When Nothing Changes

Zola Paradise

In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following.  The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults.  In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.

In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program.  I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students.  In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift  (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu.  This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932.  As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis.  I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading.  (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)

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The Four Faces of Leviathan

“And what tune is it you pull to, men?”                                                   “A dead whale or a stove boat!”

                              Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)

A hundred years ago, the word Leviathan would have struck most people as a name suited to a great steam ship.  Such was the opinion of President Woodrow Wilson when he renamed the commandeered German liner Vaterland in 1917. It was a natural association, a hundred years ago, when men and women understood biblical references and knew Leviathan as a great, smoking creature of the deep.

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Roger Scruton, Utopia and the Final Solution*

Courts and laws

Humans are social beings and we have a sense of justice, just as some furry animals do. This sense of justice seems to be innate – certainly furry animals are not taught it. Young children consider it unfair if they get a small ice cream and someone else gets a bigger one. This complaint has a dose of egocentrism, but also relies on notions of fairness. Fairness means getting one’s just deserts and desserts, and involves reciprocity e.g., one good turn deserves another.

Scruton points out that “law” preexists written law. The original law embodies customs, traditions, and expectations that involve notions of justice/fairness. British common law is an attempt to make implicit law explicit. In this way, the law is discovered, not invented. Even parliament was seen originally as having the function of a court, making commonly agreed upon laws explicit in the interests of resolving disputes.

Common law thus arises organically from the bottom up in patterns of social behavior embodying intuitions of justice. When a judge adjudicates a case he is trying to settle it in terms already being employed by members of the community. Common law represents a piecemeal attempt to solve unanticipated problems as they arise with a degree of trial and error. If a new decision seems to make things worse, then later decisions can modify the law.

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An Article of Possible Interest

Snake in the Garden

Ned May has posted my essay “On the Ontological Sickness” at his website The Gates of Vienna.  The essay is a much rewritten and expanded version of the last article to appear under my name at The Brussels Journal, in December 2014, just before the site became dormant.  On the Ontological Sickness explores the late René Girard’s theory of “mediated desire” and applies it to an analysis of current social trends.  I offer an excerpt:

In I See Satan Fall like Lightning (1996; English edition, 2001), Girard returns to the relation of mimesis and resentment by commenting, in his first chapter, ‘Scandal Must Come,’ on the text of the Tenth Commandment. Girard remarks how the Tenth Commandment calls attention to itself: ‘The tenth and last commandment is distinguished from those preceding it both by its length and its object.’ Where the other commandments prohibit acts, the final one ‘forbids a desire. Girard quotes this version: ‘You shall not covet the house of your neighbor. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or his ass, nor anything that belongs to him.’ Girard argues that the slightly archaic character of the verb to covet makes it seem as though the Tenth Commandment only prohibits a species of exotic or exaggerated desire; but this is not so. The noun covetousness in the King James Version means, not exotic or exaggerated desire, but only ordinary desire, experienced by everyone since the Serpent convinced Eve to covet the forbidden fruit. The injunction is so familiar and, apart from the archaic verb, its language is so seemingly banal, that, other than frowning at it as a formally hate-worthy interdiction, the modern self-liberating consciousness might wonder what the fuss is about. Girard often exhibits his exegetical strength in recovering the significance in what has come to seem flat and obvious. He does so again here.

Consider the neighbor. Excepting the subject’s family, the neighbor hovers nearest and most familiarly in the subject’s social awareness. The neighbor reproximates and omnipresents himself like none other. Yet what belongs to the neighbor falls under the constant rebuke of that very property line that so aroused Rousseau’s ire in his study of inequality; whose claimant indeed stood, in Rousseau’s rhetoric, for the total scandal of structured, and therefore of oppressive, society. It is the property-line that makes the neighbor. It is the property-line as injunction that makes the neighbor to loom so large, endowing him with apparent privilege. To the speaker, for example, in Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall,’ the neighbor appears ‘like an old-stone savage armed’; and when, as the monologist says, ‘we meet to walk the line… we keep the wall between us as we go.’

In an “Afterword,” I explore the relevance of “the ontological sickness” to grasping the essence of Islam.  Ned and Dymphna, as they call themselves, have made a handsome job of formatting and presenting my text.  I would not suppose that I need to remind Orthosphereans what a fine site The Gates of Vienna is; but in the unlikely case that a reader of The Orthosphere is unfamiliar with The Gates, I urge familiarity with it as soon as possible.

A Lamp That Shall Be Put Out

Whosoever curseth his father or his mother                                                 His lamp shall be put out in deep darkness

Proverbs 20: 20

This past December I was standing outside a Louisiana filling station, waiting for my children to do what children do at filling stations on a long drive.  To pass the time, I idly read the portion of the first page of the Times Picayune that was visible through the window of the newspaper dispenser.  This included a headline announcing the New Orleans City Council decision to remove four Confederate monuments from prominent places in that city, an act in line with the flurry of iconoclasm that had been roiling the South since the Charleston shootings earlier that year.  Continue reading

Proposing a New Word: Subscendence

Culminant Man

The coinage subscendence is modeled after the standing term transcendence and is intended to be the antonym of transcendence.  The verbal form would be to subscend; the adjectival form would be subscendent.  The High Middle Ages – expressing themselves in Gothic architecture, in polyphony, and in spiritually heroic narratives such as the Grail sagas and the Divine Comedy – properly deserve to be called transcendent.   The current phase of Modernity – expressing itself in the cinder-block architecture of the strip mall, in amplified beat-based “pop” tunes, and in crude cinematic narratives of sex and violence – properly deserves to be called subscendent.

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Sucker Punches and Conservative Intransigence

I recently had a written exchange on political divisions in my academic subfield.  My correspondent was, by the standards of the subfield, a moderate.  By the standards of the contemporary United States, center left.  By the standards of historical humanity, or even educated opinion of the past century, completely barking at the moon.  Party-line hard Left with a vengeance just about sums it up. Continue reading