Today marks fourteen years since I began inflicting my thoughts on the public, or, if you prefer, tagging the alleyways of the web with my digital graffiti. In January of that same year, a wonderful site called Futility Closet took its first steps into the world. And yet, until Alan Jacobs mentioned it last week, I had never once heard of it. On the one hand, I’m dismayed to think that it could possibly have remained unknown to me all this time. Who has time to read that many archives? On the other hand, how cool it is to still find nice surprises like that, tucked away on the picturesque country roads of the web, far from the congested eight-lane superhighways leading to and from the social media skyscrapers and the big-box clickbait retail giants. Here’s to hoping for a few more in the coming years. (If any of you are keeping any other delightful secrets from me, I will be quite cross.)
[Originally published May 15, 2013.]
So Owl gave me the first intimation in my life that all are not wise who claim to be learned. And Owl was a hint also that the clever could be the most foolish of all.
But why did owls symbolise wisdom in the first place? The splendid photos in my book, succinctly titled Owls, suggested a reason: owls seem to have only two states, the serene calmness of sleep and the most intense alertness when awake. Try as we might not to anthropomorphise, owls look serious; they indulge in no foolish or redundant movement. This is nonsense, of course: owls are bird-brained. And one of the things that I learnt from this book, delightful to me because completely useless, is that the Owl of Minerva does not necessarily spread her wings at dusk: nearly forty per cent of the 133 extant species of owls are diurnal, not nocturnal. I bet you didn’t know that.
…The law of unintended consequences is one of the hardest for people to learn because it is so unflattering to our conception of ourselves as rational beings, and because (if it is a law) it suggests inherent limits to our power. We shall never fail to commit errors.
Those excerpts are indeed all from the same essay, an essay which just so happens to be about two of my favorite things: owls and unintended consequences. Naturally, I had to acknowledge it.
Once in my teenage years, after a soccer game, some teammates and I were eating dinner at a restaurant. Somehow, the conversation turned to deciding which animal we each resembled. The consensus was that I was, of course, an owl. Possibly because of my wide eyes, serious expression and quiet bookishness. Or possibly because of my ability to move silently and swivel my head 270°.
Whatever the case, I shortly thereafter underwent the ritual to adopt the owl as my spirit animal. Climbing a tree under a full moon, I hooted and prayed for a vision, while doing my best to resemble a feathered harbinger of death. Soon, my sacred quest was rewarded by the rustle of prey in the leaves below, which turned out to be my mom who had come looking for me. She did admit that my downward swoop was silent and terrifying, at least.
Since then, I have been blessed with the supernatural abilities to win any staring contest and to snatch up a swiftly running rodent with my bare hand.
Now that we have established that it is, in fact, NOT fall, I am going to explain to you why it is also wrong for you to want it to be fall.
Tsk, tsk. There is unfortunately no discussion to be had with people possessed of an irrational aversion to gorgeous, cool weather and nature’s own fireworks display. We can, however, address this pernicious calendrical prescriptivism, which would have us referring to the twentieth of December as “fall.” Does that feel true to anyone’s lived experience? As a calendrical descriptivist, I seek to describe popular usage, rather than rely on astronomical “experts” to impose my views. Hence, fall began on September the first at twelve a.m. and will continue until the beginning of winter on December the first at twelve a.m. March the first, June the first, you see how this goes. Simple and intuitive.
Timpf is also wrong in saying we should not want it to be fall, and I can easily prove it. Bugs are dying by the truckload. I rest my case.
Oh, I see that Lana Del Rey has a new album out. Maybe reading a review will make a nice change of pace from the usu—
Watching fires ravage L.A. and Donald Trump ravage the U.S., Del Rey has shifted her kitschy patriotic fixation, dropping her flag-draped persona and making peace with a more complex, dystopian reality. “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot” she drones on The Greatest. “I’m facing the greatest / The greatest loss of them all.” Apt words for a planet facing a climate apocalypse.
Hmm. Well, OK, that was probably just an outlier. I’m sure th—
Call her Doris Doomsday: “The culture is lit/And if this is it/I had a ball,” she resolves with ecstasy and fire, a lightning rod of humor, sadness, and perception; flip jadedness and abiding love. Fanning the flames of a culture ablaze, Lana sings each word like a prayer, finessed with conviction and smoke, chaos and control. “The greatest” is a galaxy-brain moment in the pantheon of pop, and it belongs to a generation fully aware we are at risk of being distracted into oblivion, Juuling towards early death while watching Earth burn.
Sigh. I’m all for treating popular culture as worthy of critical attention, but it’s really tiring to see so many hack writers making their own histrionic prose the center of attention, eager to connect each new movie and album to The Present Moment and its Immense Significance. Thank goodness for streaming, so that I can actually, you know, hear what the music sounds like without having to take yet another indistinguishable 800 words of TRUMP CLIMATE YEEARRGH along with it.
Doomsday scenarios are capturing the headlines at an accelerating rate. Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in 10 years must be half of what they were 10 years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?
Alan Watts once suggested that no one really believes in the reality of hell. It’s evident in their actions, he said, or, rather, in the lack thereof. If you saw your mother’s name on a list of people scheduled to be rounded up by the Gestapo, the immediacy of the threat would occupy your entire attention. You wouldn’t rest, you wouldn’t take no for an answer, you would do whatever it took to get her to safety, even over her objections. And yet, when it comes to the possibility or the likelihood of your unsaved mother facing an eternity of torment, you’re content to shrug if your tepid efforts at persuasion fail. If hell truly exists and promises to devour many if not most of your friends and loved ones, how could you simply go on about your business, complacent and unruffled?
Likewise, I doubt that many of our devout climatarians genuinely believe in the likelihood of an environmental “apocalypse,” let alone that “panic” would be a wise response; it’s just that the rising cost of positional goods requires higher rhetorical outlays. They seem to love the emotional/spiritual tension of the apocalyptic mindset, true, but Gaian retribution still seems like an abstract fantasy to them. They’re not going to retreat to the primitive living conditions of survivalist hermits, or to the impoverished economies of rural, medieval villages. They’re not going to sacrifice any of their modern conveniences. None of them honestly expect floods and tornadoes and wildfires to increasingly threaten their homes. To judge purely by their actions, it seems that climate change is of interest to them primarily as a means to “win” petty arguments online. An added bonus is that, as with thoughts of hellfire, it allows people of sour, curdled character to revenge themselves upon their enemies through imagination. “I told you so, but you wouldn’t listen, and now you’ll be sorry!” If some chemist ever finds a way to put that sentiment in pill form, the results will dwarf the opioid epidemic.
At the time, I was struck by the presumption – the belief that everyone present would naturally agree – that opposition to Brexit and a disdain of Trump were things we, the customers, would without doubt have in common. That the poem’s sentiment of friendship and community was being soured by divisive smugness escaped our local academic, whose need to let us know how leftwing he is was apparently paramount. The subtext was hard to miss: “This is a fashionable restaurant and its customers, being fashionable, will obviously hold left-of-centre views, especially regarding Brexit and Trump, both of which they should disdain and wish to be seen disdaining by their left-of-centre peers.” And when you’re out to enjoy a fancy meal with friends and family, this is an odd sentiment to encounter from someone you don’t know and whose ostensible job is to make you feel welcome.
I’ve fortunately managed to avoid encountering bores in real life who find nothing more fascinating or fit for casual conversation than their political opinions. Most members of the species are found in an online habitat. I did think it odd when I bought a bookcase from an estate sale where the woman running things proudly wore a “Trump 2020: Make Liberals Cry Again” shirt while doing business; as one old bookseller once told me, “The worst thing you can have in this line of work is an opinion.” I would think that applies anytime you want to part people from their money.
But I did see one funny example while I was at a library sale in Cincinnati last year. An elderly volunteer was arranging books on one table and making friendly chitchat to me as she went along. I was focused on what I was doing, so I mainly responded with pleasant sounding “hmms” and “ahhs.” She picked up one book — I forget the title — which prompted her to say to me in a tone of amazed disbelief, which she expected me to share: “Do you know, I just found out that 80% of [whichever nearby township/county] voted for Trump in 2016?”
“Huh!” I responded, in a tone which I hoped struck the precise note of, “I heard what you said, but I didn’t find it surprising or interesting enough to respond with any substance, and besides, I’m kind of occupied here at the moment. Still, I appreciate your efforts at being sociable, so I will make a minimal effort to play along.”
A man next to me, who apparently knew the lady, leaned in and said good-naturedly, “Well, I’m one of ’em!”
This set her on her heels a bit. “Oh! You…did?”
“Eh, what can I say?”
The man across the table leaned over and said to him, “There’s a lot more of us than they think!”
The conversational spirit was grievously wounded now. Flustered, the volunteer, tried to retreat to square one. She picked up one of Thomas Friedman’s books and tried to talk it up a bit: “I’ve always found him to be a thought-provoking writer!”
The woman on my other side glanced at it and said with brusque finality, “Hmph. He writes for the New York Times.” And with that dismissive blast of buckshot, the conversational spirit fluttered dead to the ground. The poor volunteer went back to arranging books in silence. I felt bad for her. She wasn’t obnoxious or tone-deaf; she just happened to be surrounded by friends and neighbors with political sympathies she’d never suspected. There are dangerous undercurrents out there in the conversational depths, once you venture beyond the shallows of weather and gossip.
[Originally published Mar. 1, 2015.]
“In most of our versions of paradise, sacred or secular, heaven is a place where dreams come true,” Garrett writes. True enough, yet what he omits to note is that human dreams of perfection are essentially contradictory. We may dream of a cosmos governed by moral laws but we also want one in which our cherished personal attachments can sometimes be exempted from these laws. We would like ourselves and those we love to be spared ageing and death; but if our wishes were granted, whether by divine decree or by means of the new technologies that futurists in Silicon Valley are coming up with, we would cease to be the creatures we are and become unrecognisable to one another. Our inability to form any coherent view of the afterlife results from it being a projection of needs and impulses that are irreconcilably at odds.
Now, as in the past, there are many who look to another life to resolve these conflicts, but the anarchy from which they seek to escape is inside themselves.
In Jesus’s world, the Son of Man would arrive in his kingdom, the last would be made first, and each person would be repaid according to their deeds. In Marx’s world, the communist society would regulate the general production and allow each person to try their hand at being a hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic, according to their whims. In Nicholas Carr’s world, looking backward rather than forward this time, personal technology has distracted us from our authentic selves, and if we can just plug our ears with wax and ignore its siren song, we can get back to whatever deep, meaningful things we were assuredly doing with our lives before the mid-’90s. In these sorts of narratives, imagination fails at the crucial moment and leaves us with a vague “happily ever after” denouement, where we have healed and become whole. Once we reach this state, then what? No one ever says. It seems to be assumed that we’ll know an ideal state when we reach it, and having done so, we’ll be content to bask in it indefinitely.
I, on the other hand, suggest to you that most people don’t actually know themselves well enough to know what would make them content, and even if they were to luck into contentment somehow, boredom and mischief would soon drive them back to dissatisfaction again. More money in the checking account? A prettier appearance? More time to read good books? The dictatorship of the proletariat? The Second Coming? It doesn’t matter what you give them; people will always find new ways to make themselves unhappy again. However beautiful a design you manage to weave from your circumstances, the threads will immediately begin unraveling. You may even start picking at them yourself.
Kenan Malik credits Hegel with the insight, overlooked by previous philosophers, that humanity was above all else a work in progress. Human nature did not burst onto the scene fully formed as if winking into existence from a vacuum; individually, it was shaped through interactions with others, and socially, it was shaped through the evolving stages of history’s dialectic. Having grasped that humanity’s story was born in motion and conflict, though, Hegel gave in to the temptation to envision it eventually coming to rest on a static plateau, deciding, conveniently enough, that the historical dialectic was destined to reach its final resolution in the Prussian state. Many others since then have likewise found themselves unable to conceive of human existence outside the self-serving conventions of narrative structure. Whether they see the ideal human subject as needing to be discovered in the past or created in the future, they all still assume that the meaning of existence reveals itself in the conclusion. But a chord ringing out interminably would be the death of music. A pose held indefinitely would turn even the most graceful dancer into a statue. The motion is the meaning.
The human spirit is a shark with just enough awareness to turn one eye up toward the light shimmering down and dream of a world without constant motion, the scent of blood, and mindlessly gnashing teeth. The denizens of the world above know better, though. In our world, we are required to swim forever — in currents of our own making, if need be — or else die.
What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself.
All too often, essays about idleness present it in contrast to frantic busy-ness. Are you engaged or disaffected? Do you choose the personal or the political? However, another overlooked possibility is that many of us simply choose to use our energy wisely within our humble limits rather than dissipate it through “action” or “awareness” which accomplishes precisely nothing. Work when you must, relax when you need to. A nation of 330 million is not a tiny polis. The majority of us could easily afford to mind our own business and tend our own gardens without the machinery of state seizing up and sputtering out. The real time-wasters are the ones trying to press-gang the rest of us into their silly political cosplay.
Now, of course, letter-writing is dead, replaced by emails, texts, and social media. But we have lost something along the way—our social media feeds are often filled with drivel and do not provide an appropriate forum for long-form, constructive conversation and disagreement. The new technology has great promise, unfulfilled so far: we use Twitter for distraction and arguments and other platforms, too, tend to degenerate into insult-throwing, while lurking trolls provoke us into redirecting our energies towards the inane and the irrelevant. Of course, these platforms have advantages too—they are not bereft of value—but they are prone to the dangers of time-wasting, narcissism and outrage porn. Emails are poor imitations of letters, mostly used to communicate formalities.
The Rathbones’ new initiative, founded with their partner Monish Parajuli, is devoted to free speech: any subject can be broached and any disagreement discussed no matter how sensitive. The public nature of the conversations on the website means that they are not only for the benefit of the correspondents but can add value to discourse generally.
Letter-writing, even in its supposedly-degraded electronic form, isn’t “dead,” as the multiple folders in my own inbox attest; most of us are just content to keep our correspondence private rather than perform for an audience. Anyway, I somehow doubt that the only thing preventing a culture-wide renaissance of letter-writing was the lack of a particular URL at which to practice. Letter appears to be an aspiring salon for would-be public intellectuals of the Quillette/Areo variety. Which, you know, fine, whatever. I am, of course, all in favor of people making a practice of thinking in depth and writing at length. I just don’t see how a public-facing “epistolary conversation” site is any different in essence from a well-moderated blog, and, as with letter-writing, blogging has been proclaimed dead countless times by those eager to sell you a replacement. I’m sure this new venture will be beneficial for some individuals looking for networking and self-promotional opportunities, but the “discourse generally” will be the same as it ever was. There are no technological shortcuts around human nature.