Encounters with Pronouns

A lot has been said about the linguistic junta behind “gender” driven pronoun usage, which is clearly a postmodern implementation of Newspeak. I won’t add much to the pile, but will note my encounters with the incorrect use of the third-person plural – i.e., “they” and “them” – when used with singular pronouns like “someone,” “nobody,” etc. It is not, in fact, an entirely novel or politically-motivated habit. As a form of grammatical laziness, the English-speaking world has been doing it for some time. It’s like people saying, “there’s a lot of reasons for…” (when it should  be “there are”).

In Maurice Baring’s novel Daphne Adeane (1927), an elderly lady remarks that “nobody is at their best” in certain social situations. Now, Baring was a very literate gentleman, who wrote about very literate upper-class characters. But even the elites of late Victorian England could be sloppy and slangy in their speech. Another example is a scene from the horror film Cat People (the 1942 version), in which the young female protagonist is being harassed by an unidentified caller. She says to a friend that she doesn’t know who “they” are, when it is clearly just one person on the other end of the line.

When growing up (in the seventies and eighties) many of us spoke of “they” and “them” when the sex and/or number of individuals referred to was vague. That said, formal reportage and writing always got it right. But already a few years ago, to my dismay, I read a newspaper story about a local suicide in which it was said of a person that “they jumped to their death.” Without making light of the tragedy, the thought that immediately crossed my mind was: did this refer to an individual with dissociative personality disorder, or someone possessed by demons?

Every culture manifests unrefined or undisciplined behavior to some degree. But better cultures always insist on formal standards to keep intellectual decline in check.

Posted in Art and Culture, Literature

From Rural Sussex to Other Worlds

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), the political and religious traditionalist, never had electricity or a telephone installed in his Sussex farmhouse. Yet he was an avid reader of fantastic and otherworldly tales.  He enjoyed the early science fiction of H. G. Wells, in particular The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon (a grimly satirical tale reminiscent of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). This may come as some surprise to those who recall that in the 1920s Belloc sparred with Mr. Wells himself in a highly publicized debate over the Outline of History, in which Belloc criticized the book’s evolutionary, materialistic view of human events.

Belloc had a moderate distrust of technology and believed that man was always the master of the machine. Perhaps the best way to explain Belloc’s love of the genre, in light of his semi-Luddite tendencies, is simply that he found it very entertaining. In his essay “On Not Reading Books” (Conversation With An Angel, 1928), Belloc begins by lamenting the trend of the 20th century novel. They are books that “get right into the souls of people who do not interest me.” By contrast with “serious” fiction, he wrote

If any book deals with a journey to the planets, no matter how badly it be written… no matter what strange style, I am on. I am afraid I have missed a few, but I honestly believe I have read more than half of those that have appeared in the English tongue during the last thirty years.

In addition to Wells, some of the works he enjoyed are completely obscure today, such as Ninety North, a tale of Arctic discovery, and Dr. Nikola’s Adventures on the Brahmaputra by Guy Boothby, author of thriller and mystery stories. On the other hand, there is the relatively well-known Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison, which was the Lord of the Rings of its day. Of it, Belloc says, “It is the romance of a world that never was…. Its landscapes are magnificent. One lives in it.”

Along with science fiction, Belloc delighted in tales of Atlantis. He says rather whimsically, “[A]s with the planets so with Atlantis. I can eat Atlantis.”  Surely among the books he so assiduously devoured must have been J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s Lost Continent, first serialized in Pearson’s magazine in 1899. Finally, Belloc was acquainted with horror novelist and short story writer, Algernon Blackwood, and wrote favorable newspaper reviews of four of his works—The Empty HouseJohn SilenceThe Lost Valley, and The Human Chord.

While Belloc’s many interests and accomplishments have been addressed by biographers, this aspect is as neglected as it is intriguing. A detailed survey of his science fiction interest, and something about the works themselves, would certainly be worthwhile, thereby increasing our knowledge of Mr. Belloc and the age in which he lived.

Posted in Fiction, Hilaire Belloc, Literature

“Unheroic” Johnsonian Biography

“Histories of the downfall of kingdoms, and revolutions and empires, are read with great tranquility…. The general and rapid narratives of history… afford few lessons applicable to private life….”—Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 60

Unlike many of his peers, who concentrated on the lives of generals and statesmen, Samuel Johnson persistently eschewed the chronicle which “endeavours to hide the man that he may produce a hero” (Idler, No.84).  Robert Folkenflik has remarked on the “antiheroic strain” in the life studies of the English writer (Samuel Johnson, Biographer, Cornell, 1978). Yet his “attack on conventional heroes is not at odds with his own conception of human heroism.” Johnson did not discourage ambition. In fact, he assumes that people should make the most of their abilities. He was impressed with “self-made men” like Izaak Walton, the seventeenth century sportsman and writer, who came from a humble background

Johnson’s outlook “rests on the assumption that men are essentially similar and that the business of the biographer is to relate those facts which are common to human experience.” Says Folkenflik, he “can commemorate these people without irony because their lives demonstrate that ‘virtue is impracticable in no condition.’” Or as Johnson himself put it, “The high and low, as they have the same faculties and the same senses, have no less similitude in their pains and pleasures…. The prince feels the same pain when an invader seizes a province, as the farmer when a thief drives away his cow” (Idler, No. 84).

It is the proper employment of one’s abilities, however great or meager, that matters. Discussing the noted physician Thomas Sydenham: “his skill in physick [medicine] was not his highest excellence.” More important was the fact “that his whole character was amiable; that his chief view was the benefit of mankind, and the chief motive of his actions the will of God….”

According to Folkenflik: “Charity he looked upon as one of the foremost virtues, and he will often mention specific acts of charity….” Johnson recounted that Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of his age, helped Robert Dodsley open a shop and that he was a major benefactor to the impecunious Richard Savage. Johnson says that Pope was “accused of loving money, but his love was eagerness to gain, not solicitude to keep it.” On the other hand, the biographer faulted Swift who, though he made loans without interest, insisted they be paid punctually and would take delinquents to court.

Posted in Literature, Samuel Johnson

Be Satisfied with the Smallest Step Forward

If one does not have time for the entirety of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the ninth book can be read as a synopsis of the whole. I was particularly struck by the final entry (IX.42). The stoic emperor reminds us that when we are offended by someone’s “shameless conduct” we should not be unduly upset.  He says we are apt to ask ourselves: “Is it possible for there to be no shameless men in the world?” To which he replies, “It is not possible. Do not then ask for the impossible.” If we expect never to be met with ingratitude, selfishness or even betrayal we are fools. And if we hold ourselves to be better, all the more reason to be resigned.

We are “granted gentleness as an antidote to deal with the headstrong.” Because “every wrongdoer has erred and has failed to attain his aim.” As he says in another passage, “The sinner sins against himself” (IX.4). He also reminds us of the futility and pettiness of resentment: “The wrong done by another you must leave with him” (IX.20). By dwelling on intended injuries we actually give them a potency they would otherwise lack. In most cases they wither and become harmless of their own accord, if they do not actually rebound against their perpetrators.

I do not think Marcus Aurelius is advocating mere “quietism” – nonresistance or passivity to evil. But to some extent he was compensating for the fact that he wielded tremendous power and did not wish to act selfishly or capriciously like so many of the Caesars before him. That is something for us to keep in mind in our own modest realm, as parents, managers, etc.

Then there is the importance of private virtue in public affairs. The emperor frequently invokes the need for social-mindedness, perhaps because he was by nature shy and retiring. Nevertheless he notes “how puny are these little public men” who “look around to see whether anyone” will notice their virtue signalling. And in a phrase which seems remarkably contemporary in this age of ideological obsessions: “Do not expect Plato’s ideal republic; be satisfied with the smallest step forward [in our own ethical life], and consider this is no small achievement” (IX.29).

I will close with a thought which is hard to surpass for its spiritual insight:

Who told you that the gods cannot assist us even with what is in our power? At any rate, start praying for these things, and you will see. One man prays that he may sleep with a certain woman. You pray that you may not desire to sleep with her. Another prays to be rid of someone. You pray that you may not want to be rid of him…. Fashion your prayers altogether thus and see what happens (IX.40).

This will be my last meditation for awhile as I take my usual Lenten hiatus and also try to concentrate on some online courses related to work.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

Croesus and Solon

Recently I dusted off my copy of The Histories by Herodotus. Even if Herodotus’ chronicle (written around 425 B.C.) is at times of dubious accuracy it is nevertheless instructive in terms of how people of the time thought and lived.

One of the most famous stories is the meeting between Solon (638-558 B.C.), the Athenian lawgiver, and Croesus (r. 560-546 B.C.), king of Lydia. Croesus was “the first foreigner… to come into direct contact with the Greeks, both in the way of conquest and alliance.” As such he also served as a link between Persia and its eventual conflict with Greece. Persia vanquished Lydia and subsequently attacked the Greek Ionian settlements along the western coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). In time this quarrel led to major invasions of the Greek mainland, which ultimately failed.

Croesus invited Greek sages to his capital at Sardis and also donated numerous gifts to Greek city states and the temple at Delphi, known for its oracluar priestess of Apollo, regularly consulted by states and rulers. Although it’s probable that the meeting between Solon and the king never occurred, it has come down to us as an ethically instructive vignette. After the Athenian wise man was given a tour of Croesus’ palace and storerooms stocked with immense riches, the Lydian said: “I have heard a great deal about your wisdom… I cannot resist my desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen?” Needless to say, Croesus – expecting Solon would bestow that distinction upon himself – was disappointed when the Greek instead named some obscure contemporaries who had lived virtuously and modestly.

“Great wealth,” says Solon, “can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end. Many very rich men have been unfortunate, and many with a modest competence have had good luck.” Most importantly, he notes that no one can expect to enjoy “all advantages” in life. According to Herodotus, Croesus failed to take this advice to heart and waged war against neighboring countries. Unsatisfied with his gains, he rashly tangled with the Persians. His capital was in turn besieged by Cyrus and he was taken prisoner. The Persian emperor was about to immolate the Lydian on a vast pyre when he heard Croesus cry out the name of Solon three times. Inquiring what this meant, the defeated king replied that Solon “was a man who ought to have talked with every king in the world.” Learning more about Solon as well as Croesus’ plight, Cyrus took pity on the humbled prisoner and befriended him, while the latter acted as a counselor to the emperor for the remainder of his life.

The real fate of Croesus may not have ended so happily; nevertheless, Herodotus’ version became a model of magnanimity and wisdom for generations of later Greek and European readers.

Posted in History, Philosophy

Tributes and Excerpts

Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion, offers his tribute to the late Sir Roger Scruton, British author, scholar and consummate gentleman:  “I delighted in witnessing his polemical nimbleness—it could be devastating—but unlike many able debaters there was an essential gentleness about Sir Roger that tempered and complicated his ferocity. An obituary in The Times touched on one element of this gentleness when it quoted his observation that ‘Left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people because I simply believe that they are mistaken.’”

That other great contemporary British writer, Theodore Dalrymple, also pays his respects to Sir Roger in The City Journal: “In his last and moving article in The Spectator… he stressed the importance of gratitude for what one has been fortunate enough to inherit. Take nothing for granted, preserve what is worth preserving, understand the fragility of things, remember debts to the past as well as to the future, take delight in the world. Such was the lasting message of this exceptionally gifted man.” I have had the pleasure of discussing Sir Roger’s philosophy in past commentaries, and expect to read and reflect on his writings for many years to come.

Naomi Shaefer Riley, reviews the book Abandoned (by Anne Kim) about “America’s lost youth”: “In some cases kids drop out of school because they need to help support their families; but in other cases, they do so because they find school ‘boring,’ a reaction that Ms. Kim blames on standardized tests. Of course, over the generations, if not the millennia, children have found school boring — even before the advent of standardized tests. She is on surer footing when she turns to other demoralizing educational trends: the emphasis on everyone, no matter how ill-suited, going to a four-year college, for instance, or the de-emphasis on vocational training and apprenticeships. To a young-adult student who wants to get a job after high school, the options are few, and high school itself may come to feel irrelevant.” The mainstream educational options in developed countries have become increasingly bureaucratic, expensive and ideologically repressive, to the point that they are often counterproductive, both for the individual and society as a whole.

In another column for The New Criterion, media critic James Bowman discusses the overlooked irony behind the recent closing of the “Newseum” in Washington, D.C., due to declining attendance. Bowman notes that “Journalists are good tearing things down but are never more transparently phony than when building things up–especially when it it is themselves that they are building up. They exist to expose and humiliate our secular heroes and, in more and more cases, to destroy them, but that can never make the journalists themselves into heroes, except in their own conceit.”

Posted in Art and Culture, Philosophy, Roger Scruton, Theodore Dalrymple

As I Please: Orwellian Insights

The term “Orwellian” typically implies something ominous, especially in the realm of politics, thanks to the British writer’s monitory fantasies 1984 and Animal Farm. But here I use the adjective more loosely, referring to Orwell’s perceptive treatment of a wide range of subjects.

Many of the essays appearing in As I Please, the third volume of his collected articles and letters, were originally published in a Tribune column (1943-45) of that same name. There is Orwell’s delightful piece about his favorite pub, “The Moon Under Water.” He describes it as “uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries.” At this establishment “it always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano,” and so forth. Orwell admits further on that it is not a real place, but an imaginary farrago based on his favorite drinking establishments. Other essays offer a defense of English cooking and advice on how to make a proper cup of tea.

There is a fascinating bit of wartime sociology in a discussion about the antagonism between American soldiers and their English hosts. In it we glimpse something of the writer’s persistent fairness. He called for open debate about the causes of animosity and resentment, whereas most contemporaries tried to sweep it under the rug. To his mind, “it is just because one does want a good relationship between the two countries that one wants plain speaking.” This is markedly different from the typically insincere musings on “tolerance,” both then and now.

While one may not always agree with Orwell, his objectivity is disarming. In recalling the descriptions of misery in Victorian England by early radicals, he notes “The London slums are still bad enough, but they are nothing to those of the nineteenth century. Gone are the days when a single room used to be inhabited by four families, one in each corner, and when incest and infanticide were taken almost for granted.” Although he was a Marxist (at least selectively) Orwell admits that the socialist dogma that the “condition of the working class will grow worse and not better” was an incorrect prognosis. Economic progress had occurred without the need for revolution.

In a reflection on religion and immortality, the author opines: “I do not want the belief in life after death to return, and in any case it is not likely to return. What I do point out is that its disappearance has left a big hole, and that we ought to take notice of that fact.” Orwell further confides that “The western conception of good and evil is very difficult to separate from [immortality]. There is little doubt that the modern cult of power worship is bound up with the modern man’s feeling that life here and now is the only life there is.” He concedes that secularism has yet to furnish popular moral deterrents or encouragements to supplement waning Christian belief. Sadly, one notes, Britain’s ethical veneer has become even more tenuous in the decades since Orwell wrote.

Posted in Art and Culture, George Orwell, Literature, Politics

The Disappointed Futurist

A hundred years ago, the British author H. G. Wells was a prominent social prognosticator. Today his theoretical views are largely neglected. This is the lament of a new biography by Sarah Cole, discussed in the Wall Street Journal. Cole’s new volume is described as “a spirited attempt to rescue” Wells from obscurity by highlighting his “universalism, his monumental output, his omnipresence in the intellectual debates of his time.”  Reviewer D. J. Taylor notes the author’s “saying power… that sets him apart from his descendants.” This is true of his works of fiction; less so, his works of political and cultural commentary.  It is ironic that Wells “was a polymath in a world that was rapidly succumbing to specialist expertise.” He actually belonged to an older humanist tradition that gave way to the very technocracy that he helped to propagandize.

The biographer also compares Wells’ writing style with contemporaries like Joseph Conrad. Apparently when relaxing on the beach he was asked by the famous sea-faring novelist how he would describe a certain boat they were looking at. Wells replied that he would “just let the boat be there in the commonest phrases possible.” He would generalize. This is very different from the meticulous (one might almost say maddeningly intricate) prose of Conrad. The Polish-born author was a great artist. And he had interesting stories to tell. But in my opinion he was not as successful a storyteller as Wells in his early years. On the other hand, Wells’ later novels were suffused with dull theorizing and stereotypical characters acting as mouthpieces for his own points of view.

According to Taylor, Cole’s biography does not ignore Wells’ “untenable views about race and eugenics” (which is putting it rather gingerly). The English novelist was also an early champion of “free love.” In that respect, his outlook was an accurate predictor of things to come. Yet as time passed he was not always pleased with the course of “progress.” It took another English socialist, George Orwell, to articulate the shortcomings of Wells’ rationalism. The more skeptical Orwell remarked on the failure of a proposed “world state” to generate popular enthusiasm. “All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves.”

Still, we are indebted to Wells for enduring works of imaginative fiction, not only in such well known novels as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds but even some of his short stories like “The Door in the Wall,” which I recently read in an old anthology of that same title. It’s a wistful fantasy about a man’s search for paradise. As such, it can be also be taken as a parable for Wells’ own idealism struggling amidst the harsh facts and disappointments of the world.

Posted in Fiction, George Orwell, H. G. Wells, Literature

A Prophet Against Anonymous Dictatorship

“If you do not watch out, what the dictators wanted to achieve in a few years will materialize in fifty or a hundred; the result will be the same: the State will have conquered all, absorbed all; you will have escaped the totalitarian demi-gods only to let yourselves slip slowly into the glue of an anonymous dictatorship.”–George Bernanos, A Letter to the English, 1943

Bernanos spent a lifetime criticizing the mediocrity of modern society – its fixation on order without purpose or belief. Such, he argued, was the pursuit of many parties on both the “left” and the “right.” His independent mindset, for example, allowed him to champion the rights of workers while also understanding (contra the Marxists) that the worst forms of poverty are spiritual deprivation. Admittedly the French writer was often better at description than prescription. His Luddite idealism seems impracticable, but not the realization that our enslavement to technology – which he foresaw long before the current Googlearchy – is due to a philosophical error: the desire to compensate materially for our moral shortcomings.

Just two years after the Allied triumph over Hitler, the ever vigilant Bernanos could speak of an ongoing “war of states against societies, of States against patries [countries]…. The modern state has slowly reached this phase of growth, beyond which it can only be a fantastic instrument of constraint and enslavement. The state is now a technique in action for the dispossession of real men and for the profit of the future robot.”

His biographer, Thomas Molnar, provides further context: “Bernanos was not an aggressive nationalist like Maurras. With Maurras, nationalism was an ideology, a policy, a plan of action; with Bernanos, patriotism was a supernatural duty—a duty to remain human and linked to God, to continue living by bread and faith.” To be a patriot was to be “essentially open towards others, not closed as the Maurrassian doctrine implies.”

Bernanos “considered the world… as the stage of the struggle between good and evil, without, of course, identifying anybody or any category as the carrier, beyond forgiveness and redemption, of the total burden of evil. In this way, Bernanos did not believe, as [the anti-Semitic] Maurras did, that certain people and races are forever sick and guilty….”

Is the alternative a “rage against the machine,” which only seems to perpetuate the dilemma? Is the free man, Molnar asks, “a mere saboteur, a bitter opponent who finds pleasure, however justified, in placing obstacles in the way of the machine’s heavy feet, in delaying the inevitable march of the Technical State?” Or is he the saint of Bernanos’ novels, possessing “an inexhaustible reservoir of fighting spirit, but also of insight and charity, used not for malice and destruction, but for opposing… freedom to slavery, love to routine?”

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Molnar on Bernanos

“If such a thing could be at all stated of a Christian… Bernanos could be called an ‘alienated man,’ somewhat in the sense in which Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka were alienated. In reality, such a man is the least alienated of all….”—Thomas Molnar, Bernanos: His Political Thought and Prophecy

I recently checked out a copy of Molnar’s study of the French Catholic novelist, and read it in just two days. It is the epitome of intellectual biography. Although the book is long out of print, readers can still avail themselves of an essay by Molnar on the subject.

Bernanos was not a politician or a theorist; nevertheless, he was at the forefront of the ideological warfare which convulsed French society during the first half of the twentieth century. His involvement started with the nationalistic monarchism of Charles Maurras, though by the 1930s he had distanced himself considerably from that camp and eventually denounced the “fascist temptation” that grew to prominence with Mussolini and Hitler. He was offered a government post under the collaborationist regime of Marshall Petain (which he refused). He championed De Gaulle’s Free French movement. Yet, after the war, when De Gaulle proposed he head the Ministry of Culture, Bernanos passed that up as well.

I don’t agree with all of Bernanos’ viewpoints, but I respect his independence. He never became a close-minded party hack; neither did he accommodate himself to convenient fashions and ideas. As a critic of reactionary power seekers, he said of his erstwhile mentor: “How is it that at the same time that Maurras destroys the false ideas, he also sterilizes the right ones and empties them of their sap? There is only one answer to this mystery: the Maurrassian spirit is absolutely lacking in charity.” We are told that for all of Bernanos’ zeal, he avoided extremism because he saw it as a form of despair.

His career reflects the genuine diversity of conservatism in that, like many continental traditionalists, he was unsympathetic toward “bourgeois capitalism,“ though he equally derided any notion that his ideas could be annexed by the socialist left. I am perhaps skeptical enough (and experienced enough) to prefer the market economy to most alternatives, but at the same time to admit the damage caused by rampant consumerism and corporate and technocratic monopolies. Continued debate on the subject should certainly not be stifled.

Bernanos was a brilliant writer because of his perfectionism. He found authorship both a curse and a necessity. As a college student he declared, “If I do not read or write, things go badly for me.” It is a conundrum that all writers (even those of us far removed from his level of genius) must struggle with. Is writing merely a hobby and a distraction, or is it a true vocation? Even in his most polemical pieces Bernanos wanted “to revive in people the reflexes of good faith and sincerity.” This occupation of authorship is perhaps a fitting subject for meditation in the coming year….

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics