Take Cover: No One’s Got Your Back

I’m not breaking my vow to abstain from political discussions on this site. The following comments concern manners, morals, and character rather than (or certainly more than) political convictions.

I have never been a “Never So-and-So”, and never will be. It’s a perfectly idiotic formula, worthy of our age of slapdash Tweets, bumper stickers, and avatars. The Japanese commandant of the prison camp about which The Bridge on the River Kwai was written became a Christian in later life and asked forgiveness of several surviving inmates. Aleksandr Litvinenko, rumored to have been murdered by Putin’s agents when they poisoned his tea with Plutonium 210, was himself a KGB operative at one time. People change. They grow up, and they learn things. In an election, too, one may discover things about Tweedle-dee that make Tweedle-dum more attractive. I’ve resisted having my decision swayed by such reverse-motivation lately, but I haven’t always been impervious to it. I suppose I’d step into Adolf Hitler’s space station if my one alternative were the quarters of the Man-Sucking Slime from Slagkathyndria.

That much conceded, I grew really hot the other night when I heard Bill Bennett refer to Never Trumpers as his “former friends” who were so arrogant as to place their pleasure in moral superiority above the good of the nation. I don’t know what words may have passed between Mr. Bennett and his quondam comrades; but to sneer insults at people in this manner on the most public of stages, particularly after your horse has already won the race, suggests to me a small mind and a mean spirit. I should think that Mr. Bennett might have been better able to fathom the motives of persons with whom he claims a one-time friendship; or if they were so hollow as he now suggests, then I must wonder why a man of his years and apparent intellect ever chose them as friends. If we may assume that his original judgment was not utterly flawed, then we may also assume that the sentiments he ascribes to these people now are not remotely close to the whole truth.

Personally, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the early days of the new administration. Its mild excesses and miscues have been so brutally caricatured by most mainstream media outlets that these latter should beware of “the Boy That Cried Wolf” syndrome. If they ever have a fully legitimate warning to blare before the public, they may find everyone’s ears stopped tight with cotton.

Alas, the occasion for that alarm may come. Our new chief executive, informed a couple of weeks ago by a power-hungry Texas sheriff that the state representative from Colleyville had introduced a bill to abrogate Civil Assets Forfeiture, shot back from the hip, “Who is that? We’ll ruin that representative!” Such outbursts must give any freedom-loving American cause for concern. CAF is a gross abuse of authority that allows small business-owners to be permanently stripped of assets without any due process whatever; but even if it weren’t—even if it were exclusively the scourge of drug cartels, as originally intended—leaders of republics don’t set the dogs on their citizens. They don’t say, “We’re going to destroy you.” We’ve just survived eight years of such ideological head-hunting under the Holder and Lynch “Justice” Department. Could we be in for another four of the same, only with a different spin?

I question Mr. Bennett’s characterization of such concerns as arrogant moral posturing. I wonder, instead, if his own conscience may not be feeling a little gimpy, and he has decided to stroke it by vilifying others who were less willing to ignore the “fine details”. Maybe the author of The Book of Virtues should consider wearing a helmet lest his vigorously slung slurs come boomeranging back at him.

Ultimately, what I’m left thinking by these tantrums (and Bennett’s is only one: it’s almost March, and they continue) is that we’re pretty much on our own for the foreseeable future if we value freedom. Certain liberties taken from us over the past decade will be restored—are already being restored; but others may disappear in the middle of the night. Best to find a place at the edge of the radar’s sweep and hunker down. The people we once took at their word as being outspoken champions of individual rights are breaking in some very odd directions, like a bunch of billiard balls struck by a mortar shell.

A Sadly Instructive Joust with Holiday Inn

I needed to do some traveling, and so I chose a Holiday Inn where I had stayed before. The trouble was that the rate was rather higher this time—and I also got little sense from the agent on the phone that my request for a top-floor room would receive serious attention. I told him distinctly at one point that I wanted to do more research before booking a room. He virtually pleaded with me to go ahead and book, however (“They’re going fast at this locale—must be some kind of special event”), and to cancel later if I discovered a better deal. I took the bait. As Jeremy Wade would say. “Fish on!”

Within 24 hours, I did indeed find a better deal. I called to cancel. The girl on the line was happy to oblige… but informed me that I’d be rung up for thirteen bucks. I was furious. I asked why I hadn’t been alerted to this fee when making the reservation. She didn’t know. Whatever. I told her to cancel my room, to forget about my ever staying at Holiday Inn again, and to consider our call at an end. I’ve never hung up on anyone before in that manner. Our changing world is transforming us before our very eyes.

The confirmation email did indeed mention the charge in its fine print, as I found upon double-checking:

For the room type you’ve selected, you can cancel your reservation for a full refund up until noon on [Month. Date] (local hotel time). If you decide to cancel your reservation anytime between noon on [Month. Date] and noon on [Month. Date+two days] (local hotel time), the hotel requires payment for the first night’s stay. You will be charged for the first night’s stay including taxes and fees. Any remaining amount will be refunded to you. Refunds or cancellations are not available after noon local hotel time on your day of arrival [Month. Date]. The $12.99 USD fee included in the total is non-refundable. We do not charge any additional change or cancellation fees.

I logged onto the Holiday Inn comments page and gave them my response to their little landmine hiding in the confirmation notice:

I made a reservation at the H Inn and Suites yesterday (Rome, Ga) ONLY because the agent assured me that I could cancel without penalty up until [Month, Date] at noon, two days before my arrival.  As anticipated, I had to cancel this morning… and the agent on the phone informs me that I’m being rung up for $12.99.  I happened to look at the receipt sent to my wife’s email, and I noticed the charge stipulated in fine print… but, of course, even if I’d been checking the fine print, I wouldn’t have seen this email as I was in the act of booking with your rep, who essentially talked me into the transaction.
I won’t stay at a Holiday Inn again.  I won’t be staying in any related properties again.  I’ve taken my IHG rewards card and trashed it.  I have plenty to say about this on my blog site and to my friends.  I consider what you have done to be outright fraud, and I despise people who treat customers this way.  Your business practices are contemptible; and if I were a lesser man, I would wish that you would have a lifetime of dealing with nobody but shysters like yourselves.  It’s bloody disgraceful!  For thirteen bucks!  Disgraceful.

At least the cancellation went through. I promptly received the following, which of course was wholly unrelated to my own message just above:

This email is to confirm our conversation that your reservation is cancelled and you will be receiving a refund. The $12.99 USD fee included in the total is non-refundable.

Please allow 3 to 10 business days for your bank to post it to your account. And should you need further assistance please don’t hesitate to respond to this email, and we will be happy to take care of you.

I’ll just bet you will! But all irony aside (for there was neither irony nor humor nor sympathy in any of these exchanges on the part of the company hacks), I at last received the wooden missive below:

Hello John,

This email is being sent to confirm your request to waive the booking fee. The refund will be processed within 24 hours back to your credit card, but you should allow 3 to 10 business days for those funds to post your account. If you would like to expedite the process, you will need to contact your credit card provider.

For any other questions or assistance, please respond to this email, and we will be sure to take care of you.

Still and ever wanting to take care of me! No, Holiday Inn, I think I’ve been taken care of quite enough. In the first place, don’t call me John. You don’t know me like that. In the second place, I didn’t request a waiver. I told you that you were scavengers and scoundrels. And in the third place, I never did get an apology from you. Your agent set me up so that you would be assured of bleeding me for at least a little change, no matter what… and then you thought you’d patch everything up when I turned out to be one of the 1% that complains. Yes, I wanted my money restored to me; but I wanted an apology just as much, and I got something that any half-intelligent robot could easily have out-performed.

This is why young people are suspicious of capitalism—or why some young people think they can enter the capitalist workplace with the ethics of a Visigoth. Our corner drugstores and Mom & Pop storefronts on Main Street are all gone. Everything’s a video game. And as for robots… yes, even a robot would be more pleasant to live around than the post-human degenerates that e-culture is turning us into. Robots stick to their programming: humans keep following the trend—and if it’s a downward spiral, they keep spiraling downward.

Tocqueville, the Pilgrims… and ISIS: Enough to Make You Squirm

When I recently began rereading Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, my objective was less to garner information (as it had been previously) than simply to enjoy the scenery.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The first chapter, at least, is so fluidly, lyrically written that it deserves a place in literature textbooks, whatever one may think of Tocqueville’s formidable chronicling abilities. You could read these pages aloud in French and understand why the Académie Française used to get so worked up about defending the mother tongue. (That’s probably a thing of the distant past.)

What has me more than a little distracted from style in the second chapter, however, is the restless ghost of ISIS that keeps flitting between and behind the lines.  Yes, ISIS.  The author is describing the devout (we would say fanatical) penal codes promulgated by the Pilgrims in founding their utopian society.  Here are a few examples.

A certain Margaret Bedford was condemned to the lash for “reprehensible acts”, then forced to marry her co-offender, Nicolas Jemmings. These acts may have consisted of no more than exchanging an indiscreet kiss or laughing at an unseemly joke. They almost surely did not include actual adultery, which—as of about 1650—was punishable by execution, along with blasphemy and witchcraft. Laziness and drunkenness were also severely (though not capitally) targeted by the Puritan penal code.

Note 44 remarks that Anabaptists were banished from Massachusetts in 1644. As for Quakers, any ship’s captain who delivered one such to the colony was severely fined. Furthermore, “Quakers who manage to enter will be whipped and submitted to hard labor in prison. Those who persist in their opinions will first be subjected to a fine, then condemned to prison and subsequently banished from the province.”

Note 45: “In the penal law of Massachusetts, a Catholic priest who sets foot in the colony after having been expelled from it is punished with death.”

Tocqueville is naturally dismayed by the despotic tendencies of New England’s communal governments.  “Such erratic acts assuredly bring shame upon the human spirit,” he laments.  “They testify to the weakness of our nature, which, being incapable of clinging firmly to truth and justice, is most often reduced to choosing between two excesses.”

Yet Tocqueville seems oddly swept up in Yankee enthusiasm when he comes to the subject of public education.  He not only remarks, but stresses, that the first duty of such education in the eyes of Massachusetts lawmakers is to serve God.  Retrograde citizens who refuse to submit their children to the regimen of the officially sanctioned schoolhouse may see those children permanently taken from them.  (Still no protest registered by the author: the comments fall within the framework of how far ahead of Europe’s medieval customs is New England.)

By the time Tocqueville is transcribing a speech of Governor Winthrop’s, he appears ready to leap from his chair and applaud along with the assembled legislators.  Yet the Governor’s words, to my ear, draw a faintly disturbing distinction between liberty that will accept no authority and liberty practiced within the dictates of the commune.  Couldn’t James Jones have said the same thing? Was it not Tocqueville himself who wrote a mere few pages earlier that we pitiful humans can only lurch from one extreme to the other?

I’m not trying to build a case based upon that “moral equivalency” so deplored by right-wing bloggers and talking heads. Puritans are not ISIS warriors. At their worst, they executed the “desperate sinner” with a certain solemnity… or at least burning witches were not uploaded to YouTube as they writhed and as their tormentors did victory laps around the stake. Most of these laws were also soon repealed, or else so seldom invoked in all their horror that they became fossilized relics in the civil code.

Nevertheless, the obvious needs to be said. The butcher-boys of ISIS are as bad as they come—were I commander-in-chief, I would order my troops not to take any prisoners unless they were plainly under the age of consent; but the crusading “saints” who founded much of our early nation had moments when they looked darned near as insane as a bunch of decapitating thugs waving a holy book. People have an ugly side. All of us have it. The first stage to surrendering self-control to that side is forgetting its poisonous presence. Do not expect purity of anything human… and while you’re at it, don’t let yourself off the hook.

Bogeymen, Academics, and Truth

I’ve been fascinated by the popular response to UFO’s and Bigfoot for a long time—and also by the way a self-styled intelligentsia responds to the popular response. The case of the Little Grey Men and that of the Huge Hairy Man-Apes have a lot more in common than meets the eye at first glance.

The public visibility of both has mushroomed in the past half-century or so. This is surely because our mass media of entertainment picked up on their “spook” potential about midway through the twentieth century. Bogeymen are a great draw at the box office. Between the Greys and Sasquatch, we have the Other covered from the terrifying high-tech dystopia to the get-away-from-it-all rustic retreat.

As more and more people were introduced to these “phenomena” through popular media, reports of new encounters also burgeoned. These included honest instances of misidentification due to someone’s having “Bigfoot on the brain” or “saucer paranoia”; but the percentage of deliberate hoaxes, as well, also appears to have skyrocketed (if you’ll excuse a pun). Indeed, as photographic technology became both more affordable and more flexible, the ability to “document” a hoax in credible film footage escalated—and with it the possibility (especially in the past thirty years) of having one’s own camera artistry uplifted to the big screen as “evidence”. The process feeds upon itself: video testimony attracts more viewers, and the expanded viewership creates a motive for more videos, which are ever likelier to be apocryphal because the chances of achieving momentary fame have been multiplied.

The sightings of both phenomena include some very plausible testimony—but this grows ever leaner (about 5% and falling, according to Nick Pope) in the deluge of clever fakery. Seasoned pilots have actually seen craft which resemble nothing we are known to produce here on Earth and nothing we are known to be capable of producing. Seasoned woodsmen have seen and heard creatures that resemble neither a bear nor a boar nor an elk nor anything extant recognized by biology. There’s always the possibility that some old pilot with a lousy pension plan is seeking a sweet deal on a Barbara Walters interview, at that Daniel Boon’s great-great grandson was cozened by a guy in a gorilla suit who just happened to be hanging out in the middle of nowhere under a cold rain.

The “scientific establishment” plays the trump card of such possibility over and over. Frankly, I find it disheartening that ostensible professionals can proudly put such narrow-mindedness on display and be bursting with contentment at their performance. A true scientist should be able to distinguish between adventurous hoaxers and credible witnesses who have no reason to lie. The academic community’s sneering refusal to do so has a thoroughly self-serving look about it. I should like to pose such “experts” the question, “Are you more concerned about the truth or about keeping the bricks tidy and straight that undergird your brilliant career?”

For my own position on both cases is that there’s something at the bottom of the well not acknowledged in any of our textbooks. Having spoken to one of the hundreds of witnesses (a man with a government security clearance) to the 1997 Phoenix Lights, I cannot write off every UFO report as the bad dream of some physics-challenged hayseed; and the one person I know whose near relative saw a Sasquatch beyond the shadow of a doubt (as he swears) will quickly add that the witness refuses to discuss the incident. This is yet another commonality: reliable witnesses in both cases do not come forward, for fear of derision. Evidence that is noisily publicized, therefore, stands a good chance of being phony precisely because of its noise. As the Buddhist conundrum has it, those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.

To Sasquatch-scoffers, in particular, I would point out that their assuming the creature to be something of sub-human intelligence wins their argument without requiring them to listen to a conflicting analysis. We humans are not really all that smart, or all that hard to figure out, predict, and avoid. But we wear clothes! Yeah… and for the last seven decades, we’ve been one red button away from self-extermination. If a chimp could tell you what he thinks of homo sapiens, do you suppose he would extol our superior intelligence… or would he laugh at our puny physique and snort at our poisoning of the rivers?

Finally (for this short space), understanding both the UFO and the Sasquatch is set back light years by idiotic television serials that claim to track either phenomenon. A conspiracy theorist might conjecture that Unexplained: Alien Files was created by none other than a cabal of men in black who want to diffuse public interest by saturating genuine puzzles in an insipid brew of buffoonery. As for the Four Stooges of Finding Bigfoot, their relation to the supposed subject of their quest is approximates that of a weekend Thoreau to wild nature—an amateur hiker, I mean, who leaves behind energy-bar wrappers and scares away nesting bluebirds. With detectives like these on the case, we can expect the body to petrify before a suspect is arrested.

How the E-World and Its Transhumans May Bring a Glorious New Day

I think most professional educators are in my situation: they’re under constant pressure to shift more and more of their teaching further and further into the e-world. Now, I wouldn’t be writing these words with any expectation that someone might actually read them if the Internet didn’t exist. My objections are not Luddite: I do not dream of an EMP which will wipe out every trace of manmade electricity. What I deplore is the indiscriminate embrace of every new device and application to come down the pike as if its mere novelty were adequate proof of its superiority to earlier ways. I’m bothered by “instant access”. It induces young minds to become impatient with sifting evidence and easily reconciled to the first answer to pop up. I’m bothered by the “keyword search”. It trains novices to reduce complex issues and intricate connections to a bumper-sticker simplicity.

Perhaps most of all, I’m bothered by something that might be called the “cattle in the slaughterhouse chute” phenomenon. Young people who have been fed on the Internet and its attendant technologies the way chicks are fed on seed may think that the path of their Web-surfing is wholly self-directed—but in truth, it’s being tirelessly and minutely monitored so as to produce an ever straighter, faster-running mainstream. Creativity and individuality are vanishing. As people define themselves more and more in terms of what they see and what they post on the Net, on Twitter, and the rest, they unconsciously grow more and more tribal—more wedded to “trending” formulations and more conditioned in their thought by a rather narrow range of clichés.

Yet, as I say, the pressure to cave in professionally is irresistible. I must take care to speak only in veiled terms here, because I might indeed lose my job if I were to denounce what I see with blunt precision. The craze is too general, and backed by forces too powerful: it has reached the proportions of cult hysteria. Enough to say that, in the very middle of a complicated semester full of classroom challenges, I and my colleagues have all been commanded to make time for learning the lingo of still another software program. The orders issue from the offices of functionaries who have never sat through any of our classes and never taught any of their own… yet they warble to us, in endless emails and tutorials, “This will make your grading so much easier!” or, “This will involve your students so much more deeply in the class!” (Pardon me if I amend the warbles with proper grammar… though the intensifier “so”, properly speaking, requires a result clause that never seems to appear.)

A few days ago, a colleague half-commiserated with me by confiding that she, too, once shared my misgivings. Then she undid the consoling effect of her words by adding, “Later I realized that my students actually learn better online. They don’t pay any attention to me in class since their eyes are always on their Smartphones. So use their Smartphones.” I wanted to cry out, “But you’re making my case for me! That’s exactly why we should not be doing this! They’re already in Stage Three, and we’re facilitating their transition to Stage Four instead of trying to heal them back into Stage Two!” I just kept quiet, however. What’s the use?

As I’ve written before (in venues besides this one), the fusion of the human and the robotic—mystically called the Transhuman by strange beings like Al Gore—is supposed by many to be a lead-pipe cinch by mid-century, and we will only accelerate that glorious day by making our children think more like computers as AI is fine-tuned to think more like us. Maybe my colleague is right: maybe I’m looking at it all the wrong way. Maybe, if those who want to climb on board the Starship Horizon all rush out to dive into the robot’s waiting arms, we few recalcitrants will be left in peace. Maybe when the Hybrids launch vast expeditions to colonize other solar systems, they will leave a smattering of us lesser primates to tend our gardens, bury our dead, and rear our young. In their environmentally awakened higher consciousness, why would they want to exterminate us, in light of how much they do for the kangaroo rat? And in the amplitude of a quasi-life that needs no food and drink other than a wall socket, why would they tax us into misery? We shall represent mere curiosities for them, on rare occasions when they notice us at all.

I can live with that. Bring it on.

A Chronic Loser’s Investment Advice

I started socking away money in an IRA a long time ago, when I was still single and had little need of cash. These accounts grew steadily—for I soon had more than one. About ten years ago, I began to be concerned over our out-of-control debt. (Little did I know that Obama’s administration would make Bush’s look like the Ebenezer Scrooge School of Economics.) I shifted one retirement account to gold. The organization that I patronized was Lear Capital. Still later, a Lear representative—some aging California supermodel type with accounting skills, a keen interest in meditation, and the silkiest voice you ever heard—convinced me to shift again, this time from gold to silver. Probably not a bad move in itself. The problems started to come when Lear sold or transferred or otherwise handed off my account to some banking operation called Equity Trust. This outfit began to ring me up for whopping yearly maintenance fees. I also, by this time (just a couple of years ago), began to fret deeply about the physical presence of my metal in other hands. If things got really bad, as per a half a dozen scenarios (Cyprus-style haircut, an EMP, etc.), I might end up with absolutely nothing. I had already been stupid enough to allow the maintenance fees to be assessed from my account assets—meaning that Equity was able to pocket some of my silver, purchased by me precisely because it was currently very undervalued, and leave my hoard a little leaner. Stupid, yes… but I was preoccupied with a million other things, like most ordinary people.

Having reached an age that allowed me to cash in my chips with impunity, I demanded that my silver be sent to me. Done. No problem. I was delighted with myself… until I received a tax document the other day informing me that the account’s closing value was being added on to my 2016 taxable income. No one had alerted me that this would happen. Again, as a naïve Ordinary Joe, I had supposed that the “age without penalty” allowed me access to my holdings free and clear. I’m happy to have my silver, for nothing short of an IRS SWAT team invoking Civil Assets Forfeiture is going to rip it off now (hmm… something else to keep me awake at nights); but I find that I understand the “charity” of the Investment Retirement Account less than ever. So I avoided paying tax on the money several decades ago, when I could best have afforded to… and now that I’m on the verge of retirement, I have to pay as if I’d been given a handsome commission just last year to film a Geico commercial. Or I could have simply kept the account where it was and drawn a few monthly pennies from it, leaving my money in constant jeopardy of the banking industry’s mysterious whimsy and the political system’s machinations.

I’m still exploring a couple of cards in my hand. However this all turns out, I stand more convinced than ever that we can trust no one in public life—and by that I mean the private sector as well as the government. We’re supposed to tear up at the raising of the Flag… but I no longer know what it represents. I can’t think of a single thing that any level of government does for me. Our garbage pick-up is irregular, our mail arrives in peculiar weekly spates rather than at daily intervals, our power grid sits almost entirely unsecured (unlike China’s and Russia’s), an officer might reach my house in about an hour if I dial 911 (I’ve had that experience), and a pandillero who has strayed into our country won’t even be sent home if he blows my head off. (I won’t mention the IRS’s SWAT team again.) It’s all pretty medieval. You try to raise a few potatoes and turnips, you cough up some chickens and a hog when the overload demands rent, and you march on the front line with your pitchfork when “recruited” to defend the realm.

Screw that. I’m glad I have my silver, though not much of it is left and I’m having to pay again to keep it in a safe place. It wouldn’t buy a new car… maybe a really nice TV. It probably wouldn’t cover my funeral, as the law requires funerals to be arranged (thanks to generous campaign contributions from the Undertaking Industry). Stumbling onto such realizations as you grow old is such a Big Empty… a whole life passed in being a pawn, a chump, a mark. That’s how I feel.

Except that I also believe in a higher justice. That’s why I wouldn’t trade places with Lear’s or Goldline’s operatives, or with our elected scammers, or with the IRS’s goons. One day all of us will have to answer for everything we ever did, and they who showed no mercy will receive none.

What Has Math to Do With Poetry? Maybe a Lot!

Some day before I die, I hope to publish my notes about Virgil’s Aeneid. I’m pretty sure that I have uncovered the map to a “subterranean allegory” that runs against the grain of the epic’s superficial, dully propagandistic objectives (the pursuit of which was the basis of the poet’s being commissioned to write the work, in the first place). I am even more sure, however, that the academic establishment will never accept my ideas and that no university press would ever publish them. In academe, “scholars” in the humanities prop each other up endlessly, without much regard for the unconditioned truth (whose very existence most deny in any form). All I have going for me is that my interpretations actually explain dark tinges in the Aeneid that otherwise make no sense, or that must be ascribed to authorial incompetence. The “scholars” will allow Virgil to say nothing that one of his contemporaries would not have said or that one of his predecessors had not already said. They’ve built their entire method on history—and no outsider would be as steeped as they in the historical minutiae of ancient literature, so the game is essentially “members only”. In contrast, my method is to found interpretation upon intratextual coherence. If a symbol with a certain twist gives greater meaning to the entire narrative when traced from start to finish, then the high probability is that the author intended it to have that meaning. A monkey might type “The Old Man and the Sea” once in a blue moon; but a rational person will have to admit that a perspective repeatedly successful at resolving controversial points in a literary text is probably the author’s intended perspective for his or her deepest readers.

“Scholars”, however, are rational only in the space left over after the performance of their tribal duties. The important thing for literary scholars is to insulate their practice from profane intrusion and, indeed, to make that practice so arcane that only the elite can publish and advance their careers. Devotion to the literary art lies cut and bleeding in the ruins of professional egotism.

Here’s an example of a passage in the Aeneid that struck me just last night as readily clarified by the analysis of recurrent, coherent motifs. Aeneas receives a prophecy from the virtuous Arcadians in Book 8 that promises more fighting and bloodshed. All around him are dismayed at the prospect, and he himself is briefly bemused; but then a trumpet-like thunder sounds that all interpret as a propitious omen. In fact, Aeneas recognizes in the supernatural heavenly peal a confirmation from his ever-protective mother Venus: a very odd reading on his part, since the thunderbolt belongs to Zeus throughout Homer. Yet Virgil’s Jupiter is a far cry from the supreme god who manages mortal destinies. His Olympian father seems, rather, an abstracted bungler who amuses himself with grandiose schemes but never bothers about the details. When Venus protests to him at the epic’s opening that his vengeful spouse Juno has almost sunk the Trojan fleet (and would have done, but for the intercession of Neptune, himself roused only because his wet turf has been invaded), Jupiter responds with promises and more promises about a gilded future—about an “empire without end”. Venus knows just what to make of that: she immediately hastens to Carthage in order to weave her own impromptu safety net for Aeneas (which involves, unfortunately, the sacrifice of the unhappy Dido).

At the epic’s end, Jupiter goes so far as to give away most of the transplanted Trojans’ culture—their gods, their language, the preservation of their race from inter-marriage—by conceding one point after another to the ever implacable Juno. His initial forecasts and solemn promises to the wandering tribe lie in smithereens.

Hence the confirming thunderclap in Book 8 that reassures Aeneas, having issued from Venus’s rather than Jupiter’s hand, is correctly read by the hero as a guarantee that he will survive the impending war and overcome the aggressors; yet it is no more than a short-term assurance, not a road to heaven paved in Jovian fool’s gold. Jupiter, who should have been the author of the thundering (as the astute in Virgil’s audience would realize), doesn’t mingle his feckless guarantees in this scene. Instead, he is invoked by old Evander in the ensuing one. About to send his beloved only son away to fight alongside the prophetically celebrated stranger, the trembling king beseeches Jupiter either that young Pallas may return safely or that he himself may die before hearing of his boy’s loss. Neither of these humble requests is granted. Jupiter isn’t grudging or invidious: here, as throughout the Aeneid, he just isn’t taking calls. He’s busy playing in the blueprints with which he strews his Olympian tables.

There is a kind of mathematical precision involved in interpreting texts by indexing their motions to hidden clues within their own narration. Like an equation, the correctly interpreted story balances itself out using values that can be derived from the initially given quantities. Is it pure accident that our collective ability to handle literature with taste and subtlety has declined hand in hand with our mathematical skills? Whether the stuffy classicist with his suffocating layers of history or the cutting-edge neo-feminist with her suffocating layers of ideology, the contemporary “scholar” of literature imports criteria from outside the created text and proceeds, like the mythic Procrustes, to make the prisoner fit the bed by hacking away long limbs or racking and stretching short ones. The art work must be made to validate the ideology, the party line: the latter never gives ground to the former. This is like the arithmetic of the barbarian who, when asked to divide plunder equally among an awkward number of fellow pirates, throws overboard the one who buggers up his counting every time. It’s not the way to balance a checking account… and it’s also not the way to handle a literary classic ingeniously composed under oppressive political conditions.