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The Homebound Symphony

Stagger onward rejoicing

Archives (page 3 of 161)

Pope Francis Allows Priests to Bless Same-Sex Couples – The New York Times:

But the new rule made clear that a blessing of a same-sex couple was not the same as a marriage sacrament, a formal ceremonial rite. It also stressed that it was not blessing the relationship, and that, to avoid confusion, blessings should not be imparted during or connected to the ceremony of a civil or same-sex union, or when there are “any clothing, gestures or words that are proper to a wedding.” 

What does it mean to bless a couple without blessing that couple’s relationship? Millions of words will be expended in the coming months to try to explain this, but I can guarantee that none of them will make sense. The Pope has put his church in a completely untenable, incoherent, radically unstable position. From here it will have to go back to the traditional teaching or ahead to something wholly unprecedented. And I can’t imagine a retreat, not by this Pope. 

Francis has not spoken ex cathedra here — this is not like, for instance, Munificentissimus Deus. But it’s a big thing, and if the incoherence is rectified by further acceptance of same-sex unions, then some really fancy theological dancing will have to be performed to avoid having to admit that the historic dogma on sex and marriage was simply wrong. And if a future Pope walks this back, then a similarly complicated dance will have to be done to reconcile the repudiation of Francis’s teaching with the dogma that the Pope is guided and directed by the Holy Spirit even when making ordinary — not ex cathedra — arguments and policies. It’s hard to see how historic Catholic teaching on marriage and historic Catholic teaching on papal authority can emerge unscathed from this.  

Is Francis now the most consequential pope in the history of Roman Catholicism? I am inclined to say Yes. 

cost-benefit

Carolyn Dever, writing about the ransomware attack on the British Library:

We’re past the days of card catalogs, alas: the modern library has long since converted to digital recordkeeping. What this means is that readers request books electronically, and the institution charts those books’ locations electronically, too. If I wanted to see what I had been working on last summer or a decade ago, I could look up my own user record to confirm. Well, I can’t do this right now, but researchers have taken this capacity for granted for a long time. If librarians wanted to see who’d laid hands on a certain volume of Michael Field’s diary, or on the manuscripts or earliest published work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, the Brontës, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and so many more writers familiar today and others languishing,  awaiting rediscovery, presumably they could, with a simple request within a digital file. Most importantly, if I wanted to request to see a specific book, I could look it up electronically, and then ask the librarians to find the physical copy.

Until Halloween, 2023, that is.

How ironic that the most quaintly analog form of research possible, using physical books in a physical library, has been devastated by the hijacking of a digital system. I am experiencing this irony as especially bitter this morning, having arrived at desk 1086 with my list of tasks, hoping against hope that the crisis had resolved. It hadn’t. I hope it will someday soon. 

The books and manuscripts are there, the staff are there, the scholars are there — but the research can’t be done, because without the digital cataloging system there’s no way to access the materials. 

There was a period in the Nineties (mainly), when libraries were gradually converting their systems from analog to digital, when you could use either system — though there were always warnings that not everything had been entered into the computer databases. Then, later, the warnings were that newer acquisitions were not to be found in the card catalog. 

I had very mixed feelings about all this. In the mid-Nineties I was regularly using telnet to scan the holdings of libraries around the world, and that seemed miraculous to me. (In those years I led several summer study programs that were housed at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and I could find out in advance which of the books I needed were available at St. Anne’s, at the other Oxford colleges, and at the Bodleian — though access to the Bodleian was hard for outsiders to get in those days.) On the other hand, I loved looking through card catalogs for the same reason I loved browsing the stacks: serendipity. I accepted the end of the card-catalog system, but with regrets. 

In every library I regularly used, for some years after the system had gone fully digital the cabinets holding the cards stayed around. There had always been, sitting on those cabinets, pencils and sheets of paper on which you could write the call numbers you needed, but those had been taken away — oddly, because you could use them in exactly the same way you did before to find older books. But we were all being nudged towards the computer terminals. Eventually the cabinets were taken away and replaced by comfy chairs. The smaller cabinets are now widely available on eBay. 

words, words, words

Many of our arguments are fruitless because we don’t know the meaning of the words we use. And we don’t know the meaning of the words we use because meaning is not a property of language that our culture thinks important. In common usage, especially on social media, words are passwords, shibboleths — they are not employed to convey any substantive meaning but to mark identity. You use the words that people you want to associate yourself with use; it doesn’t go any further than that. If they call Israel an example of “colonialism,” then you will too, regardless of the appropriateness of the word. 

For this reason, my frequent inquiries into the words and phrases people rely on as identity markers are probably the most useless things I write. But I keep writing them in the hope that at least a few readers will realize that they don’t have to accept the language that is most widely used, that they are free to use other words, or to ask other people what, specifically, they mean by the words they rely on. 

In How to Think I conducted such an inquiry into the phrase “think for yourself.” 

A while back on this blog, I tried to understand what people mean when they denounce “critical theory” — and “critical race theory” as well. 

In a recent essay in Comment I ask whether people know what they mean when they use the word “gender.” 

And today I’ve posted a short essay at the Hog Blog in which I suggest that the term “self-censorship” is incoherent and inappropriate. 

Those are just a few examples; I could cite a hundred. I keep doing this kind of thing, fruitless as it sometimes feels, because if even a few people disrupt the thoughtless recycling of automatic phrases, some of our shouting contests could become actual arguments. And that would be a win. 

multiple social diseases

18 Warning Signs of a Deadly New Lifestyle – by Ted Gioia: — but they’re not all symptoms of the same disorder — or anyhow not in the same way.

“Anthropophobia — the fear of other people — is on the rise” is the chief theme, and “Time spent alone is rising for all demographic groups” and “People no longer build friendships” are related phenomena. But others may reflect quite different motives and concerns.

For instance: “After centuries of intense urbanism, more people now want to live in the country — away from bustling cities, suburbs, or even small towns.” This could be a symptom of anthropohobia, but it also could arise from a desire to reconnect with the natural world, a world our social order hopes to make irrelevant. (“Why move to the country when you can watch this YouTube video of snow falling in a wilderness cabin? — and without ads for a nominal monthly fee!”) So a desire to move to the country might be related to a settled and well-earned suspicion of Technopoly’s ability to meet all our needs.

(I know some folks who left big cities for small towns or the countryside during Covid and now couldn’t be brought back at gunpoint — and it’s not because they dislike people. They meet fewer people in the course of any given day, but the ones they know they know better, more meaningfully, than they knew the people they saw on a daily basis in the city.)

And: “Even humanities professors don’t want to deal with human beings.” The essay that Ted links to discusses, among other things, the difficulty that editors of academic journals have in getting peer reviewers for the submissions they receive. Until fairly recently, here’s how that worked: A journal editor wrote to me and asked me to review a manuscript. If I said yes, he sent me the manuscript and I wrote back with my thoughts. But now? An editor writes to me, tells me that he or she has taken the liberty of assigning me a username and a password at a website that manages a “reviewer database,” and at which I may fill out various forms and click various checkboxes on my way to providing a review that meets certain pre-specified criteria.

To that I say: Oh hell no. And my refusal is the opposite of not wanting “to deal with human beings”; it’s my declining to accept a transaction from which the humanity has been surgically removed by robots.

(Also: Why do editors have recourse to such semi-automated systems? Because they get so many submissions. Why do they get so many submissions? Because publish-or-perish is still the core principle of academic employment, and in an ever-shrinking academic job market humanities professors are cranking out scholarly articles at an unprecedented pace to try to make themselves viable candidates for the tiny handful of jobs still available. The real problem lies far, far upstream of my refusal to become another entry in someone’s database.)

So the various examples that Ted gives of this “deadly new lifestyle” point in varying and in some cases opposite directions. Some of these developments show people succumbing to Technopoly; others involve resistance to Technopoly. And that’s a big difference.

repair as scapegoat

Matt Crawford:

Superficially, litter and the rusting carcasses of salvaged cars are both an affront to the eye. But while litter exemplifies that lack of stewardship that is the ethical core of a throwaway society, the visible presence of old cars represents quite the opposite. Yet these are easily conflated under the environmentalist aesthetic, and the result has been to impart a heightened moral status to Americans’ prejudice against the old, now dignified as an expression of civic responsibility.

Repair stigmatized as an affront to aesthetic sensibilities. Who makes bank from that?

Later in the essay, Matt writes:

Among the sacrifices demanded by the new gods may be your ten year old car that gets 35 MPG, requires zero new manufacturing (with its associated environmental costs), and may be good for another ten years. As Rene Girard points out, ritual violence is usually directed against a scapegoat who is in fact innocent, onto whom the sins of the community are transferred. In our pagan society of progress, it seems anything old and serviceable can serve this role.

Yep. Just the other day, responding to another post by Matt, I said that I want to keep my own 10-year-old car for another ten years. We’ll see whether I can hold out.

art for humanity’s sake

Daniel Walden:

Criticism of this kind is a misuse of learning to muddle discussion for the sake of scoring points rather than to clarify it for a curious public. There is plenty of intelligent and reasonable criticism of Wilson’s work to be had from people who know the poems well — the Bryn Mawr Classical Review was positive but not uncritical, and I myself think her choices at Odyssey 15.365 were the wrong ones — and there is no need to give credence to people who consider their own desire for attention an adequate substitute for the knowledge and consideration that must attend real critical judgment.

This is well said. To almost everyone writing about art today I want to say: Dragging every scholar, every critic, every translator, every artist, every artwork before the bar of your political tribunal might, just conceivably, not be the only or even the best thing you can do when confronted by a work of art. 

I don’t think we’ve ever needed genuine works of art — imaginative creations that press us to see the world in larger or at least different ways than our standard everyday media-navigation categories allow — more than we do now. But our current resources are few, because of the ways the major art-related organizations have lost any discernible sense of purpose. They are merely reactive to social-media pressure. Examples: 

In light of these developments I’ve come to believe that the most important thing I can do here on this blog is to write about art as art — which is not to say that art lacks political purposes and implications. Often it is powerfully political. But no artwork worthy of our attention approaches politics the way that journalists and people on X do, as a matter of checking the right boxes to avoid exclusion from the Inner Ring. One thing good art always does is to remind us that our experience is dramatically larger than our quotidian political categories suggest. We are unfinalizable; we sprawl. The failure to recognize that is a terrible disease of the intellect

I am finished — not altogether, but largely, I think — with political and cultural disputation. I want to write about works of art that transcend the box-checking, that thwart easy dismissals, that shake us up. And if the current art scene doesn’t offer any of that, then I can always continue to break bread with the dead

exam time!

I often give my students take-home exams that ask them to explicate (give a close reading of) passages from books we are reading. They are asked to identify the passage, place it within the context of the work it is taken from, and then explain what it’s doing. It’s an old-fashioned kind of assignment, hearkening back to the days of the New Criticism, but the emphasis in Baylor’s Great Texts program, like that of the University of Chicago programs on which it is based, is on careful reading of primary texts; and even if this were not so, there’s a lot to be said in this ideological age — an age in which people believe the point of a university is to provide a venue for the declaiming of positions you already hold — there’s great value in requiring students to dig into the details of one small chunk of text and really read it.  

Here are the texts for an exam I’ve just handed out. 


PASSAGE 1

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune: here independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany); there taxable “third estate” of the monarchy (as in France); afterwards, in the period of manufacturing proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. 

 

PASSAGE 2

— The slave revolt in morals begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and ordains values: the ressentiment of creatures to whom the real reaction, that of the deed, is denied and who find compensation in an imaginary revenge. While all noble morality grows from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says no to an ‘outside’, to an ‘other’, to a ‘non-self: and this no is its creative act. The reversal of the evaluating gaze — this necessary orientation outwards rather than inwards to the self — belongs characteristically to ressentiment. In order to exist at all, slave morality from the outset always needs an opposing, outer world; in physiological terms, it needs external stimuli in order to act — its action is fundamentally reaction. The opposite is the case with the aristocratic mode of evaluation: this acts and grows spontaneously, it only seeks out its antithesis in order to affirm itself more thankfully and more joyfully. Its negative concept, ‘low’, ‘common’, ‘bad’, is only a derived, pale contrast to its positive basic concept which is thoroughly steeped in life and passion — ‘we the noble, we the good, we the beautiful, we the happy ones!’ If the aristocratic mode of evaluation errs and sins against reality, this happens in relation to the sphere with which it is not sufficiently familiar, and against real knowledge of which it stubbornly defends itself: it misjudges on occasion the sphere it despises — that of the common man, of the lower people. 

 

PASSAGE 3

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life — that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches. And though our life in this manifestation often turns out to be a bit of trash, still it is life and not just the extraction of a square root. I, for example, quite naturally want to live so as to satisfy my whole capacity for living, and not so as to satisfy just my reasoning capacity alone, which is some twentieth part of my whole capacity for living. What does reason know? Reason knows only what it has managed to learn (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is no consolation, but why not say it anyway?), while human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives. I suspect, gentlemen, that you are looking at me with pity; you repeat to me that an enlightened and developed man, such, in short, as the future man will be, simply cannot knowingly want anything unprofitable for himself, that this is mathematics. I agree completely, it is indeed mathematics. But I repeat to you for the hundredth time, there is only one case, one only, when man may purposely, consciously wish for himself even the harmful, the stupid, even what is stupidest of all: namely, so as to have the right to wish for himself even what is stupidest of all and not be bound by an obligation to wish for himself only what is intelligent.

self-repair

Michael Torevell, News of Great Joy, mixed media and digital painting, 2022 

Rowan Williams:

The basic form of the sin from which we need to be delivered is the myth of self-sufficiency. The diabolical urge that destroys our well-being again and again is the temptation to think of ourselves as somehow able to set our own agenda in isolation, and the greatest and most toxic paradox that results is that we become isolated from our own selves. We don’t and can’t know what we are as participants in the symphonic whole, and so we block off or screen out the life we need to receive, refusing to share the life we need to give. We live shrunken, hectic, short-term lives, stuck in futile conflicts and vacuous rivalries. We refine our skill at identifying other human lives, as well as the entire nonhuman environment, as competitors for space, forces that will, left to themselves, diminish rather than enrich us. We need to be healed from this habitual screening-out.

This means that the “repair” involved in Christ’s coming in flesh is a repair of our relation to ourselves.

This Plough issue on Repair is really wonderful. I expect I will post on other essays from it.

brokenism

Everything is Broken,” Alana Newhouse wrote in an essay that I see quoted all the time. But of course when you look into the essay and into other essays that quote it approvingly, you come to understand that by “everything” they don’t mean everything, and by “broken” they don’t mean broken. They mean something like “Our dominant political and cultural institutions don’t function nearly as well as they should.” But that doesn’t sound as interesting, does it? “Everything is broken” is not a defined claim; still less is it an argument. It’s a cry of frustration. 

Matthew Crawford on a broken tail light that cost $5600 to repair:

On this particular luxury pickup truck, moisture in the tail light caused the usual corrosion, making resistance on the circuit go out of range. This circuit is in communication with many other circuits, so electrical gremlins propagated (probably reading as ground faults) and eventually the truck was completely dead. At this stage, identifying the root cause of the breakdown was no trivial task. But most of the $5,600 charge for getting the truck running was for parts confined to the tail-light housing, not the diagnostic and parts-swapping labor. Commenting on this case, another YouTube mechanic named Uncle Tony points out that salvage yards are full of recent model cars that are in great shape — mechanically sound and rust-free, with good interiors and good paint — but underwater on repair costs due to electronic complexity. 

Presumably the carmakers want us to realize that (a) we can’t repair our cars ourselves, (b) can’t afford to have them repair our cars, and (c) therefore must buy a new car from them — just because of a broken tail light. 

I’m gonna do my best to keep my 10-year-old car for another ten years. 

Future Mann

I don’t know how many people read my recent series of posts on Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers — but then, I don’t know how many people read any of my posts, because I don’t have analytics enabled on this site. I always write under the assumption that I have somewhere between 40 and 50 readers. Anyway, I have been reading much more by and about Thomas Mann, focusing especially on the decade he lived in America — the 1940s, more or less — and have been fascinated by the ways that that period of Mann’s life, and what he wrote and spoke in those years, connects with the major themes of my own writing. So I will be returning to Herr Mann.

But not immediately. I have classes to finish, and then between now and the end of January I’ll be trying to finish a draft of my “biography” of Paradise Lost. So I’ll be setting aside my work on Mann in the interests of Getting Things Done, and in the coming weeks blogging will be inconsistent and desultory, though there will be, as always, a drizzle of links and images at my micro.blog page.

bring back the blog

Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, when I was still on Twitter. I was misquoted there. I’m probably still being misquoted there, but I don’t have an account any more, so I can’t be sure. Anyway: people regularly attributed to me this statement: “The internet is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” In fact, I never said that or wrote that. (It would never have been true anyway that the internet was the friend of information.) But I did say something rather like that, though using a word that in the intervening almost-two-decades has disappeared: in an essay for the late, lamented Books & Culture, I wrote, “Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.”

The blogosphere?

Yeah. It was a word, I didn’t make it up. The blogosphere, at least as I used the term in that essay, had two major aspects. First, in those days before social media, there were bloggers – some professional, some amateur – who used their blogs the way that many people would later use Twitter: they blogged all day every day. Two of the most famous bloggers of that era were Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds (AKA Instapundit), and while Sullivan eventually took a different tack, and came to lament the effects of such constant rapid-fire posting on his mental and physical health, instapundit.com is still cranking out the posts, though not all of them are by Glenn Reynolds. I am writing these words a little after 2pm on an ordinary Monday, and a quick check informs me that there have been 52 posts so far today.

The second element of the blogosphere was: comments. Almost every big blog had a robust, not to say mob-like, comments section, and while many of us tend to think that comments were killed by social media, most of those 52 Instapundit posts from today have more than 100 comments, and an Open Thread post that went up last night has 1723 comments and counting. (“Whatever happened to Camel Jockey?” one commenter asks. “He just quit posting.” Apparently he’s one of the few.) And while many of the old-school blogs are dead and gone, a surprising number of them remain active, and still have a multitude of commenters. In turns out that social media did not kill blogs, but just co-opted the discourse about blogs. Once journalists got addicted to Twitter, they stopped paying attention to what was happening elsewhere — but that didn’t stop it from happening.

So when I wrote about the blogosphere I meant these two things: rapid-fire hour-by-hour posting coupled with lots of comments. And my point, in making that statement so often misquoted, was simply that you could get a great deal of information from those bloggers – Sullivan and Reynolds in those days rarely linked to fake news – but because the pace was so fast, because the bloggers and their commenters alike were responding so quickly to so many stories, there was no time to think.

I wrote that little essay at almost exactly the moment that Twitter went public. Soon thereafter (I signed up for Twitter in March of 2007) I learned more than I had ever thought it was possible to know about responding without thinking. The blogosphere was, though I didn’t know it in 2006, the least of our worries.

But of course, not all blogs belonged to the blogosphere, as I was using the term in that essay. The original blogs, or “web logs,” were just lists of links to interesting things a person had found on the nascent internet. But then – especially after the creation of the Movable Type web publishing software in 2001 – the blog became, for many people, especially those who didn’t aspire to journalism, a kind of online diary or journal. And while I don’t want to bring back the blogosphere, I definitely want to bring back the blog.

Now that the white-hot fire of Twitter is burning itself out, and its various alternatives (Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon) are generating merely gentle (or sputtering) flames, and TikTok (which is not a social-media site in any meaningful sense but rather a media-consumption platform) is still going nova, this is the time for people to rediscover the pleasures of blogging – of writing at whatever length you want, and posting photos, and embedding videos, and linking to music playlists, all on your little corner of the internet.

Let’s bring back the blog. And leave all the bad things spawned by the blogosphere to social media, where they belong. 

a Beatly note

One of the many provocative (or brilliant) (or crazy) assertions Ian MacDonald makes is his Revolution in the Head concerns the relationship between the personnel of a band and the band’s songwriting. MacDonald’s entry on “Helter Skelter” begins thus: 

The ‘heavy metal’ idiom of the Seventies originated in the mid-Sixties switch from the low-volume standard pop four-piece to the vastly amplified rock ‘power trio’, a format change in which the redundant rhythm guitarist was replaced by turning up the bass, close-miking the drums, and adding a range of signal-distortion effects to the lead guitar. Led by groups like The Who, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, this move was, to some extent, an inevitable consequence of bigger and better amps and speakers designed for larger and more remunerative venues. Yet the loss of the craft of the rhythm guitarist was soon felt in a degradation of texture and a decline in overall musical subtlety. Rhythm guitarists were usually songwriters, and the variety of articulation and accenting techniques they used also shaped their compositions. The average power trio, lacking such a musical brain, was in effect an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise. 

Is this claim true? Even though I’ve thought about it a lot since I’ve first read it, I’m still not sure. But here’s an interesting data point. In his biography of John Lennon, Philip Norman quotes George Martin on how different John and Paul were in their songwriting practices:

“Paul would think of a tune and then think ‘What words can I put to it?’ John tended to develop his melodies as the thing went along. Generally he built up a song on a structure of chords which he would ramble and find on his guitar until he had an interesting sequence. After that, the words were more important than anything else. They used to come out sometimes as a monotone, just one note punctuated by the rhythm of the words. He never set out to write a melody and put lyrics to it. He always thought of the structure, the harmonic content and the lyrics first, and the melody would then come out of that.” 

And it makes sense that a rhythm guitarist, who spends most of his time playing chords — and maybe also looking for some new or different chords to play — might be especially attentive to “the structure, the harmonic content.” And that in turn might lead to songs with unexpected chord progressions, which John Lennon’s songs have plenty of. 

As I’ve noted before, guitarists who play in standard tuning are helped in this search by certain elementary principles of physics: among the common chords (“cowboy chords”) the two easiest to make are D major and A minor. And once you’ve gripped one of those it’s the easiest thing in the world to slide up a couple of frets to see what that sounds like. And then maybe a couple of frets more. You can find some weird and wonderful harmonies that way. And new chords and new harmonies are what the rhythm guitarist needs — unlike the lead guitarist, who has other business to attend to, business that doesn’t often result in the discovery of an unexpected melody. 

Venkatesh Rao:

Despite its very different political-economic DNA, the blogosphere has become enshittified as clearly as Facebook, Google, or Amazon. Not just at the level of aging software, but at the level of the aging people who inhabit it, maintain it, and continue to churn out content on it, though at a rapidly decelerating rate. And it’s hard to blame any particular party in the picture. The technical decisions that lead to the sort of messy problem that afflicted this site can’t be attributed to malice, objectionable politics, or billionaires behaving badly. They’re within the band of ordinary technology management decisions I see all over the place in my consulting work. Humans are just not good at building complex technologies that mature to a graceful immortality. The WordPress-based blogosphere is at the outer limit of complexity we are capable of getting to. 

As someone committed to blogging, I worry about this — especially the “aging people who maintain it” problem. When people who blog, or even who once blogged, retire, will engineers from the post-blogging social-media era think that a platform like this is worth saving? 

Scott Alexander suggesting the criteria that make someone an Effective Altruist:

1. Aim to donate some fixed and considered amount of your income (traditionally 10%) to charity, or get a job in a charitable field.

2. Think really hard about what charities are most important, using something like consequentialist reasoning (where eg donating to a fancy college endowment seems less good than saving the lives of starving children). Treat this problem with the level of seriousness that people use when they really care about something, like a hedge fundie deciding what stocks to buy, or a basketball coach making a draft pick. Preferably do some napkin math, just like the hedge fundie and basketball coach would. Check with other people to see if your assessments agree.

3. ACTUALLY DO THESE THINGS! DON’T JUST WRITE ESSAYS SAYING THEY’RE “OBVIOUS” BUT THEN NOT DO THEM! 

Alexander then says, “I think most of the people who do all three of these would self-identify as effective altruists.” I don’t know how we’d go about measuring that, but I know a great many people who do all three of these things and none of them call themselves effective altruists; I suspect that very few of them have ever heard the term “Effective Altruism.” (For instance, I have been involved in many debates within churches about what charitable organizations to support, and those have invariably been serious conversations that involve, among other things, close scrutiny not just of those organizations’ mission statements but also of their financial reports.) Like many people who either live in Silicon Valley or dwell in the penumbra of its culture, Alexander has no idea how tiny his bubble is; nor is he aware of how many thoughtful givers to charity there are in the world.  

works for me

I find this interesting: John Gruber reports that more of his listeners on The Talk Show use Overcast than Apple Podcasts. I used to love Overcast, but about three years ago it simply stopped playing podcasts in the queue. No matter what was in the queue or how I had added it, Overcast played the current podcast and then stopped. So I had to abandon it for Apple Podcasts. 

By the way, I’m mentioning this here rather than on micro.blog because of a Law of Social Media Life: Every time a person reports that an app or a device isn’t working for them, people reply to say “Works for me.” Which is strange, if you think about it. I mean, if someone writes “I broke my leg yesterday,” people don’t reply “My leg is just fine.” 

conceptual Marxism

In most respects, the concerns of Marx & Engels are very different than those of today’s Left, but in certain other respects their work, especially in the Communist Manifesto, provide a template for almost all Leftist thought. There are three especially important ways in which they provide such a template.

One: M & E write,

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

The key phrase: “in a word, oppressor and oppressed.” The essential point is not that there are different social classes, but that the differentiation is always (a) binary and (b) morally asymmetrical. One class oppresses the other. There are no negotiations, no balance of powers, no possibility of collaboration or reconciliation. Moreover, “the history of class struggles” is the only history – it’s not the main event, it’s the one event. Nothing else matters; nothing else exists.

Two: Oppressors do nothing but oppress. It is their only form of action. Thus, “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” Oppressors do not – indeed cannot – love children. They can only exploit and oppress children, both theirs and the children of others. It is not possible for the oppressor class to have virtues.

Three: Communism, as Marx & Engels articulate it, is anti-humanistic. That is to say, they have no category of “the human.” As Edmund Wilson points out in To the Finland Station, their contemporaries the Communist League (also known as the League of the Just) adopted the motto “All Men Are Brothers.” This idea Marx & Engels strenuously repudiate. “Workers of the world, unite!” – and unite against your class enemies, with whom you cannot be reconciled, whom you must utterly destroy. A version of genocide – class being the marker of gens – is baked into the system.

At the outset I said that these principles effectively constitute the modern Left. But they constitute the modern populist Right as well. Replace “bourgeoisie” with “coastal elites” and the “deep state”; replace “workers of the world, unite” with Trump’s “I am your retribution” and J. D. Vance’s “Our people hate the right people.” Different targets, same logic. It’s conceptual Marxism — a conceptual order that gets extracted from the political-economic specifics of the argument and then is redeployed.

(This is also, not incidentally, how Judenhass works: Jew and gentile are “oppressor and oppressed”; it is not possible for Jews to have virtues; genocide is baked into the system.) 

The single most significant political division in the Western world today is between those who deploy this logic and those who don’t; between, in other words, Manichaeans and Humanists. The only two parties that matter. 

Jessica Grose:

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks talking to teachers about their experiences with online grade books like Schoology and Infinite Campus, and many of their anecdotes were similar to what Miller shared: anxious kids checking their grades throughout the day, snowplow parents berating their children and questioning teachers about every grade they considered unacceptable, and harried middle and high school teachers, some of whom teach more than 100 kids on a given day, dealing with an untenable stream of additional communication.

Mitch Foss, who was a classroom teacher in Colorado for 19 years, told me that when he posted grades, he would hear from kids almost instantly via email or text. Sometimes they’d be waiting outside his classroom door to talk about their scores. “You might get emails from parents questioning the grade, wanting an explanation, and that’s for every single thing,” even assignments that had little bearing on students’ overall marks, “which can be overwhelming.” 

This sounds like the Hell that would be designed specifically for me. 

sound and effects

I recently listened to a 2020 BBC radio documentary on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Very interesting in several respects, two of which I’ll mention today.

  1. The production didn’t always make it clear who was speaking at any given time, but one guy made the fascinating comment that, in the Beatles, George was to the guitar what Ringo was to the drums: he didn’t play many solos, and when he did they tended to be worked out carefully in advance for the purpose of enhancing the songs. No guitar hero stuff; no drum hero stuff. (Of course, Ringo famously played only one solo in his career as a Beatle.)
  2. There’s an excerpt from an interview with Harrison during which he remarks on his dismay when he first heard Phil Spector’s production of “Wah-Wah”: “I hated it.” Then, he says, he got used to it, came to like it. But at another moment in the documentary, the engineer Ken Scott, who participated in the making of All Things Must Pass, talks about getting together with Harrison thirty years later to work on an anniversary edition of the album. They sat down to listen to it and simply laughed out loud at how bad it sounded. The interviewer didn’t like hearing this. He loves the sound of Spector’s production. He says it sounds contemporary. Yeah, I silently replied, contemporary crap. Compare Spector’s wall-of-crap sound with the demo that Harrison did with just his guitar and Klaus Voorman’s bass. The latter is infinitely superior.

Or so I think, and I don’t believe I am alone. You could make a plausible case that modern pop-music production on average makes songs worse than they would be if recorded as simply as possible. And that might help account for the otherwise odd fact that record labels reliably make money — not tons of money, grant you, but a profit — through releasing outtakes, alternative arrangements, and demos: those versions sound better.

Example: Flowers in the Dirt is one of Paul McCartney’s better solo recordings, but the finished record is a pale shadow of the acoustic demos Paul made with Elvis Costello. Those demos are, I think, the very finest work Paul has done in his post-Beatles career.

Example: Listen to the album version of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi.” Good song, right? Now listen to the mostly-acoustic version, a sparer, simpler performance with a classic blues walking bass. Fantastic song.

Example: The Daniel Lanois-produced version of Dylan’s “Most of the Time,” from Oh Mercy. Cool — but not nearly as cool as this acoustic version, which sounds like it could’ve come straight from Blood on the Tracks.

Example: Noel Gallagher was doing a run-through of a song at a studio in Dublin — he didn’t even know he was being recorded — and, with just his voice, his acoustic guitar, and a supporting piano player, happened to come up with the performance of his career.

And wasn’t this the appeal of MTV Unplugged? — and also why some performers didn’t want to do it? Take away the studio tricks and you’re left with … you. Not everyone passed the test, but those who did created some magic. Nirvana is the most famous case, not unjustifiably, but there were some other cool surprises also — for instance, it was while watching Unplugged that a lot of us discovered that 10,000 Maniacs was a great band. (Even though they look like some assistant professors of English at your local university, playing music to distract themselves from the terrors of their upcoming tenure decisions.) 

the personal blog and essayism

Brian Dillon

Essays, ancient or modern, can seem precious in their self-presentation, like things too well made ever to be handled. Touch them however and they are likely to come alive with the sedimented evidence of years; a constellation of glittering motes surrounds the supposedly solid thing, and the essay reveals itself to have been less compact and smooth than thought, but instead unbounded and mobile, a form with ambitions to be unformed. Which is to say — I can’t prove it yet — that the venerable genre of the essay has something to do with the future, with a sense of constant dispersal and coalescence. And for what it’s worth my attachment to it seems of the same conflicted order: I want essays to have some integrity (formally, not morally, speaking), their strands of thought and style and feeling so tightly woven they present a smooth and gleaming surface. And I want all this to unravel in the same moment, in the same work; I want the raggedness, the patchwork, a labyrinth’s-worth of stray threads. You might say I’m torn

Well, yes: exactly

John Stuart Mill:

So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach; and while the feeling remains, it is always throwing up fresh intrenchments of argument to repair any breach made in the old. 

writing about the Beatles

[I’m taking this one down — didn’t intend to make an enemy, but evidently that’s what I did. And it’s just a blog post after all, no loss to the world.] 

two summative thoughts about AI

One: There was until recently a battle for the soul of AGI research and development, a battle between the stewards and the exploiters. The stewards understand themselves to be the duty-bound custodians of an ever-more-enormous power; the exploiters are interested in using that power to make themselves rich and powerful. Had the stewards managed to retain control, or even influence, then I would have been willing to keep a cautiously hopeful eye on developments. However, the stewards have been routed and only the exploiters remain. (OpenAI’s dismissal of Sam Altman was effectively The Stewards’ Last Stand.) I therefore consider it necessary to refuse any use of AI in any circumstances that I can control. 

Two: The powers of law are being summoned by people who see the exploiters as I do, which I guess is a good thing, but … in our society, can anyone as rich as the tech companies behind AGI lose, either in the courts or through legislation? I don’t see how they can. Everyone who stands in their way can be bought, and most of them are pleading to be bought. (Similarly, in Premier League football, Everton is small enough to be smacked down but I cannot imagine Manchester City or Chelsea ever suffering any penalty, no matter how grossly they have defied the financial rules.) As Dana Gioia taught us long ago, 

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

structure and story

I regularly teach in the Great Texts program here in Baylor’s Honors College, which is based on the old University of Chicago model pioneered by – or anyway most fully developed – by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. Usually such courses are period-based, but draw on many genres of writing: fiction, poetry, drama, philosophy, theology, political theory, etc. For reasons I won’t go into here, but will probably write about one day, any such interdisciplinary course in the humanities has a natural tendency to be governed by the concerns of political philosophy; questions about how we human beings should live a common life can be discerned in pretty much everything we read. It requires a conscious effort from the teacher not to let political philosophy govern the entire course, though it probably should be structurally dominant.

In order to teach a class like this well, I think, you need a structure and a story. Right now I’m teaching the 19th century: Burke (yes, I know, he’s at the end of the previous century), Austen, Kierkegaard, Mill, George Eliot, Marx & Engels, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky. A motley crew! Which is why you need a structure, or, to be more precise, a strategy of heuristic simplification. Mine looks like this:

First, I divide the writers and thinkers of the era into three large groups:

  • the reactionaries
  • the meliorists
  • the revolutionaries

We’re probably not reading any genuine reactionaries in this class – people like Joseph de Maistre for instance – because their influence in their own time was not great. (Their influence on the 20th century is much greater.) I say we’re probably not reading any reactionaries because the case can be made that Dostoevsky is a reactionary, but I prefer to think of him as a revolutionary. More on that later.

Much of the first half of the course is devoted to the great English meliorist tradition, the intellectual world contested by conservative meliorists (Burke, Austen) and liberal meliorists (Mill, Eliot). Then we turn our attention in the latter part of the term to more radical figures, some of whose concerns had been anticipated by Kierkegaard.

So we’re focusing on thinkers and artists who believe that the social order needs to be changed, but differ about whether that change should be pursued by gradual or dramatic means. And they differ in other respects too, for instance:

  • the reasons change is needed
  • the arena in which change should primarily be pursued
  • the means by which change should be pursued

What do I mean by “arena”? Perhaps I can illustrate by referring to my revolutionaries:

  • Marx & Engels give their attention to the arena of political economy
  • Nietzsche’s primary arena is intellectual and moral formation
  • Dostoevsky’s arena is the world of spiritual warfare (political economy and intellectual life being, for him, downstream of spiritual matters)

Another and simpler way to put this is to say that revolutionaries (like meliorists!) may want revolutions in systems and institutions or in hearts and minds – and we may note that if you’re focused on the former you’ll probably write treatises, while if you’re focused on the latter you’ll probably write novels. (Though George Eliot, maybe more than any other 19th-century writer with the possible exception of Tolstoy, manages to maintain a double focus in several of her books, most dominantly Middlemarch.)

That’s the structure I employ in this course. And from that structure emerges the story I tell. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what that story is likely to be.

costs, continued

Once you face the real human costs of your preferred policies in peace or war, you may then

  1. Warmly embrace them;
  2. Accept them with a shrug;
  3. Work to mitigate them;
  4. Decide that they’re too high and look for alternative policies. 

A combination of the sunk costs fallacy and the fear of shame makes the fourth option very rare indeed. Would that it were more common. 

Jennifer A. Frey:

When Zena Hitz explains the Catherine Project (a series of online and in-person seminars) or when Nathan Beacom describes a revival of the Lyceum movement for adults, the reader is left to wonder whether the liberal arts need to be tied to our universities at all. This is no idle concern — the average annual cost of tuition at a liberal-arts college is $24,000 a year. If one can engage in liberating learning for a small donation to the Catherine Project, doesn’t it make more sense to learn in one’s leisure time rather than bother with an expensive four-year degree? Even if such study is liberatory, is it worth the student debt, especially when its own practitioners agree that it can be pursued just as profitably on the side for a pittance? In Ms. Hitz’s own words, “universities are wonderful, but they are not necessary for human flourishing.”

If liberal learning does not need the university, we might ask whether the university needs liberal learning. One might worry that, in trying to prove that the liberal arts are not elitist, we have only shown that we can uncouple them from universities and be no worse off for it. If liberal learning is for everyone and can be pursued anywhere — in prison, in elementary schools, by people in poverty — why would anyone pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for it? Is it because, as Don Eben argues, a habit of learning and analysis makes students better future white-collar workers? Or, as Rachel Griffis argues, because a liberal-arts education complements professional training, thus becoming a good financial investment? Is the only good argument for liberal learning in universities, ultimately, instrumental? 

Jennifer Frey is the dean of an Honors College at a private university; I teach in an Honors College at a private university. You could say that we both have an investment in keeping that flame burning. But I think even we ought to be asking the questions Frey asks here. As I have often written, these are good times for the humanities; they’re just not good times for humanities programs in universities. This is why I keep thinking about Emily St. John Mandel’s Traveling Symphony. Even as we try to keep the humanities-in-the-university afloat, I think we need to spend a lot of time imagining the humanities without the university. 

an update on motives

The other day I wrote:

Freddie (like many people, it seems) is critical of the reasons Ayaan Hirsi Ali has cited for her conversion to Christianity. I’m not. My view is that everyone has to start somewhere — she’s very forthright about being a newcomer to all this — and what matters is not where you start but where you end up. One person may seek a bulwark against relativism; another may long for architectural or linguistic or musical beauty; another may crave community. Christian life is a house with many entrances. I became a Christian because I fell head-over-heels for a Christian girl who wouldn’t date me otherwise, so how could I judge anyone else’s reasons for converting? As Rebecca West said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive”; and God, as I understand things, is not the judge but the transformer of motives. 

This reminded the excellent Yair Rosenberg of something — something I knew nothing about. Yair wrote to me to share a passage from Pesachim 50b of the Babylonian Talmud: 

On the topic of reward for a mitzva fulfilled without intent, Rava raised a contradiction: It is written: “For Your mercy is great unto the heavens, and Your truth reaches the skies” (Psalms 57:11); and it is written elsewhere: “For Your mercy is great above the heavens, and Your truth reaches the skies” (Psalms 108:5). How so? How can these verses be reconciled? The Gemara explains: Here, where the verse says that God’s mercy is above the heavens, it is referring to a case where one performs a mitzva for its own sake; and here, where the verse says that God’s mercy reaches the heavens, it is referring to a case where one performs a mitzva not for its own sake. Even a mitzva performed with ulterior motives garners reward, as Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

Those old rabbis, they knew a thing or two about human nature. 

second thoughts, worse thoughts?

A week ago I explained that I had written and then decided not to publish a post on Israel and Gaza. At least one of my readers thought this was a good decision, and approved my restraint enough to buy me a dragon to reward me for my silence. Well, I may have to give that person a refund, because I’ve decided to post some thoughts after all. We’re a week further into this miserable situation, and there are some things that I think need to be said that I haven’t seen said. (Who knows, though? So much has been written that someone unknown to me may have made my argument better than I have.) In deference to my readers who really don’t want me to write about all this, I’ve not written a post here but have posted it otherwhere. Don’t click the disclosure triangle below if you prefer not to know more.

Look if you dare!

Here are my thoughts.

candles

Freddie:

Why do religions comfort? They comfort because the stories they tell involve divine beings who know everything and who can, often, save us all from the horror of death. We live in a world of intractable and painful moral questions that we feel that we can never resolve; religion says that there are divine beings who know the right answers, and that’s comforting. We miss our loved ones who have died terribly; many religions say that we will one day be reunited with them, and that’s comforting.

I might want to take one step back and ask: Do religions comfort? My experience as a Christian has been more about challenge than comfort, about figuring out how to respond to what I feel to be an unshakable claim on my life. It’s worth remembering that there is no clear picture of an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, and that’s one reason (among several) while many Jews have always thought that while it might seem cool to be the Chosen People, in reality it might have been better for them if God had chosen someone else. And even for Christians, whose faith is centered on the Resurrection of Jesus, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” 

I would also note that while most people think that Buddhism is a religion, it typically doesn’t do or have any of the things that Freddie says religion does and has. I can’t now remember who said it, but one scholar of religion claimed that the only thing all religions have in common is that they use candles. That seems right to me. 

So “religion” is an intractably fuzzy concept, the many religions of the world do many different things and do them in many different ways, and even within a given religion people may believe and may commit themselves for an astonishing variety of reasons. The whole enterprise, if indeed we can call religion an enterprise, is so fraught with complications that I don’t think there’s anything that can be legitimately said in general about it. It’s like life itself in that respect. 

Relatedly: Freddie (like many people, it seems) is critical of the reasons Ayaan Hirsi Ali has cited for her conversion to Christianity. I’m not. My view is that everyone has to start somewhere — she’s very forthright about being a newcomer to all this — and what matters is not where you start but where you end up. One person may seek a bulwark against relativism; another may long for architectural or linguistic or musical beauty; another may crave community. Christian life is a house with many entrances. I became a Christian because I fell head-over-heels for a Christian girl who wouldn’t date me otherwise, so how could I judge anyone else’s reasons for converting? As Rebecca West said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive”; and God, as I understand things, is not the judge but the transformer of motives. It’s a how-it-started, how-it’s-going thing, but often in a good way. Or so my experience suggests. 

Slanted and disenchanted

The most delightful thing about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment that “any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic” is how obvious the point is once you read it. But because the point is so retrospectively obvious the phrase tends to get deployed unimaginatively. It’s actually more subtle, and perhaps consequential, than it appears to be.

Here’s another way to put Clarke’s point: Many or most human beings have in our intellectual toolbox a category – one that we that may for convenience’ sake call “magic” – that we deploy in situations in which we perceive certain ends achieved but cannot perceive the means by which the achievement was accomplished. There’s a large metal box in my kitchen that is filled with cold air, this I know, but how it makes the air cold may not only be unknown to me but effectively unimaginable. Or: A tall black monolith has appeared in the midst of my small band of early-hominid hunter-gatherers, this we know, but how it got there and what it is we cannot guess.

If you read much of Clarke’s writings you know that Clarke doesn’t believe in magic – that is, in forces outside the laws of physics as we know them that produce effects in the physical world – but it’s worth noting that his point stands whether you believe in magic or not. Even if magic can be done, it remains true that any smoothly functioning technology etc. etc. That is to say, Clarke’s statement is not a metaphysical claim but a phenomenological one – it is about “appearance,” about what presents itself to us, about what we perceive. Whether we are perceiving accurately, and how what we perceive might be explained – these are epistemological questions. In this case, epistemology (theory of knowledge) is brought in to help us understand the gap (or, in some cases, fit) between what we perceive and what is.

In these respects, Clarke’s statement resembles Max Weber’s famous description of “the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung, unmagicking). Weber is not saying that once the world was filled with disembodied spirits subject only to metaphysical rather than physical description, spirits that have now departed. He’s saying that that’s what the world feels like – it reads to us like a place where transmissions from the far invisible have ceased. In such a phenomenological environment, what do we do when things happen that we don’t know how to account for – when we see the ends but cannot imagine the means?

And this can happen to us when we read fiction as well, an experience I can perhaps describe in this way: Any imaginatively conceived and coherently presented work of science fiction reads like a work of fantasy.

In Adam Roberts’s new novel The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate these very themes are pursued, these questions are posed, in a provocative and delightful way. What do you do if you are a rational man, a man of science, and begin to see things that science (as you understand it) cannot explain? What do you do if you’re reading a novel and can’t tell if it’s fantasy or science fiction?

If these questions interest you, you’ll very much enjoy (as I did) The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate.

what everything costs

As long as resources are finite, any political or social policy helps some people at the expense of others. Any serious thinker will admit this and will be quite clear about who gets hurt. For instance, Marx & Engels in the Communist Manifesto say to the bourgeoisie, “In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.” And, they explain, we’re doing it because (a) you have immiserated the proletariat and therefore deserve to have everything taken away from you, and (b) revolution against your class is a necessary step towards social utopia. Couldn’t be more straightforward! (That said, M & E are not always so straightforward, as I will explain in a later post.)

I speak of political thinkers here because I take it as axiomatic that no politician will ever acknowledge the costs of his or her preferred policies.

Especially in time of war, few political commentators take even the first step towards this vital honesty, which is to admit that someone will be hurt. Significantly fewer still take the next step, which is to acknowledge the extent of such pain — they will make their calculations based on the best-case scenario, or indeed something rather better than that.

Commentators who frankly and openly acknowledge the real likely costs of their preferred policies are to be prized above rubies. But there will never be many of them, because — again, especially in time of war — almost every policy has higher costs than its supporters want to admit, and if readers see the probable consequences, they may well decide that the game isn’t worth the candle. And indeed, partisans and advocates are always (usually unconsciously) preventing themselves from thinking through what will happen if they get their way, because if they look clear-sightedly at reality they might lose their nerve. This is why, George Orwell, in the essay in which he says, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” also says that people employ vacuous clichés because “at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”

I just finished teaching Middlemarch, that incomparable book, and there’s an immensely touching moment near the end when Dorothea is preparing to embrace a more financially constrained life, and in her ardent way talks of how she will change her habits. She ends by saying, almost sobbing, “And I will learn what everything costs.” Socrates, what is best for men? Maybe it’s to learn what everything costs.

Me, writing in 1996:

In Sartre’s political world there were only oppressors and oppressed: fascism stood for the former, communism for the latter. Likewise, in Algeria, since the native Algerians were by definition the oppressed, they were incapable of sin; conversely, the pieds noirs, the French colonists, were reprobate and irredeemable. Thus Sartre endorsed the decision of the Algerian FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) to kill any and all French men, women, and children in Algeria whenever possible, a position he was still taking in 1961 when he wrote a famous and lengthy introduction to The Wretched of the Earth, the major work by one of this century’s greatest theorists of terrorism, Franz Fanon.

Camus, on the other hand, was himself a pied noir; his family’s roots in Algeria went back a century and a half. Members of his family, including his mother, still lived in Algeria and were endangered daily by the FLN’s random shootings and bombings. Yet Camus was not, nor had he ever been, indifferent to the abuses the French had inflicted on the Arabs of Algeria. Indeed, in the 1930s, at the beginning of his career as a writer, Camus had striven ceaselessly to call attention to these abuses, but he was generally ignored — by the French Left no less than the Right.

So he was not pleased to have a difficult and morally complex political situation reduced to an opportunity for French intellectuals to strike noble poses: to those who would “point to the French in Algeria as scapegoats (‘Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!’),” Camus retorted, “it seems to me revolting to beat one’s mea culpa, as our judge-penitents do, on someone else’s breast.”

Mann’s Joseph: 7

Last post in a series. Previous installments: 


Joseph, the next-to-youngest son of Jacob, rises in his father’s estimation and love, but then is cast down into a pit. He is lifted out of the pit, but then sold into slavery, taken to the underworld of Egypt. He is slave to a rich and powerful man named Potiphar (or, as Mann sometimes calls him, Peteprê), but then is falsely accused of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife and cast into prison. But then, unexpectedly, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later to become Aktenaten, calls Joseph to him: he is in great need of one who can rightly interpret dreams. (“Behold,” his brothers had said, years earlier, “this dreamer cometh.”) And so Joseph rises once more, to become the teacher of the Pharaoh, the vizier of all Egypt, and, eventually, the provider for his family, whom, despite the years of separation, he has never ceased to remember and to love. 

Thomas Mann in his home in Pacific Palisades

Thomas Mann wrote most of this fourth book, Joseph the Provider, in southern California, having done some planning and preliminary drafting while still in Princeton, where he had lived from 1938 to early 1941. In his house near the ocean, he lived the life of an exiled Prince of Literature — and in a matter befitting royalty, he gave audiences: for instance, he once served tea and conversation to “an embarrassed, fervid, literature-intoxicated child” — the 14-year-old Susan Sontag. And, thousands of miles from home, he wrote the story of a stranger in a strange land — a clever and victorious one. 

During the years of World War II, a large and disorderly community of refugees assembled itself in the Los Angeles area, primarily in Pacific Palisades — a kind of emigré civilization unto itself. There were novelists (Mann, his elder brother Heinrich, Franz Werfel, Aldous Huxley), composers (Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky), philosophers (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno), film directors (Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls), dramatists (Bertolt Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger). They were mostly friendly with and grateful for one another — though one had to be careful to make sure that Schönberg and Stravinsky were never in the same room — and some of them stayed for the rest of their lives in California, though others returned to Europe when they fell under the indiscriminately hateful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its associated organs. (Several books have been written about this little world of exiles, but you may read a skillful brief overview by Alex Ross here.) 

For decades the brothers Mann had persisted in a slightly ridiculous practice: Every five years they booked a hall somewhere and invited an audience to come listen to each of them read a speech addressed to the other. These events combined sibling rivalry, mutual respect, and sheer pomposity — one German friend called them “ceremonial evaluations of each other” — but how could such an event possibly be staged in Pacific Palisades? 

Enter Salka Viertel, whose comical attempts to get Schönberg a job composing a Hollywood film score I wrote about here. As far as I can tell, almost every Jew and anti-Nazi who escaped Europe during the war years was told to head for Los Angeles and get in touch with Salka Viertel. She was (in addition to her paid work as a screenwriter) a hostess, a therapist, a travel agent, an employment service, an introducer — and the maker of flourless chocolate cakes so extraordinary that Thomas Mann once showed up at a wedding of a couple he did not even know because he heard that Salka was baking a cake for the reception.

Of course Salka hosted the soirée for the brothers Mann. 

Salka Viertel and her friend Greta Garbo

She invited forty-five people, somehow squeezed them into her small house (bringing a ping-pong table inside to make a second dining table helped), and got a friend to make the dinner while she presided as mistress of ceremonies. A few others showed up, purportedly to help serve, but in fact just to hang out in the kitchen and listen to the goings-on. As Donna Rifkind notes in her fine book on Salka Viertel, “Every person in the house that night was an émigré.” 

Writing decades later, Viertel primarily remembered the comical aspects of the evening. After Thomas gave “a magnificent tribute to the older brother, and acknowledgment of Heinrich’s prophetic political wisdom, his far-sighted warnings to their unhappy country, and a superb evaluation of his literary stature,” Viertel — not then knowing the brothers’ long practice — was surprised to see Heinrich stand up: “First, he thanked me for the evening then, turning to his brother, paid him high praise for his continuous fight against fascism. To that he added a meticulous literary analysis of Thomas Mann’s oeuvre in its relevance to the Third Reich.” (In fact, Heinrich toasted Viertel’s hospitality at the end of his speech, and a gracious toast it was too.)  

But more than this was said. Near the end of his speech, Thomas declared, 

Our Germans believe too strongly in crude success, in force, in war. They believe that all they had to do was create iron facts, before which humanity would surely bow down. It will not bow down before them, because it cannot. Be one’s thoughts of humanity ever so bitter and dubious — there is, with all the wretchedness, a divine spark in it, the spark of the intellect and the good. It cannot accept the final triumph of evil, of lies and force — it simply cannot live with it. The world, the one resulting from the victory of Hitler, would indeed be not only a world of universal slavery, but also a world of absolute cynicism, a world that flew in the face of every belief in the good, in the higher qualities within human beings, a world that belonged utterly to evil, a world submissive to evil. There is no such world; that would not be tolerated. The revolt of humanity against a Hitlerian world of the complete negation of what is best in human beings — this revolt is the most certain of certainties; it will be an elemental revolt, before which “iron facts” will splinter like tinder. 

And near the end of his speech, Heinrich said, 

We must preserve the hope of growing older than virulent hatred and sensation, which is the source of its own ghostly mischief. And, not to forget a wholesome measure of doubt: “When the world drags itself out of one mud hole, it falls into another; moral centuries follow centuries of barbarism. Barbarism is soon swept away; soon it comes again: a continual succession of day and night.” This was said in a century of morality — by Voltaire, and the age was moral only with him. 

It was an early May evening in Pacific Palisades, and the view from the end of the block disclosed the beach and, beyond, the sun setting over the Pacific. Flowers were everywhere in bloom. And, Saska Viertel tells us, as the brothers Mann spoke their words of defiance and hope, the refugees hiding in her tiny kitchen wept. 

That is the context in which the final volume of Mann’s tetralogy — what he called “this invention of God, this beautiful story” — was written. 

• 

All this may help to explain something that otherwise might seem odd: the almost complete disappearance from the story of all the metaphysical and mythological games that I have been tracing through each of the posts in this series. What we get instead is something simpler: a story of lost years redeemed, of enemies (including the enemies inside each of us) thwarted, and of the power of reconciliation. 

One of the most extraordinary moments in the whole tetralogy comes when Joseph’s brothers beat him and throw him into a pit, and what’s extraordinary about it is Joseph’s reaction: For he realizes that they have only treated him this way because he had been very mean to them — belittling, arrogant, taunting. In the pit he begins to know himself. 

This is not to say that the brothers are faultless. They are in many respects a nasty collective piece of work. They are needlessly cruel to their enemies and only slightly less cruel to members of their family. They scheme and deceive. And even after Joseph has done everything for them, they can’t escape their suspicious natures, they can’t stop scheming, they can’t stop fearing that Joseph might not be so much better than them after all. You can read the story here

And here is the speech that Mann gives to his hero at the very end of the tetralogy, “this invention of God”: 

“But brothers, dear old brothers,” he replied, bowing to them with arms spread wide, “what are you saying! You speak exactly as if you feared me and wanted me to forgive you. Am I as God? In the land below, it is said, I am as Pharaoh, and though he is called god, he is but a dear, poor thing. But in asking for my forgiveness, you have not, it appears, really understood the whole story we are in. I do not scold you for that. One can very easily be in a story without understanding it. Perhaps it was meant to be that way, and I have only myself to blame for always understanding too well the game that was being played. Did you not hear it from our father’s lips as he gave me my blessing, that in my case it has always been merely a playful game and an echo? And in his departing words to you did he even mention the nasty thing that happened between you and me? No, he said nothing of it, for he was also part of the game, of God’s playful game. Under his protection I had to rouse you, by my brazen immaturity, to do evil, but God indeed turned it to good, so that I fed many people and matured a little myself besides. But if it is a question of pardon among us human beings, then I am the one who should beg it of you, for you had to play the evildoers so that everything might turn out this way. And now I am supposed to make use of Pharaoh’s power, merely because it is mine, to revenge myself on you for three days of chastisement in a well, and again turn to evil what God has turned to good? Don’t make me laugh! For a man who, contrary to all justice and reason, uses power simply because he has it — one can only laugh at him. If not today, then sometime in the future — and it is the future we shall hold to.” 

Rowan Williams:

I would venture to guess that the people we would least like to spend a long time with are those who have answers to every question and plans for every contingency. There’s something slightly inhuman about that, because if we believe that our humanity is constantly growing, then there have got to be moments when we are taken beyond the familiar and the controllable. A growing humanity, a maturing humanity, is one that’s prepared for silence, because it’s prepared at important moments to say, “I can’t domesticate, I can’t get on top of this.”

God is that environment, that encounter, that we will never get to the bottom of and that we will never control. To understand that there’s something about silence that is profoundly at the heart of being human begins to open up a recognition: being Christian requires us more than ever to come to terms with those moments when silence is imposed on us, when we face what we can’t control. 

Relevant to me. 

time well spent

Today I spent a few hours I didn’t really have to spare writing a long post about Israel, Hamas, and Gaza. Why? Because I had to. It was intellectually and psychologically necessary for me to write out my thoughts, at length, with documentation — affirmations and hesitations, words of grief and words of hope, everything. I drafted and re-drafted, organized and reorganized, put things in and took things out, linked to everything relevant and helpful. I said my phrases aloud, trying to get the rhythm and the tone right. Finally, and after considerably more time than I had expected to spend, I decided that I was done. My mouse pointer hovered over the “Publish” button, I paused, and … 

I deleted the post. Why? Because our entire discourse surrounding Israel is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. No word of mine could ever be heard over the cacophony, and in any case I have no expertise to share, and probably no wisdom either. 

I do have this bit of wisdom about writing for you, though: Always remember the difference between what you need to share and what you just need to write. And try, if you can manage, to remember that difference before you click the “Publish” button. I am glad that I wrote the post — the topic would have nagged at me until I finally broke down and addressed it — and very glad that I deleted it. 

Mann’s Joseph: 6

Herodotus (II.42) informs his readers that “the name by which the Egyptians know Zeus is Amun.” Egyptian religion underwent constant change, and varied from place to place, but in general Amun is indeed, like Zeus, the King of the Gods, and already by Herodotus’s time had been fused with the sun-god Ra, who in turn was sometimes fused with another sun- or sky-god, Horus. All very complicated.

Though Horus is quite Apollo-like (or vice versa), some scholars refer to Horus as a sky god rather than a sun god because it is Aun-Ra who is linked more closely with the sun: his kingship over the gods comes increasingly to be associated with the dominance and power of the sun — and then, in the next phase — the one inaugurated by Akhenaten, the subject of a previous post — any such personifications seem unnecessary and indeed irrelevant. He builds temples open to the sky so the sun can be felt and worshipped simultaneously. Akhenaten’s religion is a literalizing movement, a rejection of all likenesses (metaphors, similes, personifications, all the apparatus of mythical storytelling). 

In Joseph and His Brothers, Joseph and his people are set in opposition to Egypt, which is simultaneously the land of sun-worshippers and — as we saw in the most recent post in this series — a kind of underworld. The children of Israel dwell in the highlands, and think of things other than the sun. After the Prelude, the first chapter-as-such of the story is called “Ishtar.” Why? Because the Akkadian goddess Ishtar (or Inanna) is identified with the planet Venus, and that is what Joseph, gazing on the evening sky, is contemplating.

(Interestingly, Ishtar/Inanna is said to have been taken to, and then to have escaped from, the underworld, in stories that are closely linked to those of Osiris, Orpheus, and, if Mann is allowed to have his way, Joseph. Echo after echo after echo.) 

Now, the Semitic version of Ishtar is Astarte, and under that name (or something close to it) she was worshipped by Canaanites, by Phoenicians, by Carthaginians, and, yes, by Egyptians. In the Hebrew Bible she is sometimes called Ashtoreth. Many centuries after Joseph, King Solomon would marry foreign women, with bad results:  

He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom [in other translations Molek or Moloch] the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. 

Again, that happens much later. Still, worth noting. 

As if things are not complicated enough, I have to add one more point: Mann repeatedly associates Abraham with the moon, calls him “the moon-wanderer,” sees his children as inheriting that from him. (In an especially incomprehensible passage [p. 104] he speaks of Jacob as a man of the full moon and Esau as “a man of the dark moon, and thus a man of the sun, a man of the underworld” — huh? Moon, sun, and underworld all at once?) When Joseph and Jacob have their first conversation, in the darkening evening, Mann comments that “the sun’s clarity is one thing and the moon’s another, for the latter had indeed ruled most marvelously over that more than useful discourse. Things look different by moonlight than by the bright of day, and its clarity may indeed have seemed the true clarity to those minds in that time and place” (93, at the outset of the chapter called “Moon Grammar”). So: those in the highlands are linked with the bodies of the night sky, in opposition to the sun-worshippers of that underworld called Egypt. 

How to make sense of this — well, of some of this? Perhaps by looking at a long passage from page 100: 

Yet not even in a dream could the people of El-Elyon attribute their interconnection to a unity and purity of blood. Something Babylonian-Sumerian — and so not exclusively Semitic — had passed through Arabian desert stock; further elements from Gerar, from the land of the Muzri, from Egypt itself, had been blended in, as in the person of the slave Hagar, who was found worthy of sharing the bed with the great head of the tribe himself and whose son, then, married an Egyptian; and it was so universally known that one hardly needed to waste words on how sorely vexed Rebekah must have been by Esau’s Hittite wives — daughters from a tribe that likewise did not call Shem its primal father, but that at some point came from somewhere in Asia Minor, pressing into Syria from the Ural-Altaic region. Many a branch was cast off early on. It is certain that the primal Abraham sired more children after the death of Sarai, and in particular — not being particular himself — with Keturah, a Canaanite woman, though he had not wanted his son Isaak to wed a Canaanite. Of Keturah’s sons, one was named Midian, whose descendants lived out their lives south of the Seir mountains of Edom — Esau’s region —  bordering on the Arabian desert, much like Ismael’s children this side of Egypt; for Yitzchak, the true son, had been the sole heir, while the children of concubines had been bought off with gifts and pushed off to the east, where they lost any feeling for El-Elyon — if they ever had clung to Him — and served their own gods. But it was divine matters, the inherited task of thinking about God, that formed the spiritual bond that, whatever its motley makeup in terms of blood, held this clan together, who among all the Hebrews — be it the sons of Moab, Ammon, or Edom — ascribed that name to themselves in a special and narrow sense, especially insofar as they had now begun, at the very period into which we have entered, to restrict it and link it with another name, that of Israel. 

Whew. The essential point here being that when Joseph is meditating on the night sky he is also meditating on the gods of the gentes — the gods of the Akkadians and Sumerians and Canaanites and Phoenicians. He is thinking from within his own complex ethnicity. Abraham may have “invented God,” but these various gods of the peoples north and east of the fields where the children of Israel wander are part of Joseph’s inheritance also. 

Mann is very interested in triangles and triangulation throughout this tetralogy — perhaps a subject for another post — and I think we can see here the beginnings of something that will be developed throughout this long tale: Joseph — the Thoth/Hermes of this story, the mediator and messenger — as triangulator. He stands at the center of a triangle: 

JosephTriangle

Everyone knows that navigation depends on triangulation; Mann wants to show us how that works in matters of thought and belief. For many years he had hoped to be his country’s Joseph, perhaps even the Joseph of Europe: the navigator, the interpreter, the guide. (The three sides of his triangle are, I think, Culture, Civilization, and Art.) He describes his self-chosen vocation (sometimes with sly indirectness) in his 1918 book Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, about which Chris Beha has written eloquently here. But circumstances denied him that role, a situation which he finally faced in late 1936, in a famous letter denouncing the Nazi regime, especially its antisemitism. 

Soon thereafter Mann made his way to the United States — first to Princeton and then to California — where he wrote the final volume of his tetralogy, Joseph the Provider. He was a nonpolitical man no longer, and perhaps it was easier for him to accept the end of his role as navigator and interpreter because he was able to write the conclusion to his great tale of the ultimate avatar of Thoth/Hermes, the first cross-cultural guide, the advocate for a civilization based on forgiveness and reconciliation. 

signatures

File:Thomas Mann's Signature.png - Wikimedia Commons

After Thomas Mann moved to Princeton in 1938, he resumed research on Joseph and His Brothers, and consequently checked out many books on Egypt from the university’s library. When his wife Katia discovered that to borrow a book he had to sign his name on a card kept in a pocket inside the back cover, she cried, “Tommy, you’re cheapening the value of your signature!” She instructed him to get someone else to check books out for him to avoid this catastrophe.

This reminds me that Marc Chagall used to pay for everything — including a tube of toothpaste — by check, because he guessed that at least some shopkeepers, knowing his fame, would keep the check uncashed as a souvenir or to be sold later.

CleanShot 2023 11 09 at 07 58 17 2x

Mann’s Joseph: 5

One of the most fascinating, and to me surprising, elements of Joseph and His Brothers is the way Mann leans into the simplest of mythical themes: descent and ascent. Down and up.

He does this in part because the biblical narrative virtually demands it. Joseph’s family, as we have already noted, are herdsmen and people of the hills. The habitable portion of ancient Egypt, by contrast, is a long river valley. Therefore, one always goes down to Egypt. You hear this phrase over and over again in Genesis: 

Gen.26:2 “And the LORD appeared unto him, and said, Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of.” 

Gen.37:25 “And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.” 

Gen.39:1 “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hands of the Ishmaelites, which had brought him down thither.” 

Gen.46:3 “And he said, I am God, the God of thy father: fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation:

Num. 20:15 “Our fathers went down into Egypt, and we have dwelt in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians vexed us, and our fathers.” 

By contrast, one always goes up to Jerusalem: 

1 Kings 12:28 “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” 

Luke 18:31 “Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.” 

But this is not simply a matter of topographical measurement. Though the literal elevation of Jerusalem is around 2500 feet, many places in Israel stand higher — yet even from them, to go to Jerusalem is to go up:

Isaiah 2:3 “And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” 

And if Jerusalem is spiritually the highest place, then Egypt is spiritually the lowest place, and this is not because of its elevation but because of its fascination with death and the underworld — its cult of Osiris. 

In the introduction his famous and almost unimaginably influential translation of what he called the Egyptian Book of the Dead, E. A. Wallis Budge writes of the mysterious “new-comers from the East” who altered the primitive burial practices of the native Egyptians: 

The indigenous peoples readily saw the advantage of brickbuilt tombs and of the other improvements which were introduced by the newcomers, and gradually adopted them, especially as they tended to the preservation of the natural body, and were beneficial for the welfare of the soul; but the changes introduced by the new-comers were of a radical character, and the adoption of them by the indigenous peoples of Egypt indicates a complete change in what may be described as the fundamentals of their belief. In fact they abandoned not only the custom of dismembering and burning the body, but the half savage views and beliefs which led them to do such things also, and little by little they put in their place the doctrine of the resurrection of man, which was in turn based upon the belief that the god-man and king Osiris had suffered death and mutilation, and had been embalmed, and that his sisters Isis and Nephthys had provided him with a series of amulets which protected him from all harm in the world beyond the grave, and had recited a series of magical formulae which gave him everlasting life; in other words, they embraced the most important of all the beliefs which are found in the Book of the Dead. The period of this change is, in the writer’s opinion, the period of the introduction into Egypt of many of the religious and funeral compositions which are now known by the name of “Book of the Dead.” 

So when Joseph — having been thrown down into a pit and then raised up out of the pit; his first descent and first rise — goes down into Egypt, he enters a world dominated by the Underworld, and by the god-king who rules it: one raised up as King of Egypt, then cast down into death, then raised up again as King of the Underworld.

The vertical oscillations of Osiris are then replicated by this stranger Joseph, who also rises and falls repeatedly: once he gets to Egypt, as a mere slave, he is raised up by Potiphar, and then cast down into prison, and then raised up by Akhenaten. The way up is the way down, and the way down may prove to be but a stage of one’s ascent. Osiris knows this, and Joseph learns it — it is what he knows that his herdsman father Jacob does not. 

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, three movements are repeatedly described: going into the underworld, passing through it, and coming forth from it. Mann is obsessed by these movements, especially, though not only, as they are manifest in the life of Joseph. It is said that the god Thoth is the scribe of the underworld, though he does not remain there. He always passes through, as the messenger and mediator must. And one aspect or element of Joseph’s role as mediator is, through his influence on Akhenaten, to turn the minds of the Egyptians away from the underworld and towards the sun — even if this turn is merely one oscillation among many, even if, in the end, the sun itself cannot hold our attention forever. 

(Many centuries later, these lessons would be learned with great difficulty by a Galilean fisherman named Simon Peter. On the Mount of Transfiguration he declares: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” But he cannot stay there. There are many more vertical oscillations to come, first for his Master, and then for him.) 

Josh Barro:

Land acknowledgements are widely derided as farces and, generally, I agree that they are. When Microsoft sets aside time to open its internal communications with a list of Coast Salish peoples that “since time immemorial” occupied the area that is now the company’s headquarters, this does not imply that they intend to return the land to the indigenous people who once lived on it, or even that they will do anything else substantive for their benefit. It’s just marketing, much as it is when REI does it at the start of a video urging its employees not to unionize. And yet, there has been quite a bit of surprise this month at the number of people who, when they talk about “decolonization” and the idea that Palestine should extend “from the river to the sea,” appear to literally mean that the seven million Jewish “settler-colonialists” who live there ought to be eliminated from the area, whether through death or expulsion.

Any argument that “decolonization” is a moral imperative requiring the removal of Jews from Israel applies equally to the non-indigenous population of the United States. Actually, it applies more clearly, given the ambiguity about who was really in the Holy Land first and the clear fact that Coast Salish people were in (what is now) Redmond, Washington before white people. Is it a good idea for non-indigenous Americans to adopt a rhetorical framework that implies we ought to give our land back and leave our home country on the basis of the idea that everyone knows we don’t really mean it? 

Of course it’s a good idea! It’s not like anyone thinks such people are serious about anything. As Barro says, it’s marketing. 

There’s a faction of the left — how large a faction I have no idea — obsessed with the idea that political sins must be paid for, though always exempting themselves from the responsibility of payment. I think of Albert Camus’s paraphrase of the attitude of the lefties of Metropolitan France to the Algerian pieds-noirs: “Go ahead and die; that’s what we deserve!” To all these people desperate to find someone else to bear their sins, I want to say: Have you ever heard of Jesus? 

Mann’s Joseph: 4

Akhenaten Egypt Alexandria National Museum jpg

This is Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who renamed himself Akhenaten. In every surviving representation of him he is immediately recognizable; no one else looks like him. There is good reason to believe that he instructed his artists to portray him in a certain manner, a manner especially evident in full-length portrayals: 

Statue of Akhenaten Egyptian Museum al Qāhirah CG EGY 46992837435

He always bears the same features: a high-cheekboned face with slanting eyes and full lips; a narrow waist; a bit of a pot-belly; wide, feminine hips; full thighs and spindly calves. It’s hard to imagine why he asked to be portrayed in this way unless this is, to some degree anyway, what he actually looked like, but some scholars — for instance, Jacobs Van Dijk here — have noted that the artwork that survives from his reign portrays all people in a similar way, though no such mode of representation preceded this era. It is as though Akhenaten decreed himself the image of humanity. It can’t be accidental that he looks like a pregnant woman, like someone about to give birth to something. 

His wife, Nefertiti, gave birth to at least six daughters, but what he gave birth to was the most radical religious reformation ever undertaken: the elimination of the entire vast system of Egyptian worship and the replacement of every cult of every god with a single cult: that of the Aten, the disc (or globe) of the sun. The Egyptians already had a sun-god, of course, Ra, or Amun-Ra, who looked like this: 

DT553

Sometimes (after he was in some sense united with the sun-god Ra) he has a falcon’s head. But Aten looked like this: 

undefined

The refusal of human or animal imagery was very much the point, though I guess the Aten in a way has hands: like the Beatles, it has arms enough to hold you. 

Akhenaten of course doesn’t mean to suggest that this is what the only God actually looks like: it is merely a visual representation of universality. The idea that a god “looks like” anything, even metaphorically, is part of what he wants to overcome. The great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie wrote of this new theology,

If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw in the correctness of this view of the energy of the solar system. How much Akhenaten understood, we cannot say, but he certainly bounded forward in his views and symbolism to a position which we cannot logically improve upon at the present day. Not a rag of superstition or of falsity can be found clinging to this new worship evolved out of the old Aton of Heliopolis, the sole Lord of the universe. 

On the other hand, a later Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, in his classic Egypt of the Pharaohs, has a terser description of Akhenaten: he calls him a “heretic.” 

The wonderful idea at the center of Joseph and His Brothers is this: Akhenaten is the Pharaoh who made Joseph his vizier. And thus the thematic tension between monotheism and polytheism is heightened — for, when these two men meet, who is more of a monotheist? 

Mann is of course neither the first nor the last to speculate on the possible relationship between Akhenaten’s monotheism and that of Israel. I am not sure, but I believe that the American archaeologist James Henry Breasted was the first scholar to note the relationship between Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to the Aten and (for instance) Psalm 104. Speculation has usually focused on the possible influence of Egypt on the Israelites, in part because the Israelites were a dependent and then an enslaved people, but also in part because the tradition of seeing Egypt as the source of religious ideas for the rest of the world goes all the way back to Herodotus (see the Histories, Book II ¶ 50ff). 

This is how Freud thought of the matter, in Moses and Monotheism, which presents us with Moses as an Egyptian adherent of Atenism. (It’s an incoherent book, alas — written as Freud was dying and little more than a confused riff on Breasted’s work.) This is also how C. S. Lewis thought of the matter. In his Reflections on the Psalms — written twenty years after Freud’s book, which Lewis may or may not have known — he wrote of Akhenaten’s revolution,

As we can see, it was a total failure. Akhenaten’s religion died with him. Nothing, apparently, came of it.

Unless of course, as is just possible, Judaism itself partly came of it. It is conceivable that ideas derived from Akhenaten’s system formed part of that Egyptian ‘Wisdom’ in which Moses was bred. There is nothing to disquiet us in such a possibility. Whatever was true in Akhenaten’s creed came to him, in some mode or other, as all truth comes to all men, from God. There is no reason why traditions descending from Akhenaten should not have been among the instruments which God used in making Himself known to Moses. But we have no evidence that this is what actually happened. Nor do we know how fit Akhenatenism would really have been to serve as an instrument for this purpose. 

Lewis’s thoughts on Akhenaten are interesting enough that I may have to return to them in another post. But for now I just want to note that his way of considering the relationship (which is also the archaeologists’ way) is not the only possibility. What if the flow of influence were reversed? What if one son of Israel, having risen to the position of Pharaoh’s vizier, had the eloquence and imagination to plant the monotheistic seed? — to plant it in fertile and ready ground, to be sure, but to plant it nonetheless. That is the possibility that Mann invites us to consider. 

And perhaps he reminds us also of another point, not a possibility but a reality. Akhenaten’s revolution failed utterly: his son Tutankhaten removed the Aten from his name and became Tutankhamun, affirming his loyalty to one of the gods his father had attempted to banish, Amun-Ra. Of course, ultimately all the gods of Egypt failed; but the children of Israel thrived, and despite countless setbacks, persecutions, and pogroms, despite living for centuries among people who have wanted and still want to destroy them altogether, still to this day worship the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

time to shut up

As an Arsenal supporter who believes that Arsenal did indeed get robbed on that Newcastle goal, I am not a fan of this statement. For several reasons:

  1. That was just one goal, and focusing on the refereeing mistakes that led to it shifts attention from the Gunners’ manifest ineptness in attack. Arteta should be more concerned about his and his players’ shortcomings than about those of the refs.
  2. This statement won’t do what the club wants it to do, and indeed will probably be counterproductive. Do Arsenal really believe that the refs, and the Premier League and the F.A. more generally, can be shamed and bullied into doing better? My guess is that the side will get worse treatment for the rest of the season thanks to Arteta’s whining and bitching and the club’s endorsement of it. 
  3. This sets a really bad example for the players, who will be learning from their club’s leadership how to act when things go wrong for them: Don’t own your shortcomings, but blame blame blame, and do it in your loudest voice. 
  4. A much better approach would be to seek collective action: talk to other clubs who are, or ought to be, angry about the shocking incompetence of the VAR system, and try to lead collective action — and lead it behind the scenes. That might not be as emotionally gratifying, but it would be infinitely more effective. 

This whole situation is very sad, because Arsenal have the most attractive young side in the league. They could easily be making fans, but instead they seem to be determined to make enemies. And if you were a transfer target, is this a club you’d want to play for? Last year the answer would have been a big Yes; now I suspect it’s leaning more and more towards No. Instead of a place of joy and excitement, it’s starting to feel like the Bruno Fernandes of clubs: talented but incessantly  and frustratingly bitchy. 

An exceptionally promising era in the club’s history just may be giving way to something much darker, and that is wholly the fault of the team leadership’s emotional immaturity and incontinence. It’s time for Arteta & Co. to shut their mouths and get better.

Mann’s Joseph: 3

This difference we have identified between Jacob and Joseph is essential to the story that will unfold, for whether Joseph is a better or worse theologian than his father, his habits of mind are essential to the calling he will assume, the vocation of saving his family.

Again in this opening chapter, Joseph reflects on his name and the important fact that it contains the word sepher (or sefer), which means book or scroll or document. “He loved composing with the stylus and was so skilled at it that he could have served as a junior scribe at some place where documents were collected” (68).

Later, after his brothers sell him into slavery and he finds himself in Egypt, working in the household of a rich and powerful man named Petephrê (Potiphar), he actually becomes a scribe, and Petephrê’s overseer, Mont-kaw, contemplates this boy:

And here Joseph stood before him, scroll in hand, and, for a slave, even a scribal slave, he spoke clever, rougishly subtle words — and that combination of ideas was unsettling. This young Bedouin and Asiatic did not have the head of an ibis on his shoulders, and was, needless to say, a human being, not a god, not Thoth of Khmunu. But he had intellectual connections with that god, and there was something ambiguous about him…. [651]

Again and again in the tetralogy Joseph is associated with the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was the god of writing, of communication; he was also a wise counselor and mediator, and a messenger. In a story Socrates tells in Plato’s Phaedrus, Thoth offers the gift of writing to one King Thamus, who rejects it. When the Greeks learned about Thoth they immediately recognized him as a version of Hermes, or rather — since they were often inclined to see themselves as inheritors of Egyptian wisdom — recognized Hermes as a version of Thoth. 

At several key points in the story Joseph encounters a nameless figure who is a guide — especially a guide to the Underworld that is Egypt — and a messenger. This is clearly Thoth/Hermes. Maybe I’ll write about him in a later post. But right now I am concerned with Joseph’s own Thothness: what he ultimately becomes is the go-between, the messenger, the mediator, who links his family — his radically monotheistic nomadic-shepherd family — with the great Egyptian empire, full of magnificent cities and temples and a near-infinity of gods. Only Joseph can mediate those two worlds.

For much of the book, I assumed that in telling Joseph’s story Mann was essentially writing a critique of monotheism, at least in its Israelite form; that he was teaching us that Joseph’s flexible and quasi-syncretic way is the better way. But eventually I was forced to reconsider that view.

beyond belief

Last month I published a piece over at the Hog Blog on biblical and theological illiteracy among scholars — basically a summary of some recent work by Tim Larsen. I thought I had noted a few distressing examples there … but wow, did I just have a you-ain’t-seen-nuthin’-yet moment. 

This review in the WSJ of a new book on the hymn “Amazing Grace” set my spidey-sense a-tingling — or rather, one passage from it did. I’ve been on the wrong end of reviewers’ careless dispensing of misinformation, so when I read this: 

Mr. Walvin is compelling in his description of the deep presence of “Amazing Grace” in Anglophone, especially American, culture. He is less persuasive in some of his theological observations: I find it vanishingly unlikely that the famous 19th-century evangelist Dwight Moody “portrayed Christ himself as a sinner . . . with whom armies of ordinary people could identify.” The 18th-century Church of England did not consist of a “Latin-based priesthood” conducting “impenetrable Latin-based worship” — that had been decisively seen off 200 years earlier. 

— I thought, That can’t be right. The author, James Walvin — a pretty eminent historian (primarily of The Atlantic slave trade) from the University of York — simply can’t have said those things. But lo and behold, here he is describing the D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey revival meetings in England: 

Their down-to-earth style filled the largest of city venues wherever they appeared. They held 285 such meetings in London alone. Theirs was a style which, inevitably, was heartily disliked by the more solemn corners of British worship. When Ira Sankey performed in the parish church in the small Derbyshire town of Chapel-en-le-Frith, one parishioner was so outraged that he thought the local bishop “will have something to say” to the curate who had invited him.

Throughout, Moody portrayed Christ himself as a sinner, a person with whom armies of ordinary people could identify. If Christ could be saved, so too could the humble and ordinary people in the audience. Salvation was there for all. This simple, seductive point, a potent message for the poor in the late nineteenth century, was exactly what John Newton himself had pressed home, in his letters and hymns a century before. Salvation was available to all who repented. 

And about Latin in the Church of England? Yep:  

Throughout his teenage years at sea, John Newton had been an avid reader, buying books wherever he landed and struggling with the religious principles imparted by his devout mother. Elizabeth Newton had instilled in her son a highly disciplined love of reading — and worship. She read Bible stories to him, teaching him to respond to the catechisms and to memorize hymns and psalms, especially those written for children. Elizabeth loved the hymns of Isaac Watts and her son inevitably followed. They were hymns noted for their simplicity, using ordinary, comprehensible language and were quite unlike the impenetrable Latin-based worship of the Church of England at that time. Watts’s hymns were an aspect of the ongoing Reformation that wrenched worship free from an exclusive, Latin-based priesthood and relocated it among ordinary people, simply by using the common vernacular. 

A few comments, typed with quivering hands: 

  1. The reviewer, Priscilla M. Jensen, calls these “theological observations,” but they are no such thing: they are historical statements that are catastrophically, outrageously wrong — the equivalent of saying that Benjamin Franklin was a Buddhist and that Frederick Douglass was a native speaker of French. They are so wrong, and wrong about facts so elementary, that I couldn’t possibly trust one word of Walvin’s book. Nor should any of you. 
  2. If Walvin thinks that “Christ could be saved,” by whom might that be accomplished? If Jesus Christ is one of the saved, who is the Savior? Perhaps Walvin could reflect on that name “Christ” — does he think that it’s Jesus’s surname, and that especially respectful people would refer to him as Mr. Christ? 
  3. If “throughout” his evangelistic sermons D. L. Moody called Mr. Christ a sinner, I would love to see just one example of it. But there isn’t one. It is not, as Jensen said, “vanishingly unlikely,” it is impossible. Moody’s entire theology — like that of every other orthodox Christian — was completely governed by his belief that, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” 
  4. James Walvin appears to be a Briton, in any case has certainly lived a number of years in Great Britain, and moreover has received a doctorate in history. How can he not know that the English prayer book was composed, issued, and mandated — with the Latin Mass correspondingly forbidden — nearly two hundred years before John Newton’s birth? 
  5. As Tim Larsen noted in the essay that got me onto this subject, “It takes a village” to disseminate ignorance this gross: James Walvin wrote the sentences I have quoted, but no peer reviewer noticed anything wrong, no editor, no copy editor — not one person in the whole complex process at the University of California Press knew enough even to question the claim that an evangelical preacher regularly proclaimed that Jesus Christ is a sinner, or that the average Church of England parish in the eighteenth century featured priests mumbling prayers in Latin. Never at any point was it thought necessary to have a manuscript on an English Christian hymn looked at by someone with an elementary knowledge of English Christianity. 
  6. Finally: Why — why, oh why, oh why — do people (scholars especially!) insist on writing books on subjects that they cannot be bothered to learn the basic facts about? Write on something you’re sufficiently interested in to learn about, for heaven’s sake! 

P.S. People often ask, “Don’t these presses have fact-checkers?” No. No, they don’t. Many magazines have fact-checkers — the ones at Harper’s, for instance, work me like a dog to justify my every claim — but publishing companies, even academic presses, typically don’t. They hope that their copy-editors — almost always freelancers — will catch howlers, but that’s about it. Certain kinds of books, biographies for instance, will get read by lawyers, but that’s not about avoiding statements that are wrong, that’s about avoiding statements that are actionable. (When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis a lawyer-reader flagged a comment I made about Charles Williams’s habit of asking pretty young women to sit on his lap so that his eros could be transformed miraculously into agape — Might Williams take exception to this statement, I was asked. I replied that, since he died in 1945, I didn’t think it likely.) 

ignorance, vincible and invincible

‘Childhood has been rewired’:

[Jonathan Haidt:] ‘TikTok and Twitter are incredibly dangerous for our democracy. I’d say they’re incompatible with the kind of liberal democracy that we’ve developed over the last few hundred years.’ He’s quite emphatic about all of this, almost evangelical. Which makes me think of his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, in which he argued about the danger of getting too caught up in your own bubble, believing your own spin. Might he be guilty of that here? Might it just be the case, I ask, that there’s less of a stigma around mental health now, so teenagers are far more likely to admit that they have problems?

‘But why is it, then, that right around 2013 all these girls suddenly start checking into psychiatric inpatient units? Or suicide – they’re making many more suicide attempts. The level of self-harm goes up by 200 or 300 per cent, especially for the younger girls aged ten to 14. So no, the idea that it’s just a change in self-report doesn’t hold any water because we see very much the same curves, at the same time, for behaviour. Suicide, certainly, is not a self-report variable. This is real. This is the biggest mental health crisis in all of known history for kids.’ 

People are absolutely desperate to believe that this isn’t true, but as Jean M. Twenge shows, the alternative explanations are getting less defensible by the day. 

One oddity of this: People used to worry desperately about boys being immersed in gaming, but it turns out that gaming is not as bad for young minds as social media, and therefore boys are not being as thoroughly traumatized as girls. The smartphone era is bad for boys, but it’s nightmarish for girls. 

My guess is that parents who continue to provide smartphones for their kids are, epistemically speaking, indistinguishable from those who declare that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. They cannot now back down; they have made themselves invincibly ignorant. Their sunk costs are just too great for them to consider evidence. They’ll keep doing what they’re doing, no matter the suffering their children undergo. 

Now, these people are not invincibly ignorant in the proper sense of that term: The truly invincibly ignorant are not culpable because they cannot remedy their ignorance. I am using, and perhaps abusing, the term by employing it to describe parents for whom the admission of tragic error is psychologically impossible

It’s noteworthy, I think, that in his current and forthcoming work Haidt links the smartphone plague with helicopter parenting: the very same parents who fret ceaselessly about their children’s safety, and prevent them from achieving independence, also put those kids in the way of certain dangers by tethering them to social media. Worse and worse!

But: Lenore Skenazy, of Free Range Kids fame/notoreity/infamy, writes on Haidt’s Substack about a new study demonstrating … well, you can put it two different ways. You can say that while parents accept that their kids need to be more independent, their actions don’t reflect that acceptance: they just keep on helicoptering and snowplowing. But today I choose to put the point more hopefully: Though most of them cannot yet break themselves of what they know to be very bad habits — they can’t summon the courage to take away their kids’ smartphones or let them walk to the local library by themselves — at least they know these habits are bad. Which is the necessary first step, after all. Maybe if I meditate on that I’ll become less despairing. 


P.S. On the other hand, I’m reading stories about how A.I. + social media = guys using their phones to make deepfake porn videos featuring their female classmates, so maybe parents who don’t take their kids’ smartphones and smash them to pieces should be sent to prison for, like, fifty years. 

Mann’s Joseph: 2

Joseph, unlike his ancestors, delights in the gods of the gentes: he knows their names and attributes. He thinks about them, he plays in his mind with those names and attributes; he can’t help himself. When Jacob comes upon his son in nude contemplation he thinks Joseph is “blowing kisses to the stars,” which the lad denies, but in a flood of verbiage — he is an incessant chatterbox and will one day pay mightily for it — that takes him right back into danger. He soon finds himself describing the worship of the Mesopotamian moon-god Sin, whose “day of festive contemplation,” Shapattu, is coming soon, and recalls that the moon does not shine on its own, no, we know that “He made it to shine” and —

“Who?” Jacob asked softly. “Who made it shine?”

Marduk-Baal!” Joseph cried all too hastily, but followed this at once with a long, drawn-out “Aeh-h-h-h,” shaking his head to undo it, and now continued, “… as He is called in the old tales. It is, however — as my dear papa has no need to learn from his poor child — the Lord of the gods, who is stronger than all the Annunaki and Baals of other nations, the god of Abraham, who defeated the dragon and created the threefold world.” (76)

Joseph is this, if not consciously and intentionally polytheistic, imaginatively so; moreover, he is, even when speaking conciliatory words to his father, not a strict monotheist but rather a henotheist — which suggests that that he thinks this may be acceptable to his father. (Mann is surely aware of the passages in the Hebrew Bible that sound henotheistic, for instance Psalm 95:3: “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”) But we readers know that it is not so acceptable. In this very chapter Mann describes a conversation Jacob had on just this subject with a man named Jebshe:

If the God who had established the sun, the signs along its path, and the planets, including the earth, was the highest God, then he was also the only god, and it would be best not even to speak of other gods, in such a case, otherwise one would be forced to label them with the name Jacob had refrain from using, precisely because reason demanded that the term and concept of “the highest God” be equated with the only God. [56]

Jacob is horrified by any suggestion that the gods of the gentes are to be treated with anything but contempt and revulsion, and Joseph has to employ his best and most charming eloquence to calm his father’s troubled spirit. (It is, fortunately for him, a task he is always up to.)

So this opening scene of the story-as-such establishes this tension between the single-minded devotion of Jacob to the Fear and Joseph’s playful delight in contemplating the religions of the gentes. It wouldn’t be right to say that Joseph simply is polytheistic. But he is inclined to enjoy correspondences and to seek whenever possible a reconciliation of opposing forces. The tetralogy as a whole is called Joseph and His Brothers, but I think in a more fundamental sense it’s about Joseph and his father. It explores the difference between a radical uncompromising monotheism and a more … flexible approach to matters of faith.

Mann’s Joseph: 1

There’s a long Prelude to the tetralogy — called “Descent into Hell” — which I may discuss later on. After the Prelude we enter the first of the four parts of the tetralogy, The Stories of Jacob. And while the main character of this book is (theoretically) Jacob, we don’t get his story in chronological order: we begin with a scene between Jacob and Joseph, his teenage son — indeed, we see Joseph before we see his father. This scene strikes certain notes which then resonate, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes discordantly, throughout the rest of the tetralogy.

The first substantive thing that we learn about Joseph is that he is widely and deeply aware of the religious practices of what the Israelites called the nations, the peoples that surround his little familial world. (“Nations” = Latin gentes = our word “gentiles.”) He sits, at evening, in a contemplative pose, and intently contemplates the moon. Or does he worship the moon? Moreover, the whole scene takes place under the influence, one might even say the patronage, of the goddess Ishtar, who gives her name to the first section of this first chapter. (Here, as is traditional, she is associated with the planet Venus.) Mann also tells us that there is something indefinably Egyptian about Joseph’s appearance.

Above I wrote of “Israelites,” but really there are no Israelites yet, just the family of the man born as Jacob and later re-named Israel — Yiśrā’ēl, “strives with God.” He is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham; so we are just three generations into this new adventure in human history — and, Mann says, a new adventure in the life of God. For one of the points that he makes at several points in the story is that Abraham was the man who invented God.

Mann doesn’t think that Jacob is literally the grandson of Abraham — he believes that many generations separate them — but he accepts that Jacob is in some … other sense Abraham’s grandson. Mann has a notion, often referred to in the narrative, that certain personalities recur generation after generation: people as it were imagine themselves into the lives of their ancestors, so that they become their own ancestors: they inhabit the stories they have inherited. So for instance, when Jacob comes upon the contemplative Joseph, the boy is naked, and Jacob tells him put to put some clothes on — and as he does he finds himself recalling the mirror image of his experience, the moment when Noah’s sons saw his nakedness, and Jacob fells that he is in some way entering into that story, a story he had been told by his father and grandfather. That’s what happens, in this narrative, to old stories: through inhabitation they are revivified, generation after generation. (This is the beginning of typology.) 

So Abraham learned certain essential stories which he then passed them down to his descendants, one of whom is Jacob. And the central story is that of Abraham himself having been called from his old life by God, a God who is jealous and singular — so much so that Abraham, reflecting on his encounters with this strange disembodied presence, comes to think that he is not encountered merely another god among the many gods, but Something more extreme, Something that can’t be classed with anything else. And this is the sense in which Abraham invents God: he discovers — or imagines; Mann allows the reader to judge, though he sometimes hints that this God really does exist, though perhaps only because Abraham imagined Him — a universal Deity, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Lord of all the nations, even the nations who do not recognize him. That’s the God Abraham invented, and that’s the God that that Jacob has inherited, and Jacob is fierce in his monotheism. He thinks always of his God and imitates Him. “El-Elyon’s choice and preference of some individuals, absent, or at least beyond, any merit on their part was absolute and splendid; by any human measure, it was hard to comprehend and unjust, a sublime emotional reality that was not to be quibbled with, but to be honored with trembling and rapture in the dust. And Jacob, himself aware – though in all humility and fear — that he was the object of such favor, imitated God by existing exuberantly on his own predilection and giving it free rein” (63).

But Joseph doesn’t think this way. Joseph is, as I said earlier, highly aware of the gods of the peoples whom the children of Abraham regularly encounter. The children of Abraham, these herdsman and wanderers, don’t occupy the cities where the gentes dwell, with their temples and priests. They may visit such places to trade goods, but they don’t live there. They live, rather, in the places between, in the fields and on the hills. They take their herds with them wherever they go, and when their herds flourish, they become people of real substance. They buy and trade, and that become substantial figures in the economy of their world, but they remain always nomadic, and have no need for a city, a city with a temple in the midst of it and statues of God to bow down before. The God they worship, and whose voice in the fields and on the hills they can hear, is the one who has called them out of a dead life and has accompanied them; is also the one with whom Jacob wrestled on the banks of a river. He is the Fear (Gen. 31:42). But Joseph may not be as fearful as his ancestors. 

greetings from Cahokia

Untitled

Among the novels written in the 21st century that I have read, my favorite is Francis Spufford’s Cahokia Jazz. (I’m going to call the author “Francis” because he is a dear friend – I’ll say more about this later – so calling him by his surname rings false to me.) But the concept of “favorite” is not an easy one to explain. I do not mean to say that I believe Cahokia Jazz to be the best even of Francis’s novels. I could, if lightly pressed, make a case for the superiority of Light Perpetual, which is a glorious and deeply moving book. But I am not pressed, and can say what I want, and what I want to say is this: I adore Cahokia Jazz, and I hope you will read it and adore it too. It’s available in the U.K. right now and will appear here in the U.S.A. early next year. 

Why do I delight in this story so much? Well, for one thing, it participates in a genre that I am especially fond of, the Alternate History Novel. I first fell in love with that kind of story when I was around fifteen and read Keith Roberts’s Pavane, a book I’ve never quite gotten over. Soon afterwards I read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and my attachment to the genre was fixed forever. What do I love so much about this kind of story? I suppose it’s the unannounced and waiting-to-be-noticed alternation between the known and the unknown, between world-as-it-is and world-as-might-have-been. You’re reading along, well-placed in a familiar history, and then something happens that you know did not happen. Or: you begin reading a story that seems to be set altogether otherwhere, and then something is mentioned that connects to the familiar, the established. I can’t explain it, but I love the frisson that happens when two histories brush against each other. I love not quite knowing how to understand the relation between those two histories, the long puzzle of figuring out the Same and the Different.

When I first read Cahokia Jazz I had an experience that you, dear reader, will not have. I’ll take an example from the first page of the book:

Barrow stepped carefully back towards the little hutch holding the door to the stairs. There was already a mess underfoot. As he expected, the uniform who’d called them in, from the phone down in the lobby, was waiting only a few steps down, on the narrow flight winding round the top of the elevator shaft. Just behind him was the night cleaner who’d found the door unlocked originally. She’d gone out onto the roof, and then run screaming onto Creekside to flag down the patrolman. Neither of them looked what you’d call avid. The cleaner, a heavyset taklousa in her forties, had her mouth clamped shut to hold in shock or nausea. The patroller, only twenty or so, was doing the classic takouma stone face – the set pose for male strength when something bad happened. He’d been out to the skylight too. Not rubberneckers, not spectators. Yet there they still were, keeping close; commanded somehow by the presence of death, compelled to wait attendance where it had visited. It took death repeated over and over, in Barrow’s experience, death repeated in quantities too great for meaning, to wear that solemnity away. It took a war. Soldiers could learn to just walk on by in the presence of death, not many other people.

Even from this you’ll probably get that this is a murder scene, that the story is (at least in part) a police procedural. (And that our protagonist is a former soldier.) But you don’t know what a taklousa is, or a takouma.

Neither did I, when I began the story – but then, what I got was the naked and unadorned first chapter. The events of Cahokia Jazz take place over six days: the book begins on a Monday and ends on a Saturday. And Francis sent me the story one day at a time, with some weeks or months intervening between my experience of one day and the next. Because I was utterly absorbed in the story from the first page, I found this both exhilarating and anxiety-producing: like Dickens’s American readers in 1841, wondering whether Little Nell would survive the next installment, I waited desperately at the quay of my Gmail inbox, holding my breath in anticipation of the next Day of the story.

Nothing in what Francis sent me told me what a taklousa is, or a takouma, or for that matter a takata (mentioned for the first time on page 7); nor are we told what it means for someone to be addressed as tastanagi, or what a, or the, tamaha is. I had to figure all this out out as I went along, which I loved doing – and so, long-experienced in the publishing world as I am, I wrote to Francis to say Your editors will demand a glossary, you must refuse to provide or even allow a glossary. Thanks be to God, there’s no glossary in the book … but there is a brief explanatory note at the beginning, between the map and the first chapter, and while it’s handled with skill and grace I encourage you to skip over it if you can. It deprives you of a pleasure. (Editors – I suppose this must be their job – always think in terms of the less active and committed kind of reader, the one who needs some hand-holding. Sometimes reviewers of my books complain that I have made something too explicit, and I always want to say The editors made me do it, dummy.)

So: I’d love for all of you to read this book while knowing no more than I knew when I read it. But if you need, or just want, to know more, well, further info is coming after the break.


Still here? Okay, so: Alternate-history novels grow from What-Ifs. Here are the relevant ones for Cahokia Jazz:

What if the variety of smallpox that Europeans brought to the New World was a less deadly one than the one that devastated a continent? (There are less deadly ones.) What if as a result a large Native American population survived colonization? What if a common trade pidgin of the American colonial era – to be specific, the Mobilian trade jargon – became a full-fledged language, capable of serving as a binding agent for the many takouma – um, I mean, Native American – cultures of the American South and Southwest? And what if as a result the old abandoned city of Cahokia was rebuilt into a great modern city, populated by several varying ethnicities, dominating its region so that you get moments like this:

They left him in the village of St. Louis, which was a church, a gas station and a general store, clustered under dripping oak trees. There was a sign, put up by the state historical society, saying the place had been founded by a French settler in 16-something. It didn’t seem to have grown much since.

I love stuff like that.

Francis has commented on some of his key concerns — and some of his key challenges in writing this story — over at Goodreads:

People who read fantasies or alternate histories talk a lot – too much, perhaps – about “world-building,” but the world-building is impeccable here, by which I mean appropriately detailed: enough to enable a fully imagined environment, but not so busy and cumbersome to be a distraction. (To all those writers of fantasy who think that if they are as meticulous as Tolkien was their book will be as powerful as The Lord of the Rings, I say: There is only one Tolkien, and there will never be another.)

One tiny example, drawing on one of the several delightful cameos in the book. At one point, late in the story, our hero is at Cahokia’s railway station and happens to see a family, “pale, shabby-grand, and relocating with their life’s possessions” – including, curiously enough, butterfly nets: “white Russians on their way to Kodiak, by the look of it.” One of them, “a lanky twenty-something in flannels and tennis shoes,” is called by his family Vovka, and he briefly assists our hero. Then off they go, leaving our story as abruptly as they had arrived in it. Assuming that they made their way to Kodiak – or, more formally, as our map tells us, NOVAYA SIBIRSKAYA TERRITORII – it is unlikely that their world ever knew Lolita or Pale Fire. But what might they, in their timeline inaccessible to us, possess instead? This we do not know. About this we are free to imagine

I’ll have more to say later, more especially about the story as a story, which I found both enthralling and touching. But first I need to do some Thomas Mann while his story of Joseph is fresh in my mind. For now, I just wanted to make sure all y’all know about this wonderful book. 

the smoker

They came, as all extremists do
In time, to a sort of grandeur … 

— Richard Wilbur, “The Undead” 


There’s a kind of patio in front of this hotel and a man sits there, smoking a cigarette.  

I arrived at this hotel three days ago and he was already there. 

When I awake in the morning — I peer out of my window, look down — he is there. 

When I go to my car, he is there. 

When I ready myself for bed, he is there. Smoking. 

He has neither phone nor book. He listens to nothing — nothing that you or I could hear — and appears to look at nothing, except, perhaps, the tiles that floor the patio.   

It could be that he has neither sight nor hearing, that he is only mouth and lungs. 

He sits by a table, but nothing is on the table: no pack of Marlboros, no lighter. 

He wears a loose casual shirt and nylon trousers. 

It is as though he has one cigarette he smokes eternally. It never burns down, but eternally renews itself. 

“Purity of heart is to will one thing,” said Kierkegaard. This man has the purest of hearts. 

When I check out today, he will surely still be there, and I will try to catch his eye. But I have little hope of that. 

Perhaps I will return to this hotel in a year or two and find him still there, smoking. 

Perhaps I alone can see him. 

Mann’s Joseph: Prelude

I recently read Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers — one of the more extraordinary reading experiences of my recent years. I had started it once, decades ago, and then again a few years later, but it’s probably been 25 years since I’ve even tried to read it.

I have a kind of instinct for reading, or at least I think I do. I always have plans for what to read; sometimes I follow those plans and sometimes I don’t. But every now and then I’ll be planning a series of books to read, or articles and essays — or maybe I’ll actually be in the middle of reading something — when I’ll suddenly think, You need to drop what you’re doing and read this other thing instead. That doesn’t happen often; two or three times a year, maybe. But it is an inner prompting (like Socrates’s δαιμόνιον) that I have learned to obey. I don’t know where it comes from, but I do know that when the impulse comes I find it irresistible. I have learned to accept the prompt and to be grateful for it.

So: a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of planning some reading, and I looked up from whatever I had on my lap, my computer or my notebook, and my eyes fell on my copy of Joseph and His Brothers, and I thought: It’s time to read that. I did, and I couldn’t possibly be happier that I did; it’s an outrageously brilliant work of art. While reading I had thought that I might write a long essay about the experience of reading this book, but on further consideration I doubt that my responses to it would fit into an essay. They’re too complicated and digressive. (In that sense, they’re much like the book itself.) So I’ll be writing about it here, on themes and topics and events that interest me, in no particular order. It’s not the sort of book that you comprehend on one reading – it’s not the sort of book that you can even confidently navigate in in one reading – so my attempt to write about it will require me to re-navigate it, to return and reread and rethink and reconsider. Stay tuned. I mean, if you’re into this kind of thing. 

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