New piece on Han Kang’s HUMAN ACTS

I reviewed Han Kang’s important novel Human Acts for the Christian Century.

I NEEDED A PRETEXT TO READ BOOKS, episode two

I talk about Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (2016) with the excellent Barbara McClay. Subscribe to her tinyletter here, and here are the two essays of hers that I mention on the show:

What’s Love Got to Do With It
Everyday Barbara Pym

If you’d like to read more about the novel after listening to us discuss it—what do I mean “if”? Of course you will—Barbara is working on a piece about it which I’ll try to remember to link it here when it’s published. In the meantime, there’s a fine overview by Jia Tolentino here.

I NEEDED A PRETEXT TO READ BOOKS, episode one

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.

 

New piece in HEDGEHOG REVIEW

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.

New piece on Charles Williams

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.

The People Behind the Professor’s Watchlist Are Worthless, Gutless Cowards

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 possibleyes, 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.

Some Things the Right Did Right And Which They Desperately Hope We Won’t Notice

 

(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 obstructionRed 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.