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Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: fiction (page 1 of 2)

the archetypal future

mythical method

Next month I have an essay coming out in Harper’s called “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” In it I look at the rise — a rise that started a looong time ago — of myth as the central category of discourse among poets, novelists, and humanities scholars; and then I look at the rapid decline of that category and its replacement by others. (Spoiler: the replacement categories are, mainly, overtly political.) Then, near the end, I ask whether “the mythical method” — a line I borrow from T. S. Eliot — has any literary future. 

But along the way I also talk about the places where the language of myth and archetype still survives, and even thrives: in movies, for instance, and in many forms of what academics call “genre fiction.” A form of discourse, a vocabulary, a set of terms and images, might be passé in the academy without having lost its power elsewhere. (A fact that academics try not to notice.)  

And here’s another implication of my essay, one which I have only since writing it become aware of: If, as celebrants from Vico to Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell have said, myths and archetypes are deeply and pervasively embedded in all our cultural productions — and pause for a moment to reflect on the enormous significance of this — then, per necessitatem, they are also deeply embedded in our large language models. Which means, first, that GAI endeavors will be thoroughly shaped by those myths and archetypes; and second, that if human beings are able to create artificial general intelligence, if the Singularity really does happen, then it will be foundationally constituted by those very myths and archetypes

Had you thought of that possibility? I hadn’t … until I read Robin Sloan’s delightful soon-forthcoming novel Moonbound, whose own spectacular narrative is generated by the double thought that (a) human beings are creatures made of myths and (b) whatever succeeds us twelve thousand years from now — however strange to us, and whether biological or digital or both — will be made of the same myths.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. I’m having a nice long toke even as I write. 


P.S. If you want to get a little deeper in the weeds re: AI and myths, read this characteristically smart post by Samuel Arbesman

the integrity of science

I haven’t forgotten about middlebrow matters, but right now my mind is on something else. Something related, though. 

Readers of Gaudy Night (1935) will recall — stop reading if you haven’t read Gaudy Night and don’t want any spoilers — that the plot hinges on an event that occurred some years before the book’s present-day: a (male) historian fudged some evidence and a (female) historian caught him at it and reported the malfeasance, which led to his losing his job. Late in the book, but before the full relevance of this event to the plot has been revealed, there’s a conversation about scholarly integrity, which I will now drop into the middle of: 

“So long,” said Wimsey, “as it doesn’t falsify the facts. But it might be a different kind of thing. To take a concrete instance — somebody wrote a novel called The Search — “

C. P. Snow,” said Miss Burrows. “It’s funny you should mention that. It was the book that the — ”

“I know,” said Peter. “That’s possibly why it was in my mind.” 

A person has been vandalizing Shrewsbury College and a copy of that novel, with certain pages torn out, has been found. The novel, by the way, appeared in 1934, around the time that Sayers began writing Gaudy Night. It would be interesting to know whether it was the direct inspiration for her story, or whether she read it after some elements were already in place. I hope to find out more about that.

And by the way, I am going to be spoiling that novel far more thoroughly than I will spoil Gaudy Night — but it’s not one that many people read, these days. 

 

“I never read the book,” said the Warden.

“Oh, I did,” said the Dean. “It’s about a man who starts out to be a scientist and gets on very well till, just as he’s going to be appointed to an important executive post, he finds he’s made a careless error in a scientific paper. He didn’t check his assistant’s results, or something. Somebody finds out, and he doesn’t get the job. So he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all.”  

“Obviously not,” said Miss Edwards. “He only cared about the post.”

Neither the Dean, who has read the book, nor Miss Edwards, who hasn’t, is quite accurate. The scholar, whose name is Arthur Miles, probably would have gotten the post even without the paper; but it’s perfectly possible that he rushed the paper, failed to be appropriately self-critical, because he knew that the vote for the Director of a new scientific institute would be coming soon. Miles doesn’t know; he can’t be sure; maybe he would’ve made the mistake anyway. But in any case, as soon as he is told that there’s a problem with his paper, he runs the numbers again, sees the error, and immediately admits that he was wrong. 


Let me pause for two digressions: 

  1. Sayers specifies what pages were torn from the book — but I don’t have access to the edition that Sayers had read, which I assume was the first hardcover edition, so I don’t know what exactly was excised, but I suspect that it was the part where Miles admits his mistake. (The whole business is a flaw in Sayers’s plot, because it’s impossible to imagine the Responsible Party having read Snow’s book and known which pages to tear out; but DLS clearly was determined to get a discussion of The Search into her own novel, so she found a way.)   
  2. As it happens, this is Snow’s most autobiographical novel: what happened to Miles also happened to him. He began his career as a chemist, and wrote a paper (published in Nature) which was then discovered to contain an embarrassing mistake — upon which he abandoned his work as a scientist and became a novelist and bureaucrat.    

Now, back to Gaudy Night

“The point about it,” said Wimsey, “is what an elderly scientist says to him. He tells him: ‘The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.’ Words to that effect. I may not be quoting quite correctly.“

Wimsey’s summary is a good one. This is indeed what the “elderly scientist,” a man named Hulme, says to him. And Miles does not disagree. What’s more on his mind, though, is the picture of his future laid out for him by another senior scientist: 

“You’ve got to work absolutely steadily, without another suspicion of a mistake. You’ve got to let yourself be patronised and regretted over. You’ve got to get out of the limelight. Then in three or four years, you’ll be back where you were; though it will be held up against you, one way and another, for longer than that. It will delay your getting into the Royal [Society], of course. That can’t be helped. You’ll have a lean time for a while; but you’re young enough to get over it.” 

Faced with this prospect, Miles realizes that he could only manage all this (“Watching the dullards gloat. Working under Tremlin. Having every day a reminder of the old dreams”) if he had a genuine devotion to science. But: “It occurred to me I had no devotion to science.”

N.B.: the point is not that the event has taken away his devotion to science, but rather, “I am not devoted to science, I thought. And I have not been for years, and I have kept it from myself till now.” The revelation of his error leads to a revelation of what had been true about him all along: “There were so many signs going back so far, if I had let myself see, if it had been convenient to see.” Indeed, it now becomes clear to him that his desire to become the director of a scientific institute — an administrative position, not one that would involve him directly in research — precisely because on some unconscious level he didn’t want to be a scientist any more: “I had thrown myself into human beings — to escape the chill when my scientific devotion ended.” 

It should be clear, then, that “he decides he doesn’t really care about science after all” is not an adequate explanation of what happens. 

But there’s also a twist in the tail of this story, which in Gaudy Night Sayers calls attention to: 

“In the same novel,” said the Dean, “somebody deliberately falsifies a result — later on, I mean — in order to get a job. And the man who made the original mistake finds it out. But he says nothing, because the other man is very badly off and has a wife and family to keep.”

”These wives and families!“ said Peter.

”Does the author approve?“ inquired the Warden.

”Well,“ said the Dean, ”the book ends there, so I suppose he does.” 

Or does he? And is that an accurate description of the case? Several facts here are relevant:

  • The man who has falsified the data, Sheriff, is one of Miles’s oldest friends.  
  • Miles got Sheriff his current job and has been guiding his research, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow — he’s a feckless fellow, and a habitual liar, but Miles had hoped that he was ready to reform.   
  • Sheriff had promised Miles, and also his own wife, that he was working on a safe project when he was in fact working on a high-risk, high-reward one — one he thought likely to lead to a prestigious position that, now that the paper has been published, he is indeed about to be offered.   
  • Miles has a sense of responsibility for Sheriff because he had hoped to hire him for a position at the aforementioned Institute, but gave up on the idea when he realized that his own position was compromised. He thinks perhaps he should have pushed harder for Sheriff anyway. 
  • Early in his career Miles had had the opportunity to consciously fudge data himself, and seriously considered it — he thought that he might eventually be found out, but only after achieving a brilliant career from which summit he could just say “Whoops, I made a mistake” — but instead abandoned the research project. He thought, though, that in the future he would have compassion for any scientist who succumbed to a similar temptation.  
  • And most important of all, Sheriff is married to Audrey, Miles’s former lover, for whom, though he himself is now happily married, he cherishes a strong and lasting tendresse — despite the fact that Sheriff basically stole her affections while Miles was abroad.  

The Search is not a great novel, but this is perhaps its best element: the faithful portrayal of Miles’s complex and ever-shifting and deeply human responses to Sheriff’s lying. (It reminds me a bit of the greatest scene of this kind I know, the moment in Middlemarch when Lydgate has to decide how to vote for the chaplaincy of a new hospital. I wrote about that thirty years ago [!!] near the end of this essay.)

On the one hand, he knows exactly what Sheriff did and why:  

I had no doubts at all. It was a deliberate mistake. He had committed the major scientific crime (I could still hear Hulme’s voice trickling gently, firmly on).

Sheriff had given some false facts, suppressed some true ones. When I realised it, I was not particularly surprised. I could imagine his quick, ingenious, harassed mind thinking it over. For various reasons, he had chosen this problem; it would not take so much work, it would be more exciting, it might secure his niche straight away. … But I must not know, half because he was a little ashamed, half because I might interfere. So [his research assistant] and Audrey must, for safety’s sake, also be deceived.

All this he would do quite cheerfully. The problem began well. … Then he came to that stage where every result seemed to contradict the last, where there was no clear road ahead, where there seemed no road ahead at all. There he must have hesitated. On the one hand he had lost months, there would be no position for years, he would have to come to me and confess; on the other his mind flitted round the chance of a fraud.

There was a risk, but he might secure all the success still. I scarcely think the ethics of scientific deceit troubled him; but the risk must have done. For if he were found out, he was ruined. He might keep on as a minor lecturer, but there would be nothing ahead. 

Miles does not excuse Sheriff at any point; he knows that the man’s dishonesty is habitual, perhaps pathological. But he also knows that Sheriff and Audrey have reached a certain accommodation in their marriage, that Audrey understands who her husband is but loves him and needs him anyway. Miles writes a letter that would expose and run Sheriff, and then, realizing that it would also ruin Audrey, … 

I shall not send the letter, I was thinking. Let him win his gamble. Let him cheat his way to the respectable success he wants. He will delight in it, and become a figure in the scientific world; and give broadcast talks and views on immortality; all of which he will love. And Audrey will be there, amused but rather proud. Oh, let him have it.

For me, if I do not send the letter, what then? There was only one answer; I was breaking irrevocably from science. This was the end, for me. Ever since I left professionally, I had been keeping a retreat open in my mind; supervising Sheriff had meant to myself that I could go back at any time. If I did not write I should be depriving myself of the loophole. I should have proved, once for all, how little science mattered to me.

There were no ways between. I could have held my hand until he was elected, and then threatened that either he must correct the mistake, or I would; but that was a compromise in action and not in mind. No, he should have his triumph to the full. Audrey should not know, she had seen so many disillusions, I would spare her this.

The human wins out over the scientific. Maybe, Arthur thinks, it always does. But Gaudy Night shows that sometimes the scientific — in the sense of a strict commitment to the sacredness of honest research — can sometimes have its own victories. And Gaudy Night also suggests that the choices might not be as stark as Snow’s story suggests. More on that in another post. 

Narayan’s Malgudi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gardener

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

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

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

The Real Value of a Catholic Modernity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.” 

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. 

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.) 

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: 

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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. 

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.

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

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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. 

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. 

Austen and parents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becca Rothfeld on “Sanctimony Literature”

Sanctimony literature errs, then, not because it ventures into moral territory, but because it displays no genuine curiosity about what it really means to be good, and is blind to the distinction between morality and moralism, and exhibits no doubt about its own probity. Isn’t it funny that a good person, as envisioned by Lerner and Rooney, is exactly like Lerner and Rooney and all of their readers? And isn’t it striking that all these Lerner-clones and Rooney-clones are depicted as irreproachably upstanding, while all of their enemies are represented as one-dimensionally irredeemable? The heroes and heroines of sanctimony literature are so steeped in self-satisfaction that they provide an inadvertent moral lesson. It turns out that someone can have all the de rigueur political opinions without thereby achieving any measure of meaningful ethical success. A novel’s goodness is bound up with its beauty, but there is more to goodness than boilerplate leftist fervor.

David Samuels:

The reasons for the Nobel Committee’s snub [of Milan Kundera], which occurred at the height of the award’s geopolitical if not literary significance, are not hard to fathom. Most obviously, Kundera was never particularly interested in or engaged by politics. Instead, his work was a passionate defence of the right to pursue one’s own individual desires and lusts against bureaucratic maniacs of whatever stripe who wished to colonise individual experience on behalf of the state. To his critics on both the Right and the Left, Kundera’s stance was borderline immoral, not to mention hopelessly bourgeois. While the Left preferred Che and the Right preferred Solzhenitsyn, Kundera insisted on the human right to be left alone.

Little, Big

My friend Adam Roberts wrote recently about John Crowley’s Little, Big, which is (a) one of my very favorite novels and (b) a book I have never written about. I suspect that I’ve never written about it precisely because it means so much to me. One day perhaps I will get to the bottom of this. But for now I just want to make a few comments.

One: Adam thinks the book is a version of baroque, but I don’t think I agree. My inclination is to say that there are forms of elaboration other than the baroque, and Crowley dwells in one of those traditions. His imagination, especially his visual imagination, seems to me to arise from the vision of art that begins with the Pre-Raphaelites, moves on through William Morris, and culminates in the Arts & Crafts movement, which in the first two decades of the twentieth century — the period in which Edgewood was built — was a very big thing in the upstate-New-York world to which Crowley is always drawn. (The Aegypt books are set there too.) Edgewood is surely a house in this tradition, though in its decorated rather than its spare aspect. If you imagine Richard Norman Shaw’s Cragside sitting in a heavily forested corner of the Catskills I think you might envision Edgewood correctly.   

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Also, the women of Little, Big are often very much in the Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” mode. (Primarily the Elizabeth Siddall cascading-redhead type rather than the Jane Morris darkly-brooding type.) Cf. Rossetti’s The Beloved, which could be a depiction of the enthronement of Daily Alice: 

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Peter Milton’s illustrations for the rather magnificent 40th anniversary edition of the book capture some of the feel of the novel, though with an Art Deco tinge that might not be elaborate enough: 

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That’s not wrong, exactly, but I think it’s missing the density of detail present in so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings and William Morris designs, e.g. the Green Dining Room

Morris room

I think if you stripped the Pre-Raphaelite visual world of its medievalism — there ain’t no medieval culture here in the Americas — you’d be getting close to the visual aesthetic of Little, Big.  

Two: I think almost the whole of Crowley’s imagination — in his fantasies, though not in his many non-fantastic writings — derives from two books, both of them by Frances Yates: The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. The first is a book about making the events and experiences and encounters of the past meaningful and coherent; the second is a book about achieving a nirvana, a wholly enlightened consciousness. The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz is re-enacted or re-interpreted several times in Crowley’s work, including the marriage of Smoky and Daily Alice. (Colin Burrow, in an essay that Adam cites, notes this influence and thinks that current scholarly skepticism about Yates’s arguments creates a “big problem” for Crowley’s fiction, though I don’t know why that would be. Surely works of literary art don’t need to be grounded in sound scholarship to be good stories. The discrediting of the Ptomelaic cosmos doesn’t make the Divine Comedy less compelling.) 

It may be that Crowley sees us as having to choose between the two visions of Yates’s two books: that is, we can have a history that takes beautiful form or a beatific vision of total Meaning. Those granted nirvana leave their history behind, as the fairies leave behind Edgewood; that it is “a house made of time” is why they must leave it. You could say that Edgewood is the real protagonist of the story because it enables enlightenment for the fairies and for Smoky the completion of his Tale. And so at the end it runs on, telling its story because it doesn’t know how to do anything else, though both of its audiences have departed. I don’t know anything lovelier in literature than the final paragraph of Little, Big, a book that does not begin but rather ends with “once upon a time.”

(There are, I think, three chief sources of image and myth in Crowley’s fantasies: the Arts & Crafts movement, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, and one more: the counterculture of the Sixties, which I think Crowley sees as, at its best, inheriting those earlier movements — but never quite laying firm hold on them. Swerving from what it could have been and should have been. But that’s more of a theme in the Aegypt books than Little, Big.) 

Three: Little, Big is full of Sehnsucht, it is a “search for the blue flower” story, and I don’t know any other book that better depicts this experience. (I don’t agree with Burrow that such a fantasy is “a conscious substitute for the magic in which you don’t quite believe any more”; I think it’s in no way a substitute, but a pointer towards something that necessarily remains always out of reach.) I also think — and this is not unrelated — that Little, Big is an illustration of the fact that for us mortals “death is the mother of beauty”: Smoky’s apprehension of the Tale is shaped wholly by the fact that he will not inherit it, is not made to inherit and inhabit it, but through helping it to come to be he plays a part that only an outsider to its full enactment can play. It is beautiful to him in a way that it cannot be to its participants; that is its gift to him. There is an inevitable asymmetry in his marriage which somehow make it stronger and more wonderful rather than weaker: he loves Daily Alice differently than she loves him. She occupies almost the whole of his short life; he can be to her only a moment, though perhaps the dearest moment, in an endless one. (It is very sweet to me that she and only she knows where he is buried.) 

I think by calling attention to this asymmetry he remedies the biggest defect in The King of Elfland’s Daughter: Dunsany never acknowledges that by bringing the whole of Erl into Elfland he has taken away the very thing that makes Lirazel ache for her husband and family: their mortality. Blake’s “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” is the mirror-image of Sehnsucht, and Crowley gets that, while Dunsany, I think, does not. 

the system

chancery

I’m going to begin by quoting a very long passage from Bleak House, one involving a suitor in the court of Chancery, generally known as “the man from Shropshire,” an oddity who in every session cries out “My Lord!” – hoping to get the attention of the Lord Chancellor; hoping always in vain. His name is Mr. Gridley and Esther Summerson relates an encounter with him:

“Mr. Jarndyce,” he said, “consider my case. As true as there is a heaven above us, this is my case. I am one of two brothers. My father (a farmer) made a will and left his farm and stock and so forth to my mother for her life. After my mother’s death, all was to come to me except a legacy of three hundred pounds that I was then to pay my brother. My mother died. My brother some time afterwards claimed his legacy. I and some of my relations said that he had had a part of it already in board and lodging and some other things. Now mind! That was the question, and nothing else. No one disputed the will; no one disputed anything but whether part of that three hundred pounds had been already paid or not. To settle that question, my brother filing a bill, I was obliged to go into this accursed Chancery; I was forced there because the law forced me and would let me go nowhere else. Seventeen people were made defendants to that simple suit! It first came on after two years. It was then stopped for another two years while the master (may his head rot off!) inquired whether I was my father’s son, about which there was no dispute at all with any mortal creature. He then found out that there were not defendants enough—remember, there were only seventeen as yet!—but that we must have another who had been left out and must begin all over again. The costs at that time — before the thing was begun! — were three times the legacy. My brother would have given up the legacy, and joyful, to escape more costs. My whole estate, left to me in that will of my father’s, has gone in costs. The suit, still undecided, has fallen into rack, and ruin, and despair, with everything else — and here I stand, this day! Now, Mr. Jarndyce, in your suit there are thousands and thousands involved, where in mine there are hundreds. Is mine less hard to bear or is it harder to bear, when my whole living was in it and has been thus shamefully sucked away?”

Mr. Jarndyce said that he condoled with him with all his heart and that he set up no monopoly himself in being unjustly treated by this monstrous system.

“There again!” said Mr. Gridley with no diminution of his rage. “The system! I am told on all hands, it’s the system. I mustn’t look to individuals. It’s the system. I mustn’t go into court and say, ‘My Lord, I beg to know this from you — is this right or wrong? Have you the face to tell me I have received justice and therefore am dismissed?’ My Lord knows nothing of it. He sits there to administer the system. I mustn’t go to Mr. Tulkinghorn, the solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and say to him when he makes me furious by being so cool and satisfied — as they all do, for I know they gain by it while I lose, don’t I? — I mustn’t say to him, ‘I will have something out of some one for my ruin, by fair means or foul!’ HE is not responsible. It’s the system. But, if I do no violence to any of them, here — I may! I don’t know what may happen if I am carried beyond myself at last! I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

His passion was fearful. I could not have believed in such rage without seeing it.

Now, please bear Mr. Gridley, and his rage, in mind as I turn to George Orwell’s great essay on Dickens. It’s possibly the finest thing ever written about Dickens – even though it’s often wrong – and is a wonderful illustration of Orwell’s power of inquiring into his own readerly responses. (A topic for another post.) 

The first point I want to call attention to is this: Orwell was of course a socialist, a person who believed that British society required radical change; and there were people who saw Dickens as a kind of proto-socialist. This, Orwell points out, is nonsense on stilts. If you want to know what Dickens thinks about revolutionary political movements, just read A Tale of Two Cities. He’s horrified by them.

Orwell then goes on to note that Dickens’s early experiences as a reporter on Parliament seem to have been important for shaping his attitude towards government as a whole: “at the back of his mind there is usually a half-belief that the whole apparatus of government is unnecessary. Parliament is simply Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle, the Empire is simply Major Bagstock and his Indian servant, the Army is simply Colonel Chowser and Doctor Slammer, the public services are simply Bumble and the Circumlocution Office — and so on and so forth.”

Such a man could never be a socialist. And yet, “Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.” So what is the nature of this attack?

The truth is that Dickens’s criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence the utter lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’s attitude is at bottom not even destructive. There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’. It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system. Nowhere, for instance, does he make any attack on private enterprise or private property. Even in a book like Our Mutual Friend, which turns on the power of corpses to interfere with living people by means of idiotic wills, it does not occur to him to suggest that individuals ought not to have this irresponsible power. Of course one can draw this inference for oneself, and one can draw it again from the remarks about Bounderby’s will at the end of Hard Times, and indeed from the whole of Dickens’s work one can infer the evil of laissez-faire capitalism; but Dickens makes no such inference himself. It is said that Macaulay refused to review Hard Times because he disapproved of its ‘sullen Socialism’. Obviously Macaulay is here using the word ‘Socialism’ in the same sense in which, twenty years ago, a vegetarian meal or a Cubist picture used to be referred to as ‘Bolshevism’. There is not a line in the book that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellious. Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

And here’s what I love about Orwell: he says that Dickens’s position “at first glance looks like an enormous platitude” – but he is not content with a first glance. He continues to think about it, and as he does he realizes that Dickens, after all, has a point. This I think is the most extraordinary moment in the essay:

His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘Behave decently’, which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence.

Most revolutionaries are potential Tories – that is, their revolutionary sensibility would erase itself if they could just get Their Boys into power. Once they and people like them are in charge, then they will do anything they can to thwart change. But what that means is: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (As I note in this essay, following Ursula K. LeGuin, even an anarchist society would have its petty tyrants.) Most would-be revolutionaries ignore this problem, but “Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness.” And that’s why he’s vital.

This point takes us back to the man from Shropshire, Mr. Gridley. He will not be calmed by invocations of “the system,” the broken system in which everyone is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not trapped as he is trapped. The Lord Chancellor is not a victim as he is a victim. The people who enable the system, and profit from it, must be held accountable – or nothing important will change. The salon of politics will only be redecorated. So: “I will accuse the individual workers of that system against me, face to face, before the great eternal bar!”

And this, Orwell suggests, is what the novelist can do, what the novelist can bring before our minds and lay upon our hearts. Some political systems are clearly superior to others; but Dickens understands that whatever political system we build, its chief material will be what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity,” of which “no straight thing was ever made.”  To force us to look at that truth — which, properly understood, will result not in political quietism but a genuine and healthy realism — is what the novelist can do for us. “That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician.” The novelist-as-moralist has the power to drag the individual workers of the system, any system, “before the great eternal bar” — but not God’s bar as such, which is what Mr. Gridley means, but rather, the bar of our readerly witness, our readerly judgment, whoever and whenever we are.  

in defense of Esther Summerson

Cover Bleak House 1852 3

Esther Summerson, the protagonist of Dickens’s Bleak House – insofar as that outrageously ambitious and wide-ranging novel can be said to have a protagonist – has come in for a lot of criticism over the decades. Charlotte Brontë found her “weak and twaddling”; Terry Eagleton calls her “insipid”; examples could easily be multiplied. She’s often linked with Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield and Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit: exemplars, it is said, of a certain Victorian ideal of femininity — serious, responsible, endlessly patient, methodically virtuous. I agree with this reading of Agnes, who is perhaps the only tiresome character in a wondrous book, and I think it at least defensible as an interpretation of little Amy Dorrit; but Esther is a different character altogether and doesn’t deserve the criticism she gets. Dickens is doing something quite subtle with the character of Esther; when she’s properly understood I think she stands forth as one of Dickens’s greatest creations.

Let’s have some context. 

Marshalsea prison London 18th century 3

As is well-known, when Dickens was eleven years old his father was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison on the south bank of the Thames, and young Charles was removed from school and sent to work in a factory. Charles, who was already ambitious and full of hopes for himself, hated every minute of it and felt that he was wasting away; moreover, he was separated from his family and lived in lodgings near the factory. He could scarcely believe — as, decades later, he told his friend and biographer John Forster — “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” This situation lasted for about a year, and even after John Dickens was released — his mother died, and his inheritance enabled him to pay his debts — Charles’s parents considered keeping him working at the factory. It was John Dickens who decided to send Charles to school, over his wife’s objections. The adult Dickens to Forster: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” (We cannot know what Elizabeth Dickens was thinking, but I suspect she knew that her husband would soon be in debt again — as indeed he was — and wished to find some means of keeping him out of the Marshalsea.) 

It’s hard to overstress the influence of this experience over the thought, and the fiction, of Charles Dickens. It touched him and shaped him in many ways, but one of the chief consequences was this: he acquired an abiding interest in how children respond to injustice and suffering of all kinds — if we can use a word now common, to trauma.

Only gradually in Bleak House do we discover Esther Summerson’s story — only gradually does she herself discover it. She was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between one Captain Hawdon and an unmarried woman named Honoria, and nearly died in her first minutes of life — indeed, Honoria’s sister told her that the baby had died, and, shocked and horrified by the gross sin that had produced this child, immediately cut Honoria out of her life, and determined to raise the child herself. Of course, Esther was never told any of this; and while her aunt — never acknowledged as such; she called herself Esther’s godmother — gave Esther physical sustenance, she gave her no love. Once, Esther’s birthday was marked by this outburst: “It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday, that you had never been born!” And she gave Esther this advice: “Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.” And from this point on Esther never for a moment forgot that she was “filling a place in [her godmother’s] house which ought to have been empty.” Filling a place which ought to have been empty — that’s quite a phrase. 

Again, what especially interests Dickens is how children respond to trauma, and here is how Esther responded to hers: 

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody’s heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. 

“Guilty and yet innocent” of a life-blighting “fault.”

In George Orwell’s lacerating essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he narrates his years at school under the tyranny of abusive schoolmaster and his wife, and describes how he was constantly being told of his inferiority — he was a scholarship boy; his parents couldn’t afford the school’s fees — and the likelihood that he was headed for financial ruin or, at best, a miserable hand-to-mouth existence.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness, but it as no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and powers of the adults surrounding it.

And you can see that for just this reason Esther believes what her “godmother” tells her: that she should not exist, that her very being is “set apart” for unique shame, that she must devote her life to the service of others not in order to make her life worthwhile — that could never be — but to reduce, if only slightly, the humiliation of her very being. Esther believes it, and acts accordingly. 

Much later on, when the adult Esther contracts smallpox — something that happens because her kindness towards others puts her in danger — she nearly dies, and emerges with a deeply scarred face. She realizes that whatever looks she might have had are gone, and feels certain that the man she can barely bring herself to acknowledge loving could now never love her in return. Then, when the infinitely kind older man who has become her guardian plans to send her to a friend’s house for further healing, here’s what she thinks:  

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it. 

The point I want to make here is simply that everything Esther does and thinks — her investment in the lives of others; her perpetual kindness; her refusal of self-pity; her determination to give endlessly while expecting nothing in return — all arises from the profound trauma of being taught, and coming wholly to believe, that she is “filling a place … which ought to have been empty,” that her life can never be truly worthwhile, that the only love she will ever get is the love she can “win” through strenuous effort. 

Esther is a wounded healer; her goodness and compassion are real and admirable, but they are also a continual testimony to an injury that cannot be cured. Esther will never be able simply to rest in the love of her family and friends; she must always strive to earn it, again and again and again. In this sense she has indeed been “set apart”; her viciously judgmental aunt ensured that. In the end, things go well for Esther; but they go well for her in large part because of the character that she develops and demonstrates; and that character, in turn, is marked but also in a sense made by a grief and a shame that goes all the way down to the bone. “Insipid”? Anything but.

Dickens’s reflections on how children are affected by trauma always circle around a great mystery: some people get trapped in their trauma, remain perpetually victimized by it, re-enact the same patterns of mean-spirited or self-destructive behavior, all their lives; but others prove strikingly resilient, and find creative ways to meet that trauma, though it always marks them in some way. Dickens saw these two paths in his own family: his brother Fred ended up simply imitating the dissolute and improvident ways of their father, while his sister Fanny seems largely to have ignored her chaotic family life and made a decent career in music (though, sadly, she died in her thirties of tuberculosis, leaving behind a husband and two children). Who can say why some of the early-wounded take the one path and some the other? Dickens, as far as I can tell, didn’t think he knew, but, as one who escaped, he seems to have striven not to judge the ones who failed to manage it. When Fred died he wrote to Forster, “It was a wasted life, but God forbid that one should be hard upon it, or upon anything in this world that is not deliberately and coldly wrong.” Perhaps the striving was not wholly successful. 

Esther Summerson is not likely to be a role model for anyone today, in part because I don’t think our book-reading culture (such as it is) admires resilience. To our cultured folk, I think, a resilient person can’t have suffered all that badly; the only way you can authenticate your suffering is to succumb to it. But this is an unfortunate attitude. Esther’s story has some powerful — and not altogether comforting — lessons for those with ears to hear. 


Bleak House is, I think, one of the two greatest novels in English, the other being George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I used to teach it regularly, but since coming to Baylor I haven’t had the opportunity, so recently I picked it up to re-read for the first time in a decade. It has kept its hold upon me. I think in the coming days I’ll write a post or two on other elements of this marvelous book. 

Early chapter outline of True Grit using Portis’s original character names. (Copyright Charles M. Portis Estate. All rights reserved.)

FWIW

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

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

hiding your hand

I don’t know who Noah Kulwin is — someone, I don’t remember whom, linked to this post, which among other things talks about the assassination of JFK. If this sounds like I’m picking on poor Mr. Kulwin, my apologies; I really don’t mean to. I just want to illustrate a point. 

In the post Kulwin quotes Don DeLillo’s comments on the Zapruder film. Here’s the key part: 

The Zapruder film is a home movie that runs about eighteen seconds and could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics. And every new generation of technical experts gets to take a crack at the Zapruder film. The film represents all the hopefulness we invest in technology. A new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis — not only of Zapruder but of other key footage and still photographs — will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

For the rest of his post Kulwin speaks of “DeLillo’s faith in technology” and wants to argue with it. But of course — as anyone would know after reading even a smidgen of his fiction — DeLillo doesn’t have any faith in technology. Kulwin has misunderstood the last sentence of the quote above. He thinks DeLillo is making a claim, but in fact the novelist is narrating a perspective

You can tell this is so by looking at the previous sentence, in which DeLillo speaks in broadly cultural terms of “all the hopefulness we invest in technology.” By “we” he doesn’t mean himself and his interviewer; he means Americans in general. And the sentence that follows — the one that Kulwin misunderstands — is not a statement of his own views, but a kind of expansion of or commentary on that hope. DeLillo is not saying that he believes that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened; he’s saying that the hope Americans invest in technology makes us — collectively, as a society — believe that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

As I’ve said many times before — e.g. here — I don’t think my students today are any worse than my students from years or even decades ago. But I believe that students today need more explanation of how writers think, how fictional narrative works. They have grown up in a media environment in which, as far as I can see, language is almost exclusively used for three purposes: to praise cultural friends, to condemn or mock cultural enemies, and to declare the Truth. The idea that language might be used to explore a way of seeing the world without judging that way — without issuing a 👍 or a 👎 — is pretty foreign to most of them, especially since most of the literature they’ve been assigned in school is either intrinsically didactic or is taught to them didactically. 

This leads fairly regularly to misreadings of the type that Kulwin commits. Again, I know nothing about Kulwin, so I’m not trying to account for his error — only to note that it’s a very common kind of error these days. We live in a moment too polemical and defensive for undidactic art to flourish; most people, it seems, suspect any artwork that doesn’t declare its principles unambiguously. 

Some years ago Mandy Patinkin described the lunch meeting at which Rob Reiner recruited him to play in The Princess Bride. He recalled that 

He said to me, ‘The way I want everybody to play this is as though you have a hand of cards, and I want all of us to almost show the hand to the audience, but we never really show it. That’s how I want it to happen.’ So, he collected a bunch of people who would play cards that way. 

I think that’s actually a pretty good explanation for why The Princess Bride is such a brilliant movie, but whether it is or not, it’s a great way to describe what the greatest stories always do. You get a peek at the cards maybe, but not enough to be sure about the whole hand. You have to guess; you have to think; you have to ask difficult questions like “How might I behave if I had a great hand? A lousy one?” You have to imagine. All the great artists and writers do. 

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. 

contractual and unconditional love

Arton1022

We know that when Dickens wrote David Copperfield he had not read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or – published less than a decade earlier, available only in Danish – but when I reflect on one character from that novel, James Steerforth, I find it hard to believe that Dickens didn’t know the “Seducer’s Diary.” Steerforth’s seduction, abduction, and abandonment of David’s childhood love Emily (Little Em’ly, as her family call her) proceeds precisely according to the emotional sequence outlined in that diary. Johannes the Seducer and Steerforth are both perfect embodiments of what Emile Durkheim would later call anomie – a combination of amorality and unconquerable boredom, with the boredom generated by the amorality, though seducers think that by rejecting the moral laws of their societies they can make their lives more interesting.

More on anomie later. For now I want to focus not on Steerforth himself but on his family – his, and Emily’s. Dickens regularly juxtaposes Mrs. Steerforth, James’s mother, to Daniel Peggotty, Emily’s uncle and adoptive father; this juxtaposition is one of the most important elements of the book. When Steerforth sweeps Emily away, just on the eve of her marriage to her cousin Ham, and takes her to Europe, both families are devastated, but in very different ways.

When, soon after the lovers’ disappearance, Daniel Peggotty visits Mrs. Steerforth – he hopes to learn whether Steerforth is likely to marry Emily – the lady treats him to this discourse:

“My son, who has been the object of my life, to whom its every thought has been devoted, whom I have gratified from a child in every wish, from whom I have had no separate existence since his birth – to take up in a moment with a miserable girl, and avoid me! To repay my confidence with systematic deception, for her sake, and quit me for her! To set this wretched fancy, against his mother’s claims upon his duty, love, respect, gratitude – claims that every day and hour of his life should have strengthened into ties that nothing could be proof against! Is this no injury? […]

“If he can stake his all upon the lightest object, I can stake my all upon a greater purpose. Let him go where he will, with the means that my love has secured to him! Does he think to reduce me by long absence? He knows his mother very little if he does. Let him put away his whim now, and he is welcome back. Let him not put her away now, and he never shall come near me, living or dying, while I can raise my hand to make a sign against it, unless, being rid of her forever, he comes humbly to me and begs for my forgiveness. This is my right. This is the acknowledgement I will have. This is the separation that there is between us!”

To understand this outburst fully, we need to recall that earlier in the story, Mrs. Steerforth’s companion Rosa Dartle – a shrewd and ironic young woman embittered by her hopeless love for Steerforth – had, with a malicious false ingenuousness, asked Steerforth what might happen if “you and your mother were to have a serious quarrel.” To this Mrs. Steerforth replied, “My dear Rosa, … suggest some other supposition! James and I know our duty to each other better, I pray Heaven!”

“Oh!” said Miss Dartle, nodding her head thoughtfully. “To be sure. That would prevent it? Why, of course it would. Exactly. Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.”

Rosa’s mock-inquiry arises from her understanding that Steerforth and his mother do not perceive their relationship in the same light: his “duty” would not, and in the end does not, prevent him from acting in what he perceives to be his interest, even when that interest is merely the avoidance of boredom. Rosa also understands that Mrs. Steerforth sees her relationship with her son contractually and legalistically: he owes her obedience and deference because, she says, he is the one “whom I have gratified from a child in every wish.” Thus her outrage at his failure to meet the terms of the contract is extreme and implacable: he is banished from her presence until he (a) abandons Emily forever and (b) begs his mother’s forgiveness. “This is the acknowledgement I will have.”

After she delivers herself of this announcement Daniel Peggotty takes his leave of her; there is no more to be said; their models of parental love are incommensurable, irreconcilable.

The vastness of the chasm between them may be seen by comparing Mrs. Steerforth’s distribe with Daniel Peggotty’s response when he learns that Emily has fled with her lover:

“I’m a-going to seek her, fur and wide. If she should come home while I’m away – but ah, that ain’t like to be! – or if I should bring her back, my meaning is, that she and me shall live and die where no one can’t reproach her. If any hurt should come to me, remember that the last words I left for her was, ‘My unchanged love is with my darling child, and I forgive her!’”

Call me a normie if you want, call me sentimental, what you will – I don’t know many things in all of fiction more moving than this. Let me wipe a tear from my eye and then take a moment to unpack both the explicit statements and the implications in Mr. Peggotty’s declaration.

  1. Emily is in need of forgiveness, for she has sinned. (Emily herself knows this perfectly well; she is nearly consumed with guilt.)
  2. Mr. Peggotty offers this forgiveness completely and without condition or reservation, no matter what Emily does or fails to do.
  3. He does not wait for her to beg forgiveness – he does not wait for her to repent or return – he’s “a-going to seek her, fur and wide.” The biblical analogue here is not the parable of the Prodigal Son, because there the son returns home on his own initiative. That story is lovely enough, with the old man seeing his son “a long way off” and, as Frederick Buechner has envisioned the scene, picking up his skirts and running as fast as his old legs will carry him to the beloved boy. But what Mr. Peggotty does calls forth something more radical still: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”
  4. He knows that Emily will suffer for her sin; he knows that the way of the world – as exemplified, for instance, by Mrs. Steerforth – is not to forgive but rather to “reproach”; so he will do what he has to do, suffer whatever he needs to suffer, so that she will not be further wounded.
  5. His love for his “darling child” is “unchanged” – unchanged. Not altered in one fraction of a degree either by what she has done or what she has left undone, and never to be altered by anything in the whole wide reproaching world.

What most people want, or think they want, is affirmation. Indeed, many people demand it, and seek to punish those who do not give it to them. But affirmation never comes without conditions, even if they’re unstated. Thus I think it’s fair to say that Mrs. Steerforth, by explicitly indulging her son’s every wish while forever hinting that by so doing she is binding him contractually to her, is enriching the soil in which anomie flourishes. (Rosa Dartle sees all this coming, but because Steerforth does not return her love, she does nothing to avert it but merely waits for the inevitable crack-up. This may be a function of some inbuilt perversity of Rosa’s character, but I think it rather an outgrowth of her dependent status and Mrs. Steerforth’s contempt for her needs — that relationship too is contractual; it’s impossible to imagine Mrs. Steerforth having any other kind.)

What people need, whether they know it or not, is not affirmation but rather unconditional love – because only with unconditional love can there be genuine honesty. What Emily needs is not the fiction that she has done no wrong; what she needs, and what she receives, is the double truthfulness that she has indeed sinned but is wholly forgiven. It’s what she needs; it’s what we all need, and from those who genuinely love us we just may get it.

universal neighborliness

Re: my earlier post on an Ezra Klein column, I want to add that the universality of Christianity takes a very peculiar form, because it is a universality that also emphasizes neighborliness, a particular care for those who are nearby. Thus Matthew Loftus:

We cannot love “the whole world” except in abstraction, nor work for the mutual benefit of everyone in the same way that we can take care of our children or our sick neighbor. We must not fail in our duties to those close to us, even if our love ultimately does not stop there. Only by honoring the relationships that we have with others based on our common humanity and our common interchanges of trade and culture can we honor the God who created those people and places. Our local affections will have universal implications for how we use technology, farm the land, and execute trade. And in the global realm as well as the communal, love and sanity require limits.

I have forbidden the use of the EMR [Electronic Medical Records] in my mental health clinic at the hospital, at least for now. As I scribble my notes on paper, I look to the parent, sibling, child, or friend who has accompanied the patient to the clinic. When I ask how well the medications are working, sometimes the patient will say they are fine while their companion smiles and tells me the truth. Rarely do patients come alone; some friends or family members pay a day’s wages for an hour-long bus ride to the hospital to accompany their suffering loved one. I like to think that no one in our hospital suffers alone because the cultural ethos here forbids it. 

Please do read the whole thing. But this is key: “Our local affections will have universal implications.” And, conversely, our universal commitments will necessarily have local instantiations. 

I think Charles Dickens understood this paradox very well, as we see in the greatest of his novels, Bleak House. There we note Mrs. Jellyby practicing her “telescopic philanthropy” — meditating always on the suffering of the people of Borrioboola-Gha while utterly neglecting her own children — and the “business-like and systematic” charity of Mrs. Pardiggle. As Esther Summerson says, “Ada and I … thought that Mrs. Pardiggle would have got on infinitely better if she had not had such a mechanical way of taking possession of people.” When pressed by Mrs. Pardiggle to join in her “rounds,” Esther has a profound response (even if Mrs. P can’t grasp the import of it): 

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

Words to live by, say I. And let me conclude with words still wiser, from Helmut Thielicke’s great sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: 

You will never learn who Jesus Christ is by reflecting upon whether there is such a thing as sonship or virgin birth or miracle. Who Jesus Christ is you learn from your imprisoned, hungry, distressed brothers. For it is in them that he meets us. He is always in the depths. And we shall draw near to these brethren only if we open our eyes to see the misery around us. And we can open our eyes only when we love. But we cannot go and do and love, if we stop and ask first, “Who is my neighbor?” The devil has been waiting for us to ask this question; and he will always whisper into our ears only the most convenient answers. We human beings always fall for the easiest answers. No, we can love only if we have the mind of Jesus and turn the lawyer’s question around. Then we shall ask not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To whom am I a neighbor? Who is laid at my door? Who is expecting help from me and who looks upon me as his neighbor?” This reversal of the question is precisely the point of the parable.

Anybody who loves must always be prepared to have his plans interrupted. We must be ready to be surprised by tasks which God sets for us today. God is always compelling us to improvise. For God’s tasks always have about them something surprising and unexpected, and this imprisoned, wounded, distressed brother, in whom the Saviour meets us, is always turning up on our path just at the time when we are about to do something else, just when we are occupied with altogether different duties. God is always a God of surprises, not only in the way in which he helps us — for God’s help too always comes from unexpected directions — but also in the manner in which he confronts me with tasks to perform and sends people across my path. 


P.S. I meant to schedule this to post tomorrow – sorry for all the stuff in one day. If I don’t post anything for the next day or two, just read this post several times. It’ll do you good. 

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! 

eating people is wrong

I’m sure what I’m about to say has been said by many before me, but I’m counting on Adam Roberts to let me know about that.

Early in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, our narrator comes across an artilleryman who seems to be the only survivor of his company, which was otherwise obliterated by the Martians’ heat ray. The two men part, but then near the end of the book meet again, and by this time the artilleryman has done some thinking. He has decided that direct confrontation of the technologically superior Martians will be fruitless — “This isn’t a war…. It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants” — but that some other form of resistance might, over the long term, work. He imagines a future in which the Martians keep some human beings for … well, he doesn’t know what for. He does not suspect what our narrator has learned, that the Martians want humans for food. But in any case, he is sure that the majority of people will meekly welcome their new Martian overlords. But, he also thinks, other, more determined and resourceful, humans will move underground to build a resistance movement, will avoid the Martians and bide their time, will read books and study science and grow in knowledge and power — until they are ready to strike back.

Meanwhile, in The Time Machine (written a couple of years earlier) Wells imagines a far future in which humanity has branched into a passive, infantile race bred for food and a second race that lives a more active and technologically sophisticated life underground — and of course eats the others.

What if we were to imagine a coherent H. G. Wells Fictional Universe in which both of the stories are true? At the end of The War of the Worlds the Martian invaders die from exposure to microbes, against which they have no defenses, but the Martians are a technologically advanced civilization and apparently in great need of a better life environment — Mars is dying — and more reliable sources of food, so one might very well infer that they learn from their unsuccessful first invasion and on a second attempt achieve their aims, setting up precisely the kind of social arrangement the artilleryman envisions, just with the meek obedient humans as their chief food. Suppose that this arrangement lasts hundreds of thousands of years, during which time the humans used for food become increasingly docile and infantile – a development accelerated and intensified by selective breeding – while the underground resistance gradually becomes better adapted for life in the dark. Eventually the Martians die, or are killed, or depart for more attractive planetary alternative, but by that point the two halves of humanity have taken such different evolutionary roads that they seem and perhaps reproductively are different species – which means that the Morlocks feel that no taboo is violated if they replace the Martians as apex predator and continue the practice of raising Eloi for food.

It all fits, I think.

Again, surely earlier readers and critics have already made this point; and in any case almost every reader of Wells knows that he’s obsessed, at this stage in his career, with selective breeding and eugenics. Thanks to certain prominent figures, these themes were omnipresent in late Victorian culture. (Later also: they’re essential to the projects of Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.)

But the rise of hopes and fears surrounding artificial intelligence has been accompanied by the decline of the hopes and fears surrounding eugenics. Gattaca gives way to A.I. and then Ex Machina; Ishiguro writes Never Let Me Go but then, fifteen years later, Klara and the Sun. Why go through the lengthy trouble of breeding humans to be slaves when one can manufacture slaves? So can the themes of eugenics and selective breeding of humans still have the claim on our imagination they once had?


ADDENDUM
  1. Stories about the breeding of slaves often feature the possibility, or the actuality, of a slave revolt — but not in Tolkien. The orcs and other creatures bred by Morgoth/Sauron/Saruman may fail in various ways, but they never rebel. The possibility of a robot revolt, by contrast, seems to have been baked into the conception right from the beginning.
  2. The 20th-century fear of selective human breeding was sustained, in the West, by the wars of that century: First the Nazis were thought to be breeding Supermen, then, when the World Wars gave way to the Cold War, the new object of such fears became the Soviet Union. (And the fears weren’t simply manufactured: I remember stories of the American women swimmers in the Olympics hearing the baritone laughs and shouts of the testosterone-filled East German women in the next locker room.) Maybe the collapse of the Soviet system inevitably led to a diminishment in the anxieties associated with eugenics: no more Ivan Dragos, no more Winter Soldiers, no more Black Widows.
  3. In the reading of The Time Machine in his superb literary biography of Wells, Adam Roberts comments on the moment when, assaulted by Morlocks, the Time Traveler loses his little Eloi friend Weena: “I searched again for traces of Weena, but there were none. It was plain that they had left her poor little body in the forest. I cannot describe how it relieved me to think that it had escaped the awful fate to which it seemed destined.” To this, Adam says, “Better burned alive than raped by Morlocks, it seems.” But surely the Traveler means eaten by Morlocks. Which raises a question I hint at in the main body of this post: Have the Eloi and Morlocks taken such divergent evolutionary paths that the Morlocks could no longer think of the Eloi as objects of sexual interest? I am inclined to think so. After all, the taboo on interspecies sex and the taboo on cannibalism are in a sense mutually exclusive. If you can eat it, you can’t have sex with it; if you can have sex with it, you can’t eat it.

representation

Adam Roberts:

Representation in the sense of ‘how texts figure and inscribe the world and its concerns’ overlaps with another sense of the word: representation in the sense of not occluding or effacing the variety of groups and peoples that actually make up the world….

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are no churches or temples in Middle Earth; no priests or popes among the population. This is not because Lord of the Rings is an irreligious book. On the contrary, as Tolkien said (in a letter to his friend, the Jesuit priest, Robert Murray): ‘the Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’

We could put it this way: LotR is not a mimetic novel — there is no actual Middle Earth which it aims, accurately, to reproduce. It is a metaphorical novel: a novel about Christian revelation, about power and temptation, about resilience, hope and love.

So here’s the question: would it enhance the way LotR expresses its religious meanings to add temples, priests and congregations to its storytelling and worldbuilding? Or would it (as Tolkien believed) dilute and undermine it? 

It seems clear to me that Tolkien’s choice was, in the long run, a wise one — even though it was risky in the sense that millions of readers did not and do not perceive the “fundamentally religious and Catholic nature” of the book. But then, a good many of those readers probably would not have been receptive to a more direct appeal to their spiritual sensibilities, which they may not have had or may have had only to a small degree. Insofar as Tolkien wants to commend his own understanding of the cosmos, he directs his writing to those who are if not open-minded at least open-hearted, willing to entertain at least in their imaginations a richer and deeper world than the everyday. To use George Macdonald’s terms, Tolkien is more interested in awaking a meaning than conveying one. 

But in the present moment, and in relation to present concerns — concerns that Adam turns to elsewhere in his post — any such indirection will probably be ineffective. For the Extremely Online Discourse Police, the sole purpose of language is to declare allegiances and repudiations, and you can’t do that effectively if you “tell the truth but tell it slant.” The good news is that this moment will not last, and (again) in the long run Dickinson is exactly right to say that “Success in Circuit lies.” 

on me

Wyatt Mason on Jon Fosse’s Septology:

The practice of prayer, the practice of painting, the products of prose: all buoy us as we live and as those we love die — as those whom Asle has loved will. Like all members of our species have before him, Asle leaves his own inscrutable lines on the world, “the innermost picture inside me,” he says, “that all the pictures I’ve tried to paint are attempting to look like, this innermost picture, that’s a kind of soul and a kind of body in one, yes, that’s my spirit, what I call spirit.” And with Asle, in this remarkable novel, we pray:

and I hold the brown wooden cross between my thumb and my finger and then I say, again and again, inside myself, as I breathe in deeply Lord and as I breathe out slowly Jesus and as I breathe in deeply Christ and as I breathe out slowly Have mercy and as I breathe in deeply On me. 

I’m gonna have to read this absolutely enormous one-sentenced book, dammit. 

pure speculation

Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future, begins with a long and horrific set-piece about a massive heatwave in India, in the year 2025, that leaves perhaps twenty million people dead in a single week. The almost unimaginable death toll kick-starts a serious worldwide determination to deal with climate change; one consequence of this determination is the multinational organization that gives the book its title.

But the Ministry is only one such endeavor. Robinson devotes a lot of time — too much time, for this sometimes glassy-eyed reader — to the description of committee meetings and other workings of a vast bureaucracy, because he thinks that, boring or not, such patient work will make a difference to our climate future, if any difference is to be made. However, as he repeatedly makes clear, bureaucratic action is not the only kind of action there is — systemic inertia and global capitalism being what they are:

The disaster had happened in India, in a part of India where few foreigners ever went, a place said to be very hot, very crowded, very poor. Probably more such events in the future would mostly happen in those nations located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and the latitudes just to the north and south of these lines. Between thirty north and thirty south: meaning the poorest parts of the world. North and south of these latitudes, fatal heat waves might occur from time to time, but not so frequently, and not so fatally. So this was in some senses a regional problem. And every place had its regional problems. So when the funerals and the gestures of deep sympathy were done with, many people around the world, and their governments, went back to business as usual. And all around the world, the CO2 emissions continued.

A new government in India, perhaps the first truly representative government in the country’s history, knows that that’s how it goes. So it begins a seven-month campaign of sending cargo planes as high aloft as they will go to release aerosol particulates meant to reflect sunlight away from the earth. Some nations protest; India doesn’t care. India sends the planes because Indians have seen up close what happens when a heat wave occurs that simply overwhelms the resources of the unprotected human body.

Does the seeding help? Probably; a little. It was, one of the pilots thinks, worth a shot no matter what.

Later in the book Robinson describes a more complex technological effort: a massive project of drilling in the Arctic and Antarctic meant to allow meltwater to escape, which in turn slows the shifting and calving of the glaciers. In a related effort, the Russians assume responsibility for dyeing the Arctic Ocean yellow to reflect heat and keep it relatively cool.

I have read many accounts today of the bluntly alarming new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and only one of them (in the Economist) has mentioned technological approaches to addressing the climate crisis — approaches other than those related to the reduction of carbon emissions, which is anyway typically portrayed as a behavioral rather than a technological matter — even though a good deal of research in this field is being done. I’m sure some accounts say more, but certainly the overwhelming message from the media is simple and straightforward: We must reduce carbon emissions, and reduce them by a degree hitherto unthinkable. (And, they add, even that won’t stop significant temperature increases.)

Why so little attention to technological helps unrelated to the reduction of emissions? Well, for one thing, that reflects the emphasis of the report itself; also, that makes for a simple story, and writers of press releases and journalists alike prefer simple stories. But — and this is the meaning of my title — I speculate, I suspect, than something else is at work. Something maybe more important than simplicity.

There’s no doubt in my mind — not one iota of doubt — that we are headed for a global nightmare because of our own greed and self-indulgence. And if technological solutions emerge that slow or stop global warming, then that will mean that we get away with it. We get away with our greed and self-indulgence; we don’t pay the piper, what goes around does not, after all, come around. And that is — for those of us with a strong sense of justice, and I count myself among that number — a bitter pill to swallow. It’s precisely the same impulse that made so many of us choke on the Wall Street bailout a decade ago. They got away with it, the bastards.

Of course, just as I accepted a Wall Street bailout because I believed that it would result in less destruction and suffering than allowing the system to burn down, I would also accept — eagerly! — technological solutions that left us as greedy and self-indulgent and regardless of the future as ever but averted the loss of countess lives (human and non-human) and the destruction of countless square miles of habitat. Surely this is also true of the journalists and climate activists remaining silent about possibly ameliorative technological endeavors.

But here’s the thing: How much hope does any of us really have that the world’s governments will do the right thing? Oh, they may very neatly re-arrange the deck-chairs on the Titanic — but more than that? There ain’t a snowball’s chance in Waco circa August 2075. In his novel, Robinson imagines the emergence of a kind of chastened and de-centralized capitalism — and I want to come back to that in another post, if I have time — but, like Bill McKibben, I fear that “Robinson underestimates not just the staying power of the status quo but also the odds that when things get really bad, we will react really badly.” (KSR may be a better prophet in his anticipation, in the Mars books, of “transnational” capitalism.)

McKibben suggests that such bad reactions could include the emergence of more authoritarian strongmen, and one would have to be naïve to discount the possibility of that, but I think it’s more likely that elected politicians will just find ways to kick the can a little further down the road, again and again and again. Politicians in a democratic order only think as far as the next election — those who win such elections do, anyway — and unelected ones only think of bread, circuses, and mechanisms of intimidation. Long-term thinking about the common good is simply not a political virtue, insofar as “politics” means “gaining and keeping power.” And that is, after all, what politics means.

I, therefore, have nearly zero confidence in political solutions to our changing climate, which means that I am all the more interested in the likely emerging technologies. I wish it was easier to find out about what people are experimenting on, what they are planning. My primary fear for the medium-term future is that, in a time of particular pain, something like Robinson’s picture of a desperate Indian government acting precipitously will come about — and that the consequences will be much worse than those were. This is why I would like to hear less about the reduction of carbon emissions and more about what the scientists and engineers are planning against the Dies Irae.

tales of technocracy

The chief theme of my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 is that, in the midst of World War II, a series of Christian writers and thinkers discerned that the Allied victory over the Axis powers would be perceived not as a victory of democracy over tyranny but rather as a victory of technology. They sought to recommend humanistic models of education that would counterbalance the coming Novus Ordo Seculorum. But they were not successful, at least on their own terms; technocracy arrived, and dominated. Today’s surveillance capitalism is the product, in quite direct ways, of the particular form taken by the Allied victory in World War II. 

I have just been re-reading some books that I first read almost fifty years ago — Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End — and am struck by how much they have in common, and how strongly they echo the themes of my story. Asimov’s three novels were originally published as stories between 1942 and 1950, then stitched together into novels; Childhood’s End was written in 1952. Clarke’s book is far, far more technically accomplished than Asimov’s creaky contraptions, and they differ dramatically in scale and setting: Clarke’s story treats of events that span a century on near-future Earth, while Asimov’s trilogy covers several hundred years and ranges around the entire galaxy. But their core concerns are remarkably similar, and are the product of the same historical moment to which my five Christian intellectuals in YOOL1943 were responding.  

In the Foundation books a man comes to understand the historical development of humanity, past and future, and implements a plan for directing it; in Childhood’s End aliens who understand the historical development of humanity, past and future, come to Earth to implement a plan for directing it. 

In both cases the new planned order successfully displaces an existing political structure quite like our own: unequal, decadent, sclerotic, tired.  

In both cases satisfaction with the new order gives way eventually to a kind of complacency. In Asimov’s fictional world, the planet Terminus, guided by the science of the Foundation, comes to dominate its sector of the galaxy, but perhaps at the cost of its soul; in Childhood’s End, “The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art. There were myriads of performers, amateur and professional, yet there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting, or sculpture for a generation. … It was a much fairer, but a much smaller, planet than it had been a century before. When the Overlords had abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure.” Technocracy is powerful, and once a society experiences its blessings a return to an earlier status quo is unthinkable; yet as time goes by thoughtful people, knowing what technocracy enables, can’t help reflecting on what it inhibits or flatly disables. 

The parallels eventually give way to significant divergences: Clarke is interested in imagining new and strange evolutionary pathways for humanity; Asimov wants to suggest that all empires follow the path Gibbon traced for Rome, energetic success giving way to decadence. But it’s noteworthy that both of them are so deeply invested in thinking about the ways old political orders give way to self-proclaimed Utopias; and both, also, see that the technocratic Utopia — as distinguished, I think, from the more traditional Utopias of authoritarian and totalitarian states — is a new thing in the world. 

Light Perpetual

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And speaking of novels by friends, Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual is now available in the U.S. I cannot recommend it to you too highly. This novel absolutely did me in — I found myself deeply invested in each of its five main characters, and at the end simultaneously heartbroken and exhilarated. Please do not miss this one. 

(I find it very interesting to reflect on the peculiar commonalities between two books that on most levels are dramatically different, Light Perpetual and — see previous post — Purgatory Mount. But I can’t talk about those connections without utterly spoiling both books….) 

the meaning of Purgatory

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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.

changing priors, changing life

I taught a a class last term called Philosophy and Literature, and for our last book we read Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (hereafter RNG). The chapter that gives the book its title is a delightful imitation Platonic dialogue by RNG in which Plato, on book tour, comes to give a talk at Google headquarters. The primary character in the dialogue, aside from Plato himself, is a publicist named Cheryl, a shepherd and minder of authors on tour, who finds herself pushed by Plato to rethink some of her core assumptions about life. The whole conversation is handled with great subtlety and skill – it’s just the kind of thing that I wish I had written, though I have neither the knowledge nor the skill to do what RNG does here.

There’s a point near the end of the dialogue where Cheryl is reflecting on her experience with Plato, and tells a friend that the world needs more people like Plato, “super-arguers” she calls them, because the super-arguer has the power to force us out of our well-worn tracks of thought and practice. As we were discussing this passage in class, I suggested that what Cheryl is saying could be explained in Bayesian terms. So I gave my students a brief overview of Bayesian reasoning. We talked about priors, that is, our current assessments of probability, and how Bayes articulates the ways we revise our priors in light of subsequent experience. The thing that makes Bayesian reasoning so attractive is his ability to see probability not as a fixed proportion, but rather as one that is continually being revised — or at least should be if our minds are functioning properly.

One of the books that we read earlier in the class is Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch — about which I recently wrote a few words here — so I asked my students to engage in a thought experiment: You are walking across campus and see a spacecraft descend and land; from it emerges a man with a mechanical arm, steel teeth, and a kind of visor where his eyes should be, who offers you a drug called Chew-Z, which he claims will confer immortality upon its user. I asked: Would you take the drug? 

My students all agreed they would not. Their priors tell them that such an experience might be an illusion of some kind, or a prank, a reaction to medicine, a side effect of exhaustion – all of these seem clearly more probable occurrences than the actual arrival of a strange man in a spaceship bearing a drug that supposedly confers immortality. And this is setting aside the question of whether, assuming the reality of Palmer Eldritch, his intentions are indeed benign and his claims truthful. But then, I said, suppose it happens again tomorrow, and the day after. Or suppose it happens to a friend of yours, and that friend decides to take the drug and claims to have achieved enlightenment as a result. None of this might be enough to cause you to change your mind about taking the drug, but it would be enough, I think, to cause you to revise your prior assumptions about the possibility of weird men in spaceships landing in Waco. You don’t move from a “confidence interval” of 0% to 100%, but the probability definitely rises. 

So that’s how Bayesian reasoning works. And you can see that what Cheryl is praising in super-arguers like Plato is their ability to cause us to revise our priors. They are, and this is RNG’s chief point in the dialogue, socially useful as, shall we say, gadflies – gadflies who are annoying enough to force us out of our usual patterns. And I think this is true. But, as the example of Dick’s novel suggests, there are other forces in addition to skilled argumentation that can press us to revise our priors. In fact, this is one of the ways in which some scholars have accounted for, or at least helped to explain, the extraordinary effects of LSD upon people: psychotropic drugs have the effect of weakening our priors and making us open to possibilities that we previously had not been open to. Now, as I pointed out, this weakening of our priors may be truth-conducive or may be the opposite: it all depends on how good our priors were. Opening our minds to new possibilities can sometimes lead to disaster, even if it can also sometimes lead to enlightenment.

I also noted that the book we read just before Plato at the Googleplex, Iris Murdoch’s novel The Good Apprentice, concerns some of the same themes. In one sense the story can be described as a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son: we have a father, or rather two potential fathers, and two sons, one who pursues goodness in a way that seems extreme and weird to other characters, and a second who falls into a pit of anguish and despair because — here come the drugs again — he surreptitiously administered a dose of LSD to a friend of his who then walked out of the window of his apartment and fell to his death. So you can see the story as the story of fathers, sons, brothers — a small unit of men who need to find some way to be reconciled to one another.

But that’s not all that the story is about. It seems to me that Murdoch is actually slightly more interested in the effects that extremity of experience or belief have, not upon the people who hold these extreme beliefs or have these extreme experiences, but on the people around them. The younger son Edward’s overwhelming misery is not just a challenge for him, it’s a challenge for everybody who knows him. It forces them to think about guilt and responsibility, about the conditions of healing, about what can be done to atone for sin. They don’t know what to say to Edward, and that reveals to them what they don’t understand about their own lives. Similarly, Stuart, the elder brother, who has commenced a quest for pure goodness and is willing to renounce anything in life that interferes with that pursuit, strikes many of the people in the novel as simply inhuman. He is often compared to an animal, which is odd, because what he is doing is precisely the opposite of animal life: he is questioning his instincts, questioning his desires — but his friends and family don’t have a language for someone who does this. They perceive it to be inhuman, and the only form of inhumanity that they can readily lay hold of is the bestial. In fact, though, Stuart is trying to be a saint. That doesn’t mean he’s right cut: George Orwell once said that “sainthood is a thing that human beings must avoid.” But that’s the proper description for his quest.

In any case, Murdoch’s chief theme seems to be that extremity of moral experience, whether it is an extremity of the desire for good or an extremity of guilt and shame, dislocates lives — not just the lives of the people who are having those experiences but also the lives of those who surround them. And that too can be explained in Bayesian terms: in the presence of moral extremity, everyone’s priors are weakened and disrupted. And in the presence of religious ecstasy. And in the presence of psychotropic drugs. And in the presence of super-arguers. 

So it turns out that what we were dealing with in that class was a series of stories about forces strong enough to weaken our priors. Because when our priors are weakened is when reflection begins. 


Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)  
 

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Underworld

I tried to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld more than 20 years ago, and got about 500 pages in before I got firmly stuck in the mud. I just now returned to it, and while I managed to cross the finish line this time, my response was very much the same: for the first two-thirds of the book DeLillo weaves a masterful narrative, and then, rather suddenly it seems to me, he loses control of his material – and loses control completely. Part 5 occupies 150 pages and ought to occupy 40; the 125 pages of Part 6 could have been cut by half, or more, with no loss of meaning and considerable gain in narrative momentum. Moreover, certain themes which are central to Parts 1-4 — I think especially of their inquiry into the relationship between civilization and waste — disappear altogether in those two sections, making but a cursory reappearance in the Epilogue. When Lenny Bruce shows up in the novel the whole thing falls apart. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.

All this makes it very hard to evaluate Underworld. It is in many respects brilliant, but so manifestly undisciplined and misshapen that it dissipates its great power to a degree that I have rarely seen in fiction.

Anyway, on to what I really want to say here.

I’m sure this has been commented on before, but one way to think about this novel is as a central node in an ongoing conversation with Thomas Pynchon. Four examples:

One: Right in the middle of this book DeLillo describes at some length an imaginary film by Sergei Eisenstein. This has a structural and thematic purpose almost identical to that of The Courier’s Tragedy, the imaginary Jacobean drama that occupies a similarly central place in The Crying of Lot 49. In each case the imaginary literary work is a kind of reflection-in-a-distorted-mirror of the book you’re reading.

Two: DeLillo’s description of the Fresh Kills Landfill in Underworld clearly prompts a kind of response from Pynchon in his most recent and probably final novel, Bleeding Edge. DeLillo:

He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza — only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one. Bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade and linkage were directed in the end to this culminating structure. And the thing was organic, ever growing and shifting, its shape computer-plotted by the day and the hour. In a few years this would be the highest mountain on the Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami. Brian felt a sting of enlightenment. He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us.

Pynchon:

Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind Island of Meadows, at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing — typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land.”

Yet there is something moving to Pynchon’s protagonist Maxine about the Island of Meadows, an “unexpected refuge, a piece of the ancient estuary exempt from what happened, what has gone on happening, to the rest of it.” Maybe it won’t last; maybe the developers will get it. But while it lasts, it is beautiful. (Update from 2021: the Fresh Kills Landfill is closed, while the Island of Meadows remains. But … where does the garbage go?)

Three: Underworld begins by attending to a distinct object, a baseball, and ends with a vision of the displacement of the material world by cyberspace, a vision prompted by a random conjunction of names, Sister Alma Edgar and J. Edgar Hoover:

A click, a hit and Sister joins the other Edgar. A fellow celibate and more or less kindred spirit but her biological opposite, her male half, dead these many years. Has he been waiting for this to happen? The bulldog fed, J. Edgar Hoover, the Law’s debased saint, hyperlinked at last to Sister Edgar — a single fluctuating impulse now, a piece of coded information. Everything is connected in the end. Sister and Brother. A fantasy in cyberspace and a way of seeing the other side and a settling of differences that have less to do with gender than with difference itself, all argument, all conflict programmed out. Is cyberspace a thing within the world or is it the other way around? Which contains the other, and how can you tell for sure?

Yes, “everything is connected in the end,” but is the connection revelatory or trivial? Full of occult meaning or just the accident of two identical strings? And in Bleeding Edge, as Maxine reflects on the “unexpected refuge” of the Island of Meadows, she compares it to DeepArcher, a Second Life-style video game and community and wonders whether DeepArcher too is a refuge — or, rather, something equally vulnerable to the depredations of the “developers.” (You may read more by me about these themes here.)

Four: The World Trade Center. In one section Underworld — published in 1997, but set between 1951 and, roughly, 1992 — the towers are going up:

The World Trade Center was under construction, already towering, twin-towering, with cranes tilted at the summits and work elevators sliding up the flanks. She saw it almost everywhere she went. She ate a meal and drank a glass of wine and walked to the rail or ledge and there it usually was, bulked up at the funneled end of the island, and a man stood next to her one evening, early, drinks on the roof of a gallery building—about sixty, she thought, portly and jowled but also sleek in a way, assured and contained and hard-polished, a substantial sort, European. “I think of it as one, not two,” she said. “Even though there are clearly two towers. It’s a single entity, isn’t it?”

“Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.”

“Yes, you have to look.”

(A subtly-handled contrast in DeLillo’s novel opposes the World Trade towers to the Watts Towers, the latter being handmade and non-commercial and radiant with purposive purposelessness.) In Bleeding Edge — published in 2013 and set in 2001 — the Twin Towers have just come down:

“Do you remember that piece of footage on the local news, just as the first tower comes down, woman runs in off the street into a store, just gets the door closed behind her, and here comes this terrible black billowing, ash, debris, sweeping through the streets, gale force past the window . . . that was the moment, Maxi. Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”

“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”

“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs . . . planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”

Finally: if there’s a better book cover than that of Underworld (from a 1972 photograph by by André Kertész) I don’t know what it is:

911TarCyuzL

Light Perpetual

IMG 1891

I had the privilege of reading this extraordinary novel in manuscript, and I recommend it to you more warmly than I can easily say. Alexandra Harris’s review in the Guardian tells you a good bit about it, but does not, I think, convey how achingly heartfelt it is — and how profoundly it reflects on that gift from God that makes all other gifts possible: time.

Dunne experiment

Several years ago Francis wrote and narrated a fascinating show on BBC Radio about J. W. Dunne, whose book An Experiment with Time was strangely influential for many years, prompting, among other things, J. B. Priestley’s 1937 play Time and the Conways. In conjunction with Francis’s show on Dunne, the BBC staged a new performance of Priestley’s play, which, thanks to the inexplicable vagaries of the Beeb’s policies, I have never been able to hear. Maybe someday. I think it would be very interesting to triangulate Francis’s novel with Dunne’s speculative book and Priestley’s play.

UPDATE: This review by Kate Kellaway comes closer than Harris’s did to capturing what’s so special about this novel. 

do I feel fine?

ITE

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.

technocracy is impossible

I’m re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s magnificent Mars trilogy right now, which might be something to blog about in the coming days and weeks, so why not get started?

Not long ago I was in a Zoom conversation with several people, one of whom is a very distinguished scientist, and he told me that when he read my book The Year of Our Lord 1943 and got to the end, he felt that I had given short shrift to the virtues of technocracy. He thinks technocracy would be a pretty good thing, especially as compared with the plausible alternatives. The conversation veered onto other paths soon after that, possibly more fruitful ones, but before it did I sketched out an answer that I want to develop a little more fully here — because it’s a little different than the view I (implicitly) endorse in that book, which is that Technocracy Is Bad. What I think I now want to say is Technocracy Is Impossible.

You see, in the strict sense there cannot be a technocracy as such, and Mars trilogy proves that point. If you read that story, you will discover that it is really more about politics than it is about the exploration of Mars, or perhaps it would be better to say, it demonstrates irresistibly that none of our scientific or technological pursuits can be detached from deliberations about the character of our lives together, that is to say, deliberations about politics.

Right from the beginning of the story there is great debate, forceful and even sometimes hostile debate, among the First Hundred — the 100 (or, to be precise, 101) people who are sent from Earth to start the first Mars colony — about what sort of society they should form once they get there. They are theoretically responsible to the national governments that sent them and to the U.N., but one of the things that becomes clear to them as even as they’re on their way to Mars is that upon arrival they’re going to have to make their own decisions about how to order their common life. And so a great deal of the book is about, for lack of a better phrase, political philosophy.

One of the things we are occasionally reminded of in the first book of the trilogy, Red Mars, is the international celebrity of the First Hundred. People back on Earth obsessively watch video of the colonists, and enter passionately into their debates:

So nearly everyone had an opinion. Polls showed that most supported the Russell program, an informal name for Sax’s plans to terraform the planet by all means possible, as fast as they could. But the minority who backed Ann’s hands-off attitude tended to be more vehement in their belief, insisting that it had immediate applications to the Antarctic policy, and indeed to all Terran environmental policy. Meanwhile different poll questions made it clear that many people were fascinated by Hiroko and the farming project, while others called themselves Bogdanovists; Arkady had been sending back lots of video from Phobos, and Phobos was good video, a real spectacle of architecture and engineering. New Terran hotels and commercial complexes were already imitating some of its features, there was an architectural movement called Bogdanovism, as well as other movements interested in him that were more concentrated on social and economic reforms in the world order.

All of this makes more sense if you have read the books and know the characters, but even if you haven’t, I think you’ll get the general picture. Terrans are not only interested in what the colonists will do to organize life on Mars, they‘re reflecting on the implications of those ideas for life on Earth.

For me, here’s the key thing: When you have an environment completely dominated by scientists and engineers — the only non-scientist we meet is a psychologist, sent to provide therapy to the colonists — there is no agreement among them about what kind of life they should live together. That is, scientific and technological expertise does not correlate with any particular mode of social and political organization. Scientists can vary just as much in their beliefs about what kind of life is worth living as any randomly selected group of people in a society. They don’t even agree about the importance of technology. Rule could theoretically be given over to people who have demonstrated certain kinds of scientific or technical knowledge, but we would be wrong to think that everyone who has the same level of STEM achievement will have the same views about politics. When you read Robinson’s great trilogy you will understand not only why this might be so but why it must be so.

Therefore it makes no sense to say that the decisions of political leaders should be governed by “the science.” Leaders should pay attention to scientists, dramatically more than the current Presidential administration does, but an immunologist will say one thing, an epidemiologist something slightly different, an economist something altogether other. The various sciences and academic disciplines will not speak with a single voice, indeed will not speak at all: individual scholars will speak, and what they say will arise from a combination of their scholarly expertise and their beliefs (derived from non-scientific sources) about what matters most in life, and a good political leader will have the general intelligence and moral discernment to sift the various messages he or she receives and make a decision based on all the relevant input. Which is another way of saying that there are not, nor will there ever be, charts and algorithms that can substitute for political judgment. Alas for the U.S.A. that political judgment is precisely what our leadership lacks.

choose

Near the end of The Code of the Woosters, Bertie sagely comments of Roderick Spode that one can be either a fascist dictator or a designer of women’s undergarments, but not both. I thought of that as I read Russell Kirk’s wooden thriller Old House of Fear. You can make your villain either a Communist or a necromancer, but not both. Not both.

still

Image

Tony Tanner, in his great essay on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, comments extensively on the peculiarity of a heroine, Fanny Price, who so rarely does anything. Contrast her to, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet, who marches miles across fields to care for her ill sister Jane, thereby arousing contempt from some — How she muddied her skirts! — and admiration from others — What a lovely flush the exercise brought to her cheeks! Fanny, by contrast, mainly … sits.

It is next to the ebullient Crawfords that we must try to appreciate Fanny’s stillness, quietness, weakness and self-retraction…. It is a way of showing that she is not quite at home in the world, that she cannot compete with its rampant appetitive energies. In Fanny’s case this weakness is also a token of the exhaustion and strain she incurs through her ‘heroism of principle’. In her stillness she is not inactive: on the contrary, she is often holding on strenuously to standards and values which others all around her are thoughtlessly abandoning. Typically she welcomes the ‘tranquillity’ made possible by Mansfield Park at its best. She is content to remain apart, silent, unnoticed, out of the ‘festivities’. Whereas Mary [Crawford] is a distinctly forward woman, always in her element in the arena of society, Fanny is marked by ‘natural shyness’. Indeed, when all the others complain of the dullness which comes over the house after Sir Thomas returns, she defends it, saying, ‘There must be a sort of shyness.’ To appreciate the full implications of this we should bear in mind a late remark of Jane Austen’s: ‘What is become of all the shyness in the world?’ By which she clearly means not a false modesty but a true unassertive reticence of soul. A selflessness; a quietness.

Tanner calls our attention to the ultimate clarification of this trait of Fanny’s in what for my money is the single most brilliantly conceived and executed scene in all of Austen. (And that’s saying a lot.) The characters have taken a day trip to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, and while they all go off exploring, often in pairs, sometimes in pairs that should not be pairs, Fanny finds a pleasant spot and, once more, just sits.

It is here that Fanny desires to sit down and be still, and she does so on a bench which confronts an iron gate which separates the wilderness from the unenclosed spaces of the park beyond. This is one of the most important gestures in the book. Mary, typically, has no taste for stillness. ‘“I must move,” said she, “resting fatigues me”’, and leaving Fanny immobile, she entices Edmund back into the wood. Then Henry Crawford and Maria and Mr Rushworth appear. Maria, always impatient of all restraints and enclosures, wishes to go beyond the gates and into the wider freedom of the park. The gate — perfect image for the rigid restrictions imposed by the conventions of civilised life — is locked. Mr Rushworth goes to fetch the key. Being engaged to Maria, he is in many ways the lawful person to ‘open the gates’ (there is perhaps a reference to virginity here, just as the locked garden represents virginity in medieval paintings). But in his absence, Henry engages in some very persuasive and suggestive double entendre with Maria. The improver of the estate is also the disturber of conventional life. The whole conversation should be looked at carefully; particularly when Maria complains that the iron gate ‘gives me a feeling of restraint and hardship’ and Henry answers, ‘I think you might with little difficulty pass round the edge of the gate, here, with my assistance; I think it might be done, if you really wished to be more at large, and could allow yourself to think it not prohibited.’ Their final adultery also a bypassing of the ‘iron’ codes of society is here prefigured.

Tanner continues,

Again, Fanny is ‘left to her solitude’. And so it goes on. Mr Rushworth appears, upset to find he has been left behind; Julia turns up breathless and angry; Edmund and Mary continue their ‘winding’ walk in the woods. Only Fanny is still, silent, alone; not involved in the confused antics of all the others, who are variously pursuing their own desires and indulging their impulses. When they do all meet up again, one feels that some irreparable damage has been done.

A masterful scene, masterfully exposited by Tanner.

I’ve been thinking of this scene, and Tanner’s account of it, as I have reflected on Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life. Franz Jägerstätter’s virtue lies almost wholly in stillness, in refraining, in simply maintaining his stability when all around him have lost theirs. They make vows he does not make; they talk emptily, while he keeps his counsel; they serve their Mortall God, which he politely declines to do; in the end, they kill him, while he is killed by them. Such is his passion — passio, passive, suffering. To quote Tanner with a change of pronouns, “In his stillness he is not inactive: on the contrary, he is often holding on strenuously to standards and values which others all around him are thoughtlessly abandoning.”

We are, generally speaking, not impressed. “Stillness, quietness, weakness and self-retraction” — rather negative as virtues go, wouldn’t you say? Not much to get excited about, is there? But maybe Jane Austen and Franz Jägerstätter understood something we don’t — maybe more than one thing — about what it takes not to be blown about by every propagandistic breeze (for so I render ἀνέμῳ τῆς διδασκαλίας), and about the distinctive kind of weakness in which Another’s strength may be made perfect. Christians who are “not quite at home in the world,” and cannot, or will not, “compete with its rampant appetitive energies” may not deserve our contempt. I find myself longing to exhibit something that no one has ever accused me of exhibiting: “true unassertive reticence of soul.”

Mantel’s Cromwell

Freya Johnston on Hilary Mantel’s new novel:

The Mirror and the Light, like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, conceals through a mass of beautifully observed local colour the quiet work of advocacy it is constantly performing. Mantel is implicitly urging us to feel more sympathy for one character than for others. She does so by virtue of granting or withholding knowledge of what is going on inside her characters’ heads. The way that she handles the representation of thought processes and the mingling of those processes with an ostensibly impersonal narrative voice — in other words, her free indirect style — seem to rule out access to the ways in which bad characters think. Or perhaps she cannot help but make bad people into better ones. The prose is so raptly and sympathetically attuned to Cromwell that, despite his actions, we are made to find him at worst intriguing, sometimes manipulative — but even then, understandably so.

This comment is interesting to me, because I wrote something similar when reviewing the first volume of the trilogy ten years ago

This psychological focus is especially important because Mantel clearly thinks of Cromwell as the most modern person in her story — the one most like Us. In her vision he is an utterly non-ideological man with little intrinsic interest in power forced to live in a profoundly ideological and power-mad age. His strongest feelings are for his wife and children — he loses that wife and both of his daughters to the “sweating sickness” (we would call it malaria) — and when a colleague finds him weeping over his dead loved ones, Cromwell pretends that he cries for fear that he will fall when the Cardinal does. The lie is more than plausible: no one in Henry’s court could think of a more likely reason for tears. Cromwell is even tender towards animals, in an age noted for its cruelty to them. The conventional narratives of the Tudor age contrast Thomas More’s reluctant ascent to power, and stubborn loyalty to the Church even in the face of death, with Cromwell’s unprincipled Machiavellian shrewdness. Mantel doesn’t quite invert the equation, but she nearly does. Confined as we are to Cromwell’s perspective, we can’t know what really motivates More, but Cromwell certainly doubts that the piety goes all the way down: at one point he even asks More directly whether he could have risen to the place of Lord Chancellor “by accident.”

Later I wrote: “Mantel’s Cromwell is a characteristically late-modern Western man who happens to be living at the beginnings of modernity. By envisioning him so, Mantel has rendered much simpler the task of making the historical novel into a psychological novel. Could she have told the story of More, or for that matter Tyndale, in this manner? I think not. Author and protagonist merge nicely at this point: the True Believer remains inaccessible to them both.”

That’s why I didn’t go on to the second, and will not go on to the third, volume: Mantel seems interested in the inner lives only of those characters with whom she can muster significant sympathy. Oh for a writer who wants to grapple seriously with those whose beliefs and commitments are alien to her! 

a return to Narnia

(I had the privilege of reading Francis Spufford’s The Stone Table in draft, with what I believe the enthusiasts call “dawning wonder,” and also with increasing frustration at a copyright regime that made it unlikely to be published. So a few months ago I wrote the essay you see below. After some reflection I decided not to publish it; but now that the word is out about The Stone Table, I’m posting it here.) 

One of the best works of fiction I have read in the past several years was written by the acclaimed English writer Francis Spufford — and no, I do not refer to his award-winning novel Golden Hill, though indeed I loved that book too. The story I’m referring to is called The Stone Table, and before you Google it or look for it on Amazon, please understand that you will not find it. And that’s because of intellectual property law.

For Spufford’s book is set in Narnia, the fictional world created by C. S. Lewis. The Stone Table features characters who appear in other Narnia books: most notably, two children named Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke and the great lion Aslan. The seven Narnia books that Lewis wrote have already come into the public domain in some countries, and may even do so in the United States — though those of us who have seen the law extend copyright again and again may be pardoned for doubting that it will ever happen. But Spufford has written a new Narnia story, so copyright law doesn’t affect his: what matters is that the world of Narnia is a registered trademark of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd. — and trademarks, if they are consistently used and defended against infringement, last forever. (This is why so many companies will sue for trademark infringement even in apparently trivial cases: they’re afraid that if they don’t they’ll be accused of having abandoned their copyright.) Moreover, trademarks are often international in their scope.

So as long as there is money to be made from Narnia™, then books like The Stone Table cannot be published and sold without the express consent of C. S. Lewis (PTE.) Ltd.

Now, in many cases trademark holders are more than happy to give — or rather, sell — such consent. Certainly Middle-Earth Enterprises, the company that now holds the rights to Hobbit– and Lord of the Rings-related material, rights that Tolkien himself sold to United Artists in 1969, was pleased to make it possible for us to recreate Helm’s Deep in Lego. For instance. But the remainder of Tolkien’s writings are copyrighted, and several trademarks held, by Tolkien’s estate, which has sometimes led to confusing legal struggles: Wait, Tolkien is suing Middle-Earth? And Middle-Earth is suing him back?

And these different parties have not always had the same interests. Tolkien’s son Christopher, who directed the estate before his resignation in 2017 at the age of 93, did not like Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, would certainly have prevented the filming of The Hobbit if he could have, and would have been unlikely ever to approve a film or television version of his father’s vast legendarium, The Silmarillion — even though such a project could greatly enrich the Tolkien Estate’s coffers. Who knows what will happen now that the Estate is in other hands? But Christopher always had a strong sense of the character and purpose of his father’s work, and did not want that character and purpose to be violated. Money is not everything.

A very similar attitude seems to drive the C. S. Lewis estate, and especially Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. When I was working on my biography of Lewis — in the year or so preceding the release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with which it was meant to coincide — a shadow of anxiety always hovered over the project, because no one knew exactly what Gresham would think of it. He couldn’t have stopped it from being published, but he certainly could have withheld the estate’s cooperation from my publisher, HarperOne, and made life more difficult and considerably less lucrative for them. That would have (de facto if not de jure) meant the quashing of my biography. I am certain that my editor, the shrewd and resourceful Mickey Maudlin, had to do some delicate negotiating both with Gresham, who wanted his stepfather’s memory properly honored, and with me, who wanted to be left alone to write the book I wanted to write. But Mickey played his cards very close to his vest, so I am not sure to this day how awkward those negotiations got.

Last year Mickey and I had a conversation about a new book, a collection of Lewis’s writings about reading. Lewis wrote very eloquently about the theory and practice of reading, and as his biographer and the author of a book about reading I might seem to be a good candidate to select and annotate his thoughts on the subject. But again approval of the estate was required; and approval, for reasons not wholly clear to me, was not granted.

It’s enough to make me long for estates driven by a list for filthy lucre. For, though I admire the determination of Christopher Tolkien and Douglas Gresham, and other directors of those estates, to be faithful custodians of rich and wonderful imaginative worlds, I am not convinced that they can legitimately offer the final, unquestionable verdict about what does in fact honor Lewis’s and Tolkien’s writings. Great writers — and I believe both Lewis and Tolkien to have been great writers — tend to have more comprehensive minds than those charged with their estates’ care. This is why I have for so long admired Edward Mendelson, W. H. Auden’s literary executor, who has for decades now offered unfailing support to scholars working on Auden, even when those scholars have views about Auden radically different than his own. Mendelson grasps what many literary executors and estates do not: that, just because Auden is a writer whose greatness is not reducible to a single point of view, it is better to be overly generous than overly restrictive.

The world will not much miss the book on Lewis and reading that I would have made. But The Stone Table deserves a very wide readership indeed. Spufford has suppressed his own distinctive and eloquent style and made himself a ventriloquist of Lewis: to read the story is really and truly to return to the Narnia millions of readers love. And this is not merely a matter of style: Spufford’s story is thematically and even theologically Lewisian. It is a marvelous and utterly delightful tale, as wise as it is thrilling. I so wish you could read it.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

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.

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