Philosophy and Alienation

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X:

Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

In one of the earliest memories I still have access to I am probably 5 years old, fully awake during kindergarten nap time (I always was), eavesdropping on the teacher and aide as they discuss their plans for the next few days. “I think tomorrow we’re going to do some”—here the teacher pauses, scans the dark classroom, notices the open eyes on the mat next to them, and continues—“M-A-C-R-A-M-E…” With an excited gasp, I leap up, and in a loud, hoarse whisper declare, “Oh, I love macramé!”

I was a bright, curious kid. In my youngest years, this inspired me to do things like take apart household objects and put them back together to figure out how they worked. As I got older, however, it became a source of frustration and alienation. Always being steps ahead of every grade-school lesson made me an object of suspicion for most of my peers (“nerd” was not a term of endearment in the 90s); and my work ethic completely disintegrated after a few years of tedious school projects that sought to train principles I comprehended after only a few exercises. Of course, in all of this I was only the instance of a type: “the gifted kid,” that detestably predictable creature of the late 20th century, marked by a quick wit and a penchant for half-assing and smug self-assurance.

But unlike my peers in the gifted programs I was eventually recruited into, I grew up poor. My classmates dwelled in the suburban cul-de-sacs that curled labyrinthine about the edges of Orlando; I inhabited a double-wide in a swamp. The muddy lot our trailer was parked on had been a patch of palmetto and cypress trees, and the thousands of hand-sized wolf spiders displaced in the clearing took up residence with us, their webs blossoming between the wooden planks of our home’s cheap interior paneling. A family of enormous raccoons dug a burrow in the insulation under our floorboards, lured by the promise of two meals a day for the low price of having to fight off our five cats. (My mom’s airsoft rifle eventually raised the stakes.) Our tap water was full of sand on account of a poorly-dug well, which gave us a wonderful excuse for drinking nothing but Coca-cola. And though it never occurred to me to ask why I always visited my friends’ houses and not the other way round, I did regularly wonder why their homes were free of wild arachnids and mammals. (Eventually I decided it had something to do with the fact that they all had dogs.)

Nothing I learned in school mapped easily onto my home life. Our home was organized around television, not learning; our Sundays were spent contemplating NASCAR, not, say, the mystery of God in Christ. At school I endured my teachers’ dispassionate presentations of history and literature, and at home I drained cans of Coke to a daily succession of Batman cartoons and prime time sitcoms. But all the while I wondered—albeit in an indefinite, directionless way—about what might lay beyond the limits of my little world, populated by its spiders, raccoons, Final Fantasy, and sugary soft drinks. I puzzled over the things my family talked about, wondering what of what they referred to was real or not, what was or wasn’t important. I wondered, as all young people do at some point, whether life had a purpose. But unlike others my age, I failed to find an easy answer to this question, and my concern for it refused to be buried under the quotidian tasks of day-to-day teenage life.

So curiosity turned to agony as I grew into adolescence, and my dissatisfaction over my ability to adequately answer the riddles of the universe grew into a teenage melancholy that gripped me through the entirety of high school. I won’t bore you with the messy details. But though I was a promising student, I spent three years in a fugue state of resentment and self-imposed distraction, passing classes while paying barely attention and spending my free time pirating music on the internet and reading books. (All I recall of my entire high school curriculum is falling in love with—and eventually memorizing—T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and collapsing into an existential coma in physics class after my teacher spent a day demonstrating the pointlessness of human life in the face of an overwhelming and indifferent cosmos.) After graduating in 2005, I briefly attended university on a full scholarship, but dropped out after my first semester because I had no idea what purpose college—and, by extension, institutional education at large—was supposed to serve. I spent a few years as an anarchist agitator and environmental activist, moved to a farm in southern Kentucky to retire from politics, and eventually went back to college in 2016 because I could do it for free and wanted to find people to talk to who read books and thought about things. Even there I was confronted by a world of people concerned mostly with the acquisition of prestige and profit, and spent the following four years mostly studying alone.

I found myself reflecting on my history after listening to this wonderful conversation between Jennifer Frey, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, the author of the wonderful new book “Lost in Thought: On the Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,” and someone I consider a friend. Toward the beginning of their talk they discuss what led each of them to philosophy, and in both cases it was largely a matter of disposition colliding with opportunity: a shared melancholic madness, smug self-assurance, and propensity for questioning that separated them from their peers and made the normal things of life difficult was transmuted from a curse into a blessing by the alchemy of education. Before Zena finished high school she was admitted into St. John’s College by an audacious dean (God bless Eva Brann), while Jennifer followed the more traditional graduation-to-university route, landing at Indiana University in Bloomington. And both of their stories involve meetings with high school college counselors or sympathetic mentors who recognize the promise in these otherwise depressive young women and help show them paths that might be available.

Like them, my propensity toward inquisitiveness and contemplation has been a source of frustration and pain. Like them, when I finally found philosophy—genuine philosophy, after years trying to comprehend abstruse post-Frankfurt-School critical theory without the background to make sense of it—I took to it like a desert wanderer to an oasis. But unlike either of them, my acceptance of philosophy as a way of living never transformed into a source of worldly comfort, and the discomforting gap between thinking and living never closed. And this has been the case for so many people I’ve befriended over the years: the contemplative life hits them as a kind of sudden derangement, ripping them out of the fabric of life they were previous woven into and driving them into libraries and bookstores and open-to-the-public campus events in a desperate effort to whet their intellective appetites and (perhaps more importantly) to make connections with others who speak their same language. But more often than not, their eccentricity and roughness—from a lack of training in academic gentility—makes them alien to their fellows, and isolation persists. Many have struggled with—and far too often, succumbed to—drug and alcohol addiction; others, such as myself, continue to battle crippling anxiety and depression.

I don’t think any of this disproves Aristotle’s contention that happiness is a form of contemplation. Nor do I think that any scholar of philosophy worth their salt would disagree that a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom rarely reaps worldly goods. (The Athenians, of course, condemned Socrates.) But I think it’s important to be honest about how radically alienating such a life can really be for those who are already locked out of the kinds of aristocratic circles willing to receive individuals possessed by the madness of philosophy, who live in worlds where being an eccentric is greeted with far less understanding. The stakes are often immeasurably high: refusal or inability to abide by the merciless logic of economy—to suck it up, turn the mind off, and flip burgers—can mean isolation, institutionalization, homelessness. (How many homeless guys have I spoken with who spend their days reading magisterial history books in the library, or wandering the sidewalks in rags contemplating the form of the good like out-of-place desert fathers?)

Serious consideration of this asymmetry of conditions and stakes often leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university, to use some of its enormous capital reserves to bring in more members of the underclass. This response, I believe, flows from a lack of either imagination or courage: either we can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of the highly professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities, or we can but lack the courage to make it happen. Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning and wondering can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school-day and the gray walls of the classroom. (It’s a thrilling and weird book that could only have become popular within the optimistic social ecology of the 1970s; I highly recommend reading it.) I feel the urgency of such a view every day, and increasingly so as higher education becomes more endangered by the approaching double-edged crisis of finances and social trust. As we begin to imagine—and hopefully, to realize—alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone thoughtful souls shining like beacons in the night, desperately trying—and failing—to find one another.

Thoughts on Class Conflict and Meritocracy

Chesterton, “Slum Novelists and the Slums,” in Heretics:

Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism–that is, selective despotism–is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV. because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

The notion that all political belonging is predicated upon the conflict between classes comes to us originally not from Marx, but from Machiavelli. That order at the level of the whole—the city, state, empire, whatever—emerges from irresolvable conflict on the ground is one of the first lessons of modern political philosophy, and so too is the understanding of politics as a means for reconciling this conflict. The modern ruler is not the first principle from which the being of the political body flows, but rather a glorified judge. One can see how the liberal state follows quite neatly from this rewriting of the ontology of the body politic.

If you think liberalism is bad, you might decry this overturning of classical political ontology. Perhaps you wish for an ideal state ruled by a righteous monarch, to whom all subjects turn in awe and reverence as sunflowers to the dawn. But from a different perspective—such as that adopted by Hobbes and later, by Marx—even in such a scenario, the deference of the subjects is precisely what authorizes the ruler: the ruler has authority only inasmuch as that authority is recognized and legitimized by the ruled, whether through reverence or fear. In other words, a la Marx (Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right): “The state is an abstrac­tion. The people alone is what is concrete….Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy.”

This new vision of the state as a site of ongoing struggle makes it impossible for aristocrats and their fellow travelers to maintain their traditional detached antipathy toward the lower classes. In the modern state, classes are rivals—and being locked in a struggle means having to pay attention to the strategies and goals of your adversary. Machiavelli recognized with a keener eye than any other that this class conflict is productive: the tumult that arises from this permanent antagonism, when mediated by the legal and judicial institutions of the state, results in stability at the level of the state (Nassim Taleb, I believe, would call this “antifragility”) and a kind of harmony between classes as they negotiate (however noisily) their conflicting interests. Class conflict can never be overcome, but it can be managed well or poorly by a governor. The former promotes flourishing; the latter, decadence and decline.

If class conflict is necessary for political flourishing, then abrogating it might be a bad idea. This is precisely what is sought in “meritocracy.” Meritocracy is far more than a heuristic for leadership-selection: it is a story a community tells about itself, a strategy for political self-understanding. At its heart, it is the eternal aristocratic myth dressed up for a new, knowledge- and technique-obsessed civilization: it is a way of reading backwards the story of how the privileged achieved the good things they have, and why they are deserving of them. It is, in essence, a way of neutralizing class antagonism. A community that collectively repeats the story of meritocracy begins to believe that just as those at the top earned their place there, whether by wit or industry, so too are those at the bottom deserving of their place on account of their lack. Like Chesterton’s “rational despotism,” the myth of meritocracy holds that prestige and privilege follow from natural superiority—and since those who are not naturally superior could never perform at the same capacity as the meritocratic victors, there’s no use in contesting the position of one’s superiors. Victory would only end in disappointment and failure; struggle would be futile.

Classes that are not in conflict are castes. Meritocracy seeks the reestablishment of rigid formal hierarchies without the fear of dispossession by those at the bottom.

The Blessed and the Doomed

There are two kinds of people in this world: the blessed and the doomed. The blessed are those before whom hardships retreat like cowardly enemies, whose path through the world is lit by the light of goodness and is easy on the feet; the lot of the doomed, on the other hand, is always to suffer, to fail, to be excluded, to be crushed by hardship. The individuals within each kind are marked as such from birth: the doomed always know they are doomed, the blessed that they are blessed. The blessed may fall from their blessedness—spontaneously, undeliberately, by no fault of their own—and join the doomed, though this is uncommon. The doomed, however, are always doomed.

Most of the doomed learn to make decisions based on the knowledge of their doom. They do not dream, or hope, or strive for something beyond doom, or feel jealous of the blessed: they keep their eyes fixed on their feet, so to speak, and live one arduous day to the next while weathering the pain that comes with being one of the doomed. Virtue for the doomed means learning to suffer as painlessly as possible, to avoid thinking of a better, more blessed life, or of any end to their doom aside from their inevitable death. But some of the doomed—because they are either too stupid or too cowardly to face certain undeniable facts of their existence—spend their lives fruitlessly wishing to transcend the kind to which they belong, that of the doomed: they hope to become one of the blessed, to spend their days in the sunshine of goodness and to walk with the lightness and ease of those who live on the other side of the veil. These hopes become a source of immense sorrow for these poor dreamers of the doomed because they are implacable: the doomed are always doomed.

The blessed, on their part, are of two minds about the doomed. Some of them believe the best course of action is to be honest, to remind the doomed that they are doomed and that things will never be easy or good for them. Though some of them use this as an opportunity for cruelty, many of the blessed believe this honesty to be an act of mercy for the doomed, so that they will not forget that they are doomed and begin to dream of someday becoming blessed. Others of the blessed, however, believe it is unkind to remind the doomed that they are doomed, and think that however untrue it may be it is best to tell beautiful stories that give the doomed hope for a better life. Some of them even believe the blessed should convince the doomed that they are not in fact doomed, but are actually blessed, only they do not know it yet. All of them, however, know deep down that the doomed cannot ever become one of the blessed: the doomed are always doomed.

For the most part, the blessed and the doomed live out their lives parallel to, but largely separate from one another. The blessed who fall into doom may continue to live among the blessed, but the advent of their newfound doom will often make this difficult for them: they will watch with confusion while the rest of their former fellows walking with lightness and ease, and dream of someday returning to blessedness. This will not happen because they are doomed, and their wishing will cause them pain and sorrow. So too do the dreamers of the doomed occasionally enter into the halls of the blessed, lured by their beautiful stories about the possibility of entering into blessedness. However, no matter how long they spend among the blessed, their paths will never be lit by the light of goodness, and walking will never be easy on the feet. They will wonder why the world never seems to be quite like the beautiful stories they have heard from the blessed. And the blessed will continue to tell their tales, and the dreamers of the doomed will continue to believe them—but they will never become blessed, no matter how long they walk the halls and live the life and repeat the stories of the blessed. This is because they are doomed, and the doomed are always doomed.

Crisis and Opportunity

John Lukacs, At the End of an Age, 2002:

We have arrived at a stage of history when we must begin thinking about thinking itself. This is something as different from philosophy as it is from psychoanalysis. At the end of an age we must engage in a radical rethinking of “Progress,” of history, of “Science,” of the limitations of our knowledge, of our place in the universe.

Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”, 1954:

With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past. It could be that only now will the past open up to us with unexpected freshness and tell us things no one has yet had ears to hear.

D. S. Carne-Ross, “The Center of Resistance,” 1979:

[T]he loss or radical fracture of tradition need not mean that the past has been lost. Rather, it has been dislocated. Where there was once an orderly territory there is now a kind of chaos. A fertile chaos, if we choose to make it so, for if whole regions have become almost inaccessible, others may lie invitingly open. With the collapse of so much that stood massively but obstructively in the foreground, we can now see beyond the ruins to the more distant past which paradoxically has come to seem closer to us.

Arendt again, immediately following the previous passage:

But it cannot be denied that without a securely anchored traditionand the loss of this security occurred several hundred years agothe whole dimension of the past has also been endangered. We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lostwould mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.

Guy Davenport, “The Symbol of the Archaic,” 1974:

All of this is part of what [Charles] Olson meant by saying that we are alienated from all that was most familiar. Basically he meant that we no longer milk the cow, or shoot the game for our dinner, or make our clothes or houses or anything at all. Secondly, he meant that we have drained our symbols of meaning. We hang religious pictures in museums, honoring a residual meaning in them, at least. We have divorced poetry from music, language from concrete particulars. We have abandoned the rites de passage to casual neglect where once we marked them with trial and ceremony. Thirdly, he meant that modernity is a kind of stupidity, as it has no critical tools for analyzing reality such as the ancient cultures kept bright and sharp.

 

Vision, memory, attention: these are other words for “world.” Crisis breaks the patterns of things, offering both the opportunity of a world and the danger of retreat. God grant us the wisdom to choose rightlyand the courage to follow through.

Reflections on Pestilence and Sacrifice

sacrifice

I’ve stopped counting the days. Early in the time of lockdown, I fancied that keeping tally of passing sunsets would allow for a purposeful task, however arbitrary, against the despair produced by feeling the world disintegrate. I hoped this would be something like a squirrel’s happy accumulation of acorns before a harsh winter; in reality, it felt more like scratching lines in the wall of a prison cell. So I gave it up.

But it’s been something like a fortnight, perhaps a month. The police have eliminated all public expressions of conviviality—parks, tennis courts, and lakefront beaches have been blocked off for weeks—and corporations have stepped in to deliver endless superficial mantras about solidarity and hope “in these challenging times.” I try to remind myself that it is temporary—maybe. In the warm, floral spring breeze one can catch the occasional scent of endlessness, the dismal sense that the lively public world is gone forever and fleshy human togetherness has been permanently replaced by stilted video-conferences and texting. The springtime has never felt emptier of hope.

Early on in the plague-time, I took a week off of work. During this period, and before the forced closure of the public world, I wrote about the loveliness of the lockdown: how the cessation of American normalcy had allowed us a glimpse of a way of living less predicated on restless money-making, more centered around delighting in leisure and the splendor of creation. (I still, from time to time, feel this.) But I was also scared. The virus was sweeping rapidly through the country while every authority in the country either actively downplayed the threat (“it’s contained,” “it’s just the flu,” “the bigger problem is racism”) or simply said nothing while making no apparent preparations. The delusional optimism of the former is inexcusable: prudent governance, as far as I can tell, operates on a heuristic of pessimism. But the latter, I think, were simply afraid, and they have my sympathy. Who wouldn’t be horrified into immobility by the idea having to make decisions for the sake of an entire city or state as a poorly-understood pandemic hurtles unstoppably toward you?

Since then, I’ve returned to work. The readjustment has been surreal: the bookstore, once a bustling hub of activity, has been closed to the public and converted into a shipping operation. The display tables—once so carefully tended to, garden-like—have become storage areas, covered in chaotic, unpoetical stacks of books. Masked coworkers bustle through the stacks, hunting for mailordered titles while carrying out an absurd, comical dance of attempting six feet of distance from one another. It’s great, of course, to have the certainty of income during a time when such a thing is increasingly scarce. But it’s also deeply weird to feel like my job—structurally an entry-level retail position, even if it feels more meaningful than that—is now on the “front line” of a global crisis.

Which is why I’ve found all of this forced optimistic sloganeering increasingly intolerable. The slogans serve an exclusively therapeutic function for those who face none of the danger. It means nothing to repeat “We’re all in this together!” as someone whose most pressing anxiety is whether you’ll get too annoyed at your spouse and kids while working from home at your reasonably-well-paying job with full benefitsand then to do nothing else. This recent article in the Atlantic says what’s been so desperately needed to be said for so long now: that “front line” workers—nurses, of course, but also grocery store clerks, Amazon delivery drivers, Target employees, and so forth—are not heroes, but victims. This is true—but there are victims, and there are victims. These people are not victims in the judicial sense, the harmed party of a crime for whom we demand justice. They are victims in the religious sense: they are the blessed ones whom we praise on their walk to the slaughter-bench, the offering we give to satiate the hungry gods of our economy. For victims of a crime, we demand recompense, that the world be set right on account of their undeserved suffering. The holy suffering of the sacrificial victim, however, is what sets the world right—and for this, we offer only praise and thanksgiving.

At the end of a revealing monologue in Camus’ “The Plague,” the ex-militant Tarrou declares: “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” To praise the sacrifice of others with no concern for how we might do them justice is to join forces with the plague. If we are going to emerge from this crisis with any shred of our dignity, we need to think hard about what we have to do to avoid crafting such a nefarious alliance.

Paradise, Indeed

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The crowd around the campfire had dwindled from twenty or so to about six, but the darkness—and the weed—made it hard to count the faces. The guitar passed from hand to hand, each person taking a turn barking out some song in a voice equally off-key and earnest. (I probably played something by Neutral Milk Hotel.) It was 2005, and I was 17 years old: I had just graduated high school, my last year spent getting high, reading whatever of Daniel Quinn’s bibliography I could obtain from the public library, and going on multiple-hour-long walks to parts of Huntington, West Virginia I’d never seen. And in the summer after commencement (which, naturally, I did not attend) I had hopped in a van with two of my best friends and drove to the southern part of the state to learn how to become environmental activists.

My interest was sincere. I was baptised into political consciousness somewhere between the collapse of the World Trade Center and the invasion of Iraq, and after watching the night-vision footage of cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, I took to sewing homemade patches on my jackets displaying messages like “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER,” “NO BLOOD FOR OIL,” and “MARXIST.” (I barely understood the Communist Manifesto, but I believed it was right.) A native West Virginian friend of mine (I’d been transplanted there after my freshman year) had introduced me to the horrors of strip mining, and we gradually transformed ourselves into anarcho-environmentalists by way of Crimethinc. literature, Earth First! documentaries, and—maybe most influentially—Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The suffocating drudgery of both the classroom and my home life had intensified my adolescent sense of urgency to do something, to march bravely out into the world and stop the evil that was so clearly winning in the cosmic struggle between light and dark. Like all young men, I wanted to be a hero.

Thus I had no patience for the strategy of slow and measured engagement insisted upon by the nonprofits running the activist training camp. Somewhere between the “De-Escalation Workshop” and the lecture on “anti-oppression” my friends and I checked out, retreating to an abandoned print shop to smoke joints and shoot the shit. And, of course, to play guitar. I was inaugurated into the cult of “Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show’s recording of it having appeared one year prior. Someone played Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” But deep into the night—with the stars glittering overhead and the THC buzzing in our heads—someone started strumming a D-chord in the style of a waltz, and something in the air changed. A reverent hush settled over the circle. But after a few bars, a wiry voice broke through: “When I was a child, my family would travel…”

Some songs are good; some songs are great. And some—often by virtue of something beyond its composition or recording—arrive as revelations, striking the hearer like a lightning bolt and sinking irrevocably into the soul. To describe “Paradise” as “a song I love” comes nowhere near to grasping the dimensions of its importance: for several years of my early twenties spent hitchhiking and riding freight trains between anti-globalization protests and environmental campouts, “Paradise” served as an anthem, a rallying cry, a source of solace and peace. It was part of the air my friends and I breathed, something necessary for life. One of the most meaningful friendships of my life was solidified by singing it over and over during a 12-hour drive from Minnesota to West Virginia; it was on my lips during countless solitary walks down highways and stretches of train track. Though we never became the heroes we dreamed of, “Paradise” nonetheless served as our Iliad, standing as a constant, fixed source of our values, hopes, and longings. Like Homer with the Achaeans, John Prine spoke us into being.

I know how silly this all sounds. But when you’re a small-town teenager with a penchant for romance and a lousy education, your reference points are going to seem strange and perhaps arbitrary. Before I learned that John Prine was a living, contemporary country artist still touring and recording albums, I’d assumed him to be something like the Bard: a legendary old folk singer who walked the earth in a time when men were stronger and taller and the gods could still be heard singing from the mountaintops. But as the image of Prine the hero faded, my awe of his quite mortal capacities for perception and empathy increased. Across the 13 songs of his debut album—recorded when he was just 23 years old—Prine examines the souls of a heroin-addicted Vietnam veteran, a nostalgic middle-aged woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a retired factory worker gone autobiographical, of lonely young people longing to connect but falling repeatedly into solipsism. Each song is its own universe: Bob Dylan famously called the album “pure Proustian existentialism,” but Prine’s capacity for seeing from within the subjectivity of nearly a dozen fully-formed yet fully imagined figures has more in common with Fernando Pessoa.

And now he’s gone. (God willing, he is now resting in the true Paradise.) But with Prine’s passing, no era has come to a close, since Prine was never a representation of anything beyond himself. He commanded respect from high places, but not a single imitator: he was inimitable, with a keenness of vision surpassing that of most novelists wedded to a dark, but ultimately humane, comic sensibility. There will never be another like him. Maybe now we can recognize him as the legend I had once dreamed him to be.

Good Friday

Today all bread lies unrisen,
all form lies devoid of its shape;
beer is just water and barley,
wine remains locked in the grape—

today the sun is just fire,
a meaningless nexus of heat;
the foundations loosed from the waters,
the land overcome with the sea—

today the cosmos is static,
creation is ground to a halt;
but all in advance of the third day,
the triumph the heavens exalt.

The Loveliness of Lockdown

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Update 3/30: I wrote this one day before Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the closure of the entire Chicago lakefront, due to what she saw as inadequate social distancing and a flouting of the city’s stay-at-home order. I recognize the wisdom in this decision, and the needhowever unfortunatefor making sacrifices like this in times like these. But I also stand by what I saw that day: hundreds of people embracing the warmth of the sun and the beauty of the world while keeping space between one another. And beyond this, a faint glimmer of a different—a better and less cruel—way of living.


 

It’s day five of shelter-in-place in Illinois. Signs hang in the windows of neighborhood hair salons, record stores, book shops: “CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.” Restaurants and cafes remain in a liminal state between open and closed: through the windows one can glimpse empty dining rooms and kitchen workers standing around in hair nets, waiting for the take-out orders they are still legally permitted to fulfill. But the decline in business has not brought a sense of emptiness. The noise of car traffic, now conspicuously absent from neighborhood streets, has been replaced by spring birdsong. Neighborhood parks are peppered with young people playing sports at a responsible distance—tennis, frisbee, kickball—while joggers pass the occasional bookworm enjoying the sunshine on a bench. Near the lake, couples with children play hide and seek amid the trees of Jackson Park and Promontory Point, while those assumedly childless walk their dogs nearby. Lockdown, it turns out, is lovely.

Reality is a kaleidoscope that lockdown has turned. The usual patterns of things have been gently disrupted—and we, in our adaptability and ingenuity, are already finding a footing in our new, unstable conditions. In this cessation of frantic economic activity that usually defines American public life, we catch a glimpse of another possible world: one where our activity is motivated not by blunt necessity or desperate moneymaking, but by relishing in the world and in our togetherness with those whose lives are entangled enough with ours to be part of our quarantine. However temporary it may turn out to be, the suspension of the brutal economization of life that constitutes American “normalcy” has made it possible to imagine a way of living centered on simple delight and human togetherness, and not only for the classes capable of paying for it.

I recognize the possible naivete of my optimism here, that I’m seeing the response of the materially comfortable to a challenge they can easily weather while the poor and precarious suffer all the more. I don’t doubt this is the case. I am surely blind to the real suffering this lockdown is causing just outside the periphery of my vision. Lord knows how many layoffs will result in evictions, themselves resulting in despair, hopelessness, and worse. But these are precisely the people who stand to benefit the most from the anaesthetization of harsh American materialism.

Everything is topsy-turvy in plague time. And positioned as we are at the beginning of this chaotic and rapidly shifting development, we have no idea what shape the future may eventually take. The situation, then, is excellent. Nothing is going to change on its own accord: the plague does not determine a set of changes, but it does provide an opening. May we have the courage to seize this opportunity and to sow loveliness and delight where others would seek to reconstitute—or intensify—its barbarity.

On “Europeana”

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Patrik Ouředník’s “Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century” is the best novel about the Twentieth Century. Let me explain.

I qualify “about” because the best novel of the Twentieth Century is obviously Ulysses. (I haven’t read Ulysses, but enough people whose opinions I trust have told me that it is the best, so I take this to be true.) But Ulysses was written in the innocent adolescence of a new age—the one cracked open by machine manufacturing, the invention of the automobile and airplane, and the second founding of America with the settlement of the Civil War—when such a magisterial, imaginative, synthetic work full of style and possibility was still conceivable. After the two-phase internal collapse of Western civilization with the War to End All Wars followed by World War II, such an endeavor became self-evidently ridiculous: as the details of the otherworldly barbarity with which the German Sonderkommandos and the Red Army collaborated to turn Poland into a hellscape of human sacrifice slowly became available to the world’s reading public, it became immediately and undeniably incumbent upon any thinking person to stare the facts in the face and figure out what the hell happened. (Adorno’s famous remark about the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz is silly if understood to be true for all time, but it was surely a sensible way to think in 1955.)

Ouředník’s book does precisely this. It is assembled entirely out of dry, factual statements about a wide variety of events and developments taking place between 1914 and 1999—the formation and beliefs of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the creation of barbie dolls and the dawn of the consumer society, the dawn of New Age spirituality and the sexual revolution, painstakingly accurate descriptions of most of the century’s philosophical and theoretical schools, and above all the twin horrors of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism in Russia—held in parataxis as skillful as Solomon’s. But unlike Solomon, Ouředník never declares all to be vanity, nor does he need to: he suspends judgment and lets the century speak for itself in all its insanity, terror, and, on occasion, genuine hilarity. And in contrast to the 800-some pages of Joyce’s tome, “Europeana” is a slim volume of scarcely 100 pages, containing what lesser historians would require a thousand to adequately cover.

Consider one representative passage:

In 1907 a Frenchman crossed the English Channel in a powered aircraft and in 1910 a Peruvian flew over the Italian Alps in a powered aircraft in and in 1911 the Italians used a powered aircraft in the war against Turkey and in 1914 aircraft designers figured out where to lace machine guns so that aircraft could fire at each other and in 1915 they figured out how to drop bombs from aircraft, and in 1945 the Americans invented the atom bomb and dropped it on a city called Hiroshima.

At no point does Ouředník break from this “objective” voice to say that such a development is bad. Instead, he simply reports the consequences of the nuclear blast: alongside the gruesome image of “the school children who survived the explosion picked maggots out of patients’ wounds with chopsticks,” he tells us that “[p]eople who survived the explosion and the atomic diseases scared other members of the population because they looked like lepers and behaved like madmen,” which in its naïve truthfulness contains a jet black humor. And then he lets us know about the thinking of the age, characterizing the disputes of anti-atomic idealists and pro-bomb realists:

Afterwards a lot of people thought it had been gratuitous brutality to drop an atom bomb at the very end of the war, but military strategists said that if the Americans had not dropped it, someone else would have, because it had to be tried out at least once in real conditions in order to create a balance of terror as a guarantee against the outbreak of a third world war.

For anyone with eyes to see, the judgment passes itself.

Of course, it is inaccurate to call Ouředník’s book a “novel.” There is nothing fictitious about it, and in a more serious age we would consider this a new genre of experimental historiography much more fertile and interesting than most of the options currently on the table. Only on precisely two occasions does Ouředník allow himself miniscule poetic flourishes, made all the more poignant by their rarity: “And young people looked toward the future and the wind ruffled the ears of corn and the sun rose on the horizon.” The author’s commitment to objectivity demonstrates how any optimism about “the arc of history” dissolves in the acid bath of brutal, overwhelming facticity that is the Twentieth Century. The constant deluge of insane details occasionally grants the reading a dreamlike quality, much akin to reading a science fiction novel, just before the reality of what he is reporting comes crashing down. “And the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that smoking and alcohol soil the blood,” he tells us, “and they refused to eat black pudding and blood sausage and refused blood transfusions because the mixing of blood contradicted divine ordinances, just like the consumption of blood sausage or alcohol or extramarital sex.” Silly enough, and yet another contribution to the laundry list of kooky new religions that emerged in the primordial soup of the late 19th century. But in the next sentence, the hammer falls: “And they refused to enlist in the army and said that they belonged to the Kingdom of God and worldly matters were no concern of theirs, and many of them died in the concentration camps in Germany and the Soviet Union because their attitude subverted the revolutionary ideal and propagated asocial and counterrevolutionary ideas in society.”

The Twentieth Century was an age of contradictions: it matched childish, naïve optimism about the possibility of human freedom—from God, from morality, from the Earth, from responsibility to one another, from all internal and external limitations placed on the human animal—with a rapid and gleeful development of techniques and technologies of barbarity that makes Caligula’s Rome look utopian by comparison. “Europeana” is a gift because it clarifies for us the fact that practically nothing from the period can be clarified, and reminds us that many of the learn’d experts who try to do so would have been (if they weren’t already, in reality) willing architects of the century’s most grotesque and dehumanizing innovations.