The Moon Poolis the second Abraham Merritt book I’ve read from John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Library. Published in 1919, the story concerns a first-person narrator Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, a scientist/adventurer traveling about Polynesia. He runs into Throckmorton, an old friend, who is in ragged shape and whose face flashes strange signs of ecstasy mixed with profound horror. He tells Goodwin that his wife and their companions were taken by some eldritch horror while he and his team were exploring some very ancient ruins near Borneo. Classic ‘can’t get the natives to help, they all leave for 3 days around the full moon, great evil lives in those ruins! Run! Ruuuun!’ situation – but of course they don’t. They discover some ancient gateway that only opens when enough moonlight strikes it, and out from which comes the Shining Horror. On three consecutive nights, the Thing grabs a team member until only a desperate and nearly deranged Throckmorton is left.
On board the ship Goodwin and Throckmorton are taking to Australia for supplies to help get Mrs. Throckmorton and friends back, the full moon rises over the ocean. On the first night, Throckmorton is spared by overcast skies. But eventually, the moonlight reaches the ship – and Goodwin sees sees his friend taken before his eyes!
Goodwin thinks the story is too insane to tell the crew, and has no hope of finding Throckmorton alive out in the ocean, so he keeps quiet. He gathers the equipment he needs, then gathers a set of heroes: Larry O’Keefe, the brave, dashing, handsome Irish-American aviator who happens to go down with his plane within sight of Goodwin’s ship, and Olaf, a giant Norwegian sea captain who had his wife and daughter taken by the Shining Horror and is attempting to follow them. They set out for the ruins…
Merritt has a wonderful archaic vocabulary, and loves detailed descriptions of everything. He also has an over-the-top pulp sensibility about adventures and love. Of course, there’s an evil but irresistibly beautiful priestess and a pure and valiant Handmaiden of the Silent Ones, both of whom fall madly for O’Keefe. The love triangle plays out in the most dramatic, swashbuckling way possible. Narrow escapes, betrayal, evil Russian scientist, human sacrifice, mistreated slaves, frogmen, deadly plants, poisonous jellyfish of doom – and the Shining One, a creature of unparalleled beauty – and evil!
I made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews of this book, who modern readers give 3.3 stars, on average. One even said they were repelled by the obvious racism – Merritt commits the unforgivable sins of mentioning the Chinese tend to have slanted eyes, and that Polynesians tend to be short and wide – and other such horrors. That his heroes include frogmen and some of these same Polynesians doesn’t seem to register with woke readers. Pshaw! If you get into the spirit of the thing, this book is loads of fun.
I don’t know enough to say how old or widespread or, indeed, original, the tropes found in this book are, but Merritt is the earliest stuff that I’ve read that includes many of them – anti-gravity, ancient civilizations under the earth, many different intelligent species, panspermia, the whole natives won’t go there, stupid white man thing, disintegrator rays, evil Russian scientist, spring to mind. Goodwin is always making scientific asides and footnotes to make it seem real – Merritt was as up on the ‘modern’ science of 1919 as Verne or Heinlein was on the science of their times.
Merritt had an obvious influence on Lovecraft, seems to me. While the exotic adventure story is certainly nothing unique to Merritt, I don’t recall anyone else who creates such a brooding sense of horror blended with science – until Lovecraft. Edgar Rice Burroughs definitely does the exotic setting in fine detail thing, and the over the top adventure and love story stuff, but not with the science background – at least not to the degree of Merritt. I’m sure there are a number of threads leading to and from Merritt in the world of speculative fiction – I’m not well read enough yet to point them out with any confidence.
Kindle has that wonderful lookup function, with bailed me out a number of times with Merritt’s vocabulary. I recalled ‘lambent’ and ‘ebon’ from The Metal Monster, but he had some new ones here. I like learning new words, bring ’em on!
So, 5 stars. Lots of fun. Indulge your inner Indiana Jones and just go with it, and it’s great.
This past week, read a couple short books and waded into a SF classic:
1920 was an interesting year: the people of the West, including writers, were just coming out of the horror of WWI. Wells’ Outline of History (which I, so far, have lacked the inner strength to even try to tackle) was serialized over 1919, but published in book form in 1920. Belloc published Europe and the Faith in 1920, as the response of a real historian (and a Christian) to Wells’ rewriting of history to be more in line with his Fabian socialist fantasies. It took Chesterton until 1925 to publish his rebuttal, Everlasting Man. The problem is one still with us: serious scholars accept the validity of the criticism that history as written has the writer’s inescapable cultural and personal biases baked in. Socialists critics then feel free to rewrite history, bake in their own biases, but then reject any criticism. So serious scholars, trying to do their best and well aware of their limitations, feel the sting of criticism to which their opponents assume immunity. Thus, Wells is as insanely biased as any writer, but his history was seen as somehow more valid because it was a ‘response’ to previous writers assumed biases.
It helped that Wells’ take appealed to the fantasies of his social class, which saw the Late Unpleasantness as a repudiation of everything they had believed – God for Harry, England, and St. George, so to speak. The gross biases of the amateur Wells are preferred to the more conscious and defensible biases of a pro like Belloc. The defense deployed by the rewriters of history is to simply dismiss their critics as backwards, and never directly address the criticisms themselves. Sound familiar? The weakness of traditional historians of the time was that they took their critics seriously, more or less – a favor their critics never returned. You lose that battle before it begins.
Speculative fiction was also engaged in the battle of how we tell the story of ourselves. Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, is a completely nihilistic work, aiming to show the fraud and inanity of all human efforts – not surprising, given the shattering effect of the First World War.
Lord of World was published in 1907, before WWI and the Russian Revolution. Benson could assume socialism, the fad and infatuation of his age, would work just fine – except for the part about destroying the human soul, which he saw apart from that destructions physical manifestations in totalitarianism and physical suffering. Even as early as 1920, events had contradicted the airy fantasy that socialism could replace decadent capitalism (by which we mean, evidently, Russian feudalism) with a much better, *scientific* rule by experts.
Which brings us to today’s mini-reviews: John C. Wright wrote The Lament of Prometheus: An Examination of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a short book in which he proposes to explain Lindsey’s vivid symbolism, heaps praise on his imagination, yet ultimately calls the book a failure. I suppose I should be more interested in Lindsey’s book, as it was very influential in the decades after its initial release. Voyage to Arcturus itself failed, generally, to hold my full attention – too much pointless violence, too many abrupt and complete changes in motivation, too grim a view of just about everything. It ends in defiance, I suppose, when despair would be a more obvious and truthful response. It’s just you in the void, baby, whatever you may happen to be, doomed to pain and failure, so – rock on? I guess?
Wright’s book was very helpful in getting a grasp on what Lindsey is up to. I was picking up on maybe 25% of what Wright lays out. Lindsey gives everything goofy names – Joiwind is a sort of nature-spirit, pure in love; Tormance is a planet of pain; Maskull is a mask on a skull – a sincere veneer over what is ultimately a dead man walking (I guess Everyman was taken…). And so on, virtually every name for a character or place has an over-the-top meaning, just in case you miss the point being hammered into your brain.
Wright explains that Lindsey is presenting a modernized take on classic Gnosticism, where the spirit is good, the body is evil, and the physical world is a trap and a lie. Maskull’s constant flipping from one set of beliefs and goals to another are what happens to souls that seek enlightenment in a world controlled by the Demiurge. That he’ll hate, love, then hate and murder someone he just met – hey, that’s the way things are, here in this valley of tears.
I appreciated Wright’s authorly analysis of Voyage‘s shortcomings as literature – how set ups must have payoffs, that themes demand a certain kind of resolution, and how Lindsey’s dazzling imagination can mask how thoroughly he fails to deliver as an author. What I experienced as frustration, Wright, as a master of the craft, sees in terms of failure at that craft. Very interesting.
If you want to read Voyage to Arcturus – I don’t regret doing so, but I doubt I’ll go back for more- do so, then read Wright’s book to fully plumb its depths.
Next, since I was on a Wright kick anyway, and have a small pile of his books already purchased but not yet read, I went on to read a collection of his essays, From Barsoom to Malacandra. They were all good. I particularly enjoyed his two on Lewis’s Space trilogy, The Silent Planet and A Voyage to Venus. Those of us who are regular readers of his blog have come to expect the deep yet charming analysis Wright doles out on books he loves; on books he doesn’t love so much, we get honest praise and a serious breakdown of its flaws. This book is full of both. He owns up to having misunderstood Heinlein all these years, spoofs the insult that is the current round of Star Wars films by all but writing appropriate sequels himself, discusses the intrusion of political messaging in fiction (and how and how not to do it) and laments and otherwise excellent anime series that dies a stupid death right at the finish line.
Good stuff. Check it out.
Finally, a preliminary review – dipped again into the Essential SciFi list, and chose Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker. About 1/3 the way through. It has been, so far, all but impossible to read this book as anything other than 1937 vintage progressive propaganda. All the fun stuff that Woodrow Wilson supported – eugenics, euthanasia, racism, socialism, all us little people ruled by our mire enlightened brethren – for our own good, of course! – all told in a insufferably sympathetic tone: poor, poor, little people! So doomed! If only enlightenment, insight, and communism could rule them! All would be just swell!
Maybe this is just me projecting my expectations back onto poor Olaf, but: so far, in the first 3rd of the book, you could find more diverse forms of intelligent life in Queens, NY, than he ‘finds’ on a million planets. All are locked in class struggles; all hang suspended beneath inevitable economic dialectics; racism, slavery, the excesses of capitalism – everywhere! From slug-beasts and sentient ships to symbionts, it’s all Marx all the way down!
Blech. Not exactly creative. But praised! Oh, yea, all the right people love them some Starmaker!
A. When I say ‘functionally innumerate’ I mean unable or unwilling to understand what a set of numbers mean. This is distinct from the ability to do math, but obviously related. Thus, you do get model builders and people with the title: scientist, who may have learned a lot of math, but are nonetheless functionally innumerate: they lack the ability or, worse, the interest, to try to understand what it is they’re looking at.
I’m guessing 99% of people are functionally innumerate in this sense. To such people, a thousand, a million, a billion and a trillion are just big numbers, with maybe a vague notion that each step is bigger in some unclear manner from the one before it.
Thus, when you say: “100,000 Americans may die of COVID 19,” all the innumerate hear is: big, scary number. The functionally numerate immediately think: “accross how big a population?” And: “compared to what background death rate?”
Then, we perform a little math – in our heads, because we’re just trying to get an idea of scale. We also suspect with near-certainty that any such numbers are going to be sloppy, so getting the result accurate out to a bunch of decimal places isn’t worth the trouble. Just ball-park it, see what we’re talking about.
So: the US population is about 330M. The 2020 background death rate is about 0.888% (that’s a UN estimate based on trends over decades, prior to the COVID 19 outbreak.) So, let’s see: a 0.1% risk of death = 1 in 1,000 Americans dying – from COVID 19 which would mean 330,000 dead, right? So, if we think 100,000 people will die this year from COVID 19, then our COVID death rate is right around 0.03%.
Thus – and this is an absolutely simple minded analysis, since no disease affects every group in a populations the same way – 100,000 COVID 19 deaths would increase the imaginary typical American’s risk of dying this year from 0.888% all the way up to 0.918%.
The functionally innumerate cannot grasp that this is trivial, that we’ve gone from just under 9 people out of 1,000 dying to just barely over 9 people out of 1,000 dying. The hypothetical average American’s risk of death has not increased to any meaningful degree. They still see that big, scary number, 100,000, which, in their minds, might as well be 1,ooo,000 or even 100,000,000. It’s just a scary thing, that is all.
This is before the obvious caveats: e.g., that 60% (most likely; not all states report this, but based on the rest of the West) of the deaths are nursing home patients. Not *just* the elderly, but the elderly who are sick enough to be incarcerated, and have a median 3 to 15 month life expectancy once they become incarcerated. In other words, COVID 19 is generally killing people who were, sadly, going to die soon anyway. So, reduce that 0.03% by, say, 50% – now (remember, we’re just ballparking here) that’s around a 0.15% increased chance of death – from a background rate of 0.888% up to a COVID-added rate of 0.903% – this is what the functionally numerate would call ‘noise’ – a level of change that’s probably well within the sloppiness of the underlying numbers.
And the most obvious caveat of all, something known from the very earliest analysis done in China, and confirmed EVERYWHERE: If you’re younger – like under 65 – and healthy, your chances of dying of COVID 19 are, effectively, 0.
BUT: not zero! So the occasional seemingly healthy person will catch (or be more or less plausibly assumed to have caught) COVID 19 and, tragically, die.
These deaths, of seemingly healthy people, is, at most, 5% of the deaths. I get this number by looking at something reported out of New York: 95% of the victims had (usually multiple) pre-existing morbidities. That would mean 5% of COVID victims are otherwise healthy. Again, we’re spitballing here, could be off, but, based on everything I’ve seen, not by a whole lot.
Thus, out of our 100,000 assumed deaths, 5,000 would be people who weren’t already seriously ill. Thus, we can cut the risk of a healthy person dying of COVID 19 down to 1/20th of that .015% – now we’re really in background noise territory.
BUT: our intrepid ‘news’ media is stone guaranteed to find every one of those deaths and make sure we all know about them. And the functionally innumerate will see those incredibly rare cases as PROOF we’re all going to die if the government doesn’t save us.
And even this is before the issues around what is being counted and how, which puts another level of downward pressure on any risk numbers. The risk to anyone not already toeing the threshold of St. Peter’s Gate is: 0. As in, nada. As in, wear a helmet, because a meteorite might hit you in the head level risk.
So, we have our well-schooled yet functionally innumerate population absolutely terrified COVID 19 will kill them unless the government forces all the mean people to behave like political prisoners – just as they, themselves, are proudly behaving! – or else we’re all going to die!
And don’t get me started on much fun it is to get lectured about ‘the science’ by the scientifically illiterate, who are basically the same people.
Bottom line: if we were believably talking about half a million dead, maybe – maybe – we could justify the so far hidden but not therefore any less real cost of the lockdown on the health of all those millions of people who have lost their jobs, strained their relationships, and had their risks of stroke and heart attack raised with their anxiety levels. Kids getting beaten by stressed out unemployed parents; old folks needlessly terrified into a heart attack; borderline alcoholics going all in due to despair; depressed people killing themselves. These are just as real risks, and more widespread and serious, than anything posed by COVID 19.
B. Possums. Got possums in the backyard. When I turned the compost, which is in a box set on bricks on the ground to keep it more level, and got to the ‘floor’ which becomes the ‘top’ when you flip it, I flushed out 3 young possums hiding there. I was startled, and said a bad, bad word.
I like nature’s little creatures as much as the next suburban kid who never had to deal with them on a farm, but – nah. I’ve put in a nice garden, and don’t need possums deciding that my fruits and vegitables look good, once they’ve finished eating the oranges off our neighbor’s tree. Judging from the peels under the compost bin, that’s what they’re now living on.
A few years back, I paid unconscionable money to have an expert trap and remove a family of possums from under my shed. Don’t want to do that. But the options do not inspire confidence. Maybe I should borrow a dog for a week or two?
C. Regular reader J. J. Griffing commenting on my review of John C. Wright’sPhoenix Exultant, recommended The Far End of History, a story by the same author, that involves one of his best characters from the Golden Age trilogy: Atkins, the last soldier. I recommend it, but only after reading a bit of the trilogy so you have a better idea of Atkins.
So, was thinking I’d list some of my favorite John C. Wright characters, and ask you all: who’d I miss?
Order is not a ranking. Maybe we could do that later?
and I’ll think of a bunch more I’ll be embarrassed to have forgotten as soon as I publish this…
D. Less concerning than the possums, but more immediate: something is eating a lot of my little plants, but not the usual suspects as far as I can tell. Little holes in the leaves, which, in the worst cases, leave lacework leaves that then die. Don’t see any caterpillars, or any bugs at all, really, but do see vast numbers of sow beetles and pill bugs – we seem to have both in great numbers. In our compost bin, they have found their perfect environment, and have bred accordingly. Thus, when I sift out some compost to add to the plants, I see thousands of them crawling around in it. Then, I imagine, removed from their copious supplies of rotting materials in the compost bin, they start in on the live leaves.
Or maybe it’s some other bug? There are sure plenty of suspects around. Earwigs, some other crawlies I don’t recognize. I tend to go very light on the chemicals.
Sow beetles and pill bugs, known by a hundred local names, are cool in themselves – not insects, but crustaceans more closely related to lobsters than bugs. Also found out your basic garden varieties can live 3 years, and that closely-related species, some huge, live in the oceans.
Nonetheless, I may have to find a way to reduce their numbers pretty soon, while I still have live seedlings in the ground. Or figure out what else is eating them.
Short & sweet: a lot of fun, full of adventure, heroics, and romance, and a little more readily accessible than the first book in the trilogy. By this second book, the large cast of characters and mind-blowing future world had already been introduced, allowing the reader to focus more on characters, whodunit, and stuff blowing up – the last being the hallmark of good space opera. Go purchase and read the trilogy!
Following the Golden Age (reviewed here), the first book of his Golden Age trilogy, in ThePhoenix Exultant Wright plunges our hero Phaethon, fresh from being condemned by the College of Hortators, shunned, and banished from the Golden Oecumene, into deeper and deeper trouble.
Minor spoilers ahead.
The story picks up after Phaethon has climbed down a space elevator – his shunning means no one in good standing with the Golden Oecomene will help him in any way – from geosynchronous orbit to earth’s surface over the course of a few months, and found himself in the middle of the celebration of the upcoming Transcendence. Trouble is, without the help of the mentality and its sense-filters, he sees not the elaborate and beautiful representations, but the crass and dull ugliness of unfiltered reality.
If people knew who he was, he would be immediately shunned and heckled and otherwise abused and driven away; as it is, the tradition is to celebrate the Millennial Transcendence with a masquerade – nobody knows who anybody is, unless they deign to tell him.
Based on what the detective sophotec Harrier told him at his exile, Phaethon needs to get to Ceylon, to a town called Talaimannar, where fellow outcasts live an impoverished existence outside the mentality. Trouble is, no one can offer much help to someone disconnected from the mentality, and his question – where am I and how do I get to Talaimannar? – would be nonsensical to anyone in the mentality, as that sort of information would be supplied by the matrix as soon as the question was formed.
Phaeton causes a ruckus, his identity becomes known, and he somehow finds his way aboard an airship run by the Bellipotent Composition – a disbanded and disgraced group mind, also outside the mentality, who dumps him unceremoniously at his destination.
Manor born and previously wealthy beyond all imagining, and bereft of the help of the Radamanth house sophotec he’d taken for granted his entire life, Phaethon has to navigate and negotiate with the sort of riff-raff who get themselves exiled. He needs to stay alive, find a way off earth, and regain his starship, all while broke and shunned by virtually everyone who could help him. It does not go well, at least at first.
The book becomes part Swiss Family Robinson (I suppose people might today think “MacGyver” but I’ve never seen that show) and part whodunit, as Phaeton jury-rigs a life, makes contact with unlikely sources of help, extricates himself from the snares of his new ‘friends,’ and plans his escape – all the while trying to avoid being discovered and killed by an unknown enemy who everybody else seems to believe is part of an elaborate fantasy devised by Phaeton to escape justice.
While the first book is set in a future Utopia of vast wealth, luxury and freedom, the second explores the underbelly of that same society. I most enjoyed the characters. Daphne, a clone of sorts of Phaeton’s wife which she made before she descended into a fantasy world from which there is no escape, is in many ways a classic dame from a Raymond Chandler novel, desperately in love with the man she believes is her husband. She accepts exile and the risk of death to help him. Harrier, the sophotec detective, is a nice touch, a little bit Sherlock Holmes.
Best of all is Atkins, the last soldier in the Oecomene, who steals the show whenever he’s onstage. Atkins takes a stern military joy in having and even, very rarely, using weapons of unimaginable power. Phaethon’s predicament provides Atkins with the first chance he’s had in millennia to be what he is: the last defender of the Golden Oecomene. Daphne observes that he and Phaethon are having a little testosterone competition, and that Phaethon is woefully outclassed.
This middle book ends with Phaeton having solved many of his problems with the help of an unlikely and amusing cast of characters, but still not fully knowing who his true adversaries are, nor his enemies’ goals and powers.
Short and sweet: The Golden Age, first of a trilogy, is fun book, set thousands of years in the future yet strangely appropriate to our own time. Packed with memorable characters and Wright’s usual boatload of fascinating ideas. Read it now.
This book, along with the rest of the trilogy – The Phoenix Exultant and the Golden Transcendence – were about eye-high, when I’m seated, in the bookcase to my left where the SF&F I’m supposed to have read by now is kept. The education stuff, once seated in my office, is above eye level straight ahead, and thus easier to ignore…
Just finished rereading this, noticed I’d never reviewed it. Reminds me of Lord of the World in one critical respect: it asks the question – what if things work out? What if the promised Golden Age is indeed brought about by human effort? Benson sets his story right about now, and the ‘technology’ that succeeds is centralized control of everything – a plausible enough fantasy for the earliest years of the 20th century, before WWI, the Russian Revolution, WWII and the Cold War made it seem too fantastical. Wright sets his story many thousands of years into the future, and gives hints about all the wars and troubles humanity went through to get there, but, by this time, (almost) all people – vanilla and enhanced, and machine intelligences, and collective minds – believe they are in a Golden Age, free from want and violence, free to enjoy fantasies both mundane and esoteric.
Both Benson and Wright address: What could possibly go wrong?
One exception is our protagonist, Phaeton, son of unimaginably brilliant and rich Helion, who is attending the once-in-a-millennium months-long party known as the Transcendence. Here, along with entertainments and competitions, possible future scenarios for the next thousand years will be presented for public approval. These scenarios are worked out by the Peers – the richest, most powerful minds in the Solar System, of which Helion is one – with the aid of sophotechs – strictly computer intelligences that run everything for maximum human comfort and freedom, after a fashion. Once a consensus on a desirable future is reached, the sophotechs will do whatever is necessary to make it happen.
Technology has advanced to the point where no one need see or experience or remember anything they don’t want. Depending on individual wealth, a person might live in a vivid construct of their own design, produced and managed by their own sophotech, if they’ve got one. Individuality is expressed in what kind of construct one chooses to live in, and under what rules. Should it be ‘realistic’? Should all pleasures and pains be enhanced? Beautiful? Under what standard of beauty?
A person can choose where to be within these various constructs, whether to see things as they appear to the naked eye, to filter out unpleasant things, to add more pleasant things, or to simply become immersed in a complete dreamworld. People can chose to see the world from other people’s ‘perspective’ – that is, within the constructs and rules other have chosen. Memories and minds themselves can be recorded, stored, transferred, and destroyed.
All sophotechs cooperate in creating the Earth Mind, which is the greatest intelligence in the Solar System, who keeps everything pleasant and peaceful, and to whom all turn for guidance.
The sophotechs will not, however, interfere with human desires that are merely self-destructive. Private rights, including property rights, are pretty much absolute. It’s a libertarian paradise, up to a point. The Peers are unimaginably wealthy, and like it that way. People routinely join group minds, which is, effectively, suicide after the manner, but much more pleasantly than, being assimilated by the Borg. Or submerge themselves in a dream world from which they can never be reawakened.
Phaeton quickly realizes something is wrong in his beautiful dreamworld, something he can’t quite remember. Wandering the vast parklands created for the Transcendence, he encounters a cryptic old man who offers a few baffling hints, and a strange blue Neptunian. The Neptunians are among the few who aren’t enraptured by the current state of affairs, and thus live past Neptune out where they can enjoy a degree of freedom – miserable (by comparison) lonely freedom.
The Neptunian tries repeatedly to get Phaeton to accept some seemingly harmless direct mental interactions, to grant some direct access to his mind, which Phaeton rejects. The Neptunian hastily departs just as Atkins, the last soldier and the one mind in the Oecomene left who can wield deadly violence for the state, shows up, and yet another cryptic encounter befalls Phaeton.
The story then deploys the amnesia device: protagonist wanders from clue to clue, trying desperately to discover what he has forgotten. He discovers his memories are locked away somewhere, and that he agreed to their removal, and agreed not to retrieve them…
Wright fertile imagination always supplies many characters to his stories. Here, among many others, we meet Gannis, a group mind and an adversary, Daphne, Phaeton’s wife, Helion, his tragic father, and, best of all, Radamanthus, the house sophotech for Helion’s and Phaeton’s manor house. Radamanthus has a wonderful sense of humor, appearing in the constructs sometimes as a portly butler, sometimes a geometric figure, but, usually, as a penguin.
The book ends with what is almost literally a cliffhanger, after a trial scene reminiscent of the climax of heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. On to the Phoenix Exultant.
That this is a preposterous title for any essay I, a lightly-read non historian who would have to crawl to the starting line to even begin serious study of the subject, would write is part of the point. Spoiler: the promulgation of what now passes for history has fallen to anti-historians. It won’t do to call them non-historians, less to call them amateurs, a word that means at it root ‘lovers.’ Here’s what they hate:
History is the telling of tales. I don’t mean this in any derogatory sense. Among the most basic and characteristic activities of people is telling stories. ‘True’ stories, in the modern sense, are those where the ‘facts’ check out. Our more sophisticated ancestors would not have been as interested in those facts. In past eras and in all other cultures, stories were ‘true’ were those that conveyed something real about people. An infinite number of things happen. Few make good stories. Among those few, we love and retell those that reveal to us something about ourselves. In this sense, those who know no history have forgotten who they are.
The modern distinction between history and myth would, I think, have been a bit baffling to most people in times past. I don’t know what the reaction the children of the original Hawaiians had to the stories of Maui and his fishhook, but it is true that the Hawaiian Islands are surprising and a gift from the gods, and that it is delightful that people get to live there. That some demigod would play tricks on his brothers and yank them up from the deep is hilarious – and just about right.
Just like the ubiquitous genealogies, myths tell us who we are. More important, they tell us how we know who we are: by our relationships to particular people, places, and nature. In stories from every culture I’ve ever heard of, every so-and-so is introduced as the offspring of a string of forefathers, often pointing back to an ancestral hero or demigod. A place and social setting get named: Abram is introduced as descended from Terah, Nahor and Serug, and ultimately Adam. He is from Ur. The importance of parentage and place are illustrated by Oedipus, who doesn’t know who his parents are nor where his home lies, and is the most cursed of men, and as a direct result of his foundational ignorance, commits the greatest sins of patricide and incest.
Since there will be an infinite number of potential stories to choose from, the ‘historian’ in the sense I’m using here is the one who chooses the stories. Each generation will inherit some stories that are just too good to forget, and generate more potential stories in their own time. The good ‘historians’ will tell their stories in memorable, exciting form, and emphasize what is most telling in the stories. A little or a lot of embellishment is to be expected. Some stories survive from generation to generation, and become defining to the point where not knowing that story is a sign you are not of the tribe. Greeks memorized Homer; Jews memorized the Bible.
A famous incident (that a few minutes of web searching failed to turn up, so we’re working without a net here) concerned some anthropologist who was studying some tribe in New Mexico (I think) shortly after the kind of incident that generates History had come to pass: a party of this tribe had gone to do some official business and had strayed into the territory of an unfriendly tribe. A fight broke out, and one tribesman was killed. The factual story was relayed to the anthropologist. A couple generations later, after the participants in the event had all died, another anthropologist followed up. The story he heard was recognizable, but different: it concerned how the tribes had had to work out that territorial dispute, had retconned the dispute into a central place in the original purpose of the trip, and made the man who had died into a sort of martyr for intertribal peace.
Was this wrong, or a lie, or primitive propaganda? No. What had made the story memorable once it had passed from living memory was the resolution of the tribal territorial dispute. The myth now contained important information: at great cost – the death of a tribal leader – peace had been established and borders set with a neighboring tribe which had earlier been antagonistic. I don’t know, but I would be surprised if the actual ‘treaty’ was not included in the story, so that future generations would know the territory and the rules agreed to.
In the West, starting with Herodotus, we start to have a different set of standards. Drenched in myth from every direction, Herodotus wants to know what’s true in a typically Greek abstract sense, not merely what are the stories each people tell themselves. He finds himself in Tevye’s position: He might be able to acknowledge that the stories of People A are true, and that the stories of People B are also true, but when it is pointed out that they can’t both be true, the old Greek isn’t quite magnanimous enough to allow that they can remain true even if contradictory.
Nope – Herodotus wants to settle the differences. He turns to the blunt instrument of facts. This appeal to facts, perhaps most celebrated in the discovery of the ruins of Troy in the late 19th century, tends to obscure the truth that the stories that make up history, even or perhaps especially in our enlightened postmodern age, remain selected and embellished.
While Herodotus wanders a bit and clearly delights in the odd tall tale at the expense of more focused storytelling, Thucydides is recognizable as an historian at all points. He’s followed by Livy and Tacitus (and a bunch of guys I’ve not read – poser, remember?) who also read as history. But while these men were at least trying to tell us What Happened, the usual filters were in place. Thucydides was an exiled Athenian, writing about a war Athens ultimately lost due to horrible political stupidity. I find him very circumspect and even-handed, under the circumstances. It’s not all ragging gleefully about the fall of the people who exiled him – that doesn’t come across at all, at least to me. He seems to think the truth, and as full a record as he can manage, is important. We should all do so well.
Thus, a standard for historical storytelling was established, against which other historians might be judged and to which they might aspire. Yet, other than scholars, people still got their stories by word of mouth, and remembered, embellished and repeated those that they found interesting. The lives of the saints, especially the dimly-remembered but much loved early martyrs, are classics. Butler dutifully repeats the general lore, while always noting when there’s nothing but legend to back them up. He assumes, prudently and piously, that there’s most likely something to a story when centuries of storytellers have passed it on, even if the name and naked fact of martyrdom are about all we can be confident in. This is the way History works, more often than not. We have stories. They are almost always filtered by the preferences of the ancestors who passed them on. When available, the luxury of the written record supplies us not only with facts we may not have had, but perhaps more important, with what the more thoughtful, or at least more literate, people at the time thought worth remembering.
Before the written, then recorded, then broadcast, then videoed, word displaced the spoken as the conveyor of stories, it would have been difficult, I suppose, to tamper with history as the term is used here. Things might have changed in the telling over time, but not too much, when the hearers were as familiar with the stories as the tellers. Long after the invention of writing, it would still be the case that most people in just about any culture would learn the stories from hearing them.
Theological issues in the West are inseparably entangled with history, since any Christian theology must deal with real, named people in real, known physical and historical places. The stories about Jesus and His companions and Apostles were literally sacred, written down and copied and told with great care; the writings of the early Fathers and the hagiographies of early saints were also nearly as sacred. To dispute a dogma all but requires, at minimum, a repackaging of history; to refute the Church calls for a major rewrite.
The serious, conscious rewriting of history in the West seems (for I am not an historian) to have begun with, maybe, Wycliffe? Certainly, he didn’t like the history/stories he’d received, and proposed a hermeneutic of Bad Clergy, Monks, and Pope! Bad! as the filter to use on his revisionism. Not sure if he adopted a Great Apostasy theory, but such a moment of presumed fracture is required, as was recognized within a century or so.
The Protestant Reformation represents the first major attempt at rewriting history, both in the formal sense of drafting new texts that tell a different story according to new selection and embellishment criteria, and in spreading new stories among the people. Ever since 1517, a second set of stories parallel to the existing set have been developed and told, with written histories revised accordingly. The old set, dating back to at least Ignatius of Antioch if not the Apostle Paul, tells of Jesus founding a Church and commissioning very fallible Apostles to spread and maintain it, so that the history of the West consists of stories about very human men taking boneheaded if not out and out evil actions over and over again AND of a Church nonetheless effecting the conversion of the known world from India to Ireland and Russia to Ethiopia within a couple centuries of the Founder’s birth, despite 300 years of secular persecution and zero political power. The newer second set tells of Jesus founding a church which quickly all but vanished, to be replaced by evil men enforcing vile lies as dogma, only for a 16th century German Augustinian monk and a couple of other firebrands, building on Wycliffe and Hus, to reestablish the original Church, bring it out of (presumed) hiding and fight the Antichrist, which is the Pope, and his horrible church.
“To be deep in History is to cease to be a Protestant.” Newman may be overstating it a little. To have any grasp of history at all is to cease to be a Protestant, because the essential claims, such as the Great Apostasy and Sola Scriptura are historically unsupportable: no one ever imagined them, until Protestantism required them. I have great sympathy with people raised as Protestant intellectuals, who have inherited and personally invested in the second set of stories with the hope that they might thus be saved. That’s powerful stuff, and not to be denigrated. But on a simple, logical level, I have to fight off the ‘Oh, come on!’ response to patently nonsensical historical positions.
This theological division not only lead to the historical division described above, but to a corresponding philosophical division. The mundane, work-a-day, logical process described by Aristotle and greatly enhanced and developed by Aquinas and that crowd, was hopelessly tainted by its association with the Antichrist. Therefore, and, evidently, because of something like boredom (Descartes, I’m thinking of you!), new or at least recycled philosophies were developed.
These philosophies, like Protestantism itself, quickly metastasized. As I’ve mentioned before, the difference in Philosophy results from or at least reflects the theological division: Sola versus Scola. Catholicism and the Perennial Philosophy are team efforts, with the archetype of St. Thomas leading students through the Questions Method, where different views are expressed and refined before being being challenged, and the result is almost always a ‘given what we know now’ conditional truth. Protestantism’s end point is a man, a plow boy even, alone with his Bible, enlightened without the mediation of church or priest. The final authority is the Good Book itself, trumping anything a priest or scholar or anyone else might say. Similarly, Descartes, Hume, and Kant speculate not in a classroom with their fellow man, but in their own private rooms, alone, with the shades drawn. TRVTH must be found looking inward; the rough and tumble of the Schools is not for them.
A function of their protests against the Church, the one thing that unites our Protestant brethren no matter how fragmented their theologies, is a dismissal of the Church’s history. But as Belloc points out, the history of Europe IS the history of the Church. Awkward.
A little timeline:
1781 – Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
1800 – Age of Enlightenment ends (more or less)
1822 – Hegel begins delivering his lectures the Philosophy of History at the University of Berlin
Busy time. Kant pushes reason, in the sense of reasoning alone within one’s own head, to its extreme. He famously states that “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” What could go wrong with that? Note that Catholic doctrine, the Scholastics, as well as pretty much every Catholic thinker back to St. Paul and back on into the Old Testament writers, states that, while God is beyond our mind’s grasp, we can know His existence by very straightforward use of reason. Kant denies this. After him, the non-perennial philosophers seem to have had enough with reason. Today, such lines of thought are labeled metaphysics and largely shoved under the rug.
Hegel changed the way people talk about history. The emphasis is taken away from recounting What Happened as honestly as possible, and even away from telling a good story, to deciphering what the Spirit is unfolding ™. History is seen as having a direction and goals; the historian’s job is to get himself aligned with the Spirit such that he knows that direction and those goals.
Hegel considered himself a good Lutheran. Luther was an Augustinian. Augustine developed the idea of Salvation History as the hermeneutic for understanding Scripture. So the God of History, in the sense of history as the stories that tell us about ourselves, informs our lives and aides our salvation through the story of salvation as told by Him in Scripture.
One catch: the God Who Is becomes, under Hegel, the God Who Becomes. Being, far from the ultimate reality, is illusion. What is real is Becoming. Since logic depends on statements of being, and the Law of Noncontradiction upon which all logic hangs is a statement about being, logic in the form everyone had understood it up to that point must be jettisoned.
Again, what could go wrong? The filters used from the beginning of mankind to select what stories would be told are now replaced by a filter that selects stories, and how they re to be told, for how they best illustrate the historian’s idea of what man is Becoming, to best show Progress.
In the hands of a really humble and honest historian, this might not be too bad; in the hands of a Marx, it becomes a blunt object with which to beat people. In the hands of his even less stable followers, it was used to beat 100 million innocent women, children, and men to death.
The switch from the primacy of Being to the primacy of Becoming leads, with an irresistible logical gravity, to a dismissal of the past. This switch is clear in the now-fashionable formulation of Marxist dogma: everything is a social construct. Under this rubric, nothing *IS*. Everything is no more than an evanescence of some mystical social consciousness, as real as a dream and in any event merely a meaningless and mutable moment along the way toward Progress.
While Protestants had practiced historical revisionism to move the Church from a white hat to a black, they all still very much wanted Jesus at the center of the story. The philosophical giants – Kant and Hegel – certainly wanted not just God, but a recognizably Christian God, playing the central role, and remaining in some sense the eschaton. When Marx came along and set Hegel upright, God Himself was cast into the dustbin of history into which the Protestants had long cast the Church.
The sheep must be lead gently at first. When the Fabian communist H. G. Wells wrote his Outline of History in 1919, all he did (so I am told – not an historian) was remove Christianity from the center of the story, where it had appropriately been since the time of Christ. The story remained recognizable in outline, naturally, it just now made different points and punchlines.
Wells was not an historian, but that hardly mattered. To write this work, he needn’t do any beyond reading what historians had written, and then apply his Marxist hermeneutic to it: History is unfolding itself, leaving behind outdated concepts such as God and personal responsibility and the individual as more than a bee in a hive. We are where we are as the result of huge, irresistible forces. History will lead us inevitably into the future, where outdated ideas (and the people who hold them) will be excised. The eternal God and the poor saps who worshipped him didn’t really do anything, they were just along for the ride, at best an expedient used and now discarded by History.
Belloc, a real historian, promptly wrote a long essay in rebuttal. He traces how the West is the Church and the Church is the West, in that it was in the Church that all the good new ideas were developed, the good old ideas were preserved, and both old and new were promulgated and physically expressed. The story of the West – of Christendom – is the story of martyrs and missionaries, monasteries and monks, who, inheriting a Roman social order, spread order and rational hierarchy and learning with the Good News. Bloodthirsty tribal cultures, admiring the Romans and drinking deep of the Christian ideals, became feudal societies where rights and duties bound peasant, priest, and prince to each other and to God. These Europeans built the great cathedrals, the first universities and hospitals, invented modern science, saved ancient learning, and slowly and imperfectly turned barbarians into civilized peoples. The Church forbade divorce and the bartering off of daughters into marriages against their wills: she condemned the endless cycles of revenge murders; she placed the mother and father in the center of the home, with rights and duties no king could justly violate.
Likewise, Chesterton wroteThe Everlasting Man, in which he, tongue firmly in cheek, thanks Wells for have removed the barrier to non-historians writing history. (1) Thus justified, Chesterton lays waste to Well’s underlying and unspoken assumptions, destroying the idea that we know the history of prehistory, for example, or that cosmic generalizations somehow reduce individual men to dust grains in a breeze, or that ‘comparative religions’ is comparing like things.
In a broader sense, Belloc and Chesterton were assuming their customary good cop/bad cop roles, each taking Wells to the woodshed. Much of educated society, however, was on the side of Wells, including specifically the Fabians, who saw no need to play fair (what is ‘fair’ anyway, in a world of becoming?) when working for something as noble and desirable as the Worker’s Paradise.
Thus, Well’s approach of setting Religion, by which he meant Christianity and most especially Catholicism, aside, and teaching history as if it were a string of inevitable developments under the guiding hand of (the totally not a god!) Progress, has won the day. That’s the history taught K-18 to this day. Any attempt to acknowledge the role of the Church in history in a positive way is shot down before it can arise. By now, with our education system in the unchallenged hands of Marxists for at least 30 years, there will be very few with credentials able to even raise the issue. It would be career suicide.
Since before Wells, but evidently much accelerated since, the rewriting of history, of the stories that tell us who we are, where we belong, and what is important in life, have been a major academic endeavor. As time has gone on, as academia has been more and more taken over by Marxists and their Useful Idiots, history as taught is a slate upon which to expound Marxist dogmas. No longer is history an art meant to convey important information about what has happened, what the people involved did and thought, what lead up to events and what followed. History as the stories that help us see who we are has been denied to almost everyone. The individual is nothing, the collective everything. What is truth?
History is today taught in America to convince our children that they are victims of vast forces of oppression who can only be overthrown by a revolution. Nothing they do matters for good or ill: the only cause of unhappiness is oppression. Therefore, the only valid academic exercise is to search out the oppression that causes any particular unhappiness and oppose it with activism designed to bring about the revolution. The Useful Idiots may not know this – dear God, I hope not! – but the true believers do.
As Chesterton say about dragons: children don’t need to be told they exist. Kids already know that. Children need to be told that dragons can be defeated. A history in which personal action is pointless, in which all victories and defeats are inevitable or meaningless, and in which the only goal is destroying a ‘system’ without the faintest understanding of what that system is: such a history leaves the heart terrified and the body petrified. Here be dragons, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Belloc and Wells were at the time engaged in a rather heated public exchange over Well’s playing fast and loose with the facts. Chesterton enters with: “As I have more than once differed from Mr. H. G. Wells in his view of history, it is the more right that I should here congratulate him on the courage and constructive imagination which carried through his vast and varied and intensely interesting work; but still more on having asserted the reasonable right of the amateur to do what he can with the facts which the specialists provide. ” – intro to the Everlasting Man
The long-awaited sequel to John C. Wright’s epic multiverse-spanning fantasy Somewhither(reviewed here), Nowhither is the second book of The Unwithering Realm series. Short and sweet, and it hardly needs saying, if you liked the first book, you need to read this one, too, and probably already have. Over a 3 year wait!
Our hero, the deathless hulking teenager Ilya Muromets, has just made a breathless escape from the heart of the enemy’s stronghold, rescuing 150 soon-to-be harem girls and his heartthrob, the voluptuous sea witch Penny Dreadful, with the indispensable aid of Nack, a headless monstrosity with the strength of 100 men and the distressing habit of eating people, Foster, a magical gypsy from some parallel world with all kinds of tricks up his sleeve, Ossifrage, an Old Testament style holy man with way cool super powers, and Abby, a young teenage girl with boundless spunk and heroism and some way cool powers of her own.
They dodge certain death when they dive through a Mobius Gate into a multiverse transfer station, where they are promptly trapped! But between Ossifrage’s ability to ignore the laws of gravity and Nack’s ability to reduce buildings to rubble, they hold off the pursuing vampires just long enough to escape…
…to another way-station, on another world in another parallel universe – at the bottom of an ocean! And so on. The non-stop action of the first book continues through roughly the first half of the second. Then the story takes a bit of a break from the action and banter of the first book in the series in order to fill in some much appreciated backstory. It gets emotionally complicated, and has all sorts of who-can-you-trust twists that I will not spoil.
A quick, fun read, well deserving of you money and time. Wright never fails to blow my mind with the pure density and variety of his imagination. Another author might take 2 or 3 of the ideas in this series and write a perfectly acceptable story; Wright kicks it up a whole bunch of manic, entertaining notches. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.
Deenan begins by restating arguments that Great Books are the core of any liberal education worthy of the name, but then casts doubts on that claim:
I have long sympathized with these arguments, but in recent years I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books. The broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.
Thus, those who insist upon an education in the great books end up recommending texts and arguments that undermine their own beliefs in the central importance of liberal arts education.
Certainly, from Descartes on, the philosophy in the Great Books consciously and actively discounts and dismisses everything that came before. The Reformers believed – correctly, in my view – that Aristotle, through the mediation of St. Thomas, was irretrievably tainted by Catholicism. Since the medieval world against which they were rebelling was intellectually formed and sustained by Aristotle more than any other writer, he became the enemy, and any who could trace their intellectual heritage and methods to him had to be destroyed.
As Deenan shows below, one philosopher after another proposed philosophies that might be classified as Anything Other Than Aristotle. Since the medieval idea of education was largely applied Aristotelianism as baptised by Thomas, it had to go.
Arguments against this form of education became common among elite thinkers in the early modern period, who sought to justify a new kind of science that had as its aim the expansion of human control over nature. Arguing strenuously against the content of books by authors such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon castigated previous thinkers for their “despair” and tendency to “think things impossible.” Asserting that “knowledge is power,” he rejected the idea that knowledge consists first in acknowledging human limits and claimed that it was necessary to wipe clear “waxen tablets” inscribed with older writing in order to inscribe new lessons upon them. Books were more often than not one manifestation of the “idols of the cave,” or illusions that obscured true enlightenment, and in the schools “men’s studies? . . . [were] confined and imprisoned in the writings of certain authors.” His book Novum Organumis devoted to arguing against the flawed inheritance of the past, including the arguments found in the great books of his age.
One charming aspect of Aristotle, especially when viewed after having read the early modern Enlightenment writers, is his willingness to identify limits. Was the world created or eternal? Who knows? the Philosopher answers. All knowledge of contingent things is contingent – such is life in this world of change, a necessarily humble life of uncertainty. With Thomas, we get invigorated to pursue even imperfect knowledge of Creation, because the Heavens proclaim the glory of God. In our imperfect and humble understanding of created things we experience the ineffable Divine.
But limits have gone from realities any sane man recognizes and tries to understand, which he might rationally embrace or challenge on a case by case basis, to something that is evil and to be overcome in all cases. A classic man, a victim, one might say, of the philosophy in those pre-Enlightenment Great Books, would first want to know himself and come to grips with his passions and his fixed days. If he were a Christian, he’d recall that all is grass and grace, his days are numbered, and it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. Yet God loves him into being nonetheless, and blesses him such that his life need not be in vain.
The post Enlightenment man has increasingly rejected any ‘despair’ or what the pre-Enlightenment man would consider proper humility, and chaffs at all limits. What began as a not entirely unsympathetic rejection of the limits imposed by a Church ends with the entirely insane rejection of reality. The very idea of human nature became nonsensical under Hegel and an affront under Marx. Whatever you found yourself to be at the moment could become something else entirely under the influence of the Spirit unfolding or History progressing. Limits oppress; to believe in any limits is to be an oppressor, even and especially when those limits exist by nature.
Novum Organum is now one of our great books—a great book that recommends against the lessons of previous great books. His work inaugurated a long line of great books that argued against an education in books. Another in this genre is René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which begins with a similar condemnation of book learning as an obstacle to true understanding. “As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors,” he wrote, “I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.” Books are the repository of foolishness: “When I look with the eye of a philosopher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless.”
Descartes’ view is shared, it seems, by scientists and students of science as much as by various ‘studies’ professors and their acolytes. The first group believes above all else that their study of nature is the only road to knowledge, doesn’t want to hear otherwise, and at any rate knows ‘philosophy’ only as delivered by the academic philosophers who infest their campuses. The student of science correctly concludes that Analytic Philosophy is at best useless, an overly-intellectual tail trying to wag the productive scientific dog.
The second group sees any philosophy that embraces limits as oppressive; they mistake the untethered emoting and manipulation of Critical Theory as the only necessary and pure philosophy. They rank themselves by how oppressed they are, and start in trying to kill each other at the first opportunity, according to the nature of a philosophy without limits.
Centuries later, this line of argumentation would be employed in the United States in defense of disassembling existing curricula oriented to the study of the great books. Widely regarded as America’s most influential educational reformer, John Dewey, in books that continue to exert great influence in schools of education, argued that learning should be accomplished “experientially” rather than through an encounter with books. In his short work Experience and Education, he argues strenuously that an education based in books transmitted “static” knowledge to a citizenry that needed to be better enabled to face a world of rapid change. Learning through books is “to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.” Accordingly, he founded an institution in Chicago called the Lab School. Laboratory was to replace library, experiment would substitute for knowledge gleaned from the past.
Dewey was also a Communist apologist, who rejected categorically the concept of objective morality. Think killing a few 10s of millions of Kulaks will speed the dawn of the Worker’s Paradise? The only moral question is: did it work? (And if it didn’t, it’s likely not enough Kulaks were murdered. But I digress.) “Static” knowledge is nonsensical under Marx – all is Becoming, nothing Is. What is needed, as spelled out by Freire, are children educated to be revolutionaries. Math? Reading? History? Pointless and dangerous!
Dewey makes this case in pointed terms in his book Democracy and Education, asking, “Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization?” He answers that “in a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development.”
Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends.
There is and cannot be any human nature – that would limit what people can become, and limits are evil in themselves. Instead, “their social activities as such” limit what we can become. (Dewey here deigns to consider civilized people as somehow more progressed than savages – he needed to get way, way more woke!) If one were to ask where these social activities come from, the answer is: History! The term ‘History’ as used by Marxists means the non-god god and unconscious consciousness that drives us forward, and on whose wrong side one must not get. That whole what happened in the past stuff is called history only insofar as it captures the non-active activity of the non-god god in causing Progress. They rarely put it this way, because it’s as stupid as it sounds.
Thus, two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of great books. The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist alongside an older conception, but requires the active dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the transformation of education away from the study of great books and toward the study of “the great book of nature” with the end of its mastery.
One of the contradictions yet to be subsumed and suspended in the dialectic is the hard or real science versus soft or fake science: everyone want to dress their claims in the sacred Lab Coat of Science, even and especially when there is no science, properly understood in the modern sense, involved. Mean people who believe in reality are going to challenge claims that sociology, psychology and modern education theory, for starters, are in any functional sense science. They do not measure the properties of measurable bodies; they do not follow well-established protocols such as using clear methods and publishing all data and subjecting all claims to skeptical replication. As Groucho Marx – the good Marx – said: the key to success in this business is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
Since those older Great Books contradict all this, and the newer Great Books are irrelevant by their own admissions, they must be destroyed.
The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government. In a constrained world, the human propensity to desire and consume without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery. The decline of the role of great books in our universities today is not due merely to financial constraints, or to the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry, or even to science itself. Preceding all of this was an argument that the study of great books should be displaced from the heart of education.
The concept of limits includes both possibilities and consequences. I cannot flap my arms and fly to the moon, no matter how woke I am, and neither can anybody else. Why we can’t is a unaddressed problem for the Enlightened. I cannot eat everything in sight or have sex round the clock without the piper eventually demanding his due.
So we must learn to accept fat people as not fat, as beautiful and perfect right up until they drop dead of a heart attack or stroke or diabetes around age 40. In fact, what’s with this whole death thing? It’s so unfair! Thus the cult of Transhumanism offers the false hope that we can, ultimately escape all limits and their consequences. Somehow. And treatments and prevention of venereal diseases and babies must be assumed, free, and supported by all. Broken hearts are an illusion.
So, yes, the Great Books are not a solution to societal collapse and the perpetual ignorance of the certifiably educated when applied in our current state.
My only push back against Dr. Deenan is this: that read fearlessly and with a desire for Truth that will not bow to fad and peer pressure, the glory of the pre-Enlightenment Great Books will reveal the latter books to be superficial, dishonest and inferior. This does happen: someone, even someone not forewarned by Christianity, may read the Great Books and conclude that some – Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, the wisdom of the poets, and others – are much greater than the others. Some are worthy of a serious person. Many are not.
Alas, this sort of self-enlightenment and devotion to the Truth is not likely to be found among conventionally educated 18 year olds.
Semi-random thoughts on what I enjoy reading. Less coherent, perhaps, than usual around here:
Dante famously ratchets his storytelling up through the course of his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by how he shows things. In Hell (and I’m not going to Google the exact quotes, nope, not going to do it!) he starts his description of the horrors of the damned by saying: O Memory! Here thy shall show thy worth! or something like that. In other words, he is relying on his merely earthy and human mental faculties as the sources of his vision. However fantastic the tortures and dooms of the damned may be, they remain within the grasp – and experiences, poetically understood – of anyone, really. Reason in the person of Virgil is perfectly competent to see and explain the poetic justice that is at the core of Hell.
Once in Purgatory, among the saved who have been judged by a judgement they willingly embrace to be unready to endure the full glory of the Face of God, Dante can’t rely on his merely human faculties to describe and understand what he sees. Virgil seeks guidance and instruction from the souls whose understanding has been expanded by the Light of Christ denied simple human reason by the Fall. There is a lovely medieval symmetry in climbing through various stages of purgation to get back to the state of original human innocence at the Garden of Eden atop a mountain. Yet the penances here, and the Mercy and Justice of God that have degreed them, are not something Virgil can completely grasp unaided.
Dante the poet invokes the aide of the Muses in order to be able to describe what he sees, and points frequently to the substantial mystery of salvation that falls outside their ken. As a reader, in Hell you are having terrifying things pointed out to you, a terrible justice, and told to see. It is in your power, you know, your reason can work it out, that the punishments of the damned are chosen by them, and are just. The tone changes radically in Purgatory, where grace is asked for to aid our understanding. For we are walking on sacred ground.
Finally, in Heaven, we leave mere human reason behind. Virgil is left standing in Paradise. The message here is not that reason is wrong and that we should abandon it in favor of some murky idea of God’s direct infusion of divine grace. Instead, we use the grace of reason – the blessing of being made in the image of God – to seek His guidance. With His help, delivered through a hierarchy of secondary causes – other penitents, the prayers of the faithful, the teachings of the Church, the very penances assigned to the particular sins, the whole world around us – we can climb back to a state of innocence.
Which is not enough.
In Heaven, Dante the poet seeks the aid of highest Heaven, and acknowledges his inadequacy. While Hell is described via definite statements – here I saw, there they lay – Heaven’s glories are couched in doubt – I think I saw, it appeared to me. It works. The reader gets the awe and wonder through sharing Dante’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Divine. By not describing anything in Heaven with definite certainty, he manages, paradoxically, to describe Heaven in its awe and wonder and love. The Lover is compelled to praise the Beloved, and words fail, and in that failure succeed.
In this sense, Dante succeeds by neither showing nor telling.
From the sublime to the not as sublime: in The Night Land, Hodgson gives evocative names to the horrors of the Night Land and consistently resist any temptation to describe them in any detail – you get gigantic, imperceptibly slow-moving, cold, eerily lit – but that’s about it. They’re just Out There, full of malice and inhumanly patient.
Way scarier than any detailed description could ever render them.
As a counterpoint, was thinking of Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth. In this classic story, Vance creates with a few deft strokes an incredibly vivid and alien world, and fills it with amazing cultural detail. One the one hand, he, like Dante and Hodgson in their very different ways, leaves a lot to the imagination. Yet he also dumps a huge amount of information on the reader, which is critical to the satisfactory resolution of the protagonist’s problems.
As a reader, I never even noticed the info dumps at the time. Only in retrospect are the fairly frequent passages of explanation in Vance’s short stories apparent. Part of the trick, I think, is spooning it out over time so the individual chunks aren’t too big, and leaving plenty of mystery. In Moon Moth, it is only in the last couple paragraphs that all the pieces come together, and only after you’ve reached the point where the protagonist is surely doomed – by the same social conventions that end up saving him! In The Dragon Masters, he pulls a related trick, where only at the end are you able to piece together the large number of clues he’s left lying about to reach the shocking conclusion.
Asking how he does this – how he manages on the one hand to be very spare in his descriptions while on the other packing the exposition with what often seem like asides but turn out to be critical information – and yet writes as gripping a story as just about anyone, is, I suppose, where the genius lies.
Now somebody who writes tell me it’s just planning and hard work.
Finally, there’s Cordwainer Smith, who, even more than Vance, drops you in the middle of the action and only gradually throws you a lifeline but never quite gets you feet back on solid ground. It feels like he never explains anything, although a moment’s reflection – thinking of Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (I spelled that wrong in the right way, before looking it up! And I can’t spell ‘amatuer’ right 9 times out of 10.) shows that he, indeed, does. It’s a weird morality play, where Smith breaks the wall to talk to the reader on a number of occasions, yet still maintains an air of mystery, surprise, and inevitable horror.
Most of his stories leave me a bit awed and scratching my head – what was THAT? Where did that come from?
Highly recommended. Book 6 in John C. Wright’s 12 part Moth and Cobweb series, Tithe to Tartarus completes (for now, one hopes) the adventures of Yumiko Moth, AKA the Dark Avenger’s Sidekick, begun in Book 4: Daughter of Danger and continue in Book 5: City of Corpses. A totally fun and uplifting series, suitable for kids of all ages yet plenty action-packed and deep enough for any adult as well. These are the books we need – heroism, high stakes, lovable and honorable characters, suitably villainous bad guys, yet with a theme of redemption offered again and again despite the evil done. Even the perpetrators of the most vile crimes can still turn from them, an eternal and eternally needed message!
Just as in the tales of Arthur upon which these stories are built and in many movies from the 30’s, Christianity is simply assumed. Nice, for a change. Whatever your beliefs, if you enjoyed le Mort d’Arthur and It’s a wonderful Life, I’d bet you’ll like Moth & Cobweb.
Through the first two books, Yumiko has struggled to discover who she is after awaking in a hospital bed with a near-complete loss of memory. The last thing she remembers is a dream or vision, in which a beautiful lady told her that her life was being given back to her, that all her previous vows were void, and that she needed to save the one she loved. She is also to relay a message to the elves and other twilight creatures she meets. She has somehow also acquired a magic ring.
By this the third book Yumiko has learned she is a ninja assassin with a sacred ghost-slaying bow and gadgets to put Batman to shame, as well as a magic super suit wherein to keep it all. She has found and lost a cousin and friend, a magical half-human fairy Elfine captured by an elf knight, and learned that her beloved is to be sacrificed to Hell. She now knows her mother, a Grail matron, was murdered in the line of duty. An order of anarchists strive to overthrow all laws human, elfish and divine. She is the disowned former sidekick to a winged vigilante, who has told her to kill herself in dishonor (she refuses). And everybody wants her magic ring, especially the anarchists.
So, in the next couple days, she hopes to free Elfine, save her beloved, avenge her mother all while keeping the Ring out of the wrong hands. She is aided more or less by the Last Crusade, which consists of a young Dominican friar Matthias, the Swan Knight Gilberec Moth and Ruff the Dog, everybody’s favorite pooka. Gil wields a sword of blue flame that sets the blood of enemies afire, Matthias uses an exorcist’s tools and prayers as well as some hidden magic to defend against evil, and Ruff, as he repeatedly says, is a very smart dog. (Ruff is pretty much everybody’s favorite character. He is a Good Dog.)
Adventures ensue. There’s love, horror, heroism, magic, sword fights, and all manner of creatures eldritch and fell. I was sad to see it end, especially since the next book isn’t out yet! Noooo!
Get these books, read them, give them as presents to your friends.