Reading

Sarah Willard, “Come Ye Sinners,” Blind Mule Blog (Aug. 11, 2022) [link]:

What is endlessly comforting to me as a Christian is that the first step in God’s provision is emptiness. What qualifies you for Christ? Need, lack, want. These are things I have, so this is good news. A lack of love and strength is exactly what I can bring to Christ.

In her winsome, humble way, Sarah writes about on why feeling tired and empty is not necessarily bad place to be. A wise young woman.


Freddie DeBoer, “Hard Work is Only Sometimes Necessary and Never Sufficient, But What Else Can You Do? (yes, the system is rigged, but you’re in it all the same),” FdB (Aug. 15, 2022) [link]:

Life’s not fair. But that doesn’t mean that you get to just opt out of it. And you know what? Congrats to that guy who doesn’t work hard and enjoys more success, seriously. Te salut. Bottom line: hard work can’t ensure your success but a lack of hard work can ensure your failure. 
                             * * * 
[B]eing a socialist never entailed a belief that nothing we do matters or that we were exempt from the need to work. The fact that so many people have come to believe that the only options before us are a witless rise-and-grind work fetishism or an utterly fatalistic belief that nothing we do matters… it doesn’t say good things about our culture. Personally, I blame capitalism. 

That last bit is tongue-in-cheek, if the post title didn’t give it away.


Alan Jacobs, “Tolerance,” Snakes and Ladders (Aug. 15, 2022) [link]:

[Washington is saying] I . . . do not offer “toleration” to you and people like you, because it is not in the power of some Americans merely to tolerate the exercise of other Americans’ rights. To be an American is to be on the same footing with every other American. This is the view that Yenor rejects: he’s explicitly pursuing an America in which Protestant Christians have the power to tolerate of others, and the liberties of those others depend upon the sufferance of their Protestant rulers.

If I may take this one more (theological) step, those who believe in the Imago Dei should not view others with toleration (as those who are permitted to be wrong) but almost with reverence (as those who are called to choose). C.S. Lewis has something to say about this, too. [link]

And finally, one more from ayjay if you are at all interested in the technical aspects of music recording: Alan Jacobs, “untitled,” Snakes and Ladders (Aug. 12, 2022). [link]

Essay questions from the Primer

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995):

  • “[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as could be, and that some cultures were better than others. This was not a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.” pp. 16-17
  • “[A]s many first-time fathers had realized in the delivery room, there was something about the sight of an actual baby that focused the mind. In a world of abstractions, nothing was more concrete than a baby.” p. 150
  • “[T]he difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” p. 256

Each of these is thought or voiced by one of the father figures in this novel. Discuss among yourselves.

Seven from Six

It is perilous to abstract quotations from a novel since context is the key and otherwise all you have is epigrams. Nevertheless, I don’t want to give spoilers, so here goes with some excerpts from Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six (2019):

  • “You have these lines you won’t cross. But then you cross them. And suddenly you possess the very dangerous information that you can break the rule and the world won’t instantly come to an end. You’ve taken a big, black, bold line and you’ve made it a little bit gray. And now every time you cross it again, it just gets grayer and grayer until one day you look around and you think, There was a line here once, I think.” (pp. 65-66)
  • “When you have everything, someone else getting a little something feels like they’re stealing from you.” (pp. 149-150)
  • “If I’ve given the impression that trust is easy—with your spouse, with your kids, with anybody you care about—if I’ve made it seem like it’s easy to do . . . then I’ve misspoken. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But you have nothing without it. Nothing meaningful at all. That’s why I chose to do it.” (p. 215).
  • “When [redacted] died, that was it. I’d decided there was no sense in getting sober. I rationalized it. You know, If the universe wanted me to get clean, it wouldn’t have killed [redacted]. You can justify anything. If you’re narcissistic enough to believe that the universe conspires for and against you—which we all are, deep down—then you can convince yourself you’re getting signs about anything and everything.” (pp. 295-296).
  • I was getting a lot of phone calls from [redacted] at all hours of the day. I’d say, “Let me come get you.” And [redacted]’d refuse. I thought about trying to force [redacted] into rehab. But you can’t do that. You can’t control another person. It doesn’t matter how much you love them. You can’t love someone back to health and you can’t hate someone back to health and no matter how right you are about something, it doesn’t mean they will change their mind.” (p. 299).
  • “She said, ‘Don’t count yourself out this early . . . . You’re all sorts of things you don’t even know yet.’ That really stuck with me. That who I was wasn’t entirely already determined.” (p. 320)
  • “But if you get to be my age and you can’t look back at your life and wonder about some of your choices . . . well, you have no imagination.” (p. 331).

The Eyes of the Heart

Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart (HarperSanFrancisco 1999).

  • When she is in her 80s, Buechner’s mother, who generally “refused to talk about death the way she refused to talk about a great many other things,” unaccountably asked “Do you really believe anything happens after you die?” After an unsuccessful attempt at a verbal answer (exacerbated by her partial and partially willful deafness), Buechner “tried to answer the question in a letter, I wrote her I believe that what happens when you die is that, in ways I knew no more about than she did, you are given back your life again, and I said there were three reasons why I believed it First, I wrote her, I believed it because, if I were God and loved the people I created and wanted them to become at last the best they had it in them to be, I couldn’t imagine consigning them to oblivion when their time came with the job under the best of circumstances only a fraction done. Second, I said, I believed it, apart from any religious considerations, because I had a hunch it was true. I intuited it I said that if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy. It feels like a mystery. It feels as though, at the innermost heart of it, there is Holiness, and that we experience all the horrors that go on both around us and within us as horrors rather than as just the way the cookie crumbles because, in our own innermost hearts, we belong to Holiness, which they are a tragic departure from. And lastly, I wrote her, I believe that what happens to us after we die is that we aren’t dead forever because Jesus said so.” p. 14-16.
  • “[My brother Jamie] never went to church except once in a while to hear me, and he didn’t want a funeral, he told me [but] he did ask me if I would write a prayer for him that he could use, and . . . he had it there on the table beside him [when he died]. ‘Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love, In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.'” p. 163.
  • “Years ago when I first started giving lectures and readings here and there, I rather dreaded the question-and-answer sessions that usually followed them, nervous that I wouldn’t know what or how to respond and that the audience would see me for the impostor I more than half suspected I was. Now, on the other hand, it is the part of such junkets that I look forward to most, and I find myself responding to people I have never set eyes on before as though they are members of my own family. The risk, of course, is that I will make a fool of myself, or worse . . . . But it has been my experience that the risks are far outweighed by the rewards, chief of which is that when you speak to strangers as though they are friends, more often than not, if only for as long as the encounter lasts, they become friends, and if in the process they also think of you as a little peculiar, who cares? In fact it seems to me that I often feel freer to be myself in the company of stranger-friends than in the company of those with whom there is such a long tradition of reserve and circumspection that it is hard to transcend it.” p. 178.
  • “I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best, I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more or less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness—even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus—as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. For the most part it is only in my novels that I have allowed myself to speak unreservedly of what with the eyes of my heart I have seen. . . .” pp. 180-81.

Misha on Depression

Talcott Garland:

  • “I am depressed. And I almost like it. Depression is seductive: it offends and teases, frightens you and draws you in, tempting you with its promise of sweet oblivion, then overwhelming you with a nearly sexual power, squirming past your defenses, dissolving your will, invading the tired spirit so utterly that it becomes difficult to recall that you ever lived without it . . . or to imagine that you might live that way again. With all the guile of Satan himself, depression persuades you that its invasion was all your own idea, that you wanted it all along. It fogs the part of the brain that reasons, that knows right and wrong. It captures you with its warm, guilty, hateful pleasures, and, worst of all, it becomes familiar. All at once, you find yourself in thrall to the very thing that most terrifies you. Your work slides, your friendships slide, your marriage slides, but you scarcely notice: to be depressed is to be half in love with disaster.”

Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park 207 (2002).

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (FSG 1968, reprint ed. 2008).

  • Concerning “love” she writes “. . . everyone involved placed a magical faith in the efficacy of the very word.” p. 29, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”
  • “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.” p. 47, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”
  • “I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” p. 63, Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)
  • “Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. ‘Howard likes Las Vegas,’ an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, ‘because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.’ Why do we like those stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.” p. 71, “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”
  • “Going back to California is not like going back to Vermont, or Chicago; Vermont and Chicago are relative constants, against which one measure one’s own change. All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.” p. 176, “Notes from a Native Daughter”
  • “It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat. I sometimes do, which is what I am talking about here.” p. 205, “Rock of Ages”
  • “[O]ne of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” p. 226, “Goodbye to All That”

AJ

You should visit Alan Jacob’s blog regularly or have Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org) on your newsfeed. You know this, because I write it all the time. Of course you will not find everything he writes (or reads) interesting, but many things are quite striking. Four recent examples:

  • In “hubris” (Aug. 26, 2021) [link], Jacobs revisits the question of whether it might just be better to opt out of social media.
  • On August 25 [link], Jacobs points us to his January 6, 2021 piece “School for Scale” in The Hedgehog Review [link] and reminds us why it is really, really important to understand decimals.
  • Jacobs refers us to something Oliver Burkeman wrote long ago in the Guardian: “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time” (May 21, 2014) [link]. Eerily reminiscent of observed reality!
  • “Tolkien and Auden” (Aug. 16, 2021) [link] concerns the two famous writers who were good, though unlikely, friends. Jacobs wrote a delightful short play (“Sandfield Road”) about the two men. You can read it in 15 minutes, here [link].

Jacobs has twenty eight posts since August 15, so you have some catching up to do.

18 for ’21

Old and new friends.

Dystopia 2021

“Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”

—Julian


In December 1983, it was a common thing to speculate about how similar (and different) the world was from that anticipated (proposed?) by George Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984.

A few days ago I picked up P.D. James’ 1992 novel for the first time in 15 or 20 years and was surprised to rediscover that the first entry in Theo’s diary was for this coming Friday:

Friday 1 January 2021  Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. . . .

I had forgotten that in The Children of Men (1992) the events all occur in 2021. The premise (no spoilers if you haven’t read it) is that human fertility declines so that no one is born after 1995. The implications are frightening, as the aging population comes to trade freedom for security (in the normal way) as it faces the coming disintegration of the social order.

Boris Johnson is not the Warden of England, and the disaster James speculated about is not upon us, but the cautions James weaves into this “hopeful dystopia” are ones we may benefit from in this, the age of the latest pandemic.

Recommended (again).*

*I have no opinion about the 2006 movie, which (in any case) is set in 2027, not 2021.

Duo-biography

Woodward RageBob Woodward, Rage (2020) [link].

This is an intriguing book. The veteran (older than Mr. Trump, younger than Mr. Biden) investigative journalist for the Washington Post returns to the subject of his 2018 book: Fear: Trump in the White House. While I think he will always be best known for his work with Carl Bernstein on All the President’s Men (1974) and his collaboration with Scott Armstrong on The Brethren (1979), this book is well worth reading as a (generally) unsympathetic account of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Of course, Woodward provides ample evidence of Mr. Trump’s personality quirks from the unpleasant to the unnerving (fascinating, but nothing much new here if you have been awake since 2016), but he deals at length with the major crises of the last four years—Comey, North Korea, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment, the Biden-Ukraine scandal, the pandemic—in such a way that the reader has to conclude that Mr. Trump has been a reasonably effective president despite his unpleasant and unsettling style.

Many of the early advisors come off well here, especially James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats, and (most surprisingly) Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump himself seems just as mean-spirited and impulsive as you thought, but also vaguely lucky in how things turn out—like a drunken driver who manages not to hit anything or anyone despite veering repeatedly onto the wrong side of the road.

Though Mr. Trump has been widely mocked for being so foolish as to be interviewed on tape so many times* for this book, the jury remains out on the political wisdom of that decision.

The book is not just about Mr. Trump. Because of the emphasis on personal interviews, Woodward is a major character in the book and often seems to be trying to persuade Mr. Trump to change his mind on points of policy or character. We learn nearly as much about Woodward’s clever technique as Mr. Trump’s rambling responses. Though Woodward writes of the April 5, 2020 interview “We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes,” [300], they seem to be very much from the same universe to me—the universe of accomplished men whose success has blinded them to the fundamental contingency of their lives.

Woodward bluntly writes

When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.

[392] Nevertheless, the portrait Woodward draws is strangely compelling.

Recommended.

*Woodward lists nineteen interviews, eighteen dated in the last ten months: 03/31/2016; 12/05/2019; 12/13/2019; 12/30/2019; 01/20/2020; 01/22/2020; 02/07/2020; 02/19/2020; 03/19/2020; 03/28/2020; 04/05/2020; 04/13/2020; 05/06/2020; 05/22/2020;06/03/2020; 06/19/2020; 06/22/2020; 07/08/2020; and 07/21/2020. [450]