AGAINST GREAT BOOKS

An essay with the title above by Patrick Deenan came out a few years back, I saw it earlier this year and wanted to comment, but that abortive attempt became draft #103 moldering in my drafts folder. So, let’s do this now.

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 Organum is 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.

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Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

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?

Thus ends the brain dump for today.

Book Review: Tithe to Tartarus

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.

Lord of the World and the Death of God

As so often happens, a philosophical confluence. In the course of my more or less random reading, came across two writes, a century apart and coming at the issue from different angles, who notice the same thing. First, in Robert Hugh Benson’s wonderful and multiple-Pope-recommended 1907 novel Lord of the World, the rising English politician Oliver Brand thinks through what would nowadays be called his worldview:

As he looked from his window and saw that vast limit of London laid peaceably before him, as his imagination ran out over Europe and saw everywhere that steady triumph of common sense and fact over the wild fairy-stories of Christianity, it seemed intolerable that there should be even a possibility that all this should be swept back again into the barbarous turmoil of sects and dogmas…. Even Catholicism would revive, he told himself, that strange faith that had blazed so often as persecution had been dashed to quench it; and, of all forms of faith, to Oliver’s mind Catholicism was the most grotesque and enslaving….  There was but one hope on the religious side, as he had told Mabel a dozen times, and that was that the Quietistic Pantheism which for the last century had made such giant strides in East and West alike, among Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the rest, should avail to check the supernatural frenzy that inspired their exoteric brethren. Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him “God” was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.

Later, Brand reads in the paper an account of the brave new world being ushered in by one Julian Felsenburgh, a mysterious American who is being called the Savior of the World:

“It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. ‘Not peace but a sword,’ said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. ‘Not a sword but peace’ is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST’S claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.

“Let it be seen at least that England is not behind the nations in this work of reformation; let no national isolation, pride of race, or drunkenness of wealth hold her hands back from this enormous work. The responsibility is incalculable, but the victory certain. Let us go softly, humbled by the knowledge of our crimes in the past, confident in the hope of our achievements in the future, towards that reward which is in sight at last—the reward hidden so long by the selfishness of men, the darkness of religion, and the strife of tongues—the reward promised by one who knew not what he said and denied what he asserted—Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, for they shall inherit the earth, be named the children of God, and find mercy.”

and Brand’s young wife Mabel,  trying to convince her dying mother in law to abandon Catholicism:

“Mother,” said the girl, “let me tell you again. Do you not understand that all which Jesus Christ promised has come true, though in another way? The reign of God has really begun; but we know now who God is. You said just now you wanted the Forgiveness of Sins; well, you have that; we all have it, because there is no such thing as sin. There is only Crime. And then Communion. You used to believe that that made you a partaker of God; well, we are all partakers of God, because we are human beings. Don’t you see that Christianity is only one way of saying all that? I dare say it was the only way, for a time; but that is all over now. Oh! and how much better this is! It is true—true. You can see it to be true!”

She paused a moment, forcing herself to look at that piteous old face, the flushed wrinkled cheeks, the writhing knotted hands on the coverlet.

“Look how Christianity has failed—how it has divided people; think of all the cruelties—the Inquisition, the Religious Wars; the separations between husband and wife and parents and children—the disobedience to the State, the treasons. Oh! you cannot believe that these were right. What kind of a God would that be! And then Hell; how could you ever have believed in that?… Oh! mother, don’t believe anything so frightful…. Don’t you understand that that God has gone—that He never existed at all—that it was all a hideous nightmare; and that now we all know at last what the truth is…. Mother! think of what happened last night—how He came—the Man of whom you were so frightened. I told you what He was like—so quiet and strong—how every one was silent—of the—the extraordinary atmosphere, and how six millions of people saw Him. And think what He has done—how He has healed all the old wounds—how the whole world is at peace at last—and of what is going to happen. Oh! mother, give up those horrible old lies; give them up; be brave.”

Written in 1907.

Next, came across the Death of  God Fifty Years On by Matthew Rose at First Things, published a year ago. In 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was entitled “Is God Dead?” This article, what we would now call click bait, created a furor. For youngsters, way back then people took magazines like Time seriously as not only purveyors of “news” but as important social and cultural barometers. Weird, huh?

Rose’s essay is very hard to excerpt, as it spins together, from paragraph to paragraph, many sources and writers to paint its picture. What follows gives some of the flavor, but it’s well worth reading the entire essay:

Altizer was taken with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity generated its own fatal undermining. But he challenged ­Nietzsche on a critical point: It was not Christians who murdered God, but God who abolished himself. Altizer arrived at this conclusion through a controversial reading of other theologians. Among them was Karl Barth, who according to Altizer had initiated the Death of God movement. (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar reading of the Swiss theologian in 1967.)

A central thesis of Barth’s theology is that God’s nature is bound up with his revelation in salvation history. Since we cannot know God apart from his self-revelation, argued Barth, we have true ­knowledge of the divine only through Jesus Christ. Altizer translated this claim about knowledge into a metaphysical thesis. He stipulated that God has no being apart from the historical person of Jesus. This allowed Altizer to say, with quite shocking matter-of-factness, that God is dead because he died in history, on the cross. God is incarnate in Jesus—and he dies in Jesus. “The radical Christian,” Altizer wrote in his 1966 manifesto The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and cosmic event.”

From the perspective of classical Christian ­theology, Altizer’s views can only appear nonsensical, but his understanding of God differed in fundamental ways from that tradition. Its roots were in the nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who interpreted history as the progressive realization of human freedom. Hegel’s main idea was that contradiction—or more precisely, the overcoming of contradiction—is the law of life.

His Phenomenology of Spirit told the speculative story of how human beings attain free ­self-consciousness through conflict that always leads to a higher resolution. In this history, he claimed, we learn to see historical conceptions of God as symbolic representations of the human drama of cultural ­development.

Hegel was deeply entangled with Christian theology and saw himself as preserving the spirit of Christianity rather than overturning it. He maintained, with perfect sincerity and considerable ingenuity, that his philosophy advanced a rational articulation of the teachings of the Bible. There are many twists and turns to Hegel’s philosophical re-narration of the scriptural story, but its most important claim is that God entered history in order to abolish his separation from it. History’s meaning and purpose are no longer “above,” but instead operate within the ongoing flow of human affairs. God’s coming into the world in Christ represents, symbolically, man’s coming-to-himself as the rational author of his own destiny.

The essay concludes by remarking that, while the theology of the death of God has had little academic traction, as a reflection of what was going on in the culture, however inarticulately, it was dead on.

Benson might have agreed.

Finally, how does this sort of thing metastasize across a culture? Benson gives a clue earlier in his novel. Mabel and her mother in law went to hear Oliver deliver a speech. The people gathered began to sing:

There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:

The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” …

She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.

Quick Review: Osborn’s Rock & Roll: The New Madrid Fault System

Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System by [Osborn, Stephanie]Stephanie Osborn, that is.  Rock and Roll: The New Madrid Fault System is a 50 or so page essay Dr. Osborn (who has a very Renaissance Woman vita: Rocket scientist? Check. Geologist? Check. Author? Yep. And so on.) on the basics of the New Madrid fault system.

Osborn takes us through a brief tour of earthquake dynamics and terminology – Horst and Graben might not work as a band name, but a law firm? Oh yea – on her way to telling us that everyone in the lower midwest (or whatever people call Missouri, Western Tennessee and all adjoining areas) are DOOMED TO BE SWALLOWED BY THE EARTH IN A CATASTROPHE OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS. Not to put too fine a point on it.

You see, not only is there this major fault system right there in and around New Madrid, but when it pops, the areas affected dwarf what goes on here in California, and you get more of the more interesting earthquake effects, such as dramatic surface waves that may OPEN HUGE YAWNING CRACKS AT YOUR FEET. As Osborn explains, the underlying geology in California is solid rock to a fairly good depth, so that while earthquakes can certainly be severe, the rigid structure tends to stop the movement fairly quickly, and to not propagate those nasty rolling earthquake waves very well, comparatively speaking.

The vast area in and around the New Madrid fault, by contrast, is fractured and unstable and therefore more elastic rock covered by many feet of sediment that has not been crushed yet into solid rock. And earthquake in California is like someone bumping

OzzyChangingHands02-20-2010new.jpg
No, not this Osbourne – Rock n Roll, sure, but geology? Not so much.

a table; when the New Madrid faults pop, it’s like whacking a giant bowl of Jello. (My colorful analogy, not hers.)

So, yes, if you happen to live in the affected area, when the next Big One hits in Mid America, you will see you buildings, crops and livestock tossed into the air, rivers flowing backwards and forging new courses, all your building reduced to piles of rubble – at least, you’ll see it until THE EARTH BENEATH YOU OPENS UP LIKE THE MAW OF HELL AND SWALLOWS YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU LOVE BEFORE SNAPPING CLOSED LIKE THE MOUTH OF AN ENORMOUS CROCODILIAN DEMON-BEAST!!! While we out here in California will die more prosaic deaths such as being crushed by falling masonry or freeway overpases, midwesterners get the full Biblical style Judgement of the Most High there-one-moment-swallowed-up-and-vanished-the-next deaths. So, major style points to the Midwest.

Seems to happens every 3-4 centuries. Last really nasty earthquake swarm was 1811-1812. So, if you live there, you may be good for a few centuries. Or maybe not. Just be aware: Californians may be slow on the uptake, but after a few rounds of having building drop on people’s heads, we have taken many steps to keep that sort of thing to a minimum. Masonry building here are either a facade over a steel frame, or 75 or more years old (and small – the bigger building tend to be the ones more damaged in quakes.) Earthquake retrofitting, where typically steel and reinforced concrete are more or less discretely added to older buildings, is an industry here.

The Midwest, in my fairly extensive experience driving around there, seems to be infested with a LOT of brick and stone buildings. Lots and lots.

You’ll want to avoid those during a quake. To put it mildly.

Rock and Roll is by design and necessity a pretty light read, with a very extensive bibliography in case you want to dig deeper. (Osborn’s list of references is about 50% the number of pages as the essay itself.) As I mentioned earlier, it’s a bit like reading a very long Wikipedia article written by somebody with verve – it’s an easy and often charming read.

So, if you live in the frankly doomed, so doomed, area within a 1,000 miles of New Madrid, you might want to pick up a copy and give it a read. At the very least, it may cure you of any tendency to think how dumb Californians are for building right on top of major faults they just know are going to kill them all one day.

Ha. And the weather is really nice out here.

Update: Reading, Writing, Futzing Around

Added a couple more blog post drafts on Important Things – you know, Important Things – bringing the draft total to just under 100. Sheesh. Started writing about how behavioral scientists (whatever that’s supposed to mean) don’t care about brain science, as changing people’s behaviors are all they’re interested in, not how the brain actually works. Um, what? Very Bacon-ish (the British scientist, not the gateway meat): we’re in it for the Domination of Nature, not merely to understand anything. Let’s not get all philosophical here, we got behaviors to change! And how YA fiction provides something to kids sadly missing from their real lives: responsibility for meaningful stuff, especially stuff they *don’t* get to choose. Kids want to grow up, and the dirty little secret is that we choose here and there, but happiness and meaning are mostly found in living out duties we didn’t really choose: to family, friends, country. Kids need that, and YA fiction often provides at least stories of it.

And so on. Got partial drafts on bad philosophy and stupid theories, an attempt to explain supply and demand avoiding the baleful conventions of economics (not as easy as one would hope) and airfleet finance basics that I promised somebody months ago. And about 90 more! Things I thought important at the time!

Anyway, here’s two turntables and a microphone:

A. Reading, among other things, the first issue of Astounding Frontiers, a new publication from some of the people involved in Sci Phi Journal and Superversive stuff in general. About 80% through, need another hour or two. A full review will follow in a few days.

Short & sweet: great stuff, all kinds of fun. The format, at least for the first volume, is a set of short stories followed by the first installments of a set of serials. All the stories are at least good; the first serial is of Nowhither, the next volume following the Dragon-award-winning Somewither from the Tales of the Unwithering Realm books by John C. Wright. As good as you’d hope. You’d better love cliffhangers, though. Old-school serials are the model, after all.

Writing: So, I started to do what I said I’d do – pick a market and submit the recently-finished short story. Aaaand, that proved harder than I thought – while I’m pretty familiar with the old dead-tree markets – Analog, Asimov’s, SF&F – I’m not really up on all the new markets. So I asked myself: does this slight little story work in those old-school markets? Aaaand – IMHO, not really. It’s a gee-whiz story, where a guy faces death and second thoughts. Probably overthinking it (you’re shocked, right?). Other stuff I’m working on might fit better, maybe.

Anyway, I decided to keep looking for a better match. I began at the top of a list I’d gotten off the web somewhere, sorted by how much they pay, and started down, trying to imagine how what I wrote could fit within their guidelines.

Some not-fits were obvious, either from tone or just not fitting the guidelines. I soon became obvious I needed some quick filters to eliminate the obviously not gonna happens: In addition to wild mismatches on the guidelines, ended up crossing off ones who lead with SJW stuff, as it’s hard to imagine them wanting my stuff.

This still left a whole bunch of interesting possibilities. But I’d never heard of these publications, many of which seem to have mushroomed on the web in the last few years. So I find myself reading the sample stories, to get a feel.

By now, I’ve spent several hours reading stories online from the various publications. Unfortunately, while I did get a few decent stories read, I didn’t end up with much additional clarity. A couple of the stories I liked were so utterly different from what I’ve written that my brain sorta locked up.

And then life got busy. It may calm down for a few weeks, maybe not. Thinking I’ll just look among the PulpRev and Superversive markets for this particular story; others might go elsewhere, need to get my brain around what’s what.

B. Meanwhile, working on some other half (or more) finished stories. With the long daylight hours, I’m tending to work out in the yard until dark or dinner, meaning it’s after 9:00 before I’m in for the night – and, if I’ve been doing physical work, I’m probably tired. Yes, I’m a disorganized sissy with too much going on. Anyway, still need a bit of time to finish the 3-4 in the pipeline. The good news is that I should have a better idea what markets to pursue for them after getting myself caught up on what’s out there.

General experience: when I take a second look at something I’ve set aside for a long while, I tend to like it much better than when I set it down. Obviously need to get over these amateur emotional reactions that keep me from just getting it done. Story of my life, I suppose.

C. Speaking of late daylight hours, been working on the brick oven. When we last checked in, I’d decided to add a little shelf or lip on the oven’s front, changing my mind from when I’d poured the oven slab last summer, and left off the lip in the front.

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While beautiful after a fashion, this whole thing here is frankly insane. Spent hours trying to get it level enough so that the planned wooden butcher block would be level-ish and sturdy enough – and I just couldn’t see it working. Don’t know if any of you have this experience, but at least on projects like this, I’ll get a nagging feeling that it won’t work that eventually stops me cold. Got there on this.  Had to change course. Not getting any dubious vibes on plan D? E? where are we? Yet, anyway. 

Well, after way, way over-engineering it and spending hours (and way too much money!) building this metal angle-iron and threaded rod support system, changed my mind again and decided to pour a little more concrete. Had no confidence in the metal supports – too many things could go wrong, and even if I got it all installed successfully, if somebody decided to sit on it, it might even crack the bricks. So, reengineered. Again.

It should have only taken a few hours total to do this, but it’s been over 100F each of the last two weekends, and even I, home improvement project berzerker, can’t do a lot of manual labor when it’s that warm. So now I’m going to finish it after work, with any luck, before the summer ends. On the positive side: once I’ve gotten the lip finished, the actual oven build should go pretty quickly. Yea, famous last words.

In Atlanta: Reading Update

Brief update: Visiting a customer this week to help with the roll out of a new product of ours. This time of year in Atlanta, it is merely quite warm and humid, but certainly tolerable. I hope to take a couple long walks, with luck all the way to the Cathedral of Christ the King 2 miles away. Next month, it gets pretty icky here for a spoiled Californian like me.

A couple cross country flights and nights stuck in a hotel room mean one excellent thing: Reading Time! I’m trying to finish up William Briggs’s excellent Uncertainty: The Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics. I am reminded a little of the experience of first reading Aristotle many years ago: you must understand the phrase before you understand the sentence, and then understand that sentence before going on to the next, or you will soon be lost.  While it is true that this book is not a math treatise, per se, it is also true that there’s a density to it like the density of math, where a simple formula can sometimes mean the world. I can breeze through a chapter and get something out of it, but if I really want to understand – well, then it’s one sentence at a time, don’t proceed until you’ve got that one clear.

But this is not a bad thing – when you actually do make the effort, what is understood is well worth understanding. I’m thinking I might do a chapter by chapter review, more or less, since I’d like to reread it anyway, and thinking about each chapter would be a good exercise. So, maybe next week.

Also reading Dawn Witzke’s Path of Angels because, what the heck, it sounded interesting, isn’t too long, and was cheap! Also picked up a couple of Heinlein novels from this stack:

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So, after I get back from this trip, thing are looking up reading and book reviewing wise. Writing, OTOH, suffers a little when I travel since I’m often tired or agitated one way or another – but I’ll give that a try, too. Things might be much better next week – let us hope.