“I am obviously missing something.”

I should be clear about this: I don’t believe in magic of any kind, in any form. If I thought magic was real I would be doing it, not writing about it. But I don’t.

For people who don’t believe in magic I recommend Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. It’s the best book I can think of. For people who do believe in magic: maybe you could recommend a few books for me, because I am obviously missing something.

–Lev Grossman, interviewed by Emily Temple

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Enigma and apocalypse

When Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, the creature flings itself off a cliff to its death; conversely, his inability to solve the riddle of his own birth leads to his mother’s suicide and his own self-blinding and exile. Similarly, when in The Libation Bearers Orestes comes to kill his mother Clytemnestra and a servant cries out “The dead are killing the living!” — because Orestes was believed to be dead — Clytemnestra replies, “Ah, a riddle. I do well at riddles.” But she hasn’t done well: she never penetrated the riddling words of Cassandra, or she would not have acted as she did. And now her understanding of her own peril arrives too late to save her life.

The word there translated as “riddle” is ainigma. A form of that word appears also in the New Testament — only once, but in an especially famous verse, 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” — en ainigmati, in obscurity, enigmatically, as though riddled to — “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The key point here, I think, is that this is not a condition we can remedy through our own efforts — not even the most ingenious. In order to “see face to face,” to “know fully,” we must wait along with the whole Creation which (paraphrasing the second half of Romans 8 here) awaits its deliverance from enslavement to decay. When we are all delivered, redeemed, when the expectation of the children of God is realized, when the “great mystery” — Ephesians 5:21, not just a mysterion but a mega mysterion! — of the marriage of Christ and his church is consummated in glory, all of that will happen as an unveiling, a revelation: apokalypsin (Romans 8:21).

–Alan Jacobs, Tolkein’s riddles

Science fiction capabilities, not scientific capabilities

Many of Rid’s tales unfold in the Defense Department and in the General Electric factory in Schenectady, New York, where Vietnam-driven businessmen, engineers, and government men created (unsuccessful) prototypes of robot weapons, and where Kurt Vonnegut sets his first novel, the cybernetics-inspired Player Piano. It turns out, although Rid does not say this in so many words, that science fiction has been as instrumental in the rise of the digital as any set of switches. Consider, for example, the creation of the Agile Eye helmet for Air Force pilots who need to integrate “cyberspace” (their term) with meatspace. The officer in charge reports, according to Rid, “We actually used the same industrial designers that had designed Darth Vader’s helmet.” This fluid movement between futuristic Hollywood design, science fiction, and the DOD is a recurring feature of Rise of the Machines. Take the NSA’s internal warning that “[l]aymen are beginning to expect science fiction capabilities and not scientific capabilities” in virtual reality. Or Rid’s account of the so-called “cypherpunks” around Timothy May. Their name was cribbed from the “cyberpunk” science fiction genre (“cypher” refers to public-key encryption), and they were inspired by novels like Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981), one on a list of recommended books for the movement on which not a single nonfiction text figures.

–Leif Weatherby, The Cybernetic Humanities

Caliban’s triumph

The academic left interrogated the discourses of “truth” and “reason,” revealed the aporias thereof, exposed the inner workings of the power-knowledge regime, all in the name of social justice. I remember vividly Andrew Ross’s insistence, twenty-five years ago, that it was actually perfectly appropriate and consistent for a would-be revolutionary like him to have a tenured position at Princeton: “I teach in the Ivy League in order to have direct access to the minds of the children of the ruling classes.” It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement. […]

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. It seems that we’ve all now learned the lessons that the academic left taught, and how’s that working out for us? The alt-right/Trumpistas are Caliban to the academic left’s Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

–Alan Jacobs, lessons learned

The Christian sentiment of revulsion

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

–Alan Jacobs, “the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

The best words

They are going to expand their companies and do a tremendous job. I’m getting rid of the great thing for the wealthy, it’s a great thing for the middle class and for companies to expand and when these people are going to put billions and billions of dollars into companies and when they are going to bring $2.5 trillion back from overseas where they can’t bring the money back because politicians like Secretary Clinton won’t allow them to bring the money back because the taxes are so onerous and the bureaucratic red tape, it’s so bad.

So what they are doing is leaving our country and, believe it or not, they are leaving because taxes are too high and because some of them have lots of money outside of our country and instead of bringing it back and putting the money to work because they can’t work out a deal and everybody agrees it should be brought back, instead of that, they are leaving our country to get their money because they can’t bring their money back into our country because of bureaucratic red tape, because they can’t get together. Because we have a president that can’t sit them around a table and get them to approve something, and here’s the thing, Republicans and Democrats agree that this should be done. $2.5 trillion.

I happen to think it’s double that. It’s probably $5 trillion that we can’t bring into our country, Lester, and with a little leadership, you’d get it in here very quickly and it could be put to use on the inner cities and lots of other things, and it would be beautiful. But we have no leadership. And honestly, that starts with Secretary Clinton.

–Donald Trump quoted by Ezra Klein, The first debate featured an unprepared man repeatedly shouting over a highly prepared woman

He knows words. He has the best words.

Donald Trump has no idea what he’s talking about, and he has no idea how to talk about it. Yet he simply keeps talking. And people claim that he’s speaking for them. That actually does say a lot.

But, however…

Consider this: In modern American and British fiction, “however” is used 2–3 percent as often as “but” (these numbers come from a survey of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English). In modern American and British academic writing, on the other hand, it’s used about 34 percent as often. And at Wikipedia, it’s used 36 percent as often! And, yes, nearly all of these uses are as a conjunctive adverb.

Why so much in Wikipedia? Partly because the authors want to sound academically weighty, of course, and partly because Wikipedia has a lot of narrative, with its attendant turns and adversities — and partly because it is written and revised by multiple people. Every time someone adds a new perspective that contradicts something already in the article, it needs a conjunction to signal the shift: “Fats, such as butter or eggs, slow down yeast growth; however, others say the effect of fat on dough remains unclear, presenting evidence that small amounts of fat are beneficial for baked bread volume.” This also helps explain why less than 1 percent of uses of “however” in Wikipedia are at the end of a sentence (a bit less than in academic writing and about a quarter of the proportion in fiction).

–James Harbeck, However: Everything you need to know about a commonly abused word

“He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one.”

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose.

–Tom Bissell, Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20

 

The invasive species of English

In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, Mizumura, a leading contemporary Japanese novelist who was educated (from high school through graduate school) in the United States and returned to Japan to become a writer, asks a fundamental question: what is the position of non-English-language writers (particularly non-European writers) in a global world so thoroughly dominated by English that no writer can escape its weighty impact? In the opening chapter, which describes her experience at an International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, she points to a hierarchy among literary languages, in which languages at the bottom are dying at an unprecedented rate, like animals and plants affected by severe environmental change, with English overrunning and homogenizing what had been a highly diversified linguistic landscape.

What Mizumura calls a “universal language” is not determined by the number of its speakers of that language but by the number who depend on it for their survival. Outside of the Anglo-European sphere, a linguistic and cultural hierarchy has emerged in which English, with its access to the latest knowledge and technology, stands at the top, while national and other local languages stand below; most nonnative English writers strive to be bilingual, but it is a severely asymmetrical relationship. Historically, in Mizumura’s words, “the universal [now English], which society places above the local, is assigned the heavy responsibility of aspiring to the highest excellence, not only aesthetically but also intellectually and ethically. In contrast, even if it has a writing system, the lower-ranking local language is primarily intended for only uneducated men and women.”

–Haruo Shirane, “What Global English Means for World Literature

 

 

The world cannot be disenchanted

The rise of the practice of telling stories to illustrate theological claims does come with a greater awareness of our role in making meaning. It arises with a loss of confidence in the givenness of the meanings we experience. But to take the loss of the experience of givenness as a sign that there is no givenness is to engage in exactly the idealism that this perspective criticizes in mythological thinking. Such a conflation confuses our experience of the world with the world itself. O’Connor’s near contemporary Saul Bellow named this dynamic precisely. “The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world,” he wrote. “But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted.”

—Ted A. Smith, “From Silkworms to Songbirds: Why We No Longer Preach Like Jonathan Edwards