wax banks

second-best since Cantor

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 

Fly casual: My first X-WING tournament.

I played in tonight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game tourney at my FLGS, Pandemonium Books and Games in Central Square. It was my first grownup X-Wing experience; until tonight I’d only played with my son and his friends, and he’s six. C’mon now.

I played two matches, then kibitzed awhile and headed home early. How can I put this? It was fantastic.

For the first hour it was as if I had loaded dice; for the second the godly favour went to my opponent, which seems fair. I went 1-1. And I loved every minute of it, except maybe the bit where my TIE Striker boiled away into space after taking a single desultory potshot.

Among the nerds

I felt incredible social anxiety about going, but as my wife could surely have told you well in advance, I needn’t have worried. The X-Wing community’s official motto is perfectly chosen, and they mean it: ‘Fly Casual.’ This manifests in big and small ways — casually lending out tokens, helping each other out with rules questions, trusting your opponent to handle maneuvers and check ranges on the far side of the table, not freaking out when ships and obstacles get bumped… This was a seriously nerdy crowd, man, with a full quota of fat pimply nerd dudes in ill-fitting Star Wars shirts, and everyone was incredibly kind and relaxed to the extent that he or she was physically able. (The one player with the offputting inability to modulate his facial expressions or tone of voice turned out to be an easygoing helpful guy able to laugh at himself.)

It was a young crew, mostly guys in their 20s (the organizer is a redheaded trans valkyrie named Cat), and the vibe was unfailingly supportive and relaxed — again, to teh extent that everyone was able. My second opponent was (1) socially awkward, no question about it, but (2) endearingly trying his best, meaning any lingering awkwardness was my problem not his, plus he was (3) super easygoing about rules and norms and chitchat once we got past my thoroughly unheimlich lack of preparation or sang-froid.

It was glorious. Am I making that clear? As I said to Cat on the way out, if I’d had a store like Pandemonium as a kid, a community of nerds like that one (this one), I’d have been a completely different human being. At a minimum, maybe I’d have been less of a teenage grump.

I can’t wait to bring my son back to fly as partners.

And — this should go without saying, but times being what they are, nothing wonderful goes without saying — I’m so grateful to my wife for clearing space for me to go out for the evening.

This bit’s for X-Wing types

Here’s my 96-point dogfighting squad:

Carnor Jax — PTL + Royal Guard TIE + Targeting Computer + Stealth Device (34pts)

The Inquisitor — Lightning Reflexes + Tracers + TIE/v1 + Shield Upgrade (32pts)

“Duchess” : PTL + Adaptive Ailerons + Engine Upgrade (30pts)

It’s a casual homebrew list, can you tell? I wanted to be dodging arcs all sneakylike and using Carnor to shut down my opponents’ action-economy tricks, but I kept failing to avoid jousts, which worked against an ARC/Y-Wing list but failed utterly against a tricked-out Ryad/Inquisitor/OmegaAce list. The Defender hits goddamned hard! That tractor beam is murder; I’m not sure how to neutralize it, and don’t want to read too much about strategy online.

I was flying three fragile ships, and even with Stealth and Shield++ on Carnor, I needed to be more detail-oriented, um, than is my wont. Hot dice bore me through a Y+TLT assault in the first game, but Carnor was up against three target-locked killers in the second.

If I go back next week, I’ll proxy some Autothrusters for Carnor, or else try out a Fenn/Manaroo list, which looks super fun (Fenn will give me the daredevil experience I like best about X-Wing, and Manaroo will force me to manage resources and fly like an adult). On the other hand, do we really need to see more toilet seats in competitive X-Wing?

C’mon now.

TFW, Depeche Mode edition.

TFW, as they say — TFW you have copies of neither Tears for Fears’s ‘Head Over Heels’ nor Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ in your iTunes library.

Very top of the very morning.

In the middle of my 60th or 70th jumping jack, after the ‘core-blasting’ planks and some cat/camel back stretches and the shoulder rolls — which I narrated here alone in our living room, ‘You see the shoulder roll and the arm circle actually serve very different functions,’ to audience nodding and later applause — in the middle of the jackjumping stretch where I decided that the right thing to do was to try with each jumped jack to touch my hands together overhead arms extended (to ‘reach for the sky’ as movie-Al Capone or Dick Tracy’s own Flathead might’ve said) I started smiling so big that I started laughing aloud (audience applause and later the throwing of roses, panties, wadded-up $billion bills), thank Christ there were no children neighbours spouses or other authority figures nearby to be weirded out.

Exercising completely changes who I am in the short, medium, and long term. The obvious immediate result is that I’m happier and feel more attractive. In the medium term I’m less irritable, sleep better, and am more inclined to opt into physically active stuff. In the long term, I die later (statistically speaking).

The difference in my mood from yes- to no-exercise days is absolute. And while it’s been hard to accept this fact, I’m beginning to understand it: I’m in a position to set the mood of the house. This isn’t an inappropriate (‘masculine’) arrogation of power, it’s a (masculine) service.

This has been your semidaily unedited first draft update on yr humble author’s state of mind. Now back to the eggs and b., Reader(s), and good luck.

Comey note: what matters and what very definitely does not.

Comey was ‘the bad guy’ when the entire Democratic Party turned on him and is ‘the good guy’ now that the entire Republican Party has turned on him, from my/our perspective, but the local lesson is that he was always just a man in a job, and the global lesson is that only Power benefits when we get wrapped up in the dumb psychodrama of modern media-politics.

The question of whether Comey is a partisan jerk wasn’t really ours to worry about, since there was nothing we could do about it one way or the other. (And anyway he doesn’t actually seem to be.) This is one of the deep problems with today’s news media: they can’t pose the questions that matter, because those questions can’t be answered or even substantively addressed in the context of the 24-hr ‘news cycle.’ This is about instant satisfaction beating deep fulfillment, ‘free’ beating ‘cheap,’ frictionless beating meaningful: the only thing that matters on TV news (and in Internet punditry) is the soundbite — moreso now than ever, in our era of ‘viral’ video clips substituting for actual journalism. TV (synecdoche for sensation-journalism) can’t ask, ‘What could Comey’s motivations for the Clinton revelations have been? What do we not know about the situation?’ So instead it asks: ‘Is Comey a partisan jerk?’ Or: ‘Do you think Trump did something wrong?!’

We hear these questions precisely because nothing at all is at stake in addressing them. A highly classified investigation of the White House inner circle is going on; there’s every chance it will find that the president obstructed justice and colluded with a foreign power. Your opinion of all this doesn’t matter; it’s being handled by actual experts, in appropriate secrecy and silence.

Meanwhile the Senate Republicans are steps away from gutting our healthcare system for short-term political gain. This matters, and more to the point, they can be stopped by the application of political pressure. Something is at stake.

It is too important to be left up to the people.

Which is why you’re not hearing about it on the news.

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (tr. Merwin), briefly responded to.

You must read the classics.

I expected the pagan wildness of it to stick with me — this is a Christian tale set in the bizarre hybrid mythosphere of Arthur’s Round Table — but was taken aback by its strange proportions. The Green Knight’s physical description takes dozens of lines, and the longest descriptive setpiece in the book is an account of a boar hunt and subsequent skinning and dismemberment. (A later foxhunt takes only slightly less space, and refers to the fox directly as ‘Reynard,’ adding to the atmosphere of feral primitivism.) Because courtly knighthood was a form of insanity, and because the bedroom scenes are skillfully intercut(!) with the frenzy of the hunt, the simple virtue-testing story is tinged with an unexpected weirdness. Merwin’s translation is unadorned, which is the right approach: our distance from the story is part of the point, now.

Reading Gawain felt a bit like my long trip with Graves’s Greek Myths, a more self-conscious ‘literary’ experience in terms of presentation but generating that same feeling of enormous distance and mystery. I know that ‘deep time’ refers to the geologic, specifically as distinct from the historic, but the term feels appropriate all the same: the old mythoi fill me with a particular ‘adventurous expectancy’ which has to do with the unbridgeable distance between ways of seeing the world. I think of Mark Booth’s silly Secret History of the World, all about a lost mythic mode of seeing; I think of Julian Jaynes, of (getting less silly as we go) Eliade, Couliano, Aegypt, Star Wars, the new Westworld, Gilliam’s Munchausen, of storytelling and drama as incarnation of gods/myths rather than remembrance. The idea of story as a transmission vector for a way of apprehending the world which is in a sense a lost world unto itself, a hologram, invisible interference pattern left by light now past which when properly illuminated brings the old forms and colours back into being — that’s why I turn to the mythic and the mythological.

Distance and time. Terrible distance and murderous time.

SHATTERED (Allen and Parnes, 2017).

Attention conservation notice: I wrote this a while back, after devouring the first 2/3 of the book (on Clinton vs Sanders) and choking down the rest. This 2,400-word ‘review’ started as a personal exercise in summary and reasoning-through, so don’t expect cogent argument or lofty rhetoric. The book is useful but not good, which is the best we can hope for this blogpost too. N.B. Subsequent events have changed my sense of Comey’s role in the election; I’m no longer sure that ‘sinister’ is at all the right word to describe his catastrophic intervention. –wa.

Terrifying, a little heartbreaking, but not a good book — the authors should be embarrassed. Shattered is essentially a less elegant Game Change.

It’s totally myopic in the same way as that earlier book: nothing matters but the campaign process, no one matters but the campaigners, every staff squabble is a nuclear war, every personality flaw is a great plague, and everyone is a hungry young assassin or a wizened old hand plus everyone (we’d never say this aloud) is a vicious sociopath. There is no world in Shattered except the campaign, and because the authors had no access to the Trump campaign (and almost none to the Sanders campaign), there are two kinds of events in the world of Shattered: what HRC’s campaign does, usually incompetently, and the inexplicable and unpredictable and above all totally unfair acts of God which happen to them.

This myopia means the book is worthless as an analysis of American politics in 2016, but in compensation Allen and Parnes happily deliver page after page of the court intrigue which again plagued the Clinton campaign. As a kind of implicit sequel to Game Change, Shattered delivers a genuine shock to those of us who took her competence for granted: Clinton and her team overreacted to the 2008 race without actually learning from it, and ran a totally incompetent trainwreck of a campaign.

Obligatory pitch and synopsis

The book is an inside-baseball account of Clinton’s 2014-2016 official/active run for president. (Surprising no one, Allen & Parnes make it clear that HRC’s work at the State Department was always intended as prelude to a 2016 run.) The central drama of the book is the generational fight within the Clinton campaign between the ‘data’-driven folks, led by millennial campaign manager Robby Mook, and an ‘intuitive’/retail-politics cohort which included John Podesta and ex-President Clinton himself.

(Scare quotes around ‘data’ because it’s not at all clear from Shattered alone that Mook has any actual expertise w/r/t his precious Numbers, just an abiding faith in what the analytics team put up in lieu of ‘old-fashioned polling.’ If there’s a villain in Shattered, it’s Trump, but Mook comes off worst relative to his reputation. If there’s justice, he’ll never work in Washington again, but I’m willing to bet he’s already making $200K+/yr somewhere.)

The authors conducted ‘scores’ of interviews entirely on background, with promises not to publish a word until after the election. As a result, they had a running commentary from inside the campaign, and the ambivalent and critical tone of the early interviews is telling. A&P write in the introduction that Trump’s victory finally ‘made sense of’ their reporting — they knew the Clinton campaign was an omnishambles and that the mainstream press was missing the deep electoral stories, but they couldn’t quite believe their eyes until election night.

Clinton not only never shared but apparently never actually possessed a clear vision of why she should run the country, only that she would (by dint of her mastery of policy, intense work ethic, extensive Washington experience, and enormous Rolodex) be good at it. Repeating one of the key mistakes of her 2008 race, she built a campaign organization characterized by the same sorts of warring cliques, and followed her campaign manager Robby Mook’s strategy of spending as little as possible, completely avoiding ‘retail’ politics, literally hiding from voters in ‘swing’ states, and making no attempt to convince undecided voters or those weakly supporting Trump (beyond pointing out what they already knew, i.e. that he’s a vile imbecile). Within her organization no one had permission to criticize her; the contrast with Obama’s ‘team of rivals,’ a purpose-driven organization built on ex-Professor Obama’s respect for competence, is striking.

This is difficult but important to understand: Clinton and company never saw Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump coming. They were tragically mistreated by the press and (sinisterly) by FBI head James Comey, whose reputation for unimpeachable nonpartisanship was badly wounded by his repeated political interventions in the race; not to mention more than a decade of coordinated voter disenfranchisement efforts by every level the Republican Party (no mention of this in the book, of course), but Clinton still could and should have won — Shattered makes clear that a competent campaign, never mind a competent and bold one, could have handled these external forces. The tide of history is against candidates like Clinton right now, but she and her team ran a bad campaign from beginning to end. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Clinton’s team bears much of it, as must Clinton herself.

Obligatory recommendation

Shattered is likely to remain the #1 source for telling anecdotes about Clinton’s miserable campaign, but hitting the high (low) points should suffice for normal people. Like the less ‘juicy’ but more skillful Game Change, it ends up an accidental portrait of the absolute hollowness of these wanting days of neoliberal empire, directly appealing to fans of a debased media-electoral process but indirectly (yet more importantly) throwing light on deeper problems with the republic.

Why did Hillary Clinton lose?

Allen and Parnes don’t know. They’d have you believe that it was mostly (1) the incompetence of Clinton’s campaign, which stemmed from (2) her catastrophic lack of any kind of vision for governing this country, which was only a problem because of (3) HRC’s combination of greed/cynicism/lust for power and her obsession with ‘wonkish’ policy details, all of which ran up against (4) Trump abstractly rendered and (5) the extraordinary intervention of Comey.

But that’s not an explanation, and it’s certainly not an analysis. Clinton had every imaginable institutional advantage and the best possible general-election opponent; if elections were sporting events 2016 couldn’t possibly have been anything but a blowout for Clinton. But elections are about voters, not candidates, and only D.C. myopes (is that a word?) and those addicted to/duped by the ‘horserace’ believe otherwise. Moreover, this revelation of incompetence isn’t even news: everyone knew Clinton’s campaign was a leaden disaster — even Obama got a big laugh at her expense all the way back in April, joking that her campaign slogan ‘Trudge Up the Hill’ had proven less than inspirational. Her inability to ‘crush’ Sanders was evidence of her campaign’s incompetence.

The news, which won’t reach the apologists who need to hear it most, is that the implausible ineffectiveness of HRC’s campaign trickled down from the candidate herself, who was unable (for a variety of reasons, not entirely her fault) to serve as a backstop, a guiding light, a strong and trustworthy chief executive. This is an ancient pattern with the Clintons: they can never fail, they can only be failed. (It was forbidden, inside the campaign, to criticize Clinton to her face — can you imagine? At points they had to bring in outside ‘friends of Hillary’ to point out her shortcomings.) Shattered reveals that Hillary doesn’t actually possess certain essential skills for executive leadership. Trump certainly doesn’t, and neither does Sanders, but then Clinton’s (not actually) (cf. Bush Sr, Nixon) the ‘most qualified candidate ever for this office’ etc., etc., etc. Her campaign was always a bid for meritocratic and technocratic ascendancy, which is why ‘inevitable’ really did strike the insiders as a plausible rationale: the correctness of her nomination and election could be logically deduced, and anyone who ‘disagreed’ — i.e. who failed to see the truth — was himself incompetent. Deplorably so.

And so anyone who says she should have reached out to white working class voters is a racist or a reactionary or a misogynist(?), even though the funny thing about Rust Belt working-class whites is that they were actually ‘undecided’ this time around, i.e. the exact people a candidate should be going after. They went for Sanders and then Trump in a big way because Clinton didn’t (couldn’t) talk to them on their terms. We’ll never know whether they would have been open to a Clinton campaign pitch, because as far as they knew Clinton didn’t actually make one. (‘But her policy papers are on the website!’ Sure, I’ll print them out and mail them to grandpa out in Little Valley.)

Maddeningly, Shattered doesn’t concern itself for even a single paragraph with why so many voters were furiously angry this electoral cycle. This is the authors’ greatest failing, and whatever their personal politics (betcha a dollar they’re 100% conventional Democrats), it’s enough to say that they come from the D.C. bubble, which is cut off from actual citizens’ concerns by design. (How can you get real work done if you have to listen to that braying and snorting all day?) Bill Clinton is derided repeatedly in Shattered for talking about Brexit, seemingly without context or provocation — which is to say his political instincts were still right on, but he didn’t know how to act on them, and his minders thought him a babbling old fool (because they’re deeply, deeply stupid). The idea that populist anger might be justified, that there might be anything questionable about the neoliberal consensus that Bill and his DLC fellow-travelers sold the post-Reagan Democratic Party a quarter-century ago, never crosses the authors’ minds, nor does it occur to even a single one of the alleged human beings in Shattered. Poverty and despair are ‘millennial’ concerns, you see, they’re not real.

In other words, Shattered both (cattily) renders and naively embodies the limitations of the D.C. consensus. The few moving moments in the book tend to involve mentions of the ‘eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling,’ reminding readers that Clinton’s appeal has always been her combination of bloodless technocratic competence and symbolism. She desperately wanted to be a candidate of destiny like Obama, but never found a way to make that case — opinion polls showed that 2016 voters didn’t care much about her sex, though on the other hand never forget that states which have never elected a female governor cut hard against her, i.e. culture is complicated and ugly, time to read (a synopsis of) Albion’s Seed.

I think the reason Hillary’s moments of humanity — maternal, teacherly — are so compelling in Shattered is that they make such a startling contrast, not only with Clinton’s alternately feckless and scolding managerial persona, but with the overall gossipy-melodramatic tone of the prose. In the midst of such a grim parade, the reminder that Hillary is a human being comes as a relief (rewatch the scene on Veep where Selina finds out she’ll be president, and hides in the bathroom) (Shattered confirms that Veep, along with The Wire, is the best-ever show about American politics). But oddly enough, her command of policy does not function the same way in the story — we learn in the first few chapter or two that the happiest time of the campaign for Hillary was the intial period of four-hour meetings with her policy director, hashing out the fine details of her plan for running the country. For someone like me, this is a genuinely heartwarming scene; I know how she feels, and in those moments I ‘connect’ with her ‘as a person.’ But the flipside of this portrait is the revelation that Clinton didn’t want to run, delayed entering the race partly for that reason, and admitted to aides over and over throughout the campaign that she had no idea what was going on in the country or why she wasn’t breaking through to voters.

The cost of running a ‘modest midwestern Methodist’ candidate, a ‘wonk in both the positive and negative sense,’ is just that: she had, and has always had, no idea how to reach people outside of her circle. This is a personal flaw, but a private citizen can make a life which mitigates it. For a lifelong politician and would-be chief executive, this is a crippling professional liability — though less so in the Senate than we might wish, since that august chamber is in the main a club for wealthy corporate-friendly compromisers (Clinton was, by all accounts, undistinguished but effective there).

So: is Hillary Clinton to blame for Donald Trump’s presidency? It’s an ill-posed question, sorry. ‘Monocausal’ is a bad word! And Trump’s margin of victory was miniscule, as my wife has repeatedly pointed out to me. But Shattered takes us back to 2008, to an odd and telling moment: desperate to figure out what went wrong against Obama, and wanting to root out leakers and disloyal courtiers, Hillary got administrator access to the campaign’s internal email server, and read all of her aides’ emails. (She and Bill then made up ‘loyalty cards’ indicating which ones should be purged from the party.) This is paranoid, yeah, but it’s also a contemptible violation of her employees’ privacy. And from her own action she drew an iiiinteresting (and sensible!) lesson: you have to control your email, because otherwise someone — someone like Hillary Clinton, perhaps — will come along and uncover your deepest secrets.

It’s an ugly and telling moment, the kind of on-the-nose foreshadowing a novelist would be embarrassed to invent. It made me pity and dislike her all over again.


OK, I’ve burnt out on this book despite having said only part of what needs saying. Let us summarize: Shattered suggests that Clinton’s 2016 campaign was a hollow, soulless disaster, which seems fair; it suggests that she and Robby Mook bear a big portion of the blame for the disastrous outcome, which also seems fair — they were in charge, after all. But Shattered has no interest in the historical forces which made a Trump candidacy possible (led to Brexit, brought Marine Le Pen closer than ever to running France, etc.), none whatsoever, nor do its authors evince any empathy with the tens of millions who got up on Election Day, waited in line to vote, and pulled the lever for one of the worst candidates (and now presidents) in history; its overemphasis on day-to-day campaign blunders is symptomatic of the same D.C.-insider cynicism that made Clinton’s candidacy ‘inevitable’ in the first place. Shattered suggests, but can’t quite admit, that regardless of the dangerous extremism and (at times hilarious) dysfunction of the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a shambling disaster — this isn’t a ‘big picture’ book. It’s an indictment, not a work of history. Clinton and her staffers should read it. I’m not sure anyone else should, but everyone should know what it says. It says: it didn’t, and hopefully doesn’t, need to be this way.

Concerning a reread of LORD OF THE RINGS.

Wrote this in a bit of a swoon after finishing Return of the King couple months ago. I forgot to mention the thing that surprised me most, the conversation between the two orc soldiers in which one orc suggests running away and starting a new life away from the masters and their stupid endless war — but this is long enough as it is.

I first read Lord of the Rings in late summer and autumn of 1994. I can now see some of the ways it changed my life, revealing to me the previously unknown ‘categories of my imagination’ — though I’d already read the Dragonlance Chronicles and maybe Legends trilogies, the combination of the trip to Europe, the week at a guest house in the south of England, and my first exposure to Tolkien’s hobbits on the train back from Brighton was definitive. It was the greatest reading experience of my life, I suspect never to be surpassed.

That was a little more than 22 years ago. I mustn’t wait another 22 years for my next visit.

In fact I might go back at the end of this year.

What’s left to say about this story? It’s greater than its critics. The contemporary tendency to reduce books to their authors’ presumed political perspectives is more embarrassing than usual in contrast with Tolkien’s mythic vision, so I’ll refrain from moaning about Tolkien’s king-worship and luddite conservatism. They seem so small, so fanciful (in Coleridge’s usage), when set against his imaginative achievement.

Frodo and Sam’s trip through Mordor is fully imagined; you feel every step, every ragged breath, every precious sip from Sam’s water-bottle. My patience with descriptions of landscape starts out thin and wears quickly, but Tolkien wrote with extraordinary passion about the land itself, not the geography or topology but its meaning, its history; both past and present were fully alive for him in a way that (to me) anticipates the ‘psychogeographers’ without falling into the triviality of psychology itself. Tolkien’s ‘subcreation’ was infused with myth-history — there are interesting moments in Return of the King where the narrator will speed ahead for a paragraph, accounting briefly the future history of an artifact or figure, and it seems less like a modern literary device than a matter-of-fact reflection of his conception of time and place.1

I’ve seen the films too many times, and so been conditioned to think of Return of the King as misshapen in a sense — too many codas — but of course the Scouring of the Shire would be an anticlimax if it came too quickly after the eucatastrophe, or even the coronation. The long journey back to the Shire is a structural necessity, because the Scouring is essential to the arc and meaning of the whole story, and it mustn’t be hurried. Tolkien had more savvy as a storyteller than he’s given credit for by pop critics (though lay readers seem intuitively to understand this).

I responded most strongly, this time, to the smallest things, the extraordinary contrast effects which Tolkien’s shrewdly juxtaposed setting (a mysterious continent with 10,000 years of history) and subject (the suffering and triumphs of little hobbits, and little people) are uniquely able to generate. Lobelia’s resistance to Sharkey’s goons, her bequest, and the other hobbits’ candid assessment of both her personality and her pluck; Pippin’s umbrage at the gate-keeper’s disrespect shown to the Ring-bearer; Merry’s cocky hornblowing; Gimli and Eomer settling the matter of Galadriel’s beauty; Ioreth’s gossipy narration to her country-cousin; Rosie’s easy familiarity with Sam; the way the hobbits of Bree are less interested in business ‘away down south’ than in their own families’ safety; and of course the love story of Frodo and Sam: the passing of the Third Age would be mere abstraction (‘worldbuilding’) in the hands of a less humane author, and complaints about Tolkien’s royalism ring false when the book lingers so long (both at first and at the end) in the Shire. The King doesn’t matter much to the hobbits; in the end, as always, they defend their own, and Saruman’s men underestimate them at great cost.

In any other book, Pippin’s reaction to the arrival of the Eagles — his belief that they are characters from someone else’s story, and his consciousness of himself as a bit player in a story of his own — would seem like a modernist literary gesture. But here it seems like correctly ordered consciousness: Pippin has come to see the great Tale of Years unfolding, and perceives his place in the narrative. A whole life passes before his eyes. Zaphod’s trip to the Total Perspective Vortex is a joke about the same experience, but Tolkien — who like Robert Graves lost more than friends at the Somme, and who began writing about Middle-Earth while recovering from his wounds — was finding a way to report his own harrowing experience, and would never joke abut it. His battle scenes celebrate glory, but not for nothing does the Beowulf scholar dwell on the death-songs of the Rohirrim, the carnage and cost of every victory. What makes Lord of the Rings a great war novel is, I think, its attention to the impossibility of returning to the world after the war, the world that the war made.

Does Frodo survive his adventure? The answer isn’t simple, nor is his story. And as for Sam…

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

…in a scene of such happiness, with his wife drawing him in and setting their baby daughter on his lap, hot dinner on the table, and a fire in the hearth, I’m not sure that deep breath is necessarily one of ease or contentment. Several times during those final days, Frodo insists that Sam must be whole, because he (Frodo) can never be so — but Sam isn’t, is he? He survives, as Tolkien survived his friends at the Somme. Standing on the shore at the Grey Havens, looking west, he sees heaven — heaven is where his friend has gone, the ‘Undying Lands’ — and for the time being he’s denied passage. Someday he can go, but he can’t die yet, he has things to do: Frodo has laid down his burden, and Sam once again carries it for both of them. Frodo doesn’t survive his wounds. Tolkien awakens in a field hospital and begins to create another world whose true heroes will be little folk, boys really, who faithfully serve their masters and their quests and do not die at the appointed time. Crucially, his heroes live to tell their own stories, in their own time to their own people, but they all return to the world transformed, nearly unrecognizable. (Literally so: confronted at the gates and in the village, the Weirdly stretched out hobbits — Merry and Pippin by the ent-draughts, Frodo and Sam by the Ring — appear to their former friends and neighbours unprecedented, alien.)

In any case, I long to return to Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings has now given me not one but two of the best reading experiences of my life.


  1. Ursula Le Guin cites one of these depth-first narratorial maneuvers, a brief jaunt into the consciousness of a passing fox, in her book on writing. 

Spirited away; goodnight moon.

I saw Spirited Away (the English translation/adaptation) last night with my wife and son, and was reminded that this magnificent film would never, ever be made in the United States today — none of our animation studios, not even Pixar at its best, would trust children as Miyazaki does with scenes of such quiet contemplation, dream-logic, languor.

I’m reminded, actually, of Brown/Hurd’s Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown was both an acolyte of Gertrude Stein and part of the Bank Street Writers Lab, whose members emphasized the concrete details and intuitive surrealism of children’s own imaginative fancies, interviewing young children and mimicking their storytelling rhythms. (‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ is one of the great final lines in our literature.) Spirited Away gives me the same feeling of melancholy dissolution as Goodnight Moon, of drifting down into an inexpressibly vast strange universe, and celebrates the same virtue, the courage needed to face the world and speak the names of things.

Spirited Away is so full of visual invention that a complicated story would render it unwatchable. As it is, after the concise opening movement, there’s very little discrete incident in the entire film: the boiler room, the contract, No-Face’s arrival, the stink spirit, Haku wounded/Zeniba’s debt named, No-Face calmed, and then the extraordinary train journey to Zeniba’s home in the swamp — the last sequence with no obvious parallel in American animation, gorgeous and sad without being about sadness, if that makes sense. After that, naming the pigs is a brief formality — of course Chihiro can do it, the animals have gathered for a celebration not an execution — and what remains is the walk home, a final release of breath. Spirited Away is more than two hours long(!!), but I can easily imagine an American animation studio cramming its action into 90 minutes, complete with 3-D dragon ride around the bath house and more pratfalls from the sidekicks…

I first saw Spirited Away in 2002 when it made the arthouse rounds in the USA, and in all that time certain images have never left me: Kamaji working the boiler, Haku terrorized by the paper spirits, Yubaba wrapping herself in a shawl and flying away. But I’ve always treasured Chihiro’s train ride. I want to say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen, but the opposite is true; it’s like dozens of other sequences I’ve seen, almost exclusively in foreign pictures and ‘art movies,’ which invite the audience to watch the characters watch and wait,to take a long moment to see not what they see but as they do, not pedantically in terms of POV but in their time, so to speak — waiting as they wait, bored or curious as they are.

The train ride lasts three minutes, an eternity in children’s films. Chihiro’s companions fall asleep, No-Face bows its head and rests, and Chihiro simply looks out the window with an expression we haven’t seen before, seeming (to me) tired, resolved, resigned, fully present — I believe this is the moment when the fullness of her family’s outer-world (real-world) transformation, the frightening move to the new house and school, has finally settled in. By choosing to travel out, to assume responsibility for Haku’s theft of the seal, she has become…well, not an adult, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? But she’s transformed all the same. Not knowing what comes next, she changes because she has to. The train ride might be the end of her story, which is a hell of a thing for a children’s movie to dramatize: death as resignation and loss and the final turn of the page rather than glorious climax.1 And to do so wordlessly, as other worlds and stories drift by uncommented-upon, not for spectacle’s sake but because even in the third act of a film that’s just how long train rides (and nighttime soul-transformations) are, and the world is more important than any story we might tell about it…

This, I think, is the bravery that Spirited Away shares with Goodnight Moon, or rather that Miyazaki shares with Margaret Wise Brown. For kids (as I understand things), the world is full of stories, yet it isn’t itself a story — hasn’t yet been instrumentalized. Kids’ worlds are bigger than they are (not least because literally), bigger and stranger and terribly older, impossible to understand and so easier in a way simply to accept. In my experience kids deal with the world more sanely than adults in that specific sense, accepting that the world is a world. Which is why their own stories can at times be absurdly boring, their fantasies so repetitive: the world is enough for kids. The stories they find in the world are enough, and so are the trees, the uncapped pens, full and empty plastic bags, loud sounds, snatches of song, dogs playing, grandmothers, water and its coolness, its way of sneaking into every space… The visual richness of Spirited Away paradoxically serves the same end as the stark simplicity of Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon illustrations (and Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry): to see and show a world as it is, merely inescapably real — whether it contains a telephone and a little toy house and a painting of bears, or a flying river spirit and three friendly rolling heads and an eight-legged boiler-room demon.

Their animating principle is honesty; wonder and whimsy and whatever else follow from having resolved to see a child’s world on its own terms. Most kids’ stories (and ‘adult’ stories, now) can’t help but anxiously hang lampshades on their own fabulations, which right away dates them — you can place a story in spacetime by what it’s embarrassed about. But to depict a country of the imagination without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to see even imaginary things as they are, is to create something ‘timeless.’ We use other terms for this quality as well: ‘mythic,’ ‘sacred,’ though honestly I prefer ‘wise.’ Timeless children’s work goes beyond dated, socially contingent ideas of innocence and appropriateness, and discovers that the common element between children Then and Now, Here at home and unimaginably far Away, is the world itself.

Which is to say all great art explores the absolutely specific in order to discover the universal, but you already knew that, right?

If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should, you must. It’s beautiful because it’s true and vice versa, which I take to be a straightforward observation about the world rather than empty cliché, and by way of justification I submit the rest of this blogpost and the entire history of art and (why not?) the universe, amen.


  1. The phrase ‘death as glorious climax’ seems to me to sum up a lot of what’s sick about contemporary American culture.