Son and lovely daughter-in-law are in from Denver for little sis’s wedding, and, heroically, have offered to do all the reception food (they both have much experience in the food service industry; we have a nice, big kitchen). So the kitchen has been taken over;
I have my computer and books for the history class I’m teaching on the kitchen table. So I need to put them back on my bedroom office desk.
The bedroom office desk and the floor around it were filled with books and papers – I’m using it as the staging area for packing up the bedroom. And, frankly, I’ve just been piling up all the education history and some of the sci-fi I’m supposed to be reading. The idea is to pack up the books I’m unlikely to need for at least the next 3-4 months and stick them in the front of the garage until we get the Pods to stick them in.
The front of the garage is full of largely undifferentiated ‘stuff’ the largest single component of which is – books. 20+ boxes of books that we’ve never unpacked since (at least) 16 years ago when we had to pack up for the remodel.
These boxes have been rifled through repeatedly as kids went to school, looking for copies of the Classics, of which we have at least 2 copies, one from my collection and one from the spousal unit’s collection from when we both studied Great Books.
These boxes of rifled through books were no longer tape sealed and, having had some books pulled from many of them, had sort of collapsed, the upper ones crushing the empty space out of the lower ones. So I can’t just throw more boxes of book on top, without risking further collapse and damage.
Rats. Yep, they’re enough space under the door for rats to have gotten into the front part of the garage. Nothing too recent-looking, but – rats, and the messes and shredding that entails. Icky.
Sooooo – in order to clear my desk so that I can work, I needed, as the essential beginning of a series of steps, to clean up and repack 20+ largish boxes of books so that they were sturdy enough to stack yet MORE boxes of books on top, THEN pack up some books and papers in my bedroom and move them into the garage.
Now, I’m a piker as a reader – I read, but every since we’ve had kids, if I get more than 2 books read in a month, that’s a lot for me. But that adds up over time, and, when I was younger, I read more. Wife is the same. And then there’s the dozens of books I’ve bought that I’ve yet to read for my education history obsession… Inside the house, just counting the ground floor, there are at least a dozen full size bookcases packed with the books we have unpacked. Every one of 4 bedroom upstairs has at least a bookcase full. So, those 20 or so boxes in the garage represent a minority of our books.
AND and – of course, I’ve got to look at some of the books and papers… I found, for example, a collection of letters to the editors I wrote from 1989; funny (at least to me) memos and projects from work from the same period. Evidently, I would draft up what I wanted to say, file it, then do the boring actual writing the bosses wanted. You work in Insurance, you do what must.
On the plus side, found a couple books I’d been missing, in the sense that I couldn’t lay my hands on them when last I looked in the amount of time I was willing to devote to the task:
The Great Pack Up and Move has now begun in earnest. This New Year, I also need to crack a book when i get up in the morning, rather than wasting an hour or two surfing the net. Otherwise, I really won’t live long enough to read all this stuff.
Or, rather, sane-ish. One must work with what one has, after all.
Like many people, I suppose, reading myself to sleep was one thing I did obsessively for many years. I started from about age 12, and kept it up until to age 29, when I got married. From then until our first child arrived 4 years later, I kept it up, but noit like when I was younger. Then, once there were babies – 4 in 6 years – getting sleep trumped reading, so I did little, if any, until the kids were putting themselves to bed. Then – I hardly think I’m unique here – your body insists on trying to catch up a little. THEN, we had the Caboose, born 6 years after his next older sister, so start it all over just about when we’d recovered.
That’s 18 to 20 years, right there, during which I wasn’t getting much if any bedtime reading in. Aaaand – having a house full of kids meant, for me at least, not getting a ton of reading in during the day, either.
Finally, a couple years ago, I got back in the grove. Now, I typically have one or two daytime books going, and one or two bedtime books I’m working on. Did you know there are simply too many books worth reading for any one person to read them all? It’s true! And that’s before all the good books I want to reread.
Now to the sane part. I’m kinda slow on the uptake, usually. I had been reading, or trying to read, some of the more heavy (or at least more boring) education history stuff in bed. This is not calming, and requires too much attention to understand. Such reading also tends to rile up the blood. A few months back, therefore, I switched to rereading books I love. This is why you’re seeing a lot of Lewis and Chesterton quotations here recently. Those are two smart dudes, but, more important today, are two sane dudes. Reading them reminds me that not everyone is insane – a sometimes difficult truth to hang on to.
Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, “What is right in one age is wrong in another.” This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them. How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction? You cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being miserable than another succeeded in being happy. It would be like discussing whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig is fat.
The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of a complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.
To sum up our contention so far, we may say that the most characteristic current philosophies have not only a touch of mania, but a touch of suicidal mania. The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it. This is what makes so futile the warnings of the orthodox and the boasts of the advanced about the dangerous boyhood of free thought. What we are looking at is not the boyhood of free thought; it is the old age and ultimate dissolution of free thought. It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves. You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian. But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow. Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one. Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success. If any eager freethinker now hails philosophic freedom as the dawn, he is only like the man in Mark Twain who came out wrapped in blankets to see the sun rise and was just in time to see it set. If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, “Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning.” We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.
A. First of all, gratitude to all the readers of this blog. Not sure why the beloved 100 readers (on a very good day) come back for more, but thanks. Just know that you’re only encouraging me.
The writing here has come out even more unfocused than my original intent, which was pretty broad. “Culture. Religion. Politics. Science. Philosophy. Music. Art.” was the original charter 11 years ago. We do do that here, but also a lot of Home Improvement Projects and blithering about the books I intend to write. Which brings us to:
B: The ‘I should write a book about that’ books I’ve worked on here on the blog, ones where I might be qualified to have an opinion, are:
A book on the origins of the Catholic schools here in America, and how they have arrived at their current sorry (with very few exceptions) state
A more general book about the origins of schooling in America, circa roughly 1700 – 1940. An expose of the clowns and poseurs involved, and the paper-thin fantasy world that constitutes the foundation of all modern ‘scientific’ education.
The How to Think About Science book.
Starting with the last one first: as the Crazy Years progress, it’s painfully clear that ignorance of how science works is so far downstream from the real problems as to be all but irrelevant. The best case scenario, where someone reads my book, reexamines his world view, and changes how he thinks about things – sigh. Not happening in the real world.
And it’s not even the rejection of logic, which you have to have at least some grasp of in order to begin to understand how science works. Underlying both logic and the science is the notion that the world makes sense. That the world IS. Our well-schooled contemporaries specifically reject the very idea of shared objective reality in favor of a world willed into being by their own narcissistic selves. That any such world is definitionally inconsistent, and conflicts necessarily with anyone else’s similarly constructed world is not a problem for the dedicated narcissist. That they hold both to the sacredness of people’s self-constructed reality AND bow and scrap before the altar of social and political conformity isn’t a problem – they never expected the world to make sense. It’s Will all the way down.
When my teeth are set on edge by patently anti-science claims of ‘settled science’ and ‘scientific consensus’ or people doing as they are told claiming they are ‘following the science’ which they haven’t read and wouldn’t understand if they did, I imagined the problem was the general lack of scientific literacy, and thought I might be able to help a little by writing a book about basic science.
Therefore, I’ve reconsidered the point of this proposed book, why I would write it and who it is for. I’m readingKreeft’s Socratic Logic now, and perhaps will write this book as a sort of follow-on with a focus on the specific application of Aristotelian logic used by modern science, insofar as it has any legitimate claim to our acceptance of its conclusions.
So, basically, a high-school level book. (Kreeft’s book is also supposed to be a high school level book, but it’s pretty tough. He, an expert, isn’t leaving much out, and there’s just a lot of logic that’s not obvious or simple. Good, but tough.)
Time frame: Once we’re moved and settled.
The other two books I get bugged by my kids to complete. They’ve heard some of the points I make about schooling from the cradle, and have found them to be true in the world. They’d like there to be a book (or two) summarizing these things. These works have been in the works for years now. It is time.
Time frame: Once we’re moved and settled. I’ve recommenced reading source materials. as evidenced by the last post.
C. Then there are the fun books I’m supposedly writing. Well, I set a goal for this past June for the first of several speculative fiction books I hope to write, and got thousands and thousands of words into them…
But I didn’t finish. May 2021 was when the insanity finally began to get me down. It started taking work to just get on with it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be at the moment. As it became clear I wasn’t going to get any of the spec fic done by June, I got distracted by a musical composition. Why? I have no idea. Writing music and writing stories really are very similar: you get an idea, you pound it into some sort of shape, you write the next part and the next part and so on, sometimes skipping ahead to more fun/clearer ideas, and then backtracking to write the connecting scenes. Then read it out loud/play or sing it, rewrite as needed, then get other people to read/listen, and take their feedback…
And I’ve gotten maybe 5 minutes of a 6-part Gloria written, with a minute or so more to write, plus outlines/sections for a Kyrie and Agnus, and a idea or two for the Sanctus. Haven’t even thought about a Credo yet.
Why I found it possible to write music and not possible to write fiction is anybody’s guess.
Time frame: I’ll keep working on the Mass while we pack up and prep the house; the books I’ll take up again once we’re moved and settled.
D. We gotta get out of this place. We had the house tented a month ago; getting quotes for painters. Spoke with the Pods people, looking to start loading out in January.
Yesterday, picked up 10 bags of ready mix; today used 8 of them to put in what I intend to be the last segment of the vast, endless front yard home improvement brick project. Scaled it well down from the original plans – no grotto, less fancy brickwork. Sigh. Need it simply not to look ugly and unfinished. So, simple wall topped by some redwood lattice.
Aaaaand – a million other things need to be done. Not to mention the final pack what’s left up and get out of Dodge push in a couple months. Then finding a new place to live….
E. In a somewhat round-about way, I’m looking for a job, specifically, seeing if a new Chesterton Academy that is to open near where I’d like to live might hire me to corrupt the minds of our youth, after the fashion of Socrates and Aristotle. And quote a lot of Chesterton. It would be nice to teach, and have a little income.
F. All in all, I’m very grateful, and have gotten past letting myself get too down about the current insanity. For the most part. I used to pray in thanksgiving for getting to live in a land of plenty in a time of peace. Now? I pray that God will remember His promise of mercy, and, for the sake of His Name, for the sake of the Blood shed by His Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, He will not judge us as our sins deserve, but rather forgive us yet again. That He will send Mary, who crushes the head of the serpent, Joseph, the terror of demons, and Michael the Archangel to lead the heavenly host down to cast Satan and his minion out of our lives, our nation, and our world, bind them and cast them back into Hell where they belong. Then, that He may grant us the strength to endure whatever we must and the grace to die to ourselves and live only for His Will.
Very preliminary thoughts, I’ve just started reading this. ULAN Press prints public domain books as reasonably nice paperbacks, including, as here, things of so little general interest I doubt they sold 1,000 copies. This book cover goes all “…” right before naming the year of this report – but then below shows 1890. OK – 1890, the 3rd year of the long reign of William Torrey Harris as US Commissioner of Education, smack in the middle of the peak turmoil among Catholics, who wanted a) very, very much to be accepted as Americans, and b) not to have their kids indoctrinated in anti-Catholic beliefs in the public schools. Thousands of parish schools were built during this period, anathemas were (unofficially) leveled against those Catholics who could send their kids to parish schools and didn’t – while Bishop Ireland was giving speeches before the National Education Association on how Catholics needed to go to public schools, expressing, I imagine, the views of sophisticated Catholic Americans, who found their more vehement coreligionists more than a little embarrassing…
So I ponied up to get this 579 page Report, thinking it would provide invaluable background materials for that crucial period, then eagerly crack it open to discover:
Um… That’s not what I wanted. Typo? Just what happens when people are printing small runs of low-margin, nearly unsellable books? I was disappointed.
Upon reflection, I decided to keep and read it. Education history from right after the Civil War up to about 1880 I don’t know much about, yet. The first wave of passion for state funded compulsory schools hit America in the 1820s and 30s, when American young men returned from Prussia after seeing Fichte’s ideas as realized by von Humboldt in the public schools there.
(One thing I need to investigate: how much time, if any, did these slumming scions of ambitious Americans spend in actual Prussian schoolrooms, versus how much time they spent hearing about how wonderful they were at Prussian universities? The contemporary French politician Victor Cousins begins his glowing and haranguing report of the Prussian schools by saying that he meant to spend some months investigating these institutions but ended up only having a couple weeks to look into them – yet he promptly writes hundreds of influential pages on the experience, which are promptly translated into English in America, where they are again very influential. Allowing for early 19th century travel times, how much time, really, could Cousins have spent in real classrooms? Any? Upon such slender fantasies are our educational edifices built.)
The influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 50s as a result of the Great Famine flamed the Know-Nothings and helped make the idea of forcing kids into public schools more popular. Pre-war tensions and the War Between the States absorbed attention for the next decade and a half, and, in its aftermath, Northern educationists flooded the South and set up schools. Any local opposition could be ignored.
Where the trees have fallen, the weeds grow. What had been some fairly strong opposition to the notion of state-controlled mandatory schooling in the first half of the 1800s seems to have disappeared in the enthusiasms and chaos of the post war years – again, I don’t really know yet, but it seems to be true. Except in Catholic circles, where the obvious Protestant and anti-Catholic biases in the public schools and among their supporters inspired Catholics to found their own schools.
So let’s dig in to some background to this report:
Founded in March 2, 1867, the US Department of Education was first headed up by Henry Barnard, a man who spent exactly 3 unhappy months as a teacher at the age of 20 – and yet, after Mann, is the most influential ‘educationist’ of the period. I’m not expecting much from Wikipedia, but note the rather vague assumption of a life spent improving things in Barnard’s bio, without any concrete examples. A lot of “reorganized and reformed,” and “founded” stuff, not a lot of anything that clearly made life better for anyone:
Henry Barnard was born in Hartford, Connecticut on January 24, 1811. He attended Wilbraham & Monson Academy and graduated from Yale University in 1830. In 1835, he was admitted to the Connecticut bar. In 1837–1839, he was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, effecting in 1838 the passage of a bill, drafted and introduced by himself, which provided for “the better supervision of the common schools”, and established a board of “commissioners of common schools” in the state. He was the secretary of the board from 1838 until its abolition in 1842, and during this time worked indefatigably to reorganize and reform the common school system of the state, thus earning a national reputation as an educational reformer.
In 1843, he was appointed by the governor of Rhode Island agent to examine the public schools of the state, and recommended improvements; and his work resulted in the reorganization of the school system two years later. From 1845 to 1849, he was the first commissioner of public schools in the state, and his administration was marked by a decided step in educational progress. In 1845, Barnard established the first “Rhode Island Teachers Institute” at Smithville Seminary.
Returning to Connecticut, from 1851 to 1855, he was “superintendent of common schools”, and principal of the Connecticut State Normal School at New Britain, Connecticut.
In 1852, Barnard was offered the newly created position of President of the University of Michigan, but he declined. From 1859 to 1860, he was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and agent of the board of regents of the normal school fund; in 1866 he was president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland; and from 1867 to 1870 he was the first United States Commissioner of Education, and in this position he laid the foundation for the subsequent work of the Bureau of Education.
Barnard’s chief service to the cause of education, however, was rendered as the editor, from 1855 to 1881, of the American Journal of Education, the thirty-one volumes of which are a veritable encyclopedia of education, one of the most valuable compendiums of information on the subject ever brought together through the agency of any one man. He also edited from 1838 to 1842, and again from 1851 to 1854, the Connecticut Common School Journal, and from 1846 to 1849 the Journal of the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction.
Compare and contrast: his Italian contemporary John Bosco (1815 -1888) founded schools where thousands upon thousands of orphaned and abandoned boys were taken in, fed, clothed, and housed, given a first-rate education, and help finding apprenticeships and jobs. Hundreds of testimonials survive from the men who were taken in by Don Bosco. Then, inspired by the great saint, hundreds of other such homes/schools were founded around the world. Thousands of men and women dedicated themselves to his cause. Hundreds of Bosco schools are still around (even if the modern versions are but faint shadows of their founder’s passion – a high bar, it must be granted).
So – where are the testimonials for Barnard? Maybe in here?
Reading the Wikipedia bio caused me to grab off my shelf this more detailed bio. I think I also picked up a shorter one, too, but I didn’t see it in the 30 seconds I devoted to looking. So, let’s see, skimming this biography:
Son of a sea captain in Hartford
Graduated from Yale at 20
Described as “Fastidious and slightly snobbish.”
Taught school – for 3 months. That’s it for classroom experience for his entire life. He didn’t like it and wasn’t good at it.
Spun his wheels for a couple years, dabbling in politics, law, and intellectual pursuits
Toured D.C. and the nearby South
Admitted to the Connecticut bar at the age of 23
Went to Europe. Unlike his contemporaries, merely as a tourist on daddy’s dime. (Barnard comments in passing that it would be good if the immigration of the ‘bellicose” Irish to America could be stopped.)
Had enough money that he never really needed to work.
Elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1837, age 26
As a legislator:
He secured passage of a bill creating a board of commissioners to supervise the state’s faltering common schools, was appointed to the board, and in 1838 became its executive secretary.
Barnard, who found the schools poorly maintained and attended, wanted public education “good enough for the best and cheap enough for the poorest.” He believed that thorough moral training in the common schools was the surest safeguard of the community’s happiness. An intensive campaign featuring public meetings and teachers’ institutes, the creation of the Connecticut Common School Journal, which he edited, and a series of annual reports describing school conditions and suggesting remedies yielded legislation reorganizing the schools. But in 1842 a hostile assembly disbanded the board as “a useless expense.”
“Moral training” – What are we to think of a Yale man who answers the eternal question “can virtue be taught” with a quick “yes” and presents himself as just the man to do it? We all need to get over the idea that public schooling was created to educate in any merely intellectual sense. The movement has always had at its core the idea that the state should empower “good” people to intervene to make sure everybody turns out correctly moral. The idea that such a thing as moral education cannot except accidentally happen through schooling seems never to have occurred to these folks.
“A useless expense” – An example of the antebellum opposition to state education initiatives. Of course, these hard-headed Yankees are the bad guys in this story, frustrating the pure and holy goals of the educationists. It’s way past time to ask if they were not, in fact, on to something. Barnard, so far in my light skim of this biography, comes off as a prissy elitist who was afraid to make enemies and retreated to writing whenever the going got tough – he lasted 3 months as a teacher, 9 months as President of St. John’s College, less than three years as US Commissioner of Education, throwing out ideas and giving speeches – but decades as editor and publisher of the American Journal of Education.
Barnard was succeeded as US Commissioner of Education by John Eaton (1829-1906), who held the office from 1870 to 1886. He was the man responsible for the Report with which this essay began. Another fascinating character, who later went on to become prominent in the
Eaton was educated at the Thetford Academy, which claims 7 prominent educators among its early graduates. The Academy was founded to fulfill a clause of the Vermont Constitution calling for the establishment of free secondary schools – 26 years after that constitution became law. Again, note the educational enthusiasm of the leadership seems to exceed the interests of the people.
The regulations require the students to regard all the proprieties of a sober, industrious and enlightened religious community. The teachers aim not to teach a sectarian creed, but to inculcate the great principles of morality and religion.”
I quote the above to illustrate something striking about early 18th century America that may be hard to grasp for us moderns: it was so close to possible to pretend that all the serious early American religious groups – Puritans/Presbyterians and their traditional enemies, the Episcopalians, as well as the spin offs such as Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Unitarians – agreed on morality that people generally did pretend it. Lewis’s concept of ‘Mere Christianity’ is the final expression of this fantasy.
This idea of essential agreement on a biblically-based morality, so close to true at least early on, was part of the foundation of the education of our future educationists. Once reality kicks in, and one sees that real people often disagree vehemently on what constitutes good morals, the options are to start another war on the heretics, or to jettison all areas of moral disagreement from the set of essential morals upon which we all agree.
America has embraced the power of ‘and’. The Civil War, Prohibition, and the current woke attempts to exterminate the unwashed are the wars; we’ve ‘compromised’ on morality to the point where buggering children is a lifestyle choice.
Barnard, when he toured Europe, commendably developed a taste for good wine. Would Eaton approve? Barnard’s father plied the New England-Caribbean trade routes, where American goods were typically paid for in rum produced by slaves on sugar plantations. The rum was then sold to Americans.. Well? Everybody cool with that? Our immunity to cognitive dissonance is nothing new, it’s just reached a new apex.
Eaton was an ordained Presbyterian minister and educationist, who entered the war as a Union chaplain and rose to brevet brigadier general for his work among the black freemen, work he continued until discharged from the army. He was a big part of the educational carpet bagging after the war, where New Englanders descended upon the South to found schools. In addition to his decade and a half as the US Commissioner of Education, he acted as President of several colleges including one in Alaska, and inspector of schools in Puerto Rico. He seems to have been very effective building up the education bureaucracy in DC and writing reports.
Busy man. Later in life, Eaton also was President of the American Society of Religious Education. A bit of digging around on the web reveals little about this society at the time Eaton would have been involved in it, except that the goal was to have biblical morality taught in the schools. Perhaps the passionate push for state controlled compulsory schooling would be best seen as yet another sect sprung from the 2nd Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening led to a period of antebellum social reform and an emphasis on salvation by institutions.
I mean, check it out, just using Wikipedia’s three examples of new religious movements above: Adventism is the belief that the Christ is coming very soon; Dispensationalism believes the next (or perhaps current) dispensation is the 1,000 year reign of Christ, and that “each age of God’s plan is thus administered in a certain way, and humanity is held responsible as a steward during that time.” Later-Day Saints believe God may grant new, Scripture-level revelations at any time – that His plan can be spelled out anew in, for example, the previously unknown Book of Mormon. The fervor of the 19th century public school advocates is not only based on an understanding of Divine Will, but also the assumption that, with the right people as stewards, a perfect world can be brought into being right now. That God requires compulsory state-run schools is simply a new revelation. (1)
It would be hard to overemphasize the 19th century’s infatuation with progress and perfectibility. In such a state of mind, evils, even or especially the intractable evils that were historically classed under ‘man’s fallen nature’ were intolerable, and must be fixed at once. Many Americans were convinced that every wrong was not only within their power to right, but that the righting of all wrongs was a sacred duty. Like the woke today, and Prohibitionists of a century ago, arguing that human beings just aren’t like that merely infuriates them. The Abolitionists really were willing to burn the entire world down, if that’s what it took to end slavery. Arguments advanced by the more moderate factions, that slavery could be brought to an end over time without the horror of total war on the South and all the death and destruction that would entail, were the arguments of heretics. Those people down south were sinning, and we needed to fix it now. Mine eyes have seen the glory….
Similarly, the many were not sufficiently moral, as defined by, first of all, New England Puritans like Eaton and Barnard, and later by ministers of the other mainline and new Protestant sects. Therefore, it becomes ‘our’ duty to fix it, STAT! Never mind that the intractable ignorance, weakness of will, and inclination toward evil of us people is more a feature than a bug. Never mind that there was and remains precious little evidence that morality is something that can be imparted via compulsory graded classroom schooling. Never mind that the early 19th century was almost as heavily infested with drawing room revolutionaries challenging traditional morality as any time up to the 1950s. Nope, there is an undefined (but definitely not Catholic!) morality that needs to be beat into little heads! And we’re just the people to do it!
So now I’m several thousand words into this post, and haven’t even gotten to the book it is putatively about. More later….
Wed or transfer this religious fervor to Hegelianism, and – oh, boy.
Keeping with the pattern of switching back and forth between the Current Insanity and Anything Else, let’s discuss two books I just happen to have read at the same time.
The above definitions are somewhat useful. What one wants to be able to say is when something is not an allegory – the essence of a definition. With the broadest stroke of the definitions above, one can possibly say that the work under consideration is not symbolic, and, therefore, not an allegory.
(Sorry for the digression here. I thought I knew what allegory is, but then made the mistake of thinking about it, looking it up, and now have to sort through it. The interwebs are indeed fields of rabbit holes.)
Made the mistake – woe is me! – of visiting the Oracle Wikipedia, and thus fell into a cesspool of woke:
As a literary device or artistic form, an allegory is a narrative or visual representation in which a character, place, or event can be interpreted to represent a hidden meaning with moral or political significance. Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.
One little phrase removes all usefulness from this thing: “…can be interpreted to represent…” Thus, any possibility of saying what is or is not allegory is banished, in favor of everything being an allegory if it merely can be interpreted to represent something else, a feat any college sophomore can perform with ease on absolutely anything. Cafeteria food in an allegory for control exerted on the masses by structural oppression. I’m oppressed by the paucity of avocado on my toast …. And so on. (1)
Then, since logical consistency is a social construct of an oppressive white patriarchy and thus must be violated, we shift the grounds back to the intentions of the author, by which we mean ‘artist’ – there I go with that consistency thing again! – thus contradicting the original ‘definition’, which is based on the interpretation of the consumer of art: “Authors have used allegory throughout history in all forms of art to illustrate or convey complex ideas and concepts in ways that are comprehensible or striking to its viewers, readers, or listeners.”
Now we possibly need a college junior to explain how this contradiction is suspended but not resolved in a synthesis, but I haven’t had breakfast yet, so we’ll stop. Suffice it to say: if allegory is something the reader or viewer reads into something, then there’s no definition possible – no one can say what is and is not allegory, or rather, everything is allegory.
Back in the real world, we’re not completely freed from this muddiness even if we look to the author’s intent. Often, authors don’t express their intent; often they will say that there’s more to their works than what they, themselves consciously put there – maybe the work is allegorical even if that’s not what they were thinking at the time. But at least in some cases, we can say: Pilgrim’s Progress and Animal Farm are allegories. Those two stories were intended by their authors as allegories, and are really not open to any other, contradictory, interpretation. The character of Christian IS any Christian pilgrim; the pigs ARE the Russian Communist leadership. There’s practically no story if they’re not.
Unfortunately, at least from a tidiness point of view, few books fall this neatly into or out of this category. Is Dante’s Inferno allegorical? Of course! Is is completely allegorical, like Pilgrims Progress or Animal Farm? No. There are real characters throughout who are meant primarily as themselves, and only secondarily as stand-ins for the sinners as a class. Paolo and Frencesca are two real people, not just illustrations or symbols. Christian and the pigs have little if any personality apart from their symbolism.
Then there is the concept of a natural symbol, where its symbolic content fundamentally rests in the nature of the thing. Sometimes, symbol versus sign is used, with symbol having a connection by nature to the thing symbolized, while signs are merely conventional. Unfortunately, English does not really support that distinction, in that people have long used both those terms for both those concepts without distinction. Too bad.
The classic example: red, the color of fire and blood, symbolizes those things and things related to them by nature; a stop sign is conventional – there’s nothing about red hexagon that means ‘stop’ by nature (we had to write ‘STOP’ on it to get the message across initially), but red is the right color (or among the right colors) for a sign that needs to grab people’s attention in order to function. A lovely sky-blue stop sign would seem wrong, and not just by convention.
Allegory will be stronger the more it employs natural symbols rather than signs whose meaning is not connected to the thing it is a sign of by anything other than convention. Paolo and Francesca are blown about against their wills, which wills they had surrendered to their passions. Leaves in the wind is a good natural symbol for that situation….
Sigh. All this wandering around just to talk about two short books.
I found myself reading Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory, because it was mentioned on John C. Wright’s blog and I realized I’d never read it. Wright stated that it is probably the only allegory out there that can be read on its artistic merits. We’re not talking about the use of real, flesh-and-blood characters (or, at least, characters written so that we might imagine them real) to represent, more or less consciously on the part of the author, ideas or social problems or what have you. Rather, Pilgrim’s Progress characters have names that ARE their characters: Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, Little-faith, Ignorance, Worldly Wiseman, and so on. There’s very little to even the main characters beyond what you might guess from their names.
Bunyan was a Puritan preacher who spent a good chunk of his adult life in jail for refusing to stop preaching Puritanism. 17th century England oscillated between the established church tolerating ‘heretics’ and throwing them in jail or worse. Bunyan’s life straddled a couple of these peaks and troughs. He is assumed to have began writing Pilgrim’s Progress during one his extended stays in prison. It became an instant classic, translated into over 200 languages and hardly being out of print since.
Buyan’s skill is in how he uses his various allegorical figures and places to illustrate his Puritan theology. He sees this story in a series of dreams: A Christian, a husband and father, is visited by Evangelist, who warns him to leave his home town, City of Destruction, and pilgrimage to the Celestial City carrying a heavy burden on his back. His family thinks him crazy, so he leaves them.
The rest of the story concerns Christian’s journey to the Celestial City, the places he visits or avoids, how he is tempted and aided, who he meets along the way, the fates of those whom he meets (spoiler: his companion Faithful is martyred – this is good, in context, the greatest good in fact; Hopeful completes the journey with Christian, while Little-faith, a character in a story within a story within a dream, eventually makes it. Ignorance fairs less well.)
Conclusion: it is a good story to read, both for a Christian and for anyone who wants insight into how Puritans think. In some ways, the person treated most harshly in the book is Ignorance. He comes off worse than many of the active sinners and tempters, with more pages spent having Hopeful and Christian harangue him than are spent on any other single topic. We look back to Bunyan to understand this: he is a Puritan preacher, hell fire and brimstone style. His enemy is Ignorance, meaning people who do not understand or who reject the central themes of Calvinism. The damned are the damned – you give converting them a shot, then move on. But the Ignorant, those who travel the same path you are travelling but are doing it WRONG – they are the real challenge.
In Bunyan’s dream, Ignorance shows up at the Pearly Gates all alone. He knocks, and – it is not opened unto him. Rather, the agents of the King ask to see his papers – scroll, certificate – proving he is among the elect. When he fails to produce them, he is bound by two angels and cast into Hell. So a guy who left everything, followed the path, rejected or escaped from temptation, and saw his journey to Heaven through, is damned because he DID IT WRONG!
Despite all its protestations to the contrary, Calvinist Puritanism remains as legalistic an expression of Christianity and anyone could hope to find.
Ignorance is an annoying character, so sure that if his heart doesn’t trouble him, he has not erred. He is confident that, since he left everything, went on the pilgrimage, and did the required good works along the way, that he is going to be admitted to Heaven. Hopeful and Christian go after him hammer and tongs, because he is not embracing his utter depravity and relying entirely on the completely unearned and undeserved Grace of God as expressed in Jesus. Ignorance repeatedly says he does not understand what they mean by that idea. He loves Jesus, and follows His commandments – isn’t that enough?
A Catholic Pilgrim’s Progress would be Dante’s Divine Comedy. But say a lesser Catholic poet tried his hand at doing the allegory Bunyan-style: first, Sacraments and Saints would be essential characters, accompanying the pilgrims on their way. Major time would be given to those church officials who have failed in their callings – you know, all the bad popes and clerics that populate Dante’s Hell – and the damage they do and their unpleasant eternal fates, how to identify and avoid them, how to honor the offices without succumbing to the evil of the office holders. There would be Good Pastor and Bad Pastor, Patron Saint and False Saint. The Cloud of Witnesses would include all those people by whom God, as secondary causes and in order to have His glory reflected by creatures made in His image, passed the Faith all the way down to Christian.
But mostly, there would be Purgatory. Ignorance would knock, and the doors would be opened, and he would finally SEE. In that moment of searing clarity, all the errors of his ignorance, all his pride and foolishness, would be clear to him – and he, himself, of his own will, would seek to hide from the Face of God. Yet God, in his infinite mercy and love, would not cast out one who had tried, who made the effort however badly, and who has endured the journey. Thus, to the singing of choirs of angels rejoicing that another soul had been saved, Ignorance would be carried to the foot of the mountain of Purgatory, to be purified of his pride.
This review will be abstract, as spoilers would be a terrible thing. You just need to read this book. It begins as a tale of unrequited, and unrequitable, love: the girl our hero loves is engaged to marry his best friend, and his sense of honor makes doing anything to frustrate those plans unthinkable. Yet, the two of them keep bumping into each other alone, without her fiancé, even so far as meeting up at the manor house on the Isle of Sark, which said fiancé has recently inherited. Through a hundred little nudges and coincidences, they end up at the door of a particular room within the manor house, and…
Stuff happens. Increasingly insane stuff, stuff that starts out uncanny and moves on from there, until – really crazy stuff happens. A story that starts out as a tragic romance, a love triangle between two best friends and the woman they both love, ends up involving a number of saints and mythical creature.
And I’m afraid I must leave it at that. The setting for the story – the very real Isle of Sark – is, in real life, about as romantic and epic a place as exists on the planet. A little island off the coast of France, the last feudal fief in Europe, pirates, caves, foot paths with 300′ drops on either side, Nazi conquest and resistance, ancient farms, ancient families, the world’s only Dark Sky island – awesome.
As for the allegory bit that I started writing about – well, it spoils it pretty intensely. So, I recommend reading the book before reading this little bit, because the plot twists, if you can call them that, are epic, and this will ruin it.
You’ve been warned.
In the final chapters, it is revealed that the Rose or Red Room is only the first enchanted layer of memory, that there are several nested rooms. When deep enough in, enough memory is restored, that Hal Landfall, the main protagonist, is revealed to be Henwas Lanval, a Knight of the Round Table who had been seduced by the sea fairy Tryamour; Laurel du Lac is the fairy Lorelei, who aimed to seduce and destroy Hal, Manfred is a monk and magician named Mandragora. Depending on whether each character is in or out of a chamber of memory, and on which chamber of memory each is in, they “know” who they are very differently.
So the question naturally arises: What is real? What is really going on? The soul of Manfred, in the innermost chamber of all, speaks of dreams, of how everything we see in this life is shadows and confusion, we have forgotten who we are. Only the saved soul sees the long line of triumph back through to Adam, of souls that have done well and who still do well. Henry really is a great knight fighting a great battle. He just thinks, in his forgetfulness, that he is a student working on a Master’s thesis. He is part of a great army protecting what is really important.
Is something in there an allegory? Is the whole story? I tend to think it doesn’t matter. What is different: Wright’s characters are people first, warts and wings and all; Bunyan’s are allegories first, and only accidentally people, if they are people at all.
Oops – not an allegory – it’s the literal truth that the paucity of avocado on my toast IS the me being oppressed by the avocado -hoarding patriarchy. If I understand the approach correctly.
Thomas Shields (1862-1921), a priest and doctor of psychology at Catholic University of America, wrote his Making and Unmaking of a Dullard in 1909. Although written in the form of a dialogue taking place at weekly dinner parties over the course of months, it is universally considered his autobiography. As a dialogue, it is a resounding failure: no one besides the author comes off any deeper than a cardboard cutout, nor contributes much of anything except leading questions that simply interrupt the flow of Shields’s story.
This book reinforces an impression long held: the central figures in American education history are, almost without exception, unimaginative mediocrities. Horace Mann or William Torey Harris would, I imagine, bore one to tears ov er a beer, if they every did something so common; Shields comes off as precisely the sort of academic Silence Dogood or Mark Twain would have a field day with. The one exception, whose native brilliance sometimes shines through his prose, is, alas, a force for evil. John Dewey is a sharp dude, and a horror. Other intelligent men, like Brownson and Hecker, merely wrote about education without being crowned as ‘educationists’. And they have their own issues.
Back to Shields. Here is the list of participants in the dialogue, with as much as I can glean about their personalities and roles:
Mr. O’Brien – the host?
Mrs. O’Brien – The O’Briens make obvious statements or ask obvious questions
Miss Russell/Miss Ruth – model teacher in the Lee School; “eminently qualified to enlighten us on the characteristic features of the modem school- room.” She provides the latest news on education trends.
Judge Russell – her father? A judge, who also had a horrible experience in school but overcame it to become a judge. A gruff, elderly voice. O’Brien announces at the beginning that Judge Russell will need to keep the peace between the next two characters.
Dr. Studevan – Shields
Professor Shannon – Shields’s adversary, I guess. He provides the current wisdom, and reads articles from magazines. Maybe the Simplicio of the scene?
Bottom line: except for the O’Briens, each of these characters delivers a brief monologue or two early in the festivities, makes a few remarks, then, essentially, disappears half-way through. I never once wondered what the Judge or Shannon was going to say about anything – they, and all the characters, are, effectively, furniture.
One fascinating thing: complaints made about the schools in 1909 sound oddly modern. For example, Shannon quotes at length from G. Stanley Hall: *
“Many of the boys, especially in the upper classes of the high schools, are so out-numbered that they are practically in a girls’ school, taught by women at just that age when vigorous male control and example are more needed than at any other time of life. The natural exuberance of the boy is often toned down, but if he is to be well virified later, ought he not in the middle teens, and later, to be so boisterous at times as to be rather unfit for constant companionship with girls ? Is there not something wrong with the high school boy who can truly be called a perfect gentleman, or whose conduct and character conform to the ideals of the average unmarried female teacher? Boys need a different discipline, moral regimen, atmosphere, and method of work. Under female influence certainly — as, alas, too often under that of the male teacher — form now always tends to take precedence over content. The boy revolts at much method with meager matter, craves utility and application. Too often, when the very germs of his manhood are burgeoning, all these instincts are denied, and he is compelled to learn the stated lessons which every one else in the country is learning at his age, to work all day with girls.”
I think this is meant to be a dig at Shields, as he was (I think – have to look through the notes) a major proponent of women teachers, which would mesh with the weird otherwise content-free adversarial relationship between Shannon and Shields. Also, it’s worth remembering that American ‘educationists’ had only recently managed to sell the idea of high school for everyone. 15 or 20 years earlier, few would be talking about high school age boys not getting enough exposure to manly-men in school, because teen age boys weren’t in school for the most part.
Back to Shields. His laboriously-told story is that, at the age of 9, his teacher judged him unfit for any academic pursuits, labeled him ‘Studevan’s omadhaun’ (an Irish term meaning fool) and sent him home to work on the farm. Shields’s says that he had learned how to read and perform the multiplication tables, but had merely been advanced too far – he couldn’t quite manage the 3rd Reader, had been humiliated and terrified into a silence he could not overcome. Thus, from age 9 to 16, interrupted briefly at age 13 by another failed attempt at school, he stayed home and worked on the farm. He forgot almost all the math and reading he had learned, and accepted the judgement of his teacher and family: he was simply a dullard, incapable of any intellectual achievement.
As he entered his 16th year, a slowly-developing sense that he wasn’t so dumb after all accelerated. Farm work left a lot of time for thought, and he tried to figure out the various measures used on the farm, and the working of the farm equipment. Finally, he became obsessed with building a stump-puller based on his understanding of how levers and pulleys worked, secretly modified an abandoned machine to that end, snuck it out to the fields when his family was at Mass – and yanked up some stumps.
Now convinced that he could at least become a mechanic, he began to pursue knowledge, recovering his ability to read, and, I suppose, the rest is history. At least, this is where the story ends.
Early in the story, the interlocutors discuss how the dullard – by which they seem to mean any child uninterested or incapable of doing as they are told – is the bane of all teachers. Miss Russell and Professor Shannon read or recite statistics and stories illustrating the appalling frequency of dullards – half of NYC kids, for example, were, in modern terms, not performing to grade level. Shannon generously points out that a huge percentage of those kids are immigrant children trying to learn English at the same time they are trying to keep up in school, but allows that, even so, there a lot of idiots out there.
Finally, the create something of a taxonomy of dullards. They identify 7 ways a kid can become an idiot:
alternating phases of physical and mental development
I don’t know anyone who would argue that the first 6 causes are not real, and, in the story, no one disputes them. Note here that Shields creates a single class – dullards – into which he puts all kids who are not cooperative or responsive in school. The nearsighted and hard of hearing are classed with the bored and violent, and the truly mentally deficient, and so on. But Shields is not interested in the first 6 causes because they do not apply to him, and so they are not developed at all. Instead, we focus on his pet theory: that kids alternate phases of physical and mental development, and that trying to get a kid to learn when he’s in a phase of physical development is futile and injurious. Pardon the long quotation, part of which I’ve already quoted in my earlier preliminary review – here is Shields explanation of his theory:
“A full explanation of this physiological phenomenon, Judge, would involve a treatise on the physiology of the nervous system, but stripped of technicalities the important facts in the case are these. All vital functions are controlled by nerve currents. The quality and quantity of every secretion, as well as body temperature, respiration, and the circulation of the blood, depend upon appropriate nerve currents. And not only this, but the nutrition and growth of every organ and gland, of every cell in the body, are dependent upon the same source. A broken bone, for instance, if it be deprived of its proper nerve supply, will never heal.
“On the other hand, the process of mental development, as indeed all the phenomena of consciousness, rest upon high tension nerve currents in the cerebral cortex. Now, it frequently happens that a boy or girl grows very rapidly for a few years, during which period the physical organism makes such demands upon the nerve energy that the cortical tension is lowered and there is not sufficient nerve energy left to carry on the work of rapid mental development.
“We all know how injurious it is, for example, to indulge in mental work immediately after eating a hearty meal. When food enters the stomach it originates nerve impulses that draw the blood away from the brain for use in the processes of digestion. If brain activity be indulged in at this time, the blood is withdrawn from the viscera and forced into the brain under an increased pressure to furnish the required nerve energy and thus the digestive process is delayed and sometimes the digestive apparatus itself is injured.
“Now, we have a similar conflict going on between mental and physical development. It seldom happens that during childhood and youth the balance is preserved between the growth and development of the body and the growth and development of the mental processes. The extent to which this balance is disturbed and the length of time that each phase continues varies within wide limits.”
“If you exclude the children who have become dullards through any one of the six causes just enumerated, and arrange the children in any third or fourth grade room in accordance with their physical development, you will find them fairly well classified inversely as their mental capacity, that is, the brightest children will be the smallest and the largest children will be the dullest. Here and there puzzling exceptions to this rule will be found, but these are not sufficient to obscure the general truth.
“The eagerness and ambition of the smaller children, coupled with their quickness of movement, indicate high cortical tension. If these children are constantly over stimulated, as frequently happens, their physical development may be retarded for some years. In extreme cases they are to be found among those children whom over-fond mothers are in the habit of regarding as too bright or too good for this world. Less aggravated cases not infrequently result in permanent invalidism. This is particularly true of girls when the period of over stimulation is carried beyond the twelfth or the fourteenth year. If these precocious little ones escape disease and death from over stimulation they will finally reach a time in which the balance swings in the opposite direction and physical development, so long retarded, sets in with unusual rapidity. The ensuing mental phase is characterized by lack of energy which to the uninstructed is pure laziness.
“If the pupils are at this time entrusted to incompetent teachers the discouragement into which they fall is likely to degenerate into permanent dullness from which they make no further effort to escape. And thus it happens that precocious children are seldom heard from in after life. I am quite convinced, however, that when the precociousness is not due to inherited or acquired disease this result may be prevented by competent teachers. But in the present condition of our schools the chances of permanent success are much better where the physical development of the child is in the ascendant during the early years of school life. Here the danger to health from over stimulation is avoided and when at last the processes of physical development begin to slow up, if the discouragement is not too deep, mental life may awaken to a new vigor.
“Either extreme, however, is difficult to manage and may prove dangerous in the hands of incompetent or careless teachers. A balance between the two processes of development is the safest and may be considered the condition of typical children. The development of these children should accordingly determine the work of the grade and their condition should form the ideal towards which the teacher should constantly strive to lead the developmental processes in the atypical children.”
CHAPTER V – Alternating Phases of Physical and Mental Development
Recall that Shields is a professor of psychology at Catholic University of America, under Fr. Edward Pace, founder of the Psychology department at that school, and a student of Wilhelm Wundt. To quote Wikipedia:
A survey published in American Psychologist in 1991 ranked Wundt’s reputation as first for “all-time eminence” based on ratings provided by 29 American historians of psychology. William James and Sigmund Freud were ranked a distant second and third.
So the ‘scientific’ stylings of Shields are by no means some outlier – he’s but one step removed from the greatest psychologist of his age. It would be straightforward, if a bit time-consuming and tedious, to, you know, *test* those theories of his, after the manner of actual scientists, plenty of whom were contemporaneously extant. But psychologists prefer insight, after the manner of Hegel and Marx – you just *know* what’s what, because you’ve thought about it at and you’re just so smart and enlightened. Rather than examining those perplexing outliers – guys like me, who have always been among the largest and quickest children in any classroom I’ve ever been in – indeed, rather than setting up any sort of systematic approach to examining his assumptions, Shields just runs with it. He concludes – and keep in mind, he is among the most influential ‘educationists’ in American history – teachers need to retard the progress of – dumb down – the smart kids in order to save them from the all but inevitable sickness, death, or at least invalidism, that will inevitably result from letting them study what they want.
The key aspects here:
Highly trained teachers are essential
Constant monitoring of students is essential
Any error in technique can have devastating consequences
Graded classrooms are essential
The average student’s learning capacity (within a graded classroom) is the standard to which all students will be held.
Exceeding that standard is as bad or worse than falling beneath it
All of the above are Science!(tm)
How about, just for kicks, another set of conclusions from the same data Shields presents?
Schooling from age 9 to 16 is unnecessary – Shields got none, and he became an elite professor at an elite university
Better to grow up on a farm and do useful work than go to school.
If you skip 7 years of schooling, you can catch up in a matter of months.
Shields does have Shannon Simplicio point much of this out, only so that he can mock him and (very unconvincingly) shoot it down.
It is from men like Shields and thinking like this that modern schooling has been built.
* Hall is another 19th – early 20th century psychologist, the usual mixture of eugenics fanatic and ‘educationist’. Then as now, psychology, perhaps even more than other academic fields, attracts nuts and mediocrities who, enabled by education and certification, are then hellbent on telling saner, happier people how to live.
Somebody is cleaning up the corner house 4 houses down. The old man who lives there has hardly stepped outside – at least, I haven’t seen him – in 20 years. We never got to know him. Common suburban tragedy.
Whoever is cleaning up – I’ve never seen this person, either – keeps putting items out on the lawn under a ‘free’ sign. Things that seem too good to throw away yet few sane people would want. We’ve even picked up a few items, priming the pump for our own kids future cleanup efforts. Sigh.
So my neighbor, living a couple hundred feet away, who I never go to know, seems to have been a science fiction fan, especially of Heinlein. This stack has a couple Arthur C. Clarks, one Bradbury, and one forlorn Steinbeck, but is otherwise all Heinlein. I can make all kinds of excuses, especially how busy we were with raising kids and running a school, but, in the end, I should have tried to get to know this person.
I like to read up on the authors as I go through these classic Sci Fi works off of John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Reading List. Reading up on Jules Verne, I discovered that many of the English translation of his novels were rushed and abridged, as American and English publishers thought they could most quickly cash in on Verne as an author of children’s books. While better translations have long been available, these abridged editions seem to make up a good portion of Verne’s works available for free on the web. Now I’m left to wonder what, if any, Verne I’ve actually read, and how many watered-down and condensed English versions I’ve instead plowed through.
Dead give-away: the translation/condensation of Master of the World I’ve just finished lists no translator, and is only about 140 pages long. I spent a few minutes conducting a by no means thorough search for an unabridged translation for free on the web, to no avail. Serious, non-abridged English translations of Verne began shortly after his death in 1905, so they’re out there and out of copyright. Amazon offers this collection at a $1.99, which says it’s ‘unexpurgated’.
So until I get a chance to read the full novel, this review of the kiddy version will have to do.
One of the things I enjoy about Verne is that he treats Americans as the exotic species we really are. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne gives Americans fanciful names and absurd behaviors which I imagine were very amusing to his continental readers back in 1865. The one thing he latched on to, and a thing he might well have intended as a rebuke to his countrymen, is America’s can-do attitude: a bunch of American artillery men, fresh off the ‘glories’ of the Civil War, turn their attention to firing humans to the moon out of a giant canon, because why not? Master of the World is likewise a tale of audacious Americans.
Our narrator John Strock is presented as the great detective working for the (mythical?) Federal Police, who have time, budget, and portfolio to pursue odd events in rural North Carolina. Peculiar happenings have been observed atop a lonely mountain called the Great Eyrie. This inaccessible peak is topped by a sheer 100′ cliff that completely encircles it, such that no one has ever surmounted it. Yet over the course of days, fires, lights, and noises originate from its hidden peak.
Strock gets a team together to go investigate, but they are stymied by the cliffs. He needs the funding and permission to get some more extensive climbing or tunneling equipment to access the peak. His boss isn’t ready quite yet to commit, as another series of strange phenomena have since drawn attention away from the Great Eyrie. One or more strange monsters or perhaps vehicles has been sighted in Boston Harbor as a boat, in Wisconsin as a car, in a mythical lake in Kansas as a submarine. The nation’s and eventually the world’s attention is riveted.
So Strock is sent to investigate, but not before he receives a very threatening letter telling him to back off from the Great Eyrie, or else. He takes it as a joke, and does not discuss it with his boss.
Eventually, the conviction grows that these sightings are of a single machine, an incredible contraption that is faster than any automobile, faster than any ship, and can dive as a submarine to escape any pursuers. The Government of the US, followed by the governments of all the major powers, publish offers to buy the technology from its inventor for fabulous sums. A letter is sent to the Federal Police declining the offer, taunting the world’s powers, and claiming to be impervious to any means they have of stopping him. Signed: The Master of the World.
From there, the story follows Strock and his team as they try to track down and capture, or, if necessary, destroy the inventor and his machine.
Not as scientifilicious as some of Verne’s other works. The contraptions are no more fantastic than the Nautilus, of which he conceived decades earlier. This is the earliest use of a super villain of which I am aware. His ideas about heavier than air flight are not much advanced on da Vinci’s, and had already been superseded by the Wright Brothers by the time this book went to press.
A good, entertaining story, even in its condensed form.
The Moon Poolis the second Abraham Merritt book I’ve read from John C. Wright’s Essential Sci Fi Library. Published in 1919, the story concerns a first-person narrator Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, a scientist/adventurer traveling about Polynesia. He runs into Throckmorton, an old friend, who is in ragged shape and whose face flashes strange signs of ecstasy mixed with profound horror. He tells Goodwin that his wife and their companions were taken by some eldritch horror while he and his team were exploring some very ancient ruins near Borneo. Classic ‘can’t get the natives to help, they all leave for 3 days around the full moon, great evil lives in those ruins! Run! Ruuuun!’ situation – but of course they don’t. They discover some ancient gateway that only opens when enough moonlight strikes it, and out from which comes the Shining Horror. On three consecutive nights, the Thing grabs a team member until only a desperate and nearly deranged Throckmorton is left.
On board the ship Goodwin and Throckmorton are taking to Australia for supplies to help get Mrs. Throckmorton and friends back, the full moon rises over the ocean. On the first night, Throckmorton is spared by overcast skies. But eventually, the moonlight reaches the ship – and Goodwin sees sees his friend taken before his eyes!
Goodwin thinks the story is too insane to tell the crew, and has no hope of finding Throckmorton alive out in the ocean, so he keeps quiet. He gathers the equipment he needs, then gathers a set of heroes: Larry O’Keefe, the brave, dashing, handsome Irish-American aviator who happens to go down with his plane within sight of Goodwin’s ship, and Olaf, a giant Norwegian sea captain who had his wife and daughter taken by the Shining Horror and is attempting to follow them. They set out for the ruins…
Merritt has a wonderful archaic vocabulary, and loves detailed descriptions of everything. He also has an over-the-top pulp sensibility about adventures and love. Of course, there’s an evil but irresistibly beautiful priestess and a pure and valiant Handmaiden of the Silent Ones, both of whom fall madly for O’Keefe. The love triangle plays out in the most dramatic, swashbuckling way possible. Narrow escapes, betrayal, evil Russian scientist, human sacrifice, mistreated slaves, frogmen, deadly plants, poisonous jellyfish of doom – and the Shining One, a creature of unparalleled beauty – and evil!
I made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews of this book, who modern readers give 3.3 stars, on average. One even said they were repelled by the obvious racism – Merritt commits the unforgivable sins of mentioning the Chinese tend to have slanted eyes, and that Polynesians tend to be short and wide – and other such horrors. That his heroes include frogmen and some of these same Polynesians doesn’t seem to register with woke readers. Pshaw! If you get into the spirit of the thing, this book is loads of fun.
I don’t know enough to say how old or widespread or, indeed, original, the tropes found in this book are, but Merritt is the earliest stuff that I’ve read that includes many of them – anti-gravity, ancient civilizations under the earth, many different intelligent species, panspermia, the whole natives won’t go there, stupid white man thing, disintegrator rays, evil Russian scientist, spring to mind. Goodwin is always making scientific asides and footnotes to make it seem real – Merritt was as up on the ‘modern’ science of 1919 as Verne or Heinlein was on the science of their times.
Merritt had an obvious influence on Lovecraft, seems to me. While the exotic adventure story is certainly nothing unique to Merritt, I don’t recall anyone else who creates such a brooding sense of horror blended with science – until Lovecraft. Edgar Rice Burroughs definitely does the exotic setting in fine detail thing, and the over the top adventure and love story stuff, but not with the science background – at least not to the degree of Merritt. I’m sure there are a number of threads leading to and from Merritt in the world of speculative fiction – I’m not well read enough yet to point them out with any confidence.
Kindle has that wonderful lookup function, with bailed me out a number of times with Merritt’s vocabulary. I recalled ‘lambent’ and ‘ebon’ from The Metal Monster, but he had some new ones here. I like learning new words, bring ’em on!
So, 5 stars. Lots of fun. Indulge your inner Indiana Jones and just go with it, and it’s great.
Here, I mention that I started reading Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 classic Star Maker. Just finished it up. Stapledon sets for himself the task of imaginatively describing all of creation, all of the possible universes, from, ultimately, God’s perspective. Star Maker was a very influential book – C.S. Lewis almost certainly is thinking of it in his Preface to That Hideous Strength:
I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can well afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow
After the fashion of Dante in his Paradiso, Stapledon strives to achieve an effect of awesomeness and wonder by repeated references to how indescribable, how beyond imagination, are the visions he sees. He describes things as indescribable. This devise increases in frequency and vehemence as the book progresses, following the first-person narrator as he mysteriouly tours the universe through both space and time, until he finally meets the Star Maker. The Star Maker turns out to be a catch-all God with features that, by themselves, would be at home in any number of religious imaginations, although Christian and Gnostic sources seem to dominate. In the end, this Star Maker ends up a hideous monster. C.S. Lewis commented that the book descended to mere devil-worship by the end. I agree.
On the plus side, in the latter 2/3rd of the book. Stapledon reveals a profound imagination much harder to see, I think, in the first third. Not that I’m all that well-read in the speculative fiction classics, but this book contains a number of SciFi trope firsts, for me at least:
And probably a few more I’m missing.
Alas, Stapledon’s soaring imagination, which incorporate a multiverse, a demiurge, eon-spanning visions, the accretion of multi-species group minds, sentient plant-things, symbiotic intelligences, conscious stars and nebulae, galactic and cosmos-spanning intelligences, intergalactic telepathy, and a host of further wonders, can’t imagine any other political analysis or Utopia than taught by Marx, or a theology much different than Hegel’s. The most outlandish and dazzlingly imagined races still are trapped in capitalistic decadence on the horns of a dialectical dilemma, as it were. His Star Maker is coming to know himself through his unfolding in history, more or less. Worse, his solutions to all problems are a particularly egregious sort of expertise-itis fantasies – the little people are all looking to their glorious leaders to sort things out, meekly following their lead, up to an including suicide or euthanasia, to which they enthusiastically agree.
We noted that the new world-orders were very diverse. This was, of course, to be expected, since biologically, psychologically, culturally, these worlds were very different. The perfected world-order of an Echinoderm race had of course to be different from that of the symbiotic Ichthyoids and Arachnoids; and this from that of a Nautiloid world, and so on. But we noted also in all these victorious worlds a remarkable identity. For instance, in the loosest possible sense, all were communistic; for in all of them the means of production were communally owned, and no individual could control the labor of others for private profit. Again, in a sense all these world-orders were democratic, since the final sanction of policy was world-opinion. But in many cases there was no democratic machinery, no legal channel for the expression of world-opinion. Instead, a highly specialized bureaucracy, or even a world-dictator, might carry out the business of organizing the world’s activity with legally absolute power, but under constant supervision by popular will expressed through the radio. We were amazed to find that in a truly awakened world even a dictatorship could be in essence democratic. We observed with incredulity situations in which the “absolute” world-government, faced with some exceptionally momentous and doubtful matter of policy, had made urgent appeals for a formal democratic decision, only to receive from all regions the reply, “We cannot advise. You must decide as your professional experience suggests. We will abide by your decision.”
Most of the book is concerned with the various challenges the ever-growing and merging group minds face on their Hegelian journey toward ever more enlightenment and self-realization. The goal is always idealized communism, always toward a group identity, unified group thought, and unified group action. The individual, while maybe not nothing as orthodox Marxism demands, certainly ain’t much. Stapledon repeatedly insists collective group identity is the fulfillment of all individual desires, so much so that the individual cells in the group will happily be murdered, die or even kill themselves if the group thinks it right. Only in the early, unenlightened days do individuals buck against the collective’s wisdom.
It’s tedious. Stapledon’s inventive genius is almost interesting enough to carry the reader through the endless barrage of one-note commie-think. This is not helped by this book being the one example I’ve ever read that goes all in on ‘tell, don’t show.’ Not 1% of the book is ‘show’ – it is just the first person narrator telling us about his adventure, with only one other named character in the entire book. That it works as well as it does is food for thought, from a writing perspective.
In the end, The Star Maker creates a series of universes, with a variety of characteristics, just to see how it works out. His multi-verses are interesting, and copied all over the place:
By the end of the story, our narrator is a part of a multi-galaxy telepathically linked group mind, containing all the accumulated wisdom to all the member races. It is in this state, as the most exalted of group minds, that he meets the Star Maker. The Star Maker creates a series of universes, with a variety of characteristics, just to see how it works out. His multi-verses are interesting, and copied all over the place:
In one inconceivably complex cosmos, whenever a creature was faced with several possible courses of action, it took them all, thereby creating many distinct temporal dimensions and distinct histories of the cosmos. Since in every evolutionary sequence of the cosmos there were very many creatures, and each was constantly faced with many possible courses, and the combinations of all their courses were innumerable, an infinity of distinct universes exfoliated from every moment of every temporal sequence in this cosmos.
After his interview with the Star Maker, the narrator finds himself back on earth, back to be an individual Englishman. He pauses to describe the world of 1937, with the perspective gained through his journeys. In case we missed it, he hammers home again how the Soviet Union and communists in general are the good guys. Here, for example:
Further on, the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities. Away to the left lay Germany, with its forests and factories, its music, its steel helmets. In cathedral squares I seemed to see the young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Fuhrer. In Italy too, land of memories and illusions, the mob’s idol spell-bound the young.
Far left-wards again, Russia, an appreciably convex segment of our globe, snow-pale in the darkness, spread out under the stars and cloud tracts. Inevitably I saw the spires of the Kremlin, confronting the Red Square. There Lenin lay, victorious.
Victorious. Right. Then he describes the battle facing the world:
One antagonist appeared as the will to dare for the sake of the new, the longed for, the reasonable and joyful, world, in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind. The other seemed essentially the myopic fear of the unknown; or was it more sinister? Was it the cunning will for private mastery, which fomented for its own ends the archaic, reason-hating, and vindictive, passion of the tribe.
“…in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind.” Propaganda always sounds so kindly, so drenched in sympathy. The key aspect of the story, the climax, is the narrator learning that God is not bound by human ideas of love, that he is free to torture his creations if he feels like it, all in pursuit of a cosmos that adequately expresses his creative. The narrator finds himself repulsed by the evil the Star Maker does, casually and without feeling, in the name of, well, progress. But he confesses he loves him, including his evil aspects. I’m reminded of John Dewey’s defense of Trotsky, where he asserts that the only moral standard is: does it move the Revolution closer? Need to destroy worlds, murder billions, enslave billions, consign billions more to hell, in the search for a better cosmos? Who are we to judge?
Stapledon’s God is a demon, and Stapledon’s urge to worship him is diabolical.