Book Review: R. A. Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome

First off, thanks go out to Mike Flynn for recommending The Fall of Rome. Rarely have I enjoyed a book more, and suspect the stories and personalities in it will linger for years to come. Vivid hardly describes it.

Short & sweet: Stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Lafferty mentions in passing that the machinations of Olympius in the court of the Eastern Empire were far too complex for a modern mind to grasp. That passage pokes fun at the larger issue, that we are enslaved by our age unless we make the effort to learn about other ages. There are few more enlightening ages to learn about than that of the Roman Empire. It is a small, enslaved mind indeed that is not fired, humbled and saddened at the story of the Fall of Rome and the epics and, ultimately, tragedies of Alaric, Stilicho, Stairnon, Sarus, Singerich, Theodosius and the Empire itself.

IMG_3834Lafferty I knew of only from his unclassifiable SFF-ish short stories. Are they myth? Legend? Parody? They’ve been called tall tales, which seems about right, but hardly does them justice. The casual brilliance of stories such as the Narrow Valley make it clear we’re dealing with a really smart guy.

In the Fall of Rome, Lafferty applies his brilliant story telling talents to Roman history, which he clearly knows and loves deeply. Instead of a dry list of kings being born, fighting battles and dying only to hand power over to other kings who do the same ad infinitum, Lafferty starts with chapters dedicated to helping us learn who the Goths were and how they were ripe to produce so many tragic heroes. He disabuses us (well, me) from any lingering thoughts that the Goths were barbarians in the sense of uncivilized. True, there were more wild elements on the northern fringes largely outside the influence of Rome, but huge swaths of Goths, Vandals and Huns were members of highly sophisticated cultures with ancient traditions and technology as good or better than that of the Romans. (1) These ‘border peoples’ had been trading with and working in and for the Empire for centuries – and enriching it. The ideals of the Empire, especially in its post-Constantine form that embraced of Christianity, held a strong grip on their imaginations. Lafferty’s book is about the consequences of a lapse in that grip among a few key people, and how that brought about the End of the World.

Laferty also makes the point that we of European descent have inherited our foundational emotional relationship to the world from these border people, and not from the Romans. (2) He emphasizes the point in his telling of Alaric’s first invasion of Italy. While a battle raged, Stilicho – wiley doesn’t begin to describe him – sent a team to round up the women and families of the Gothic leadership who were, according to Gothic practice, accompanying the men at arms. Stilicho treated his hostages well – Alaric’s wife Stairnon was sent to live with Stilicho’s own family – but made it clear that the fighting needed to end and the Goths withdraw from Italy if the Gothic leaders ever wanted to see them again.

A true Roman would expect his wife and children to die noble deaths rather than be used as bargaining chips against the Res Romana, and carry on the fight. Stories, generally horrifying, of the sacrifices Romans were willing to make for the Republic and Empire make this assertion about their families easy to accept. But a Goth could not imagine a Gothic Thing that was fundamentally different from his family, making the very idea that you’d willingly sacrifice your family for an Empire, however conceived, incomprehensible. Thus, the Gothic leaders quickly retreated to Illyricum, and within a few months were reunited with their families. Alaric held out for a year, but even he eventually retreated and Stilicho sent his wife to him.

We understand Alaric and the Gothic leaders in a way we will never understand the Romans.

Aside: Before reading this, I would have argued that our emotional foundations were laid by Greek-flavored Hebrews via the New Testament and subsequent interpretation of the Old in light of the New. Much of the emotional landscape of the Pentateuch is very foreign, so that to get the emotional impact of many of the stories requires some effort, an effort we don’t generally have to make with, say, a Grimm’s fairytale. But once Greeks culture was sown by Alexander across the Levant, and once the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus converted the Greek-speaking world, the emotional landscape changed – gradually, imperfectly. The Romans – and the pre-Christian Greeks and nearly everybody else down to this day – would have expected the beggar Lazarus to crawl off and die, and would not have thought any less of Dives for having not cared for him. But the Jews got it. The Christians got it. And so now the world gets it, or pretends to. Likewise, Christians are troubled by Joshua putting conquered peoples under the ban – a notion that would have bothered no one previous, the only question being prudence.

Thus, 2000 years later, we are nearly as horrified by the cruel heroism of the Romans as by the treachery and casual bloodthirstiness sometimes evident among the border peoples. But now that Lafferty raises the issue, it clears up something I’ve often wondered about: the border peoples and other ‘barbarians’ were unable to set up anything like a Res Romana, but instead invented feudalism, which extends family obligations formally to what might be called the state. The problem is that the state is hardly distinguishable from the family, at least formally, so that lords are now fathers. A Roman could have fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty to a state he might not have any direct family interests in – he’s not related to any of the people in charge who might order him to his death. A feudal citizen? Subject? Family member?  is sworn into a ‘family’ so that his lord is his ‘father’ – his ‘Sire’.

The Patriarchal structure of the Romans might appear to contradict this, but it seems more of an along-side rather than an in-place-of arrangement: the local patriarch might be the ‘Big Daddy’ locally, but a Roman would see his obligations to the Res Romana as something only accidentally effected by his local patriarch. I think, I’m a good bit in over my head here. End Aside.

But some just wanted to see the World burn. Olympius, a master at manipulation and court intrigue, finally managed to bring down Stilicho. Then, in an event that makes Olympius into a Joker-like madman, at the peak of his power, having defeated Stilicho and seized the reigns of the greatest Empire on earth, he orders, or encourages, or allows the slaughter of the families of the tens of thousands of Gothic soldiers in Italy, by a Roman is for Romans faction. 30,000 Gothic troops defect to Alaric and Athaulf – soldiers who would have died under Stilicho or Alaric to defend Rome are now hell-bent on sacking it. And when Rome the unifying, civilizing idea was no more, and the dust settled, the new Emperor Constantius had Olympius clubbed to death.

I can hardly recommend this book enough if you have any interest in history at all.

Final aside: while much of what I learned from this book fit passing well into what I thought I already knew, I think I either accepted much less flattering descriptions of Alaric (who, BTW, I’ve admired for years) or, perhaps, confounded his story with parts of Atilla’s. Either way, Lafferty’s portrayal of the Great King of the Goths as an ultimately tragic hero is dazzling and convincing.

  1. From years ago, I had the impression that Rome came to be technologically backward, at least comparatively, by the time of the Empire. They seemed uninterested in technology as a culture. But I had not realized they were surrounded by peoples who were not uninterested, and had largely passed them by.
  2. A glance at a map of the migrations and invasions of these border peoples shows that we also almost certainly ARE Goths, Vandals, etc. in large part. Europeans were the muttiest of mutts even before they got to America.

Brownson’s American Republic: Last Thoughts (for now)

As mentioned in the last post, over the last 20% or so of The American Republic, Orestes Brownson changes from description and apologetics to prophecy. He moves from fleshing out and defending a position he attributes to Lincoln, that the United States as a nation precedes the Constitution and even the Declaration, to describing what he sees as the all but inevitable spiritual and political destiny of America.

Image result for orestes brownson
Brownson: Proof one does not need to be a Marxist to have a righteous beard. 

Brownson has great faith in Providence. He sees nations not as glorified tribes run by flawed and feeble men, but as acts of loving Creator, meant for some higher goal. The United States, as brought into focus and matured by the Civil War, are Providentially destined to absorb into their beneficent arms all the remaining states in the Western Hemisphere, not by conquest, but by nations one after the other coming to realize the mutual benefits of Union.

There was no statesmanship in proclaiming the “Monroe doctrine,” for the statesman keeps always, as far as possible, his government free to act according to the exigencies of the case when it comes up, unembarrassed by previous declarations of principles. Yet the doctrine only expresses the destiny of the American people, and which nothing but their own fault can prevent them from realizing in its own good time. Napoleon will not succeed in his Mexican policy, and Mexico will add some fifteen or twenty new States to the American Union as soon as it is clearly for the interests of all parties that it should be done, and it can be done by mutual consent, without war or violence. The Union will fight to maintain the integrity of her domain and the supremacy of her laws within it, but she can never, consistently with her principles or her interests, enter upon a career of war and conquest. Her system is violated, endangered, not extended, by subjugating her neighbors, for subjugation and liberty go not together. Annexation, when it takes place, must be on terms of perfect equality and by the free act of the state annexed. The Union can admit of no inequality of rights and franchises between the States of which it is composed. The Canadian Provinces and the Mexican and Central American States, when annexed, must be as free as the original States of the Union, sharing alike in the power and the protection of the Republic—alike in its authority, its freedom, its grandeur, and its glory, as one free, independent, self-governing people. They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.

“They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.” This is the key feature, the one that did not survive 3 years after the Civil War: that states would retain all rights and powers to manage themselves after a fashion suitable to the local customs and traditions and the nature of the people therein, while only those rights and powers proper by nature to the Union would be surrendered. Mexico, to stick with Brownson’s example above, was destined to see the harmony and prosperity and benevolence of the U.S., note their lack of interest in, indeed, abhorrence of the very idea of imposing non-Mexican government on them in regards to all local matters. Defence, interstate commerce, settling disputes between states – those powers would be mutually shared and exercised through the federal government. The Mexicans would gain much, and lose nothing.

Except that the ink was not yet dry on this book when the spectacle of the North forcing passage of the 14th Amendment on the Southern states as a condition for reentering the Union showed the world exactly how wrong Brownson was. This, on the heels of a bloody war (of conquest, it would look like from the outside and the South), would certainly cause Mexico or anybody else to have serious doubts about the harmlessness of intentions of America. The Civil War preserved the Union, or at least something visually similar to the Union, and freed the slaves, but it did not advertise peace-loving American benevolence.

Brownson assumed the Reconstruction would be swift, fair and relatively painless, and lead to an economic boom. Brothers welcoming prodigal brothers home. He didn’t quite get that one right, either.

I almost think I hear a man horrified, as so many were, by the Civil War, trying to make sense out of it by appeals to destiny and Providence. Rather than the death of the very American ideals he so fervently hoped to see realized, he sees a renewal, a Phoenix rising. All the blood and wealth Lincoln describes as spilt and dissipated in Divine Retribution over slavery in his Second Inaugural Address Brownson believes rather paves the way to a glorious future.

A contemporary critic accused Brownson of arguing vehemently for ideas he wished he, himself, could believe in. I’m wondering if that critic didn’t have a point. Brownson ends the American Republic:

But the American people need not trouble themselves about their exterior expansion. That will come of itself as fast as desirable. Let them devote their attention to their internal destiny, to the realization of their mission within, and they will gradually see the Whole continent coming under their system, forming one grand nation, a really catholic nation, great, glorious, and free.

Micro-Review & Brownson Reading Update

From the ridiculous to the sublime:

1. Read, as in listened to, the audiobook of, The Adventures of  Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, a Larry Correia joint, read by an enthusiastic and amused Adam Baldwin – yes, that Adam Baldwin. (Audio of this was offered free about a year ago, so I took it. Not really an audio guy myself. Mr. Baldwin’s fine work made it all special.)

Image result for The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance AgentHilarious. Correia’s pacing is so fast and humor so thick that you never get bored even when, as I suspect is case for me, a lot of cultural/gamer/pop references are flying right over my head.

The conceit: an insurance agent, possibly the dullest, least inspiring white-collar job in this iteration of the multiverse, might be, through dogged dedication to superior customer service, a mech-driving, attack-nanobot-wielding, cyborg-kung-fu-master superhero. In a Men’s Wearhouse suit. Tom Stranger, of Stranger and Stranger Interdimensional Insurance, lives for positive customer satisfaction survey responses, and is willing to brave any horror and almost certain death to get them. He gets stuck with possibly the lamest intern in history, a slacker with a gender studies degree, by what appears to be an administrative oversight. Tom tries, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to keep Jimmy the Intern alive while providing superior customer service to his clients in various dimensions as they suffer attacks by the likes of zombie hordes and flying purple people eaters, all while Tom’s arch-nemesis, Jeff Conundrum, tries to ruin the party.

How epic is this? Chuck Norris shows up and kicks an evil alien’s head so hard he turns him inside out. Yikes.

If you need a quick, fun diversion from this vale of tears, highly recommended.

2. My regular readers, who by now may number well into the double digits, like maybe 12 or even  13, may recall my partial reviews of Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic, some of which can be found here and here. What happened is that the book got weird, I had to think about it, shiny objects intruded into my field of visions, and, well, here we are.

Over the last 20-25% of the book, Brownson lays out his vision of America’s future. In retrospect, Brownson’s views seem either wildly optimistic to the verge of delusional, or, from another political perspective, dangerously theistic.

Brownson was an adult convert to Catholicism. He was raised among kindly Calvinists, but found their beliefs too dark and dreadful, even if the rural Presbyterians held them were personally kind. Before he was 20, he’d parted ways with the church of his childhood, and proceeded to ping-pong around between various flavors of Unitarianism and even quasi-atheistic theism (if that makes sense – and it sort of does). After a couple decades of this wandering in the desert, he comes to the conclusion that only a church that ‘teaches with authority, and not like the scribes’ could be the true Church.

His almost pugnacious enthusiasm for theological disputes, honed as an editor and writer for various Unitarian-leaning publications, never left him – his brand of apologetics is often bracing, especially in these be-nice-so-you-don’t-offend times. I can’t imagine it was much less so even in the mid-1800’s.

Brownson believes that the Civil War has settled some issues about what, exactly, the United States are. Writing immediately upon the conclusion of the Civil War and prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, Brownson never fails to refer to the United States as a plural, as was always done by earlier writers, a practice that soon passed out of useage after the Civil War. That War, and the 14th and subsequent Amendments,  impressed upon the minds of all the primacy of the Nation as a whole over the States as ever more subservient parts.

Brownson’s arguments in the American Republic support this view to a large extent. He argues that nations are formed naturally when a people in a territory recognize their common destiny and begin to act together. This commonality is usually but not always seen in language, religion and culture, but always includes a territory. Thus, the Swiss could be a single natural nation, while English-speaking Anglicans in South Africa, England and the US could not.

Therefore, Brownson argues that the United States were already a single nation when the Constitution was ratified – they must have been, since there must already be a nation to create a constitution for it. The people already recognized their common fate, and acted to best preserve and promote their common interests and protect the Republic which that common wealth brought into being. He writes at some length disputing the notion that a document could bring a nation into being, and cites the futility of such efforts throughout history. If a natural nation does not already exist, efforts to create one by fiat through a written constitution will always fail. (An Empire is another beast altogether.)

Brownson, writing in that thin slice of time right after the war and before the full intent and misery of the revenge of the North upon the South became obvious, could still believe that the States were being preserved more or less intact, that the war had been, as Lincoln always said, about preserving the Union. The states were still, in his view, sovereign, each within its proper realm, only surrendering to the United States those specific powers which by nature devolved to it. He thoroughly believed that there was and could not be a conflict between the federal and state powers, now that the War Between the States had so dearly and emphatically made them clear.

The state of affairs, whereby the greatest common wealth held by the Commonwealth that is the Nation that wrote the Constitution, are the recognition of the divine origins of Man’s rights and duties, and of the state’s existence to foster the growth and fruition of that divine order and as the expression of the divine fruitfulness. After the manner of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, in the secular realm, political life flows from the state and is ordered to it. Here he stands Fichte on his head: the sovereignty flows from the People to the State, which is informed and acts by virtue of the virtue of the People, thereby reinforcing their sovereignty and virtue.

Since the Nation is a natural thing, an outpouring and maturation of human nature, then, as human nature is a divine creation, so, too, is the Nation, at least potentially.  Here is where Brownson’s optimism is given full reign. Since the Catholic Church is the guardian and source of truth – of natural law, in this case – then a properly constituted natural nation must needs reflect and manifest the teaching of the Church. Brownson believes that, now that the war had forced America out of its long adolescence into mature statehood, we as a nation would more and more adopt the teachings of the Church on human nature, rights and duties both individual and societal, and, in short, convert. Any other route would take the nation further from reality, creating friction and issues that would soon be corrected – the great forward momentum of the now-mature American Republic would see to it.

He answers the Church and State issues in the same way he answers the Federal and State questions: there will be no conflict because the role of each is clear. In this, he echoes Dante, who yearned for a world in which the church and the state had separate, clear roles and stayed out of each other’s way. All the problems of the past were due to less perfect realizations of the idea of a Nation, leading to corruption of both church and state. America was poised to become Catholic and avoid all church and state problems as it realized the small ‘c’ catholic roots of all its founding principles, and moved toward the large ‘C’ Catholic Church as a result.

Finally, for now, in the midst of all this optimism and enthusiasm, Brownson despairs of Europe and the rest of Christendom. He notes that all contemporary Catholic states have got the Church on a short leash, and hate it even when they cannot -yet- do without it. Only in America, as a properly constituted Republic, would the Church be free to be itself. By being itself, it would convert the nation.

Brownson died in 1876, 11 years after writing the American Republic. I wonder if he recognized how far by then the nation had departed from the path he laid out for it, and where its true path would lead.

Just wow. I’m planning to retire in about 7.5 years – maybe then I can do the proper chapter by chapter review of this fascinating book.

 

 

Book Review: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

Why am I reading a 150 year old children’s fantasy/fairy tale book? Because:

Certain magazines have symposiums (I will call them ‘symposia’ if I am allowed to call the two separate South Kensington collections ‘musea’) in which persons are asked to name ‘Books that have Influenced Me’, on the lines of ‘Hymns that have Helped Me’. It is not a very realistic process as a rule, for our minds are mostly a vast uncatalogued library; and for a man to be photographed with one of the books in his hand generally means at best that he has chosen at random, and at worst that he is posing for effect. But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald, the man who is the subject of this book.

G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald

If G. K. Chesterton praises The Princess and the Goblin like that, I had to read it. Of course, you should read all of the above essay. In a way, this review here is a review of both the book and Chesterton’s views of it.

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is a fairytale, but with a difference: the daily lives of the 8 year old Princess Irene and the young boy hero Curdie are drawn so as to seem familiar, cozy and normal. Irene is a princess, yes, but a perfectly acceptable little girl living a good but somewhat lonely life. Her mother has died and her father, the king, has business that takes him away most of the time. Her situation is sad but perfectly real. The people in the castle are – with one exception – also perfectly normal and decent human beings. Irene’s governess Lootie is fussy but good-hearted; other characters – the Image result for the princess and the goblin book coverking’s guard, cooks – are but lightly sketched but also ring true.

Curdie is the young son of a miner, who is brave, honest, enterprising and kind, and works side-by-side with his father. His mother and father, briefly but convincingly sketched, are solid, familiar people.

The castle is a real castle, the mountain a real mountain, the mines where Curdie and his father work real mines. And all are full of magic.

Magic happens in the course of usual events. Irene goes exploring the many rooms of the castle, and meets her namesake great great grandmother in a room high in the castle. Chesterton points out that the castle seemed to him not unlike his own childhood home, with a cellar and many rooms, so that Irene’s explorations and discoveries were like what he, himself, might have experienced as a child exploring his own house.

And that’s the difference: the adventures here take place at home, not in a far-away kingdom or in the clouds. You don’t need to go to an enchanted forest, for the forest right here is already enchanted, and the goblins really are under your bed, and your fairy godmother lives upstairs.

In keeping with this mood or setting, MacDonald blurs the lines between royalty and commoners, nobility being not so much about birth but about character:

All this time Curdie had to be sorry, without a chance of confessing, that he had behaved so unkindly to the princess. This perhaps made him the more diligent in his endeavours to serve her. His mother and he often talked on the subject, and she comforted him, and told him she was sure he would some day have the opportunity he so much desired.

Here I should like to remark, for the sake of princes and princesses in general, that it is a low and contemptible thing to refuse to confess a fault, or even an error. If a true princess has done wrong, she is always uneasy until she has had an opportunity of throwing the wrongness away from her by saying: ‘I did it; and I wish I had not; and I am sorry for having done it.’ So you see there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well. Many such instances have been known in the world’s history.

Superversive, even. And:

‘Lootie! Lootie! I promised a kiss,’ cried Irene.

‘A princess mustn’t give kisses. It’s not at all proper,’ said Lootie.

‘But I promised,’ said the princess.

‘There’s no occasion; he’s only a miner-boy.’

‘He’s a good boy, and a brave boy, and he has been very kind to us. Lootie! Lootie! I promised.’

‘Then you shouldn’t have promised.’

‘Lootie, I promised him a kiss.’

‘Your Royal Highness,’ said Lootie, suddenly grown very respectful, ‘must come in directly.’

‘Nurse, a princess must not break her word,’ said Irene, drawing herself up and standing stock-still.

Lootie did not know which the king might count the worst—to let the princess be out after sunset, or to let her kiss a miner-boy. She did not know that, being a gentleman, as many kings have been, he would have counted neither of them the worse. However much he might have disliked his daughter to kiss the miner-boy, he would not have had her break her word for all the goblins in creation. But, as I say, the nurse was not lady enough to understand this, and so she was in a great difficulty, for, if she insisted, someone might hear the princess cry and run to see, and then all would come out. But here Curdie came again to the rescue.

‘Never mind, Princess Irene,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t kiss me tonight. But you shan’t break your word. I will come another time. You may be sure I will.’

“…being a gentleman, as many kings have been…”

After a number of increasingly dire adventures and challenges, involving goblins, mines, magic thread, narrow rescues and escapes, Curdie saves the day and the princess and she, as her approving father looks on, gives him a kiss. The story is not sappy, but beautiful.

Any reader of Chesterton will soon run into one of his core convictions: that the world is fantastical and magical, full of wonders and the inexplicable, it’s just that we are most often too dull to see it.  The Princess and the Goblin shows just such a world as ours.

Chesterton gets the last word, as he almost always would in a better world:

When I say it is like life, what I mean is this. It describes a little princess living in a castle in the mountains which is perpetually undermined, so to speak, by subterranean demons who sometimes come up through the cellars. She climbs up the castle stairways to the nursery or the other rooms; but now and again the stairs do not lead to the usual landings, but to a new room she has never seen before, and cannot generally find again. Here a good great-grandmother, who is a sort of fairy godmother, is perpetually spinning and speaking words of understanding and encouragement. When I read it as a child, I felt that the whole thing was happening inside a real human house, not essentially unlike the house I was living in, which also had staircases and rooms and cellars. This is where the fairy-tale differed from many other fairy-tales; above all, this is where the philosophy differed from many other philosophies. I have always felt a certain insufficiency about the ideal of Progress, even of the best sort which is a Pilgrim’s Progress. It hardly suggests how near both the best and the worst things are to us from the first; even perhaps especially at the first. And though like every other sane person I value and revere the ordinary fairy-tale of the miller’s third son who set out to seek his fortune (a form which MacDonald himself followed in the sequel called The Princess and Curdie), the very suggestion of travelling to a far-off fairyland, which is the soul of it, prevents it from achieving this particular purpose of making all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things.

Mini-micro Review: Mike Flynn “Nexus” & More Weather

A: Review: Michael Flynn’s Novella Nexsus in this month’s Analog

A reconstruction(1) of a conversation taking place around 12:30 a.m. last night, as my wife is entering the bedroom where I am just putting down the latest issues of Analog:

“Reading Mike Flynn?”

“Just finished. It has about every ridiculous pulp science fiction idea you’ve ever heard of in one place: time travel, appalling space aliens, space aliens that can pass for human, telepathy,  faster than light travel, transporter beams, androids…”

“What’s it about?”

“Aristotelian causality.”

There is a woman who can’t die, a weather balloon cover story, ninja space cops, weird alien necrophilia (PG-13), alien invaders, aliens working under cover to protect earth from alien invaders. There’s Theadora the hooker-Empress, conflicting time-lines, the need to keep the cops and the military out of it, and super-ninja space cops.

Trying to remember if Area 51 gets a shout out.

And, yes, it all hangs on what Aristotle would call in Greek a ‘walking together’ – a series of coincidences – the component events of which are most definitely caused (they literally could not not be) but the walking together itself is just Fate, which takes the blame but is not, strictly speaking, a cause.

To sum up: Totally awesome. Mr. Flynn has made no direct comments on the whole Pulp Revolution stuff of which I am aware (wise man) – but, based on this, he’s down with it, at least conceptually .

B: Cows home yet? No? Let’s talk about the weather!

Here’s a sloppy picture of Mt. Diablo, elevation 3,849 feet, as seen looking east from the road on my drive home:

Mt Diablo
Mt. Diablo. North Peak to the left, main peak to the right. 

That white stuff is snow! It’s really not unusual for there to be snow on Mt. Diablo, happens probably every other winter on average. What is remarkable is that, with all the epic-level precipitation we’ve been getting this year, this is the first batch.

For the first time this rainy season, we got a classic Gulf of Alaska storm. All the other storms have been either pure Pineapple Express ‘atmospheric rivers’ pulling tropical moisture from the ocean around Hawaii and therefore too warm to leave snow at as low an elevation as Mt. Diablo, or some blended Alaska/Hawaii storm, which tend to be in the middle, temperature-wise, and still not cold enough.

We end up with a very pretty situation: all the grass is green, the cherry blossoms are out, the first tips of green are on the trees – and there’s snow on the mountains. Lovely.

3. But how about those CCC Water District rain gauges? 

I thought you’d never ask. Last we checked, all but 5 of these gauges had already received more than an average rainy season’s worth of rain. Three have since reached their annual totals (overall, the gauges average over 150% of their annual average total), leaving only 2 that are registering less than their average annual amounts of rain. (2):

2017 03 06 Rain Gagues
A piece of my little OCD rain gauge spreadsheet.

Unlike the earlier storms, this last storm hit the Concord Pavilion and Kregor Peak gauges as hard or harder than any of the others. Why would that be?

The winds accompanying Pineapple Express storms tend to blow from south to north. Gulf of Alaska storms, on the other hand, tend to strike our stretch of coast pretty much west to east.My theory is that the generally south to north direction of the previous storms put these 2 gauges in the rain shadow of Mt. Diablo. This last storm hit them as squarely as any of the other gauges. Thus, they started to catch up.

Concord Pavilion will probably reach its annual total, given anything like normal March rain. Kregor Peak is more iffy – an inch and a half is a lot of rain for these parts. Possible.

I promise to lay off the weather stuff – unless something really interesting happens.

  1. The conversation went something like this, but perhaps not so tidy.
  2. Don’t know how I missed this before, but: except for a few of the very oldest gauges, the annual averages are suspiciously round numbers, suggesting they are just guesses, not actual averages. Makes sense – I’d want a century of data before giving any weight to averages. As guesses, they carry much less weight than even the little weight they’d carry as 40 year averages.

3/3 – 3 for 3 Amazon Review Day:

Brian Niemeier at Kairos has linked to an excellent suggestion at Seagull Rising, who explains:

Happy Three for Three!  Today’s the day to review bomb Amazon.com.  Pick three books that you really should have reviewed by now and write at least three sentences about them.  Post these reviews to Amazon and you are done.  If you pick your favorite independent author, you’ll be doing them a solid favor by giving their profile a small boost thanks to the inscrutable working’s of Amazon’s algorithms.

Here’s mine (apologies in advance for the rambling, each of these books deserves a tighter review I just don’t have time to do.):

  1. Souldancer by Brian Niemeier – 5 stars

Wild ride on an insane roller coaster. Grab a cup of coffee if you’re going to read this thing – and you should read it – you’ll need to pay attention as you do not want to miss any of of the awesomeness. Love story? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl turns out to be a flaming – as in, literally on fire – demonic metallic monstrosity. Who does have her charms, which are occasionally expressed in piles of the smoldering charred flesh of her enemies. Good thing, too, for she and her companions have a Universe to save.

And it gets better. Really. Just go read it.

2. Captive Dreams by Mike Flynn – 5 stars

6 intense stories that are deep, moving examinations of complex characters who live in a suburban neighborhood encircling a small wood – and a near future hard sci fi universe. Each story has its own deeply-felt mood, plotted somewhere in the Venn diagram where melancholy, sadness, and wonder intersect. Flynn subtle and mischievous sense of humor keeps these stories from getting anywhere near morose, even where most of the subject matter and the characters’ interactions might lead one to weeping or despair. Sounds weird to say it, but despite topics like death of loved ones – an ancient old lady, a child, a lifelong friend, a wife, a loyal crew – and the tragedy of misguided desires to live as one dreams despite the cost – there are moments where you laugh out loud, often right before reaching for the tissues.

But Flynn is a sly dog – his ‘jokes’ are often so dry and obscure that part of the delight is just seeing them in the first place, and wondering how many others you’ve missed. Extreme example: a philosopher is described as an analytic philosopher with an interest in metaphysics. Well, analytic philosophy got its start by denying the reality of metaphysics (a metaphysical assertion if ever there were one). This character does then try to fulfill the role analytic philosophy claimed for itself – to help scientists understand what they are doing – and what they are doing in this story is trying to defy metaphysical truths. So the whole endeavor of analytic philosophy leads to a repudiation of all the premises upon which analytic philosophy is based – leading the philosopher to ‘cross the Tiber’ and the scientist to kill himself in denial of the metaphysical truth. And it’s funny!

A more broad joke lies in his description of an animal rights extremist as a remarkably small man – not a dwarf, just a scaled down human. Um, yep.

The overall tone remains somewhere along the melancholy axis – the occasional bits of humor are only necessary lubricants to telling stories about who and what people are. In the best science fiction tradition, Flynn uses technology as a means of revealing the true nature of people and reality to the reader. He just does it deeper and better than just about anyone else.

3. The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel (The Books of Unexpected Enlightenment) (Volume 2) by Jagi Lamplighter. – 5 stars

If you need a series that is fun, engaging, suitable for adult fantasy lovers while appropriate for younger teenagers but does not shy away from some real but delicate issues such teenagers will face, The Raven, the Elf and Rachel and the whole Books of Unexpected Enlightenment series are for you. Engaging and often hilarious characters get themselves into and out of serious trouble at a dizzying pace, while trying to grow up and navigate the boy/girl swamp and manage the expectations of the adults – not all of whom are on their side – at a magical boarding school. And dragons! And magic! Duels, ghosts, elves, angels, scary bad guys, hair-breadth escapes. And mystery upon mystery slowly unfolding through 3 books so far! This is book 2 in the series.

Most important, the stories don’t try to muddle the distinctions between good and evil to the point where every villain is just misunderstood, every evil act excusable, and all good deeds just a hypocritical facade. In the glorious tradition epitomized by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, while it is not always easy to tell good from evil and right from wrong, time and experience will tell. Your job is to be, like Sam Gamgee, faithful and loving. True heroism flows from that spring, and Lamplighter’s characters live in a world full of the deep, personal – and, I might add, normal – relationships of sister to sister and brother, parents to children, daughter to grandfather – and true friends. These are flawed – sometimes deeply flawed – characters who nonetheless love each other and dread doing, not just suffering, evil.

Lamplighter isn’t interested in telling us how all the villains are just misunderstood, like sparkly vampires, and how great acts of evil are acceptable or, worse, indifferent. No, she’s interested in seeing just who people are as they reveal themselves through their lives and actions.

This second book in the series begins where the whirlwind 1st book ended. Rachel, a diminutive yet irrepressible young magician, has gathered a group of remarkable and, to say the least, colorful friends about her at Roanoke Academy for the Magical Arts. Things go wrong at an often dizzying pace – there’s no slogging through pages of background or filler. Rachel, a good and proper daughter of upstanding and loving parents, seems the least likely person to attract trouble. Yet, trouble arises.

And Something is going on, something deep. Secret wizard agents working with her father are maddeningly unhelpful; a sort of truth serum broaches the topic of acceptable levels of privacy; the wild boy Zigfried is both bound by the strictest code of honor – yet willing to do many things, such as spying on people and executing elaborate revenge, that seem more than a little iffy. But, hey, he has a talking, flying, fire-breathing dragon for a best friend, so who is going to argue with him? And that’s not the half of it – there is raven, and this elf, and this gigantic tree, and secrets that must not be told…

Get this book and read it yourself or to your 14-year old daughter. Maybe wait on the 12 year old son for a couple years – nothing bad, but might make him uncomfortable. And get ready to eagerly order every subsequent book in the series.

What Your Kids’ Teachers are Learning in Education Schools

Picking up my dolorous education reading cross from its long-occupied place on the floor (1), began again to read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.(2) The Wikipedia entry   states:

Since the publication of the English edition in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been widely adopted in America’s teacher-training programs. A 2003 study by David Steiner and Susan Rozen determined that Pedagogy of the Oppressed was frequently assigned at top education schools.

So, if your child is being educated by one of the graduates of a “top education school” or any of the myriad of education schools which ape the top education schools (hint: almost all of them), there’s a very good chance that the education of such a teacher included this piece of unabashed Marxist – I gave up potty talk for Lent.

Image result for freire
Freire did sport a righteous beard, I’ll give ‘im that. He must not have gotten the memo about smoking being a act of violence against the oppressed.

Imagine a young person, bright eyed, optimistic, and yet insecure, ignorant (which is how they justify going to college, right?)  and desperate to fit in and get good grades. When an education professor gets out the trowel and starts laying this stuff on, how likely is a student to protest? Argue back? Call out manifest errors? How likely are they to even see any problems? They have been trained for years to please, not to think. Thus, our K-12 schools are full of teachers who think feel this sort of nonsense is simple common wisdom. Our children marinate in those assumptions – for 12+ years.

Thinking I should do a detailed chapter by chapter review, pointing out what Freire means in practice. He alternates, roughly, between typical Hegelian gibberish and nice sounding passages about freedom and even love. One who is ignorant, gullible or both – as is nearly always the case with the products of our schools (hey, they’re kids – I was ignorant and gullible back then, too) –  might find his words sympathetic – Christian, even. Yet one must remember that examples from history – what actually happens, not the “concrete historical reality” of Marx and Hegel, which consists of cherry-picked items hammered beyond recognition into the mangled shapes of theoretically acceptable outcomes – tend strongly to contradict everything Hegel, Marx, and Freire say. Half-truths are the coin of this realm. They ape truth enough to fool the inattentive, which is always how the better class of liars work.

Here are some samples from early in the book (I’m into the second chapter so far; don’t know how much of this I can stomach):

Opening paragraph:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. (1) Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

Clear? If so, let me muck it up for you. Imagine you’re a conventionally-educated young person, with a fresh diploma from any of the thousands of institutions governed by the sort of people who inflict the above on more or less innocent young people: have you ever been required to parse out anything this obtuse? Do the terms  – humanization, axiological, ontological, historical reality, concrete, objective,  context, uncompleted, conscious  (Hegelian, Marxist, even a bit of Freud eventually) – mean anything to you? Would you even suspect that they don’t mean what common English might lead you to think they mean?

Of course, these are all rhetorical questions. There is approximately zero chance any 20-something in America who attends an education school has any substantial understanding of any of these things. In fact, K-12 training (it will hardly do to call it education) conditions children to regurgitate what the teacher or test expect.

If they did, they might know, for example (3):

“Humanization” – this term has a history. Hegel views the world as always Becoming, never Being – being is dead, only becoming is real. Therefore, we cannot talk about a duty to recognize the humanity in another person – that would be to talk about Being: being human. If we go down that road, we might expect to be called to treat all people as human beings (not human becomings!)  and imagine that justice would require all of us to have, for example, unaliable rights and duties to each other.

No,  much better from Freire’s and Marx’s perspective if we think of human beings as incomplete, in their rights, freedoms, and duties. Then, we can talk about how to violate some people’s rights in order to get other people their rights without ever using those terms – which might, just barely, cause a twitch of conscience.

“Historical reality” – much beloved concept by Hegelians and Marxists. One might imagine it means “what is evident looking at history”. What it really means is “how history looks once it has been tortured into a shape determined by Hegelian or Marxist theories.” Those theories, in turn, do not base their truth claims on anything observable in history, but rather on special insights gained by getting sprinkled with the right magic fairy dust – something like that. Just know that Hegelians and Marxists reject out of hand that one should be able to arrive at their conclusions by rigorous and logical examination of the facts on the ground – nope, as in all religions, they claim “I believe, so that I might understand”.

“Conscious” – this is a measure of how much you agree with Freire, Marx or Hegel. If you totally disagree, you consciousness is ‘false’; if you totally agree, your consciousness if high or complete. If you are (mercifully) unaware of the discussion, you are unconscious. Thus, whenever these folks speak of raising consciousness, they mean getting people to agree with them, generally the unconscious. It seems the kids these days use the term ‘woke’ in the same manner. In such a world, anyone who claims to thoroughly understand Marxist premises and nonetheless completely dismisses them – me, for example – becomes irredeemably evil – I don’t even *want* to have my consciousness raised! (My consciousness is already raised way higher than theirs, as I explain here.) 

More important even than never having heard these Marxist notions explicitly laid out, our education victims have never heard them vigorously attacked. They assume such notions represent the universal educated view – and their teachers will never do anything to disabuse them.

With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the product of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.

Here we pull a neat trick, one very popular in modern Marxist thinking: Everything you, the designated oppressor does, is an act of violence; nothing I, the designated oppressed or victim, do can be violence by definition. Thus, a white person doing *anything* other than complete self-immolation on the altar of institutional racism is committing an act of violent oppression. Thus, personally being kind and accepting with no regard for a person’s race is – ready? – violent racist oppression. And inciting people to shoot and murder white policemen with no regard for the policemen’s personal behavior, or committing the actual murders themselves are – not violence, and cannot be. By definition.

Under Marxist and, indeed, Hegelian analysis, the Law of Noncontradiction (4)  does not apply: something *can* both be and not be at the same time in the same way. The obvious violence involved in murder is not violence – because we say so. Oh, sure, in some *technical* petty way, blowing somebody’s brains out (or starving 20 million Ukrainian peasants, or taking a power drill to the heads of Cambodian children, or forcing Venezuelans to eat their pets, or refusing asylum to Cuban refugees) might be called violence by the small minded and those not yet woke, or otherwise laboring under false consciousness, but in the big picture, any means to achieving the glorious end is licit and commendable – and, per Freire, not violence.(5)

Thus, when thugs – excuse me, fully conscious individuals acting out of true fraternal love – threaten and beat people, burn cars, and destroy shops in order to prevent other people, people clearly laboring under false consciousness, from hearing wrong thoughts – well, only oppressors would call that the violent suppression of free speech! Orwell rolls his eyes.

In the same way, obvious kindness involved in acts of true generosity are not only not kindness, but are acts of violence and oppression UNLESS they further the cause of the revolution:

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life’, to extend their trembling hands. Real generosity lies in striving so that those hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human -hands which work and, by working, transform the world.

I believe Freire here means to evoke the image of, say, English landholder in Ireland who, by law, had to feed their starving Irish serfs – or, if it turned out to be cheaper, pay their passage to Canada or the US. There is no charity in such an arrangement, just business. And the goal clearly was to do whatever was cheapest to maintain the English as lords and owners, and the Irish as powerless serfs. History (again, what actually happens, not Marxist hamburger) does indeed present us with a nearly limitless supply of such cases. Brazil, where Freire spent years of his life, would not lack for examples.

We are intended to see cases of true oppression by means of violence and the threat of violence at the hands of invading conquerors as the type of false charity. But: if you were to ask Freire (or any Marxist): what about the charity of, say, nuns starting a school in the wild, feeding and clothing the children of the poor as well as teaching them? That happens a lot, too. He’d say, on principle, that those nuns are acting violently to perpetuate the oppressor’s dominance UNLESS they are PRIMARILY concerned with raising the consciousness of those children, to make them into Marxist revolutionaries. So, feed them, cloth them, teach them to read if you must, so long as those are steps on the way to making them little Comrades who are willing to commit any act of violence-that-is-not-violence to free the oppressed.

But, boy, it sounds so cool with no context, striving so that hands need less and less to be extended in supplication. Sounds like a free market guy, even. But helping people help themselves is not exactly what he means.

A full review would be another book. Sigh. We’ll see what we can do, if the interest is there.

  1. Not looking for pity, here – just read Mike Flynn’s excellent Captive Dream and his latest in Analog, so I’ve gotten a good solid fun read fix. I’ve willingly accepted the grim responsibility that motivates reading this other stuff. As those addicted to outrage evince, getting worked up does have its meager, transient and probably not good for you rewards.
  2. An amusing tidbit: in the translation I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle, the translator uses traditional Marxist jargon – man, New Man, mankind – and, when referring to ‘the worker’ or the ‘new man,’ uses the generic pronouns he, him, his. The translation linked above is more recent, and so refers to New Person, humankind, and uses ‘he or she’ etc. Seems that even Freire himself, or at least his translator, was trapped within an oppressor construct, and his apparent good-will and generosity were self-serving delusions, merely tools of oppression designed to maintain the oppressor/oppressed dynamic. In other words, he ain’t woke. But: a still more recent translation, if such exists, would of course use ‘zur’ or whatever the heck made up pronouns the kids these days are using, revealing even the newer (2000) translation as socially constructed to maintain the current oppressor paradigm. I’m sure even now in a classroom somewhere, Freire is being held up as an oppressor in sheep’s clothing for the delectation of wide-eyed 19 year olds. And then the next translation…
  3. Please note that this is a way high-level analysis. I know it’s not complete. What I’m trying to do is give a flavor of the sort of thing that will likely never get discussed, because neither the student or the teacher have much of an idea of what’s going on in the text.
  4. The contradiction is suspended in the dialectical synthesis (murder of oppressors isn’t violence) of thesis (murder is violence) and antithesis (but I really want to!)  – suspended, but not contradicted or resolved in any way accessible to a rational person using logic as understood by anybody who is not a Hegelian. Because Marx says so.
  5. Dewey, an earlier education theory god, from his perch high in the education pantheon, likewise excused Soviet atrocities as simply necessary pragmatic steps – the only meaningful way one could say murder, even murders rising to the level of statistics, was ‘wrong’ is if it failed to achieve its end. (Note to the note: yes, I am aware of the dispute around whether Stalin actually said that line, but given his actions, misattributing it to him seems a fairly tame error.)