Flotsam: Miscellaneous

1. My cold of two weeks ago came back with a vengeance this week. Never quite bad enough to keep me away from work (certainly not while I’m still on probation time before my PTO becomes available), but more than bad enough to make the experience quite miserable. Hence why this is a non-specific Flotsam. So, for today I’m just going to toss off some miscellaneous thoughts that I’m too tired to flesh out much.

2. It is sometimes said that you shouldn’t trust primary sources in historical inquiry since they will be biased. Instead, you should trust the professional historian, who is trained to sift through these biases. Indeed, the primary sources are biased. So is the professional historian.

The difference is that the historical bias of the primary source is itself a part of that same history. The bias of the historian is not.

3. Do you notice that there is what you might call an ‘assumed culture’ at work in today’s world? Anything made for general public consumption that doesn’t originate from a source with an otherwise strongly marked character makes the same references and presumes the same values: you’ve seen Star Wars and Game of Thrones. You vote democrat. You’re non-religious. You’re into, or at least familiar with certain pop stars, and so on. It’s like there’s a giant mutual-aid society, in which a web of entertainers, politicians, businessmen, and so on give each other shout-outs and kudos.

I find this kind of boring, even when they reference things I like. It also begins to give that kind of ‘unman’ feel, like there’s no actual personality behind the references, but something trying to ape a personality.

(See, that’s an example: when was the last time you heard a Space Trilogy reference in anything made for the general public?)

4. There’s also the thing where people will cheer when someone mentions an officially protected demographic. Basically a way of signalling “I’m a good person!” or “I am offering the right obeisance!”

5. Oh, speaking of which, I remember during the (mercifully brief) ‘Diversity, Inclusion, Equity’ portion of the onboarding process, they talked about how ‘we’ve found that diversity isn’t just race, religion, sex, and so on, but things like what school you went to, what neighborhood you grew up it, what your experiences are.’

In other words, diversity is supposedly the startling insight that companies employ individuals. This amazing fact requires an entire department and continual training to understand, and we presume that you, the employees, will need to be constantly reminded of this.

I also love that ‘we’ve found’ (or it might have even been ‘experts have discovered’, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt): apparently, the idea that people can be distinguished by things apart from officially designated categories came as a blinding insight.

6. I notice that a lot of moderns have an idea about nature that goes something like this: that the ideal of nature is balance, of all things working together in harmony to allow all to thrive.

If you want to see how much nature values ‘balance’, try introducing a species into a new environment and see how nature deals with it. Nine times out of ten, what happens is either a). the new species gets quickly wiped out by the existing species or b). the new species utterly dominates the ecosystem and wipes out many of the existing species (rats are especially gifted at doing this).

See, nature isn’t about balance: nature is about every species and almost every individual trying to get as much as it possibly can. In other words, nature isn’t harmony: it’s warfare. The ‘balance’ is an illusion created by the fact that the species withing a given ecosystem have all reached a point of more or less stalemate. The moment any species has a real advantage, it rides it as far as it can, happily wiping out everything else around it even if this means dooming itself in the long term.

(Someone might say that introducing rats to isolated islands isn’t natural because humans do it. Well, one, that doesn’t change the fact that rats still act according to nature, and two, the result would be the same whether the rats got there on ships or floating on driftwood).

Nature doesn’t care about balance: nature cares about survival, and not even long-term survival.

7. “Your counterexamples don’t really prove your point so much as they prove you don’t understand mine.”

One of those things that passes through the mind a lot, but which takes a while to catch and articulate.

Flotsam: Mostly Batman

1. I’ve been re-watching some of Batman: The Animated Series lately, reminding myself of just how good it really was. Those gorgeous black-paper backgrounds, that wonderful Fleischer-style animation (the creators said they wanted it to look as though it had been made in the 1940s. I think they succeeded both in look and feel), those striking musical scores (I want to say they made a new one for each episode, certainly a new motif for each character), and of course the wonderful stories and stellar voice acting: Kevin Conroy at Batman. Mark Hamill as the Joker (I’ll admit, I almost associate him more with that role than with that sci-fi movie). Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred. Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon. Roddy McDowall as the Mad Hatter. Adrienne Barbeau as Catwoman. Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. Paul Williams as the Penguin. Ron Perlman as Clayface. David Warner as Ra’s Al Ghul. John Glover as the Riddler. Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. Not to mention one-shot roles from the likes of Tim Curry (who was originally slated to play the Joker, but was considered ‘too scary’, which…given Hamill’s performance makes one wonder), Thomas F. Wilson, Dick Miller, Bill Mumy, John Rhys-Davies, Harry Hamlin, and of course Adam West. As the saying goes, I’d watch a cast like that read a phone book (at one point, that’s pretty close to what happens).

2. Watching the episodes, though, I was struck by how different this is from what has become the usual Batman fare, and even from the subsequent direction the character took in future shows ostensibly set in the same universe (New Batman Adventures, Justice League, etc). The stories here tend to be much more subdued and down-to-earth: ordinary crime stories and dramas (e.g. one episode has a ruthless tycoon planning to stage a gas explosion to clear out a neighborhood he wants to develop). Batman doesn’t always deal with supervillains, and even when he does the villains are themselves a bit more low-key than in other versions. Like, you’ll see scenes at Arkham where Joker, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter, and Scarecrow are just hanging out in the lounge playing chess or watching TV while a couple of guards stand watch, occasionally intervening to break up a petty squabble. In other words, they’re…actual mental patients! A more contemporary Batman story would have all four under Hannibal-Lecter-style maximum security restraints and still murdering guards left and right.

3. The show also emphasizes Batman’s status as a detective. He spends most of the episodes following up clues and interrogating suspects (one of my favorite scenes has him interrogating a germaphobic gangster in a hospital storeroom full of viral samples: “Hm, crimson fever. Nasty way to go…”), or else trying to escape a death trap. Nor is he an infallible fighter: he’s skilled and quick, but he has to work at it to take down even normal thugs, and the show emphasizes that he’s always in danger during the action scenes (this despite the fact that most of the bad guys have an aim that would make a Stormtrooper blush).

(He’s also a lot more…well, normal. He’s less relentlessly grim, in and out of costume, than he would become, expressing fear, shock, and even amusement at times, cracking jokes with Alfred, and so on. BTAS Bruce is much more well-adjusted than later DCAU Bruce. And that’s kind of saying a lot).

Frankly, I like this a lot better than the idea that Batman’s the greatest fighter in the world (along with being the greatest everything else). I much prefer him being an extremely skilled, but still limited human being whose abilities are all tailored to his mission in life (very much like Sherlock Holmes), but which inevitably come up short sometimes, forcing him to think outside the box. I really don’t like when Batman simply pulls some obscure new skill out of his utility belt whenever it comes up, or when he’s played as being so supremely cunning that he can defeat anyone with prep time.

The big example of this sort of thing for me came in an episode of Justice League (a show I really like, by the way), where they’re dealing with a plot in some small Eastern European / western Asian nation. Batman confronts a guard, who taunts him that he can’t understand a word he’s saying anyway. Batman answers in the same language, proving himself to be fluent in it. See, that’s the sort of thing that bugs me: he would have had no reason to learn that language, it never would have come up but for this one incident. But he’s Batman, so of course he has any skill he needs because it makes him ‘cool.’

(Ironically enough, this means I have the same problem with some versions of Batman that most other people have with Superman: that’s he’s too infallible and over-stocked with abilities).

Me, I much prefer the ‘Animated Series’ style to the character. It feels to me like BTAS exists in a kind of separate, parallel world to the rest of the DCAU: a world where there isn’t a Superman or Themyscira or Green Lanter Corps, just a city full of broken, twisted human beings, some of whom have, through mad science run amok, gained powers beyond the ordinary, and where there is a hint of the supernatural, but where for the most part it’s simply all-too human heroes and criminals fighting over the lives of the ordinary citizens.

Again, I like the DCAU as a whole, and of course I love Superman, but it has a different flavor, and overall I think I like Batman best when he exists apart from ‘all that’ (it also lets me imagine that there’s a version where things turned out happier for everyone involved than Batman Beyond indicates. Among other things, I want Dick and Barbara to end up together. And no version of Batgirl should have a romance with Batman: that’s just wrong on multiple levels. But now I’m getting on even more of a tangent…).

Short version is that, as I see it, there are two versions: ‘pure’ Batman and ‘Justice League’ Batman. For my money, as far as Batman’s concerned, I prefer the former (simple way to distinguish: in ‘Pure’ version, Dick ends up with Barbara. In ‘Justice League’ version, he ends up with Starfire. Easy!).

4. On another note, still going through training at my new job. It’s much more enjoyable now that it’s getting more relevant to my actual position (still a lot of training to go, though).

That said, the on boarding process at a large corporation these days feels a lot like this to me:

“There’s no escape, but then, who would wanna leave?”

Friday Flotsam: Tribalism and Boomers

1. I started my new job this week, which was pretty much just all orientation. A little irksome, but if they want to pay me to sit in a room and listen to someone talk for eight hours, I’ll take it. No idea how my actual job will work out, since I’ve not done anything related to it yet.

2. The company that bears the name of Disney continues to descend ever further into self-parody. This week I heard that they are not only making a live-action adaptation of Snow White, but that they cast a distinctly non-white actress in the role. Again, this is the sort of thing you’d joke about, but here we are.

I’m hoping that messing with Snow White will prove the “sailing in force into the West” of Disney, and result in the company being swallowed up in a great chasm, leaving only a remnant of the faithful behind (still reading Prof. Tolkien’s letters).

(Of course, it’s still not as ridiculous as the BBC race swapping Anne Boleyn).

3. Going through training at my current job (which is a very, ah, self-impressed company, though to be fair one that seems to have a good deal to be impressed about), it occurs to me that this is basically just a tribe: we have our chief, who acts as the active will of the collective and whom people talk about with reverence and respect, a hierarchy of senior nobility who have received their positions from the chief and are particularly invested in the well-being of the tribe, and so on. My training thus far has largely been an induction into the tribe and learning why I should appreciate it and be loyal to it, and the good of the tribe is presented as the great goal to which we are aiming.

I think our situation differs from that of our ancestors not in that our tribes are fundamentally different in nature from, say, feudalism or tribalism, or so on, it’s that we are less bound to them. We can easily move between tribes, and in fact most of us are obligated to do so. The company-tribe was always a looser bond than natural tribes – nation, church, etc. – but these days it’s looser than ever.

What we have here, in fact, is something like no-fault tribal divorce. Though since the ‘tribe’ is a natural human need, we overcompensate by being extremely tenacious in clinging to those tribes we actually do feel an emotional attachment to and which we don’t expect to have to divorce from. So, we obsess over fandoms, or sometime political parties, and so on; whatever we can feel relatively ‘safe’ within.

Just a vague, half-formed thought there. Maybe something there.

4. A very interesting and on-point video by David Stewart on the growing hatred for Baby Boomers:

Friday Flotsam: On Professor Tolkien and Related(?) Matters

1. I have been reading the letters of Professor Tolkien lately, mostly straight through, though sometimes jumping about when I want to find his views on something specific. Mostly I read it because I enjoy his company, as it were, and I feel as though I am getting to know him personally as a man. He was, of course, a genius, but what is rather more important than that what might be called a deep soul. There are great wells of sensitivity in him. I almost wrote ‘of poetical feeling’, but that doesn’t really convey the right idea. When two people love one another very deeply, they naturally come to know one another intimately, which adds further depth to their love. Some men are like that with the works of God, able to put their hands down into creation itself as it were and perceive the startling pattern and order and beauty of all these unique natures acting out creation (for creation isn’t a moment of time long ago, it’s the unfolding process all around us: a created thing doesn’t merely ‘exist’, part of its being is to act and be acted upon).

It is the sort of thing that a modern or a scientific mind tends rather to impede than otherwise, as looking at things too mechanically: e.g. continually asking “what is the good of the thing?” what which we mean “how can this thing make someone’s life a little longer, a little more secure, and a little more comfortable?” But the thing I’m talking about is a matter of seeing the good in a thing itself, as what it is.

Of course the trouble with trying to describe this is just that it doesn’t go into scientifically precise language, or if it does I’m afraid I don’t have the vocabulary for it yet (and if I did, you the reader probably wouldn’t, rendering the whole thing a glorified glossary). My point is that Professor Tolkien had this perception in abundance. He was something of an atavism: a man whose tastes and mindset were rather more of the high Middle Ages, though flavored through with that distinct character of Victorian and early 20th-century England (which is a topic all in itself).

In any case, I’m much enjoying spending time with the Professor and basking in his rich sanity.

2. It is also quite interesting to see men from different perspectives. Professor Tolkien offers a number of insights into Professor Lewis, obviously his dear friend for many years (and even after their friendship cooled he still refers to him with great affection and admiration). Among other things he refers to Lewis’s strong anti-Catholic prejudices, something that only rarely comes out in Lewis’s own writings (as he didn’t think it his place to deal with inter-communion debates, at least not publicly). Those who say that Lewis was ‘almost a Catholic’ frankly need to read more of the man: he shared many distinctly Catholic views and was friends with many Catholics and admired nuns, but his northern-Irish upbringing had left very strong roots of aversion to the Church herself (it would be an unpardonable license of me to speculate on why). That comes out even on a close reading of his religious works (e.g. his insistence that ‘the Church’ means ‘the invisible body of all believers’: one of his less coherent ideas). There’s one letter where Tolkien notes that Lewis, though otherwise as anti-Red as any man, yet had a blindspot for believing everything the papers said about Franco and the situation in Spain, refusing to hear a word in his favor or to believe the stories of priests and religious being massacred, though quick to credit tales of Protestant preachers being mistreated. He was “very quiet” after an evening with Roy Campbell, who had been in Spain and fought on Franco’s side.

It’s rather startling to find such a failing recorded, not just because it’s recorded of such an otherwise astute and good-hearted man, but also because it’s so familiar to us today. This is one of those moments where, as one of my college professors put it, the intervening years simply melt away. Though as Tolkien pointed out in commenting on the event, hatred of, or at least aversion to Rome is really the only justification for Anglicanism (St. John Henry Newman made a similar point, and it was one of the reasons he left the Anglican communion. I’d like to find Tolkien’s view on St. Newman (as an extra-extra aside, I’m finding it tricky to find a good shorthand to address this particular saint, since we also have St. John Neuman of Philadelphia. I’m reduced to addressing him by his full name every time. I rather think he finds the conundrum amusing) ).

3. I hope no one thinks I’m criticizing Professor Lewis in any of this: he’s well beyond my criticism, and as noted Professor Tolkien still fought tooth and nail against those who bad-mouthed him even after their friendship had cooled. I just think it’s interesting. We have to remember that in reading what men wrote, especially what they wrote for publication, we’re getting a very select view of them, often the very best that they have to offer, heavily polished and reflected over. That’s why, in Lewis’s own works, one is sometimes rather surprised to find him referring to his own bad temper, or to his many other, less mentionable sins. We don’t associate the erudite, warm-hearted voice of the author with the things he describes of himself. Unless, of course, we reflect on how different we are from what we ourselves write.

4. This took a different direction than I intended. I wanted to comment a bit on the Amazon ‘Lord of the Rings’ series (sic), or at least what little I’ve heard of it (i.e. that some moron wanted his own version of Game of Thrones and so appropriated Tolkien for the purposes, since the Shadow can only mock and cannot make). The most, ah, illustrative incident I’ve encountered is a tweet from whatever orc now runs ‘theonering.net’ justifying their desecration of the Professor’s work by claiming that Tolkien was ‘woke’.

Yes, the most prominent reactionary author of the 20th century, the devout Roman Catholic and Medievalist who despised ‘progress’ and who described himself as possibly “a non-constitutional monarchist” is claimed for the anti-reality brigade. May them and all their works be thrown down and forgotten.

(He also justifies the race-swapping on hand by claiming Tolkien ‘never described his character’s color’, indicating the idiot never actually read the books, given the number of times the descriptors ‘fair’, ‘swarthy’, and so on are used).

I think Professor Tolkien himself expressed my feelings best (writing of Prof. Lewis’s death): “I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him.”

5. On the other hand, I’ve also seen defenders of Tolkien claim him for the Libertarian camp, which is equally absurd. The trouble, I think, is that we today have a very limited idea of politics and worldviews: we misunderstand things because most of us only have two or three categories in which to put them (we always like to say “there are two kinds of people in the world….” Makes things so much simpler). Partly this is a consequence of our liberal heritage: liberalism always presented itself as the great foe of tyranny, which basically meant that anything not liberal was tyrannical and anything liberal was freedom (e.g. King Louis trying to enforce the established rules of the Estates General is tyranny. Confiscating the property of the Church and giving it to rich industrialists and landowners is freedom).

This tendency is reinforced by the American tradition of having two viable political parties, the platforms of which are an absurd hodgepodge of mostly unrelated positions.

The idea that someone can stand at right angles to both sides, or dispute the fundamental principles at work in both, never really enters our heads. So we try to squeeze all varieties of Monarchists (and there are probably at least as many varieties of Monarchism as there are of Liberalism, just that Monarchists tend not to feel obligated to impose their own version upon the rest of the world as the only means to liberty) or other reactionaries into the liberal-made boxes, with the result that their actual positions fly over our heads.

6. I think most people today, even those who love his work, don’t really grasp what Tolkien’s position was. They know it appeals strongly to them, and so they hunt out and focus on whatever is closest to their own point of view.

But the common appeal, I think, is the aforementioned ‘depth of soul’, which is so rare today and was never common to the degree that Tolkien had it and combined it with genius. Most examples of it are behind difficult, archaic language and obviously alien (to us) points of view, but Tolkien is a near contemporary of ours who brings all that sort of thing forward in an almost familiar way.

Basically, moderns are starved for real myth and depth and Tolkien is one of the few places they find it (his many imitators, even the talented ones, I think grasp at something they lack the background or ‘content’ to create).

All this sort of thing ought to be found in the Church, and still can be for those willing to look, but alas, the majority of the stewards of the Church are as orcish, small-minded, and materialistic (in assumption if not in belief) as most of their contemporaries and so tuck away the really appealing elements that people are starving for into the backroom as something shameful while emphasizing the same shallow, boring junk that people can get everywhere else.

7. Wow, that one took some twists and turns. Probably annoyed just about everyone at some point in that.

Friday Flotsam: Mundane Thoughts of Last Week

1. Been a fairly busy week. Got my latest appreciation video up and running, been working on tomorrow’s entry in the ‘compare / contrast’ series, as well as working on my current book and doing stuff around the house. Also had to do some research / testing for another project, but that seems all in place, so probably look for that soon.

2. Last weekend I watched 101 Dalmations in, ah, ‘honor’ of Cruella. That’s really the kind of quirky, off-beat, creative stories that you just wouldn’t see made today. It doesn’t follow much of a formula; it starts off with almost a short film about a dog trying to set his master (or ‘pet’) up with a suitable girl. Then it cuts to after they’re married and a kidnapping plot ensues, with just more and more dogs being added all the time. You can’t really pitch a movie like that with the current “It’s like x crossed with y” formula.

My favorite aspect of the movie, personally, is the way all the dogs and other animals across the country pitch in to help. It’s a sweet image of community support and strangers working for a good end simply because everyone can see at a glance it’s the right thing to do (even the cast of Lady and the Tramp can be seen lending a paw).

3. Hm, writing that I realize there’s a ‘charity vs. selfishness’ theme going on: the heroes are charitable and loving, going out of their way to help others (such as Pongo declaring that they’ll take the whole lot of 84 extra puppies with them, even though it’ll make their journey exponentially more dangerous), while the villains are heartless and self-centered, simply trying to turn everything into a quick profit / source of vanity. In any case, do I even need to say that it’s a very good movie?

4. I also love the ‘What’s My Crime‘ parody of ‘What’s My Line‘. Now there’s a topical spoof that hasn’t aged a day, even though most people won’t remember the real show (“He is a burglar by trade, but this particular crime was not larceny”).

5. Went out shopping last weekend and found a certain kind of item that has been largely unattainable in recent months is back on the shelves. Rationed (in most variants), but available. I’ve been feeling under-supplied in this particular area lately, so I picked up a fair amount. Once I start my new job (got my offer letter today, so it’s a done deal), think that item is going to be a regular investment. It’s a non-perishable item, after all, so no chance of them going bad.

For any of our noble overlords reading this, I’m talking about crackers. Ritz crackers. Can’t get enough of them. I just wish I could find the, uh…non-crumbly versions? (Okay, that euphemism probably doesn’t work. I’m talking about slugs. 12-guage slug crackers. And by ’12-gauge’ I mean ‘yummy’).

6. Noticed that none of the places I went to insisted upon my wearing a mask. Seeing fewer and fewer of those around lately. I don’t know if this is because more and more people are getting vaccinated, or because the revelation that the architect of the Imposition was privately telling people they don’t actually work. Probably a little of both. I’ll take it.

Friday Flotsam: The Importance of the Things of This World

1. I think the thing that people hate and fear most about Christianity, especially Catholicism, is how important it makes the things of this world.

Nobody objects to deism – belief in a creator God who is largely indifferent to humanity. Nobody seriously objects to ‘spirituality’ or a general belief in the afterlife or something more than the material world. What they object to, what frightens them, is the connection of this material world to those things.

We do not want the things we do to mean anything beyond what we can see. We want this world to be self-contained, so that we can decide what our actions mean and what things are worth doing or having or not. Despite its application as an inspirational quote, the very last thing most people want is for “what we do in life to echo in eternity.” Because if it does, that imposes real consequences and real obligations outside of what we can see and feel in day-to-day life. It’s the difference between playing a video game and acting in real life. Most people would rather it be a game.

But the trouble is that if God became Incarnate as a man, and if what He did as a man held consequences that echo into eternity, then there is no such dividing line. The actions of flesh and blood men mean more than what they appear to mean, like the shadows in Plato’s cave or like someone in the throes of a fever dream, where everything only approximately appears to be what it truly is.

2. When we say that someone is ‘fixed upon the things of this world’, what we mean is that he values these things – money, pleasure, power, etc. – in isolation, as being no more than what they appear to be. But the very last thing such a man would want is for these things to be given a significance beyond what he can see. If a self-aggrandizing, power-hungry courtier were to understand power to be a stewardship of God’s authority for which he will be answerable for, he would divest himself of all political rank as fast as he possibly could. It would be far more importance than he bargained for!

The fact that these things are themselves all much less important than the higher, eternal matters only makes it worse: the scale of values becomes overall much larger than he would have liked, and his own obligations grow proportionally.

3. On a possibly related note, I notice that Progressives / Liberals tend to have a massive blind-spot, in that they never seem to consider the power of tradition or what might be called ‘generational consequences.’

A person is shaped far less by any education or instruction than in the basic, fundamental, unquestioned assumptions and habits of mind that he picks up, mostly from watching his parents and teachers. Children imitate what the adults in their lives do much more than they obey what they teach.

This is why Tradition is so vital: the unspoken, acted structure of society passed down through generations. Because this, more than anything else, is what shapes the minds and characters of the great mass of mankind. As Progressives are so fond of reminding us, what we perceive and how we understand it is in large part determined by our traditions and culture. Therefore, it’s really quite important to not mess with that tradition if you can possibly avoid it, given the serious and unpredictable consequences involved in altering how the next generation will fundamentally perceive the world.

(This would also seem to imply the necessity of an infallible Tradition as a corollary to an unerring Scripture, since how we read and understand something is largely determined by our tradition-based context, so that a sacred text requires a sacred tradition to maintain the ability for anyone to understand it properly. But that’s another topic).

So, the important questions here are things like what are the children of men who rebelled against their forefathers to pick up? What kind of environment for the raising of children will be created by the new actions and values being advocated? And what kind of person will this produce?

See, the problem with changing the world to suit your tastes and ideals is that the world thus produced will naturally produce children with different ideals (since they are raised in a different context from that which produced their fathers), while simultaneously teaching them that it is right and just to overthrow the existing order for the sake of their ideals. And thus the cycle repeats as every change creates a new understanding of the world in every succeeding generation and thus a new desire to change the world to suit the understanding (this could also be why Progressives tend toward being sexual libertines: they don’t consider generational consequences).

It’s the pattern of the gods: Saturn overthrows Uranus, and in so doing divests himself of any right to not be overthrown by his own children, leading him to try to maintain his power through sheer force. His own son, Jupiter, overthrows him in the end, but likewise forfeits his paternal right and can only maintain his power in turn by sheer force and doesn’t dare lie with a woman prophesied to produce a son greater than his father.

4. See, this is the sort of thing that worldly reformers do not want to be true. They don’t want to think that their reforms will be that important or that serious. They expect it to go so far and no further. Heck, one of their stock phrases is “what does it matter? What does a title / sex / tradition really matter in the end?”. The whole tend of their arguments is to downplay the importance of whatever they are focusing on so that there will be no reason why they can’t do with it as they like.

The great nightmare of reformers is that the things they are reforming really matter.

Friday Flotsam: Some Aphorisms

1. Loving your enemy does not mean forgetting that he is your enemy.

2. That we cannot judge what we don’t know doesn’t mean that we can’t judge what we do know. E.g. I don’t know the state of X’s soul, nor the internal motions that lead him to act as he does, but I do know that he steals and that stealing is wrong. To say as much is not to be ‘judgmental’.

3. Art direction is always more important than graphical fidelity.

4. Democracy is not intended to give people power, but to take power away from specific people.

5. Most successful revolutions, political or otherwise, amount to different people doing the same thing under different names, only with less restraint.

6. And as a final entry: my latest post is up at The Everyman, applying the lessons of Chesterton’s surreal classic The Man Who Was Thursday to the modern situation:

As may be found from this brief synopsis, the book is very strange and often surreal. It’s sometimes called a ‘metaphysical thriller’. At the same time there is a sharp and at times disturbing exactness of its vision of the world and the philosophies at work in the modern day. Consider, for instance, Gregory’s assertion of what the anarchists really want:

“To abolish God! We do not want to upset a few despotism and police regulations…We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves.”

Indeed, though they lack the capacity to put it in such terms, the modern woke anarchist would likely agree with such sentiments in his heart. What is the common thread in their insane rhetoric but the destruction of the hard lines of reality: not just right and wrong, but male and female, family and stranger, citizen and foreigner, living and dead, man and beast? All subsumed into a morass of self-will. Yet a will founded in a self that, removing these solid foundations, is as insubstantial and pliable as a cloud.

And as is said later in the novel, “When duty and religion are really destroyed, it will be by the rich.” The poor, Chesterton suggests, will never truly be anarchists or anything of the kind. It is the rich, the educated, the sophisticates who play with such fire. “The scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State,” says the man who recruits Syme to the police, before going on to lay out how much more wholesome mere criminals are than the kind of modern philosophers who hate marriage as marriage, property as property, and life as life.

Meanwhile, there is a deluded ‘outer-ring’ of anarchists who believe that “all the evil results of human crime are the results of the system that has called it crime.” That is to say, the kind of people who condemn ‘slut-shaming,’ who call ‘mis-gendering’ violence, or who rail about the demographics of prison populations without once mentioning the words ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent.’

Yet even these are only the dupes, the willing tools of their leaders, who though they mouth the same platitudes understand as the rank and file do not the true meaning behind them and “have but two objects, to destroy humanity and then themselves.”

It is sometimes hard to believe, looking at the current crop of politicians and other social elites, that this is not precisely what they have in mind.

Syme, standing against the anarchists, stands explicitly for sanity, respectability, and the “common and kindly people in the street.” His backstory tells of his being “surrounded by every conceivable kind of revolt since infancy,” leaving him with only one thing to rebel into: sanity. In this he is an early prototype of the strange fact that to defend the values that once defined our civilization is now itself an act of rebellion.

And the only motive for such a hopeless and Quixotic rebellion is “that unanswerable and terrible truism of the song of Roland”: Pagans are wrong and Christians are right.

Liberal broadmindedness has nothing to say in answer to such reckless hate as the anarchists bring. Only the great counter assertion of right and wrong, of true and false, and of the real, solid distinctions of real natures will do. “Perhaps we are both doing what we think right,” Syme tells Gregory early in the novel. “But what we think right is so damned different that there can be nothing between us in the way of concession. There is nothing possible between us but honour and death.”

Read the rest here.

Friday Flotsam: Dean Koontz and more Agatha Christie

1. It has been an odd week for me. I’ve been strangely listless and unable to settle down to anything (I mean, more so than usual). I really don’t know what to ascribe it to: depression, anxiety, medication side-effects, or just old-fashioned vice. Suppose the only way to find out is simply to keep working at it and see what works.

2. On the way home from my sister’s place I listened to Dean Koontz’s Tick-Tock (well, after finishing another Agatha Christie: Lord Edgware Dies. That one’s pretty good, though in retrospect it depends on Poirot making a major mistake early on to avoid solving the mystery in about ten minutes). It was…odd. The more I read of Mr. Koontz, the more I find that he has a tendency to let his stories get away from him, where things start to go absolutely nuts as the plot progresses. This was one of those: it starts off as a creepy supernatural horror thriller, then maybe half-way through takes a hard left into an almost cartoonish comedy, while maintaining the gruesome imagery and concepts of the early parts. Or maybe that was intended from the get go, but it was an odd experience nonetheless, and I confess I think I would have preferred a more straight-fire thriller, since the premise itself was really good. I chalk this and similar books up to his being a pantser who works things out as he goes.

(Also, this book hails from the mid-nineties, when ‘super-witty and competent chick paired with nervous, out-of-his-depth, wimpy hero’ was still considered cute. That aspect hasn’t aged well at all).

3. I don’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I dislike Mr. Koontz’s work. On the contrary, I usually enjoy him a lot. The Odd Thomas series is great, as is From the Corner of His Eye and The Good Guy (among the ones I’ve read). Strangers had a great opening, but I thought the payoff was a letdown (though to be fair, it’s really hard to come up with a good payoff to books like that), ditto, though to a less extent, for Phantoms. I remember liking Watchers a good deal too. I didn’t finish Intensity because, well, it was too intense. I took a breather and never went back. Not ‘light’ reading that one.

In any case, as I say, I generally like Mr. Koontz’s work, and even in his more disappointing books I love his style. He’s a wordsmith with a sense of humor, and you can’t ask for more than that.

4. Speaking of Agatha Christie, I also recently revisited Murder on the Orient Express. I think that’s probably the best gateway book if you want to begin reading her work (not least because Poirot spoils the ending in many subsequent books): it’s a strong premise and a fantastic plot, and Poirot has to make some brilliant deduction to solve it. It’s also a pretty delightful cross-section of interwar European society, if you’re into that sort of thing (and who isn’t?).

Of course, the only trouble is that it’s a very famous book and most people already know the solution. If you, by any chance, haven’t already heard it, I urge you to do your best to avoid finding out! Just pick up a copy and read it: you’ll be glad you did.

Then after you’ve done that, pick up the 1974 film version starring Albert Finny as Poirot and a truly staggering collection of stars as everyone else. It’s a great film, even apart from the mystery and the sheer delight of seeing Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Sir John Gielgud, Richard Widmark, Ingrid Bergman, and more acting together.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
“Mais oui!”

(I haven’t seen the 2017 Kenneth Branagh version, but I think it’s fair to say the odds of its being as good are tres petit).

Friday (Saturday) Flotsam: Agatha Christie

1. Missed yesterday, obviously. I’m currently on a kind of personal mini-retreat at my sister’s, which meant being on the road or otherwise occupied for the past few days.

2. On the way up I listened to the Miss Marple novel They Do it With Mirrors. It isn’t one of Dame Agatha Christie’s best (I successfully guessed the solution the first time I read it), but like most of her work is hugely entertaining anyway.

Agatha Christie’s storytelling really does not get enough appreciation, I think; her intricate detective plots are brilliant, of course, but she also excels at mixing up a lot of different subplots in her work to try to keep you guessing. Usually, I find, there’s the actual plot (the murder), at least one major subplot (typically a romance: Dame Christie almost always worked romantic subplots into her books) that serves as a key smokescreen, plus two or three minor ones.

So, an Agatha Christie novel is set up as more or less a series of different, semi-connected plot lines all laid one on top of the other. Most have nothing to do with the murder, but they seem like they might. This also (I suspect) gave her the chance to explore other kinds of stories that she wanted to write anyway, but which were outside of the detective form.

(Upon reflection, I suppose all stories could be thought of like that, though in the case of a mystery novel, the subplots don’t have to contribute to the main plot at all. Their simply being there to muddy the waters is an adequate reason for their existence).

3. Another thing about Dame Christie’s work: she mastered the trick of making the most logical person guilty without making the solution obvious.

In most good murder mysteries, there are at least three suspects: the one everyone in the book thinks is obviously guilty, the one the audience is supposed to think is guilty, and the one who is actually guilty.

Say you have a man shot in his study. Is the killer A). his unscrupulous butler who was embezzling from him and about to get caught? B). the secretary in love with the man’s much-younger wife and whose story doesn’t quite hold together? or C). his very respectable lawyer who has a cast iron alibi and no obvious motive?

Of course it’s C (the lawyer actually had been embezzling from him for years and was about to be ruined). Dame Christie’s particular genius, however, was to make it turn out to be A after all, but in such a way that you would think he had already been cleared of suspicion. She didn’t do this all the time, but often enough. It keeps you on your toes.

4. The thing is, Dame Christie’s characterization and so forth isn’t usually brilliant: the characters are generally fairly clear ‘types’ with a few tweaks added on, but they’re well-realized and appealing types, which is really the important thing. The point of the story is to entertain, and as far as that’s concerned familiarity, or at least being able to get a picture of the character quickly is more important than depth. Not that you shouldn’t have both if you can, but in a detective story you usually don’t have the time for a whole lot of depth.

Besides which, the driving question of a detective story is ‘who did it’? And what gives the question its sting is the fear that someone you like is going to turn out to be the killer. So we need to set the characters quickly and clearly, in fairly broad strokes (the gruff military man, the pretty young woman, the middle-aged widow, etc.) so that the reader knows what’s at stake and can begin to try to figure out which one he thinks did the deed.

But then again, I’m generally of the opinion that vividness – that the characters stand out or stick in the reader’s mind – is more important than depth – that the characters show many different sides or layers and have a complex psychology. But that’s a topic for another time.

Friday Flotsam: Hodgepodge

1. Most of what’s been on my mind lately has been personal stuff that I don’t particularly feel like sharing over the interwebs. Plus I’ve been generally just tired lately, so it’ll probably be a thin one this time.

2. Doing a lot of outlining lately. In fact I’m starting to think I’ve been writing entirely the wrong way for all these years: outlining is a great way to get a handle on what you’re trying to write. And it’s a heck of a lot less demanding, making it easier to pick up and just do some work and feel like you’ve done something. Plus you can get a lot of different works outlined, have them in the back file, and then take them out and make them something. Simply knowing what you’re trying to write ahead of time makes the whole writing process a hundred times easier.

3. Drawing quotes recently, I found this one from The Man Who Was Thursday: I had vaguely remembered it, but had forgotten just how darn fitting it is to the current climate:

He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists. He had not attained to it by any tame tradition. His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion.

I honestly think a lot of people these days are poised for that kind of attitude, if only anyone had the sense to take advantage of it. Present a workable set of traditional principles to set against progressivism, give it a good push and some charismatic voices, and it will become a power in very short order.

4. Heard a suggestion today that Alice Cooper might be a good choice to recruit into politics. I doubt he’d do it, but am entirely in favor of that, and there are comparatively few celebrities I can say that of.

Alice Cooper meets a plush pony version of himself.

5. To me the great fantasy of a time travel story would be simply the fact of knowing what is going to happen. If you go back in time to, say, 1890, you would at least be proof against uncertainty. Assuming, of course, you did your research ahead of time.