Shame wizards.

In the second season of Netflix’s kid-centric, definitely-not-for-kids cartoon Big Mouth, the pubertal protagonists are haunted by a Professor Snape-like spectre called the Shame Wizard, who slides out of the shadows to remind them what revolting little sex-obsessed freaks they are.

Eventually the kids come together to share their feelings, admit their imperfections, and drive away the Shame Wizard – a victory they celebrate with an ecstatic spree of public masturbation, homosexual experimentation, pants-free hoverboarding, and so on.

Now, in Big Mouth’s progressive worldview, sexual hangups are ludicrous and outdated, and for the main characters, emancipation from shame leads to nothing more harmful than a little exhibitionism. But we’ve seen the Shame Wizard lambasting the children not only for mouldy old sins like horniness and homosexuality, but for evergreen ones like hypocrisy, dishonesty, and gossip-mongering; and in the wake of his departure we get glimpses of the supporting cast exploring their freedom in darker ways – setting the school gymnasium ablaze, starting up a fight club, enacting a scene from Lord of the Flies.

In a subsequent episode, this more nuanced take on shame is affirmed when obsessive masturbator Andrew runs across the Shame Wizard in the halls of the Department of Puberty. This time he stands up to his tormentor:

Andrew: Yeah, I get it. I jerk off quite a lot. But why do you have to be such an asshole?

Wizard: Ah…perhaps I’m too harsh sometimes. But I only want you to be a better person.

Andrew: You do?

Wizard: Of course! I don’t want you to grow up to be one of those men who waits six months for a customized sex doll.

Big Mouth speaks in the inherited vocabulary of sexual liberation, in which shame is a musty old prude scolding us for touching our privates; a destructive inner voice that must be silenced in order to release our truer, better selves. But the show’s creators seem to realize that, while we can afford to tune out that voice now and then, we need to hear it when our self-indulgence threatens to lead us into folly: when we find ourselves eating the whole bag of Oreos, or putting off our work to binge-watch Netflix cartoons, or thinking about placing an order for a customized sex doll.

However, it’s probably time to update the mental image that goes with that pestering little voice. The modern Shame Wizard won’t look like Professor Snape, but like purple-haired cool chick Nymphadora Tonks:

nymphadora tonks

Nymphadora Tonks, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

She swears, she has tattoos, she doesn’t give a f**k what you do with your genitals (so long as all parties are consenting); but she’s as vigilant as ever, because if she lets up for a minute, the kids might break out in behaviour the creators of Big Mouth wouldn’t hesitate to characterize as shameful: victim-blaming, whitesplaining, deadnaming, voting Republican…

***

As a lonely occupant of the zone of intersection on the Venn diagram “Watches Big Mouth / Follows American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher”, I’m probably the only who thought of the Shame Wizard while reading this review of Dreher’s book The Benedict Option.

In a characteristically way-too-freakingly long chapter-by-chapter analysis, the neoreactionary blogger known as Handle takes on Dreher’s argument that if traditional Christians want to preserve their lifestyle in the coming secular age, they must, like Saint Benedict, find new ways to set themselves apart from mainstream culture. While Dreher is usually attacked as a gloom-monger, Handle thinks he’s far too upbeat about Christianity’s prospects for survival.

The Benedict Option was inspired in part by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, whose premise Handle questions:

Ask whether it makes sense that virtue is being undermined to critically low levels at the same time that “virtue signaling” is exploding in frequency of usage. … One can’t signal arbitrary, individualized virtues.

Dreher has been taken in, he argues, by all that obsolete sixties jive about finding your own path and letting your freak flag fly. From a Christian viewpoint it may seem like the rules are dissolving into a free-flowing state of (one of Dreher’s catchphrases) liquid modernity. Whereas in fact:

[Christianity is not] being eroded by a neutral, empty, nothing of relativism with … individualist secularism as the end point. Instead, it is simply being replaced by a new ideology … with its own mythologies, orthodoxies, and an endless efflorescence of sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations.

According to Handle, that old conservative bogeyman moral relativism had its heyday

during what we can now appreciate to have been merely an intermediate phase of our political evolution. It characterized an early stage of the diffusion of a minority elite ideology into the cultural mainstream, until that ideology established sufficient levels of adoption and dominance to encourage its proponents to switch gears.

Or as I put it (somewhat more concisely) in a book review a while back:

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another.

I’m beginning to realize how lucky I was to grow up in that period of uncertainty between the old order and the new. With the two sides evenly balanced, the lines stable, the true believers dug into their respective trenches, life away from the front could proceed largely undisturbed. In fact there was a lively trade in the intellectual surplus of both sides: the classics of the beleaguered Christian civilization, whose beauty was still universally recognized, as well as the products of the encroaching army, crass and potty-mouthed but with a certain tacky vitality. But now the lines have been breached, Christians are in full flight, progressive armies are blitzing across the countryside, and anyone who doesn’t show the proper flag risks being shot on sight.

No doubt progressives who arrived here expecting a discussion of the show Big Mouth will reject the above take on current events. They’ll say either (or sometimes both) that Dreher is cherry-picking isolated incidents of Social Justice craziness to exaggerate the threat to traditional Christianity, or that traditional Christianity is the real threat and needs to be crushed by doubling down on Social Justice.

I’d remind them that the right-wing positions they find most enraging – that illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that freedom of speech means defending speakers you don’t agree with – were only declared out of bounds a couple years back, and weren’t even considered especially right-wing while I was growing up. Progressives have overrun a vast amount of territory in a short period of time, and if they feel vulnerable right now it’s only because the 2016 Trump breakthrough made them realize their forces are spread pretty thin. I think Dreher’s right, though: the traditionalists’ occasional victories on the political front are irrelevant when the cultural rout is ongoing.

The war will be wrapped up in time, and there’s no reason to think we won’t adapt to the victors’ “sacred norms, rules, and regulated status relations” just as non-believers adapted to the previous ones. Those who mouth the new pieties will be tolerated; those who don’t will be scorned as unrefined buffoons, or shamed out of their careers, or who knows, maybe tossed in jail. Most art will go on being terrible, but some artists will find ways to create beauty despite the restrictions imposed by the guardians of morality: whether you or I, if we lived long enough, would find their creations beautiful or even comprehensible, is harder to say.

Now, there’s a real chance that the new order will prove to be inferior to the old older it’s replacing: but lacking the convictions of either group of believers, I don’t really know what I mean by “inferior”. Will people be happy under progressive rule? Will their lives be enjoyably peaceful, or stimulatingly chaotic? Will they be fruitful and multiply? Will their offspring go forth and colonize the uncivilized parts of the world?

So you can see why I’m sitting out the fight. I don’t want the traditionalists to win, anyway, I just want them to take back enough ground to re-establish the uneasy stalemate that characterized my earlier years. I doubt that’s in the cards.

Despite the paranoid fantasies of some progressives, Christians will never again have cultural supremacy in the west – which, again, is fine with me – but personally, I hope Dreher and his followers manage to carve out a few retreats where they can keep on doing their own weird thing.

M.

On the other hand, a dozen years ago I worried that religious conservatives’ high birthrates would lead to their demographically overwhelming secular civilization. Six years later I began to wonder what would happen if the West’s low birthrates spread to the rest of the world. By 2016 it had dawned on me that I’d been ignoring a growing habit of insularity and obliviousness within my own urban, irreligious tribe.

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And now, a word in favour of high-rise living.

Last week I wrote sympathetically about suburbanites attached to their low-density lifestyle who were being forced out of Vancouver by soaring housing costs. And a few months back I told the story of my friend who had to move when her low-rise apartment building was torn down to make room for a high-rise.

There was a long article on high-rise living in this weekend’s Vancouver Sun. Reporter Douglas Todd asked folks living in the shiny new-built towers of Vancouver and Burnaby whether they’re happy in their pricey homes in the sky.

Most are. A few mention that they’ve had trouble getting to know their neighbours. (Todd points out that in some buildings as many as 20% of the suites are empty, being owned by out-of-town investors.) One guy complains that his lobby is overrun with strangers staying in suites the owners have turned into Airbnb rentals.

Unsurprisingly, the people Todd interviews at ground level are less keen on living in the shadow of the towers. One fellow observes:

“I never see people walking here, or kids playing. All I ever see is cars coming out of the underground parking lots, which is kind of weird.”

That is weird. Todd identifies the intersection in Burnaby where this conversation took place. There’s a park and rec centre across the street; the SkyTrain is a few blocks away; grocery stores, a movie theatre, countless restaurants, and the province’s largest shopping mall are all in strolling distance. If these residents of one of the region’s most walkable neighbourhoods still feel the need to drive everywhere, maybe they chose the wrong neighbourhood to live in.

I speak as a resident of an ageing 14-story tower in a busy suburban neighbourhood. To my mind, the only real downside is the non-stop traffic noise. On the upside, I’m fewer than 500 steps from a grocery store that I pop into nearly every day; across the street from a beautiful park; a two-minute walk from four major bus routes. Coffeeshops, library, a good used bookstore – all are within a few blocks.

Before moving to Vancouver I lived in a rented house in Saskatoon. There was a convenience store a few blocks away. For every other amenity, I had to hop in my car. It was a pain in the neck, and I left the house far less frequently than I do now.

True, I got to know one of my neighbours. I didn’t like him much.

Todd mentions a meta-study by UVic psychologist Robert Gifford that claims to find higher rates of depression and mental illness among high-rise dwellers. Gifford admits that

many older studies were skewed because they focused on low-income high-rises in the US and Britain.

In other words, the populations being studied, poor and no doubt rife with petty crime and family dysfunction, may have been susceptible to depression and mental illness to begin with.

It makes me wonder whether more recent studies that claim to perceive malaise among high-rise dwellers are sufficiently adjusting for personality differences that cause people like me to choose such a life in the first place. Take this survey mentioned by local author and urban theorist Charles Montgomery:

[H]e talked about a Vancouver Foundation survey finding that residents of towers were “half as likely to have done a favour for a neighbour” and more likely to report having trouble making friends. “People living in towers consistently reported feeling more lonely and less connected than people living in detached homes.”

Okay, but without conducting a survey I can predict that high-rise dwellers are likelier than detached-home dwellers to be elderly, to live alone, to be recent immigrants – in other words, to face obstacles to human connection quite apart from their living situation.

Does the high-rise lifestyle actually contribute to this loss of connection? Or might it in some ways compensate for it?

Look at me. I’ve always been prone to depression. I grew up in a series of suburban houses where my depressing chores included mowing the lawn in summer, raking leaves in fall, and shovelling the driveway in winter. Being a grumbly cuss, I kept my eyes down while performing these chores, and never got friendly with the neighbours. I’m still a grumbly cuss, and guess what? – I’m single and childless. Which gives me the freedom to live in a high-rise where I can avoid both unpleasant yard maintenance and annoying small-talk with my neighbours.

Am I less happy than my married friends, with their kids and suburban houses? No doubt. But giving me chatty neighbours and a lawn to maintain won’t close the gap. As I see it, apartment living reduces my stress level and keeps me from becoming still more miserable.

My lifestyle isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t deny any kid the opportunity to grow up in a house with a yard – though being across the street from a good neighbourhood park, with basketball courts, splash pool, and trees to climb, strikes me as a decent tradeoff. The thing is, stacking old folks, childless couples, and singletons like me in high-rises leaves more room for those detached single-family houses with fenced yards for kids to play in. It leaves more room for parks like the one I can see from my balcony, with its chattering squirrels and hundred-year-old chestnut trees. It leaves more room for outposts of untamed nature like Stanley Park, or Burnaby’s Central Park, big enough to conceal raccoons and porcupines and coyotes and even the occasional deer.

Plus, high-rise clusters supply the population density that makes better transit economically viable, so that people like me who still rely on our cars to visit friends in far-flung areas can someday forego car ownership altogether, and get around in buses or trains. And maybe with fewer cars zooming up and down the road, parents will be less leery about letting their kids run over unsupervised to the neighbourhood park to climb trees and chase squirrels.

So by all means, let’s do what we can to make high-rise architecture less oppressive to people living near the ground. And let’s do what we can to foster connections among alienated apartment-dwellers – at least the ones who actually want to become more connected.

But I fear that groundhuggers who enjoy their three bedrooms, vegetable gardens, and gossiping over the backyard fence, will mistakenly assume that those things are psychological necessities, and block the development of high-rises for our own good. The astronomical rents in high-rise neighbourhoods prove that there’s more demand for my lifestyle than the current supply of units can accommodate; and remember, every isolated weirdo who snags a place in a tower makes a bit more room for you well-adjusted groundhuggers to spread out in the ’burbs.

That won’t be enough on its own to make room for every groundhugger family that wishes to stay in Vancouver – not even close. But it’s a start.

M.

A powerful heap of room.

In George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins, [1] the seventh installment in the memoirs of the self-serving, sexually predacious Victorian mountebank Harry Flashman, we find our hero leading a wagon-train over the Santa Fe trail, joining John Gallantin’s gang of scalp hunters, [2] being adopted into a band of Apaches, escaping to civilization with the help of Kit Carson…and that’s just the first half, which sets off a chain of events leading eventually to Flashman’s scalping (non-fatal) at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In the wake of his narrow escape from the Apaches Flashman is understandably cynical about Indians, but big-hearted Kit Carson can wax sentimental over their impending dispossession:

“They’ll go, as the buffalo go, which it will, with all the new folks coming west. I won’t grieve too much for the ’Pash [Apaches]; they have bad hearts, and I wouldn’t trust a one of ’em. Or the Utes. But I can be right sorry for the Plains folk; the world will eat them up. Not in my time, though.”

I observed that the land was so vast, and the Indians so few, that even when it was settled there must surely be abundant space for the tribes; he smiled and shook his head, and said something which has stayed in my head ever since, for it was the plain truth years ahead of its time.

“An Injun needs a powerful heap of room to live in. More than a million white folks.”

***

The conservative blogger and columnist Steve Sailer, prolific coiner of grabby yet neglected catchphrases for underrecognized social phenomena, likes to refer to the Dirt Gap that contributes to the ongoing political polarization of the United States. [3]

The premise is that, while coastal cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York are hemmed in by oceans, mountains, or both, limiting their potential for geographic expansion, cities in the middle of the country, like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta, are surrounded by dirt on all sides, and thus free to sprawl in every direction.

This simple observation predicts that, all else being equal, it will be easier in inland cities to find an affordable house within commuting distance of downtown. Young couples who’d like a yard for the kids to romp in will therefore tend to move inland, while childless singletons who don’t mind investing vast sums in one-bedroom condos are likelier to remain on the coast.

The inland dwellers will tend to vote for low-tax, pro-growth policies they see as sustaining their family-centred lifestyle, while the coastal dwellers will vote for high taxes to fund the generous welfare state they expect to care for them in their childless old age. These voting patterns will exacerbate the cost differences, driving more and more families away from the ever-pricier coast to affordable inland cities, accelerating the sorting process.

Hence, the Dirt Gap.

In last weekend’s Vancouver Sun I came across a good illustration of the Dirt Gap at work here in Canada. Freelance writer Lee Abrahams has been scraping by in the outer suburbs:

In the Fraser Valley, about an hour and a half or so from Vancouver, my husband and I live in a tiny home. We occupy 400 square feet with two young children and three pets, and pay a low rent to our family for occupying their property. My husband commutes more than two hours to work, each way, five days a week. …

In addition to the difficulties of tiny living, we face the same issues everyone else here does: astronomical gas prices, tax on goods and income, car insurance and the price of food. Car insurance in B.C. is on track to be the highest in Canada, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada as reported by Global BC. The price of gas in B.C. was the highest ever in North America this year, according to Gas Buddy.

Despite the challenges, they enjoy the perks of coastal living. But lately those perks are under threat:

[M]y husband and I take comfort in knowing we have beautiful scenery and abundant mountain hikes to relieve our stress. Nothing calms us more than crisp air and stretching our legs in the quiet forest. Except, the forest isn’t quiet anymore. The Fraser Valley has been flooded by more people having to move further east from the city for the reasons noted above.

So they’re giving up and relocating to dirt-rich Calgary.

Now, one modification I’d make to Sailer’s Dirt Gap theory is that while in the short term it seems to predict a balanced sorting of tax-’n’-spend subway-riders to coastal cities and guns-’n’-sprawl SUV-owners to dirt cities, in the longer term it winds up spreading coastal-style policies to every big city.

In the early stages of the process, when the price differential is small, it’s only the most rabid clingers to the low-density lifestyle who flee to the dirt cities. As the sorting accelerates, it’s not only dedicated sprawlers, but coast-culture folks like Lee Abrahams – mommy blogger, “tiny home” dweller, unironic user of the phrase “safe space” – who are priced out of their native environment and driven inland.

As more coast people settle in dirt cities like Calgary, bringing their culture and voting habits with them, the dirt cities become more welcoming to coastal refugees, who pour inland in ever-greater numbers, driving up prices, forcing the dirt-culture people further and further from the city centre, and eventually to smaller cities as yet unaffected by the Dirt Gap.

Now, I know it’s a bit gauche to compare these non-violent migrations to the conquest of the Plains Indians. I’m not trying to portray tax-harried suburbanites moving to Medicine Hat as the new Trail of Tears. But there’s an important insight contained in the observation that the Indians needed “a powerful heap of room”: one of the ways in which cultures vary is density.

The Indians couldn’t simply scooch over and make room for the white immigrants. Their lifestyle was based on following the wild buffalo around the wild prairie; even a smattering of settled farmers and ranchers made that untenable. In the early stages of the inundation the Indians could move further from the frontier, but no matter how far they retreated, the frontier snuck up behind. So they resisted; and the pioneers, who only wanted a little more elbow room than the overcrowded east could supply, couldn’t see why these backward savages struggled so desperately to preserve their old and inefficient ways.

“We’ve set aside reservations for them. We’ve offered to teach them how to farm. All we’re asking them to do is live as we do. Is that so terrible?”

But the Indians didn’t want to give up their low-density ways and take up farming, any more than Greg and Terri in Abbotsford want to swap their four kids, three dogs, and two-car garage for a used Prius and 700 square feet in Yaletown.

The Dirt Gap separating pioneers and Plains Indians was vastly wider than the one separating our modern cultural tribes. But the history of the Old West gives us a guide to how current trends will play out, as population growth drives migration from high-density regions into low-density ones: expect misunderstandings, conflict, and the ongoing retreat of the dirt culture into poor and isolated enclaves.

M.

1. Millennial readers who somehow get past the “redskins” in the title will no doubt be turned off by Flashman’s casual racism. They might not notice that for all his rough language one of the hero’s endearing traits, along with his good-humoured awareness of his own dastardry, is his readiness to see the good side of the alien cultures he encounters (usually accidentally, through recklessly pursuing some exotic trim). In our era, Flashman’s hypocrisy would manifest itself as prompt re-tweeting of the latest #MeToo meme; but in the 1840s it’s the superiority of Anglo-Saxon manners and morals that he publicly avows, while admitting to his readers that under the surface there’s not much to choose between his island tribe of ruddy-faced empire-builders and whichever rabble of cannibals he’s been kidnapped by this week.

2. “John Gallantin” is better known as John Glanton, driver of the remorseless sun to its final endarkenment and leader of the murderous gang in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

3. Re Sailer’s “grabby yet neglected catchphrases”. As he accurately predicted around the time he invented the term:

I fear, though, that despite the explanatory power of the Dirt Gap, the concept will not be widely discussed. The problem is that it’s too morally neutral. What people want to hear are explanations for why they are morally superior to their enemies.

In a post this summer I talked about the impact of Vancouver’s high rents and low vacancies on ordinary working folks. Last year I mentioned the rising cost of land acquisition as one of the factors making rapid transit infrastructure so prohibitively expensive to build.

 

The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, shown and discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

 

’Cide by ’cide.

Last year in an essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I quoted a comment the author made years ago in an interview. The subject was suicide:

As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.

It made me think of a bit in Nicholson Baker’s Box of Matches where the narrator, who often eases himself into sleep by imagining ludicrous methods of killing himself, visualizes a Rube Goldberg suicide apparatus:

If you kill yourself, you are being inconsiderate, because others must deal with the distasteful mess of your corpse. The self-filling grave solved that.

The self-filling grave involves a shotgun, a tripwire, and a “complicated system of pulleys and weights” that releases a load of earth over your corpse as you fall. This passage stuck in my memory because I’d had a similar fantasy, except with a vat of acid.

When I was twenty or so and sad and aimless and lonely, in emails to my friends back home I would occasionally crack wise about my upcoming suicide. Until one day the phone rang and it was a friend who feared I was about to hurl myself off a bridge.

I tried to explain: No, I have no intention of killing myself. I’m just saying it’s comforting to know that it’s in my back pocket, so to speak, as a fallback in case things get really bad. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Please can we stop talking about this. Really I’m fine.

And I learned to stop talking about it: no point freaking out my friends and family. I’m twenty years older now, and perhaps a shade wiser; less prone, anyway, to hyperdramatizing every slight and setback. But I’ve been carrying the old suicide charm around in my back pocket this whole time, and even now, every so often I’ll pull it out and give it a wistful caress.

I’ve got this buddy – let’s see; I’ve used X. and Y. already in recent months, so I guess I’ll call him Z. – who’ll fall sometimes into a state of deep apathy. He was in a highway accident years back – he calls it sheer bad luck, but I’d guess reckless driving played a part – where if his tumbling vehicle had tumbled an inch to the right or left, he would now be dead. Since then, he says, he hasn’t much cared whether he lives or dies. He’s flirted with suicide more than once: had a rope around his neck, had a gun barrel in his mouth; and in between, snarfed chemicals of uncertain provenance in the vague hope he’d be spared the trouble of waking up next morning.

When he muses about killing himself, I find myself echoing that friend who called me twenty years ago to dissuade me from jumping off the bridge: I tell Z. he’s got a lot to live for – things are gonna start looking up any minute – his friends and family would be heartbroken if he died – and so on and so forth. He just shakes his head in frustration. “You can’t understand,” he tells me. “If you haven’t been through it, you can’t possibly understand.”

Maybe on these occasions it would help if I shared with Z. my own daydreams of self-obliteration. Maybe it would lend my platitudes the sheen of authority. But I’m afraid he wouldn’t take me seriously – he’d conclude that to me suicide is, so to speak, a conversation piece: an antique blunderbuss to hang above the fireplace; while to him it’s something you keep loaded and ready by the door for when the wolves get too close.

But then, maybe like me and Kurt Vonnegut (who died at age 84 of “injuries sustained in a fall at his Manhattan home”), Z. really has no intention of killing himself. He just likes to fantasize about it.

Much of our opinionating these days consists of declarations that you, the privileged reader, couldn’t possibly understand what I, the long-suffering author, have been through. If you’re not gay you can’t know how discouraging it is to grow up in a world where heterosexual marriage is held up as the endpoint of romantic fulfilment. If you’ve never been homeless you can’t imagine what it’s like to feel the indignant stares of middle-class people when you blemish their parks and sidewalks with your untidy existence. If you’re not a person of colour you can’t conceive how much emotional labour goes into merely standing up under the daily bombardment of racist microaggressions.

In a sense this is all very true: I can’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than myself, a straight white male middle-class Gen-Xer from the Canadian prairies. It’s certainly easier to project myself into the mind of a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. than to imagine life as a Lapp reindeer-herder, or a Sentinel Islands hunter-gatherer, or a minor party functionary in Pyongyang, or a black female multimillionaire tennis superstar.

But even being a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. doesn’t entitle me to pretend to know what my friend Z. is thinking. Even if like him I’d been in a car accident, gotten divorced, tried coke and heroin, felt the barrel of a gun in my mouth, we’d still be separated by a billion little experiences, every one of them big enough to contain a Russian novel’s worth of suffering and self-blame.

I suspect if people could read each other’s novels they’d discover that we all have more in common than we realized. We’ve all felt belittled and condescended to. We’ve all suspected we were being judged not on our personal qualities, but on our reputations, our appearance, or the company we keep. We’ve all lain awake thinking, “No-one would even miss me if I vanished off the face of the earth.”

The most universal experience of all is knowing that no-one else could possibly understand what we’ve been through.

M.

Shakespearean knots.

Shakespeare could be immoderately knotty.
It’s odd: he must’ve thought in knots a lot.
His thought can be unknotted – but could not he
Have sought a little less to knot his thought?

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m lazy and not too bright. But I’m also the kind of person who reads Shakespeare for fun, and there aren’t too many of us around these days – so please, all you brainy and diligent Shakespeare nerds, indulge my unsophisticated complaint.

It’s about the knots.

Is there a technical term for them? In his book From Dawn To Decadence the French-born American scholar Jacques Barzun admitted to being less than wholly enthusiastic about Shakespeare because he too often had trouble keeping up with “the involutions of the thought” – a phrase that’s always stuck with me. Consulting the index, I see that the passage in question is actually discussing Racine:

The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

Well, I haven’t read Racine. But in Shakespeare’s case, I think of them not as fancy Latinate involutions but as homely old Anglo-Saxon knots.

Every play has them. I happened to be revisiting King John recently – I remembered next to nothing of the plot, but it came back to me as I read. The biggest challenge in the early scenes, as with so much Shakespeare, is figuring out who’s related to whom. That must have been easier for Elizabethan audiences, who were attentive to the complications of royal bloodlines, and were used to nobles being referred to miscellaneously by title, house, epithet, and Christian name.

But a knowledge of the vastly ramified Plantagenet family tree is not necessary to follow King John. The story unwinds smoothly until Act II, Scene I, where Constance, the mother of young Arthur – the rightful king, as she believes, of England – hurls these curses at her mother-in-law Elinor – Arthur’s grandmother – who supports the claim of Arthur’s usurping uncle John:

I have but this to say,
That he [Arthur] is not only plagued for her [Elinor’s] sin,
But God hath made her sin and her the plague
On this removed issue, plague for her
And with her plague; her sin his injury,
Her injury the beadle to her sin,
All punish’d in the person of this child,
And all for her; a plague upon her!

See: a knot. Usually I can keep up with Shakespeare at a reading pace, with occasional delays to double back and reconnect a distantly severed subject and predicate, or to put back in order some poetically inverted adjective and noun; but a knot like this I might have to read five or ten times just to extract the basic meaning. In all honesty, I’m still not sure what “plague for her / And with her plague” means.

Elsewhere in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lists the “tenable objections” to Shakespeare’s genius, including:

[T]he dull passages, including the puns, often obscene and prolonged; the inflated sentiments, the ludicrous images, the insoluble syntax, the contradictory details, the theatrically awkward turns, and the sheer excess where terseness or silence would be best.

He means “insoluble” in the sense of “unsolvable”, but the other meaning works too, if you picture Shakespeare’s knots as tightly compacted lumps of matter that refuse to soften up no matter how long you soak ’em.

Returning to the play, the next knot comes in Act III, Scene I, once again courtesy of Constance. She’s trying to convince the French king to do his religious duty, abandon his alliance with the excommunicated John, and switch his support to Arthur. She’s accused of arguing “not from her faith / But from her need.” She replies:

O, if thou grant my need,
Which only lives but by the death of faith,
That need must needs infer this principle,
That faith would live again by death of need.
O then, tread down my need, and faith mounts up;
Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!

As Professor Barzun said, what characterizes passages like these is involution – ideas looping around on themselves like interlocking ouroboroses. They remind me of the logical puzzles known as sorites [1] presented by Lewis Carroll in his book Symbolic Logic:

(1) No one takes in the Times, unless he is well-educated;
(2) No hedge-hogs can read;
(3) Those who cannot read are not well-educated.

Conclusion: No hedge-hog takes in the Times.

That’s an easy one. When the propositions are multiplied, a sorites can quickly grow too cumbrous to be parsed on the fly:

(1) All the dated letters in this room are written on blue paper;
(2) None of them are in black ink, except those that are written in the third person;
(3) I have not filed any of them that I can read;
(4) None of them, that are written on one sheet, are undated;
(5) All of them, that are not crossed, are in black ink;
(6) All of them, written by Brown, begin with “Dear Sir”;
(7) All of them, written on blue paper, are filed;
(8) None of them, written on more than one sheet, are crossed;
(9) None of them, that begin with “Dear Sir”, are written in the third person.

With a little patience, these propositions can be reduced to pairs of eliminands, which cancel out, leaving the two retinands “letters written by Brown” and “letters that I cannot read”, comprising the conclusion: “I cannot read any of Brown’s letters.”

[Full disclosure: Despite Carroll’s jaunty assertion that none of the exercises in Symbolic Logic should be “beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age”, I haven’t attempted them myself. I’m a lot dimmer than a well-brought-up 19th century English schoolboy.]

Coincidentally, just as Shakespeare reminded me of Carroll’s sorites, Carroll had Shakespeare on his mind while composing them:

(1) All writers, who understand human nature, are clever;
(2) No one is a true poet unless he can stir the hearts of men;
(3) Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”;
(4) No writer, who does not understand human nature, can stir the hearts of men;
(5) None but a true poet could have written “Hamlet”.

Conclusion: Shakespeare was clever. Too blasted clever, one sometimes grumbles…

***

In Act III, Scene I, of King John, shortly after Constance’s speech about faith, Cardinal Pandulph makes his own religious appeal to the French king, who is torn between the oath he recently swore to King John and his loyalty to the church. Pandulph unfurls this string of small knots:

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
That is, to be the champion of our church!
What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
And may not be performed by thyself,
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done,
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [2]

Did Shakespeare trust that contemporary theatre-goers could follow this display of Jesuitical rope-trickery? Or, like a Hollywood screenwriter throwing masses of jargon into his space opera script to set an atmosphere of scientific authenticity, was he content that the knots should plink melodiously off his audiences’ skulls, communicating nothing but “ah, this Cardinal fella’s real smart”?

I recall reading Henry V for the first time and nodding off at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eye-glazing explanation in Act I, Scene II, of Henry’s claim to the French throne. Then I saw Olivier’s film of the play, where the scene is played for comedy, with Canterbury shuffling through stacks of paper, losing his place, being assisted by his flustered deputy, seeming to wind down only to wind back up again, and so on. It culminates with Canterbury on his knees amid drifts of fallen parchment, declaring to the bemused noblemen that Henry’s claim is “as clear as is the summer’s sun.” Which I suspect, though I can’t be sure, Shakespeare intended as a punchline.

Have the play’s interpreters always leavened this scene with buffoonery? Or was the buffoonery a necessary adjustment for modern audiences, who are less engrossed than their ancestors by genealogical disquisition? Anthony Brennan, in his Critical Introduction to the play, argues that Canterbury was meant to be played straight:

Given the extended arguments throughout Shakespeare’s whole cycle of history plays as successive figures try to legitimise their claims to the crown and to dispute that of others, it seems inherently unlikely that the Elizabethan audience regarded such a huge speech as laughter-fodder. [3]

(For his Henry, filmed a half-century after Olivier’s, Kenneth Branagh opted for the stodgier solution of forgoing the comedy, but compressing the speech to a quarter of its length.)

As with Canterbury’s evolution into a figure of comedy, I can imagine Pandulph being performed as a suave word-spinner, dazzling the blunt-witted nobles (who broadly mime their incomprehension) into acquiescence. But the fact that Constance is as nimble a spinner as Pandulph makes me wonder whether Shakespearean audiences, raised in a more verbal culture, were simply more adept at uncoiling knotty rhetoric.

M.

1. Sing. sorites [pron. so-righties], pl. sorites or (Carroll’s preference) soriteses; from the Greek for heap; not to be confused with the sorites paradox.

2. “…as fire cools fire / Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.” Apparently in Shakespeare’s time medical orthodoxy held that burns should be treated by the application of heat:

Fernelius asserted that fire was its own antidote and should be applied to the burned part to drive it out which abates the pain. Ambrose Pare similarly called for the burned part to be held near a flame or live coal to draw out the igneous particles in the tissues.

3. I was pointed to this quote by Anthony Boyd-Williams’s 2002 master’s thesis, “I Am Left Out – A Study of Selected Clerical Characters in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, which contains meaty chapters on Pandulph and Canterbury, with detailed scene-by-scene notes on several high-profile filmed and theatrical performances of King John and Henry V, focussing on the portrayals of these characters.

In Robert Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast – discussed in my essay on Heinlein’s Crazy Years – the dimension-hopping heroes bump into Lewis Carroll and trade sorites to pass the time.

 

A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends.

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe.