, like Diogenes with his lantern, they were looking for, but apparently failing to find, one honest man.

That’s what we need for journalism in America: our very own Operation Diogenes. And if we can’t find anyone willing to tell us the truth, then how can we discover it on our own? That’s the question we ought to be asking. 

Franciska Coleman

In this paper, I undertake a qualitative exploration of how social regulation of speech works in practice on university campuses, and of the extent to which social regulation in practice affirms or undermines the stereotypes and caricatures that characterize the cancel-culture wars. I first summarize the two narratives that an- chor public debates over the social regulation of speech—consequence culture and cancel culture. I then describe the social regulation of speech and its five phases: dissemination, accusation, pillory, sanction and direct action. I explain how these five phases were reflected in the speech events under study and the extent to which their real-world features challenge or support the cancel-culture and consequence-culture narratives. I end by suggesting further research on the implications of this phases framework for efforts to balance universities’ dual commitments to free speech and inclusive community on their campuses. 

This is a very helpful framework for further discussion — in large part because it helps to get us out of the endless and fruitless debates over whether “cancel culture” “really exists.” I hope some confused and frightened university administrators read it. 

Arvind Narayanan and Sayash Kapoor:

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined bullshit as speech that is intended to persuade without regard for the truth. By this measure, OpenAI’s new chatbot ChatGPT is the greatest bullshitter ever. Large Language Models (LLMs) are trained to produce plausible text, not true statements. ChatGPT is shockingly good at sounding convincing on any conceivable topic. But OpenAI is clear that there is no source of truth during training. That means that using ChatGPT in its current form would be a bad idea for applications like education or answering health questions. Even though the bot often gives excellent answers, sometimes it fails badly. And it’s always convincing, so it’s hard to tell the difference. 

So why not have chatbots replace our elected representatives, who also have benefitted from “no source of truth during training”? An experiment worth trying, I say. 

Kevin Williamson:

The point of keeping Trump administration veterans out of positions of public trust is not to punish them — it is to keep them out of positions of public trust. We should do that because the public cannot trust them. We have norms, institutions, and procedures designed to protect the public trust from those who would abuse it or who, having been invested with some great authority, neglect that trust in the pursuit of private gains, be those financial or political. These are useful social tools, and we should use them. 

Clearly, concisely, and convincingly put. 

be your own algorithm

B3c3a1b2 0788 40d5 baf2 c3457530fd7d 2500x2000

Damon Krukowski: “I know it can be difficult, with so much choice, to figure out what to focus on. But on top of everything, you can preview most anything before committing. What’s not to like? Build a library, and you can be your own algorithm.” 


I’m not watching The Last of Us because (a) I don’t have and don’t want HBO, (b) I think all the changes on zombie stories have already been rung, but above all, (c) I viscerally dislike stories based on the premise that some human beings aren’t really human beings after all and can therefore be hated and killed with impunity. Zombie stories aren’t dystopian, they’re wish-fulfillment dreams, and the dream they fulfill is the dream of guilt-free hatred of the Other. And in our culture we get enough of that from TV news and the internet. 

Exception to (c): Shaun of the Dead, naturally.  

Wesley Hill:

It could be that what we have in Esther isn’t just a theology of divine providence and protection but also something like a doctrine of “the justification of the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5), God’s commitment to stand by God’s people when they’re at their covenant-keeping worst and see them through anyway. In this way, there may be more theology, not less, in what Dunne calls this most “secular” of biblical books. God not only intervenes; God intervenes precisely at the point when no human virtue or piety would compel him to do so, where the only hope is the sheer divine intention to bless, save, and protect, regardless of whether it’s acknowledged by the saved ones at all.

From my dear friend John Wilson:

Ever since I “discovered” book reviews, when I was in high school, I have been in love with this simple but infinitely flexible genre. Much of my adult life has been devoted to scouring publishers’ catalogues and other sources of information on forthcoming books, reviewing books myself and assigning them for review, editing reviews and seeing them into print, and of course reading thousands of reviews over the decades — a practice I will continue as long as I have my faculties. […] 

At the same time, I feel some reservations. When Nadya Williams invited me to lead off this series, she spoke of “the value/virtue of book reviews in this day and age,” and she added: “My thought is that we can encourage much more productive discussions about cultural crises using books than via provocative op-eds.” But I don’t want to encourage more discussion about “cultural crises”; in fact, I think much of our public conversation, across the ideological spectrum, is characterized by an obsessive focus on “cultural crises.” I’m not saying that these “crises” are simply manufactured (though certainly some of them are). Rather, I believe that endless talk about these crises characterizes public discourse to an unhealthy and extremely tedious degree. Of course, that is apparent not only in op-eds and essays and books claiming to unpack these “crises” but also in reviews. And yet the blessed range of reviewing ensures that such voices do not dominate. 

Amen to all this. But goodness, is it difficult to get many editors interested in books that aren’t somehow implicated in (or can somehow be shoehorned into) the American crisis discourse. 

Talia Barnes:

I traded my smartphone for a dumbphone to simplify my life. Then I revived my iPod. Then I bought a GPS. Then I bought a point-and-shoot camera.

You might wonder whether life is really simpler this way. Wouldn’t it be far more convenient to use a single device to accomplish all of these tasks?

Technically, yes. Psychologically, no. 

This is correct. 

From James Agee’s obituary for H. G. Wells in Time (Aug. 26, 1946): 

It was H. G. Wells’s tragedy that he lived long enough to have a second thought. All his life he had worked to warn and teach the human race and, within the limits of thought, to save it. At the end, he was forced to realize that his work and his hopes were vain; that either he or the human race were, somehow, dreadfully wrong. Characteristically, with the last of the valiant, innocent optimism which had always sustained him, he blamed it all on the human race.

Some people found his last bitter utterances offensive, even cracked. Others found them unbearably pathetic, for there is no anguish to compare with that of a man who has lived on a faith of any kind and found it wanting. H. G. Wells was such a man, a great pietistic writer, set on fire by reason, not by God; but in his era, among the most devoted, eloquent and honest.

doin thangs

Big bear 2

I haven’t written much over the years about what people call “productivity,” partly because I don’t have a lot to say. A few years ago I thought I would permanently be a Zettelkasten kind of guy, but then I discovered that I need different methods for different projects. But some things have remained constant: 

  1. I have two guiding principles
  2. My only task-management tool is a calendar; and 
  3. I use that calendar to schedule regular times for reviewing my notes and drafts. 

I haven’t written about that third one before, but it’s really the key ingredient. Many people think that having the right note-taking tool is essential to productivity, but I don’t. Sometimes I make notes on my computer in text files; sometimes I write in notebooks (of various kinds and sizes); sometimes I make voice notes on my phone. I just use whatever happens to be easiest at the moment — though when my mind is overfull I always sit down with a notebook and hand-write my thoughts for at least an hour. But I could probably do that with a voice note just as well. 

No, the tools don’t really matter to me, and I have learned not to fuss about them. What’s essential is scheduling time — I set aside an hour each Monday morning and a whole morning on or near the first of every month — to go over all of those notes and do a kind of self-assessment. I sit down with my notebook and my computer and ask: Where am I in my current projects? What did I accomplish last week? What do I need to think about further? Is there any research or reading I need to be doing? What should be my priorities this week (or this month)? That kind of thing.  

I could have the best note-taking system in the world and I’d still be lost if I didn’t have regular periods for review and reflection. 


Freddie deBoer:

Elite American colleges are already more racially diverse than the country writ large, but the perpetual cry is for more people of colour on campus. This is the source of the most persistent criticisms of the SAT. The broad claim about the SAT is that, since there are race and class disparities in SAT scores — white and Asian pupils score better than Hispanic and black, and rich better than poor — then the test must be discriminatory and should be abolished.

This is a bit like blaming seismographs for earthquakes. The SAT does not create inequality; the SAT reveals inequality.

Not a bit like blaming seismographs for earthquakes, almost exactly like that. (Also very much like trying to keep cases of Covid down by limiting testing.) 

I’ve said this before, but anyway: Administrators at elite American universities say they want to reduce race and class disparities in America, and let’s take them at their word (even though, as Freddie shows in that essay and elsewhere on his blog, there are actually good reasons for not taking them at their word). Adjusting their admissions policies won’t do that. It will help only a handful of people who are, for the most part, already ahead of the game. 

What they should do instead is devote a fraction of their enormous financial and intellectual resources to helping younger people out of poverty. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are not now what John Dewey intended them to be, and even Dewey’s original vision was far too politicized, but a more genuinely pedagogical version of that endeavor ought to be a model. Our elite universities ought to be asking themselves what they can do to help educate kids so that those kids can eventually do much better than they now do on the SAT and other standardized tests. Instead they want to toss out the tests that reveal the problems we face. 

In general — this is a broad statement, but I really do believe it’s true — all of our major social problems remain intractable largely because we we think we can somehow, magically, achieve “equality of outcomes” without finding out why the existing outcomes are so unequal, and therefore without considering how existing injustices might be ameliorated and future ones headed off. Denouncing unwelcome outcomes is cheap and easy; but there is no law more universally applicable than GIGO


Adam Roberts (yes, again):

My problem is not that [Miles Cameron’s Against All Gods] gets this or that specific historical detail or mood wrong; it’s that it doesn’t really engage with ‘history’ at all, despite pretending to do so. Its characters’ sensibilities are modern, its gods agents in the imagined world much as its mortals are — the gods are more powerful, though ‘power’ is rendered here only in terms of the ability to overbear, with violence or words — all potestas, nothing of auctoritas. There’s nothing in these gods of the numinous, the transcendent, nothing of the strange, the awe-inspiring, tarrying or resplendent. This is not a dimension that Cameron reproduces in his imagined Bronze Age; although for ‘actual’ Bronze Age human beings, in their porosity of subjectivity, it was a crucial and wondrous and terrifying aspect of existence. The characters go about their various plot-driven actions, and the storylines are punctuated by interludes of purely somatic intensity (the violence, the fighting, the sex) that do nothing to estrange, to capture or embody the wonder and strangeness of the past as such. 

Great post by Adam. I would just add that precisely the same problem afflicts most SF, which cosplays an imagined future as fantasy cosplays an imagined past (or past-like secondary world). As someone who has toyed with the idea of writing both fantasy and SF, I have always believed that this is the greatest challenge: How to avoid writing characters who are people exactly like me, only placed in a different natural, cultural, and technological environment? But people who are situated in radically different environments develop in wholly different ways: each Lebenswelt generates its own distinctive range of cultural and personal possibilities. Trying to imagine my way from (a) the possibilities, the options of mind and action, available to me in my Lebenswelt to (b) what someone formed in a radically different environment might experience … well, that’s astonishingly difficult. (Indeed, I have felt this challenge so strongly that I’ve never completed anything in either genre. The problem defeats me.) 

One writer who has attempted to think through these problems, though primarily in one novel and with one character, is C. S. Lewis. (He attempts a similar act of historical imagination in Till We Have Faces but without the explicit contrast to our own world.) The novel is That Hideous Strength and the character is Merlinus Ambrosius, who is awakened from 1500 years of sleep into mid-twentieth-century England and is puzzled by everything he sees. For instance: 

“Sir,” said Merlin in answer to the question which the Director had just asked him. “I give you great thanks. I cannot indeed understand the way you live and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it; a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone with no more honor than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there are warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.”  

The novel I think is flawed, but this is quite brilliant, and I wish the world of fiction had more like it. One reason there isn’t: Merlinus is to his modern interlocutors a thoroughly appalling character, who quite readily suggests that a woman who has not behaved in the way he thinks right should be beheaded, and then is befuddled by the response this opinion receives. (“The Pendragon tells me … that you accuse me for a fierce and cruel man. It is a charge I never heard before. A third part of my substance I gave to widows and poor men. I never sought the death of any but felons and heathen Saxons.”) And to create a character so alien to our readerly sensibilities is a risky thing for a storyteller to do; perhaps Lewis was wise to do this only with a minor character. 

After all — and here the imperatives of historical imagination may run contrary to the imperatives of good storytelling, readers do typically want to … well, we have different words for it: people used to say that they like to identify with characters, but now they’re more likely to say that they find characters relatable (or not). This is an impulse that I don’t wish to discourage: as Edward Mendelson says in his excellent book The Things That Matter, “A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.” But, I fear, the more seriously a writer takes this reaction the more constrained that writer will be in historical imagination. 

Jahan Ganesh

The controversies of the day expose a problem with the right and it isn’t corruption. It isn’t “sleaze”. It is the impossibility of chasing money and fighting the culture wars. [Nadhim] Zahawi is one person, but stands for millions of a conservative temper in each generation. They are entitled to choose lucrative work over a life in the institutions that set the cultural weather. They are entitled to deplore the success of the left in bending those institutions to their dogma. What is neither honest nor becoming is to do both: to forfeit terrain and then seethe at its capture by hostile elements. […] 

Some conservatives have rationalised this discrepancy between electoral triumph and cultural retreat as a kind of leftwing swindle. Or, worse, as proof of democracy’s futility. Their own complicity is lost on them. There are Republicans who can’t believe how leftwing universities are and also can’t believe that anyone would ever choose the unlucrative life of an academic. At some point, you’d hope, the irony will dawn on them. 

(Via Andrew Wilson) 


Peter Gray:

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people became concerned about the ill effects of child labor on children’s development and wellbeing, and laws were passed to ban it. But now we have school, expanded to such a degree that is it equivalent to a full-time job—a psychologically stressful, sedentary full-time job, for which the child is not paid and does not gain the sense of independence and pride that can come from a real job.

Elsewhere … I have presented evidence that children, especially teenagers, are less happy in school than in any other setting where they regularly find themselves and that increased schooling, coupled with decreased freedom outside of school, correlates, over decades, with sharply increased rates of psychiatric disorders in young people, including major depression and anxiety disorders. 

I came across this 2014 piece via Ed West, and it really does make me think — as it has made others think — that Covidtide has given us a great opportunity to rethink what school is for and who should be in it. But the entrenched assumptions are so strong that I don’t think we’re taking that opportunity. 

Doesn’t it seem to be true — and obviously true — that this kind of inertia is a function of a massively bureaucratic and administrative social order? An anarchist, or at least relatively-more-anarchistic, society would be more agile, more adaptive. I’m becoming more of an anarchist by the day

weapons and separations

Adam Roberts:

But the thing that struck me is the way Gandalf comes back invulnerable. The last we see of Gandalf the Grey he is complaining that he is tired (‘what an evil fortune! And I am already weary’ [348]). Now he has almost limitless energy — when the four of them ride all day and all night across Rohan, Gandalf permits them only ‘a few hours rest’…. Not only does he not need sleep, he cannot be harmed by weapons: ‘Indeed, my friends,’ he tells his companions: ‘none of you have any weapon that could hurt me’ [516]. This carries with it the suggestion that all Gandalf’s subsequent battlefield galivanting with Glamdring is a kind of play-acting: for he can no more be slain than could Milton’s Satan. 

Adam is rarely wrong, as I’m sure he will confirm, but I think he’s wrong here. There’s a big difference between “none of you have any weapon that could hurt me” and “no weapon of any kind can hurt me.” Later he is openly uncertain whether he is a match for the Lord of the Nazgul — why couldn’t that encounter at least potentially end in his death again? I suspect that Adam thinks (confirm this for me, friend) that Gandalf could himself be transformed into a wraith, but if that’s what he’s in danger of, I suspect that Tolkien would have him say so.

But that’s just a suspicion — I’m not sure what could befall Gandalf. I just don’t believe we can say that he is “invulnerable” in any sense of that word I know. 

(By the way, in the movie of RotK, when Gandalf finally does confront that antagonist, Peter Jackson makes one of his very worst mistakes by having the Boss Wraith instantly destroy Gandalf’s staff, thus demonstrating absolute dominance over the wizard. It’s impossible to imagine that Gandalf, who has returned from death to fulfill his role as the Enemy of Sauron, could be utterly helpless before one of Sauron’s servants. Jackson then compounds the error by having the Wraith distracted from Gandalf by events on the battlefield: he immediately flies away rather than pausing for the four seconds it would clearly take him to destroy the staffless wizard whom he knows to be the leader of the rebels against the Dark Lord. It’s such a dumb scene.) 

I’m ignoring the main topics of Adam’s post, but I cherish that as my right. One further thing though: At the end Adam discusses Eomer’s complete ignorance of the existence of Lothlorien, though it’s almost on his borders. I wonder if this is meant to be an illustration in small of a more general phenomenon: the separation of the various peoples of Middle Earth, their withdrawal into “gated communities” with a consequent xenophobia. The leaders of Gondor are largely ignorant, and when not ignorant suspicious, of natural allies like the people of Rivendell; the boundaries of Lothlorien are closely guarded; the people of Bree rarely see travelers from the Shire; the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain don’t even know what has become of their kinsman Balin — and don’t seem especially interested, though they are curious. (How far is it from the Lonely Mountain to Moria? Maybe 600 miles? A goodly distance, but people in these books make such journeys fairly regularly.) We are often reminded that what’s called the Last Alliance of Men and Elves occurred thousands of years before the events of this book. The whole world seems to be afflicted by a mistrust of everyone except those who are definitively One’s Own People. There can be good reasons for mistrust, mind you, but not all of these folks act on good reasons. 

more, please

Ah, here it is: the musical equivalent of ChatGPT. Cool. I want to see more of this. I’ve written before — see the links here — about the ways that musicians have been forced into more inflexibly formulaic compositions and performances. Given the way that the music industry thinks today, who needs musicians? If you want the inflexibly formulaic, computers do that better than humans.

My advice to the big music labels: Cut out the middleman (i.e. the musicians). 

My advice to musicians and people who love actual music: Check out Bandcamp

The Media Very Rarely Lies – by Scott Alexander:

Suppose Infowars claimed that police shootings in the US cannot be racially motivated, because police shoot slightly more white people each year than black people (this is true). This is missing important context: there are ~5x as many white people in the US as black people, so police shooting only slightly more white people suggests that police are shooting black people at ~5x higher rates. But I claim it’s also a failure of contextualization when NYT claims police shootings must be racially motivated because they happen to black people at a 5x higher rate, without adding the context that police are called to black neighborhoods at about a 5x higher rate and so have no more likelihood per encounter of shooting a black person than a white person. Perhaps the failure to add context is an honest mistake, perhaps a devious plot to manipulate the populace — but the two cases stand or fall together with each other, and with other failures of contextualization like Infowars’ vaccine adverse response data.

But lots of people seem to think that Infowars deserves to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse vaccine data claim, but NYT doesn’t deserve to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse police shooting claim. I don’t see a huge difference in the level of deceptiveness here. Maybe you disagree and do think that one is worse than the other. But I would argue this is honest disagreement — exactly the sort of disagreement that needs to be resolved by the marketplace of ideas, rather than by there being some easy objective definition of “enough context” which a censor can interpret mechanically in some fair, value-neutral way. 

I think the difference between Infowars and The New York Times is fairly clear. Because Infowars only covers issues that its editors and readers are exercised about, its stories are reliably dishonest. By contrast, the Times covers a much broader range of stories. When those stories don’t touch on the deep prejudices of the newspaper’s staff and readers, then they can usually be trusted; but on the hot-button issues, the Times is no more trustworthy than Infowars. 


In his brilliant book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey spends a good deal of time trying to account for the depth and intensity of the hatred of Tolkien among the literati. Many of his points are worthy, but I am especially drawn to something he writes near the end of the book, which he is comparing Tolkien to James Joyce — and there are indeed some interesting points of comparison, for instance in the generic forms their great ambitions take and their fascination with language. But of course there are huge differences as well, and Shippey focuses on one of the most important when he notes their radically different attitudes towards the classical tradition. 

Shippey points out that much Modernist writing depends heavily on literary allusion, and especially allusion to the literary inheritance of Greece and Rome. Ulysses is the obvious example here, followed closely by Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Joyce refers occasionally to Irish myth and legend, and Eliot quotes the Upanishads, but those references are not central; if you really want to get to the heart of those texts, you must know Odysseus and Tiresias. (Shakespeare too.) Even Yeats, for all of his invocations of Irish legend, expects his readers to know about Leda and the swan and to grasp the significance of the death of Agamemnon. The essential works of the classical tradition are the lingua franca for the most ambitious and demanding writers in English-language Modernism. (As they were for Milton, who effectively defines ambition for so many writers that follow him.) 

Tolkien doesn’t care about any of this.

He alludes frequently to works of what he regarded as his own tradition, the ‘Shire tradition’ of native English poetry…. Tolkien’s heroes and his major debts came from the native and Northern tradition which Milton never knew and Eliot ignored: Beowulf, Sir Gawain, Sigurd, the Eddic gods — a tradition seen by most modernists as literally barbarous (the possession of people who speak incomprehensible languages). 

In brief, “Tolkien was as educated as [the literati] were, but in a different school.” 

Educated in a different school. And the key point here — Shippey hints at this, but is not quite as explicit as he might have been — is that Tolkien never expects his readers to know any of what he knows. To fully appreciate Ulysses you need to know the Odyssey, but the reader of The Hobbit need not be aware of Snorri Sturluson’s “Tally of the Dwarves” in his Skaldskaparmál:

Nár, Nainn, Nipingr, Dainn,

Bifur, Báfur, Bömbur, Nóri,

Órinn, Onarr, inn, Miöð̠vitnir,

Vigr og Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Þorinn,

Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Váli … 

Indeed, perhaps it is better if we don’t know, at least not until after we’ve read and enjoyed the story. Similarly, it is certainly interesting to note that the exchange between Gandalf & Co. and Háma, the Doorward of Théoden, in The Two Towers is nearly identical to an early scene in Beowulf — but Tolkien doesn’t expect you to know that and your appreciation of the scene isn’t diminished if you don’t. 

The great Modernist writers have a tendency to flatter their learned readers and disdain the others; they are in many respects principially elitist. (As has often been noted, Leopold Bloom is Joyce’s hero but he couldn’t have read Joyce’s book about him.) There’s none of this in Tolkien; the astonishing range of allusions to medieval writing in The Lord of the Rings is certainly meant to provide a kind of felt (not directly perceived) coherence to the reader — Shippey is great on this — but its primary purpose is to satisfy Tolkien’s own imaginative needs. There was, I think, something creatively liberating about having been educated in a school — Germanic and Anglo-Saxon philology — that virtually none of his readers ever attended. 

I’m not crazy about David French’s going to the NYT, because I think we need more excellent writers — and David is an excellent writer — outside the orbit of the Big Media. I guess the upside is that he’ll find some new readers. Still, no real credit to the NYT here. Over the past few years they’ve hired a fairly wide range of opinion columnists, but they suffer from a lamentable shortage of reporters who will discover and report truths that the Times’s audience doesn’t want to hear. Hiring David French is nothing; hiring Matt Taibbi or Chris Arnade would be something. 

the end of the timeline era

Glenn Fleishman:

With Mastodon, you’re not dealing with a giant, faceless company — or a constantly in-your-face CEO — making arbitrary decisions that are often impossible to understand or appeal. Instead, you join a Mastodon server — called an


— run by an individual, company, or organization.

An individual, company, or organization equally free to make arbitrary decisions that are often impossible to understand or appeal. In a related article Fleishman writes,

Each Fediverse instance is its own Little Prince world that can choose to engage with other servers through federation, the interchange of information stored locally with other servers remotely. There’s no one in charge and no single place to go for definitive truth about the network.

“There’s no one in charge” on Mastodon-as-such, because Mastodon-as-such is just some open-source software, but there is very definitely someone in charge on any instance you join, and whoever that is can ban you any time for any reason or none. You can only escape that by creating your own instance of Mastodon, which possibly 0.01% of its users have the chops and resources to do.

Mastodon has certain virtues, at least for some, but let’s not attribute to it powers it does not have. In almost every respect Mastodon functions precisely as Twitter did, with, as I have said before, every single one of Twitter’s perverse incentives. And if you’re not running your own instance you’re not one whit less vulnerable than you were in Elon World.

People who are tempted by Mastodon should at least consider this from Luke: “I’m on Mastodon, but I’m bored of what I call ‘the timeline era.’ Scanning an unending stream of disconnected posts for topics of interest is no longer fun, I prefer deciding what to read based on titles, or topic-based discussion.” There are more things on the internet, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your timeline. And off the internet: far, far more.

note to self

Repair begins with redirection. Commencing the repair of our cultural ecosphere by shifting attention to neglected things. 

Focal practiceshypomene ➡ the good work of repair

Or: shun the smooth things, get back to the rough ground. But rough ground must be thoroughly prepared for the seeds you want to sow. Only then can roots grow deep. We want food; we’re hungry; our temptation is to scatter the seed blindly and hope for the best. But that’s a recipe for failure. 

What are the focal practices of the wise sower, the responsible gardener? 

Wendell Berry, from “Standing by Words”: 

As industrial technology advances and enlarges, and in the process assumes greater social, economic, and political force, it carries people away from where they belong by history, culture, deeds, association, and affection. And it destroys the landmarks by which they might return. Often it destroys the nature or the character of the places they have left. The very possibility of a practical connection between thought, and the world is thus destroyed. Culture is driven into the mind, where it cannot be preserved. 

Dunsany’s games

In the class I’m currently teaching on fantasy, we are moving from George MacDonald’s Phantastes to Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. Phantastes is a classic quest romance, with the added dimension, as Harold Bloom pointed out in a justly famous early essay, that in Romantic and post-Romantic narrative any quest will be primarily an internal one, a psychological or spiritual searching.  

More critics than I can readily count have said that Dunsany is the father of modern fantasy, but it’s very interesting in light of that claim to see how frequently he subverts the expectations of fantasy in all of its forms. For instance … well, why don’t you take just a few minutes now and read a very short story of his called “The Hoard of the Gibbelins”? I’ll wait.

See what he did there? One of the things that we always hear in quest romances, and in other forms of fantasy, is that the protagonist of our story is striving to succeed in an endeavor which many before him have unsuccessfully attempted. Our interest, then, in this protagonist is closely related to our belief that he will indeed succeed in his quest. But the protagonist of “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” does not succeed. It’s very shrewdly and wittily done.  

Interestingly enough, the protagonist of that story has almost exactly the same name (Alderic) as the protagonist of The King of Elfland’s Daughter (Alveric). And that might suggest to us that Dunsany wants to play with the conventions and expectations of his chosen genre in that novel as well. Let’s take a look.

In the first chapter, the prince Alveric is given a task, a great Quest to pursue, and … he completes the quest by the end of chapter 3. The story has barely started, and it seems to be over. What that tells us is that Dunsany isn’t actually interested in Quest, at least not in any conventional way, and perhaps, at this point, we should remember that the name of this novel is not The Quest of Prince Alveric but rather The King of Elfland’s Daughter and revise our expectations in light of that title.   

Some of you will know that long ago a scholar named A. J. Greimas – the OG Ayjay, as it were – declared that all stories are comprised of what he called actants. There were six of these, in three pairs: subject/object, sender/receiver, helper/opponent. In a standard quest romance, the Quester, however odd or ambiguous his quest, is always the subject. Thus our interest in Phantastes is always what happens to Anodos; we see the world through his eyes. 

But in Dunsany’s novel things are different. One could say that in the first three chapters of the story, Alveric is the subject, the persons and things of Elfland as the objects, and various figures are helpers or opponents. The primary opponent seems to be the King of Elfland, the primary helper the witch Ziroonderel. But after the completion of his quest, Alveric recedes from the novel for quite some time and the focus moves elsewhere, primarily to the denizens of Elfland. At this point, we would do better to think of the subject of the story as Lirazel and the objects of the story as the things of our world – what Dunsany typically calls “the fields we know” –; and then we might see her husband, her son, and her father as helpers or opponents of hers. In MacDonald’s work women are almost always the helpers or opponents of men; but Lirazel is much more than that even if we can’t quite see her as in any simple sense the protagonist of the story.

It’s a very curious novel with shifting perspectives, and continual reminders that the understanding of one world is never to be given priority over the understanding of another, nor is the understanding of one character to be definitive for the readers. It’s full of sly subversions of the tropes of fantasy, often presented en passant. For instance, there’s a delightful little moment when a troll from Elfland comes to our world on his own Quest, happens to encounter a child, and suggests that perhaps the child would want to go to Elfland — from which, as we know from our fairy tales, she would never return. The child mulls the offer for a moment and then declines, because her mother has made her a jam roll and she wants to eat it. So nothing happens. The troll goes on about his business. 

But we haven’t yet talked about senders and receivers. Here too Dunsany complicates things. At the outset the King of Erl sends his son Alveric to Elfland, and Elfland quite reluctantly receives him. But from that point on we are treated to a series of sendings and receivings, characters moving back and forth between Elfland and the fields we know, Elfland itself contracting and expanding — but hovering over it all are the three great runes of the King of Elfland: the magic he can send forth in power that no one can contest or deflect. The whole story builds to a final sending, a conclusive receiving. 

It is a very strange book — it gets stranger the more you think about it — and is, I believe, a genuine masterpiece.