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24 Jan. 2023
Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon”: A Review

After two critically acclaimed films winning mainstream attention, Damian Chazelle is back with a depiction of the 1920s film industry in Babylon (2022). It’s three hours, intentionally obscene, and already being panned by critics. Many are noting its self-awareness as a Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie, inviting its cast and audience to go along for the ride. It’s an inside joke being shared with a new generation of critics that is increasingly aware of the industry’s shortcomings, scandals and artistic decline. But Chazelle does not fully condemn the chaotic atmosphere. He finds a romantic side to it that coincides with its decadent counterpart. Babylon shows the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Babylon is also about showing people the beginning of American cinema. If viewers are expecting a golden age of innocence to predate contemporary decline, the movie will disappoint: Chazelle shows that moral corruption was present from the beginning. Before the birth of the sound film, entertainers were already indulging in a blatant disregard for social norms behind the scenes.

In this, there’s another perspective that can resonate with dissidents trying to find something salvageable in the halcyon past of American cultural greatness. As the roaring twenties accelerate on screen, viewers see the development of the hedonism that came to define the 20th century and the role of the media in normalizing a new American culture. The implication is that entertainment can’t reach a point of cultural saturation without subverting moral standards.

From the first twenty minutes of Babylon, the decadence of the era is housed in an elaborate mansion belonging to a studio executive. This is also where the lives of the main characters intersect. Manuel “Manny” Torre (Diego Calva) is the newcomer with stars in his eyes, but enough self-control to gaze at the chaos rather than join it. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) has too much of the former, and none of the latter. She’s not alarmed by the changing times, but sees it as an opportunity to advance her career. Meanwhile, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) is a relic of a simpler culture, struggling to keep up with the fast-changing industry, both personally and professionally.

Chazelle gave the critics what they wanted with La La Land (2016). This year, it was time for more honesty and telling the story unfiltered. After holding back and winning an Academy Award, Babylon provides the same intimate look as Maylin Monroe’s biopic Blonde (2022). Hollywood loses its fairy tale portrayal and opens up the genre to criticism while exposing its darkness.

Manny is the closest thing to a moral center in the film. An Edward James Olmos-type who also serves as a stand-in for the new demographic today sweeping the nation, his position as a spectator leaves him with little temptation and enough discipline to survive the chaos. Nellie is the polar opposite. Her appetite can’t be satisfied and her empathy is non-existent. 

When she’s recruited to replace an overdosed actress, she feels euphoric. The consequences are inevitable, but she’s not interested in seeing them. The repetitive requirements for the job are cartoonishly frustrating. The process is grueling, and there’s a lack of sincerity in the on-and-off staged performance. But these are the sacrifices that she makes to realize her dream. Her reward? An excess of attention and money that leads to her demise. But these are the fun times for her, and the warnings from Manny are ignored.

Nellie wows the crowd. The men salivate as her provocative dancing dominates the screen. Taking all the abuse and crying on-demand without asking – what a dazzling actress, and with so much charisma! But real life keeps seeping through the cracks. Her mother needs psychological help, and traumatic memories of home are used to squeeze emotion into her performance. This is already pathetic and she hasn’t even started. 

Whether it’s the performers themselves or the audience who pays for the pleasure, they’re all participating in the spectacle. Carl Schmitt described a similar situation emerging in Weimar Germany. Despite the innovation of the state, there are existential threats that eventually jeopardize the historically conservative nation. Chazelle shows these conditions happening in the 20s: a free-for-all which devours its own.

Perhaps the most memorable moment is the underground scene beneath the Hollywood Hills. James McKay (Tobey Maguire) represents the darkest corner of the city. He’s creepy, childlike, and eager to share the secret hobbies hidden beneath the surface. Manny finds himself being led below the street, and what awaits is a nightmare. Men gather to watch rats being eaten by a bodybuilder while avoiding the alligator that dwells within the cave. Manny is disgusted and storms out, chased by the dregs of society. It’s a narrow escape he will never forget.

A journalist (Jean Smart) reinforces the self-destructive environment by betraying its stars. When a career-defining review leaves Jack in limbo, there’s no kindness. It’s all just business. Hollywood perpetuates itself and all moral matters are secondary. Faced with the end of his professional life, he commits suicide and the industry goes on. These casualties are not mourned directly, instead they flash by as people wither away by killing themselves. A small blip in the paper, now let’s get back to the action.

Manny escapes the hedonistic climate, with his family intact, as all the bad times are settled. The ruling class has embarrassed itself and he remains the only one left. As he walks down the street, Chazelle indulges in filmmaking as an art form. Manny is brought to tears seeing Singin’ In The Rain and a montage overwhelms the audience. Not only are the classics included, but other milestones like The Matrix and Avatar are celebrated as accomplishments in the industry. It leaves viewers with an ominous question: Is this the best that the 20th-century culture produced? All the time and effort that created spectacular blockbusters to the forefront created a decadent culture alongside it. Was it really worth it?

Many dissidents are ready to critique the decline that became clear in California by the 90s. Crime was visible, and the population could not be more different. However, multiculturalism was not the cause of modern demoralization. Yet, few will search for the root of cultural decay, and even give it a pass so long as white people do it themselves. Chazelle’s Babylon erases that doubt and proves that debauchery in any form is suicidal.

Aaron Cummings is an American cultural commentator. His YouTube channel can be found here.


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20 Jan. 2023
The Aristotelian and Noble Art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Last year, marching steadily towards a midlife crisis, I asked my Twitter followers: “What martial art would you start learning at age 40?”

I’d never done a martial art before and barely any sports, beyond getting picked for the high school basketball team on account of my towering height (I’m 6’7). But recently I’d begun feeling the pressure of two imperatives: to know how to fight, and to not feel like I’m 80 in my 40s. The overwhelming consensus among those who responded was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).

From what I understand, people who listen to popular podcasters Joe Rogan, Jocko Willink, and Lex Fridman hear Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mentioned every several episodes. Others discovered the sport through MMA and UFC. But before I attended my first class, BJJ was unknown to me. I didn’t do any homework. I just showed up.

That was four months ago. In Week 5 I broke a rib and took six weeks to recover. But now I’m back, training three times a week, and thinking about Jiu-Jitsu constantly. It would be an exaggeration to call it an obsession. But somehow it has quickly become an integral part of my life, and how it integrates with my other concerns — philosophy, education — has surprised me.

BJJ is a grappling sport. You don’t punch or kick anyone, but try to take them down from standing, and put yourself into a dominant position over them. They attempt to escape that position. If you really get them, they tap to admit defeat: you’ve submitted them. That is, from another perspective, you’re taken down. You’re put in a painful position. You attempt to escape. When you start, your job is to suffer. You get crushed and choked. Advanced players put you into positions where they could easily break your arm. You’re killed over and over again. And it’s great.

The satisfaction isn’t a Fight Club phenomenon. It’s not that all day hunched over a computer working on some trivial task has made me want to reconnect with the visceral brutality of choking someone to death (okay, maybe there’s some of that). Rather, what I found unexpected about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was not its bare physicality but that the physicality is embodied mentality: players often compare the sport to chess or language. Blackbelt Chris Matakas, writing in The Tao of Jiu Jitsu about his own love affair with BJJ, has observed that, “Jiu-Jitsu is cognitively complex, so much so that there is a great barrier to entry in terms of intellect. I have never met a great Jiu-Jitsu player who was not highly intelligent, and I don’t think I ever will.”

It’s an old story in philosophy that man must find a balance between his intellectual life, which is disembodied, and his physical life, which, if unchecked, can reduce him to a brute. In the Republic, Plato writes that too much “gymnastic” can make a man hard and insensitive to the higher pleasures, while excess in the direction of “music” can make a man soft and cowardly. BJJ is enrapturing because it combines intellectual activity with physical expression. Every move has a reason. You don’t act with “noise and fury, signifying nothing” but with calm composure, guided by syntax, producing a meaningful contest not just of strength, but of study.

All my instructors so far have emphasized the importance of calm in Jiu-Jitsu. When you imagine “calm,” perhaps you see a beach in the Bahamas, or a rejuvenating Sunday at a Swedish spa. You probably don’t imagine martial arts. But Jiu-Jitsu teaches you to maintain composure in combat and not lose your head even when your untrained instincts want to take control. It’s not an aggression release valve.

After my second BJJ class, I started watching interviews that earlier I would have skipped over as boring. One of the first I saw was with John Danaher, perhaps the most famous living trainer in the sport. Danaher is a former academic. His field of study was philosophy. But he pivoted to another Academy, which is what Jiu-Jitsu training centers are called, and became a “Professor,” which is what they call the black belts.

It’s not a coincidence when highly educated people suspicious of the direction of the modern world and the modern university (to say nothing of the postmodern world and the postmodern university) turn towards martial arts as a practice where classical virtues survive. “The high-minded pursuit of a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner pursuing mastery cannot coexist well with the modern world,” Matakas writes. I don’t insist that BJJ is anti-modern. Still, those with a healthy skepticism towards the worst excesses of modern technological society can satisfy their hunger for a healthy alternative there.

BJJ, amongst other things, is highly ritualized. What do these rituals convey? Respect for tradition. Commitment to discipline. Gratitude towards teachers. Gratitude towards those who help you grow. A sense of duty and responsibility towards those less experienced than you. Humility that isn’t self-effacing. Willingness to learn. Acknowledgment of progress made by effort. And the importance of fundamentals.

Something I didn’t understand and didn’t like about university was that there was no interaction between graduate students and undergraduate students built into the education process. They were siloed off from one another, as if different breeds. In Jiu-Jitsu, by contrast, you have higher belts “rolling” (sparring, practicing, training) with white belts, as mentors. “The white belt is a willingness to grow and improve,” Matakas writes. “It is a symbol of the courage it takes for someone to acknowledge a void in their life, and the strength it takes to pursue its fulfillment. Once we are a black belt, we must not forget the importance of being a white belt, or of what this represents.” A Jiu-Jitsu master remembers his roots and seeks to help the new plants in the garden grow.

Some of these elements are common to all martial arts, but there is an explicit connection in Jiu-Jitsu to wisdom. For instance, the canonical work Jiu-Jitsu University by Paulo Ribeiro opens with the following quotation: “Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art, growing out of the unconscious.” Minimally reformulated, this could be a Heideggerian meditation on the limitations of a technical interpretation of the world. The first page of the book states: “If you think, you are late. If you are late, you use strength. If you use strength, you tire. And if you tire, you die.” That applies to combat situations, of course. But it also tells us that there is a level of understanding beyond thinking, which depends on thinking, but becomes something like a second nature, or an intuition.

To play well, you must be in the zone, in a flow state. To get into that state, you must study and practice. These are not platitudes. They are genuine insights that are mappable into other domains.

Apart from deep wisdom into the nature of mastery, Jiu-Jitsu conveys a practical skill that is just as important to civic virtue: the ability to stand your ground. One of my own students in political philosophy brought up Jiu-Jitsu to me a week before I started training. He said that when he was accosted and harassed on a college campus for sticking to his ethical positions — that is, for raising basic questions about the ideology of the far left — he understood that defending freedom of thought demands an ability to defend oneself physically. The writer Alex Epstein, whose work on energy policy defends fossil fuels, has also stated this view. In December, Epstein tweeted that he learned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because “on several occasions in college I received physical threats for expressing my views.” Now a black belt, Epstein described how “BJJ has kept me safe a number of times by helping me de-escalate threatening situations.”

Of course, mastering BJJ is no guarantee that your physical safety won’t be compromised if you stand your ground before a hostile audience. And I wouldn’t say that’s the primary reason to practice it. But anyone “in the arena” should at least know something about how to protect themselves and others in the event of confrontation. This is not a call to start fights or to intercede in situations that can get you killed, of course. It is only a reminder that the virtue of manliness has always had something to do with the ability to fight, even if virtue as a whole is not reducible to that ability.

Writing about liberal education, Leo Strauss once reflected beautifully on the intellectual experience of understanding. He said, “We cannot exert our understanding without from time to time understanding something of importance; and this act of understanding may be accompanied by the awareness of our understanding, by the understanding of understanding, by noesis noesos, and this is so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God.” Strauss was talking about understanding great books. But his words capture the joy of learning more broadly, and they apply to Jiu-Jitsu specifically.

Understanding how your body moves and how you can use it to oppose the strategic force of a training partner may not be as “deep” as understanding whether the world is created or eternal. But it is not trivial. We don’t need to be Nietzscheans to recognize that the quality of our thoughts is related to the vitality of our bodies, or that thinking joyously is a kind of dance. Even Socrates danced, and Plato wrestled. We are not disembodied spirits. There is a bodily noesis. You feel a new awareness in your movements, and a new coherence and integrity in your life.

Michael Millerman is a scholar of political philosophy. He’s the author of Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political.

Interested in learning more about Plato, Strauss, Heidegger, Dugin, and more esoteric thinkers alike? Purchase one of Millerman’s courses now at millermanschool.com.

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17 Jan. 2023
“Was ist Enchantment?” Why the way forward requires us to abandon illusions

Michel Foucault begins his 1983 lecture “What is Enlightenment?” with the claim that the whole of modern philosophy since Kant‘s famous 1784 essay of the same name (“Was ist Aufklarung?”) is an effort to answer this question. And this effort continues. There still isn’t a consensus on what enlightenment is, or even whether the term refers to a historical process, period, or mindset. 

Addressing this debate in 2012 Nick Land’s influential essay “The Dark Enlightenment” argued that “Enlightenment” is “a leading candidate for the ‘true name’ of modernity.” Enlightenment for Land is also a historical movement: once set in motion, the process is irreversible – so that any alternative becomes inconceivable. 

The concept of “dark enlightenment” is obviously paradoxical, and for this reason doesn’t offer a legible political vision. If “enlightenment” is the problem we face, perhaps the opposite of enlightenment is the solution we need. But the opposite of enlightenment is “endarkening,” and it isn’t clear that anyone wants a darkening – whether understood culturally or politically. 

Enlightenment is a visual concept. By increasing light, the true nature of things is revealed. This revelation – apocalypse – carries a hint of finality: after the knowledge of something is completely revealed, it becomes immutable. As enlightenment expands, culture is consolidated. Global monoculture is the inevitable conclusion: what is sometimes called globohomo is nothing less than the homogenization and ossification of a universalizing knowledge that manifests in every field of human activity: the home, the family, the state, religion, thought, work, sex, art and design, and everything else.

Enlightenment illuminates the material world, but where does this light come from? It can’t be the light of reality, since if it was, there would be no need for “enlightenment.” From God? Perhaps, but the logic of enlightenment rejects religious authority. Enlightenment identifies reason as the source of human power over darkness. Kant claims in no uncertain terms that religious faith inhibits enlightenment: “I have placed the main point of enlightenment – the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage – chiefly in matters of religion because […] religious incompetence [as opposed to other forms] is not only the most harmful but also the most degrading of all.”

For Kant, man’s benighted mental state isn’t natural: our “tutelage” (i.e., our dependence on, and desire for, external sources of authority) is “self-incurred.” Enlightenment, then, allows for no natural withholding of truth by external forces; cosmic, historical, or otherwise. Man is imbued by nature with the power to know. To use one’s reason is to affirm the subordination of the world to human intellect. 

The use of reason demands the courage to see things as they really are, stripped of illusions. Enlightenment assumes that the mind is superior to the material world; we are the subjects, and it is the object. Our moral duty is to find the fortitude to accept our role as masters of the world. Not only is everything knowable, everything must be known. The end result of enlightenment is consequently absolute, universalized knowledge and the “end of history” infamously announced by Fukuyama. 

Nietzsche saw in the advance of reason a process of forgetting and a movement away from reality: “only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty like a fiery liquid, […] only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creating subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.” What is gained by instrumental reason is material comfort. But the cost, as Nietzsche illustrates in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” is the death of unmediated experience and the atrophying of the inventive capacity that defines our essence. 

The pessimism of people who now see enlightenment as a denigration of the human spirit derives from their sense that this is too great a cost to pay. The apocalyptic end of enlightenment is a spiritual wasteland. There are no more mysteries. There is nothing to improve. There is no more striving because everything is accomplished. There is nothing left to know, so no more wonder. No suffering, but no real enjoyment either. Reverence for the past is annihilated because history is now identified with imperfection – a period of darkness mercifully erased by the refinement of our rationality.

Is there an alternative?

Like Land, the Catholic thinker Augusto Del Noce defines modernity as a “point of no return” in human development. Enlightenment creates a mode of being that makes us incapable of imagining the world in any other way. The parallel historical process is what Max Weber called disenchantment, in both the psychological and mystical senses of the term. Whereas enlightenment is a visual metaphor, enchantment is aural and oral. The “chant” in enchantment is connected to music, while the idea of enchantment as magical action comes from its ties to incantation. 

Incantation is the mechanism that allows the speaker to tap into powers that supersede reason, and allows for the enchantment of the world and our experience of it. Like enlightenment, enchantment also “deifies” man, but in a different way. The enlightened man is god-like because of his perception of ultimate, immutable truth. By contrast, an enchanted man is the reflection of the divine creator. Enchantment remakes the world through speech, an echo of God’s speaking the world into being. Enlightenment places the world before us. By contrast, enchantment places us within the world; like music, it envelopes us. Reality becomes mysterious again.

The effectiveness of a magic spell depends on its proper expression. We learned this from watching cartoons, but it can also be gleaned from the etymology of the English word grammar. If you say it wrong, the spell has no creative force. Enchantment, as a way of experiencing the world, operates in the same way. 

A song or canto is an ordered experience. There are melodies, harmonies, verses, choruses, and refrains. If there are multiple parts to a song, these are played by different people in unison. In this sense, enchantment and incantation restore our severed relation to the past – humans have a unique capacity to remember songs. These memories would allow for a continuity of culture and tradition, even in a world made unfamiliar by enlightenment. Our incantations have a grammar and a time signature, which would ground our experience of a new, undiscovered reality. 

Understood as two opposed historical trajectories for the future, therefore, Enlightenment and Enchantment have clear limitations. Foucault warns that “we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of “being for or against the Enlightenment,” and points out that our historical situation is never a neat fork in the road. It is not true that we have a choice between Enlightenment and Enchantment. We don’t. But Enlightenment has enjoyed three centuries as the uncontested guiding metaphor of western “progress,” and if its flaws are evident, it is useful to think through what a different way of inhabiting the world might entail. 

We must also resist the urge to call for re-enchantment of the world: enlightenment has transformed us in ways that preclude any RETVRN to the enchanted world of premodernity. The task is to enchant the world in a new way. It starts with a remembrance of our inventive capacity to speak reality into being: a power to foment encounters with the unknown, the strange, the ineffable, and the mysterious – a quest for the “fiery liquid” that flows from the immediacy of experience and the newness of half-known truths which still remain partly concealed.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston, Downtown, and a contributor to the American Mind, among other publications.


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13 Jan. 2023
Remembering California: The Golden State at a crossroad

“Best way to live in California is to be from somewhere else.”
— Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

The beacon of hope that used to be California is now a fading memory. Once the state symbolized the American Dream and prosperity, with classic cars cruising along Muscle Beach and Hollywood glamour drawing talent and beauty from everywhere: today it is a shadow of its former self, drowning in struggle and decline. As a native Californian, it breaks my heart to see my home state in such disrepair. In Texas I feel like a refugee from a country destroyed by some unimaginable disaster. The pain that I feel when I think about California’s current condition runs deep.

I grew up in the 90s in a small farming town in California’s central valley, with an economy built on peach orchards and a state university. Like many rural inland areas, our town was heavily white and conservative and struggled to cope with high taxes designed to support a large welfare class within the big cities. Those taxes enabled service industry workers to survive on low wages that couldn’t keep up with the high cost of living, but also fostered dependency. 

In recent years, more people have been leaving California than arriving, a new trend for the Golden State, California has even lost a seat in the House of Representatives due to population decline, while Texas gained one. For my part, one reason I left the state almost a decade ago was because of the sense Californians were resigned to their fate. There was no fight left in the California Republican Party. Conservatives lacked either the influence or the will to wrest back control from the parasitic political consultant class who had captured the party and ran such unappealing candidates as Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman. The party that had launched the political careers of popular candidates like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Pete Wilson suddenly ran out of charismatic candidates. Attempts at governing through popular democracy were also stymied, with Prop 187 and Prop 8 both passing by strong margins only to be struck down later by federal judges. The last GOP majority in the state assembly was in 1994. I was just a kid back then, with no idea the golden age had come and gone.

Despite California’s decline, glimpses of its former glory can still be found. Streets, schools, and buildings in the Bay Area and Sacramento bear the names of war heroes like Dan Daly, and statues of some of the greatest Americans we’ve ever produced are tucked away in parks and streets of small-town California. Take what was once McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, now a business park. The Barracks have transformed into the Lions Gate Hotel, with the former Officer’s club serving as a bar, its walls adorned with pictures of the base’s history. The Squadron buildings are now cheap, asbestos-filled office space, occupied by homelessness NGOs that seem unable to do more than help the mentally ill and addicted subsist until they perish.

But just a few miles away, slumbering California can still be found. Away from the main urban arteries, American flags hang from homes, and carefully preserved classic cars are a common sight. 

When I go back to California to visit the family I still have there, I’m moved by the memories of the best parts of my childhood. I’m lucky enough to remember the idyllic “old California.” Violent crimes were so rare that they were the talk of the town when they did happen. I remember 4th of July block parties, where we could still legally use our own fireworks. We would watch the massive fireworks show put on by the university and then produce one of our own. The whole street would assemble in front of a neighbor’s house, and everyone would take turns lighting off fountains and mortars for hours. Halloween enjoyed almost universal participation, and no one was afraid that it would be unsafe for kids to take to the streets in search of candy on their own. I walked to my elementary school, starting in first grade, with no fear of getting snatched up.

But in 2001, the old world came to an end for me, a little sooner than it did for most. My parents had been fighting and considering a trial separation for a few years, and my dad had fallen into a deep depression. He was prescribed the antidepressant Paxil, but 9/11 was the final nail in the coffin for him. The spark of optimism he still had preserved flickered out, and a month later he took his own life. Paxil would later face class action lawsuits over its role in driving depressed men like my dad to rock bottom. The California Dream ended for me that day, and ignited the rage I feel.

***

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
— Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

No stretch of California evokes memories more vividly for me than the stretch of Highway 65 and Highway 70 from the northern edge of Sacramento to the mountain town of Paradise. In the summer the vast fields of haygrass resemble yarn spun from gold. Elkins Frosty, with its proud banner proclaiming the best (and only) burgers and shakes in town since 1976 recalls simpler times. Then, after the Oroville Dam, you reach the ill-fated town of Paradise.

Like many logging towns in the Northern California mountains, Paradise was devastated by the Sierra Club’s campaign to destroy the State’s logging industry in the name of conservation. With its primary industry gone, these towns sunk into economic decline. Most of the young people moved out, while drug use and petty crime increased. Eventually the economy consisted largely of retirees and the government, a situation now common to small towns across America following deindustrialization. Then, in 2018, the devastating “Camp Fire” wildfire burned Paradise to the ground, leaving only ashes and devastation in its wake.

My aunt and cousin, who had spent most of their lives in Paradise, lost their homes. Scores upon scores of homes were reduced to nothing more than concrete pads. But my great-grandmother survived. Her home was spared, and she returned as soon as she was allowed before recently passing away at the age of 92. It was her funeral that brought me back to Paradise and gave me a chance to see how the town was doing with its rebuilding efforts.

Despite the scars left by the Camp Fire, still visible on the trees that survived, Paradise has a feeling of new life to it. Slogans of solidarity and pride are scattered throughout the town: “Paradise: Rebuilding The Ridge,” “Paradise Strong,” and “Faith & Hope In Paradise.” Many of the buildings that were destroyed have been replaced with structures made of steel. There are new businesses everywhere, funded by fire insurance money and new investments. A charred metal Burger King sign without a building to go with it is all that remains of the many big corporate franchises that have yet to return. With the overgrowth swept away by the fire, enriching the soil, Paradise is an example of the cycle of destruction and rebirth that nature destines for all its creations.

***

“And home isn’t here and home isn’t there.”
Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour

It is difficult to suppress the notion that the apathy towards the issues plaguing rural communities in California may be attributed to the disconnect between the political and financial power centers of the state and these areas. Over the past decade, the population of California saw a ten percent increase, with the majority of growth concentrated in urban areas. This influx has resulted in a class of urban parasites who have displaced native residents due to the growth of housing demand and have also imposed their own values and priorities upon these areas. The stereotype of the progressive middle-class “Californian” nobody wants to move into their red state was more than likely born in Pennsylvania or Ohio. 

This new class has overrun the state, treating the residents as collateral damage in their search for upward mobility and acceptance within their adopted lifestyles. They have abandoned their roots, and in doing so, have turned a blind eye to the struggles of the folk that resembles their heartland kin. These problems, which closely mirror the struggles of their own families and hometowns, are now distant and insignificant to the political power that stems from the cities. As a result, there are no repercussions for neglecting to address them.

California today is at a crossroads. Will it be able to reclaim its former glory, or will it continue to decline? Time will tell. The once great state is now ravaged by poverty and corruption. The glamour of Hollywood and the prosperity of the gold rush and railroad seem like distant memories, preserved only in film. The pension obligations of its bureaucracy are in danger of going unfunded, while unions wield their power to prevent necessary changes. The Golden State is setting itself up for a catastrophic reckoning, but perhaps that is the only way it can be revived. Like an overgrown forest, California needs a firestorm to raze it, so that seeds of the future can be sown once again.

Aristophanes reviews books on his substack, Aristophanes Athenaeum, with a focus on kids’ books and fiction.


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10 Jan. 2023
Cormac McCarthy’s “The Passenger”: A Review

“He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.”
— Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger

Among the most interesting points to emerge from early reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s new novel The Passenger are unfavorable comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. For example, Laura Miller in Slate refers to “interludes [that] recall the most tiresome parts of Thomas Pynchon novels, all bad jokes and stupid music hall songs.”

But it’s a mistake to read Pynchon seriously. To enjoy Pynchon, one must studiously ignore every tendentious theory about the parallels between Gravity’s Rainbow and the Tarot’s Major Arcana, the conflict between free will and determinism, psychosexuality, and sacrifice. Instead, simply laugh and/or despair at the words on the page. They’re good.

In fact, I recently re-read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow in the context of ongoing discussions about literary authors (whether promoted by the literary establishment or not) whose work can be read as a critique of the prevailing socio-political climate, or at least not merely propaganda for it. Often mentioned: Céline, Houellebecq, Mishima, Jünger, Tolkien, Kipling, Conrad, Thomas Mann and perhaps most of all, Cormac McCarthy, whose novel The Road won the Pulitzer for fiction and whose novel Blood Meridian is mentioned in awed whispers. Almost never mentioned: Thomas Pynchon.

For this reason, I was keen on reading The Passenger

McCarthy’s The Passenger is a good read, but not a great one. I liked it, but I wouldn’t advise you to read it. One of the strengths of the book is McCarthy’s technical skills as a writer. Unlike Pynchon, his terse, to-the-point dialog and grounded imagery make it easy for the reader. From an early scene:

“He kicked his way slowly down the aisle above the seats, his tanks dragging overhead. The faces of the dead inches away. Everything that could float was against the ceiling. Pencils, cushions, styrofoam coffeecups. Sheets of paper with the ink draining off into hieroglyphic smears. A tightening claustrophobia. He doubled under and got himself turned around and made his way back…”

The Passenger follows Bobby Western, a salvage diver with a complex troubled past that starts catching up with him. Diving into a subterranean plane wreck he discovers certain items seem to be missing, including the plane’s black box and one of its passengers.

Bobby realizes quickly that something is wrong, and sure enough, blank-faced glowies search his flophouse, interview him, and start following him through the many organs of the federal government as Bobby tries to go to the ground. Meanwhile, he is coming to terms with his father’s involvement in the Manhattan Project and an implied incestuous relationship with his sister Alicia, who is even more troubled than Bobby. 

Alicia Western kills herself in the first scene of The Passenger, but appears in a series of interludes throughout the book, as well as in McCarthy’s companion novel to The Passenger, Stella Maris. These are the passages that Miller identified as Pynchonesque in a bad way: they feature her in extended hallucinatory dialog with a deformed infant called the Thalidomide Kid and a series of absurd schizophrenic daydreams in a sort of carnival freak show. But read for the Pynchonesque amusement of the imagery, the words on the page, these interludes are a fun counterpoint to Bobby’s more hardboiled perspective.

Neither the nature and purpose of the Thalidomide Kid nor the pulpy conspiracy hook that sets Bobby Western in motion is explained and one hundred pages into the book it becomes clear that the plot isn’t really going anywhere. We never find out what the crashed jet was about, nor the missing passenger, nor why the intel boys are so interested in Bobby.

If you can’t accept this, don’t bother reading the book. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. McCarthy has sufficient literary authority for the reader to accept his setup while he focuses on more interesting ideas. And he does have interesting things to say.

Cormac McCarthy

The key theme of The Passenger is the inherent unknowability of life and the prevailing socio-political climate. McCarthy presents this with extended discussions of quantum physics anchored in Bobby and Alicia’s father’s role in the Manhattan Project. The thesis that existence is fundamentally unknowable is argued throughout the novel. For Alicia, this unknowability is expressed in the reality of the Thalidomide Kid and his entourage, that is, the spiritual reality, the reality to the character. Does the Thalidomide Kid have a reason for his japing, is there any hope to offer Alicia? 

For Bobby, it’s the shape of the conspiracy. This conspiracy is an almost perfect inversion of Pynchon’s conspiracy in Lot 49. In Lot 49, there may or may not be a conspiracy behind events, and the answer is everything for his protagonist Oedipa Maas.

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth…. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero.”

For Bobby, there’s definitely a conspiracy behind events, but he doesn’t particularly care what it is and the meaning remains in quantum superposition; both everything and nothing, fundamentally unknowable. And between Bobby and Alicia is also the unknowability of their relationship, rooted in their present estrangement and their mutual denial of having consummated that relationship, undercut by subtle hints and weighty silences from the author. 

This principle of unknowability doesn’t resonate with me much. Not to say that everything is knowable. I have written extensively on the nature of what I call “conspiracy space” as a shadow of mirrors where complete knowledge is impossible. But I have a fundamentally different view of reality than that which McCarthy is presenting in The Passenger

The Passenger is consistent and compelling. But it resembles a thought experiment told in the vocabulary of a pulp thriller more than a great work of literature. If one doesn’t buy into the premises, the limitations of the plot begin to feel suffocating, the supporting cast start looking thin, and the endless pages of the Thalidomide Kid’s capers do begin to drag.

“Not everything malodorous is a memory. Commodeodor in the corridors for instance such as might be found with the spring thaw in the colder latitudes. Farrago North Dakota or some such blighty sink where the mentally defective are wont to pool. Long away and far ago. As it says in the song.”

The Passenger isn’t McCarthy reaching for the stark, driving intensity of The Road or Blood Meridian, or for the romantic steadiness of All the Pretty Horses. The Passenger is competent and spare, cold and almost reptilian in its direct presentation, with a sense of paranoia that seems closer to The Thing than Vertigo. Fans of McCarthy will find some interest here, but The Passenger will not be how I introduce my friends to McCarthy. It’s difficult to say so, because like many others I hold his work in high regard. And perhaps given all the Pynchon I’ve been reading, I was subconsciously primed for something a bit more madcap. The bottom line? It’s a decent book.

Alexander Palacio is a writer of adventurous science fiction and fantasy.


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6 Jan. 2023
The late Pope Benedict XVI’s writing as an antidote to the regime’s spell

On the day of Pope Benedict XVI’s death, one journalist commented that “never has there been such a disconnect between the public perception of a man and the human reality.” The comment rightly highlighted that the popular image of Joseph Ratzinger as ‘God’s Rottweiler’ never matched his real character or the depth of his thought.

This depth is reflected in disconnects concerning Benedict among the Catholic-adjacent Right. Some see Ratzinger as a great champion of traditionalism, which he was only in a nuanced sense. Others see him as a hopeless modernist, which he definitely wasn’t. But one can’t explain why people think he’s a modernist without explaining the nuances of his traditionalism.

Three central elements of Ratzinger’s pre-papal writings show the sense of the man and also illuminate salient current themes. The first is his lifelong concern with the classical heritage of the Catholic faith. As stated by the encyclical Fides et Ratio, “the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Greco-Latin thought”.

It might seem strange that so-called “Roman” Catholicism could do otherwise, but following from the 1960s there were many who saw the classical heritage of Catholic doctrine as expendable. Ratzinger was accused of being Eurocentric for claiming otherwise, with one leading professor rebuking him for being ill-equipped to align comfortably with the “multiculturality” of the contemporary West.

(“Yes,” you might think.)

But Benedict was never saying Greek and Latin philosophy are superior to other philosophies in any straightforward sense. His point was that classical philosophy is where universal truth was perceived by the light of human logos, which made it the optimum setting for the universal truth of the Divine Logos to take root and flower as Christendom. And he also acknowledged that many of the positions of Enlightenment philosophy have a similar universality to classical philosophy. He said the principle “that religion cannot be imposed by the state,” and a “respect for the fundamental rights of man,” for example, are truths that are “generally valid”.

A second element of Ratzinger’s thought is romanticism – and specifically German romanticism. As described by Theo Danouk, romanticism means understanding a nation as an “organic outgrowth” of a people who “share historical and social-cultural practices” including language, religion, and art. Culture is the term that captures all this, like Strauss’s definition of politeia as regime. The term refers to “simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life, its moral taste, form of society, form of government, spirit of laws.”

So while Ratzinger argues that Enlightenment principles are “generally valid,” he also maintains that such principles were gestated exclusively in Christian contexts, and they cannot “be reached in the same manner in every historical context.” This is why he opposed Turkey joining the EU – as “seeking to plant on Muslim soil the secular attitude that has matured in the Christian world of Europe.”

Ratzinger’s romanticism is mainly expressed through his writings on cultures, which he saw as highly distinct reflections of different contexts. As the 19th-century theologian Johann Adam Möhler puts it:

“Each nation is endowed with a peculiar character, stamped on the deepest, most hidden parts of its being, which distinguishes it from all other nations, and manifests its peculiarity in public and domestic life, in art and science; in short, in every relation.”  

Many of Ratzinger’s contemporaries saw culture as a merely accidental set of local ‘quirks’ which can be arbitrarily adopted by whomever – not as something profoundly formative on the “deepest, most hidden parts” of our being. But Ratzinger applies this same principle to Catholicism itself. Catholicism is universal, yes, but also a culture. Taking the faith to the ends of the earth, Ratzinger claimed, meant habituating others to this culture, not just reimagining it in other cultural forms. Different cultures might have “moral tastes” or approaches to “art and science” which simply can’t correlate with the faith.

Ratzinger held modern culture to evince moral tastes which are incapable of assimilation with Catholicism. Hence his famous condemnation of rock music, as reflecting a “self-centered concept of freedom” in which celebrating “release” from “responsibility” makes it “completely antithetical” to the faith.

Ratzinger’s final claim is perhaps the most prophetic. After recognizing people’s unease about the Western lineage of Catholicism, he points out that no one has this same unease about the global spread of technology, whose roots are also Western. He argues technology offers an insidious and destructive imposition of Western norms – including some of the worst aspects of Western cultures.

Modern technological civilization, Ratzinger wrote in 1993, “deeply encroaches upon the basic understanding of man, the world and God,” it “changes standards and behavior.” For Ratzinger, technology is attractive to people because it is essentially “magic, in the broadest sense of the world” which “promises power over the world.” This dark power, as we see it now, is avoidance of the world, today’s techno-Gnosticism on steroids.

Ratzinger held fast to classical heritage as a locus of truth which intertwined with divine revelation in the earliest centuries of Christianity. His thought remained sensitive to the distinctness and formative power of cultures as more than transferable ‘quirks’ in a globalized world. Modern culture should itself be critiqued in terms of its formative influence, he argued, and technology has a dark side – not too dissimilar from the ancient demonic rites of that original magic against which the early Church battled.

The legacy media discourse surrounding Benedict XVI’s death has been dominated by speculation about intra-ecclesial power struggles: the circumstances surrounding his resignation, and what future awaits conservative and traditionalist members of the Church now that he has gone. The themes of his pre-papal writing, however, are still very much alive – and in newly intensified forms – among those who are wise to the regime’s spell.

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London and the author of “Obedience is Freedom“.


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3 Jan. 2023
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26 Dec. 2022

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23 Dec. 2022
On the Dickensian vibes of Christmas in the Southern US

“Christmas began in Dixie, far below the Mason-Dixon line.” This is one southern legend that has some basis in fact. 

In the United States, Christmas was slow in gaining popularity up north due to the lingering effects of Puritanism. Thanksgiving was deemed a proper holiday, while Christmas, with its revelry and gaudy displays, was viewed as sinful extravagance. “Foolstide,” it was called, full of “Saturnalian jollities” which “dishonors our Lord more in twelve days than in all twelve months of the year,” according to men like Cotton Mather and his progeny. 

Not only was yuletide merry-making frowned upon in places like Massachusetts, it was oftentimes illegal. At one time, a man in Boston could be fined five shillings for such crimes as caroling and gift-giving. But in the South, Christmas was welcomed as an old friend. It is not surprising then that Southern states were the first to declare Christmas an official holiday, and did so in rapid succession (Alabama in 1836, Louisiana in 1837, and Arkansas in 1838, etc.), even though the date would not be recognized as a national holiday until 1870. While the South didn’t invent Christmas, we were the first to adopt it, and have long since made it one of our own.  

A southern Christmas is at once ordinary and unique. The universal components shared by millions around the world are there: tinsel, trees, elves, pretty paper, the familiar tunes, and all the rest. But thrown into this mix, the South has one addition that other regions lack, making our approach to the season peculiar – southerners. 

For this reason, Christmas in Dixie may look like a Norman Rockwell painting, but the characters would come straight out of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Instead of beagles wearing reindeer antlers, ole Norm would have sketched some half-drunk southron dad who had just blown off his finger while trying to wrap Junior’s first shotgun. Christmas is different down here.

Take caroling, for instance. Caroling isn’t southern. In fact, it may get you killed down here. 

Please don’t misunderstand. We love our neighbors, but it never dawns on most folks down here to just show up at someone’s front door unannounced and start crooning about lowing cattle or Good King Whatshisface. 

Showing up in the dark in packs without an invitation is a good way to get lead poisoning. Because it is known in Arkansas that a sawed-off shotgun usually stands perpendicular to every welcome mat.

Some friends and I took a notion to try caroling once in high school. Dressed in Carhartt coats and furry hunting caps, we loaded up in the rusted-out bed of Deon Darbonne’s 1982 Chevy Silverado. With those old pipes booming like the Hindenburg, it’s a mystery that we were able to surprise anyone.

We decided to start at the home of an old deacon from our church. We thought “Surely he would appreciate a few young men out heralding the birth of our Lord in song.” Not at all. He thought we were coming to roll his yard in toilet paper, so he set his hog dogs on us before we could even dismount.

Next door to the deacon was Miss Ada, a fiery widow woman who ran the lady’s quilting circle. When we piled onto her porch and lit into “Silent Night” she just peered at us through the mini-blinds. So overcome with the spirit of Christmas was she that she threatened to call the law.

I believe we tried five or six more houses that night without a single warm reception. Nobody shot at us, but Jeb Guthrie did get a bad case of the lockjaw from the tetanus when he cut his rear end on Deon’s rusty tailgate.

You might think that given our legendary southern hospitality we would have at least found one blue-haired Baptist lady with a soft spot for carolers. But no, not around here… Then again, it was nearly midnight. In June.

While caroling isn’t something you’re liable to find in the South around Christmastime, compassion certainly is. Even though this isn’t particular to us, we seem to have a unique way of going about it.

After church a few Sundays ago, I made my way over to Little Rock to do a bit of Christmas shopping. As I pulled up to the intersection where Shackleford Road meets I-430, I noticed a man standing in the median between the off-ramp and the Cracker Barrel. He was dressed in jeans, an Elvis t-shirt, and one of those floppy red Santa hats with the fuzzy ball on the end. 

This spot has become a regular hangout for homeless folks and panhandlers. Usually older men in tattered camouflage, broken by war and a few tough breaks too many, sitting there with cardboard signs with messages like, “Vietnam 1973. I just want to eat.”

Sometimes there is a scraggly guy with an old mutt in tow who always seems to do well with the passers-by. His makeshift sign always reads something to the effect, “I promise to spend every dime on beer and cigarettes.”

Yet, the guy in the Elvis shirt struck me as a bit different from the rest. He was playing an old flat-top guitar and singing Christmas songs. (When I pulled up he happened to be doing his signature version of the King’s “Blue Christmas.”) But what struck me most was the fact that he was smiling.

I pulled over on the shoulder so I could get a better look at his placard. His handwritten sign said, “All proceeds go to Tyson. 9 years old. Leukemia patient. Sweet boy.”

I rolled my window down. “Excuse me,” I said. “Is Tyson your boy?”

The man stopped strumming and walked over to my truck.

“Naw. He’s the son of one of the members at my church. They are having a tough go of it. I have some time on Sunday afternoons, so I’ve been coming over and pickin’ and singin’ to raise a few bucks to help them out. Sometimes a few ladies from the choir come out with me and back me up. Name’s Martin, by the way.” 

He stuck his hand through my passenger’s side window and I shook it.

“Are you having any luck?”, I asked.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “We’ve been coming here for about three weeks and we’ve already raised nearly $4,000 dollars. I give everybody a card from the church so they can call and make sure I am legit. Amy, our secretary, has been hanging around the office on Sunday afternoons in between services to field the calls that come through. But she said the phone has only rung once. People have been so generous.”

You may not always find a man in an Elvis t-shirt hammering out “Blue Christmas,” but down here you will always find some selfless man or woman giving what they do not have to help those who have even less.

I know that seems rather Dickensian, what with all the hard times and ailing children and ragamuffins banging on about goodwill, but Christmas does seem to bring out the best in us around here.

Even my little town looks like something out of A Christmas Carol this time of year. Twinkling strands of lights crisscrossing the square. Plastic reindeer prancing along the power lines. Wreaths on storefront doors. Old men standing on the corner in fake beards ringing bells for the Salvation Army.

I imagine that much of the Christmas cheer is feigned, but I don’t care. There’s something comforting and inviting about it. Even manufactured joy is better than the organic hostility budding in so many places. At least folks are trying to get into the spirit of things.

A few days ago, they held the Christmas parade in the square. Some friends entered a float this year, so I decided to go. I even took my dog, Peanut, along so that he could get in on the festivities.

While we were waiting for the parade to begin, my family and I stood around drinking hot cocoa in 70-degree weather. (Down here we work up a sweat getting into the Christmas spirit since Winter doesn’t arrive until close to Valentine’s Day.) I bought Peanut one of those giant smoked turkey legs and he was positively awash with seasonal mirth. 

Herds of little children gathered to pet my dog. One little girl, all of three years old, decided that she was also partial to turkey legs. She shared several bites of his meal before her mother caught her and pulled her away. But not before she gave Peanut a big wet kiss right on the nose. 

An older lady with ear muffs and fuzzy mittens sidled up next to me. “Does he bite?” she said. “Only if you bite him first,” I replied. Thankfully, she didn’t. But she did spend a few minutes patting him on the head.

My grandmother brought a few Walmart bags in which to put her haul of candy she was expecting from the floats. After convincing her that she could probably get by with one bag, I managed to get the second sack for Peanut’s well-stripped turkey bone. 

Since we still had several minutes before the parade began, I decided to walk over to the gazebo and listen to the carolers. They weren’t bad for Baptists who had never properly been wassailing with mulled wine. 

While I listened to redneck renditions of “Up on the rooftop reindeer pause,” and “We heard three ships on Christmas Day,” Peanut found the Nativity scene. Next thing I know, I hear a boy saying, “Eww,” as my dog left his own offering for the Baby Jesus right there between oxen and ass and the Mother of our Lord.

Then we heard the sirens. The parade was underway. I walked back over to where my family was standing, settling Peanut in a patch of grass just in case he had any more notions. 

Grandmother had situated herself nearly in the middle of the street. She wasn’t going to miss a single float or one flying Tootsie Pop. Then came the dignitaries leading the procession. The high sheriff and the fire marshall, beauty queens ranging in age from six months to sixteen years, men on clydesdales with elf hats and little girls on shetland ponies pulling makeshift sleighs full of siblings. 

The Methodists threw the most candy, but the Pentecostals threw the best candy. Big ladies with even bigger hair tossed out small bags of pecan divinity and flying discs of peanut brittle. All the while, Grandmother was saying “I shoulda’ brought another sack.”

But my favorite float was the one from the paper mill. They flung dozens of rolls of triple-ply into the crowds and grown men jumped to catch them like lonely bridesmaids scrambling for bouquets. I managed to get three rolls of Angel Soft myself. 

As we were leaving, I noticed several police officers chasing some school-age boys who had decided to roll the gazebo with the toilet tissue. I heard my grandpa tell one of the cops, “Let those boys be. This is as close as we get to a White Christmas around here.”

Christmas in Dixie. I love it here.

Brandon Meeks is a theologian from Arkansas, and the founding editor of “Moonshine and Magnolias: A Journal for Southern Regional Consciousness.” He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen.


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21 Dec. 2022
Joseph Conrad’s “The Masterworks (Vol. I)”: A Review

Joseph Conrad was, in general, a rather sad and fretful man. “Really, all of these anxieties do drive me to the verge of madness,” he wrote to one friend, while short of cash and inspiration:

“Death would be the best thing. It would pay off all my debts and there would be no question of MS. Really, if one hadn’t wife and child I don’t know… There are also some pressing bills. Damn.”

Conrad’s work was known for being somewhat depressing too. “One approaches him in various unhappy moods,” wrote Mencken. But not so fast! That is only one’s approach. “One leaves him in the clear, yellow sunshine.” Why is this so? Well, the Sage of Baltimore added, Conrad’s world, like ours, is “a great moral and spiritual spectacle, capable of purging and uplifting the psyche.” True. The world, as Conrad writes about it, is vivid and real. His work transcends the drab dishonesties of the obscure. Pessimistic, it seethes with hot vitality.

This collection of his shorter books is introduced with the claim that “Conrad has sadly fallen out of favor with the literary tastemakers who determine which books get transformed into new movies or assigned as required reading for high schoolers.” It might be a blessing if Conrad is not being polluted by Hollywood or imposed on bored high schoolers who are primed to hate his guts. Still, a newly packaged collection is a fine way to refresh the Conradian corpus for readers who have not been introduced to it (or, perhaps, who have only been introduced to it at school).

The collection begins with the unfortunately titled The Nigger of the “Narcissus”. (I can sense edgier readers revolting against my sensitive adverb but would or would it not be unfortunate if a book that all readers could otherwise value was titled The Cunt of Kraków or The Motherfucker of Marseilles? Magnify that.) The book follows the crew of a ship headed for London as an Afro-Caribbean man, James Wait, lies in his bed with an illness that may or may not be severe.

Defenders of Conrad from charges of racism sometimes tear intellectual hamstrings trying to portray him as a dedicated anti-colonialist. Conrad criticized colonialism, as he criticized all grand schemes, but to believe this shaped his work is to ignore the clear divide he saw between “ideas” and “art”. Still, modern readers who spy simple animus behind the slurs directed towards the Afro-Caribbean man should note how he becomes “Jimmy” or “James” after his death — mortality backing pettiness into a corner. Most of the characters in the book are unlikable, though portrayed with rich detail and humor. I doubt you have ever met somebody like “Old Singleton” but you will remember him.

Conrad was not a flawless stylist. In fact, his prose could be shockingly bad. “The forecastle was a place of damp desolation. They looked at their dwelling with dismay.” The curious critic cringed. In Typhoon — the second book collected here — people “ejaculate” (i.e. speak suddenly) three times in twenty pages. It is not just childishness that makes this seem crude.

But writers should not be judged by their worst phrasing. Readers simply do not have to be that sensitive — as if inartful passages have traumatic effects. Conrad rises to the occasion. Some novelists have invested all their love and care into descriptions of navel lint. Conrad’s prose is at its most intensely evocative when it matters. Witness, for example, the approach of the Narcissus to England:

“The dark land lay alone in the midst of waters, like a mighty ship bestarred with vigilant lights — a ship carrying the burden of millions of lives — a ship freighted with dross and with jewels, with gold and with steel. She towered up immense and strong, guarding priceless traditions and untold suffering, sheltering glorious memories and base forgetfulness, ignoble virtues and splendid transgressions. A great ship!”

This is what Conrad means when he says:

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.”

Conrad had great insight into character, and into the sort of characters a novelist might shrink from: those who act more than they speak. Take Captain MacWhirr in Typhoon: “the past being to his mind done with, and the future not there yet, the more general actualities of the day required no comment — because facts can speak for themselves with overwhelming precision.” See, too, the sharpness of Conrad’s pen as he describes MacWhirr’s wife and “her abject terror of the time when her husband would come home to stay for good.”

Conrad was a keen admirer of amoral virtues. Captain MacWhirr is a dull, unfeeling man, but his courage and stoicism help to drag his ship, the Nan-Shan, through a storm. There is an almost Buddhistic calmness in his sense that the ship must face the typhoon — that there is “so much dirty weather knocking about the world, and the proper thing is to go through it.”

Still, one also senses an interest in man’s incomprehension of the course of history here — from MacWhirr’s grim, stolid pragmatism to the miserable fate of the hundreds of Chinese laborers, here representing the average human, that the Nan-Shan carries below decks. In a then-innovative twist we never see the ship escape the storm. How much skill and how much luck was involved remains unknown.

Perhaps a critic should maintain his pose of omniscience but I must admit that I had never read The Secret Sharer. An ineffectual captain rescues a man who has been clinging to the ladder of his ship and acquires authoritative qualities as he attempts to save him from a fate that may or may not be unjust. Whether the man is real is ambiguous (the modern reader might be forgiven for wondering if Chuck Palahniuk admired this story). Its uplifting elements are also questionable as the captain protects his ship from a danger that he has exposed it to. But Conrad does not offer easy parables. He brings us rich experience and haunted human nature.

The book ends with Youth and Heart of Darkness (originally collected together). Heart of Darkness has been assailed as a racist caricature of Africa and defended as a bold anti-imperialist text. Both arguments, as I have suggested, seem reductive. Conrad would have found ideas of benign and stable Empire and harmonic and inclusive egalitarianism similarly foolish, defying the “immense darkness” of existence. That he “othered” people is inarguable, and condemnable only for people enjoying the cheerful thought of alternative universes where everyone is pretty much the same. His portrayal of Africans might have been simplistic — he did not know them after all — but the fact that the European Kurtz develops a unique deranged savagery is undeniable as well.

Youth and Heart of Darkness both feature Charles Marlow, about whom Conrad writes “he was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too.” He might as well have been — and, indeed, he might have been — describing himself. The same applies when he writes of Marlow’s storytelling:

“The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

Admiring Conrad, F.R. Leavis nonetheless criticized his “insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” The effect was “not to magnify but rather to muffle,” Leavis wrote. There is something to the stone-faced critic’s dislike of Conrad’s occasional reliance on “adjectival and ejaculatory emphasis” over “concrete presentment of setting, incident and image.” But it must also be granted that clinical observation alone could not encourage the immersive qualities of Conrad’s impressionism. On the ocean, or in the jungle, elements of strangeness and surrealism more authentically convey experience. The surreal is real, and combined detail and divulgence create an important sense of controlled hysteria.

An outsider, with a life of fear and discovery, Conrad’s talents had been slow-cooked in his struggles. A Pole exiled from his long-partitioned homeland, his roaming curiosity must have benefited from his sense of dislocation. Compatriots often appealed to him to do more for Poland. He cared about the country, and promoted its interests, but he was skeptical about its short-term prospects. “Have no illusions,” he wrote in 1914, “If anybody has got to be sacrificed in this war it will be you. If there is any salvation to be found it is only in your own breasts, it is only by the force of your inner life that you will be able to resist the rottenness of Russia and the soullessness of Germany. And this will be your fate for ever and ever. For nothing in the world can alter the force of facts.” As it happens, Conrad’s pessimism was more applicable to World War Two than to World War One but he was prophetic nonetheless. Here was MacWhirr, perhaps, looking at the future and seeing dirty weather.

Still, he was not merely pessimistic. He saw power in the “inner life” — and the inner life can be stirred, even elevated, by exposure to the awful majesty of the external world. Here, Conrad’s legacy triumphs. Modern readers caught between the fantastic mundanities of literary fiction and the mundane fantasies of genre writing will be inspired.

Book reviewed: Joseph Conrad: The Masterworks (Vol. I)

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer and a contributing editor for The Critic.


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