Aug 18 2017

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

I was fortunate enough to have something published this week by Real Clear News, of Chicago, under their subdivision of Real Clear Religion.

My piece responds to Rémi Brague’s essay “From What is Left Over” (First Things, August 2017) and its 67 instances of using the word culture.

I point out the modern substitution of the word culture for what used to be called custom to ask: if it is true that the medium is the message, what has been lost by replacing the word custom with culture? Was anything gained by substituting one word for the other?

Read the whole thing here.


Apr 14 2017

Writing Advice from the Anglo-Irish of the 18th Century

Like Swift does, I need to get outside my own point-of-view (and socioeconomic context) and ridicule it with a fictional character. To use writers whom I detest, and use them in a favorable light to make whatever-it-is point I’m making—that is what Walter Kaufmann does!

“It grieved me to the heart when I saw my labours, which had cost me so much thought and watching, bawled about by the common hawkers of Grub Street, which I only intended for the weighty consideration of the gravest persons. This prejudiced the world so much at first, that several of my friends had the assurance to ask me whether I were in jest; to which I only answered coldly, ‘that the event would show’. But it is the talent of our age and nation to turn things of the greatest importance into ridicule.”[1]

“‘Now, therefore, I began to associate with none but disappointed authors, like myself, who praised, deplored, and despised each other. The satisfaction we found in every celebrated writer’s attempts, was inversely as their merits. I found that no genius in another could please me. My unfortunate paradoxes had entirely dried up that source of comfort. I could neither read nor write with satisfaction; for excellence in another was my aversion, and writing was my trade.”[2]

“We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”[3]

Don’t go beyond your doorway, your threshold:

“Every man, as a member of the commonwealth, ought to be content with the possession of his own opinion in private, without perplexing his neighbour or disturbing the public.” [R6] [4]

But if you must go beyond your doorway:

“There are but three ways for a man to revenge himself of a censorious world. To despise it; to return the like; or to endeavour to live so as to avoid it. The first of these is usually pretended; the last is almost impossible; the universal practice is the second.”[29] [5]

A little superstition goes a long way:

“There is a portion of enthusiasm assigned to every nation, which, if it hath not proper objects to work on, will burst out and set all into a flame. If the quiet of a state can be bought by only flinging men a few ceremonies to devour, it is a purchase no wise man would refuse. Let the mastiffs amuse themselves about a sheepskin stuffed with hay, provided it will keep them from worrying the flock.”[6]

A little superstition quells the motives:

“fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”[7]

NOTES

[1] Swift, “Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff” 1709. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 216.

[2] Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, “20. The history of a philosophic vagabond, pursuing novelty, but losing context.”

[3] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. [‘Various Thoughts Moral and Diverting’, in Miscellanies in Prose and Verse, 1711] [1] 181.

[4] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 185.

[5] Swift, Apothegms and Maxims [from Journal to Stella] Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 181.

[6] Swift, “An Argument to Prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, be Attended with some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby.” 1708. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 224.

[7] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714. Jonathan Swift – Major Works. 383.


Feb 24 2017

Homeschool (A Prose Poem)

“What is that, Mom?”

“Oblivion, son, what else?”

“But why is it so obvious to you, but not to me?”

“Because I’m not embarrassed of it like you are, son.”

“I only got embarrassed once I realized I’d been ignoring it.”

“Ignoring it since when?”

“Since I started being me.”

“And what have you stopped being since then?”

“Satisfied.”

Possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.”[1]

NOTES

[1] Anscombe, G. E. M. “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell: Oxford. 1981.  p. 82.

 


Feb 22 2017

What Happens When I Write (a Prose Poem)

Whenever I am believed to be wrong,

I write to feel right.

Who then has the right

To trust what I say

With the words I have used?

Mere muses and abuses–

The lot of ’em.

The muses range from maniacal to melancholic,

The abuses from obsessive to addictive,

And awareness doesn’t really play into the picture.

When I reread what I’ve written,

The reader sees no limit of accusations against the author.

One reads in order that the mind might bend,

But one writes in order that the mind might extend,

Hoping to tangentially touch something somewhat like itself.


Feb 7 2017

There is No Emoji for the Word “Emoji”

Vico writes:

In this study, we shall greatly profit from the antiquity of the Egyptians. For they have preserved two fragments of their history which are no less amazing than the pyramids and which contain two great historical truths. The first is recorded by Herodotus, who says that the Egyptians divided all of the world’s history into three ages: (1) the age of the gods, (2) the age of heroes, and (3) the age of men. The second fragment is reported by Johannes Scheffer in his Pythagorean Philosophy. He says that in these three ages the Egyptians spoke three languages, corresponding to them in number and order: (1) a hieroglyphic language, using sacred characters; (2) a symbolic language, using heroic characters; and (3) an epistolary language, using characters agreed on by the people.

The Third New Science. Penguin: NY. 2000. I, § 1, i, [¶ 52], p. 44. See also I, § 2, xxviii, [¶ 173], p. 86.

Are we not returning to an age of hieroglyphic language?

There is no emoji for the word “emoji.”

There is only the word.

And the word is only a representation of the idea of “emoji,” while emoji are representations of words that are themselves representations of ideas.

An idea represented by a word is once-removed. An emoji is an idea twice-removed.


Dec 15 2016

The Genie, the Jury, & a Lack of Community Service

An essay on some things I’d read recently and from long ago
as well as some recent experiences, and some from long ago.[1]

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If you ring the bell you release the genie. Today it appears to be a genie named Johnson, sometimes called “the POTUS from Podunk,” other times just Lanky Lyndon. And this genie, like all genies, can’t grant wishes if you know not what you want. All genies, no matter their names, are free to roam around in the vast past, but I am jailed here in modernity, which is a fancy way of saying that I know there is a problem all around me but I don’t know what the problem is.

So I rang the bell and summoned Genie Johnson, explained to him how, not so much had I discovered or found the problem at hand so much as reconfirmed its existence. It seems silly to say I was doing nothing but muttering the utterness of the situation to a hard-of-hearing genie, but it is so. Yes, I, a child of the naïve nineties, merely affirmed the apparentness of the problem but without thinking through the implications.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

Even previous good ideas and sound programs and policies require hard decisions that create haves and have-nots—red tape means everyone wants a slice and everyone wants to cover their ass when they don’t get their slice.[2]

I once was an outlaw child, at least when it came to driving, and outlaws tend to end up in court. Yes, I was a child. I was an outlaw. I was my own attorney and made my client keep quiet while I raised objections and offered a sense of objectivity before the judge, a judge who had been a friend to me long before I was ever a child. But with evolution having occurred since then, he now was my moderator. There in the courtroom sat just me and my objectivity, him and his moderation, and a jury of sneering, jeering peers.

 Yes, I pled my case before a jury of my peers, all children and outlaws who had once served time in modernity, but now, as qualified jurors, had put all that behind them. My pleading was ineffectual. Their sentence, therefore, was blunt—an awful asymmetrical prime sentence: apparently I now owed seventeen hours of service to my community for the high crime of a traffic misdemeanor.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

As bureaucracy grows, so does specialization…. The watchword of bureaucracy is authority without responsibility and responsibility without authority….[3] Karl Mannheim, the well-known sociologist, noted many years ago that it was the fundamental tendency of bureaucratic thought to turn all problems of politics into problems of administration.”[4]

The town had named itself Sixes-and-Sevens[5] after its seven flowing springs and its six dry wells. Why anyone chose to live there I never learned, for the water smells like sulfur and tastes like lime. But one terribly bright, fiercely silent Saturday morn I strolled the town plaza looking for a way to carry out my sentence and serve my community. On one side of the plaza stood the firehouse, on its opposite the police headquarters, on a third side sat parked the ambulance fleet, and opposite that, the dog catcher’s kennels, and in the center of it all loomed the courthouse.

First I went to the police who gave me an interceptor to wash and clean from the inside out, and that took about two hours. Next I went to the lobby beside the garage to the ambulance fleet. There I defrosted a freezer and de-fungi-fied a refrigerator meant to feed the triage technicians working standby. That too took about two hours. Then I went to the kennels and helped hold down stray dogs while the catcher put them to sleep, and that took about twenty minutes. Finally I went to the firehouse and for about an hour chamoised the trucks, even though they were already shiny.

 And Lanky Lyndon counseled how in a bureaucracy:

everyone has an excuse…. In other words, the legal code—at least in several areas—is no more than a facade, an aspect of the world of appearances. Then why is it there at all? For exactly the same reason as ideology is there: it provides a bridge of excuses between the system and individuals, making it easier for them to enter the power structure and serve the arbitrary demands of power.”[6]

Cleaning emergency vehicles meant I was helping to serve the servers of the community. It also meant I was re-cleaning things already clean. It was all sanitation versus sterilization. Perhaps there were just too few messy emergencies in the town of Sixes-and-Sevens. It wasn’t like that old Taxi Driver flick where Travis Bickle lists all the different body fluids and their multiple colors to be cleaned out of his big city cab at the end of the night. Sixes-and-Sevens was a small town, not a big city. Still, other government bureaus in town might’ve offered their own forms of community service, but, with too many hours to serve and not enough deputies to watch me do the work, who would supervise? Perhaps the problem emerged because too many others had already completed so much community service that none could be had by me.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

because we are no longer treated as citizens but as clients of the StateI wonder if all institutions mold individuals into clientele? When I was a child, “residents [were] treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….”[7]

Being a child of the naïve nineties, I was slow to realize the town had not enough service for me to render, despite the fact that I had worked slower than normal and exaggerated my inefficiencies and went through the motions to uphold my appearance of serving the community.

And Lanky Lyndon counseled:

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….[8] Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens….[9] To maintain order in your bureaucratic life, you more or less have to stay home; go away for any length of time and you’re always likely to run afoul of some agency or other.[10]

I had worked a little over five hours that Saturday, but when the authorities signed the timesheet they essentially gave me the missing eleven hours plus. It turned out neither my service nor my sentence mattered that much, and I didn’t know if this was just one more consequence of the privilege of being a child of the naïve nineties or the result of mere defiance from inept bureaucrats who had been scheduled, to their surprise, to work on Saturday afternoons? I didn’t know what it meant except that I was now qualified to serve on a jury at some later date.

 NOTES

[1] Things recently read include: “Why Don’t Poor People Move?” By Rod Dreher, December 12, 2016, The American Conservative (http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/why-dont-poor-people-move/); and “Indiana town left with no police force after every single officer resigns in protest.” By Jason Silverstein. December 14, 2016. New York Daily News. (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/indiana-town-no-police-force-quits-protest-article-1.2910801.)

[2] Caro, Robert. The Years of Lyndon Johnson [Vol. I]: The Path to Power. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1981.  p. 350.

[3] Laqueur, Walter. A World of Secrets: the Uses and Limits of Intelligence. NY: Basic Books. 1985. p. 312–13.

[4] Laqueur, A World of Secrets 93.

[5] Sixes and sevens: “the hazard of one’s whole fortune, or carelessness as to the consequences of one’s actions, and in later use the creation or existence of, or neglect to remove, confusion, disorder, or disagreement,” (Oxford English Dictionary).

[6] Havel, Vicláv. “Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless.”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § XVII.

[7] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 168.

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

[9] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters 194.

[10] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 141.


Oct 15 2016

Male Leaders to Never Look Up To

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Male Leaders to Never Look Up To

Over at First Things,  Alexi Sargeant talks about great male role models growing up then complains that Trump doesn’t compare.

Sargeant makes some interesting points, and the whole post, “Making Better Men,” is worth reading,  but its underlying assumptions don’t quite add up. I don’t see what great role models in a child’s day-to-day life have to do with the quality of leadership they receive from the executives its parents elected. Kids watch cartoons on television, not presidents.

I had a good church-participating father and a few adequate male role models but they were neither politicians nor clergy nor bureaucrats nor professional athletes. Nor do I remember my alpha-male peers expressing their admiration or paying dues of gratitude to any of the above classes of professionals. I find it an absolute lie that every day Americans (especially under the age of 18) look to politicians for any sort of guidance, yet the fact that many journalists and academics assume that to be the case is not only perplexing, perhaps in a Maimonidesian sense, but also only further elevates“the worst examples of masculinity” mentioned by Sargeant.


Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories

bookbread Canterbury

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]

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II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.


Sep 7 2016

All Religions, No Religion, And Beyond All That

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RELIGION FOR ALL

As Freddie Nacho once put it:

“All religions are at the lowest bottom systems of cruelties,” [i]

RELIGION FOR NONE

Irish Clive once quipped that:

“Atheism is too easy.”[ii]

BEYOND ALL AND NONE

Suzy Sunday holds:

My own view is that one cannot be religious in general any more than one can speak language in general; at any given moment one speaks French or English of Swahili or Japanese, but not “language.” [iii]

NOTES

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[i] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Toward a Genealogy of Morality, II, iii.

[ii] Lewis, C. S. [Clive Staples]. Mere Christianity. 1944. Macmillan, NY. 1952. pp. 46–48.

[iii] Sontag, Susan. “Piety without content.” 1961. In Against Interpretation: and Other Essays. NY: Delta Books. 1966. p. 253.


Sep 2 2016

Cryptic Ramblings on Rebuilding Community

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“We become so reductive when we pluck examples out of context.”

–Walter Jackson Bate[1]

Who says all post-industrial towns need saving? Is it all darkness on the edge of their city limits, the borders of lamp-forbidden hermit kingdoms, and Springsteen’s Badlands? Are these towns stuck in a new dark age, “betwixt the world destroyed and world restored?”[2] But how could those ages have been dark, full of “dim sadness,”[3] when gold is the only color named in Beowulf?

To revitalize these communities, and their apparent crumbling churches, why not three-dimensionally print new Notre Dames for them? Yet that would only devalue the original cathedral, commodify the creation. Can replicas ever evoke revival?

Agriculture once dominated some of these post-industrial towns. I once asked the Danes for wisdom. They told me Beowulf was not a farmer but a fisherman. (Perhaps he farmed the seas.) Boethius observed that all farmers are wed to Fortune, yoked to Fate, thrown by weather like Beowulf and his shipmates.[4]

Bureaucrat Boethius was “prompted to sing,”[5] while squire Sancho declared: “I can only tell a story the way I learned it in my country,”[6] because “we see not all letters in single words, nor all places in particular discourses.”[7]

The mercenary Beowulf was hired to provoke Grendel and interrupt his trolling,[8] while the martyr Boethius came to disrupt the wicked,[9] so let us moderns “try adventurous work,”[10] and cause mischief upon all that has gone wrong already. Let’s stir the shit (and troll the trolls)—to quake and quicken the stagnant cesspools where the mothers of monsters lurk. All governments are inherently obscure, because that is what they seek, which is why Beowulf and Boethius came to churn the murky waters clear. So should we.[11]

Yet it may not matter for the moderns that the ancients provoked Grendel, for while vagrants are forever among us, monsters have ceased to be news.[12] Yes, Grendel was a kind of vagrant, but all laws against vagrancy accomplish nothing.[13]

Lord Bacon warned of readers who tend to turn authors into dictators,[14] and certainly dictators masquerading as governors are much more dangerous than monsters in the guise of trolls.

NOTES

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[1] The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 130.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, XII, 1–5.

[3] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 23.

[4] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy II, i, prose.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iv, prose.

[6] Cervantes, Don Quixote, I, xx.

[7] Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries.

[8] Beowulf, 99–117.

[9] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, iii, prose.

[10] Milton, Paradise Lost, X, 254–55.

[11] Bacon, Francis. Advancement of Learning, II, xxiii, 47.

[12] More, Utopia, I.

[13] More, Utopia, I.

[14] Bacon, Advancement of Learning, I, iv, 5.