Archives for category: Books/Reviews

The latest episode of the LocoFoco Netcast features Professor James R. Otteson, author of Actual Ethics (2006) and the forthcoming Seven Deadly Economic Sins (2021). The video is up, now, on YouTube:

LocoFoco Netcast, April 6, 2021 (recorded a week earlier).

Nelson Bond, a bookseller who specialized in the work of James Branch Cabell — and from whom I may have purchased a Cabell volume back in the 1980s or ’90s — was also a writer. In 2002, a few years before he died, Arkham House published a collection of his stories, The Far Side of Nowhere. I just read its first story, “Command Performance,” first published in a pulp in 1951.

It is a tale of madness and psychological treatment. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this science fiction story is that the science which provides the backbone of it is “dianetics.” Which is a technique developed by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who would build on it to make a religion, Scientology.

Dianetics is treated most matter-of-factly. There is no gosh-wow or super-science, and though the author insists that the technique is not hypnosis, it sure seems like hypnosis.

The story is no masterwork, but it has its charms. And it ends with a twist. A very pulpy, science-fiction-y twist. A twist with the word “twist” in it, for “The Twisted Ones” is a key concept.

It would make a good hour-long episode of The Twilight Zone.

twv

“In the United States, there is no religious animosity,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, “because all religion is respected, and no sect is predominant.”

Religion in American life has changed since the 1830s, when the French nobleman and sociologist wrote Democracy in America. He was wrong, of course: there was indeed religious animosity in America. He didn’t see it. But it wasn’t as big an issue as a rational person might expect. Hence his statement.

Nowadays, religious animosity has come back big time, fed into a conflagration by the new social classes aligning themselves in partisan politics. 

So we should expect to see many attempts to make sense of the growing rift.

But you might not want to bother with Greg M. Epstein’s piece in the Boston Globe this weekend. For he might as well be from Mars, not France, he is so wide of the mark. 

A truly inclusive vision of America recognizes the nonreligious, too,” Epstein writes. The article’s blurb encapsulates where Epstein goes wrong: “Amid rising Christian nationalism, President Biden should reach out directly to the ‘nones.’”

“Nones” is the silly term of current jargon to describe people with scant religious beliefs and no religious affiliations. The problem in the blurb can be detected in the article: the reason we see rising “Christian nationalism” (which really freaks out Democrats) stems from the fact that Democrats are increasingly seen — quite accurately, I think — as anti-Christian globalists. 

Christian nationalism is a reaction. But it is not the only reaction against the godless globalists.

The anti-Christianity is quite evident in the united government under the Democrats. Indeed, it was formalized in the 116th Congress’s invocation “to the monotheistic god, Brahma,” a prayer that ended with “Amen and Awomen,” an old joke the supplicant apparently took seriously, signaling to those feminists who are also so deeply against men that they cannot abide having the phoneme “men” appear in an ancient word, “Amen” that has nothing to do with either men or women. This is rightly perceived as anti-Christian, even if the performer of the prayer calls himself a Methodist. 

Epstein only sees the pandering to religion, of course. “The Biden presidency has already involved several prayerful events,” he writes. “Some of the most prominent such occasions have essentially ignored our existence,” he laments, thus providing his nones-such bona fides — he is a “humanist chaplain at Harvard.” 

But this concern basically boils down to a Do the Right Thing-style complaint about the lack of “brothers on the wall.” 

“Calls for ‘unity’ framed largely around religion not only erase nearly one-third of the country but ultimately denigrate us by suggesting traditional faith is necessary to cope with the nation’s problems.” He does not consider a more likely rationale: that what Biden & Co. are doing is over-compensating.

Instead of seeing religion as a way to sucker in inattentive marginal voters who may be marginally religious, and get them to pass over all the anti-Christianity and blasphemy of the current tribe of Democrats, Epstein pushes forward his ridiculous, low-level partisanship. “This is a loss for all of us, because in the wake of the Trump presidency, the notion of true inclusiveness — and President Biden’s obvious passion for it, albeit imperfectly executed at times — are among the most compelling aspects of this new administration.”

But what Epstein cannot see is that Biden is trying to include people who find Epstein’s crowd repellent

Perhaps it helps being a libertarian while also being a philosophically inclined “none” — for we who are both have seen the tensions between religious and anti-religious zealots and thus can appraise the rift with some objectivity. The relentless obnoxiousness of many libertarian atheists and pagans has led many religious libertarians to linger in the inhospitable waters of the Republican Party for longer than they otherwise would. Indeed, the “relentless obnoxiousness” led to the once-upon-a-time “paleolibertarian” turn of the late 1980s and early 1990s, not a small thing in the libertarian movement. One point that Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell were making in their paleo turn was, in essence, “can’t you non-believers be less offensive and not scare off traditionalist recruits?” Not a wholly misguided gripe. For many nones are indeed quite indecorous, often blasphemous.

Epstein downplays the action/reaction nature of the current, major-party version of this divide, merely feeding the “action” part. “My two decades of work representing the nonreligious in interfaith work have convinced me that we so-called ‘nonbelievers’ share core common values with progressive and moderate people of faith.” Well, yeah. But he does not acknowledge that there are “nones” who reject his brand of globalism, and would rather ally ourselves with anti-socialists and limited government people. Yes, we exist, too. 

But let us be frank: Epstein does indeed seek to exclude us. Completely. 

“I have been moved as Biden repeatedly stressed that his faith impelled him to build the most unifying presidency in US history,” he writes, “promising to restore the ‘soul of America’ by coalescing diverse faith voters, social justice activists, racial and ethnic groups, and LGBTQ, disabled, and young people. Still, you can’t restore an inclusive spirit, while excluding — or ignoring — large groups under your big tent.” 

It is hard not to roll one’s eyes. Progressives are not “for inclusion” — they are as exclusionary as any other group, if not more so. They seek to exclude, after all, those outside Epstein’s big tent, including many nonbelievers. 

For some of us nonbelievers also disbelieve in the Gospel of Inclusion, in no small part for reasons of logic: you cannot include everybody. It’s the wrong emphasis, because there is no universal principle there. Law and government, upon further reflection, must be about the terms for inclusion/exclusion and definitely not inclusion über alles. 

Since no group can include everyone, there’s no reason why the particular interests of a group of rural Baptists must align and work in lockstep with a coterie of cosmopolitan pagan lesbians. But these poles-apart groups can coexist if the number of public goods they are required to share is made as low as possible. Baptists may take care of Baptists, but still respect pagan lesbians’ rights to independence, while those goddess-worshiping homosexuals can form their communities and mutual aid societies and also allow Baptists to live in peace, respecting only the limited rights to freedom of the Baptists.

But the Democrats’ have embraced a chimera, where all groups must contribute to the well-being, robustly defined, of all other groups, leaving scant room for independent action. Baptists must not only defend pagans’ and LGBTQ nonbelievers’ rights, they must pay for those groups’ abortions and sex changes and, insult to injury, allow the heathens into their communities. That is integral to the Democrats’ “inclusionism”: forced inclusion. 

That coercion is one-sided, though: no gays and pagans are made to follow and accept the rites of Baptists. And this breeds reaction against the Democrats’ “inclusionism.”

Epstein is, apparently, ignorant of all that. Or merely blinded to it. The idea that a free society can incorporate diversity by reducing the purview of government is lost on him.

Understandable, though, since it is usually lost on conservatives too, so reactionary and unimaginative are they. Hence their pet “nationalist” projects, where the idea is to jigger with culture to support a robust nation-state. 

This is why some of us nones prefer liberty to nationalism as well as liberty over socialism, “inclusionism” and “globalism.”

In this article, Epstein is reviewing a book by Ryan Burge, a Baptist preacher and professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, who, Epstein tells us, “has recently gained a following among atheists like me.” Burge’s book is titled The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, and it may actually be good, for all I know — but going by Epstein’s review, I doubt it.

For Epstein concludes quoting the author: “‘Think about the rise of the nones,’ Burge writes, waxing homiletic, ‘the same way as globalization. In both cases, the same cold, hard fact is true: We cannot stop it.’” But “globalization” is one of those words like “multiculturalism” that does not mean what its users think it means. 

“Globalization” could be a good term for increasing freedom of movement and trade. But in Democrats’ hands (and in the hands of socialists and socialist-adjacents) it’s a synonym for political internationalism, a “globalism” that means subsidization of Third World immigration into First World countries, domination of regional institutions by multinational corporations, and ever-increasing calls for world state governance, starting with forcing separate states to adopt identical laws and regulatory schemes. 

Similarly, many people think “multiculturalism” is merely respect for a diversity of cultures. No. That’s not how Democrats use the term in the context of their policies. Multiculturalism is the attempt to use increasing numbers of cultural interest groups to feed at the trough of the State, effectively ramping up wealth transfer schemes to socialist levels. 

Epstein thinks his Democrats should acknowledge The Nones formally, thereby pushing (though he doesn’t say it, of course) forced inclusion. But in so doing they must exclude those Nones and religious believers who think what they are doing is inherently unstable and deeply immoral. Smarter schemers than he know this, and they are in power, trying to fool Americans into thinking that the current crop of pseudo-inclusionists are more traditionally religious than they are. 

I suspect this will all end badly. But to understand why, do not consult this particular Harvard “chaplain.” He doesn’t believe in God, but he really, really does “believe” in The State. Perhaps to his credit, he’s not smart enough to be deceitful about it. He thinks that were people honest, we could all get along as “we” ramp up technocracy to the extreme that our elites really, really yearn for. He is wrong. Success for this forced inclusion can only be a form of totalitarianism the likes of which past madmen have only imagined.

In his piece, Epstein paraphrases a Voltaire quip, the one about common sense not being so common. He should have quoted a different Voltaire witticism: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Epstein does not believe in any god. But he feels that itch. So he supports a final revolution to usher in the Super State of his dreams, perhaps not realizing how this Leviathan must wind up serving as a god far more jealous and enraged than YHWH. His politics follow closely from this desire for a deity. It is painful to read such naivety.

Bakunin riffed on Voltaire by saying that “if God did exist, it would be necessary to destroy him.” I’ve always been a bit iffy about that, but if Epstein’s god arises, killing it would be necessary indeed. And we can be assured: Epstein will rise to defend to his death his right to impose It upon us all.

twv

The concluding pages of Politics in Plural Societies: A Theory of Democratic Instability (Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972) are interesting, and shed much light on recent American history. 

Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle (1972), p. 217.

The reasons for the instability of democracy in what we today call “multicultural” societies is pretty obvious from even the most basic economic point of view:

  1. A set of wealth transfer programs expresses a basic set of values, but every culture and ethnicity has a different complexion of values (so do individuals, of course, which makes any forced wealth transfer scheme unstable even in a monoculture, but this problem is ramped up another notch in the plural society). When we force different groups to conform to a patterned set of wealth transfers and other ‘public goods,’ we compel folks to compromise on their values, with some people getting programs more in accord with their values than others. This breeds resentment and conflict and even violence.
  2. Disparate values also disenable cultural checks on the Tragedy of the Commons. If we see the public goods that a State attempts to provide as a commons, then the communal checks on abusing the common resource work less well when there are separate ethnic and other cultural communities. As a good Swede you may feel some compunction about mooching off the taxpayers, but add Finns and Muslim immigrants to the mix, and that moral check on over-use and over-access — the ‘over’ leading to instability, to draining the resource — may turn to a beggar-thy-neighbor approach, as separate groups aim to game the system by abuse. Further, in a democracy where the people set policy to some degree, there develops a beggar-thy-neighbor approach to rig the system in favor of each group at the expense of others. This of course leads to outrageous taxation and financial work-arounds, like central bank credit manipulation.
  3. Our naturally limited empathy becomes even more limited when we deal with different and hard-to-understand out-groups, and forcing us into collective solutions across cultural divides actually makes for more friction not less because of over-stressed empathy.

So, what to do? The authors’ final three options for culturally pluralistic societies are (a) reduced levels of public goods provision, leaving such goods to markets (laissez faire) [and non-political community action], (b) nation-building to create homogenous ethnic societies, and (c) finding enemies to fight against, thus uniting the populace by forcing in-group solidarity among disparate elements via upping the general fear level, finding commonality because of “existential threats.”

Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle (1972), p. 216.

People generally do not want laissez faire because it means they have to provide value for value, and government constantly tempts them to seek benefits at others’ expense. This is why we have welfare states, for wealth transfer systems promise magical solutions and allow folks to channel their greed in socially acceptable ways, farding it up as “social justice.”

Nation-building to achieve ethnic unity requires either genocide or partitioning down to possibly really low levels. The former is of course horrible and the latter has the same problem that laissez faire has: it removes temptation to gain at others’ expense. People demand to yield to temptation.

But there is more!

Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle (1972), p. 217.

Finding enemies to fight has been of course the dominant route for America for the past century, and the success of World War II has stuck the country in the mythology of a unifying righteous war, with everybody still hating on the Nazis, despite no obvious widespread Nazi sympathies, for instance. But since WWII, however, the plausibility of constant warfare has become shakier and shakier, while attempts to focus on causes like “global warming” are marred by the transparency of the political interest, the obvious problem of the science being dubious, and the disturbing spectacle of lying scientists and lunatic religiosity among the political pushers. An extraterrestrial threat — either from comets and asteroids, on the one hand, or UFOs on the other — are apparently being worked on now in the Deep State. But in a global society all these options are difficult to achieve because they depend on creating a consensus where consensus is not rationally warranted. Hence the continual disinformation and psy-ops. Which can be seen in the recent pandemic menace. And all this helps explain why we have a warfare-welfare state in America, not just a welfare state.

If you cannot obtain stability in a large population via normal democratic methods, then we see attempts to use anti-democratic means, such as orchestrated protests and riots, all-or-nothing political machinations, the increase in Executive discretion, cultural totalitarianism (p.c.), policy making by judges, and the very existence of an administrative state and its secretive operations (Deep State).

Localizing democracy and promoting federalism in a general context of laissez faire is, to me, the most obviously humane solution. But people are greedy and angry and resentful, as well as well-programmed by deeply partisan and increasingly anti-educational schooling, so such options find few adherents. It is a pity that this “easy way out” comes at great enough cost that few people see any advance in such a “minimax.”

Of course, Rabushka and Shepsle wrote 50 years ago, and their insights did not win the day. What seems to be winning is a very different program: “multiculturalism.”

Today’s much-touted multiculturalism, as I see it, isn’t what it says it is, i.e., for multiple cultures co-existing. Instead, it is a political movement that uses a set of out-group cultures as an excuse to revolutionize the State and inflict an ideological monoculture, using techniques familiar from limited access societies of the distant past, and from more recent totalitarian states. 

A workable multiculturalism worthy of the name would decrease (not constantly increase) the general level of legal obligations and the amount of public goods provided, not requiring disparate individuals and groups to share resources with people of different values. The rule would be toleration, not compulsory “acceptance” and marginalization of all who resist.

This is very basic stuff. I did not need to read Rabushka and Shepsle to have a handle on it. Indeed, a number of years ago I wrote an essay on “The Comedy of the Commons,” and floated it by a few friends. It covered most of this. Or, I think it did. I cannot now find it!

The upshot of all this is not hard to understand. I have no problem with multiple churches in my neighborhood, or a vibrant pop music scene featuring music I’ve no interest in, or a variety of family structures, from nuclear families, single-parent families, clans, and chain marriages. The idea is I don’t have to contribute to your cause, and you don’t have to contribute to mine. That would be true, tolerant multiculturalism.

The doctrine that currently goes by the name, however, is a changeling creature designed to destroy diversity in the name of diversity.

Indeed, it is no shock to witness a de-stabilizing ideology leap to deeply anti-social attitudes: street violence on the one hand, and ingratitude to benefactors (the rich, who pay the bulk of the taxes) on the other.

To witness post-modernist multiculturalists embrace policies that are obviously de-stabilizing suggests not only that some deep quasi-religious, even chthonian impulse is in play — a societal death wish? — but also that the Rabushka-Shepsle treatise needs more attention from today’s sociologists, social psychologists, historians and Public Choice economists.

twv

Freedom is a contextual concept: freedom of whom from what? Or, for that matter, freedom to what?

That “what” can vary.

That “whom” can vary.

Liberty is a synonym for freedom, derived from a different language group. But it is also often used as a term of art to distinguish one variety of freedom from another. Indeed, I use liberty as the best term for “the freedom that all can possess.” But my usage is not at all widely accepted.

In the American context, the distinctions of meaning can be bracing. Take Langston Hughes’s epigram on the subject:

There are words like Freedom 
Sweet and wonderful to say. 
On my heartstrings freedom sings 
All day everyday. 
There are words like Liberty 
That almost make me cry. 
If you had known what I know 
You would know why.

What is going on here?

Perhaps we can clarify this mystery, at least by a little, by consulting David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989). In that mammoth volume, Fischer considered four sources of American culture in the folkways brought over to North America from four distinct regions of Britain. And among the folkways he considers are the power and liberty traditions. Here is the relevant passage on the Puritans’ concept of liberty:

So this “publick liberty” notion is the freedom of the community from foreign control to govern itself. It was definitely not about the freedom of the individual from control of others to govern him- or herself.

This is Yankee liberty, which is often quite oppressive of dissent, not friendly to renegades within the community. To this day, I catch a whiff of this sort of freedom from modern-day Democrats. When I was young, I thought I sniffed out its redolence in Republicans and conservatives.

If I am not mistaken, this is also intimately tied to the ancient notions of liberty discussed by Benjamin Constant.

To the south, though, another variety of liberty dominated culture:

Here we see the freedom of the superior individual from control by others, but to allow control over “inferiors,” however that may be defined. Langston Hughes probably knew who the inferiors were thought to be, all too well.

Much more congenial to my way of looking at liberty is the Quaker notion:

Here is a more familiar libertarian conception of freedom: of all from each others’ tyrannies and interferences to obey one’s conscience.

Finally, this freedom-from-restraint notion, for individuals, is even more thoroughgoing in the fourth folkway set that Fischer identified:

Here, the reciprocal liberty of the Quakers has the piety shaken free of it, for individuals’ freedom from interference and control is also a freedom to tell your neighbor to buzz off, if necessary, and without the nicety of “conscience.” It is a more muscular freedom, and not so much a spiritual matter as a defiant vulgarity.

The Puritan liberty is the freedom of all corporally, as determined by hierarchies as well as participatory governance; the gentlemen’s liberty, on the other hand, is their freedom, individually as gentlemen and within their class, but definitely not the freedom of all (not for the vulgar and inferior); and in the other two systems, freedom is reciprocal and universal, but with pious duty as a corollary in one system, and “mind your own business” in the other.

As I see it, all four strains are part of our everyday American culture, but the communal tyranny strains and gentlemen’s prerogative strains too dominant. Within the modern American libertarian movement the Quakers are represented by SJW-leaning beltway libs, and the backwoods boys represented by the more vulgar-tongued “right-wing” quasi-paleos.

I see some merit in both camps.

Liberty, as I see it, should be the freedom of all from interference and exploitation and control — from all others, to the preservation of their lives and the pursuit of happiness. How much freedom can actually be achieved? Partisans of the two major political parties think “not very much,” with the Democrats, especially, pushing Yankee busybodyism, but the Republicans still clinging to elements. And the Republicans see the world as far more dangerous than do Democrats, at least from foreign power plays, but under Trump the Dems have embraced an anti-Russian paranoia.

But note that even Benjamin Constant (1819) did not totally reject the political element of individual freedom:

Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee; consequently political liberty is indispensable. But to ask the peoples of our day to sacrifice, like those of the past, the whole of their individual liberty to political liberty is the surest means of detaching them from the former and, once this result has been achieved, it would be only too easy to deprive them of the latter.

This lesson is something that libertarians will probably never be able to cease pressing to others. It is a lesson too easy to forget.

Meanwhile, of course, the dominant culture has forgotten everything important. Pierre Lemieux, in his foreword to the Constant edition, above, shows the danger of the ancient/Puritan power conception of liberty, and its continued emphasis in our post-modern times:

I fail to see much at all inspiring in any conception of liberty that is not, itself, understood in large part as incorporating individual freedom and personal responsibility.

In reading Benjamin Constant and David Hackett Fischer, I am moved to no small sadness for our culture, which has so far lost its way from the modern liberal progress, having reverted, instead — in our post-modern manner — to a vile, neo-ancient closed society illiberalism.

twv

I keep forgetting to mark, here, the short stories I read. Well, I just read a blogged story from long, long ago, “The Human Brick.”

It is short, and though hardly a masterpiece, it is worth reading, perhaps. What do you think?

On a not unrelated note, on Fb I made a list of the Top Ten Most Memorable Short Stories I Have Read and Can Recall Without Looking at Any Book or Listicle.

I ordered mine as they popped into my head:

1. The Dead, by James Joyce (Dubliners)
2. Homecoming, by Ray Bradbury (October Country)
3. The Sword of Welleran, by Lord Dunsany
4. Family Happiness, by Leo Tolstoy
5. The Upper Berth, by F. Marion Crawford (Wandering Ghosts)
6. The Blue Background, by Brian Aldiss (Isaac Asimov’s — but this is not sf)
7. Unaccompanied Sonata, by Orson Scott Card (Monkey Sonatas)
8. Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Tolkien Reader)
9. The Imp of the Perverse, by E. A. Poe
10. Think Like a Dinosaur, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s)

Runners up (meaning only that I thought of them after the above—many are better!):
Never Bet the Devil Your Head, by Poe
Hunting the Unicorn, by Lord Dunsany
The Lady of All Our Dreams, 
The Wedding Jest, and
Concerning David Jogram, by James Branch Cabell
Mortal Gods, by Orson Scott Card
A Clean Well-Lighted Place, by Ernest Hemingway
Blue Moon, by Connie Willis
The Indian Uprising, by Donald Barthelme
Redemption, by John Gardner
The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet, and
The Body, by Stephen King (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)
Back in the Eocene, by T. Coraghessan Boyle
The Moon Moth, by Jack Vance
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, and
Vaster Than Empires and More Slow, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Grove of Ashtaroth, by John Buchan
Problems, by John Updike

I read Raymond Carver and John Cheever and other authors so long ago I forget their titles, but many great stories can be found in their work.

J. Sheridan le Fanu’s short story “Dickon the Devil,” which can be found in the third volume of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2010), is a typical spook story of its period, the second half of the 19th century. It has scant drama, and is not dramatically told. The idea, I guess, was realism of presentation, to set the stage for the eldritch element — the indirect method.

The story first saw print in 1872. I cannot say I think much of this one, but
I will try others. Maybe I will even give the humungous novel included in the volume mentioned above, The House by the Churchyard, a go.

Reading Descent of Man (1979; 1987)

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s short stories, from the few I have read so far, are

  1. very good;
  2. often darkly comic; and
  3. close, perhaps kissing cousins, of genre science fiction.

My favorite of his, so far, is “Back in the Eocene,” a story about a father who tries to back up his son’s public school ‘education” about how bad “drugs” are, despite the fact that, “back in the Eocene,” that same father had taken and much enjoyed — and apparently not been harmed by — those now-demonized drugs.

That perspective, of times long gone still casting a shadow on the present, is effectively and humorously communicated by reference to the distant geologic past.

I read that story years ago. Tonight I read “Quetzálcoatl Lite” and “De Rerum Natura,” both to be found in his early collection, now seemingly Pleistocene past (if not Eocene), Descent of Man. The first is a sly tale of the collecting mania, in which a man vies with another, older collector, to find a rare beer can in the jungles of Central America. The second is a stranger tale of a genius inventor, one of whose inventions is a cat that lacks excretory functions. The title references Titus Lucretius Carus’s classic Epicurean poem (see George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets).

That second story could have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. While not standard genre fiction, F&SF regularly publishes material in the same vein.

I consider authors like Boyle and, say, Will Self, to be ultra-fiction writers, engaged in a literary emprise that exists alongside popular traditions of fantasy and science fiction. Both are quite good, no doubt. But I do not consider them light years beyond many who inhabit the genre industry.

It is only by convention and bigotry that they exist in literary worlds utterly apart.

twv

N.B. “Back in the Eocene” and “De Rerum Natura” can be found in T.C. Boyle’s 1998 mega-collection, Stories.

Was Sax Rohmer racist?

That is the rap. His Fu-Manchu novels are said to be anti-Chinese. He certainly was a Yellow Peril pusher. But is the racist charge fully justified?

I do not know, and I do not really care to explore at length. Until yesterday, I had never read a word of the author. But yesterday I received a gift box of vintage American fiction — a good half being westerns, and many of the volumes from one popular publisher, Grosset & Dunlap — in which was included the first of Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu novels. I read the first page. I was not impressed.

So my interest then turned to finding a new home for the novel, someone who might appreciate it more than I do. In that cause, I snapped a photo of a broken binding spread of interior pages, and then looked at what was there.

An interesting passage, here highlighted:

My dubiety rises with my eyebrows.

This passage is about infanticide, which was once — and still is — practiced in China and elsewhere. It is also a gruesome, immoral practice . . . which is increasingly being defended in our abortion-loving West.

Rohmer may have been racist; I am no expert. But if you read this passage and take from it that this white male author was Racist and Therefore Evil, I suspect you yourself may have already embraced a different evil, the anti-human predilection for the destruction of one’s own (or others’) offspring.

Surely baby-killing, with or without a scorpions’ touch, is worse than “racism” unmodified.

If Rohmer seems racist to you for looking down upon a culture that practiced infanticide, maybe your own character needs some attending-to. On the face of it, the implicit defense of the lives of Chinese babies is not a likely case for anti-Chinese racism.

But, sure, something deeper may be involved. What if tolerant nods for infanticide and abortion — say, from a demagogic governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia — is at least sometimes an expression of racism? I bet some white westerners promote abortion and tolerate infanticide because . . . people of other colors engage in such horrors more often than whites.


If that is indeed your attitude, ask the next question: what evildoer “Fu-Manchu” does your attitude promote?

And is your “Fu-Manchu” white, and running for office in your favored political faction?

twv

In What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?: James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-First Century, Michael Swanwick offers an explanation for Cabell’s current low standing in critical opinion: The author over-produced, and constructed a silly “complete works” (Storisende) edition of his Biography of the Life of Manuel, a vast, jerry-rigged assemblage padded with books that didn’t really belong and books insignificant compared to the best in the series. This forced his fans to read through second- and third-rate works for completism’s sake, thus tarnishing the memory of Cabell’s best.

Swanwick’s list of Cabellian classics is slender compared to Cabell’s output:

1. Figures of Earth
2. The Silver Stallion
3. Jurgen
4. The High Place
5. The Cream of the Jest
6. The Way of Ecben

with 

7. Domnei
8. Something About Eve and
9. a few stories, such as “The Wedding Jest”

thrown in for balance, though these latter are of second order.

I will podcast a review of this book. At risk of jumping the gun for that review, I will state, here, for the record, that Swanwick errs by not mentioning Cabell’s best story, The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome (the subtitle by Cabell accurately indicating its value and its place in his canon), and by slighting The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck: A Comedy of Limitations, which, though surely not his best book, is the closest thing Cabell made to a standard novel, and is also a personal favorite (I have read it many times).

Further, Swanwick does not contemplate or give full regard for Cabell’s self-professed auctorial philosophy: He wrote chiefly for his own pleasure. That any of the works concocted on this primary standard fit with a wide readership can only be described as fortuitous. Cabell didn’t care.

I prefer to take the great ironist as not being ironic when it came to his frequent revelations of intent. By not considering this, Swanwick misses the nature of Cabellian irony and its place in his philosophy and literary method.

I also suspect that Swanwick grossly misinterprets and under-evaluates Hamlet Had an Uncle, and unjustly relegates Cabell’s last comedy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son: A Comedy of the Fatted Calf, to Maya’s field of contented but forgettable cattle. I remember reading The Devil’s Own Dear Son with much pleasure.

Still, Swanwick’s was a fun book, and included much material I had not encountered before. The Barry Humphries introduction is precisely the delightful-if-pointless kind of prefatory remarks one has come to expect in any book by or about Cabell. (Now that I think of it, Dame Edna is a very Cabellian kind of woman — though not, of course, a witch woman, and not a Norn.)

It is essential reading for those few of us who still read James Branch Cabell. Though I disagree with some of Swanwick’s judgments, I nevertheless greatly appreciate his book. I recommend it to others.

twv