AGAINST GREAT BOOKS

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

Deenan begins by restating arguments that Great Books are the core of any liberal education worthy of the name, but then casts doubts on that claim:

I have long sympathized with these arguments, but in recent years I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books. The broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.

Thus, those who insist upon an education in the great books end up recommending texts and arguments that undermine their own beliefs in the central importance of liberal arts education.

Certainly, from Descartes on, the philosophy in the Great Books consciously and actively discounts and dismisses everything that came before. The Reformers believed – correctly, in my view – that Aristotle, through the mediation of St. Thomas, was irretrievably tainted by Catholicism. Since the medieval world against which they were rebelling was intellectually formed and sustained by Aristotle more than any other writer, he became the enemy, and any who could trace their intellectual heritage and methods to him had to be destroyed.

As Deenan shows below, one philosopher after another proposed philosophies that might be classified as Anything Other Than Aristotle. Since the medieval idea of education was largely applied Aristotelianism as baptised by Thomas, it had to go.

Arguments against this form of education became common among elite thinkers in the early modern period, who sought to justify a new kind of science that had as its aim the expansion of human control over nature. Arguing strenuously against the content of books by authors such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon castigated previous thinkers for their “despair” and tendency to “think things impossible.” Asserting that “knowledge is power,” he rejected the idea that knowledge consists first in acknowledging human limits and claimed that it was necessary to wipe clear “waxen tablets” inscribed with older writing in order to inscribe new lessons upon them. Books were more often than not one manifestation of the “idols of the cave,” or illusions that obscured true enlightenment, and in the schools “men’s studies? . . . [were] confined and imprisoned in the writings of certain authors.” His book Novum Organum is devoted to arguing against the flawed inheritance of the past, including the arguments found in the great books of his age.

One charming aspect of Aristotle, especially when viewed after having read the early modern Enlightenment writers, is his willingness to identify limits. Was the world created or eternal? Who knows? the Philosopher answers. All knowledge of contingent things is contingent – such is life in this world of change, a necessarily humble life of uncertainty. With Thomas, we get invigorated to pursue even imperfect knowledge of Creation, because the Heavens proclaim the glory of God. In our imperfect and humble understanding of created things we experience the ineffable Divine.

But limits have gone from realities any sane man recognizes and tries to understand, which he might rationally embrace or challenge on a case by case basis, to something that is evil and to be overcome in all cases. A classic man, a victim, one might say, of the philosophy in those pre-Enlightenment Great Books, would first want to know himself and come to grips with his passions and his fixed days. If he were a Christian, he’d recall that all is grass and grace, his days are numbered, and it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. Yet God loves him into being nonetheless, and blesses him such that his life need not be in vain.

The post Enlightenment man has increasingly rejected any ‘despair’ or what the pre-Enlightenment man would consider proper humility, and chaffs at all limits. What began as a not entirely unsympathetic rejection of the limits imposed by a Church ends with the entirely insane rejection of reality. The very idea of human nature became nonsensical under Hegel and an affront under Marx. Whatever you found yourself to be at the moment could become something else entirely under the influence of the Spirit unfolding or History progressing. Limits oppress; to believe in any limits is to be an oppressor, even and especially when those limits exist by nature.

Novum Organum is now one of our great books—a great book that recommends against the lessons of previous great books. His work inaugurated a long line of great books that argued against an education in books. Another in this genre is René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which begins with a similar condemnation of book learning as an obstacle to true understanding. “As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors,” he wrote, “I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.” Books are the repository of foolishness: “When I look with the eye of a philosopher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless.”

Descartes’ view is shared, it seems, by scientists and students of science as much as by various ‘studies’ professors and their acolytes. The first group believes above all else that their study of nature is the only road to knowledge, doesn’t want to hear otherwise, and at any rate knows ‘philosophy’ only as delivered by the academic philosophers who infest their campuses. The student of science correctly concludes that Analytic Philosophy is at best useless, an overly-intellectual tail trying to wag the productive scientific dog.

The second group sees any philosophy that embraces limits as oppressive; they mistake the untethered emoting and manipulation of Critical Theory as the only necessary and pure philosophy. They rank themselves by how oppressed they are, and start in trying to kill each other at the first opportunity, according to the nature of a philosophy without limits.

Centuries later, this line of argumentation would be employed in the United States in defense of disassembling existing curricula oriented to the study of the great books. Widely regarded as America’s most influential educational reformer, John Dewey, in books that continue to exert great influence in schools of education, argued that learning should be accomplished “experientially” rather than through an encounter with books. In his short work Experience and Education, he argues strenuously that an education based in books transmitted “static” knowledge to a citizenry that needed to be better enabled to face a world of rapid change. Learning through books is “to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.” Accordingly, he founded an institution in Chicago called the Lab School. Laboratory was to replace library, experiment would substitute for knowledge gleaned from the past.

Dewey was also a Communist apologist, who rejected categorically the concept of objective morality.  Think killing a few 10s of millions of Kulaks will speed the dawn of the Worker’s Paradise? The only moral question is: did it work? (And if it didn’t, it’s likely not enough Kulaks were murdered. But I digress.) “Static” knowledge is nonsensical under Marx – all is Becoming, nothing Is. What is needed, as spelled out by Freire, are children educated to be revolutionaries. Math? Reading? History? Pointless and dangerous!

Dewey makes this case in pointed terms in his book Democracy and Education, asking, “Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization?” He answers that “in a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development.”

Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends.

There is and cannot be any human nature – that would limit what people can become, and limits are evil in themselves. Instead, “their social activities as such” limit what we can become. (Dewey here deigns to consider civilized people as somehow more progressed than savages – he needed to get way, way more woke!) If one were to ask where these social activities come from, the answer is: History! The term ‘History’ as used by Marxists means the non-god god and unconscious consciousness that drives us forward, and on whose wrong side one must not get. That whole what happened in the past stuff is called history only insofar as it captures the non-active activity of the non-god god in causing Progress. They rarely put it this way, because it’s as stupid as it sounds.

Thus, two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of great books. The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist alongside an older conception, but requires the active dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the transformation of education away from the study of great books and toward the study of “the great book of nature” with the end of its mastery.

One of the contradictions yet to be subsumed and suspended in the dialectic is the hard or real science versus soft or fake science: everyone want to dress their claims in the sacred Lab Coat of Science, even and especially when there is no science, properly understood in the modern sense, involved. Mean people who believe in reality are going to challenge claims that sociology, psychology and modern education theory, for starters, are in any functional sense science. They do not measure the properties of measurable bodies; they do not follow well-established protocols such as using clear methods and publishing all data and subjecting all claims to skeptical replication. As Groucho Marx – the good Marx – said: the key to success in this business is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Since those older Great Books contradict all this, and the newer Great Books are irrelevant by their own admissions, they must be destroyed.

The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government. In a constrained world, the human propensity to desire and consume without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery. The decline of the role of great books in our universities today is not due merely to financial constraints, or to the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry, or even to science itself. Preceding all of this was an argument that the study of great books should be displaced from the heart of education.

The concept of limits includes both possibilities and consequences. I cannot flap my arms and fly to the moon, no matter how woke I am, and neither can anybody else. Why we can’t is a unaddressed problem for the Enlightened. I cannot eat everything in sight or have sex round the clock without the piper eventually demanding his due.

So we must learn to accept fat people as not fat, as beautiful and perfect right up until they drop dead of a heart attack or stroke or diabetes around age 40. In fact, what’s with this whole death thing? It’s so unfair! Thus the cult of Transhumanism offers the false hope that we can, ultimately escape all limits and their consequences. Somehow. And treatments and prevention of venereal diseases and babies must be assumed, free, and supported by all. Broken hearts are an illusion.

So, yes, the Great Books are not a solution to societal collapse and the perpetual ignorance of the certifiably educated when applied in our current state.

My only push back against Dr. Deenan is this: that read fearlessly and with a desire for Truth that will not bow to fad and peer pressure, the glory of the pre-Enlightenment Great Books will reveal the latter books to be superficial, dishonest and inferior. This does happen: someone, even someone not forewarned by Christianity, may read the Great Books and conclude that some – Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, the wisdom of the poets, and others – are much greater than the others. Some are worthy of a serious person. Many are not.

Alas, this sort of self-enlightenment and devotion to the Truth is not likely to be found among conventionally educated 18 year olds.

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Weekend Update/Pointless Post

Unless you like pretty pictures of food and second thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s no excuse for this post, and no reason for you to read it. Just being upfront.

A. Did get a bunch of reading in last week, will do a couple more book reviews soon. I could get used to this. In addition to the client visit/long plane flights/boring evenings in hotels providing opportunity to read, I felt well, which reinforced how not well I have been feeling since about November. Nothing in particular, just draggy, sleepy, unfocused. Might be blood pressure meds – but those have been the same for years. Will be seeing the doctor soon, but, as usual, I always feel better after making an appointment. (If only this worked for dentists – chipped teeth and decaying fillings just heal themselves once you’ve got a date to get them fixed. No?)

B. Saw Guardians of the Galaxy II a second time because it’s Father’s Day, it’s 105F outside, and my younger daughter had not yet seen it. Gotta say: as goofy as the action is, as unnecessary 90% of the (slight, I’ll admit) potty talk is, this movie works so well on an emotional level it’s shocking. Yondu steals most scenes he’s in, manages to convince you you’ve misunderstood him all along, and gets you crying (well, I, at least, had something in my eye) near the end – and then they ratchet it up from there – and it works. One of the reasons I wanted to see it again was exactly that: had I just fallen for cynical manipulation the first time? I kind of think not – I think they really understood that the only stakes worth raising were emotional stakes, and they went at it with everything they had, and it worked.

C. Speaking of pretty pictures of food: this year, my basil crop has been and continues to be outstanding. If you’ve got basil, make pesto; if you have fresh homemade pesto, make pasta; if you have homemade pesto pasta, you must bake fresh bread. I do understand that wasting people’s time with pictures of food is lame. I’m making an exception this once (well, except for my daughters’ cakes – but those are art) because my family kept going on about how beautiful this particular loaf of bread was:

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So, yea, it’s a picturesque loaf, I’ll grant. It’s the simplest loaf of yeast bread I know how to make – this one just came out particularly beautiful after the manner of its kind.  Tasty, too.

D. On the flight back from Atlanta, got to see lots of snow. There was plenty in the Rockies near the New Mexico-Colorado border, on  into Utah (especially considering I was on the right side of the plane heading west, meaning I was mostly looking at south-facing and thus less snowy slopes) .

The real snow action was the Sierra:

 

We seemed to be flying right over Yosemite, so my view was of Mono Lake (too low for snow, just north and east if Mt. Whitney and just north of the Long Valley Caldera), Hetch Hetchy, which is the valley on the western slopes just north of Yosemite and which contains San Francisco’s main reservoir, and the high granite domes which make up the bulk of the high southern Sierra.

Lots of snow, even in mid-June. Several ski areas have announced that they will be open through August! The pictures are too small to see this, I suppose, but even from the air you could see areas above 8,000 or 9,000 feet just buried in snow. Along the western side, I could see white-water waterfalls coming off those high granite domes down into the valleys, and all the rivers were likewise white until well into the foothills. Spectacular.

E. My son asked long ago for me to make him a shield. After googling around, I decided to try fiberglass. Just because I’ve never done it before. So I made a hardboard form, if you will, gave it three coats of varnish to seal it, had my son apply 4 coats of wax to it. I’d attached some 3X2 boards along the sides, screwed in a couple big hooks, had my son lean on it in the middle, them wired between the hooks to get the curve:

 

Then we applied the world’s sloppiest gel coat – hey, it was our first time! As soon as we can get 2 uninterrupted hours, we will put on 4 layers – 2 mat, 2 cloth – and epoxy in a handle and adjustable strap. Then let cure over night.

And pray we can get it off the form!

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Brief status: I’m done with Star Trek and Star Wars. Probably done with Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and whatever other Marvel properties I’ve never heard of that they’re making movies out of. Haven’t seen a Bond movie in decades. I was done with Harry Potter & Pirates of the Caribbean after a couple movies. We shall not speak of the abomination that is the Jackson Hobbit.

Now, a really good trailer and especially really good reviews and word of mouth might move me – but I doubt it.

I don’t like to be talked down to, I don’t feel loyalty to a franchise, I don’t like seeing a beloved book bloated and mauled for a buck.

But mostly, I don’t like being bored.  I like being entertained. Movies are entertainment. Since I read a lot of history, I don’t find slaughter, mayhem and misery entertaining. I’ll go read about communists if I for any reason need a dose of that.

So: went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II with the family, for the simple reason that I found the first movie quite entertaining. Mindless fun, but pretty to look at, witty in places and well-paced. So, I gave II a shot.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy 2It was good. Not great, not perfect, but I didn’t get the urge to walk out at any point, which has happened a lot with movies recently. So, yea, good.

GG II somewhat avoided the main issue with sequels, which is the gravitational pull of BIGGER. While one might imagine that, having saved the galaxy, they’d next need to save the universe, or at least a couple galaxies. But no, they merely save the same galaxy again.

Instead, they went bigger on the emotional stakes, in all sorts of surprising, twisty ways.

 

SPOILERS AHEAD!

 

Unlike many sequels, most egregiously in the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean follow-ons, the main focus, the main thing made bigger, is the relationships between the characters. Between the usual ridiculous yet entertaining cartoon action sequences, which were kicked up a little, we get all sorts of moments where the characters come into emotional conflict, ratchet it up, and resolve them to a greater or lesser degree. The script is meant to be tear-jerking at many points – a pretty major departure from the usual tragic backstory/cartoon validation-revenge sort of plot characteristic of just about all comic book movies.  We’re supposed to feel sorry for Yondu – and it works. We’re supposed to buy Yondu and Rocket bonding and heroically willing to sacrifice themselves for the team – and we buy it. The sister issues set up in GG I between Gamora and Nebula need to get worked out satisfactorily – and, again, it works.

Thus, when the final boss is battled, all these emotional traps are sprung, so that we’re cheering and gripping the seat arms, wanting things to work out.  Yondu’s heroic death was a surprising and surprisingly effective resolution.

The effects were as dazzling as we’ve come to take for granted. The pacing was pretty solid, after the opening sequence, which frankly dragged a bit. And the conclusion was suitably epic and satisfying.

Now onto the less than good, starting with a relatively minor complaint. I was reminded during the movie of a story told of Groucho Marx. The Marx Brothers would take their shows on the road prior to filming. As old school vaudevillians, they wanted to work out the timing and test the material. Groucho most often got the zingers and put-downs, and he was legendarily good at them. But, as a pro, he knew there was no substitute for delivering those lines in front of a live audience to see if they really worked.

Groucho also had a whole bag of tricks to get a laugh: the eyebrow raise, the funny walks, the incredulous looks. So, when testing material, he left those out. If the audience still laughed, he knew the material was good.

I wish somebody would have run the GG II script through the same process, chiefly to field-test the body and sex humor. With a few exceptions, it would not have made it. It got the sort of cheap laughs hammed up things tend to get, but left me wondering why it was there in the first place. The exceptions, of course, are the couple times Drax the Destroyer waxed poetical about sex in his faux-Shakespearean-ish language. That worked a couple times. In general, it just wasn’t fun enough to warrant the distraction. Having goofy characters deliver the lines tended to get laughs the material itself didn’t warrant.

The greatest issue isn’t a problem so much as a modern foundational myth. The plot hinges on Peter’s biological father abandoning him, finding him, explaining why he abandoned him, courting him – and then using him for evil. His father killed his mother after he begat a child on her, for his own completely selfish reasons.

Such a plot would have horrified the ancient Greeks, who were no softies. A god seduces and impregnates women solely to create little demigod Herculeses only so that he may use them to do his bidding, which is the destruction of the world. He kills off the mothers, and child after child who fails him.

Finally a human woman, who he later kills with a horrible illness, bears the son he wanted. But a highwayman, hired to retrieve this final useful son, betrays the god and hides him,  and makes him into a highwayman after his own heart. The son later escapes the highwayman, gathers a band of stalwart companions and, after many adventures, becomes a great hero by defeating yet another god.

After years of searching, the god finds the son, and whisks him and his stalwart companions away to his realm, where they discover the remains of all the previous children slaughtered by their own father. An epic battle ensues, during which the evil father-god is killed and the world saved, but only at the cost of the life of the highwayman who saved the son.

Now, that’s not a bad story, at least not when sanitized as myth. But putting it in this world, even by means of a comic book story, invites comparisons. This is not a unique horror, but a common occurrence, metaphorically speaking. It rings true not as a cathartic myth, but rather as something we see every day: men using women, discarding them, arranging for the deaths of offspring they don’t desire. Then, if any child is found useful, he is loved exactly insofar as he is useful.

The fantasy of millions of children today it some combination of finding their loving father, and killing the monster who abandoned them.  GG II does the trick by having Yondu turn out to be that loving father, albeit not the biological father, and sacrificing himself to save the son and kill the biological father. Also, the years of abuse and mistreatment of Peter by Yondu are explained away: Yondu was trying to save Peter the only way he knew how, and, besides, Yondu had a tragic backstory of his own.  That makes it all better.

I’m no comic book nerd, but no superhero I can think of came from a happy, intact family. GG II takes the concept down further: a Batman or a Spiderman may lose parents (or stand in parents in the case of the web slinger) tragically, but they were good parents it was a tragedy to lose. Star Lord finds a father it is a tragedy to find. Gamora and Nebula had their parents killed before their eyes by – their stepdad, who is a monster they now want to kill.

If only this were just make-believe. Every child of divorce I’ve ever known fits into at least one of these slots. That a plot built on such disastrous and tragic relationships seems instantly believable is a frightening thing.

I left the movie having thoughts that were not entertaining. This is not a good thing for a popcorn movie.

 

 

Movie Micro-Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where Did the Story Get To?

12 year old son wanted to see this before it left the theaters, so off we traipsed to the theater after an afternoon spent planting the second of our two cute little avocado trees.

For the first hour of this flick, I was frankly bored out of my skull. The best that can be said is: the special effects are exactly what we’ve come to expect from years of government training high-budget hollywood sequels.  Newt Scamander was – well cast? Quirky? The protagonist? Funny-looking English dude? The magical animals were – cute-ish? Destructive in a way that would get them grimly shot by wizard or muggle alike? Generally immune to the ubiquitous magic in ways that were never even hinted at?

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Newt, amidst the surprisingly mortar-free bricks of a building that just happened to have gotten destroyed.  

This last point bears expanding. The magic in Harry Potter-verse has always had an arbitrary nature that was, in the original books and movies, (1) masked somewhat by its use as comic relief. As Roger Rabbit answers Eddie when asked if he could always have slipped out of the handcuffs: no, only when it’s funny. Thus, magic things and spells have funny names and do funny things, most of the time. It breaks down when taken seriously – we never really know why dueling goes the way it does, why wizards don’t just, say, liquify the earth beneath their opponents or drop a house on them or whatever – no, it’s always some lame-ish spells introduced earlier except when it isn’t.

But we look past it because it’s fun and we care about the people. In Fantastic Beasts, Newt unleashes some Grade-A magic to break into a bank and zip through walls and repair destroyed buildings – but can’t do anything to stop a kleptomaniacal platypus from wreaking havoc – until, suddenly, he can. Lame. Distracting. BOOOOORING.

So I got up, used the men’s room, checked my email and blog stats, took a deep breath, and went back in. I came back just in time for Newt and Tina to be condemned to death by the extraordinarily good-looking bad guy Percival (yeah, he was the bad guy from the get go). Something interesting probably happened in there that I missed.

The second hour was much better, rising to the level of distracting enough fluff. What saved it from total disaster was the ensemble good guys: The odd-looking Newt, the semi-prim and often worried-looking former Auror Tina, her flapper babe with a heart of gold mind-reading sister Queenie, and, most of all, Jacob, the token Muggle (No-Maj? Huh? LAAAME!) who gets caught up in the adventure and proves, like the handsome driver in The Magician’s Nephew, to be stalwart, kind and game.  To paraphrase Mathesar,  their courage, teamwork, friendship through adversity saves us.

Except – not quite. You see, the immediate bad guys are two, who in a way need each other and want the same thing: war between wizards and muggles. Percival/Grimwald (Spoiler Al… ah, forget it.) on the one hand, and Mary Lou Barebone, an evil, evil Calvinist witch hunter and child abuser because Christianity (however thinly veiled) and child abuse go together like social justice fanaticism and projecting bread and butter. She wants the mundane world to seek out and destroy witches. Christianity and its condemnation of witchcraft must be Eeeevil because look how nice – and misunderstood! Never forget misunderstood – the real witches are, kindly destroying and rebuilding our building and manipulating our minds to their advantage.  Or something. Newt is a nice guy, after the manner of somebody who’d carry the equivalent of glass vials of anthrax through a crowded city because magical creatures/deadly airborne pathogens are – here’s that word again! – misunderstood.

Anyway, the danced-around issue of *why* Puritans (and the Spanish Inquisition, etc.) had it in for witches is conclusively proved to be bigotry and hatred because witches – well, some witches – are just like you and me! Witch hunts are bad, and, historically, driven by envy and revenge more often than not, but the disgust and horror with which witches were historically viewed might – might! – have *some* more rational, less hysterical basis, just maybe?

Nope. Witches, like sparkly vampires, are just Misunderstood, and Christians are the real bad guys.

The not-at-all-Puritan named Credence, a young man adopted and raised by the sadistic Mary Lou, snaps and unleashes his pent-up and suppressed witchy superpowers and all but destroys New York, until Love gets him to calm down enough for the Witch FBI to kill him. Huh. And then one of Newt’s super-cool magical creature, using a conveniently-mentioned-earlier-in-the-story magical creature extract, Obliviates the entire population of New York while remarkably well-dressed Magical Untouchables rebuild the city (a city in which hundreds of building get destroyed without, one assumes, killing anybody – unless there’s a Resurectiones spell, or something, off camera). So, it’s all good! (2)

Boys and girls, don’t go suppressing Who You Really Are, or you might end up destroying a major metropolis. Anyone who tells you otherwise is Eeeeevil!

The denouement involves a Stupid Rule: no fraternizing with the muggles! which means Queenie, who has fallen for Jacob, has to let him go, in the sense of letting him have his mind obliviated of any memory of her and the magical world. And Jacob, swell guy that he is, just accepts that. No mind-rape there! Newt, the limey bloke in whose country such fraternization is permitted, never mentions the possibility of the lovebirds moving to the Old Country and living happily ever after.  Huh.

The chemistry between the 4 main characters was touching. But, ultimately not enough.

  1. I’ve only read about the first 3 books, heard snatches of the remaining books as read out loud to the kids, and seen maybe 3-4 of the movies. So if the magic system gets explained in a satisfactory manner somewhere I missed – so sorry. I don’t care.
  2. That Obliviate spell would come in real handy for a wizard who might, say, date hot Muggle women… Nah, that would never occur to anyone!

End of Advent Updates

1. Added to the growing pile of drafts – as always, the post I haven’t written is the best post I ever wrote – but, alas, caught my first full-on cold in years. Why is it when your nose gets stuffed up, so does your brain? Would like to finish a draft or two, but can’t because my thoughts are clouded and confused. More than usual, I mean.

2. Because of this cold, which settled in Saturday, I’ve only caught 2 Simbang Gabi 5:30 a.m. masses. Tomorrow and Saturday are the last 2 – let’s see if I can man up, and share good cheer and cold viruses with my fellow Christians. Or not…

3. Another Orwellian euphemism in the service of modern education is ‘exposure’. The assumption is that if you don’t hand over your kids to the schools, they will somehow fail to be exposed to all the right stuff, and grow up with a narrow view of reality and thus be unable to realize their full potential. That if you let your young children pursue whatever interests them instead of micromanaging their every minute, they will grow up stunted. That if you don’t send them to school and act in loco schoolmasters and enforce all homework without question, you are a Bad Parent who has Ruined their own child.

But War is Peace. The actually effect of all the ‘exposure’ is that our kids are unlikely to ever hear a clear explication and vigorous defense of any position not held by their school masters. They are then trained to reject any other opinions out of hand – this is called ‘critical thinking’. The stunning willingness of people to embrace the most outrageous caricatures of those we disagree with increases with the level of education, so that a PhD pretty much immunizes the victim against ever entertaining an idea that they have not already accepted.

This is the world in which business people, some of whom certainly do buy political influence in order to get richer, are a greater evil than communist dictators, who without exception abuse, rob and eventually murder their own subjects. The rich man’s greed may motivate him to steal, and may even motivate him to murder in order to steal; the communist dictator’s lust for power disguised as efforts to bring History to its inevitable conclusion, motivates him to murder anyone in his (History’s) way; murder in the 10s of millions in the cases of Mao and Stalin. The billions a very rich man(1) controls make him an irredeemable villain; the nation-state level wealth controlled by a communist dictator, on the other hand, has no effect on his actions whatsoever, which are conclusively presumed  to be sweetness and life itself, no matter how many are enslaved, impoverished or killed by them.

Such discussions are evidently unknown among the enlightened. Few well educated people have been exposed to them, and certainly not in the schools. At best, the well-educated are familiar with the accepted caricature, which exists only to aid summary dismissal of the ideas being caricatured.

4. Trying to work on world/tech/family background for the Novel Which Shall Not Be Named, but it’s hard when moments of clarity (such as they are) are like island in a cold-induced fog. Insofar as I can do it, it’s fun – knowing who these folks are, what they want, why they’re on the generational longship in the first place. So far, my muse, if I have one, has been quiet but not discouraging: the stuff I’m outlining fails to trigger the ‘lame’ response.

I’m counting that as a positive. That may be the virus talkin’.

I’m such a newbie. Spent some time worrying how I’d come up with all these complicated relationships in such a way as to make them work with the story arc, when I remembered: I know a boatload of family stories, both from history, literature and real life. Just use them! What a novel idea! (nyuk) Being careful, of course, with the real life stuff, which is far less realistic than fiction is allowed to be.

5. Got about a dozen books to review here and at Amazon. Got 11 days off coming up, with only maybe 60% of the time already spoken for. So – maybe! In short: L. Jagi Lamptighter’s In the Lamplight and Rachel Griffin stuff, John C. Wright’s Swan Knight’s Son series and Brian Niemeier’s Soul Dancer are all highly recommended. When Prophecy Fails – not so much. Interesting ideas poorly supported. And I need to be seated at a table, pencil in hand, head clear, to finish Uncertainty: the Soul of Modeling, Probability & Statistics. It’s very good so far. Vindication of Man and Secret Kings are next on the pile.

  1. Well, billions make *their* rich guys into evil incarnate, while *our* billionaires act solely out of pure civic altruism.

Quick Reading Update

A. Just got back from a industry conference and a pilgrimage – more on that later – which provided a bit of sitting-on-a-plane and stuck-in-a-hotel-room reading time. When reading Brian Niemeier’s books – Nethereal and Souldancer – it is *essential* that one be wide awake and paying attention. Reading either in bed as sleep stalks and takes you – not going to work. Far too much going on. BUT: reading them on the plane home, after getting 9 hours of sleep (unheard of for me) and a brief nap on the plane – well, MUCH better, much more engaging and followable. In a way, this is unfortunate, since I tend to use my small, uncertain and therefore valuable wide-awake reading time for stuff like Fichte and Hegel and education history, while fiction, mythology and short stuff like Chesterton essays get the 30-60 minutes it typically takes me to fall asleep.

B. I’ve mentioned Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club a few times on this blog, generally very favorably.He writes elegant and pithy prose that is a joy to read. His knack for telling details and ability to draw fascinating connections that others might miss are wonderful, and led me to rethink some stuff with which I was already familiar and explore other issues of which I was not yet aware: for example, the role of Puritan Calvinists in the founding of Harvard and thereby in the fabric of American higher education; the (mis)use of statistics at the very foundations of American science; the ubiquity of Pragmatism in American thinking; and, less felicitous and perhaps not entirely intended by Menand, the prevalence and ultimate dogmatic orthodoxy of bone-headed irrationality masquerading as intellectual enlightenment. Examples of this abound. Most strikingly, those following Charles Sanders Pierce, as Menand’s examples amply illustrate, took his Pragmatic Maxims as meaning ‘the ends justify the means’ pure and simple, despite their protestations otherwise. Dewey’s defence of Trotsky (not discussed in the book, although Dewey himself gets plenty of ink) states emphatically that any appeal to conscience or ideals in determining what is ethical is delusional, that all that matters is the outcome of the actions – bring the Worker’s Paradise closer, and your actions are ethical in any meaningful sense.  Continue reading “Quick Reading Update”

Taking a Trip Out to L.A.

A. #1 Daughter, fresh off collecting her bachelors (magna cum laude – hey, if I don’t brag, who will?) from Benedictine in Atchison, in music and theater, is down in Hollywood doing a one-woman show based on her senior project (which, in turn, was based on Taming of the Shrew) in the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Her brother and sister, who, in turn, are just in from their freshman year at Thomas Aquinas and Thomas More, respectively, were pressed into service as, again respectively, tech and stage managers (if one can properly be said to be managing a crew of one that is also one’s self). Daddy has, so far, taken tickets and handed out programs. 2 shows down, three more to go. P 3744 i 2534242

The show is amazing. She had to cut it down to 50 minutes to fit the Fringe requirements. This on top of the cutting she did to get it down to 90 minutes for her senior project. (Her professors are who encouraged her to take it to Fringe.) So you have this one young lady with a single prop – a mustache on a chain around her neck that is used to indicate someone in disguise – and a stage manager (if that’s the right term for this) who sits off to the side and writes scene changes and characters on a whiteboard (including little mustaches if said characters are in disguise). All she then has to do is to convey the different characters somehow, all while delivering what amounts to a 50 minute monologue (and she must remember what she cut out from the 90 minute version!) while leaping around the stage and from character to character.

*I* was impressed – it’s pretty darn funny, and amazing. Which I already said. The amazing part.

So, if by some chance you find yourself in or near Hollywood tomorrow or next Friday/Saturday, and have $10 and an hour to spend, come on down! I’ll take you out to lunch.

B. This weekend, the shows were set for Friday and Sunday, which is how I find myself sitting in a cheap (well, by Hollywood standards) motel typing a blog post on a Saturday afternoon. Teresa and I stayed over Saturday rather than put another 800 miles on the cars. The other kids took my car back home to attend graduations for their friends. My wife and the Caboose (12 year old David) stayed because she works at the school and was giving a graduation address, and David wanted to attend the end of the year party – a hoary tradition at Diablo Valley  School tracing all the way back (barely) to the last century!

So, at about 5:00 A.M. tomorrow morning, the wife and kids will be making a bombing run down to Hollywood – we’ll catch the 11:00 Mass at Blessed Sacrament (where I went to mass sometimes in my youth when staying with my Aunt Bea and Uncle Art and cousins – but that’s another story), then the Show Must Go On and all that. Then, it’s the 5-6 hour drive home! Wheeee! And then we’ll do something very much like this again next weekend!

Yes, I and we are insane. This wasn’t obvious already?

C. Today I spent several hours walking around Hollywood, but not as one might think. As mentioned above, I spent weeks at a time in Hollywood with my cousins growing up, where we’d catch movies at the Grauman’s Chinese like you’d catch a picture at your local cinema – because it *was* the local cinema. That high school dance scene in It’s a Wonderful Life? My cousins went to that high school (Hollywood High).  And so on.

Anyway, it is, as mentioned, another story. Suffice it to say that Hollywood never held any mystique for me – it was just where my cousins lived. Emotional underpinnings laid in childhood can be very persistent. So no Walk of Fame or chasing down celebrity homes or gawking at studios for me.

So, instead, after hunting down a passable cup of coffee, I walked up to the Monastery of the Angels and did some Adoration. Then, took a nap, worked on a story, and took a walk to Immaculate Heart of Mary to go to confession. It was good. I was on my own as my daughter wanted to catch some shows, and on foot because my car went north with the middle kids.

D. Hollywood is interesting seen from the ground. It’s like one giant run-down strip mall – miles and miles of roads that could use some work flanked by businesses that, more often than not, are housed in commercial buildings past their useful life expectancies.

It goes on like this for miles and miles. Frankly, it’s a dump punctuated every once in a while by a landmark or show of wealth in the form of an expensive building. Even the few studios left in town look like light manufacturing tilt-ups – which I suppose they are, in some sense.

About every 25th to 50th person one comes across looks like they belong in the movies – snappily dressed, made up, showing too much skin or wearing too tight clothes (mostly but not entirely the women) (1)

E. Freeways are a sort of societal low spot or gravity well. Absent countervailing forces, weak and dead things and people seem to sink to them, or rather to the scars and voids they create. When walking around L.A. on foot (and what sort of nut would do that? I think Bradbury identified the problem in Fahrenheit 451. He did live around here, after all) you notice how unnatural and disruptive to a city the mere physical presence of freeways is. My wandering took me over and aside the 101 at various points. In some places, access and egress to the freeway took up entire city blocks: you’d cross the two lanes of exiting traffic, then the bridge that spanned the freeway, then two more lanes of traffic existing from the other direction. Only most of this expanse is paved or walled freeway – the rest are little islands and long strips of land where everything from weeds to trees spring up – and homeless encampments and their open-air toilets, to give it too dignified a term.

Thus, it also seems to happen that those willing to build here don’t seem to want to build too close to the freeway, unless, somehow, they can shield their customers from the reality that these lacunas attract. There’s pretty much nothing else to be done – these areas are an inevitable result of the traffic engineers art, and society is no nearly confident enough to say: homeless is crazy. (2) You want to live in a strip of feces-laden dirt 5 feet from freeway traffic? We say: No. You will stay in facilities provided even if we have to make you. And so we look the other way, and civilization in the form of people doing peaceful, legal commerce or even taking a walk retreats a bit.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused a number of freeways in San Francisco and Oakland to be removed. I, for one, was very surprised at what a vast improvement the affected areas underwent. Blighted areas got revitalized, foot traffic returned, and so, therefore, did businesses. Perhaps the cost of freeways is too high for a civilization worthy of the name to pay.

F. Finally, I’m considering staying up late and writing a bunch of book reviews I’ve been meaning to write. What they heck, sleep is overrated. That’s the ticket.

  1. You know those times when you think of the perfect thing to say when it’s too late to say it? Today, I had a sort of Mobius inverse of that: I actually thought of the snappy thing to say – something about one can never be too ready for the next wet t-shirt contest – and actually had the presence of mind NOT to say it. Yeah, me. Although it would have been fun, in a stupid comedy sort of way, to see her reaction. On the other hand, I’m alive now to wonder….
  2. Had some run-ins with homeless people today. Mostly, they are just sad people, and their state is easy enough for me to imagine being in myself. Any number of things can cause a soul to lose whatever it is that makes us get up and do those things we call ‘sane’. I did run into a frantic woman at the Monastery when I went back to get my hat I’d left on the pew. I spoke with her – rather, I listened to her – for a long time until she seemed calmer, all the while praying for guidance. My general rule, which I sadly do not live up to all the time, is to give people who ask money if I can, and to try to be pleasant and treat street people like people – smile, return hellos, that sort of thing. This lady was sure she’d just died – that her heart had stopped – but somehow she’d recovered. Her tale included much current sci-fi, including how she needed to find the secret entrances so she could get back to her job at Area 51, and how her sister had died just as she was making a drop-off as her last assignment before retiring – that sort of thing, phenomenal imagination and often right on the edge of coherent. Eventually, I excused myself and wished her well (what else can one do?) which she accepted fairly graciously. I prayed a rosary for her on my walk back to the motel. Again, what is one supposed to do?