I’m a book-as-object kind of guy. I have a Nook, but I’ve rarely used it in the six or so years since I got it. However, one of my lottery-money fantasies is to own every book P.G. Wodehouse wrote, and given that there’s around 100 of them, that would take some doing. I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me to check before now, but it turns out that Project Gutenberg had around forty of them. I’m halfway to my goal, and it didn’t cost me a cent! And while I was there, I went ahead and stocked up on a variety of other authors — Dickens, Hazlitt, Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Beerbohm, Chekhov, Addison and Steele, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Adam Smith. Who needs scratch tickets when we have the public domain?
It is a curious fact that the artist who produced the most compelling and accessible vision of Christian humanism in the twentieth century was a multiply-married, luxury-loving, alcoholic atheist by the name of Robert Bolt. It is worth noting that he came to this choice of lifestyle after a strict Methodist upbringing. And I might add that not long after throwing off his Methodist faith, he became a card-carrying member of the Communist party. I am not sure what conclusion to draw from these facts.
But on a more serious note, I can say with a straight face that Bolt not only remained obsessed by Christianity his whole life, but also continued to think Christianly to the end of his days. He was what might be called a “flying buttress”—someone who remains resolutely outside the church, but who does a great deal to prop it up. In the divine economy, I suspect that there is a mansion in heaven for tortured Augustinian souls like that of Mr. Bolt, and perhaps in God’s mercy it has room service.
I’ve been leafing through Wolfe’s book again, as well as one by Daniel Ritchie. Recently, I revisited many of G.K. Chesterton’s essays, and I even held on to a collection of C.S. Lewis’s books rather than sell them as I originally intended. I enjoy the irony of me, an Epicurean, seeking out Christian writers as a refreshing, interesting alternative to the tiresome fundamentalist preachers of Diversity and Inclusion™️, but it’s a funny old world we live in. As Wolfe says earlier in the book, we can learn well from artists and thinkers who ask the right questions even if we disagree with their answers. That’s how it is for me — nine-tenths agreement is good enough. If Communism, a Christian heresy, can have fellow travelers, why not Christianity itself? Anyway, I appreciate the thought that there might be celestial lodgings reserved for us buttresses, but if I couldn’t be an ornamental hermit in heaven as well, I’d respectfully hand back my ticket.
We live in a Babel of antagonistic tribes — tribes that speak only the languages of race, class, rights, and ideology. That is why the intuitive language of the imagination is so vital. Reaching deep into our collective thoughts and memories, great art sneaks past our shallow prejudices and brittle opinions to remind us of the complexity and mystery of human existence.
I’ve been working twelve-hour days for what seems like a month, at least. I’m not complaining, mind you. In fact, staying busy serves as something like an emetic. The mind is purged of the toxins of current events. I gaze upon the Boschian hellscape of the web with fresh eyes and think, Surely, there’s got to be more edifying stuff than this. And so I make a promise to myself that I will redouble my efforts to seek out the cracks which Matthew Crawford spoke of, the overlooked spaces where beauty and imagination can flourish. It’s been too long since I stumbled across any new and interesting blogs to read. I think I’ll start pointedly searching for some. Any suggestions?
A transition from an author’s book to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.
— Samuel Johnson, “The difference between an author’s writings and his conversation“
As the old saying goes, never follow your heroes on social media, unless you’re one of those weirdos with a clay-foot fetish. In his book Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, Tom Bethell wrote:
After 1965, Hoffer became a public figure. Before 1934, he is a mystery figure. Will more information about Hoffer’s background turn up? That’s doubtful. There are signs that he was more than merely forgetful about his early years. In fact, I believe he was deliberately secretive. When pressed for more detail by journalists he would say he was confused or couldn’t remember much of anything. About later events in his life he had an excellent memory. Were there things he didn’t want us to know? One possibility that comes to mind is that he was an illegal immigrant to this country. But, again, I have no positive evidence. Did he really teach himself botany, chemistry, and Hebrew on skid row in Los Angeles? One can’t help wondering.
I don’t wonder. Honestly, I don’t care. His thoughts are interesting enough, floating free in the noosphere. I don’t need them to be anchored in biography to make them insightful or relevant. In fact, I wish more authors and thinkers today would learn to cultivate an aura of mysterious reticence. Or, at the very least, to seek treatment for their cerebral bulimia.
One of the most original and mind-opening studies of practical philosophy to have appeared for many years, Why We Drive spells out in vivid detail what is wrong with the prevailing idea of the human subject. Seemingly diverging from Kant’s idea of rational autonomy, a utilitarian account of human action has developed in which reason means the calculation of outcomes. In fact this is another version of the disembodied humanity Kant imagined. Most fully elaborated in economics but pervasive throughout much of today’s political discourse, it is a view in which human beings are preference-satisfying machines. These homunculi attach no intrinsic significance to how they live. The quality of their experience is relevant only insofar as it enables them to gratify their desires as efficiently as possible. It is as if their lives were simply means whereby they get from one satisfaction to another.
Rather than rehearsing philosophical arguments against this position, Crawford reveals its limitations through examples.
Somehow, Matthew Crawford has managed to sneak up on me with a new book that was already released earlier this month. I greatly enjoyed Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, so I’m looking forward to this one. It should be especially interesting because of my conflicted feelings about driving. Many writers and philosophers claim that walking is good for stimulating thought, but for me, driving while listening to music is even better. I had various driving jobs for many years, and many of my scribblings here were actually done in my head while driving down interstates and lonely county roads. On the other hand, those same years spent maneuvering through traffic (or sitting motionless behind a pile-up) have instilled in me a boundless contempt for the careless stupidity with which many people operate their vehicles. I admit I am often tempted by the idea that people are too stupid to be trusted with the responsibility of driving, and that the machines should take over, but if anyone can make me appreciate driving as an arena for exercising freedom, a skill that must be practiced regularly to avoid atrophy, I suppose it would be Crawford.
From Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:
Crowds of rebels assembled to protest, and for five days from August 17 to August 22, 1548, mobs roamed the streets setting fire to tax collectors’ houses. Some attacked the homes of anyone who looked rich, until the disorder threatened to turn into a general peasant uprising. A few tax collectors were killed. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and covered in heaps of salt to underline the point. In one of the worst incidents, Tristan de Moneins, the town’s lieutenant-general and governor—thus the king’s official representative—was lynched. He had shut himself up in the city’s massive royal citadel, the Château Trompette, but a crowd gathered outside and howled for him to come out. Perhaps thinking to earn their respect by facing up to them, he ventured forth, but it was a mistake. They beat him to death.
Then fifteen, Montaigne was out in the streets, for the Collège had suspended classes during the violence. He witnessed the killing of Moneins, a scene he never forgot. It raised in his mind, perhaps for the first time, a question that would haunt the entire Essays in varying guises: whether it was better to win an enemy’s respect by an open display of defiance, or to throw yourself on his mercy and hope to win him over by submission or an appeal to his better self.
In this case Montaigne thought Moneins had failed because he was not sure what he was trying to do. Having decided to brave the crowd, he then lost his confidence and behaved with deference, sending mixed messages. He also underestimated the distorted psychology of a mob. Once worked up into a frenzy, it can only be either soothed or suppressed; it cannot be expected to show ordinary human sympathy. Moneins seemed not to know this. He expected the same fellow-feeling as he would from an individual.
On a related note, the Tocqueville effect. Anyway, I’ve been reminded of this each time I see another public figure in what looks like a hostage video, emotionally confessing their own complicity in systemic injustice, promising to do better now that they’ve seen the light. Oh, you poor fools. Do you think rolling over and showing your belly is going to save you? You think your progressive merit badges have ever meant anything to the kind of people you’re trying to placate? And hey, you people over there who think you can just quietly go about your life minding your own business! You people who think you’ll be left alone to keep talking about classic literature or posting pictures of food on social media! Don’t think we haven’t seen you wallowing in your quietist privilege like the reactionary pigs you are. CBS News would like to inform you that unforgiving eyes are upon you. Receipts will be collected; scores will be settled. But I’m sure if you keep feeding steaks to that tiger, he’ll magically become a vegetarian.
In describing the way she reads, Tharp writes, “I have to ‘own’ it. I scribble in the margins, I circle sentences I like and connect them with arrows to other useful sentences. I draw stars and exclamation points on every good page, to the point where the book is almost unreadable. By writing all over the pages, I transform the author’s work into my book — and mine alone.”
I, too, am a raging narcissist, which is why I paste print-outs of my blog posts over the pages of my books before throwing them on the floor and mounting them to establish my dominance. Then I rub my armpits on them to claim them with my musky scent, after which I of course lift my leg on the corner of my bookcases to mark my territory. My God. When I am king, this will be a crime punishable by amputation of the hands.
Some people enjoy spotting rare birds. Well, the birds around here are pretty common. What I get excited about is spotting unusual typographical errors in my reading. I couldn’t believe my luck last night when this incredibly rare example of a double vowelswitch (Vowelswitchus geminus) fluttered into view! Some have argued that such creatures, if they ever existed at all, had long been hunted to extinction by professional editors armed with sophisticated modern software. But here was one in full plumage, effortlessly shifting from one spelling to another as I watched in amazement! I may never be so fortunate again even if I live to be a hundred.
(And no, of course I didn’t highlight in the book. What kind of monster do you think I am? The red and green marks are purely digital additions to the picture I snapped. No rare texts were harmed during the production of this post.)
Now, among the heresies that are spoken in this matter is the habit of calling a grey day a “colourless” day. Grey is a colour, and can be a very powerful and pleasing colour. There is also an insulting style of speech about “one grey day just like another.” You might as well talk about one green tree just like another. A grey clouded sky is indeed a canopy between us and the sun; so is a green tree, if it comes to that. But the grey umbrellas differ as much as the green in their style and shape, in their tint and tilt. One day may be grey like steel, and another grey like dove’s plumage. One may seem grey like the deathly frost, and another grey like the smoke of substantial kitchens.
…Lastly, there is this value about the colour that men call colourless; that it suggests in some way the mixed and troubled average of existence, especially in its quality of strife and expectation and promise. Grey is a colour that always seems on the eve of changing to some other colour; of brightening into blue or blanching into white or bursting into green and gold. So we may be perpetually reminded of the indefinite hope that is in doubt itself; and when there is grey weather in our hills or grey hairs in our heads, perhaps they may still remind us of the morning.
— G. K. Chesterton, “The Glory of Grey,” Alarms and Discursions
Purple was my first love, as colors go. “I heard that a lot of babies like purple,” my grandmother said when I told her. Within a few years, I had shifted my allegiance to green. My pediatrician gave me a lime-flavored lollipop after I said so. As an adolescent, I was concerned with trying to appear edgy and profound, so I started telling people that red, being the color of blood, was my favorite, even as I increasingly began wearing black clothes. At some point, purple and I got together again. Basically, I’ve slutted my way around the color wheel, but in middle age, I’ve come to truly appreciate the humble, autumnal greys (and browns, to a lesser extent). Still waters run deep; so do restrained colors.
Literary historian Robert Darnton points out that as private reading bloomed, some feared that the act would have physical consequences. He cites the German writer J.G. Heinzmann, who in a 1795 tract warned that excessive reading would increase “susceptibility to colds, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.”
There’s something so time-specific to this list of maladies, isn’t there? I mean, you read it, smile, and say, “That’s such an eighteenth-century image, like powdered wigs, quills and horse-drawn carriages.” I read this last week, but I thought of it again while reading a review of not one, but two new books about walking. Specifically, “questions of how and why we walk — what walking means.” (Apparently this hasn’t been settled by the previous umpteen books about the meaning of walking. I will never stop being amazed that people can produce so much verbiage from such a humble topic.)
We know that walking is good for us, that “if undertaken in regular doses,” as Shane O’Mara writes in “In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration,” “it provides the small, cumulative and significant positive changes for lung, heart and especially brain health.”
…For O’Mara, the answers are practical. “The emerging science,” he insists, “is giving us a clear picture: Regular walking confers enduring and substantial benefits on individuals, and on society at large.” It improves our “moods, clarity of thought, our creativity,” as well as “our connectedness to our social, urban and natural worlds.”
And yet, when we lived in a world built around the length of the human stride, when architecture was oriented toward pedestrians, and when towns were designed to be walkable, people still found ways to be unhappy and unhealthy. He’s not wrong, but it’s such a shallow, myopic way to look at it. It strikes me that this type of optimal-health-and-efficiency neurobabble will one day be seen as a stereotypical marker of our own time. “Hahaha, isn’t it weird that people back then were so obsessed with brain chemistry and the malign effects of smartphones?”
Another review, this time of a book about the history of Progressivism, suggests that the combination of Darwinian theories, philosophical pragmatism, and the disillusionment following the carnage of the Civil War was what set the stage for Progressive ideas to flourish. Of course, it has long been argued, convincingly in my opinion, that World War One was “the blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction,” as Jacques Barzun said. How many other wars have likewise served as punctuation marks at the end of an epoch? The cynical thought occurred to me that perhaps “history” is a record of the silly trends that preoccupy us while we wait for the next massive war to come along and wipe the slate clean. Will our contemporary plague serve as a similar cultural palate-cleanser? Or will we pick right up where we left off until the next big war alters our assumptions and priorities again?