Healthy skepticism

Recently Rod Dreher posted about his concerns for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health. I commented as follows:

I join other commenters in wishing HRC a speedy recovery, and in being willing to believe the official story.

As for the issue, if (God forbid!) a president dies in office, the vice president takes over. Provided the vice president is competent and broadly in sympathy with the policies of the administration, that is not in fact a major national crisis, however much talk it may inspire, however much angling for jobs among Washington types it may inspire. Likewise, if a president becomes disabled and signs over the powers of the office to the vice president under the 25th amendment, that is no crisis. It just means that the vice president is earning his salary for a change.

What is a crisis is what happened in the White House in 1883-1884, 1919-1920, and 1944-1945, when the president did become incapable of carrying out the duties of the office and the palace guard closed ranks, denied there was a problem, and created a situation where it was not clear to anyone who was making decisions there. The same thing happened in Britain in 1953, when Churchill had a stroke and deputy prime minister Anthony Eden was also ill, and does happen with some regularity around the world. (Remember Leonid Brezhnev’s colds?) That’s why the real issue is the refusal of either major party candidate to release their health records, and their retainers’ increasingly absurd insistence that neither of them has any health problems at all. It is so clear that each of them is surrounded by people who are prepared to do exactly the wrong thing if they should fall seriously ill while serving as president. Especially clear about HRC, of course, but who can doubt that the people around Don-John of Astoria would behave in exactly the same manner?

Mr Dreher is far more interested in the state of HRC’s health than I am. The post linked above is the second of three he has put up about it in the last 24 hours. (I also commented on the first, in that case cautioning against over-interpreting the particular directions in which HRC wobbled when she was having her episode yesterday. Mr Dreher expressed suspicion at my note of caution, requiring me to add a further comment.)  Mr Dreher’s third post links to pieces by Damon Linker, David Goldman, and Peter Hitchens’ late (but still less interesting) brother.

Mr Dreher explains why he is so exercised about the particulars of this story in these paragraphs:

The Clintons lie. That’s what they do. Their pattern is:

1. It didn’t happen.
2. OK, it happened, but it wasn’t a big deal, and we’ve got to get back to work doing the business of the American people.
3. Only haters say it’s a big deal.

We saw the same pattern emerge from the Clinton camp over the course of Sunday afternoon, regarding Hillary’s serious health episode. Presumably we are now not supposed to be concerned about whether or not she is leveling with the American people about her health situation because if you start asking those questions, Trump will win. Therefore, we must not ask those questions, and demonize anyone who does. You see the same thing in institutions with serious wrongdoing to hide, for example:

1. Priests did not molest those children.
2. OK, priests did molest those children, but it was only a few, and it shouldn’t distract from all the good work of the Church going on right now.
3. Only anti-Catholic bigots say it’s a big deal.

Apply this pattern to any similar situation involving a public figure or an institution, and you’ll see the same thing.

Mr Dreher covered religion for the Dallas Morning News in the mid-2000s; he was Roman Catholic when he started working that beat, and became Russian Orthodox after writing his umpteenth story about Roman Catholic bishops covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests.  So I understand his sensitivity to coverups, and the urgent need he feels to uncover whatever has been covered up. In this case, however, I think he is getting ahead of himself.


Deep in the brain

An article about brain parasites that breed in cats and spread to creatures, possibly including humans, that then become unreasonably attracted to cats appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  The article triggered vast amounts of comment around the web; I’ll just mention that it appeared at about the same time Gregory Cochran argued on his “West Hunter” blog that the likeliest biological basis for homosexuality is a brain parasite.  If this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make, you are well on your way to grasping the nature of Dr Cochran’s mission.

The late Christopher Hitchens often irritated me, though not in the way that Dr Cochran sets out to irritate people.  I read his column in The Nation for many years, and always wondered what percentage of their working day that magazine’s widely praised fact-checkers spent correcting his misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  A few always slipped through; my personal favorite was this, from his column of 22 October 2001:

There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”

I agree that it is foolish to regard the attacks of 11 September 2001 as an act of political protest, but that is not because Hitchens was right in his suspicion that their perpetrators chose the date 11 September from an obsession with the events of the seventeenth century.  A correction appeared in the following issue pointing out that the Ottoman forces actually suffered their defeat on 12 September 1683, not 11 September.  Hitchens, in his next column, dug his heels in and argued that because the battle began the previous day, he shouldn’t have to give up his point.  In defense of this apparently preposterous stance, he quoted a remark in which Hilaire Belloc put the battle on 11 September, then said that Belloc’s “awful ‘Crusader’ style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists.”

The same column in which Hitchens tried to salvage his theory that 9/11 was a reprisal for Hilaire Belloc’s prose style includes a quote from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton and Belloc were so closely associated that in their day they were often referred to as “Chesterbelloc.”  This issue of The Atlantic includes an essay by Hitchens about Chesterton, who was apparently one of his favorite authors.  I didn’t think of it in 2001, but it explains a great deal about Hitchens to think of him as a follower of Chesterton and Belloc.  Like those men, he was a prolific writer who prided himself on a fluent style, showed significant erudition in a wide range of fields, and did not particularly trouble himself about questions of fact.  Also like Chesterton and Belloc, he was an insistent and grossly unfair apologist for his religious ideas.  Chesterton and Belloc defended the Roman Catholic church by presenting every other faith tradition in an absurdly negative light; Hitchens simply added one item to their catalogue of strawmen when he set up shop as a professional atheist.  The essay in this issue raises the possibility that Hitchens imitated at least some aspects of Chesterton and Belloc’s work deliberately, as well as exhibiting an influence that stemmed from his early and long exposure to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh describes the difficulties she faces adjusting to the idea that her father, Eugene Loh, is in a long, terminal decline, and that she is his caregiver. The article’s hook is “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.”  I shouldn’t think that would require much explanation.  It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer irretrievable losses, stressful to take care of another person, and natural to resent unfamiliar responsibilities.

I suspect that everyone who has ever occupied Ms Tsing Loh’s current position has at least momentarily wondered how much nicer things would be if the other person would just hurry up and die already.  If Ms Tsing Loh had written a short story about a fictional character in her position who couldn’t shake that thought, she would have explored a facet of the human experience* that needs acknowledgement.  By choosing to forgo the distancing mechanism of fiction and write a first person account, complete with photographs of Mr Loh, she is performing an entirely different sort of speech act.  She is not only confessing to this wholly predictable, probably well-nigh universal human response; she is also confronting her father and everyone else who loves him with a demand that they discard pretenses that have become conventional because they often make life more comfortable for people in their situation.  That demand, if met, would create a new kind of social situation, one which would be “honest” in the sense that it leaves raw emotions unconcealed.  However, that very honesty is another form of role playing, in which the members of the group play roles that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, though not necessarily so in the setting of a family group that is supposed to survive for many generations.  To keep people together for that long under all the stresses that come with family life, it’s necessary to develop a shared understanding of boundaries and to define ways to renegotiate boundaries.  Without those understandings, it’s impossible to predict each others behavior, which means that it is impossible to communicate without leaving the impression that one is saying more than one intends.  If Mr Loh were to recover the ability to read, I can hardly that he would not flinch when he realized that he was the theme of sentences like “if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91 year old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me.  Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sane, sensible individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”  He might laugh, but I’m sure he would flinch.

*I’m familiar with the arguments against the phrase “the human experience”, and I still like to use it.  If you rehearse those arguments in the comments, be prepared to read long discussions of the thought of Irving Babbitt in response.

Requiescat in pace?

Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite right-wing political bloggers.  His brother Christopher has also been mentioned here from time to time.  Today, Peter Hitchens had the sad duty to write a post about his brother’s death.  It’s an eloquent statement of a personal grief made public by the fame that each brother had attained in his life.  I recommend it highly.

Peter Hitchens is a defender of a very conservative brand of Anglicanism; his brother was a celebrated atheist spokesman.  I myself am not a believer, but I am deeply interested in the ways in which widely accepted religious doctrines can shape the thinking even of people who consciously reject them.

So, I often think about how we respond to death.  It is convenient to be able to say to a bereaved person, “My prayers are with you”; if you share a common belief in an afterlife, it may be comforting to invoke that belief also.  Yet it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to treat Christian language about death as if it were an attempt to comfort the grieving, since a great deal of the discomfort that a resident of a Christian land faces upon the death of a loved one stems from Christian doctrines and practices.  If we affirm a doctrine of immortality, then we can never quite let go of the idea that we should be on contact with those whom we love, for we can never quite accept the idea that they have ceased to exist.  If our loved ones are out there someplace, in some form, then it is an ever-renewed pain that we cannot see them or hear them or touch them.

Alexander Schmemann was a Russian Orthodox priest who emigrated to the USA during the Soviet era.  Father Schmemann became one of the founders of the Orthodox Church in America.  In his book For the Life of the World, Schmemann considered the fact that Christianity does not make it easier for the bereaved to accept the death of a loved one, but harder.  This, he argued, was not a failing of Christianity, but one of its virtues.  Here is a quote from that argument:

“Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it ‘works’ and it ‘helps.’ Quite frankly, if ‘help’ were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as ‘adjustment to life,’ ‘counseling,’ ‘enrichment,’ it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to ‘your friendly bank’ and all other ‘friendly dealers’: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to ‘give up’ the very category of ‘transcendence,’ or in much simpler words, the very idea of ‘God.’ This is the price we must pay if we want to be ‘understood’ and ‘accepted’ by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a ‘status,’ a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, ‘he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.’ In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere ‘help,’ not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an ‘other word’ which looks like a cemetery (‘eternal rest’) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to ‘dispose’ every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a ‘just society’ and to be happy!—this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his ‘positive ideal’—religious or secular—and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes ‘awful,’ the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any ‘other world’), it is this life (and not some ‘other life’) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by ‘transforming’ them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the ‘end’ and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”

— Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy  (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)pages 94ff

Intimacy and humanity

A doodle by Franz Kafka, with a comment by Acilius*

Part I.  Some remarks about Franz Kafka

In the Autumn of 1921, Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his sister Elli Herrmann in which he discussed, among other things, Jonathan’s Swift’s educational ideas.  This letter, published in an English translation in The Chicago Review in 1977,** contains these passages:

This, then, is what Swift thinks***:

Every typical family represents merely an animal connection, as it were, a a single organism, a single bloodstream.  Cast back on itself, it cannot get beyond itself.  From itself it cannot create a new individual and to try to do so through the education within the family is a kind of intellectual incest. (page 49)

Kafka enlarges on this statement through two very interesting paragraphs, in the first of which he describes the family as “an organism, but an extremely complex and unbalanced one”; in the second, he attributes the unbalanced character of the family to “the monstrous superiority in power of the parents  vis-á-vis the  children for so many years.”  He then comes to the heart of the matter:

The essential difference between true education and family education is that the first is a human affair, the second a family affair.  In humanity every individual has its place or at least the possibility of being destroyed in its own fashion.  In the family, clutched in the tight embrace of the parents, there is room only for certain people who conform to certain requirements and moreover have to meet the deadlines dictated by the parents.  If they do not conform, they are not expelled- that would be very fine, but it is impossible, for we are dealing with an organism here- but accursed or consumed or both.  The consuming does not take place on the physical plane, as in the archetype of Greek mythology (Kronos, the most honest of fathers, who devoured his sons; but perhaps Kronos preferred this to the usual methods out of pity for his children.)

The selfishness of parents- the authentic parental emotion- knows no bounds.  Even the greatest parental love is, as far as education is concerned, more selfish than the smallest love of the paid educator.  It cannot be otherwise.  For parents do not stand in a free relationship with their children, as an adult stands to a child- after all, they are his own blood, with this added grave complication: the blood of both the parents.  When the father “educates” the child (it is the same for the mother) he will, of course, find things in the child that he already hates in himself and could not overcome and which he now hopes to overcome, since the weak child seems to be more in his power than he himself.  And so in a blind fury, without waiting for the child’s own development, he reaches into the depths of the growing human being to pluck out the offending element…  Or he finds things in the child that he loves in himself or longs to have and considers necessary for the family.  Then he is indifferent to the child’s other qualities.  He sees in the child only the thing he loves, he clings to that, he makes himself its slave, he consumes it out of love.  (page 50)

After this description, Kafka finds it necessary to clarify.  “I repeat: Swift does not wish to disparage parental love; on the contrary, he considers it so strong a force that under certain circumstances children should be shielded from this parental love” (page 51.)  He concludes:

What then must be done?  According to Swift, children should be taken from their parents.  That is to say, the equilibrium the family animal needs should be postponed to a time when children, independent of their parents, should become equal to them in physical and mental powers, and then the time is come for the true and loving equilibrium to take place, the very thing that you call “being saved” and that others call “the gratitude of children” and which they find so rarely.


Of course Swift does not deny that parents under certain circumstances can be an excellent unit for educating children, but only strangers’ children.  That, then, is how I read the Swiftian passage.

If Kafka shared the view that “parents under certain circumstances can be an excellent unit for educating children, but only strangers’ children,” one may wonder what those circumstances would be.  What always comes to my mind when I read that line is the passage in The Castle when K. is told that he and Frieda are to make their home in a classroom:

You have, Land-Surveyor, to clean and heat both classrooms daily, to make any small repairs in the house, further to look after the class and gymnastic apparatus personally, to keep the garden path free of snow, run messages for me and the woman teacher, and look after all the work in the garden in the warmer seasons of the year.  In return for that you have the right to live in whichever one of the classrooms you like; but when both rooms are not being used at the same time for teaching, and you are in the room that is needed, you must of course move to the other room.  You mustn’t do any cooking in the school; in return you and your dependents will be given your meals here in the inn at the cost of the Village Council.  That you must behave in a manner consonant with the dignity of the school, and in particular that the children during school hours must never be allowed to witness any unedifying matrimonial scenes, I mention only in passing, for as an educated man you must of course know that.  In connection with that I want to say further that we must insist on your relations with Fräulein Frieda being legitimized at the earliest possible moment.  About all this and a few other trifling matters an agreement will be made out, which as soon as you move over to the school must be signed by you.”  To K. all this seemed of no importance, as if it did not concern him, or at any rate did not bind him; but the self importance of the teacher irritated him, and he said carelessly: “I know, they’re the usual duties.” ****

In this passage I suppose we see the obverse of the point Kafka finds in Swift.  As the family is an impossible setting for the education that raises a person above the animal level, so a schoolroom is an impossible setting for the animal connection that grounds the intimacies of family life.

The overall impression is of a horror of intimacy.  Kafka, or Jonathan Swift as Kafka interprets him,  recoiled from the intimacy of the bond between parent and child and dreamed of replacing that bond with the professional relationship between teacher and pupil.  Throughout his diaries, Kafka mirrors the desire to replace an urgently intimate relationship with a coolly professional one as he confesses that he is holding Felice Bauer and her successors at a distance while developing an ominous fascination with prostitutes.  Take for example this passage, which he wrote on 19 November 1913:

I intentionally walk through the streets where there are whores.  Walking past them excites me, the remote but nevertheless existent possibility of going with one.  Is that grossness?  But I know no better, and doing this seems basically innocent to me and causes me almost no regret.  I want only the stout, older ones, with outmoded clothes that have, however, a certain luxuriousness because of various adornments.  One woman probably knows me by now.  I met her this afternoon, she was not yet in her working clothes, her hair was still flat against her head, she was wearing no hat, a work blouse like a cook’s, and was carrying a bundle of some sort, perhaps to the laundress.  No one would have found anything exciting in her, only me.  We looked at each other fleetingly.  Now, in the evening, it had meanwhile grown cold, I saw her, wearing a tight-fitting, yellowish-brown coat, on the other side of the narrow street that branches off from the Zeltnerstrasse, where she has her beat.  I looked back at her twice, she caught the glance, but then I really ran away from her.

This uncertainty is surely the result of thinking about F. *****

Self-critical as he was, Kafka analyzed his behavior towards his fiancee as a series of attempts to avoid intimacy, and he felt terrible about it.  It’s with another image of streets and alleys that Kafka confesses that he has willfully kept Felice at a distance, and done her harm thereby:

Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.  Live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that is the only possible way to endure marriage.  But she?

And despite all this, if we, I and F., had equal rights, if we had the same prospects and possibilities, I would not marry.  But this blind alley into which I have slowly pushed her life makes it an unavoidable duty for me, although its consequences are by no means unpredictable.  Some secret law of human relationship is at work here.******

In his letter to Elli, Kafka had spoken of the relationship between parents and children as monstrously deformed by the imbalance of power between the parties, and had speculated about a way to introduce a balance between them.  Here again he is concerned about inequality in an intimate relationship, seeing his relationship with Felice as one in which he has been cast as her oppressor by the different standards to which society held men and women.  From a certain perspective we can say that Kafka speaks as a feminist in these passages; but it would be far more accurate to say that he speaks as a liberal.  To the extent that liberalism can be defined as the doctrine that society should be based on reason, the views Kafka attributes to Swift might almost be called liberalism’s reductio ad absurdum.  Perhaps this thoroughgoing liberalism reflects a side of Kafka’s sincere belief.  It is not difficult to imagine the author of the famous “Letter to His Father” speaking in this vein, and his diary entry dated 19 June 1914 suggests that Elli might have heard sentiments like those her brother here attributes to Jonathan Swift from another sibling as well:  “How the two of us, Ottla and I, explode in rage against every kind of human relationship.”*******  Perhaps, too, his willingness to believe that Swift is speaking straightforwardly when he praises the Lilliputians is in part a response to the fact that Swift, as a British subject who wrote in English, symbolized a world power that was in 1921, under the banner of liberalism, enforcing policies in Central Europe that did in fact break up families and push people into the care of impersonal institutions.

If Kafka saw families as single organisms which deformed the individuals in them, it can hardly be surprising that he was desperate to avoid forming one.  But what of other institutions that promise intimate experiences, but involve unequal power relationships that might overwhelm their individual members?  What of religion, for example?

Several times in his diaries, Kafka reflects on the intimacy of shared religious experience, often in such a way as to connect that intimacy with the sort of raw animality that he finds in the parent-child bond.   Note this account of a bris:

This morning my nephew’s circumcision.  A short, bow-legged man, Austerlitz, who already has 2800 circumcisions behind him, carried the thing out very skillfully.  It is an operation made more difficult by the fact that the boy, instead of lying on a table, lies on his grandfather’s lap, and by the fact that the person performing the operation, instead of paying close attention, must whisper prayers.  First the boy is prevented from moving by wrappings which leave only his member free, then the surface to be operated on is defined precisely by putting on a perforated metal disc, then the operation is performed with what is almost an ordinary knife, a sort of fish knife.  One sees blood and raw flesh, the moule bustles about briefly with his long-nailed, trembling fingers and pulls skin from some place or other over the wound like the finger of a glove.  At once everything is all right, the child has scarcely cried.  Now there remains only a short prayer during which the moule drinks some wine and with his fingers, not yet entirely unbloody, carries some wine to the child’s lips.  Those present pray: “As he has now achieved the covenant, so may he achieve knowledge of the Torah, a happy marriage, and the performance of good deeds.”

Today when I heard the moule‘s assistant say the grace after meals and those present, aside from the two grandfathers, spent the time in dreams or boredom with a complete lack of understanding of the prayer, I saw Western European Judaism before me in a transition whose end is clearly unpredictable and about which those most closely affected are not concerned, but, like all people truly in transition, bear what is imposed upon them.  It is so indisputable that these religious forms which have reached their final end have merely a historical character, even as they are practiced today, that only a short time was needed this very morning to interest the people present in the obsolete custom of circumcision and its half-sung prayers by describing it to them as something out of history.********

These paragraphs sit oddly together.  The opening remark that the “operation” is impeded by the traditional circumstances of its performance is belied by the lovingly detailed description of those circumstances and their profound peacefulness.  Obviously it would be missing the point entirely to turn this most intimate of rituals into an antiseptic operating room procedure.  Without the grandfather’s lap, the prayers, the wine, the hushed relatives, and the picturesque rabbi with his unassuming double-edged knife, it’s simply a medical procedure, to be recommended perhaps in rare cases.  The “operation” itself is the least defensible part of the whole thing, from the strictly rational point of view a modernizer might have been expected to adopt in 1911.  With “obsolete” in the last sentence, however, we return to the conceit that the narrator is unaware of this absurdity, that he sincerely wants to create an up-to-date circumcision, a sterilized scientific bris for the age of progress.

Undoubtedly Kafka’s irony is at work here, an irony which perhaps might have borne richer fruit in a more polished composition.  Indeed, he seems to have been dissatisfied with the entry; the next day, he wrote an account of the highly unsanitary circumcision practices allegedly prevalent among Russian Jews, which is so remarkably ugly that it reads like an antisemite’s fever dream.   I’ll quote only the last four sentences of this nauseating passage:

The circumciser, who performs his office without payment, is usually a drinker- busy as he is, he has no time for the various holiday foods and so simply pours down some brandy.  Thus they all have red noses and reeking breaths.  It is therefore not very pleasant when, after the operation has been performed, they suck the bloody member with this mouth, in the prescribed manner.  The member is then sprinkled with sawdust and heals in about three days. *********

The next paragraph is more palatable, if not exactly convincing:

A close-knit family life does not seem to be so very common among and characteristic of the Jews, especially those in Russia.  Family life is also found among Christians, after all, and the fact that women are excluded from the study of the Talmud is really destructive of Jewish family life; when the man wants to discuss learned talmudic matters- the very core of his life- with guests, the women withdraw to the next room even if they need not do so- so it is even more characteristic of the Jews that they come together at every possible opportunity, whether to pray or to study or to discuss divine matters or to eat holiday meals whose basis is usually a religious one and at which alcohol is drunk only moderately.  They flee to one another, so to speak.**********

In both of these passages, we see a similar movement from the first paragraph to the second.  The first paragraph describes in considerable detail a ritual in which people share what appear to be bonds of great intimacy, the second explains that this intimacy is mediated through something that keeps those same people from becoming too close to each other.  At his nephew’s circumcision, the ritual is lovely and tranquil; among the Russian Jews of Kafka’s Prague imagination, the ritual is an obscene Bacchanal (believe me, the passage I quoted is the printable part.)  The Prague Jews in attendance at his nephew’s circumcision only appear to be sharing a moment of the closest intimacy; in fact, their attention is focused on the distant history behind the ceremony, and only incidentally do they relate to each other at all.  The Russian Jews of Kafka’s imagination also seem to be sharing something very personal, but when we follow them home from their loathsome debauch we find that they are deeply intellectual and only too mindful of the proprieties.

Not only does Kafka see religion as a sphere in which people only appear to achieve intimacy with each other.  He also imagines the supernatural realm as a set of equally diffident relationships.  Take this diary entry, for example:

The invention of the devil.  If we are possessed by the devil, it cannot be by one, for then we should live, at least here on earth, quietly, as with God, in unity, without contradiction, without reflection, always sure of the man behind us.  His face would not frighten us, for as diabolical beings we would, if somewhat sensitive to the sight, be clever enough to prefer to sacrifice a hand in order to keep his face covered with it.  If we were possessed by only a single devil, one who had a calm, untroubled view of our whole nature, and freedom to dispose of us at any moment, then that devil would also have the power to hold us for the length of a human life high above the spirit of God in us, and even to swing us to and fro, so that we should never get to see a glimmer of it and therefore should not be troubled from that quarter.  Only a crowd of devils could account for our earthly misfortunes.  Why don’t they exterminate each other until only a single one is left, or why don’t they subordinate themselves to one great devil?  Either way would be in accord with the diabolical principle of deceiving us as completely as possible.  With unity lacking, of what use is the scrupulous attention all the devils pay us?  It simply goes without saying that the falling of a human hair must matter more to the devil than to God, since the devil really loses that hair and God does not.  But we still do not arrive at any state of well-being so long as the many devils are within us. ************

I’ve never understood the appeal of the distant, indifferent gods of Epicurus and the deists; evidently Kafka does.

Part II.  Three pieces in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic

Kafka’s letter to Elli may also have shed some light on another English author, one born the year after he wrote it: Philip Larkin.  Larkin’s most famous lines are undoubtedly the opening of his “This Be the Verse“:

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had,

And add some extra, just for you.

The May 2011 issue of the Atlantic includes a review of a new collection of  Philip Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones, with whom the poet had a relationship that not even Kafka’s famously frustrated girlfriends could have envied.  The reviewer, Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother Christopher, notes that Larkin and Jones “did not cohabit until very near the end, finally forced into mutual dependence by decrepitude on his part and dementia on hers: perhaps the least romantic story ever told.”  He supports this description with numerous quotations from letters in which Larkin apologizes for the rarity and unpleasantness of their sexual encounters.

Where Kafka retreated into a fascination with prostitutes as a way of avoiding intimacy with Felice, Larkin kept his relationship with Monica arid in part by becoming “a heroic consumer of pornography and an amateur composer of sado­masochistic reveries” and amassing “the vast library of a hectically devoted masturbator.”  Larkin’s interest in sadomasochism may have helped him develop this idea:

I think—though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on—someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex—its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t.

People often accuse feminist thinkers Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon of holding the view to which Larkin gives voice here; I don’t actually believe they do, but perhaps some of the reason people are so fond of caricaturing their views in this way is that they suspect it is the truth and they wish someone would say it.

In the same issue, Benjamin Schwarz writes an essay about novelist James M. Cain, Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, and a TV adaptation of the novel that was due to air when the magazine was on the stands.*************  This paragraph caught my attention:

[I]n Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers. (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained Mildred’s technique, “but found that this didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce—the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy—not just absorbing but romantic.

The quote from Cain might have intrigued both Kafka and Larkin. Each of those men managed to conduct his sex life in a way that had more of solemnity than of intimacy about it, and in each case it was through “small-time commerce” (with prostitutes in Kafka’s case and with magazine vendors in Larkin’s) that a barrier was put around sexuality to keep it from becoming too intimate.

Ta-Nehisi Coates compares Barack Obama with Malcolm X.  Here’s an important paragraph from Coates’ piece:

For all of Malcolm’s prodigious intellect, he was ultimately more an expression of black America’s heart than of its brain. Malcolm was the voice of a black America whose parents had borne the slights of second-class citizenship, who had seen protesters beaten by cops and bitten by dogs, and children bombed in churches, and could only sit at home and stew. He preferred to illuminate the bitter calculus of oppression, one in which a people had been forced to hand over their right to self-defense, a right enshrined in Western law and morality and taken as essential to American citizenship, in return for the civil rights that they had been promised a century earlier. The fact and wisdom of nonviolence may be beyond dispute—the civil-rights movement profoundly transformed the country. Yet the movement demanded of African Americans a superhuman capacity for forgiveness. Dick Gregory summed up the dilemma well. “I committed to nonviolence,” Marable quotes him as saying. “But I’m sort of embarrassed by it.”

Again, this reminds me of Kafka, in particular of his ideas about education. Parents may hand over their right to educate their children to teachers whose relationship to students is impersonal, and it may be beyond dispute that this is called for.  But it is sort of embarrassing to admit that the passionate relationships within the family must sometimes be reined in, that children have needs that are not simply outside the scope of what parents can provide, but needs that cannot be met in the presence of the parents.  That applies as well to the need for defense against physical violence as to the need for education.

Coates finds two similarities between Mr X and Mr O.  First is their common emphasis on the theme of self-invention, second their symbolic roles as powerful African American men:

For all of Malcolm’s invective, his most seductive notion was that of collective self-creation: the idea that black people could, through force of will, remake themselves… For black people who were never given much of an opportunity to create themselves apart from a mass image of shufflers and mammies, that vision had compelling appeal.

What gave it added valence was Malcolm’s own story, his incandescent transformation from an amoral wanderer to a hyper-moral zealot. “He had a brilliant mind. He was disciplined,” Louis Farrakhan said in a speech in 1990, and went on:

I never saw Malcolm smoke. I never saw Malcolm take a drink … He ate one meal a day. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to say his prayers … I never heard Malcolm cuss. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman Malcolm was like a clock.Farrakhan’s sentiments are echoed by an FBI informant, one of many who, by the late 1950s, had infiltrated the Nation of Islam at the highest levels:

Brother Malcolm … is an expert organizer and an untiring worker … He is fearless and cannot be intimidated … He has most of the answers at his fingertips and should be carefully dealt with. He is not likely to violate any ordinances or laws. He neither smokes nor drinks and is of high moral character.In fact, Marable details how Malcolm was, by the end of his life, perhaps evolving away from his hyper-moral persona. He drinks a rum and Coke and allows himself a second meal a day. Marable suspects he carried out an affair or two, one with an 18-year-old convert to the Nation. But in the public mind, Malcolm rebirthed himself as a paragon of righteousness, and even in Marable’s retelling he is obsessed with the pursuit of self-creation. That pursuit ended when Malcolm was killed by the very Muslims from whom he once demanded fealty.


Among organic black conservatives, this moral leadership still gives Malcolm sway. It’s his abiding advocacy for blackness, not as a reason for failure, but as a mandate for personal, and ultimately collective, improvement that makes him compelling. Always lurking among Malcolm’s condemnations of white racism was a subtler, and more inspiring, notion—“You’re better than you think you are,” he seemed to say to us. “Now act like it.”

Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as “our living, black manhood” and “our own black shining prince.” Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama. Progressives who always enjoyed Malcolm’s thundering denunciations more than his moral appeals are unimpressed by that message. But among blacks, Obama’s moral appeals are warmly received, not because the listeners believe racism has been defeated, but because cutting off your son’s PlayStation speaks to something deep and American in black people—a belief that, by their own hand, they can be made better, they can be made anew.

Like Malcolm, Obama was a wanderer who found himself in the politics of the black community, who was rooted in a nationalist church that he ultimately outgrew. Like Malcolm’s, his speeches to black audiences are filled with exhortations to self-creation, and draw deeply from his own biography. In his memoir, Barack Obama cites Malcolm’s influence on his own life:

His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.

Kafka was no prophet of self-invention, collective or otherwise, and charismatic leaders never attracted his attention.  However, the one political cause that sometimes did inspire him was Zionism.  He even seems to have toyed with the idea of moving to Palestine himself.  He occasionally made harsh remarks about Jews as a people, such as the Russian circumcision story quoted above.   Those remarks appear in the context of an explicit longing for a new social order in which Jews will no longer be everywhere in the minority, everywhere under pressure to assimilate, everywhere humiliated and relegated either to the squalor of poverty or to the shadow world of the metropolitan bureaucracy.  So I’m sure he would have understood the appeal of the Nation of Islam quite well.  Perhaps what Kafka hoped to find in the kibbutz he dreamed of joining, and what Malcolm X hoped for during his Black Muslim period, was a new world where family relations were untroubled by the stigmas imposed on the family from without.

Coates seems to favor such an interpretation of Malcolm X.  He begins his piece by talking about his mother’s childhood, spent largely in the absorption of homemade hair-straightening product.  He commits a pun when he says that at 12, his mother was relaxed for the first time in her life.  It turns out that she had undergone a hair-straightening treatment called a “relaxer.”  He goes on to describe his own childhood, passed in the 1970s, in an atmosphere where the legacy of Malcolm X was everywhere.  He suggests that he enjoyed an easy intimacy with his parents that his grandparents had never had a chance to share with them, in part because his grandparents had felt an obligation to press the standards of white America onto their children.*************

When Kafka talks about the unreasoning animality at the heart of the relationship between parent and child, and the imbalance of power that inevitably deforms that relationship, I wonder if he might imagine a world where those qualities would be tempered.  Perhaps in a family that is not pervaded by the sense of being a guest, and not a welcome guest, in the only home available to it the parents might have emotional and intellectual resources available within themselves, and social support available from their neighbors, sufficient to reinvent the parent-child relationship in such a way that its animal character is sublimated into something as humanizing as any school.  And perhaps in such a society the family’s bonds with its neighbors would include the children in a complex enough social order that the parents’ power would be moderated.  One wishes Kafka had lived to see the establishment of the state of Israel; I wonder whether he would have advised Israeli Jewish parents to send their children to boarding schools.

*A sketch by Franz Kafka, published on page 354 of Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics, 1976); edited by Max Brod, translated by Joseph Kresh

**”Two Letters by Franz Kafka,” edited and translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston; Chicago Review, volume 29, number 1 (Summer 1977,) pages 49-55

***Kafka is referring to chapter six of Gulliver’s Travels.  In his previous letter to Elli, he had written thus:

For myself I have (among many others) one great witness, whom I quote here, simply because he is great and because I have read this passage only yesterday, not because I presume to have the same opinion.  In describing Gulliver’s travels in Lilliput (whose institutions he praises highly), Swift says: “Their notions relating to the duties of parents and children differ extremely from ours.  For, since the conjunction of male and female is founded upon the great law of nature, in order to propagate and continue the species, the Lilliputians will needs have it that that men and women are joined together like other animals by the motives of concupiscence, and that their tenderness toward their young proceedeth from the like natural principle.  For which reason they will never allow that a child is under any obligation to his father for begetting him or to his mother for bringing him into the world, which, considering the miseries of human life, was neither a benefit on itself nor intended so by his parents, whose thoughts in their love-encounters were otherwise employed.  Upon these and the like reasonings, their opinion is that the parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the education of their own children.”  He obviously means by that, altogether in keeping with your distinction between “person” and “son,” that if a child is to become a person, he must be removed as soon as possible from the brutishness, for so he expresses it, the mere animal conjunction from which he has his being.  (from Franz Kafka, Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston; Schocken Books, 1977, page 293.)

It may prevent misunderstanding if I mention that in his original letter, Kafka quoted Swift in German translation, not in the original text the Winstons provide above (see pages 342-343 in Franz Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924, edited by Max Brod; Schocken Books, 1958.)

****Kafka, The Castle, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (Schocken Books, 1982) page 123

*****Kafka, Diaries, page 238 (19 November 1913)

******Kafka, Diaries, page 228 (14 August 1913)

*******Kafka, Diaries, page 290 (19 June 1914)

********Kafka, Diaries, pages 147-148 (24 December 1911)

*********Kafka, Diaries, pages 151-152 (25 December 1911)

**********Kafka, Diaries, page 152 (25 December 1911)

***********Kafka, Diaries, pages 204-205 (9 July 1912)

************Yes, I know that was several months ago.  I’m sorry, I’ve been busy.

*************And yes, I know that “press the standards of white America onto their children” is, in the context of a story about hair straightening, also a pun.  It’s catching, I’m afraid.

The American Conservative, April 2010

Pluto, no other label needed

My favorite read from the antiwar Right has undergone quite a few changes since it began in 2002.  Founding editors Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos are long gone from The American Conservative, and the hard line those men have taken against immigration from poor countries to rich ones is no longer the magazine’s editorial policy.  Last year, the magazine scaled its publication schedule back from biweekly to monthly.  This issue suggests that some further changes are underway. 

For one thing, the editors seem to want short pieces to end with pungent epigrams.  So Stuart Reid’s column about Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother praises him for the the fine satires he directed at self-important British Conservatives in the 1970s (Reid ruefully admits that he himself met Peter Hitchens’ brother’s sardonic descriptions perfectly at the time) and praises him also for a 1986 piece arguing that the word “terrorism” should be discarded as worse than useless.  Reid laments that Peter Hitchens’ brother has now become an angry voice calling for endless war and jeering at advocates of peace.  The pungent epigram at the end is this:

Some people say that Hitchens himself is now a conservative.  That is absurd.  But he might one day make a great police chief.

Eve Tushnet’s column about the contrast between “Washington the dateline,” where the US government is headquartered, and “DC the hometown,” where she grew up and lives today, also ends with a pungent epigram: “Official Washington can disappoint you, but only home can break your heart.” 

Not only is the magazine’s style changing; there are signs of further shifts on poitical issues.  A review of a new book by former Texas Republican Party leader Tom Pauken notes Pauken’s case for replacing many federal taxes with a border-adjusted Value Added Tax, a proposal that the magazine has looked on warmly in many pieces in previous issues.  This time around, the response is much cooler, even dismissive: “Would the harm to consumers be offset by the benefits to producers?  Even if so, it’s hard to imagine the consuming many making that sacrifice on behalf of the producing few.”  Perhaps it is hard to imagine, but I would join Pauken in saying that something like it must happen if the “producing few” are not to go on becoming fewer and fewer.   

Not everything about the magazine has changed, however.  Bill Kauffman’s column closes with his characteristic assertion that “small really is beautiful.”  The smallness he discusses is that of the planet Pluto and the resources available to its discoverer, the unlettered 24 year old farm boy Clyde Tombaugh.  Tombaugh’s formal education had ended, apparently forever, when he graduated from high school; there was no money to send him on to college.  Toiling in his family’s pasture, he built his own telescope and spent nights drawing freehand sketches of Mars and Jupiter.  On a whim, Tombaugh sent these sketches to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The observatory operated on a shoestring budget; when its director saw Tombaugh’s sketches, he seized the opportunity to hire someone who might be capable of the drudgery involved in searching for a hypothetical “Planet X” beyond the orbit of Neptune.  After Tombaugh spotted Pluto on a series of photographic plates, he was awarded a scholrship to the University of Kansas, and began a distinguished academic career.   Kauffman points out that in a properly funded observatory today, “a 21st century Clyde Tombaugh would be wearing a hairnet and ladling mac and cheese in the cafeteria.”   I suspect that a 21st century Tombaugh would likely have qualified for a scholarship to the University of Kansas without having to discover a planet first, but Kauffman does have a point.  The bureaucratization of science, like bureaucratization generally, may be the road to efficiency, but there’s something to be said for the independent, uncredentialled researcher. 

I can’t resist mentioning that the Believer (aka Mrs Acilius) takes a keen personal interest in Pluto.  I read this piece to her; when I got to the bit where Kauffman says that the officials of the International Astronomical Union who in 2008 decided to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet were a group of “costive bastards,” she let out a war whoop that would have done her Cherokee forebears proud.  She was not satisfied with Kauffman’s conclusion that the label “dwarf planet” might “be okay” because “small really is beautiful,” however.  She wants it back on the list of full-fledged planets. 

The theme that “small is beautiful” comes up in another piece, Patrick Dineen’s “Counterfeiting Conservatism.”  Dineen traces many evils back to the introduction of primary elections in the USA in the early decades of the 2oth century.  While primaries were supposed to break the grip of political elites on the nominating process, in fact they merely replaced the old elite of local party bosses with a new elite of political professionals who operate on  a national scale.  This development has in turn led to the nationalization of elections, the rise of partisan ideology, and a new concept of patriotism.  Where a 19th century American might have thought of patriotism in terms of loyalty to a particular state and reverence for particular historical figures, the nationalized politics of the 2oth century pushed Americans to identify patriotism with enthusiasm for the nation-state and its expansion. 

I should also note a report on current US politics.  There’s an antiwar candidate running for US Senator from Indiana.  That isn’t the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Brad Ellsworth of Evansville, but his predecessor in the US House, Republican John Hostettler.  Hostettler opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and even wrote an antiwar book.  If Hostettler wins his party’s nomination, Indiana will see a conservative, prowar Democrat squaring off against an even more conservative, antiwar Republican in November.  I wonder how the Indiana contingent of Thunderlads will react to that choice.

Water Torture

Torture- I mean “enhanced interrogation”- for charity . . 


Being asked the same question 183 times in 1 month while being bound and asphyxiated might be 183 times as unpleasant as this . .