More on the Death of the Spirit: Why English Majors Can’t Read Literature

I wrote last time about the truly spiritual life—a life of forcing one’s principles to engage a hostile world and one’s preferred order to negotiate inconvenient necessities. In opposition to this stands the spirit-stifling life of embedding oneself in fantasy and demanding that everything and everyone around one flatter the assembly of illusions.  As in all human truths, there’s great irony here.  People who stifle the spirit will insist that they are “engaged”. Yet manipulation, intimidation, distortion, suppression, and prevarication don’t get at the kind of engagement I have in mind.  I suppose they could work, for a verbal contortionist; I suppose plowing a house under and leaving a rubble with an entry point to crawl through could be called “redesign”.

Certainly the people who declare the mud hole where they nestle to be holy ground and then rail against passers-by might be said to expend a kind of energy in their endeavor.  They never seem to know a moment’s peace, for practically everyone is moving in relation to them and thus needs a good dressing down.  When you declare your entire life a safe space, denounce all that you see beyond your narrow borders as offensive, and charge every intruder who doesn’t utter the password with failing to give a trigger alert, you probably won’t get much rest.

But that’s perfectly okay; because, as I wrote earlier, the ultimate objective of the exercise is precisely to keep one busy denouncing morally inferior people—to prove over and over again, every day, that one belongs to a unique group of higher beings.

I know this subject well.  I’ve passed virtually my entire adult life in Academe, as a formal college student and a teacher employed in some capacity: six or seven years as the former, and about thirty-five as the latter.  From either side of the lectern, I have observed “professionals” mutilate classic literature by insisting that no such qualities as “the classic” or “the literary” ever existed, but that—instead—only some specific socio-political dialectic or other is for real: only the struggle of women, or Hispanics, or blacks, or gays, to rise above white male patriarchal oppression.  All else is smokescreen.  All else is the established power structure conditioning you to revere a value system that locates its elite members on top of the heap; and by “mystifying” your conditioning so that its parameters appear holy and questioning them becomes strictly tabu, your masters spellbind you into mistaking your chains for artistic worth—for “beauty”.

If this sounds exactly like the hoodwinking our educational gurus are trying to work upon the upcoming generation, we shouldn’t be surprised.  An integral part of the mud-dweller’s m.o. is to project the ugliest impulses of his own soul upon that surrounding world which he strives constantly to condemn as inferior.  The snobby elitism, the abuse of power, the intolerance of open exchanges, and the magnification of a self-serving design to the authenticity of religious revelation all belong to the Playbook of Dead Souls.  There can be no more classic case of the Pot calling the Kettle black.

As a result, I have for several years now taught senior-level English majors—within months of receiving their degree—who cannot read a classical text like the Iliad without inveighing against how women are carried off as chattels, or one like the Odyssey without harping on the hero’s detainment by Circe and Calypso as if he were whoring in Las Vegas.  To them, Euripides’ Medea slays her two sons because of post-partum depression, or because male-dominated society has left her no other options.  As a teacher, I should say that I fail more than half the time ever to convince them that the mythic backdrop of such narratives puts them closer to symbolic commentaries about the human psyche than to social histories.  Our latest graduates don’t understand how there may be a “Medea side” in all of us: too tribal, too passionate, too irrational.  This ancient text and every other are all about men versus women: that’s as far as most of them can go.

Or else they instantly, almost reflexively (thanks again to their academic conditioning) see a Marxist class struggle unfolding.  I was at considerable pains last month to sell a class on the notion that clannish cultures do NOT have an autocratic ruler atop a steep pyramid and masses of slaving peasants beneath—that such stratification occurs only with the rise of complex settlements, as certain people abandon herding or tilling to learn martial arts and protect the community.  And while class struggles are by no means invisible in, say, the Odyssey (whose hero spends much of the epic disguised as an abused beggar), I’m uncomfortable with a student of literature’s retreating immediately to that level of interpretation as the right and only one.  Odysseus is not leading some kind of Marxist revolution.  If anything, he’s showing us that humility and awareness of others are increasingly esteemed virtues in a society where lions and floods are no longer the only kind of existential threat.

Where do students learn to apply such hermeneutical hacksaws to great books?  Why, from their “mentors”, of course!  Only look at the “cutting-edge” publications in a literary database: this same level of severely reductive thought is on display in all the “best” journals.

In my view, we need to know much about a distant work’s cultural environment precisely so that we may filter out those practices that keep us from the common humanity of its creators.  I’m not sure that I will ever quite understand what induced the Aztecs to cut the pumping hearts out of young girls in hideous human sacrifice… but I’m willing to keep trying.  And, yes, it’s grotesque that Achilles should have bestowed his love upon a woman whom he carried off as plunder after murdering her husband and family; but not only was this an unfortunate custom of the times—it is very likely intended by Homer as an ironic indication of how tragically cut off from normal human exchange the shamanic superhero is.  Can we really not get beyond the wounded feelings of the twenty-first century coed who has “sexual harassment” ringing through her head like a persistent migraine?

The squirrels in my back yard have destroyed my apricot harvest for years.  They start when the fruits are green and bitter, taking one bite and then throwing the rest away.  It continues until the tree is bare, usually before a single apricot has actually turned golden.  That’s the Ivory Tower: that’s the “engaged” mud-dweller who sits deeply where he is and slings grime at anyone who won’t stop and jump in.  It’s a world without beauty—a world without spiritual fruition: a mere hall of mirrors whose occupants can see nothing but themselves.


Where Dusk Turns Night: The Moral Putrefaction That Infects Utopianism

In recent weeks, I have thought more and more about what I can only call the “spiritual vector”.  It seems that we are surrounded by so very many people telling us that they are so very good and we so very naughty or depraved… they want to throw open our borders to the poor while we Scrooges want only to hoard our wealth, they want to collect and melt down all firearms while we sadists want only for more children to die in school shootings, they want to liberate women and finance the health care and education of minorities while we patriarchalists want only to keep women pregnant in the kitchen and minorities scrubbing toilets and mowing lawns.  We’re bad, so bad… and they are so very good—oh, is even Heaven worthy of them?

This level of hypocrisy has gnawed away at many of us for years, and even decades.  The open-borders multiculturalist professor who gripes incessantly because his students write poor English and his research on Mycenaean tholos tombs is underfunded… the gun-banning crusader for innocent lives who considers the murder of an unborn child tantamount to wart-removal and turns abusive if the word “baby” appears… the woman-and-minority rights advocate who insists that all the sisters must abjectly “vote their genitals” and that all people of color are genetically too unpromising to make their own way… the list’s could grow by dozens with a moment’s reflection.  If Heaven is populated by such whited sepulchers, I’ll take the other place.

Only in the past few weeks, however, has it occurred to me that something significantly directional distinguishes the humble person of faith from the fire-eating utopian.  Faith draws the spirit outward in constant efforts of clarification and qualification—a challenging, intimate struggle with surrounding realities; theatrical self-righteousness draws everything inward like a black hole to orbit a narcissistic core.  The believer finds and expresses his individuality by channeling his conviction through daily opportunities that exact compromises or require courageous declarations; the spiritual poseur strikes an inflexible posture, as before a mirror (or, these days, a lens framing a “selfie”), and demands that reality arrange itself into appropriate background.  Guns, for instance, must be categorically hideous things whose complete abolition is the only morally tenable stance.  If their use were nuanced (as, say, in the defense of children from psychopaths), then our Saint would not show forth with such éclat.  Resistance to the minimum wage can only be processed as overt racism and class warfare.  If the real-life economic catastrophe posed to blue-collar workers by such thoughtless rigidity were weighed, this would-be personification of society’s moral conscience would have no prancing charger from whose saddle to strike a Napoleonic pose.

In its most elemental form, we see here the wicked delirium of playing God.  The utopian seeks to recreate the human universe just as he would like it to be—just in the fashion that puts him, with his superior moral lights, securely at the summit, handing down laws to Moses and the children, thundering away when he is disobeyed.

A sincere believer is probably distressed that guns exist—but he recognizes an overriding interest in preserving through deadly force the lives of innocents, who must not be left exposed to the mercies of a lunatic ready to harvest them with the joy of a wanton grump whacking down roses with his cane.  For that matter, the believer understands that objects in wild nature, though not endowed with free will, should not be destroyed merely to create an amusement park or a speedier bypass; for the soul profits from acknowledging its partnership with the rest of creation and from sensing the imaginative outpouring that we call aesthetic perception.  To ruin things that stir us just to put more cash in our pockets or to save our lazy bodies five minutes of walking is ignoble and degrading.  A lot of self-styled believers spend too little time reflecting upon this.

But is our Saint Utopian any better off?  I saw two unrelated documentaries last month that portrayed the same shocking variety of self-absorption in different venues.  In one case, protesters were insisting (in the streets and at well-funded conferences) that lions, rhinos, and elephants must be allowed to roam free throughout Africa.  In their incalculable ignorance, they obviously did not know that such creatures would starve themselves into oblivion in their already imbalanced ecosystem if not managed—and, of course, there was no detectable awareness of the stresses placed upon the continent’s burgeoning human population.  In the second case, an equal ignorance was fueling a vigorous lobbying effort to let mustangs range free throughout the American Southwest.  Yet mustang numbers are already so excessive that mass starvations occur regularly, while dozens of plant and other animal species are also imperiled by locust-like over-grazing.

Doesn’t matter.  These zealots have their full reward when they pack up their placards to retreat to Olive Garden in the evening or repair to the hotel bar after the day’s final conference paper.  They are better than you and I: more caring, more animated, more “woke”.  The very animals or people on whose behalf they make endless noise (as others of us work for a living) will likely suffer further—if not die—should their protests effect “meaningful change”.  None of that matters.  The mission is, and always was, to establish their moral superiority.  Mission accomplished.

At some point, naive souls foolishly misled into this maelstrom of egotism must either lose their innocence or paddle out of the whirlpool upon recognizing it as a death trap.  At some point, error morphs into evil.  A person whose life is dedicated to a kind of perpetual “selfie” is a corrupt being from whom no good can be expected.  I could float several theories about why such beings are among us today in such abundance.  Perhaps the electronic lifestyle itself is largely at fault, drawing us deeper into the service of mere appearance—the utterly artificial existence of the supporting actor tossing on something from the wardrobe chest and mouthing a few cliché lines.  Or perhaps the steady accumulation of our sins—our history of hook-ups, abortions, slanders, betrayals, and cowardly flights—has left us (certain ones among us) suffering from so severe a self-respect deficit that we crave an instant and constant infusion of moral superiority.  In this, of course, we only mire ourselves more profoundly in moral squalor.

I grieve for our sick society.  I pity the gullible fools who flirt with lapse into real and abiding wickedness.  I wish I could warn the away from the radioactive company of “God-substitutes” who declare that their own heads are tingling with brave new worlds—and that everyone and everything in the real world must be made to comply if “happiness” is ever to come.  Milton’s Satan is brimming with just such visionary futurism when he looks about Hell and decides that the furniture can be pleasantly rearranged.

We need to recognize this pernicious influence for what it is and mount an effective resistance to it, or else the victims of extermination may include more than equids and pachyderms.

An Armed Citizenry or a Totalitarian State: No Third Option

One reason for the Second Amendment remains constantly (and deliberately) unmentioned—but it should be brought fully into the open.

Citizens have the right to bear arms because an armed citizenry is far less likely to be overrun by a national police force (such as Barack Obama yearned after in his vocalized daydreams) or a military machine turned against its own populace.

Ironically, the leftwing mistrust and detestation of “racist, trigger-happy” cops recedes beyond the vanishing point when the issue of gun control arises.  So, too, the Left’s formulaic nightmare (realized only in Hollywood’s infinite reenactments) of a military coup led by bullet-headed fascists: it’s a nightmare only if the uniforms adorn the cause of nationalist traditionalism.  Let them be worn, instead, by progressive totalitarians, and a dictatorship or police state suddenly becomes the first stage of Nirvana.

The contemporary Left, you see, stands for anything but liberalism.  Its adherents salivate at the prospect of suspending individual liberties permanently so that “experts” and “the enlightened” may have exclusive say in how the ship of state is navigated.  Gun confiscation stirs the left wing so passionately today precisely because progressives know that forcible takeover and subjugation of the entire nation will be all but impossible until we are disarmed.

The Left’s much-advertised concern for children is pure crap—and I treat it here with the contempt it deserves.  Numerous common-sense and immediately feasible strategies for defending our schools have already been advanced.  Imbeciles like the English teacher who quipped, “I wouldn’t expect a security guard to walk in and teach Shakespeare, so I shouldn’t be expected to carry a gun,” are perhaps sincere in their complete misconstruction of the issues (nobody is proposing that all teachers—or any teacher—be required to bear arms); but the ideological puppeteers behind these wooden-witted Pinocchios know exactly what the endgame is.  Once the United States is reduced to Mexico (a hell of political corruption being fled by its terrorized citizens), then the next Barack Obama can steer the state wherever he likes.

I own no assault rifle and have no plans to buy one.  I don’t see myself, at my age, mowing down stormtroopers from my bunker with a fifty-caliber machine gun.  But I’ll admit that I am pleased to have such types sown about the neighborhood secretively, just as I’m glad to know that some teachers are packing on my campus, though I personally am not.

Frankly (since I am being very frank today), I incline to believe that securing our individual freedom is already largely a lost cause.  I have written many times before of the “Phoenix Lights”: a UFO incident in 1997 for which I have personal confirmation, which was viewed by thousands, and which was “camcorded” by dozens.  It has nagged at me for years.  If only it were an air show staged by extra-terrestrials… but I draw ever closer to the conclusion that our own “black ops” were testing us in some way.  The extreme carelessness of unleashing so many craft to execute “impossible” maneuvers over a major city has always particularly bothered me as nonsensical… unless, of course, the whole display was fully intentional.  Why would ET come out of the woodwork suddenly after staying so well hidden as to render himself an urban legend?  But why would our military make the same gaffe?  I don’t know… to see how we would react, maybe?  To see just how panicky people would become, how quickly the panic could be managed, how cooperative the media would be in deriding and then dropping the story, how soon eye-witnesses would shrug and drift back into their daily routine?  If such was the purpose of the “blunder”, then it must have yielded answers that mightily pleased its designers.  Verdict: the American public could be overrun by force majeure in discrete locations without breaking into full-scale riots, and the media machine would ensure that the rest of the nation drifted back to sleep within days, if not hours.

If anti-gravity technology coupled with speeds of Mach 20 or 30 already exists on off-the-grid airbases, then whether you or I have an AR 15 doesn’t make a whole helluva lot of difference to staving off the imminent police state.  I guess the only remaining question of any consequence is whether the uniforms on that airbase belong to nationalist or progressivist totalitarians… and I’m not at all sure that the answer would, in fact, be consequential.

But it would be something—a last hurrah, if not a last hope—if our spoiled-brat children and useful-idiot educators and policy-makers could at least see the noose being knotted for their necks… or could, at the very least, abstain from volunteering to slip it over their heads.


The Next Generation Is NOT Our Salvation

We’re in trouble… or maybe the die is already cast, in which case we’re beyond trouble and deep in the garbage dump.

Our young people, as was borne in upon me this past week, gather virtually all of their news from… not CNN, not Yahoo’s sidebars, not Facebook, but… Twitter.  Yeah.  Virtually everything they know about the world comes to them in bursts that cannot exceed 240 characters.

Either that, or they tune in to unfunny puppet shows staged by the Kimmel buffoon and whoever succeeded what’s-his-name’s mock newscast.  (Sorry… but I’ve never watched any such fare and don’t care enough about its purveyors to track down their handles.)  After all these years of hearing that the professoriate was responsible for radicalizing and lobotomizing our youth, I now realize (and I had long suspected as much) that it really ain’t so: students are too absorbed in their “smartphones” to be programmed by any professorial bloviation.  It is through the incoherent flickers of those devices, precisely, that they see and “learn” everything.

I had dismissed several classes of freshmen (or “beginning undergraduates”) for one class meeting so that they could go research a project, though I showed up at the usual place and time myself just in case some few should wish to discuss any issue informally.  Much to my satisfaction, two of my most thoughtful students were waiting in an otherwise empty room during two of these periods.  So I had two stimulating private conversations… whose lasting impression on me, nevertheless, was quite depressing.  Here is some of what I “learned”:

That all CEO’s everywhere have simply pocketed Trump’s tax breaks for businesses in the form of salary increases;

That private industry operates only to maximize short-term profit, whereas the public sector is staffed by people who are dedicated to helping humanity;

That the rightwing fear of gun legislation’s proving a slippery slope toward universal confiscation is mere paranoia, whereas the progression from gay marriage to man-boy and three-party marriages now evident in Germany can simply not be happening (though I’m the one who actually reads German, my sources must be wrong);

That the NRA is massively underwriting political resistance to new gun bans, whereas the talk of George Soros’s underwriting the race riots in Jefferson (for instance) is an utter canard;

That the NRA donated three million dollars to Marco Rubio last year (the leftist Guardian puts the figure at $4,950);

That the Second Amendment was intended only to put meat on the table back in frontier days;

That shooting a spray of bullets into a crowd is essentially the source of all our mass-murder incidents, and that well-aimed single shots are not a concern;

That, contradictorily, Britain’s ban of handguns has eliminated school shootings and should be emulated;

That Britain had a rash of such shootings before the ban;

That the machete attacks in Xinjiang province a few days ago which killed at least thirty and wounded over 130… wait a minute… say what?

I could go on.  These, I repeat, were two exceptionally intelligent young men.  You see what’s happened: not that some evil conspiracy has filled young skulls with mush, but that the accidental result of our massive shift to e-communication has bred a generation that hasn’t the patience to double-check dubious assertions and shows an insatiable appetite for prepackaged info-morsels, especially when these latter are soaked in a worldly cynicism sure to make their regurgitation sound “mature”.

For some reason which I’m at a loss to understand, my Facebook page has lately been bombarded with “friend requests” by Nigerians, Arabs, and residents south of our national border.  Am I becoming big in the Third World, I asked myself (skeptically but hopefully)?  Well, if Americans don’t want to listen to me, I’m only too happy to preach elsewhere.  Then this morning the truth (or part of it, at least) came crashing down on me.  Most of my requests come from young people—and most of these are trying to hook up with someone.  No, they’re not interested in my columns; they’re doing what my students do during class—looking for love and adventure.  And in that, too, they are utterly clueless.

My friends, I leave you with this cold gust of grim reality.  Any course we attempt to chart into the future must assume that the youngest generation of voters is held thrall by utter claptrap (e.g., the young libertarian enthusiasm for socialist Bernie Sanders).  If we save them, it will have to be done in spite of their best efforts to destroy us all.  We’ll have to hide the lifeboats somewhere… obviously, not on the Internet.


The Unarmed Teacher: A Notion Where Insult Competes With Insanity

The objections I’m hearing to the prospect of classroom teachers and professors carrying a concealed weapon all appear to me to cluster somewhere between the ludicrous and the insulting, with substantial overlap into the insane.

I am assuming for the purposes of this post that the sources of objection are sincere.  That’s a careless assumption, in many specific cases.  Whether you want to believe it or not, the endgame for political insiders who stake out the “gun-free campus” position is usually the confiscation of all privately owned firearms.  No one seems to recall a speech that candidate Obama gave in summer of ’08 wherein he voiced a yearning for a national police force.  Leftist ideologies often let their admiration for Castro and Ché come spilling out, and sometimes even show their love of Mao.  A police state where mere ownership of a purse-sized revolver can get you ten years in the Re-education Camp… that’s what makes them salivate.  Then, of course, they will be able to construct their human ant farm without any reactionary troglodytes mounting a resistance.

But let’s put those Men Who Would Be God—those Hitler hearts wrapped in a Stalin hide—to one side.  Let’s stipulate that certain well-meaning people really do cringe at the notion of teachers bearing arms.  What are their objections?

That people who abhor guns would be forced to carry them.  Perfectly idiotic.  Nobody has proposed that teachers be forced into arming themselves.  Nobody ever would so propose, with the exception of a malign spirit who wanted to churn up protests with false premises.  We’re imagining here that the position’s opponents speak in good faith.

That teachers would accidentally shoot innocent bystanders or themselves due to ineptitude.  Obviously, anyone who carries a gun should be trained in its use.  We don’t let people drive cars without training, either.  But say, in an extravagant scenario, that some panicking school marm starting squeezing off rounds wildly at the rafters: this in itself would be a distraction and a deterrent to the assailant.  Might a bystander be hit by mistake?  Well, that’s true even if Green Berets are charging the shooter.  Should we let him fire at his ease just because return-fire runs the risk of going astray?

That teachers would become premier targets if the assailant knew some of them to be armed.    Oh, no—we teachers certainly don’t want that!  Let the bastard shoot some of our kids before he turns to us: maybe help will arrive in the meantime!

That teachers will create a frightening atmosphere for students if they’re packing.  Again, no one has suggested that educators have a Glock holstered beside their cell phone in some kind of tool belt, and no one who wasn’t trying to pull the debate off track would ever make such an inane suggestion.  Yet the serious proponents of this objection (and, incredibly, there seem to be many) apparently believe that an armed teacher would have a different look in his eye, or that fear of their teacher’s possibly being armed would make students quail at their desks.  Great point.  Let’s leave the darlings undefended, instead, and not even whisper the word “gun”.  If we stop our ears, shut our eyes, and loudly repeat “nah-nah-nah” incessantly, then everything is sure to be fine.

That teachers will in fact develop a more threatening attitude if the power of life and death hides somewhere on their person.  Insanity and offensiveness meet here in equal measure.  God Almighty!  If this is what you think of your child’s teachers, how can you allow toxic chemicals in chemistry class?  Why do you allow a coach to drive the team bus?  Do you suppose that teachers stand back and bet on the winner when two students are fighting in the hallway?  And if this is your estimate of human nature, why in heaven’s name do you want to surrender all such deadly force into the hands of elite government entities whose members’ heads are already swollen to the bursting point with power?

I hear nobody proposing my own objection: that weapons are very hard to conceal except under a trouser leg, and that some roughneck punk could easily learn to spot the bulge and disarm the math teacher bent over another student’s desk—all just on a stupid lark.  I’d like to see weapons issued that would not fire unless they read the legal owner’s palm print on their handle.  An alternative, someday, might be to have the corridors roved by a robot that would deploy immobilizing force upon detecting an elevated heat signature and powder traces—or maybe similar technology built into the ceilings like the sprinkler system.

Even so futuristic a solution, however, would have multiple vulnerabilities.  (What defense do you have in parking lots and on playgrounds?  What if a police officer is detected while returning fire?)  I have to believe that the ultimate sincere objection to an armed educational staff is a neurotic, denying fear of harsh realities—the ostrich’s proverbial head-in-the-sand reaction.  It is painful to see so many adults in positions of authority exhibiting such childish (and, frankly, craven) behavior.  Even if their persistent denials were not costing us children’s lives, they would still inspire a sickened response in the pit of any sane, responsible adult’s stomach.  Blunt paralysis in the face of danger is deeply discouraging.


Teaching Barbarism: The Contemporary University

Shock of the week: my discovery that freshmen (excuse me: “beginning students”) do not know how to analyze a text in terms other than seeing it as audience-manipulation.  I had already ruefully observed, here in the final semester of my career, that I enjoy but a tiny fraction of the academic freedom I used to know. I scarcely get to decide what’s done in my own classroom any longer, as if I were teaching third grade.  I can’t choose my own textbook; the state has mandated that I thrust an online tutorial into my syllabus (full of nanny-nags about intellectual honesty that wouldn’t be necessary if our robotic curriculum taught thinking instead of imitation); and my department tells me that every paper assigned must have a citation page, marginal annotations, etc., etc., even though you’re not going to cite other sources if your topic is to think through an issue for yourself.  We once called that “critical thinking”… and, oh yes, the phrase still holds an honored place among various buzzwords.  We just don’t actually teach it any more.

Instead, students for probably about two decades now (for the lifespan, that is, of my fresh-beings) have been taught to profile the intended audience of any given piece, and to adjust their “rhetorical choices” to that audience.  Sounds damn near the same thing as selling a used car.  And what’s the difference, really?  The capitalist system in general, and advertisers in particular, are universally loathed by academics in my area… and yet, what do we teach our own students?  To pitch their position so as to make it maximally appealing where the “target audience” is likely to be most vulnerable.  Apparently, manipulating people for the prospect of reaping a lucrative material profit is squalid and disgusting—but manipulating them for ideological reasons is a skill that every educated, enlightened person should acquire.  Academe agrees entirely with the “putrid business community” that no such thing as objective truth or absolute value exists; but “those people” deal in dollars, whereas we deal in… ideas!

I’m supposed to be preparing students for writing within their special discipline in upper-division courses, so I have attempted to get them to see why science needs quantifiable data reached by replicable experimentation, whereas any field related to human behavior is allowed to consider anecdotal evidence, surveys, art work, and so forth.  What did I find out?  That an archeologist, for instance, takes aerial photos of an ancient site so that the reader won’t get bored, and that a biologist divides a paper into paradigmatic sections so that readers won’t get lost in a complex discussion.  Everything is a courtesy to the almighty reader; none of it is ever a concession to researching the specific kind of truth reserved for the field’s study.

Well, this is what we’ve taught them; this is how we raised them.  If there’s an idiot in your son’s or daughter’s college yearbook, it isn’t one of the kids.  We’ve taught them to ape thinking—to dress up in the costume of a thinker: we haven’t taught them how to connect and prioritize propositions on the basis of logic, probability, common sense, morality, or anything else.  And indeed, the articles that we ourselves grind out as “scholars” are long with needless citation intended to show the world how dazzlingly erudite we are (known as “ethos” in composition textbooks, after a dull-witted misconstruction of Aristotle).  Our writing is full of obscurantist jargon aimed at the same end—and which, frankly, could well stand to be a little more reader-friendly.  The purpose of “scholarship” in our own lives isn’t to draw closer to the truth; for—to repeat—truth does not exist objectively.  No, our publications are engineered to show how incredibly bright we are.  Always ourselves, front and center.

In an act of reading, the reader is of course front and center.  So, you see, it all holds together: put yourself in the middle of everything you do.  If you need people to read your crap, seduce them into believing that you’re serving them hand and foot.  If you need the masses to gape at your opera magna uncomprehendingly, write gobbledygook.  Whatever it takes.

Any wonder that our society is in its present shape?


Reason Not the Need: In Praise of Vagueness

One more time, I’m going to cheat a little by pasting into this space part of an intro I wrote over the weekend for a section of my collected poems.  The introductions are getting almost as long as the stuff they’re supposed to explain!

That my introduction to this final section is proving far and away the most difficult to write may, to a cynic, indict the essential fraud of all history: the more distant a sequence of events becomes, the tidier its description grows. An alternative explanation may be that, since this period ends only because it cannot extend beyond the present moment, it has the most artificial and arbitrary of endings—not a true terminus imposed by real change; and yet another perspective might be that I’m becoming more confused as I get older.

For my money, the last explanation is the most valid. I seem to have lived much of my life in reverse, so a curious failure to find the tranquility of acquired wisdom in my silver years fits the puzzle perfectly. If I was more gloomy as a young man, I also dwelt deeper in the isolation of a very concentrated and (I will admit now) comforting gloom. Now that I have found ways to push back against the world somewhat, I feel less exiled and nullified—but I also see the challenges to civilized life growing much more complex (largely because we who face them appear to be growing more simple-minded). I am less disposed now, as well, to withdraw into that old self-imposed exile and more inclined to get impatient or disgusted. I expect to see more effort made—effort to understand, to reevaluate, to prepare for necessary action, to act at the ripe moment—since I myself was able to grind a not-so-bad life out of very unpromising circumstances; yet what I observe, instead, is an escalating flight to “plug-in drugs” and “virtual reality” as well as to the more conventional hallucinogens and “artificial paradises” (in Baudelaire’s phrase) so popular in my youth.

I have a good head-start on being an angry old man. I am not a Luddite; yet I am deeply distressed, not so much that young people don’t know what a Luddite is (I didn’t, either, at their age)—but that they don’t care to find out, will recur to some handheld “device” if forced to find out, and will have forgotten what they found out five minutes later. Hell, the device is still there! “Why don’t you get your own, if you have a question, and leave me alone?”

The profits that the private sector harvests from such high-tech addiction have finally and fully merged with the manipulative designs of the public sector upon e-voters of the future, their I-Brains and I-Tastes determined by the paternalistically “helpful” software of I-nfo and E-ntertainment. Nobody seems to care; everybody seems to be happy. Corporations have more money, politicians have more power, and citizen voter-drones have more leisurely escapism (all the way to the slaughterhouse). I’m sounding now like some Sixties radical—the type whose self-serving antinomian protests I deplored as a young man and even referenced in some of my first poems. Have I again clumsily shifted gears into reverse: am I becoming more “liberal” in my old age, contrary to the cliché? Or has the true basis of liberalitas—the insistence on individual liberty—that was caricatured in Sixties hedonism become the critical issue of our onward-and-upward, “accept digital centralization or die” version of progress?

Within such anguish, George Shirley was born. Under this pseudonym, I composed many of my final poems for Praesidium. The name was drawn from the South Carolinian branch of our family tree. I imagined in George a polite but mildly jaundice-eyed country gentleman who, as a matter of strict principle, hated to offend—but who found a broader body of reverend principles impelling him to mount a resistance against the annihilation of liberal (read “freely speaking and thinking”) society. The lover of the soil and the gentle things she produced had a tincture of the rebel in him, and he wasn’t above sneaking the mare from his weathered barn for a night raid on the depot. As my poetically encrypted attacks under this guise grew more and more narrowly indexed to political trends, in fact, I became more and more puzzled and uneasy. One late edition of the journal quasi-apologized, “If George Shirley’s poetry continues to become more political, it can only be because politics continues to intrude upon our private lives.”

I’m not sure that the prominent appearance of natural images in the midst of so much diatribe is an accident or an oddity. I have always felt a vital need of nature, just as I need oxygen and water. Yet for George (and for me through George), nature isn’t identical with oxygen and water: one doesn’t protest the escalating mechanization of the times, that is, because one’s all-important health may stand in jeopardy. The motive there is not negligible… but the real benefit of nature to life that doesn’t perish (i.e., that doesn’t need oxygen and water) is its purposelessness. The woodpecker I hear outside my window just now could drop dead this instant without disrupting the smooth operation of the cosmos. In that regard, he is like art—like my poetry, I hope: he is marginal, an outlier. As we strive ever more vigorously and effectively to make everything around us contribute to an identified goal or objective (and in what other endeavor do we show any vigor and efficiency at all?), we draw ever closer to fusion with robots. Many of us consciously hail this impending union as Nirvana rather than a marriage made in Hell: that’s how dumb we’ve already become. A few of us “cling to green” (since we’ve destroyed the open-endedness of art, reducing it to an evolutionary history of the oppressed) because something in us persists in crying out for an exit, a window on airy infinity… but our political handlers are quick to exploit that longing. We must vote for them, they warn, if the moon isn’t to fall; and we must contribute more of our squalid salary to their newly formed, state-of-the-art Bureau of Lunar Salvation.

My cousin George fully comprehends what crap this all is. Hence the more he turns his wry smile upon our “saviors”, the more he turns away from any hope offered by this world and heeds the woodpecker. And the woodpecker’s message? I think it’s this: “Live not in life but through life. Seek in everything that you are at the moment—in every circumstance that defines your current parameters—a voice transcending specific need or use. Always seek in what you see more than what’s visible just now.”