Split Infinitives

Gosh, reading back through my old posts, I realize that I am constantly splitting infinitives in my writing. Constantly!

I don’t think it’s always wrong to split infinitives. But it’s almost always infelicitous. At least nine times out of ten a sentence reads better if the writer takes the time to keep infinitives intact and to arrange the modifiers around the verb accordingly. In fact, the work it takes to “un-split” the infinitive often reveals that the modifiers aren’t doing anything to increase the clarity of meaning of the sentence.

Therefore I hereby declare to no longer randomly and infelicitously split infinitives.

Uh oh.

Jonathan Bowden — and the Agamemnon

[NOTE: This entry was originally posted on Feb. 7, 2012. Unfortunately, Jonathan Bowden died on March 29 of this year, of a heart attack. He was 49. On the recommendation of a reader, I have changed the title of this post, which originally included the word “DEATH”, in order to avoid any confusion. This entry is merely a musing on Bowden’s work and the influence of one of my own teachers, and nothing else.]

I’ve been aware of the English political thinker Jonathan Bowden for a couple of years now. He’s hailed as an excellent orator, and I agree with that characterization. But, though he has a masterful command of his native language and spits out forceful and felicitous phrases with ease and regularity, he doesn’t have a particularly majestic vocal timbre. Indeed he speaks almost too rapidly and often trips over his own words. The real force of Bowden’s oratory comes from his solid thinking, his command of history (both ancient and modern), and his philosophical depth.

I don’t agree with every single thing that Jonathan Bowden has ever said, naturally, but I find him refreshing and bracing like a dip in one of the cold, freshwater lakes of the Cascade Mountains near where I live. Such a swim can be a little uncomfortable, and it makes the skin tingle, but it’s always invigorating and you never regret having gone for a swim. If it’s comfort we want, well I have electrical heating in my home and a cushiony couch I could sit in all day if I really wanted to.

Recently, Bowden has begun a regular weekly appearance on Richard Spencer’s podcast at Alternative Right (the podcast was rechristened “Vanguard” around the same time). I respect the work Spencer does, and he and Bowden have proven so far to be a natural team. Spencer is more than pure interviewer; that is, he offers his own opinions on subjects and feels free to interject. Still, the format is more or less to have Spencer set the table with some introductory remarks, and then let Bowden just go. It works very well. Spencer is younger, speaks somewhat more slowly, has a standard American accent, and gives off a vibe of somewhat bemused detachment (not ironic or spiteful, just rather relaxed). Bowden provides the spark, with his saliva-speckled British tenor, his firecracker demeanor, and his rapid-fire surveys of intellectual and political history.

If you enjoy podcasts and radio programs while you do the laundry or the dishes, as I do, or as you drive to work, I recommend checking out the archives at Alternative Right here. Particularly good was the recent program they did on the topic of democracy.

Tonight I listened to an archived speech by Bowden given in November called “European Culture: A Bullet through Steel.” This is Bowden at his best, and dealing with a topic that interests me more. He considers Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as stand-ins for the greatness of European cultural achievements. And then he considers the ideologies behind modern adaptations of these classical works as indicative of the sickness of modern Western culture. I love Greek tragedy and I love Shakespeare, so it was exhilarating to hear Bowden’s synopses of these great works. And his critique of what theater has become (and his argument that it’s a representative sample of what Western culture in general has become) is incisive.

[Unfortunately, that recording is part of the Sunic Journal radio program, which is sloppily produced. The introductions and programming breaks are arbitrary and jarring. Also, the end of Bowden’s speech is abruptly cut off (and there’s no explanation or warning on the Sunic site). Tomislav Sunic himself (who makes no appearance in the program I’ve linked above) is an interesting person and he produces interesting programs (like, again, the Bowden one). But he’s also unfortunately obsessed with Jewish power (through banks, Hollywood, etc), a topic which I’m not particularly interested in. I don’t consider it a laughable topic, nor irrelevant, but in my experience people who obsess over it are usually incapable of understanding the complexity which is and always has been a defining feature of human societies. That is, while Jewish bankers (or Freemasons, or Trotskyites, or Muslim fanatics, or whoever) have had a role in the formation of our modern world, I find laughably simplistic any formulation which pretends that they are somehow the prime source of any and all dysfunction that we can observe. Sunic sometimes seem to speak as if this were not only true, but that we’re all dupes for not agreeing with him. Thanks but no thanks. Incidentally, I’ve seen Lawrence Auster decry and dismiss the Alternative Right website because of consistently anti-Semitic statements by commenters. I don’t really read the comments there, but I do check the articles once a week or so, and read the ones that interest me. I’ve never noticed any serious anti-Semitism in the main articles, and some of them (especially by the remarkable and quite young Mark Hackard) are excellent.]

* * *

A reminiscence while I’m at it. When I was a senior in public high school, I had a class called “Humanities Block,” which was an honors-level class that took up the first two hours of every morning. It was team-taught by Mr. Wall and Mrs. Newman. Mr. Wall was a Vietnam veteran who held an early morning running session before class, twice a week for any boys who wanted to attend (I never went, I was too lazy). He taught philosophy. Mrs. Newman was a small, energetic, artistic and somewhat shrill old woman who always had it in for me (I think she thought I was a cavalier jock-type, which actually now that I think of it, was probably pretty accurate). She taught us literature and art history.

Our readings were necessarily quite rapid and rather shallow. Their goal was to get 50 high school students all the way through Western culture from Homer to Dostoyevsky in one school year. Even though we often had to rush through various books and artists, and even though I didn’t always *ahem* do all the reading, it was from Newman and Wall that I got my first real introductions to Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Genesis and Job, Roman architecture, Augustine, the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Mahabharata (not EVERYTHING we studied was Western), Beowulf, Chaucer, Aquinas, Descartes, Gothic cathedrals, Dante, Macchiavelli, Raphael, Shakespeare, Milton … I’m already exhausted by trying to keep this all roughly chronological. But it included the heights of French studio-era painting, sprawling Russian novels, English lyric poetry. Oh man, all the good stuff!

I bring this all up because Bowden’s discussion of “Agamemnon” reminded me fondly of something from that class. Mrs. Newman had a few catchphrases she liked to shout in her shrill voice early in the morning, presumably to wake up a bunch of laggardly teenagers at 7:30 am on a Tuesday morning in the depths of the dark, northern Seattle winters. One of her favorites was a reference to “Agamemnon.” She loved Greek tragedy more than anything, and in fact the license plate on her old Volvo jalopy read “CLY”, in reference to the husband-killing Clytaemnestra from that play. (She was a bit of a feminist, but not so much so that she ruined great literature with juvenile interpretations, as my later college professors would teach me to do. She just seemed to get a thrill from the sheer willful bloodiness of characters like Clytaemnestra and Lady MacBeth, which I begrudge her not).

To Mrs. Newman, the moment at the end of “Agamemnon” when the bloody corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra are wheeled out in a bathtub and we find Clytaemnestra standing over them with a gory axe was the defining example of tragic catharsis. “DEATH … in the bath tub!” she yelled at us teenagers in the sleepy early hours of the day. And any time that we encountered tragic reversal in a work of literature (and such moments are almost the defining characteristic of the great Western tradition of tragic literature), such as at the end of Hamlet or (ha ha) in Jacque-Louis David’s “Death of Marat”, she loved to scream out “DEATH … in the bath tub!” I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but this charming/annoying idiosyncrasy of hers was probably secretly instrumental in giving me the ability to see the ever-morphing, ever-renewed, and yet eternal through-lines that make Western culture into the integrated whole that it has been since, well, death in the bath tub.

Finally, lest I make Mrs. Newman out to sound like some kind of revenge-minded harridan, let me say that another one of her favorite lines to talk about was something quite different. It got repeated fewer times, but only because the “Agamemnon” was one the first things we read and this other line came from The Brothers Karamazov, which we naturally read towards the end of the year. The line was “the sticky little leaves.” And instead of shouting it at us with a joyful/insane shriek, she said it with her eyes narrowed and her voice calm. As if to say, “Ah. Yes… the sticky green leaves. Isn’t that marvelous?”

For those of you who haven’t read The Brothers Karamazov in a while, here’s the scene she was referring to.

[Ivan is speaking to Alyosha]

” … Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. One loves the first strength of one’s youth. Do you understand anything of my tirade, Alyosha?” Ivan laughed suddenly.

“I understand too well, Ivan. One longs to love with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. You said that so well and I am awfully glad that you have such a longing for life,” cried Alyosha. “I think everyone should love life above everything in the world.”

“Love life more than the meaning of it?”

“Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it. I have thought so a long time. Half your work is done, Ivan, you love life, now you’ve only to try to do the second half and you are saved.”

“You are trying to save me, but perhaps I am not lost! And what does your second half mean?”

“Why, one has to raise up your dead, who perhaps have not died after all. Come, let me have tea. I am so glad of our talk, Ivan.”

The Ironic Crucifix

Irenic vs Ironic.

Hipsters devour everything. If there’s no meaning to life, then there is nothing that can’t be devoured in the name of cool posturing.

I grew up a Christian, in the Episcopal Church. I’ve had my troubles with Christianity in general, and with my church in particular, but I’ve never been able to view the question as unimportant. Even in raging against Christianity as a young man, I took it very seriously.

Sure, I’m just as capable of dismissive, ugly, and snarky remarks as the next thirty-something. It’s my generation’s primary mode of communication, after all. But I always sensed there were some things that, while they might induce mirth, joy, and laughter, were far too sublime for derision.

As I communicated once to a friend via email, there have always been other things which I simply can’t feel ironic about.  Shakespeare dominated my consciousness for a long time, and he still does to a lesser extent. As had and does Mahler (click that link, let it play while you read the rest of this post). Nietzsche (that grand ironist). Tolkien (that grand anti-ironist). Lewis, Melville, Burne-Jones, Lawrence, Dogen, Augustine, Sebald, Kerouac. From some perspectives, these men have very little in common. Indeed, some of them are at war with one another. Lawrence and Augustine don’t see eye to eye (though I suspect neither would object to breaking bread with the other). Kerouac thinks he represents Dogen, but Dogen would laugh at Kerouac’s total lack of discipline. Lewis and Nietzsche are poles apart (though they both respect Wagner). But I can’t be ironic about any of these men.

I wear a silver cross around my neck sometimes. It’s not for show, it’s for myself. Once, I dressed quickly to run out to the store in the evening. I was wearing a v-neck shirt at home, and just threw on some boots and my peacoat before heading out the door. I didn’t realize I was wearing my silver cross, and that it was quite visible against my skin under my open coat, with my low-V shirt. In fact, in retrospect, I realize it was almost ostentatious.

I ran into a friend outside the local bar between my house and the grocery store. He was having a cigarette on the sidewalk with a pal. We exchanged chummy hellos, and then he asked, pointing to my breast, “What’s with that? Are you trying to look tough?”

“Oh this?” I said. I intuitively sensed his hostility, and not wishing a confrontation, I smiled and said, “Oh this is some ancient Middle-Eastern religious cult thing. You don’t want to know about it.”

“Oh I know it,” said he, declining the chance to let the confrontation pass.

“Yeah, it’s an old one, but a good one.”

“It’s old,” said he, “but I don’t know about good.”

He then suggested I read some thing called “The True History of the Devil” or some such. I haven’t bothered to look it up. I’m sure it explains why religion, and specifically Christianity, is all some dark conspiracy to keep people under the thumb of vile and hypocritical popes.

But why did he ask if I was “trying to look tough”? It’s because a lot of gang-members in the US these days like to show off crosses as some kind of fashion statement. And not just gang-members. Up until this point, it’s been strictly limited to black people, Mexicans, and other such people who are already culturally immune to being accused as oppressors. (White, straight men wearing crosses = uncomfortably sincere. Female mixed-race rappers wearing crosses = delightfully transgressive.) It’s a kind of edgy-cool thing to do. I’m not sure I get it totally, but my intuition is that the people who wear it are combining some kind of (not altogether contemptible) memory of early-life belief with a brash defiance of those who wish to judge them. As in, “You wanna judge me? Judge this!”

Well that’s not my cultural milieu, so I might be wrong. In any case, my (newly hostile) friend recognized the cross as something that someone probably wears to “look tough.” I let a few awkward moments pass to signify that I found his need to lecture me on “the true history of the devil” rather outré, but I did not push the issue. Really, I was just running to the store.

But upon further reflection, I realized some prescience on this issue. If people were already recognizing a cross around the neck as a symbol of something other than Christianity, it was only a matter of time before white hipsters would pick up on the trend.

Well, sure enough, today I went into the coffee shop on my block (about 40 yards from where I saw my friend smoking), and the young girl behind the counter was wearing a HUGE wooden cross around her neck. It was about four inches top to bottom, and half an inch thick, and bright purple. She was wearing all kinds of other bangles and pendants around it.

It was a joke. It wasn’t a sincere expression of faith. Perhaps she feels, as I do, an affinity with family and tradition, but she’s wearing it ostentatiously. As in, “Isn’t it funny, the idea of someone as worldly and chic as me believing in something so stupid? Ha ha! Everyone behold the ironic detachment! I’m so unique!”

I just google image-searched “hipster girl wearing cross” and got basically nothing. I predict that within three months I will get plenty of hits. These things happen quickly. Fads always do.

If only there were something that outlasted fashionable, ironically-detached trends. Gee, I can’t think what that could possibly be. Help me here, people…

LUV

Depsite my classical inclinations, I don’t claim to be pop-culture free. I grew up watching NFL football with my dad (who was a star at quarterback in college back in the 60’s and almost signed with a couple of NFL teams). It’s gotten unbelievably crass and commercialized and obsessive, but then so has the rest of pop culture. And in the meantime the on-field product (as measured subjectively by the enjoyment I get from watching the games) has increased almost non-stop. It’s incredibly popular in the US not just because it’s slickly marketed (which it is ) but also because, if you enjoy sporting spectacle, it’s just fun to watch.

Watching the NFL is also something of a calculated decision. I “indulge” in the NFL once a week, for 5 months out of the year (and many Sundays I don’t watch because of work or other obligations). The rest of the time, I check up on a few blogs here and there and basically ignore sports and other pop culture until September rolls around and it’s time to hope against hope, once again, that the Seahawks somehow miraculously win the Super Bowl… or at least their season opener.

I watched the Super Bowl today, a high-stakes rematch of the 2007-08 game between New York and New England. It was a great game, with some memorable points. New York won in a nail-biter. I watched with a buddy, who is like-minded. We turn down the sound during the commercials and just chat, barely looking at the screen. Then the game starts again and we grab a handful of popcorn and turn up the sound and focus in again. Not for everyone, I understand, but for him and me, it’s a nice way to pass an afternoon together.

The halftime show was by Madonna. It was bizarre. We hadn’t planned to watch at all, but as it turned out, we left the TV on and listened to some Wagner (it wasn’t planned… but I have been listening to the Ring Cycle this week (Solti’s recording) and wanted to share some with my friend)  — some of the middle section of Die Walküre.

As all these halftime performers do, Madonna seemed to be performing some cobbled together medley of her biggest hit songs. But what I observed was how incongruent the overall effect was. In the space of 12 minutes, she attempted to hit several different moods. They all seemed false, except for the first one.

She came out on a royal chariot, a goddess of egotism and perversion. She is 53 and still trying to be a sex symbol. It’s vulgar when a 22 year-old woman acts the sex kitten on television, but at least she can have real animal appeal if she has a pretty face and a sexy body. There’s something truly disturbing about a 53 year-old trying to be a sex kitten. (My friend remarked that an acquaintance of his mother, a seventy-year old woman, recently got breast implants!)

 

The theatrics here aren’t bad. That headdress might look pretty great on Brünnhilde, actually. But of course, Madonna is only partially referencing a classical or pagan goddess. She’s no Brünnhilde, no Freia. She’s not even an Astarte.

The sexuality and slavery is there though. She entered on a golden chariot pulled by a troop of what appeared to be some sexualized mash-up of Roman legions and Trojan warriors.

Oiled-up muscle men.

This is the only part that rang true. She seemed perfectly in her element to be playing the part of sadistic sex goddess (other than, again, the jolting incongruity of her post-menopausal status).

From there it went into some happy-hiphop dance routine on sports bleachers with breakdancers in track suits (track suits with musical notes emblazoned down the sides!). Then came some cameos of current pop-trash stars, including “M.I.A.” who flipped her middle finger at the camera, and Nicki Minaj (she of “You a Stupid Ho” fame), and some other weirdly coiffed rappers that I have never seen before… I’m sure they’re big stars). There was some sort of bizarre cheerleading/booty-dancing troupe of fine young American “ladies” who’s majorette-uniforms and gold pompoms cleverly echoed the Trojan warrior slave guys of a few minutes before.

"Stupid Ho" Minaj in the foreground with the Mother of God

Finally, out came another star, Cee-Lo Green (who can actually sing very well), for a kind of gospel-inflected religious service.

Complete with choir (surprisingly, there were mostly white people in the choir). For half a moment we turned on the sound, but it was dreadful, so back to Wagner it was.

Anyway, it was so strange to see her (Madonna) try to go from man-enslaving pseudo-sex pseudo-goddess to reverent, joyous praiser of love and togetherness. The stage flashed the letters L-U-V over and over, and ended with electronic doves spelling out “World Peace.”

Truly bizarre. Not that I’m surprised of course. It was just rather striking. “Luv” is probably appropriate word choice, though. It’s not Love. It’s Luv.

 

Out of Sleep, Out of Bed, Time to Stretch and Go For a Walk

I’ve decided I’ll no longer be posting to this blog. It’s been very valuable for me, especially the comments from readers. However, as fascinating as reading and writing are, they aren’t helpful to me right now.

I’m a reader and a writer by disposition and by long habit. It was reading and writing (online, in fact) that gradually pried me away from some very severe delusions I once held dearly . It’s also through reading and writing (also online) that I made contact with some excellent, thoughtful, and well-tempered voices who have been helpful to me and who have become my friends.

But I feel I’ve reaced a plateau (at least for the time being) beyond which reading and writing, especially online, will not carry me. There are some rather fundamental changes I’ve had to make to my lifestyle to bring it in line with what I now recognize to be a moral and purposeful life. But it’s not been enough to simply have that realization and make a one-time (or two-time or ten-time) solemn vow to follow the proper path.

We are creatures of habit, creatures of the body, and creatures of our environment — just as we are creatures of spirit, creatures of will, and creatures of God. I’m prone to letting misty ideas about the second half of that list get miles ahead of my actual daily behavior. In order to do follow my spirit more truly, I need to change my habits.

This means spending my free time in quiet and meditation, in reading old books, in passing moments with loved ones.

This means not having a posting schedule to adhere to, and not worrying about replying to comments.

This means not immediately trying to articulate every inner experience I have, and not spending too much time trying to explain myself to people who misunderstand, disagree, or argue. This blog is not a particularly argumentative one, especially by internet standards, and so I have no complaints. But that’s hardly the point. It’s the very nature of the format that puts me in such a mindset: to explain, to argue, and to anticipate disagreement.

I’m not swearing off critical thought by any means. (And, see? There I am already trying to anticipate and diffuse any misunderstanding of my previous paragraph.) I’m merely giving myself some time to let things sink in on the animal level.

I’ll be keeping this URL as an archive, and I may very well start posting again in the future should the time be right. I’ll be writing in the meantime, privately, and who knows? Perhaps some of that will make its way onto this site in the future.

A very sincere thank you to everyone who has commented on the blog, especially the regular commenters. It’s been immensely valuable for me.

Retreat

I’ve been afforded some time away from daily busy-ness over the first part of December, so I will be using this time to go into a semi-retreat during these dark winter months, to do some meditating, reading, and thought. This means that I will not be using my computer much at all, and therefore will not be posting on the blog.

The blog is not going into retirement though, only retreat. I imagine I will lose most of my readers, but that’s ok. The point of this blog is not to become widely-read, but to lead me to greater wisdom. Right now I can get greater wisdom through getting away from my writing the blog and so I will.

However, I will also be back. And it will not be very long that I pause. For those of you who like this blog and want to be reminded of it once I begin posting again, I encourage you to click the “Sign Up” button on the right to receive an email notification. It’s very easy, and it’s also easy to unsubscribe when you are done with it.

Otherwise, you can just check back periodically. Feel free to leave comments as well.

Peace to all. I’ll be back when the gloom of winter is darkest.