Archives for category: criticism

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Readers of The Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, have probably wondered, as I have for nearly four decades, about the lore surrounding the word “geas,” apparently meaning a binding pledge or promise, which appears in the book repeatedly.

IMG_3989The word suggests the chivalrous approach to life that James Branch Cabell contrasts with the poetic and gallant attitudes.

The word popped into my head again today, and upon this occasion of memory I looked it up using Google’s ngram viewer.

The most interesting use I found, preceding Cabell, is by William Sharp writing as Fiona Macleod in 1899. The book is The Dominion of Dreams, and the word can be found in the chapter titled “Honey of the Wild Bees.”

“Geas,” we discover, is singular; “geasan” is the plural. (In The Grimoire, from 1990, we are told the plural is “geasa.”)

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Look for the volume on Google Books. The Dominion of Dreams actually appears more than relevant to Cabell’s work — the title indicates that clearly enough — even disregarding this particular strange word’s meaning and etymology, there illumined.

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ballantine put out a number of high fantasy paperbacks. The publisher called the series “Adult Fantasy,” and many of them featured the unicorn head colophon as well as introductions by Lin Carter. I rate the books here, for no particular reason. I have not read them all yet. (But I would probably sell my complete set for $500. Inquire.) And it is worth mentioning, most of my ratings do not figure in the quality of the forewords, which range from the excellent (the Kai Lung books) to the inaccurate (James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest) to the maddening (The Man Who Was Thursday — do not read the foreword before you read the novel: Carter gives away one of the big surprises).

Several of the books I label “not read” (with the letters “nr”) are the result of me giving up on them. I have never been able to get into E. R. Eddison, and the joys of Lovecraft have so far eluded me.

I offer my judgments with asterisks, in the usual five-star manner, common in movie reviews. (Four-star may be more common, for all I know, but I went with the odd number.) Five stars mean not only did I enjoy the book, but think it has great literary merit. Three means either I enjoyed it, but think it lacks high literary merit, or I did not enjoy it, but confess to seeing its literary merit nevertheless. One star means I definitely did not enjoy it and I regard it as not good. Two means a fairly low interest from me, personally, and recommendation, literarily.

Well, here’s the list, taken from The Haunted Bibliophile, marked with my judgments.

Precursors to The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

  • THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. Tolkien. August, 1965. ****
  • THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE TWO TOWERS, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE RETURN OF THE KING, J.R.R. Tolkien. December, 1965. *****
  • THE TOLKIEN READER, J.R.R. Tolkien. September, 1966. ****
  • THE WORM OUROBOROS, E.R. Eddison. April, 1967. [nr]
  • MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, E.R. Eddison. August, 1967. [nr]
  • A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, E.R. Eddison. February, 1968. [nr]
  • THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, J.R.R. Tolkien & Donald Swann. October, 1968.  *
  • TITUS GROAN, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • TITUS ALONE, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. ***
  • A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay. November, 1968. *****
  • THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle. February, 1969. *****
  • SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR & FARMER GILES OF HAM, J.R.R. Tolkien. March, 1969. ****
  • THE MEZENTIAN GATE, E.R. Eddison. April, 1969. [nr]

The Series proper

1969

  1. THE BLUE STAR, Fletcher Pratt. May. **
  2. THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, Lord Dunsany. June. ****
  3. THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, William Morris. July. [nr]
  4. THE SILVER STALLION, James Branch Cabell. August. *****
  5. LILITH, George Macdonald. September. **
  6. DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES, Lin Carter, ed. October. **
  7. THE YOUNG MAGICIANS, Lin Carter, ed. October. ****
  8. FIGURES OF EARTH, James Branch Cabell. November. ****
  9. THE SORCERER’S SHIP, Hannes Bok. December. ***

1970

  1. LAND OF UNREASON, Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp. January.  **
  2. THE HIGH PLACE, James Branch Cabell. February. *****
  3. LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees. March. ****
  4. AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Lord Dunsany. March. *****
  5. PHANTASTES, George Macdonald. April. **
  6. THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, H.P. Lovecraft. May. **
  7. ZOTHIQUE, Clark Ashton Smith. June. ****
  8. THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT, George Meredith. July. *****
  9. THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY, Evangeline Walton. July.  ****
  10. DERYNI RISING, Katherine Kurtz. August. [nr]
  11. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 1, William Morris. August. *****
  12. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 2, William Morris. September. ***
  13. GOLDEN CITIES, FAR, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. BEYOND THE GOLDEN STAIR, Hannes Bok. November. **

1971

  1. THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson. January. [nr]
  2. THE BOATS OF THE `GLEN CARRIG’, William Hope Hodgson. February. **
  3. THE DOOM THAT CAME TO SARNATH, H.P. Lovecraft. February. [nr]
  4. SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  5. RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN, Joy Chant. March. ***1/2
  6. HYPERBOREA, Clark Ashton Smith. April. ***
  7. DON RODRIGUEZ: CHRONICLES OF SHADOW VALLEY, Lord Dunsany. May. ***
  8. VATHEK, William Beckford. June. ****
  9. THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, G.K. Chesterton. July. ****1/2
  10. THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton. August. *****
  11. THE CREAM OF THE JEST, James Branch Cabell. September.  *****
  12. NEW WORLDS FOR OLD, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  13. THE SPAWN OF CTHULHU, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. 37. DOUBLE PHOENIX, Edmund Cooper & Roger Lancelyn Green. November. [nr]
  15. THE WATER OF THE WONDEROUS ISLES, William Morris. November. ****
  16. KHALED, F. Marion Crawford. December. ****1/2

1972

  1. THE WORLD’S DESIRE, H. Rider Haggard & Andrew Lang. January. [nr]
  2. XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith. February. ***
  3. THE LOST CONTINENT, C.J. Cutcliffe-Hyne. February. **
  4. DISCOVERIES IN FANTASY, Lin Carter, ed. March. ***
  5. DOMNEI, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  6. KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS, Ernest Bramah. April. ****
  7. DERYNI CHECKMATE, Katherine Kurtz. May. [nr]
  8. BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW, Lord Dunsany. May. *****
  9. THE THREE IMPOSTERS, Arthur Machen. June. [nr]
  10. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 1, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  11. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 2, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  12. THE SONG OF RHIANNON, Evangeline Walton. August. ****
  13. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #1, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  14. EVENOR, George Macdonald. November. ****

1973

  1. ORLANDO FURIOSO: The Ring of Angelica, Volume 1, Translation by Richard Hodgens. January. [nr]
  2. THE CHARWOMAN’S SHADOW, Lord Dunsany. February. ***1/2
  3. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #2, Lin Carter, ed. March. [nr]
  4. THE SUNDERING FLOOD, William Morris. May. *****
  5. IMAGINARY WORLDS, Lin Carter. June. ***1/2
  6. POSEIDONIS, Clark Ashton Smith. July. [nr]
  7. EXCALIBUR, Sanders Anne Laubenthal. August. **
  8. HIGH DERYNI, Katherine Kurtz. September. [nr]
  9. HROLF KRAKI’S SAGA, Poul Anderson. October. [nr]
  10. THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard. December. **

1974

  1. KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT, Ernest Bramah. February. *****
  2. OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, Lord Dunsany. April. *****

Honorable Mention (Related Follow-up Volumes)

  • MERLIN’S RING, H. Warner Munn. June, 1974. [nr]
  • PRINCE OF ANNWN, Evangeline Walton. November, 1974. *****

In looking over this list, I see that it is obvious that I need to re-read some of these, give others another try, and maybe amend my judgments here and there.

The books I have pictured here are ones I have extra copies of. I am more than willing to sell these for c. $10 per copy. Inquire.

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The news comedy shows are, for the most part, denunciation shows. This description fits Jon Stewart’s old topical comedy show and Trevor Noah’s lamer version; Bill Maher’s HBO warhorse, and John Oliver’s hipper variant on the same network; and, especially, the best one in the business, RT’s Redacted Tonight

The worst of the lot is surely Samantha Bee’s, but perhaps I err. I have not really been able to watch her after she left The Daily Show. Larry Wilmore’s is a little better, but, last I checked it was relentlessly race-obsessed. I feel icky after watching it — like other people feel after they’ve experienced Milo, who has a touring show, not a TV show.

Red Eye with Tom Shillue on Fox is a little less denunciatory (perhaps by being more defensive?), and Greg Gutfeld’s new weekend show is . . . well, you explain it to me. These latter two are the only non-left-leaning of such shows that I am aware of. That is, the hosts are not leftists.

Many people miss Stephen Colbert’s parody show of Bill O’Reilly. Not me. I tired of it after about the second episode. It is worth noting that YouTube’s The Young Turks works as a self-parody show — an unintentional self-parody show.

Topical comedy is hard, I am sure. Being fresh and always witty? Maddeningly difficult. That is one reason these topical comedy shows resort to relentless denunciation. When you are not being truly funny, you can rely on your audience’s out-group hatred and loathing — and self-righteous sense of in-group superiority — to maintain passion and high-pitch enthusiasm. Thus delighted laughter is replaced with derisive howls

The problem with all this is that they become uncomfortably close to the show depicted in A Face in the Crowd, the great Elia Kazan film starring Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes: grand examples of demagoguery. This is especially the case for the shows with live audiences. They want red meat (or the leftist soy-and-quinoa equivalent), and there is usually one guest who serves as the lion pride’s delectable Christian treat.

Most of these shows sport panel “debate” segments. These, of course, are played for comedy, but also for argumentative purposes, too. The better to serve the denunciation game. And yet sometimes one actually witnesses productive, honest debate. Not often. Sometimes.

Last week, mere days before the aforementioned Milo Yiannopoulis was publicly hit with a disgrace campaign based on some pedophilia-related comments he had made, the gay conservative free-speech provocateur appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Last week I wrote about his one-on-one interview with Maher at the top of the show. I could not bear to watch the panel segment with Milo . . . until yesterday, at which point I hastily put together a video about what went wrong. The problem was more than mere denunciation, though denunciations there were, all around:

I briefly comment on Vee’s explanatory video, too, so I should put up his link:

The key concepts that I tried to add to the debate are the two main problems we see in modern discourse all the time, especially on television topical comedy shows:

1. Data impasses, and

2. Contractual impasses.

Either kind of stalemate-inducing situation scuttles profitable dialogue. And, frankly, neither serves as humor, either. Sure, the second kind usually takes the form of mutual denunciation, but such cases do not seem funny to me. Not at all. They are usually excruciating.

The denunciation shows might consider growing up.

Or die. That would be good, too.

To be replaced by real interviews and real debates.

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There is a huge gap between “demonizing the media” and sanctifying it, idolizing it.

While Trump may be “demonizing” his targets in his hilarious recent confrontations, Kasparov is definitely giving our current major media outlets too much credit by having them stand for “the free press.”

Where does he go wrong? Where to start? Well, here: Kasparov’s statement that a free press “can never be the enemy of a free people” is absurd. Any person or any institution can turn to work against the public interest. We all know this.

Except, apparently, for partisans . . . when criticizing those they disagree with.

While I heartily agree that we, the American people, need a free press more than we need a childish autocrat, I wonder where Kasparov stands on Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement to the effect that “a government without newspapers” would be worse than “newspapers without government.” He said this while being no friend of the dominant press of his day.

Remember, Jefferson criticized “the media” of his time, and for good reason — the Federalist papers in 1800 even went so far as to declare him the Antichrist, as someone who would confiscate all Bibles. But that did not mean that he also attacked the free press . . . instead, he defended it, and not just now-and-then, but constitutionally.

And remember, Jefferson did squeak in to turn the tide against his predecessors’ policies. In this one way, 2016-2017 looks more than a little like 1800-1801.

Regardless, let us settle this definitively: why does criticizing the media not amount to opposing a free press?

Answer: Because criticizing “the media” is just short-hand for criticizing some media outlets — some journalists and their organizations. Perhaps what is usually meant is the dominant media. Usually what is under attack is just the partisan media — of the other party.

This is all so obvious that one wonders how Kasparov and the many people who repeat the same argumentative gambit can carry their heads with anything other than shame. Your guys are not the whole of the free press. To attack the one is not to attack the other.

What he has done is lump together disparate things, and then condemn his enemy for doing something that his enemy did not do. Trump did not say, nor have I ever heard him say (I am willing to accept any factual evidence to the contrary that you provide), anything against the institution of a free press. What he has argued against is the reportage, bias, and excessively partisan commentary of major media outlets*, CNN most especially.

And, having watched CNN recently, I think Trump has been entirely within the realm of propriety to attack this “Clinton News Network.” CNN’s coverage of politics is so prejudiced and partisan that not only has it supplied its side with debate questions in advance, it regularly prevaricates. The method it does so is as Clintonian as its loyalties.

If Kasparov thinks it “despotic” for a President to castigate and ignore a media outlet, what did he think of President Obama’s constant harping on Fox News, and the way he treated its correspondents in press conferences?

While folks like Trump who decry “the major media” or the “MSM” or just “the media” obviously intend to be engaging in synecdoche, and everyone with half a brain knows that this usage is innocent of logical fallacy, the anti-Trumpers who pretend that this be not synecdoche but, instead, a dangerous, broad-brush equation of part and whole prove themselves either base rhetoricians or witless buffoons in the game of debate.

Who makes up the Stupid Party now?

For the record, I do not know how dangerous Trump is. Right now, he seems more entertaining than any previous president, more active and efficient than recent ones, and more intent on following through on political promises than any politician I can remember.

This does not mean I agree with what he is doing. Far from it. I did not like even half his promises. I did not vote for Trump. I did not support him, except in one way: to note, over and over, how much worse Hillary Clinton was than he seemed. Hillary was the worst Secretary of State in recent memory, a warmonger and a center-left power-luster with a sense of entitlement at least as large as Trump’s own narcissistic ego. And, now that Hillary Clinton is out of the way, I am more than willing to oppose Trump, especially regarding his insane protectionism.

But I hope I can do so honestly.

Much of the hysterical opposition to Trump seems to focus on the man’s style. He seems to lie in new ways,  brushing off falsifications with greater ease than any past pol. He speaks in remarkably simple ways without reminding us of the Bushisms of the two previous Republican presidents. And he is surely the opposite of the abstruse and periphrastic John Kerry.

We do have something of a new creature on our hand — at least the latest hopeful monster in a strange course of evolution. And he is changing in front of our eyes, in part because of how the Left has opposed him, with all rhetorical guns a-blazing. He is a person moved mightily (perhaps most) by issues of loyalty and betrayal. So he is moving further away from his Democratic Party roots under the onslaught of current Democratic outrage.

And Kasparov has jumped in line with the outrage brigade. It is sad to see someone lose grip on the nature of noble rhetoric and argumentation.

When you stoop to using logical fallacies to make your point, you have lost.

At least, in the eyes of those of us sporting a more philosophical bent.

Hint: you cannot promote “accountability & the truth” while simultaneously slinging fallacy and engaging in base rhetoric.

And remember: the great and noble thing about a free press is not that it is “press” but that it is “free.” We here on our blogs and social media are part of the solution. We are the freer press.

But even that does not make us right. We must still mount attacks upon behavior and policies by recourse to facts and logic.

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N.B. I chose Kasparov’s tweet at random. There are many similar, almost identical tweets, memes, what-have-you. It is almost as if a memo went out, saying: HERE IS WHAT TO SAY. (Perhaps I need to read those Move-On emails I get every day.) So, Kasparov serves as a symbol. He stands in for many another egregious anti-Trump paranoiac. It is too rare to see honest criticism — which I would (and do) welcome. Kasparov’s tweets neatly serve to represent all the similar nonsense one hears on the talking head “newscasts,” on the comedy put-down shows, on social media, and out of the mouths of protestors who know only a lockstep uniform ideological response. In all other matters, Peace be unto him.

* Actually, Donald Trump has complained that the press has been “unfair.” That is an inelegant and whiny way to complain about the lying press, the fake media. But I never said that Trump was an elegant or philosophically astute man of letters. Far from it.

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This year, 2017, marks the centenary of The Great American Novel almost no one has even heard of.

Let me take that back. A bit. It is not as if the book were unknown. Critics have written about it. The story has a following, if small.

But it has, as far I can tell, never once been suggested as a contender for that dubious title, The Great American Novel. Indeed, most of the author’s cabal of readers put it third or fourth on their contentious “Best of” lists.

Still, I buck all trends. I assert that this particular hundred-year-old work is its author’s best in long form; that it qualifies for the status of meta-novel, thus giving it a cachet necessary for serious consideration by literary critics; and that it has enough contact with mainstream Americana (just enough) to qualify for the Great American status.

The book? No more evasions . . .

James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions.

A thousand copies were printed in September, 1917. Two and one half years later, a second printing came out; six months after that, a third; the next year, a fourth. In 1922, a slightly revised Fifth Edition was published, with the previous editions’ Preface turned into Chapter One, and prefixed, now, with an introduction by Harold Ward. This edition became the template for the British printings. With the 1926 eighth edition, the text was established for several later Modern Library reprints, as well as Cabell’s own final revision for what he called the “Storisende” edition of 1930.

I own, at present, the Second Edition, a later Modern Library edition, and two paperback editions: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (“unicorn head”) reprint of the Storisende, and an elaborate scholarly treatment edited by Joseph M. Flora.

After the first edition, and the spectacular notoriety of 1919’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Cabell devised a 20+ volume cycle that he dubbed, with sly pleonasm, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. In this cycle, ordered by the fictional events, not date of authorship, The Cream of the Jest appears as the final book-length comedy, followed by Straws and Prayerbooks — an indirect sequel to 1919’s Beyond Life and, like the earlier better-known work, a droll explication of Cabell’s literary philosophy — and a strange hodge-podge called Townsend of Lichfield, about which, well, one may learn more of (and understand less) from Cabell himself in Preface to the Past (1927), pp. 281 – 309.

My advice to the literary reader is to forget The Biography — all the other books the author fused into one well-ordered chaos — and begin with a later edition of The Cream of the Jest without reading any prefatory matter. Start with Chapter One and proceed. If you happen to find yourself with an earlier edition, read the preface assigned to the fictional “Richard Fentnor Harrowby,” and continue on to the first chapter.

The author’s bizarre framing of his Biography’s tales have much the same resonance of Jorge Luis Borges’s meta-fictions. They confused me when I first read them. Trying to sort fact from fiction is not easy when the forewords written by the author, which give off all sorts of cues to non-fiction status, turn out to be, instead, mixtures of fantasy, scholarly earnestness entwined with scholarly irony, and a propensity to dispense not wholly reliable autobiography.

This fictional/non-fictional framing is carried to extreme in Beyond Life and Straws and Prayerbooks, which, as I state above, are literary manifestos disguised as fiction. Both books make for strange reading, but are necessary for anyone interested in what makes books like The Cream of the Jest “work.”

Which brings me back to this one volume, itself. It is not quite a novel. And yet it is. Perhaps it is an example of modernism smuggled in from the literary attic, wherein the Guardians of Literature had placed most of the dusty old tomes of belles lettres along with medieval romance and Gothic fancy. Or perhaps it is a work of post-modernism, a clever wedding of highbrow fantasy to popular romance.

One could also argue that it is the last gasp of the Genteel Tradition in American literature, except Cabell, though suave and well-mannered, was never genteel in Santayana’s sense. He daringly broke too many taboos for that.

The Cream is really what its subtitle proclaims: a comedy. As such, it indirectly but thoroughly confronts the inevitable failures of romance as a way of life, while reëstablishing its necessity in the same breath.

Cabell, being a comedian, has it both ways. He is both a romancer and an ironist. As a fantasy novelist (The Cream is half-fantasy dream study), he attempts to “write beautifully about beautiful happenings.” But as a philosopher, he hammers a kind of realism that in the hands of naturalist novelists turns into a now all-too-familiar sanctimonious nihilism. But caution: his hammering is on the order of Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” — what is meant is not brute force debunking but, instead, a gentle tapping as if at tuning forks and small bells. The idols of the age (and all ages) are being sounded out.

In this, Cabell places himself in a tradition he was not entirely comfortable within: of George Meredith and Thackeray, as well as the philosophical comedians of a later generation, such as Iris Murdoch. Egoism he carefully calls up for apt ridicule, as he does the deadening hand of normality, of mediocrity.

Cabell more readily hails from late-19th century aestheticism, especially the work of Anatole France. Echoes of Balzac’s Droll Tales can be easily detected. The popular romancers of Cabell’s day, such as Maurice Hewlett, might exert a background influence. But Cabell’s own favorites among his contemporaries included British literary fantasists, including Lord Dunsany, author of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters.

This puts Cabell utterly at odds with the mainstream of 20th century highbrow literature. And one might think it would have put him at odds with H. L. Mencken, America’s most enthusiastic promoter of the sociological novel. And yet, Mencken was an admirer. Perhaps what the Sage of Baltimore most liked was Cabell’s philosophy, that unmistakable thread of irony. Mencken called Cabell “the most acidulous of anti-romantics.”

So much for romance.

But Mencken also praised Cabell’s prose style. In fact, Mencken was capable of writing close to Cabell’s mode. In praise of Cabell he characterized the Southern gentleman as “a scarlet dragonfly embedded in amber.” Exactly.

Which might now indicate Cabell’s enduring interest for a few of us. His heart was in romance, his head was in irony, and his philosophical stance was . . . fancy footwork. Nimbly he stepped in and through several genres. The Cream of the Jest was one of the last of his fictions to be rooted in the mundane world of his time. With this work he firmly carved out a niche in high fantasy. It is half a comedy of manners and ideas, and half a fantasy, in brilliant union. The bulk of his work to follow proved more thoroughly fantastic, often set in the mythic province of medieval France, Poictesme. After wrapping up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, he jettisoned his first name, and produced several trilogies of quite distinct fantasy, including a successful dream trilogy, under the moniker Branch Cabell. At some point he brought back his first name, and, in the end, essayed a final foray back to the roots he planted in Cream, with his last (and  brilliant) comic fantasy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son.

The Cream of the Jest immediately follows three earlier comedies set in the Virginia of his youth: The Eagle’s Shadow, The Cords of Vanity, and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck. Of these, the first is a fairly standard romantic comedy, the second is a dark comedy of egoism and betrayal, and the last is a masterwork focusing on the waning culture of Southern honor anchored in a sad “comedy of limitations” (to quote the subtitle). Only The Rivet holds up as a complete literary success. There were also several volumes of short stories, and a non-fantastic medieval romance, The Soul of Melicent (later retitled Domnei.)

But The Cream of the Jest transcends all that preceded it. With this work, the author finally “finds his voice.” Truth is, he always had his voice. What he had not developed until The Cream was a way to unite his philosophical interests with his love of literary japery and a wholly successful and absorbing tale.

Of course, opinions vary. Many readers complain that nothing of substance happens in The Cream of the Jest. And this is true if “of substance” means sword fights and lawsuits and such: the “action” is mostly dream, and, even when set in the humdrum of automobiles, face cream factories, and politicians, almost all interior.

One of the great turning points in the story is in Chapter 27 (Book Fourth: V in the early editions), “Evolution of a Vestryman.” Here Felix Kennaston, our hero, becomes a Christian, and a leader in his local Episcopalian church. It reads like a comedy. Indeed, it reads like a parody of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. But it came first, and one wonders whether Lewis might not have read the tale in disgust, and later, by cryptomnesia, took the half-remembered Cabellian argument to heart and became a Christian himself. Lewis was 25 when the book hit British libraries and bookstores.

I do know that Lewis hated Cabell. Cabell was so modernist compared to Lewis. Cabell the ironist could hardly please Lewis’s dogmatic earnestness. And yet Cabell himself had entered the fold of his Richmond, Virginia, Episcopalian Church, and become a member in good standing. He was more than half-earnest, himself, in this crucial chapter. Later, in other works, he defended Maundy Thursday and its Anglican rites, as being based on legends that might “possibly be true.” (Lewis became a member of the Anglican Church, churning to the top the cream of the jest: Lewis and Cabell were co-communicants.)

The ambiguities here as elsewhere set Cabell against the tide of rabid secularism. And yet his own comedies do more than merely suggest a caustic irony. What is going on here?

Cabell understood the hollowness, in fact, of the ancient traditions. But he also asserted that they were beautiful. Whether true or not, he had no intention of throwing the old ways completely aside. He was a post-modernist traditionalist conservative who was also a liberal doubter. But let us retain our bearings. What he doubted most was the advisability of a full embrace of modernity’s ongoing nihilism project.

Cabell lived his life as if tradition were worthwhile enough to preserve, if not embrace without a wink. And he wrote his fictions as if in full dialogue with the past. Indeed, that is what The Cream of the Jest really is: a philosophical dialogue with the past and its charms, while seriously acknowledging their tendency to disappear when attempted to be grasped. Just as his hero Kennaston wakes up from his dream whenever he attempts to touch his dream woman, Ettarre.

In The Cream of the Jest, we witness not the revelation of a special American Dream, but the reality of Dreams Universal. Which is American enough for me.

The year 1917 sports a few more prominent literary centenaries, the most important being the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations. (Eliot was also a co-communicant of Lewis and Cabell.) It is also the year that popular fiction made an important step into the future, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. J. R. R. Tolkien began work on what eventually became The Silmarillon; Christopher Morley produced Parnassus on Wheels; and Norman Douglass published South Wind.

A century earlier, establishing bicentennial possibilities, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey saw posthumous success; Walter Scott’s Rob Roy hit presses on both sides of the Atlantic; and Thomas Love Peacock’s delightful Melincourt debuted.

But these are very different stories.

My story? This year I celebrate

  • my Finnish heritage, with the centenary of the birth of independent Finland;
  • my family history, with what would have been my father’s hundredth birthday, had he not died four years ago; and, perhaps most of all,
  • the centenary of the publication of The Cream of the Jest, which I read at age 17 . . .

the one novel that seriously treats personal love and cultural literacy as a romance that, while inevitably comic, even the most cynical dismiss at their peril.

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I like Charlie Booker. He sports a droll, mocking presentation style, probably my favorite “attitude” of all the topical comedians now in play.

However, this year-end round-up — 2016 Wipe — is more interesting as an example of fake news. Not as comedy.

Since some of the subjects here being made fun of were issues and debates I know quite a lot about, it was instructive to watch him effectively distort the news, the better to serve the prejudices of his elitist, London insider audience. Indeed, he frankly says so, at one point. But we’re supposed to take it as irony. I guess.

I took it as earnest confession.

First example? Brexit supporter (and Euro MP) Dan Hannan. Booker’s editing suggests that Hannan was lying when he said the Brexit issue was mainly about sovereignty, one of the few times in the show when that issue came up. But Hannan is eloquent, and precise. His primary interest in sovereignty was clear from every video I saw of him. I mean, the videos are still up on the Web, right? Maybe I noticed merely because I’m separated from Britain by an ocean and a continent.

In any case, it’s not as if this couldn’t be checked.

Or take Hillary Clinton — please. Booker glosses right over all her scandals, never drawing the real gallows humor latent in every move of her shrill, smug campaign. It is almost as if Booker were trying to score ideological points with his comrades in the show’s audience rather than be funny. Oh, say it ain’t so, Charlie!

Or take the NeverTrump protests both before and following the election . . . or the relentless sabotage (and Twitter-feed death threats) that Trump withstood from the beginning of his campaign. No mention how the pre-election shennanigans turned out to have been orchestrated from high up in the Clinton campaign. The revelations coming out just weeks before the election. No notice of how the same folks who had been, before the fateful Tuesday, decrying Trump’s droll suggestion that he would accept the outcome of the election “only if” he won, next took to the streets to cry “Not my president!” when their side lost. Are you sure you could not find any cause for laughter, here? I thought hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance were the very stuff of topical comedy.

Charlie Booker apparently “knows better.”

This past year was filled with insanity on all sides. And yet, somehow, Booker makes it look as if the wholly insane could only be found in the ranks of Leave/Trump vothers.

There was one genuine bit of satire, though, when he interviewed a Leave voter and then shouted the man down before he could get three words out in a row. In that moment he did acknowledge that “his side” was, indeed, habitually throwing stones in their glass domiciles.

You’ve got to pick and choose a lot to make a comedy special, I know. But 2016 Wipe wasn’t so much topical satire as apologetics — if in the form of despairing mockery.

Sad. Sad indeed.

It could have been so much funnier if a teensy bit honest. Pay me his fee and I could write a funnier year-end review. At least I would capture the spirit of the age in all its witlessness.

Oh, and speaking of witlessness . . . you know what I noticed most? Repeated revelations of poor education. Ms. Cunk, near the very end (how apt) showed no knowledge of what the word “apocalypse” originally meant, how it became what it now “means,” and how both definitions work together to nod, knowingly, at the real human predicament. Instead, she runs through a brain-dead, uninformed view of the current devastation that her class feels. Oh, the feels.

In that, the show did not serve as satire, but merely as mildly entertaining grist for real satire.

For a much better attempt, scorn the professionals and give the amateurs a chance. Sargon of Akkad did a far better job than Booker did. Sure, he is serious. But also funnier:

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One of the fundamental errors of today’s socio-political thought can be summed in one simple equation, an equation quite without validity:

Diversity = Equality

Diversity does not even imply equality; it contra-indicates it.

But that identity is the foundational notion of pomo morality and “identity politics.” Only a highly nuanced analysis of the diverse things (or persons) themselves, and the diverse standards that might apply to them, would find an important connection between the two concepts. But the connection would be an identity only as a “term of art.”

But it is not highly nuanced thought that we are given. We witness, instead, relentless and hysterical assertion after assertion of the dubious identity. The notion that Diversity is Equality is the dogma of the day.

And it is corrosive to the basic habits and institutions of a liberal society. It is the latest attempt to apply coherence to the mirage of “social justice.”

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Today, on Facebook, I posted this:

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The evolutionary strategy of the cuckoo is well known. It led to the traditional term for a man cheated upon: cuckold. Which led to the sexual kink of a man who enjoys watching his wife being fucked by another man, also known as a cuckold.

More interestingly, the metaphor was then stretched along civilizational lines, into the politics of race, subsidy and much more, all focused on a new term of abuse: cuck. This is the alt-right contribution to modern debate and invective.

There is something to it.

But the alt-right trolls and lolsters were not the first to expand upon the paradigmatic bird, the cuckoo. There was John Wyndham and his science fiction masterpiece, The Midwich Cuckoos, filmed as The Village of the Damned — a great little film, that.

Thus I justify the following visual “meme”:

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Vile, evil, and craven. That is — to name the representations of these concepts in our time — Donald Trump (vile), Hillary Clinton (evil), and America’s press corps (craven). This article (“This Election Has Disgraced the Entire Profession of Journalism”) is from a leftist journalist (Ken Silverstein) with some integrity. And almost entirely spot on.

We have two unbelievably shitty candidates, neither of whom is fit to lead the country.

But it is too painful to dwell further on the presidential candidates. Turn your attention to the journalists. What can we say? Maybe “craven” is too weak. How best to characterize the major media outlets and their ostensible “journalists”? Servile. Cultish. Worthy of utter destruction and salt sown into the presses and TV cameras involved in their craft.

Worse than the two major candidates. And that is bad. Bad indeed.

This election has exposed as never before that there is indeed a media elite, bound together by class and geography, that is utterly clueless about its own biases and filters. A vast number of journalists covering the presidential campaign are economically privileged brats that seem blissfully unaware that for most Americans, the economy is in recession and people are terrified.