Archives for category: Books/Reviews
Karl Marlantes, an all-too-typical comsymp.

Deep River is a novel about the valley over the hill from where I live. My mother grew up in that valley. She and my father built their first home in the valley head. My older siblings spent the early years of their lives there. I have fond memories, for the most part, of that shadowy place not far from home.

The novel is said to be quite good, and its author, Karl Marlantes, a genius.

He does not seem like one.

Not on the basis of the Seattle Times article about the novel, anyway. I got stuck on something he said, a comment about Communism. I raise more than a mere single eyebrow:

Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a communist, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear.

Oh, is that what we do? Gin up the fear. How thoughtless of us! How bigoted!

Replace one word in his defense of his grandma, though, and would anyone still consider his defense of his grandmother’s radicalism reasonable?

Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a Nazi, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear.

Karl Marlantes would not write that. He knows that National Socialism was evil. And had one of his relatives been a Nazi who worked as “a political agitator” stirring up “a heap of trouble” in trying to organize for a cause he approved of — like, I bet, a welfare state (which Nazi Germany did indeed establish) — he would rightly be too squeamish to brush aside our abhorrence of the ideology.

But it is worse than that. Communists killed over 100 million of their fellow citizens last century. Hitler, an utterly evil dictator, was a slacker compared to Stalin and Mao.

Oh, and Hitler praised Karl Marx’s economic analysis, too. Leftists cannot hide behind unhistorical platitudes of “anti-fascism” and a witless love for “the left.” The bodies pile up higher the further left you push. And even the “anarchist-communists”/“communist-anarchists” of bygone years have something to answer for, because they promoted ideas that led to revolution that in turn led to tyranny and mass slaughter.

And it is not as if the Wobblies, whom Marlantes’ character Aino — based on his grandmother — “agitated” for, were all sweetness and light. They engaged in quite a number of riots, and several forms of terrorism. Along with the bomb-throwing (and bomb-throwing adjacent) anarchists, they understandably got caught in the anti-terrorist backlash in the early 20th century, and were suppressed.

Marlantes appears to be a typical “progressive” moral moron. He carries on a long leftist tradition of taking sides in the Pick Your Tyranny game that has played for nearly a century. Fascism is bad; communism is . . . well, “communists mean well.”

I am not sure I have ever encountered a leftist willing to plumb the depths of the Totalitarian Ideology Problem, willing to not Pick Your Tyranny. They exist, sure. But once one really comes to grips with the problem, one tends to cease being a leftist.

Leftism is a culturally acceptable Yog-Sothothery, an open flirtation with outrageous moral horror. It is a cult. It corrupts minds. And it is very widespread among moderately bright artistic types. Like Karl Marlantes.


Oh, and for the record: my grandfather hated the Wobblies. Not all Finns were commies.

There were Red Finns, sure, but there were about an equal number of Church Finns — “Whites” — at least in America. My education in politics did not rest upon this divide, but it did haunt the back of my mind. I grew up knowing about the tragedy of “Karelian Fever.” I also knew of the terror of living under Stalin. Socialism of any kind was always a bit suspect.

What made me so lucky, when so many of my culturally “left” artists succumbed? Well, much older relatives of mine, who were Reds, knew it all too well. And told their story. Which was repeated.

Family lore about my great uncle and aunt was this: early in the mad “experiment” of Communism, they had moved, as newlyweds, to the USSR — and within six months became almost afraid of each other. Political correctness under a totalitarian state is one of terror, not mere ill manners and inconvenience. They fled, lucky to escape.

Finnish-Americans who will not honestly confront their history with communist evil don’t do anyone any good.

I will wait to read Marlantes’ latest novel, I think, perhaps pick it up used. Call it my personal boycott of apologists for totalitarianism, “politically correct” fools who make light of mass murder, regimentation, and the philosophy of pushiness and plunder.

twv

I just watched a roomful of men with cigars (one of them being Senator Ted Cruz) talk about the ending to HBO’s Game of Thrones, and though there is much good criticism about what went wrong and why, not one of them gets to what I think of as the weirdest and most astounding error: the fizzle of the Winter, which was all build-up and no pay-off.

Winter should have, by the penultimate episode, put King’s Landing under many feet of snow, and the show’s last scene should have been a montage of people all over Westeros tunneling under strata of snow, eking out the barest holds on existence after the stores of food had been depleted by war after war. In this context the dragon and the Night King would have had their final haunting presences.

An album titled after the first cut, a piece by the great Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen.

High fantasy lives and dies by what Lawrence Durrell called a Sense of Place. Or, to put it in different terms, high fantasy works by conjuring up Faërie. Which is a place as well as a state of mind. In addition to archetypes instantiated, high fantasy gives us weird and strange worlds that are themselves characters of over-arching importance. William Morris in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, The Well at the World’s End and The Sundering Flood; Lord Dunsany in “The Sword of Welleran” and “Charon” and The King of Elfland’s Daughter; J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; Mervyn Peake in Titus Groan and Gormenghast; Peter S. Beagle in The Last Unicorn — all of these succeed by making place as important as plot and character.

In the end, it is the place that is Westeros that was betrayed in the final season of Game of Thrones. The showrunners and writers got too caught up in plot and (to a lesser extent, character) to not realize that their great mission was to be true to an imagined world. A world that George R. R, Martin imagined, in his as-yet-unfinished series of books, and as he built into the very structure of his story.

And the great truth about his world was uttered often, and which served as the motto of House Stark: “Winter Is Coming.”

It barely arrived at all. In the final scene Jon Snow and his wildlings head north of the Wall with barely a flake falling from the sky and a mere dusting on the ground.

No wonder the ending lacked fire. It had too little ice.

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William Morris’s last romance, and probably his best.
This just in my library — recently purchased.

I have in my hand a book about an important political figure I had either not heard of before, or had completely forgotten . . . that is, before I laid hand on this book.

Adolf A. Berle, Jr., was, apparently, a major figure in the “liberalism” in the epoch of FDR and JFK. According to the preface, which is all I have read so far, he was quite influential. Why had I not remembered his name, then? Well, it is not a period I have studied, so I am sure I can be forgiven for my ignorance or forgetfulness. But his was a time I am more than familiar with — my father’s time, so to speak, the time in which my father came of age and grew to maturity and, in fact, a time into which I was born, at the very end — one of my earliest memories is of the live TV coverage in the aftermath of the JFK assassination.

I have dozens of other books to read in my library before this, so I will probably just take away from this book acquisition, for now, my conjecture as to why Adolf Berle is not more often spoken about: it is that name, Adolf.

Hitler’s dark presence eclipsed Berle’s fame, and threatened him with infamy he almost certainly did not deserve. Why the man did not, in the 1940s, adapt to his time by styling himself as “A. Augustus Berle” I know not. Maybe Jordan A. Schwarz, the author of this biography, will explain.

But I can imagine rationales for not trying to solve the problem. Perhaps Berle preferred to stay somewhat behind the scenes. Maybe he hankered a bit for lathe biosas — to the extent anyone who aspired to be “the Marx of the shareholding class” and a “Machiavelli,” too, could manage that — and he simply accepted his fate.

Be that as it may, Berle helped architect the corporatist order of our age, designing and implementing a more durable analog of “national socialism,” slinging a new form of imperialism:

Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era, p. viii
Liberal: Adolf A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era, p. ix

It is worth thinking about this man, for the political party he devoted himself to is now forsaking his mission, replacing it with an insane, moralistic form of statism, a frank socialism or at least quasi-socialism. Berle’s beloved “New Deal” vision is being replaced with an incoherent “Green New Deal,” as concocted by people who are both unlearned and confident, a bad combo, but all-too-familiar in this Trumpian Moment.

It seems apparent to me that Berle’s “American Era” is drawing to a close. I do not know if it will end with a bang or a whimper. I suspect both, in quick succession. Right now is just the time for whining.

My chief wonder, in this regard, is whether the end will come before I make time to read this book.

twv


from a review on Goodreads

Ahmed Osman’s thesis in Jesus in the House of the Pharaohs (2004) strikes me as preposterous. Yet it is such a daring performance that I am sort of in awe. The book delivers (figuratively) a blow to the brain, in a way reminiscent of Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) or something by Erich von Däniken — it is such a radical reinterpretation of history that I am left not believing but, instead, holding my hat over my chest as a salute.

And like Jaynes’s and von Däniken’s work, and especially like Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939), this book revolutionizes the past, in this case upending not only Jewish origin stories but Christian ones as well.

The sliver of plausibility for what Osman does lies in an interpretive difficulty: real history in the Bible before Ezra and Nehemiah is . . . problematic. Before the re-building of the Temple in Jerusalem the matching of story to archaeology proves iffy at best.

So one is tempted to dismiss much of the early Biblical “historical” matter as fiction, as myth, or as radically messed-up fact at the very least. The Jews, just back from Babylon — or while in it — constructed a mythology based on dim memory and oral tradition. And out of the need to tell good stories. The strange connection to Egypt sticks out in all this. Take, as just one oddity to be accounted for, the ancient Egyptian practice of circumcision — how did the Israelites’ adoption of it make them “separate”? Well, it made them different from the Mesopotamians. That it did. 

Osman makes the connection with Egypt stronger than ever.

And what a whopper he expounds. In his first book, 1987’s  Stranger in the Valley of Kings, he advanced the idea that Yuya, Master of the Horse under Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III, was actually the Biblical Joseph. In subsequent books, especially this one, he reinterprets everything in terms of 18th and 19th Dynasty Pharaonic history.

Osman proposes that . . .

1. Thutmose III was the Biblical King David, ruler of lands between the Nile and Euphrates (which Thutmose was, but no Israelite ever was).
2. Abraham and Sarai went down to Egypt, with Abraham notoriously passing off his wife as his sister, allowing Thutmose (David) to take Sarai unto himself and sire a son, Isaac, whose birthright is as a prince in Egypt. But they are sent north by the disgusted pharaoh, because Abraham had lied to him.
3. Joseph, grandson of Isaac, is sold into slavery by his brothers and, in Egypt, rises from slavery to high position as Yuya, Father to Pharaohs, in the reign of Thutmose IV. He served on into the reign of the next pharaoh, Amenhotep III, “the Great,” 
4. who is the Biblical Solomon. This long-lived ruler revives an ancient religion, an intellectual and spiritual worship of one deity, represented in the Sun Disk — Atenism.
5. His second son, Amenhotep IV, inherits the throne. He becomes a big believer and priest of Atenism, and redubs himself Akhenaten. And — get this — he is Moses!!!
6. Alhenaten/Moses is kicked out and flees with his most devoted followers to the Sinai. His son Tutankhaten becomes pharaoh at a young age. Tutankhaten is a peacelover and not as big of a fanatic as his father, and accepts Amenism back into the mainstream of Egyptian life, changes his name to Tutankhamen and then travels to Sinai to convince his father to come back to Egypt and accept his co-pharaonic position — all a big happy family — but is killed by an Atenist priest. This is the death on Sinai that Freud wrote about and attributed to the death of “the first Moses” — but it was young King Tut. Tut’s body was sent back to Egypt for a rather bizarre burial.
7. Now, Tut also believed in an afterlife, a resurrection. He was both Moses’ colleague Joshua and . . . drum roll . . . Jesus — of Christianity! This is the stone the builders rejected. The builders of Judaism. Amazing thesis.
8. He is buried and succeeded by his uncle, Pharaoh Ay, the son of Yuya/Joseph, the Biblical Ephraim, and the New Testament Joseph of Arimathea, all three!
9. The next pharaoh, Horemheb, is the persecutor of the Jews in Goshen.
10. After Horemheb croaks, back comes old Akhenaten/Moses, to reclaim the rest of his people. Though the 19th Dynasty pharaoh that Moses encounters does indeed recognize Akhenaten’s royal staff, he is none too impressed with Moses’ entreaties: conflict ensues, Moses sneaks his people out. etc., etc.

Now, that is a story. 

The Essene connection is not clear to me (perhaps I read it too hastily, or too long ago, having stretched out my reading over too long a period) but then the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Teacher of Righteousness is himself pretty obscure. Osman identifies him with Jesus, and, as I said above, Tut. This stretching back of the messianic tradition is that notion taken to its extreme. In The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus (1999), Michael O. Wise only pushed it back a century or so, and, with scholarly caution, did not identify the first “Messiah” with Jesus of Nazareth.

The Akhenaten-as-Moses theory is daring enough. But Osman’s no piker: he makes Christianity an underground movement in Judaism from the beginning.

Is this at all plausible? Well, I have long regarded Freud’s book as a “nut book,” more nutty than Velikovsky’s Oedipus and Akhenaten (1960). So how should I regard this?

Identifying the “historical Jesus” is an old game, for both scholars and nuts. Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubt (2014), does the best job advancing the thesis that there was no actual, historical Jesus. (Carrier cites Michael O. Wise, for example, but not Osman.) There is no good historical evidence for Jesus’s existence in Judea c. 30 A.D. — the gospels providing no evidence at all, really — so it is not nutty to say there was no such person. I know it sounds weirder than a walnut, but the literary nature of the gospels provides a huge hint: we are talking about religious fiction here, and there was a major strain of Christianity that did not assert the physical reality of the Messiah at all. I refer, of course, to Gnosticism. And Carrier rightly makes much of the “spiritual Jesus” tradition to be discerned in what remains of that bizarre non-canonical text, The Ascension of Isaiah.

But the real problem with the historical Jesus subject matter is not the paucity of candidates for the man, but the surfeit. Jesus is Yeshua is Joshua, and that was a common name among the Hebrews. Carrier wades into the most startling example, taking note of a “Jesus When” problem, discussing the Nazoreans’ messiah with that name, c. 100 B.C. (pp. 281-285). Indeed, this “Ben Stada” (son of the Unfaithful) or “Ben Pandera” (son of a man named Pandera who had sex with a woman named Mary) was the only executed Jesus the Babylonian Talmudic writers knew of.

That this tradition lived on in the propagandistic Toldoth Jesu is hard to miss. I had an argument with an incredibly smart Jew once about these stories. He refused to take this tradition seriously, though, even countenance it at all, apparently because he thought that it would raise the ire of today’s Christians, conjuring up Christian anti-semitism.

Today’s evangelical Christians (whom I know best) will not likely be budged, in no small part because they tend not to read the historical matter of the Nazoreans or Gnostics or much of anything else that might challenge their faith. They are told by Josh MacDowell and Bill O’Reilly that the evidence for the Son of God living and dying and resurrecting in Judea in the days of Herod and Pontius Pilate is clear. It is not. But that is OK. Harmless fictions? I hope so.

One problem Christians will not properly confront is the problem of pious fraud. Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (2011) makes the standard case clearly. But without getting into the thicket of the canon, note what we find in Josephus, a historian quite extra-canonical:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, § 3

This is an obvious interpolation into the historian’s text. Almost all scholars are agreed upon this. It would be most out of character for the turncoat Jew to parade Christian piety in one passage and nowhere else. It makes no sense other than as a forgery.

But what follows is instructive. Well, what follows immediately are two brief tales of scandal, and then a new chapter, which begins like this:

But the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there. So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.

Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 4, § 1

This rout of a peaceful Samaritan religious figure, we learn, so upset the Samaritans that they petitioned the emperor, who called back Pontius Pilate to Rome. Pilate was removed from “service” in the area because of his execution of Samaritan pilgrims. This is interesting because it links Pilate to a religious execution. Of an unnamed Samaritan.

Why the lack of a name? Well, Josephus does not name every last one the people he writes about. But Charles Kos, a YouTuber and historian, suggests another reason. The name was elided. Because the name was Jesus. This man, a proverbial Good Samaritan — and the Samaritans were, after all, a people practicing an alternate form of Judaism — was, Kos speculates, the Jesus who spurred the creation of crucial historical elements of the gospels. The Pilate story, for one.

It seems to me not at all implausible that this Samaritan’s passion tale was united with the Nazoreans’ account and the Gnostics’ mythos to create the gospels as we know them.

But Ahmed Osman goes much further. He brings King Tut into the mix, and creates a re-interpretation almost as radically implausible as the standard Christian theological account of the Word and the crucifixion and the bizarre, ghostly Resurrection.

Osman’s story is impressive, I will not deny it. But does it convince?

He had me at Yuya. The idea of Alhenaten as Moses is not altogether too bizarre a leap. But Tut as Jesus?

I will let the question hang there. As if on an Ankh cross.

twv

My reading stack just gets bigger and bigger.
Here is some spillover.


echo of a Goodreads review (2/14/2019)

Originally publishd as Lady Killer.

It seems apt to have finished reading this novel as Valentine’s Day begins in the wee hours. For this is not romantic comedy, it is romantic noir.

I am not really an avid reader of “pulp fiction,” though I did recently read an early Jack Vance crime novel — The Flesh Mask, originally published under the pseudonymous signal “Peter Held.” Oh, and I am a Charles Willeford enthusiast, favorite novels including his tough guy/Stirnerite spins on Ayn Rand themes, Burnt Orange Heresy, Cockfighter, and The Woman Chaser. I would not be surprised to learn that Willeford studied not only Woodford’s writing manuals, but also pulp novels such as this one, originally called Lady Killer and published under a pseudonym (Howard Kennedy) in the 1930s, the decade in which he produced his largest fictional output.

This book is less a novel of ideas than the author’s Illegitimate and Unmoral, which I have reviewed here; it is much more like Willeford’s work. It is less talky, and does not elaborate Woodford’s “selfism”; it is more along the lines of a standard love triangle — except that Woodford’s method is more aptly termed a “love tangle.” Here we have a revenge scenario worked out. The plan fails, and, after a few twists and a murder, we have a happy ending. As usually with Woodford, the opening chapter is brilliant, while the happy ending will probably please today’s readers least.

I have a theory about the value of this author’s fiction. Woodford considered his work in this field — which he called “sex novels” — to be junk. He thought of himself a manipulator of readers for whom he had little respect. (But he showed much more disrespect for publishers. I recommend his Loud Literary Lamas of New York as a fun book-length rant against his bêtes noir. Woodford made his living as a self-publisher, and recommended to would-be authors that very publishing method — though he had to give it up in his final decade.) The nature of his “sex writing” method was the ramping-up of sexual excitement. It worked back in his day, when there were multiple taboos against “prurience” in speech and in literature. And Woodford found the perfect way to navigate through the Comstockian minefield: by never mentioning a sex organ, in either technical or vulgar wording, euphemistic or dysphemistic. This book is no exception. But nowadays all that sexual frustration has dissipated. Vanished. Nothing sexual is hidden from us, free on the Internet — even Network TV is far, far more explicit than Woodford was. So we are left with the strength of his prose, the ingenuity of his characterization and plots, and the charm of his cynicism.

It is rather like Greek statuary: their true greatness was revealed eons later, and in no small part because the original gaudy painting had worn off. The sexual repression and titillation constitute the ancient Greeks’ paint.

This is one of his better efforts. I am pretty sure he despised it, or at least pretended to. But I don’t. I think it has merit. I enjoyed it, and studied how it was constructed. Many a literary “masterpiece” of his era is no longer worth reading. This “trash” is.

Here is an oddity, though. Twice in the novel he used the word “strengthy.” I had never encountered that word before. Why not, simply, “strong”? I am pretty sure Woodford did not choose the word lightly. And I was almost taken aback at discovering that it was a once-common word. I am a bit surprised I had not noticed it before. Checking Google’s Ngram viewer, I see it has dropped out of the language. The word’s heyday was the 1840s, a century before this paperback hit the racks.

There is an advertisement for his line of books from “The Woodford Press” — including two of the novels I mentioned above — and was undoubtedly a provision Woodford insisted upon adding to The Hard-Boiled Virgin’s publishing contract.

The title of this novel is, of course, classic — and was cribbed from Frances Newman’s modernist monstrosity made infamous in the Twenties.

twv

My copy has seen better days.
James Branch Cabell

But it is not merely that our private lives are given over to mental anarchy. . . . We live under a government which purports to be based, actually, on the assumption that one man is as good as another. No human being believes this assumption to be true, of course, nor could any form of polity that took it seriously survive a week: but the imposing statement serves well enough as the ostensible cornerstone of democracy. And we must all regard the laws of this government, since to one or another of these laws must be amenable every action of our lives. Thus you may well spare time to visit a legislative body in session, and to listen to the debates, and to conjecture whether each participant is really an imbecile or for ulterior ends is consciously making a spectacle of himself. However, it may be an excess of modesty which induces the self-evident belief of every public speaker that the persons who have assembled to hear him cannot possibly be intelligent. And if you will attend a State Legislature, in particular, and look about you, and listen for a while, and reflect that those preposterous people are actually, making and unmaking laws by which your physical life is ordered, you will get food for wonder and some perturbation. But of course, poor creatures, they too are trying to do what seems expected of them, very much as Sheridan attacked Warren Hastings: and many of the most applauded public speakers conserve an appreciable degree of intelligence for private life.

When you consider that presidents and chief-justices and archbishops and kings and statesmen are human beings like you and me and the state legislators and the laundryman, the thought becomes too horrible for humanity to face. So, here too, romance intervenes promptly, to build up a mythos about each of our prominent men, — about his wisdom and subtlety and bravery and eloquence, and including usually his Gargantuan exploits in lechery and drunkenness, — so as to save us from the driveling terror that would spring from conceding our destinies in any way to depend on other beings quite as mediocre and incompetent as ourselves. . . .


Yet perfection graces few human subterfuges. Thus very often does the need arise for romance to preserve us yet further, from discovering that this protective talk of “statesmanship” and “policies” is nonsense clamorously exploded. For sometimes nations come to fisticuffs, just as inconsequently as the plumber and the baker might do, and the neighbors take part, very much as a street-row intensifies, until a considerable section of the world is devastated. Then romance prompts us, in self-protection, to moralize of one or the other side’s “aims” and “plottings” and “schemes,” and so on, as the provokers of all this ruin, rather than acknowledge the causes to lie disconcertingly deeper, and to be rooted in our general human incompetence, and in our lack of any especial designs whatever. . . . Never at any time is man in direr need of disregarding men as they are, than under the disastrous illumination of war: for then actually to face the truth would forthwith drive anyone of us insane. We are then all shuddering through a disrupted Vanity Fair of mountebanks who have come to open and ignominious failure: and our sole hope of salvation lies in pretending not to notice. For it sometimes happens that among these so cruelly exposed mountebanks are our own chosen overlords, chosen as such, for the most part, on account of their real superiority to the run of men: and when this happens, the more perspicacious among us prefer not to recognize our overlords’ incompetence, because we know that these pathetic muddlers and blusterers represent, upon the whole, the best our race is yet able to produce. . . .

So it is rather sad when war breaks out, and honored subterfuges unaccountably collapse. Everyone was letter-perfect in what seemed expected of him under the old order: but when that is upset overnight, and there are no standards to conform to, nobody anywhere has any notion what to do. It breeds a seizure of dumb panic which is unbearable. So — kings and cabinets and generalissimos being at a nonplus, and even presidents (in Mexico and other Southern republics) falling a shade short of omniscience, — the nations flounder, and gabble catchwords, and drift, and strike out blindly, and tergiversate, and jostle one another, and tell frantic falsehoods, and hit back, like fretful children; and finally one by one fling aside the last trammeling vestige of reason and self-control, and go screaming mad (with a decided sense of relief) in order to get rid of the strain. And so spreads steadily the holocaust. . . .

Yes, it is rather sad, because you cannot but suspect that whatever befalls a race of such attested incompetence cannot very greatly matter if the universe be conducted on any serious basis. Yet even in war-time men worry along somehow, desperately endeavoring still to live up to notions derived from romantic fiction, such as is provided by public speakers and newspaper editorials and the censored war-news, — and liberally ascribing “plans” and “policies” to every accident of the carnage, and revising these explanations as often as seems expedient. We play, in fine, that human intelligence somewhere either has the situation in hand or at least foresees a plausible way out of it. We are thus never actually reduced to facing the truth: for however near we may blunder to the verge of such disaster, the demiurge protects us by means of that high anaesthesia which we term “patriotism.”


Now patriotism is, of course, something more than a parade of prejudice, so flimsy that even at the height of its vogue, in war-time, anyone of us can see the folly, and indeed the wickedness, of such patriotism as is manifested by the other side. For with our own country’s entry into war, it is generally conceded that, whether for right or wrong and in default of any coherent explanation by our overlords as to what we are doing in that fighting galley, we can all agree to stand together in defence of our national honor. In large part, this is another case of doing what seems to be expected: and the vast majority of us begin by being patriotically bellicose in speech out of respect to our neighbor’s presumed opinion, while he returns the courtesy. So we both come at last unfeignedly to believe what we are saying, just as men always find conviction in repetition: and a benevolent wave of irrationality sweeps over towns and cross-roads, with the most staid of us upon its crest excitedly throwing tea into Boston Harbor, or burning effigies of Lincoln and Davis (severally, as taste directs), or trampling upon Spanish flags, and organizing parades and passing resolutions, and even attempting to memorize our national air. . . . Doubtless, all this is grotesque, upon the surface, and is of no especial use in settling the war: but it prevents us from thinking too constantly of the fact that we are sending our boys to death. . . . The demiurge, in fine, to soothe bewilderment and panic administers patriotism as an anaesthetic. And as has been pointed out, elsewhere, we find that ardent patriotism can even be made to serve as an exhilarating substitute for lukewarm religion whenever the two happen to be irreconcilable. . . . Each war, in short, with its attendant outlets for new energies, arouses a fine if not quite explicable general sense of doing something of real importance, in all save the emotionally abstemious, to whom any war must perforce appear in its inception a gloomy error, and in its manifestations a nuisance.

And probably these thin-blooded people are wrong. Aesthetically, at any rate, there is a deal to be said in favor of patriotism, and of this quaint-seeming faith in the especial merits of one’s own country and in all the curious customs of one’s country, however inexplicable, even though this faith occasionally convert Earth into a revolving shambles. For patriotism is, of course, not merely an anaesthetic: to the contrary, it is, like all the other magnanimous factors in human life, a dynamic product of the demiurge. Thus patriotism (as Paul Vanderhoffen has put it) can ascend to lofty heights without depending upon logic to give it a leg up. To prefer your country’s welfare to your own is rational enough, since it is but to assume that the whole is greater than the part: but when we proceed to prefer our country’s welfare to that of any and all other countries in the world, — as we unanimously do, with tho glowing approval of conscience, — we must progress by high-mindedly reversing the original assumption. So that patriotism is undefiled by any smirch of “realism” or of that which is merely “logical,” — and must always be kept thus in order to stay vigorous, since patriotism is a product, and one of the most generally commended products, of the demiurge.

And I, for one, find nothing unreasonable in the irrationality of patriotism. . . . The other animals munch grass and paw at unconsidered dirt, where man not all unconsciously gets nourishment from his mother’s bosom. For we know ourselves to be born of that coign of Earth we cherish with no inexplicable affection. Not only in spirit does our habitat conform us, since the land we love, that soil whereon our cattle graze, goes steadily to the making of plants, and thence becomes incarnate in our bodies: until we ourselves seem but a many agglutinate and animated particles of that land we love, with such partiality as we may not rouse toward those cool abstractions, equity and logic, but reserve for our corporal kin. Thus patriots may rationally justify the direst transports of their actions, if not the wisdom of their public utterances. For in battling for the honor of one’s birthplace each hand is lifted in defence, not merely of opinions, but of the very field in which it once was dust: and he that is slain does but repay through burial a loan from his mother. So it is with actual and very profound reason, that we are not reasonable about the display of our patriotism: for no man, of whatever nationality, is called on to be reasonable where his mother’s welfare appears concerned or, to however small degree, her honor seems impugned. In such a quandary he strikes. The merits of his cause he will defer for later consideration. And meanwhile wisdom and philosophy may speak with the tongue of angels, and be handed to them: for the noble madness of patriotism pleads at quite another tribunal, and addresses the human heart, whereover neither ear nor brain has jurisdiction. Our mother seems to be molested; and we strike to requite all those who trouble her, no matter what be their excuse. That only is the immediate essential: long afterward, when there is nothing better to do, we may snare time to reason. Meanwhile we know that, here also, the romance is of more instant worth than the mere fact.

James Branch Cabell

Beyond Life (1919), “The Mountebank” (VII, last three sections)

New English Review Press, 2018

as reviewed on Goodreads

This is a peculiar book. It is also a delightful book. The subtitle suggests a scholarly treatment of the subject, but the title adequately scuttles that expectation, and we get a memoir of ideological development and conflict, with a sketch of the bizarre noösphere that is postmodernist social justice.

Michael Rectenwald hails from the left. The far left. We read of his apprenticeship with American poet Allen Ginsburg, his introduction into the world of postmodern philosophy and literary theory, his travails as a teacher and husband and divorcé and suitor, his work as an academic consultant on TV news as well as his work in writing scholarly articles and books, and, most importantly, his meteoric transit at his college and in the general culture as Twitter’s “Deplorable NYU Prof.” 

For many, that may be the sole delight this book provides, darting through the Twitterstorm and the following academic scandal that he initiated by daring to criticize the social justice cult. It is the first book I have read with an appendix of Tweets.

But I most enjoyed his concise explanations of the differences between Marxism, cultural Marxism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, Deconstruction and, yes, that strange cult, “social justice.” And his conclusion is interesting, too: he says we must treat social justice as a religion, and dethrone it from setting any policy — drive it from university administrations, where it now dominates — but not from its intellectual place in the Academy. Probably reasonable. But disappointingly modest. For social justice and the postmodernism it hails from are worse than mere cults, they constitute an insurrectionist cadre that demands more than the just a Cultural Revolution of virtue signalling and callouts (and doxxing). As far as I can tell, the crazed cult really does want to do what Barack Hussein Obama said he wanted to do: radically transform America.

I want freedom, not totalitarianism, whether mob-based or statist. So if we rush towards any form of radicalism, I suggest another direction.

But this book might be helpful in changing course. For, after all, the author himself has changed hos whole persoective — he was almost forced to, he explains, by the betrayals of nearly all of his colleagues and friends . . . and comrades. He is no longer a communist or socialist or advocate of that mirage, social justice. He wants freedom and individual rights, now, too.

If a one-time Marxist/postmodernist can undergo such a metamorphosis, may not a whole culture, as well? 

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To Sail the Century Sea (Time Stream, #2)To Sail the Century Sea by G.C. Edmondson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book serves as a sequel to The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream, but is, alas, nowhere near as good. Both books move about in history — in the “time stream” — but the first one seems less scattershot. This second novel needed another draft. The action got confusing in Byzantium. The goings-on there — with the Council of Nicea, of all things —were not described well. There is cleverness towards the very end, but it seemed rushed, ill thought-out. Some elements were not properly prepared.

I cannot recommend the book. The first one, however, made a satisfying back-to-the-past pairing with Poul Anderson’s The Dancer from Atlantis, which I read just a few weeks before.

View all my reviews


The Night FaceThe Night Face by Poul Anderson

This is the third Poul Anderson novella that I have read. The author is learned and clever, and the story is not bad. A good ending, if a bit too abrupt. My caveats are two:

1. It would have worked better had it been fleshed out as a full novel, with more attention to character and the passage of moments, of scenes. As it is, it seemed a bit rushed at the end. The longer story, Dancer from Atlantis that I read a month or so ago, was better in this regard, though it seemed a bit rushed, too, towards the end.

2. I have in hand (as I finished the work under discussion) a paperback of The Worlds of Jack Vance, and, dipping in to a slightly shorter story than this Poul Anderson effort, the novelette “The Brains of Earth” — which can only be judged third-tier Vance — I immediately note the contrast: Vance is the far better writer. His style is so much more individual, and so much more sure, more masterly. Unfair comparison, really, but the plot of The Night Face is something that Vance could have thought of. But would have made better.

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On page 78 Poul Anderson uses the word “geas” but in the plural: “geases.” When I come across the word I immediately assume the author has read and is a fan of James Branch Cabell and The Figures of Earth, which in a few days will go into the public domain. Can there be another explanation?


Ranson's FollyRanson’s Folly by Richard Harding Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of the stories in this volume, the last one is the best. It is called “In the Fog,” and it was first published in 1901 in a handsome single volume illustrated by two artists, both quite good, though rather dissimilar. I just finished reading this story. It is a mystery told in three tales in a gentlemen’s club, and in that frame story itself. It looks like it served as the inspiration for a 1911 silent film (under a different title) by the Edison Company. How it could possibly be told without spoken dialogue I do not know. I need to see it. But, be that as it may, I highly recommend this story as a prose work, suggesting, in addition, that you may wish to buy a copy of the first edition, which is a fine specimen of the book printer’s art.

“In the Fog” is a novella, really, a little under 100 pages. The first story in this collection, “Ranson’s Folly,” is also a mystery, but set in the Old West. It was filmed twice as a silent film. It is a few pages longer than “In the Fog.”

The somewhat shorter story “The Bar Sinister,” is a tale narrated by a dog. It is fun, if not great. It was filmed in 1955 as “It’s a Dog’s Life.” Again, I have not seen it.

There are two other stories in the book, both shorter. I skipped over “A Derelict,” but may some day go back to it. And the final story, about a love letter, is excellent. Really quite good.

Richard Harding Davis was not a great writer, but he was an able storyteller. This old book is worth checking out, if for no other reason than wholesome entertainment along with a dose of the culture of a century ago. It was a very different time.

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Review of Townsend of Lichfield on LibraryThing:

The final volume of the Storisende edition of James Branch Cabell’s The Biography of the Life of Manuel is as peculiar and as brilliant a conclusion as one could hope for, or fear. This “Dizain des Adieux,” as the subtitle puts it, is sort of a glorious catch-all for the author’s literary obsessions up till the late 1920s. It contains

* ruminations upon his career (the 30-odd pages of “Townsend of Lichfield”) and his books and stories (the last several sections);
* poetry (“Sonnets from Antan”);
* two book-length fantasy novellas, ([The Way of Ecben] and [The White Robe]); and
* an excellent short story (“Concerning David Jogram”).

For my part, as I thumb on my iPad to contribute this short bookchat review, I confess to having read the stories and rumination in this book out of order, tackling the second item, the werewolf story, The White Robe, last.

This final reading was a long time coming. I own the first printing of the story, and have owned it, also, in its last incarnation to hit printing press during the author’s life, in The Witch-Woman: A Trilogy About Her. It is a droll story, and perhaps provides deep insight into Cabell’s own gallantry. And yes, it is about gallantry, just as [The Way of Ecben] and [The Music From Behind the Moon: An Epitome], were about the chivalric and poetic attitudes towards life, respectively.

Which is not to say that Cabell did not himself sport chivalry as well as poetry — of course he would, for this trinity attitudes is what binds his 18-volume Biography together, and he undoubtedly gave his creature Manuel (see Figures of Earth) all three traits, just as he found them in himself.

So, can I recommend this book over The Witch-Woman?

No.

Sure, my judgment of Townsend of Lichfield is positive; I greatly enjoyed the book. Indeed, I go further: it is excellent; but I cannot recommend it.

Why the seeming contradiction?

The book reeks of Cabell’s trademark self-indulgence. So, only those immune to this alleged defect, or enchanted by it against counsel of both criticism and common sense, need bother reading it. While for those of us who catch the whiff of the charm here, the enchantment, and might even hazard that it does not get much better, not one of us admirers of Cabell’s art is so besotted that we cannot see the narrow confines of its appeal and of our ranks.

Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747), is usually just referred to solely by the name of the protagonist, Zadig. It is the first of the great French writer’s “romances” in my big volume of Voltaire stories, and the first I have read in 40 years. It is, all in all, an excellent tale, echoing the manner of the Arabian Nights, filled with amusing episodes and light philosophical insights:

A warm dispute arose on one of Zoroaster’s laws, which forbids the eating of a griffin.

“Why,” said some of them, “prohibit the eating of a griffin if there is no such animal in nature?”

“There must necessarily be such an animal,” said the others, “since Zoroaster forbids us to eat it.”

Zadig would fain have reconciled them by saying:

“If there are no griffins, we cannot possibly eat them; and thus either way we shall honor Zoroaster.”

No griffins were harmed in my reading of Zadig, for none appear. And neither does the Basilisk, which enters the story later on, but only as hearsay. This is not a work of high fantasy . . . or low.

C6D18A31-189B-4E43-975F-36EDC13D34C9I admit, I may be ambivalent about the story’s moral, but the character of the eponymous protagonist is heroic in his quests and honest in his struggle to meet his outrageous challenges in a world filled with pain and frustration, not least being the betrayals and stupidities of our fellow men . . . all the while trying to puzzle out the nature of Fate. Its inspiration never flags.

It is worth mentioning the full title as given in the edition I read: Zadig, or Fate. Destiny is the main theme, and Voltaire’s deism shows in a revelation towards the end, with an angel offering the great secret . . . pertaining to why a world with so much suffering exists. This explanation is very interesting. Today’s bewitched youngsters might be amused to learn that Diversity Is a Sign not of Our Strength . . . but of the Creator’s.

Note: This is not a novel. Voltaire tells his story in the manner of ancient tall tales, not in the modern novelistic style with its characteristic attention to moment, aiming to induce the reader into the soul of the protagonist, whether hero, victim or anti-hero. There is no “interiority” here. Do not read it expecting anything like a modern thriller, and most especially not like a classic novel such as Silas Marner and Fathers and Sons. This is a droll tale in the olden style, but with Voltaire’s wit woven in to leaven the lump.

I highly recommend Zadig. Every literate person should be familiar with this form of fiction. And what is that form, exactly? I believe it would properly be called an “anatomy,” to use the terminology of Northrop Frye, taken from Robert Burton. The ancient term is Menippean satire. Some of my favorite writers engage in this genre: Lucian, Denis Diderot, Aldous Huxley, and James Branch Cabell. But I have of course read a lot more of the standard novel form than of this genre. Still, it is the case that, as I grow old, and soak up our civilization’s scattered stores of wisdom — wringing them out, periodically, in the course of my many follies and foibles — I find my taste for reveling in the arts of feeling, of streams of consciousness and flows of tropisms, wane.

What waxes, instead, are the dazzling philosophical perspectives of Lucian and Cabell. And Voltaire.

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I have just begun reading Kenneth Minogue’s The Liberal Mind (1963). It is excellent so far. But I notice something odd. He is talking about the nature of liberalism, from John Locke to the present day, but he seems to be downplaying the major transformation of liberalism in the 19th century, from a limited government perspective to a government-everywhere perspective. He deals with J.S. Mill as a transitional figure, briefly, and moves on.

But the Introduction is itself brief, and he can hardly be expected to be exhaustive or even convincing withing its confines. But it is apparent that Minogue is one of those people who see a strong commonality from individualist liberalism to collectivist liberalism — my preferred terms, not his.

Indeed, I do not think it even helpful to pretend that what we [used to] call modern liberalism is, today, very liberal at all. I see three relevant ideologies, here, and they have an interesting relationship:

Liberalism + Socialism = Progressivism

Progressivism – Liberalism = Socialism

The truth is, socialists saw liberalism as anathema, a horrid compromise with tradition and nature. Progressivism is inherently compromised, and cannot make much sense. But a social system always has countervailing powers, so a contradictory ruling philosophy might be seen as a feature, not a bug.

The essence of that early liberal “compromise” with nature and tradition was also a feature, not a bug. Minogue makes an interesting distinction between ideologies developed from goals and those developed from technique. The transformation of liberalism, he suggests, might best be seen in this distinction. The technique of representative governance seems better suited to a goal quite different from the early liberal goal of liberty as a limit to coercion, and generally securing a free society. That different goal? An interest-group version of socialism, where the point is to repeatedly save distinct “classes” from suffering.

I expect Minogue to go on and elaborate on the messianic nature of modern liberalism — that is, progressivism — and the tension between the socialist conception of class and the practical, real-world perceptions of multiple groups’ quite varied interest.

But I took a start, when Minogue used “John Smith” as a literary conceit to designate the citizen in the liberal society.

Where is “Jane Smith,” and the children?

I am not a feminist, but that does not mean that I think we can ignore the role of women and the necessity for dealing with children in political theory. Minogue seems to have accepted the classical liberal stance, theorizing without talking about women and children and family life. Sort of subsuming all that under the category of The Individual.

Indeed, I checked the index and found neither “women” nor “family” nor “children” nor “sexual selection” within.

It is tempting to consider the original liberalism as an ideology promoted by the masculine instincts and reasonings, socialism as an ideology promoted by the feminie instincts and reasonings, and progressivism as some weird compromise between the two. Something like this is what George Lakoff argues in several of his [rather silly] books.

The problem with this is that the classical liberalism I know best — the one that is individualistic; the one that grew into modern libertarianism — spits out the hook and lure of this way of thinking. Most especially, the individualistic view of the world does not see politics primarily in masculine and feminine ways. Lakoff’s paternalism and maternalism dichotomy is not between liberalism and progressivism, but between conservatism and progressivism. Individualist liberals see the State as, at most, an umpire. Anything more, and it is oppressive, corrosive of a free society.

The problem with this non-sexualized view of the State is that it is not how people form their ideological commitments. Masculine and feminine habits of mind swamp the attention. (Probably the reason liberalism turned into progressivism.)

Dr. Jordan Peterson is fond of making the point that there must be a compromise between masculine and feminine world views in our politics — between Mill’s dichotomy, “production” and “distribution.” But is progressivism that compromise? Not now anyway, with modern progressivism jettisoning its liberal elements, putting it well on the way back to a socialist program.

As I have written about elsewhere, Mill’s distinction between production and distribution is gimcracked and incoherent. But the mindset sticks with us because, perhaps, of our family model view of the world: the husband goes out and “produces” while the wife stays at home and “distributes.”

This family model does not, I repeat, fit with the umpire model of the state or ideology. And it is worth noting that individualist liberal economists such as H. Dunning Macleod and Joseph Hiam Levy leveled strong criticism at the production/distribution model as understood by Mill and as fits the modern family model. The world is more complicated, and these concepts can derail a realistic view of the world.

Also missing from Minogue’s index is “messianism.” This is troubling, for what socialism adds to liberalism is the messianic notion of “saving” people. (He does deal with this in what I have read so far.) When women got the right to vote, in America, they were on a crusade against alcohol and the Saloon Power. But they also demanded further programs that saved the suffering. They wanted to distribute the goods collected in taxes and help people. It is a very womanly thing to want. And men, well, men are programmed by evolution to give women what they want. Hence the welfare state, and the male role in it — as leaders giving women what they want.

But feminism has morphed and transformed society yet again, aiming to insert women into high-status occupations traditionally reserved for men, because, well, “equality.” This is not about equality, though, since feminists never desire to see women fill the occupations of low-status men or of those middle-status men who take high-risk jobs. Feminism is quite a fly in the ointment of ideology, muddying up the family model by destroying the family. It makes liberalism, socialism, progressivism more complicated.

I left my copy of The Liberal Mind downstairs. I will sign off, here, to see if Minogue lists feminism in his index. Whether he does or not, I will continue reading. It is a fascinating book, regardless of its apparent sexless nature. After all, most of the political theory I read is sexless, and barely incorporates reproduction into its theoretics.

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