Friday, September 30, 2005

How right are great artists?

I came upon this interesting debate via Instapundit yesterday.
I think that Ann Althouse's point is well taken. To be a great artist -- or a great scientist, for that matter, and probably a great anything else -- requires a strongly individual outlook and an outstanding measure of self-confidence and self-reliance.
So why, when it comes to politics, do so many artists adopt what amounts to support for a paternalistic, collectivist, ultimately authoritarian outlook? I think it's because they think that society can be shaped in much the same way that they shape their work -- and they know that what is required for that is a strong-willed shaper. The artist in relation to his own work is a despot. Artists, moreover, are very much influenced by appearances. Augusto Pinochet is obviously a general and nothing but a general. Fidel Castro, on the other hand, maintains the appearance of a guerilla fighter (better battle fatigues than parade dress)and mouths all sorts of egalitarian and revolutionary platitudes (and bravely stands up to the bully that is the United States). This seems to be enough to render him appealing to a good many artists. It worked for Mao, too, believed by many to be the all-time champion of Twentieth Century Hemoclysm.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

On cynicism ...

In his play Lady Windermere's Fan, Oscar Wilde famously defined a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Like all good aphorisms, this one is richly ambiguous. The more one values something, the harder it is to put a price on it. And yet, in the market place at least, the price attached to something does tell us how much some people value it. Is a Rolex watch worth what it costs? Just as a timepiece, probably not. My Swiss Army watch tells time just as well as any Rolex, I suspect.
Among the young, cynicism has become a sort of protective coloration. It's a way of justifying sitting on the fence. Which is fine, because the fence is the right place to sit sometimes. Eventually, though, one must make up one's mind and decide what it is one values. This is best done when one is comfortable being unsure of things (the young are unsure enough -- though they may pretend or even think otherwise; they're just not comfortable with it, which is why they may pretend or think otherwise). Making a decision that has to be made, knowing full well that it may turn out to be wrong -- that's the start of maturity. Of course, things get even dicier afterwards, since a decision may be right even though things initially go wrong, and may be wrong even if things initially go well.
Life is every bit as ambiguous as the best aphorism.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Changing times ...

The Inquirer announced a buyout offer this week in order to facilitate a reduction of newsroom staff by 16 percent -- 75 jobs. The newspaper business would seem to be in trouble. Advertising and circulation, for many papers, are both down. The Internet is frequently cited as the culprit -- people getting their news online rather than from papers.
This is usually thought of in terms of mere convenience, but I think there's a lot more to it than that. Take local news, for instance. I never look for local news on the Internet. I don't even know if there's much local news to be found there, apart from the local TV stations' sites -- and The Inquirer and Daily News sites. So it isn't just a matter of convenience. The A section of the paper I get every morning is right before the B section. I just skip it usually.
I read national and international news online because I can get nearer the source. If I want to know what's going on in Great Britain, I'll check the Times of London or the Evening Standard or the Telegraph.
But there's another problem. The newspaper business has become something of game of Chinese Whispers -- everybody's passing along the same story in the same way. There's also the problem of keeping up with the Times -- the idea that, if the New York Times did a big piece on something, every other paper ought to as well. My own view is that there's an entire planet's worth of news out there and that it's the job of reporters to find it and report it. I think people would buy any paper that was filled every day with stories about things they hadn't heard of, as opposed to another story that they've heard on radio and TV, and seen online. You can go anywhere in the U.S. and read the same damn thing in every newspaper.
The big story today is Tom DeLay's indictment. Let me make a prediction: DeLay isn't going to be convicted of anything. Why do I think that? Because I read the indictment -- and so can you right here. See if you can figure out what exactly it is DeLay is accused of (he's only mentioned near the end).
My point is that if you spend a bit a time on the Internet and are really interested in finding out the facts about the DeLay case, you can be your own reporter -- and your own media critic to boot, since you'll probably find the accounts in the papers and TV lacking in ... reportage. On the tube they'll have the same AP or Reuters story and some pompous windbags telling you how it's all going to turn out. In this case, it's trouble for the Republican Party, of course. In the paper there will be an analysis that will say much the same thing as the pompous windbags and the editorial page will portentously take a position that you can almost certainly guess if you're at all familiar with the paper in question.
Same old, same old. What people want is something different. News.

Monday, September 26, 2005

While there's still time ...

Sept. 26 has but an hour and 20 minutes left, but before midnight I want to note that on this date in 1888 T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Mo. That midwest origin near the banks of the Mississippi is often forgotten -- but never by Eliot himself, who alludes to it in "The Dry Salvages":

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Stop the bell, close the book, quench the candle ...

"Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on."

So says Philip the Bastard in Shakespeare's King John. It's an allusion to the Roman Catholic rite of anathema, pronounced in cases of major excommunication. According to one account, a bishop and 12 priests gather in the cathedral. Each holds a candle. The bell tolls as for one dead. The bishop pronounces the sentence:
"Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive N-- himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment."
The priests respond "Fiat, fiat, fiat" ("Let it be done ..."). The holy book on the altar is closed and priests and bishop quench their candles by dashing them to the floor.
It brings to mind a time when the Church was associated with solemnity, not obscenity. As a Catholic wont from time to time to review books that have some bearing on the Church and its teachings, I feel obliged to comment on the sex scandal in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which recrudesced last week when the grand jury charged with investigating the matter issued a report on its findings. In an interview with Inquirer reporter David O'Reilly, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Philadelphia's Archbishop, cautioned the faithful that the report was not suitable for family reading. No lie there. This document makes the Starr Report seem wholesome by comparison. It is filled with toxic waste. The priests whose activities are chronicled therein are predacious vermin who committed criminal acts for which, thanks to the egregious mishandling of the matter by Church authorities from start to finish, they cannot be prosecuted -- because the statute of limitations has run out. If ever there was a group of people deserving -- just for starters -- of formal, public excommunication, it is these twisted clerics.
My wife, who was raised an Episcopalian but attends Quaker meeting, has wondered out loud how anyone could continue to go to a Catholic Church. Well, a single Archdiocese on the banks the Delaware -- and even a number of them throughout the United States -- hardly constitutes the whole story of the 2,000-year-old institution that is the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, world-class villains are hardly a recent phenomenon in Church history -- the Borgias come immediately to mind. But they are outnumbered by far by the likes of Father Damien and St. Francis of Assisi.
Nevertheless, as is usually the case with my wife, she hit upon the crux of the matter (no pun intended), namely, the grievous blow this scandal has delivered to the faith and the faithful.
In Saturday's Inquirer, Cardinal Rigali was quoted as saying that "in every single case reported to Archdiocesan officials, action was taken based on the best medical attention available." What about sin, your Eminence? I realize that, for many, it's an archaic term, but I believe it is still used in Catholic moral theology. Even if one admits that the moral failings of the priests in question were to some extent mitigated by a measure of psychiatric disorder -- and I think it's a stretch myself -- those moral shortcomings remain both obvious and grievous.
As I understand it, if a Protestant finds his minister's sermons less than edifying, he is free to look around for another church, or even another denomination, and go there instead. But Catholics don't go to church for the sermon, or for the hymns, or even for the Scriptural readings. They go to witness and partake of the miracle of the Eucharist, the Transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus. For Catholics, the Host is not merely a symbol. For them, it actually is what it symbolizes -- Jesus Himself, His flesh and blood. Catholics also believe that what is called the Last Supper was the first Mass, during which Jesus instituted not only the sacrament of the Eucharist, but also the sacrament of Holy Orders, giving the 11 apostles present priestly powers to effect the miracle He had just performed and to pass that power on to others.
Now I know it will seem odd that a reasonably well-educated, presumably well-read, worldly-wise journalist should subscribe to such doctrines, which doubtless strike some as bizarre, but sharper cookies than I have subscribed to them as well. Presumably, Archdiocesan officials subscribe to them also. Then why didn't they act upon them? Why, confronted with acts the Church designates as sinful -- rape, corruption of innocents, abuse of authority, to say nothing of blasphemy -- did they evince no moral response? I go to confession and tell the priest I'm having an affair and I'll be told to repent and clean up my act, not see a shrink. Bishops and priests seem ready enough to bloviate about sin to the laity, but when it comes to their wayward colleagues -- oh, they need treatment. What the priests cited in the grand jury report needed was arrest, prosecution and conviction. Moreover, even if Archdiocesan officials had a hard time discerning the moral dimension of the problem, what about their plain duty as citizens? When you know that a felony has been committed, padres, you're supposed to report it.
Has this sorry episode shaken my faith? Not at all, actually. I never placed my faith in the hierarchy, only my tentative trust. I attended Catholic schools for some 16 years and, as Yogi Berra noted, "you can observe a lot just by watching." I learned fairly soon that ordination is no fast-track to sanctity. I've known plenty of good priests. But I've also known priests who scarcely rubbed elbows with civility, let alone piety. As for scandals, Jesus Himself warned that they were inevitable: "For it must needs be that scandals come," He says in the Gospel of Matthew -- adding, however, "woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh." Woe indeed: "... he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea."
No mention there of "the best medical attention."

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Noticing the unpublished (cont'd.) ...

My previous post has elicited some incisive comments, to which I feel I should add some further observations. As David Montgomery points out, the principal reason self-published books are unlikely to get noticed is the sheer number of books being produced -- some 200,000 from commercial publishing houses alone. And, as David also points out, a good many of them aren't worth reading either.
Self-publishing triumphs invariably result from a combination of heroic self-promotion and plain, old-fashioned luck. Not long after I became The Inquirer's book editor, Anne Gordon, who was then features editor, brought to my attention a self-published children's book that had been sent to her accompanied by a letter from the author begging for a review. Anne had taken the book home and tossed on the dining room table. Her son, who was then 12, picked it up, read it, and told her it was great. I figured that if a kid reads a book aimed at kids and likes it there must be something worthwhile about it. So I asked Ann Waldron, who then reviewed children's books for the paper, to review it. She described the author as "inventive and an excellent writer" and said he had created "an unlikely, but truly captivating hero."
The Inquirer reviewed his next book, too, which reviewer Hillary Homzie called "a gripping story full of emotion and original humor."
Not long after, the author landed a lucrative deal with Putnam. He was Michael Hoeye. That first, unpublished book was Time Stops for No Mouse.
I suppose the all-time winner in the self-published category is Leaves of Grass, and God knows, Walt Whitman was no slacker when it came to self-promotion. Still, the fact remains that most self-published work is destined for oblivion. Then again, most commercially published work is as well.
So where does that leaves us? Well, what I find interesting today -- and that explosion of verbiage known as the blogosphere demonstrates this -- is that a lot of people these days feel the need to write. And technology has given them a cost-effective way of producing books. The blogosphere has demonstrated something else: A lot of these non-professional writers have much that is worthwhile to say and are very good at saying it. Mike Shatzkin, a publishing industry consultant I met at BookExpo America this past June, thinks that the new self-publishing outlets may become the publishing equivalent of baseball's farm teams. The question is to come up with an effective process of winnowing. Mike and I seem to have arrived independently at much the same answer to this question. I hope to follow up on the idea in the not so distant future. So there's another reason to stay tuned.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Noticing the unpublished ...

Last week I noted that Barbara Grosh's novel Tenure Track to Mommyville had won Xerox's Asprining Authors contest. So I think it worth mentioning that Inquirer staff writer and columnist Tanya Barrientos, a novelist herself, who recently wrote a piece in our Image section about self-publishing, has agreed to review the book for The Inquirer. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

What a difference a word makes ...

Walking to work this morning I passed a fellow outside the University of the Arts who was wearing a t-shirt with the words "Arte Diem" printed on the front. But the fellow wearing it is obviously no Latinist. I presume "arte diem" is meant to be a take on "carpe diem" -- "seize the day." The problem is that "arte diem" doesn't mean anything. I guess -- and it's only a guess -- that it's supposed to mean "art day." Only, in Latin, that would be "dies artis."
OK, call me a pedant. But it brings to mind one of the many silly things in that singularly silly book The Da Vinci Code. The learned historian Lee Teabing tells our hero and heroine that of all the European languages, English is la lingua pura -- the pure tongue -- because it has the fewest words of Latin origin. Really? Why just a glance of what I've written reveals several -- passed, print, presume, obvious, origin. A glance at any page in any English dictionary will reveal plenty more.
I shall go to my grave dazed and confused over the success of The Da Vinci Code. It is poorly plotted, the time-frame is implausible, the writing pedestrian, and the characters barely one-dimensional. Even more annoying, at the same time The Da Vinci Code arrived in bookstores, another novel -- The Lamplighter, by Anthony O'Neill -- arrived there also. This is everything The Da Vinci Code is not: brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and theologically imaginative. The main characters are unforgettable.
Imagination is a quality sorely lacking in most theological discourse. Take the Catholic doctrine of the bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven, where she is crowned Queen of Heaven by Jesus. So Heaven is ruled by the Son of God and His human mother. Richly ambiguous and mysterious to be sure. No wonder Carl Jung called Pope Pius XII's declaration of this dogma "the most important religious event since the Reformation." According to Jung, Mary "is functionally on a par with Christ, the king and mediator. At any rate her position satisfies a renewed hope for the fulfillment of that yearning for peace which stirs deep down in the soul, and for a resolution of the threatening tension between opposites. Everyone shares this tension and everyone experiences it in his individual form of unrest, the more so the less he sees any possibility of getting rid of it by rational means. It is no wonder, therefore, that the hope, indeed the expectation of divine intervention arises in the collective unconscious and at the same time in the masses. The papal declaration has given comforting expression to that yearning."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

News ....

Last Sunday, Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano reviewed Salman Rushdie's new novel Shalimar the Clown. Carlin liked the book a lot and last Friday he went to Manhattan to interview Rushdie. That interview will be broadcast online Sunday in its entirety. Carlin also writes about Rushdie in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section. This is the first of what we hope will be a series of interviews with authors online. So stay tuned.

Monday, September 19, 2005

All aboard ...

Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar chronicles a train trip Theroux took from Britain to Japan and back, aboard such romantic-sounding routes as the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, and the Trans-Siberian Express. Theroux began his trip on this date in 1973, departing London's Victorian Station.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The priniciple of subsidiarity (revisited) ...

Last week, after posting a little something about King Canute, I found myself in a most interesting discussion of the principle of
subsidiarity and how it pertained to events following Hurrican Katrina. Now I am beginning to discover that more and more people seem to agree with what I was trying to get across. Glenn Reynolds has some pertinent commentary
here. Note especially his link to a blogger from Japan. Two key paragraphs:

Well, I will tell you as someone who has lived here for a decade: what you hear about disaster preparedness ALWAYS involves local intiatives. Sometimes, municipal governments are involved; other times, it's smaller public institutions. 1 September, the anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, was Disaster Prevention Day here. Apparently, over a million people participated in demonstrations and drills and things. Our apartment building's management company distributed leaflets to our mailboxes, outlining what would happen if a quake hit and our building were declared unsafe until inspection. New survival gadgets are always cropping up in human interest features on NHK.
In Japan, what we're told is this: A disaster may render you unreachable. It may cut you off from communication networks and utilities. The appropriate government agencies (starting at the neighborhood level and moving upward depending on the magnitude of the damage) will respond as quickly as they can, but you may be on your own for days until they do. Prepare supplies. Learn escape routes. Then learn alternate escape routes. Know what your region's points of vulnerability are. Get to know your neighbors (especially the elderly or infirm) so you can help each other out and account for each other. Follow directions if you're told to evacuate. Stay put if you aren't. Participate in the earthquake preparation drills in your neighborhood.

But, as they say, read it all.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

What's in a word?

SciFi author Dafydd ab Hugh, a frequent guest blogger, now has a blog of his own, on which he has posted a most interesting piece about how language frames thought.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The dangers of certainty ...

Some years ago I attended a lecture given by John Polkinghorne, the physicist and Anglican priest, at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton. Father Polkinghorne prefaced his answer to one of the questions that was put to him afterward by saying that all of the most interesting questions did not admit of a simple, conclusive answer. That, he said, was what made them interesting.
This idea has some bearing on the comments appended to my previous post. We have a craving for certainty. But it is precisely this craving, it seems to me, that gets in the way of apprehending the truth.
I was talking today to a colleague of mine -- Gene D'Alessandro, who was one of the performers in the Philly Fringe Festival presentation of An Evening of Damon Runyon, which I blogged about the other night. I told Gene that the reason I tended not to like social drama was that it tended to deal in certainties. Genuine art is concerned with gradations of light and shade -- with ambiguities.
Take Macbeth. In the beginning, Macbeth is hesitant. It is Lady Macbeth who goads him into villainy. But once he has chosen his course, he does not waver, or go to pieces, as she does. Even at the end -- when it is clear to him that Birnum Wood has indeed come to Dunsinane, and that MacDuff is not exactly of woman born -- even then, he does not lose courage. He is a villain, to be sure, but it is impossible not to admire his defiance of fate. He is no cardboard cutout, but a man who has chosen his course. Which makes him at one and the same time evil and admirable.
It is its capacity to capture such ambiguities that connects art with life, because it is the ambiguities that give life -- and art -- its richness.
There is so little we can be certain of. Moreover, the more we are certain of things, the more we are inclined to be intolerant regarding them. This is not to say we can never make up our minds. We must make up our minds. What is existential authenticity other than the courage to choose in the face of uncertainty? And each choice always leads to further choices. Such is the adventure of being alive.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Before I forget ...

I have discussed Michel de Montaigne here a number of times lately. Well, 413 years ago today, the great man died. Mass was being said in his room and he died, reportedly, duting the elevation of the Host. One of the sayings he had carved into the roofbeams of his library will serve to honor his memory: "I establish nothing. I do not understand. I halt. I examine."
More at Today in Literature, which could use your support.

Some publishing news ...

Xerox Corp., in partnership with, a provider of free online publishing tools, and ColorCentric Corporation, a Rochester-based commercial printer, recently upped the ante in the alternative publishing sweepstakes by sponsoring an Aspiring Authors contest, aimed at finding "the best work of unpublished fiction." The winner was announced today.
She is Barbara Grosh of Pittsford, N.Y., and her book is titled Tenure Track to Mommyville. It tells the story of an academic who is denied tenure and returns home to care for her child and try to save her marriage. Grosh, who has a Ph.D. in economics, was herself an assistant professor who left the academy to raise her daughter. She gets 250 copies of her book and $5000.
The runners up were The Long Black Veil by Jeannine DeLine and Bobbi L'Huillier, sisters who live in Rochester, N.Y., and CodeName Snake: The Evil We Kill by Morton Rumberg of Gold River, Calif.
The judges were Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio and Emily Chenoweth of Publishers Weekly.
There's more information here and here.

Monday, September 12, 2005

American classics ...

I am not known to be a frequenter of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. But I attended one of its events tonight and I'm here to say it was time very well spent. It was An Evening of Damon Runyon at the Society Hill Playhouse's Red Room. Five actors -- Barry Brait, Gene D'Alessandro (a colleague of mine), Rene Goodwin, Arnold Kendall, and Vince Mancini -- collaborated in reading five of Runyon's classic tales of Broadway low-lifes. The stories are at turns funny and touching, the language bottled-in-bond American vernacular. The performers were uniformly excellent, offering a nice variety of voices and accents.
Runyon, oddly, was born in Manhattan -- Kansas, that is -- but the Manhattan he was born to is located between the Hudson and the East Rivers. The show's on again tomorrow at 9 p.m. In my opinion, they should extend the run. Indeed, there should be more shows like this. Audiences would love them and literature would be well served.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A useful legend ...

Given all the blame being heaped upon President Bush for having been somehow responsible for the debacle in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina (perhaps he should be corrspondingly praised for the comparatively efficient response in Mississippi -- after all, he had about much to do with the one as with the other), it seems useful to recall the legend of wise King Canute, who used the sea's inexorable tides to demonstrate the limits of executive power.

Literary cross-currents ...

Yesterday (Sept. 10) was the anniversary of the birth, in 1890, of Franz Werfel, a writer sadly neglected today. Here is an interesting piece about him by George Weigel.
Today is the anniversary of the birth in 1524 of the French poet Pierre Ronsard.
Here is a translation of one of Ronsard's better-known poems:


When you are very old, at evening
You'll sit and spin beside the fire, and say,
Humming my songs, 'Ah well, ah well-a-day!
When I was young, of me did Ronsard sing.'
None of your maidens that doth hear the thing,
Albeit with her weary task foredone,
But wakens at my name, and calls you one
Blest, to be held in long remembering.

I shall be low beneath the earth, and laid
On sleep, a phantom in the myrtle shade,
While you beside the fire, a grandame grey,
My love, your pride, remember and regret;
Ah, love me, love! we may be happy yet,
And gather roses, while 'tis called to-day.

If this seems familiar, it is because William Butler Yeats took it and turned into one his better-known poems:

When You Are Old and Grey

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

In memoriam ...

After Mass today the church bells rang 10 times while the congregation prayed silently in mmemory of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. I mention this because I think, in its simplicity and brevity, it could serve as a model for how best to commemorate this sad anniversary.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Noting an anniversary before it's too late ...

Today in Literature notes that today was an important date in the life of James Joyce.

Places to visit ... and further thoughts ...

Jim Bowman's Blithe Spirit draws our attention to Blupete, a blog out of Nova Scotia filled with interesting information about poets, essayists, history and much else.
There is, for example, a nice page on Montaigne, which gives me an opportunity to resume discussing that great Perigord gentleman.
In response to a post of mine last month titled Exploring the mind, Melville Goodwin pointed out that Joseph Epstein's method of writing essays is often like Montaigne's. I have not read a lot of Epstein, but everything that I have I've liked. And I did not know about his method of just ruminating over a quote, say, and being taken wherever.
In my original post, though, I don't think I succeeded in making the point I set out to. What I wanted to say was that, as I see it, Montaigne used writing as a philosphical method. He is, of course, the exact opposite of the grand, systematic thinker -- and attempts to derive a system of thought from his writings miss the point of those writngs.
I studied philosophy and still read a good deal of it, but I think attempts to encompass reality in a system of thought are futile. I don't think life can be "figured out." But you can figure out how to live -- and that's what Montaigne was about. One of the fundamental things he understood about is that human reason and understanding are profoundly limited. And he found that out by recording his trains of thought. He wasn't aiming to prove a thesis, or demonstrate a theory. He was observing thought, noting its inconcsitencies and contradictions, how prejudice and feeling get in the way of logic, how we are usually able to find that what we would like to be true somehow is true. In some ways, the modern thinker Montaigne most resembles is J. Krishnamurti, who repeatedly counseled his listeners to engage in "choiceless awareness" while examining "the contents of consciousness." It's not as easy as it sounds.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Perhaps I stand corrected ...

I have on a number of occasions stated here that my principal objection to intelligent design theory is that it seems to involve a category error: It poses a scientific question and proposes a metaphysical answer.
But a colleague of mine, who has taught philosophy at some noteworthy institutions of higher learning, and who is far from being a Christian apologist, assures me I am wrong, pointing out (I must paraphrase) that it is not unreasonable, upon observing that the complexity of an entity is such as to render its existence by mere happenstance overwhelmingly improbable, to argue that said entity has been intentionally designed. You may not be able to prove that, he says, nor identify the designer, but it is not an unreasonable line of argument and does not involve a category error, since it stays strictly within the realm of logical inference.
To this I might add something Thomas Fleming wrote in The Spectator a couple of weeks ago in an article titled Why America is not a Christian country," unfortunately only available to subscribers:
Intelligent design, it goes without saying, is a boneheaded piece of pseudo-science, almost as simplistic as the naive materialism that Darwinists teach. But neither side of the argument cares about logic, much less truth. The important thing is to declare which side you are on: religious fanaticism or cosmopolitan anti-religious fanaticism.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A blog debut not to be missed ...

I have had the privilege of teaming with Inquirer photographer Eric Mencher twice -- last year in Dublin for the Centenary of Bloomsday, and just recently for a piece about the Art Scene in Tunkhannock, Pa. (check out this Slide Show), and another about glass sculptor Christopher Ries (here's a Flash Show).
I can honestly say I am better journalist for having worked with Eric, who did intense, comprehensive preparation for both outings. So, if you want to see photography at its best, check out This Urban Life, Eric's new blog.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Conservative strands (Part II) ...

David Aaronovitch in the Times of London discerns another fissure in conservatism.

An afterthought ...

In my post yesterday I said that Jonathan Rauch's review of Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family was the best review of the book I had seen. I should have added that it's one of the best book reviews I've ever read, period. If you want to know what a really good book review looks like, read that one. (Here's the link.)
For one thing, Rauch has obviously read the book, not just flipped through the pages looking for phrases he can use to attack it. Most of what has been written about Santorum's book that I have seen has obviously been done in attack mode: That awful right-winger has written a book expounding his troglodytic moral views; isn't that awful?
Rauch, by contrast, teases out the implications of Santorum's views and plausibly wonders if this does not portend a problem for the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
One engages with Rauch's review precisely because it so incisive. I don't myself happen to think that the problem he discerns will amount to much in the long run. Santorum's more rigid moral views simply do not command consensus either among Republicans or among Americans in general. Neither do more extreme libertarian views, for that matter.
The Republicans have cobbled together a fairly broad coalition whose consituents do not agree on everything and in some instances do not agree, period. But they can work together, with all involved reasonably expecting to get something of what they want. If the so-called religious right dominated Republican politics the way Democrats say it does, the Republicans would never win a national election. On the other hand, Democratic politics really is dominated by the anti-war left, precisely to the degree that Democrats claim the religious right dominates the Republicans. And that is why Democrats have a hard time winning national elections.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Conservative strains ...

Jonathan Rauch has written a review of Rick Santorum's It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good that is by far the best I have seen. Rauch's analysis is excellent. Here is perhaps the key paragraph:
Where Goldwater denounced collectivism as the enemy of the individual, Santorum denounces individualism as the enemy of family. On page 426, Santorum says this: "In the conservative vision, people are first connected to and part of families: The family, not the individual, is the fundamental unit of society." Those words are not merely uncomfortable with the individual-rights tradition of modern conservatism. They are incompatible with it.
Glenn Reynolds thinks Rauch is suggesting that the Republican Party is splitting. I think he has merely discerned a fissure in American conservatism that has been there from the beginning -- and may well provide a good deal of the movement's vital tension (as Blake observed, "Without contraries is no progression").
Santorum's book is published by ISI Press. ISI stands for Intercollegiate Studies Institute. But that wasn't always the group's name. When Frank Chodorov founded it in 1953, the initials were ISI, but they stood for the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. Chodorov was an anarcho-individualist, much influenced by the great Albert Jay Nock.
But the man Chodorov chose to head his society was none other than a young fellow fresh out Yale by the name of William F. Buckley Jr., whose father, Frank, had been a friend of Nock's. ISI, under both its names, has consistently explored all of the strands of conservatism and has been pretty open throughout its history to all of the movement's often contending factions. In 1968 I lectured at an ISI summer school held at Rockford College (I spoke on Nock). The followers of objectivist Ayn Rand and also those of radical libertarian Murray Rothbard were tough to deal with.
There have always been in the American conservative movement those who have wanted to place government at the service of traditional morality. But there have also always been those who have cautioned agianst going too far in the direction (Buckley is one of them). The split in the movement -- which has, as I say, always been there -- is between the traditionalists on the one hand, and the libertarians on the other. (At the last Republican National Convention the libertarian wing of the party -- represented by Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was more on display than ever before.)
Santorum is a Catholic, and his view that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society, is standard Roman Catholic social doctrine. There has, by the way, been from the beginning a strong Catholic strain running through American conservatism.
But is Santorum's view, as Rauch suggests, incompatible with what he calls "individual-rights conservatism?" Philosophically, there may well be a number of irreconcilable differences between the two viewpoints. But the two sides have more in common with each other -- a commitment to free enterprise, a belief in the principle of subsidairity, among others -- than either has with the political left. Reagan, a very skillful politician, played both sides of the aisle and never identified himself exclusively with either. The two sides drive hard bargains, but they usually manage to cut a deal.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The matter of experts ...

It is, I believe, fairly widely known that newspapers are having a hard time of it these days. Circulation figures and ad revenues are both down. Various reasons have been adduced as to why this is so, the commonest being the easy — and free — access to the news online.
But I continue to think that if, when you picked up your newspaper every morning, you found it filled with well-written, well-researched stories about interesting things you didn’t know about — and couldn’t find anywhere else — you’d make sure to re-up your subscription.
I think the decline of newspapers has to do with other things. I alluded to one in a recent post: preferring punditry over reporting. But reporting has its problems, too, one of which is the reliance on experts.
Reporters are very fond of experts (I suspect the fondness is mutual). But reliance on the testimony of experts is simply a variation on the argument from authority. Thomas Aquinas was a great respecter of authority, but even he noted that the argument from authority is the weakest form of argument. The problem is that it really doesn’t amount to much more than asserting that such-and-such is true because so-and-so says it is.
As it happens, experts are often wrong. If you had gathered all of the literary experts — writers, critics, scholars — in the United States together in one place — say, Harvard — in 1895 and asked them who the two best American poets of the time were, it is doubtful they would have chosen Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson.
Astronomers in Galileo’s time, asked about the solar system, would have cited the Tychonic system, devised by Tycho Brahe, the greatest astronomer of the day and one of the greatest ever. His system had the planets revolving around the sun, and the planets and sun in turn revolving around the Earth. Tycho was an expert and other experts agreed with him.
This is not to suggest that expert testimony should not be sought out. It is rather to suggest that it not be sought out in order to arrive at some sort of consensus. Science has nothing to do with consensus. The consensus in the 16th century may have been in favor of Tycho’s system, but the consensus was wrong and Galileo was right. One scientist with correct data constitutes a majority of one.
It is far more fruitful to seek the areas of disagreement among the experts and explore them, not in order to settle them, least of all in order to take sides, but simply in order to inform the rest of us about them. Otherwise we lead people to think that more is known for sure than is in fact the case.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Speaking of Glenn Reynolds ...

The Instapundit interviews Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near. It's long and pretty detailed -- there are even graphs -- but that's what makes it well worth your time and attention.

But let's get serious ...

Glenn Reynolds, over at Instapundit, has a comprehensive List of Agencies to whom you can make a contribution on behalf of the people trying to put their lives back together after Hurricane Katrina. Visit and give, please.
I gave online to Catholic Charities -- which, the last time I checked, was listed second for contributions -- because I've had good experiences with them in the past.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A process of random selection ...

I just got home about an hour ago. I had to spend several hours shelving the books that had piled up over the past few days. I couldn't get to them because I had a couple stories to write -- which involved doing some extra reporting -- and I had lots of other stuff to do besides.
Anyway, while I discarded September's galleys and made way for December's and January's, I started thinking about the lively exchange I've been having here with Melville Goodwin and others about intelligent design and neo-Darwinism. There are maybe 600 galleys for October and another 600 for November already on the shelves, a mere fraction of the more than 12,000 that on average get published every month. It's a prodigal display of fertility, just like you see in nature, where, out of millions of fish eggs, say, only a comparatively few will actually grow up to be mature fish -- very few indeed when you take into consideration how many fall prey to other species.
I can't bring myself to believe that only the best books get reviewed. I can't even be sure if the best books get noticed. We surely can't imagine that only the best specimens survive in nature. Random selection is surely an imperfect method for determining which books to review. Seems an odd system for organizing life, too. Then again, maybe it's designed that way.