wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: reading

morning morning morning morning morning

Epistemological status: Nonsense.

freewrite to start the day. can’t be bothered with proper capitalization and punctuation. ok cheating: i’m allowed to delete a word or sentence.

science fiction is afflicted, not surprisingly, by the same disease as ‘the humanities’ in academia: pathologically lazy metaphors deployed by writers pig-ignorant of even basic math and science. sokal and bricmont had blades out for the french critique-of-power dweebs years ago. i think this is why ‘speculative fiction’ has become the label of choice: science is hard, scoring political points is easy. coming-of-age ‘genre’ stories are (comparatively) easy. partly this is a specific instance of the ‘ignorant people can’t write good literature’ complaint, but it goes deeper: SF claimed its role as the essential late-20C literature not least because great SF writers could imagine and translate and articulate complex concepts in terms other than the popular — they could talk about their time in a language that wasn’t simply of their time, if that makes sense. Tolkien the same: estrangement at the level of language yes but also conceptually, in terms of worldview. ‘heroism’ meaning something fundamentally different to Tolkien than to modern readers. i think of Ancillary Justice, which disappointed me last year, and its too-familiar handling of ‘identity’ and ‘gender.’ it needed more philosophy, more science, more alienness. ursula le guin could have worked wonders with that material.

SF’s aliens are most interesting as alien modes of thought — but writers bound to the present, to fashion, have a hard time generating that generative alienation. ‘the present’ is a metaphor-field. think too of Deadwood and its astonishing imagined language, the way David Milch’s multiply inverted verses could represent streams of self-modifying consciousness. think of Westworld‘s replicants, the depth with which that story’s writers explored specific theories of consciousness in technical language. compare those great achievements to the embarrassingly shitty ‘worldbuilding’ in Ready Player One, barely qualifying as an act of the imagination: naked contemporary wish-fulfillment without a moment’s thought for a world beyond our own. think of clarke’s Ramans, who ‘do everything in threes’ for reasons that remained inscrutable even to clarke himself (the haunting closing line was added as an afterthought), or of Roy Batty storming across the rooftops of LA after rick deckard, or of the thousand and one meanings which attach to pynchon’s Rocket. (this is one reason pynchon is our best writer: he sees his conceptual material through. allows it to flower.)

if Robert Anton Wilson’s schtick has value, it’s his combination of at times intense alienation and attraction: sex for its own sake, puns for their own sake, and then a grinding assault on pious certainty. of course RAW was a great dilettante, he was just smart and fun enough to get away with it.

china miéville deep in his political theory to write books full of SF/fantasy political theory. and then how thin his stuff gets when he’s talking on memes and squids in Kraken. i liked what i could be bothered to read of it, but Admirably Strange Images Embodying Concepts Familiar Even to Neil Gaiman’s Readers doesn’t get my dollar.

michael swanwick. john crowley. delany, man.

don’t bother writing science fiction (or criticism) unless you care about the systems that your metaphors are drawing on. please, please, please. the details are the form. it’s all details.

(Deadwood is in part a story about magic and John from Cincinnati is its direct sequel, but i’ll tell you about that some other time.)

this is why you shouldn’t post your freewrites, folks.

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Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a bad that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.

M. John Harrison, VIRICONIUM NIGHTS.

It seems to me that recession is one of the key features of the Viriconium cycle: the city is vivid, immersive, without ever actually being clear, and over the course of the series — particularly this maddening final ‘volume’ of short stories — it recedes entirely from view (like an eyeball drying out, or a chrysalis desiccating and collapsing onto itself) along with its citizens, its stories, any hint of clear meaning. What’s left, in ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,’ is less than an echo; and yet the city is unbelievably rich and present even in its (or rather as an) absence. When Harrison describes a building sited in a valley ‘like a metaphor’ there’s a cruelty to it. Light seemed cruel as well, beyond the grey pitilessness which characterizes all four Viriconium books.

Empty gestures and fading memories characterize the city in this final chapter. ‘A Young Man’s Journey’ takes place in our England, more or less, and while it ends with the musical acclamation which has characterized the series throughout — ‘Viriconium!’ — the weird hollowness of it is blacker than irony. But Nights is a coda; the whole series is a coda. The other short stories, especially ‘Strange Great Sins’ and ‘The Luck in the Head,’ depict a world in its Evening, reduced to reminiscence and meaningless recapitulation. I realize now that to call the mad goings-on ‘surreal’ is to dismiss them, to consign them to the aesthetic: this is a careful rendering of ugly nonsense, which after all sounds a lot like our world in our moment (or Thatcher’s, yes?).

The language of Nights varies, though it never returns (I’m glad, or relieved) to the terrible1 dense static of A Storm of Wings. After the deliberate slow movement of the two middle volumes, night comes, rest, the fog seems to recede — but there’s nothing left to see, or rather much to see and not to understand. The clocks have run down and the creative urge is gone.

It’s hard to talk about Viriconium. No: it’s easy but futile, like talking about entropy. The concept defeats you. Digging into Viriconium is like laboriously decrypting a piece of bad news. By the end it doesn’t promise anything; in the Evening even teasing is heartless.

I realized only now that I hadn’t thought of the Afternoon cultures since at least A Storm of Wings, maybe before. Harrison deals from the same deck as before — insects, horse heads, deranged artists, lightsabers, dwarves — but face-down, now. You hardly remember that any of it ever meant anything. Maybe there never was a fucking Viriconium.

I loved these stories (this story). I’m not sure I liked it in the end, though I’m sure Harrison doesn’t care; it filled me with an intense and unidentifiable emotion.

Viriconium!

and and and

I wrote that in early July, and I’m surprised at its negativity, or no, at its anger. I suppose I was angry that Viriconium had finally been taken away, though that taking was the work of the entire series, which seems to me altogether to be one of the great works of the imagination — or rather its imagination seems greater creeping up on me/mine than, oh fuck it. I adored the book and it angered me. I can’t decide whether Harrison loves or even likes Viriconium; he must, mustn’t he? but you wouldn’t know the way he lets it go. I resent his pitilessness as I’m not convinced it’s necessary, though maybe if I knew who/what/when was the butt of the joke and maybe if I also disliked him/it/then — well —

I catch myself wanting things from Viriconium that it was built (I imagine) precisely to refuse, and so catching, I get angry at the dwarf, the city, the insect, myself, and Mr Michael John Harrison, though not in that order. Me first. What a world, a world-city unlike any other, as they say in the ad-copy biz. Viriconium!


  1. ‘Terrible’ like ‘inspiring a kind of all-consuming existential dread,’ not ‘bad.’ Prosewise, Harrison is a living god. Also a darkdreaming fucker. 

Lion, wolf, whatever.

The differences between George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books (ASOIAF) and the Games of Thrones TV show have been endlessly hashed out. I went on about them last week. I’ll just point out one more thing here, which I realized after watching the Season Seven finale, ‘The Wolf and the Dragon.’

The novels themselves are quite good, as you may have heard. But Martin’s tie-in hardcover, The World of Ice and Fire, punches way above its weight class. When I talk about the books as a kind of fantasy-historical documentary that follows a couple dozen main characters because it must, I do so partly because the World book shows where Martin’s heart is: his main character is Westerosi society, the families and communities and ‘smallfolk’ who populate a continent. TWOIAF is largely about noble houses and royal families, but its purpose is to connect those houses, to ground the present-time shenanigans of the novels in a sense of deep cultural history.

So. In the novels, one of the key events leading up to Robert’s Rebellion was the great tournament at Harrenhal, where Rhaegar Targaryen spurned his wife Elia Martell and presented blue roses to Robert Baratheon’s fiancée, Lyanna Stark. A year later, Rhaegar abducted Lyanna, they say, and the Rebellion was on. Meanwhile the ‘Knight of the Laughing Tree’ (Howland Reed?) got into some mysterious business in the background as well, and Jaime Lannister was inducted into the Kingsguard — arguably a revenge play by Aerys Targaryen against his former beloved friend and Hand, Tywin Lannister.

What fascinates me, though, is the question of who funded the tournament.

This detail does not matter even a tiny little bit to the show, which actually mentions this detail in the early-season DVD infodumps (to which Martin’s subtle ‘worldbuilding’ has been relegated), but never does anything with it. Now, the novels don’t need to do anything with (‘foreground’) a detail like that: Martin can just mention in passing that perhaps Rhaegar was conspiring to remove his mad father from the throne, and that suggestion will resonate more or less strongly depending on the pace of your reading, the depth of your immersion. In the books, the world of Westeros/Essos is rich enough, the last several decades of history detailed enough, that those echoes remain audible at all times. The minor ‘historical’ question — what was Rhaegar’s purpose at the tourney? — makes the Rebellion something more than it was, regardless of the truth/resolution of the Rhaegar/Lyanna story (i.e. the plotwise mystery).

In the show, there’s no time or imaginative overhead for that kind of subtle shading. Every moment of the series needs to service a vast ensemble of well paid actors performing in expensive European locations, and at any rate TV audiences (even in the dwindling ‘golden age’) have no attention spans. Most importantly, moving images work fundamentally differently from the vivid continuous dream of written fiction in terms of how you distribute your attention. You determine a book’s playback rate and focus by your reading, but film presents an attentional agenda, deciding for you, in a sense, how much (or little) it has on its mind. Game of Thrones on TV is all foreground, so to speak, never moreso than now, as conspiracies collapse to action and historical flashbacks come to have served their point. (The idea of history having a ‘point’ is an essential dramatic distortion, a trick of the human mind.)

ASOIAF has always been interested in how its entire world fits together — carefully balanced cosmic/historical scope as such is part of its point — but the show for a variety of reasons never has, and now it simply feels small. Having nearly all the main characters in one place might excite some viewers, but it irritates me, not least because of the stupid spacetime-distortions it took to get them there.1 And without Martin’s originating vision guiding Benioff and Weiss through the changes, we’ve had to settle for simplistic ambiguity (multiple episodes of the Arya/Sansa ‘standoff’) in a story that once reveled in ambivalence. As far as I’m concerned, Season Seven was an incoherent waste of time.

But it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because the show’s limitations have always been both obvious (even at its peak in Seasons 3-4). Benioff and Weiss didn’t adapt ASOIAF because they share Martin’s fantastic-historical vision, they just thought it would make a great TV show. They were right; kudos to them, I guess? But if Jon Snow’s parentage matters, then who funded the tourney at Harrenhal matters — history matters not because it moves the plot but because human beings survive it. That’s one of the lessons of the book which the TV show has discarded outright, and if that observation implies a criticism then I can now retreat in good order.


  1. ‘But you have no problem accepting dragons and magic in the show! Now you’re complaining about how its ravens are unrealistically fast flyers?‘ Imaginary complainant, you’re stupid. Dragons and magic are part of the contract of the series, and so is a certain physical realism. The showrunners/writers have shown themselves willing to abandon parts of the contract because the other bits are what sells — the criticism is that the maximum airspeed velocity of a lightly laden raven has just increased immeasurably in TV-Westeros because that’s the only way the writers could see to get out of a corner, and this speaks poorly of them. See? 

Mary Ruefle, MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY.

Twice-yearly lectures delivered to student-poets at Ruefle’s institution, evolving over time from perfectly pitched discursive wanderings to loose affiliations of fragment and aphorism. Ruefle’s voice is neurotically welcoming, warm, brittle; her anxieties and maladaptations are key subjects here, and she’s found the perfect musical register for exploring them. But the chronological arrangement presents the traditional lecture-lectures up front — and they’re much the strongest material in the book — while a hell of a lot of Ruefle’s pagecount is spent on aphoristic mini-‘lectures’ which are (in the manner of off-hours poetspeak everywhere) witty rather than funny, and suggestive rather than beautiful. Which is to say: the book ends somewhat less compellingly than it begins, as far as (only) I’m concerned.

The sublime peak is a lecture about ‘My Emily Dickinson,’ which takes in Emily, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank. Piercingly beautiful and sad, it’s the perfect midpoint between the longer early pieces and the more I don’t wanna say ‘mature’ later entries. ‘Mature’ definitely isn’t the word; Ruefle is playful and exploratory and interested throughout, generous with her students, and never settles for handing down pronunciamenti in the old-lecturer standard manner.

In other words, Ruefle’s lectures are intellectually and emotionally alive and utterly compelling. I’m grateful for this book.

Multiclassing into idiot: Game of Thrones simply gives up.

I quite enjoy Game of Thrones, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I write about the show. I much prefer the books, which are vastly more ambitious in terms of narrative economy and more serious (adult) in their conception of personality and society, but the show is beautifully made and has the occasional moment of greatness. Its cast has few weak spots, though unfortunately Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be one of them; like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she’s shown less and less interesting emotion as time has gone on and the writers have moved out beyond Martin’s own work. This is partly a function of seriality — the cost of serial dramatic protagonism is that one or a few characters must bear the weight of a very world’s changing, which naturally deforms them a bit, stripping away accident and frivolity and often personality, cf. my beloved Buffy Summers — and partly a function of the Thrones writers having conceived shallowly of the characters and story. Every time I think they’ve captured the magic of the books, they deliver a monthslong embarrassment like Bronn/Jaime’s trip to Dorne, or have a once-multifaceted character like Arya suddenly fall into endless comicbook declamations, or…

…or send a party of high-level Fighting-Man PCs, including a couple of Paladins and a Fighter/Cleric multiclass, on a deeply stupid quest into an apocalyptic hellscape to, I dunno, steal a single zombie from what until now had seemed to be a single mass of zombies and, I guess, carry it back through miles of inhospitable wasteland, apparently without even the most basic wilderness gear or preparation.

Y’know, that sort of thing.

The show has been silly for years, at times ugly and dumb, but this week’s Beyond the Wall’ was the first merely contemptible hour so far. Every single plot point depended on heretofore-savvy characters (or script supervisors) behaving stupidly. Arya and Sansa didn’t share obviously helpful vital information because…’drama.’ Jon and his band of hardened soldiers embarked on their ludicrous fetch-quest through the Plane of Snow because…’excitement.’ Daenerys and Jon are tumbling into a boring romance because…’destiny.’ A raven can fly from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and Daenerys can fly back, all in a day or so, because…’suspense.’ In each case, the need to move plot-chesspieces forward has again washed out the integrity of character- and worldbuilding. The story (generational, historical, social) has been choked by the plot, and is now nowhere to be seen. The world has gotten smaller, collapsing to the cast of named characters and a handful of stage sets; indeed, entire continents are crossed in moments because the writers have given up caring about what lies between Dramatic Locations.

This collapse has been going on for a while — I called Season Five a hamfisted near-miss and Season Six a failure, and refused to watch the show for the first several years precisely because Martin’s grand history had been consigned to the DVD Extras as monologic infodumps — but with ‘Beyond the Wall,’ Benioff and Weiss seem to’ve put aside Martin’s story altogether in favour of their Plot. Their Westeros has no deep history, no sense of place, no mystery.

If I were George RR Martin I’d be lying in a house-sized pile of money right now, screaming at the sky.

Richard Rorty, ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY.

Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.

All seeing is seeing-as, or, Why Trump thinks you’re stupid.

I’ve said it before: stupidity is the problem.

Trump assumes that everyone is as ignorant as he is, lies as much as he does, hates as he does, precisely because he’s stupid — and he’s stupid because he’s apparently never, not even for a second, made any kind of intellectual or emotional effort in his life. He’s a xenophobe: he fears difference, newness. He believes himself historically unique, so everyone and everything is the Other, and he hates the Other. Which is why he’s infamously disloyal, a petty backstabbing coward, when it comes to anyone he doesn’t see as an extension of himself/his will.

Trump’s stupidity means that, as far as he knows, he occupies a stupid world — so why shouldn’t he rule it? He doesn’t know how to spot climate change, so climate change isn’t real. He doesn’t have any real relationships with women, so women are trash. Nazis make him feel good by puffing him up on Twitter and at rallies, so Nazis must be good.

Of course he relished a chest-puffing contest with the witless nepotist Kim Jong-Un. I imagine it made him feel less alone.

One of the saddest things I know is that more than 1/4 of Americans don’t read at all.1 Trump is, by his own admission, one of them. He might be a psychopath or a narcissist, but the reason he has such a dangerously, unfunnily narrow conception of the good — the reason he goes on endlessly about ‘deals’ but is incompetent to discuss the content, the meaning, of any of his business — is that he has no intellectual bulwark against the stupidity of the world he alone lives in. He fills up every day with the idiot stories he sees on Fox News because he doesn’t know how to find anything deeper in the world.

Trump can’t see, he can only see-as — not in the phenomenological sense, but in the coarse psychological one. He thinks you and I are idiots because he’s an idiot; he thinks he alone possesses The Whole Truth about this or that issue (the ‘climate change hoax,’ say, or ‘black-on-black crime’) because he can’t imagine anyone having an inner life that’s richer than his. He’s a ‘transactional’ being because any other kind of existence is literally impossible, and you’re stupid for thinking otherwise. (Look at how he treats his wives, at the obvious contempt he and Melania have for one another.)

I feel sorry for Donald Trump the boy, semiliterate, unloved, allowed by teachers and parents to remain forever angry and dumb. I suspect he’s wired wrong, but I’m certain he didn’t need to end up as he did. I feel no sympathy for the cruel ignorant coward he became.

Please, please, please: make sure your children love learning, which is to say, love life.


  1. Some are illiterate. Some can read but find it taxing. Some will tell you they don’t have the time — though I’ll bet you $5 that all but a vanishing minority of our non-readers make the time to watch television… 

Game of Thrones.

‘Realpolitik Tolkien’: A Distant Mirror with dragons. The first three books (the series’s first movement) are major achievements: impeccable hybrids of grand quest-fantasy, court-intrigue whodunit, (anti)war epic, and empathetic social portraiture. Books 4-5, interwoven as one volume, are nearly as good, deepening the series’s historical consciousness, but dangerously slow. If Martin sticks the landing, ASOIAF is its genre’s capstone work. The show is impressive, at times superb (and perfectly cast), but since overrunning Martin’s books, it’s gotten silly, lacking Martin’s social-historical vision and sense of proportion. Read the books instead — then Viriconium.

Cormac McCarthy, BLOOD MERIDIAN.

An apocalyptic novel in a literal sense: for 350 pages strange lightning flashes and murderous horseman stalk a land bleached of meaning and bands of painted savages manifest suddenly on distant rises and the language is self-consciously ‘biblical,’ but none of that is as important as the fact that McCarthy’s remythologization of the West places the (no: an) apocalypse in the middle of the 19th century and says in nearly as many words that we are the ones living in the post-apocalypse. Blood Meridian reminded me strongly of the ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Viriconium, not least in the way McCarthy’s characters seem left behind by fate to play out terrible rituals against a backdrop of absolute loneliness. When the kid dies he’s surrounded by civilization, by merriment and physical pleasure — he even buys the services of a prostitute on his last night though we turn away from the act itself — but this being a western of course he can’t be fully restored to the fellowship of mankind. He and the judge converse at the bar, the judge seems to take a bottle of whiskey as if it belonged to him, and no one notices: they’re outside time. (Apocalyptic time, mirror time…) A bear is shot for nothing, suffers for nothing, dies for nothing; a couple of people in the audience notice, none reacts. If the judge had an insect’s head this would be the Bistro Californium.

McCarthy’s prose is literally breathtaking: I kept pulling up suddenly, trying to figure out how a phrase or sentence or extended metaphor could possibly have made it into our world. I’m in awe of his talents and the depth of his devotion.

There are no women in the book.

Let that sentence stand alone.1

And while the kid and the expriest do come to life somewhat by the end, they’re only players in a kind of nightmarish dumbshow — the narration comes to be indistinguishable from the judge’s weird oration, the kid’s sickbed hallucinations are exactly as real as the judge’s visit to the jail or his disappearance into the desert (the heath?) with his fool. This is myth, a world-tragedy rather than a human one. The kid’s death is sad but the horror is not that the judge outlives him but that he’ll never die. He is something unnameable and eternal. He sees himself clearly: he is a great favourite, the judge. He will never die.

Blood Meridian is one of the most American stories I’ve ever read.2 Which is to say it could only be told here, about this country’s (these people’s) twisted relationships to time, to place. Like Gravity’s Rainbow it tells the story of an American boy in a Zone stripped of comfort or sense, a zone of free play; Glanton’s gang is childish, though not at all childlike, and the judge is of course a figure of monstrous fun — dancer, fiddler, reader, scholar, autodidact, hedonist. (People forget that the life of the autodidact is both hard work — no teachers — and extraordinarily joyful, as every forward step is given meaning by the ongoing pursuit of knowledge. The autodidact has constant, deep purpose.) The horrors of Blood Meridian are not lifted or mitigated but enriched by its dreadful humour; the book gets funnier as it goes along, and the final act is preceded by a chapter-length comic interregnum. Its humour is as American as its landscape: you might even say they’re one and the same, as Americanness has always depended on an earnest-ironic response to the impossible mismatch between the vast ancient American topology and the foolishly intimate American idea.

The scene of the kid in the jail cell receiving a visit from the devil himself reminded me funnily of The Stand, which (no surprise) treats American expansion and expansiveness more literally: McCarthy’s novel compresses an universe of terror and judgment into just over 300 pages, while King’s big book treats ‘epic’ as a function of scale rather than vastness (depth of field, colour, time). Both books are ‘inappropriately’ jaunty in places, ‘too serious’ in others; both take violence as a given because it is given to men as a way into the heart of the world. To some men as the only open way. (McCarthy’s elevated tone is infectious…)

Not many novels better than this one that I know of. Christ. Plenty to say but I’ll leave it there.


  1. To be clear, there are a handful of female background figures, none named (few of the book’s characters get named; the protagonist is only ‘the kid,’ then ‘the man’). None of the women in the book are more than props for the main story — though of course, that all-extremely-male arrangement is itself an aspect of the story. (wb. 10 aug 2017) 
  2. I use phrases like this all the time, don’t I. And but they’re always stupid, and but here we are. (wb. 10 aug 2017)