Monday, September 29, 2008

A funny story about chastity (as if there were any other kind)

Check one off the bucket list: Last night I had the chance to ask a sex columnist what she thought of vows of life-long chastity. "And the answer I'm looking for sounds less like 'If that's what makes them happy then they should go for it,' and more like 'No, Emily Dickinson would totally have written better poetry if she'd been getting some.'"

She responded that Emily Dickinson would have written different poetry had she been sexually active, but not necessarily worse. "Maybe she would have written erotic poetry."

That's the punchline of the story, of course; as we know from the last chapter of Sexual Personae, Emily Dickinson did.

UPDATE: Can't believe I forgot this ED quote on chastity:
Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer--don't you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Change is Gonna Come

[Pomocon]: I Found It Out in a Book (And She was Such a Pretty Dictionary).
[Pomocon]: If Sophistry is the Game, Two Can Play.
[Pomocon]: Postmodern Conservatism: Rum, Socrates, and the Lasch.
[Pomocon]: Today, We are All Blind Korean Masseurs.

As some of you have already noticed, I have new digs. James has invited me to join the intimidatingly illustrious squadron of bloggers at the new Postmodern Conservative, giving me the undeserved privilege of being spoken of in the same breath as Peter Augustine Lawler, Ivan Kenneally, and conservatism's metalhead-in-chief Shawn Macomber. Will's gonna be there, too; come join us. As a consequence, posting here may slow to a crawl. Hang on to your hats in this exciting time.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Political Narrative Grows in Brooklyn

For those in the New York area, two events worth hitting this Sunday: a panel at the Brooklyn Museum on "The American Hero and the American Dream: Reflections on Our Contemporary Political Narratives" in the afternoon, and this month's Lolita Bar debate, "Is Modern Sex Good or Evil?," in the evening. Courtney Martin of Feministing will moderate the former, Anna Broadway of Sexless in the City will speak at the latter. I'll be making a nuisance of myself at both.

Headline of the Week

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What Gives This Mess Some Grace Unless It's Fictions?

I've always said that there's something rabbinic about the way the my favorite undergraduate organization operates. In the Talmud, a verse like Ecclesiastes 10:8 (He who breaks a fence will be bitten by a snake) is sometimes deployed as honest advice about keeping safe by staying within the Law. Other times it's a punchline. (Consider my favorite use of the verse: A Christian offers to heal Rabbi Eleazar ben Damma, who has been bitten by an actual snake, but another rabbi tells him not to accept a miracle at the hands of a heretic because "he who breaks down a fence will be bitten by a snake!")

In much the same way, there are certain sayings that get passed down from generation to generation in the POR (i.e. "Justice is for strangers," which is about mercy and loyalty, the expression "pursued by furies," which denotes some combination of smart and interesting and crazy, or "wear a mask long enough and it will sink into the skin," which is just true) that serve a multitude of situations.* One of my favorites is "I have sometimes doubted that my life has meaning; I have never doubted that Hamlet has meaning."

I tried unpacking that statement a long time ago, and I bring it up again because it makes the perfect rebuttal to Freddie's rebuttal of me:
By declaring that trying to be authentic is the closest we can ever come to being authentic, conceptual art sets its own trap. It tells us that the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify — that the only thing we can tell each other honestly is that we're trying to tell us something.

Ah, well, here's the shame of it. I don't think the purpose of art is to create symbols that don't signify. I think the responsibility of the modern artist is to recognize the inability of symbols to signify.
"The inability of symbols to signify"—this is exactly the sentiment that bothers me so much, and exactly the sentiment that the above line about Hamlet is meant to devastate.

It might make more sense if I put it in musical rather than literary terms: To believe in "the inability of symbols to signify" is to say that a Beethoven symphony might have meaning to a given person, but has no inherent meaning. Our attitude towards a symphony is the same as an existentialist's attitude towards his life: the only meaning it has is the meaning I put there myself. Freddie's right that taking such an attitude isn't the end of art. It leaves plenty of room for strong emotional and mind-expanding reactions. But it's still wrong. The statement "There is no essential difference between 4'33" and a Bach concerto; both have no meaning but what the listener projects onto it" is more obviously false than "Life has no meaning but what a man projects onto it"—of course there's a difference between John Cage and Beethoven: one has stuff in it already!—but both statements are ultimately just as false.

I'd like to corner Freddie into endorsing the (self-evidently false) statement "A Beethoven symphony, like John Cage's 4'33", has no meaning but what the listener projects onto it," not because I don't like him personally but because I think his position requires him to, and I want him to realize it.
*There are other similarly persistent but far less illuminating bits of inherited dialogue: "You, Mr. Jeffries, are a horrible person." "And you, Mr. Wiley, are drunk, but in the morning I will still be a horrible person, and you will no longer be drunk."

"I can get you photographs of Dwight MacDonald reading..."

What was I thinking, posting on the way female intellectuals are fetishized without throwing up a link to Woody Allen's "Whore of Mensa?"Allow me to correct the error:
"Hi, I'm Sherry." They really knew how to appeal to your fantasies. Long, straight hair, leather bag, silver earrings, no make-up.

"I'm surprised you weren't stopped, walking into the hotel dressed like that," I said. "The house dick can usually spot an intellectual."

"A five-spot cools him."

"Shall we begin?" I said, motioning her to the couch. She lit a cigarette and got right to it. "I think we could start by approaching Billy Budd as Melville´s justification of the ways of God to man, n'est-ce pas?"

. . .

Dude Looks Like a Ladyblog

Hadley Arkes, You are My Stephen A. Douglas.

It's only fair for me to flip my cards at the very beginning: I have the utmost respect for Hadley Arkes as a serious Catholic thinker and, moreover, a man of great heart and geniality. That being said, he has no love at all for the Yale Political Union, an institution to which I was, for four years including six months as its speaker, gay married. (The Union is obviously a dame.) I don't think that my disagreement with his latest column has anything to do with an impulse to protect my lady's honor, but I think it's good baseball to mention it.

The upshot of his column is that abortion is the defining issue of our time in the way that slavery was the defining issue of the mid-nineteenth century. Lincoln and Douglas spoke as if slavery were the only issue that mattered, and that was correct for them; Catholics who vote on the single issue of life/choice are also correct.

There is, in the world of politics, such an animal as the defining issue, a question which cannot be answered in isolation but which necessarily defines the terms we use to talk about every other matter. Abortion may or may not be such a thing—I tend to think not—but slavery definitely wasn't. Allow me to toss it to Gene Genovese:
Orthodox theologians demonstrated that neither the Old nor the New Testament condemned slavery as sinful. The abolitionists, displaying no small amount of intellectual dishonesty, never succeeded in making the Word say what they said it did, and eventually they had to spurn the Word for the Spirit. In consequence, they virtually reduced the Holy Spirit to the spirit (the conscience) of individuals. I do not say that an antislavery Christian theology remains an impossibility...[b]ut, as a historian, I do insist that the abolitionists failed to construct one and that, so far as I know, no one has yet improved on their performance.
The question "Is the black slave a man?" was answered in the affirmative by everyone who mattered. It is the follow-up question—"Is he nevertheless fit to be enslaved?"—that Arkes hold up as inescapably fundamental. However, the question only rates first priority if it is theological, but the question is not theological but moral; a matter of Spirit, not Word. That's a little unclear, so let me put it plainer: If someone disagrees with me on who counts as a human being, I can't really have a productive conversation with him, much less vote for him; if he disagrees with me on how to organize labor in our society, that's no kind of deal-breaker.

I am filled with uncharacteristic optimism about the human race when I think that everyone in America looks back on the debate over slavery and thinks that the answer should have been obvious. Truly it should have been. Still, it's wrong for Arkes to invoke it as the classic example of a simple, clear-cut controversy; there was much more to it than "Who's 'people?'" (Furthermore, his claim that slavery and Christian morality can't coexist is flatly false. I refer you to Adrian Thatcher, Dale Martin, or, better yet, the Epistles.) The question was far more complicated, and pro-slavery side far more sophisticated, than his telling of it lets on. Let that affect your reading of his abortion argument accordingly.

Hat-tip on the Arkes piece to Touchstone's Mere Comments.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Brief, Ill-Advised Defense of That McDonald's Coffee Ad

Bill Deresiewicz (who, to my great delight, is everywhere) once said in lecture, "Put away any dreams you have of being a writer, and replace them with dreams of writing." The easy defense of the much-ridiculed ad for the new upscale coffee menu at McDonald's is to say, very simply, that the ad doesn't ridicule female intellectuals but female faux-intellectuals. "I like television! I don't know where Paraguay is!" This doesn't say women shouldn't be smart, only that women shouldn't pretend to be smart, and that's an easy case to make; no one should! But it's not that simple.

There's a tendency to fetishize female intellectuals. I used to think that intellectual debate could shift seamlessly into flirtation. After all, the two genres have a lot in common. Later I discovered that men who weren't interested in me romantically could engage with my ideas on their merits, but men who were tended not to care whether my reading of The Man who Shot Liberty Valance was original; the fact that I had one at all was original enough, I guess. That's what being a fetish feels like: it doesn't matter whether or not I'm a good or interesting intellectual (or Asian, or Frenchwoman, or whatever), only that I am one.

The McDonalds ad (of which there is, I know, a male version) depicts women stuck fulfilling the bluestocking role, and it suggests that cheap, jazz-free lattes will be liberating for women who aren't really intellectuals. That's great; I'm interested in the ways in which it will liberate women who are intellectuals but are tired of having to act like intellectuals. (Like that West Wing line: "You're a good father. You don't have to act like it. You're a good man. You don't have to act like it.") I'm generally all for roles, but "being a writer" vs. actually writing is one place where roleplaying obscures rather than enhances the task in question. (Whereas "acting like" a woman tends to make it easier to be a woman, etc. etc.) Which is why I like the McDonald's ad that everyone else hates.

Lastly: I'm not sure where McDonalds' ad men got the idea that jazz-listening Derrida-quoting coffee house chicks don't show their knees. Everybody knows Starbucks girls are easy.

Self-Promotion (II)

[Ladyblog]: Top Ten Conservative Pop Songs.

Join me as I take High Fidelity Tuesdays to Ladyblog.

The UNDP's Vitamin D Deficiency: A Problem We Can Live With?

Stories of corruption at the United Nations are usually so many dogs biting men, but Nicole Kurakawa and Matthew Lee have both seen fit to give the matter some attention this week, and Kurakawa in particular has raised an interesting question: if everyone knows that corruption at the UN is a huge problem, why did the UN Development Program's executive board take steps last week to make their programs less transparent? She explains at AFF:
An internal audit of the UNDP program in North Korea uncovered rampant waste, fraud, and abuse; it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that these problems might be repeated elsewhere. Presently, these internal audits are kept confidential even from the governing executive board, and efforts are underway to keep it that way.

In a statement by China and the G-77 to the UNDP in January:
. . . the Group believes that UNDP and UNPFA should not disclose information contained in their internal audit reports, particularly country programme-related audit reports, without the permission of the Executive Board. Such requests should first be based on a justifiable need for disclosure and put to the Executive Board for its consideration. There should also be means of insuring that the requester of such confidential information can be held accountable.
At this point, the UN has punted on the transparency issue, lumping this into a larger ethics package. Meanwhile, political maneuvering has stalled the process further. The only reason this issue is even being discussed right now? If the U.S. State Dept determines the program isn’t sufficiently transparent, U.S. financial support will be cut back by congressional mandate.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think shrouding programs in secrecy looks a little dubious — especially coming from a body that claims to value the rule of law. And hiding behind procedural rules to avoid public accountability looks a lot like corruption and cowardice.
Matthew Lee's straightforward account on Bloggingheads lays out the facts: audits are often ineffective, but the regulations coming out of the UNDP's board meeting this week might make it harder to request an audit in the first place, requiring anyone who wants one—even a UNDP funder—to run their reasons by the board and the country in question.

Why this resistance to sunshine, given the UNDP's record of graft and mismanagement? Isn't everyone against corruption? First of all, one needs to notice the growing power of Russia and China within the UN (as Norman Geras has pointed out), and the coincident backlash against the US. The audit in Pyongyang turned up all kinds of dirt, but no one has forgotten that it was the US that requested the audit in the first place. When China says things like "requests should first be based on a justifiable need for disclosure," it's not because they hate audits; it's because they don't want the US to continue politicizing audits, using them as a back-door way to punish countries they don't like.

For all my concern about UN waste and mismanagement, I'm sympathetic to calls for depoliticizing aid. The US should not be able to call for an audit of UNDP programs in the DPRK (as opposed to other places with similarly corrupt UN programs) simply because we're trying to play hardball on the nuclear question. If taking that illegitimate card off the table means moving away from transparency, that's an entirely live-with-able sacrifice.

More from Matthew Lee and Inner City Press here.


Please check out my Culture 11 piece on Damien Hirst: "Hanging's Too Good for Him."

Monday, September 22, 2008

Reading Recommendation: Vincent Rossmeier on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

No, really: "If Seinfeld was about nothing, It's Always is about nothingness—the void created when individuals give in completely to their most solipsistic desires." More.

What do you mean Sorkin-esque patter doesn't fly in Red States? Haven't these people seen Sports Night?

The most interesting line from Aaron Sorkin's NYT piece:
The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.
Too much has already been said about bicoastal elites and the Real Americans who love to hate them, but that's a sentence I want to unpack, partly because I want to offer a helpful answer to an unhelpful question, but also because it breaks my heart to see Sorkin, a man who obviously delights in wordplay, completely write off a subculture so rich in his bread and butter. Never mind Hee Haw and bad puns. Hicks turn phrases.

If it seems like redneck chauvinism to hold up a parade of countrypolitan wordsmiths as evidence that Red Staters are witty, too, it isn't. It has considerable bearing on the question of whether Republicans hate blue elites because they find them smug and contemptuous or whether they resent them because they're just smarter.

I think it would be helpful to put to rest once and for all the idea that Red State conservatives have contempt for book-learning as such. For one thing, they seem to be fine with articulate language as long as it's delivered in a Southern accent. I'm not sure that Freddie could look me in the eye and say that there's not a self-evident love of language and its possibilities on display in lyrics like "I'm the only Hell my momma ever raised" and "She's acting single and I'm drinking doubles." Liberals of a more postmodern bent will appreciate that country music has been self-referential since before Deleuze met Guattari (see "Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life," "Crank the Hank and Crack the Jack," and "Jones on the Jukebox, You on My Mind").

More importantly, let's take some notice of the fact that Mississippi, which ain't no Research Triangle Park, still adores its literary native sons. William Faulkner and Eudora Welty were regarded as eccentrics during their lifetimes, but I'd be surprised to hear a Southerner speak ill of either. NASCAR dads might not get what Faulkner's about, but they respect him. We should also remember that every state in the South broke for Carter four years after they all went for Nixon and four years before every one but Georgia went for Reagan. In the world of fiction, the archetypal "Southern gentleman" is many things; well-spoken is one.

Lastly, I'll bring up a story about Sorkin himself. He's said in interviews that he came up with the idea of doing a sitcom about an ESPN-style sports show because he watched SportsCenter when he was holed up in a hotel writing A Few Good Men, and found himself bowled over by the quality of the show's writing. I'd like to ask Sorkin who he imagined was watching Sports Night (the show within the show, not the two-season sitcom itself); the anchors were Ivy-educated, but it was a sports show.

This is all a moot point insofar as saying that one side hates the other only because they feel hated by them raises the unanswerable question of who shot first. Besides, questions of someone's real psychological motivation are always tough to answer. That aside, I feel confident enough in my psychological reading of the electorate to tell Conor Friedersdorf that he's just wrong when he says that antipathy towards illegal immigrants the political issue of illegal immigration has as much to with the fact that they're illegal as with the fact that they're brown and speak a different language, and I feel just as confident telling Sorkin that he's just wrong when he says that being self-evidently well-educated is a turn-off for the half of the country he disagrees with.

Between the end of the Chatterley ban and Yeasayer's first LP?

Joseph Knippenberg asks the perennial question about kids today:
. . . I learned a long time ago—I’m old, you see—that the original great exponent of youth politics was Niccolo Machiavelli, who was the first to celebrate the political daring and audacity of the young. Audacity is a virtue, in the Machiavellian sense.

Whether or not he’s read Machiavelli, Barack Obama gets that. It’s an old assertion, but those who don’t pay attention to old things don’t know that. It’s also a radical assertion, intended to turn the “old” world on its head, to emphasize action at the expense of contemplation, practice at the expense of theory, the restless activity of the young at the expense of the contemplative repose of the old.

I’m not arguing that Barack Obama is a self-conscious Machiavellian, but he is a politician made for the world that Machiavelli has made, a world in which “we are the change we have been waiting for” makes a certain kind of sense.

That line also makes sense as a kind of appeal to youthful identity politics: we are young and new, intended to replace what is just plain old.
And so on.

I may not be old enough to rent a car, but I'm the wrong person to ask about the inner workings of the 18-25 cohort. (To illustrate: I wasted [redacted from embarrassment] minutes last night arguing over which slogan is the more widely accepted archetype of sixties subway graffiti, "Frodo lives" or "Clapton is God.") That being said, Knippenberg's subject is something I care about, and I was disappointed that he emphasized the aspect of youth identity politics that I find most benign, deemphasized the aspect that bothers me most, and sidestepped entirely the desperately interesting dilemma on which I haven't yet made up my mind.

Old folks think; young folks act. 'Twas ever thus. Hamlet's impotence wouldn't be half so tragic in a character twice his age. Lay that same logic on Lear or Macbeth, flip it, reverse it. This isn't to say that being young is the same as having the right to act, only that age has a duty to act as a check on youth's impetuosity. And youth has a duty to push back against age's inertia. It's the same kind of balancing act that takes place between justice and mercy. They're both right, and they're both wrong; the best we can hope for is a good, clean fight.

On the other hand, Knippenberg breezes past the kind of change that "out with the old, in with the young" usually implies, which is pernicious in a way that mere "change" isn't. What are we sweeping away? Outmoded prejudices. Why? Because we are so much more open-minded. The Whig who thinks of history as one grand march of progress and the liberal who thinks of history as a gradual erosion of prejudices are two distinct kinds of damned fool. The great danger of the latter—the kind of self-consciously young person who draws a straight line from Benson to Ellen to Isis and wonders who's next in line for mainstream acceptance—is that he doesn't feel the need to make a case for his position. Arguments from tradition are beneath his attention. He needs only to wait for the old and prejudiced to die.

If you believe that all truths can be justified through argument, then none of this should bother you. If, on the other hand, there are still some prejudices you would like younger generations to take on faith (and if you've ever tried to persuade—ha!—a five-year-old into thinking that it's nice to share, there are), then this model of youth superseding age should seem dangerous. (I make a longer argument for salutary prejudice here; I cite John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, if that's any enticement.)

So young people should be understood as a political class of their own, not, as is often thought, because they are so much more open-minded than everyone else but because they have so much more energy. (I'd put idealism in the plus column, too, but one doesn't have to.) There remains a question of whether or not it makes sense for a young, politically active person to call himself a conservative. Everyone knows Churchill's thoughts on the subject, but Peter Viereck's take is almost as memorable. He says of William F. Buckley:
Has a young St. Paul emerged form the Yale class of 1950 to bring us the long awaited Good Tidings of a New Conservatism and Old Morality? The trumpets of national publicity imply it. But this Paul-in-a-Hurry skips the prerequisite of first being a rebel Saul. The difference between a shallow and profound conservatism is the difference between an easy, booster-ish yea-saying to the old order and a hard-won tragic yea-saying.
I've said that a give-and-take between activity and intertia is the natural state of affairs between youth and age; Viereck has put forward a give-and-take between liberalism and conservatism. The thirty-second argument against that position is that submitting to some compelling, sublime authority is the beginning of individual self-discovery, not the end. (Again, see this old post.) Young people don't have the same instinctual attachment to authoritative prejudices that their elders do, but that doesn't mean that they're right and their elders are wrong. Sometimes it means that young people need to embrace these authoritative institutions and allow those authorities to shape them, not because these authorities can present good arguments but because they're aesthetically, emotionally, or intellectually compelling. That's what young conservatives are for. The thirty-minute version of this argument is the Kinks' We are the Village Green Preservation Society.

As a last swipe at Viereck, to counterbalance Dan McCarthy's kind words: whose yea-saying is more charmingly tragic, the old curmudgeon's or the Paul-in-a-hurry's?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

If Thorstein Veblen were here, he'd tell you the same thing.

Just as I begin to hear that there might be good news from Whit Stillman someday soon, I come across Whit Stillman's bad news for me:
ALICE: It's odd that he knew I drank vodka tonics. I never told him.
DES: It's uncanny.
ALICE: You mean it's a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics, or something like that?
DES: Well, maybe.
That does it. I'm switching to old-fashioneds.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Carthage Didn't Burn Hot Enough"

I've been following the career of Karmen MacKendrick for a while, mostly because she and I both hold the unpopular opinion that, in the words of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, "life would be quite unbearable without suffering." It turns out that those of us who walked away from Counterpleasures wanting more will not have to wait for the November release of Fragmentation and Memory: Meditations on Christian Doctrine to get our next dose, because MacKendrick's essay "Carthage Didn't Burn Hot Enough: Saint Augustine's Divine Seduction" is available online:
I want to suggest that Augustine stays in love with love—more exactly, that he seeks a constant and potent seduction of and by his God, and that the Confessions is mutually illuminating when read with contemporary theory on seduction. Only seduction will allow Augustine to retain his love of the created world as good while refusing to immerse and gratify himself in its beauty. Augustine's relation to God exemplifies at least three characteristics of seduction: the manipulation of the will beyond a simple opposition of consent and coercion; the persistence of the elusively promising within the representational and discursive; and relatedly, the necessary incompletion of both meaning and desire. The fires of worldly lust are too easily quenched for one who wants to be seduced...

"It's a documentary about weird Southern music, weird Southern religion, and how they're indistinguishable."

Speaking of theologically interesting premises, I recently came across this minute-long Youtube clip from the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which I have posted on before. The transcript doesn't do justice to the man's Appalachian accent:
"Why can't flesh go there? Why can't flesh see spiritual things? Why did there have to be a new way made?" Flesh wants to control. Flesh wants to hold on, it wants to dominate. It wants pride. The apostle Paul said that every time I go to do good, evil is present with me... You'll listen to these songs and start going backward in time or forward in time, because the spirit is just trying to get your flesh confused so it can talk to you. Flesh cannot go to these places.
I was taking Socrates' side in the Crito against a friend of mine three years ago when he pointed to the drink in my hand. I had been trying to argue that one may break laws that demand injustice but must follow those that make unjust demands. At that moment, faced with a choice between retracting my position or making drunkenness a moral imperatve, I wish I'd had this clip handy.

Deconstructing Fallen Angels, and Other Postmodern Conservative Pastimes

When I finished Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God," I thought I would have a hard time coming up with enough of an angle on it to justify a post. "Hey Catholics, here's a short story with a theologically interesting premise" isn't much of a hook. All praises to God for casual Google searches! Chiang isn't even a Christian. Well, stranger things have happened than inadvertent orthodoxy.

In the world of the story, God's existence has been proven. Angelic visitations are reported on the nightly news with statistics on the aftermath: how many miraculous cures, how many deaths and injuries, how many souls saved. Sometimes windows open up through which one can see souls in Hell, not in torment but simply walking around in a Godless dimension.

Our main character is not a devout man. He believes in God but doesn't love Him, knowing himself to be Hellbound but not really minding, given what Hell is like: "Of course, everyone knew that Heaven was incomparably superior, but to Neil it had always seemed too remote to consider, like wealth or fame or glamour." When his wife is killed by flying glass during a miracle, he realizes that the only way to rejoin her is to learn to love God, which introduces the dilemma of having to love God for a worldly reason:
This paradox confronted several people in the support group. One of the attendees, a man named Phil Soames, correctly pointed out that thinking of it as a condition to be met would guarantee failure. You couldn't love God as a means to an end, you had to love Him for Himself. If your ultimate goal in loving God was a reunion with your spouse, you weren't demonstrating true devotion at all.

A woman in the support group named Valerie Tommasino said they shouldn't even try. She'd been reading a book published by the humanist movement; its members considered it wrong to love a God who inflicted such pain, and advocated that people act according to their own moral sense instead of being guided by the carrot and the stick. These were people who, when they died, descended to Hell in proud defiance of God.

Neil himself had read a pamphlet of the humanist movement; what he most remembered was that it had quoted the fallen angels. Visitations of fallen angels were infrequent, and caused neither good fortune nor bad; they weren't acting under God's direction, but just passing through the mortal plane as they went about their unimaginable business. On the occasions they appeared, people would ask them questions: Did they know God's intentions? Why had they rebelled? The fallen angels' reply was always the same: Decide for yourselves. That is what we did. We advise you to do the same.
Chiang has said that, "as I grew older, it seemed to me that the idea of God didn’t explain anything that couldn’t be explained otherwise, so I’m currently an atheist," but a Catholic might say the same thing minus the last clause. Belief in God doesn't solve any metaphysical problems: even if he presented himself, I still wouldn't understand; even having understood, I still wouldn't love; without love, I still wouldn't be saved. His interviewer here calls "Hell is the Absence of God" a story with "a judgmental view of the Almighty," but only because the interviewer doesn't grasp that, when it comes to the uselessness of belief in God, atheists and Christians agree.

I'll give Chiang the last word on the question of whether the story is ultimately pro- or anti-God:
I wanted to explore the idea of a universe in which religion doesn’t require faith. In our world, religion relies on faith because definitive proof is unavailable. As a result, some people choose their religion based on which one makes them feel better, e.g. “I don’t like the judgmental god of Religion A, so I’m going to worship the kind and gentle god of Religion B.” That option exists because neither deity is unambiguously present, but if a particular god were here right now, we’d have to deal with him whether we liked him or not.
Later in the interview, he mentions that the key to unlocking another of his stories is this sentence from an unspecified feminist essay: "Allowing beautiful women their beauty may turn out to be one of the most difficult aspects of personal liberation." Apparently, the story revolves around a young woman who starts a treatment (made mandatory on college campuses) that disables aesthetic reactions to human appearance, then stops taking it in order to learn more about the world. I don't know about you, but I'll be saying a prayer for Chiang's salvation; as for his vocation, he seems to have found it already.

H/T on the story to Leah.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It builds character.

As I boarded the 4:42am train into New York this morning, I was reminded of a colorful explanation a friend of mine offered for why he supported Mike Huckabee: "Most politicians are fake as a drag queen's [...], but there are two kinds of character you can't fake: getting up before seven on a regular basis, and losing weight."

Maybe this means that the campaign should play up Sarah Palin's hunting record. When I was a more serious birdwatcher, I remember that, out at Lake Mattamuskeet during the winter bird count, the only other people in the diner at six AM were the hunters.

Louisiana Governors: Crazier than Anyone Who's Better, Better than Anyone Who's Crazier

Earlier in the week, in the course of meeting a couple of new faces from the conservative blogosphere, I fell into a strange debate: who's crazier, Buddy Cianci or Marion Berry? The real answer, of course, is that either way nobody wins, but it was generally agreed that the name "Nancy Ann Cianci" (say it out loud) outweighs Berry's rhetoric, which was always very elegant. The bitch did set him up.

Still, as Robert Stacy McCain's reference to "a 'live boy/dead girl' scenario" reminds us, there is no state or city in America that can beat Louisiana for colorful and colorfully insane officeholders. There's Edwin Edwards, from whom the expression is taken; there's Huey Long and his still-crazier brother Earl; there's Singin' Jimmie Davis. All of them save Huey served multiple terms. (In other words, Bobby Jindal could challenge the demon soul of Mercedes McCambridge to an arm-wrestling match and still not make the crazy governor play-offs, so quit calling him an exorcist.)

Anyone with an interest in crazy politicians should read Earl of Louisiana, a collection of reports A. J. Liebling did for the New Yorker on Louisiana governor Earl Long in the late 1950's. To unpack the proper nouns in that sentence: the most so-phist-icated magazing in America sent a Jewish kid from Manhattan turned Francophile and gourmand to report on the recently institutionalized hick governor of a hick state. I'm not sure what they expected would happen; as it played out, Liebling and Long hit it off. Long extended to Liebling some Southern hospitality, possibly augmented by the natural sympathy that exists between men who like eating, drinking, and living well, and Liebling developed a great deal of respect for a figure he had been ready to cast as a demagogue and buffoon.

Another reason to pick up Earl of Louisiana: in chapter five, Liebling describes a local man's tone by saying, "Tom was about as neutral as a Louisianan can be during a primary fight, which is to say about as calm as a cat can stay with catnip under its nose." In the context of the rest of the book, this serves as a warning to those with a principled preference for more intense democratic engagement.

(The post's title is taken from a Liebling quote. My mother says I'm prettier than Jean Stafford.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Style, Russian Short Stories, and "Wine's Litigious Imperatives" (not about the Estonian vodka pipeline)

I've already blogged today about revisiting the books of one's childhood, but if you thought that meant you were finished reading about reading, you need to study harder before the exam. As nice as it is to return to books that have mattered, it's even nicer to rediscover a book (or, in this case, an essay) that made a deep impression and then had to be returned to the library (what actually happened), or given back to its lender (plausible), or thrown in the trash after being left in the rain (I miss you, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure). My memory of this William F. Buckley passage was frustratingly imperfect, but that matters less now that I have my own copy (via Paperback Swap):
. . . a story I read sometime during my teens was about a very rich young prince who one evening engaged in a drinking bout of Brobdingnagian dimensions with his fellow bloods, which eventually peaked, as such affairs frequently did in that curious epoch of genius and debauchery, in a philosophical argument over the limits of human self-control. The question was specifically posed: Could someone succeed in voluntarily sequestering himself in a small suite of rooms for a period of twenty years, notwithstanding that he would always be free to open the door, letting himself out, or others in? In a spirit of high and exhibitionistic dogmatism, the prince pronounced such hypothetical discipline preposterous, and announced that he would give one million rubles to anyone who succeeded in proving him wrong.

You will have guessed that a young companion, noble but poor, and himself far gone in wine's litigious imperatives, accepted the challenge. And so with much fanfare, a few days later, the rules having been carefully set (he could ask for, and receive, anything except human company), Peter (we'll call him) was ushered into the little subterranean suite of room in the basement of the prince's house.

During the first years, he drank. During the next years, he stared at the ceiling. During the succeeding years, he read--ordering books, more books, and more books. Meanwhile the fortunes of the prince had taken a disastrous turn, and so he schemed actively to seduce Peter to leave his self-imposed confinement, dispatching letters below, describing evocatively the sensual delights Peter would experience by merely opening the door. In desperation, as the deadline neared, he even offered one half the premium.

The night before the twentieth year would finish at midnight, half the town and thousands from all over Russia were outside to celebrate and marvel over the endurance of Peter upon his emergence. One hour before midnight, the startled crowd saw the celebrated door below street level open prematurely. And Peter emerge. He had, you see, become a philosopher; and in all literature I know of no more eloquent gesture of disdain for money. One hour more, and he'd have earned a million rubles. What style, you say, and I concur.

But what is it about that one hour that speaks so stylishly, in a sense that Peter's emergence one year before the deadline would not, lacking as one year would be in drama; or, at the other end, one minute before midnight, one minute being overfreighted in melodrama? It is style, surely.
I received the anthology that contains this long-lost passage three hours before running into an old friend from high school who, as it happens, also lives in Brooklyn. I don't know what my guardian angel thinks he's doing; I didn't ring any bells.

"Speculative Ethnomusicology?"

If I'm remembering this correctly, the conversation began with a stupid question of mine: is the demolition of Chávez Ravine a story that the man on the street would recognize? Noah said that it might or might not be, but that it was the go-to example for anyone making the argument that urban renewal is, at the end of the day, about not liking brown people. Then (and this is why I mention all of this) we marveled at the Ry Cooder album Chávez Ravine and tried to come up with a name for the bizarre idea behind it. "He imagines an alternate universe in which there are still housing projects there, and then tries to create the music that the residents would have made. What do you call that?" I think we settled on "speculative ethnomusicology," because it makes the whole concept sound almost as strange as it is.

It seems that Neal Stephenson is engaging in a little speculative ethnomusicology of his own:
Most of my music listening happens while I’m working, and so the music has to be compatible with the book I’m writing. Lately I’ve been working on Anathem, which is all about cloistered monks. I needed to get my head into a medieval/monastic frame of mind. At first blush this would seem to call for Gregorian chant. But a little of that goes a long way. Moreover, the monks I’ve been writing about are scientific monks in the distant future of an alternate world. There’s no reason to assume they’d sound like Gregorians.
Reading on, I was disappointed to discover that the music of "scientific monks in the distant future of an alternate world " is not, as I would have expected, Nina Simone and Bryan Ferry.

Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Passionate Readers (Well, Okay, You Can Let Them But Don't Try to Force It)

I've been hearing the pitter-patter of little feet more than is typical for the blogosphere: Camassia and Eve want your children's book recommendations; Papercuts has returned to the subject of "gateway literature" (the first hit is always free); even Alex Massie has put aside the famous British dislike of children to wax tender about Babar. Well, if they've declared it Kids-'n'-Art week on the Internet, I'm game.

Briefly, to oblige Camassia: Three Men in a Boat is the best thing for any young reader you see veering off into sci-fi/fantasy addiction—I can't remember if I was in second or third grade when I read it, but I remember that it did wonders—and my favorite picture book has always been Jack Kent's Round Robin. "He ate and he ate and he ate and he ate until he looked more like a ball than a bird. Everyone called him Round Robin, and he was too fat to fly." Hijinks proceed from there.

I'll also recommend the other pillar of my early childhood, one which will delight armchair analysts: What Girls Can Be, a book of depressing answers. "If I am a secretary, I'll type without mistakes!"—absurd. (Everybody knows that typing with mistakes is much more fun.) It ends, of course, with "Or I might be a mommy with some children of my own!" The story of how my feminism ended up in a Schrödinger box is a complicated one, but it probably starts with that book.

I should admit that I'm not always so willing to put a book at the center of a genesis story. Books appear very late in my story as a film buff, and not at all in my conversion to Catholicism. In the beginning is not always the word, and it's tempting to put it there retrospectively because it makes a better story. Still, I have a very vivid memory of the verse that made me a conservative—I fell in love with the famous Alexander Pope closer "A needless alexandrine ends the song / That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along" and decided that it could only work on so very many levels because of the poet's trust in stodgy things like form and structure—as well as the moment I stepped out of the UConn library after three unplanned hours spent over Charles Bernheimer's Decadent Subjects with the ambition to become an aesthete. (I still have the handwritten notes I took that day, and the paper that came out of it.)

The most important line in Augustine's Confessions is "It cannot be that the son of these tears should perish." It's the moment Monica realizes how the story has to end. Still, it's crucial that the bishop delivers the line less as a comfort and more as an exasperated attempt to get rid of a woman by whom he feels pestered. The point, I suppose, is that these gateway moments happen, with books as often as with anything else, but they're impossible to plan. That being said, anyone who wants a copy of What Girls Can Be is welcome to borrow mine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Move Over, Michael; There's a New Traveloguing Palin in Town

The vice presidential candidate's travels will take her to the UN this Tuesday; no word on whether BBC will broadcast the results as Sarah Palin's Hemingway Adventure.

Post continued at Ladyblog . . .

"Our parents emulated Roosevelt and Farley, but we just wanna grow up to be like Ev and Charlie!"

The recent mini-flap over Westbrook Pegler reminds me of two things: the time that a well-intentioned friend warned me that paleoconservatism was a "fever swamp," and the happier memory of the first time I heard the song that became my arch-ironic anthem. Youtube does not offer a version but iTunes does, so please drop a buck on a copy. I give you the Chad Mitchell Trio's "Barry's Boys":
We're the bright young men who want to go back to nineteen-ten,
We're Barry's boys,
We're the kids with a cause—a government like grandmama's,
We're Barry's boys!
We're the new kind of youth at your alma mater,
Back to silver standard and solid Goldwater,
Back to when the poor were poor and rich were rich,
And you felt so damn secure just knowing which were which!

We're the kids who agree to be social without security,
We're Barry's boys,
'Cause his hat's in the ring where Westbrook Pegler once was king.
(Now he's too left wing!)
So if you don't recognize any old Red China,
Or Canada or Britain or South Carolina,
You too can join the crew
(Tippecanoe and Nixon too!)
Back to Barry,
Back to cash and carry,
Back to Barry's boys!
And so on for several stanzas.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Does the key to unlocking Oscar Wilde lie in the books he read?

Yes, but isn't that true for everyone?

I see via Literary Review that the newest biography of Oscar Wilde is framed as the story of Wilde the omnivorous reader. I'll save up and get a copy, of course, but the review is hardly promising. The author makes a great deal out of the books Wilde requested in jail, but doesn't mention how many books on theology there were. It's a very Catholic list; he had a KJV, as every prisoner does, but he requested a Douay-Rheims Bible anyway. (Those wanting more information know where to look.)

It's obvious that this new biographer is projecting a little. He was deeply affected by Wilde's books at a young age, therefore Wilde must have been the sort of man that was profoundly affected by books. My guess is that he was, but no more than any other man of letters.

I can afford to be this patronizing only because my own path to Decadence and Aestheticism was somewhat different. Huysmans was my gateway drug, not Wilde. I only picked up Dorian Gray after reading that Against the Grain was the "yellow book" from the end of chapter eleven. I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I copied down this passage from chapter two of AtG:
To tell the truth, artifice was in Des Esseintes' philosophy the distinctive mark of human genius. As he used to say, Nature has had her day; she has definitely and finally tired out by the sickening monotony of her landscapes and skyscapes the patience of refined temperaments. When all is said and done, what a narrow, vulgar affair it all is, like a petty shopkeeper selling one article of goods to the exclusion of all others; what a tiresome store of green fields and leafy trees, what a wearisome commonplace collection of mountains and seas!

In fact, not one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and so wonderful, which the ingenuity of mankind cannot create; no Forest of Fontainebleau, no fairest moonlight landscape but can be reproduced by stage scenery illuminated by electric light; no waterfall but can be imitated by the proper application of hydraulics, till there is no distinguishing the copy from the original; no mountain crag but painted pasteboard can adequately represent; no flower but well chosen silks and dainty shreds of paper can manufacture the like of!

Yes, there is no denying it, she is in her dotage and has long ago exhausted the simple-minded admiration of the true artist; the time is undoubtedly come when her productions must be superseded by art.
Still, the conceit of trying to read every book that Wilde read will no doubt help in understanding the man. The day I grokked Eve Tushnet was the day I learned of her special connection to the story "Man Without a Country." I know of at least four people who really believe I'm crazy—X. Trapnel, commenter Anonymous, and the Oxonians James met during his semester abroad to whom he described me as "a fag hag who thinks I'm going to Hell for being gay"—and I can only think that they would be more understanding if they, too, had grown up on Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby. (One hot summer in the 1940's, a stranger arrives at a small-town boarding house and claims to be "the novelist Charles Dickens," hiring the young boy who lives there to take down dictation for his "new novel," A Tale of Two Cities. It is eventually revealed that the man is a failed writer—"I never put two words together that sounded better than they had apart." In the end, Fake Charles Dickens runs away with the town librarian, whose hobby had been locking herself in her office and pretending to be Emily Dickinson; they live happily ever after in their make-believe identities.) Or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I memorized, or Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, or, hell, Jaws II, which I've seen seventeen times.

To return to Wilde and Decadence, I'll offer my highly subjective judgment that Zola's The Sin of Father Mouret is the best introduction to Decadence for anyone who doesn't yet know whether it's a movement they'll find interesting. A young, neurotic priest convalesces on a secluded country farm, nursed only by the beautiful and blissfully ignorant Albine. Mouret falls in love with her as an embodiment of unstudied natural grace, but eventually realizes that her animal grace is morally and physically revolting. Zola had observed the fight between philosophical reason and Romantic natural passion and, by the time of Mouret, was ready to ridicule both sides. Reason is elevated but barren; nature is low and disgusting. Think of it as a Gothic novel minus the sublime.

Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea

A New York moment from Saturday: I see a man descend the stairs down to the Borough Hall subway station. He encounters a police officer, has a conversation with him that I can't hear, and then turns around. As I meet him on the stairs, I ask him if they're turning people away.

He looks me up and down and says, "Only people wearing long sleeves and no socks."

I always thought that was a made-up rule, like "no gin-and-tonics after Labor Day." Besides, I'm not about to wear socks with pumps.

Bookbag: Murmur by J. Niimi

This edition of Bookbag comes courtesy of Continuum Press's 33 1/3 series and is dedicated to Nick, both for being himself and for this life-changing alert.
R.E.M. didn't expect their single to succeed (Buck says that they only hoped just to make one great single before they broke up), and the band sealed copies of their first demo tape with Do Not Open. R.E.M. was the locus of several different brands of fatalism: the "no future" anti-commercial ethos of punk, Southern Gothic's regional defeatism—and later, the emergence of college radio, itself a kind of turning away...
I can't believe I sold my copy of the Sneakers' Racket to the used record store. Still have my Pylon and Let's Active, thank God.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin/Anne Hutchinson follow-up

Mr. Bottum has a point:
Sally Quinn—and what made the Washington Post imagine this gossip columnist was an expert on American religion?—points out the hypocrisy of conservative Protestants both promoting male headship and cheering for Sarah Palin.

To which Helen Rittelmeyer replies the answer is easy: Sarah Palin is Anne Hutchinson reborn. “If even the Puritans couldn’t unequivocally reject the possibility of female public leadership, I don’t know why Sally Quinn thinks that today’s Protestants should have to.”

Um, maybe. One remembers that the Puritan fathers did, in fact, find a way to get rid of Hutchinson (for heresy, as it happens, which also seems to be the charge brought against Palin, though this time from her fellow women rather than the men).
He's certainly right that official hostility to Anne Hutchinson had a lot to do with her gender, but concerns about her gender didn't survive the translation from the governors' internal motivations to their legitimate, publicly stated (the word "legal" isn't quite right here) reasons for exiling her. I didn't mean to suggest that the prosecution of Anne Hutchinson should be understood as a feminist event. However, it's interesting that a trial that should have been a decisive condemnation of feminine leadership ended not quite being one.

Even ze orchestrated architectural conformity eez beautiful.

Conor Friedersdorf thinks he knows why suburbanites refuse to walk even when their destinations are embarrassingly walkable:
1) It’s boring to walk in suburbia! This is especially so in Irvine, where draconian zoning codes mean that every house, condo and apartment looks exactly like every other house, condo and apartment nearby, the strip malls all look basically alike, etc. Paris is pleasant to walk around partly because it is so damned beautiful. The architecture is beautiful. The street signs are beautiful. The landscape is beautiful if you’re atop Monmarte or near the Seine. On a relatively short walk you can traverse adjacent neighborhoods whose aesthetic is distinct.

Seville is beautiful too, but it is a much less wealthy municipality than Paris. Far less is spent on aesthetics, but the buildings still have a lot of character. The streets are also deliciously, absurdly convoluted. There are curvy one lane streets, impossibly narrow alleys, weird diagonals, an old Jewish quarter where there are no cars allowed. Traversing all that in a 1.5 mile walk is far more exciting than walking on identical looking square blocks.

New York City isn’t as beautiful as Paris or as quaint as Seville. In midtown it is downright ugly in parts. But even the ugliest neighborhood is so dense that there is a lot of liveliness on the street. The city keeps the senses entertained. No walk is a long, boring slog.

2) Short blocks are important to a walkable city. It’s the difference between doing three sets of ten jumping jacks, or 30 jumping jacks — the former is just less intimidating, even if irrationally. Blocks break things up. They give a sense of constant progress. They vary the landscape. They also create a grid, which is great because it allows the pedestrian to vary his route, going one way on the way to the market, another way on the trip home and a third way the next day. Any automobile commuter should be familiar with how tiresome it seems some days to drive that same route. It’s the same way when you walk, but the people who planned communities like Woodbridge built long blocks, and "planned" the route people are supposed to take to get from their home to the store.

3) Parking lots are awful to walk through. It’s just no fun to walk across a big piece of asphalt where cars rule. You either pick your way through parked cars, or walk around the perimeter feeling like you wish there was a shortcut. Neither option is very appealing, because the mind wishes for a better option that isn’t afforded. Another way to understand this is to think about how in a large strip mall, anchored say by a supermarket at one end, and a Target a quarter of a mile away across a vast parking lot at the other end, shoppers will often move their cars rather than walk across the parking lot between shops… even though these very same people are perfectly comfortable and happy walking across an indoor mall between, say, Nordstrom and Macy’s.

Merely having stores in Irvine that fronted on the street, so you walked right from the sidewalk into the door, and putting the parking below ground or in back of the shops, would result in more people finding it attractive to walk, though many wouldn’t understand exactly why.

4) The streets are too wide in Irvine. As a pedestrian, you’ve got to wait forever to get a signal, the cars move so fast that it’s difficult to run across against a signal like you often can in New York City on the smaller streets. Narrow streets also make things more lively by allowing you to interact with stuff on the other side of the street.

5) 1.5 miles is a bearable walk to a supermarket, but there is no reason why there couldn’t be smaller shops even closer to home where you could pick up milk or a six pack of beer or toilet paper… except that cities like Irvine decided to completely segregate residences and even low impact businesses like corner stores.
Conor has pulled rank as a Southern Californian and there's only so much I can do to mess with that, but I'll venture a couple of disagreements. First, it isn't architectural monotony that makes walking through suburbia so dull, but the folks. People in suburbia tend to differentiate firmly between dressing to be seen and simply dressing to leave the house. In cities, on the other hand, everyone leaves the house dressed like they might encounter the new love of their lives on the subway (which, given how beautiful everyone is in New York, isn't out of the question). Walking in New York is fun because everyone does it and because everyone is interesting. If more suburbanites took their daily promenade more seriously, they would present themselves more vividly and walking suburbia would become much less dull.

To step back from amateur sociology, I'll offer the obvious point that lots of people don't walk because they can't imagine themselves doing so. Having walked to the store even once breaks that psychological barrier in an important way, which is why I support parents who refuse to buy cars for their teenagers. Teenagers, like addicts, are crafty; they will come up with clever ways to get from A to B without a car of their own, and the habit of walking, biking, or carpooling short distances may persist even after they do have immediate access to cars. (It did in my case.) Don't underestimate the power of having those memories in your arsenal.

I can't really argue with shorter blocks and parking lots, but Conor's fifth excuse strikes me as incomplete. Plenty of concession to commercialism are necessary, but #5 sounds like one that isn't. It's nice to have cozy "third places" (coffee shops, bookstores, barbershops, etc.) less than a mile away, but what happened to residential third places? A lot of my favorite Party of the Right stories take place in dorm rooms that were taken to be always-open informal gathering places where an open door meant free booze and free Socratic conversation. (Ask me about the time [name redacted] accidentally threw a pumpkin out of an Old Campus window onto a cop car, or the story behind the term "doornography.") I can think of two reasons why the practice of the unscheduled social call has declined. First, people these days are too literal-minded to pick up on a host's unspoken signals, and so they're don't feel confident in assuming that they could tell whether the host wanted them to stay or leave. We're all anxious about not wanting to intrude. Secondly, cell phones have made "I was in the neighborhood" an implausible excuse for just stopping by; if you were in the neighborhood, you would have called first, and calling beforehand transforms an informal visit into an arranged meeting. When the informal call dropped off the map, an important excuse for taking a walk went with it.

I don't want to denigrate Conor's list. It points towards concrete policy choices that would go a long way towards making suburbia more walkable. Still, Irvine sounds like a place where the dearth of walkers has more to do with the people than the landscape; sociological reasons matter, too.

In comes Romeo, he's moaning, "You belong to me, I believe." Someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend. You'd better leave."

Joyce the Ringer Brit once tried to explain what it was like for a godless atheist like herself to take a class at the Yale Divinity School. "We were doing Plato," she said, "but the professor kept making weird assumptions about students beliefs. I remember him saying, 'I'm going to assume that we all accept Plato's argument for the immortality of the soul,' and it was all I could do not to raise my hand and explain that that's not how we read Plato downtown." As a religious studies major I took plenty of classes at the Div School and never minded their teaching style, but I have to be sympathetic to Joyce. After all, when you've got a line as good as "That's not how we read Plato downtown," how can you keep from singing?

To add to her catalogue of Outer Borough Readings of Plato, I'll mention something that occurred to me as I went back through the senior essay (read it! I've fixed the typos!). The Symposium describes an eros that (a) transcends the physical, (b) is homosexual, and (c) forms the basis of education. It meant a lot to Oscar Wilde that a figure as august as Plato considered these three aspects to be inseparable, and he wasn't the only gay Victorian to feel that way. Today we think of Plato's reputation as an unimpeachable constant, but, in 1834, J. S. Mill lamented that ten years of Oxford graduates didn't include more than six men who had so much as skimmed the dialogues. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a feeling of rediscovery about Plato, and gay men felt they had a special claim on him. That's why it's funny to me that the pedagogic eros Plato talks about has become the property of straight people.

When I use the phrase "pedagogic eros," I don't just mean that smart is sexy, although I could tell a funny story about the time I kissed a boy I shouldn't have simply because he could recite every also-ran ticket in American history, president and vice-president. It's hard to put exactly what I mean, or, more accurately, it's hard to put it any way without sounding suggestive. Bill Deresiewicz tried here and I can't expect to do better:
. . . the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. [...] Teaching, Yeats said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit.

. . . I’m not saying anything new here. All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers, and laid out in the Symposium, Plato’s dramatization of his mentor’s erotic pedagogy. We are all “pregnant in soul,” Socrates tells his companions, and we are drawn to beautiful souls because they make us teem with thoughts that beg to be brought into the world. The imagery seems contradictory: are we pregnant already, or does the proximity of beautiful souls make us so? Both: the true teacher helps us discover things we already knew, only we didn’t know we knew them. The imagery is also deliberately sexual. The Symposium, in which the brightest wits of Athens spend the night drinking, discoursing on love, and lying on couches two by two, is charged with sexual tension. But Socrates wants to teach his companions that the beauty of souls is greater than the beauty of bodies. Can there be a culture less equipped than ours to receive these ideas? Sex is the god we worship most fervently; to deny that it is the greatest of pleasures is to commit cultural blasphemy.

. . . The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. [D's essay begins by unpacking the stereotype of the "alcoholic, embittered, writer-manqué English professor who neglects his family and seduces his students."—CSB] Yet many thousands of kids go off to college every year hoping, at least dimly, to experience it. It has become a kind of suppressed cultural memory, a haunting imaginative possibility. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.
From Wilde in the nineteenth century to Deresiewicz quoting Wilde in the twenty-first, pedagogic eros has been misunderstood. That's fine; if you've known it, you don't care. The more important question, as Deresiewicz suggests, is where to start looking for it.

There's a widely accepted idea, of which Tim Robbins in Bull Durham is the gutter version, that unconsummated eros is fuel for achievement. (I imagine that taking a vow of chastity is like having this thrillingly difficult attraction not for one person but for the whole universe.) The problem with the popular understanding of this equation is that it assumes that frustration is doing most of the work. Assert that pedagogic eros is chaste without being frustrated and the popular understanding takes a nosedive. That's unfortunate, because the difference between pedagogic eros and sexual frustration is an important one. That, to bring a long post in for a landing, is why straights have a claim on the Symposium in a post-coeducational world. The kind of eros that Socrates and Deresiewicz describe flourishes in relationships where the lower sort of eros isn't just absent but implicitly and categorically off-limits, and, in our country and age, male professor/chick student fits the bill better than either gay male professor/gay male student (erotically charged but not so taboo) or straight male professor/straight male student (not erotically charged*).

This reversal of the Platonic idea is only funny because it takes the most celebrated and least controversial form of homoerotic love and hands it to the other team. I hope I've made half-clear (read that footnote again) that coeducation and the rest of the sexual liberation package deal made this switch inevitable. And that's how we read Plato in Park Slope.

*Due in part to the presence of women. Straight men in all-male environments behave in a very particular spirit that evaporates when women show up.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ladies is prim, too...

The lesson of box-office flop The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)—besides "John Cullum is still alive!"—was that whatever magic had been behind the original Bettie Page phenomenon failed to last into the twenty-first century. We still like high-heeled boots, but, sometime between the moon landing and Madonna's children's books, innocence stopped being hot.

That's why I'm glad to see that Project Runway contestant and Bettie Page ringer Kenley Collins has thrown over decolletage in her Fashion Week collection. Her high-necked creations are sure to warm the hearts of modesty-lovers everywhere.

This particular self-consciously retro style goes beyond the boring justification for modesty—leaving a little mystery is sexier than spelling everything out—and gets psychological, which is interesting. The woman who wears a very high-necked dress isn't just modest. She's prim. Prim is rare; prim has standards; prim is the opposite of mousy. What's going on between postmodern conservatism and vintage fashion? I don't know, but someone should find out.

When "It doesn't quite fit" doesn't quite fit.

Brian Doyle on rejection letters:
One of the very best: a rejection note sent by the writer Stefan Merken to an editor who had rejected one of his short stories. “Please forgive me for not accepting your rejection letter,” wrote Merken. “At this time I cannot accept a rejection of my short story. I accept more than 99 percent of the rejections I receive. Many I don’t agree with, but I realize that accepting a piece of fiction for publication is a very subjective judgment call. My acceptance of your rejection letter is also a subjective process and therefore I am returning your letter to you. I did read your letter. I read every letter I receive. Your letter was well-written, but due to time constraints from my own writing schedule, I am unable to make editorial comments. I do make mistakes. Don’t you, as an editor, be disheartened by this role reversal. The road of publishing is long and tedious. You need successful publications and I need for successful publications to print my stories. I will expect to see my story in your next publication. Good luck in the future.”

Thursday, September 11, 2008

How about a compromise: middle-class men and Marxists both trend totalitarian.

From Michael Weiss's Democratiya piece on Edmund Wilson's politics, an interesting question about totalitarian tendencies among socialists:
Was it his fundamental middle-class nature, as Marx would have argued, or his socialist instinct for despotism, as Flaubert had it, that led [Senecal] to sell out his comrades on the barricades, put down the June Riots and, 'like certain radicals turned fascists,' realise that 'strong centralization of government is already a kind of communism and that authority is in itself a great thing'? By 1948, Wilson, as we shall see in a moment, was firmly in Flaubert's camp on this question.
Not to play up neocon/Marxist consonance more than absolutely necessary, but Allan Bloom's definition of the bourgeois man might be important here: "the man who, when dealing with others, thinks only of himself, and on the other hand, in his understanding of himself, thinks only of others."

UN symposium for victims of terrorism proves controversial.

To read Reuters on the UN's "victims of terrorism" symposium is to get the impression that it was a feel-good photo op with one routine dark cloud making a brief appearance:
. . . Ban brushed aside reporters' questions on why no victims of "state terrorism" or speakers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or the Palestinian territories were present.
The Inner City Press offers its own report the behind-the-scenes controversies, which were more complex than Reuters suggests:
UNITED NATIONS, September 8 —— On the eve of the UN's victims of terrorism symposium, organizing Assistant Secretary General Robert Orr was besieged by press questions about how the victims had been chosen, why no victims from Somalia, Afghanistan or Pakistan—or Sri Lanka for that matter—would be attending, and a right of veto the UN had apparently given to governments over victims from their country.

On Somalia, which Inner City Press asked about, Orr said the UN had tried, but there is a lack of "civil society" organizations to provide contacts with victims. While he claimed that the geographic spread tracked the incidence of terrorism, only one of 18 victims comes from Asia. This despite continuing attacks in Sri Lanka, where suicide bombing is said to have been invented. While all four of the symposium's funders, and four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, are represented by victims, there is no victim from China, despite the characterization of Xingjian insurgents as terrorists, and deadly attacks during the Olympic Games this summer.

More troubling, Orr said that the government of each victim was consulted. Inner City Press asked what this meant in, for example, Colombia, from which Ingrid Betancourt is coming. Would victims of the pro-government paramilitaries not be invited? Orr did not dispute that governments were given veto rights. Rather, he bragged that no country exercised its veto right. But that's based on the proposals that the UN made.
More from Matthew Lee here.

The UN has not yet settled on the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, which is why events like these continue to be politically sensitive. The IHT's claim that "[t]he Arab-Israeli conflict has been the fault line along which consensus has foundered" ain't even the half of it.

Where has this pun been all my life?

Thanks to Millinerd for this. It's better than every Nacirema joke put together.

Move Over, "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah."

Philip Weiss has posted a report on this week's Yale Political Union debate with guest John Mearsheimer ("Resolved: End America's special relationship with Israel"). Go here for the substance; the punchline I post here for your convenience:
There had been one funny speech. Matt Lee of the Progressive Party had chosen to mock the U.S. for being a Jewish mother to Israel, and Israel for being the princeling child—upsetting the mother by coming home with China.

When the questions came for Lee, someone stood up to ask if Israel could “marry a goyische country.” Lee looked around mystified. “I don’t even know what that word means.” Nicola stood up to clarify things. “Shiksa countries are for practice.” It was a neat play on a dirty old line. Marry a Jew—shiksas are for practice. The neocon backbenchers roared.
But do check out the substance. All I can add to his description of the night is that the Union is like that all the time. (Hence the Mafia.) Those with further interest in the YPU's inner workings should consult this video, especially 2:35-2:50. The video, like the Union, is unsafe for work.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Anne Hutchinson teaches us about Sarah Palin

[Ladyblog]: Sarah Palin, a Modern Anne Hutchinson?

Minus the ability to hear the voice of God, presumably.

Christopher on Graham Greene

. . . As much as Pinkie despises Rose, they share a similar outlook as self-identified "Romans," or Catholics. To Pinkie, who even Rose admits is explicitly evil, there is nothing so disgusting as a woman like Ida, who cannot be reduced to either good or evil because she is not Catholic. Greene presents us with axes of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong that do not coincide; Pinkie thinks that he must be right to be a Catholic but he has thrown his hat in with evil because it is a much realer presence to him than good. There is a shade of Gnosticism to this novel; what Pinkie and Rose value is the knowledge of God but not the adherence to His will. And what are we to make of a sympathetic character like Rose anyway, who damns herself willingly out of love? Here is a passage:
'I know one thing you don't[,' said Ida]. 'I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school.'

Rose didn't answer; the woman was quite right: the two words mean nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods Good and Evil. The woman could tell her nothing she didn't know about these she knew by tests as clear as mathematics that Pinkie was evil what did it matter in that case whether he was right or wrong?
As in The Power and the Glory, Greene shows that he understands the complex question of religious ethics better than anyone. If we are to choose between the benign non-religiosity of Ida and the willful evil of Pinkie's religion, what must we choose?
Emphases mine; sophisticated analysis his.

Norman Geras means I love you?

I have to admit that I find the idea of an Ivy League anti-sex blogger pretty intriguing, all the more so for being based out of notorious abstinence hotspot Princeton University.
Hi everyone and welcome to my first post as the Anti-Sex Blogger. Though it's often said that college students live in a culture of rampant sex, most undergrads have no intention of taking the great body of their relationships beyond a hand shake or a hug. So, I hope that as the Underside's new anti-sex blogger, my observations can be useful even to the most sexually active among us. Perhaps you can use my advice to deflect an unwanted advance, stay away from a harmful old flame or, you know, stop being a slut.
So far so good. Unfortunately, things go off the rails around paragraph four:
. . . there is no worse thing to give your lover than a book. Books, more than any other object, resemble platonic friends.
Not true. The secret is in the inscription. As long as there's something suggestive handwritten on the title page, you can give her a copy of Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind without sending the wrong message.

One caveat: don't give her an inscribed book if it's not a sure thing. I picked up a copy of Augustine's Confessions at a used bookstore in Berkeley that had some pretty embarrassing stuff on the inside front cover. (I won't say much, but it started off with "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.") If there's a chance that she'll sell the book, guard your words. You don't want to put the bookstore clerk in the awkward position of using a magic marker to black out your last name.

Moose-killer? Big deal.

I can't believe it has taken this long for someone to make this joke, but that's why Dan Koffler is a hall of famer.

On a related note: in the genre of Christian jokes, "That Bible would have gone through my heart if it hadn't been for that bullet" outdoes previous title-holder "Believe in infant baptism? Why, I've even seen it done!"

Soft Eugenics and Autonomy: "Didn't you get amnio?"

Dylan Matthews objects to the use of the word "eugenics" to describe the overwhelming frequency with which Downs Syndrome babies are aborted:
As practiced in the United States, eugenics involved the forced sterilization of grown women, without their knowledge, with a disproportionately large number of African-American and American Indian women affected. In other words, it was the practice of denying women reproductive choice and autonomy. Kind of like, oh I don't know, Sarah Palin and Michael Gerson want to do.

This might seem like a gotcha post, but there's a really serious point here. Eugenics wasn't murder. Eugenics was the denial of choice. The victims weren't the prospective children of the sterilized. The victims were the women. So it's not only false when Gerson uses "eugenics" as synonymous with abortion, it's extremely disrespectful to the victims and to the concept of women's personal autonomy generally.
This post was triggered by a Michael Gerson column that, as someone as sharp as Matthews should have seen, directly addresses the ways in which eugenic abortion limits personal autonomy:
This is properly called eugenic abortion—the ending of "imperfect" lives to remove the social, economic and emotional costs of their existence. And this practice cannot be separated from the broader social treatment of people who have disabilities. By eliminating less perfect humans, deformity and disability become more pronounced and less acceptable. Those who escape the net of screening are often viewed as mistakes or burdens. A tragic choice becomes a presumption—"Didn't you get an amnio?"—and then a prejudice. And this feeds a social Darwinism in which the stronger are regarded as better, the dependent are viewed as less valuable, and the weak must occasionally be culled.
The decision to carry a mentally retarded child to term means something different in a world where ninety percent of women in that position choose not to. In such a world, the assumption will be that the mother is either a well-to-do woman who can comfortably afford to have an extraordinary child—call it "Variations on a Theme of Angelina Jolie"—or a pro-lifer whose (self-imposed) absolutist beliefs are responsible for her situation. It will be fair to assume that no normal woman would have borne the child since, after all, normal women don't. The child is transformed from something his mother accepted to something the woman brought on herself.

If I were still an undergraduate, I would turn to this thought experiment: let's say you don't want to comply with some request of mine; if I give a dollar in exchange for compliance to everyone else but you, then you should definitely stand your ground, but if I give a million dollars to everyone else, then it begins to look like coercion. Eugenic abortion changes the stakes of having a child with disabilities, and to invoke autonomy as the bright line between "real" and soft eugenics only makes sense in a world where the decisions of others have no effect on me. Basically, I have played the Man is a Political Animal card, which everybody knows is to Autonomy as Jews in the Basement is to Kantian Deontology. Your play, Matthews.

UPDATE: More on disability and pro-life conservatism here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Lady, blog.

[Ladyblog]: Living in Suburbia without a Car: It Can Be Done.

Further reading on public transportation can be found here. "A third of the cost of a new commuter rail in the St. Paul suburbs comes from fulfilling unnecessary federal construction regulations, [St. Paul mayor Chris] Coleman said on the panel..."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Stuck inside of Mobile with the elseblogging blues again.

[TakiMag]: Does veneration really wither on the pavements?

A previous post on rural "conservatism of the heart" can be found here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

George F. Will appendix

From David Bromwich's Politics by Other Means:
For a columnist even more than for other writers, mannerisms are an index of character, and Will's writing from the first has been notable for two: the ventriloquized gruffness of a downright Oxford slang ("Moynihan's basic point is bang on"), which inadvertently carries the Gatsby trademark ("old sport"); and the studding of his text with the names of learned authorities, whom Will brings forward much as an arriviste displays silverware, to dazzle, stagger, oppress, and sicken the visitor to his study, his emporium.

George F. Will is a Sophister and Calculator

John McCain, who is in what Macbeth called "the sear, the yellow leaf" of life, has revived an oldie from seven elections ago with a campaign commercial asserting: "We're worse off than we were four years ago."

. . . We do, unfortunately, live, as Edmund Burke lamented, in an age of "economists and calculators" who are eager to reduce all things to the dust of numeracy, neglecting what Burke called "the decent drapery of life." In this supposedly rational and scientific age, the thirst for simple metrics seduces people into a preoccupation with things that lend themselves to quantification.
There are good reasons to quote eminent sources. The most obviously defensible reason is that an old master came up with the idea you are trying to use and said it better than you could. Another one, less in favor nowadays, is more instinctual. Pre-Scholastic monks dropped scriptural phrases into their personal correspondences because they couldn't help themselves; it was simply in the air supply. I can see myself forgiving a third kind of quote-dropper who only wants to borrow a little authority and strengthen his argument through association or help his description by allusion.

George Will included phrases from Macbeth, Burke, and T. S. Eliot in his column this morning, and it is not at all clear what he thought he was doing. Was he trying to compare McCain to Macbeth? From the rest of the column it seems that Lear would have been better suited to his purpose. I got a kick of of the allusion because "the sear" (wrongly) made me think of "Ulalume," which made me think of Humbert Humbert, which made me laugh. I can't assume that Will meant for me to follow this fanciful chain of thought, but, since he doesn't give any clue as to what association he was trying to make, I can't really assume that he didn't.

But my hackles aren't up over Shakespeare. I've been guilty of bringing Hamlet in where he didn't belong; I'm in no position to judge. But Will's appeals to Burke, like those in McCain's CPAC speech, go beyond misuse into abuse. To quote in full the passage from which both "economists and calculators" and "decent drapery" are drawn:
The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold a generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, achieved defensive nations, the nurse of the manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

. . . But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland the simulation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of her naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.
Burke, in this passage committed to memory by at least a hundred young men yearly, is talking about a highly undemocratic sense of nobility and purpose. Will uses it to evoke middle-class contentment. Burke's decent drapery was worth valuing because it incited action; Will's decent drapery is helpful insofar as it pacifies. Consider the difference between Burke's thousand swords leaping from their scabbards and Will's image of a McCain voter satisfied with his lot in life, and you will have an idea of how far Will has strayed from his source.

Will's thesis is that, for someone who prefers decent draperies to sophisters and economists, the question "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" points toward McCain and staying the course. But Burke's draperies are about honor rather than happiness, action rather than passivity; to apply them today would look like "Miniver Cheevy," not "McCain-Palin." Will can write all the hymns to bourgeois contentment he wants, but, if all he wants to do is remind voters that it's the little, non-quantifiable things that matter in life, he should leave Burke out of it. Name-dropping the man like this—and Will is not the first to do it—doesn't make Burkean conservatives think you're on their team. It makes them think you don't know what you're talking about.