Back in April of 2016 I whinged on about the stupefying boredom of latter day public life in the West. Thanks to the extraordinary depredations of the Obama years, things seemed then inexorably locked in. The Overton Window was doomed to move ever leftward, ever more rapidly. There was not even going to be a Hegelian Mambo anymore, but just a long smooth depressing slide into oblivion, as if a morphine drip were gradually dialed upward, and the body politic fell more and more deeply comatose.
Then, in June of that year – just two months later – Donald Trump declared his candidacy, and Britain voted to leave the EU.
There are two sorts of boys: those who cry wolf, and those who cry that the Emperor is naked.
The former raise all manner of false alarums for the sake of the attention they will garner. Their signals are empty, and vain; the virtue they signal a sham. They ruin the social function they were deputed to perform. And they end despised by all the people, ignored, and at last themselves eaten, devoured in the bewilderment visited upon them by the people in recompense of their falsity.
The latter speak the simple truths that no one had wanted to hear. They open people’s eyes to reality – not because they want anything for themselves, but because for whatever reason they are not afraid of what everyone else fears, or of the consequences to themselves of noticing it publicly. They are *very* impolite. They end beloved of all the people.
I leave it as an exercise for the reader, to sort our public figures into these two types.
I wrote previously about student responses in my “Writing about Literature” course to Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which I set them to interpret on the basis of workshops in identifying the formal and meaningful elements of poems. Last week I set the same students to write up in class an interpretation of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1797), a rather more challenging poem than “Ozymandias,” although Shelley proved challenge enough, but at the same time possibly easier to interpret because its phantasmagoria allows for considerable play on the part of the reader. Coleridge’s poem has its origin in a bizarre and unrepeatable incident. In September 1797 while a house guest of his friend William Wordsworth, who had taken him in because he found himself in a phase of indigence, Coleridge one morning took a dose of opium, as was his wont, and fell into a visionary trance. A major ode of some two hundred lines manifested itself to Coleridge, complete, during the psychedelic phase, and as he returned to ordinary consciousness he began to transcribe it. At that moment, one of Coleridge’s creditors came knocking loudly at Wordsworth’s door, and in the shock of hearing it, the majority of those two hundred finished lines slipped away from the poet’s grasp into oblivion. Coleridge could rescue only thirty-six lines, which constitute Part I of the poem as it was published, finally, in 1816. The poem appears in its paradoxical truncated entirety below. –
My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.” The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature. I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be. Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet. I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out. I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem. In what person is the poem couched? Whom does the speaker address? What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images? I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone. Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.
All the big new buildings of Christendom have them. I was just down at the new – almost complete – Salesforce Tower in downtown San Francisco, and the bollards are everywhere. Ditto for the new immediately adjacent TransBay Terminal, still a year or two away from completion. They’ve got bollards by the thousand there – it’s a huge building – ready to be installed.
The newly ubiquitous bollards are the beginning of the closure of the formerly open West.
The Rectification of Names is obviously important, if our talk is to be pertinent to reality, ergo effectual. But prior to the rectification of terms is the rectification of the grammar we use to treat of them. If we can’t agree on the right *way* to talk, we shall certainly find it impossible to agree on the right things to talk *about.*
Too often on sites putatively dedicated to the restoration of the West, or of Tradition, or to Reaction (toward tradition) have I seen writers err grammatically, at the most basic level; even that of the agreement as to number of subject and verb. It makes them look like fools.
It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate. A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention. There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence. A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors. Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins. Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently. While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous. Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more. Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence. In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them.To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade. It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.
I’m not using your name because the Web is public and I want to minimize the chance that your privacy will be invaded. But this letter is written mainly for you. Other people may benefit from it, but that’s just a fortunate byproduct.
As a young man, your most important task is to come to understand the world. A man cannot live well if he does not know what’s happening.
The contemporary world has been disrupted. But the disruptors (the liberals) are a wicked bunch, and their disruption, which is really destruction, threatens you and everything you love (or should love.) You are just one person and you cannot stop the destruction by yourself. But as a first step you can understand the disruption by understanding how the world really works, and how humans should behave.
That’s what I want most to get across: What reality really is, and how humans should behave. There’s a lot to say, but I can only write one letter at a time. This letter concerns postmodernism.
Postmodernism is one of the defining features of the modern world, so we must understand it. We don’t need to understand everything about it; we’ll leave that to the scholars. But we have to understand its essence, the thing that makes it what it is. Continue reading →