Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Genre of Despair

Author's Note: The following essay was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

The quotation above from H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps symptomatic of a larger trend in the public consciousness. We have seen the horrors of reality, the apocalypse is nigh, so let us sink into forgetting and thoughtlessness before the end. Popular entertainment has always been a way of forgetting one’s troubles, and in the literary world, popular entertainment most often comes under the heading of genre fiction.

It has been lamented for some time that serious literary fiction is on the wane. Whereas just a few generations before, a Hemingway or Fitzgerald were household names even in subliterate households, few with a similar level of education today could tell you who Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace might be. Such a decline is often attributed to literary fiction no longer speaking to ordinary human concerns. This is an odd argument, considering that few of the novels of Hemingway or Fitzgerald would be said to mirror the daily life of the average person. Yet, they still have a semblance to reality. This cannot be said of genre fiction, however, which if anything rebels against the substance of real life.

Lovecraft, whose intent was to emulate anything other than real life, developed a philosophical worldview he termed Cosmic Horror—a worldview in which the centuries-old anthropocentric universe was overturned in light of recent scientific discovery and replaced with the revelation of our collective inconsequence. Humanity, which long saw itself the measure of all things, was uncovered for the less-than-divine thing it is. Mankind, it appears, was but the byproduct or mistake of greater alien forces that had come to this world long before us and would soon return, like the second advent of Christ but with even less pleasant consequences.

But Lovecraft is not a special case, for escapism is at the heart of all genre fiction. Literary fiction is hard, it requires effort to appreciate fully. It does not allow us to disappear passively into a narrative because literature gives us tools with which to deal with life. Genre fiction, on the other hand, is above all an escape from life. It is then no surprise that this medium has always been complementary to conservative thought. We have but to mention Lovecraft again and recall his xenophobia and horrifying racist comments to understand the allure of escaping reality to such individuals. But horror is not alone. Dystopian tales help destroy the notion of progress. Fantasy, a term that says it all, allows readers to return to a postulated golden age, and an idealized human nature. Even science fiction is not immune. One only need examine the social and political views of M. R. James, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, or Orson Scott Card to see a well-established pattern.

Of course, this is not to deny that such fiction cannot be art. If the author creates an entirely new genre such as Lovecraft did, if it shows original elaboration on a theme or presents an intensely personal vision, the limitations of genre can be overcome. The mere imitators who come after—and these make up the bulk of what goes by the name genre fiction today—typically represent a degeneration of the original. Like a copy of a copy, they become merely pastiches of the genuine article they seek to emulate.

It is also important to remember that escapism is not an entirely bad thing. However, it often appears that escapism is the only thing at the present moment that such entertainment is expected to provide. This would appear to indicate a society deeply disinterested, even passionately opposed, to reality. Is it possible such a development is reflective of a deeper despair in the society at large? Perhaps reality has become something too hard to endure without an opiate for the masses.

At the end of the Roman Empire, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reflected upon the general decline of culture in his age:

"[H]ouses which were formerly celebrated for the serious cultivation of becoming studies, are now filled with … ridiculous amusements … reechoing with the sound of vocal music and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. Lastly, instead of a philosopher, you find a singer … and the libraries closed for ever, like so many graves." [1]

With libraries closing throughout the country and humanities departments losing more of their funding every day, it’s as if Ammianus was talking about us.

The fall of Rome coincided with the rise of Christianity, a religion that put an emphasis upon the life to come when we will shed our material selves for a perfect spiritual self. This idea is echoed in St. Augustine’s City of God, which argued that the spiritual city will inevitably win out over the city of man since man’s city is temporary whereas the city of God is eternal. The desire to escape what seemed to be a hopeless and dying world was the impetus for Christianity's rise. Are we repeating the same pattern again? For the early Christians, a mood of despair gave rise by an accident of history to productive action. Our modern passion for escape and diversion, by contrast, shows no sign of evolving to meet reality. A nascent theology of hope for the dispossessed became the glue of social cohesion for that era we call the dark ages. If we should have another dark age (and there are many who argue that with growing ecological disasters and another economic collapse just around the bend we may live to see one), it seems unlikely that the adventures ofHarry Potter or Game of Thrones will be enough to pull us through to the light.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Too Sensitive

Author's Note: The following little essay was recently published at The Good Men Project. As has become commonplace now it seems, the editor has deemed it necessary to meddle with my prose and dumb it down for the mass market reader. The original is printed below as it ideally should have appeared.

To always feel intensely is to always be in pain, a state of mind otherwise known as Hell. When misfortune occurs, and misfortune always occurs to everyone soon or late, they call it tragedy. But this is merely to express empathy through hyperbole. Nothing is less tragic than the common life and death of common men, those whose repetitive and un-contemplative days were spent merely with the aim of continued existence and never held a dream that did not die. Rather, to feel, and feel too much, is the tragic element in life, and only a life intense with feeling can even be called a life at all.

Edith Hamilton in her classic book The Greek Way gives us an insight into the nature of tragedy with an examination of Shakespeare's Hamlet:

“Hamlet's hesitation to kill his uncle is not tragic. The tragedy is his power to feel. Change all the circumstances of the drama and Hamlet in the grip of any calamity would be tragic, just as Polonius would never be, however awful the catastrophe. The suffering of a soul that can suffer greatly --- that and only that, is tragedy.”

As a direct corollary to this and what I said above, it would appear unnecessary to remark that, in order for someone to suffer greatly they must first be able to feel greatly. That the faculty of deep human sympathy and warmth must be present before anyone can be said to have suffered emotionally is accepted by the way our society attacks and denigrates it. We call those who suffer easily “sensitive” in a derogatory sense. They are perceived as weak and/or effeminate, not manly. It is no surprise therefore that that same society advocates a culture of “toughness.”

But what is it to be tough? Is it to be immune to pain? This is not much to be proud of. A rock feels no pain. Indeed a rock feels, probably, little at all but neither does it think and thought and feeling go so inseparably together that one can no more be, we may conclude, a thinking man who does not feel as an unthinking one who does.

It would appear that those who advocate for toughness in their sons have overlooked the act of thought. Would they have their boy's unthinking fools? Self-reflection brings much pain but much reward too. But, even more than this, is overlooked how the appeal to toughness is the easy way out and is it manly to teach our son's to cheat? To be an unfeeling brute is no great challenge, we see it in the unconcern of tyrants every day. What is more challenging, and thus more manly, is to feel greatly and yet endure the pain. Those who can take what life inflicts, not with cold indifference but thoughtful reflection, and not turn their heads away, to them go the laurels of manhood in the finest definition of the term. Indeed, as such a soul cannot but be the embodiment of that pearl of civilization: the gentle-man.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

All Or Nothing

Author's Note:  The following was published on the Thought Catalog website in March.  The reason I am publishing it now is also the reason I will not submit to them in future.  Not only did they fail to notify me that it had been accepted, they altered my title without notice and presented the piece as though it were meant to be read literally rather than satirically.  In addition, it appears that they have no editors on staff, as my essay was published with a few quickly discernable errors that any professional editor would have spotted.  Nevertheless, here it is once more as it should have originally appeared.


Cheating in college? It's only a crime if you get caught, and if you're that sloppy you probably were never meant for college in the first place. It is an inevitability that another cheating scandal is just around the corner so let me forestall any outrage by highlighting the bright side: nothing proves more to the corporate world that you've got the right stuff than squeezing the last drop of profit out of the least amount of labor.

The cult of the free market makes for a sharp learning curve: the market demands X to be considered employable. If X cannot be obtained, well...there is no plan B sorry about your luck. Human feeling and necessities don't fit into the equation, what the market wants it wants, and it makes no allowances for a lack of means or just plain bad luck. It's perfectly understandable then that those who choose to cheat their way through college are doing the right thing. After all, what are the alternatives?

Many will be more fortunate. Dad or Uncle Jim will know someone who knows someone. Connections come in handy, especially if your grade point average isn't sparkling. If you're a member of Skull and Bones or know someone who was, even better. All that ritualized sodomy in the black hoods and the drinking of pigs blood from Geronimo's skull will have all been worth it when your secretary is doing “dictation” at your desk while you look out on Central Park from your corner office.

It is at this point that the defenders of Capital will cry foul. It's perfectly acceptable for those who have the means to be allowed to take advantage of them, isn't that the American way? Except it isn't. The American way is about giving everyone an equal chance, but if you've already got a leg up on the competition from the moment you're born, advantages you didn't work to obtain yourself, then the only reason you're sitting in that corner office has absolutely nothing to do with you. The only thing equal in this scenario is that you and the person without those advantages had lives equally rigged from the start. One for the top and the other in a race to the bottom.

Life isn't fair you say in a sudden about-face. Except, that this supposed equality of opportunity is the very lie that is perpetuated every day by politicians and bankers alike. It's called the Bootstrap Mantra. With a little hard work, anyone can pull themselves up and make things happen. But wait, didn't I just explain how you're daddy's connections got you that fine office at his friend's law firm with the pretty little secretary? When did you ever pull up anything but your pants from the floor?

At the end of the 18th Century, there was a man who documented a similar hypocrisy. As a young aristocrat he was shuffled off to live with his uncle for a time, an Abbe or member of the Catholic clergy, in other words, a man of God. While under his supervision he watched as his wayward uncle would seduce young women, engage in orgies, and occasionally fall foul of the authorities, get arrested, and then be just as quickly released due purely to his station in life. This young man soon learned that virtue is something that only the poor concern themselves with, and that if you want to get along in this world it's best to just do as you please. If you have not already guessed, this young aristocrats title was the Marquis de Sade.

Sade would later write a novel entitled Justine: Or The Misfortunes of Virtue, in which the heroine, a woman of supreme virtue and purity, meets with every conceivable disaster. Her trust is repeatedly taken advantage of, and even monks have no qualms about torturing and raping the young woman they had taken under their wing for protection. Eventually, the poor soul dies when struck by a lightning bolt. An absurd and ignominious end for virtue if there ever was one. Sade learned early that there are two kinds of rules, one for the rich, and another for the poor, and the poor take virtue too much to heart at their peril.


In the end the world Sade merely imagined is the world we have become. For those who cannot satisfy the demands of the market's lust there can be no hope, no salvation. Virtue is a nonsense word for fools and those who take advantage of fools. So by all means cheat, for success is the only true virtue, just as getting caught is the only sin.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Killing Rights

The following was previously published on OpEdNews.com.


If I suggested to you that to euthanize the mentally handicapped would be a boon to the tax-payer your first question, after many understandable expletives, would perhaps be: who was I to decide who should live and die? And you would be right to ask, but a far larger and important question is never asked. When our government makes similar choices every day when our ongoing wars have killed tens of thousands and at the state level we take the lives of inmates at regular intervals (and drones kill citizens without trial), why do we not ask the same of the state: what gives it the right?

The primary, and too obvious response to this question, is that ours is a democracy. We elect individuals who we believe represent us and our interests in the government. But, whether we decide for ourselves or someone we elect decides for us, when is it ever right to kill? It is as though by deferring to a representative we have absolved ourselves of guilt like Pilate washing his hand's. But, more to the point, if it is only God to whom we grant the right of life and death (as is the assertion of so many Evangelicals) why do we invest such a God-like authority in the state?

It perhaps helps more than a little to examine the history behind the nation-state. We are living with a ghost, a holdover from the Middle Ages when church and state were the same and kings ruled by divine right. The state, so embodied in the ruler, was not to be questioned only obeyed. Like the Heavenly Father whom he represented, we were to have faith his law's were just and in our own best interest's like good and trusting children. And so we have remained, with a child's faith we no longer perceive that the adult affairs of government are any of our concern, and go back to watching what passes for journalism. For this same reason, the bulk of the population feel so disenfranchised that it is far simpler to defer to black and white partisan politics and vote mechanically if they vote at all. It is always someone else to blame for the state of the world, never themselves. After all, it is someone else who makes the decisions.

No matter how bad things become, it is never the forms but the individuals who fill them that deserve our wrath. The economy can crash, people may starve in the street, but to suggest that democracy is an illusion is blasphemy. As with the worship of the military, the worship of the state is an open secret. For as much as conservative groups may cry out against things like socialism and statism, they continue to venerate the state while simultaneously speaking it down. Obviously they're as much for statism as the liberals they decry. What really matters to them is who is in control, not that there is control.

I began by asking when is it ever right to kill, and I answered that this is a question we would put to the state in which we have granted God-like powers. Yet, if the state, which is little more than men and women like ourselves after all, is granted the power's of divinity how can mere mortals be trusted to wield the lightning?

Kings were once gods on earth who owned the land in theory if not in fact. God granted them such trust because God, they said, had conveniently granted it to them at birth. Those elected by men still own the land, that is property, but I see no reason to trust the prudence of presidents any more than the mercy of monarchs. And so we might conclude, whoever is granted the right to kill need not take away one's rights for they were never there to begin with. Thus, we go on just whistling in the dark while we keep our head's down.

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Girls Allowed: The Problem of Military Rape

The following was previously published on OpEdNews.com.


It's no secret the military has a problem with women. Not only is there a long documented history of misogynistic commentary from military elites, but the problem of rape has become too large to ignore.1 What then is to be done? Nothing. What can be done about an institution that is by its nature misogynistic, and whose purpose is purely to turn men into killers? Once you have opened such a door on human nature you may never close it again like some Pandora's Box to put away on a shelf when company comes to dinner.

My intent of course is not to defend such behavior, but not pretend it will be ameliorated either with special “sensitivity” training or weekend conferences on how to interact with female soldiers; things any sensible person is aware of and painlessly competent at doing in any other setting but this one. Unlike any other profession the profession of killing, and let us be honest for this is what it is, cannot afford failure for failure means death either for you or your comrades, or both. But it's this seriousness that makes compromise and half-measures as regards female participation criminally reckless if not impossible to carry out without grave consequences.

The effects of military combat are appalling. It has become increasingly well known that the number of suicides due to PTSD or, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, have escalated in recent years.2 This becomes understandable when you examine more deeply the effects of military training, the byproducts of which leave lasting scars even if a soldier never sees actual combat.3 To create a soldier, to take someone who has never killed and make killing second nature to them is to strip a person of their identity and then, through training, rebuild them to see that same lack of identity in turn in others.4

In addition, the effects of combat are ones that lead to a bonding between individuals that is unlike any other relationship. To depend upon the person next to you for your life creates an ethos of solidarity that can only exist between men in the stresses of war. As war by its nature has always been a masculine endeavor, one of conquest and dispassionate slaughter, it can only lead to an ethos that is rigidly masculine and antithetic to the feminine.

Such a bond between men can be classified as erotic in its intensity.5 It was not for nothing that in antiquity The Sacred Band of Thebes was viewed with the highest distinction.6 The Band was a legendary elite fighting force of 300 pairs of male lovers feared because it was believed that in the thick of battle they fought even harder than the standard soldier, both to defend their lover's, but also that they would refuse to retreat and shame themselves in that same lover's eyes.

Those who kill in battle perceive other men as inferior if they are not one of the proud few. Either they conceal a sense of divine hubris and superiority in which they are more deserving due to the enormity of the perceived service they provided, or they become emotionally disconnected from former friend's and relations who have not shared the experience. These qualities of male bonding, godlike disdain, and emotional disconnection are at the heart of what it means to kill as a profession, beside which the problem of rape in the military should appear not only as a non-mystery but should be understood as an inevitability.

The problem of women in combat will never be resolved until the dark nature of this institution is accepted for what it truly is, a factory for the manufacture of killers. As this topic is unlikely to be discussed honestly in the near future it may be best to add a final word of warning. It should always be kept in mind by those women who decide to serve their country by doing violence to others that there is always the tacit risk that that same violence may in turn redound upon themselves. Just as sudden death and brutal maiming have by tradition always been accepted risks that came with the job, now can be added to that bleak register the possibility of rape.
----



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rousseau on Language and Writing

The following is the Forward that was very kindly commissioned of me by my friend John for his latest book, Rousseau on Language and Writing.  It has been available for purchase for some months (you can find it on Amazon here) so this notice is more than a little late but, better late than never as they say.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau has always been a richly divisive thinker, the contradictions of his life almost displaying a split-personality. It is therefore fitting that this duality is mirrored by the essays gathered in this volume upon one of Rousseau’s lesser known works, the Essay on the Origin of Languages . Here Rousseau sought to argue, making wild and brilliant philological and sociological speculation along the way, that originally language developed in warm southern climes where it held a musical and emotional character that, with its migration to the north, would become more coldly rational and utilitarian. If we agree with this hypothesis, it may go a long way in explaining the decline of poetry from its period of greatest flowering in the antiquity of Greece, to its diminishment to the humble lyric of today. For Rousseau , ours is an age for the cold businessman’s prose of the account books not for the singing of epics.

It would be no stretch to claim that all of Rousseau’s work is one sustained attack upon inauthenticity in human relations. In this, the Essay on the Origin of Languages is just one small continuation of that project. We all wear masks, and language is just one more mask we wear to hide our true selves from one another. In the “linguistic turn” of twentieth century philosophy and the rise of the Analytic/ Continental divide , Rousseau was thus in a way prescient in reminding us that too often language can be as much a shield of self-protection as it is a means of conveying ideas. In a manner similar to C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, it becomes merely a tool of defense, where both parties talk past one another instead of genuinely engaging, as the recent commotion between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek might suggest. In this, Professors Barry Stocker and John Bolender have rendered a service in helping to spur just such a dialogue. Bolender, writing from the Analytic perspective, and Stocker from the Continental, have produced essays from their respective domains, each in turn then has contributed a separate essay upon these two original interpretations.

Barry Stocker gives us an absorbing study pairing Rousseau with Jacques Derrida, exploring a deconstructed investigation of the Essay. With a subtle and nuanced analysis Stocker explains that, due to the indeterminacy of language that a flawless definition of concepts such a liberty and community can never be achieved but that political language must remain in constant discussion with its self . John Bolender asks how does emotion in language create solidarity in a community and, further, challenges the Chomskian view against oratory as a positive and perhaps necessary force for political cohesion, speculative insights that present an excellent example of philosophy’s ability to offer new lines of scientific research and inquiry.

The book as a whole is a wonderful demonstration of the limitless possibilities that a great philosopher can elicit even two-hundred years after his death, and the still greater possibilities for cross fertilization and experimentation across the, perhaps, artificial gap of the so called Analytic/ Continental divide. Regardless, if this volume does not achieve its hoped for aim and ignite similar attempts at such dialogue, it remains a unique and stimulating exchange upon a much under-appreciated work by one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment.