Published on 28 Jul 2015
“I keep my mouth shut now. I’ve turned into a professional coward.”
– Hunter S. Thompson in 1967
In the 1960s, Hunter S. Thompson spent more than a year living and drinking with members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, riding up and down the California coast. What he saw alongside this group of renegades on Harleys, these hairy outlaws who rampaged and faced charges of attempted murder, assault and battery, and destruction of property along the way — all of this became the heart of Thompson’s first book: Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Shortly after the book came out, Thompson sat down for a radio interview with the one and only Studs Terkel.
“I can’t remember ever winning a fight.”
“I used to take it out at night on the Coast Highway, just drunk out of my mind, ride it for 20 and 30 miles in just short pants and a t-shirt. It’s a beautiful feeling.”
“ I tried to keep my eyes on him because I didn’t want to have my skull fractured.”
“They want to get back at the people who put them in this terrible, this dead end, tunnel.”
“The people who are most affected by this technological obsolescence are the ones least capable of understanding the reason for it, so the venom builds up much quicker. It feeds on their ignorance.”
August 21, 2015
August 19, 2015
… usually these books are simply campaign documents or, in the case of Wendy Davis’s Forgetting to Be Afraid: A Memoir, résumés for candidates who have suffered a crushing defeat or expect to suffer a crushing defeat, offering a rationale for keeping themselves in the game.
I have heard more than one thoughtful political observer lament the fact that Bill Clinton is constitutionally incapable of writing an honest book — given the man’s intelligence, his charm, and his genuinely dramatic life’s story, he might very well have written a real work of literature. But politics suffers from the same tendency toward dishonesty that U. S. Grant attributed to war: Political careers “produce many stories of fiction, some of which are told until they are believed to be true.” How many Americans still to this day believe that John Ashcroft draped a statue of Justice because he was scandalized by her bare, aluminum breast, or that he fears that calico cats are emissaries of Satan?
But, as Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates, in politics the truth rarely gets in the way of a good story. If ever I run for office — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — I will title my memoir Awesome American Courage: My Courageously Awesome American Story of Awesomely American Courage. Never mind that I’ve never done anything particularly awesome or courageous; Wendy Davis never really had much to forget to be afraid of, either, except, possibly, the voters.
Kevin D. Williamson, “A Plague of Memoirs: A courageously awesome American story of awesomely American courage”, National Review, 2014-10-06.
August 9, 2015
David Warren on the late Robert Conquest:
[Robert Conquest’s] grand works of historical investigation — The Great Terror (1968), documenting the incredible extent of Stalin’s purges; and, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), surveying the catastrophic effects of his collectivization — were books of remarkable ambition; of bold conception and real consequence. Other writers had (often at the cost of their careers) reported upon Soviet failings. But they had done so in ways modest enough to be ignored, or dismissed by the fashionable Left as “biased.” The broad, massive, systematic nature of Conquest’s researches was something new. It cracked even the faith of many diehard Communists. The history he told fit together; it was all meticulously sourced; it was overwhelming. There was, as it rose on the horizon, too much to deny.
Yet others could still simply block it out. For people believe what they want to believe, and may resolutely look away from what they do not want to see, or even chute the cocksure laugh, in the face of the mounting tsunami of evidence that finally washes them away.
Conquest was also a light or minor poet, and verse translator, of skill, talent, and integrity. He moved, privately, more in literary than in political circles. His closest friends were such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin; another was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
He was no ideologue, and judging by the way he burned through wives, not a moralist either. Outwardly, in the tiny glimpse I had of him, he was not passionate or irascible. Inwardly, he was surely “driven.” But I would count him as a detached artist, working in a rather unusual modern genre: the author of elaborately proven epics of debunkment.
It was not Conquest, incidentally, but Amis who proposed that the revision of The Great Terror, published after the Berlin Wall fell, should be re-entitled, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. But Conquest was content with, A Reassessment. He presented his facts emotionlessly. This magnified his impact, as historian. When he had a provocation to offer, that he was entirely unable to resist, he would put it safely into verse form, so that it wouldn’t be noticed.
August 1, 2015
In Vice, Milo Yiannopoulos discusses the long-lost-then-found early Ayn Rand novella Ideal, which Rand reworked into a play:
According to Michael Paxton, who directed the world premiere of the play in 1989, Ideal gives readers an insight into Rand’s state of mind in the early 1930s: Her first novel, We The Living, had been rejected by publishers for being “too intellectual,” and the writer was struggling with odd jobs, having recently moved to the United States.
“It examines the artist’s process,” Paxton told me from his hotel room in North Carolina, where he was set to give a talk at the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Summer Conference. “How do you be an artist and live in the world at the same time? It’s amazing how, once you’ve lived a little in the world, you can really understand these characters and the issues they’re dealing with — not being understood, thinking the world doesn’t care whether you live or die.”
His assessment is not universal. Perhaps predictably, the New York Times hated the play when it premiered off-Broadway in 2010, concluding that, “the show’s clumsy mix of long bursts of theory and a laborious plot would test the endurance of even Alan Greenspan, a famous Rand admirer and veteran of long, boring meetings.”
As a play, Ideal went unperformed for 60 years after its writing, and was never seen on stage in Rand’s lifetime, though Paxton says that may have something to do with its practical demands: The play has 37 characters and tons of set changes. But he thinks it’s worth the effort: “What’s surprising about the play is that it has a lot of humour, and a lot of satire in how it makes fun of organized religion. It’s subtle, and very funny.”
The good news is the new edition also includes the entire play script. So you can gather 37 of your closest right-wing nutcase allies — or lefty culture jammers, as you prefer — and stage it yourself to find out.
Ideal the novel, which Rand herself set aside as unsatisfactory, is less polished than the stage version, and, despite flashes of Randian flair, there is evidence that the author was still struggling to find her voice. Readers familiar with The Fountainhead will recognize the seeds of that work in this early effort. Thankfully, though, Ideal is not one of those works of juvenilia that ought to have remained lost.
Rand’s critics, often humourless literalists, will find plenty in Ideal to gnaw on: There’s the classically Randian was-it-rape-or-wasn’t-it sex scene and a blisteringly heartless remark after a death that will have fans sniggering and detractors drumming up all the manufactured fury they can muster. And, yes, Rand’s writing can be a bit… much.
But profound, existential loneliness, coupled with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer–esque sense of ordained personal greatness is why so many cheerleaders for capitalism relate to Rand’s lead characters, from Gonda to The Fountainhead‘s Dominique Francon.
July 25, 2015
Daniel J. Mahoney reviews Havel: A Life, by Michael Zantovsky:
Michael Zantovsky has written a remarkable book about a complex and genuinely admirable human being. Zantovsky, a long-time friend and sometime press secretary to Václav Havel, went on to become Czech ambassador to Washington and to the Court of St. James in London. He has intimate knowledge of Havel and writes with verve and clarity. He freely admits to “loving” Havel, even as he maintains his critical distance and avoids anything resembling hagiography. Zantovsky is aided in this seemingly impossible task by his experience as a clinical psychologist, which allows him to combine admiration with detachment and remarkable descriptive powers. Unlike so many other critical accounts inspired by suspicion and anti-elitism, his “loving” but measured account leaves Havel’s greatness undiminished.
As Zantovsky shows, Havel was “one of the more fascinating politicians of the last century” even as he was much more than a politician. He ably explores Havel’s multiple roles as writer, dramatist, moralist, dissident, and anti-totalitarian theoretician. The book also captures Havel’s myriad “contradictions,” which were never too far from the surface. A born leader who was kind, polite, humorous, and self-effacing, he was also a “bundle of nerves,” prone to depression and self-medication, and to “sometimes ill-considered sexual adventures.” Havel’s admirers are obliged to confront that latter point. This moralist did not readily apply moral criteria to affairs of the heart and was sometimes promiscuous in ways that belie conventional morality and religious principles. He seems to have at least partly bought into the radically “individualist” ethos of the 1960s, at least as regards “personal” morality. Zantovsky provides an insightful analysis of the dissident culture of the sixties and seventies, which was in most respects admirable, even as it defended sexual “freedom” as a venue for individual autonomy in an order dominated by totalitarian repression and the erosion of individuality.
Sexual indiscretions aside, Havel was an intensely spiritual man who didn’t adhere to any religion. Despite his admiration for Pope John Paul II and his prison friendship with the future cardinal archbishop of Prague, Dominik Duka, he “did not die a Roman Catholic.” But he respected religion and even attended secret masses in prison. In his voluminous writings and speeches, he upheld a quasi-theistic “conception of being” and an understanding of “responsibility rooted in the memory of Being.” In Havel’s philosophical conception, everything we do is remembered, “recorded,” by “being” itself. This was Havel’s equivalent of immortality; it provided cosmic grounds or support for moral responsibility. These spiritual convictions, bordering on New Age philosophy, were a staple of Havel’s speeches at home and abroad during his years as president first of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic.
July 16, 2015
J.M. McNabb makes the case that one particular fan theory explains so much of the J.K. Rowling books:
It always seemed odd that Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, would be good enough to take him in and raise him, only to keep him locked in a cupboard under the stairs and generally treat him like a moldering hunk of Hitler’s shit. Why not just dump him in an orphanage if they were planning on treating him like an old boot for the entirety of his childhood? In a series full of magical beings, one of the most fantastic elements is that these completely normal people managed to be so terrible without the use of any spells
… or did they? A theory by Graphic Nerdity claims that the Dursleys were originally a normal, supportive couple, but continued exposure to Harry’s cursed ass turned them into resentful hate beasts.
Why It’s Not That Crazy:
Harry, as we eventually find out, is technically a horcrux. For those of you who aren’t fluent in nerd, horcruxes are cursed objects containing fragments of the evil Voldemort’s soul, and they’ve been known to turn people into assholes. In the second movie, Ginny Weasley is brainwashed by a book that doesn’t even have “Dianetics” in the title, because it’s a horcrux. It contains a piece of the venomous soul of the lord of hate magic and wizard murder. We also see Ron start acting like a total dick after putting on a locket that’s, you guessed it, also a horcrux.
Most importantly, we find out later in the series that Harry himself has a part of Voldemort’s soul trapped inside of him, like Dick Clark and Ryan Seacrest. So if Ron and Ginny turned evil after being exposed to a horcrux over a matter of weeks and months, just imagine how the Dursleys could be affected after living with one for 10 years. Harry Potter was a magical cancer gnawing hungrily away their souls.
This discovery makes the biggest douchebags of the Potter-verse not villains, but victims. Heroes, even. The fact that their adoption of a child who was also a cursed object merely resulted in them turning into emotionally abusive turds instead of a family of secret cannibals is cause for commendation.
July 9, 2015
Top ten and top 100 lists are everywhere, it seems, but just how useful are they? In the Times Literary Supplement blog, Michael Caines shared a list from more than a hundred years back, showing what the compiler of that year thought were the “best” novels:
Is it true, as Samuel Johnson declared, that nothing “odd”, in literary terms, will last? As mentioned a while ago, for a certain well-placed critic, writing in 1898, that odd book Tristram Shandy could not be considered among the hundred best novels ever written. Now here’s what he actually thought were the best.
Sometime editor of the Illustrated London News, an authority on the Brontës and Napoleon, Clement K. Shorter was in the middle of a flourishing career when this list appeared in the monthly journal called The Bookman. He doesn’t explain what exactly makes a book one of the “best”, only that he has deliberately limited himself to one novel per novelist. Living authors are excluded – although he cannot resist adding a rider of eight works by “writers whose reputations are too well established for their juniors to feel towards them any sentiments other than those of reverence and regard”. In fact, I’d say if he’d been trying to prophesy what would still be regarded as a classic a century later, Shorter’s shorter list is more proportionally successful than his longer one.
As intended, Shorter’s list might still serve as an “actual incentive” to discovery, as he hoped, for “the youthful student of literature” (one to put next to David Bowie’s, maybe) at least partly because of what seem now to be its many oddities. People have become less hesitant, for example, before praising the living (the more junior the better) and, one suspects, less willing to praise P. G. Hamerton’s Marmorne. I’m not sure Bracebridge Hall is even in print on this side of the Atlantic. And would you have chosen Silas Marner over Middlemarch?
It’s just a list, of course, and Shorter acknowledged that others could probably come up with “numerous omissions”. It’s curious to see what we might call classic or canonical novels among the works they’ve outlasted, though. Praise for, say, Jane Austen might have echoed down the centuries, but this doesn’t mean that we share the same aesthetic values as readers who praised her in the early nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.
It’s difficult to imagine any except the most foolhardy of readers reading every book on Shorter’s list now, let alone agreeing with him. In John Sutherland’s compendious Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, however, may be found informed summary views of many of the lesser-known names below – see the parenthetical quotations for the ones that interested me.
For that full 1898 flavour, names and dates are as Shorter gives them.
July 8, 2015
Published on 6 Jul 2015
Louis Barthas was a French soldier who served on the Western Front for 54 months. He served in the Battle of Verdun and other major battles of World War 1. His War Diary gave a voice to the senselessness of war. As a socialist, Barthas was a supporter of the French mutinies of 1917 and a vocal enemy of the war. All about Louis Barthas in our biography.
July 7, 2015
On his blog, Charlie provides a crib sheet for his novel The Rhesus Chart including the all-too-common appearance of vampires in urban fiction:
Vampires: well, who hasn’t read enough vampire books or watched enough vampire movies to claim some expertise? Maybe I’m anomalous in having a low taste for urban fantasy, but while I’m writing a novel I can’t unwind by reading something similar to what I’m working on — so during my hard-SF phase in the 2000s I read far too much UF as a source of brain candy while writing books like Iron Sunrise or Saturn’s Children.
There are huge inconsistencies in the vampire mythology, largely because the idea of blood-sucking corpses (or the more abstract transferrable-curse-of-vampirisim) crops up in many different cultures. Northern European vampires seem to have their origins in primitive misapprehensions about the process of decay of bodies after death, and in the way contagious diseases spread through families living in close unhygienic conditions (such as tuberculosis). Religious trappings got layered on top early on, because religious beliefs are a way of making sense of the universe, especially its more inexplicable aspects: hence the holy water/crucifix allergy. So it occurred to me that given the Laundry Files universe as a setting, it ought to be possible to come up with an “origin story” for vampirism that fits the mythology sufficiently well to explain most of the core elements and that was consistent with the previously established motifs of supernatural brain parasitism. If instead of pure parasitism (the eaters in night, the K-syndrome parasites) we posit a commensal symbiote, or a parasite that uses the host to harvest food, you end up with something like the V-parasites — and indeed, this sort of parasitism is something we see in nature.
One of my beefs with the urban fantasy genre in general is that there’s a tendency for less thoughtful authors to absorb the eschatological trappings that have cohered around the monster myths they’re adopting without questioning them. (Holy water and vampires would be one example.) I wrote The Apocalypse Codex in large part as a response to this problem — to underline the fact that the Laundry Files universe is not driven by Christian religious eschatology (unless Cthulhu worship really is going mainstream). Another problem I have with many UF series is that they posit a hidden world of magic and monsters coexisting with our own … without any friction visible around the edges, even as vampires and demons rack up an impressive body count. The Rhesus Chart is part of my fix for this in the Laundry Files (although The Concrete Jungle makes some interesting observations about the true purpose of the Mass Observation programs of the 1930s to 1960s). Vampires are predators and predators are territorial. It’s also not a great leap of the imagination to postulate that if vampires exist and were identified as a problem in public, the scale of the response would rival that of the reaction to terrorism: mandatory naked noonday identity parades, police patrols with mirrors and stakes, and so on. So the first rule of vampire school is: vampires don’t exist … and if you see one, kill it and dispose of the evidence because it’s carelessness is a direct existential risk to your own survival.
July 6, 2015
July 4, 2015
Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.
People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.
Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.
July 2, 2015
While other literary novelists tended to steer clear of such contentious territory, the writers of cheap thrillers had no such inhibitions. In Pamela Kettle’s hilariously bad The Day of the Women (1969), a feminist political party, IMPULSE, wins the 1975 general election and inaugurates a reign of terror. “A female Prime Minister … human stud farms run by women … mass rallies at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the day of the dominating woman”: all were signs of “high-heeled fascism, a dictatorship of unbridled power lust”, according to the paperback blurb. The master of this kind of thing, though, was the pulp science-fiction writer Edmund Cooper, whose views on women’s liberation were full-bodies, to say the least. In an interview with Science Fiction Monthly in 1975, he commented that men were right to be suspicious of high-flying career women, because “most women are going to get themselves impregnated and piss off shortly after they’ve mastered the job and got themselves a decent salary”. He was in favour of “equal competition”, though, because then “they’ll see that they can’t make it. We have had free education in this country for a great many years, but where are the good female mathematicians? Where are the good female scientists? Where are the female Beethovens? They’ve gone back home to wash the dishes and produce children.”
These views shone through in his books: in Five to Twelve (1968), for example, twenty-first-century Britain is run entirely by women, with men reduced to “chattels”, not only few in number but physically dwarfed by their Amazonian mistresses. This terrible situation, we discover, is all down to the Pill, which liberated women from their own biology and made them “both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense, impregnable”. One man, a “troubador” with the bizarre name of Dion Quern, tries to resist, but, like Orwell’s Winston Smith, he meets a tragic conclusion. In Who Needs Men?, meanwhile, twenty-fifth-century Britain is again dominated by women, lesbian orgies are all the rage and Nelson’s Column has been renamed Germaine’s Needle. The plot follows the adventures of Rura Alexandra, “Madam Exterminator”, who is leading the effort to wipe out the last men hiding in the Scottish Highlands. But even she is vulnerable to the most dangerous weapon of all — love — as she falls for her opponent, Diarmid MacDiarmid, “the last remaining rebel chieftain”.
Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency — The way we were: Britain 1970-1974, 2010.
June 30, 2015
Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:
- Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
- Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
- Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.
The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.
Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula “The Worst Hundred Books,” and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.
Oscar Wilde, “To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette“, 1886-02-08.
June 29, 2015
This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.
That last bit there, yeah, there’s a lot to that. It comes to my mind frequently these days, what with all the fake rape stories floating around and feminists dumbing down the definition of ‘rape’ and ratcheting up what constitutes ‘consent’ and universities attempting to regulate student sexual activity with silly rules about requiring explicit consent at each stage of foreplay. Really?
There’s something missing there. I mean, sure the university has to do this stupid stuff to avoid getting itself into a morass of Title IX lawsuits, but feminists have seized the opportunity to further their own agenda. They’ve brought in the whole toolkit of critical theory, and the oppressive patriarchy and complaints about gender bias and supposed female powerlessness to force the rest of us to accept their view that the only reasonable and moral basis for a sexual relationship is an a priori straight-up consent transaction, that the woman may unilaterally rescind at any time during the proceedings, and anything else is an assault on women (i.e rape).
However, how men and women interact with each other, the steps of the mating dance, is far more complicated. And the feminist square-peg-in-a-round-hole narrative totally ignores the popularity of the “bodice-ripping” romance novels, which are almost universally written by women for women, and hardly ever read by men. And the market is huge. Women are buying these books by the truckload. I found a list of supposedly the best bodice ripper novels and the intro is instructive:
This is a list for Bodice Ripper romance novels that you think are a 5 star read. The best of the best – with alpha heroes, un-politically correct action, forced seduction, rape, sold into slavery plot lines, mistresses and cheating – the no-holds bar world of Bodice Ripper!
Notice the selling points: (a) alpha heroes, (b) forced seduction, (c) rape, and (d) sold into slavery plotlines. But where’s the consent? It’s not even in the equation. Oh, I’m sure that after the female lead is raped/seduced, she eventually falls in love with the alpha male and willingly and joyfully surrenders to his alpha maleness (I haven’t actually read any of these, I’ve just heard that that’s the way most of them turn out), but that’s all ex post facto.
And then beyond the bodice-rippers, there’s the 50 Shades books, which takes the bodice ripper one step further, and again, huge seller. So I think there’s something about how the relationships are portrayed in these books that touches women’s psyche at some basic level. Women are attracted to strength. No woman likes being the partner of a weak man. I’m sure feminists would like to believe that this whole aspect of male/female relationships doesn’t exist, but E L James’ bank account says otherwise.
And of course, James’ success has resulted in other authors piling on: 8 Series to Start After You Finish the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong. I do not recommend the 50 Shades series and I’m certainly not recommending any of these wannabes, which look even sleazier, if that’s possible. My point is, if what feminists want to be true is indeed true, then why are these books so popular? (hint: it must be that damn patriarchy again!)
Feminism is trying to force us all to live in a world that simply doesn’t exist. Fake rape stories and real lawsuits, not to mention damaged and ruined lives, are the toxic sludge that results from mixing feminism with the sexual revolution and letting it simmer for five decades. We’ll be cleaning up these messes for a very long time.
I wonder if Mattress Girl has read the 50 Shades books?