Aug 19 2017

A Soros by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet


A Soros by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

Some people these days say “Soros” but mean “Rothschild,” the way Dostoyevsky did:

Something that is very small for Rothschild is enormous for me, and as to the gain or profit, it is not only at the roulette table that people keep winning and snatching things away from one another….[1]

They must all work like beasts of burden and amass money like Jewish usurers….[2]

“Then, in fifty or maybe seventy years, the grandson of the first Vater last has a really substantial amount of capital to turn over to his son, who turns it over to his, and so on, for five or six generations, when the descendants may be a Baron Rothschild, or Hoppe and Co…”[3]

It was some Jew from Frankfurt; he had remained at my elbow all the time, and I believe had occasionally given me some advice on how to play….[4]

Oh, I never had any pity for those fools, never, nor have I now—I say it with pride! Why isn’t he a Rothschild himself? Whose fault is it that he hasn’t got Rothschild’s millions? ….[5]

Wealth yes, but not on the Rothschild scale; an honourable family, but one never distinguished in any way….[6]

Ganya was annoyed with Ptitsyn because his brother-in-law did not set out to become a Rothschild. [7]

But for “Soros” to mean “Rothschild,” is silly, because, Soros is such a peon, in terms of global reach, a word like “Zuckerberg” would be more appropriate. Yet neither Soros nor Zuckerberg have (yet) an empire whose administration is based on nepotism–unlike Baron Rothschild (and unlike Donald Trump).



[1] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) 1867. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. NY: Bantam Classics. 1964. II, p. 29.

[2] Dostoyevsky, Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) IV, p. 43.

[3] Dostoyevsky, Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) IV, p. 44.

[4] Dostoyevsky, Игрок, Igrok. (The Gambler.) XIV, p. 145.

[5] Dostoyevsky, Идио́т (The Idiot) 1869. UK: Translated by Alan Myers. Oxford World Classics. 1992. III, v, p. 414.

[6] Dostoyevsky, Идио́т (The Idiot) IV, i, p. 487.

[7] Dostoyevsky, Идио́т (The Idiot) IV, i, p. 490.

Aug 18 2017

When Elders from the Past Speak of Present Circumstances

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland

When Elders from the Past Speak of Present Circumstances

From Jacob Burckhardt’s (1818-1897The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860):

Henceforth men looked only to antiquity for the solution of every problem, and consequently allowed literature to turn into mere quotation. Nay, the very fall of civil freedom is partly ascribed to all this, since the new learning rested on obedience to authority, sacrificed municipal rights to Roman law, and thereby both sought and found the favour of the despots.

And as I’ve pointed out before, the nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728-1774) novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled:

“The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of liberties.”


Looks like a good time to reread this #writer #reading #books #freespeech

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Jul 28 2017

“The Emperor has no Clothes,” said the Elephant in the Room

Who dare swears that an elephant may not speak?

Now then, does this quotation from about 1582 AD and its depiction remind you of anyone you may know, or may have read about or seen on television lately? Just asking….

Truely, this Cardinall [Wolsey] did [not] heartily loue Sir Thomas More, yea, he rather fared him then loued him. And albeit he were adorned with many goodly graces and qualities, yet was he of so outragious aspiring, ambitious nature, and so fedd with vaineglory and with the hearing of his owne praise, and by the excesse thereof fallen, as it were, into a certaine pleasant phrenesie, that the enormious fault ouerwhelmed, defaced and destroyed the true commendation of all his good properties. He sore longed and thirsted after the hearing of his owne praise, not onely when he had done some thinges commendable, but euen when he had sometimes done that that was naught in deede…. this vainglorious, scabbed, itching follye to heare his owne prayse…. [1]

Forgive the early-Modern English spelling, but I think most of you get it.

I suppose the aforementioned Cardinal had not read Machiavelli’s chapter on “Flattery,” although one of Machiavelli’s most recent editors has pointed out that of Thomas More and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s colleague :

[In 1513] Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s most hardbitten agents, recommended to him a new Italian book on politics. It may or may not have been [Machiavelli’s] The Prince. Pole, writing ten years later (and in a spirit of bitter hostility to Cromwell, Henry, and the English Reformation) said that it was, and that Cromwell, by reading it, had become an agent of Satan. [2]

Machiavelli, in the chapter on flattery, writes:

I don’t want to omit an important point on which princes find it hard to avoid error unless they are extremely prudent and choose their advisers very wisely. Courts are always full of flatterers; men take such pleasure in their own concerns, and are so easily deceived about them, that this plague of flattery is hard to escape. Besides, in defending against flattery, one runs the further risk of incurring contempt. For there is no way to protect yourself from flattery except by letting men know that you will not be offended at being told the truth. But when anyone can tell you the truth, you will not have much respect. Hence a prudent prince should adopt a third course, bringing wise men into his council and giving them alone free license to speak the truth—and only on those points where the prince asks for it, not on others. [3]

So that he who hears only the truth gains no respect, but does Machiavelli want to give sound advice, or just appear to? For later on he tells the reader that a prince should always take counsel, but only when he wants it, not when other people want to give it. [4]

Yet all of this is advice that Machiavelli wants to give. Or does he? (Yea, I know, I hate the last question.)

Yet Thomas More is to have said:

[Said Sir Thomas] But when he [Cardinal Wolsey] came forth with his part with my Lordes commendacion, the wylie foxe had beene so well accustomed in court with the crafte of flatterie, that he went beyonde me too too farre. And then might I see by him what excellencie a right meane witt may come to in one crafte, that in all his whole life studieth and busieth his witt about no mo but that one. But I made after a solemne vowe vnto my selfe, that if euer he and I were matched together at that borde againe, when we should fall to our flatterie, I would flatter in latine, that he should not contende with me any more; for though I could be content to be outrunne of an horse, yet would I no more abide it to be [out]runne of an asse. [5]

And of course the fox brings us back to Machiavelli:

A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognise traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.[6]



[1] Harpsfield, Nicholas. The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More, Knighte, sometymes Lord high Chancellor of England. 1582(?). Edited by Elsie Vaughan Hitchcock. London: Oxford UP for EETS. 1932. pp. 34–35.

[2] Adams, “Machiavellism: An Outline.” Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica. Translated and Edited by Robert M. Adams. NY: W W Norton. 1977.pp. 227–28.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe. (1513). In Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince: a New Translation, Backgrounds, Interpretations, Peripherica.  “XXIII. How to Avoid Flatterers” p. 67.

[4] Machiavelli 68.

[5] Harpsfield, The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More 36–37.

[6] Machiavelli, Il Principe “XVIII, “In What Way Princes Must Keep Faith” 103.

Jul 27 2017

Joan d’Arc and the Scottish Bookman Andrew Lang

Anything by the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912) is usually a rewarding read. This is because he was so well-read.

Now the other day I was curious to read up on Joan, or rather Jeanne d’Arc (1412–1431), and I had no hesitation picking up Lang’s biography of her entitled The Maid of France (1908). I didn’t flinch because I knew him to be well qualified to write a sound account. I know he knew all about history, languages, rare books, blue China, medieval poetry, most of the world’s mythologies, European fairy lore and even conducted (with sound skepticism) researches into the paranormal.

Andy Lang wrote modern poems parodying Ronsard and translated Homer. He was the kind of person who could tell the difference between a first and second edition of the extremely rare Histoires ou contes du temps passé or Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals or Mother Goose Tales) by Charles Perrault, published in 1697.

But he always considered himself a journalist rather than a scholar, as he admitted in a note to the widow of his sometime rival, the philologist Max Müller:

My own relations with Mr. Max Müller were those of an amateur, or casual inquirer, who ventured, on a single point, to oppose the conclusions of a man eminently learned. We approached the subject, that of the origins of myths, from different quarters, and saw different sides of the shield as in the old apologue….

I am anxious to say is, that Mr. Max Müller always met my criticisms, often petulant in manner, and perhaps often unjust, with a good humour and kindness perhaps unexampled in the controversies of the learned and the half-learned. I shall always remember with pleasure certain occasions when Mr. Max Müller turned my own laugh against myself, with victorious humour and good humour. Our little systems have their day, or their hour: as knowledge advances they pass into the history of the efforts of pioneers. [1]

But as I read through Lang’s book on Miss d’Arc, I kept getting slightly irritated how Lang keeps crowbarring in anecdotal, information concerning Scotland, information often parallel to Joan and events going on in France. On the other hand, I’m new to Joan and her world. I don’t know squat about the Hundred Years War, except that Wikipedia tells me, yes, Scotland and France were often allied against England during the war.

So it does make some sense for a Scotsman like Lang to retell Joan’s tale in the manner that he does. And I haven’t forgotten that Lang often wrote for “the seriously self-educated.”[2] That means Lang wasn’t writing for Oxbridge dons, though many respected his expertise and were his friends, but for the seriously self-educated reading public in late Victorian–early Edwardian Britain. That kind of reading public would probably have known a thing or two about the war beforehand, and might well have appreciated Lang’s anecdotal gestures.

Yet I really don’t feel I learned very much, except about Lang’s adoration for Joan as well as most things Scottish. The book did have some jewels:

The mournful truth is that the historian has a much better chance of being read if he gives free play to his fancy than if he is strictly accurate. But to add the figments of fancy to the facts on record, to cite documents as if they were warrants for the statements which they do not support, is to wander from history into the enchanted forest of romance.[3]

Lang never plays with the facts as he warns here, but his fancy for Joan (and Scotland) sometimes distracts him from telling a plain story with the facts clearly presented, even if the fancy is interesting in itself to some readers:

How did Jeanne overcome the scepticism of Baudricourt so far that he ended by allowing her to have an escort? To answer this question entails what Sir Walter Scott calls “a boring attempt to see further into a millstone than the nature of the millstone permits,” —a process which Sir Walter, as an historian, thought highly undesirable…. [4]

Jeanne endured the irons, the chains, the hideous company of the merry men, because she refused to be on parole not to attempt an escape. This is one more example of her matchless courage and resolution. For five months she bore things intolerable rather than give her faith to any man, rather than abandon the chance of resuming her task. Great in everything as she was, we here see her at her greatest. [5]

I’m glad I read Lang’s The Maid of France, but nonetheless remain surprisingly underwhelmed.



[1] Müller, Max. The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller. Edited by his wife. Vol. II. London: Longmans. 1902. pp. 428–29.

[2] As Elanor de Selms Langstaff writes in her biography: “Lang did not write for the newly literate, but, good Scotsman that he was, speak he did to the most serious of the self-educated,” (Andrew Lang. Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co. 1978. p. 14).

The distinction between scholars and journalists was emphasized by Walter Kaufmann in his The Future of the Humanities (1977):

The journalistic orientation poses an immense threat to the future of the humanities. Some old-fashioned humanists felt that whatever was not worth reading ten times was not worth reading at all. They concentrated on books that had survived for centuries, and they ignored what seemed ephemeral—often even science, because it kept changing. The predilection of journalistic teachers for what is “news” and their concern with the latest fads endangers the conservation of the greatest works of the human spirit. (NY: Reader’s Digest Press. p. 21)

Kaufmann suggests studying George B. Shaw’s distinction:

The Newspaper Man, a cheerful, affable young man who is disabled for ordinary business pursuits by a congenital erroneousness which renders him incapable of describing accurately anything he sees, or understanding or reporting accurately anything he hears. As the only employment in which these defects do not matter is journalism (for a newspaper, not having to act on its description and reports, but only to sell them to idly curious people, has nothing but honor to lose by inaccuracy and unveracity), he has perforce become a journalist, and has to keep up an air of high spirits through a daily struggle with his own illiteracy and the precariousness of his employment. He has a note-book, and occasionally attempts to make a note; but as he cannot write shorthand, and does not write with ease in any hand, he generally gives it up as a bad job before he succeeds in finishing a sentence. (The Doctor’s Dilemma. 1906. NY: Brentano’s. 1909. IV, p. 92)

[3] Lang, Andrew. The Maid of France. London: Longman’s. 1908. pp. 14–15.

[4] Lang 73.

[5] Lang 252–53.

Jul 21 2017

I’d Rather Have Role Models Than Leaders

portico in Bologna, Italia

At the moment our democracy is in disarray, at least according to the Apocalypse of Saint Snowden. As recent writers have shown, what once constituted the legalities of Leviathan has now mutated into the bureaucracies of Behemoth (a.k.a. Big Brother’s Deep State), a beast set to steal all sorts of liberties from citizens:

Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens…. The well-functioning administration (local, state, and federal) liberates them [its citizen-clients] from mutual dependence and thereby robs them of township freedom….[1]

The neighborhood will come; for here, residents are treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….[2]

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as “customers rather than citizens….[3]

The mind of Technological Man cannot resist his heart’s desires, because he has been trained by his culture not to question them. Technological Man comes to believe that the limits on what he can do to nature lie primarily in his capacity to subdue it to his will. The Christian must rebel against this. [4]

We are not hermits who happened to have bumped into each other amid our individual isolations. No, we remain a community, and a community must embrace some minimum dependency upon a guide.[5] Yes, much as I hate to admit it, leadership remains a “necessary evil” for human society. Winning teams don’t coach themselves. Yet I’m not infatuated with leadership per se. I’m not interested in being a dog who wants only to lick the palm of its master. There are some who seek to lead, and there are some who need to always be in need––a need usually satisfied by following a leader. But neither role works for me.

Instead, I usually feel things like: I need to be led, but I don’t want to be led, and I believe such confused feelings come about by mistaking the term “leadership” for the term “role model.” For every leader may be a role model, though not every role model is a leader. Perhaps every leader is a potential role model but not vice versa.

There is a lack of dependency, or a sharp difference in degrees of dependency, between an individual’s (as well as a community’s) need for a role model and that individual’s (and that community’s) need for leadership.

When it comes to writers, I look for role models, contemporary ones like Rod Dreher and Alan Jacobs, as well as prior ones like Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley.[6] But as a reader trying to become a writer, I don’t look for “leadership” from other writers. I don’t want to be collared or muzzled or leashed or (God forbid) crated by penmen and typewomen while they go on vacation.

I imagine my writerly role models reading my work, and such imagining seems to skirt into the cult of celebrity and its transcendental experience of being “star struck” when in the presence of one of these highly regarded role models. But that kind of seizure of nerves leads only to obsession, addiction, and idolatry. For obsession, addiction, and idolatry are structured around mistaking things as needful that aren’t actually necessary. To be in need is to expose and confess one’s dependency, and the concept of dependency returns us to the question of (and need for) leadership. ’Tis a vicious cycle.

Coaches like to tell the team: “never be satisfied.” But if we follow the coach’s lead and logic too closely, soon enough we will not be satisfied with the coach’s leadership. In order for her to remain the leader, we must not follow what she says too literally, too absolutely. In other words, we must not let a leader lead us too far, that is, if we desire to attain the things we are being led toward.

But such a path of independent thinking has its own obstacles. Once we have pushed the leadership of the coach aside, and approach the void of choice ourselves, there nonetheless remains an apparent need not to trust ourselves too much––at least if we wish to remain consistent. Because if we don’t trust the leadership of others, why should we bother trusting any leadership from ourselves? None are without sin, all are fallible, and Acton’s dictum remains ever-true.[7]

Even stranger is the behavioral pattern where, once the game has ended, a coach comes quite close to disavowing her leadership. Once the results are in, a coach never says to the team: “I lost the game” or “I won the game,” but something like: “we lost” or “we won” or, sometimes, “you lost.” When coaches reflect on their results, they detach themselves from their team’s dependency on the very leadership those coaches provide.

As Boethius proclaimed from his prison: “A free mind cannot be commanded.”[8] Who here is interested in propagating “a rhetoric of pure authority?” [9] Not me. Freedom in shackles is what Southern slaveowners told their slaves they had. As sociologist George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) wrote in November 1857:

It is the duty of society to protect all its members, and it can only do so by subjecting each to that degree of government constraint or slavery, which will best advance the good of each and of the whole…. To protect the weak, we must first enslave them.[10]

So I am understandably wary when Rod Dreher stresses a contemporary need for leadership, which might mean actively seeking a leader (perhaps as the Hebrews did for King Saul):

During Benedict’s three years in the cave, a monk named Romanus, from a nearby monastery, brought him food. By the time Benedict emerged from the cave, he had a reputation for sanctity and was invited by a monastic community to be their abbot. Eventually Benedict founded twelve monasteries of his own in the region. His twin sister, Scholastica, followed in his footsteps, beginning her own community of nuns. To guide the monks and nuns in the living simple, orderly lives consecrated to Christ, Benedict wrote a slim book, now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict…. [11]

As we await a new Saint Benedict to appear in our quite different time and place and teach us how to reweave the tapestry of our Christian lives…. [12] not for the second coming of Ronald Reagan or for a would-be political savior, but for a new—and quite different—Saint Benedict…. [13]

If we are the abbot and abbess of our domestic monastery, we will see to it that our family’s life is structured in such a way as to make the mission of knowing and serving God clear to all its members. That means maintaining regular times of family prayer. That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of saints—Christian heroes and heroines from ages past. “Christian kids need Christian heroes,” says Marco Sermarini, a lay Catholic community leader in Italy. “They need to know that following Jesus radically is not an impossible dream.” [14]

Clearly Sermarini is a “community leader” stressing the need for role models, but concerning Dreher’s other comments I’m not so sure such a distinction is made––particularly the way he pairs a secular politician with a saintly monk—it sounds like the seeking of leadership by those who need to be in need of leadership.

But perhaps Dreher is thinking more along the lines of role models instead of leaders. Take this passage:

The politics of the Benedict Option assume that the disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul. Benedict Option politics start with the proposition that the most important political work of our time is the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God—the same telos as life in the monastic community. Everything else follows naturally from that. [15]

That doesn’t sound like the Benedict Option is a proposal for its followers to start looking for leaders, but rather a call to turn inward and let their eyes lead them toward some worthy role models. In this context, it is somewhat ironic to observe that Nietzsche too sought high quality role models for how to live, but he didn’t suggest they should lead us via the typical tactics of leaders (lies, threats, and coercion):

Thus another point of Nietzsche’s early philosophy is re-enforced: namely, the view of nature as purposive but inefficient…. [16]

The place Nietzsche would assign to natural selection deserves special mention. He grants that natural selection takes place, but he denies that it operates for “progress.” Mediocrity seems more apt to survive than “the single higher specimens”––“that which is more unusual, more powerful, more complicated.” Hence natural selection will not generate bigger and better philosophers, artists, or saints, but only bigger and better brutes…. [17]

Empirical facts do not seem to him to warrant the belief that history is a story of progress, that ever greater values are developed, and that whatever is later in the evolutionary scale is also eo ipso more valuable. “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens.” Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy of history and theory of values—no less than the clue to his “aristocratic” ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.[18]



[1] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 194, 199.

[2] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters 168.

[3] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy.” Why Place Matters 214.

[4] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 234.

[5] Even when we don’t realize it, we depend on others. Yet to be dependent is to be limited, and to be limited is to be unfree. (I use “dependence” in Schleiermacher’s sense.) As the aristocrat Consul Buddenbrook warns his daughter before she decides to marry someone beneath her class, no human is isolated in his or her individuality:

I would like you to recall, however, something that I have impressed upon you often enough in conversation, and which the present occasion allows me to repeat in writing. For, although the words we speak are more vivid and immediate, the written word has the advantage of having been chosen with great care and is fixed in a form that its author has weighed and considered, so that it may be read again and again to cumulative effect. We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition. (Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks, 1922. Translated by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.)

[6] There are also things like counter-role models. I once worked for a veterinarian who put it this way: “You can always learn something from anybody, even if it’s what not to do.” To observe someone and learn what not to do would be an example of them serving as a counter-role model. MTV’s Jackass was a television show starring lots of counter-role models because they did lots of things their audience would not do, and were warned in a legal disclaimer not to.

[7] As Walter Jackson Bate put it:

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….” (The Burden of the Past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 56)

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. NY: Oxford UP. 1956. p. 155.)

[8] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008. II, vi, prose, p. 50.

[9] Jacobs, Alan. “When Character No Longer Counts.” National Affairs. No. 32 (Spring 2017.)

[10] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857. pp. 450, 454.

[11] Dreher 14–15.

[12] Dreher 47.

[13] Dreher 91.

[14] Dreher 125.

[15] Dreher 96.

[16] Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1950. Revised Fourth Edition. 1974. p. 235.

[17] Kaufmann 174.

[18] Kaufmann 149.

Jul 17 2017

Working With Wilder: Reflections on Mark Athitakis and “The New Midwest”


It is evident after reading The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2017) that Mark Athitakis has read a lot more books on the Midwest than I think I’ll ever be able to get around to, so I am somewhat hesitant to comment or critique his book too much. But when it comes to the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder I think I can offer some constructive reflection linking both authors.

The Little House books are some of the earliest books I remember my mother reading to me and my siblings in the mid-1980s. So I found it a little strange to encounter Athitakis’ confession that he was “conditioned to think” of the books as “written for girls,” (p. 37).

Yes, the characters of Laura, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Nellie are all girls, but I never felt the books were “girly” or “sissy” or what have you. But on the other hand, I get what Athitakis is getting at. I wasn’t quoting passages from the books and the television show in the locker-room after football practice.

I’m pretty sure that, even in “the late 1970s and early 1980s,” when he was growing up, Mr. Athitakis doesn’t mean he was conformed to believe all fiction written by women was therefore written for women. I don’t think he was taught that in school, nor do I interpret him as saying that he did. But, what is an interesting question, is whether he (and I and others of our generation) grew up assuming that when fiction prior to the 21st century contains females as its principle characters, did (and do) we initially assume such fiction was written more for women than for men?

Upon some reflection, the question doesn’t pan out. Think about it. I’ve never heard of a male reader characterize Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) as a “girly” book, nor have I ever heard of girls complaining that Rowling’s Harry Potter series were too “manly” to be read. My mother’s favorite book by Wilder is Farmer Boy (1933), which is a retelling of the boyhood of Wilder’s husband Almonzo Wilder. Perhaps gender is pretty arbitrary.

But what about when the author, particularly for a children’s book, is a woman and the principle character happens to be a girl? Are there examples in this context that have traditionally not been considered too feminine for male readers from the last 300 years?

On this issue I must confess I’ve never been impulsively tempted to read Little Women (1868) (or Little Men for that matter). Super-reader Andrew Lang once confessed in Adventures Among Books (1910) of his childhood love for Brönte’s Jane Eyre (p.10). And, if we accept the experts general agreement that fairy-tales were originally and principally told by women to children, then one can say Charles Dickens’ confession of his desire to marry Red Riding Hood counts as an answer in the affirmative to the proposed question above (see “A Christmas Tree” (1859)).

The Midwest: a dream by David Lynch #bookshelf #books #Literature #midwest #twinpeaks

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Athitakis’ comments (pp. 37-38) on the plotlessness of Wilder’s first book Little House in the Big Woods (1932) is an important observation. As Laura Wilder said later in life:

For years I had thought that the stories my father once told me should be passed on to other children. I felt they were much too good to be lost.

And so I wrote Little House in the Big Woods.

That book was a labor of love and is really a memorial to my father. A line drawing of an old tin type of father and mother is the first illustration.

“My Work.” A Little House Sampler. By Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. Edited by William Anderson. Lincoln, NE. 1988. NY: Harper Collins. 1995.  176–77.

But one should compare and contrast the sixth book in the Little House series The Long Winter (1940), whose narrative is strongly plot-driven–yet also full of psychological stress and spiritual strength to endure a fierce series of blizzards in the winter of 1880-81, strangely not unlike Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), although it takes place not in the Midwest but in Colorado, and Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002), a novel of the Northwest but one that starts out in Midwest Missouri.

Jul 14 2017

A Future Without Sports

writing is its own sport

Or, The Current Absence of Reference to Sports
When Debating the Future of Our Country

I recall:

But it is the frequent error of those men (otherwise very commendable for their labours) to make excursions beyond their talent and their office, by pretending to point out the beauties and the faults; which is no part of their trade, which they always fail in, which the world never expected from them, nor gave them any thanks for endeavouring at.

––Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)[1]

Nonetheless, I read (and reread) two books and one article:

These two books, both alike in dignity, in fair view of what this reader has seen, deserve the following analysis:

  • Dreher writes to his own generation and, it seems, his elders.
  • Coates writes to his own generation as well as to his son, and, it seems, his son’s generation.
  • Dreher is adamantly orthodox in his Christianity.
  • Coates is adamantly atheist.
  • Dreher believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the body of Christ (i.e. the Church).
  • Coates believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the bodies of its citizens who happen to be designated “black,” (i.e. their literal, physical bodies).

Because I overdosed on sports as a child, and remain in rehab as an adult, perhaps I have “a strange Effect of narrow principles and short views,”[2]–for after reading these two authors it occurred to me that their books contain very little about sports other than:

  • Dreher’s book does contain a hunting episode, told more elaborately in his previous book).
  • Coates’ book does contain one reference to an athlete, Jackie Robinson.

So one can naturally conclude:

  • In the mind of Coates, sports will not protect the physical bodies of black Americans from discrimination.
  • In the mind of Dreher, sports will not protect the body of Christ in America from discrimination.

When they see the world around them and render their particular points of view into words, sports speak neither to Dreher nor to Coates as either a cultural affirmation that the authors can participate in, or have their kids participate in, or merely to watch as entertainment. Sports are not a part of the cultural assessments of these books. They are not relevant to the points Coates and Dreher want to make.

“Fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”

––Jonathan Swift[3]



[1] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. “An Apology For the Book.”

[2] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. II, vii.

[3] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714.

Jul 5 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III)

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Unlike his previous two books, which were coming of age, bildungsroman narratives, after reading Rod Dreher’s latest work The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017) I find that it falls under that vast genre of books (both fiction and non) that try to apprehend the spirit of the times in which they are written, those books that try to explain the zeitgeist. I mean books like:

(Forgive me for giving only white male examples; these were the ones that spontaneously popped into my head; everyone from everywhere has written about the zeitgeist.)

These books try to understand and articulate the moments in which they were written. If they contain predictions about the future (and almost all of them do), those predictions are only modest side-effects stemming from the cause for which they are written. Prophets speak of the future, but these books speak of the present, though they find things to revere from the past.

Such [as] are greedy of fame [,] as think it not foolhardy to attempt the works of Bacon, of Shakespeare, of Newton must devote themselves to the diligent study of the Spirit of the age in which they live.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson[i]

See also “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

[i] Journals and miscellaneous notebooks. Vol. II: 1822–1826. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1960–82. July 8, 1824, p. 255.

Jul 1 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II)

After a careful first reading of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (2017), I find its central thesis to be found on page 83:

The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity–and when is it corrupting to be complicit?

Or as Miss Anscombe once put it:

It is indeed one of the troubles about government, that it is difficult to specify the ‘things that are Caesar’s.’[1]

This is the same question that confronts Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1966). Its historical inaccuracies aside, it develops the question of whether the King or the Church would rule England.

It is the same question the butler Stephens refuses to face in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989) with regard to whether his employer was a Nazi sympathizer and if Stephens “did his duty” by never questioning his employer’s requests.

And what is the answer to Dreher’s and Anscombe’s and Bolt’s and Ishiguro’s dilemma? I suggested last time that it might involve Emersonian compensation. But now C. S. Peirce is nagging me, and I’m afraid he re-articulates the whole problem when he says:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[2]

See also: “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III).”


Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I).”



[1] “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell: Oxford. 1981. p. 132.

[2] “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly. No. 12. (November, 1877.) 1-15.

Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)


So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)


[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”