Much writing today appears to be produced by people who do not yet know they are going to die — who have not yet met Ivan Ilyich or Ivan Illich, neither Tolstoy’s unhappy protagonist nor the author of Medical Nemesis (1974). Their writing looks more like tagging than anything — notification of the author’s present life. Another way of saying the same thing, practically, is to note that most writing today is SEO’d, and has no life at all if it is not boosted and pumped by its author on social media. “So I wrote a thing,” a young author will say when providing a link, differing little in spirit and ambition than those illocutionary classics, “Kilroy Was Here”, or “Snorri [made] this hammer”. Often it seems that it is not the writing itself, but the tweet promoting the writing, that is the goal, just as now it is common to go to Iceland, say, primarily in anticipation of how this is going to look on Instagram. One thing about turning fifty is that it gets a lot harder to think of work in that way, as the activity that establishes us in life, rather than as the effort, inevitably imperfect, to create a faithful image while there is still time of the layout of one’s condemned interior castle.Justin E. H. Smith’s Substack, 07/26/2022
Our dignity is an enchantment.
“The great hypocrisy of our skeptical age is that its greatest moral accomplishment — a moral vision founded upon universal human rights — depends on enchantment, a belief in the sacred character of human beings and life. No scientific equation or empirical test reveals this truth to us. The inviolate dignity of human persons doesn’t show up in petri dishes, brain scans, or Hubble space photographs. Our shared belief in the sacred value of human beings is not a factual, empirical, testable, observable, data-driven claim. Our dignity is an enchantment, the ghost of God still haunting the machine, and it’s the bit of supernaturalism that keeps the secular world from tipping into the moral abyss.”Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eels
We are just watching.
You don’t need to watch Succession (I don’t) to get what Brandon Taylor is saying:
“I don’t think that things necessarily need to justify their existence. I mean, if you enjoy something, that is enough. Surely. But the more I watch Succession, the more I feel like, what is the point to all of this. We are just watching. And sometimes we feel as we watch. But mostly, we are just watching. But does it tell us something that we do not already know? Does it reveal anything? Does it force us to see anew something we missed? Does it refine or deepen our feeling for what it is to be alive? Or is it just, I don’t know, shadows dancing on the wall?”
We want to believe.
David Bentley Hart, in Roland in Moonlight:
"[I]n an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That's why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness — forms of desperation masquerading as faith. … What's a militant Latin Mass Catholic or a white evangelical fundamentalist from Tennessee other than an atheist who has convinced himself that he truly, truly, truly believes by inverting his total, inescapable inward nihilism in the mirror of his despair? He doesn't believe. He merely believes that he believes. Or he tries to believe that he believes."
This quote puts me in mind of folks like Dreher or Ahmari, who make me sad with their never-ending quests to find the right religious system to support their extant cultural beliefs. (Whatever sect they may belong to at the present moment, they will assure you, is absolutely correct.) The same could be said of many on the left as well, of course. We all treat God like a social media meme or a cable news commentator: welcome and sage when he agrees with us, infuriating (and ignored or explained away) when he doesn’t.
It sort of makes sense.
“I will say that Christianity has this interesting compromise where we’re both divine and wretched, and there’s this Middle Man that’s the Savior, that through Him we can become divine, but we’re born wretched. I kind of like that one, because it sort of makes sense.”Norm Macdonald. RIP.
The immorality of today’s literature.
Brandon Taylor’s definition of “moral art” is, in my opinion, much better than John Gardner’s version. From Taylor’s newsletter, “Sweater Weather”:
But for me, it comes down to this: moral fiction is not fiction that affirms your ideology about power systems and oppression. It does not make you feel like a good and righteous person. It may have no lessons for you to tweet about or put on Instagram or explain readily, wittily at dinner parties. You can’t wear it like a hair shirt and you can’t always articulate its particular force or power upon you. Moral art is, I think, hard to describe. Instable. It is art that implicates and complicates your notions of good and bad. Moral art may call you a liar to your face. It reveals the shallowness of your thought. It challenges you, but not in the way of an all-fiber diet. In the way gravity challenges you. In the way the thin air at the top of a mountain challenges you. In the way the pressure of the deep seas challenges you. Moral does not mean good or lawful. Moral means true. Moral means you take your finger off the scale.
To make moral art, moral fiction, is to get out of the way. To make moral art is to admit one’s humble place in the order of things. I think moral fiction is less about signaling to the reader that you voted for the right people or that you are able to listen to people who would have you destroyed. Moral fiction does not signal. That is propaganda. That is social work. Not that these are unimportant things, but they are not art. And they are not moral.
“To make moral art is to admit one’s humble place in the order of things.” Yes.
Why I do what I do.
From Mockingbird, a review of an upcoming book from free will skeptic Gregg Caruso. I will be returning here to struggle more with this concept at a later point. My younger induction into the cult of personal responsibility, despite the utter failure of those who preached it to practice same (not least of all me), still weighs on my conscience. Todd Brewer writes in Retributive Justice and Our Free Will Illusion:
Judgmentalism, in other words, correlates strongly with a belief in free will. Strange as it might sound, believing that people are basically good, perhaps with a few blemishes, can lead to more punitive responses. Where free will is espoused, legalism is sure to follow. If you think someone could have done otherwise, but didn’t, then they deserve punishment for their crimes. But if that very same action is explained by way of mitigating factors, then patience wins out.
A low anthropology causes one to search for the most charitable explanations — to look with the eyes of grace for causes and circumstances beyond appearances. This graceful gaze sees beyond the transgression itself, failing to linger on the hideousness of the offense, to a fellow sinner incapable of doing otherwise. It disentangles guilt from culpability — not to find some hidden quality that makes one worthy of love, but to reveal the universal defect from which misdeeds flow.
Far from an archaic doctrine with no relevance for modern times, the belief in the bound will is the birthplace of compassion. Understanding ourselves and others as equally powerless and out of control over our actions gives rise to sympathy. It is weakness that lies at the heart of another’s crimes, a feeble helplessness that mirrors our own.