Thoughts for the day

Joseph Moore:

The Great Books are more damaging than helpful when taught outside the traditions that produced most of them. I hate to admit this, as I love the classics, but if they are read as just a bunch of interesting books whose ideas are merely a smorgasbord from which everybody gets to pick what they want and interpret it as they see fit, the Great Books become little more than an excuse for unearned elitism, a closed mind, and the false belief that one is educated simply by having skimmed a bunch of old books.

In context, which is Christendom and the ancient civilizations it saved, the books have something worthy to tell us. This knowledge leads to humility rather than elitism, and destroys the canard that people nowadays are just so much more enlightened and intelligent than those old dead guys. Out of this context, the Great Books are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

(See also “The Sign of the Broken Sword.”)

The Z Man:

Every day a Western leader publicly frets about civil unrest over food and energy shortages, despite the fact that the people have shown no signs of revolt. The reason the politicians keep talking about potential revolts is the same reason Washington is obsessing over fictional insurrections. These are people who think they deserve a revolution.

Super duper

Steampunk dalek

Some years back, Hutchinson, Kansas declared itself to be Smallville, the hometown of Clark Kent. This was an excuse to launch the Smallville Comic Con, held most years around this time at the fairgrounds. I spent a couple hours there this morning taking pictures of people in eccentric clothing, plus the occasional dalek and other oddities. It may take a few days to go through them all. Here’s the first batch.

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Requiescat in pace

A long, long time ago I came across a humorous/satirical website called The Lemon. It’s long gone now; as far as I can tell all that remains is the panel reproduced here. It was the work of Shamus Young, one of the crew who hung around Steven Den Beste’s place. He was perceptive and insightful on gaming, anime and whatever else caught his attention. Over the years he focused increasingly on gaming, but even so he was still worth reading. He wrote well, and his detailed analyses and critiques of games were interesting even to non-gamers like me.

And he was funny. The Lemon may be gone, but DM of the Rings, the one good result of the Peter Jackson catastrophe, is there to read on his website, as is Chainmail Bikini. It is not necessary to have played D&D to enjoy them.

Shamus’s autobiography worth reading, too. His account of his ordeals in grade school is sufficient reason utterly reform or just flat eliminate the education establishment. It starts here.

Shamus Young died Wednesday. Please keep him and his family in your prayers.

Poetry corner: in memoriam

Joyce Kilmer, updated by John Leo:

Versified and rhythmic non-prose verbal arrangements are fashioned by people of alternative intelligence such as myself, but only the divine entity, should he or she actually exist, can create a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material.

John Leo, a very funny, very serious writer whose columns were among the few things worth reading in the newspaper1 before the turn of the century, died earlier this month. His collection Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police2 is fun to browse through.

(Via Kim Du Toit.)

Art and entertainment notes

I’m down to two shows, which is still twice as many as I was following at this time last year. The best remains Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department. However, despite its squicky premise, Life with an Ordinary Guy… hasn’t made me throw up yet. It helps to know your isekai clichés.

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The decline and fall of the English department

A long time ago I decided against a career in academia. It was one of the few major life decisions I got right.

… pluralism in academic settings rarely lasts for long. There has to be a truth at the end of the day, even if it’s the “truth” of an artificial academic consensus. When theory killed literary truth, it doomed the discipline. Into this vacuum, identity professors in English departments poured ersatz truths about race and sex, which have failed to shore it up. At the time I was baffled at this suicidal trend, but in retrospect I can see that it was only natural that identity politics should have ascended so quickly in the nineties. Its urgent claims gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined. When literature itself no longer sparked the heat of conviction that divided Bloom and Hirsch in the early sixties, the discipline had to find another source of energy. Identity critics had the answer. They weren’t decadent—they were impassioned. By 1992, “post-structuralism” had a stale tang, but gender and queer sounded fresh and potent. A theory panel at the MLA Convention on “Shelley and the Sign” was ho-hum, but “Queer Shakespeare” down the hall was packed.

High seriousness was restored, but literature was the victim. It wasn’t Shakespeare that drew the crowd, but queerness: Lear was a pretext. Literature had become a booster rocket, at best, one that you jettison when you reach the orbit of political relevance. The institutional effects are plain to see at this late date. Fifty years ago, a university couldn’t call itself “Tier One” unless it had a renowned English department. No more: Abysmal enrollment numbers in the humanities at such universities prove the irrelevance of literary study. My colleagues around the country bemoan the decline, but they blame the wrong things. English did not fall because a bunch of conservatives trashed the humanities as a den of political correctness. It didn’t fall because it lost funding or because business leaders promoted STEM fields. It fell because the dominant schools of thought stopped speaking about the truth of literature. Once the professors could no longer insist, “You absolutely must read Dryden, Pope, and Swift—they are the essence of wit and discernment”; when they lost the confidence to say that nothing reveals the social complexity of the colonial situation better than Nostromo; if they couldn’t assure anyone that Hawthorne’s sentences showed the American language in its most exquisite form, they lost the competition for majors. Students stopped caring about literature because the professors stopped believing in its promises of revelation and delight.

Miscellaneous quotes

Assistant Village Idiot:

Critical Race Theory, and Critical Theory in general doesn’t have any art I can think of. Not poetry, not music, theater, film, painting, sculpture, nor literature. It may just be that I am not up on such things. I don’t think it is mere recency, as both have been around for years, nor is it a bias from unfair comparisons from centuries ago. I am not asking that it produce an equivalent to the high Renaissance. Existentialism is also recent but does not suffer from the same lack. There is plenty of interesting theater, poetry, and literature from them, and I think only a little stretch of the concept brings in the visual arts including film….

This is a major red flag for the intellectual foundation of a philosophy, that artists in no medium can bring forth anything of interest. The heart of artistic expression is transposition, of reframing or new understanding of one concept and making it manifest in another. If you can find nothing to transpose, it means there is nothing there.

Jeff Sypeck:

How many boys doze off in English class because no one made clear that poetry is also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and frantic barbarian hordes?

TS:

In 2008 I was wary of Obama but never bought into the “born in Kenya” crap and thought maybe he could do some great good in uniting our country racially. I think by 2012-ish I realized the enemy was within. By 2017 I realized we were in a Cold Civil War. And now in 2021 I think it’s a tossup as to who is the bigger enemy: the Left in this country or China.

Historical note: Dave Mustaine in 2012:

I’m just hoping that whatever is in the White House next year is a Republican. I can’t bear to watch what’s happened to our great country. Everybody’s got their head in the sand. Everybody in the industry is like, ‘Oh, Obama’s doing such a great job…’ I don’t think so. Not from what I see.

Looking at the Republican candidates, I’ve got to tell you, I was floored the other day to see that Mitt Romney’s five boys have a $100 million trust fund. Where does a guy make that much money? So there’s some questions there. And watching Newt Gingrich, I was pretty excited for a while, but now he’s just gone back to being that person that everybody said he was – that angry little man. I still like him, but I don’t think I’d vote for him.

Ron Paul… you know, I heard somebody say he was like insecticide – 98 percent of it’s inert gases, but it’s the two percent that’s left that will kill you. What that means is that he’ll make total sense for a while, and then he’ll say something so way out that it negates everything else. I like the guy because he knows how to excite the youth of America and fill them in on some things. But when he says that we’re like the Taliban… I’m sorry, Congressman Paul, but I’m nothing like the Taliban.

Earlier in the election, I was completely oblivious as to who Rick Santorum was, but when the dude went home to be with his daughter when she was sick, that was very commendable. Also, just watching how he hasn’t gotten into doing these horrible, horrible attack ads like Mitt Romney’s done against Newt Gingrich, and then the volume at which Newt has gone back at Romney… You know, I think Santorum has some presidential qualities, and I’m hoping that if it does come down to it, we’ll see a Republican in the White House… and that it’s Rick Santorum.”

The view from 1984

I’ve been browsing around in Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986. In his discussion of Free Live Free, he quotes a couple of passages that have gained force in the years since the year the novel was published. I thought I’d put them here, a bit more fully.

A history of America, delivered by a man in a duffel coat near the end of the story:

“Our country was founded on the principle of the destruction of the wild by the civilized. Let me … go back thirty thousand years before Christ, when the ancestors of the Indians crossed what are now the Bering Straits to occupy what some people have called an empty land. Those Indians represented civilization. The beavers felled trees and built lodges, but the Indians killed the beavers and skinned them.

Barnes said, “Then the whites came and skinned the Indians.”

“Precisely. But the frontiersmen who destroyed the Indians and their culture were destroyed themselves, with their culture, by the settlers who followed. Those settlers lost their farms to the banks, and the banks sold them to companies who have brought the advantages of corporate existence—immortality and amorality—to agriculture.

“In the cities, the same thing occurred. The early city of independent shops and restaurants is properly being displaced by one of the chain outlets, so that progressively greater control is exercised. Perhaps none of you have ever understood before why they are called that—chain outlets….

“You see the progress? The old stores had to sell things their customers wanted. As they’re eliminated, the need for their type of slavery is eliminated, too, and the chains can sell whatever they want. Their customers have to buy it because there is nothing else to buy. I ask you, all of you—how often have you gone into W. T. Grant’s and found there was nothing at all you wanted?”

And:

“The Indians used to be Americans—that’s what an American was. Then the trappers were Americans, the Americans of their day. Then the farmers, with their buggies and plow horses and white clapboard houses. Even today when you look at a picture of Uncle Sam, you’re seeing what those farmers were like dressed up to go to the county fair. Only farmers aren’t real Americans any more. Neither are Indians. Poor bastards of Indians aren’t even foreigners, and we like foreigners more than Americans, because foreigners are the Americans of the future. The trappers are gone, and pretty soon you’ll be gone too.”

After further provocation, one of his audience responds:

“… I am a gypsy and a princess. And a dupe, because you have made me one. But I will speak for the Indians too, because they were nomads when they were shaped by their own thoughts and not by yours, and we are nomads now, who will remain so though you will slay us….

“You have overcome us, but you have not conquered us. To conquer us you must beat us fairly, and you have not beaten us fairly, and so you have struck us to the ground, but you have not won. To conquer us, you must have dignity too, and for that reason you have not conquered us. A man may flee from a wasp and be stung by the wasp, but he has not been conquered by the wasp; it remains an insect and he is still a man. You deck yourselves like fools and chatter and hop like apes, and your princes marry whores. That is why even those you have crushed to dust will not call you master, and none will ever call you master until you meet a nation more foolish than yourselves.”

Earlier in the book the gypsy does some “catoptromancy.” She explains, “… what I have done is the verso of necromancy; I summoned the spirits of the unborn to reveal the future.” According to her,

“The greatest event of the coming decade will be the quadrumvirate. Four leaders, unknown today, shall unite to take political, financial, artistic, and judicial power. They shall create a revolution in thought. Many who are now rulers shall be imprisoned or exiled. Many who are now powerless shall rise to places of great authority. The rich shall be made poor, and the poor rich. Old crimes, now concealed, shall be made public, and their perpetrators given to the people as to a pride of lions. The four shall be hated and idolized, but their rule will not end within the period specified by my prediction.”

It’s time for the quadrumvirate to reveal itself.

Second-hand links

Via Edward Feser.

Dana Gioia on Ray Bradbury:

My favorite memory of Ray came from a science fiction convention at the University of California at Riverside. Not the convention itself but trying to get to it. Ray was the keynote speaker. He asked if I would introduce him. The speech was scheduled in a huge building at the center of campus. But there was no direct way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the building. Every entrance had high steps designed for 18-year-old college students. Our faculty hosts eventually took us around back to the service entrance by the garbage dumpsters. I pushed Ray through a series of underground corridors until we got to a huge elevator, which had been designed to bring trolleys up from the food service kitchen.

We went up a floor or two, and a group of guys from the food service came in with their packed trolleys. They were all young Mexicans speaking Spanish. They noticed this old man in a wheelchair. The professors all froze up. They felt uncomfortable. But these were the sort of guys I grew up with. I turned to them and asked in my lousy Spanish if they knew who this man was. They shook their heads. Then I told them he was “el escritor famoso, Ray Bradbury.” My hosts looked at me as if I were crazy. But then the guys shouted, “Ray Bradbury!” Every one of them knew who he was. Then they crowded around to get his autograph….

The moment strikes me as the best measure of Bradbury’s fame. Can you imagine the same reaction, indeed any reaction, to Saul Bellow or John Updike? These immigrant workers, whom American intellectuals consider beyond the compass of literature — you know all the social, cultural, and racial barriers that exist — were part of Ray’s audience.

And Ray was delighted to meet them. He chuckled and signed napkins and order slips. He had a global audience. He spoke to people novelists don’t usually reach. That is something that we should honor. Bradbury had an imagination that invited people in.

Update: See KT’s comment for more glimpses of Bradbury.

***

My first college may be one of the few not run by lunatics and quislings.

***

Trevor C. Merrill on Milan Kundera’s insights and limitations:

In the minds of many, Kundera and his specific political and national context were bound inseparably together. And so, once he was no longer surrounded by the dissident’s aura, his meditations on life behind the Iron Curtain felt passé; a new regime, and a new set of global concerns, had taken over: “… when communism vanishes, Kundera’s insights into humans under communism lose immediacy, too,” wrote novelist Jane Smiley in 2006.

A lot can happen in a decade. Those certain that the situations in Kundera’s novels were unique to the Soviet era, and that they were thus shrinking in history’s rearview mirror, turned out to be mistaken. In 2016, an essay by philosopher Ryszard Legutko argued that EU-style neoliberalism had become an oppressive ideology like the communism he and others in the Polish Solidarity movement fought to overthrow. More recently, Rod Dreher draws on the experience of Christians under Soviet rule in Live Not by Lies, a handbook for Americans faced with soft totalitarianism. Kundera’s novels now seem less like reports on a bygone disaster, and more like crystal balls showing aspects of our own society, and foreshadowing what could happen if current trends accelerate.

***

I haven’t noticed any pigs on the wing, but Dennou Coil was finally licensed for the USA a few years ago, and Texas has frozen over. Now it looks like The Last Dangerous Visions may at last be published. We’ll see.

In related news, Neil Gaiman confirms that Ellison did indeed mail a dead gopher to Ace Books.

Noise and pessimism

It is no coincidence that, as our culture has become stupider, it has also become noisier. Here’s an 1851 essay by Schopenhauer. He focuses on the wanton cracking of whips; I wonder what he would have said about subwoofers.

On Noise

Kant wrote a treatise on The Vital Powers. I should prefer to write a dirge for them. The superabundant display of vitality, which takes the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about, has proved a daily torment to me all my life long. There are people, it is true — nay, a great many people — who smile at such things, because they are not sensitive to noise; but they are just the very people who are also not sensitive to argument, or thought, or poetry, or art, in a word, to any kind of intellectual influence. The reason of it is that the tissue of their brains is of a very rough and coarse quality. On the other hand, noise is a torture to intellectual people. In the biographies of almost all great writers, or wherever else their personal utterances are recorded, I find complaints about it; in the case of Kant, for instance, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and if it should happen that any writer has omitted to express himself on the matter, it is only for want of an opportunity.

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