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Osbert Sitwell
July 16, 2012

The most delightful thing I found out from reading Philip Ziegler’s biography of Osbert Sitwell was that after Osbert went to see Fantasia in February 1945, he announced that Walt Disney should be tortured, and then killed. I don’t feel that strongly about the cartoon classic but I confess there have been times when I found the ecstatic praises of it to be tiresome.

Probably the next most enjoyable item was discovering that when Osbert’s father, George, was riding on a train in the early 1860s and was asked by a gentleman who he was, he replied, “I am Sir George Sitwell, baronet. I am four years old and the youngest baronet in England.”

The English literary scene between the two world wars was a zany production, and few marked it as decidedly as the Sitwell trio -- Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell. Ziegler readily admits that they may not have turned out the most lasting writing of the period -- though he does think that some of Osbert’s was quite good -- but insists that English literature without them would have been a very different enterprise from what it turned out to be.

Osbert was born in 1892, five years after his sister Edith and five years before Sacheverell. As a boy he was never able to adopt common standards of achievement, even though he was bolstered by numerous injunctions from his father, such as, “Unless you learn to play ping-pong properly, you can never hope to be a Leader of Men.” George turned out to be prophetic. Osbert never learned to play ping-pong properly, and he was never a leader of men -- at least not in the ordinary sense.

The First World War interfered annoyingly with Osbert’s activities. He father had managed to get him a commission in the Guards, which seemed the right thing for a young man who wished to do nothing, because the only things Guards officers did was to show up for maybe a quarter-hour at the barracks, dressed in their uniforms, and then wander off to spend the afternoon at their clubs and other watering places. This fit fairly well with Osbert’s proclivities, though he was bothered by talk about horses, and hunting, and other such gross pursuits. But once the fighting started, even the Guards were expected to engage in warfare. Osbert was shipped off to France, spent almost a year near the front, and seems to have acquitted himself acceptably, if not heroically. He was even, at times, in danger of being blown up. After this experience he determined to make his life in literature and to be an eternal foe of war and all proponents of war. Winston Churchill became one of his pet peeves. He viewed Churchill’s “playing to the gallery” as infinitely vulgar.

Ziegler argues convincingly that we have to give Osbert credit for his diligence as a writer. Though he was lax and irresponsible in many ways, particularly about the spending of money, and though he was sometimes silly in his social behavior, he did work at his writing, quite hard actually. Over the course of a long career, he pursued most genres -- poetry, short stories, novels, travel writing, journalistic and critical essays, memoirs and plays. He turned out an immense volume of work and if none of it reached heavenly heights, all of it was at least competent.

Being at the center of the literary world, the Sitwells knew everybody. They had many friends and a perhaps slightly smaller contingent of enemies. Even those who were not outright foes didn’t mind using Osbert in ways he clearly didn’t enjoy. Sir Clifford Chatterley, of D. H. Lawrence’s once scandalous novel, was clearly modeled on Osbert. In Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, Osbert appeared as Lord Osmund, “the senior, more or less male, offspring of the Marquis of Balbriggan.” Osbert’s penchant for indignation and at times pomposity made him an irresistible target. Also, he was rich, or at least spent as though he were rich, and that didn’t cause him to be him perfectly popular with his penurious literary associates. Osbert’s feuds constitute a considerable portion of the biography, and Ziegler relates them with energetic dash.

Osbert’s quarrels, though, shouldn’t be permitted to obscure his many deep friendships. He was liked and loved by numbers of people, even though there was always something a bit remote in his own character. His correspondence was almost as voluminous as his writing and Ziegler makes liberal use of it. And since Osbert was in touch with most of the literary figures of his time, we get a rich portrayal of a cultural epoch, and the manners and peculiarities that went with it. Writers, thank goodness, are not like the majority of people, so their modes of conveying their feelings usually inform us of more than ordinary expressions of sympathy would. Evelyn Waugh, for example, once wrote to Osbert to console him about a near crippling case of gout. Trying to convey his fellow feeling, Waugh noted, “I suffer mainly from nervous nausea, insomnia, irrational rages, noises in the head, melancholy and deafness.”

I like to read biographies but they trouble me by always turning out badly. Osbert was never in grand health, and over the last couple decades of his life he suffered from many ailments, most seriously, Parkinson’s Disease. But even in the midst of discomfort he managed to find many pleasures. He lived on until 1969, dying at his Italian estate of Montegufoni in Tuscany. The sense Ziegler gives us is of a life far from perfect, but full of achievement, and quite a few moments of fun.

There’s something fascinating, for me at least, about the post-Victorian literary classes in England. It may be that they lived as closely to the way most humans would if they could get away with it. Osbert Sitwell’s life offers endless material for debating whether getting away with it is a good or a bad thing.


Gibbon’s Memoirs
June 16, 2012

I’ve been gradually working my way through Edward Gibbon’s Memoirs of My Life and Writings, which he had completed before his death but had not published. He left it to be brought out by his friend Lord Sheffield in 1796, two years after he died. It’s a spritely book, detailing the education and accomplishments of an unusual man whose eccentricities probably would not have brought him fame had he not also been the author of one of the grandest historical works in English, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The details of his later life as a great historian are fascinating, but for me they don’t have the same degree of interest as the accounts of his early education. After studying with various tutors and going to  number of schools which didn’t quite work out, his father decided to solve the problem by sending him to Oxford. Consequently he was enrolled in Magadalen College slightly before his fifteenth birthday. Admissions to great universities were less regulated in those days than they have subsequently become. Oxford was not exactly the right place for a boy of that age, and if we can believe Gibbon’s account, it wasn’t a very good place for any boy. The colleges did not conceive it as their duty to teach their students anything so most of the boys just bumbled about and got into trouble. Gibbon’s particular trouble arose from his avid but less than organized reading. He describes his downfall thus:

The blind activity of idleness urged me to advance without armour into the
dangerous mazes of controversy; and at the age of sixteen I bewildered myself
into the errors of the church of Rome.

Oxford was not a place for papists in those days (nor for many years afterwards) and therefore Gibbon was booted out after a residency of about fourteen months.

The concept of bewildering oneself into errors strikes a chord with me. I have done that a number of times in my own life. The point is not the errors of any particular system, Catholicism or otherwise, but rather the errors of thinking you know something when you don’t, or thinking you have the capacity to be sure about something when you are not of an age to be sure about anything.

I was reminded of Gibbon this morning, walking up School Street in Montpelier, after having been to La Brioche, where I managed to get a very large cup of coffee and a fair-sized scone for the reasonable price of $2.88. I came to the Baptist Church and there on its signboard I encountered this interesting statement: “The arms of the Heavenly Father never tire of holding his children.”

I stared at it for about twenty seconds and then, naturally, asked myself, “Why do people want to say things like that?”

As I walked on, another of Gibbon’s statements from the memoir came to mind: “Many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.” I think you can derive from that sentiment that Gibbon’s early Catholicism did not hold.

Later in the memoir, after Gibbon had completed his account of what might be called his formal education, which, post-Oxford, took place by his being banished by his father to five years in Switzerland, he supplies us with his conclusion about the whole process of early learning:

Every man who rises above the common level has received two educations: the
first from his teachers; the second, more personal and important, from himself.

The question that leave us with is what is it that causes some people to wish to add to the education and training they receive from their teachers? Why do they not simply accept what they have been told?

When we are children we are told that God loves us, and then later some people ask, how do we know? whereas others proclaim that his arms never tire.

Whether those two ranks of people can ever speak with one another is an interesting issue. I suspect Gibbon would tell us that they can’t. Furthermore, I doubt that their fundamental difference would have bothered him. But, then, we have to remember that he was a man of the 18th Century and, consequently, less concerned with questions of equality than we are.


Death of the Grown-Up
May 5, 2011

A friend recommended that I read Diana West's The Death of the Grown-Up for our next book club discussion. So I complied.

One of the perplexities of my own grown-up experience has been to discover that intelligent, seemingly critical minded people will fall for egregious tripe. Why is that?

Ms. West's book is typical, standard, orthodox right-wing rant. There's nothing original or imaginative about it. The basic belief of the right-wing mind is an excited faith in a gigantic, implacable enemy out there somewhere. Without this enemy the right-winger would, evidently, have nothing to live for. Ms. West in The Death of the Grown-Up is catering to that faith. The enemy in this case is a beast with two faces, which nonetheless is possessed by a single goal -- the overthrow and destruction of Western civilization. The two faces in this case are descent into adolescence and Islam. You might not, right off, see the connection but that's because you haven't read West's ingenious weavings.

You see, the form of adolescence we are suffering from is a combination of multiculturalism and tolerance of silliness. Actually, they're the same thing but they show themselves in slightly different ways. And these two modes of childishness play right into something called dhimmitude, which is defined as the eternal Muslim determination to place all non-Muslims under Islamic domination and then to treat them badly.

One of the features of the enemy in right-wing lore is that he consists of people who are not really like people. If you think about it, most of the people you know are fairly fickle, subject to passing whims and temporary passions. A single, inconsequential event in America can sometimes shift political preferences by twenty or thirty points. Ordinary people don't really know what they think, so they jump around a lot. But not the enemy. They are implacable, rock-solid, incapable of deviation. Given these super-human characteristics it's a wonder we didn't succumb to them a long time ago. That's the way the fascists were, and then the communists, and now the Muslims. That the first two of these seem to have faded somewhat, at least in their fervor, doesn't change the eternal truth that enemies will never modify themselves. We always have to be on our guard.

The conservative solution to all problems is to "go back" to the habits of some period that was supposedly better than we are. There are, however, two difficulties with it.  It's impossible to go back. And if you begin to probe into the actual behavior of previous times, you find a good many features that aren't exactly enthralling. That doesn't trouble Ms. West, though, because history is not one of her strong points. For example, the only thing West finds notable about our adventures in Vietnam four decades ago is her discovery that the main reason the new youth culture opposed the war was that the young men of the time were so adolescent they didn't want to serve in the military. Being a soldier, or as West designates that grand phenomenon, a warrior, is the ultimate definition of being an adult. Am I exaggerating? Are you skeptical? Then look on page 192 and you'll see West saying this: "Warriors, after all, are adults, mature men whose example can make non-warriors or anti-warriors feel grossly inexperienced and sheltered -- very much like children." This is a standard example of her mode of argumentation.

She doesn't bother, by the way, to examine whether the U.S. invasion and killings in Vietnam constituted a good idea. Questions of that sort don't occur to West's version of maturity. Her way is to be grown-up, and to go and do, and die.

A telling mark of a polemicist are the authorities she, or he, puts forward to bolster her argument. In West's case it would be hard to find a more zany crew of crackpots. Her number one source about Islam is a lady named Bat Ye'or (that's the name she gave herself, not the name her parents gave her) who I have seen described as an anti-Muslim loon with crazy conspiracy theories. I'm not prepared to make that charge but I know that almost no reputable historians consider her writings to be trustworthy. Along with Ms. Ye'or there are Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, David Horowitz, Lawrence Auster, Roger Kimball and Victor Davis Hanson, all members of the right-wing attack team.

To be fair, Ms. West does offer a few instances of liberal nonsense, particularly of permissive parents indulging teen-age idiocy. But even here, she goes overboard by claiming that modern America generally favors such behavior when that's clearly not true. One of the hallmarks of conservative argumentation is to pick extreme examples and put them forward as the norm, and this Ms. West does over and again.

I am left with my opening question: who finds this sort of thing persuasive? It's dangerous to generalize but I suspect that when fans fall outside right-wing lunacy, they are lured by their own unfamiliarity with the sources the polemicist employs. If you don't, for example, know that David Horowitz has long since dived off the deep end you might find West's praise of him credible.

There is no end to bad books, and never enough sound -- and readable -- books to expose them.


Empire of Illusion
February 10, 2011

Until a couple years ago, I thought I was in the front ranks of pessimism with respect to the future of the United States. Lately though I've come to see that my sense of downturn is pathetic compared to the view of some seriously knowledgeable people.

I just, for example, finished reading Chris Hedges' book, Empire of Illusion.

The former New York Times correspondent has dug deeper into American depravity than I knew you could go. I used to think, maybe, that Karl Rove was the bottom of the barrel. Now I understand that Rove is a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants, and that the giants come mostly from the ranks ordinary Americans.

When Hedges says, "We consume countless lies daily," he doesn't mean that we have them forced upon us -- though there is plenty of forcing. He's telling us that we love them, as pigs love the slop at the trough.

And why do we love them? Because we Americans are, mostly, empty souls, wallowing in our semiliteracy. As such we are effectively cut off from the past, and since we have no memory of what has happened to us already, we are more than ready to accept amplified lies, which are repeated in endless loops of news cycles. If you want to know why the Republican Party is as it is, there's your explanation.

Mostly, the only thing that's reported to us by our national media is how well something worked as political theatre. We don't care if it's true or not. Did it propel someone to success? That's all that counts.  And, as Hedges says, "A population no longer able to tell lies from truth is incapable of sustaining a free society."

Hedges finds little evidence that the American people can tell truth from lies, and neither do I.

What people want, says Hedges, are happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power.  When that trio forms the substance of popular desire, you have one of two choices. You can join the chorus, or you can be disappeared. The nation's cult of eternal childishness "trumpets an obnoxious and superpatriotic nationalism and rapacious corporate capitalism." Remember the Super Bowl, just a few days ago?

Even the institution in which the somewhat more literate classes have placed their faith, are severely corrupt. I was glad to see Hedges turn his spotlight on the elite universities, and point out the degree to which their lust for corporate money has turned them away from any notion of empowering the critical mind. Many of the so-called academic professionals have descended to using obscure code words to avoid communication with the general public. They retreat to their little enclaves, foolishly thinking they'll be left alone there to enjoy the pseudo-respect of their peers. But they are a dying, and generally scorned, breed.

American professionalism has become a product of the moral void. "They lack clarity about themselves and their culture. They can fathom only their own personal troubles. They do not see their own biases or the causes of their own frustrations."

Hedges is not averse to naming the figures who promote a pretend glory in order to loot the country. In one paragraph he lists Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, Edward Libby (of AIG) and Lloyd Blankfein (of Goldman Sachs), all men who employ corporate money and power to narrow debate in our classrooms and on the airwaves, in pursuit of their own gargantuan self-interest.

All sorts of people are getting in on the manufacture of illusion. A major segment of the psychology profession has been converted to a movement known generally as "positive psychology," which is a form of shill game in which people are told that if they'll just be enthusiastic and optimistic then life will be great, sort of a professionalized version of Reagan's "Morning in America." Under the influence of this persuasion people can believe, for a while at least, that the social decay and public stupidity they see around them are really manifestations of grand American enterprise.

Pretense, of course, can last only so long. Then comes collapse. Hedges thinks it's coming pretty fast to the United States. The people will wake at some point and discover they have built themselves a garbage pile instead of a grand palace of liberty. Then there will be hell to pay. The behavior of people who go overnight from inflated self-congratulation to a feeling of total betrayal is usually not pretty. It often leads to a detour through vicious, militaristic tyranny.

Hedges thinks something very bad is approaching very soon. And given that we've come as far as we have, he doesn't see any practical way to avoid it. In 2008, shortly before this book was published, a great segment of the American people believed the election of Barack Obama would mark a turning away from the absurd narratives of the recent past. Hedges had no faith in that notion. He saw Obama, even then, as an offshoot of the illusions which work only to benefit a small economic elite. Obama, being a member of that elite, was not going to turn against it. Far more than I would have believed two years ago, Hedges has been proved right. If you think his pessimism now is overly extreme, I invite you to examine the evidence he has compiled for us. I suspect you'll conclude he is not as far off the mark as you had thought.


Leo Strauss and Nietzsche
May 20, 2010

Laurence Lampert's study of Leo Strauss's relation to Nietzsche is a book I have intended to read for years but I had difficulty in locating a copy I felt I could afford. A couple months ago, however, I did find a reasonably priced used copy. And I discovered I was right to want to read it.

I don't know that it's the best book on Nietzsche I've read, but it's among the best. And it may lead all the others in laying out the principle features of Nietzsche's project.

What that's got to do with Leo Strauss? Lampert based his entire text on a reading of a seventeen page essay by Strauss, which was one of the final pieces of writing he accomplished before his death in 1973.

The irony of this effort is that Strauss is pretty generally regarded among political philosophers as one the strongest anti-Nietzsche voices modernity has produced. Yet people who know anything about Strauss recognize that he was mesmerized by Nietzsche for major periods of his life. Lampert sees this late effort as a kind of coming back around to admiration of the great philosopher, maybe even a muted apology for the harsh sentiments voiced earlier. The way Strauss found to do this, says Lampert, was to discover that Nietzsche, despite his fame as the most fierce detractor of Plato, was, himself, a Platonist after all.

These are abstruse subjects. Whether one is regarded as a Platonist depends on what the viewer thinks Platonism is. Certainly, Nietzsche was a fierce critic of Plato's notion of a timeless, eternal realm of perfection, which serves as the essential goal of humanity. That idea, Nietzsche held, has fouled us up for centuries. On the other hand, if you think of Platonism as belief in a perfect, or at least unimprovable, mode of thought, you can, through a certain twisting, make Nietzsche into a Platonist of sorts. And that's what Strauss tried to do.

It's not hugely important whether Strauss succeeded or not. What counts about Strauss's essay and Lampert's effort to explicate it fully is that they help a reader understand the essential program that Nietzsche was trying to put forward and which he thought was so out of line in current notions of right and wrong that it would take at least two centuries for him to be read correctly.

I can't say that we have yet read him correctly but I am confident that over the past fifteen years he has been read with finer perceptions than anyone had achieved before then. I'm also confident that Lampert has been one of his astute -- if not perfect -- readers.

Lampert's view of Nietzsche was that of a thinker not only determined to follow modern despair down to its deepest, most bitter roots, but having done so to push through despair to a new philosophy and a new naturalism, one that would allow humans, for the first time in the history of civilization, to rejoice over who they actually are.

How this is to be accomplished lie in the doctrines of the will to power, eternal return, a true genealogy of morals, and the advent of the complementary man (erroneously designated as the super man or the overman).  Each of these concepts has been the subject of many books, and will be the subject of many books yet to come. I can't explain them to you in a sentence or two. I'll simply testify that I've examined them enough to be sure they are worth still more examination, and that they strike me as pointing towards a stronger, healthier, and more noble life than we have had.  Whether they are perfectly explicable is another issue.

I can't recommend Lampert's book to those who haven't made some effort to read Nietzsche. But if you've made a start on him and are both intrigued and troubled, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche is likely to help you move along more quickly than most similar efforts would.


Martin's Johnson
February 26, 2010

At this stage of my life I've read a number of biographies of Samuel Johnson, so many, in fact, that it's hard to know what to make of them. They all, of course, have to be set alongside Boswell and, so far, they all have to get in line behind him. As Dumas Malone said once to my seminar on Jefferson at the University of Virginia, there's no substitute for knowing what a man looked like when he walked into a room. Boswell knew much more than that. He knew what Johnson looked like as he settled on a bed of straw the night before they crossed the narrow channel to the Isle of Skye; he knew Johnson's manner as he teased an elderly lady in her hut on the shore of Loch Ness; he knew hundreds of scenes the rest of us can never know. Even more, he seems to have grasped Johnson's spirit more firmly than any other biographer has managed.

Every biographer must pick something to emphasize and Peter Martin (Harvard University Press, 2008) chose Johnson's agony of mind. Everyone who has written about Johnson has acknowledged his melancholy, or the "black dog" as he called it, his sense, throughout all his accomplishments, that he had wasted his life, and his near-paralyzing fear of death. But others have balanced these dark moods with Johnson's uproarious humor, his enjoyment of food and drink, and the happiness he took from the company of others. Martin mentions these but they do not strike him as in any way a balance. I suppose that if Johnson were to be subjected to modern psychological analyses, he would be declared a thorough neurotic, in deep need of various mind-altering pills. We can all be grateful he didn't live in an age when these benefits were available to him. Had he been chemically soothed, he might have achieved something but he would not have been the Samuel Johnson we have come to revere and love.

Martin's treatment of the three great literary monuments, the Dictionary, the prefaces to Shakespeare, and the lives of the poets, is adequate but I don't know we can say it's much more than that. Had we not known before that Johnson was a literary colossus, I'm not sure we would learn it from Martin. He is not hesitant to criticize and skips past the magnificence with abstract praise, as though to say we can take the greatness for granted. Perhaps we can, but it's good for a biographer to supply us with precise details.

Martin does tell us more about some of Johnson's lesser writings than other biographers have done. His description of Johnson's political essays makes clear both how the general reputation of rigid Toryism grew up and why it is seriously erroneous. To equate the Tories of Johnson's era with current conservatives and Whigs with liberals is gross historical ignorance. Johnson was closer to the equal rights proponents of today than to any other modern political group. His take on racial bias and on Western imperialism was as scathing as anything that has been written since, and coming far earlier than most such sentiments was far more original than anything modern reformers have managed.

I also think Martin is stronger on Johnson's youth than other modern biographers. Johnson's meeting with Boswell does not take place until page 360 of a 524 page book, and though Boswell is frequently quoted in the earlier sections, Martin shows clearly that Johnson had a long and significant life before Boswell came on the scene. Indeed, Boswell would not have been so eager to meet him had that not been the case.

There are a number of disquieting errors. I suppose typographical mistakes must creep into any book, as they do in this one. But when an essay from The Adventurer is said to come from The Rambler, we have to wonder if typography is entirely to blame. The most serious blunder comes in the account of Johnson's and Boswell's visit to Dunvegan Castle in Skye. Martin says that the mistress of the castle was Lady Flora MacDonald, which, of course, she was not. The actual hostess, whom Johnson much enjoyed during his eight-day stay at the castle, was Anne MacLeod, wife of the 19th leader of the Clan MacLeod. Johnson was much taken with charming women, provided they had mind enough to converse with him, which Lady MacLeod clearly did.

I have to give Martin credit for supplying me with a number of details I had not known before. The most affecting for me was learning that when Flora MacDonald was placed in her coffin, she was wrapped in the sheets Bonnie Prince Charlie had slept in many years before when she hid him in her house after the disaster of the Battle of Culloden. I wish I had known that several years ago when I stood by her grave on a windy hill in Skye, looking out over the Atlantic to the low lying shadows that are the outer Hebrides. Martin fails to mention one of the finest things Johnson wrote, the inscription on the Celtic cross that rises above her grave: "Her name will be mentioned in history and if courage and fidelity be virtues mentioned with honour." She lived five and half years longer than Johnson, dying in 1790. She was fifty-one years old when Johnson and Boswell met her at her home in Kingsborough -- not Dunvegan.

The most moving chapter of Martin's book is the last, the account of Johnson's death. It gives more details than I have seen before and makes clear that though Johnson's friends felt he had become reconciled to his end and had come to believe he would be received by God, his actual state of mind was much less certain. Reconciled, or not, he did not want to die and continued to seek treatments, some of them quite desperate, almost up till his final day. Johnson's religious faith has been widely noted. It is assumed he had no doubts about God's directions and provisions for the human soul. I have, for a long time, been rebellious about this conclusion. Johnson clearly had one of the sharpest and most critical minds we know from history. It's unlikely that he would not have applied that acuity to religion as much as to anything else. His repeated professions of surety were, I suspect, one side of an argument he had with himself throughout his life. We know that when questions of the hereafter came up in conversation, they often so distressed Johnson he would not remain in the room. We know also that he feared oblivion even more than damnation. I feel fairly certain it was the loss of life -- worldly existence which he loved far more than he hated -- which mainly occupied his thoughts as he approached cessation. That's what makes the tale of his death so agonizing.

Peter Martin's account of Johnson, which he planned to come out near the three hundredth anniversary of Johnson's birth, is a good if not perfect account of the life. I would recommend it -- not first but fairly early -- to anyone who wishes to know more about a man supremely worth knowing about.


New Series
September 29, 2009

Barnes and Noble has put out a new set of books under the general label of "B&N Rediscovers." I think they've come up with a fine idea.

They're re-publishing notable books from the past, in hard covers , at reasonable prices. The selections are not really "classics" in the sense of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens but rather studies in literature, history, philosophy, religion and science that have earned a lasting reputation, but have, till now, not been readily available.

The first item I bought from the series was Owen Barfield's History in English Words, a book not known by hordes of people, but one that ought to be. It's based on Barfield's understanding that language reveals the evolution of consciousness. You might even say, after you work your way through the first pages of Barfield's text, that language is consciousness. Then you could go on to grasp that consciousness is a very strange phenomenon.

I was glad to see Barfield included in the series because his presence bespeaks the seriousness of the effort. He is one of those scholars who rise above the normal standards of the academy to write significant books that ultimately appeal more to general readers than to colleagues in a particular field. The significant thing about such writers is that they're accessible but they do not condescend.

I was also glad in a personal way because I knew Barfield slightly, visited him at his home in southeast England, and corresponded with him briefly afterwards. He was a man who could be simultaneously charming and blunt, and never give any hint that there's a conflict between those modes. There are too few persons in the world with that ability because it's rare to achieve such self-knowledge as Barfield possessed.

So, I'm glad to see him included among other writers of his class, persons like Loren Eiseley, Morris Kline, Michael Grant, John Gardner and Susanne Langer. I hope the series will get a larger response from readers -- and buyers -- than I fear it will.


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At my local bookshop, I picked up a new edition of quotations by Thomas Jefferson and found myself in the section on alcoholism. In a letter of 1823, Mr. Jefferson said that the drunkard, like the infant, the maniac and the gambler, requires the attention of the legislator. He didn't say what that attention ought to produce but presumably he was calling for regulation and restraint of some sort. The assumption that those who cannot ameliorate their own bad habits are suffering from mental debility so severe that they need to be taken in hand by the institutions of society continues to be a controversial position. It undermines, to some extent, the idea of free will, which appears to have little standing in either psychology or social science. But free will remains the lynchpin of our legal system. If people really don't have the ability to control themselves, then what right have we to punish them for their transgressions? We can restrain them, of course, in order to protect ourselves. But punish? It becomes absurd in a deterministic world. The compromise we've arrived at so far is the conclusion that some people can't control themselves. Therefore, though we can regulate their behavior, we have no right to inflict punishment on them. But others we can punish, almost to our hearts' desire, including killing them, because we say they were operating under self control. How we know we can't say but that's our stance all the same. I suppose, if we were being perfectly consistent, we might say the legislators are operating under impulses just as irresistible as the desire for drink or gambling. But, I doubt Mr. Jefferson would have been willing to go that far.  (Posted, 6/17/06)

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Elizabeth Carter was an 18th Century London writer who became a friend of Samuel Johnson. He respected her so much he accepted two essays from her for his periodical publication, The Rambler. In No. 44, she recounted a dream in which she met two spirits, each claiming to be a spokesperson for religion. The first, a gloomy figure, told her that:

"Misery is the duty of all sublunary beings, and every enjoyment is an offense to the deity who is to be worshipped only by the mortification of every sense of pleasure, and the everlasting exercise of sighs and tears."

There aren't many religious figures now who will be quite that blunt but the message, in a subdued form, is still with us. We continue to be influenced by the notion not only that pleasure can lead to excess but that pleasure is excess and anybody who indulges in it will be led straight to the bad place.

In her essay, Mrs. Carter revealed that the bearer of the doleful argument was actually Superstition and that all one needs to banish her is to begin to see the world as it is. I'm not sure that seeing things as they are is a possibility for humans. We may be too tangled for that. But perhaps we can hope that superstition among us will lose some of its grip. The great parade of "ought tos" which have strangled countless afternoons remain too much with us, and they retain their power because few try to see the world as it is. Freud reminded us that in this existence we are assailed by three threats -- nature in a surly mood, our fellow human beings, and the phantoms of our own minds. I'm not sure but what the last is the worst. Certainly, it's the one we are least able to combat. If Mrs. Carter could see us now, she might be discouraged.   (Posted, 6/17/06)

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Hester's Thrale, answering charges that she had not prettified her subject in her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson wrote,

" It is surely no dispraise to an oak that it does not bear jessamine; and he who should plant honeysuckle round Trajan's column would not be thought to adorn, but to disgrace."

It's a point more pertinent now than it was in the 18th Century. Our PR-driven lust to prettify has become insane. It turns us away from what we can do, and expect, towards a naive pretense that accomplishes nothing but, eventually, manufactured scandal -- which is perhaps PR's ultimate goal.  Mrs. Thrale appeared to know that human perfection is not only not attainable, it's not an ideal either. A perfect human would be a monster.  Faults, though not to be sought, always accompany genius, and when we are perfectly alienated by faults we are also cut off from love and appreciation. That's not to say we shouldn't be trying to get better and to reduce our faults, but the effort has to be made in the knowledge that it's an ongoing struggle and not a thing to be completed. I don't know where the notion came from that air-brushing is the path to paradise, but it has got terribly fixed in our brains nowadays.  (Posted, 6/13/06)

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In The Rambler, No. 202, Johnson noted that:

"Among those who have endeavored to promote learning and rectify judgment, it has been long customary to complain of the abuse of words, which are often admitted to signify things so different, that instead of assisting understanding as vehicles of knowledge, they produce error, dissention, and perplexity, because what is affirmed in one sense is received in another."

This remains as true as it was when Johnson wrote it. Yet, it is almost never acknowledged with respect to political debate. Men scream at one another as though each knows what the other is saying. Ill-defined words are made the basis for fierce recriminations. The result is a political discourse that's nothing but the babble of men who are seeking goals they can't reveal, both because it would be embarrassing and because they don't know what their aims actually are. And when politicians go home at night, having babbled all day, what then passes through their minds? Anything? Why do we sit and listen solemnly to what such men say? To take it as meaningful may be the surest sign of our own degradation.  (Posted, 6/8/06)

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In support of the saying there's nothing new under the sun we have frequent instances of perfect personal descriptions written centuries before their subjects were born. In The Rambler, No. 74 (December 1, 1750), for example, there is an achingly accurate limning of the president of the United States.

He that gives himself up to his own fancy, and converses with none but such as he hires to lull him on the down of absolute authority, to sooth him with obsequiousness, and regale him with flattery soon grows too slothful for the labor of the contest, too tender for the asperity of contradiction, and too delicate for the coarseness of truth.

We have not been in the habit of thinking of Mr. Bush as delicate but on consideration we see it's a rewarding term for his intellect. It fits well with Hendrik Hertzberg's description in the New Yorker for March 13, 2006 of "a feckless President who seems fated to remain forever inexperienced."  (Posted, 6/5/06)

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I once wrote to Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, and remarked that he had made a very good living discovering things I knew by the time I was six years old. He wrote back a fairly hostile letter, saying something to the effect that I probably hadn't been as subject as he was to the cultural forces that had cankered his mind when he was young. I concluded that was probably true, and was grateful to him for answering at all. Over the years, I watched as he made his turn to the political right, sympathizing a bit in the beginning but then starting to feel he was losing all sense of balance. Now, I must say, his transformation makes me bleary. I just skimmed through the February issue of Commentary and was almost shocked. It always had a political point of view, but years ago but it didn't exist in an ideological box. Now, it clearly does. Podoretz himself includes in the latest number a turgid piece which excoriates anyone who has the slightest reservations about the glory of our military invasion of Iraq, and then takes the intellectually maniacal step of equating them with American Tories during the Revolutionary period. He doesn't bother to mention that some of those Tories weren't altogether terrible people, a thought which, evidently, at this point, couldn't penetrate his sealed-up brain. It's doleful to say that Commentary is now nothing but a right-wing rag. But that's, in fact, what it is. (Posted, 1/24/06)

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"Progress is just another word for larceny," writes Melissa Holbrook Pierson in her new book, The Place You Love is Gone.. It's a sentiment we need to hear more often in this world of maniacal growth and development. Time can't stand still say the folks who are trying to swindle us. And, of course, they're right to a certain extent. And, it's also true that there is no accounting fine enough to tell us conclusively whether a particular time in the past was better or worse than the present. "Better or worse for whom?" is a question that must always be asked. Still, there were some places and practices of the past, now gone, that were lovely and would grace our lives if we could return to them. The price of returning has always to be taken into account, but there is no harm in facing the truth that we, in our greed and anxiety, have destroyed worthy things. I'm glad there are people like Ms. Pierson who will say so frankly and I hope her message gets wide attention.  (Posted, 1/15/06)

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I was irritated several years ago when Joseph Epstein was removed as the editor of The American Scholar.  I thought he had put out a readable journal for quite a number of years and deserved to stay on as long as he wanted. And, then, when the succeeding editor clearly made the publication worse, I thought my judgment was sustained. Still, I've found in Epstein's subsequent writings a tone that helps me understand why the board of Phi Beta Kappa decided they would like to make a change. I don't know how to describe it other than to say it's elderly in a less than attractive mode and nationalistic in a way that has lost its appeal for me. Both these characteristics Epstein brings to a long essay about Edmund Wilson in the December 2005 Commentary. It's an article based lightly on Lewis Dabney's recent admiring biography of Wilson and takes the theme that Wilson who was regarded as the foremost literary man of his generation may prove to be thoroughly forgettable. I don't know whether Wilson will last, or not, and I agree with Epstein that to compare him to Samuel Johnson or to Matthew Arnold is overreaching. Even so, I enjoyed his writings for a long time and I still enjoy them when I occasionally return to them. So, I'm not as ready to give up on Wilson as Epstein seems to be. And I'm particularly not ready to turn against him for the reasons Epstein emphasizes in his review. Epstein says that pretty rotten people can turn out fine art but that since a critic's work has to rise out of sensible judgment we can't expect much in a critical way from a disorderly life. And, as we all know, Wilson drank too much, wasn't courteous to many of his lady friends, was an abominable manager of money, and couldn't even drive a car. Grievous as all these faults are, I can't see that they undermine Wilson's critical work in any serious way. Epstein's second and more damning charge is that Wilson wasn't as admiring of successive American governments as Epstein appears to be. In the preface to Patriotic Gore, Wilson put forward his famous sea slug theory of nations, i.e. that all nations are trying to devour one another and that morality in the normal sense doesn't have much to do with their relations. And Wilson was so bold as to include the American nation in his analysis. Admittedly, this isn't a topic suitable for a Fourth of July celebration but I don't agree that it is as juvenile as Epstein casts it. I think Patriotic Gore was a fine book, despite  -- actually in part because of --Wilson's propensity to tell us about what Epstein calls dreary Southern diaries. There's too much in all this of the aging writer sitting in his club, or wherever he sits, grousing about how young people don't grasp what they owe to their nation. I continue to think I'd owe more if my nation had produced more people of Edmund Wilson's grasp.  (Posted, 12/30/05)

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Last night (November 23, 2004) it came to me more forcefully than ever before that in America we need a politics -- and by "a politics" I mean a way of thinking about the gaining and exercising of government power -- that will help us respond to the particular social situation in which we find ourselves. History assists our thinking about politics but it doesn't provide us with a political program. In other words, one cannot say, this is what happened in the past and, therefore, this is where I stand now. That's because history doesn't tell us what forces are currently in play, and, consequently, which forces are in need of control. What are the forces? How should they be controlled? Who should do the controlling? Who benefits and who loses from systems of control? These are the questions an adequate politics should begin to answer. I don't think we have good answers for any of them. These thoughts rose up during a meeting of the Vermont Johnson Society. We had gathered to talk about a book by Thom Hartmann titled What Would Jefferson Do? and we were lucky enough to have Thom join us. There was, consequently, quite a bit of knowledge about both Jefferson and political history in the room. I think we learned from each other. But we found no answers. In truth our talk was a cauldron of mishmash. Maybe that's the fate of all group conversation. Yet, I suspect that if we could get our questions straight we could talk more intelligently, In talk and in writing most of us have lost the ability to know what we're asking. Regaining that capacity would be a healthy thing for all of us to put our minds upon.

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Caitlin Flannagan's essay about domestic life, in the July 5, 2004 New Yorker, is interesting for one reason. It reveals a style that's encountered more often in life than in writing, a style which is distinctive to our era but hasn't yet been given a name. It shows us life untouched by religious meaning. It's easy to become exasperated by formal religions nowadays. Yet, we would do well to reflect that when the psychological state that goes with it disappears we march into a new set of problems. Ms. Flannagan's article is explicitly about how women feel when they stay home and look after their children. Her thesis is that they don't feel good. There's scarcely a hint, though, about why they don't feel good other than the hackneyed observation that housework is inherently boring. Truth is it's no more boring than 95 % of the jobs women (and men) fill in the so-called economy. What's different about it is that the circle of people who observe it is generally more limited than would be the case if one were managing a department in a Wal-Mart store. And if your meaning rises not from the integrity of your mind but rather from how you are seen by others, the number of those others becomes all important. Success derives from being observed by multitudes. This is the attitude religion has always tried to counter. I have no argument against mothers taking jobs. It may well be, in a limited sense, good for them. And in the modern world, most of them are forced to by our attitudes about how much money is needed to live decently. Yet, they ought not to delude themselves that, over the long run, a career will take care of the need for human fulfillment. That comes -- if it can come -- from how we work rather than from what we do.

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In a review of a biography of Thackeray, in 1864, Walter Bagehot introduced his famous theory that England operated under a system of removable inequality. Virtually everyone aspired to advance to a rank above where he started, and the possibility of actually doing it kept the country in a state of reasonable social; order. His argument made sense because in 19th century England one knew who was above whom. In America nowadays, we have no such clarity. How many ranks are there in our society? How do we define them? It is by money, by learning, by talent, by fame? How does the ranking of George Bush compare with the ranking of Brad Pitt? Where does Oprah stand? What about Kobe Bryant? Simply asking such questions tells us we're in a muddle when we think about higher and lower. And yet, I suspect almost everyone has a scale of human quality in his own mind, and assigns everyone he knows, or knows about, to some position on it. I know I do, though I hope I would never be so indiscreet as to tell anyone what it is.

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When we don't know the truth of a thing, there's an advantage in having a common error to explain it. So argues Pascal in the 18th section of the Pensees. That's because, he says, the chief malady of man is restless curiosity about things we can't understand. There's shrewdness in the remark but little genuine intelligence. When we're forced to resort to a common error, we simply deepen it. And, at some time, people will have to work their way out of it. Humanity cannot live with an error forever. The notion, for example, that money is made rather than being awarded by a set of social rules has already caused immense misery and stands firmly in the way of resolving a host of public problems. That's only one of the collection of errors we harbor about money -- a topic no one fully understands -- but it is, perhaps, the most toxic one.

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In a review devoted mostly to a denunciation of extreme rhetoric in American politics, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic,  begins by calling the work in question "a scummy little book" (New York Times Book Review, August 8, 2004). Then, throughout the rest of his lengthy article, he never explains why the book is scummy. Is this a tricky technique of using the very rhetoric he wishes to attack in order to show people how crazy it is?  The novel that's supposed to be reviewed is Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint. Mr. Wieseltier tells us enough about the plot to let us know it involves a conversation between two friends, one of who has become so neurotically obsessed with politics that he has decided to try to kill the president. His friend, sensibly, so far as we can tell from the review, tries to talk him out of it.  Mr. Wieseltier's criticism seems to be that a plot of that kind ought to be forbidden. And then he manages, somehow, to weave political statements by Al Gore, Janet Malcolm, and MoveOn.org, into his diatribe against Nicolson Baker. The review leaves one with the question, what's going on here? Did I not read what was written? Am I myself deranged? But a second reading answers, no. The review is what it seemed on first reading -- incoherent.

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On June 17, 1963, Leonard Michaels wrote in his diary, "Wanting things makes you crude and unhappy." This, I said to myself, is the entire explanation for the Republican Party. Everybody wants things but the Republican Party is composed of people who do nothing but want things. Wanting and having things is, for them, the whole meaning of life. It was probably an unfair thought but, still, it does appear to explain a lot of Republican behavior. Why are they so filled with resentment? Why do they make so many acts immoral? Why do they enjoy the thought of throwing people in jail? Why do they hate using public money to benefit people who are having hard times? Why do they love war? It's because when you do nothing but want things you can never have enough of them. And, then, the next step is to think that other people are the reason you can't satisfy your desire to have more. So, they have to be punished. God wants them punished. Perhaps fragments of books shouldn't spark musings of this kind. But how are they to be stopped?

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Hendrik Hertzberg's review of Bill Clinton's autobiography in the August 2, 2004 New Yorker is masterful. That's not surprising. I've admired virtually everything of Hertzberg's I've read. The finest aspect of this review is that it explains the nature of politics as well as any short article I've seen. And the nature of politics is a subject we all need to understand better. We get frustrated with politicians because we fail to grasp that their essential duty is to survive. And it is we the people who dictate the conditions of survival. For the most part, we get exactly the politicians we deserve. When we get one better than we deserve -- as Clinton was -- we should be more grateful than we are. Americans are deficient in gratitude because they're told repeatedly that they have the right to everything simply  by virtue of being American. It's the politicians, of course, who tell them that but they do it because they have to. Flattery is a circular deal. In any case, Clinton learned and exercised the arts of survival as skillfully as any politician of the 20th Century. Yet, though he gave first place to survival, he continued always to work to alleviate the conditions of life for ordinary citizens. He was never revolutionary but he did have idealistic goals which he returned to whenever survival permitted. Hertzberg explains this in terms which don't cause us to idolize Clinton but which do make anyone not blinded by right-wing hatred tend to like him better. And that's the attitude towards him that makes the best sense.

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In his memoir Time Out of Mind,  Leonard Michaels says that the professors he taught with at Patterson State College in the 1960s had ideas but no thoughts. That seems to be true of most professors in all times and places. Certainly, it has been true of every group of professors I've ever known. But, why is it true? Does college teaching destroy the ability to think? Or, are people who hate thinking drawn to college teaching? Or, do colleges and universities deliberately select their faculty members because they can't think? If I had to pick one I'd take the latter. It would still leave me, though, with the question of why colleges want non-thinking people to fill their professorial ranks.

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The central lesson of Western Civilization is that both Socrates and Jesus were put to death by the good people of their societies. If I could found a religion it would have only one commandment: "Remember, the good people killed Socrates and Jesus and the good people are with us always."

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Heraclitus said the eternal conflict in the primal unity is the father of things. Perhaps this is why one always feels sickened by groups chanting slogans like, "Give peace a chance." Peace is no goal. What we need is redirected conflict, such that it produces finer results than the pathetic consequences of demented people heaving bombs at one another. What kind of conflict is that? Perhaps we could do with a new slogan: "Dumb conflict is for dumb people."

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I went to the meeting of the Johnson Society last night (June 12, 2004). We talked about the fourth Georgic of Vergil, where the processes of beekeeping are described. Bees don't seem to have changed much over the past two thousand years, so I suppose Vergil's advice about looking after them is still valid. Humans, though, aren't like that. As I sat on the front porch of my friend's house, sipping Port and looking out over the Green Mountains, I realized that the bond we have with Vergil and other writers of the distant past may be in danger of snapping. Their sense of reality, and of the gods, which came to the people of the past through close communing with nature may not be imaginatively available to a population in which almost all of nature has been set aside by technology. And perhaps, in the future, the gifts of technology will cause nature's gifts to pale. Who knows? Still, I'm backward enough to be glad that if I ever had a chance to talk with Vergil, we'd have something to say to one another.

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In the 420th number of the Spectator papers (July 2, 1712), Joseph Addison speculated about the capacity of the human imagination to confront the very large and the very small. Our imagination, says Addison, is more limited in this respect than our reason is. Reason can follow the flight of an atom through limitless space, whereas imagination is throttled when it tries to assimilate anything outside the range of "sensible Bulk," meaning anything that is not fairly close in size and weight to a human body.  He offers the hope than when our souls are translated to a higher state then the range of imagination may flow outward to encompass many things it was sealed away from in its earthly guise. We can all continue to hope for that, though not, perhaps, with the same degree of optimism Addison evinced.  The striking feature of his essay, though, for a modern reader, is not his hope but his grasp of the physical universe we find ourselves immersed in. Though not informed by the vocabulary of modern physics, his concepts of the cosmos are surprisingly in line with the picture modern science supplies to us.  There are many ordinarily intelligent people today who could learn from Addison's comments about the immensity of time and space. Can it be a general rule that it takes three centuries for knowledge common among thoughtful persons to begin to spread among a wider population that could be designated as adequately educated? The transformation we blithely speak of as progress is, at the least, a lot slower than we imagine and may often involve zig zags that aren't easily accounted for. Joseph Addison, for example, was a more "modern" man than most of the people I've talked to over the past twenty years.

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I got up in the middle of the night (July 10, 2004) to read Macaulay on Addison. And what did I learn?
  • That it's unfortunate to be the oracle of a small literary coterie.
  • That Richard Steele was a scholar among rakes and a rake among scholars.
  • That the writers of Macaulay's day in England (1844) employed a half-German jargon.
  • That Addison was the finest observer ever of life, of manners, and of all the shades of human character.
  • That the three great masters of the art of ridicule in the early 18th Century were Addison, Swift, and Voltaire.
When you think about it, that's not a bad list to have gleaned from a wee hour of the morning before the first hint of day had shown itself. I only wish I had the sort of mind where deposits of this sort would put down permanent roots and grow incessantly.

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Several years ago, the literary scholar Roger Shattuck published a book titled Forbidden Knowledge in which he raised the question of whether it is good to know everything or whether some things should be put off limits. He inquired particularly about sexual knowledge, psychological knowledge, and scientific knowledge. It seems to me his inquiry was weakened by his failure -- as far as I can tell -- to deal with the issue of aesthetics. Shattuck seems not to have considered that we can separate embraceable knowledge from knowledge we should reject on aesthetic grounds. As I grow older I become convinced that aesthetic and moral issues are inevitably linked. Unless people develop a finer taste than they have now the human race is pointed towards both filth and disaster.

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The French Catholic writer Joseph de Maistre once asked his intellectual opponents to "explain why the most honorable thing in the world, according to the judgment of all humanity, without exception, has been the right to shed innocent blood innocently." In the almost two centuries since de Maistre died no major politician, to my knowledge, has offered an adequate explanation, and few have suggested that mankind's age-old notions of honor are not as glorious as they have seemed. If a political movement could arise which challenged the right to kill people in the interest of abstractions or to ward off fanciful dangers, it might constitute the greatest revolution in all of history. It saddens me to recognize that it's not likely to come from my own country, where the shedding of blood continues to be the path to public esteem.

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Machiavelli said that political disaster comes from viewing the general populace as something other than what they are. And most men are ungrateful, wanton, false and dissimulating, cowardly and greedy, arrogant and mean, insolent when their affairs are prospering, and servile when they are struck by adversity. One can argue, of course, with this character portrait of the public. But it is not possible honestly to assert that most people are as politicians regularly describe them. So if Machiavelli is even partially right, then a successful politician must perceive the people as being strikingly different from the way he says they are. Perhaps this is no more than the cost of the game. Yet always to have to say what one doesn't believe must, eventually, do something to a person's brain, must disable it in some way. I have argued at times that the public should not wish to be flattered by its politicians because flattery is simply an element of manipulation. We would be a healthier state if politicians dared to speak honestly to us. But, I suppose that is merely an impossible, idealistic dream.

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We don't have an American Establishment any longer in the sense of an aristocratic class. It would be ridiculous to think of the leaders of the Republican Party in that way. Aristocrats, after all, are supposed to have good manners. But we do have a privileged group who see themselves as both the caretakers and the commanders of the nation. And they, in their own minds, are definitely set off from what might be called the common people or the ordinary man. What distinguishes them? They are in the know, they keep up, they calibrate who's going up and who's coming down. The people, by contrast, are thought to know virtually nothing. They are ignorant and their virtue lies precisely in lack of knowledge and in simplemindedness. Among the privileged, the worst habit a politician can have is to speak to the people in a way that might require them to exercise their brains. The underlying rationale behind this valuation is a worship of innocence. The people would be corrupted if they were to know anything (why the privileged are not corrupted by their knowledge is seldom discussed). Only a devil would ask of them, as Satan asks of the first couple in the Fourth Book of Milton's Paradise Lost,

And do they only stand
By ignorance, is that their happy state,
The proof of their obedience and their faith?

It's an ancient idea, the marriage of innocence and virtue, and right now the privileged ranks in America are manipulating it in every way they can devise.

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The daimon  or  daemon is a concept that figures strongly in the history of literature. It means, simply, an attendant spirit, or one's genius as distinguishable from oneself. It was believed in fervently by such major figures as Socrates, Goethe, Emerson and Yeats. It's a thing I have never understood and as I grow older a thing I become less sympathetic towards. The notion that inspiration has to come from an outside force, that it's something one receives rather than something one has strikes me as an unnecessarily self-denigrative faith. Why may not one be simply who he is and make of that being whatever his best mind wishes? I suppose the very concept of a best mind conveys the notion of other minds that are less noble in some respect, but I don't see why we should think of them as divisible things. A mind is everything that it is, and that's all that it is. To want it to be in thrall to something else in order to create is not self-respectful

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There is no subject more perplexing than causation. And it gets even more perplexing when we take up the influence of ideas. Intellectuals are forever trying to moralize people who bring ideas into the world by showing that the consequences of their ideas have been bad. No one has suffered this fate more frequently over the past few years than Leo Strauss, a teacher of political philosophy at the University of Chicago who died in 1973. Strauss has often been called the father of neo-conservatism and blamed for all the goofy ideas so-called neo-conservatives have tried to push on the world since Mr. Reagan became president. One of the more simple-minded of these attempts appeared just this month in Harper's Magazine (June 2004). In an article titled, subtly, "Ignoble Lies: Leo Strauss and the Philosophy of Mass Deception," Earl Shorris, a Harper's editor, tries to saddle Strauss, posthumously, with the disastrous U. S. policy in Iraq. The criticism of Mr. Strauss and the criticism of the Bush administration is a marriage made in hell. Both probably deserve a skeptical eye. But to see them as a unit requires not sight but overheated adolescent fantasy. According to Mr. Shorris, the Bush folks are arrogant because they have adopted Plato's belief in the noble lie, a belief that Strauss supposedly held. The people have to be led by lies because if they were told the truth they couldn't understand it and might get discouraged and fail to heed their leaders.

It's a thesis with a surface plausibility but it can be sliced apart by Occam's famous razor. When people are as arrogant as the Bush folk's have been it less likely that they're under the influence of an abstruse philosophy than that they're ignorant, or crazy, or both. Shorris says for example, that Grover Norquist is a Straussian thinker. Yet, when one reads Norquist carefully, the figure that emerges is an immature-minded malcontent who's not likely to be bothered with understanding any ideas at all.

Mr. Shorris's article leaves one wondering if he is any more able to comprehend thought than Mr. Norquist is. A telling mark is his treatment of Nietzsche, whom he finds responsible for notions of anti-democratic national hegemony. It's true that Nietzsche was not warm towards democracy, but the notion that his concept of "the will to power" bolsters schemes of national aggrandizement is pure ignorance. Nothing disgusted Nietzsche more than the idea of a bullying government.

The idea of a bad idea is frequently a bad idea itself. Ideas can be subtle, or bracing, or confused, or inconsistent, or fertile, or lots of other things. But to label an idea bad in the moralistic sense is seriously to misunderstand how motives are brought to bear in the world of power. To make Leo Strauss responsible for George Bush is to ignore the genuine sources of Mr. Bush's befuddlement.

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There was a time when a visit to any large bookstore represented, for me, severe temptation. When I was young I wanted books with a passion I don't think I could ever explain to anyone else. Now, that passion has declined. Part of the downturn comes from my having more books now than I did then. There are probably ten thousand, or so, stuck around this house. I have certainly not read them all nor do I expect to read all of them before I die. Even so, my possessions are not the main reason I don't wallow in desire when I go to a bookstore nowadays. I have learned that most of the books I see on the shelves of book emporia are not worth reading. I went yesterday (May 4, 2004) to the Barnes and Noble in Burlington and  wandered around there for almost two hours. But, I bought no books. The only item that mildly tempted me was Robert Dallek's biography of John F. Kennedy. I looked in it to see if Mr. Kennedy really did have an affair with Marilyn Monroe, and discovered that Mr. Dallek doesn't know for sure but thinks he probably did. Much of my reading now is taken up by excursions like that. I read three pages, I make a note, I put the book back on the shelf and, in most cases, I never touch it again. I used to tell my students that there are books worth months of life, and books worth twenty hours or so, but that most are worth no more than ten minutes, if that. The ten minutes may be a good and worthwhile period, but that's all it is. It's not fair to treat the authors of most books as I treat them. Many worked very hard to get the words on the page in just the right order. Yet, for me to give myself to words in the way the author undoubtedly wishes, I have to hear a voice that makes me want to linger in its presence. Few voices have that power. Yet the few that do are wonderful treasures. Jane Austen's has it, for me, beyond any other voice I know, and if it didn't cause people to consider me peculiar, I would be content to read nothing but her six novels over and over till I die. I would rather have six of her paragraphs than 99% of the contents of a typical Barnes and Noble. And since I have not only six paragraphs but all of her works, my temptation when I go out book shopping is under control.

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A friend sent me a copy of Joe Queenan's Balsamic Dreams.  And I read it, which is not my common habit with books sent to me by friends. From it I learned a number of things but two stand out enough to be worth mentioning. First, Joe Queenan knows more about popular music than I would ever allow myself to know. This is a generational difference which may deserve more attention than it has received. When I was a child, we had songs. And we liked them. But songs were not for us the primary expressions of life. I'm not sure what were, but I'm sure that songs weren't. If you were to open up Joe Queenan's head, the chances are you would find a song playing in there. In fact, I suspect there's a song playing in his mind every second of every waking hour. If you were to open my head, you would probably not find a song, because songs play in my mind no more than ten percent of the time. This songiness, or relative deficiency of songiness, doesn't tell us anything about my human worth or Joe Queenan's human worth. It's just a difference based primarily on when we were born. But it does tell us that fourteen years can constitute quite a gap. The second thing is that the adjective "lame" plays a larger role in Joe Queenan's life than it does in mine. This too is generational. When I was young, we didn't have the word, except as it applied to people who had difficulty walking. But by the time Joe Queenan had become a teenager in the mid-1960s, lame had become the worst thing anyone could be. Style had assumed a position it didn't hold during my growing up time. It wasn't that we didn't have style. We did. But no one, not even teenagers, thought it was the most important feature of life. That's because nobody thought about the most important feature of life. We were unaware that such a concept could matter to anybody. Joe Queenan's book is about the Baby Boomers, that is, people who were born between 1946 and 1964. Before I read it, I was dubious about the proposition that one's generation could say much about him. But, after having fathomed the topics that actually figure in his mind, he has convinced me. It does.

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In Samantha Powers’s essay on Hannah Arendt (The New York Review, April 29, 2004) the great political thinker is quoted as having said that progress and doom are articles of superstition, not of faith. The implication of the statement wasn’t clear to me at first, but as I think about it I see that it tells an important truth. That is, it tells the truth if it is also true that human decisions have agency in the world, if they count, if they make a difference. And if we don’t believe they do count, then all of our efforts are rendered absurd. What Hannah Arendt was telling us is that the world of the future is neither good nor bad because it is not yet determined. And that what will determine it is what we decide. We can make of it what we will. There’s no overarching fate that takes the course of history out of our hands. That may sound like a happy thought, but it has its scary aspects also. If the world is not guided by God, or Nature, or a nebulous cosmic process, but instead just by us, then we can really screw things up. And given who we’ve been, there’s no guarantee that we won’t.

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F. H. Bradley, the once-famous English philosopher (1846-1924), was noted for having said that the god which could exist most assuredly would be no god. It's a thought we would do well to incorporate into our current religious discourse. Ever since I was a child I have been struck by the littleness of god in the imagination of religious people. "How can they worship the thing they describe as god?" I would ask myself, sitting in church, a confused thirteen-year-old. I was too naive then to understand that what people worship is an object of their own projection and consequently is limited by the reach of their own minds. There is no worship, in the common sense of the term, other than self-worship. Is there then, no such thing as a belief in god? For most people there's probably not. Yet, I suspect that certain powerful minds can be said to have believed in god in the sense of not only bowing down before that which they do not know but before that which they understand they can never know. If there is worship, quieting oneself in presence of the unknowable, is the closest we can come to it.

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A friend, knowing that I am a charter member of the Johnson Society of Vermont, wrote to ask for the exact wording of Dr. Johnson's comment about the effect of knowing that one is going to be hanged. It was easy enough to answer :

"Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Johnson made the remark on the evening of September 19, 1777, when he and Boswell were dining in Derby at the house of Dr. Butter. They were speaking of the execution of William Dodd, who had been hanged the previous June. Johnson had tried to secure mercy for Dodd, a popular clergyman, who had been convicted of forging a bond in the name of Lord Chesterfield.  But, his pleas were in vain. As Boswell informs us, forgery is the most dangerous crime in a commercial country.

It's a fine saying, with perfect Johnsonian flavor, but I think we need to wonder about its general truth. At the least, we should ask: concentrates the mind upon what? If I were to fall into the clutches of George W. Bush and thereby have a poisoned needle poked in my arm, I'm not sure exactly how my thoughts would be concentrated in the days before the event. I might reflect on what I would say to Mr. Bush were he ever to fall under my tutelage. But that would take, at most, twenty-five seconds. Most of the time, I suspect, my mind would roam back over the past and try to pick out those moments that, perhaps, had made me into a distinctive person. It's a process I probably haven't done enough of, and contemplating it causes me to suspect it may be something we should all do, even if we are deprived of the anticipation of an approaching hanging.

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