‘Lost and Found in the Cosmos’

These stories [by Lovecraft] end in suicide, madness, or, as in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a disturbing acquiescence. Given the Darwinian undertones, what else could one do but acquiesce? You are what you are, and that’s the end of it.

But for Lewis, there is reason for hope. Reality comes with an “upper story,” and while we are embodied souls, we are souls above all. It is to our souls that Lewis makes his appeal. He wants us to look in horror upon our inner monster, but unlike Lovecraft, he does not want us to die. He wants us to turn to Aslan and live.

At Touchstone, C. R. Wiley analyzes the different ways in which two near-contemporaries, H. P. Lovecraft and C. S. Lewis, approached the mysteries of the universe in their imaginative fiction. This article precisely mirrors my own opinions, and is therefore a marvel of reason.

(Tip: My friend Kit Johnson.)

A Rising Shame Culture

Perhaps the most poisonous aspect of current media culture is how it facilitates our impulses to condemn and shame others. Whether by open letter or twitter storm, some of us wake up primed to take a stand against some unthinkable person somewhere. Any accusation is credible without need of investigation. Any social post is up for scrutiny, no matter the age of the poster at the time. Consider our virtue signaled.

Helen Andrews reviews a shameful public incident that has followed her for years in this essay in First Things. Her story is grueling, but there are many more, allowing us to see a pattern.

At the risk of insulting the reader: No one actually believed Williamson was a threat to his female colleagues. It was only a pretext for what was really an exercise in raw power. People made the same kind of excuses when it was my turn in the dunk tank. Again and again, I read commenters insisting that what might at first glance appear to be prurient gossip was, in fact, fair political commentary, because I was a family-values scold and thus open to charges of hypocrisy, or because I was a hard-core Randian who needed a lesson in the dog-eat-dog heartlessness advocated by my idol. As far as I can tell, these characterizations were extrapolated from the fact that I worked at National Review. Certainly, they had no basis in anything I’d written (an Objectivist, really?).

The truth does not matter in the shame storm–only what can beat down the victim.

What solution is there? Look at what Jared Wilson posted today: “Christian, the Lord knows you are not an asset to the organization. He knows what a tangled-up knot of anxiety, incompetence, and faithlessness you are. He knows exactly what a big fat sinner you are. He knew exactly what he was getting into.”

Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

A Blessing on Mother

In one of our old books, which was handed down from four generations ago, I found several newspaper clippings–a couple obituaries, an announcement of new officers to a Presbyterian organization, an ad for hearing aids, and a curious poetic blessing on mothers. The only credit is to Harper’s Magazine.

It looks like the kind of folklore people would pass around and think nothing of preserving, because that would be a kin to preserving grass. We assume such things will be around forever. A generation goes by, and maybe someone asks, “Do you remember that thing we used to say? It was so good.” But no one remembers. And maybe it wasn’t actually good.

They were words of their time, spoken like all words with dissipating breath.

I found it on a page scanned from a March 1877 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine with a bit of explanation not included in my paper clipping.

The following was recently written and sent by a distinguished clergyman to his mother. It was sent on a postal card:

    Dear Mother —
    From sweet Isaiah’s sacred song, chapter 9 and verse 6
    First 13 words please take and then the following affix;
    From Genesis the 35th, verse 17, no more.
    Then add verse 26 of Kings, book 2nd, chapter 4.
    The last two verses, chapter 1, 1st book of Samuel
    And you will learn what on this day your loving son befell.

Deciphering this from the King James, we read this.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”

“And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also.”

“Run now, I pray thee, to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well:”

“For this child I prayed; and the Lord hath given me my petition which I asked of him:  Therefore also I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the Lord. And he worshipped the Lord there.”

Keep the change

I’m reading slowly right now – lots of translating work to do. Here’s a personal challenge – even when I actually have plenty of time to finish a translation project, I tend to treat it as if I have a deadline looming. Which makes me neglect other important things (like reading books to review). There must be an adjective to describe such a condition. Oh yes, it’s called “obsessive-compulsive.”

I know how much you look forward to my semi-annual reports on dentist visits. Well, you’re in luck, because I just got back from the dentist.  And be prepared for High Drama!!!!!!!

OK, not exactly drama. Change. I have a new dentist.

My old dentist, unbeknownst to me, suffered from a chronic lung condition. He had some kind of crisis, I learned, and decided to move to Texas. He left his practice in the hands of an old classmate, and so I had to go to a new place.

“I’m not sure I’m prepared for a change of dentist at my time of life,” to paraphrase Saki.

New office. Different parking situation. And I had to fill out all the paperwork anew.

Why must I suffer so?

I also had a small cavity, which I’ll have to get filled in a few weeks.

My great sorrow was that I lost my Dental Hygienist. The old DH was a genuine beauty, a vision of feminine loveliness whose hands I looked forward to having in my mouth every June and December. The changeover announcement said that the staff had transferred along with the practice, but I think that was hype. The new DH was very nice, and perfectly solicitous of me. But she wasn’t Heather… or Denise… or whatever the old girl’s name was. No doubt she’s been snapped up by some high-end practice in Edina.

I see no consolation anywhere about me. Except chocolate.

(I apologize for the run-together words in tonight’s post. We have a new posting system at WordPress and it’s driving me nuts.)

New Cambridge Fellow focus of Academics’ outrage

A new research fellow at St Edmund’s College of Cambridge has riled 300+ professors who think he earned the position unethically. The Guardian offers a review of the complaints, which are not based on what Noah Carl has actually written but on characterizations of his research. 

“A careful consideration of Carl’s published work and public stance on various issues, particularly on the relationship between race and ‘genetic intelligence’, leads us to the unambiguous conclusion that his research is ethically suspect and methodologically flawed,” states the letter, which is signed by seven Cambridge professors and more than 700 other academics.

If Carl’s work has been carefully considered, then citing offending arguments and data shouldn’t be a problem. But when Quillette Magazine reviewed the work, they found nothing that aligned with the complaints. They asked one of the signatories to spell out his complaint and received a broad assertion that certain concepts have “at best questionable scientific validity” and cannot be taken in stride by anyone. Again Quillette couldn’t find these concepts in Carl’s work and are arguing for the public rebuke of the professors who appear to have signed a letter grounded in nothing by hearsay.

“Accusing a young scholar of ‘psuedoscientific racism,’ and claiming his work is ‘ethically suspect’ and ‘methodologically flawed,’ is not something that should be done lightly, given the likely impact on his career,” Quillette editors write. “Anyone who cares about intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity should join us in denouncing this witch-hunt.”

They asked many other academics for comment and received responses like this from Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University Stern School of Business

Greg Lukianoff and I open chapter 5 of The Coddling of the American Mindwith a Durkheimian analysis of witch hunts. It works beautifully to explain the otherwise inexplicable and shameful open letter denouncing Rebecca Tuvel and calling for the retraction of a philosophy article that hardly any of the hundreds of signatories had read. That whole affair was an embarrassment for the academy and those who signed the open letter. Here we go again. If hundreds of professors think that Noah Carl conducts bad science, let them make the case, with quotations and citations. The “open letter” denouncing Carl is just a list of vague assertions and charges of guilt by association. If the signers think we should condemn anyone who gives ammunition to “extremist and far right media,” they should write a new letter condemning themselves.

Maybe the review process proposed by Susan Harlan in “A Poem About Your University’s New and Totally Not Time-wasting Review Process for Tenure and Promotion,” would help curtail these open letters. While a mob of professors is not funny, this is.

‘Debris Line,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

A quarter mile from the Faro Airport, the old hotel seemed like a last-ditch option for those on a budget holiday. It rose out of the ground and sloped sleepily to one side. Jenn felt sure that if God reached down, he’d be able to wiggle the hotel back and forth like a loose tooth.

Another installment in Matthew FitzSimmons’s interesting Gibson Vaughn series of thrillers, which I’m enjoying. My only problem (and it’s not confined to this series) is that the books come out slowly enough that I have to get reacquainted with the characters each time around. (Yes, I know –physician heal thyself.)

Gibson Vaughn started the series as a kind of a loner. As a boy, he was arrested for hacking into a prominent senator’s computer. Soon after that his father, who worked for the senator, was found hanged to death – supposedly suicide, but it wasn’t. Vaughn avoided prison thanks to a kindly judge who got him enlisted in the military instead, and he ended up a trained commando with hacking skills. Since then, over the course of the books, he’s gotten attached to a disparate group of dangerous people – George, a Japanese man who used to be their boss, when he still had a company. Daniel, a middle-aged, black former cop. And Jenn, a kick-butt operative with whom Gibson carries on an on-and-off relationship.

As Debris Line begins, the group is in hiding from federal authorities. They’re hiding in the Algarve, the Riviera of Portugal. Their host and protector is an old friend of George’s, the “godfather” of the Algarve. When drugs were legalized in Portugal some years back, this man consolidated organized crime in his region, making it a way station for Mexican cartel drug shipments, and establishing peace in his own bailiwick.

But now the godfather wants a favor in return for his hospitality. Someone has electronically “hijacked” a shipment of drugs, and he needs it freed up before the deadline for delivery to the Mexicans. Gibson’s skills are needed to retrieve the shipment. Gibson has no desire to help, but mobsters are still mobsters, and pressure is applied. Gibson agrees, reluctantly, to help. Then he discovers a horrific secret – and the job becomes a mission of mercy and rescue – and justice.

What’s particularly nice about Debris Line is that there’s no predictability here. Decisions and actions come out of left and right field, and it’s hard to tell what anyone will do. When you think you’ve got a character figured out, they surprise you – though their behavior makes perfect sense once it’s explained.

I enjoyed Debris Line. Cautions for language and disturbing content, but recommended.

“Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld”

Here’s Sissel singing the most famous Norwegian Christmas carol — Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld. Generations of Norwegian-American kids have learned it by rote and sung it for church programs. As did I.

The art here is not really appropriate. It’s not a Santa song. It uses the lighting of the Christmas tree to meditate on the wonder of the Incarnation of Christ. The child sings that he/she loves Christmas because of Jesus.

Here’s the words in English

New Collection of Epstein Essays

Following up on yesterday’s post about expanding book coverage of a likely political nature, we have word of a new collection of essays from Joseph Epstein: The Ideal of Culture. Jonathan Leaf praises it and the man who created it.

Epstein is very much of the opinion that possession of Culture—with the capital C—is a lifelong endeavor that enriches daily life and reflects both inculcation and determined striving.

. . . Nonetheless, the book’s publication is unlikely to be noted in the most celebrated organs of commentary. That is because, in today’s thought-policed intellectual world, Epstein is probably best known for having defied the politically correct authorities.

Who’s organizing the raising of a monument for this man?

Literature Is More than Politics

The Columbia Journalism Review asks, “What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?The New York Times and other publications are growing (perhaps only on the digital side) and may have expanded their book coverage as a result. It doesn’t quite explain what’s behind the rise other than to say readers want it.

Micah Mattix observes the strongest themes in the reviews that come from these organizations are political. Book coverage may be contextualize short-form reports, but as Mattix says, “If you’re interested in literature primarily for its politics, you’re not interested in literature. And book coverage that always keys reviews to political concerns is a very philistine sort of coverage.”

New Letter from C.S. Lewis Reveals Intolerance of Unexamined Convention

We know C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of correspondence to readers, strangers, children, and women’s study groups. To that last group, a previously unpublished letter offers an example of one of things that could set the author off.

“Dear Ladies,” Lewis wrote, “Who told you that Christians must not go to the theatre, dance, play cards, drink, or smoke?”

Who these ladies were is unknown and they apparently annoyed Lewis with their letter, but he wouldn’t ignore it. He responded to it with a duty few of us share today.

Stephanie Derrick, author of The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America, explains some of what we do about this letter and our favorite Oxford don’s habits of correspondence.

First, it appears they parroted some tired, theologically unsound notions about Christian behavior—i.e., good Christians don’t drink, smoke, or otherwise enjoy themselves—and if Lewis had intolerance for anything it was the touting of unexamined tenets. This was partly a matter of personality—Lewis once described himself as “by temperament, an extreme anarchist”—but it was also an effect of his training in logic and philosophy. And he was particularly irked by the addition of perfunctory requirements to the Christian faith, once saying, for example, “How little I approve of compulsion in religion may be gauged from a recent letter of mine to the Spectator protesting against the intolerable tyranny of compulsory church parades for the Home Guard.” Lewis hated to see the joy of hope and faith—or of everyday living, for that matter—diminished by dogmas that were shaped more by social convention than sound religion.

Yule be sorry

Christmas tree
Photo credit: Tj Holowaychuk@tjholowaychuk

What a weird season this is turning out to be. I enjoy what I’m doing for a living, but working part-time, from home, turns out to leave me less free time than I had when I was an upstanding cog in the system.

I usually put up my Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving, and I start writing my Christmas letter around the same time. Now it’s the 5th of December, and I’ve done nothing! Nothing!

I have failed as a Norwegian. Christmas is one of the things we do. My ancestors are ashamed of me.

But tonight I’ve put in six hours already, and I have a little latitude on the deadline, and I’ve made a personal commitment to starting the Christmas letter this evening.

Heaven knows I have a lot to write about. Mostly about my new semi-career, the schedule for which is the reason the letter will be late.

My Christmas letter is kind of an annual epic production. First I write it in English, then I translate it to Norwegian, for the recipients over there. Those letters have to go out first, because of postal transit time.

And there was something else, wasn’t there? … Oh yeah, the tree.

Well, the actual old tradition was to decorate and light it on Christmas eve. I may end up being traditional this year.

‘Immoral,’ by Brian Freeman

Immoral

Brian Freeman is a new novelist to me, and I almost loved his novel, Immoral. Almost.

The hero of Immoral, police Lt. Jonathan Stride, works in Duluth, Minnesota. Fourteen months ago, a local teenaged girl disappeared, leaving no trace. That’s not impossible in a place surrounded by the north woods, but it’s frustrating for Jonathan – and unbearable for her parents – that the crime hasn’t been solved. Now another young girl has gone missing – Rachel Deese. Rachel was the most beautiful girl in the local high school – seductive, promiscuous, manipulative. Was she murdered – perhaps by the predator who (probably) murdered the first girl? Or did she disappear on her own initiative? But if that’s true, she sure did an expert job of framing her stepfather for murder before lighting out for the territories.

In the course of his investigation, which will take three years to wrap up, Jonathan will puzzle over Rachel’s parents’ bizarre relationship, probe the broken hearts she left behind, meet a woman he wants to marry, travel to Las Vegas, and then meet a woman he wants to marry more. The final truth, once discovered, will be extremely complex and morally mystifying. The final judgment on Rachel – and on Jonathan – will be difficult to make.

I liked the writing in Immoral. I liked the characters too. Brian Freeman is a good writer – with one jarring exception. He takes the sex scenes way too far (in my opinion), making bedroom behavior unnecessarily explicit. There’s also a hypocritical pastor, but – oddly – the author doesn’t seem particularly outraged by the hypocrisy. Also he pushes the modern view of marriage, which holds that it is not legitimate unless there’s romantic passion. This, in my view, justifies a lot of cruelty and betrayal.

I’m not sure what to say about Immoral in the end. I found the conclusion problematic, but understandable. I’d almost be eager to read more of Freeman’s work, but the combination of near-pornographic sections, the questionable resolution, and the handling of marriage put me off a little. You might like it better than I do. There are a lot worse books out there.

‘When It Grows Dark,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

When It Grows Dark

I’ll just briefly review this book by Jørn Lier Horst. I enjoy the William Wisting series of police procedurals, and I enjoyed this one, When It Grows Dark. I think it must have been released recently in Kindle format, because I’m pretty sure I’d have read it before if it had been available.

In this episode, Larvik (Norway) detective William Wisting calls on some students in the police academy to help him solve a very cold case. The case involves the disappearance of what we’d call a limousine driver, back in the 1980s. Wisting has recently discovered what he thinks is the missing man’s car, abandoned in a disused barn. But that barn also seems to be connected to an even older crime, going back to the 1920s.

And so we enter into a prolonged flashback, in which we observe young William Wisting, then a uniformed policeman, as he follows up some clues on his own time and sets out on the path that will make him a detective.

A cold case story, and William Wisting. That’s a winning combination for me. Wisting is – as far as I know – unique in Scandinavian crime literature. He’s not suicidal; not even especially depressed (though he has his sorrows). He’s not an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or a sex addict. He’s not a Communist, as far as I can tell. He’s just a decent man and a conscientious cop. He seems to have what my friend Gene Edward Veith would call “a sense of vocation.”

My only real complaint with When It Grows Dark is that the translation is weak in places. Otherwise, highly recommended, as is the whole Wisting series.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture