Only twenty dollars. Eighty-six inches tall!
Only twenty dollars. Eighty-six inches tall!
Apart from other considerations, language makes a marvellously comfortable nest for the mind, far downier than anything the rude empirical world can provide. In a famous passage, Montaigne speaks feelingly of ignorance as a soft and pleasant pillow on which to rest a prudent head, but he had never seen a Marxist cradled in the arms of what he pleased to call the dialectic.
…In our own day, it’s a particular function of language to shield us as best it can from the intolerable glare of Nothing and Nonbeing…As atmospheric gasses soften the otherwise intolerable rays of the sun, so the gasses of language protect the psyche from what it can’t bear to contemplate steadily. The threat of naked vision is a fearful one.
— Robert Adams, Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side
It may be a distinction with only a slight difference, but I don’t think our incessant chattering provides a distraction from death per se. I think it’s probably more painful to consider how frivolously we use the time we know we have.
Doctor Johnson, being rowed down the Thames by a sculler, was assailed from the shore (as custom then was) by a foulmouthed fellow with a very generous flow of invective. Having endured as much as a man decently could, he turned on the scurrilist and said loudly and deliberately, “Sir, your mother, under pretext of keeping a bawdy house, was a receiver of stolen goods.” The subordinate clause provides at once the balance and the dynamic of this insult. “Under pretext of” gives evidence of judicious discrimination between appearance and reality; yet it implies that the man’s mother, casting about for the most decent front she could find for her fencing operations, could imagine nothing better than running a bawdy house. There is no way to make pretext or pretense of running a bawdy house except by running one, so that implication stands too. It is an extraordinarily opulent sentence; yet balanced, objective, and perfectly simple. One would like to think the recipient took it home and thought about it for several weeks.
— Robert Adams, Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side
In the course of my
two minutes of Googling rigorous research, I learned that it was apparently considered good sport for boaters on the Thames to insult each other as they passed, but Adams suggests here that bystanders on the bank also took part. I find it much more amusing to imagine that some random weirdo just decided to verbally assault Johnson, whether he recognized him or not, just like I find it amusing to imagine a time-travelling Johnson taking part in a modern “Yo mama” fight. “Sir, it is a fact that your mother is so corpulent…”
Then he subdued the Pisidians who made head against him, and conquered the Phrygians, at whose chief city, Gordium, which is said to be the seat of the ancient Midas, he saw the famous chariot fastened with cords made of the rind of the cornel-tree, which whosoever should untie, the inhabitants had a tradition, that for him was reserved the empire of the world. Most authors tell the story that Alexander finding himself unable to untie the knot, the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it, cut it asunder with his sword. But Aristobulus tells us it was easy for him to undo it, by only pulling the pin out of the pole, to which the yoke was tied, and afterwards drawing off the yoke itself from below.
— Plutarch, Life of Alexander
For walking is monotonous by itself. It isn’t ‘interesting’, and children know it. Basically, walking is always the same, putting one foot in front of the other. But the secret of that monotony is that it constitutes a remedy for boredom. Boredom is immobility of the body confronted with emptiness of mind. The repetitiveness of walking eliminates boredom, for, with the body active, the mind is no longer affected by its lassitude, no longer draws from its inertia the vague vertigo of an endless spiral. In a state of boredom one is always seeking something to do despite the obvious futility of any activity. When walking, there is always something to do: walk. Or rather, no, there’s nothing more to do because one is just walking, and when one is going to a place or covering a route, one has only to keep moving. That is boringly obvious. The body’s monotonous duty liberates thought. While walking, one is not obliged to think, to think this or that or like this or like that. During the continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape.
…We mentioned earlier the need to distinguish between monotony and boredom. Boredom is an absence of plans, of prospects. You circle around yourself, at a loose end. Waiting, but not for anything specific: not expecting anything, but indefinitely suspended in empty time. The bored body reclines, gets up restlessly, jerks its arms about, steps out in one direction then another, stops suddenly, starts again, fidgets. It is trying desperately to fill each second. Boredom is an empty rebellion against immobility; nothing to do, not even looking for something to do. You despair of yourself when bored. You tire of everything straight away, because it is on your own initiative. That faces you with the immense, unbearable ordeal of recognizing the poverty of your desires. Boredom is dissatisfaction repeated every second, disgust with beginnings: everything is wearisome from the start, because it’s you who starts it.
Walking isn’t tiresome in that way. It’s simply monotonous. When you walk you are going somewhere, in motion, with a uniform tread. There is far too much regularity and rhythmic movement in walking to cause boredom, which is fed by vacuous agitation (mind rotating aimlessly in a stationary body). That is what led monks to suggest walking as a remedy for acedia, that insidious illness that gnaws at the soul.
— Fréderic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
Patrick Kurp mentions the tedium of exercising on a recumbent bike, which can only be alleviated by the right sort of book. The Lady of the House loves walking on forest hikes or urban strolls, but thinks me slightly mad for doing my cardio exercise on a treadmill. There are practical reasons for my choice. I don’t live in a particularly walkable neighborhood. I’d rather exercise at home than go to a gym. But I enjoy my treadmill walks, probably because music keeps my mind occupied while going nowhere. Put in my earbuds, cue up a playlist, and off I go. I am disciplined enough to complete boring-but-necessary tasks, but I don’t seem to struggle with the sense of futility that afflicts so many others during stationary exercise.
I see from my archives that it’s been almost ten years (!) since I read a wonderful book by Bruce Ellis Benson, Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith. In that post, I excerpted numerous passages from the book about how thoroughly music informed Nietzsche’s entire life. Ellis’s thoughts on “de-cadence” have often come to mind since then:
Although Nietzsche never explicitly speaks of decadence in terms of “de-cadence” (falling out of rhythm), that way of thinking about decadence actually fits quite well with what Nietzsche says about it…But one can also interpret decadence musically, as a “de-cadence”, in the sense of a loss of rhythm. On that read, decadence is the loss of life’s rhythm in which we are out of step both with our true selves and with the earth.
I’m not sure how I could ever satisfactorily put into words how much this notion of a “rhythm” to life itself resonates with me. It’s true that my brain is always playing one melody or another on a feedback loop. I’m always keeping the rhythm to my mental soundtrack through various subtle tics — lightly clicking my teeth, lips or tongue, or tapping fingers and toes. I’m always in sync with one time signature or another. It seems to give some kind of important structure to my activities. But on the physical side of things, what Gros says is also true. There are many times when both physical and mental dissatisfaction is relieved by simply getting up and moving in a regular rhythm. Something about the actual cadence of activity, especially walking, seems to produce solutions to whatever is bothering you. Like most people, when I’m feeling out of sorts, the last thing I want to do is exercise. Luckily, I know enough from experience that’s it’s probably the best thing I could do. Sync your body, and your mind will follow.
If you believe that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives” arising from the dominance of a tyrannical liberalism, and you want to defeat those enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of their (trans) women, how, exactly, do you further that goal by attacking … David French? What precisely is the strategic benefit of that? If you’re Ahmari, don’t you need people like French on your side? Or do you think you’re such a massive movement that you can do without people like French? Or do you think that French will be abashed by the incisiveness of your attack, your mockery of “Pastor French,” and will come over to your side, ultimately meekly submitting to the claims of the Catholic Magisterium? Or do you think that other people will read your attack and think “Wow, just look at how Ahmari dealt with that pathetic loser French, I want to be on his side”? Seriously: How’s this supposed to work?
He’s talking about the recent declaration of intellectual hostilities between two different wings of contemporary conservatism, with Sohrab Ahmari launching an attack on David French. The post-2016 battle lines are becoming more entrenched, with Ahmari and others around First Things representing a mostly-Catholic, social conservative, pro-Trump (♫ one of these things is not like the others ♫) coalition, opposed to the more classically-liberal, free-market, Never-Trumpers around National Review. That’s always the way of it, I suppose — there’s none so blind as them that don’t agree. Apostates are more offensive to us than infidels. My sympathies are entirely with the Frenchies, and even if they weren’t, I think the Ahmarian vision and strategy is delusional. But, whatever, none of that’s very interesting. No, Jacobs’s rhetorical questions here reminded me of a recent column by Christopher DeGroot, who I assume is very much on the Ahmari side of the barricades (he also recently attacked French as a “phony conservative par excellence”):
It is partly by struggling with and against others, in order to actualize our values, that we can find meaning today. Nor is this so different from how people achieved meaning in the past. Like other right-wing writers, I spend a fair amount of time criticizing liberalism, but I realize that the regimes which preceded it also were necessarily fleeting, and had serious problems of their own, which indeed gave rise to liberalism itself. And just as people in the past found meaning through struggles that eventually produced liberalism, so in our time people can struggle to produce something that, in some respects, may be greater than liberalism. Nobody knows what that might be, and that, too, is a good thing, because that very uncertainty is what makes the meaning possible.
“Life never was a May day for men,” said Thomas Carlyle. And yet our struggles are intrinsically meaningful, and perhaps more important than our goals. Speaking for myself, anyway, I generally find that the satisfaction I get from an accomplishment—whether it’s a good piece of writing or winning a basketball game—is relatively brief and somewhat anticlimactic. The process, the striving, the struggle—that is the main thing, for that is what fills up our days and gives them a forward drive, something to live, to fight, and even to die for.
So, if I were to offer an answer to Jacobs, I might say: considerations of “strategic value” are beside the point here. In fact, maybe those considerations are too proceduralist to be of interest. Strategy? Allies? How boring! The point is to fight for a glorious, even doomed cause, to exult in the thrill of combat. In the meantime, we can have skirmishes with our ideological neighbors stemming from the narcissism of small differences. It all just goes to reinforce the bedrock conservative insight: there is no cumulative moral progress. People just invent new rationalizations for indulging in the same old actions.
Starting out with the simple intention to proclaim the “good news,” I ended up driven to preach the worst sort of everyday news: the ease with which even those of us bearing the best of intentions can be driven, in an instant, to utter distraction by an insecure frenzy for coin.
The truth is I have understood all of this for a long time, and I go on making editorial compromises with media interested only in their bottom line simply because I am interested in mine too: I need the supplementary income. If this were not a concern, I would just post everything I feel the need to express right here at www.jehsmith.com. Perhaps that day will come. Perhaps I will force it to come through this public airing of my grievances. At the same time, I note that there are a few publications, closer to the boutique end of the media world, whose editors have had the grace and decency to edit me with a very light hand (I mention here in particular The Point and TANK). My sincere thanks to them. There is of course a direct correlation between exposure and compromise, and the higher one climbs in the ladder of visibility, the more one can expect to be forced to express oneself through clichés and dumb punchy position-taking. My hope is to stay in the shade-covered side streets of the boutique district as much as possible in the future.
Attention and money: when it comes to writing on a blog, I’m not interested in the former and I’m not in need of the latter. I admire people like Bill Watterson who had the integrity to turn down hundreds of millions of dollars (literally) in order to maintain the purity of his art, but for ordinary mortals like me, the easier option is to render unto Caesar in the first place. Here is my job, and here is my hobby, and never the twain shall meet.
Murray’s objection to faith, however, is more coherent. He believes that science and historical criticism have done “most likely irreversible damage . . . to the literal-truth claims of religion.” If he is right, it makes no difference whether faith is required; faith is impossible. You can’t ask a society to pretend to believe in what isn’t so.
But is Murray right? Have science and criticism truly undermined Christianity? Or is it simply that disbelief has become the intellectual’s default conviction?
Mark Dooley, Conversations With Roger Scruton:
Despite having ‘served an apprenticeship in atheism’, Scruton has, I suggest, never been an atheist per se. ‘On the contrary, I have always assumed that religion is necessary to human communities on sociological and anthropological grounds, as well as on metaphysical grounds. People need something with which to root their beliefs, and also their conduct, their sense of themselves and their relation to others. We are fundamentally related beings and all the religions are shaped by this great need. Take religion away and nihilism is the first result, and then chaos, which is what we’re seeing now. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the doctrines are true. This is the great difficulty for people like me who begin from that anthropological sense of what religion is: how do we make the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” into the actual affirmation of a doctrine? That is something with which I have wrestled all my life.’
When did this wrestling begin? ‘It was a “puberty moment”. When, as a boy, I went in secret to the Anglican Church, I was affirming my own independence and my incipient love of the English way of doing things. But that didn’t last: my life was very soon swept into disorder by the need to leave home and to fend for myself. At Cambridge, I did become fairly atheistical and I have since been persuaded that the truth about our world is given by science and not by any theological doctrine. That is what science is: an attempt to give the truth about our world. It can make no place for the “divine hypothesis” One must therefore find another, non-scientific way to resuscitate the basic contours of a religious worldview, and that is really what I have been doing in my writings. I share with Richard Dawkins the image of the completeness of the natural sciences and the view that there isn’t anything that they leave unexplained, other than the great fact that there is something, and not nothing, a fact that is for that reason inexplicable.
‘I have been very influenced in this by Wagner, and by his attempt, not just to show that art gives you an alternative approach to the deep truths about the human condition that religion advances, but also that it enables you, to a great measure, to resuscitate the idea of the sacred — which is the idea upon which human communities ultimately depend. The sacred is something which one has to find in one’s own life if one is to live that life correctly.’
Apart from all that, it’s absolutely essential to alternate urban and country walks, without favouring one over the other. For while they share a common basis (free play of the imagination in recomposing impressions), their qualities are different: walking on pavements and park alleys involves a casual approach, giving access, via the diversity of humanity and of the behaviour of our fellows, to detailed small discoveries, enchanting to the mind; walking alone in the company of streams and trees is more likely to produce a dreamy state, very far removed from the stresses of systematic introspection, but by the same token, fertile: as if, gently distracted by the sight of flowers and skylines, the soul could forget itself for a while, and thus become aware of some facets of its own that ordinarily stay hidden.
— Fréderic Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
I agree. As much as I favor forests and mountains, I especially love walking through cities in the early morning. As it happens, we’ve been walking in all sorts of environments this week. Monday morning found us perched upon one of our favorite mountaintops in the Blue Ridge:
A little over a day later, our travels took us to Buffalo, where we took a lovely walk around Delaware Park and the nearby Japanese garden to stretch our legs after nine hours on the road:
I was slightly surprised to see a monument to Mozart and a replica of Michelangelo’s David near the park, but, well, why not, I concluded.
Today, we strolled around the beautiful Forest Lawn cemetery. There were almost too many picturesque scenes to choose from, but I liked this view of two partially-obscured maples near a stone bridge.
For a surreal split-second, I thought, “Wait, what? Verdi’s buried here?” No, just another musical monument, and why not. I love his music too.
We did spend a little time on the pavement of downtown Buffalo, where we found a pub serving Impossible Burgers. The place we went for lunch today had the Beyond Burger, so we got to try both of the hot new meatless burgers in a twenty-four hour period. As Lincoln Steffens might have said, I have tasted the future, and it works. Granted, I’m not exactly a carnivorous connoisseur, but I really couldn’t tell the difference. The Impossible Burger seems to be getting the majority of the favorable press so far, but we thought the Beyond Burger looked a bit more like the real thing. Still, we liked them both, and it will be very interesting to see how the meat industry is affected by this.
Other than that, I doubt that a mall counts as urban walking, but we did walk around the giant Walden Galleria mall this evening. I know it’s traditionally an old folks thing, but I’ve actually come to enjoy walking through malls and doing a little people-watching. All in all, we probably covered more than ten miles. I don’t know if New Balance would like to offer me a sponsorship, but I’d be happy to testify that their M990GL4 shoe does very well at preventing fatigue and soreness.
What glorious weather, too. Cloudy and cool, thirty-five degrees cooler than back home. Perfect for walking.