Apr 27 2017

Jonathan Swift and the Benedict Option

Some scattered thoughts:

I don’t know whether Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) would’ve endorsed Rod Dreher’s proposals (which I have yet to read in book form), but one of Swift’s quips seems relevant:

Lastly, ’tis proposed as a singular advantage that the abolishing of Christianity will very much contribute to the uniting of Protestants. [1]

It’s a kind of backhanded, reverse-psychology, move–Swift seems to say the best way to build disciples is to discipline them.  For as Swift observes:

There is one darling inclination of mankind which usually affects to be a retainer to religion, though she be neither its parent, its godmother, nor its friend. I mean the spirit of opposition, that lived long before Christianity, and can easily subsist without it. [2]

Swift might’ve agreed with Dreher that Moral Therapeutic Deism is milquetoast Christianity:

The two principal qualifications  of a fanatic preacher are his inward light, and his head full of maggots; and the two different fates of his writings are to be burnt, or worm-eaten.[3]


Why should any clergyman of our church be angry to see the follies of fanaticism and superstition exposed, through in the most ridiculous manner; since that is perhaps the most probable way to cure them, or at least to hinder them from farther spreading? [4]

Dreher’s diagnosis on his blog (and most likely in his latest book) seems to agree with Swift’s character of Gulliver who confesses to readers amid his travels that: “I was chiefly disgusted with modern History.” [5]

I too am disgusted with modern History when I see things like this on my morning commute:


Death of art = life of Vandals #streetart #grafitti #ATX #UT

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Dreher’s book The Benedict Option is a remedy for this diagnosis of disgust; it seeks, to harmonize the community, something (I think) Swift yearned for:

And I think the reason is easy to be assigned, for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning.  This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will by a secret necessary sympathy strike exactly at the same time. [6]

Recall that Nietzsche’s hammer was but a tuning fork.[7]


[1] 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.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Sect. I.

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

[5] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. III, viii.

[6] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. Sect. IX.

[7] Kaufmann, Walter. Discovering the Mind Vol. IINietzsche, Heidegger, Buber. NY: McGraw Hill. 1981.  153–54.

Dec 28 2016

The City Toad and the Country Toad

A Conversation Concerning Some Things I’ve Read & Reread in 2016.

Odious toadies are
All we, rolling in dust,
Licking ants red as rust.

Recently I  read the following:

I then compared the ideas gained by reading these things to other things read awhile back (listed in the footnotes) and the conversation between two toads is the below result:

Moses: It’s strange a book should poison me into believing the corruption of my prior innocence is what has lately made me more…. civil.[1]

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Me: Moses.

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Mr. Hughes. Mr. Moses Hughes, brother of Nimrod. We are the Brothers Hughes who chartered the city of Healthy Rapids out in the west Texas country, just off Quicksilver Creek. [2]

 Mercury: I’m sure the rapids of that creek were once healthy, but now that you’ve built a city along its banks, I wonder if the running waters are still so salubrious? No, I bet not, because it’s to the country where you must go for fresh air and clean water. As is written: for the lost who are weary of the maze of the city, the countryside offers sanctuary.

 Moses: Well, I don’t agree. I say the city is amazing, and it’s in the country where one gets lost in the woods. As is written: where one remains stationary, one stagnates.

Mercury: Yes, but wildflowers may grow out of doors––

Moses: ––But in a drought they stay stunted! Meanwhile, flora planted inside a greenhouse burst and blossom all winter long.[3] Yes, I’m afraid innocence is corrupted by experience––

Mercury: ––Ha! That is no secret! Hence innocence preserves itself by evading the dangers of the city, by retreating to the balmy countryside, where everything’s quite cozy and carefree.

Moses: Yes, certain pleasures attend us upon the absence of particular pains, and yes, their attendance may sometimes occur in the country, but the innocence you describe remains inert, cold and motionless as a marble obelisk. Yes, it’s easy to be carefree in a country cemetery among the obelisks. Perhaps the grass is always greener over there. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling among its urns.

Mercury: You may mock me, Mr. Hughes, but when in the city, whether in the street or on the sidewalk, you may get run over,[4] for as it is written:  the word on the street is the language of the city. [5] The city speaks to you and about you, yet you cannot speak back. You are too lost in its maze, too busy questing for better paths between pylons and shopping carts.

Moses: In the city I walk beside my friends, and they talk to me. But I confess that, later when I’m home alone, I realize I’m only “me” to others, not to myself. I am only me to them when I’m not around them. (Furthermore, this means that since I’m always around me, I can never be me to me.) In the city I’m around my friends, but when I go to the country, they miss me. Yet it’s the being missed that makes me me,[6] just as the white spaces of the Constitution make just as much a part of the Law as the black marks on the animal hides which constitute it. One seems to hide the other, and yet they both reveal everything.

Mercury: In other words, it comes down to either our presence in the census, or our absence.


[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Ch. XI. Compare also: “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us,” (Ch. II).

[2] Moses Hughes (1819–1903) is buried at Pleasant View Cemetery, Troy, Bell County, Texas; his brother, Nimrod Hughes (1830–1862) at Cook Cemetery, Lampasas, Texas. See also: Elzner, Jonnie Ross. Relighting Lamplights of Lampasas County Texas. 1974. pp. 18–22; Lampasas County Texas: its History and its People. Vol I. eds. Lampasas County Historical Commission. Walsworth Publishing Company: Marceline, MO. 1991. pp. 1–2, 217–18; O’Neal, Bill. Lampasas: 1855–1895: Biography of a Frontier Texas Town. Waco, TX: Eakin Press. 2012. pp. 1–13.

[3] From The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate. (Ch. XIX)

Compare also Wilde’s use of “uncivilized” above to Mark Twain’s usage of “sivilized” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Ch. I, VI, XLIII.

[4] Gary Toth has pointed out how modern American streets constitute one-third of a city’s geography space; furthermore, streets are now exclusively for vehicles when they used to also be play areas, much more public than they are now. See: Toth’s “Place-Conscious Transportation Policy.” Why Place Matters. (eds.) Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 55.

[5] See Wittgenstein:

“Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (8) consist only of orders.  If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language.  (And how many houses or streets doe sit take before a town begins to be a town?)  Our language may be seen as an ancient city:  a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions form various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” (Philosophical Investigations, I, #18)

“Language is a labyrinth of paths.  You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” (ibid I, #203)

[6] Based on three quotations:

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” (Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children “I “The Perforated Sheet”).

I don’t know what doesn’t change—within me….” (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. (1932. Untitled, XV, 827.) [p. 354]).

I am I, and wish I wasn’t.” (Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006.) Ch. IV, p. 64.

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]


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.


[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.

Nov 15 2016

George Steiner and Rod Dreher


Today, at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher finishes off a long item noting:

This is a time and this is a place in which we do not need politicians and pundits, but rather poets, priests, and prophets. We need those who can read the signs of the times, and reveal to us the phoenixes rising from the corpses of swans and the source of life and renewal beyond the leaf-choked fountains.

Along these lines was George Steiner, who over twenty years ago plead:

What we need (I have argued this elsewhere) are not ‘programs in the humanities,’ ‘schools of creative writing,’ ‘programs in creative criticism’ (mirabile dictu [a wonderful tale], these exist). What we need are places, i.e., a table with some chairs around it, in which we can learn again how to read, how to read together… We need ‘houses of and for reading….’ Servants to the text…[i]



[i] “ ‘Critic’/ ‘Reader’.” New Literary History. Vol. 10. No. 3. (Spring 1979.) 423–52 at 452 also in George Steiner: a Reader. (1987).


Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

bookbread Canterbury

The eighth-century monk Bede charitably advises “good luck” to his readers,[1]  and twentieth-century bard Bruce sings that tramps are born to run: some sprinters, others marathon runners, but in all ages, the writer is a tramp who begs readers for charity. Yet what, exactly, is a charitable reader? How do readers convey caritas? And how do they express their gratitude toward writers who help them? Do readers feel in debt to such writers? Do they owe them something? Is this what Rod Dreher felt when he wrote How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015)? Is this what I do when I blog about Dreher’s work? Is that how Dante felt about Boethius’s Consolation (523 AD)?—and Boethius had felt about Plato?

How, for example, did someone like Martin Buber want to be read? And how did he read Torah and Talmud? It is an exaggeration, though only a slight one, to say that Buber begged for Jewish readers but received only Christian charity. Buber’s translator Walter Kaufmann once complained that Buber indulged in much unnecessary wordplay,[2] but do we not play and joke (most frivolously, most unnecessarily) with our intimates rather than strangers?

My collective answer to these questions is that the mind of the active reader renders an alternative present time to encounter an imitative presence of the writer.[3]

When I read Buber, a self-described philosophic anthropologist, I understand him (I think) because he was a writer who tried engaging in an I–You mode of discourse with his potential readers. It is all quite mundane and requiring nothing supernatural to understand a text as, to a certain extent, imitating the writer who wrote it—that it contains the spirit of the writer. For even an adamant atheist like Gregory Bateson (a scientific anthropologist) could admit that his thoughts would exist after death:

When you’re dead you’re dead, living on only in the sense that your molecules recycle to the maintenance of the biosphere and your ideas recycle to the maintenance of evolution. The supernatural and miracles, [Bateson] liked to say, “are a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.”[4]

Now Kafka was a writer who never begged a reader for anything. One can say that in his works he essentially communicated in an I–I mode of discourse. Nonetheless, he remains insightful, as when his character of Raban discusses the frame of mind of the reader:

Books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.[5]

Compare Emerson:

A page which is tedious to me today, tomorrow becomes precious because I read in a book that it is precious to another man… You do not doubt that the same book, the same history yields different light to a boy & to a man. Last year you were a boy[;] now you are a man. Again; today you are a boy, & next year you shall be a man.[6]

Chosen by fortune, thrown by fate, the elect reader of Kafka and Emerson passes through with ease while the others left behind—the unchosen, illiterate Egyptians in pursuit of escaped slaves––are to be engulfed in the oceania of biblioteca, falling off the cliffs of Parnassus, to be, in Bateson’s terminology, “recycled.”

I have written more than I planned, though not more than I wished.

­­––Alcuin of York (735–804 AD)[7]



[1] Bede, Venerabilis. “Table of Contents for Books II and V” Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.) Translated by Roger Collins. Edited by Collins and Judith McClure. NY: Oxford UP. 1994. p. 64.

[2] Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) By Martin Buber. 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. p. 19.

[3] For Buber:

What is essential is lived in the present, [dead] objects in the past…. Presence is not what is evanescent [vaporous] and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence….(Ich und Du, I § 17)

Creation is the origin, redemption is the goal; but revelation is not a datable, determinate point poised between them. The center is not the revelation at Sinai but the continual possibility of receiving it. That is why a psalm or a prophecy is not less “Torah,” teaching, than is the story of the exodus from Egypt. (“People Today and the Jewish Bible: from a Lecture Series.” Die Schrift und das Wort. (Scripture and Translation.) By Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosewald with Everett Fox. Indiana UP: Indianapolis, IN. 1994. p. 8)

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[5] Kafka, Franz. “Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande.” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. 74–75.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. V. 1835–1838. Edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1965. Belknap Press, Harvard UP. November 24, 1837, Journal C, p. 435 and December 3, 1837, p. 440.

[7] Alcuin of York, “Letter 126,” Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters. Edited and Translated by Stephen Allott. York, England: William Sessions Limited. 1974. p. 133.

Jul 21 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos


Just yesterday in trendy-all-too-trendy Austin, Texas lived and labored the world’s greatest tattoo artist: Homer Milton. He was as blind as the bats reverse-perched under the downtown bridge, but his work was known throughout the world, even among Japan’s Yakuza.

One day Milton could hear cane taps and paw patter outside the store door. A client entered the tattoo parlor covered from top to toe in ink and design. In one hand was a retractable cane; the other, the leash to a docile Rottweiler. His name was Dick McKeon and he was as blind as the mice in Longhorn Cavern. He was a white man who no longer looked white because of the overlap and intricacies and intersections of symbols, numbers, icons, and forms sprawled over his skin. It was as though he were permanently clothed in every tattoo conceivable, where the diversity of one only dithered another.

McKeon: Sir, today I wish to inquire about acquiring a new tattoo. Something to remind me of the joy of good old days.

Milton: I remember someone reading to me a long time ago that the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[1]

McKeon: Right, I want a tattoo that will remind me of the common joy created when cheering for local sports teams––cheering for victory!

Milton: You remind me of when and why I quit baseball as a child. It wasn’t because of the winning or the losing or the cheating or the bruising. It was because of everyone else’s parents, the mob rule of the crowd. I remember I quit baseball because I’d rather have gone fishing and taken a dip in the river than deal with the rabble.

McKeon: Well, it sounds like you tried to escape both the conformity of childhood teamwork as well as the herd mentality of the helicopter parents of your fellow players.

Milton. I tried to escape, but successfully failed. For, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” [2]

McKeon: I’m impressed with your quotation but regret its lack of trendiness. You should be reading newer works that express the old ideas. Like the other day I was listening to this book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013). Ruthie’s friends would go to the river to escape from small-town parentage:

During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them.[3]

The river at Starhill was (and probably still is) a place to congregate, a place of sociological sifting of wheat from chaff.

Milton: I know what you mean. As Americans we know this scene inside and out. It’s well portrayed in films like American Graffiti (1973) and Austin’s own Dazed and Confused (1993). We know it not because it’s cliché but because it’s so essential to our own understanding of ourselves within our own culture.

McKeon: While Ruthie’s friends tried to temporarily escape from their parents, her brother Rod tried to permanently escape the entire town:

The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.[4]

Milton: Yeah, but every army needs a system of rank and can’t survive without one. But you’re right. Rod tried, but we suffer no escape. None for me with baseball back then. None for Rod or Ruthie or her friends. None even for small town folks of last century. They could not escape the in-group/out-group resentment inherent to our anthropology. Take for instance the psychology of a small southern town found in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940):

The place was still now crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everybody a feeling of estrangement…. They shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.[5]

McKeon: So whether at a river or in a café, we sell ourselves this idea that our collective feeling of shared estrangement within our communities is a new, unique twenty-first century problem. We say all the billions of people for millions of years have been inescapably trapped in history, but we in century twenty-one are exceptional because we are aware of, and attentive to, the trap itself.

Milton: But it’s unique to no one but us. Everyone from the past would find no difference between now and then.

McKeon: But difference is the key to it all.

Milton: How so?

McKeon: Well, take Dreher’s sequel to Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Live (2015), where he talks about in the world of––indeed, the anthropology of––his small Louisiana town of Starhill, a place where anything different made for a severe taboo:

As I reported the book [Little Way], I learned from questioning my sister’s friends, her husband, and my parents more about why Ruthie held me in such disdain. It had to do with my moving away to the city; Mike said that she always felt that I belonged in Starhill, and that she took my leaving as a personal rejection. It had to do with my having tastes and beliefs she didn’t understand; for Ruthie, as for Daddy, “different” was a bad word. It had to do with her believing that I was getting away with something, being paid to write for a living instead of doing honest work. And it had to do with, well, me; even her best friend, Abby, said that she couldn’t fathom why Ruthie’s patience with everyone else was endless, but she could barely tolerate me for a moment….

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest….

A thick iron gate slammed shut within me, and from behind it I regarded my father with cold contempt. He had struck me where he could do the most damage: my sense of manhood. I followed him and my sister out of the field, my face on fire, this time not with shame but with wrath. And from that moment on, I saw him not as my champion. I saw him as my adversary. [6]

Milton: You should compare Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound (2008) whose story is set in the same Mississippi delta region as Dreher, but about 100 years prior. In Mudbound “lend” is a taboo four-letter word.[7]

McKeon: It’s because difference is a debt owed to the community. For community equals conformity and both make up a system of checks and balances that is intolerant toward debt.

Milton: And difference is the key. The atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson once explained why all information, including cultural information, is binary. Bateson holds that facts—in any context––are but “effective differences,” and “information consists of differences that make a difference.” The human mind “is an aggregate of interacting parts or components,” and the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time.”[8]

McKeon: A––“nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in time or space”––and you say the guy was an atheist?

Thus the blind tattooed the blind—both knowing exactly what they wanted—both of whose origins and orientations toward the world were completely incompatible in comparison to the other.



[1] Buber, Martin. Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Ch. VIII – The Village.”

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 28.

[4] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 19.

[5] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Modern Library. 1993. I, ii, p. 36; II, vii, p. 238.

[6] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 26, 32, 11.

[7] Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC. 2008. p. 117.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. pp. 61, 81, 92, 99. Cf. Plato, Republic 521c–523b, 524e, 525a–526d.

Oct 7 2015

Communities Who Bring about Suffering & Loss Will Bear Suffering & Loss

bookbread typewriterSome new notes from Rod Dreher:

Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time.

This may well be true, but it seems to skirt around the possibility that plenty of late 20 and early 21st century Americans were born into religious communities, bore witness to suffering and loss, and endured their own sufferings and losses brought on by that very community, and are now no longer interested in living in or perpetuating that kind of community.

Communities who bring about suffering and loss will bear suffering and loss. In other words, it takes one to know one. Communities are made of individuals who know each other; communitas reaches beyond known individuals, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out:

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes a common type of movement in pre-modern times, which he says is from “community” to “communitas.” The movement occurs periodically in response to the needs of economic exchange, but not only that. It is also prompted by the desire of the people in a local community—say, a village—for a larger sense of who they are. That larger sense of self villagers find in the market town—the “communitas” of acquaintances and strangers.*

*“Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” in Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 106



Oct 5 2015

Beyond Flimsy; Beyond Fundamentalism

bookbread pencil shavings

Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher gives readers a pop quiz:

How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.

He then issues a call for ideas and suggestions. My response is that perhaps consulting Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” (1967) would provide some understanding of the balance necessary for the BenOp. The book, and later a terrific movie (1981) adaptation, show the balancing act of friendship between two boys, one Orthodox Jewish, the other a Hassidic. Various cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between the more “liberal” Orthodox way of life and the more”fundamentalist” way of the Hassidim are explored and explained.


Actual Jewish readers and filmgoers may rightly criticize Poktok’s art as utterly middlebrow and overly sentimental–but for a post-churchgoing millennial from rural Central Texas, I found much to learn and think about in Potok’s book and the movie based upon it.