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John Holbo

Arthur Machen – A Fragment of Life

by John Holbo on August 9, 2018

Quiet around here of late. I just enjoyed an audiobook, The Great God Pan and Other Weird Tales, by Arthur Machen, narrated by Peter Wickham. (I got from Audible.) I recently read The Hill of Dreams and found it fairly astounding, so I wanted to revisit “The Great God Pan” and “The White People” (real classics, those two.) Some folks might object that the audiobook cuts out some of the episodic bits from The Three Imposters – “White Powder” and “Black Seal” – but that’s ok. They are stand-alone. But the one in the set that I really loved, that I never knew before, is “A Fragment of Life”. A novella. It’s one of those sad English clerk and wife experience strange mystic growth in the dreary London suburbs-type possibly-fairies affairs. “Darnell had received what is called a sound commercial education, and would therefore have found very great difficulty in putting into articulate speech any thought that was worth thinking; but he grew certain on these mornings that the ‘common sense’ which he had always heard exalted as man’s supremest faculty was, in all probability, the smallest and least-considered item in the equipment of an ant of average intelligence.” That’s sounds like a first line but really it’s from the middle and – how can I put it: it handles its own heavy-handed re-enchantment theme with such a wonderfully light touch. I enjoyed the gentle ride so vastly and enormously. How can I describe without telling it? It’s like Chesterton, but instead of bouncing around or standing on its head, or executing a fake-military about-face and marching into the sea, it just keeps sliding dreamily sideways, out of its own frame, scene by scene, small episode by episode. It builds in the slowest, strangest way. It doesn’t really build but, in the end, how could I possibly mind the odd spot where it leaves me? And having it read to me nicely, while I was doing some calm drawing? My brain feels so much better.

Arthur Machen fans in the audience tonight? Never read him? Probably you should start with “The Great God Pan”.

Politics, Partisanship and Personality Types

by John Holbo on August 3, 2018

What are the best writings about politics, partisanship and personality types? To what degree can large-scale political formations – ideologies, partisan outlooks, temperaments – be credibly treated as a partial function of variation in personality at the individual level; variation we have reason to believe is measurable, moderately stable, independent and prior? (The Big Five and all that, I expect.) I can see why it’s going to be hard to tease it apart empirically. You are going to be chasing your tail, cause and effect-wise. If you find that members of Party X score relatively high for trait Y, which causes which? I have read a bit in this area but not a lot, and nothing that really seemed terribly convincing. (I am aware that Adorno and co. wrote a book called The Authoritarian Personality, for example.) If you don’t like the way I just framed the issue – fine, fine. It isn’t that I’m necessarily evil, as you were perhaps about to type, angrily. It might be that I’m just unsure how best to frame the issue. I’m interested in general discussions – popular explainers, such as there may be – and recent more technical research papers. I can well believe that a lot of bad, or highly speculative stuff has probably been written about this area of political psychology. I have a preference for good over bad, if available.

I Knew Henry Would Post That And Was Prepared

by John Holbo on July 27, 2018

I don’t see why everyone is so hard on IDW. I mean, yeah sure.

“The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created …”

Duh. Who doubts that’s going to be IDW all over in 2019?

Still, it looks great. I guess some people just hate art.

Negative Dialectics

by John Holbo on July 17, 2018

“The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative,” “So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

That’s not even a double-negative.

In other news, scholars have decided Wittgenstein meant that whereof he could not speak, thereof he would not be silent. Hamlet meant that is not the question. Heidegger wants you to know that nothing does not nothing. (Repeat: does not nothing.) Also, it turns out there is a typo in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

341. The heaviest weight. – What if some day or night a demon weren’t to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine. ’ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for no thing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

That clarifies Nietzsche on Eternal Return pretty good. Any questions?

Steve Ditko: Neat Drawings, Much Thinking

by John Holbo on July 9, 2018

A couple of weeks ago (June 23) I made the following post on Facebook: “Huh. Steve Ditko is still alive? Just not giving interviews the last half-century?”

And, of course, he died a week later. (This is why people believe in jinxes.) So I feel a bit bad about that one.

Kirby and Lee … and Ditko. That’s where it all started at Marvel. I was always a Kirby guy. But I would say Ditko’s best feature was keeping it simple and clean in terms of the outlines of his figures, especially the ones wearing tights. Whenever you see Spider-Man swinging through your friendly neighborhood, that’s Ditko. Even when he’s drawing Kirby monsters, Ditko manages to make it look simple and clean in a nice, palette-cleansing way. [click to continue…]

Head Lopper!

by John Holbo on July 3, 2018

I haven’t recommended any good new comics for a while. You should read Andrew MacLean’s Head Lopper. Its heart is in the right place. Everyone says it’s like Hellboy and they’re right. (Kind of a cross between Mike Mignola’s style and Guy Davis’, graphically.) But you could also say it’s Hellboy meets Adventure Time, with a bit of Samurai Jack on top. You can buy volume 1 on Amazon or Comixology pretty cheap [link]. It does that fast-paced, stylish, sword & sorcery with deadpan dialogue thing. Norgal, the barbarian hero, lops heads and (for reasons that remain obscure) hauls the lopped head of Agatha Blue Witch around. There are sea monsters and evil priests and foul beasts from the pit and giants and snakes and ghosts and cool maps and evil spirits trapped in bogs by goddesses and sinister stewards and queens and boy kings and giant wolves and bat creatures and amusing blacksmiths and etc. You’ll like it.

Kennedy, The Magic 8-Ball Justice

by John Holbo on July 1, 2018

Some readers are failing to appreciate the aptness of my Kennedy-as-Magic-8-Ball analogy. In some cases this may by due to infirm powers of reading or reasoning; in other cases, to ignorance of the law, or of recent legal history. In some cases it may be due to insufficient familiarity with a children’s toy. No matter, I shall explain.

The Magic 8-Ball has 20 possible responses: 10 positive, 5 hazy or non-commital, 5 negative. And that is what Kennedy was. Half the time a rock-ribbed conservative, but half the time either liberal or hazy.

Thus, the following would be one way to keep the Supreme Court above the partisan fray, post-Kennedy, while acknowledging the power of partisanship, and according the sitting President a certain privilege when it comes to determining the make-up of the court. [click to continue…]

What Now?

by John Holbo on June 30, 2018

Like lots of folks, I’m pretty shell-shocked by the latest round of Supreme Court decisions, capped off by Kennedy’s retirement. (I haven’t felt up to writing about it. I haven’t felt able to write up anything else.) It’s not that any of the decisions were so shocking (although the gerrymandering punt was deeply disappointing.) It’s not surprising that Trump, plus a retirement-age court, equals fresh appointments. But all this seems fearfully irreversible in two senses.

First, ‘the courts will save us’ is dead for liberals and progressives for a generation.

Second, the hope that America might still awaken from the bad dream of Trump before something Really Bad happens seems dead.

It all seems a lot more zero-sum and long-term now. Either the left struggles and wins by huge margins, to take the (undemocratic) heights the Republicans currently command, or the future of US politics is Trumpist. There isn’t any hope that the future of the Republican Party isn’t Trumpist, or that there is some neither/nor option consisting of leaving a major decision to a somewhat inscrutable Magic Eight Ball in the form of Anthony Kennedy.

Complexity

by John Holbo on June 20, 2018

Well, I suppose we can take ‘Tender Age’ Jail as a test of my Epistemic Sunk Costs hypothesis.

For example, here’s Ben Shapiro.

“We’ve heard that the Trump administration has heartlessly sought to rip toddlers from the arms of their weeping mothers in order to punish illegal-immigrant parents who are merely seeking asylum. But the truth is more complex …”

Not that it isn’t true, mind you. But there’s … more to it. (For example, toddler jail is a great way to trigger the libs. I’m triggered. They got me.) Something-something. Ah!

“In other words, this isn’t a Trumpian attempt to dump kids in hellholes. It’s a longtime problem that has yet to be solved.”

What happened to complexity? Why can’t it be both?

Discuss.

The World Needs More Blogs

by John Holbo on June 13, 2018

Remember when there were blogs? Ah, those were the good old days. Whenever I see we haven’t been watering CT properly with fresh posts, I feel ashamed.

You know who’s got a blog? My dear old advisor at UC Berkeley, Hans Sluga! Here it is. Remember when blogs used to link to blogs all the time, and that was a lively and friendly thing to do? We should do that again.

(You may say I’m just an old man, clinging to my legacy media platform here at CT. Maybe you are right. But I truly do miss when there were more blogs.)

In comments, feel free to promote your favorite blog, including your own.

Here’s a thought about the Trudeau incident. (Remember that?) Possibly an obvious thought. Or obviously wrong. (You tell me.)

The first rule of persuasion is: make your audience want to believe. Trump has a talent for that. But I think it’s fair to say that he has often lived his business life by a different maxim: if you owe the bank $100 it’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million it’s the bank’s problem. There is a sense in which that works at the persuasion level, as epistemology. In the Trudeau case there are two options as to things you might believe.

1) Justin Trudeau is a weak, nefarious dairy extortionist.

2) 1 is just fucking ridiculous.

If 2 is true, Trump voters ought to be ashamed of themselves. Anyone can make mistakes. But the President of the United States should not be ridiculous.

If you have to choose between being being ashamed of yourself or thinking Justin Trudeau is going to hell for dairy-related reasons, the latter option is far superior on grounds of psychic comfort. (Exception: you yourself are Justin Trudeau.)

But it adds up. I don’t just mean: you get wronger and wronger. It gets harder and harder to doubt the next ridiculous thing – since admitting Trump said or did one thing that was not just wrong but ridiculous would make it highly credible that he has done or said other ridiculous things. But that would raise the likelihood that you, a Trump supporter, have already believed or praised not just mistaken but flat-out ridiculous things, which would be an annoying thing to have to admit. So the comfortable option is to buy it all – the more so, the more ridiculous it threatens to be. [click to continue…]

It’s a little-known fact that John Dewey, the father of Pragmatism, started his career as ‘the midnight philosopher’, a lab assistant for Victor Frankenstein. (He didn’t have the ‘stache yet, you will note. He grew that later, to cover his exit shortly before the mob with the torches and pitchforks showed. But the resemblance is unmistakable.)

Eric Schliesser on Omelas and Ideology

by John Holbo on June 1, 2018

Link.

… the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible … Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By ‘ideology’ I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo – in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) – and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom.” What they say is (let’s stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child.

I’m interested because I wrote about this a while back. I’m not sure I like this semi-definition of ‘ideology’. I confess, I’ve really never thought about how ‘ideology’ can be usefully teased apart from error-implying notions like rationalization, bias, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, more neutral, but socially thicker terms like belief-system, value-system. (I am aware a great deal of ink has been spilled over ‘ideology’, over the years, yes. Just not by me.) One of the things that’s disturbing about Omelas is our strong suspicion that, even if the citizens are justified, they would keep on doing it even if they weren’t. Because they are human. But this is cross-cut by the fact that the Omelans do something that humans never would: namely, confront the facts squarely and honestly. Is ideology always psychic self-preservation from inconvenient facts? The Omelans, oddly, have no such mechanisms. Which makes the story surreal, which is satisfying. But perhaps inhumanly unhelpful as political parables go?

Henry Sidgwick and the World Unseen

by John Holbo on May 31, 2018

I’m still pursuing intermittent uncanny researches as a result of which – when I’m not reading about the Scottish Enlightenment! – I’m dabbling in late-19th Century Spiritualism. This is rather new to me. As I confessed in comments to that last post, I had this vague idea that there were probably two Henry Sidgwicks (one, the well-known utilitarian ethicist; the other, the guy who did psychic research.) Turns out he was just a busy guy (unless one of them was, like, a crisis apparition, so there really were two.) So I’m reading books like this one [amazon]: Spectres of the Self, by Shane McCorristine. Here’s a bit that really struck me. His fellow SPR psychic researcher, F. W. H. Myers, wrote this as part of his Sidgwick obituary, in 1900:

In a star-light walk [in 1869] which I shall not forget … I asked him, almost with trembling, whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic, had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena, – ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be, – some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought that this was possible; steadily though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope; and from that night onwards I resolved to pursue this quest, if it might be, at his side. Even thus a wanderer in the desert, abandoning in despair the fair mirages which he has followed in vain, might turn and help an older explorer in the poor search for scanty roots and muddy water-holes.

So he spent the next 30 years looking for that!

I’m quoting this the next time I have to teach those bits in Nietzsche about the English utilitarians! It’s like a side-quest between stage 3 and 4 of the main mission in Twilight of the Idols. You find a ‘true world’ that is attainable – but still not discernably consoling, redeeming or obligating?

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

In general, I’m having a lot of fun reading about Scottish Enlightenment and late-19th Century Spiritualism. Any book recommendations about the latter in particular? There are a lot of books on the subject and not all of them are good, I’m finding.

Myers, in addition to co-authoring the SPR magnum opus, Phantasms of the Living, was a poet.