A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, it has the metaphorical power of great fiction. While younger generations may read her as a window into the mythic 1960s or September 11, it’s impossible not to see, too, how Didion’s examination of racial bias and the Central Park Five, Reagan-era El Salvador, or the smug, violent, white-male carelessness that characterized the infamous Spur Posse in Lakewood, California, in the early 1990s anticipated the deeply troubling politics of today. Still, there’s an energy to her writing—what she might call its “shimmer”—that goes beyond a given piece’s surface story, and that sheds an awful and beautiful light on a world we half see but don’t want to see, one in which potential harm is a given and hope is a flimsy defense against dread. Didion’s ethos is a way of seeing what’s particular to the world that made her, and that ultimately reveals the writer to herself.
We are all from somewhere. It’s the artist’s job to question the values that went into the making of that somewhere. What you notice in Didion’s nonfiction is how her clarity becomes even sharper when disquiet rattles the cage of the quotidian. “I’m not interested in the middle road—maybe because everyone’s on it,” she said in a 1979 interview with the critic Michiko Kakutani. “Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me…. A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions—leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes.”
The truth is of course that these people are whistling past the graveyard; their endlessly workshopped dry one-liners, shared relentlessly on a forum that makes them depressed and anxious, are the cries for help of desperate people, trapped in a dying industry, making pennies to grind out something called content while 70 year olds in the same business write 5000 words a year and watch their pensions grow. They think that they’re participating in the traditions of Joan Didion and Ellie Bly but the work they produce are listicles about Tik Tok and thinkpieces about Rick & Morty. They tell themselves that someday they’ll graduate into writing that book, not seeming to understand that literary advances are drying up like piss in the Sahara if you aren’t already famous. They cling to each other in mutually parasitic insincere relationships out of the vain hope that one day, one day, it’ll pay off.
They insist on living in the most expensive cities in the country while the interest on their student loans grows to many times the principle. They mock Silicon Valley while quietly knowing that they are utterly in its thrall, that any shithead VC baron could come along at any moment, decide to throw a switch, and obliterate them and their publication. They relentlessly freelance to get a chance to write for the big places and are shocked to discover that the big places are very happy to pay you $75 for 3000 words. They look at publications like the New Yorker as the cathedrals they aspire to work for, not seeming to realize that the beauty of being a cathedral is you get to treat even your big name employees like shit. They hate their industry and they’re tired of the city and they want some security but they won’t take that job offer from their uncle because they’re sure, somehow, that they’re better than him.
In addition to being a way to channel this form of longing, celibacy in the Christian tradition is also linked to a certain understanding of sexual morality. Unlike the Gnostics, a heretical sect that thought sex was bad since it keeps spirit tied to matter, orthodox Christianity has always held that sex can be good when it is embedded in the right kind of relationship. In the Catholic tradition, celibacy is considered a “higher” calling, since it is more exclusively devoted to loving union with God. But sexual love, fulfilled in marriage, is considered good both in itself, as the means of passing on life and, especially, as a sign of a higher kind of life. Just as the apparent unfreedom of monastic life is supposed to lead to an interior freedom, just so the apparently restrictive and repressive narrowness of Christian sexual morality is supposed to lead to a kind of sexual freedom. In our current culture, deeply marked by the sexual revolution, sexual freedom is most often thought of as a freedom from restriction. To be sexually free is to be liberated from taboos and prohibitions, to be able to do anything that one desires, as long as one’s sexual partners consent. But the Christian tradition sees sexual freedom as being a freedom for a certain kind of human fulfillment; it’s the freedom to use our sexuality in the way it was intended so that it can be a sign of God’s love.
I often illustrate the two kinds of freedom by two experiences that most of us had as children. First, the freedom experienced on the first day of vacation. This is an experience of negative freedom—freedom from the discipline of the schoolroom. Second, the freedom that comes when one has learned to ride a bicycle. That is an experience of positive freedom—freedom for a certain kind of activity. Such experiences require the discipline of learning how to control a bike—the process requires courage, discipline and the willingness to risk scrapes. Applied to sexuality, the negative kind of freedom can certainly give a feeling of liberation. But it also has disadvantages.
MORE THAN REALISM OR ITS RIVALS, the dominant literary style in America is careerism. This is neither a judgment nor a slur. For decades it has simply been the case that novelists, story writers, even poets have had to devote themselves to managing their careers as much as to writing their books. Institutional jockeying, posturing in profiles and Q&As, roving in-person readership cultivation, social-media fan-mongering, coming off as a good literary citizen among one’s peers—some balance of these elements is now part of every young author’s life. It’s a matter of necessity and survival, above and beyond the usual dealings with editors, agents, and Hollywood big shots. The ways writers used to mythologize themselves have either expired or been discarded as toxic. In the old gallery there were patrician men of letters (Howells, Eliot), abolitionists (Stowe), adventurers (Melville, London, Hemingway), madmen (Poe), shamans (Whitman), aristocrat expatriates (James), bohemian expatriates (Stein, Baldwin, Bishop), playboy expatriates (Fitzgerald), denizens of café society (Wharton), romantic provincials (Cather, Thomas Wolfe), small-town chroniclers (Anderson), country squires (Faulkner), suburban squires (Cheever, Updike), vagabonds (Algren), cranks (Pound), drunks (West, Agee, Berryman), dandies (Capote, Tom Wolfe), decadents (Barnes), butterfly-chasing foreigners (Nabokov), cracked aristocrats (Lowell), recluses of uncertain eccentricity (Salinger, Pynchon, DeLillo), committed radicals (Steinbeck, Rexroth, Wright, Hammett, Hellman, Paley), disabused radicals (Ellison, Mary McCarthy), radicals turned celebrities (Mailer, Sontag), activist women of letters (Morrison), alienated children of immigrants (Bellow), neo-cowboys (Cormac McCarthy), hipsters (Kerouac), junkies (Burroughs), and hippies (Ginsberg). In the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth.
To call the factions “depoliticized” might seem counterintuitive. In contemporary discussions of the Cultural Revolution—which often connect factionalism to cancel culture—both dynamics are often imagined as driven by hyper-politicization, or “the politicization of everyday life.” Looking more closely at the history, however, reveals that factionalism in the Cultural Revolution was in fact driven by a “depoliticized” politics—a politics that had been emptied of positive content and thus was defined only by the annihilation of the opposition. “The tragedy of the Cultural Revolution,” writes the Chinese scholar Wang Hui, in a 2006 essay later collected in The End of the Revolution (2009), “was not a product of its politicization—signified by debate, theoretical investigation, autonomous social organization, as well as the spontaneity and vitality of political and discursive space.” Rather, it was “a result of depoliticization—polarized factional struggles that eliminated the possibility for autonomous social spheres, transforming political debate into a mere means of power struggle, and class into an essentialized identitarian concept.”
Note that, today, class is not frequently viewed as an identity, but it certainly is still the case that “identity politics” is constitutive of identities rather than reflecting existing ones. This was also true of the depoliticizing features of the Cultural Revolution. State socialism designated class as an identity in order to engage in class leveling, but also ended up depoliticizing class as social hierarchies changed and class background became an inherited family trait. An important lesson we should draw from the history of experiments in working-class political power is that to constitute a contemporary politics of class, it is not enough to assert its primacy as a social foundation. Rather, the goal must be to situate it within the framework of an emancipatory politics that does not presume the prior existence of fused identities and interests.
In fact, this points to a revealing similarity between emancipatory politics and factionalism: neither is predetermined by social foundations. In both cases, politics has broken free from its customary anchors. But they run in opposite directions. Factionalism redirects political action into the perpetual governmental practices that maintain or reflect the existing world. It frequently rationalizes its practices with appeals to identitarian categories, but, properly understood, these are consequences of depoliticization rather than its cause. A truly emancipatory politics, on the other hand, exceeds the existing world. It mobilizes existing social categories only insofar as they elaborate a politics which affirms the political capacity of everyone, independent of the place they occupy in society.
The best case for textualism and originalism in statutory and constitutional interpretation is that each correctly identifies the proper authority in our system to make rules for the common good, and each offers the best chance of exercising that authority consistent with a respect for the consent of the governed. In this way, we avoid substituting will for reason, might for right.
Your recent work advances the concept of a ‘Cosmic Hylomorphism'. What is that and what steps forward does it take in the development of hylomorphism as a theory?
Cosmic Hylomorphism says there is just one substance; namely, the physical cosmos. Contrary to the corpuscularians, who rejected Aristotle’s doctrine of hylomorphism, the world is not built of microscopic entities from the ‘bottom up’. Rather, everything in nature — including every microscopic particle — is part of this Cosmic Substance, depending for its existence and nature upon the whole of which it is part. Aristotle didn’t believe the cosmos was a single substance, but I think this is a good way of making sense of the ‘Bohmian’ interpretation of quantum mechanics that originated in the work of the physicists Louis de Broglie and David Bohm.
Hylomorphic Pluralism, on the other hand, says there are multiple substances which exist at different scales. Aristotle thought biological organisms were substances, for example, being composite entities whose various parts derive their identity from the wholes of which they are part. I think there are other interpretations of quantum mechanics, besides the Bohmian interpretation, for which Hylomorphic Pluralism may offer a better fit. I am currently thinking about a recent non-standard interpretation put forward by the physicist Barbara Drossel and the cosmologist George Ellis, which recognises the irreducible role played by macroscopic, thermal properties in any practical applications of quantum mechanics, inviting a possible philosophical interpretation in terms of macroscopic substances. I am sympathetic to this view of nature, in which things at the macroscopic scale – such as you and me – make a causal difference to how the world unfolds.
So, what’s the problem with argument from origin?
The first problem is the most obvious one: Just because something was used for bad purposes, or even that it was invented to do evil, does not mean the thing is inherently bad. Think of this as the “swords-to-plowshares” principle. Chapter 2 of Isaiah speaks of weapons of war being repurposed for peaceful instruments of agriculture and commerce; so too can weapons of subjugation and supremacy become tools of construction and coexistence.
Robinson has two goals in writing The Enlightenment: to explain the multifarious breadth of the Enlightenment as a historical phenomenon and to defend it as a political and philosophical project. He fails utterly at the latter. Aside from a few mentions of the Frankfurt School critics Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno toward the end, the book barely engages with modern thinkers critical of Enlightenment philosophy. Examples of those critics abound and reside all over the political spectrum. The conservative metaphysician D.C. Schindler argues that Locke, by separating freedom from an articulation of the good, turns it into a substitute for the good. The French political theorist Pierre Manent contends that the Enlightenment notion of a “blank slate” and its political corollary, the state of nature, strips humanity of “all complexity or inner fullness.” And the Italian publisher and writer Roberto Calasso has spent his career picking apart the anti-metaphysics of the philosophes, particularly Bentham, showing that they didn’t so much abandon metaphysical commitments as hide them. These are just a few examples of some of the more trenchant “conservative” critiques of the Enlightenment ignored by Robinson, to say nothing of the vast anti-Enlightenment tradition of the Left.
That said, The Enlightenment is a total success as a history of the period. He delightfully conveys the spirit of a complex age without resorting to abstruse terminology or dry academic language. He’s the rare historian who inhabits his subject from the inside and brings a little bit of its life back for us to enjoy. As such, The Enlightenment is not some marketing gimmick meant to confirm our assumptions but a serious work of history that glows, as Ezra Pound said of good poetry, “like a ball of light in the hand.”
It would appear that a universe wherein the darkness is pressed into the service of the good is the greatest manifestation of God’s power and nature. Perhaps God’s omnipotence and love are best revealed in a story that enrolls sin into the triumph of good, ugliness into the display of beauty, nothingness into the glory of being, rather than blotting them out entirely. Of course, this involves a kind of blotting out, but it’s more like a transubstantiation, or to be even more precise, a second creation ex nihilo, than it is an undoing of a mistake. Sin in and of itself is nothing, a lack, a privation of some good that ought to be there. And yet from this nothingness, God brings forth life. The resurrected Christ is somehow more perfect for retaining the wounds of his crucifixion. This is an image that is horrifying in itself and yet is transformed into the sweet and lovely. The crown of thorns glorifies. The wounds are not lost. That the gore produced by hatred is turned into an image of God’s infinite love undoes the wisdom of the world and forces us to consider God without earthly mediation. That’s the image that Julian wants us to see.
Julian presents to us the mystical complement to the intellectual insight of St. Augustine and St. Thomas. She shows us (through what was shown to her) that God has painted creation with a place for the darkness of sin. Ultimately, evil is not meaningless or amiss because it serves a role in his providential plan. Sin does not inhabit pockets of the universe wherein God has been defeated. Sin has served the grand purpose of displaying who i am is, and thus God has truly become all in all. Julian does not deny the ultimate reality of sin, nor does she claim that it is inevitable. Julian tells us that all shall be well precisely because God, the grand storyteller, has written, is now writing, a story in which the reality of our virtue and even the reality of our sin shall forever reflect nothing but the glory of God. And thus I hope and pray that Julian is soon canonized and made a Doctor of the Church. She already is, so far as I am concerned, the Doctor providentiae.
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