Collected Thoughts

July 2017
July 16, 2017

Donald Trump should be teaching us a lesson I fear too few Americans are learning, which is that trying to put dollars in place of things that are genuinely good leads to pathetic results. The sad thing is that many people, and perhaps a majority of Americans, are following in his wake rather than being repelled by it. And if that’s the case, it means that the entire country is becoming pathetic. Certainly, that’s the way the rest of the world sees us. Americans like to say they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks of us but that’s because they are too dim-witted to foresee the consequences.

This Trumpism, of course, was building even before Trump became a household word. We can’t blame him for it; rather we should blame ourselves for him. We are his makers far more than he is ours. We are the people who set garishness over good taste, and who put scandal as entertainment in front of real news.

Now we will have to live with history’s judgment, which will not be a happy process.


July 17, 2017

Here is Samuel Johnson on the kind of wife he would not like to have: “Why, Sir, being married to those sleepy-souled women is just like playing at cards for nothing: no passion is excited, and the time filled up. I do not, however, envy a fellow one of those honey suckle wives, for my part, as they are but creepers, at best, and commonly destroy the tree they so tenderly cling about.”

This leads me to recall that when I took parties of ladies on literary trips to England, one of my regulars, Helen Cameron, would often say that she would have liked to be a clinging vine, causing the other ladies to react in horror, and exclaim, “Oh, Helen, you can’t mean that!” But Helen continued to insist that she did mean it, which caused me to reflect that she probably did.

In these disputations I remained resolutely neutral, and as I think back on them, I’m glad I did.


July 19, 2017

I spent the night once, alone, in a hotel at the top of the High Street in Lewes, on the River Ouse, just a few miles up from the village of Rodmell, where Leonard and Virginia Wolff lived, and from which, on the 28th of March, 1941, she walked down to the river, put rocks in her coat pocket, and drowned herself.

It was not common for me to be in England alone. I was usually with someone, or several someones, when I was there. But this night I was alone, and I can’t remember why. It had been a tiring day, and after a late supper in a restaurant just down the street from the hotel -- I think I had spaghetti -- I decided to go to bed earlier than I usually do. I went to sleep easily, comfortably, but then, sometime in the middle of the night, I waked up with a very bad stomach ache. I lay there, in pain, for a while, and then stumbled down the hall to the bathroom, where I got some modest relief.

Back in bed, the pain had moderated enough for me to bear it but was still so bothersome it kept me from sleeping. For a bit, I wondered what it would mean if I just died there, but gradually I came to the conclusion it wouldn’t mean anything. So then I began to think about Virginia Wolff,  what the water felt like in her shoes, when she first stepped into the Ouse, and then, on her legs, and then at her waist.

I wanted desperately for her not to die. I wished I had been there, so I could have waded out into the water, and taken her hand, and told her it would be all right, and led her back to the river’s edge. She might have thought I was a simpleton, but I wouldn’t have cared, and I would have still tried. “Why wasn’t I there?” I asked myself. “Why the hell not?” And I became very angry. It’s not too much to say I was infuriated. I was set to stay infuriated all night, but somehow everything faded away into sleep.

The next morning, my stomach ache gone, I realized I had not died. My anger had transformed itself into a sadness, but not so deep I couldn’t begin to think with pleasure of breakfast. So I got dressed and went in to the dining room.

I can’t recall what I did that day, but that room, the pain, the sadness and the anger, remain as clear in my mind as anything. And that’s all there is to this story.


July 20, 2017

Since I have quite a few surplus copies of Letters to Dalton, my book on the failures of higher education, I have begun to use them as notebooks, into which I paste little sheets with comments about my reading. This practice has produced an effect I hadn’t anticipated. As I paste (or actually tape down) my note sheets, I can’t help but notice passages from the book itself, passages which I had to have written but have long since forgotten. Quite a few of them make a new impression on me.

Here, for example, is a paragraph from the seventh letter: “Truth is, the academic disciplines have almost no interest in education. What they are, at their best, are networks created to produce certain sorts of books. The majority of these books are worthless. But not all. Some of them rise to the level of explaining intelligently how the formulas of the disciplines can complement thought. A complement to thought, however, is not thought itself because it lacks the personalized insight that thought requires. Still, that’s no reason to be down on it so long as it presents itself for what it is: a tool rather than a thing of plenary value.”

Do I still stand by this paragraph? Yes, I think I do. Its most questionable element is the proposition that genuine thought requires a personalized insight. When I wrote the letters I had not yet read Nietzsche as fully as I have since, but in calling for personalized insight I was anticipating his doctrine of perspectivism. All mental activity, if it is to be something other than a bromide, has to come from an individual perspective, has to be backed up by the experiences of a real life. People who are more concerned with a group mind than their own generally fall into the error of reification, that is, treating the name of an abstraction as it were the name of something real. You can often hear non-reflective scholars saying things like, “Sociology holds that ....” Sociology doesn’t hold a damn thing because Sociology can’t think. It’s just an abstraction.

In the nearly twenty years since I wrote the paragraph above I hope I’ve learned a few things, and that I can articulate my contentions a bit more fully. Yet it’s comforting to see that there is some continuity to a mind, that basic character finds ways to maintain itself. That’s the secondary benefit of making what many would consider an eccentric use of an over-ambitious publishing project.


July 21, 2017

This morning at coffee, after listening to my wife tell me about several bizarre news stories she has read recently, the thought began to rise in my mind that, perhaps, there’s a point at which stupidity becomes indistinguishable from craziness, a point at which it becomes both impossible and irrelevant to try to determine which is causing mental behavior.

If there is no difference in consequences there may be no difference in cause.

After we got home from the coffee shop, the first news item I happened to read came with the headline: “How Deranged Are Trump Supporters?: New Poll Shows That It’s Worse Than You Ever Imagined.” The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), and attempted to ascertain whether there is any line Trump might cross that would cut significantly into the support of those who voted for him. The conclusion was, “Apparently Not.”

One result struck me as particularly significant. Forty-five percent of Trump voters say they would continue to approve of him even if he did what he talked about doing during the campaign, if he actually shot somebody. That percentage adds up to more than 28 million members of the electorate. It’s probably a reasonably accurate indicator of the number of American voters who have descended into lunacy.

One could say, of course, that they don’t really mean it. But it’s what they say. How do we know they don’t mean it? Why would they say it if they don’t mean it? It strikes me as prudent to take people at their word unless you have a good reason to think they’re trying to dissemble.

I’m not aware that our most reputable political analysts have ever seriously considered what it would mean if nearly thirty million voters are political lunatics. How do we take account of their influence? And if we assume that rational thought is superior to lunacy, how do we reduce their effect on the political process?

One thing is sure: if there are that many such people, somebody will try to make use of them to gain prestige or power. And it’s very unlikely that power would ever be used to increase the freedom or the well-being of the American people.

We probably are in a more dangerous situation than most Americans have even begun to suppose. And when those dangers begin, fully, to manifest themselves, the people will surely wail, “Why didn’t somebody tell us about this?”


July 23, 2017

Moods, far more than ideas, are the registers of fascism. The establishment of mood is the most important feature of the fascist program.

The fascist mood is made up primarily of seven components:
  • Resentment.
  • Racial prejudice.
  • Romantic nationalism.
  • Myth of a pure past.
  • Scorn of subtlety.
  • Intellectual simplicity.
  • Rejection of anything different.

This is the finding of Robert O. Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism.

Look around you. Are these seven not a near-perfect depiction of Trump’s program and the Republican program? If one supports them, then he should at least have the honesty to confess that he is a fascist. And yet honesty is not a part of the fascist plan. Honesty has no standing with fascists. This is why Trump can say one thing one day, an opposing thing the next, and fervently deny that he has contradicted himself.

If the American people, or some considerable portion of the American people, cheer this practice and don’t want to be fascists then they do want to be fools.

Can they be reached? Can they come to understand what they are doing? I have no idea.

Does Trump, himself, understand that he is a fascist? Probably not. But his understanding is irrelevant to what he is. His understanding has nothing to do with his behavior. His understanding, as that term is normally defined, fails to exist. He is, himself, nothing but an assortment of moods.


July 27, 2017

Today from Amazon I ordered a gigantic Kindle book titled The Complete Works of Frances Burney, which contains all of her novels and plays, in addition to her diary (which she kept all of her life from about age fourteen), and various memoirs and other matter which I haven’t yet sorted out. The whole thing seems to contain about two million, four hundred thousand words.

I did this because I began reading Norma Clarke’s Dr. Johnson’s Women, which was published in London seventeen years ago, and which I bought at Powell’s Bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago, on July 24, 2007. I own many books about Samuel Johnson which I haven’t yet read. In any case, Fanny Burney figures significantly in Norma Clarke’s book, so I thought I ought to try to learn more about her than I do already.

I decided to start with the diary, which has a very long introduction, written by someone from the late 19th century whose name I haven’t yet discovered. It’s a readable piece, but it leaves me a bit disconcerted since I don’t know how long it’s to go on, or what the status of its author is. I have been reading on it this afternoon for at least two hours.

In it, I learned that when Fanny was about ten years old (that is, around 1762), her father, Charles Burney, who was a well-known musician of the time, decided to leave his home in London, for health reasons, and take a post at a church in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, about a hundred miles north of the metropolis. He didn’t take his family with him. There he developed a patron named Sir John Turner, who had the reputation of being a very shallow fellow.

I wondered if this shallow John Turner might be a direct ancestor of mine, but as I thought about it, I decided probably not because, as far as I know, my line of Turners left England in the late 17th century to come to Virginia. Still, he could be a great, great, great uncle, or something. The confusing truth is that there are (and have been) a great many John Turners in the world. I have no influence over any of them, except, perhaps, one. And about that I remain uncertain.


July 28, 2017

Elizabeth Carter, who was one of the leading figures of the group of women writers who came to be known as the “Bluestockings” in London during the 18th century, published in the 1750s a translation of the complete works of the stoic philosopher Epictetus. It was a very successful venture for her, establishing her as a leading intellectual figure, and earning for her the considerable sum of £1000 (equivalent to over $100,000 in today’s money).

It was a widely praised work, but one of her closest friends, the younger writer Catherine Talbot, was concerned that, in promoting Epictetus as a convincing moralist, Carter might be, quite unconsciously, undermining the potency of Christianity. There was already, she said, too much equating of Christianity with morality alone, and, by promoting the message of Epictetus, Carter could cause some people to suppose that adequate morality could be obtained absent the more important element of Christianity, that which is concerned with the essential procedures of salvation.

Talbot’s worries remind me of how much intellectual wreckage religion has thrown in the path of thinkers who have tried to sort out how we humans can best make our way in the world. Instead of struggling with what we know, and trying to use our knowledge intelligently, religion is generally trying to shove us down some path towards the unknowable and attempting to claim certainty for what we will find at the end of it.

The reason for this, I guess, is that the reality our knowledge presents to us is not perfectly comforting, and most people would rather be told happy tales than to confront truth. Whether this desire is so deeply embedded in the human makeup that it can never be flushed out is a thing I don’t know, and I suspect nobody else does either.

Still, we do know fairly well where faith in the unknowable leads -- to persecution, denial of liberty, torture and war. You would think we had had enough of those things.

There is, though, some satisfaction, for me at least, in knowing that Elizabeth Carter seems not to have been much disturbed by Catherine Talbot’s doubts. She was proud of the work she had done, and glad for the rewards it brought her. We could do worse than to take her for one of our models in how to confront the difficulties of human existence. She needs to be better known than she is, and that’s one of the reasons I have sketched out this little thought.



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