Sunday, July 23, 2017

Noteworthies (17)

• Aidan Moher, "Why We Still Read The Lord of the Rings"

• Malcolm Jones, "Was Thoreau Just a Slacker and a Hypocrite?" (Also, an excerpt from the book.)

• Jonathan Chait, "How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals"

• My favorite blog went dormant a couple years ago, so now I content myself with going back and reading bits of the archives. Here's one I really liked: "Everyone Is Doing It"

• Michael J. Lewis, "Paradise Possible"

• I joined Blendle (more information from the founder here). What I particularly love so far is that I can browse the Wall St. Journal's "Books" section, pay around 49 cents per article, and even get my money back if I don't like it. I never wanted to subscribe to the paper at $300/year just for that access, so this is a fantastic alternative. In general, I hope this will allow me to find much more interesting stuff to read online than the usual detritus that floats to the top of social media.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ticking of Clocks, Gravity's Pull

"I have lost that which can never be restored: I have seen the sun rise and set for twenty months, an idle gazer on the light of heaven...Twenty months are past, who shall restore them!"

These sorrowful meditations fastened upon his mind; he past four months in resolving to lose no more time in idle resolves...

— Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia

An English teacher once commented on one of my classroom journal entries, "You've always been someone very concerned with the passing of time." How right she was. With a remarkable memory, I was constantly marking time from and to various events and weaving them all into some sort of narrative meditation, imagining myself as a spectator quietly observing history in the making, fascinated by the undulation of time.

Until I discovered the word kenopsia, though, I didn't have a particular name for one of the most recurring experiences of my childhood. After soccer games, my parents were always among the very last to leave. As they and a couple other stragglers would continue talking, I would wander around the grounds, looking out at the field, reflecting on how eerie it felt to see it so empty when only a half-hour or so earlier it had been filled with activity and noise, and feeling the first stirrings of dread, knowing that the weekend was almost over and school on Monday morning was fast approaching.

Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt because she couldn't resist turning around to look at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Eurydice was lost to Orpheus because he couldn't wait until they had fully escaped Hades before turning back to look at her. As Rasselas might concur, the past can be a gorgon, turning our heart and will to stone the longer we look back and lament. Behind us is nothing but dust and ghosts. We'll be part of it soon enough.

And I Try to Get Through to You In My Own Special Way as the Barriers Crumble at the End of the Day

People's apprehensions intensified at night for very good reasons, including peaking adrenal hormones between 4:00 and 8:00 a.m., coupled with the loneliness of early morning hours. "Solitude, the night and fear makes all my danger double to appear," wrote Henry Nevil Payne. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg reflected, "I have gone to bed at night quite untroubled about certain things and then started to worry fearfully about them at about four in the morning, so that I often lay tossing and turning for several hours, only to grow indifferent or optimistic again at nine or even earlier."

— A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past

In his wonderful project The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig chooses the term "nighthawk" to vividly represent this experience:

n. a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night—an overdue task, a nagging guilt, a looming and shapeless future—that circles high overhead during the day, that pecks at the back of your mind while you try to sleep, that you can successfully ignore for weeks, only to feel its presence hovering outside the window, waiting for you to finish your coffee, passing the time by quietly building a nest.

The phenomenon of "mobbing" is well-known, where a group of smaller birds harass and chase a larger, predatory bird away from their territory. I see it all the time during the course of a typical day, with red-tailed hawks being plentiful in the area. As the name implies, though, their metaphorical cousins have evolved to prey at night, when the sparrows and wrens of optimism are sleeping and reluctant to be summoned to defense. I have yet to discover what sort of seed could tempt them to patrol in the small hours, but I will be glad to hang a feeder in my bedroom in the event that I do.

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.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Noteworthies (15)

• B.D. McClay, "I Was Told There Would Be More"

• Scott Alexander, "Against Murderism"

• Wilfred M. McClay & Donald A. Yerxa, "Can We Live Without Enchantment?"

• Standard Ebooks. Free downloads of nicely-formatted classics. I got ten of them.

• Joel Mokyr, "Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not"