October 25, 2016

QotD: Viking weapons and combat techniques (from historical evidence and re-creation)

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I expected to enjoy Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-076-9), and I was not disappointed. I am a historical fencer and martial artist who has spent many hours sparring with weapons very similar to those Dr. Short describes, and I have long had an active interest in the Viking era. I had previously read many of the primary saga sources (such as Njal’s Saga Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Grettir the Strong) that Dr. Short mines for information on Viking weaponscraft, but I had not realized how informative they can be when the many descriptions of fights in them are set beside each other and correlated with the archeological evidence.

For those who don’t regularly follow my blog, my wife Cathy and I train in a fighting tradition based around sword and shield, rooted in southern Italian cut-and-thrust fencing from around 1500. It is a battlefield rather than a dueling style. Our training weapons simulate cut-and-thrust swords similar in weight and length to Viking-era weapons, usually cross-hilted but occasionally basket-hilted after the manner of a schiavona; our shields are round, bossless, and slightly smaller than Viking-era shields. We also learn to fight single-sword, two-sword, and with polearms and spears. The swordmaster’s family descended from Sicilo-Norman nobles; when some obvious Renaissance Italian overlays such as the basket hilts are lain aside, the continuity of our weapons with well-attested Norman patterns and with pre-Norman Viking weapons is clear and obvious. Thus my close interest in the subject matter of Dr. Short’s book.

Dr. Short provides an invaluable service by gathering all this literary evidence and juxtaposing it with pictures and reconstructions of Viking-age weapons, and with sequences of re-enactors experimenting with replicas. He is careful and scholarly in his approach, emphasizing the limits of the evidence and the occasional flat-out contradictions between saga and archeological evidence. I was pleased that he does not shy from citing his own and his colleagues’ direct physical experience with replica weapons as evidence; indeed, at many points in the text, .the techniques they found by exploring the affordances of these weapons struck me as instantly familiar from my own fighting experience.

Though Dr. Short attempts to draw some support for his reconstructions of techniques from the earliest surviving European manuals of arms, such as the Talhoffer book and Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, his own warnings that these are from a much later period and addressing very different weapons are apposite. Only the most tentative sort of guesses can be justified from them, and I frankly think Dr. Short’s book would have been as strong if those references were entirely omitted. I suspect they were added mostly as a gesture aimed at mollifying academics suspicious of combat re-enactment as an investigative technique, by giving them a more conventional sort of scholarship to mull over.

Indeed, if this book has any continuing flaw, I think it’s that Dr. Short ought to trust his martial-arts experience more. He puzzles, for example, at what I consider excessive length over the question of whether Vikings used “thumb-leader” cuts with the back edge of a sword. Based on my own martial-arts experience, I think we may take it for granted that a warrior culture will explore and routinely use every affordance of its weapons. The Vikings were, by all accounts, brutally pragmatic fighters; the limits of their technique were, I am certain, set only by the limits of their weapons. Thus, the right question, in my opinion, is less “What can we prove they did?” than “What affordances are implied by the most accurate possible reconstructions of the tools they fought with?”.

As an example of this sort of thinking, I don’t think there is any room for doubt that the Viking shield was used aggressively, with an active parrying technique — and to bind opponents’ weapons. To see this, compare it to the wall shields used by Roman legionaries and also in the later Renaissance along with longswords, or with the “heater”-style jousting shields of the High Medieval period. Compared to these, everything about the Viking design – the relatively light weight, the boss, the style of the handgrip – says it was designed to move. Dr. Short documents the fact that his crew of experimental re-enactors found themselves using active shield guards (indistinguishable, by the way from my school’s); I wish he had felt the confidence to assert flat-out that this is what the Vikings did with the shield because this is what the shield clearly wants to do…

Eric S. Raymond, “Dr. William Short’s ‘Viking Weapons and Combat’: A Review”, Armed and Dangerous, 2009-08-13.

October 17, 2016

Islam in Britain

Filed under: Books, Britain, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Samizdata, a look at a new book covering the Islamic communities of Britain:

In the book Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, the author – a BBC radio producer (boo, hiss) – attempts to provide an overview of the various strands of Islam in the UK. Her aim is not to tell us what to think but simply to provide the facts – what are they called? how many of them are there? where so they come from? what do they believe? etc. It is up to us, the readers, to draw conclusions.

Along the way there are a number of surprises. One of them is how different Islam is from Christianity. You would expect them to be rather similar given that they are both book-based, mono-theistic religions that revere both Abraham and Christ. Not a bit of it.

For example, in Christianity there is usually a close relationship between denomination and building. In Islam (at least in the UK) it is far more vague. A sect might be said to be “in control” of a mosque, the implication being that that control is temporary and could be lost. Many influential Muslim organisations such as Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami have no mosques at all or very few.

Another is that the largest two sects in the UK are the Deobandis and Barelwis. No, I’d never heard of them either. For the record they are both Sunni (one definitely Sufi the other arguably so) and both originated in British India. It is worth pointing out that for the most part Bowen focuses on Sunni Islam but that is hardly surprising given that Sunnis vastly outnumber Shi’ites both globally and in the UK.

Another is that interest in Islam seems to be a second-generation thing. The first generation brought their Islam with them but seem to have regarded it as something they did rather than thought about. The second generation are much more inclined to read the Koran, take it seriously and ask questions. Even so, the most influential Islamic thinkers still tend to be based abroad.

I said earlier that it is left up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. So what does this reader conclude? Well, my biggest takeaway was that despite there being many strands of Islam and many weird and wonderful doctrinal disputes within Islam, there is no “good” Islam. The best you get is “less awful” Islam.

October 2, 2016

QotD: Camille Paglia on what’s wrong with American feminism today

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

After the great victory won by my insurgent, pro-sex, pro-fashion wing of feminism in the 1990s, American and British feminism has amazingly collapsed backward again into whining, narcissistic victimology. As in the hoary old days of Gloria Steinem and her Stalinist cohorts, we are endlessly subjected to the hackneyed scenario of history as a toxic wasteland of vicious male oppression and gruesome female suffering. College campuses are hysterically portrayed as rape extravaganzas where women are helpless fluffs with no control over their own choices and behavior. I am an equal opportunity feminist: that is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women, which I reject as demeaning and infantilizing. My principal demand (as I have been repeating for nearly 25 years) is for colleges to confine themselves to education and to cease their tyrannical surveillance of students’ social lives. If a real crime is committed, it must be reported to the police. College officials and committees have neither the expertise nor the legal right to be conducting investigations into he said/she said campus dating fiascos. Too many of today’s young feminists seem to want hovering, paternalistic authority figures to protect and soothe them, an attitude I regard as servile, reactionary and glaringly bourgeois. The world can never be made totally safe for anyone, male or female: there will always be sociopaths and psychotics impervious to social controls. I call my system “street-smart feminism”: there is no substitute for wary vigilance and personal responsibility.

Camille Paglia, “The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia”, American Magazine, 2015-02-25.

September 28, 2016

“… first I have to explain the Tragically Hip. I apologize in advance.”

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Kathy Shaidle burnishes her street cred as the most anti-Tragically Hip writer of the year:

Foreign ears will likely mistake the Hip for a fairly capable R.E.M. cover band — very “Stuff White People Like,” nothing more. But up here during, yes, the 1990s, college students got maudlin drunk on this group’s unsingable songs, in part because the only words you can make out are Canadian place names and slang terms, and there will always exist a particular variety of parochial — the type who otherwise despises “patriotism” — who inevitably finds that sort of thing weirdly…I don’t know if “flattering” is quite the word, but it will have to do. It helps that, off stage, the Hip promote the usual “progressive” bunkum.

The Tragically Hip are hardly the Rolling Stones or the Who, or Smashing Pumpkins or Hole. The Tragically Hip will never make any Top 50, or even Top 500, Musical Groups of All Time List.

And yet, I’ve been duly informed, they are “Canada’s Band.” The announcement on May Two-Four that lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie had fatal brain cancer meant, for me, that (forget what I wrote last week) his gnomic lyrics finally had a pretext, and for everyone else, that the band was embarking on a national farewell tour.

The media covered every aspect of this cross-country excursion with that cloying, breathless boosterism normally reserved for the Olympics. Except even the Games’ critics are allowed to voice their dissent, and not a discouraging word was permitted as the Tragically Hip traipsed across the country all summer, their “songs” blaring on the radio even more than already demanded by CanCon.

The CBC broadcast their final gig live, calling it “an honour and a privilege.” Prime Minister Zoolander (later conspicuously absent from any 15th-anniversary commemorations of 9/11) attended, of course. Maclean’s put Downie on the cover of a special issue and devoted dozens of pages to the tour, analyzing each set list and quoting fans declaring the Hip’s songs “the soundtrack of our lives” and Downie “a genius” and a “shaman” and a “saint.”

I’d go on, but Canadian poet David Solway’s crabby take on this “orgiastic sobfest” cannot be bettered. (Not surprisingly, it was published by an American outlet.)

And then it was over. Finally.

Except until it wasn’t.

August 15, 2016

New sitcom works very hard to offend its audience, Millennials

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Lisa de Moraes explains why the cast and crew of the new CBS comedy are being attacked on social media for their insensitivity to the plight of Millennials:

War broke out today between millennial media and the cast and creators of CBS’ new comedy series The Great Indoors, in which Joel McHale stars as an adventure reporter who becomes boss to a group of millennials in the digital department of their magazine. […]

It started when EP Mike Gibbons, who noted that 40 is the new 80, mentioned that CBS focus-grouped the pilot, and the millennial in the group said he did not like it because of the jokes about millennials being coddled, too sensitive and thin-skinned. The woman running the focus group, Gibbons said, clarified: “So, you were offended by millennials being portrayed as too sensitive.”

A Millennial Media Member interrupted Gibbons. “I’m a millennial myself. How are we so coddled, and what about our overly politically correct workplace bothers you?” she asked, like she meant it to sting.

Stephen Fry, who co-stars as the charismatic founder of The Great Outdoors magazine, who is a world traveler, explorer and adventurer, jumped in to note there is “an element of coddling” and “an element in which you have it tougher than the generation before.”


Another media member, non-millennial, asked Gibbons if he was “worried” that the show would be dismissed as “middle-aged white guy complaining about his lot in life and having to deal with millennials.”

Joked Gibbons, “Our show is going to make America great again”.

“So you are the Trump show?” Non-Millennial Media Member snapped back. “I’m just seeking clarification.”

“Irony comes through in print, right?” Gibbons quipped.

H/T to Small Dead Animals for the link.

July 19, 2016

QotD: The battle against superstition

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Religion, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. … They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us. … What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.

H.L. Mencken, “Aftermath”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925-09-14.

June 22, 2016

Kathy Shaidle wonders if the Pope is even Catholic

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Her latest column for Taki’s Magazine discusses her own journey away from the Catholic church and the current Pope’s own journey in a similar direction:

Such are the epochal times we’re living in that even timeworn truisms are at risk of obsolescence.

Take “Is the Pope Catholic?” Those of a certain age may prefer Steve Martin’s absurdist gloss — “Does the Pope shit in the woods?” — but the original has been every wise guy’s idea of a witticism for as long as I’ve been alive, and presumably longer.

But I’m not the first to wonder if the election of Pope Francis has rendered the phrase extinct. Great news for anyone whose taste in conversation veers away from the Runyonesque, but obviously not so great news for, you know, the Church.

Years ago, I would have cared more.

I spent much of my career as a semiprofessional Catholic. Besides working in Catholic publishing, such as it is, I’d called my first blog Relapsed Catholic. That was in 2000. When the American priestly sex-abuse scandals exploded shortly thereafter, I was in a uniquely helpful position: Canada had undergone an identical crisis the previous decade, and my blog posts about both found an eager readership. I encouraged others to start their own sites, and eventually an informal network grew up — run by priests, nuns, canon lawyers, laity — which I nicknamed “St. Blog’s Parish.”

I was then, as I am now, the resident brat. When, in 2002, America’s clueless cardinals called for a Day of Reparations — during which the laity would perform penance for what were undeniably clerical sins — I blogged that collective guilt was exactly one of the “trendy modern notions” (like the New Age “therapy” sporadically employed to “treat” pervert priests, and the diocesan deference to secular lawyers’ morally dubious advice) that had exacerbated the corruption. Jesus, I noted, had been bracingly clear on the topic of child abuse: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck.”

“Implicitly,” I blogged, “someone has to stay dry. And do the tying. I’m delighted to volunteer.”

May 26, 2016

Terry Teachout on silent movies

Filed under: History, Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Ten years ago, Terry Teachout finally got around to watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and found (to his relief) that it was just as offensively racist as everyone had always said. He also discovered that silent movies are becoming terra incognita even to those who love old movies:

None of this, however, interested me half so much as the fact that The Birth of a Nation progresses with the slow-motion solemnity of a funeral march. Even the title cards stay on the screen for three times as long as it takes to read them. Five minutes after the film started, I was squirming with impatience, and after another five minutes passed, I decided out of desperation to try an experiment: I cranked the film up to four times its normal playing speed and watched it that way. It was overly brisk in two or three spots, most notably the re-enactment of Lincoln’s assassination (which turned out to be quite effective – it’s the best scene in the whole film). For the most part, though, I found nearly all of The Birth of a Nation to be perfectly intelligible at the faster speed.

Putting aside for a moment the insurmountable problem of its content, it was the agonizingly slow pace of The Birth of a Nation that proved to be the biggest obstacle to my experiencing it as an objet d’art. Even after I sped it up, my mind continued to wander, and one of the things to which it wandered was my similar inability to extract aesthetic pleasure out of medieval art. With a few exceptions, medieval and early Renaissance art and music don’t speak to me. The gap of sensibility is too wide for me to cross. I have a feeling that silent film – not just just The Birth of a Nation, but all of it – is no more accessible to most modern sensibilities. (The only silent movies I can watch with more than merely antiquarian interest are the comedies of Buster Keaton.) Nor do I think the problem is solely, or even primarily, that it’s silent: I have no problem with plotless dance, for instance. It’s that silent film “speaks” to me in an alien tongue, one I can only master in an intellectual way. That’s not good enough for me when it comes to art, whose immediate appeal is not intellectual but visceral (though the intellect naturally enters into it).

As for The Birth of a Nation, I’m glad I saw it once. My card is now officially punched. On the other hand, I can’t imagine voluntarily seeing it again, any more than I’d attend the premiere of an opera by Philip Glass other than at gunpoint. It is the quintessential example of a work of art that has fulfilled its historical purpose and can now be put aside permanently – and I don’t give a damn about history, at least not in my capacity as an aesthete. I care only for the validity of the immediate experience.

[…] Thrill me and all is forgiven. Bore me and you’ve lost me. That’s why I think it’s now safe to file and forget The Birth of a Nation. Yes, it’s still historically significant, and yes, it tells us something important about the way we once were. But it’s boring — and thank God for that.

May 19, 2016

QotD: A contrarian view of “Britain in decline”

Filed under: Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… it is not a bad time to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live on this damp little island.

I don’t mean this in a jingoistic way, and certainly when you look closely there is little to recommend Henry V’s brutal French raid. What there is to celebrate, of course, is Shakespeare’s poetic rendering of the campaign. It is our literary, scientific, technological, economic, political and philosophical achievements, rather than just our military milestones that we should occasionally pause to remember, amid our usual self-criticism.

All my life I have been told that Britain is in decline. But stand back and take a long, hard look. Even by relative standards, it just is not true. We have recently overtaken France (again) as the fifth largest economy in the world and are closing on Germany. We have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, devoted largely to peace-keeping. We disproportionately contribute to the world’s literature, art, music, technology and science.

We have won some 123 Nobel prizes, more than any other country bar America (and more per capita than America), and we continue to win them, with 18 in this century so far. In the field of genetics, which I know best, we discovered the structure of DNA, invented DNA fingerprinting, pioneered cloning and contributed 40 per cent of the first sequencing of the human genome.

On absolute measures, we are in even better shape. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1965 — in real terms. In those days, three million households lacked or shared an inside lavatory, most houses did not have central heating and twice as many people as today had no access to a car. When they did it was expensive, unreliable and leaked fumes.

In the 1960s even though there were fewer people in Britain, rivers were more polluted, the air was dirtier, and there were fewer trees, otters and buzzards. Budget airlines, mobile phones, search engines and social media were as unimaginable as unicorns. Sure, there was less obesity and fewer traffic jams, but there were more strikes, racism and nylon clothing. People spent twice as much of their income on food. There may be political angst about immigrants, but Britain is far more at ease with its multicultural self today than we might have dared to hope in the 1960s.

Matt Ridley, “Britain’s Best Years”, MattRidley.com, 2015-01-01.

May 16, 2016

QotD: The value of criticism

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Critical note — Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

H.L. Mencken, “Clinical Notes”, The American Mercury, 1924-01.

April 17, 2016

QotD: “Thought collectives” in science

Filed under: Quotations, Science — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In a 2015 paper titled Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?, a team of scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research sought an empirical basis for a remark made by the physicist Max Planck: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

The researchers identified more than 12,000 “elite” scientists from different fields. The criteria for elite status included funding, number of publications, and whether they were members of the National Academies of Science or the Institute of Medicine. Searching obituaries, the team found 452 who had died before retirement. They then looked to see what happened to the fields from which these celebrated scientists had unexpectedly departed, by analysing publishing patterns.

What they found confirmed the truth of Planck’s maxim. Junior researchers who had worked closely with the elite scientists, authoring papers with them, published less. At the same time, there was a marked increase in papers by newcomers to the field, who were less likely to cite the work of the deceased eminence. The articles by these newcomers were substantive and influential, attracting a high number of citations. They moved the whole field along.

A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.

This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.

Ian Leslie, “The sugar conspiracy”, Guardian, 2016-04-07.

April 7, 2016

Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide”

Filed under: Books, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

A positive review of Alice Dreger’s recent book from Jesse Singal at New York Magazine:

I first read Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science when I was home for Thanksgiving, and I often left it lying around the house when I was doing other stuff. At one point, my dad picked it up off a table and started reading the back-jacket copy. “That’s an amazing book so far,” I said. “It’s about the politicization of science.” “Oh,” my dad responded. “You mean like Republicans and climate change?”

That exchange perfectly sums up why anyone who is interested in how tricky a construct “truth” has become in 2015 should read Alice Dreger’s book. No, it isn’t about climate change, but my dad could be excused for thinking any book about the politicization of science must be about conservatives. Many liberals, after all, have convinced themselves that it’s conservatives who attack science in the name of politics, while they would never do such a thing. Galileo’s Middle Finger corrects this misperception in a rather jarring fashion, and that’s why it’s one of the most important social-science books of 2015.

At its core, Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview. And many of Dreger’s most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry.


There’s a risk of getting too cute here, of drawing false, unwarranted equivalencies. In a sense, my dad was right in what he was getting at — conservatives have done a lot of damage to sound science in the United States. It’s conservative lawmakers and organizations who have refused to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, who have rallied to keep evolution out of textbooks and comprehensive sex education out of classrooms, who have stymied life-saving research into stem cells and gun control.

But that’s in the world of politics and lawmaking, where conservatives often have a numerical advantage. In the halls of social-science academia, where liberals do, it’s telling that some of the same sorts of feeding frenzies occur. This should stand as a wake-up call, as a rebuke to the smugness that sometimes infects progressive beliefs about who “respects” science more. After all, what both the Bailey and Chagnon cases have in common — alongside some of the others in Galileo’s Middle Finger — is the extent to which groups of progressive self-appointed defenders of social justice banded together to launch full-throated assaults on legitimate science, and the extent to which these attacks were abetted by left-leaning academic institutions and activists too scared to stand up to the attackers, often out of a fear of being lumped in with those being attacked, or of being accused of wobbly allyship.

February 29, 2016

QotD: Kerouac’s On the Road as an unintentionally feminist novel

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There’s a story about a TV guide that summarized The Wizard of Oz as “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

It’s funny because it mistakes a tale of wonder and adventure for a crime spree. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is the opposite; a crime spree that gets mistaken for a tale of wonder and adventure.

On The Road is a terrible book about terrible people. Kerouac and his terrible friends drive across the US about seven zillion times for no particular reason, getting in car accidents and stealing stuff and screwing women whom they promise to marry and then don’t.

But it’s okay, because they are visionaries. Their vision is to use the words “holy”, “ecstatic”, and “angelic” at least three times to describe every object between Toledo and Bakersfield. They don’t pass a barn, they pass a holy vision of a barn, a barn such as there must have been when the world was young, a barn whose angelic red and beatific white send them into mad ecstasies. They don’t almost hit a cow, they almost hit a holy primordial cow, the cow of all the earth, the cow whose dreamlike ecstatic mooing brings them to the brink of a rebirth such as no one has ever known.


Even more interesting than their ease of transportation to me was their ease at getting jobs. This is so obvious to them it is left unspoken. Whenever their money runs out, be they in Truckee or Texas or Toledo, they just hop over to the nearest farm or factory or whatever, say “Job, please!” and are earning back their depleted savings in no time. This is really the crux of their way of life. They don’t feel bound to any one place, because traveling isn’t really a risk. Be it for a week or six months, there’s always going to be work waiting for them when they need it. It doesn’t matter that Dean has no college degree, or a criminal history a mile long, or is only going to be in town a couple of weeks. This just seems to be a background assumption. It is most obvious when it is violated; the times it takes an entire week to find a job, and they are complaining bitterly. Or the time the only jobs available are backbreaking farm labor, and so Jack moves on (of course abandoning the girl he is with at the time) to greener pastures that he knows are waiting.

Even more interesting than their ease of employment is their ease with women. This is unintentionally a feminist novel, in that once you read it (at least from a modern perspective) you end up realizing the vast cultural shift that had to (has to?) take place in order to protect women from people like the authors. Poor Galatea Dunkel seems to have been more of the rule than the exception – go find a pretty girl, tell her you love her, deflower her, then steal a car and drive off to do it to someone else, leaving her unmarriageable and maybe with a kid to support. Then the next time you’re back in town, look her up, give her a fake apology in order to calm her down enough for her to be willing to have sex with you again, and repeat the entire process.

Scott Alexander, “Book Review: On The Road“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-12-02.

February 19, 2016

QotD: Art, taste, and judgment

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

All of us, if we are not merely children or possessed of childlike tastes, recall works that we had to work to learn to love, such as obtuse poems which has to be explained before they were beautiful, words of archaic or foreign cant, or novels referring to experiences in life we were too young, on first reading, to recognize or know. Even science fiction and fantasy has some introductory learning that needs be done, a certain grasp of the scientific world view or the conventions of fantastic genre that must be gained, before the work is loveable. The only art I know that has no introductory effort at all is comic books, but even they, in recent years, now require introduction, since no one unaware of the decades of continuity can simply pick up a comic book and read it with pleasure: they are written for adults, these days, not kids, and adults expect and are expected to try harder to get into the work before getting something out of it.

The reason why modern art can pass for art is that the Tailors of the Emperor’s New Clothes can claim, and the claim cannot be dismissed unexamined, that modern art merely is has a steeper learning curve than real art. Once you get all the in-jokes and palindromes and Irish and Classical references in James Joyce (so the Tailors say) you can read ULYSSES with the same pleasure that a student, once he learns Latin, reads Virgil. And as long as you are in sympathy with the effort at destruction and deconstruction, this modern art has the same fascination as watching a wrecking crew tear down a fair and delicate antique fane with fretted colonnades and an architrave of flowing figures recalling forgotten wars between giants and gods. What child will not cheer when he sees a wrecking ball crash through the marble and stained glass of old and unwanted beauty? How he will clap when the dynamite goes off, and squeal, and hold his ears! I am not being sarcastic: there is something impressive in such acts.

Let us add a second observation: great novels and great paintings, symphonies, even great comic books, are ones that reward a second rereading or heeding or viewing. A book is something you read once and enjoy and throw away. A good book is one you read twice, and get something out of it a second time. A great book is one that has the power to make you fall in love, and each time you reread it, it is as new and fresh as Springtime, and you see some new nuance in it, the same way you see more beauty each time you see your wife of many years, and will forever, no matter how many years you see her face. (Those of you who are not in love, or not happily married, or who have never read a truly great book, will not know whereof I speak. Alas, I cannot describe the colors of a sunrise to a man born blind.)

Let us assume that there is no beauty in art, no objective rules. If that were so, how do we explain the two observations noted above, first, that some art must be learned before it is loved, and second, that some art rewards additional scrutiny indefinitely, a fountainhead that never runs dry. The explanation that the learning is not learning but merely acclamation, an Eskimo learning to tolerate the tropics, a Bushman growing to enjoy the snow, would make sense if and only if any art or rubbish would reward equal study with equal pleasure.

If the pleasure I get out of a work of art I had to grow and learn to like was merely due to me and my tastes, and the learning was not learning at all, but merely an adjustment of taste from one arbitrary genre convention to another, then the outcome or result could not differ from artwork to artwork, as long as I were the same.

If I can see more rich detail each time I reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and if indeed there are beauties that pierce like swords, and if this were due to me and only to me, and not due to something in the work, I should be able to study a pile of rocks besmirched with stains of oil and offal in a rubble heap, and with the same passage of time and effort, force myself to see equal beauty within.

But I cannot, nor can any man. Therefore the sublime is not just in me the observer; logically, it must be in the thing observed. There must be something really there.

If this argument satisfies, it tells us, with the clarity of a Deist argument, that there is an objective beauty in the world, but not what it is.

As in theological argument, in aesthetics we can only know more of the beauty of the universe if it comes to us in the artistic equivalent of revelation. We have to look at beauty in nature and see what is there, and what its rules are, before we look at beauty in human handiwork.

John C. Wright, “Supermanity and Dehumanity (Complete)”, John C. Wright’s Journal, 2014-12-13.

December 23, 2015


Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 22 Dec 2015

Welcome to a NEW kind of film-criticism series, built around the radical premise that just because “everyone knows” a movie is a classic doesn’t mean it stops being worth a deeper look.

At first, A CHRISTMAS STORY was a small 1983 movie that not a lot of people saw. But within a few years, regular Seasonal TV replays had turned it into a counter-culture staple – an All-American Christmas Movie that was *just* sly and jaded enough to be the “cool” alternative to more saccharine Holiday fare. Today, it’s celebrated as an unironic generational classic on par with CHARLIE BROWN, THE GRINCH or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

But does it deserve to be? The word “overrated” may as well have been invented to describe seasonal family-favorites we feel duty-bound to revisit on a yearly basis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time isn’t a good movie… but does it belong among the *great* movies?

This Christmas, thousands of people will watch Ralphie, Randy, Mom and The Old Man’s adventures – many as part of the now-ubiquitous 24-hour marathon. But before you do, maybe pull up a chair and listen as we explore whether or not A CHRISTMAS STORY is… REALLY THAT GOOD.

H/T to Victor for the link.

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