Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bookminder General

Douglas Koziol:

So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

Koziol has a problem. When he's not playing to perfection the role of a Smug, Condescending Progressive straight out of central casting, he's a bookseller, you see, and he's distraught over the fact that even the "largely liberal, well-educated and well-meaning people" who patronize his store insist on seeking out such subversive thoughtcrime as, uh, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. What to do, what to do? Well, eventually our hero grudgingly concedes that there's nothing he can do except to "start conversations" and listen "without judgment" as customers explain why they would even want to waste their time with such trash, but given his druthers, he would prefer to strangle distribution of the book by boycotting Vance's publisher. Unfortunately, sigh, that doesn't seem feasible. A question of tactics, not principle, you understand. But it's so trying for him, having to stand by silently while all around him, people are making choices without consulting him first!

It's hard to pick a favorite part. Is it the idea that a typical customer would be the slightest bit interested in justifying their purchase to some obnoxious employee demanding an explanation? Is it the demonstration, yet again, that would-be censors and commissars unfailingly assume that they will always be the ones with the power to decide what gets promoted and what goes down the memory hole? Is it the way, as already noted, that zealots like Koziol can't even trust their "liberal, well-educated and well-meaning" peers to handle anything from the progressive Index Librorum Prohibitorum without supervision? For me, I think it's the way he offers up alternative candidates for censorship as a "gotcha" — he apparently blithely assumes that everyone else is as much of a control freak as he is. Hell, one of the first books I ever sold was one of Ayn Rand's novels. I even sold a copy of Mein Kampf on Hitler's birthday. Free speech and free markets, baby, let the best ideas win!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Lost and Found In Translation

In his book Destination Zero, Sam Hamill, an American Zen Buddhist poet, wrote a poem called "A Rose for Solitude" which contained a stanza that has always stuck with me:

   And if, as I pass,
   I should look you in the eye,
   do not be afraid. I want 
   only to glimpse the emptiness
   at the center of your heart,
   I want to reach for you
   because I know,
   as you do,
   we might never have met.

I discovered Hamill's book Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry in a small bookstore twenty-two years ago. I picked up this pocket-sized book from a basket near the register, a glance through turned into absorption, and I sat cross-legged right there on the floor and read the whole thing before buying it. I've returned to it countless times over the years, enough so that the binding has loosened and pages have started to fall out. I can still recite many of the poems from memory, including one of my absolute favorites by Li Po, "On Dragon Hill":

   Drunk on Dragon Hill tonight,
   that banished immortal, Great White,

   turns among yellow flowers,
   his smile spread wide

   as his hat sails off on the wind
   and he dances away in the moonlight.

("Great White" was his courtesy name, and "banished immortal" was one of his many nicknames — more explanation here for anyone interested.)

For me, that is such a perfectly contained image, almost haiku-like. Innocent, intoxicated joy, surrendering to the moment, while subtly hinting at the tragic, fleeting nature of existence. I marvel at it every time I revisit it. And yet, where does Li Po end and Hamill, as a translator, begin?

Here's the same poem as translated by David Hinton in Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, with the alternate title "9/9, Out Drinking on Dragon Mountain":

   9/9, out drinking on Dragon Mountain,
   I'm an exile among yellow blossoms smiling.

   Soon drunk, I watch my cap tumble in wind,
   dance in love — a guest the moon invites.

Now, granted, I'm not a scholar, but speaking just as a sentient being with a rudimentary sense of appreciation for rhetorical rhythm and imagery, what the hell is that? I'm tempted to say that Google Translate could have made it sound less awkward and stilted. And granted, I probably imprinted on Hamill's versions of these poems to the point where I could never be fair to any competing translations, but I don't see how anyone could honestly prefer Hinton's. If Hamill's version conveys graceful, flowing, dance-like movement, Hinton's steps on its own shoelaces and does a faceplant.

It's frustrating as a lay reader, having to depend on intermediaries for interpretation. The tendency upon finding a translation that resonates deeply is to cling to it like a drowning man to a life preserver. I don't want anything to spoil what feels to me like revealed truth. Similarly, with Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy's majestic translation of Rilke's Book of Hours, I've refused to even look at any other versions. How could they improve on perfection? Even if you told me that neither Barrows or Macy knew how to read German and actually made up their "translations" out of thin air (like Stephen Mitchell's version of the Tao Te Ching), I'd shrug and reimagine the poems as Barrows and Macy's work "as inspired by" Rilke. I still wouldn't care enough to go read an "authentic" version to see what he really meant.

I kid sort of but I do shudder to think what I might have missed had I read Hinton's translations first and concluded that Li Po was too much of a tongue-tied dimwit to bother with. So much beauty in that book, so much recurring joy those poems have given me, and yet, like the man said, we so easily might never have met.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Noteworthies (16)

• Katie Herzog, "The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren't"

• Conor Friedersdorf, "A Columbia Professor's Critique of Campus Politics"

• Theodore Dalrymple is one of my favorite essayists, but his prolific writing, spread out over many outlets, makes it difficult to keep up with his latest output. Imagine my happiness, then, to discover The Skeptical Doctor, a site dedicated to doing just that. Visit it often, would be my advice.

• John O. McGinnis, "Liberalism's Identity Problem"

• Matthew Cobb, "The Brave New World of Gene Editing"

• Christopher England, "Jacobin Is for Posers"

• Interview with Chidike Okeem, "Black Conservatism in America Today". I smiled and nodded over the important distinction he makes between the quality of Thomas Sowell's books versus his columns.

• Alan Jacobs, "On Not Being Excluded from a Stupid Narrative"

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Obiter Dicta, no. 12

Being a scholar of nothing, I allow my intellectual interest to wander hither and yon.

— Theodore Dalrymple, "What the Hedgehog Knows", Farewell Fear

As recently as late June, I had cleared all the books off my "to read" list. Within a mere week or so, I've managed to accumulate a new dozen-plus, most by design, a few by happenstance. I recognize that it's a blessing to still have an exuberant interest in so many things, but sometimes exhaustion tempts me to consider training my intellectual interest to walk on a leash. Or maybe I should have an electronic fence installed. Can't it learn to just bark at interesting books as they pass by? Does it always have to chase them down and carry them back to deposit on the front porch?

Friday, July 7, 2017

Don't You Look at Me Like Life Don't Hold You Any More Mystery

It was one of those jolly, peaceful mornings that make a chappie wish he'd got a soul or something...

— P.G. Wodehouse, "Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg", Carry On, Jeeves

Religious people tend to insist that earnest belief in a Creator and afterlife is necessary to give life on Earth any meaning at all. Strangely, though, I've heard even self-proclaimed skeptics assent to the idea that belief in some sort of "transcendent purpose" is necessary (for other people, apparently, not for them) to keep society from degenerating into sociopathy. This, to me, places the cart of theory in front of the horse of reality. It confuses the map for the territory, the menu for the meal. Evolutionary thought, as far as I'm concerned, provides enough plausible reasons to assume that a social species like homo sapiens will always find a way to coexist in groups, regardless of the precise doctrinal content of their myths and narratives. Life is its own meaning, its own answer, its own justification. Nietzsche's Zarathustra claimed that all joy wants eternity, but no. A jolly, peaceful morning is enough by itself. The very ephemerality of experience is what makes it valuable.

Obiter Dicta, no. 11

Nikil Saval:

At the same time, the space occupied by liberalism itself has shrunk to the point where it’s difficult to locate. Different strands of it now live on under different names. Conservatives have styled themselves as the new defenders of free speech. Democrats have sidestepped ‘‘liberal’’ and embraced ‘‘progressive,’’ a word with its own confusing history, to evoke the good-government, welfare-state inclinations of the New Deal. Some of the strongest defenses of liberalism’s achievements come from people who identify as ‘‘socialists.’’ And free-trade advocates, with no more positive term to shelter under, are now tagged, often derisively, as ‘‘neoliberal.’’ The various ideas to which ‘‘liberal’’ has referred persist, in one form or another, among different constituencies. Liberalism may continue. But it may well end up doing so without any actual liberals behind it.

I enjoy thinking about basic questions of political philosophy and nomenclature. I enjoy it in much the same way that I enjoy doing pullups, pushups and yoga. It's good exercise. But whereas physical exercise results in undeniable, observable progress, Scholastic-style quibbles over political essences, no matter how long you ruminate over them, never seem to lead to clarity or simplicity. And then, when I read something like this post by Scott Alexander, I find it increasingly hard to resist the quasi-nihilistic perspective that tempts me to dismiss all such theorizing as nothing but just-so stories hastily contrived in reaction to the unintended consequences of earlier events. Political discourse makes me imagine fleas on the back of an elephant vehemently arguing about which direction to go, while the elephant, of course, does its own thing, completely oblivious to their existence. On top of that, though, they're not even having reality-based arguments so much as simply shouting past each other. A double layer of absurd pointlessness.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Doomsday Averted

Robert Merry:

It may be time to contemplate the political fallout in America if Donald Trump fails as president and the American people decide to expel him from the White House. The most likely result will be a pronounced lurch to the left. Get ready for an American version of socialism.

If he fails, the Democrats will ride to power under a likely banner of liberal populism and European-style socialism. Can they govern successfully under that banner? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take power under it. Thus, if Trump can’t get his act together and galvanize the independent vote through presidential performance, his greatest legacy could be the most pronounced leftward lurch in the country’s history.

Joel Kotkin:

Even as Venezuela falls deeper into crisis, and the former Soviet bloc nations groan under its legacy, socialism is coming back, and in a big way. Its key supporters are not grizzled pensioners yearning for Marxist security, but a whole new generation, most of whom have little memory of socialist failure.

On the surface, the analytics look good for a socialist revival, particularly in the wake of the almost certain failings of Trump’s ersatz populism. A large number of young people, in both Britain and America, have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. They never witnessed the failures of the past and they are reeling under present conditions. And given that many older people feel their children face a diminished future, building a majority for socialism is not inconceivable.

These economic positions could gain a majority...

...but not if the progressives maintain their polarizing embrace of the most radical aspects of social identity and environmental policy.

This in particular threatens to undermine working-class support, particularly in the interior states. The leftists’ thinly disguised distaste for how most Americans live small towns and suburbs does not help make their case.

Until the left decides to focus on the everyday issues that matter to people outside their bubble, the dream of the socialist revival will remain a fantasy.