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Intellectuals 3 – Brecht and Sartre

Women of the Seraglio by Diaz de la Pena

Women of the Seraglio by Diaz de la Pena

Intellectuals 3 – Brecht and Sartre

(Part 1 here, and part 2 here.) I’ve just finished chapter 9 Sartre (I’m not blogging about Hemingway chapter 6 or Bertrand Russell chapter 8). Would you believe it? Sartre and Brecht were complete bastards, especially to their women, just like Rousseau, Shelley, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Karl Marx! (Why did all these intellectuals seemed to require their own harem?)

I haven’t read any Bertrand Russell except for a few quotes on the Internet, and only read “The Old Man and the Sea” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Hemingway. I read Sartre’s “Les Jeux sont Faits” for A-level French, and read and watched several plays by Brecht as part of my university German studies (“Leben des Galilei“, “Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder“, “Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan“, “Die Dreigroschenoper“).

One clarification: although all the intellectuals in the book so far have been writers and artists, it is not as artists that Johnson is analyzing them, but as intellectuals. This is particularly clear in the case of Tolstoy, who wanted to do more than just be a writer, even if a superlative one, and in Johnson’s opinion this was Tolstoy’s tragedy because he was so unfit for the roles he wanted to play. Read the rest of this entry »

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Intellectuals 2 – Tolstoy

The only known colour photo of Tolstoy (from Wikipedia)

The only known colour photo of Tolstoy (from Wikipedia)

This post is about Paul Johnson’s book “Intellectuals” and follows an earlier post on the first few chapters of that book.

In the chapter on Tolstoy, we read that the “great man” was, like all the others  in this book so far, undoubtedly a great writer, but also an egotistical monster, a liar, an ungrateful scoundrel. Why am I not surprised?!?

Johnson’s analysis is convincing. His main point is that Tolstoy was a great writer, possibly one of the best ever, yet he did not realize it! More precisely, he knew he could write well, but he did not realize that writing was what he did best. He suffered from the egotistic delusion that he was destined to be a great leader, a great teacher, or founder of a new religion. Johnson quotes from Tolstoy’s wife’s diaries in which she wrote that while Tolstoy was writing, there was relative calm in the house; it was when he was not writing that the storms came.

Tolstoy found his metier almost by accident, while serving as an apprentice officer in the army… Yet this drive to write was intermittent, and therein lay Tolstoy’s tragedy… From the enormous trouble Tolstoy took with his work at its best it is clear he was conscious of his high calling as an artist… Unfortunately, writing alone did not satisfy him. He had a will to power… We think of Tolstoy as a professional novelist, and of course in a sense this is true… But most of his life he was not writing fiction at all… The rest of his long life he was doing and being a multitude of other things, which in his view had higher moral priority.

Aristocrats under the old order found it difficult to shake off the notion that writing was for inferiors. Byron never regarded poetry as his most important work, which was to assist the subject peoples of Europe to achieve their independence. He felt himself called to lead, as befitted his class. So did Tolstoy. Indeed  he felt called to do more than lead: to prophesy, at times to play the Messiah. What, then, was he doing spending his time writing?… So from time to time, and increasingly as he grew older, he would renounce art and exert moral leadership. Now here was a disastrous case of self-deception. (My emphasis.)

Self-deception, or lack of self-awareness or self-knowledge is a common characteristic of the intellectuals Johnson describes. Shelley, for instance, had a powerful imagination and knew it, yet he seemed curiously unable or unwilling to  use it to understand the point of view of other people, even people close to him.

It is remarkable that Tolstoy, who thought about himself as much as any man who ever lived – including even Rousseau – who wrote about himself copiously and much of whose fiction revolves around himself in one way or another, should have been so conspicuously lacking in self-knowledge. As a writer he was superlatively qualified; and while he was writing he was least dangerous to those around him and to society generally. But he did not wish to be a writer, at any  rate of profane matter. Instead he wanted to lead, for which he had no capacity at all, other than will; to prophesy, to found a religion, and to transform the world, tasks for which he was morally and intellectually disqualified. So great novels remained unwritten, and he led, or rather dragged, himself and his family into a confused wilderness.

It is hard to read this book and not ask oneself: how well do I really know myself? Am I misjudging my qualities or abilities?

Searching the Internet for background info on Tolstoy, I came across this interesting essay by George Orwell on an essay or pamphlet by Tolstoy on the subject of Shakespeare, specifically on King Lear. Orwell delves into Tolstoy’s motives for writing this essay and draws interesting parallels between Tolstoy and Lear.

George Orwell – Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool – Essay

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Intellectuals? Bah, humbug!


In his book Intellectuals, Paul Johnson takes a close look at some key figures of modern times whose thoughts and writings have had a huge effect on people’s thinking for a long time, right down to today. Johnson examines the personal lives of these famous men (Lillian Hellman is the only female intellectual in this book), and asks, did they live up to their own dicta and ideals?

I’m up to chapter 4, Henrik Ibsen, and the answer so far is a resounding, “NO!” They all seem to have outscrooged Scrooge in meanness, bitterness and contempt for their fellow man. Read the rest of this entry »

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Traders, Guns & Money

The Bonfire of the Vanities
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1987 – publication of Tom Wolfe‘s Bonfire of the Vanities.
1989 – publication of Michael LewisLiar’s Poker.
2006 – publication of Satyajit Das‘  Traders, Guns and Money.

A steady stream of books by traders who can write, or writers who know something about trading. The essential message of these novels, though, seems to be the same, at least as far as trading and traders go: these people who play with other people’s money, do not know what they are doing.

Someone should have told Satyajit Das that this is not a new theme. It has been done before. It will not sell. Look. It only has 42 reviews on Amazon and the average rating is a pathetic 4.5. Lame.  And in the category of Futures trading, it is dangling along at an embarrassing #31, I mean, really. The market has spoken. The world has got the message, already, and learned the lesson. They learned it waaay back in 1987. 1989 tops. And Das puts out his book in 2006? He must think investors, bankers and businessmen were born yesterday! Hellloooo! Note to Das: this entire class of folk are now savvy. They will never be duped again. No, Siree!  Really. You’re wasting your time.

Das’ novel is fiction. That’s a clue. Fiction is not true. Das could only write fiction because there are no real people like in his novels. No-one is that stupid any more. I mean, come on: if they were, then the entire world would by now be on the brink of economic catastrophe. Which is nonsense, isn’t it? So there. Read on if you must, but honestly, I wouldn’t bother.

The associate from the law firm was there. “Albert, call me Albie, everybody does.” The partner eventually arrived. Short and with a full figure, Morrison Lucre lumbered into the room. There were more introductions and civilities.

Then, it was down to business, well almost. Morrison produced four pencils and carefully sharpened each one . He then laid them carefully next to the thick legal writing pad on the table. It took about five or six minutes to complete this activity. At the hourly rates of the professionals present, I calculated that the total cost of pencil sharpening was $2,000 – about $500 per pencil. It was truly a Zen moment.

“Shall we begin,” Morrison intoned. “I think it would helpful to go over the chronology of the transaction,” I began. “Splendid,” Morrison beamed. Everybody presumably was familiar with the transactions. But we were getting paid by the hour.

“OCM is a noodle maker?” I asked. “Yes,” it was Budi’s turn to beam. He unleashed a detailed history of the company. The description was punctuated by the occasional detail supplied by Adewiko. It was irrelevant. It was not even interesting. “Let’s focus on the transactions,” I interrupted. “Splendid. Yes, let’s,” it was Morrison.

There were so many zeros that I had trouble doing the calculations on my calculator. It was Monopoly money, a lot of noodles. OCM didn’t have the money. The loss was larger then the total capital of the company. This was a small technicality.

Click to read more.

A review:
Traders, Guns and Money will be useful for anyone with connection to finance but also anyone who cares about what might be going on with their money in this mysterious world, whether it is their pension money, the money they deposit with banks or the money of companies whose shares they own. This book will tell you some of the truth of what really does go on. [Don’t pay any attention to this. The reviewer obviously doesn’t know what he is talking about.]

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C.S. Lewis biography

(I’m selling some of my C.S. Lewis collection – click here for details.)

I’m thoroughly enjoying the C. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Llancellyn Green and Walter Hooper.

I’ve been reading as much of Lewis’ as I can recently, starting with re-reading all the Narnian stories The Chronicles of Narnia: 7 Books in 1 Hardcover (I’m teaching two of them this year), and then reading some of his literary essays and lectures, followed by Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Great Divorce (English Edition), and most recently the fascinating Space Trilogy (3 Book Series). I vaguely recall reading one of them before, but this time the impression I got was deep and strong. Perelandra (The Space Trilogy Book 2) (English Edition) is a knock-out, and I hesitated to read the 3rd in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, as I was sure it could not be better than Perelandra. I was wrong, though Perelandra outdoes it for sheer beauty.

I’ve been particularly interested in Lewis’ thoughts on fairy-stories, and am now reading the seminal essay on this subject by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Lewis led me to his mentor, George Macdonald. I started with Macdonald’s fairy-tales and was impressed. The Complete Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics)(a misnomer: it is far from complete; it does not include The Princess and the Goblin (Acc Childrens Classics)or “The Princess and Curdie” or Lilith or Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for example) includes one of the most perfect short stories I’ve read in a long time: The Day Boy and the Night Girl also called Photogen and Nycteris.

Book notes – “My Antonia”

Willa Cather
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Here are some brief notes and quotes on reading Willa Cather‘s “My Antonia“.

This is the third Willa Cather story I’ve read, all within the last month. I’m enchanted. I was inspired by  this chapter from  Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, a fresh approach to literary criticism from a free-market perspective.

I was awed by his intonation of the word ‘Selah’. I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not. But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.

C.S. Lewis wrote about the magical property of words to spark the imagination, and gave this property a high value, higher even than academic knowledge.

Lena moved without exertion, rather indolently, and her hand often accented the rhythm softly on her partner’s shoulder. She smiled if one spoke to her, but seldom answered. The music seemed to put her into a soft, waking dream, and her violet-coloured eyes looked sleepily and confidingly at one from under her long lashes. When she sighed the exhaled a heavy perfume of sachet powder. To dance, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ with Lena was like coming in with the tide.

Cather’s stories are about everyday life of pioneers in Nebraska; about the hardships, the struggles, the accidents, the births and deaths.  Drama happens but on the whole they are not melodramatic stories. Yet they shine with a lyrical passion for the land and the people who made it, and Cather comes up with some unforgettable images.

Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the Commencement exercises…: “You surprised me, Jim. I didn’t believe you could do as well as that. You didn’t get that speech out of books.’ Among my graduation presents there was a silk umbrella from Mrs. Harling, with my name on the handle.

With these simple words, Cather manages to convey what this present meant to the narrator.

‘I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony,’ I said. ‘I dedicated it to him.’ She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears. I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.

The eponymous heroine’s father, Mr. Shimerda, dies early on in the story.

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran abut like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion… I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence – the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset.

Some of the rustic descriptions reminded me of the diamond brilliance of  some late 19th century German novelists:

A great chunk of the shore had been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked by elder bushes, growing down to the water in flowery terraces. I did not touch them. I was overcome by content and drowsiness and by the warm silence about me. There was no sound but the high, sing-song buzz of wild bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath.

Cather shares some amusing insights into human nature:

Certainly Cutter liked to have his wife think him a devil. In some way he depended upon the excitement he could arouse in her hysterical nature. Perhaps he got the feeling of being a rake more from his wife’s rage and amazement than from any experiences of his own. His zest in debauchery might wane, but never Mrs. Cutter’s belief in it. The reckoning with his wife at the end of an escapade was something he counted on… The one excitement he really couldn’t do without was quarrelling with Mrs. Cutter!

My only criticism is the suppressed feelings of the narrator: it is obvious he is in love with Antonia from early on, yet not until the very end does he express his feelings. The descriptions of young Danish girls at work with the bare arms and white throats lacks the eroticism one would expect from a male narrator. Is he perhaps gay? one wonders.

When I turned back to my room the place seemed much pleasanter than before. Lena had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight.

When I read the following phrase, it struck me as perhaps being a translation from French or some other European language, although I cannot recall the original:

I stayed in my room all evening and thought things over. I even tried to persuade myself that I was standing in Lena’s way – it is so necessary to be a little noble!

I had to read the following second sentence twice before I understood it:

While I was putting my horse away, I heard a rooster squawking. I looked at my watch and sighed; it was three o’clock, and I knew that I must eat him at six.

On page 319, near the end of the book, we read,

her colour still gave her that look of deep-seated health and ardour. Still? Why, it flashed across me that though so much had happened in her life and in mine, she was barely twnety-four years old.

Well, what are you waiting for, then?  The following elegiac passage, especially the last sentence, reminded me of Dickens in his more sentimental mode, but without Dickens’ mawkishness:

In that singular light every little tree and shcok of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of sno-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.

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Guitar lessons for the musically hopeless

The Guitar Player
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Cleaning out my cupboards, I came across an old copy of this great teach-yourself book: Country and Blues Guitar for the Musically Hopeless

It’s simple, encouraging, full of humour that adds to and does not detract from the purpose of the book. Some great songs. Carol McComb gets you singing after learning just one chord! The book comes with 2 cassette tapes which include all the material in the book.

This is a wonderful teach-yourself book for teenagers and adults who have a guitar and a cassette player and just want to get started.

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Book Notes – Liar’s Poker

Michael Lewis, freshly graduated with a Master’s degree in economics from LSU, got a job working for investment bank Salomon Brothers in 1984 (how he got the job is a story to itself; as encouragement to read this witty book, I’ll just tell you it involves the late Queen Mother). Salomon Brothers expanded and created branch offices in Tokyo and London, giving Lewis an opportunity for some cross-cultural comparisons. He wrote about them in Liar’s Poker:

When Gutfreund appeared in any American branch office, the employees put on a show. They affected a casual confidence. Although their stomachs churned and their pants moistened, young Americans jested with the wandering Gutfreund. They said nothing terribly adventuresome, you understand. Jokes about the latest bond issue were in. Jokes about Gutfreund’s wife were out. As long as the ground rules were properly observed, Gutfreund gave it right back.

When Gutfreund visited the Tokyo office, the Japanese employees bowed their heads at their desks and worked the phones furiously, as if playing charades and assigned to communicate: Men At Work… No young Japanese peered skyward to chat with cherubic Gutfreund-san. An American friend of mine happened to be in the Tokyo office on one of Gutfreund’s visits and was taken aside by the boss for a discussion. When my friend returned to the trading floor, he recalls, “All the Japanese were staring at me as if I had just had a personal conversation with God and He had made me a saint.”

In London, Gutfreund was treated, quite simply, like a gauche American tourist. It would only have confirmed many people’s opinion of him if he had turned up wearing psychedelic Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt with a camera round his neck. People laughed behind his back, especially as the firm spiraled into decline. (p. 181-2, paperback edition).

Zemanta (below) points to an article titled, Lewie Ranieri wants to fix the mortgage mess ( If you’ve read Liar’s Poker, you’ll think (after you’ve picked yourself off the floor) that this is like Nero offering to “fix” Rome.

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C.S. Lewis and the Great Divide


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C.S. Lewis

Recently, I’ve been reading as much of and about the British author C.S. Lewis as I can, as you can see from my Amazon reading list in the right-hand sidebar. My original reason was to inform myself as I will teach two of his Narnian stories next academic year. I found Selected Literary Essays in our university library. The book contains some real gems, but is apparently and unfortunately out of print.

The first essay is Lewis’ inaugural lecture as Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance English Literature in the University of Cambridge, delivered in Cambridge on 29 November, 1954 and published in 1955 by Cambridge University Press: De Descriptione Temporum. ( Walter Hooper‘s very helpful notes can be downloaded from the website as a Word document.) This My Blog summarizes the lecture:

Lewis also talks about the difference between the Renaissance and modern culture- even recent modern culture. The secularization of society, increase in skepticism, and emphasis of progress are wholly different from the ideologies that tie every other period of history together. We are not returning to paganism, we are rejecting religion altogether. We do not seek to conserve and preserve the goods we have already acquired- we want newer, better things. Modernization has brought about the biggest change thus far in history, Lewis argues.

Finally, Lewis claims that he is a student of this [the pre-modern] era of literature. He may not have the best understanding of it, but he reads Medieval/Renaissance literature as if he lived then. So, what he lacks in understanding hopefully he’ll make up in character. You learn more about dinosaurs by seeing one, not by reading about them for years. In the same [way], Lewis hopes to teach the rest more about Medieval literature, because he is, in a sense, a dinosaur.

First, Lewis discusses the Great Divide traditionally located between mediaeval and Renaissance periods, and points to scholars who were then beginning to doubt whether it was such a great divide as people had thought. He identifies a change which has been coming over historical opinion within my own lifetime. It is temperately summed up by Professor Seznec in the words: “As the Middle Ages and the Renaissance come to be better known, the traditional antithesis between them grows less marked.” (Prof. J. Seznec, La Survivance des dieux antiques(London, 1940)). He then admits both the relative arbitrariness of such historical periods  (in the reality studied, there is no Great Divide. There is nothing in history that quite corresponds to a coastline or a watershed in geography) and at the same time, the existence of a Great Divide: one between modern man and Old Western culture. Lewis felt himself to be a man of the Old Western culture, rather than of today, and while this identity had something to do with his religion (Christianity), it was not the whole story.

This was the point of his which interested me most, so I will quote at length from the lecture to illustrate it. It is, in a nutshell perhaps, Lewis’ conservative philosophy.

The first division that naturally occurs to us is that between Antiquity and the Dark Ages – the fall of the Empire, the barbarian invasions, the christening of Europe. And of course no possible revolution in historical thought will ever make this anything less than a massive and multiple change….The partial loss of ancient learning and its recovery at the Renaissance were … both unique events. History furnished no rivals to such a death and such a re-birth. But we have lived to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists. If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.

Lewis elaborates:

To Gibbon the literary change from Virgil to Beowulf or the Hildebrand, if he had read them, would have seemed greater than it can to us. We can now see quite clearly that these barbarian poems were not really a novelty comparable to, say, The Waste Land or Mr. Jones’s Anathemata. They were rather an unconscious return to the spirit of the earliest classical poetry. The audience of Homer, and the audience of the Hildebrand, once they had learned one another’s language and metre, would have found one another’s poetry perfectly intelligible. Nothing new had come into the world….

(For a critique of  “modern” poetry by a more recent conservative, see Sean Gabb’s excoriation of “the non-poetry of Carol Ann Duffy“.)

The christening of Europe seemed to all our ancestors, whether they welcomed it themselves as Christians, or, like Gibbon, deplored it as humanistic unbelievers, a unique, irreversible event. But we have seen the opposite process. Of course the un-christening of Europe in our time is not quite complete; neither was her christening in the Dark Ages. But roughly speaking we may say that whereas all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, and two only, for us it falls into three-the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian. This surely must make a momentous difference. I am not here considering either the christening or the un-christening from a theological point of view. I am considering them simply as cultural changes. When I do that, it appears to me that the second change is even more radical than the first. Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not…. Surely the gap between Professor Ryle and Thomas Browne is far wider than that between Gregory the Great and Virgil? Surely Seneca and Dr. Johnson are closer together than Burton and Freud?

How so? How can Seneca and Dr. Johnson be “closer” than Burton and Freud? What Great Divide separates them greater than the one of time and culture? Lewis has already hinted at it when he wrote of “a man who could not read Virgil though his father could”. He develops his theme:

I have come to regard as the greatest of all divisions in the history of the West that which divides the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott

First, he examines political change:

The change is this. In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers, except at rare and short intervals, was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live “a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” and “pass their time in rest and quietness”. But now the organization of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of “appeals”,  “drives”, and “campaigns”. Our rulers have become like schoolmasters and are always demanding “keenness”. And you notice that I am guilty of a slight archaism in calling them “rulers”. “Leaders” is the modem word. I have suggested elsewhere that this is a deeply significant change of vocabulary. Our demand upon them has changed no less than theirs on us. For of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call “magnetism” or “personality”.

Next, the arts:

I do not think that any previous age produced work which was, in its own time, as shatteringly and bewilderingly new as that of the Cubists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and Picasso has been in ours. And I am quite sure that this is true of the art I love best, that is, of poetry…. Skaldic poetry was unintelligible if you did not know the kenningar, but intelligible if you did. And – this is the real point – all Alexandrian men of letters and all skalds would have agreed about the answers. I believe the same to be true of the dark conceits in Donne; there was one correct interpretation of each and Donne could have told it to you. Of course you might misunderstand what Wordsworth was “up to” in Lyrical Ballads; but everyone understood what he said. I do not see in any of these the slightest parallel to the state of affairs disclosed by a recent symposium on Mr. Eliot’s Cooking Egg. Here we find seven adults (two of them Cambridge men) whose lives have been specially devoted to the study of poetry discussing a very short poem which has been before the world for thirty-odd years; and there is not the slightest agreement among them as to what, in any sense of the word, it means. I am not in the least concerned to decide whether this state of affairs is a good thing, or a bad thing. I merely assert that it is a new thing. In the whole history of the West, from Homer – I might almost say from the Epic of Gilgamesh – there has been no bend or break in the development of poetry comparable to this.

The third change is in religion, or what Lewis calls “the un-Christening” of the world:

Thirdly, there is the great religious change which I have had to mention before: the un-christening. Of course there were lots of sceptics in Jane Austen’s time and long before, as there are lots of Christians now. But the presumption has changed. In her days some kind and degree of religious belief and practice were the norm: now, though I would gladly believe that both kind and degree have improved, they are the exception. I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ” relapsing into Paganism“. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

The fourth change is the rise of technology and the development of machines:

Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. (The only pejorative sense which Johnson gives to Primitive in his Dictionary is, significantly, “Formal; affectedly solemn; Imitating the supposed gravity of old times”.) Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”? Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. For the two great imaginative expressions of the myth, as distinct from the theorem –Keats’s Hyperion and Wagner‘s Ring – are pre-Darwinian. Let us give these their due. But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

I thus claim for my chosen division of periods that on the first count it comes well up to scratch; on the second and third it arguably surpasses all; and on the fourth it quite clearly surpasses them without any dispute. I conclude that it really is the greatest change in the history of Western Man.

Lewis sees the period since the Iliad was composed till Waterloo was fought as having a continuity that does not extend after that fateful battle:

Of course within that immense period there are all sorts of differences. There are lots of convenient differences between the area I am to deal with and other areas; there are important differences within the chosen area. And yet despite all this-that whole thing, from its Greek or pre-Greek beginnings down to the day before yesterday, seen from the vast distance at which we stand today, reveals a homogeneity that is certainly important and perhaps more important than its interior diversities.

Lewis announced himself, in this lecture at least, as the spokesman of Old Western Culture, albeit in such halting fashion as I can. Lewis then reassured his audience:

In the individual fife, as the psychologists have taught us, it is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us. I think the same is true of society. To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. The unhistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past. Dante read Virgil. Certain other medieval authors evolved the legend of Virgil as a great magician. It was the more recent past, the whole quality of mind evolved during a few preceding centuries, which impelled them to do so. Dante was freer; he also knew more of the past. And you will be no freer by coming to misinterpret Old Western Culture as quickly and deeply as those medievals misinterpreted Classical Antiquity; or even as the Romantics misinterpreted the Middle Ages. Such misinterpretation has already begun. To arrest its growth while arrest is still possible is surely a proper task for a university.

Lewis concludes his talk thus:

the vast change which separates you from Old Western has been gradual and is not even now complete. Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet; are meeting in this room… I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours… You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modem anthropologist could never have told us? He would tell us without knowing he was telling. One thing I know: I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modem scholarship had been on the wrong track for years. Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners… It is my settled conviction that in order to read Old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modem literature. And because this is the judgement of a native, I claim that, even if the defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

Here are some further gems I found memorable:

We can’t get into the real forest of the past; that is part of what the word past means.
We notice in Beowulf that an old sword is expected to be better than a new one.


Book Notes – The Shadow University (2)

Following on…

Catherine MacKinnon and Stanley Fish… are explicit in their disdain for the First Amendment‘s absolutist and noncontextual approach. In her influential book Only Words, MacKinnon, a feminist legal scholar at the University of Michigan, introduced her chapter “Equality and Speech” with the blunt statement that “the law of equality and the law of freedom of speech are on a collision course in this country.” (p. 76).  … MacKinnon noted that … Claiborne Hardware [v. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] brought the dichotomy between speech and action into the service of saving the nation’s oldest and best known civil rights organization. She claimed that it was unjust  to accord the two groups the same protection under the First Amendment, as properly interpreted. For MacKinnon, it was not problematic to define a principled basis for treating the NAACP and the Klan differently under the law: “Suppressed entirely in the piously evenhanded treatment of the Klan and the boycotters – the studied inability to tell the difference between oppressor and oppressed that passes for principled neutrality in this area as well as others- was the fact that the Klan was promoting inequality and the civil rights leaders were resisting it, in a country that is supposedly not constitutionally neutral on the subject.” As with Marcuse, the crucial distinction was between the “regressive” and the “progressive”. Stanley Fish’s attitude toward the current judicial interpretation of the First Amendment is refreshingly overt in the title of his 1994 book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech… And It’s a Good Thing Too.(p. 77.)

Justice Felix Frankfurter, himself the member of a religious minority…recognized that the issue in the case [Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1940] reflected the “profoundest problem confronting a democracy – the problem which Lincoln cast in a memorable dilemma: “Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” Posing the question that way virtually assured the answer that liberty was going to have to be compromised…. A mere three years after Gobitis… the Court reviewed another flag pledge case… and this time, by a vote of 6 to 3, even with America herself at war, the justices disavowed Gobitis. ….. In West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)… (w)riting for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson had not quarrel with West Virginia’s requirement that certain courses be taught, nor with its attempts to inspire patriotism by exposing students to national history and traditions. However, the board’s flag salute requirement was different, because it compelled a student “to declare a belief [and]… to utter what is not in his mind.”(p. 188.)

The Court now found that what underlay its decision in Gobitis – the supposed conflict between liberty of conscience and the state’s ability to survive – was both an exaggeration and a distraction from the core constitutional question. The issue was not weak or strong government, but see the strength of America in “individual freedom  of mind” rather than in “officially disciplined uniformity for which history indicates a disappointing and disastrous end.” … Jackson explained why even men of good intentions should not possess the awesome power to compel belief. Both the good and the evil had attempted “to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential.”… In short, Jackson wrote for the majority of the Court, “compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard…. the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”(p. 189.)

I would amend that last sentence to read “The strength of America lay in her “individual freedom of mind”, and not in strong government; and that confusing the one with the other paved the way open (as it inevitably would) to overbearing and interfering government and eventually tyranny”. In a word, the road to serfdom.

“The purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution”, he concluded, was precisely to protect “from all official control” the domain that was “the sphere of intellect and spirit.” Barnette, not Gobitis, became the landmark, defining the constitutional and moral norms: the primacy of individual conscience over the social benefits of conformity, the need for each individual to enjoy liberty in order for a common liberty to exist, and the intolerability of restricting even one person’  liberty in “the sphere of intellect and spirit” in an attempt to create some better world. (p. 190.)

Colleges and universities have accepted a new “compensatory” version of separate but unequal. Whites obviously could not veto the presence of nonwhites in a college dormitory. Such inequality arises from the universities’ belief that its students are not individuals, but instances of blood and history. (p. 201.)

If one truly believes in the liberty of gay and lesbian students, of course, the real struggle is not for special privilege, but for equal rights. (p. 203.)

The academic mania for group identity presupposes what free individuals must decide for themselves – the nature and compound of their own individual lives. Blacks are free to be , by their own individual choices, radical, moderate, conservative, or apolitical; separatist or assimilationist; Afrocentric of South Carolinian. They do not need universities to assign them identities. (p. 204.)

On December 6, Robert Chatelle replied on the sexual-minority listserve of the National Writers Union, observing that “gay men are no more or less ‘vulnerable’ (or ‘sensitive’ of ‘artistic’) than any other class of citizens.” Indeed, Chatelle noted, Pearson “was engaging in negative stereotyping,” which, “ironically enough … is forbidden under the speech code she was defending.” “Scratch a defender of ‘political correctness’,” he observed, “and you’ll find some variety of bigot. For Chatelle, “defenders of ‘political correctness’ subscribe to two myths that are damaging to the rights of minorities: … vulnerability and .. interchangeability.” The “myth of vulnerability,” Chatelle observed, is based on the patronizing belief that “members of minority groups are so damaged by discrimination that we become incapable of speaking for ourselves… We are not. We want equal rights. But it is difficult to make that argument convincing when people like Sue Pearson are going around and stating that gay men are ‘vulnerable’ people who need ‘special’ protection.” The “myth of interchangeability,” for Chatelle, was equally dangerous. It “holds that there is such a thing as ‘the women’s viewpoint,’ the ‘gay/lesbian viewpoint,’ [or] the African-American viewpoint.'” (p. 205.)

This mentality, or the “myth of interchangeability”, sounds like polylogism, from which, perhaps, it originated: Marx and the Marxians, foremost among them the “proletarian philosopher” Dietzgen, taught that thought is determined by the thinker’s class position. What thinking produces is not truth but “ideologies.” This word means, in the context of Marxian philosophy, a disguise of the selfish interest of the social class to which the thinking individual is attached. It is therefore useless to discuss anything with people of another social class. Ideologies do not need to be refuted by discursive reasoning; they must be unmasked by denouncing the class position, the social background, of their authors. Thus Marxians do not discuss the merits of physical theories; they merely uncover the “bourgeois” origin of the physicists.

A perverted, but very common, form of this is hilariously illustrated by C.S. Lewis in his allegorical story, “The Pilgrim’s Regress“:  to refute the “argument” that two plus two equals four, the “correct refutation” is “You only say that because you are a mathematician!”

The assumption is that the identity of individuals at our universities is inseparable from those official categories that the university recognizes, quite independently of how such individuals view themselves. Diversity means the acceptance of those distinctions by blood and history. Multiculturalism means the acceptance of the view that individual students exist not as individuals, but as instances of group identity useful to some partisan  understanding of the history of oppression. (p. 206.)

To understand the moral consequence of academic official group identity, consider the appalling predicament of students from multiracial families. At Penn, in 1995, students formed an organization with the sardonic name “Check One”… [which] “takes its name from the fact that one is asked literally to check one race or ethnic group when filling out standardized forms… We are largely an ignored people, and segregation, which preserves and reinforces culture, can also serve to exclude us.” Members were not “half-and-half”… because they were not made up “of segmented parts… distant and separate pieces.” (p. 208.)

This resonated with me: in Japan, children of mixed marriages are dubbed “half”. I could never understand the American predilection for checking off one’s racial identity; what if you did not belong neatly into any of the categories offered? And why is it so important for the authorities to know?

At Standford, Carl Hicks, a Korean and black senior, formed, with other students uncomfortable with Standford’s official group identities, an organization called Prism. He understood the immoral and intended consequence of current academic multiculturalism and anti-individualism: “When I got to Standford I didn’t think of myself as black or Korean or white. I thought of myself as Carl Hicks. But everyone kept labeling me.” (p. 209.)

Out of the mouths of babes…

Attendance at group-identity organizations is often minuscule as a percentage of the intended population, and militant leaders complain endlessly about “apathy.” Whites don’t feel particularly guilty about being white, and almost no designated “victims” adopt truly radical politics. Most undergraduates unabashedly seek their portion of American freedom, legal equality, and bounty. What to do with such benighted students? Increasingly, the answer to that question is to use the in loco parentis apparatus of the university to reform their private consciences and minds. (p. 211.)

Penn [State University] simply set about to control the ways its students thought about and valued the world. It viewed incoming students as incapable, on their own, of sorting out their differences and their common humanity, of understanding how to live decently, and of thinking critically about America. Above all, the university viewed its students as ignorant of the real nature of their group identities. One student on the subcommittee on “Diversity Follow-Up Program” complained in a memo about the planners’ contempt for individualism and individual identity, their “desire… continually to consider the collective before the individual.”… A fellow committee member, an administrator, underlined the word “individual” on the student’s memo, and replied that “This is a ‘RED FLAG’ phrase today, which is considered by many to be RACIST.” “Arguments that champion the INDIVIDUAL over the group,” he informed her, “ultimately priveleges [sic] the ‘INDIVIDUAL’ belonging to the dominant group.” Indeed, he concluded, “in a pluralistic society, individuals are only as significant their groups.” (p. 213.)

There are core beliefs of current thought reform. An individual is not an autonomous moral being, but a member of a racial and historical group that possesses moral debt or credit. There is only on e appropriate set of views about race, gender, sexual preference, and culture, and holding an inappropriate belief, once truth has been offered, is not an intellectual disagreement, but a act of oppression or denial. (p. 215.)

Katherine Balmer, assistant dean for freshmen [at Columbia University], said, “You can’t bring all these people together and say, ‘Now be one big happy community,’ without some sort of training [ emphasis added]” (p. 218.)

Northwestern University, for the planning of its New Student Week in 1989, formed a Cultural Diversity Project Committee…  One pleased committee member told the reporter, “It’s basically a white guilt organization.” The next day, New Student Week began, and the keynote speaker informed fifteen hundred freshmen that there were not to blame for the “customs and habits of thought” inherited from their parents and communities, but that they now must remake their lives, ridding themselves of “the ugliness, the meanness, …[ the] narrowness and[the] tribalism.” Students then had to discuss the lecture, led by the “facilitators” who had been trained the day before. (p. 221.)

The shame is that it does not require deep courage to resist the sacrifice of liberty and legal equality for peace. There are nations in the world where a college president indeed would risk his life by standing up for academic freedom. That is not the situation in the United States today. What is required is not so much courage as dedication to liberty and legal equality supported by just a bit of backbone. The fact that our academic leaders are not up tot his task is alarming. The fear of disruption, of causing offense, of being associated with controversy, linked to careerism, has produced a hollow, unprincipled cowardice. (p. 329.)

And speaking of the Supreme Court’s upholding the First Amendment against the rising tide of political correctness, just one month ago,

Today, the United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Citizens United v. FCC, voting 5-4 to stand by the Constitution and protect our First Amendment right to free speech. Justice Kennedy, writing for the Court, said, “We find no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers.”

Penny Young Nance, Concerned Women for America’s (CWA) Chief Executive Officer, said, “The Court correctly concluded that judges should stop playing semantics with our Constitution and read the text as it is written. The government should not be limiting political speech because someone is rich or poor, or because they disagree with a particular point of view.”

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