I have recently learned of two great sites which may also be of interest to you: SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE (“Are you in search of the ‘wisdom’ of the ancients, but don’t know where to begin? Are you looking for more than the locus classicus–do you long for the odd and the obscure as well? Then you’ve come to the right place!”), and Haggard Hawks (“Strange words, etymology & language facts”), whose Twitter feed is more frequently updated than the blog itself. Give them both a try.
[Originally published Jul. 24, 2012.]
Wilson asks the question: Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question: why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are—especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us! In a few short, devastating chapters, Wilson chops himself and all of us off at the knees. “It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness,” Wilson observes.
…We forgive people who can’t sing or construct a song or play their instruments, as long as they are cool, or subversive, or deviant; we do not dismiss Dion because she’s incompetent. Indeed, her competence may well be a problem, because it means she excludes nobody, apart from us, and those who invest heavily in cultural capital don’t like art that can’t exclude: it’s confusing, and it doesn’t help us to meet attractive people of the opposite sex who think the same way we do.
Do you think I’m smart? Or a good writer? A stand-up fellow, even? Better than average, at least? Well, I’ll assume so, if for no other reason than the fact that you willingly return here to read. Anyway, the reason I ask is because I’ve dutifully taken in critically acclaimed albums and books that made no difference in my life at all. They didn’t open up new ways of experiencing the world. They didn’t inspire me with new artistic possibilities. The qualities that others praised as innovative and mesmerizing struck me as trivial or overblown. Conversely, I’ve been lifted into a buoyant mood by simple ear candy, making my mind feel alert and engaged, facilitating the energy and awareness that sometimes leads to keen observation and penetrating insight. I’ve been inspired by brilliant metaphors and turns of phrase found in otherwise forgettable fantasy fiction. The Muses seem to delight in popping out of the strangest hiding places.
If you like what you see here, you should know that an awful lot of unimpressive pieces helped construct the mosaic, is what I’m saying.
Aesthetic taste just isn’t a reliable indicator of overall character, the best efforts of so many pop culture cliques to try to reassure themselves otherwise notwithstanding. I find that most of the people I would call truly interesting are the ones whose taste is scattershot and contradictory without betraying any shame over “guilty pleasures.” And I’m bored silly by all those poor little insecure magpies, collecting various pop culture objets d’art, hoping for some vicarious transmission of superiority thereby.
Don’t believe everything you hear about the humanities. There is still some important research being done.
Use Them After Your Own Honor and Dignity
But that is for another post – the point I really want to stress at the moment is that we need the bourgeois virtues, and that their pursuit can and often does play a crucial part in enabling someone to live a happy, purposeful life which serves other people and makes society a good place to be. Being pernickety about litter and not swearing in public and not being loud on public transport are never going to be lauded in the history books, but they do contribute massively to the public good. They help people relax and find contentment and peace; they help people feel at home in the world. They treat the world as if it is genuinely a shared place, where we must take into account the needs of others, rather than belonging to the loudest and strongest and least considerate.
There is a rather glib form of pseudo-radicalism that regards good manners, punctuality, smart dress etc. as affectation and hypocrisy. People shouldn’t care about mere appearances, or mere forms of speech; what matters is substance. But again, being careful to put others at ease, to show them that you take them seriously and that you value their time, is deeply substantial.
When we were driving around town, I remember my mom always turning the stereo down when we would stop at traffic lights (we never had AC in our cars when I was growing up, so the windows were down in warm weather). It wasn’t because the lack of road noise made the music too loud while sitting still; it was because we were now in some sort of shared social space. I intuitively picked up the idea that it was rude to inflict your personal enjoyment on other people who hadn’t asked to be included. Was it a generational thing? Were most adults at the time like that, or was she just a weirdly polite individual? I don’t know, but by the time I was driving on my own a decade or so later, it was already becoming common to encounter people pulling up to gas pumps or convenience stores and leaving their stereos blasting loud enough to be heard a mile away. Is it arrogance, insecurity, or simply self-centered indifference which makes people oblivious to the norms of particular social settings?
The other day, we went to the gym late in the evening. One of the other members, a very heavily tattooed guy, was wearing a hoodie that read, in big block letters on the front, “Physically Fit and Tatted as Shit,” as if it weren’t obvious. At one point, I noticed a woman who had been on the cardio machines head toward the back and reappear a couple minutes later with her two young kids, who had been in childcare while she exercised. I don’t know if they noticed him, or vice versa, and I don’t know if either would have cared, but it did occur to me that if I had been wearing that sweatshirt, and if I had somehow been unembarrassed to do so, I would have felt embarrassed at seeing two little kids and their mom walk past close enough to see it. It’s not about whether we have the “right” to wear what we want; it’s just an acknowledgment that a phrase which could be a mildly-amusing inside joke in one context, among friends, can seem gratuitously stupid in another, in public, and we should alter our behavior to reflect the difference. I remember a buddy from work, a devout Christian, ex-military, telling me a story about being on a bus in Arizona and almost getting beaten by a group of guys after he told them to stop cursing in front of children. I admired his courage, but I have to admit I would have only been one of those clucking my tongue in silence.
I realize that this all sounds like a cliché and is typically answered with even worse clichés. “Get off my lawn, you kids.” “Old man yells at cloud.” The usual suspects would additionally insist that “manners” are just one more bourgeois invention designed to distinguish them from their social inferiors, who are already struggling under the unjust burden of racial and class grievances. Until society’s flaws have been remedied by enlightened state policy, it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect individuals to do their own little bit toward making the world more sweet. But contra the unfortunate philosophical legacy of Rousseau, people in their natural, uninhibited state are not very pleasant. Those chains of which he complained are the necessary counterweight to selfishness and self-indulgence. Even Ozzy Osbourne, of all people, born in 1948, spoke of his father, a toolmaker in postwar Birmingham, saying to him, “‘You might not have a good education, but good manners don’t cost you anything.’ And he always practiced what he preached: he’d always give up his seat on the bus for a woman or help an old lady across the road.” Was Papa Osbourne’s generation the last to see things that way?
The Lady of the House comes from an extremely egalitarian background, one in which earthy, intimate familiarity is taken for granted. Reticence or formal politeness can be interpreted as rudeness, or putting on airs. I’ve tried to suggest to her that by contrast, a lot of typical Southern men, however roughneck they may be, are somewhat taken aback by a young woman who freely curses among casual acquaintances. It’s not about being offended, per se — of course, they all know and use those words themselves. And no one objects to the meat and potatoes of outgoing friendliness; they merely prefer them with less salty language sprinkled on top. It’s just that people expect and practice a bit more official decorum in mixed company. Perhaps it’s a lingering remnant of Southern honor culture. The gesture matters. You wouldn’t want to violate protocol and find yourself challenged to a duel for insulting someone’s honor. Still, she hates the way so many men here, both young and old, reflexively call her “ma’am.” In her culture, that’s like holding oneself aloof, refusing to engage as equals. I’ve tried to explain that this poor twenty-year-old contractor probably got cuffed upside his head countless times as a boy by his parents or grandparents for neglecting to say “ma’am” to a woman, so it would be cruel to insist on him breaking that habit in her case. Likewise, I’ve suggested that her swearing, far from relaxing people and placing them on an equal social footing, actually makes them uneasy. Disregarding little social niceties makes you an unknown quantity in their eyes, a loose cannon. Is this an example of Isaiah Berlin’s incommensurate values? You show respect through straightforwardness, we show respect through discretion. How do we adjudicate between the two? “When in Rome,” I suppose.
And in any case bourgeois morality is not just a matter of the small things. A film that pays magnificent tribute to the self-denying virtues is Brief Encounter. In Brief Encounter, we follow the story of Alec and Laura. Both are married people in early middle age who fall deeply in love after a chance meeting and consider running away together. In the end they decide that they do not have the right to ruin the happiness of others – their spouses and children – to fulfil themselves. At the end of the film they part forever (Alec to take up a post in South Africa). They put duty and morality before desire, privileging the feelings and contentment of others over their own. I once visited a school with the rather splendid motto nemo sibi nascitur: “no-one is born unto himself alone”. Laura and Alec know this. They treat their marriage vows seriously, because vows matter. They understand that they are vital figures in other people’s networks of support and happiness and stability.
It is easy now to mock their “repression”, so-called, or their fear of breaking with social convention. The disgraced columnist Johann Hari once wrote of the film that the central characters appeared to him to be “deeply mentally ill”, and suggested that the climax sees the two characters “return to miserable, wasted lives”. This seems like a view that could only be taken by someone whose mind is entirely addled by the uncritical adulation of the bohemian virtues. Both Alec and Laura are much-loved spouses and parents (and, presumably, fondly-regarded siblings and friends). Alec is a doctor! In what possible sense are their lives “wasted”? If anything, it is giving in to their desires which would be wasteful of all the value and joy they bring in and through their existing relationships.
I had a friend who wrote to me out of the blue several years ago to tell me of her separation from her husband (with whom I’d been friends even longer; in fact, it was through him that I even knew her). She presented her side of the story. I never asked for his; I just offered my sympathy. And truth be told, I did sympathize with him. I have no idea how valid her complaints were, but I also knew full well that she and her two teenagers weren’t always the easiest people to live with, and I thought he made a strong effort at it. “I deserve to have my needs met. I deserve more,” she wrote in conclusion. As far as I’m aware, though, she’s no happier now, especially since she turned her attention and energy toward the social justice/therapeutic morass so endemic to her niche of academia. Of course, I can only say so much from a superficial perspective on something as intricate as a marriage, but I also can’t help but suspect that she made the perfect the enemy of the good and subsequently ended up with neither. “Deserve”? What does “deserve” have to do with anything? As a Danish royal once said, give everyone what they “deserve,” and we’ll all be due for a whipping!
Sometimes I jokingly (or half-jokingly) think that Melody Beattie, the Codependent No More author, “one of the seminal figures in the recovery movement,” is one of the greatest monsters of our time for the epidemic of narcissism she unwittingly helped to unleash. It’s currently trendy for professional thinkers to blame Locke, Hobbes and Mill (if not William of Ockham even further back) for all of our social ills, but personally, I don’t think liberalism turned malignant until notions of responsibility, sacrifice and duty within personal relationships got redefined as codependency. Rousseau’s chains reappeared in the guise of self-help. Somewhere in the upheaval, the baby of courteous obligation to others got thrown out with the bathwater of stifling conformity. I imagine that if and when it comes back, it will be due to the cyclical nature of such things: we may simply get bored of authenticity and vulgarity.
Instructing and Improving
Is there a person on earth who has done more damage to liberal democracy than Mark Zuckerberg?https://t.co/w4K5Me0I1k
— Michelle Goldberg (@michelleinbklyn) November 23, 2019
It was hard work, and the pay was poor, what sustained us was the consciousness that we were instructing and improving our fellow men and women. Of all games in the world, the one most universally and eternally popular is the game of school. You collect six children, and put them on a doorstep, while you walk up and down with the book and cane. We play it when babies, we play it when boys and girls, we play it when men and women, we play it as, lean and slippered, we totter towards the grave. It never palls upon, it never wearies us. Only one thing mars it: the tendency of one and all of the other six children to clamour for their turn with the book and the cane. The reason, I am sure, that journalism is so popular a calling, in spite of its many drawbacks, is this: each journalist feels he is the boy walking up and down with the cane. The Government, the Classes, and the Masses, Society, Art, and Literature, are the other children sitting on the doorstep. He instructs and improves them.
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel
Happy Christmas (Culture War Is Over if You Want It)
We’ve since been doing informal, totally anecdotal surveys among friends, colleagues, and even Advent snobs, and our suspicion is that we’re far from alone. Our change of mood seems to be more general. Lots of people are letting go of their resistance and letting at least a little bit of Christmas come to their homes early.
And honestly, I think it has to do with our politics and social-media culture. We’ve had four years of Donald Trump and hatred of Donald Trump, culminating in this impeachment. Surely if you use Facebook or some other social-media tool, you’ve worried about a friend or family member who seems to be losing their mind, one way or another, over politics. And the commercialism of Christmas seems almost like a relief from the commercialism of social media.
Yes, what a relief to get away from 24/7 Trump obsession and break out the the traditional seasonal arguments about the “War on Christmas” and whether or not “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a rape anthem. (Personally, I’m just sickened by the way we’re so eager to get to those Black Friday deals that we barely take time to lament having to put up with our racist uncles at Thanksgiving anymore). But I guess what I’m saying is, Christmas encroachment doesn’t really need to be explained. Businesses love selling things, consumers love buying things, and most people enjoy the holiday season anyway. Trump isn’t responsible for it any more than he’s responsible for the sales of writing style guides. The fact that so many people want to assign him credit or blame for everything under the sun is itself a symptom of the sickness. Hang your garlands as early as you want, but it won’t make any difference if your mind is still hostage to politics and social media. You’ll still keep poisoning everything you touch.
I Am Just a Poor Boy and My Story’s Seldom Told
Against much historical evidence to the contrary, Wilson asserts that capitalism destroys personal autonomy and prevents people from developing their intellectual capacities. Lost in Wilson’s blunt assertions is how Epicurean thought could offer any insight into the modern complexities of labor markets, gun control, abortion, tax rates, medical research, nuclear energy, and affirmative action. She remains unfazed, sprinkling policy proposals on these issues throughout. By the book’s conclusion, this ancient philosophy’s values seem to coincide perfectly with those of today’s Democratic Party.
Epicurus established his Garden to avoid politics. “Do not get involved in political life,” he warned his followers. Wilson would have done well to heed his warning.
Indeed. I think the essence of Epicureanism, at least as I understand it, would be better expressed in poetry. The joy to be found in particular moments, the wistful heartache of knowing their transitory nature, the feeling of what it is to live a humble life, unconcerned by important people and important events — that’s poetry’s jurisdiction, not philosophy’s. I wonder if there are any poets who specifically think of themselves as Epicureans? I’ll have to make a mental note to ask Stephen Pentz.
[And with that prompt, here’s this week’s Thursday Throwback, originally published Apr. 26, 2013]:
Watching the world around me change its ugly faces
Yes, this is mankind
— Diary of Dreams, “Mankind“
To be sure, the power of crowdsourcing has given us gifts both precious (like Wikipedia) and picayune (the cover design of Elizabeth Gilbert’s next book), but it is a legitimate achievement of the digital age, one that proves that the internet is capable of transforming the way we interact collectively. Prior to vilifying Tripathi, for example, Reddit users had been helpfully sifting for leads amid the enormous amount of footage taken at the Boston Marathon. Nevertheless, the reflexivity with which we invoke the “wisdom of crowds” seems to suggest less that we think crowds are truly wise and more that we understand — if only dimly — their undeniable potency. The fact is that the digital age has yet to really countenance the cultural anxieties produced by the new invisible crowd.
In this regard, the jitters of the internet era bear an almost comic resemblance to a central disquietude of the august, and apparently closed, epoch we call modernity. For just as the increasing institutionalization and regulation of the internet seem to be attended by the lurking possibility that everything could crumble from one cyber attack unleashed by a handful of anonymous malcontents, so too did the project of modernity grapple with the contradiction that even as its liberal institutions grew more powerful, its stability became more dependent on the whims of the crowd. The French Revolution and its aftershocks are the textbook examples here, providing the archetypal images of the crowd in all its revolutionary splendor and violence. Now clearly, the works of Anonymous or 4chan don’t quite match the grisly proceedings of the Jacobins, but one can detect definite recursive qualities between them — namely excessive zeal, indiscriminateness, feverishness. And if history insists on recursion, there’s no reason not to learn from its lessons.
There’s little diversity and independence: Twitter and Facebook mostly show you people who are like you and things your social group is into. And social media is becoming ever more centralized: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Pinterest, etc. instead of a decentralized network of independent blogs. In fact, the nature of social media is to be centralized, peer-dependent, and homogeneous because that’s how people naturally group themselves together. It’s a wonder the social media crowd ever gets anything right.
The dream of a new humanity dies hard. Formerly, the post-Enlightenment project to create one was understood as being political and cultural in nature. In the last couple decades, there’s been some half-hearted gestures in the direction of the old socialist ideals, but the focus mostly seems to have shifted to technology. The Internet and all its gadget offspring have given us one more sugar rush of belief in transformative potential, but it turns out that a bajillion monkeys still don’t produce Shakespearean-quality art even after you replace their typewriters with MacBook Pros. Perhaps we could say that our love affair with all things digital was a rebound relationship after our breakup with socialist utopianism, a torrid, escapist fantasy to avoid coming to terms with the limitations of our nature. Somewhere in the back of our mind, we knew that we weren’t seriously going to reinvent the human animal simply by the use of incredible new tools, but those winking screens and sleek designs were just too tempting, and besides, it was good for our self-esteem as we slowly processed what we’d lost.
It is something fun to wonder about, in my vague, uninformed way. Are we starting to bump up against the edge of our petri dish in more ways than one? If political, cultural and technological attempts to progressively alter human nature toward some nebulous betterment all fail, what then? Will we retreat into some kind of mystical inwardness, experiencing life on a level plateau instead of a sharp incline, realizing that wherever we went, there we were?
What? You Wanna See If I Got the Minerals?
Do-dee-do, looking at some exercise gear on Under Armour’s website. Wait, what?
“Mineral-infused fabric”? You mean…actual minerals are, what, woven into the fabric? For what purpose? Do they rinse out in the wash? If it’s 87% polyester and 13% elastane, where are the minerals? I’m sorry, this just seems like an utterly absurd marketing gimm—
Oh! The minerals absorb and reflect “energy” and your muscles recycle it through…photosynthesis? So I basically become a perpetual motion machine? Well, I’m convinced!
In the Morning ‘Bout Three or So, Can’t Stop Thinking of the Universe
There are men I know who can wake themselves at any time to the minute. They say to themselves literally, as they lay their heads upon the pillow, “Four-thirty,” “Four-forty-five,” or “Five-fifteen,” as the case may be; and as the clock strikes they open their eyes. It is very wonderful this; the more one dwells upon it, the greater the mystery grows. Some Ego within us, acting quite independently of our conscious self, must be capable of counting the hours while we sleep. Unaided by clock or sun, or any other medium known to our five senses, it keeps watch through the darkness. At the exact moment it whispers “Time!” and we awake.
…In my own case my inward watchman is, perhaps, somewhat out of practice. He does his best; but he is over-anxious; he worries himself, and loses count. I say to him, maybe, “Five-thirty, please;” and he wakes me with a start at half-past two. I look at my watch. He suggests that, perhaps, I forgot to wind it up. I put it to my ear; it is still going. He thinks, maybe, something has happened to it; he is confident himself it is half-past five, if not a little later. To satisfy him, I put on a pair of slippers and go downstairs to inspect the dining-room clock. What happens to a man when he wanders about the house in the middle of the night, clad in a dressing-gown and a pair of slippers, there is no need to recount; most men know by experience. Everything—especially everything with a sharp corner—takes a cowardly delight in hitting him. When you are wearing a pair of stout boots, things get out of your way; when you venture among furniture in woolwork slippers and no socks, it comes at you and kicks you. I return to bed bad tempered, and refusing to listen to his further absurd suggestion that all the clocks in the house have entered into a conspiracy against me, take half an hour to get to sleep again. From four to five he wakes me every ten minutes. I wish I had never said a word to him about the thing. At five o’clock he goes to sleep himself, worn out, and leaves it to the girl, who does it half an hour later than usual.
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel
On Saturday morning, I woke up at around 3:30 with intellectual labor pains. A few loose ideas that had been quickening in my brain earlier decided they were fully formed and ready to go, so I had to get up and give birth to that morning’s post. I was a little tired later on, but it was worth the sacrifice.
This morning, I was again awake around 3:30. Yesterday we had been down in North Carolina, and at one point, getting back in the car, I dropped my wallet and it bounced just underneath. I had to get down on my knees to reach under and get it, but it was fine. Nothing fell out. Still, apparently there was some lingering trauma, because twelve hours later, my brain was absolutely convinced that I had either left my wallet or at least some important contents from it in a parking lot in Greensboro. I managed to subdue the fear without having to get up and check on my wallet’s well-being, but of course, my brain was like, “Hey, since you’re up, here’s all these other vitally important matters I’d like to bring to your attention!” Needless to say, none of them were even slightly important. I refused to negotiate and eventually fell back asleep.
If my Garmin wrist device is to be believed, I only get about forty-five minutes of “deep” sleep per night, with another two to three hours of REM, and the remaining four-plus classified as “light.” That seems accurate to me. I do seem to have the ability to set an internal alarm clock, and it doesn’t take much to wake me up. Most of the time, I fall back asleep just as easily, but the problem is that it only takes a couple instances of my inward watchman’s anxiousness to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think to myself, “Man, I sure hope I don’t wake up with my brain on fire at 3:30 again.” He incompletely overhears that and thinks, “What’s that? A request for another 3:30 wake-up call? Great! Let me just gather up all these vitally important notes I’ve been taking for the last month for tomorrow morning’s meeting…”