Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Adam Roberts (page 1 of 1)

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.

the sovereignty of mercy

In his sixth-and-lastly LOTR post, Adam Roberts graciously responds to my recent attempts to correct his errors, and this leads him into some fascinating territory, e.g. “the lack, or apparent lack, of the death penalty in Middle Earth.” 

I can think of two examples in LOTR of a death penalty having been decreed, and they come close together: those who wander in Ithilien without the permission of the Lord Steward of Gondor, and those who come to Henneth Annûn, the Forbidden Pool, are alike to be killed. Yet Faramir overrides both decrees, in the full knowledge that his decisions, if his father hears about them, could cost him his own life. What underlies those decisions he explains to Sam, when the young hobbit rashly challenges Faramir’s treatment of Frodo: 

‘Patience!’ said Faramir, but without anger. ‘Do not speak before your master, whose wit is greater than yours. And I do not need any to teach me of our peril. Even so, I spare a brief time, in order to judge justly in a hard matter. Were I as hasty as you, I might have slain you long ago. For I am commanded to slay all whom I find in this land without the leave of the Lord of Gondor. But I do not slay man or beast needlessly, and not gladly even when it is needed. Neither do I talk in vain. So be comforted. Sit by your master, and be silent!’  

That is, Faramir has internalized the very standards that, as Adam notes, Gandalf articulates in the second chapter of the whole novel, “The Shadow of the Past”: the sovereignty (among moral imperatives) of pity and mercy. Gandalf on Bilbo: “It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.” Faramir is indeed what his father accuses him of being: “a wizard’s pupil.” 

“Sovereignty” is a key concept here, as Carl Schmitt realized when he said that the sovereign is whoever or whatever can “declare the state of exception.” Faramir assumes a local sovereignty when he overrides the death penalty in these two cases — as, by the way, do Eomer (when he allows Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas to ride free in the Mark rather than bring them back to Theoden) and Háma, the doorward of Theoden, whose charge is to deprive visitors of their weapons:  

‘The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age,’ said Háma. He looked hard at the ash-staff on which Gandalf leaned. ‘Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom. I believe you are friends and folk worthy of honour, who have no evil purpose. You may go in.’ 

So you can see that one of the great themes in the middle two books of the novel is the necessity of wisdom — of prudential judgment that overrides the letter of the law. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle says that any law is necessarily deficient because of its generality, so wise rulers will need to develop the virtue of ἐπιείκεια (epieikeia), a word impossible to translate: in many contexts it means clemency, gentleness, or, yes, mercy, but Aristotle seems to mean something broader: perhaps discretion is the best one-word translation. But discretion will typically, for Aristotle, involve relaxing or modulating the demands of the law. In any case, again and again in LOTR the success of our heroes depends on their encountering people in power who manifest such ἐπιείκεια. 

But what is the origin of the laws they they thus relax? It seems that in every case they arise from personal decrees by rulers. (Denethor speaks and it is so.) Because the Shire doesn’t have a ruler, the hobbits who live there seem to depend not on law at all but rather custom. The law in any sense recognizable to us — an entity like the Code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic law — doesn’t appear to exist in Middle-Earth. 

And I wonder if this absence of Law-as-such is related to the (oft-noted) absence of Religion-as-such. Our word religion comes from the Latin religio which in turn probably comes from religare, to bind. To be “religious” is to bind oneself to certain beliefs and practices. But in this context to bind is a reverberant notion: we may well think of the One Ring as the One Religion and One Law of Middle-Earth in the Third Age. It is noteworthy that most of the various decrees which good men exercise their ἐπιείκεια to relax were created in response to the increasing power and ambition of Mordor. Those who act wisely in this book seem to be aware, perhaps not quite consciously, that decrees made in order to respond to Mordor will likely be tainted by Mordor’s logic of power. Eomer and Háma and especially Faramir seem to intuit another logic, a greater logic of ἐπιείκεια that comes not from the decrees of the sovereign but rather … well, from where? 

When I teach The Lord of the Rings I take my students through the book’s oddly pervasive use, in certain circumstances, of the passive voice. Gandalf  tells Frodo that he and Bilbo were meant to find the Ring; Frodo asks, “Why was I chosen?” — by whom, we wonder; Elrond tells the council gathered at Rivendell that they were called there (“though I did not call you.”) There are many more examples. Says Gandalf, “Behind that” — Bilbo’s finding of the Ring — “there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.” But what? No one seems to know, though perhaps Gandalf does know and is reluctant (or forbidden) to say. But whatever it is, it seems to whisper of the sovereignty of mercy above that of legal decree. It shows us a world in which penalties of death are declared, but are then abrogated by the wise and kind. A world in which Schmitt’s “state of exception” is indeed instituted, but not by the power-hungry — rather, by the merciful, no matter what it costs them. 

self-sacrifice and despair

Adam Roberts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

excerpts from my Sent folder: angels

This is from an email conversation with my friend Adam Roberts about a recent post of his. N.B.: We’re in medias res here. 

It doesn’t take long to get into intractable difficulties, does it? I don’t know the solution to any of them, of course, but the most obvious one goes something like this, I think:

Though Milton’s God is not always identical with what I would call the Christian God, I do believe he’s in the general vicinity when he says that he made all the rational creatures “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” This suggests that obedience can only be valuable and beautiful when a creature possesses the moral imagination to consider and reject disobedience. You could even say that this is what rational freedom is: the exercise of moral imagination. A creature cannot be virtuous unless it can imagine being vicious.

And imagining sin is not the same as doing it, which is to say that there is some distinction between imagination and will; and that in turn means (as everyone who reflects on these matters ultimately realizes) is it difficult to say when the Fall actually happens, for angels or humans. It’s the crossing of this invisible line from imagining something to willing it. For Milton’s Satan it seems to have happened at the moment that he “thought himself impaired.” (Presumably something very similar happens to all the other rebel angels — if they fell only because they were tempted by Lucifer, then presumably God would extend the same grace to them that he extends to humans.)


  1. All rational creatures have both the strength to stand and the freedom to fall; 
  2. Their moral imagination allows them to understand what falling might be; 
  3. Satan and the other rebel angels move on their own from imagining to willing disobedience; 
  4. Adam and Eve also make that move, but as a result of external temptation; 
  5. Therefore, God extends grace to Adam and Eve but not to the angels. 

I think that’s coherent, if not necessarily convincing; though of course it leaves a thousand other questions unanswered (e.g. Milton gets himself into an enormous amount of trouble, I think, by having Eve so openly chafe against the authority of Adam).

But to pull back from this scene for a moment: The various scenarios you outline in a previous email — your delineation of (a) kinds created (b) numbers created (c) proportions of the Obedient and the Disobedient — confine themselves to this world, and we don’t know whether this world is the only one populated by rational creatures with moral imagination. So CSL imagines a whole solar system of such creatures and suggests that our world is the only fallen one. What if we extend that to the whole galaxy, the whole universe? Setting aside Fermi’s Paradox, this could be an unimaginably vast universe absolutely full of rational creatures praising their Creator and rejoicing in their obedience to Him … while we alone are the broken ones. Earth, then, becomes the cosmic version of the tiny closet in which the one poor child suffers in Omelas.

the tongues of men and angels

Milton, Angels, Mortals: a Story Idea | by Adam Roberts: This will be a very busy day, so I don’t have time to engage with this as fully as I desperately want to do, so consider this a bookmark, and these as first thoughts: 

  • In this scenario, angels are bitcoin and people are money. 
  • The angels/humans relationship looks a good bit like that of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s legendarium, except that Elves do have children (just not many of them). 
  • Maybe in light of that one element of this history would be the fallen angels trying to figure out how to have children. Would they pursue this technologically? Or would they, like the people in The Children of Men, make do with surrogates? 
  • Adam envisions the faithful angels remaining in Heaven with God, but why would they do that? If in the orthodox Christian understanding (faithful) angels are among us, why wouldn’t they be in Adam’s imagined world? 

More … eventually. 

the end of The This

Start with Adam’s post about this podcast. In the podcast, Bill, Joel, and their guest Phil do a great deal to illuminate Adam’s novel The This — if you haven’t read the novel, you should, and if you have read it, you should listen to the podcast because you’ll learn a lot. I certainly did. 

(And if Adam hadn’t warned me, I would have been greatly surprised to hear my name come up in the discussion! As Phil — I think it was Phil — says, Adam and Francis Spufford and I aren’t quite an -ism but we do form a kind of “vector.” I should think more about what that vector is. All I know for sure is that I greatly value my friendship with these two and don’t think that as a writer I am worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence with them.) 

There are a thousand things I could say about The This, but for now — prompted by the podcast — I just want to talk about the brief final chapter. Because what I think is going on there is Adam playing the role of Alcibiades.

That final chapter says, 

You are an old man, living in a European city big for its era, small by later standards, a philosopher, a teacher, a student. You, a subject of the king, have made Spirit the object of your study. You, objectively, wrote a book whose subject is Spirit. The bacterium Vibrio cholera enters your system and propagates through your gut. You experience fever, shivers, severe stomach pains. There is no diarrhoea and no swelling, and initially the physicians are hopeful. But you grow iller. You vomit gall. You cannot urinate. You begin hiccuping violently. You lie in your bed, on your side, the sheets damp from your sweat. You are shaking. You cannot stop hiccuping. You stare at the wall.

The dying old man is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and here you should know two things. The first is that a very similar chapter concludes Adam’s earlier novel The Thing Itself, only in that one it’s Immanuel Kant dying. Philosophers die, just as the rest of us do. The second thing you should know is Kierkegaard’s comment that Hegel’s philosophical System is a vast magnificent castle, and he lives in a little shack just outside it. Because all of us live in those little shacks, no matter how glorious our external constructions. 

You are a man, you live a lonely life, you grow old and die. You are a man, you live a life rich with friends and lovers, you grow old and die.

You live, you die. Not another person. Nobody can die for you. You have to do this yourself. 

That’s how it is. And here’s how else it is: 

You see, love is not an abstraction. It’s not a theory or a cosmic force or a slogan or any kind of diffuseness spread across the world. Love is particular. You do not love in general, you love this person, this thing, this life, you love this, this, this, this, this, and this, and this, and this loves you back. This is the only thing in the world, and it is precise and specific and real, and it is everything and infinitude. 

Which brings us to Alcibiades. 

Plato’s Symposium, many scholars over the years have said, — well, here’s one of them, Gregory Vlastos: the “cardinal flaw in Plato’s theory” is that “it does not provide for love of whole persons, but only for love of that abstract version of persons which consists of the complex of their best qualities. This is the reason why personal affection ranks so low in Plato’s scala amoris.” But as Martha Nussbaum points out, to say this is to assume that the speech of Diotima in the Symposium, narrated by Socrates and described by him as a view that has “persuaded” him, is Plato’s view. The problem, Nussbaum says, is that that’s not a safe assumption. 

For after all the participants in this symposium (including Diotima-by-way-of-Socrates) have had their say about the nature of love, Alcibiades shows up, drunk and voluble, and he provides the dialogue’s final account. Nussbaum: “Diotima connects the love of particulars with tension, excess, and servitude; the love of a qualitatively uniform ‘sea’ with health, freedom, and creativity.” But Alcibiades says this is all horseshit. “Asked to speak about Love, Alcibiades has chosen to speak of a particular love; no definitions or explanations of the nature of anything, but just a story of a particular passion for a particular contingent individual. Asked to make a speech, he gives us the story of his own life: the understanding of eros he has achieved through his own experience.” Asked to speak about Love, that distinguished abstraction, he instead tells stories about how much he loves Socrates — and in that way gives the lie to the account of Love by which Socrates himself has been persuaded. (Alcibiades has no “account of Love” — he doesn’t think it exists.) 

Much of the The This portrays our various attempts to escape from … well, from this world, this space/time nexus, this life. Just on the pages that immediately precede the one I have quoted from we have the Hegelian Absolute, the timeless aesthetic perfection of Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure dome,” the cyclical temporality of Joyce’s (and Vico’s) “commodious recirculation” — all ways to answer the question “Is this all there is?” with a strong firm NO. But the brief final chapter of the novel, in which Adam seems to speak in his own voice, rejects all such Systems and schemes as false comfort — or rather, as false and ultimately comfortless. What we have is not the Absolute but the This: this life, this love, and, in the end (there is an end), this death. 

My view as a Christian is, of course, that they’re all wrong. (A topic for another post, which would begin by quoting Auden’s poem “Friday’s Child.”) But Adam is less wrong than those who seek to escape the this. He sees that, if we would understand our quotidian vale of tears and our place in it, we need poems and novels — accounts of our particulars — more than we need Systems “or any kind of diffuseness spread across the world.” 

And maybe that’s the vector where Adam and Francis and I meet: Love calls us to the things of this world

violence and boredom

Adam Roberts, from an essay that (caveat lector) is full of explicit violence:

Be honest: when I confessed, early on in this post, how squeamish I am about the representation of violence in art, did you nod in agreement with me? Or, on the contrary, did you find yourself tut-tutting: really? you don’t have the stomach for this kind of art? what kind of weakling are you, Adam? Man that’s lame: I’m certainly tougher than that. Perhaps part of the appeal of this art is that we flatter ourselves that we can take it. We might even egg ourselves on to watch increasingly violent representations. That’s how desensitization works. The political logic of ‘toughness’ is that we need to ‘toughen up’ (to ‘grow a pair’, to ‘man the fuck up’) whenever our conscience prompts us to show compassion for our fellow human beings. That we need to harden our hearts, like pharaoh. 

Adam’s developing a theory here, a pretty complicated one, and I need to think it over. But for now, just a few brief comments. 

(1) Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay about how much people love TV shows about animals eating other animals: 

But I have found that whenever I point out this rage for watching predators devour their prey, nearly everyone defends the shows, and their arguments almost always use the same terms: The old nature documentaries sanitized and prettified the animal world, disguising from us the harsh truth of “nature red in tooth and claw.” These newer documentaries merely present to us The Way Things Are — and thus are beyond reproach.

Now it is true that predation is part of The Way Things Are, but sleeping is even more a part of The Way Things Are: For every hour a lioness spends hunting she spends a dozen sleeping, yet our television documentaries picture few somnolent cats. And the hard, slow work that hunting chiefly amounts to is given insignificant representation in comparison to the moment at which the claws catch an antelope and the teeth tear its neck. Moreover, animals who eat also defecate, yet I cannot remember seeing our intrepid documentarians exploring that subject with telephoto lenses and extreme slow motion. 

My chief point was this: We have to begin our reflection on these matters by acknowledging a simple fact: People watch shows like this because they like it. Only then can we go on to ask why people like it. There’s a lot of squirming evasion of that first and essential point. I think the same thing is true of fictional violence against human beings (or other sentient creatures): People enjoy writing it, and other people enjoy reading it. So I think that Category One in this discourse needs to be pleasure, enjoyment. 

(2) I don’t like it. I never have and I expect I never will. I do not mean to be self-praising here; there are plenty of things I do like that I shouldn’t. But from my early childhood I’ve been the same way about violence in all its forms. When I was six years old and my grandfather and father took me bird-hunting I would think, every minute, Why are we doing this? Why would you want to kill another creature? I understood the need to kill, in order to eat; I even understood choosing to eat meat when it’s not necessary to eat meat; I couldn’t and can’t understand taking pleasure in killing. I sometimes found it disturbing, but always and to a far stronger degree I found it boring. And I feel the same way about violence in movies and in fiction. This crap again? I just can’t bring myself to read it unless duty requires it, and in those cases I can barely restrain my sighs and eyerolls. 

(3) You may therefore be unsurprised to know that I am colossally bored by the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, who combines ridiculous levels of violence with a cod-Faulknerian style that was barely tolerable when Faulkner himself deployed it. I think James Wood, in a 2005 essay on McCarthy, gets at something important: 

McCarthy has said, in interviews, that there is “no such thing as life without bloodshed,” and that the novelist’s proper occupation is with death. His work gives eloquent witness to this vision. Lester Ballard, watching two hawks, reflects that “he did not know how hawks mated but he knew that all things fought.” Judge Holden, in Blood Meridian, proclaims that war endures “because young men love it and old men love it in them.” The Duena Alfonsa in All the Pretty Horses announces that “what is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God — who knows all that can be known — seems powerless to change.” McCarthy risks being accused of appearing to relish the violence he so lavishly records; this is the fate of the stylist who stoops to gore, and it seems an unfair complaint (though one never feels, as one always does in Dostoyevsky, the novelist flinching from the suffering he is recording). The problem with a novel like No Country for Old Men is that it cannot give violence any depth, context, or even reality. The artificial theatre of the writing makes the violence routine and showy. And McCarthy’s idea — his novelistic picture of life’s evil is limited, and literal: it is only ever of physical violence. Though one wouldn’t want to turn McCarthy into Henry James, there are surely ways to use a novel to register the more impalpable forms of evil and violence as well as the palpable. 

This seems to me right about McCarthy, and even more right about Dostoevsky. 

(4) Adam’s novels are not without violence themselves, though never (to my recollection) in the delighted grimdark mode. Does he, I wonder, have to overcome his own “squeamishness” to write such passages? 

New ways of war: Adam Liptak on Adam Roberts’s 2010 novel New Model Army — which, as it happens, I wrote about here, a decade ago. It’s an endlessly generative story, it seems. 

not for me

In a recent post that links back to an earlier post, my friend Adam Roberts talks about his lasting affection for Robert Graves’s book The White Goddess. When I was about eighteen, an older friend who loved that book pressed it on me, and because I trusted his judgment, I bought a copy of the book and sat down quite eagerly to read it. But it wholly defeated me. I found it almost literally unreadable. What I mean by that is that my eyes passed over all the words but I simply couldn’t figure out how they were related to one another. I made a strenuous effort but eventually set it aside.

I’ve tried several times over the years but have yet to get through The White Goddess. My most recent attempt was about six months ago, and I still find the book unreadable – though in a different way than I did forty years ago. Then I just couldn’t comprehend Graves at all; now I read a paragraph and think: “I believe there are a dozen demonstrably false statements in that one paragraph.” And even though I know that, as Adam says, the value of Graves’s book doesn’t depend on his being historically accurate, the sheer number of erroneous statements – some of them ludicrously wrong – just overwhelms me.

Another friend, Austin Kleon, wrote a post a few years ago on the virtues of saying “It wasn’t for me.” Not a judgment on the book; not a judgment on me; just a mismatch. The White Goddess and I are mismatched. Might that ever change? Austin knows that it’s possible: 

It wasnt for me

But in this case I have serious doubts. I’ve given this book forty years to connect with me; I think that’s enough.

this vs. The This

C. S. Lewis, from The Discarded Image:

If the reader will suspend his disbelief and exercise his imagination upon it even for a few minutes, I think he will become aware of the vast re-adjustment involved in a perceptive reading of the old poets. He will find his whole attitude to the universe inverted. In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity; in this, he stands at the bottom of a stair whose top is invisible with light.

You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous.

Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely. 

Let’s set aside the question of whether “medieval man” really existed in the way that Lewis suggests — whether this vision was as widely shared as he seems to have thought. Certainly it was the aspiration of many of the greatest thinkers and poets of that era to ground our experience in this sense of the cosmos as a harmonious and coherent structure — one in which (let me stress the point) none of us never need be lonely.  

Now I want to move from from that vision through some commonplaces of intellectual history, commonplaces that tend to be used in crassly general ways but remain useful. So: the collapse of this Medieval Model left many people disoriented – “New philosophy calls all in doubt,” as John Donne famously wrote — and that in turn led to a variety of attempts to to tether us to some firmament with cords strong enough to prevent us from floating away and becoming lost in the cosmos. Perhaps we are grounded by our faith in God, or by our belief that we are among God’s Elect; or perhaps we seek a humbler grounding in our understanding that like other human beings we are rational and sociable and can on the basis of those traits construct a modern moral order. But when all of these projects to one degree or another founder, when they fail to gain complete assent, we find ourselves at the outset of what we now call the the Romantic period with a sense of lostness and loneliness. 

What I want to emphasize here is the radically divergent ways in which the dominant figures of the Romantic era sought to address that lostness, that loneliness. On the one hand, we have intensely material visions — for instance, the “stately pleasure dome” of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, “girdled round” with great walls and towers, within which lay “gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.” On the other hand, we also have visions like that of Hegel, in which the material world gives way to Spirit, perfect in its Absolute abstraction. Here, this dome, this tree; there, the universal This. Rival visions of how we might flourish. We need not wander lonely as a cloud because we are grounded, tethered, connected — but connected to what? Aye, that is the question.

I am now describing Adam Roberts’s new novel The This, which, as is usual with Adam, is positively fizzing with ideas, in such a way and to such a degree that any description of it cannot convey its hyper-associative wovenness. So when I say that the contrast I have just described is what the novel is fundamentally about, that is both true and untrue. It’s a novel and not a treatise, a story and not an argument. But still, one important thing the book says to me is that our current mixture of Feels about social media — our excitement at being connected with others and our dread of being absorbed into the Borg — our desire for solidarity and our fear of being coerced into some lockstep collective — our imagining of some near-future Singularity as somehow at once a consummation and an annihilation — all this is an extension of the rival visions of our ancestors of 200 years ago. We are all Romantics now. Still. 

And while I think that is correct, I also want to note that Plato saw all this coming a long, long time ago. It is indeed what one of his most famous dialogues is all about. Nobody shows this more vividly than Martha Nussbaum, in her brilliant reading of the Symposium (originally a journal article, reprinted as the sixth chapter of The Fragility of Goodness). Here is how she summarizes the contrast between the (proto-Hegelian) views of Socrates and the earthier Romanticism of Alcibiades: 

Socratic knowledge of the good, attained through pure intellect operating apart from the senses, yields universal truths and, in practical choice, universal rules. If we have apprehended the form, we will be in possession of a general account of beauty, an account that not only holds true of all and only instances of beauty, but also explains why they are correctly called instances of beauty, and grouped together. Such understanding, once attained, would take priority over our vague, mixed impressions of particular beautifuls. It would tell us how to see.

The lover’s understanding, attained through the supple interaction of sense, emotion, and intellect … yields particular truths and particular judgments. It insists that those particular intuitive judgments are prior to any universal rules we may be using to guide us. A lover decides how to respond to his or her lover not on the basis of definitions or general prescriptions, but on the basis of an intuitive sense of the person and the situation, which, although guided by general theories, is not subservient to them. This does not mean that their judgments and responses are not rational. Indeed, Alcibiades would claim that a Socratic adherence to rule and refusal to see and feel the particular as such is what is irrational. To have seen that, and how, how, Socrates is like nobody else, to respond to him as such and to act accordingly, is the rational way to behave towards another individual. Nor does it mean that this love neglects the repeatable general features in which Socrates is interested: for Alcibiades sees Socrates’ virtues and is moved by them. But his knowledge sees more, and differently; it is an integrated response to the person as unique a whole. 

I think Adam is right to suggest, in The This, that the particular ways we experience this divergence of ideals are highly indebted to (or are simply a continuation of) the Romantic era; but its roots go much deeper. Also, I think Adam and I take the same side in this apparently eternal debate, though with certain differences that I won’t get into here because SPOILERS. 

There’s so much more to say about this wonderful book! But I have to stop there. I enjoy all of Adam’s novels, but this is one I’ll be returning to — perhaps on this very blog. Do please read it! 

Roberts on Taylor

My friend Adam Roberts is doing a read-through of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I started to comment on his most recent post and then realized that I didn’t have enough room. So I’m posting my comment here. 

Adam, I think one of the weaknesses of Taylor’s book is that he doesn’t often enough remind us of the scope of his argument (and its limits). But in this case he does say, in a passage you quote, that he’s talking about a change that he believes happened after 1500. So nothing from the early history of Christianity is directly relevant to the argument.

As I read the broad sweep of his case, adding in the proper qualifiers that he sometimes forgets to add, it goes something like this:

1) The Middle Ages in Western Europe is characterized by a long process by which the Catholic Church consolidated an intellectual framework for understanding the world and humans’ place in it. We are porous selves, open to the divine and demonic alike, and the Church uniquely offers access to the former and prevents entry by the latter. By emphasizing its uniqueness, it gradually disciplines and masters much of the theological pluralism that had characterized earlier ages. (You may see this as the gaining of a valuable unity, as Catholics do, or as the imposition of spiritual totalitarianism, as Simone Weil did; but it happened anyway.) This doesn’t mean that you don’t get dissent, but dissent is dealt with

2) This understanding was disrupted by the emergence of the various movements we lump together under the category of Reformation. Great social unrest ensued, but for Taylor the significant point is that intellectual confusion ensued. “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” says Donne. “A dissociation of sensibility set in,” etc. So far, so Eliotic. 

N.B. This is where I think we get some serious slippage in Taylor, because the earlier understanding of porous selves nurtured and protected by the Church was a universal one, shared by the unlearned and the learned alike. From this point on, though, I am often confused about whether he’s describing movements among the intellectual elite or within European society as a whole. I think he has a kind of trickle-down theory, but he doesn’t account as he should for the widely varying speed of the trickling in different cultures. Sometimes he writes as if the changes he describes are happening all over Europe, when in fact they’re only happening, in a serious way anyhow, in England and the Netherlands. 

Just as he operates with an implicit trickle-down theory of intellectual change, Taylor also, I think, holds the “ideas have consequences” view of social change: that is, he treats intellectual changes as occurring within a largely intellectual causal environment, after which those ideas have social effects. I think this is wrong. I am not an economic determinist, but I do find much more persuasive those accounts that see economic and intellectual changes in a dialogical or dialectical way, as mutually interanimating — books like Dierdre McCloskey’s bourgeois trilogy or Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Anyway, onwards: 

3) Intellectuals respond to this disruption and dissociation by building what Taylor calls the Modern Moral Order, in which human beings are understood as (a) rational, (b) sociable, and (c) buffered selves who flourish through the pursuit of disciplined practices, social and personal, that are in principle available to all. Again, Taylor seems to see this concept trickle down from pointy-heads like Locke to the whole society of increasingly energetic bourgeois. 

4) But this Order, while workable for a while, comes to seem dull and flat, too limited in its understanding of human flourishing, too … secular. And that’s where the Nova comes in. The Nova is a series of increasingly varied ways to pry open those buffers and let the divine back in: Maybe through a Catholic retrenchment (Chateaubriand), maybe through evangelistic revival (the Methodists), maybe through quasi-mystical encounters with the natural world (Wordsworth) maybe through a high metaphysics of the Sacred Self (Rousseau) — or maybe, and you know this argument from me, through artistic experiences that allow us to have a temporary vacation from the Modern Moral Order without radically questioning it. Meanwhile, others double down on the MMO and embrace a wholly secularized world, as when Laplace’s cosmology doesn’t acknowledge God because he “had no need for that hypothesis.” 

In conclusion, sir: Taylor would respond to your post by saying that the Nova initiates an era of intellectual/religious/spiritual pluralism that (a) would have been unimaginable in the year 1500 and (b) is dramatically more pluralistic than the early Christian church because it makes public room for belief systems that have no use for Jesus at all, and maybe not for any kind of God. You rightly note as the great variety of Christian heresies — or of Christian theologies later designated as heresies — but in comparison to a world in which Wesley and Wordsworth and Bronson Alcott, Laplace and Chateaubriand and Ben Franklin, all rub shoulders, it seems to offer a relatively narrow set of options. 

the meaning of Purgatory

Hbg title 9781473230965 24 jpg

I read Adam Roberts’s Purgatory Mount in draft, and struggled to know what to make of it. I have now read its final version, and find it an exceptionally resonant and moving story – though I acknowledge that people who aren’t comfortable with Adam’s peculiarly associative intelligence (imagine his mind comprised of chess pieces, all of them knights) may find some of the narrative linkages he forges here difficult to parse. And Adam shares with certain other writers, most notably Auden and Pynchon, a tendency to cast his most serious inquiries in comic form.

As I set the book aside, I found myself thinking several thoughts:

  • That culture is what we humans make together;
  • That culture is memory;
  • That memory is imperfect;
  • That among the things we remember will always be sins and wrongs, those done to us, and those we do to others;
  • That the Book of Common Prayer teaches us something utterly inevitable about “these our misdoings,” namely that “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable”;
  • That, therefore, much of the essential work of culture – always – is the addressing of such remembrances and such burdens; and, finally,
  • That this work must often be done in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, not least because of the imperfections of memory and the imperfections of the people who remember.

Some years ago Adam and I joined with Rowan Williams and Francis Spufford for a theological conversation about Adam’s novel The Thing Itself; Purgatory Mount is also a novel that cries out for theological reflection. I hope it gets it.

The two epigraphs that Adam prepends to his story are wisely and wittily chosen, but I would like to suggest one more, from “East Coker”:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

three characters in search of forgiveness

In his online notebook, my friend Adam Roberts is reflecting on a certain kind of fictional character, the Murderbot kind, the Winter Soldier kind, and reflecting also on a certain intensity of fascination with them. I have to say that I’m not totally sure I understand Adam’s account, but if I do understand it I don’t think I agree with his conclusion. That is, I don’t think people who stan for Murderbot and Bucky Barnes are associating their own sins with those of the characters. I think they’re trying out a little thought experiment to answer a question: Under what conditions might forgiveness of great sin be possible?

And I think this is an important question because, as I never tire of saying, our society “retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.” In my reading, the interest of characters like Murderbot and Bucky is that their stories outline the conditions for forgiveness, which may be stated briefly thus: You may be forgiven for something if you can show that it wasn’t really done by you. When Murderbot killed 57 people, it did so under commands it could not have overriden; ditto with all the killing that Bucky did. You have to be able to redefine yourself not as acting but as acted-upon.

Here’s another fictional character who fits this description: Hamlet. When in Act V he confronts Laertes — Laertes who is hot for vengeance because this man murdered his father and drove his sister to insanity and perhaps suicide — he has a story for him:

Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.

That is, Laertes should pardon Hamlet precisely because Hamlet has done nothing that requires pardoning. His will was overriden by his madness. Like Murderbot programmed by nasty human beings, and Bucky Barnes re-programmed by Communists, Hamlet has had his executive center taken over, in his case by madness. Therefore: “poor Hamlet.” Not “Poor Polonius” or “Poor Opehlia” — poor Hamlet. He’s the real victim here.

So, four hundred years avant la lettre, those are the circumstances in which our culture can most easily imagine forgiving people: When they can spin the story, accurately or inaccurately, to cast themselves as victimized. But if they can achieve that, then they can be forgiven anything.

What happens, though, to those of us who performed our wrong while in our right minds?

UPDATE 2021–04–28: My friend Leah Libresco points to this excellent and extremely relevant essay by Eve Tushnet

If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy — it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving — you’re saying there was never anything to forgive.

And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love. A lot of people get jumpy when conservatives start talking about “personal responsibility” not because they think it’s awesome to be a self-centered overgrown infant, but because they think “personal responsibility” is code for a) conflating all forms of personal failure — mistakes, bad luck, a bad hand dealt at birth, inability to overcome massive societal injustice, misunderstandings, petty idiocy, and grave sin; and then b) punishing personal failure with contempt and cruelty.

Adam Smith had this cute little tagline, which I admit I am taking out of context, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Now first of all, mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is, see above for details. But we might also add, “Cruelty to the guilty creates pressure to declare everybody innocent.”

do I feel fine?


My friend Adam Roberts has recently released a delightful and provocative little book called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? It’s not about the end of the world, but about the stories we tell about the world’s end — and why we tell them.

The central idea of his interpretation is announced fairly early on, in a discussion of Ragnarök — and what comes after Ragnarök:

The end turns out not to be the end – Ragnarök turns the universe off and on again. We still can’t bring ourselves to come to terms with the total absence of life. Something must continue, something must exist. And so we are locked into a cycle – imagining an end to the story, but afraid to really bring it to an end once and for all. This, counter-intuitively, turns out to be one of the most reliable features of all the stories about the end of the world. A world ends. The world never does.

In fact sometimes it does, and in texts Adam cites: Byron’s terrifying poem “Darkness,” the unsurpassably bleak vision at the end of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, etc. But yes, it is true that far more often than not the end of the world is the portal to a renewed cosmos: the New Heaven and the New Earth of John the Revelator’s vision; the end of this kalpa leading to the eventual emergence of another.

Having laid out this general framework, Adam moves on to instances, brief sketches of what we might call the various genres of conclusion: endings brought about by the gods, by zombies, by plagues, by machines, by the heat death of the universe, by climate change. You can see that for some of these the relevant phrase is “the end of the world,” while for others it’s “as we know it.” Climate change won’t end the world, though it will certainly reshape it; and as Adam writes, “the secret core of the zombie story” may be that it describes “not so much the end of the world, but the end of the values that underpin that world – not the end of humans as a species but of our very humanity.” (There’s a very stimulating comment in that chapter on Huxley’s Brave New World as a kind of zombie story.)

There’s also a fabulous digression on the horror of a world that won’t end: I’m compelled by Adam’s description of Groundhog Day as “a masterpiece of supreme existential terror.”

In his final pages he writes, “We use the stories to make sense of it all, to impose order on an uncaring and chaotic universe, creating the fantasy that we have some measure of understanding and control.” That’s something close to the book’s conclusion, but I think it conflates several different experiences. The problem lies in the phrase “understanding and control.” Understanding and control are not the same thing, and I’m not even sure they arise from the same impulse. After all, one of the things that we might understand about the world, or about our lives in more specific ways, is that we don’t have any meaningful control over it or them.

I think it’s fair to say that Adam shares the view articulated by Wells at the the of The Time Machine and by Byron in his great poem:

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them — She was the Universe.

If that vision is true, then to grasp that is certainly to understand something; but it is not to control anything, except perhaps — perhaps — our hopes for something better. The control of emotion that one achieves when one accepts what one cannot control: Stoicism in a phrase.

Which leads us back to one of Adam’s key points, that all of our stories about the end of the world are really, to some degree and often to a very great degree, refractions of our sense of our own ending, our own death. And Larkin, for one, didn’t think much of the Stoic answer:

                                      Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

One may control one’s fear, but that’s not the control that any of us wants. I think Larkin has understood something here.

For me, a Christian, everything about this, about what will happen to me when I die, about what will become of this sweet world, hinges on one question. As Auden put it: “Now did He really break the seal / And rise again?” The biggest of all Ifs, for me. But I’m staking my claim on “Yes.” And I think, along with the say-but-the-word centurion given voice by Les Murray,

If he is risen, all are children of a most real high God
or something even stranger called by that name
who knew to come and be punished for the world.

that’s what I want

Our love is all of God’s money

What is money? Hard to say, really. It’s easier to document what it does, as Dana Gioia has shown:

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,

holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.

Gathering interest, compounding daily.

Always in circulation.

“Circulation” is the key term here: money is always on the move, is always sliding from one location to another and then back to the first and then on to a third. People who work with money prize fluidity, because fluidity promotes circulation. And every development in computerized trading increases the speed of that circulation, so that now money moves faster than the human eye can see.

But the flow isn’t random, indeed is anything but random. Powerful gravity drags money towards other money. Think of how our solar system formed: the molecules that formed vast clouds of gas and dust drifted towards one another, forming clumps that attracted still more molecules, until eventually there condensed a star. That’s how money works. “Gathering interest, compounding daily.”

But, of course, as what is saved gathers interest, so too does what is owed. Money breeds money; debt breeds debt. And if not for debt, would money exist? “The first thing that happened in human history,” thinks a character in a new novel, “was not money, but debt – obligations and promises and duties incurred. Money arose only as a way of tabulating such owings.”

Most utopias and dystopias are concerned with money, and usually want to show the absurdity of it. This can be done whether a writer lives in an age of “Commodity Money” or “Representative Money” (to borrow terms from John Maynard Keynes). In Thomas More’s Utopia the shackles of prisoners are made from gold, so that that metal may be deposed; in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon the “Musical Banks” enact abstract rituals of circulation that are meant to remind us that the economy is a kind of religion and religion a kind of economy. In the most acute and insightful fictional exploration I know of these matters, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, subtitled in some editions “An Ambiguous Utopia,” the culture of a capitalist planet is contrasted in vivid detail with that of an anarchist planet which has tried to eliminate money as best it can — but is left with other, less clearly defined, structures of circulation, ways for power and control to flow towards those who already have power and control.

But LeGuin did not imagine a world in which near-instantaneous and near-universal digital communication enables money to do what it always wants to do. And here we turn to the novel I just quoted, Adam Roberts’s By the Pricking of Her Thumb.

Adam Roberts is a novelist of ideas, and I want to put equal stress on both of those terms: novelist, ideas. His books tend to be deeply reflective, serious and detailed and nuanced in their conceptual explorations, but those explorations are always embedded in really good stories — and cannot be simply extracted from those stories. That creates problems for someone who wants to write about his books without spoiling them for other readers. So if the discussion that follows is somewhat elliptical, that’s because I want you to read the book.

In this novel, four persons of great wealth have entered into an uneasy alliance in the hopes of achieving absolute wealth: to control nothing less than all the money in the world. The alliance is uneasy because the ultimate goal of each is to take everything from the others: to be the one rich person in a world of paupers, or at best dependents. The question is this: by what means might absolute wealth be acquired. The Fab Four have different ideas about that, and interestingly different ideas, but what they all come down to is this: seeking for ways to make every human relationship, every human desire, fungible — translatable into currency. One character here asks another, “You’re on the money can buy you love side of the debate?” And the other character answers: “I think love is the only thing money is any good for.”

But these Four are not the central figures in Roberts’s story, because the view from above does not interest him as much as the view from below. The protagonist of the book, a private investigator named Alma — she was also the protagonist of an earlier book, The Real-Town Murders — meets some of the Four, but her world could scarcely be more different from theirs. The flip side of absolute wealth is absolute precarity, and Alma is asymptotically approaching that even as the Four draw closer to their great goal. Increasingly Alma understands her life, and every aspect of her life, as shaped and formed by unpayable debts. Which means that the whole of her experience becomes a meditation on money — and its lack.

Grief, she saw now, was a mode of money. Death was a mode of money. Not, of course, the positive, cash-in-the-bank, the active fiction of money that the economic system painted so faux-optimistically. But that had never been the truth about money, had it? Money, by population mass, was debt, and debt was the key trope of negativity, and absence, and lack. Lack drove the economy, compelled people into work and ensured their persistence, lubricated the flow of capital and investment and liquidity. The whole system was a spider’s web stitched together, with a kind of tender fragility, over the empty mouth of debt, down which the wind was sucked.

All this is reminiscent of David Graeber’s 2012 book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, and in that wide-ranging and fascinating book Graeber cites an anthropologist and former economist named Philippe Rospabé who makes the provocative comment that money arises “as a substitute for life.” If you give me life, if you sustain my life, if you save my life, I cannot replay you directly — cannot repay you in, as it were, the currency of the benefit you provided. Money, then, as Graeber puts the key point, “is first and foremost an acknowledgment that one owes something much more valuable than money.” John Ruskin famously wrote — a line cited in Roberts’s new novel — “There is no wealth but life,” which may well be true, but would equally be true to say that there is no debt but life.

In this morally fraught context, the very thing that makes money useful — its fungibility, its ability to be converted — abstracts it to some degree from our lifeworld. As our currency moves from (say) chickens to cowrie shells to gold coins to paper bills to binary digits readable on our smartphones, money extracts itself from its human context — it becomes in an eerily powerful sense autonomous.

In Charles Williams’s strange poetic sequence based on Arthurian legend, Taliessen through Logres, one poem describes King Arthur’s building of a mint and issuing of coins. “Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics,” is pleased:

Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.

But Taliessen the poet is horrified: “I am afraid of the little loosed dragons” — the dragons, representing King Arthur Pendragon, stamped on the coins — because “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” The coins both represent the King and substitute for him: an abstract fungibility is meant to extend but ultimately threatens to replace the personal presence and authority of the monarch.

The Archbishop of Canterbury steps in and tries to pour oil on the troubled waters by demoting money, as it were: to Kay’s claim that “money is the medium of exchange” the Archbishop replies that “money is a medium of exchange.” The greater and more necessary currency is that of the circulation of gifts in Christian community, what Williams in his theological writings called the Way of Exchange: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” The Archbishop’s speech is a nice little exercise in peacemaking, as perhaps is fitting the episcopal role, and it clearly attempts to incorporate Jesus’s bizarre commandment to his disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”; but such splitting-the-difference is perhaps too easy. It assumes that money can be constrained to accept its place as a secondary medium of exchange, subservient to the greater authority of charity. But Taliessen’s fear of what happens when the means become autonomous seems to me a well-warranted fear.

Which brings us back to By the Pricking of Her Thumb. The book concerns itself with many things — love and loss; the difference between “real life”and an increasingly compelling online world; the films of Stanley Kubrick — but the central and compelling concept is this: what if the long-promised Singularity comes, or something rather like it, and what has become self-aware is simply … money itself? What if our future is a future of, in the strongest sense possible, Smart Money?

It really and truly doesn’t bear thinking of. After all, money is powerful enough, influential enough, near-sentient enough, as it is already. As Gioia writes,

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,

but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

The Black Prince of Burgess and Roberts

So: Anthony Burgess, back when he was alive, thought that a movie should be made about Edward the Black Prince and that he should write the screenplay. (Whether he is equally interested in the project now that he is dead I cannot say.) He drafted said screenplay, but nothing ever came of it. But, thought Adam Roberts, if the story cannot be a movie might it not become a novel? So he wrote said novel. (More details here.)

I have now read the novel, and it is remarkable: the imagination of Burgess combined with the imagination of Roberts and inspired technically by the method of John dos Passos in his U.S.A. Trilogy) — with a soupçon of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Literary collage: highly imagistic scenes rendered by Camera Eye, March-of-Time-style newsreels, brief character portraits, chunks of sermons. The story of a soldier called Black George is especially powerfully rendered. Roberts captures with precise and sometimes disturbing fidelity that interlacing of deep piety and sheer brutality that we discern when we look closely at the world of Medieval Latin Christendom.

The publication of the book, through Unbound, still needs to be fully funded. You can, and should, support the project by going here and paying the merest pittance. If you do, then I shall pray God to have mercy on your soul. If not….

writing and failure

Indeed, this is the (unexpected) discovery I have made. It is that having been holding out against failure for a long time, having been committing to hope, trying to make the writing better and so on, it is rather liberating to let all that go. I’m never going to win a Clarke, never going to get shortlisted for a Hugo, never going to get an American deal, and it’s … relieving, actually. The emotion is a largely positive one, muddied if at all only by a slight sense of embarrassment that I ever thought those things in the first place. Indeed, given our culture’s toxic Trumpoid obsession with winning, winning and winning again, with winning so much we get tired with winning, there may even be a principled merit in failing, provided only we accept the failure as our own, and don’t try to shuffle off responsibility onto others.

2016: the Story So Far. I’ve been thinking a lot about this post by my friend Adam Roberts, whose language of failure (as you’ll see if you read the whole post, and you should) concerns his most recent novel, The Thing Itself. I’ve wanted to respond, but I haven’t been sure quite how — Adam’s post touches on so many issues that seem vital to me. Still, let me leap in and flail about as best I can.

I begin with an article I published last year by talking about Frederick Buechner’s status as a rock star among Christian readers of literature. I’ve seen 1500 people pack into Pierce Chapel at Wheaton College to hear him read, and a more rapt audience you couldn’t imagine. Yet it was around the time of that reading that Fred changed publishers from Atheneum, a very classy house that had done his books for many years, to Harper, and when I asked him why he had done that he told me, “Atheneum expects my novels to sell 8,000 copies each and that’s precisely what they do.” But I don’t think his books with Harper did any better. And yet on 8,000 copies per book a writer can become an absolute rock star — at least among a certain subset of that fictional entity The Reading Public. 

All of which is to say that literary success and failure are elusive concepts. Sales and awards are two ways to measure success or the lack thereof; but there are many others that are equally valid, and some of the criteria can’t be applied immediately. I’ve read The Thing Itself three times now, each time with more admiration and emotional investment, and there is much in it that I still haven’t grasped. (When Adam and Francis Spufford and Rowan Williams and I were discussing the book in Cambridge a few months ago, Adam briefly mentioned the ways the structure of the book echoes that of the Aeneid, and I am certain that I never would have realized that had he not mentioned it — and yet now that I know it I have a better understanding of the book. I feel like Stuart Gilbert being told by Joyce how Ulysses is organized. Except Adam told the whole room rather than just me.) 

I simply don’t believe that a book so ambitious is likely to find its place in the world immediately. Milton famously spoke of writing for “fit audience though few” and for a long time “few” was what he got. The most highly-regarded English poet in Milton’s lifetime was Abraham Cowley, and if you’re wondering who that is, you have just grasped my point. It is of course difficult to sustain yourself as a writer on the hopes of future generations realizing your greatness long after you’re a-moldering in the grave, and probably only the deeply narcissistic can manage it; but it’s a factor, you know? Something to consider, especially if you’re as good a writer as Adam. The story of the reception of The Thing Itself is not over; it has scarcely begun. 

In one sense I’m all for letting go of hope, as Adam says he has: not only am I in favor of it, I’ve done it myself! I have long realized that if I’m granted a normal lifespan I’ll outlive all my writings, and while I sometimes cast around in my mind for ways to increase my readership, basically I write for two reasons: to scratch itches, and to provide extra income for my family. But I’m no Adam Roberts, and while I perfectly understand why he might want to take a vacation from the demands that a really ambitious book project places on him, I hope at some point in the near future some such itch will afflict him, and in flagrant disregard of all the world’s award voters he’ll sit down and write a big crazy book that will move me to laughter and tears and thought and envy and admiration. Again.

book early to avoid disappointment

On the Acknowledgments page of The Thing Itself, the new novel by Adam Roberts, there’s this:

As an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God, I have taken more than I can say from the eloquent and persuasive devotional writing of my friends Alan Jacobs and Francis Spufford, Christians both.

Well, one thing led to another, so… The place: Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge (the English one). The date: The evening of 15 June. The event: A conversation about The Thing Itself and associated topics featuring

  • the esteemed author himself
  • Francis Spufford
  • The Rt Revd and Rt Hon The Lord Williams of Oystermouth (more familiarly known as Rowan Williams)
  • and yours truly.

Stay tuned for more details. And sorry about the title of this post, you can’t actually book anything.

Karl Barth and The Thing Itself

In speaking of God, human logic characteristically ignores both His nature and the fact that, when the reference is to Him, the argument from operation to cause is inapplicable, since He is not a known thing in a series of things.

— Karl Barth, making a point that he makes often. In so doing he almost always means to show the necessary absurdity of Christian apologetics, but it’s worth noting that it’s a point equally relevant to the New Atheists, as David Bentley Hart points out in his powerful book The Experience of God: “Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then,’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.”

But then many proponents of Intelligent Design don’t either. Here’s a long but vital passage in which Hart shows what the two sides have in common:

[Stephen] Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice. So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events. From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

Reading this passage, I find myself thinking of Hart’s title and asking: What might it be like, then, to have an encounter with the real God, the God beyond categories and logic, the God who is “experience as such,” whom we encounter as sat, chit, ananda? It’s a question Adam Roberts asks too.

The Thing Itself is all kinds of amazing, and very hard to describe: if you imagine a mashup of The Thing, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Kant’s metaphysics, you’ll … not quite get it. Just read it, please.  Among the many things that Roberts does here, one of the most intriguing is to ask whether Kant’s antinomies — which attempt to address some of the same limitations in our language and thought that Barth and Hart also point to — might be a key to unlocking, even in computational as well as experiential terms, the mysteries of the universe.

Adam and I have been corresponding a bit about these matters, and lo, as I am trying to wrap up this post I see that he has just put up a post of his own about Karl Barth! Wonder of wonders! But he the atheist and I the Christian are finding some significant points of common interest here, points that I hope we will find ways to explore further.

For now I’ll leave you with these questions, which have been turning and turning in my head since I read Adam’s book: What if we thought of our current debates about God, our current confrontations between theists and atheists, as the inevitably sorry by-products of a failure to grasp what Hart argues, what Barth argues, what Kant says when he presents us with his Fourth Antinomy? And what would happen to our conversations if we took seriously the possibility that we don’t have any real idea what we have been arguing about?

And with that, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!