Archives for category: Literature


Virginia author James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) wrote comic romances (a term perhaps less confusing than “romantic comedies”) on a set of themes. One of these themes is expressed in the idea that there exist women too beautiful for many men safely to look at.

In The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment, young Florian espies the sleeping Melior (ensorcelled in a castle ensconced upon a High Place) and it unsettled his life, sending him into a flagrantly immoral life of lust, murder, and (in the end) world-shaking cataclysm.

In Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, the title character — having been given a temporary visage of youth — finds himself with the opportunity to remove a sleeping Helen of Troy’s blanket, but cautiously refrains. This restraint allowed him to return to his normal life as a pawnbroker, and bargain with Koschei the Deathless for the retrieval of his wife from distant realms, to take up her former position as his nagging partner.

Mere fantasy? The peculiar obsession of a perverse mind?

I doubt it.

Sexual selection is powered, in great part, by enticement based on beauty. Flowers are beautiful, the peacock’s feathers are beautiful, and so can be women (to varying degrees). The more beautiful the more likely to attract the bee or the mate, and thus the greater the beauty the more likely they are to procreate, thus spreading the world with more beautiful beings. In some species it is the male that displays the more elaborate enticements to mate, the peacock and peahen being a prime example. In Homo sapiens, it is the woman who attracts chiefly by physical beauty — and the men more moved by that beauty. But, admittedly, among humans the variety of sexual attractions and sexual strategies makes everything vastly more complicated than a themed story.*

But this is a major force in life and its evolution, not a mere technical display, an acquired habit of culture, as so many of today’s trendy people pretend to believe. Lust for — and enchantment with —  sexual beauty is built into our psyches, well, most male psyches, anyway, as amply demonstrated in science and literature. And it rules, often with the whip hand. Beauty suffuses nature, and the lust for beauty spurs life to continue. Further, because it runs so deep, it can be as (or more) powerful than the drive for mysticism, for the numinous.

Carl Gustav Jung suggested that organized religion exists to curb the unsettling power of mystical experiences. By formalizing the Divine, and limiting it to certain rites, places, times, it allows for mundane life to continue.

Traditional marriage and family life did something similar. The mundane curbs the sheer transcendent power of Beauty. To prevent destruction.

Nowadays, the most beautiful of women are plucked from obscurity, farded to perfection, and paraded about for all to see. This alone — with instantiations from modeling, to acting, to pornography (which some would say and was once widely believed were all allied arts) — may be a major factor in modern culture . . . to the unsettling nature of family and community life.

If Cabell were right, this modern development leads to disaster for some men, and perhaps a problem for many men as well as most women. The disaster might be a bit more humdrum than the one perpetrated by Florian.

Behind all the romance, irony, symbols, and elegant prose, Cabell’s philosophic argument was that the natural curb for this aspect of sexual bedazzlement is marriage: one woman to one man, quickly followed by motherhood and fatherhood, thereby speeding up the process known to all: nature’s universal answer to all enchantments, including life itself. Decline and Death. Mother Sereda bleaching all. That suffices to dull the beauty in life.

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* Of course there are anomalies, outliers to life’s main story. Gay men and lesbian women look on the world of beauty and sexuality rather differently, each. And certainly confirmed bachelors like me have a different perspective on the story than do married men and, of course, women. But the central story will always be the one that directly carries on the regeneration of life. We outliers must recognize our place. And when society bends to the outlier, to make their stories central, as it seems to be doing now, we can expect cataclysms. Brave New World was not Utopia.

The amusing thing about having a fabulist as President is that it gives us all something to talk about while he pushes through as much of his promised agenda as he can.

Fake out!

imageYeah, I’ve been tricked by Trump’s Twitter feed, too. But, to repeat something I said last month, there is a method to his madness. He is spinning the media. I do believe this is according to a plan. He is a magician. Or, maybe, Iago + troll.

I was just watching the Egregious Hack, George Stephanopoulis, go into high moral dudgeon about the utter implausibility that the White House was spouting in defense of the Trump Tower Wiretap Tweet. The Hack seemed to think he was on to something. It was as if he thought that by exposing this one lie, the whole Trump movement would crumble.

Fool!

Yes, he should know better. It was he, after all, who was present at the creation of the Post-Truth society. His beloved Clintons mastered stonewalling and sheer cussed persistence long after after a lie had been found out.

The Clintons had learned that being caught in a lie is very much like Death — for everybody else. The lied-to go through stages: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance. As long as the caught liar refuses to deal with the truth and the meaning of is and whatnot, those he has lied to deal with the awful fact as best they can. If the liar is resolute, in the end the lied-to merely accepts that something happened not to their liking, and carry on as if truth were not a thing.

And, in politics, it needn’t be. And has not been for a long time.

Trump is merely playing the game by his standards, now, not the media’s.

We could be witnessing the End Times ushered in the side door, or the greatest political rescue mission negotiated out the back. I don’t know.

But it is hysterically funny.

It is great fun, anyway, watching the Egregious Hack and his cohorts twist in the wind, as Trump plays them.

Just remember to laugh. (Sometimes one forgets to breathe.) We are witnessing the complete erosion of the establishment’s patina, a wiping away of all surface luster. We shall soon be witnessing nothing other than naked power.

Yes. You can then call it the Apocalypse. For much will then be revealed.

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The Major Media, Desperate, Will Now Apparently Stoop to Anything in Its Social War Against Outside-the-Beltway Americans

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This could be the most important video you will watch this week:

Why would the Wall Street Journal send three journalists to do a hit piece on a popular YouTube comedian, basically tearing out of context his jokes so that he looks (to gullible Journal readers) like an “anti-semite.”

pewdiepieOn the face of it, doing a “scoop” on “PewDiePie” is an absurd bit of overkill. But Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin) explains how this relates to the great issue of our time: the decline of major-media journalism, the rise of decentralized Internet alternatives, and, with it, the rise of populist politics.

One of the reasons I have not freaked out over the election of Donald Trump has been that I have had some inkling of his social and historical function. To excoriate Trump over and over is to side with the establishment and its social war with the majority of Americans. Mainstream media journalism has become worse than a joke. It has become the broad institutional equivalent of a lying tyrant.

The establishment — consisting of the media, the institutions of “higher learning,” and the permanently employed bureaucracies of the federal and state governments (the latter employed with cushier salaries, benefits and pensions than the average American worker) — has effectively marginalized those parts of the population that it has not bought off (with government subsidies), rewarded directly (by feeding them into the academic-bureaucratic and military-industrial complexes), or duped (with propaganda designed to feed self-righteous tribalism).

Thus it has been that a liar was chosen by the marginalized to play tyrant in the overthrowing of the establishment. It is an historical pattern: you ape your enemy to defeat the enemy. (I do not condone this; I merely note this.) And I, for one, will be glad to see the media establishment finally fall. The extent of their pernicious grip on American institutions can hardly be over-stated. The benefit for us could be enormous. The possibility of a freer future may open up.

Certainly, with the major media as hegemon, no real hope for social transformation can come.

The major media outlets are largely (in America, Fox excepting) insider-progressive. And, to unbuild the corporatist tyrannies that Progressivism and its allied movements (socialism, social democracy, Fabianism, fascism) have placed upon the West, the major media must first be put in their place.

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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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This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of Liberty magazine. Not Benjamin Tucker’s Liberty, which has been dead for over a century. Not the general interest magazine of that name, either, of which Groucho Marx quipped “Remember, there’s nothing like liberty — except Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post!” And certainly not the Seventh Day Adventist periodical, the less I say about, the better. I am referring to the little libertarian ’zine out of Port Townsend, Washington, the one that I worked on for its first twelve years.

After my departure in 1999, it survived in print for another decade. After folding, it gave up its ghost to the Web, upon which it lingers as a scornful shade from another age.

Three decades is a long enough time to excuse a tinge of nostalgia. In January 1987, I was working on the vast library of Liberty’s publisher, R. W. Bradford, as well as researching and proofreading his monthly newsletter, Analysis & Outlook. We were preparing to launch the magazine that summer, and Bradford was looking for the right computer platform. I knew (this is going to be a self-congratulatory essay, so prepare yourself) that there was, at that time, only one computing platform suitable for desktop publishing, Apple’s Macintosh. But those computers were expensive, so Bradford futilely began experimenting with KayPro’s latest CP/M machine, and then with IBM’s PC. Both platforms were a bust. We finally went to the Macintosh. We bought two Mac Pluses, and on the first day we laid out the newsletter; within a week or two Bill and I, along with his wife, Kathleen, designed the cover and interior of the magazine.

img_1906None of us were design geniuses, and it showed. The magazine was ugly. I was responsible for the general look of the interior pages, for the most part, and Bradford and his “Scotch boxes” gave impetus to the make-up of the cover. But we three did hash this out in a long meeting, with much experimenting. And no small amount of friendly banter.

The structure of the magazine itself was, uh, odd, especially in the first few issues. (A good example being the fifth issue, shown at right.) This was mostly a result of Bradford’s resistance to putting the current-events reportage and political debate up front, at least in the first few issues. He did not want Liberty to be primarily a political magazine. It was to be a cultural magazine for a people of a particular political orientation. I liked the approach, if not the magazine’s look (which always remained a vexation to me).

Years later, Bradford credited me with establishing the style of editorial presentation. The wording of the blurbs and genre heading and the like, though Stephen Cox surely had a major hand in it at the final review end of the editorial process. It was a natural style for what we were doing, so that credit is not exactly a steller honor. He also said that I had named the final section of the magazine, the “Terra Incognita” feature. After twelve years, when he had informed me of this, I had forgotten my “responsibility” for this name.

“Terra Incognita” was to duplicate the aim and method of Mencken’s old Americana department, from which the Sage of Baltimore made a series of annual books. The idea was to take news snippets and other artifacts of our culture, and place them in our pages without comment. Each entry would use for a title the place the tidbit took place in, or from which it was published or broadcast. Then would follow a short, not too value-laden synopsis or setup. Finally, there would be an exact quotation.

Full disclosure: Bradford often edited these quotations not merely for space, but for the occasional subtle effect. Editorial license, if you will.

It would have been fun to name the section “Artifactual Man,” but I had not read the great essay “Natural and Artificactual Man” by economist James Buchanan yet. So “Terra Incognita” it became. Here is an example, snapped from an old copy littering my library:
Terra Incognita

This all came back to me, today, upon stumbling into a page of the Center for a Stateless Society, a reprint of an old Roderick Long criticism of one “Terra Incognita” entry.

The entry in question is from an issue published several years after I had left Liberty’s offices, so I can hardly be held responsible for the offending passage that Prof. Long considers. It was published as Bradford himself lay dying, so neither could the editor and publisher himself be the likely responsible agent. (Though it does sound like him, now that I think on it.) Nevertheless, I wish to demur from Long’s objections. In effect, I seek to defend the honor of Liberty’s “Terra Incognita” — as if anyone cared.

No matter. I am committed! I will quote the piece, whole, interrupting only when I have something to say:

In the back of each issue of Liberty magazine is a section titled “Terra Incognita,” which consists of news clippings inane or horrific or both. So I must assume that someone at Liberty found the following item inane or horrific, since it’s the third featured item in the latest (January 2006) issue’s “Terra Incognita”:

Port Townsend, Wash.

A glimpse into the objectives of a modern-day peace movement, from the PTforPeace “cultural statement”:

“Knowing we have all internalized the violence, patriarchy, white supremacy, and alienation so prevalent in our society. Knowing that dismantling these systems of oppression involves becoming aware of where they are hiding in our own minds, and that day-to-day patterns of oppression are the glue that holds together systems of oppression. Cultivating gratitude toward the person who points out where we may have internalized oppression without being aware of it.”

So what, exactly, is this item doing in Liberty’s “horror file”? What it says seems to me not only true and important, but something that libertarians in particular used to specialise in pointing out. For a leading libertarian publication to mock such insights is a regrettable refusal of our libertarian forebears’ radical legacy.

Though I sympathize with Prof. Roderick Long’s anti-oppression solidarity, I bet I understand why, on some level, either Kathleen Bradford or Stephen Cox or one of the other editors of the ’zine thought it, at least in part, risible.

But I cannot speak for them, only for me. So here goes:

  1.     Liberty was still, then, published in Port Townsend, Washington. The editors probably knew the Port Townsend activists well enough. I did when I lived there. That propinquity tends to put a tinge of guffaw into the reaction. To know a leftist is to know their strange obsessions and quirks of mind and values.
  2.     The statement lists some givens that are not given to most folks. Indeed, I hesitantly accept some, thoroughly reject others.
  3.     I reject that we have all internalized the violence of our culture. I am a libertarian. I have externalized society’s penchant for initiated coercion. Speak for yourself, leftist.
  4.     Patriarchy. What patriarchy? The one that gives in to nearly every feminist demand? The one that worries over not having enough women in the Senate (despite over half the voters being women) but not over the male dominance in garbage collection, logging, and sea fishing — the latter two among the most deadly jobs in today’s generally cushy workplace environments? Or would it be the patriarchy that expects men, in cases of emergency, to come to the aid of women and children, at the risk of their own lives, but not expecting anything like the same courage from women? Does not our professor realize that this cultural requirement for male valor in defense of women was written into the law during the heyday of “capitalist patriarchy” a century ago? That this was related to the fact that men, but not women, were drafted in times of war? That men were expendable, but women not?
    I am not denying, actually, a patriarchal aspect to our current culture, and a stronger one a century prior. But I realize what traditional patriarchy was for: the protection of women and children, so that the species — society — could continue. The much-maligned Patriarchy was supported, historically, by a concurrent social institution, which we should call The Matriarchy. For savvy women realized something that feminists today do not: that the “dominance” of men in law and politics was counter-balanced by huge costs that men were forced to bear. This is doubly true for the bulk of men who were not in exalted positions of leadership.
    Indeed, beta and especially gamma males were, as stated above, expendable. They were the ones chiefly oppressed. Society way back when was not rich enough to extend certain peaceful opportunities to women. But with the rise of capitalism came the rise in the status of women, and their gradual liberation. To repeat for emphasis: the oppressive aspects of patriarchical culture fell mainly on the men, in terms of their lives and liberties.
    Sure, women did not have as much social freedom as men did, back then, especially if they were married. All this had reasonable, non-oppressive rationales. Pretending that we now experience the old oppressions (or unfortunate inconveniences) is preposterous.
    Thinking that “we all” have internalized this old way of thinking is believable, however. But the nature of today’s internalized patriarchy will not please Prof. Long. Our patriarchal mindset is instantiated in reiterated point-blank acceptances of the bulk of the inanities of feminism.
    Feminism has always depended on the patriarchal chivalry of men.
    And men, today, still go out of their way to play White Knight for women’s fictional honor. (Personally, I have given all of that up long ago. I realized in the days of my relative youth that the relationships between men and women in the ages of feminism are so deeply fucked up that I am de facto Hyperborean, now. I am more feminist than the feminists, in one sense, since I have abandoned almost all my chivalric obsessions. I accept women as friends, as social equals, but not as any special concern of mine, and I doubt I would ever risk my life for any one of them I am not related to.)
  5.     “White supremacy”? Really? Is that what I benefit from, today? Is that why most Asian-American men and women make more money than nearly every white male in my nearly all-white community? Who is supreme, here? Or, is it some cultural power that we scorned country bumpkins possess? Of course not. I, for one, am marginalized, if anyone is. It is Democrats and Republicans and leftists who have major political and cultural institutions on their side. Not some lowly individualist like me. And certainly not my neighboring redneck proletarians. Listening to racial theorizing from leftists reminds me of little that individualists have to offer by way of liberation. I, a white man, oppress no one. If you think I have internalized the oppression of individuals of other races, I will argue with you not only intellectually, but stridently — upon my honor. Prof. Long, in siding with these leftists, lurches preciously close to insulting me. And probably you. Perhaps any honest person of any racial background in these United States. Note: I am not saying that there are not white supremacists (the fools; the buffoons). I am not saying that there is no racial bigotry (including from racial minorities). I am just saying that supremacy is largely irrelevant to the liberation of individuals, race is itself a burden upon their thinking, and leftist obsessions with supremacy are, in and of themselves, worthy of ridicule.
  6.     Alienation is not the result of oppression. Alienation is a step on the liberation from oppression. See Walter Kauffman in Without Guilt and Justice. I expect more from a philosopher than repetition of brain-dead tropes from the unthinking masses of symbolic-action-obsessed leftists.

So, obviously I am not on the same page as Roderick Long. Why?

My aim is not to criticise Liberty in particular; it’s one of my favourite magazines, and this particular failing is merely symptomatic of a larger problem in the libertarian movement generally. One might call the problem knee-jerk anti-leftism, or in other words, automatically responding negatively to certain issues (at least when those issues aren’t obvious applications of libertarian principle, like drug legalisation) merely because those issues have typically been the concern of the left.

Could Prof. Long sutter from the opposite problem, a knee-jerk pro-leftism? I believe he calls himself a “left libertarian” — an absurd position that mischaracterizes what individualism is, what libertarianism has to offer.

The knee-jerk anti-leftist infection — libertarians’ costly inheritance from their long alliance with conservatives against the genuine menace of state socialism — takes different forms in different sectors of the libertarian movement: softness on corporatism here, softness on militarism there, softness on white-male-hetero chauvinism somewhere else (with each such sector quick to denounce the flavour of deviation embraced by some other sector, but far less swift to recognise its own). A crucial aim of left-libertarianism, as I see it, is to help libertarianism recover its pre-conservative roots.

Well, the conservative stain may very well be the case. I have argued this in the past. But upon extended consideration, I have come to think the problem arises from a completely different source. Consider this:

There are two main conceptions of justice in this world: traditional justice (in its variant forms) and revolutionary justice (in statist and anarchist varieties). These two correspond to the two visions of social causation that Thomas Sowell has advanced in A Conflict of Visions and other works. Traditional justice fits in with the constrained vision of human nature; revolutionary justice fits in with unconstrained visions. Individualism is an attempt to steer clear of the Scylla and Charybdis these two forms of justice present. My philosophy, anyway, owing in no small part to the work of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger and F. A. Hayek, is an evolutionary justice.

The job of the individualist is to take the insight of liberalism, about applying a few rules up and down society’s institutional matrix, consistently and seriously to all individuals even within the institutions normally associated with the State. This project is by no means alien to the basic notions of traditionally evolved justice. But it does not stop by merely restating the past. And it can only proceed if certain ancient tribal attitudes about loyalty and sovereignty are either discarded or completely recast.

And, more importantly, it does not commit the huge error of trying to remake the whole world, especially in the impossible endeavor of balancing out for the inequalities and unfairnesses of the fate or chance we see at work in the natural world. The evolutionary revision of justice is a limited conception of justice. It makes it out as only one virtue among many. And it is mainly attuned to the practice of coercion. Not to redressing the imagined imperfections of nature.

Leftists, on the other hand, are embedded in a culture that rests entirely upon recreating man in a new image, of fair play writ cosmic and carried out microscopic. They see oppression even in the merest accommodations to nature or to others’ demonstrated preferences.

They are fools, almost to a person.

We do not have much to learn from them, other than to see how recalcitrant human moral imagination can be, how reluctant it is to settle for a moderating liberty.

Now I suspect the average libertarian hears or reads words like those from the PTforPeace statement quoted above, and swiftly conjures up a mental picture of a person who is likely to utter them — a strident, self-righteous lefty, equally likely to have wretchedly statist views on all sorts of issues. But even supposing this stereotype is an accurate portrait, what of it? The inference is sheer ad hominem. And if libertarians can recognise valuable insights when they find them in the work of John Calhoun — a brilliant man, but an apologist for, ahem, slavery — inviting them to be equally open to insights from self-righteous lefties doesn’t seem too much to ask.

I have had little trouble learning from anyone, in the past. I have learned from Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Gore Vidal. C.S. Lewis, James Branch Cabell, Lucian of Samosata, Epicurus and Ortega y Gasset. But what I learn from true leftists? Mainly from their many mistakes.

The ways that leftists talk about oppression are almost wholly counter-productive to freedom, to true liberation. Their current obsession, often dubbed by critics as an “Oppression Olympics,” is a vile victimhood cult, a slave morality, a revival of Christianity without the leavening lump of a distant and humbling deity.

Where leftists are, there be dragons.

They have left reality in their vain imaginings, and wander in the mythic realm of Terra Incognita.

twv

Wyvern

 

musicms

It’s Malipiero in the morning,
And Nancarrow at noon;
Stravinsky some time after,
And Nono none too soon.

The evening’s left to Elgar,
By midnight, after Toch
I’ll slumber along with Debussy,
And wake five times with Bloch.

The day is made with music,
To distract me from the pain
Of politicians pushing Promise
And the voters’ sad refrain:

“The other side’s more evil!”
And other dubious talk.
It’s why this secret I reveal:
“The answer lies in Bach.”

twv

IMG_2637

image

Mike Ashley, in his book Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990, did not get everything right, alas. imageIn describing the stories in the Mid-December 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, he badly characterizes one of my favorite stories from that period, “Reasonable Doubt.”

This clever effort,

the debut story by Fred Singer, considers the violent attitude of certain humans towards aliens who are trying to foster relationships with Earth.

Now, I do not want give away the story, here, but it deals with what we might call the is/ought problem inherent in some popular forms of Social Darwinism. The premise of the tale is that humanity differs from the successful galactic species by being competitive and individualistic — and violent. This passage explains the story’s main thrust:

image

It is not primarily about violent humans thinking dark thoughts about the newly-arrived aliens, not really. That would be the knee-jerk mod-lib misinterpretation. It is about aliens judging humans for humamity’s reactionary tendencies.

The aliens, are old-fashioned Progressive/new-fashioned alt-righters. They worry about what to do about the “problem” of a quick-adapting species that could disrupt the galaxy’s civilized order, spreading the poison of violence.

The aliens’ eventual plan, stated in the story’s opening, is to destroy the human species — or perhaps transform it in some twisted way so that it would become more like every other galactic species. That is, conformist and collectivist.

This being a human-centered story, the aliens’ intention is not considered a good thing: the predicament drives the plot, which ends in police over-reaction. The story, then, could be interpreted as a repudiation of modern, progressive prejudices — and conservative ones as well.

The two things that trouble the aliens the most? Humanity’s universal incest taboo and common belief in some form of a deity.

The former idea, merely mentioned in conversations within the story, helped give rise to complaints about the editorial direction Isaac Asimov’s was heading, towards increasing sex and violence, as Mike Ashley explains in his book. I tend to dismiss such complaints as prudery. Nothing sexual in this story, anyway, can be considered gratuitous. It is classic stefnal story-telling. And the reason for the one element of sexuality? Because sex is a huge part of almost all animal life, and if a species is to be judged. . . .

Which is what the story is, a Day of Judgment tale.

Yes, humans are violent. But Homo sapiens is the only pre-space civilizing species, the story’s alien relates, that, while being based on individuality and competition — and conflict, too — has conceived of “non-aggression” as well as concocted gods to nudge the species somewhat forward out of its violent past.

The narrator is a well-to-do lawyer, and he it takes upon himself to come to his kind’s defense.

I know nothing about the author, this Fred Singer. (I am pretty sure that the Fred Singer I have met isn’t he.) I have not seen any more of his work.

But I like this story, which I think should be dragged out of the memory hole and read by today’s sf readers. Maybe it should be anthologized. Perhaps the Sad Puppies might find something of interest here.

twv

image

 

Prior to the Enlightenment, religious warfare in Europe was ongoing, bloody and costly, and the suppression of Jews, heretics and witches by religious authorities was mad and cruel, scuttling the progress that civilization was beginning widely to offer.

In the Enlightenment two things happened: Christians gave up (or began giving up) on coercion as integral to their faith, and intellectuals gave up (or began giving up) on faith as integral to their beliefs and modes of inquiry.

Islam, on the other hand, has never undergone a thoroughgoing Enlightenment. Muslims are still caught in an intellectual trap, that of coercion, or Force.

And, because of this, they cannot easily form free societies. And they find themselves prone to subjection by tyrants and worse — the chaos of seemingly random terrorist crime.

Now, it is not that the ugliness and gross immorality of the philosophy of persuasion-by-force are hidden from Muslims, for Muslims in and near their homelands are themselves the primary targets of jihadist terrorism. Medina itself was recently subject to jihadist attack. Instead, and despite the obviousness of Force as a trap, it is the case that they are stuck, that the trap is more secure for them than it was for Europeans: they know that violence was written into the main documents and early traditions of their religion, and from history they know that when religions come to revise their attitudes on coercion (that is, become civilized, in the modern, normative sense) a process of secularization quickly sets in, running in parallel to the taming of “religious enthusiasm” (as Hobbes termed the grave danger so neatly). Any pious Muslim knows — much more clearly than did the Protestants of the late Reformation — that a consistent opposition to the uncivilized trap of Force is a direct assault upon their Faith.

The stakes are higher, now, in no small part because coercion is more integral to early conceptions of Islam than it was to Christianity, which began (after all) under oppression, and confronted that oppression by hallowing martyrdom in nonviolent submission. Rather than, in Islam, “martyrdom” in combat. Further, we moderns (including modern Muslims) just know more about the sweep of history, today. So the costs of Enlightenment are a whole lot clearer now than in the past.

Maybe our hope is in the children, those under-educated, cult-prone robots of moralistic fervor who, today, fill the ranks of the hectoring SJW mobs. Maybe they, by their very ignorance and urgent hankerings to be “cool,” will tip the scales.

Could the trap that is Cool undo the trap that is Coercion?

Screenshot 2014-11-14 01.14.16


On io9, Esther Inglis-Arkell takes on the serial-killer genre, as exemplified on TV shows such as Hannibal, Dexter and True Detective:

Individually, these shows are good. It’s the aggregate, and the lack of alternatives, that’s terrible. The idea of the genius-artist-philosopher-killer has become stagnant and dull. Everywhere you look, it’s the same boring nihilism, the same boring excuses, and the same slightly-creepy glamour — which is growing boring.

Her piece is called “It’s Time to Bring Back the Banality of Evil.”

I wish to show no disrespect for the coiner of that phrase, “banality of evil,” or for the book in which she trotted the concept out. Or even for the concept. And yet . . .

Bring back the “banality of evil” . . . to art?

This strikes me as an almost anti-intellectual demand. Fiction is usually about the exceptional, and for good reasons.

Serial killer fiction is a modern reincarnation of ancient mythology, the stories of gods behaving badly, of Devils and demons, of Power corrupted. It allows for the picking at the scab of common sense reality by turning crime into pornography, and then turning us about-face and making us recoil at our own lusts.

All people seek power. And mastery. Crime is the crudest power. Masterful crime is at once the most frightening and the most attractive. Genius serial killers serve as one of the few probings of mastery that can mirror our baser natures, which common culture necessarily would have us shun and suppress. By revealing it, and then in frame of art reversing our evaluations — in great art, several times over, or from a multitude of angles — we gain something that realism cannot deliver: self-knowledge perhaps immune from complacency.

Realism in fiction is fine, in its way. But a little goes a long way — and in another sense realism is a plague upon civilization.

Literary realism is deeply antithetical to human nature. It is usually moralistic and prissy and lowbrow. (This is even more true when praised by alleged highbrows.) Too often realistic fiction (and, even more so, the praise of realism) expresses nothing greater than a fear of imagination, of the fantastic, of the night mind, of Dream Time. It betrays our very human origins in sleep and dreams and illusion. It shuns the wellsprings of chthonian depths. It extols the shallow reaches of the mundane, drowning us in the surface tension of the puddles of the average and common.

Realism condemns us to the ho and the hum.

So, sure: show us the petty killers, if you must. But a serial killer is all the more frightening because he (rarely she) expresses our real fears, of being out-mastered by evil.

If you want to bring the banality of evil back to art, develop more political fiction, for it is in the political realm where you see serial murders glorified, while also bureaucratized. The appalling made banal. And then show all the normal citizens whooping and hollering, eager to vote the serial killers back into office.

Now that is scary. And banal. And evil, evil, evil.timo-dither

Those of us who learn on our own to think for ourselves do not require immersion into the work of writers who relentlessly promote “rationality” and “reason.” We accept it as bedrock. We move on.

That is my usual explanation to my friends who admire Ayn Rand, or who went through an  “Ayn Rand phase,” or were once or (alas) are now self-describing as a “student of Objecctivism.” She was of little use to me. I read her “too late” for her work to have an impact.

I waited until I was 22 before I opened the pages of The Fountainhead. I had read, the year before, the essays making up The Virtue of Selfishness. I liked the novel. But I was not blown away. I grew leery of the essays. But it took me a while to see her central error.

I had already discovered the “pro-liberty” novels I needed in my teens: The Once and Future King, Titus Groan, Brave New World and others. As for philosophy, I had read Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and as much as I could find out about anarchism in my backwater locale before I found and devoured Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which did indeed “blow my mind.” But I did not come to any big conclusions about political philosophy for several years, until after I had read more, including some economics.

Before political philosophy, I confronted religion. Also without Ayn Rand’s help.

I started, in a sense, with C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, which, as a Christian, I judged dishonest, and moved on to consider a wide array of ideas. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man was a bit of a challenge, in that I learned a lot from the book, but came to disapprove of its basic modus: attacking low-level exponents of a philosophy (the textbook writers who annoyed him so much) without addressing that philosophy’s high-level theorists (Ogden, Richards, Ayer, Stevenson). Surely that was a form of intellectual dishonesty as well.

So I by the time I was 20 I was reading existentialists and Walter Kauffmann and C.S. Peirce and many others. I had put aside Heidegger. I had bracketed Husserl. I was thinking for myself. By 22 I had moved from a sort of Millian liberalism to something like a full-blown libertarianism, without any input from Rand.

Hence my jesting status as a member of the Null Rand League. I am one of those individualists — rare in my generation — who has not been influenced by Ayn Rand directly, except in the negative, and whose intellectual inheritance comes from other sources. I had read Lysander Spooner and Auberon Herbert and Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises before I ever read one word of Ayn Rand.  (I had also read Marx, Schumacher, Wilson and many, many others of an anti-libertarian stripe.)

And when I did finally get to The Fountainhead (and only because a cute girl I knew had read it), I was impressed with parts of it, and creeped out by a few things as well. (I have written about this before.) As for her philosophy at large, I have many problems with it. (Also written about elsewhere.) So I simply am not the go-to person to write a level-headed reappraisal of Rand. I have never been bitten by the bug. I have never had to recover, or fight it off to any great extent.

So Charles Murray’s recent piece on the subject is worth consulting. I have no problem with it. And I do have many friends who would concur. Though he does not float one idea I have often heard — that her best work of fiction was her first.

But, once again, I have read neither We, the Living, nor Atlas Shrugged. I cannot even stomach a foray into the much shorter Anthem.

This conclusion to Murray’s review seems spot on:

Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.

The “greed is good” theme that progressives revile so much in Rand is, to the extent it is there, of course idiotic. Greed is the excess of acquisitiveness, which is a necessity; despising profit and the profit motive is for witless ninnies. But the excess of a virtue is not virtuous. It is the definition of vice. Even suggesting that greed is good is folly.

But hey: Rand extolled what she called “selfishness” more often than greed. And redefined it, and balled it all up, too, in the process. But give her her due.

So it is good to see an interpretation on the utopian element in Atlas Shrugged interpreted in a way more in line with the moral and political philosophy of Bastiat and Spencer than with what we might think of as Ayn Rand’s.

Whatever she wrote about the subject, I didn’t need her to tell me. I worked out my thoughts on utopianism by reading Nozick, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and many other books, and by confronting economic theory and the realities of history . . . on my own, without one one guide to call “hero” or “master.”

Or Mistress.