Sunday, July 16, 2017

Hardy’s Paradox

The life of Tess Durbyfield, Hardy’s miserable heroine, is ground down and eventually crushed by iron moralism. After Alec D’Urberville gets her pregnant and abandons her, she marries gentle Angel Clare, who abandons her on principle upon learning the secret of her past. This leaves her in the hands of her old tormenter, whom she eventually murders in desperation. This time it’s the law that operates on moral principle. At the very end, just before the constables arrest her, Tess lies down on an altar at Stonehenge, a modern victim to the old moralistic commandments.

The novel’s tragedy would be obviated by 1) birth control and 2) equality of the sexes. Tess, in effect, is killed by the rules that bound the old world. Hardy hinted at this in the preface, and his works in general make obvious the pointless cruelty of rural England’s moralism, which operates even more nefariously within his character’s consciences than without it in visible society. Nearly every hope of happiness in the major Wessex novels is dashed by a character’s inability to set aside sexual mores for the sake of human flourishing. ‘The letter killeth’, the epigraph of Jude the Obscure, sums up Hardy’s deep discontent with rural Christian prejudices.

The cruellest example is Sue’s attack of Christian conscience in Jude the Obscure, which makes her throw away the man she loves in order to return to the frigid husband she had earlier divorced. Close second is Clare’s refusal to marry a woman who had already had a child out of wedlock.

This all happens – and yet, the dominant theme of the Wessex novels is not the promise of social progress, but nostalgia. Just as Hardy mourns his characters’ individual suffering, so does he also lament the rural world that was passing away around them. In Tess, the Durbeyfields are thrust unceremoniously out of their home on Old Lady Day, swept up in the churn of wandering labour that had upset the entire countryside. This episode is best read against Hardy’s preface to the 1895 edition of Far from the Madding Crowd. There he describes what has happened to the Dorset village of Puddletown, saying outright what he hints at in all the Wessex novels:
The church remains, by great good fortune, unrestored and intact, and a few of the old houses; but the ancient malt-house, which was formerly so characteristic of the parish, has been pulled down these twenty years; also most of the thatched and dormered cottages that were once lifeholds. The game of prisoner’s base, which not so long ago seemed to enjoy a perennial vitality in front of the worn-out stocks, may, so far as I can say, be entirely unknown to the rising generation of schoolboys there. The practice of divination by Bible and key, the regarding of valentines as things of serious import, the shearing-supper, and the harvest-home, have, too, nearly disappeared in the wake of the old houses; and with them have gone, it is said, much of that love of fuddling to which the village at one time was notoriously prone. The change at the root of this has been the recent supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers, who carried on the local traditions and humours, by a population of more or less migratory labourers, which has led to a break of continuity in local history, more fatal than any other thing to the preservation of legend, folk-lore, close inter-social relations, and eccentric individualities. For these the indispensable conditions of existence are attachment to the soil of one particular spot by generation after generation.
This paragraph would have been at home in the writing of anyone who saw the threat that industrialisation posed to human happiness in the nineteenth century. We’re all familiar with Tolkien setting the merry medieval Shire against barren industrial Isengard. But the feeling of nostalgia took root everywhere as Europe reached its peak of industrialisation, among such men of otherwise different convictions as G. K. Chesterton, William Morris, John Everett Millais, and Richard Wagner. It was obvious that social mobility, mechanisation, and the sudden flight into cities spelled doom for the old folkways that had previously given human life its warmth and substance.

Two stories thus run through all of the Wessex novels. One is the destruction of the old folk tradition, and the lonely sadness of rootless modernity. The second is the tyranny of the old moralism, and a hinted promise of escape from them on the vehicle of social progress. There is no attempt to reconcile these two stories, which together give an ambiguous verdict on the progress of modernity. They simply run their track at the same time. That’s Hardy’s paradox.

Both human freedom and human rootlessness have by now advanced to an extent that would shock a resurrected Hardy.

As for human freedom: birth control and abortion have allowed free love to exist for the first time in the 300,000-year life of humanity. With its help, Western women have been liberated not only from sexual prejudice, but also from the stupid natural law that punished them with unplanned pregnancy in the first place.. No-fault divorce is also legal now just about everywhere in the West; New York, the last American state to enact it, did so in 2010 after finally overcoming the Catholic Church’s opposition.

Machinery, in another line, has freed the vast bulk of Western humanity from the backbreaking agricultural labour that used to be its lot. Housework, too, is ten times easier than it was a hundred years ago, thanks to widespread plumbing, electrification, and not least the washing machine. Poverty has been the great enemy of human freedom, for the simple reason that it consumes every useful hour of the day in dreary labor. Our technology has begun to triumph over it.

Egalitarianism has also won: racial and religious minorities, women and homosexuals all enjoy legal equality throughout the West. One hundred years ago I would have been an object of suspicion and hatred in every hamlet on the European continent. Now there are few Europeans who care (or even know) what a Jew is. Women, meanwhile, serve in legislatures, armies, and company boards without raising an eyebrow. Free speech is protected by most governments. Homosexuality, reviled everywhere at the beginning of the twentieth century, is now tolerated in cities.

This has all happened, and meanwhile the hobgoblin of modernity has swallowed folk tradition into his mouth. The countryside has been emptied just as cities have swollen into cyclopean monstrosities. Gone are country public houses like this one, populated with townsfolk who know the words to The Barley Mow. Folk dances no longer exist. God has gone out of most Westerners’ lives, and with him all the Gothic wonder of the Christian life. The infirm and the dying used to be taken care of by their families – and now they die in nursing homes or hospitals. This is not because their younger relatives are callous: it’s because families, in the sense of a set of kin living in a single place, are much rarer than they were.

In the place of living culture is karaoke, The Avengers 2, nine-to-five shifts at the local Vodafone, Snapchat, and spectator football. Anything that can be endlessly replicated to gratify the masses has survived; everything else has faded like elf-gold.

I’m not one to sigh meaningfully and lament the lost diversity of the old world. Diversity, whether in an institution or in a country, is at best morally and aesthetically neutral. The problem is not homogenization as such; it’s homogeniszation into banality. There have been epidemic traditions since the invention of agriculture; for example, the Church in Europe, Arab Islam in North Africa, and Hellenism in the Near East. But nothing has been at once so vacuous and so virulent as modern global culture.

This is partly the fault of the Second World War, which literally burned away old Europe and set off the most tumultuous migrations in human history. But it’s also the fault of the very forces that made prosperity and liberation possible: technology and the free movement of people.

We don’t really have a choice to make: we don’t get to pick between human freedom and a living culture. Fate has already decreed that we Westerners should have the former and lack the latter. These two developments, freedom and banality, are equal parts of a revolution in human life on a scale that hasn’t happened since the first cities were founded in the fourth millennium BC. It’s entirely possible that conservatism will yet win the day – Islamism or thuggish Western nationalism could end up beating out both freedom and globalism. But for now, while we liberals hold the field, it’s worth stopping to admire the wild and sorrowful triumph over the old world that we’ve achieved.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Art and Immortality

Hans Sachs, a sixteenth-century cobbler-poet, declaims the following lines at the end of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg:
Drum sag’ ich euch:
ehrt eure deutschen Meister!
Dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging’ in Dunst
das heil’ge röm’sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil’ge deutsche Kunst! 
So I say to you: honour your German masters! Then you will bring up good spirits. And if you favour their endeavours, let the Holy Roman Empire melt into mist: still Holy German Art will remain to us!
The ironic drama in this speech comes from the fact that after Sachs’s death, the Holy Roman Empire indeed melted into the mist: it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806. And yet, sixty-two years after that, here was Wagner writing Die Meistersinger. German Art prevailed!

Wagner’s point in giving Sachs these lines was that German art and culture are separable from German political power. Germany was independent of any imperial structure. Destroy whatever nation-state you want, but you won’t damage the spiritual heart of the German people. 

Here Wagner indulged in a classic trope of nineteenth-century German thought. The French, it was said, relied on steel and gunpowder to project their civilisation across the earth. Not so with the Germans, who had no political centre or military power; and whose cultural treasure was literary. France, in this picture, was the heir of mighty Rome, and Germany of the Greek city-states.

Let’s compare this line of thought to Horace’s prophecy:
Exegi monumentum ære perennius
Regalique situ pyramidum altius
Quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
Possit diruere aut innumerabilis
Annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
Vitabit Libitinam : usque ego postera
Crescam laude recens dum Capitolium
Scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex. (Od. III.30)
I have built a monument more durable than bronze; higher than the royal mound of the pyramids. No consuming rain will be able to destroy it, nor the violent north wind, nor the sequence of the years, nor the flight of time.  I will not completely die, but a great part of me will escape the grave. Ever new, I will grow in fame till the latter days, so long as the Pontifex climbs the Capitoline Hill with a silent virgin.
My poems will survive forever, says Horace, provided only that the Empire and its religious rites go on.

Vergil uses exactly the same trope in his epitaph of Nisus and Euryalus, heroes who die in a raid against the Rutuli. He says (Æn. IX.446–9):
Fortunati ambo ! si quid mea carmina possunt
Nulla dies umquam memori vos eximet ævo
Dum domus Æneæ Capitoli immobile saxum
Accolet imperiumque pater Romanus habebit.
Happy pair! If my songs are worth anything, no day will strike from the memory of the ages; not as long as the house of Æneas sits upon the unmoving hill of the Capitol; not as long as the Roman father holds his empire.  
These Romans believed that their literary heritage would be sustained forever by Rome’s political might. Destroy the Roman Empire, they implied, and you will destroy Latin poetry. But the Empire’s destruction is unimaginable: therefore poetry will last forever. Wagner, meanwhile, perhaps in an attempt to one-up his classical models, proclaimed that German letters would last by their own right: no emperor’s arms would be necessary to sustain them.

Horace and Virgil were both wrong. The Roman Empire, like all empires, fell. But that did not mean the death of Latin letters. For two thousand years after the Latin Golden Age, schoolboys were still made to memorise the Odes of Horace. And just the other day, I saw a nineteenth-century statue of Nisus and Eurylaus in the Louvre:

The Romans of course, were wrong in the happiest way: their wishes were granted far beyond what they could have imagined. Wagner’s wishes, by contrast, were violently disappointed. German culture did not ultimately survive the Holy Roman Empire’s fall. With a couple centuries’ perspective, we can see that Goethe, Heine, Schiller, and Wagner were not leaders of a Renaissance, but flowers in an Indian summer. What the Grimm brothers had dreamed was in the end nothing but backwards-looking nostalgia. Everything traditionally German was soon to be burned in fire, and then covered over in Marshall-plan concrete. Literate culture has gone under along with architecture. Let alone two thousand years from now: even now, it’s hard to find a German who can stand to listen to Schubert or to read Hölderlin.

German culture has also disappeared without a trace from most of the territory that it used to inhabit. (How many people in Kaliningrad today can read Simplicius Simplicissimus?) Even physically speaking, there are few German cities left that Wagner would recognise if he were dropped into them — so radically did the war and its aftermath disfigure the face of the country. (Go to Nürnberg, for instance: the centre is a history-themed disneyland, and everything else is a grim fortress.

The Romans asked the gods for something hubristic and wild – that their verse should exist until the end of the Empire. They received even more than they asked. Wagner, encouraged, requested the same fate for Germany – that its culture should go on after the end of the German Empire. This time, the gods refused.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Dispute with Lydia

Horace III.9

‘Oh when you loved me, Lydia,
And no young lad but me
Would slide his arms around your neck,
I shone in kingly glee.’

‘Oh when you burned, Horatius,
For mine, not Chloë’s face,
Then I outshone great Ilia,
The mother of our race.’

‘Now Chlöe has my soul enslaved,
She strums a honeyed lay:
I would not fear to lose my soul
If Fate her death could stay.’

‘And I am wasted in a fire
For Calaïs the glad,   
For whom I’d die not once but twice,
If Fate would spare that lad.’

‘What if our love could come again
And yoke us as before?
If I threw flaxen Chloë out
Would you come through my door?’

‘Although he’s fairer than a star
And you’re as light as bark,
Yet I will fondly live with you;
With you I’ll face the dark.’

‘Donec gratus eram tibi
     Nec quisquam potior bracchia candidæ
Cervici juvenis dabat,
     Persarum vigui rege beatior.’

‘Donec non aliâ magis
     Arsisti neque erat Lydia post Chloën,
Multi Lydia nominis,
     Romana vigui clarior Ilia.’

‘Me nunc Thressa Chloë regit,
     Dulcis docta modos et citharæ sciens,
Pro qua non metuam mori,
     Si parcent animæ fata superstiti.’

‘Me torret face mutua
     Thurini Calaïs filius Ornyti,
Pro quo bis patiar mori
     Si parcent puero fata superstiti.’
‘Quid si prisca redit Venus
     Diductosque jugo cogit aëneo?
Si flava excutitur Chloë
     Rejectæque patet janua Lydiæ?’

‘Quamquam sidere pulchrior
     Ille est, tu levior cortice et inprobo
Iracundior Hadria:
     Tecum vivere amem, tecum obeam lubens.’

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Manners Makyth Man

The motto of New College, Oxford, is manners makyth man. It was the device of William of Wykeham (ca. 1320–1404), who also applied it to Winchester College.

I spent a minute staring at this motto when I visited New College’s library in February and saw William’s arms blazoned on a college register. The great mystery of the phrase is its banality. Mottoes that glint hellfire – like Archbishop Parker’s mundus transit & concupiscentia ejus – are striking the first moment you read them, but they lack the gnomic power of Manners makyth man. The problem is: what could have prompted a thinking scholar to write something so seemingly empty?

Noble manners embiggenyth the smallest man.
It’s useless to muse listlessly about a koan. The only way out is to draw some clearer hypotheses. So after a little thought, I’ve managed to resolve the vague formula into four sharper possible meanings.

               1. Sui quemque mores componunt. 

“A man is made by his manners.” This is the first meaning to come to mind. It expresses public-school morality. ‘Want to be a man?’ it seems to say, ‘then get up at dawn to row, memorise lots of Homer, read a book a day, etc.’ In other words, the training a man gets is what ends up constituting his character. With nothing but the gifts of birth it might be possible to achieve some savage virtue, but it’s impossible to learn real humanity without intense discipline.

Furthermore: though it might seem that it’s something else that makes a man – like property, birth, rank, profession, or beauty – William insists (following this interpretation) that the essential thing is manners. Blot out everything but a man’s behavior, and you’ll see his soul.

Fair enough; both prongs of that make good advice. But it’s also advice so obvious that no thinking person should need it. Could such a banal observation have really lived in William’s mind?

               2. Suos quisque mores componit.

“A man makes his manners.” This one’s a little harder to swallow. Read in this way, it seems similar to what Dumbledore says to Harry at the end of The Chamber of Secrets. Harry is disturbed that the Sorting Hat marked him out for Slytherin, only agreeing to put him in Gryffindor on special application. Is he secretly rotten? No, Dumbledore replies, the essential point was that he asked not to be in Slytherin.
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin . . . .’ 
‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.’ (p. 332)
Like any predestinarian, I’m suspicious of human choice’s ability to rework an inborn character. An act of will is too weak and too fickle to remake a person’s soul; only something weightier, like changed social surroundings, is capable of that. It’s also worth pointing out that Dumbledore didn’t say that choices make what we are. They show it. It is only because Harry was good-hearted all along that it even occurred to him to make the choices that he did. This is true almost universally. Edmund is cursed by his evil nature, Edgar is blessed by his virtue, and that’s almost all there is to say.

In any case, as long as we fix on one of these two meanings, we’re doomed to stay in the realm of personal-development slogans. Let’s take a more philosophical point of view.

               3. Homo mores componit.

Man makes manners.” That is, human beings, as a species, decide the rules of their collective lives. No aspect of human behaviour is a law of nature; it can all be overthrown by social fiat.

This seems tempting. No thinking person has managed to go through four years of high school without hearing that everything is a social construct. Whether it’s the rules of language, gender, or truth, it’s always exciting to discover that the fabric of our lives – even if it seems to be immutable – is in fact the mere result of an unspoken contract among men. This is the reason it’s exciting: once you’ve decided that all the rules are a human artifice, you’re free to flout them with a clean conscience.

But putting matters this way attributes illusory agency to individuals. Just because a social convention is logically contingent, it is not therefore unreal. Human social laws has just as much of a real existence on earth as Twitter or Versailles or the Manicouagan Reservoir. It’s inane to object that just because our manners could have been otherwise, our manners are not practically binding.

So say that truth is a social construct: good, but you’re still bound by truth when it comes to defending your property in court. Or say that rules of language are a social construct: fair, but that doesn’t exempt you from them when you want to warn your grandmother about inflation or a bear. If something is a social construct, it doesn’t follow that we’re free from it. To the contrary, we’re just as bound to it as we are to the laws of gravity; perhaps even more strongly. Physics can be overcome; social structures not so. When Galileo wanted to escape gravity, he invented a flying machine. But he also tried to escape the prejudices of his generation – and that he could not do. The only way to escape your age’s manners is to wait for a new generation to be born. What’s more, your own internal feelings and commitments are bound to be controlled, at least indirectly, by the ways of thought that surround you.

Nor is it even defensible to say that human beings collectively decide the manners that bind them. Think about it carefully, and you’ll see that no social laws – whether in the realm of language or morals – are ever set down in an actual compact. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was assumed that guilt was best decided by combat or by ordeal. Now we universally agree that ordeals are superstitious, and we put just as much trust in random townsfolk to weigh the evidence. In the Middle Ages, moreover, people would blow their noses into their hands and spit onto the table at dinner. Now we don’t do that. At no point were these changes ever established by agreement. No group of people ever chose to be disgusted or otherwise by a certain form of table manners.

That is, the basic rules that bind human society do indeed change, but they change on a scale far vaster than any single human life or community. Moments of sudden social convulsion – like the 1960s, for instance – give the illusion that human communities control their fate. But like an earthquake is just the crisis of a much bigger continental movement, so does a social revolution represent only the decisive moment of a much more ancient process. “When the oak tree is felled,” said Carlyle, “the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze.”

So if you want to know why the Catholic Church suddenly lost its power over Quebec in the 1960s, you shouldn’t be satisfied with the answer “the Quebecois decided to leave the church.” You’ll need instead to look at the larger social movement that gripped the West in that decade, a movement that shook Ireland and France just as well as Quebec, and whose beginnings are to be sought at the start of industrialisation. No single city had control over its social destiny in the ’60s. When the social revolution came, no community had the power to hasten or prevent it.

No: human beings are not the masters of their manners. It’s just the opposite. This brings us to:

               4. Hominem mores componunt.

“Man is made by manners.” I hope this was William of Wykeham’s point.

Out language binds us into ways of life that make us something other than foraging creatures. The concepts that give structure to our lives are all social and intellectual. They are concerns like honor, shame, honesty, deceit, eloquence, and stupidity.

If you were writing the encyclopedia article “Slugs”, you could give a complete report of those animals just by describing their anatomy, their evolutionary descent, their habitats, and their behavior. Nothing like that would suffice for human beings. Of course we have descent, habitats, and the like, but the important part of our lives is made up by our thoughts, our conversations, and our intricate mental passions. Those social and mental features are not supplements to the basically biological story. They are the kernel of our nature, just as their absence expresses something essential about the dumb animals.

We can play with one convention or another, but there is no escaping from human manners altogether. If we think we can live like Zarathustra or Thoreau, and go alone into ice and high mountains, then far from escaping human society, we’re only demonstrating our slavery to it. No one cuts himself off from humanity without being in the grip of an elaborate social attitude to his fellow human beings. Disgust with humanity, after all, is just as much a part of human social life as gregarious love. Human behaviour, whether it amounts to entering or leaving a given social circle, is entirely made by the mental and spiritual structures that come out of social life.

This is something like what Wittgenstein meant when he said: “Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, and having a chat belong as much to our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, and playing (PU §25).”

Open any reliable book about the Middle Ages, and you’ll find that the introduction contains some variant on the following incantation:
We cannot describe medieval religion as something artificially superadded to men’s basically utilitarian consciences. We must to reckon with Christianity in all its intellectual detail as the basic constituent principle of our subjects’ world. Otherwise a good deal about them will make no sense at all. Terror on behalf of a baby who dies unbaptised. Costly pilgrimages to Rome. Hatred of the Jews. Lust for Jerusalem. Only when we lay aside the spectacles of modern prejudice can we begin to understand the lives of our ancestors.
Well-worn though these declarations are, they are there for a reason. They remind us that we can infer nothing about a human community without first paying close attention to their ways of life and thought. There are indeed common features of all human nature, but these features themselves only become visible when we perceive the deep gulfs separate one human thought-world from another. Because mores are essential to our natures, we can’t lay them aside when we want to understand other people.

Marx’s mistake was to conceive of manners as something given off like smoke from man’s essential activity, which is the pursuit of material welfare. Augustin Thierry, for his part, thought that manners were just the cloak of Frenchman’s primordial inclination, which was to seek freedom. Both of these men – like anyone who tried to find the single secret spring of human action – failed to see that human passions and manners are the important things in themselves. Sometimes human manners are to be taken at face value, and sometimes men themselves don’t know the significance of their own motives. (Illiterate peasants, for example, rarely grasp that their customs fit into vast geographical patterns.) But the untrustworthiness of face-value explanations is merely part of what it means for human life to be endlessly diverse.

Only after reviewing a vast number of examples – from history, anthropology, and even literature – can a person begin to grasp the outline of the human species. Only a God could be a perfect knower of men, because he would see all of our variety.

A corollary is that no human life is more germane to the species than another. Human nature is human thought and human manners, which means that no example of thought or manners can be judged a deviation from human nature. Savage puritanism is just as much a part of the human species as free love. Now, because we live in a part of the world that has committed itself to tolerance, our political orthodoxy makes it look like tolerance is the necessary end-stage of all human manners. It isn’t true. Manners are a many-colored thing, and there is nothing to logically prefer one set of moral commitments, or one system of social organisation, to another. (That’s all more the reason to fight for the death for tolerance: secular society has nothing to hand but sheer force to break the back of thuggish religious illiberalism. The history of the human species will not favour us as a matter of course.)

To close: it might be possible with some research to find out what was actually in William of Wykeham’s mind. But if we’re going to learn the most valuable lesson from it, “Manners makyth man” can’t be taken as an observation on any individual soul. It should be read as a statement of the nature of the human race.

Explicit glossa.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Muse in the Garden

Sorrow and terrors – take them, ye thrashing winds!
Take them and bear them out to the Cretan sea.
     I, the beloved of the Muses,
          Care I who rules in the frozen northland?

Care I what menace terrifies Titrades
Uselessly? Thou who laughest in virgin springs,
     Tie up a crown of summer flowers;
          Tie up a crown for my fondest brother.

Honey-sweet Muse, my praises without thy grace
Profit him naught, so bless him with Lesbian songs;
     Strum to my Lamia the lyre,
          Just as becomes thee and all thy sisters.

Horace I.26, my translation.

Musis amicus tristitiam et metus
Tradam protervis in mare Creticum
     Portare ventis, quis sub Arcto
          Rex gelidæ metuatur oræ,

Quid Titraden terreat, unice
Securus. O quæ fontibus integris
     Gaudes, apricos necte flores,
          Necte meo Lamiæ coronam,

Pimplea dulcis. Nil sine te mei
Prosunt honores; hunc fidibus novis,
     Hunc Lesbio sacrare plectro
          Teque tuasque decet sorores.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

It’s Perfectly Natural

Montaigne remarked in his essay on a monstrous child (II.30) that nothing produced by nature can be reproached for being unnatural.
Nous appelons contre nature, ce qui advient contre le coustume: rien n’est que selon elle, quel qu’il soit. 
We call unaccustomed events unnatural: but everything follows nature, no matter what it is.
He got the idea from Cicero, who had said something similar about a pregnant mule (De divinatione II.22). The thought is: if we’re horrified by something unusual or barbaric, the one thing we can’t accuse it of is being unnatural. If we think at first that it’s outside of nature, the only conclusion to draw is that nature is wider than we thought.

The logic is tautological as it’s unshakeable, and it’s not even worth pointing out that Montaigne’s argument proves exactly nothing. It’s interesting, though, to ask what impels a man’s mind to formulate a thought like this. We certainly see this particular observation everywhere, whether in direct quotation (e.g. Gide’s Corydon) or in spirit.

It is deployed most of all as an excuse for human folly: It’s not difficult to list behaviors that get defended on the sole grounds that they’re just another part of nature. Sodomy is the classic, but also think of adultery, nudity, masturbation, anger, gluttony, laziness, squid-eating, and zoophilia. Find me a guilt-ridden teenager, and I’ll find you the pamphlet that tells him it’s perfectly natural to feel or do what he does.

I think that this is usually an attempt to overcome shame of one kind or another. More specifically, by appealing to nature, we relieve ourselves of responsibility for our character. We don’t have to say, “such and such are my reasons for doing this”; or even “I am like this but I wish I were like that.” We can simply say, “I am what I am,” and dismiss gnawing guilt in an instant.

If your behavior is natural, then against all the glares and mutterings of a solemn priest, you have the warm approval of Mother Nature. She asks for nothing and allows everything. Her permission is an indulgentia plenaria perpetua offered for free to all souls that ask for it. If a child hits a baseball into a car window, he expects to be scolded and forced to pay for it by his mother. Natural man has a far more lenient parent.

It is worth remembering, of course, that merely being a child of nature is not enough to redeem a creature from its own wickedness – or even from its ugliness. That's because being natural puts you in dodgy company. Nature is more tolerant than any liberal New Yorker. She takes everyone under her roof, whether they’re men, women, blacks, whites, gays, cattle-rustlers, murderers, bears, cuttlefish, or Londoners. Robert Mugabe is as much her son as Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Viva, viva la libertà!
Nature can give birth to human beings and that’s it. Therefore, the most we can ever say about her is “she exists”. She cannot condemn her children, and because of that she cannot exonerate them either.

That means that if you want to press a moral case, you’d better find better grounds for it than nature. If you want to argue that polygamy or homosexuality is fine because it’s a part of human natural history, then you should be prepared to endorse gouging out an infidel’s tongue on the same grounds. By the same token, if you defend your own actions by saying “it’s only natural”, you share a dock with Jack the Ripper. In order to show your own innocence, you have to get there by proving his as well.

Good for Montaigne for pointing out that everything is natural. Pressed to its logical conclusion, his observation means only that ‘natural vs. unnatural’ is useless as a measure of behavior, of beauty or of character. Being natural is a participation medal for existing; it confers no relative justification.

Snake eating a living frog
— Nature is Scary (@NatureisScary) 6 December 2016

 ^ (It’s perfectly natural. Remember, you are the snake, not the frog.)

We, not nature, are the only ones who can pass judgment on human beings. Morality means imposing humane standards on our lives, regardless of what nature has made those lives into. It’s childish to give up responsibility for making these judgments. If we resign our authority to nature, then we’re shrugging our shoulders in indifference to gruesome sin. Rape and torture, after all, are as natural to humankind as sneezing.

So good, we’ve put away the argument from nature. Silly as it was, it was only ever devised because of a real psychological problem. If we can’t banish shame by calling our behaviour natural, we need to find some other way of coming to terms with it. Some people feel a tolerable amount of shame, and some feel it intensely, but one way or another every human life is bitten by little worms of secret guilt. Putting aside the casuistic trick of appealing to nature, there are three ways to cure ourselves.

Shamelessness is one way. That amounts to completely overturning the standards of behavior that you had previously been bound to.

This is the secret to “Christian freedom.” When God shows Peter a squirming bag of unclean animals, Peter refuses to eat them, protesting that nothing unclean hath at any time entered my mouth. God replies: What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. In other words, a Christian can gaily flout the bonds of old morality without trembling for fear that he’s crossed the will of heaven. A glance at the medieval literature (say, the Song of Roland) reveals how far this principle was carried by bloodthirsty Christians eager to glut their swords on unbelievers.

Shamelessness can take non-religious forms too. To Nietzsche, by uncovering the historical origins of morality, you can overcome the sickening shame that would usually go along with rejecting Christian pity. At the end of Lolita, for another example, Humbert decides that after committing murder and bringing a girl to ruin – well, screw it, why not drive on the left side of the road?

The risk of this approach is obvious. Shamelessness makes you deaf to reproof, which is fine if you’re being reproved by stupid people, but dangerous if, like most people, you’re susceptible to be seduced into evil under the guise of freedom.

Stupefaction is the other usual method of quenching conscience. Drink yourself blind, and what few shameful memories you retain will be covered over in the warm waters of friendly feeling. Tolstoy pointed this out in an essay of 1890. “Why do men stupefy themselves?” he asked. The answer:
People drink and smoke, not casually, not from dullness, not to cheer themselves up, not because it is pleasant, but in order to drown the voice of conscience in themselves. … Life does not accord with conscience, so conscience is made to bend to life.
This might not be exactly right – sin might not, in fact, be why most people drink. It is nevertheless one good reason. Stupefaction is a potent antidote to shame, so it's natural for the shame-eaten to distill it purer and purer until the spirit is completely extracted. Death, as Judas learned, is this perfect form: it is a final escape from remorse.

Apart from shamelessness and self-destruction, there is only one safe way to be freed from shame. It is to do nothing that is shameful. Then you won’t need sly tricks of logic, nor a leap into the abyss, nor even strong drink to let yourself loose.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Holocaustum sempiternum

Abraham’s Isaac was a son untainted,
Born to no handmaid of the Nile’s floodland;
Nor to Keturah, but to free and laughing
          Sarah, our mother.

Strange that the worker of the constellations,
And of the snowfall, and immense Behemoth
Cared for so little as this son of men;
          Howbeit the Great Lord

Stirred for one straighter than archaic Enoch
Whom he’d exempted from Sheol’s abysses;
Tenderer even than the one he took from
          Fountainous Ida.

So said his herald to our righteous father,
‘Get thee to Moriah, and ascend the mountain
Which I will show thee; there enkindle Isaac’s
          Flesh on an altar.’

Then he was quiet, and our pious father
Groaned to be sundered from the soul he’d fostered,
Naught less exulting to obey his likeness
          Over the waters.

Abraham stayed not, but in early morning
Burdened his asses and a pair of slave-boys.
These three with Isaac sought the north and entered
          Moriah’s border.

Now on a mountain was an emerald fire
Lighting the desert. To his slaves our father:
‘See ye not God there?’ and the slaves responded:
          ‘No, we see nothing’.

‘Stay then, O blind ones: we alone will meet him.
God is afire to his dearest children;
Naught to the nations, who will never see him.
          Stay with the asses!

Now unencumbered they went up the mountain
Eagerly treading in the sight of angels.
‘Father’ – now Isaac – ‘here are flame and faggots;
          Where is the victim?’

‘God will provide it’, said his loving father.
Once at the summit they prepared the slaughter;
Abraham offering and his son the offered
          Host on the altar.

Seraphim wheeled now to the darkest heaven:
Sathan the dawn-star, and the never-westing
Septem Triones, and the Twins who glimmer
          Over the Hunter,

Kesil, and Kimah, and the Mazzaroth all
Pleading in horror for the life of Isaac
Vainly, till gleaming in a subtle hauberk
          Michael the princeling

Entered this darkness that was veined with amber.
‘Lord’ – he said – ‘swar’st thou to thy servant Abram
Erst that his firstborn was refused the birthright,
          But to restore it?

‘Or wilt thou suffer yet the moon to glimmer?
(Such even Isaac, as the sun his father.)
Think, is there nothing that thy soul desireth
          More than the stripling?’

Long was the silence, and the amber lightnings
Ceased for the while, as the fearsome being 
Pondered in darkness on his own devices.
          Then came an answer:

‘Wonderful creature, I relent; but mark! I
Smother mine ardour for no little pittance.
Yes, there is something that I covet sorer:
          Israel for Isaac!

‘Who, when he cometh, will contemn the gay hunt,
Guarding my statutes in his tabernacles.
Fondly he’ll love me, while the desert jackals
          Tear at his clothing.

‘Yea, though he hide him in the towns of Japheth,
Or in the deserts of his hairy brother,
Ever I’ll savour his appalling torment,
          Due to me fairly;

‘Though for what reason I had rather Israel
Ask not too keenly, for mine holy will is
Hidden in darkness. O thou loyal Michael,
          Slaughter this victim!

‘Sodden thine iron on his wasted members;
Ruin his wisdom with a thousand scruples;
Scourge him with fire, till I send Elias
          With an Anointed.’


‘Abraham, Abraham,’ now the sky resounded –
‘Here I am’, answered our unerring father.
‘Stop, and thy seed will be as all the stars thou
          Seest in heaven.’

Then there was silence, and our father yielding
Drew back the dagger; now descried a he-goat
Twined in a thorn-bush. Unensnaring Isaac
          Abraham slew it,

Darkly though guessing that the holocaust was
Bond for a later and a dearer victim.
Deep in this musing, with his living son he
          Went from the mountain.

Now in the desert was a rolling horn-blast
Like to a Levite’s up on Zion’s ramparts
Watching the west sky, when at last he trills his
          Hail to the New Moon –

So did it quaver; and the fires of heaven
Dimmed, for all nature and the the starry demons
Trembled to wonder what the unborn Israel
          Owed to his master.

Little they knew it, how the bleating flocks of
Jacob would smoulder on the nations’ altars,
Doomed to be incense to a god who loved them. –
          Doubt not! he loved them

Fond as a shepherd loves his little charges.
Say not then rashly, O ye scattered Hebrews,
That he hath spurned you, for he loves the race that
          Keeps his commandments.


If you want to know the author—or supposed author—of a medieval Hebrew poem, you often need only run your eye down the right margin. Take this Spanish ode, a prayer for the forgiveness of whoring Israel:

Looking closely, you’ll find that the first letters of each stanza spell out the words “Moshe Hazak.” This refers to Moses ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century author of the poem.

The acrostic’s history in Hebrew poetry dates to the Bible itself. Each verse of Psalms 25, 34, and 145 begins with a successive letter, though the received Hebrew manuscripts are missing alphabetically required verses here and there. The first four chapters of Lamentations follow a similar pattern, with the verses grouped into batches by the letters beginning their first word.

This is an introduction to a certain class of artistic features that I’ll call tinsel. Here are some more scrapings that artists have used to deck their firs.

First look at this poem by George Herbert. High school teachers adore this one, or at least figure that it’ll catch their students’ attention:

It’s called “Easter Wings”, and its clever conceit is that look, the poem looks like an angel’s wings when you turn it sideways! Proceed in a modern anthology of English poetry, and you’ll find variations on this theme, with words squeezed into the shape of ostriches or condoms or other things like that.

There is also such a thing as ‘found poetry’. This involves finding a snatch of text on a bottle of lotion or a grocery receipt, and calling it a poem, perhaps with a word or two added. Close kin is the ‘erasure’, which amounts to finding a scrap of writing and scratching out most of it to yield a penetratingly profound sequence of words. Look at this erasure I just made from the New York Times.

Next there are codes to be found in music. In The Marriage of Figaro, during Figaro’s climactic rant against fickle women, Mozart blows two horns together as a symbol of cuckoldry. Robert Schumann supposedly encoded the letters of his wife Clara’s name into his piano concerto in A-minor, so that the oboe’s melody begins with the notes C-H-A-A. The sequence B-A-C-H, for its part, has been written into over four hundred scores. (means in German-speaking countries, and means B-flat.) In February 2010, I was unfortunate enough to be at the premiere of Odna Zhizn, a clanging symphonic poem that you might be able to hum if you were an alien. The composer wrote in the program, if I remember right, that the piece’s notes spelled out the story of some woman’s life – but he wouldn’t tell us which notes or which woman. 

Then there is visual art with a backstory. This statue of an innocent girl, for example, is made of steel salvaged from a Francoist nunnery. This likeness of Willy Brandt is made of postage stamps from the DDR. This elephant is carved out of the bones of poachers. This kippah is sewn from the chest hair of an artist uncomfortable with Jewish masculinity. This building is exactly 1,776 feet tall.

Finally – I stop for mercy not exhaustion – , there’s the novel La disparition by Georges Perec, translated into English as A Void. Neither original nor translation contains a single instance of the letter e. Amazing! 

Hopefully you’ve grasped the common theme. These are all works of art whose main point lies in something other than the art itself. The emphasis is on a clever intellectual fact about the art. This fact is only visible to the contemplating brain, not the real senses of the person who listens to the poem or hears the concerto. 

Anyway, tinsel is always frivolous, whether spun in the fourteenth or the twenty-first century. An acrostic in an ancient Hebrew poem is excusable, because those poems are meant to be committed to memory, and frail human minds need as much support as they can get. Take away this excuse, and acrostics – like all gimmicks – become ostentatious and trivial.

I don’t think it gets mentioned enough that English-language Haikus are really bad.

crinkled autumn leaves
drifting gently into a teapot
it is almost dark.

Haikus have been held to be easy, but I’ve never understood that. An illiterate farmer can think up a native English poem at the plough, and sing it that evening at the free house. A haiku can’t be sung, and it needs pen and paper. (The above might be a haiku, or it might not, but you’ll have to check.) Easy? I can recite a hundred metrically complex stanzas of Horace, but I’ll never be able to get a single haiku into my head. If I didn’t know that this random arrangement of syllables was a culturally important form in Japan, I couldn’t tell a haiku from the words scrawled by vandals onto subway cars and called “Poetry in Motion.” Its only distinguishing merit among unmetered poems is that it ends mercifully quickly.

But worst of all is that a haiku’s touted feature – syllable-count – is something completely divorced from its substance, which is meant to be poetry. Haikus do not rely on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, which nearly all English poetry does. Instead they are built on the raw number of syllables, which is effectively inaudible to anyone who isn’t counting. It is an art form predicated on a gimmick; tinsel all the way through.

I am not arguing for simple art; extreme complexity, both of themes and of execution, is in fact necessary (though not enough!) for the best effects. Nor am I saying that every aspect of a novel’s construction must be immediately apparent. But complexity, if it’s to exist, must be the tissue of the work itself; it cannot be an external ornament without being vain. (Ah, you’ll ask, but is there really a difference there? That question is not ennobled by its refined tone of voice. There is. It is the difference between 20,000 notes in K. 331 and 273 seconds in 4′33″.)

You might also object that ornaments are constraints, and constraints are good for art! It is dogma in academic fiction-factories that a piece of art is more likely to “work” if it is produced under restrictive conditions. This, like so much said by program-fictionmongers, is a rotten cob of falsehood that sports a single kernel of undecayed truth.

Which kernel is this: every schoolboy knows that it’s easier to be forced into a story about a three-legged dog and an octopus on a Thursday than to face a blank page with only a pen and an imagination. Even a professional author is better off if he has a frame to work in; otherwise he might spin aimless in chaos with nothing to go on. This is one justification for modern poetry that follows the old formal patterns, like Robert Frost’s and Richard Wilbur’s. It is a weak argument – but no strong argument is necessary – against the shapelessness of T. S. Eliot and everything after him.

Then again, I think the fictionmongers have it backwards. A formal work of art is not good because it is constrained. It is constrained because it is good. In other words, beautiful art will have a traditional form because, dare I say it, the traditional forms are beautiful. The art of the Renaissance was not sweet and lovely because it wanted to be formal; it was formal because it wanted to be sweet and lovely.

Man with goatee and pierced ear:
“I think this really works. It takes a risk for sure, but it grabs me.”

There is nothing, however, to be gained from constraining a work of art for the sake of constraining it. Artists who don’t see the beauty of the forms, and insist on using them anyway, are playing a sick intellectual game. Parenthesis closed.

The real reason I dislike tinsel is not that I hate frivolity. (Hell, The Mikado is one of my favorite things on earth.) I hate frivolity that replaces our quest after real art. Art, seen right, is the earthly form of human feeling. We are all vessels of a great human oversoul, and the feelings that stir that soul – however glimmering and subtle – can be incarnated by a craftsman whose mind goes deep enough and whose hands are nimble enough. Tinsel is an abuse of the holy craft. Wherever you find it, there a scheming brain has replaced a mind that might have sounded eternity. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Slaves of Duty

One of the problems of democracy on an imperial scale is that no individual can choose his political rulers any more than can a peasant under a pantocratic tsar. Even if the drones have seized power from the queen, there are still too many of them for bee No. 8,493A to have any say over the honey quota.

The ballot that I just mailed in might have been eaten by a goat, and I’d never know it. Seven million other ballots in New York will decide every election tomorrow without regard to my preferences. Yet I still live, somehow, under the conviction that the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City have more claim to my obedience than a well-born king.

In a small and close community, the meaning of a vote is different. Take an election for president of the golf club, or Campus Whigs treasurer, or Pope. That is the native soil of democracy: a small group choosing a leader from its own numbers. Cardinal Adina wants the zealous Nemorino to be the pope, but Nemorino is only the third-most-popular candidate, and a vote for him would hand the election to the libertine Dulcamara. So he grudgingly votes for Cardinal Belcore, who wins on the second ballot. Adina’s mind throughout is occupied by all kinds of delicate practical considerations, most of which stem from the following question: ‘how can I reconcile my sincere preferences with the reality that my vote might effect something other than I intend?’ If the College of Cardinals enacts instant-runoff voting by the time Belcore dies, the question becomes even simpler: ‘what do I sincerely prefer?’ And this is no idle question. Adina has the power in his hands to bestow power over the earth on one man or another.

Very different is an imperial election like ours, which is formal and indifferent to individual voters. Only a tiny few know the candidates face-to-face. No one stands to gain or lose respect for his vote, especially if it’s on a secret ballot. Most important, the effect that any given vote has on the election is nil. Everything like “Make sure to vote if you live in [swing state]” and “My vote will cancel out yours” and “voting for McMullin will empower an evil goon”—and FiveThirtyEights’s voter-power index—is blather based on the lie that any political power is in the hands of any person, or even any hundred persons.

What value is there at all in voting under these circumstances, except to signal your virtue to your Facebook friends, yourself and your family? Is there anything other than sickly self-polishing to prop up democratic citizenship? 

In the absence of a living democratic impulse, an imperial election, if it’s to justify itself, needs to make demands on a voter’s mind that are not practical. In order to feel really compelled to look into candidates and vote (assuming we’re not wonkish hobbyists), we need to resort to a sense of thankless duty to our republic. Not only is this possible; if we are to be proud republicans, it is obligatory. Our republic will not be saved by our sentimental affection for it, which can always wane; still less by any thin intellectual belief in democracy, which can always be refuted by a Russian who’s clever enough. It will be sustained by its citizens’ unconsidered obligation to love and uphold democracy, and therefore to weigh candidates and vote.

A vote is only pointless if you have identified having a point with having an influence. This is admittedly an understandable conclusion, for influence is a real thing that you can measure, and duty only an invisible precept. Mass democracy does not give anything real to her children: voting, seen for what it is, does not confer a sense of being important, or even of being wanted. But this all goes to show the sole point of voting comes from the fact that it’s something you just have to do. The only thing that can drag an honest voter to the polls is a spare conviction that he must go. Go, then.

Corollary: When you are in the booth, you are not being asked to swing the election. You are being asked to give your honest opinion, and nothing more, about the best candidate for the job in question. It’s been popular to write thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces on the question of voting for a third-party candidate. My own piece of thought is that if you shrink from voting third-party out of fear of the consequences, you are throwing away the single benefit to be had from the powerlessness of your vote.

You are to vote because your conscience, not practical inducement, makes you do it. Why not vote with your conscience too? The inconsequence of your vote is disappointing if your goal was to be influential, but it can also free your conscience, which wants the best for your country, from the demands of tempering caution.

Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary Clinton. I did that because I thought she would be a better president than anyone else on the ballot. If there had been a better candidate, I would have voted for him, however unlikely to win.