A. Just got back from a industry conference and a pilgrimage – more on that later – which provided a bit of sitting-on-a-plane and stuck-in-a-hotel-room reading time. When reading Brian Niemeier’s books – Nethereal and Souldancer – it is *essential* that one be wide awake and paying attention. Reading either in bed as sleep stalks and takes you – not going to work. Far too much going on. BUT: reading them on the plane home, after getting 9 hours of sleep (unheard of for me) and a brief nap on the plane – well, MUCH better, much more engaging and followable. In a way, this is unfortunate, since I tend to use my small, uncertain and therefore valuable wide-awake reading time for stuff like Fichte and Hegel and education history, while fiction, mythology and short stuff like Chesterton essays get the 30-60 minutes it typically takes me to fall asleep.
B. I’ve mentioned Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club a few times on this blog, generally very favorably.He writes elegant and pithy prose that is a joy to read. His knack for telling details and ability to draw fascinating connections that others might miss are wonderful, and led me to rethink some stuff with which I was already familiar and explore other issues of which I was not yet aware: for example, the role of Puritan Calvinists in the founding of Harvard and thereby in the fabric of American higher education; the (mis)use of statistics at the very foundations of American science; the ubiquity of Pragmatism in American thinking; and, less felicitous and perhaps not entirely intended by Menand, the prevalence and ultimate dogmatic orthodoxy of bone-headed irrationality masquerading as intellectual enlightenment. Examples of this abound. Most strikingly, those following Charles Sanders Pierce, as Menand’s examples amply illustrate, took his Pragmatic Maxims as meaning ‘the ends justify the means’ pure and simple, despite their protestations otherwise. Dewey’s defence of Trotsky (not discussed in the book, although Dewey himself gets plenty of ink) states emphatically that any appeal to conscience or ideals in determining what is ethical is delusional, that all that matters is the outcome of the actions – bring the Worker’s Paradise closer, and your actions are ethical in any meaningful sense.
So it was with some degree of anticipation mixed with dread that I read Menand’s latest essay in the New Yorker, KARL MARX, YESTERDAY AND TODAY (1). It was worse than I hoped, largely made so by Menand’s excellence as a writer. This is something I’ll need to sit down (when wide awake) and reply to with some formality – Menand’s skill and power cannot be simply dismissed, even where his arguments are wonderfully and beautifully couched sophomoric drivel. He woefully misunderstands (or, perhaps, misrepresents) Hegel, and thus Marx – not surprising, since he received a top-drawer education from precisely those institutions for whom a distilled and distorted Hegel and Marx are like drugs administered by sirens. Taken straight up and far from the Sirenum scopuli, they taste different, as it were, and intoxicate much less. When Menand tries to sell us on the idea that, somehow, Marx must be understood as an avuncular Victorian not to be held responsible for his followers doing what his rhetoric and logic clearly insist they do, he is simply another apologist trying to salvage Marxism from the wreckage of its own making.
The divorce of Marx from the train wreck of historical Marxism has become job 1, as the Walter Durantys and useful idiots running our universities try, again, to convince us that magic is in the air – the magic that will bring about a Workers Paradise if only we destroy the current culture and kill enough of the Bad People. The indoctrination of, now, a 4th straight generation of 18 year old college kids is at stake: it is still barely possible for the eternal adolescence and rock-solid ignorance inculcated K-12 to be breached, in some rare cases, by confrontation with reality. While it is, we fervently hope, inevitable that some percentage of kids get through with their ability to reason and observe not entirely destroyed, the system’s white blood cells must be ready to attack and quarantine such infections until they can be killed off. Thus, having urbane and witty writers crank out oh-so-subtle and charming an essay as this one by Menand helps give that warm fuzzy feeling to any intellectuals who might otherwise suspect that Marx as Cause might, indeed, be linked to Marxism, the Effect – totalitarianism, poverty, and the corpses of 100 million innocent people slaughtered by their own governments.
C. On a happier note: 2/3rds through reading Swan Knight’s Son to our 12 year old (and his mom has been joining the reading as well – cool!). I have not been able to resist reading ahead to the next book – the Feast of the Elves. Wonderful stuff. Ruff the Pooka/Dog is everybody’s favorite character so far, although I feel great sympathy for Gil’s long-suffering and heroic mother. When (as I’m hoping) John C. Wright resolves her pains and problems gloriously, somehow, I may cry.
I don’t read enough of modern YA fantasy lit to know what is/may become a classic, but I’d bet on this series if I were a betting man. Wright continues in this series two themes he’s taken up before that he clearly loves dearly, that were held as common sense by ages of men, and that the modern world seriously discounts: the existence of worlds we do not see, and the role of man in elevating the lives of animals. The ubiquitous tales of ghosts and spirits, the mythologies of gods and demigods, and the accounts of angels and visions all point to something more than some sort of group psychosis – they support a shared human experience of a more complex world than what presents itself readily to the eyes, a world full of things and beings beyond our ready understanding, making sense only and ultimately in relation to the Divine. Further, neither are animals mere machines as Descartes would have, nor are they better versions of humans, as animal rights folk (who know perhaps less, even, of animals than they do of rights) would have us believe. Rather, they are our companions, creatures like us, but dependent on us to realize their final cause – which might sometimes be to become hamburger, but ultimately may be to become more human. Animals and men interacting in ways appropriate to the animals and to men makes both men and animals more human.
D. Tonight is a meeting of the San Jose Chesterton Reading Group. We are working through In Defense of Sanity, a collection of his essays. Mind-boggling stuff. For tonight, we are reading 3 essays (they are short) first published in Sidelights in 1932: A Plea for Prohibition, The American Ideal, and Marriage and the Modern Mind. I’ll leave with the opening salvo from that last essay. For those not familiar with GKC, this is about as aggressive and pointed as he ever gets:
I HAVE been requested to write something about Marriage and the Modern Mind. It would perhaps be more appropriate to write about Marriage and the Modern Absence of Mind. In much of their current conduct, those who call themselves ‘modern’ seem to have abandoned the use of reason; they have sunk back into their own subconsciousness, perhaps under the influence of the psychology now most fashionable in the drawing-room; and it is an understatement to say that they act more automatically than the animals. Wives and husbands seem to leave home more in the manner of somnambulists.
If anybody thinks I exaggerate the mindlessness of modern comment on this matter, I am content to refer him to the inscription under a large photograph of a languishing lady, in the newspaper now before me. It states that the lady has covered herself with glory as the inventor of ‘Companionate Divorce.’ It goes on to state, in her own words, that she will marry her husband again if he asks her again; and that she has been living with him ever since she was divorced from him. If mortal muddle-headedness can go deeper than that, in this vale of tears, I should like to see it. (He died too early to see our age, evidence that God is indeed merciful – ed.) The newspaper picture and paragraph I can actually see; and stupidity so stupendous as that has never been known in human history before. The first thing to say about marriage and the modern mind, therefore, is that it is natural enough that people with no mind should want to have no marriage.
But there is another simple yet curious illustration of modern stupidity in the matter. And that is that, while I have known thousands of people arguing about marriage, sometimes furiously against it, sometimes rather feebly in favour of it, I have never known any one of the disputants begin by asking what marriage is. They nibble at it with negative criticism; they chip pieces off it and exhibit them as specimens, called ‘hard cases’; they treat every example of the rule as an exception to the rule; but they never look at the rule. They never ask, even in the name of history or human curiosity, what the thing is, or why it is, or why the overwhelming mass of mankind believes that it must be. Let us begin with the alphabet, as one does with infants.
- The New Yorker is like cotton candy for the mind: a little tastes oh so great; a bit more starts to sicken; enough and you get sick at the very thought. Even the cartoons, brilliant as they often are, wear thin and finally become as repulsive as everything else about that magazine. That there are occasional excellent pieces that do not end up as a combination self-back-patting lovefest/condescending sneer is a little like how Bradbury used to publish stories in Playboy – they may be good stories, but publishing good stories was not the point of the magazine.