We are the hollow men We …

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
we whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As win in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

T. S. Eliot’s The Wastelands

Perfect Expression

It is always interesting to compare how other languages view ‘perfect’ expression. George Orwell, in his hallmark essay on language, Politics and the English Language, had a few stern things to say. It’s a disservice to attempt to reconstruct it, and thankfully it is in the public domain. I’d urge you, dear reader, to go read it now. This instant. Perhaps you can wait to the end of this identifiably weaker prose is complete, my blogpost, but don’t wait too long.

Here are some choice items for comparison:

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

“The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked onto some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render.”

Compare that to the pictograms used among the Aztecs.

Now, a first disclaimer, the Aztec language is a realm mostly suited for people that have an intimate knowledge of the subject. Not aspiring linguists that have only read a few books and talked to an academic or two on the subject. But, I believe, there’s enough even amateurs like myself can pull from the agreed upon facts of the Aztec civilization.

The stylized drawings are not a lesser degree of writing because they aren’t writing. They denote an experience and not the language. What we’re comparing is, then, the actual language even though one is delivered physically on paper while the other orally. We must take note that in Orwell’s culture it is communicated by, chiefly, extended essays and in the Aztec Empire it is by dialogues or monologues. To avoid comparing apples to oranges we’re not comparing their pictograms to actual written English. We should compare how the style, assuming to a degree that there is a perfect medium out there that enables us to capture the full meaning of both types of communication.

What the pictograms represented was ritual speech that materialized social memory. This picture meant speech X, that event meant speech Y and so on. These speeches, called heuhuetlatolli, signified the ‘speech of the ancients.’ And it was considered the most inspiring, complicated and ‘learned’ expressions. The most influential and studied Aztecs were graded by how many of these discourses they knew and how well they could orally deliver them.

According to their sacred book of Popol Vuh, the word is the origin of the world. Language divides the absolute nothing from the world we know it today. If that does not address upon you the ceremonial and social importance of ‘words’ to the Aztecs then, simply, nothing will. There was nothing more important to the Aztecs than the centrality of their oral traditions. Even their leader was called tlatoani, which means “he who possesses speech.” If you can’t speak well when you wanted to become King, well, you didn’t become King.

What is most interesting is that, by and large, heuhuetlatolli is almost entirely made up out of the sort of language that Orwell despises. In the Aztec mind there cannot be ‘new’ events, because omens and prophecy has laid out everything in advance. A new day is greeted by the last hundred years or more of tireless efforts to create speeches for every new day that there can be. It is prefabricated, almost down to the letter. On account of their view of the world as cyclical, prophecy and history are interchangeable. Prophecy is memory and memory becomes prophecy. Large swaths of what Orwell would distinguish as ‘concrete,’ such as when or why events occur, is lost. To the Aztecs it matters but in a way that we would have a hard time identifying as ‘concrete.’

Even to this day archeologists, with nearly complete histories spanning decades or more, can’t place the events precisely. The Aztecs could not conceive of a linear progression of time and everything was cyclical (e.g. “so this event happened on the 13th year of the cycle, but which cycle?” No one knows.) Moreover, there’s oftentimes a difficulty in distinguishing historical actions in one cycle from the prophecy in a previous cycle. If your calender never changes from 1999, it builds up a lot of important dates. Since the Aztecs knew what they meant, anyhow, when one of their speeches or pictograms identified (for the sake of the example) March 8, 1999 as a bad day it is hard for researchers without that knowledge to concretely identify it as a prophecy alone, a bad event alone or both (taking place in two different cycles). Aztec historians saw no reason why they couldn’t compose omens for the coming of the conquistadors years after the fact.

Aztecs also had a way of writing that makes it difficult for later historians to identify those writings as describing one enemy group or the Spanish. Because again, since everything happens cyclically (i.e. over and over again) to write about the Spaniards as something completely new is impossible with the conception of language that they have. It’s as if they took Orwell’s word hackneyed and edified it.

So as we go about chattering today, let us remind ourselves that while we value certain things in our prose not everyone does. Who knows, perhaps there’s a linguistic Aztec out there.

Correction: My spellcheck wanted to create its own spelling for Aztec. It has been corrected.

We Can Measure Out Our Budgets With Coffee Spoons

Describing Napoleon’s Grand Army, French general and historian Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, wept that as it slunk across the Russian steppe toward the Dnieper “Only a train of specters covered with rags, Imagefemale pelisses, pieces of carpet or dirty cloaks — half burnt and riddled by fire — and with nothing on their feet but rags of all sorts, their consternation was extreme.” The French Empire had crafted an edifice of impossible size and complexity. The hundreds of thousands of men who eventually crossed into Russia were only a fraction of its true size. Yet like Haman, they and Napoleon eventually succumbed to that altogether human weakness of hubris. They never saw the seeds of their defeat until it was entirely too late. 

With Russian armies converging on all sides, and the brave rearguard of Ney all but exhausted, it looked like Napoleon himself would die in the cold Russian winter. Not all was lost, however. In a fantastically risky and arduous operation to save what was left of Napoleon’s Grand Army 400 ‘pontonniers,’ or engineers, fabricated in a night a series of magnificent bridges over the Dnieper. Only forty, out of 400, engineers survived. Most died from exposure and countless, working in fifteen-minute shifts, lost their footing in the frigid waters. They were swept away and drowned. But this historical scene isn’t the point of this post. It does, however, come back later.  

The New York Times provided me with the gem that spawned this post. From their article  

“Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.”

It caught my attention. The article continued.

“Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.”

As a Californian I can only shake my head at the sad state of affairs that I find myself in. Via Media, as it usually does, captures my sentiments admirably. 

“California is in a hole but can’t seem to stop its compulsive digging. Schools, universities, prisons, pensions, cities and towns: the state has lost the ability to manage even the most basic elements of communal living. But foie gras is now illegal there, grandiose plans for white elephant fast trains built with borrowed money waft through the air, and the state continues to boost the self esteem of affluent and cause-oriented gentry liberals by scattering scarce resources to the four winds, hunting unicorns when the cupboard is bare.”

If I liked foie gras at all, I’d now have to import it a few miles from Mexico. Convicted felons, however, are no cost to me! How lucky are we to have such enlightened governance. The article and commentary from Via Media reminded me of a sermon delivered by Henry Ward Beecher on ‘The Tendencies of American Progress.’ At times it can be a churlish attack on the poor for not being more wealthy. Beecher, before the attacks on human dignity by the ‘bigness’ of 20th Century, simply didn’t know any better. He does, however, make some excellent points. The most compelling aspect about the essay (if, dear reader, you find the time to read it) is how people, on both sides of the aisle, unconsciously quote him or attach his quotes to more contemporary (i.e. more politically expedient) talking heads. 

He readily admits that “wealth is more dangerous than other forms simply because it is a more various power, and has certain facilities for adaptation and use which belongs to almost no other power.” But, “…it is impossible to civilize a community without riches. I boldly affirm that no nation ever yet rose from a barbarous state except through the mediation of wealth earned.” I’m certain he never expected his words to be proven quite so literally. California has taken a true crash course in how easily we can revert to simple barbarism, a word we do not hear enough of, when the wealth runs out. 

Most importantly, I think this issue raises a greater point about the importance of the next election. If you believe half of what is written by the orthodox clerics of the cable talkshow junket this election matters. It matters a lot. I believe about a half less than that. I think it is entirely trivial and has no importance whatsoever. Regardless of who wins the fiduciary responsibilities of the last decade aren’t going to disappear. Instead they are going to dictate policy. Whether or not your local congressional representative has a ‘D,’ ‘R,’ or ‘I,’ in front of their name they will have to accept the landscape of America’s distressingly bare coffers. John Milton once spoke of good intentions paving the way to Hell. I think we was off, but not by much. You can’t pave anything, much less a road to Hell, with good intentions. You need money. 

The Government Accountability Office recommends that states should fund, if only theoretically, 80% of their current pensions. States can fudge the numbers, and declare that they will undoubtedly receive an 8% return on their pensions’ investments (which California has been doing for the last ‘forever’). A ludicrous rate of return by anyone’s estimation. It is not hard to imagine state accountants, as they write the words “8% return,” giving a little wink to their compatriots as if to say “You know what I mean.” Yet there is a level of deception that even state governments, when they promise their constituents a enjoyable retirement, don’t stoop to. Nevertheless, according to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, only one state was fully funded in 2010, the most recent year examined, and 34 were funded at below 80%, up from 22 in 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, 43 states made some effort to change by increasing employee contributions or cutting benefits. About 17 states increased employee-contribution requirements last year. Sixteen states increased age and service requirements and 11 states revised their COLAs. 

Other reports have echoed these findings but with the added caveat that the financial outlook is not going to get better anytime soon.

In most cases this has meant a departure, thankfully, from orthodoxy. Both parties are embracing the same solutions, making it inconsequential whether or not they happen to be ‘Red’ or ‘Blue.’ In California, where the state’s park agency was about to close dozens of parks to conserve money, a new bill was crafted and signed into law. AB 42 essentially privatized the administration of California’s environmental capital.

The most ‘liberal’ state legislatures and governors have made the biggest cuts. Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, increased the retirement age by five years, to 60. Why anyone thinks that your working years are over at 55 is a question better unasked and unanswered. Dannel Malloy restructured Connecticut’s plan, helping to save the state nearly $6 billion over the next two decades. Even Jerry Brown has been forced to make meager cuts to California’s educational funding Interestingly, he wasn’t pilloried by the state’s media for altering the blue social model as Schwarzenegger did. Of course, Republicans are still feeling the heat like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett who recently eliminated the safety nets’ safety net (i.e. the state’s ‘General Assistance Program’). 

What is happening to those states who refuse to toe the new financial line? Like Napoleon’s engineers they’re going to be swept away to drown in a sea of red ink. They certainly have the best intentions, and perhaps their sacrifice will enable the Grand Army of the blue social model a few more years of fighting. But it’s clear that the eventual defeat for what I would call the progressive left model is inevitable regardless of who wins the next the election. All it will do is change the media coverage. If Obama wins, his cuts will be considered ‘hard but fair’ by the NYTs. ‘Death cuts’ by Fox News. If Romney wins it’ll be the exact same but in reverse. 

As a final passing point, dear reader, here is a link to a policy outline by Third Way that makes the point that if we are to continue our national prosperity we must shift from the ‘Great Society’ to the ‘New Frontier.’ Never say you didn’t get anything from me.

Arab Spring Reconsidered

Arab Spring Reconsidere

An interesting article, translated from French, by Olivier Roy. It’s difficult but worth it. And unlike ninety-percent of what you’ll read on the Arab Spring his arguments are not backed by something the journalist picked up off of Twitter an hour before his deadline but by actually, you know, doing real work.

What I am always amazed at is how many people, especially within journalism are willing to move forward with copy that has little to do with the critical questions experts are asking. The New York Times is always quick to champion the oddest aspects of the story, be it the ultimately doomed attempt by Kofi Annan, to the hope that the United States State Department cares at all what it twenty-seconds-or-less experts have to write. I’d attribute this inexplicable phenomenon to the ease in which someone can learn and understand journalease. On the other hand it is near to impossible to truly understand these Arab countries without learning a foriegn language or two, spending several years there and using a little bit of what the Hun would call zitsfleisch. In other words, actually working or the bane of anyone attempting to make a career out of journalism

Without further ado, take a look at the link from the Journal of Democracy.

And they are dancing, the…

And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skill passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possessions of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadows and he is a great favoorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Blood Merdian by Cormac McCarthy

Church and State; Simply a Gong Booming or a Cymbal Clashing

Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Conneticut that he interpreted one of the 1st Amendment’s many facets to mean, in essence, a ‘separation of Church and state.’ He certainly wasn’t the first to say so, John Locke seemed to say much of the same thing if in a less pithy form. The idea had existed since the ultimate diarchy of religion and state: the Byzantine Empire. “The domain of royal power,” declared Saint John Chrysotom, “is one thing and the domain of priestly power another; and the latter prevails over the former.” Whatever the tradition of Jefferson’s words like most quotes taken out of context it has come to mean many different things to many different people. But that isn’t the point of this post.

Trajan’s Column

Christianity was, is and will likely be a perfect adaptor. It integrated and redirected its pagan past. It has also fiercely repudiated it, and according to the latest Pope attributed the Holocaust to its influence. But walk through the streets of Rome today, and you will see any number of pagan buildings and pagan monuments transformed into Christian places of worship. Auditors of indeterminate skill have grafted Christian symbols to the pagan foundations. In many cases the addition does little to change anything at all, the addition of a cross or the etching of one is a favorite tactic. Or the image of a saint.

Standing near the Coliseum in Rome is Trajan’s column. It was erected in 113 C.E. to mark the emperor Trajan’s triumph over the Dacians (modern Romanian fame). Winding in a spiral around the shaft of the column are stone images of defeated barbarians. Originally they made their way to bow and thank Emperor Trajan for their incorporation into the civitas of Rome (i.e. the civilized world). Today, the Emperor Trajan has been removed. In his place, today, it looks as if all those toiling barbarians who struggle upward around the column had, all along, been moving toward not only incorporation but also, unknown both to themselves and their conqueror, toward absorpotion into the Church of Christ. Saint John has replaced Trajan. Is there a more powerful image of Christianity Triumphant? Perhaps. I have not seen a rival.

The point being, lost in the wave after wave of conflict between ‘traditional’ values and whomever has decided to be this week’s defender of the oppressed, is how adebt Christianity has been at incorporating the most ‘effective’ arguments into the continuance of Christian influence on the common topics of the last decade (school, marriage, taxes). Like the pagan Emperors of Rome, or any institution that called upon travelers in a distant land amid the ruins to look upon him the mighty, notable political tactics have been (no pun intended) converted. Many are now the mainstay of Protestants within America.

The chief volte-face, in this altogether unhumble blogger’s opinion, is the break from whether God or Christians would like a certain policy. Policy proposals are not, except in a few fundamentalist circles, considered on the basis of how God would view the policy. Instead, as many religious groups now argue, it does not matter whether or not atheists or homosexuals or whomever happen to like a certain policy. Instead, the modern world, as prominent theologians now argue, requires Christian policies to stay a functioning society. Certainly, sometimes the form of this argument is simplistic and not terribly convincing (see: homosexuals are going to destroy the world if they’re married). But even if these titillating political arguments are amusing, they are an easily identifiable adoption of the same basic structure that we saw going the other direction (e.g. the world is destroyed if homosexuals aren’t married).

In short, to turn our attention back to Jefferson, we have a perfect example. There has been a recent movement in jurisprudence circles that a separation of church and state allows for room for an explicit religious influence within civil society (e.g. Goodnews Club). Now is not the time or place to explore those dynamics. It is enough to acknowledge.

Atheists, ardent secularists and fundamentalists would agree on one objection: these advancements represent a weakening of Christianity. Secularism has worked, all three would declare, with different interpretations of those results. I’m sure something similar happened when the pagan symbols became new Christian ones. Pagans sniffed that Christianity couldn’t compete and was forced to accept these influences denounced by fundamentalists. They, on the other hand, would point to the same evidence as the degradation of belief. There’s a reason we don’t hear either of those viewpoints.

This is not to doubt the persuasiveness of any side in the political arena. Simply, when the first law scholars and political ‘scientists’ popularized the argument midcentury, I doubt any thought that it would now be used (approaching seventy years on) as an argument for allowing Christian groups greater access to public facilities. Now Christian intellectuals are quick to point out, if there is an absolute wall between the activities of Church and State (notice those capital letters) how is a president justified in using the word ‘God’ at all? How is the Supreme Court justified in its prayer, or its use of a Christian Bible at the inauguration of the President? How can Bibles be passed out in classrooms, or religious newspapers printed by universities? Well, it’s the separation of church and state they reply. Any other interpretation is a gong booming or a cymbal crashing (it means nothing). Trajan has been nudged off the pedestal labelled church and state and I would not be surprised to see Saint John put in his place.

Day and night cannot dwel…

Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun. However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell apart in peace…. It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. A few more moons; a few more winters and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nations follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend with friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see….

…And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. At night when the street of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will thron with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.



Chief Seattle’s Speech Delivered in 1854 to the Governor of the Washington Territory; Variations Available in the Public Domain

Let Us Go Around the Prickly Pear; Ramblings on No Country For Old Men

Nothing upsets people more than a well-meaning conversation about religion. Fuck them.

But that’s not the point of this post.

Cormac McCarthy starts off his novel No Country for Old Men with a monolouge from Sheriff Bell. Born and raised a Texan he writes asides to the reader. In the first one, “I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville.” Further along the same page we get to a teasing Lolita of a question: “I really believe that he knew he was goin to be in hell in fifteen minutes. I believe that… I didnt know what to say to him. What do you say to a man that by his own admission has no soul?”

His question is the prickly pear of our hallowed lands and it has never been answered. Underneath that Texas drawl Bell is a man that looks at the defining question of our intellectual life: “the problem of evil.” [1] Interestingly, McCarthy’s dead-on-arrival villain is a man that not only accepts and understands his actions, he relishes in them. Compare that to Eichmann declaring “With the killing of Jews I had nothing to do. I never killed a Jew, or a non-Jew, for that matter. I never killed any human being. I never gave an order to kill either a Jew or a non-Jew; I just did not do it.” What characterized Adolf Eichmann’s testimony, both that transcribed by a former S.S. officer in Argentina and in Jeruslame is a “tone of someone who was sure of finding ‘normal, human’ sympathy for a hard-luck story.” Did Eichmann think that he was going to heaven because of all the obstacles life had thrown in front of him? Perhaps. It’s a question to mull over, provided that Hannah Arendt’s account can be trusted. By jumping whole-heartedly into the fray of evil Cormac McCarthy prepares the reader’s mind for a singularly frightening character whose eyes are “wet stones.” Anton Chigur. Ah, a brilliant portrait.

In the words of Bell, ‘I thought about it a lot.’ Is McCarthy’s vision of evil self-aware, and does that make it truly evil or is evil simply evil? It could simply be the case that McCarthy only wanted to use the scene and question as a foil for Bell himself, without much regard for evil itself. I doubt that. What I think is that McCarthy acknowledged evil as to be something more than the loud but empty voice of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. Equally, he wanted to avoid (or, just as likely, simply did not believe) the aggrieved resentment or wimpy confusion of the type of evil present in Jerusalem and Nuremberg. He wanted to open up our minds to a type of throwback evil, where one had no doubt about their villainy, but he put on it a new face. A new body. A new weapon. For that I tip my hand to him. I loved the book and I can’t wait to read more.

  1. “Nightmare and Flight,” Partisan Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1945), reprinted in Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954, edited by Jerome Kohn (Harcourt Brace, 1994), pp. 133–135.

It’s savory scholar-squ…

It’s savory scholar-squirrel stew time again! Or, to be precise, one scholar-squirrel and one plump publicist pigeon for the pot. So, as the pot boils and I chop this pile of footnotes fine, let me explain to both pigeon and the no doubt bemused readers of these pages why…

Gore Vidal was a man already too old for his times. An essayist when only novelists are granted the highest literary honors he was not only before his time on so many issues but he was beyond it. The day he could walk was probably the last day he should’ve lived, if what he wanted was not only greatness but universal acclaim. Sadly, he only recieved the former and not the latter. My hat goes off to him. 

My favorite quote, in a reply in the New York Times Review of Books.