Of time bandits and the river

Joel Achenbach didn’t want to come back from his Iberian vacation:

Time used to be something we used to our advantage. … We revered our elders and put them at the zenith of our culture. The sun rose and the sun set, and the stars wheeled across the heavens at night in a clockwork universe. We could feel the seasons in our bones. We were masters of time. Then someone invented a sundial, and it’s been all downhill ever since.

Everyone I know is too busy and too rushed. If we ever do feel completely serene, centered and at peace with the world we know, that’s a harbinger of certain doom. It’s not simply that we have too much to do, it’s that we are expected to produce at an extraordinary pace. … Your “spare time” has become a slush fund for those who wish to extract from you ever more units of production.

He goes on to quote an older, rather luddite-ish column of his about the “paradox” of technology making us more productive. It’s the sort of complaint that Thomas Piketty dismisses as the “caprices of technology” in the new book Achenbach’s peers can’t stop raving about.

It’s a common misconception but in general, libertarians’ answer to the accusation (yes that’s what it is) of rising inequality is ‘bring it on, it’s not like anybody’s living in a Victorian rookery anymore,’ not ‘no it isn’t.’ Or eat more beans. And they’re right, to a point. Whether technological progress keeps pace with capital accumulation is the least of our worries.

To my ear, Achenbach’s complaint is the sound of the bourgeois newspaperman realizing that his profession — and his country — is slipping away from him, and that time is just a town in Illinois.

One could go on about Marshall McLuhan, Burroughs’ word virus, and Jacques Attali — or the odd pedagogical techniques of the former CCRU — but Thomas Wolfe said it better anyway:

‘Summer has come and gone, has come and gone. And now –?’ But they will say no more, they will have no more to say; they will wait listening, silent and brooding as the frost, to time, strange ticking time, dark time that haunts us with the briefness of our days. They will think of men long dead, of men now buried in the earth, of frost and silence long ago, of a forgotten face and moment of lost time, and they will think of things they have no words to utter.

“And in the night, in the dark, in the living sleeping silence of the towns, the million streets, they will hear the thunder of the fast express, the whistles of great ships upon the river.

“What will they say then? What will they say?”

Only the darkness moved about him as he lay there thinking, feeling in the darkness: a door creaked softly in the house.

“October is the season for returning: the bowels of youth are yearning with lost love. Their mouths are dry and bitter with desire: their hearts are torn with the thorns of spring. For lovely April, cruel and flowerful, will tear them with sharp joy and wordless lust. Spring has no language but a cry; but crueller than April is the asp of time.

So happy spring, and if you’re into sharp joy and wordless lust, you have a week. The bit above is from Of Time and the River, book three, Telemachus, in which the young man returns from Harvard to find his father dead.

Reading the Odyssey growing up the character after whom the book is named was one I’d always identified with. I had naval officers for parents, and the sense that the only wars worth fighting had already been fought. We even lived in Ithaca for a while.

Anyway, we’ll never know how or if the Homeric character ruled, since what we know of the Telegony is extremely limited. But he made peace with the man who killed his father, his half-brother, and they went on to marry each other’s mothers.

Despite the undeniable sense that we live in a city of Buck Mulligans, I’ve always thought the character was a decent representation of some of Washington’s pathologies as well. Telemachus got his licks in slaughtering his mother’s suitors; politicians expropriate and transfer for The Cause, an NGO globocrat might dig a well in Africa. The most representative person in the swamp we call home is not a corrupt politician, but the unpaid intern who thinks “you haven’t really lived unless you’ve traveled” and is moved by The Perks of Being a Wallflower. We are strong, naive, dependent on our patrimony, and not fighting the real battle. Imagine Odysseus in the Joseph Brodsky poem spoken by Donald Rumsfeld to a young Republican national security analyst, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

These are all fine people, of course, they know not what they do. After all, “violence lays its ponderous paw not every day and not on every shoulder. It demands from us only obedience to lies and daily participation in lies.” And Solzhenitsyn is fine, but Emily Dickinson, on our own river, is better:

If pride shall be in Paradise
I never can decide;
Of their imperial conduct,
No person testified.

Average ages of Capitol Hill staffers continue to drop, while the administrative state, America’s true sovereign, harasses political opponents and claims the authority to kill citizens without meaningful judicial oversight. Politics is something inconsequential people do while daddy’s off fighting wars.

If that’s too pessimistic a picture for you, try Reagan’s tribute to the eponymous martyr on for size. At the National Prayer Breakfast 1984:

[A]s the games began, he made his way down through the crowd and climbed over the wall and dropped to the floor of the arena. Suddenly the crowds saw this scrawny little figure making his way out to the gladiators and saying, over and over again, “In the name of Christ, stop.” And they thought it was part of the entertainment, and at first they were amused. But then, when they realized it wasn’t, they grew belligerent and angry. And as he was pleading with the gladiators, “In the name of Christ, stop,” one of them plunged his sword into his body. And as he fell to the sand of the arena in death, his last words were, “In the name of Christ, stop.”

And suddenly, a strange thing happened. The gladiators stood looking at this tiny form lying in the sand. A silence fell over the Colosseum. And then, someplace up in the upper tiers, an individual made his way to an exit and left, and others began to follow. And in the dead silence, everyone left the Colosseum. That was the last battle to the death between gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Never again did anyone kill or did men kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd.

Assume for a moment that Frank Zappa is right, and government is the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex, then this is quite the rich little tale as well.

For the time being, the crowd is as bloodthirsty as ever, and as journalists are quick to point out, no shortage of targets for their satisfaction. Yet the unease of the progressive pundit class over Brendan Eich’s purging was palpable — Andrew Sullivan came out swinging, and Bill Maher even used the phrase “gay mafia.” John Aravosis, while pointing out that the bastard deserved it because he also donated to the “anti-everything bigot” Pat Buchanan (and Ron Paul), seems to think he may find himself in the Colosseum someday:

[T]he problem isn’t just limited to [Suey] Park.  Anyone who works in progressive politics is familiar with the never-ending (and of-late growing) Twitter mobs accusing them of being racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic, ableist, and my personal favorite from just last year: that I apparently hate all animals, especially cats…

Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius.

Two of the best conservative writers working today have built careers on the premise that it’s possible to go home, to reject the preening Internet puritans and build a life of meaningful connection; Rod Dreher and Bill Kauffman. It’s a vision that holds a lot of appeal, but for a person who grew up in the loving arms of the U.S. Navy before settling in DC, strikes me as rather unrealistic. The desolating lesson of Wolfe and Homer is there’s no going back (and not just them either). “‘Past orientation’ is an impressively defensible value,” Nick Land says, “Retro-directed action, in contrast, is sheer error.” “Home also I cannot go,” as Joyce put it.

But we live in an age when it’s not easy to tell what’s past orientation and what’s “retro-directed action.” Narendra Modi or the Benedict Option seem to qualify as both. A Marxist would probably say — and in fact has said — charter cities are the latter. (This piece was my attempt to deal with the problem.)

What seems clear is the creeping fear that the “mobs” of Aravosis’ nightmares are after “no less a work than the overthrowing of Creation itself” will continue to grow:

Just in case you missed it, the line from Benson before he’s turned into a dog is “We can make beans into peas!” So far Cowen has only been pepper-sprayed for his legume-related lack of vision, but clearly we’re dealing with unstable people here, and his status in the Koch-funded impediment to Democracy makes him a target. We already know inter-species transformation cannot be ruled out.

But I’ve gone on too long already. Welcome to the new blog. I dedicate it to the “bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.” Expect it to be about this digressive.

One comment

  1. Two of the best conservative writers working today have built careers on the premise that it’s possible to go home, to reject the preening Internet puritans and build a life of meaningful connection; Rod Dreher and Bill Kauffman. It’s a vision that holds a lot of appeal, but for a person who grew up in the loving arms of the U.S. Navy before settling in DC, strikes me as rather unrealistic. The desolating lesson of Wolfe and Homer is there’s no going back (and not just them either).

    There may be no going back for you or for your parents, but at least we can give our kids/grandkids something to come back to. Anecdote: I’m 3000 miles away from (what’s left of) my family. In our home this is seen not so much as a mistake as a regrettable necessity that would be best to be avoided. So I gotta kid now many states away in engineering school. He’s making getting back to NJ a priority. The System™ does its dead-level best to uproot us. It’s worth fighting it as best we can. (We won’t always win.)

    Liked by 1 person

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