Adam Petty and I discuss William H. Gass’s difficult classic The Tunnel in the first, incredibly-badly-recorded episode of my new podcast I Needed a Pretext to Read Books.
Adam Petty and I discuss William H. Gass’s difficult classic The Tunnel in the first, incredibly-badly-recorded episode of my new podcast I Needed a Pretext to Read Books.
The current Hedgehog Review has a lot of good stuff in it—pieces by Eugene McCarraher, Elizabeth Bruenig, B.D. McClay, Mary Townsend, and others. So it’s an honor to be represented in this lineup. Here is my review of those books by J.D. Vance, Nancy Isenberg, and Arlie Russell Hochschild. You know: the three books that everybody wants to use to explain the rise of Trump.
This appeared in the Christian Courier a month ago. The version that appeared there deleted my (quite modest) references to Williams’s weird magick S&M stuff: my fault for going over the word limit, as I always do. I restore those sentences not because I think the piece is some sort of deathless prose masterpiece of which not a single phrase ought to be disturbed, but because I don’t want to seem to whitewash Williams’s flaws. Why, I think whitewashing him would be very bad, a deed for which a person must be punished severely…
Ahem. As always, the Courier has been generously supportive of my weird interests as a writer, and if you like me a lot it might be time to subscribe to them.
We talk of Gnosticism as an early Christian heresy; it is better understood as an everyday Christian temptation. Loveless knowledge, implied St. Paul, does nothing but puff you up, and as Christians can hardly help claiming to know something about God—at the very least we distinctly suspect some things, codified in the Creeds—so the mere momentary absence of love threatens to leave us with swelled heads. About the history of Gnosticism as a particular movement or tendency in the early church, I have read many contradictory accounts and fully trust none; about Gnosticism as a name for a certain intellectual and spiritual pride, I need only one supremely illuminating remark, worth libraries of commentary. It is this: “See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.”
The man who wrote those words—Charles Williams, in Descent of the Dove—traveled both paths. Fans of the Inklings and of Christian fantasy generally have long known Williams as the great bromance of C.S. Lewis’s later life, and as the author of a series of “spiritual thrillers” (so T.S. Eliot, also a friend, called them) that readers invariably speak of in condescending tones, while continuing to devour them even as putatively worthier books lay untouched. Lewis and Auden revered him—not merely his writings, but what they considered his personal holiness. And yet Lewis’s finest biographer, Alan Jacobs, speaks for many when he calls Williams “creepy.” The scholar Sorina Higgins finds him sexist, perverse, theologically heterodox, and altogether deeply troubling—and she’s a fan. He is one of those permanent minor writers who clings to the great ship Literary Canon by the fingertips. Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling makes a persuasive case for hoisting him aboard, while also helping to explain why this great Christian writer left, and continues to leave, such differing impressions.
The first thing to know about Williams is that he wasn’t rich. In chapter after chapter, Lindop describes a pace of work (which resists being described as a “schedule,” still less a “routine”) that would have crushed a man ten times healthier. Throughout his adult life Williams writes poems, novels, biographies, prefaces, closet and liturgical dramas, spiritual and devotional works, letters, and lectures in a chaotic profusion that resembles the atmosphere of his “shabby-genteel” childhood home, where every adult seems to have had four or five sidelines. He did all this while shepherding the first complete English edition of Tolstoy, and the first English translations of Kierkegaard, through Oxford University Press, permanently changing literary history.
It was a hard, in many ways thankless life. Williams’s mystical, allusive mind probably helped to compensate. For Williams, everything stands in for everything else, is a microcosm of some macrocosm. He could tell himself, then, that his unhappiness was perhaps merely one part in a happy design, the outlines of which he hadn’t fully seen. Born in 1886, Williams shared the general late-Victorian fascination with the occult—self-styled magicians, cultists, even Satanists were as hard to avoid in the intellectual and literary circles of that time as meditators in a Whole Foods. Lindop establishes that Williams was a member not only of A.E. Waite’s goofy Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (a mystical group with Christian leanings, probably no more spiritually dangerous than the Masons) but of a discussion group that may have had less savory ties. His poetry can read like an attempt sympathetic magic, as if he’s using names to influence the things they refer to. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to read much sympathetic magic and ritual as itself a kind of embodied allegory, an attempt to communicate a vision of wholeness or perfection through the manipulation of physical things: a kind of writing with objects. Did Williams’s occult mind influence his literary mind, or was it just that mind continuing to work in another medium? The few instances of Williams’s magical practice that Lindop actually describes sound about as dangerous (and effective) as doing “the wave” to help your team win. Less defensible was Williams’s habit, after marriage, of engaging in mildly sadomasochistic rituals with young women disciples—the frustrated sexual energy thus created helped him work. He never had sexual intercourse with any of these women, and he seems to have convinced himself that a little ritual-magic-spanking between friends wasn’t cheating. The human capacity for self-delusion is amazing, though “amazing” is not the adjective his wife used. (They later reconciled.)
I don’t think Williams’s many imperfections fully invalidate his witness. Against a fascination with the occult, a kinky turn, and a penchant for being flattered by young women, we have to set great personal kindness, a ready sympathy for the downtrodden, and most of all, the books. They embody every spiritual quality that Williams sometimes lacked—and isn’t that the most we can say of any spiritual writer? Descent Into Hell (1937) offers a depiction of spiritual pride that will drive any reader to his or her knees. War in Heaven (1930) has one of the best opening sentences of its era (“The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”). And there’s a scene in a country church in The Greater Trumps (1932) that says more about romantic love as an opening for spiritual transformation than a hundred songs. Most of all, there’s Descent of the Dove (1939), a visionary work of church history that sits with Orthodoxy, Mere Christianity, and Unapologetic on the list of books that make Christianity interesting by simply reminding us, in forceful epigrams, what Christianity is. All his books, even the worst, make the spiritual world seem as tangibly real as a cup of coffee.
Williams wanted to know the secrets of the universe. Sometimes he wanted only to see, understand, enjoy them. More often, he knew they could only be gotten at by love. At his best, he knew that Love was precisely who they were.
I’m not feeling nuanced about this. My rage is in its “blunt object” phase.
This morning I checked my email and found that an old friend and coworker had found himself on a watchlist of professors.
The group promoting the watchlist claims that they’re sticking up for conservative students who feel discriminated against. (No, I’m not going to link to your webpage, you worthless shitstains. My readers know how to google.) Since this group’s actual methodology seems to involve “trolling campus newspapers for stories in which a professor states an opinion we don’t like,” I’m not going to take that claim seriously. In my experience, conservative students who complain of discrimination are generally butthurt because they lost an argument in public. You can ask my more conservative students whether they thought I was too hard on them. Most of them got As.
You watchlist guys are savvy, I’ll give you that. Universities have become mini-corporations, and like all corporations, they’re afraid of customer complaints. They’re less likely to care about abstract non-monetizables like “free speech” and “academic excellence.” They’re scared of controversy, which might damage their “brand.”
But let’s talk about markets, since that’s the only reality people like you seem to know.
Enrique Neblett, who’s on your watchlist because he studies the physiological impact of racism on black people (something you guys want to ignore so that you can keep inflicting it), is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in this line of work. His research is respected by his peers, because unlike you, he knows what the hell he’s talking about. But let’s forget about that: students like him. On the stupidest, most populist, most “free-market” metric possible—yes, I’m talking about RateMyProfessor.com—he’s a good teacher. He has a 4.6 and a chili pepper, for God’s sake. (For the record I had a 4.9 last time I checked.) This means that his students like him so much they’ll go out of their way to signal to other students that he’s a good guy, and that no students dislike him enough to give him a truly bad review, even though RMP basically exists to invite bad reviews.
You guys like markets, don’t you? Your whole epistemology is “the customer is always right,” isn’t it? Well, your great god Market has spoken. Students like Dr. Neblett as much as I do. And I doubt they’d like you nearly as much. So shut the fuck up.
You worthless, pusillanimous dipshits. Your cause can’t win the argument, so you try to scare people with this secretive McCarthyist drama-queen bullshit. Well, if you’re threatened by Enrique Neblett, whose main weapon is “knowing what the fuck he’s talking about” and “being good at his job,” maybe you aren’t the great menace to democracy that I thought you were. I’m beginning to think you’re pretty soft.
Come to that, maybe you’re not as savvy as I thought, either. As I scroll further down your list, I find, to my considerable amusement, the most right-wing guy in my MFA program, an evangelical Christian conservative who spent three years telling everybody in every workshop that they lacked standards and character. He was our David Brooks. His name was Matt Boedy, and now he teaches rhetoric and composition, and he’s on your list because he wrote an op-ed about not wanting concealed-carry on his campus. You morons can’t even shoot straight.
Matt, if you happen to read this, I’m genuinely proud of you. This time, you’ve got people pissed off at you for a great reason. And when this becomes an open fight, when they stop hiding behind thinktanks (“wingnut welfare”) and anonymously compiled lists, we’re going to kick their asses. It won’t even be close.
(Note: When I say “right” I mean the people who actually run the Republican Party. I mean this guy. I mean these guys. I don’t mean the American Solidarity Party, or Wendell Berry, or most of Catholic Dad Twitter, or my mom, or probably your mom.)
These are massive generalizations. Qualify to taste.
Liberals believe in complex, fiddly, technocratic, incrementalist solutions. The right believes in big visions. Mean visions that will deal death and destruction to more than half the country they claim to “love”: but visions nonetheless. The right won.
Liberals think politics is the art of the possible. The right knows that politics is the art of the impossible. The right won.
Liberals think history is progressing somewhere. The right thinks history is up for grabs. The right won.
Liberals believe in compromise, “horse trading,” procedures, Hamilton. The right believes in resistance, refusal, massive obstruction, Red Dawn. The right won.
The right think they’ve accomplished something when they talk someone they hate into joining their side. Trump’s Vice President wants to zap gay peoples’ brains and thinks Planned Parenthood is an organ bazaar; and yet, one of Trump’s biggest funders, and possible Cabinet picks, is a gay man who wants to buy your blood. Contradictions? They laugh at contradictions. Liberals claim to believe in complexity, but in practice they’re often purists. Liberals think they’ve accomplished something when they tell you “If you believe X, Y, and Z propositions, please unfriend me now! Ugh!” (This is a valid self-care strategy for people in danger, but if you’re a white straight man, you should probably not be doing it.) Anyway, the right won on that too.
I’m not saying “let’s be like them.” And I’m certainly not saying “let’s crush them as they wish to crush us.” (I love too many people on the other side.) I’m saying let’s start fighting for a future that is so good and generous that we’re afraid to even let ourselves think about it. I’m saying let’s imagine convincing people who seem unconvinceable. (This is not everybody’s work to the same degree: Black people, I’m not asking you to empathize with racism, unless you feel called to do so.) And I’m saying let’s stop elevating procedure over policy. Procedures are as good as the good they accomplish.
Donald Trump began his journey toward the presidency by disrespecting the office and disregarding the outcome of the 2012 election. Now that he’s there, he’s bitching like a sleepy six-year-old that others do the same to him. His incapacity for irony is the marvel of the age. But I’m hearing echoes of the same critique, that it’s “too early,” that we must “give him a chance,” from his supporters, who know exactly what they’re doing, and from liberals, who still think they live on an episode of The West Wing. Don’t listen to either. The right has won and they desperately hope nobody notices how.
1. My Burkean friend likes to say that there is no teleological progress within history.
This was something I thought I knew. I didn’t really know it.
There is no progress within history. There are better deeds and worse deeds and better words and worse words (words being a subset of deeds). And that’s it. This train isn’t going anywhere. It was never a train. There are no tracks.
2. You know how cartoon characters run off the edge of a cliff but never fall till someone glibly points out that they’re in midair? That, but with American exceptionalism.
3. “These white, conservative men,” I said to myself. “They’re so scared of a changing world, of a Muslim who runs a gas station, of two women holding hands, that they go off the deep end. They gather their loved ones, run off to the country, start buying doomsday rations, and stockpile guns. Monsters!”
Then I watched Trump win Michigan.
“Self,” I said, “you must gather your loved ones (especially the women and POC), run off to the country, start buying doomsday rations, and stockpile guns…”
4. From a note to a friend:
5. Everybody is absolutely sure what everyone else failed to do.
We should have talked to the rural whites. We should not have talked so much about talking to the rural whites. We should have had John Oliver say more things or other things or no things at all. We who criticized Clinton from the left should have instead loved her mindlessly and uncritically; we who loved her mindlessly and uncritically should have loved Bernie instead. White people, you should have disassociated yourselves from racists more. White people, you should have argued with your racist uncle more. (What a slender reed! The white person who takes this critique seriously is the last white person racist uncles will ever listen to.)
Or it’s all Gary Johnson’s fault. (This is the weirdest of them all. Johnson almost certainly dragged on Trump more than on Clinton. Have you ever met a libertarian?)
What this election actually means is that nobody knows much of anything about why anything happens. Maybe we should sit with that too.
6. Centrists in this election all but eroticized the act of voting for deeply compromised Dems. It was tough, manly, adult, pragmatic. It was impure, it got your hands suitably dirty, like throwing pots or planting a tree. People who voted their “ideals” were sterile, hermetic, privileged: so many antiseptic Neros playing their, uh, fiddles. (Along with this, you also get a weird admiration for “horse-trading.”)
This strategy may be working, who knows. Jill Stein’s drag on Clinton’s vote totals, I read somewhere the other day, amounts to a rounding error. I think, though, that this may have more to do with the fact that Stein appears to be something of a ditz. More broadly, this strategy irks me because it’s dumb. It’s dumb on factual grounds: I’ve only ever heard this rhetoric about the “privileged” dead-ender from immensely privileged people, and the two “dead-ender” types I’ve ever met, post-2000, were actually quite poor. One of them was black. (You read that right: I’ve met two of these people in my post-Nader life.) So the effect is that a bunch of well-established pundits and activist types are trying to convince people younger and, one assumes, less established in life through shame and scorn. I don’t respond well to shame or scorn, myself; they are bad ways to try to get me to do things. They make me dig in my heels.
I think we need to try something else next time: taking the emphasis off the holiness of voting; for the fallacy of the Bernie or Stein dead-ender is that voting is a holy piece of self-expression, that when you vote, you are making a deep statement about who you are and what you value. The shamer and the shamed are both in some way romanticizing voting. What you’re actually doing, in a two-party system, when you vote, is choosing bad over worse. No romance, and nothing especially individual. Neither candidate could possibly be a good representative of your beliefs in their fullness and complexity, unless you’re about an inch deep. By the way—and I really don’t feel like giving them this much fairness right now, but facts is facts—this applies, to some extent, to Trump voters as well. Four the next four years, I will want to blame every last lynching, every racist beatdown, every sexual assault on a woman in a hijab—and all of that stuff is coming, is already here—not only on Trump’s avid fans, the creeps who supported him in the primary, but also on his many millions of half-hearted supporters, the people who think he’s a bad man but that Pence will “save babies” or that his ascendance deals a well-deserved blow to the drafters of NAFTA. But by this logic, had Clinton won, I, her reluctant supporter, would be responsible for every dead Yemeni. Better to just admit that nobody gets what they really want in a two-party system and that mandates are thin. Voting for district judge or county dog-catcher: there you can really express yourself. But voting for President is unromantic. It is necessary and adult and pragmatic, but in the way brushing your teeth is, or making your kids wear seat belts. You have to do it. You have to pick the milder of two poisons. But it doesn’t make you a hero; and nor do you now own all the damage that your mild poison will surely do. Heroism—that’s what you display when you go to work in your own life, fixing all the things that Presidential administrations are too big and too compromised to fix. Reduce voting to its real important-but-quotidian dimensions, and maybe people will be more willing to make the quotidian, practical, imperfect choice.
Or, on the other hand, we could nominate someone who excites people.
7. The people who were most excited about Clinton were generally those who saw in her a parable of professional women writ large: she loves her work, gives herself to it totally, and is passed over at the last moment for the boss’s wastrel son, a loudmouth dilettante. It’s totally understandable that people see HRC in this story, and vice versa. But holy God, is it dangerous.
Nobody wants to hear this from a man and I respect that. Unfortunately it’s still true.
The president is not a CEO. “Professionalism” and “experience” are means to an end, at best. The end—the policies—are what matters. Our only good President, Abraham Lincoln, was a losing Senate candidate. The least bad President of my lifetime, Barack Obama, was far less “experienced” than John McCain, but I can’t imagine a timeline where BHO wasn’t a far better President than McCain would have been. When we valorize political “experience” in a system this corrupt, it mostly means we’re lauding people for the extensiveness of their experience with corruption.
8. We have got to stop talking like condescension is a fault of liberals in particular, when it’s actually a problem built-in to democracy.
Alan Jacobs, as I think I’ve said before, is my favorite conservative writer. Here he is describing his “temperamental alienation” from liberalism:
But despite the sizable liberal element in my own personal political constitution, in times of serious conflict—today’s Brexit contretemps, for instance—I am always temperamentally alienated from liberalism. For what distinguishes many (most?) liberals from both conservatives and socialists, as today’s social media torpedoes reveal, is genuine incomprehension that any sane and decent person could disagree with them…So when liberals lose contests, they have a marked tendency to attribute disagreement to malice or stupidity or, when they’re being kind, naked emotionalism—though they themselves can get altogether overwrought in their insistence that the liberal position simply is the rational one….Once their howls of outrage get wound up — and there is no outrage like that of a thwarted cultural elite — I just want to back quietly out of the room, close the door behind me, and get as far away as I can.
What liberal has not felt this, about other liberals? What liberal has not been accused of behaving this way? Jacobs’s insistence that we take seriously the possibility that someone else has a rich and complicated mind, even when that mind (say) supports Brexit, is one reason that I like reading him.
A few days later, Jacobs calls out some specific examples:
Everybody knows that there are people like this—smug, self-satisfied, massively condescending towards everyone whom they believe to be less cosmopolitan. Everyone also knows that there are people like this—bloated by a sense of entitlement, hyperbolically emotional when their will is thwarted, oblivious to any perspective or experience but their own. The sort of people you dread being seated next to at dinner, or being unable to escape at a party.
I read both of the pieces he links to. Let’s take Smug, Self-Satisfied Cosmopolitan first. Here’s a representative passage:
But dig below the surface, and you will find the demons crawling. You can see them in the looks that residents give you when they pass; sneering snobs glaring down their noses with entitlement; small-minded townies, bullying you with eyes that you recognize from the primary school lunchroom; the old people, 80 and above, wearing blank stares. You can hear it in their bothered tutting at the bus stop (especially if they ever hear a visitor mispronouncing the name of the town), the shots that constantly ring out from across the countryside as they set about murdering as many of the local pheasants as they can.
First of all, the writer lives in the town he condemns, which already complicates Jacobs’s description a little bit. I have never been to Alresford, so I can’t confirm or deny the truth of his description. And I take exception to his last phrase especially, with its condemnation of hunters as such—I do tend to think of this attitude as an often-unexamined liberal crotchet. But the rest of it, whether true of his town or not, is definitely true enough of, or one part of the truth about, the place where I grew up. I regret and resent what neoliberal globalization has wrought on that place, but I could never live there. You don’t want to return to a place where, as a teenager, you couldn’t train for the cross-country season without someone throwing their garbage out the window and yelling “Faggot” at you. Or making like they’re going to swerve and hit you. That smallness, that hatred of even the smallest and least important manifestations of difference or unusualness (running was considered a “pussy sport” as compared with football; I’m not gay but have never performed traditional masculinity with any conviction), is a thing that really does develop quickly and strongly in small towns. (One reason I have never been able to fully join up with the small-and-local-is-great wing of conservatism is that it always ends up coming around to some version of “they were right to call you names.” Think, for example, of Russell Kirk’s defense of “prejudices.” The bone-deep suspicion of tiny difference is one of the outcomes of those prejudices.) Another thing that develops in small towns is the intense snobbery of people contending for a small turf. Both Jacobs and the writer of the article he objects to, a philosophy lecturer, have likely witnessed the same dynamic in academia. What this guy is describing is not implausible. The article is ultimately cruel and over-the-top—it represents the way I would feel about my hometown, Alma, Michigan, if I were to forget every time I was cruel, every time I was small-minded, every time I called someone “faggot” to avoid having it said about me—but it is not the work of the “smug, self-satisfied” cosmopolite Jacobs describes. It’s the work of someone scared, sad, enraged, maybe a little guilty. Something real happened to this person, and it wasn’t pretty.
My American Heritage Dictionary defines condescension as an attitude of “patronizing superiority.” I think Jacobs, a great critic of liberal condescension, has fulfilled at least one part of that definition here. He’s not patronizing (he definitely doesn’t want to be this guy’s dad!), but he is certainly superior. He looks at this mess of a person and sees the liberal hipster elitist with a latte, the guy who has no soul except the one he purchased ironically late at night in a Brooklyn bodega. I’m not pointing this out to shame Jacobs. I’m pointing it out because this seems to me to be one of two major problems with the cultural conversation: we all (well, mostly all) lament polarization, we all want to see more charity between opponents, but, for all of us, there are people we can’t do this with.
My liberal hero Marilynne Robinson contradicts herself just as baldly in this respect. The Givenness of Things talks about how polarization is an evil and fear of the Other is a sin. But she’s afraid of right-wing fundamentalists. And it turns out she should be! They helped elect Donald Trump!
If you care about anything at all, there are opinions you can’t excuse. The people who hold those opinions you can view as either dupes or willing servants of evil. There is no third option. That doesn’t mean you’re done with them, that doesn’t mean you put them in a basket of deplorables, it certainly doesn’t mean you call them “irredeemable,” as Hillary Clinton stupidly did. We don’t have to render final judgment on each other. But practically, a person who thinks it’s a good idea to tweet pictures of gas ovens to Jewish journalists is either very, very stupid, or very, very evil… for now.
9. For now. One silver lining: nobody knows anything about anything. Certainly nobody knows anything about the future. The election proved that.
One thing I can guess: there will probably be a recession in the next four years. (This was always true.) Clinton was going to own that. And worse, her loss in 2020 might have been to the bete blanc of 2016’s political imagination: a Trump who is actually competent, who actually wants to rule.
Now Trump will be President during that recession. His party’s ideology will make that recession worse.
He will try to make his followers blame the recession on Jews, or immigrants, or college professors, or the New York Times, or Rosie O’Donnell, or the existence of sexual consent, or Jay-Z. We can, if we want to, try to make sure they blame it on those whose fault it is. We will have to do it ourselves. CNN was never going to do it for us. If we manage it, though, the far right will be discredited for a generation. The imaginary “competent Trump” we’ve all worried about will have no chance to emerge.
10. Join DSA. Join BLM. Break shit, if you’ve a talent for it. Organize, if you’re (unlike me) an organized person.
But keep trying to be good. Marxists downplay this, they want to emphasize structure. But personal goodness is the only thing that has ever durably convinced anyone of anything.
That Trump recession will, if it’s sustained enough, reduce carbon emissions by at least as much as any actual policy I can imagine the US political establishment embracing. Is that good news? No. The human suffering will be absolutely immense. The government will be stingy. Only personal charity on a scale and organization never before seen in American history will prevent deaths by the hundreds of thousands. You’re going to have to give your money to people less fortunate than you. You’re going to have to let your loser cousin live on your couch.
We will have to show that we can be a good people in order to ever again be a good country.
Almost a year ago, my friend Tim Hurley and I were on Michigan Public Radio. I don’t think I ever posted the story here, chiefly for the very Phil Christman reason that I hate my speaking voice, but secondarily because I felt conflicted about the framing of the story, in which I am presented as a mentor to a man twenty-four years older than me, a man who has lived through things that would grind me like a pestle. I’m not saying this as a criticism of the reporter, Jennifer Guerra; she did a great job with the materials handed to her, and one of those materials was the fact that Tim and I met through an artistic-mentorship program sponsored by the Prison Creative Arts Project. He was a “returning citizen,” as the current jargon has it, who needed someone to help him continue the writing he had begun to practice more seriously during his last prison bit. I was that someone.
Going into the “mentorship,” I think we both had impostor syndrome, I as the MFA grad who hasn’t published a novel (still true, alas) and he as … well, as Tim Hurley; as a man whose most marked characteristic, in the time I knew him, was humility. It is utterly characteristic of Tim that when I told him about some of the misgivings mentioned above, he looked surprised, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a man who taught me as much as Tim did to present himself in public—and he repeatedly uses this language in the interview—as my student. I learned a great deal from Tim, who quickly became a friend and trusted confidant. I could go on for hours about the things I learned from him, and, since his spiritual home in recent years was a Vineyard church in Berkley, MI, I suspect that his funeral will involve—as befits him—a rich and educational and emotional and perhaps not-immaculately-structured outpouring of stories of things people have learned from Tim. (You can read some samples of his Hunter-Thompson-meets-Henri-Nouwen prose over here, and I recommend you do so. He had a great autobiography in him.) He was a living museum of late-’60s Detroit rock, a personal friend of the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, a man with detailed memories of seeing Iggy on stage when that still meant something. He worked in wastewater treatment for the city of Warren for many years, and had fascinating insights into the daily politics that keep a city running. (A good chunk of the autobiography that I wish he were here to edit together would have been the most interesting essay about wastewater treatment ever written. Seriously, what John McPhee did for oranges, he was going to do for water.) He had been in a cult. And he knew the insanity, self-deception, and single-mindedness of addiction, as Holmes knew Moriarty, because he struggled with it and had often lost to it. Which means he knew the human heart. Addiction is a disease, but it’s also a kind of caricature of the human condition, which is to be bored by what saves us and worshipfully abject toward the things that destroy us.
When I try to summarize what I most learned from Tim, though, it’s this: he showed me that humility can be a kind of passion, a militant rather than a passive virtue. We think of humility—at least I do—as something calm; Tim’s humility was jumpy, restless, agitated, a continuous and exhausting struggle to keep pace with and outwit his addict’s ego and capacity for self-delusion. He knew that a relapse would kill him, and he knew that only a constant searching and fearless moral inventory would keep him alive. He monitored himself, his relationships, and—yes—his friends for any signs of the kind of bullshit that would lead him to forget his Higher Power, even for a moment, because a moment was all it would take. He was less afraid of confrontation than anybody I know. If Tim walked up to you and said, “Look, something’s been on my heart,” the next words might be a compliment so sincere and heartfelt that it would sustain you for a day, or it might be him exhaustively and exhaustingly misunderstanding some side comment in an email. He was the type of person who left long, indignant, passionate comments on your Facebook wall that left you more confused than ever about what had upset him. But you always worked it out, because even if Tim picked nits, he didn’t pick fights. He simply wanted no bullshit in his relationship with you. He wanted for those he loved what he wanted for himself—to not be killed by the lies and the self-destructiveness that wait around every corner.
I’ve never seen a person work harder to remember his utter dependence on grace than Tim Hurley. I would be a better person if I could tear away the carapace of self-conscious irony that sustains me most days and be more like him. No luck yet. I love the Stooges, like Tim did, but my cognitive style is a good deal more Bowie than Iggy. Then again, in extreme circumstances, even Bowie could pray. For my dear friend Tim, my prayer flies like a word on a wing.