What’s Wrong With Canada; a Wonderful, Awful Idea; More Haeckel; the Best Song of 2007

by John Holbo on December 16, 2008

Jacob Levy has a very interesting bloggingheads exchange with Will Wilkinson. At least it’s interesting if you want to understand what the hell just happened up in Canada, politically. That whole ‘didn’t the queen shut down parliament, or something?’ thing. If that interests you.

Next: there has been some indignation in response to Gerecht’s piece in the NY Times, defending torture and extraordinary rendition. Yglesias starts like so: “Because Reuel Marc Gerecht adheres to an appalling and cruel ethical system and the people who decide what runs on major newspaper op-ed pages have no ethics whatsoever …”

I would just like to add that the op-ed in question explicitly concedes that the policy it sets out to defend is ‘reprehensible’: “Liberal Democrats in Congress intend to deploy a more moral counterterrorism, where the ends — stopping the slaughter of civilians by Islamic holy warriors — no longer justifies reprehensible means.” ‘Reprehensible’ – that is, “condemnable: bringing or deserving severe rebuke or censure”; or, if you prefer: “Blameworthy, censurable, guilty; deserving of reprehension.” Gerecht admits all that, then. He just denies that behavior that is deserving of severe rebuke or censure should be severely rebuked or censured. He denies that behavior that is blameworthy is, in fact, therefore worthy of blame. As a philosopher, I feel this raises certain conceptual issues. As a citizen, I weep. As a parent, we watched the Grinch tonight, and the notion of ‘a wonderful awful idea’ would seem to catch at the paradoxical essence of Gerecht’s moral attitude. I wonder whether, when he watches X-Mas specials, Gerecht wonders why the Grinch’s policy of extraordinary rendition of all the X-Mas stuff off the top of Mt. Crumpet is so strangely reversed at the end. (Yes, it was reprehensible, what the Grinch did. What’s your point?) Plus, you can sort of sing it to the tune: ‘You’re a mean one, Reuel Gerecht …’

Finally, my Haeckel post didn’t get many comments (sniff), but I actually got quite a bit of interesting email. Some thoughts about Haeckel’s influence and philosophy and so forth. Me? Obviously I focus on the comics angle. But lemme work up. Almost a year ago I noted that Pepin Press has, very strangely, decided to use Plate #17 from Kunstformen as the cover of its forthcoming history of ornament. Or maybe it’s just a good joke until they come up with a real cover.

But truly. There is something about Plate #17. In Jim Woodring’s The Frank Book [amazon], one of the better bits is “Frank And The Truth About Plenitude”, in which Frank catches and rides around on a ‘Jiva’. (That’s the thing you see him doing on the cover, for example.) But then, this and that, he dives deep in the ocean and sees a siphonophore, copied straight out of Haeckel.


Apparently, seeing this creature from Haeckel causes him to appreciate plenitude for the first time. He goes and frees his captive Jiva, etc. He sits and looks at art.

And now Josh Glenn informs me of the following passage from The Education of Henry Adams (haven’t read it myself):

Turning his back on Karl Pearson and England, [Adams] plunged into Germany, and had scarcely crossed the Rhine when he fell into libraries of new works bearing the names of Ostwald, Ernst Mach, Ernst Haeckel, and others less familiar, among whom Haeckel was easiest to approach, not only because of being the oldest and clearest and steadiest spokesman of nineteenth-century mechanical convictions, but also because in 1902 he had published a vehement renewal of his faith. The volume contained only one paragraph that concerned a historian; it was that in which Haeckel sank his voice almost to a religious whisper in avowing with evident effort, that the “proper essence of substance appeared to him more and more marvellous and enigmatic as he penetrated further into the knowledge of its attributes – matter and energy – and as he learned to know their innumerable phenomena and their evolution.”

I like that Haeckel himself apparently had the same rapturous experience of plenitude as Frank.

Here is Woodring’s account of what a Jiva is, by the by.

Jivas are conditioned souls. Temporarily confined to the liberating prison of radial symmetry, they writhe joyously in the welkin, drawn to the bliss of the eternal interval. But while their subtle bodies are nuzzling the absolute, the multicolored skins are available to Frank and his friends for riding or target practice. Jivas are independent; they are slow to notice and interact with Frank and his associates, but when they do the results can be appalling.

Best song on 2007: Bon Iver’s “Re: Stacks”, obviously. (I’m a bit late to this party. For a while I had this vague impression that there was some great new band, “Boney Bear”.)



Picador 12.16.08 at 7:30 pm

FYI, both links are to Yglesias. The NY Times link.


John Holbo 12.17.08 at 1:54 am

Fixed. Thanks.


jim in austin 12.17.08 at 5:07 am

Let me be the first to wish you A Very Haeckel Christmas!


Michael 12.19.08 at 12:23 am

Jivas are also the tiny soul essences of all living beings in Jainism, and it is the thoughtless killing of them that besmirches our own jivas, requiring painful austerities to purify ourselves, etc.. Jivas are everywhere: they are the myriad tiny animalcules inhabiting, um, er, many places, including, ah, female genitalia, which makes sexual activity a pretty iffy proposition for a Jain.

Meanwhile back to Haeckel. His reference to ‘matter and energy’ sounds very like that wonderfully titled and very 19th century German materialist tract, Kraft und Stoff, whose message is: that’s all it all is. I would so like to write a book with that title. But, alas, it’s already taken.


nick s 12.19.08 at 7:39 am

The Levy-Wilkinson exchange is “interesting” in the sense that it’s really not that accurate on Levy’s side. Perhaps it’s hard to explain the concept of the Queen of Canada; perhaps it’s hard to explain that in the Westminster system, the head of state or her representative chooses a prime minister to form a government. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. (And he skipped Harper’s decision to target public-sector workers, which was at least as significant as party funding in the crisis.)


jholbo 12.19.08 at 10:06 am

There’s a Queen of Canada?

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