These albums don’t feel like the work of a man long in decline, who peaked decades prior. They feel like the culmination not just of a career, but of a fascinating life full of pain and pleasure, twists and turns. Incorporating scraps of myth and folk legend, mixing it with original observations and a wry sense of humor, this a Dylan as deeply engaged with the mytho-poetic tradition as ever. As Eliot said of tradition, “you must obtain it with great labor.” The ’97-’01 Dylan had experienced that struggle, had labored hard to put himself back in touch with the tradition of the troubadour and poet after the connection had been all but severed. In Time Out of Mind you feel the pain of that severance. In Love and Theft you feel the joy of return.
I know not many will be convinced to rank my Dylan above theirs. Maybe that’s how it should be. Timing is everything in art. It has to hit us at the right moment. Most people heap praise on the Dylan they first fell in love with, and I was a senior in high school when Love and Theft was released. But anyone with even a passing interest in Dylan as an artist should take a second look at this phase of his career. A young talent like Dylan was rare, but to maintain it, lose it, and then rediscover it through agonizing labor and thousands of live shows is even rarer still. It seems appropriate to give the last words to Dylan himself, from the ending to his 16-minute epic “Highlands” off of Time Out Of Mind:
The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away
Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day
Over the hills and far away
There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow
But I’m already there in my mind
And that’s good enough for now
This inclusive attitude is one of the strengths of Coleridge’s approach, which grew from his celebrated powers of synthesis. Seeing polarised debates as revealing an interdependent whole, he tried to embrace the views of his philosophical opponents, rather than simply dismiss them. He saw dichotomous or binary thinking (B versus C) as merely disputative, whereas a broader trichotomy (B versus C within a broader unity of A) presented a unified whole as the higher ideal that fierce yet dependent polar opposition imperfectly represents. The view of a higher union of opposites leads to reasoning, while binary thinking leads merely to arguing.
Beyond the ‘cultivating’ merits of Coleridgean synthesis, it’s also valuable to delve into the content of his philosophy. Over the past 15 years, philosophers have been attending to what Anna Marmodoro calls ‘the metaphysics of powers’ and, since Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and the later quantum theory, most philosophers and physicists agree that forces and fields of force are more fundamental than matter, which is no longer held to be the atomistic ne plus ultra it was often thought to be. Notably, Isaac Newton refused to reduce the force of gravitation to something that is itself material, leaving it as one of those dark mysteries that we must simply observe and accept without fully understanding.
Without denying physical matter, Coleridge contended against what he saw as abject materialism, which reduced all qualities to quantity and collapsed physical forces into matter. On this point, history now sides with Coleridge against the materialists, and philosophers sympathetic with the intent of materialism now generally identify not with ‘materialism’ but with ‘physicalism’, or the view that the fundamental components of the Universe are whatever physics will eventually conclude they are. Current thinking in quantum physics construes these elements as fundamental forces, which Coleridge himself argued.
Let’s start with English. Because it is a largely uninflected language, the meaning of an English sentence is determined by word order: meaning runs in one direction. That one-directionality of meaning has implications for how we experience time. We English speakers tend to imagine ourselves moving rigidly in a single line, from the past through the present toward the future. By contrast, Latin is a highly inflected language, so the meaning of a sentence is determined not primarily by word order but by the endings of the words. In English “man bites dog” means something different from “dog bites man”—word order is everything. But in Latin, “vir mordet canem” means “man bites dog”—but so does “canem mordet vir” and “mordet vir canem.” Studying Latin suggests that structure and order are valuable not for their own sake, but for the way they engender freedom. The rigor of Latin’s system of inflection creates a certain liberty of word placement without sacrificing clarity of meaning. That frees up new possibilities for beauty in both poetry and prose. In Latin, as in Christian anthropology, law serves freedom, not the other way around.
Latin’s inflections also enable us to draw together the beginnings and endings of sentences in ways foreign to the experience of English speakers. So the first word and the last word of a complex Latin sentence may be joined together as subject and verb. If an English sentence is more like an arrow moving relentlessly through space, a Latin sentence is more like a set of nesting Russian dolls or a chiastic pattern of A B C D D’ C’ B’ A’. Reggie taught us to start translating in the middle and move to the edges. Nothing is left behind. Everything is gathered in and recapitulated, just like in salvation history. God wills to save us all together, not only the last bitter remnant of us.
In teaching his summer classes, Reggie didn’t merely teach us to translate Latin. He also encouraged us to think Latinly. By conducting the class in Latin, by repeating a sentence slowly so that we would absorb its packets of meaning, he reprogrammed our expectations of sentence patterns to loosen the vice grip of English linear progression. As I went through the summer program, I found that this linguistic reprogramming precipitated a corresponding theological reprogramming. It allowed me, for example, to understand better what Augustine meant in book XI of the Confessions when he said that unlike time, in which one possesses mere slivers of one’s being in succession, eternity was marked by possessing all of one’s being at once. Non autem praeterire quicquam in aeterno, sed totum esse praesens. An English sentence progresses like Augustine’s understanding of the parade of time, each word’s meaning succeeded and replaced by the next. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine a Latin sentence as a symbol of eternity, a bowl gently holding all its meaning together at once.
Baker emphasizes that the urgency for sharing intellectual property is greatest in the areas of public health and environment. If, say, a Chinese engineer develops a “new way to store energy, we should want the whole world to get that as quickly as possible,” Baker told me. And Baker’s solution is elegant: governments should buy the rights for the vaccine (or the expert manufacturing technique or the long-life battery) from corporations and make it open access. If they won’t sell, governments should buy the ideas from corporations’ scientists and engineers. “Five million a month for ten months, that would be a fantastic deal,” Baker said. “Would Pfizer really want to bring that lawsuit?”
Russia and China have been criticized for using the distribution of their own vaccines to garner good will with other countries. “The best way to counter that is, why don’t we give our vaccines?” Baker said. The United States could be gaining good will around the globe by overseeing a coordinated effort to make the vaccine more accessible and affordable for everyone. But as distribution stands now, it may take years for herd immunity from vaccination to reach those in poorer countries. Some experts have begun to say that, in this current environment, herd immunity is impossible.
Diplomacy is great, but saving millions of lives is better, particularly when (almost certain) good will is attendant. But the millions of saved lives should always be our focus and indeed our humane objective, attendant good will or not. This should be the new and present standard for American leadership and diplomacy: saving lives as if the ones beyond our borders mattered every bit as much as our own.
It was on the final pages of Reasons and Persons that Parfit posed an arresting hypothetical. Consider, he said, three scenarios:
(1) World peace.
(2) A nuclear war that kills 99 percent of the world’s population.
(3) A nuclear war that kills 100 percent of the world’s population.
Clearly, he observed, (2) is worse than (1), and (3) is worse than (2). But which is the greater of the two moral differences? Most people, Parfit guessed, would say the difference between (1) and (2) is greater than the difference between (2) and (3). He disagreed. “I believe that the difference between (2) and (3) is very much greater,” he wrote. Killing off that last one percent, he observed, would mean destroying the entire future of humanity—an inconceivably vast reduction in the sum of possible human happiness.
The pages of 20th century American literature are stuffed with stuff. When you begin to read for things, you will encounter them constantly: baseballs, bric-a-brac, books within books. There are dolls, chairs, paperweights, cans of ground coffee, red wheelbarrows. The plethora of objects on the page has fueled a branch of academic inquiry dubbed “thing theory”—a capacious subfield that ties together strands of material culture studies, art history, and literary studies, among other arenas. In his foundational book, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (2003), Bill Brown proposes a rereading of texts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to “ask why and how we use objects to make meaning, to make or re-make ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies.” Brown reads for the relationship between things and ideas, and puts forth an account of literary objects that extends beyond commodity fetishism, a reading that stretches toward the strange vibrations of matter in literature and our lives.
Versions of this heuristic are flourishing in other humanities disciplines, too, among them philosophy and political science, often challenging the traditional distinctions between subject and object. There is a whole genre of popular literature dedicated to “object lessons” and investigations of “the private lives” of everything from coffee cups to car engines. Indeed, Wasserman asks, “Who really thinks of matter as static and stable anymore?”
Wasserman is not really reading for the presence of the thing but its absence, or more precisely its disappearance. Unlike other thing theorists, she is not so much interrogating the way we live among objects but rather what is generated by the constancy of their death. She homes in specifically on the category of “ephemera”: objects that were not made to be saved, like stamps and playbills and ticket stubs, which were often pinpointed to a specific event or time. “Unlike the stubborn fact of the obsolete object, ephemera are a fleeting currency,” Wasserman writes. “Unless cared for or accidentally preserved, they vanish into an unknown or unseen horizon. Defined by their imminent disappearance or destruction, ephemera call into question our most basic assumptions about matter.” What is generated, Wasserman asks, by the experience of living with things that are vanishing constantly? And, paradoxically, why does so much ephemera seem to persist, at least partially, saved in collections or now even suspended in digital libraries centuries after they might have been trashed?
With this in mind, anti-statists on the right sometimes propose that taxes be made as transparent as possible in the hope that tax revolts will keep rates low. But even small government conservatives and libertarian advocates of a night-watchman state (“minarchists”) support basic government functions like defense, policing, and law enforcement. If they are rational, even these right-wing proponents of minimal government should want the legitimate functions of the state to be funded by taxes which do not frequently trigger anti-tax rebellions by voters.
From a Colbertian goose-plucking perspective, the ideal tax is a broad-based consumption tax like a sales tax or a value-added tax (VAT). Consumption taxes are inescapable, unless you take up permanent diplomatic asylum in an airport duty free zone. In addition, consumption taxes are effectively invisible; even if sales taxes or VATs are listed on a receipt, few buyers pay any attention. Finally, consumption taxes are recurrent, so taxpayers do not experience the kind of “sticker shock” every year on Tax Day that inspires them to march to the legislature with pitchforks and torches.
This explains why over 160 out of the world’s 195 countries, and every First World industrial nation other than the United States, rely on a VAT (a kind of cumulative sales tax charged at each stage of production) for a large portion of their tax revenue. In 2019, consumption taxes—chiefly in the form of VAT—were the most important source of revenue for advanced OECD countries (32.3 %), followed by social insurance taxes like payroll taxes for retirement programs and health care (25.7%) and individual taxes (24%).
Engaging in Twitter wars certainly requires some courage on the part of those taking on orthodoxies and received ideas. Subjecting oneself to public censure for advancing contrarian views is no doubt unpleasant. But the risks—especially to the established Twitterati—are not as great as they seem, and the benefits—partly derived from the appearance of risk—are greater than they may seem. Public intellectuals can achieve considerable standing and prestige through their seemingly contrarian views because those views are actually closer to public opinion than those “orthodox” ones prominent in the mainstream liberal press or the academy. Whether they mean to or not, these heterodox thinkers are exploiting a market inefficiency. And scrolling through their feeds, one quickly finds in them the same moral exhibitionism that populates the feeds of their chosen foes.
This is not necessarily to deny the value of what the contrarians tweet. Frequently, they are right: about the gratuitous grandstanding, the ad hominem attacks, the abuse of reason, the cynical culture war ploys, and the vindictive ignorance masquerading as social conscience. And in many cases they are writing in better faith than their “interlocutors.”
But in the act of performing their opinions on Twitter, these writers aestheticize those opinions and even degrade the very concept of rational debate they insist on upholding. They implicitly vindicate the fetishized understanding of opinions that reigns on Twitter: that is, as identity markers to be brandished in a competitive game of personality assertion. Being reasonable, open-minded, tolerant of dissent, intellectually curious: all of these become features of the brand one cultivates to attract more consumers. As Adorno wrote, “the purpose of reason dwindles away until it sinks into the fetishism of itself and of external power, so reason itself is reduced to an instrument and assimilated to its functionaries.”
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