It's important to reflect and take stock of the work you've done in the past year. It's also difficult. With writing, just like with any other trade or profession, there's always a nagging sense that a never *just quite* right, no matter the results. That's what keeps you coming back to the keyboard. And as vital as cultivating that hunger is, it's just as important to make sure you take a moment to take pride in your accomplishments. I don't think I'm quite "there" yet, wherever that might be, but I also think that I'm improving. Getting better every year. And in 2019, these were the pieces that I was most happy with. The pieces which most indicate the direction I'd like to continue moving in.
In chronological order:
"Lasch and Limitlessness" - The Agonist
"Sleep-Away Prison Camp" - The American Conservative
"The OA and the Prison of Self" - The American Conservative
"Searching For Su Tissue" - The Outline
"Candy Jail" - Daily Caller
"An Intercourse with Ghosts" - Mere Orthodoxy
"The Cubicle Archipelago" - American Affairs
"The Bad Side of Books review" - Washington Examiner
"The Consumer's Regress" - Church Life Journal
"Ghosts Watching Ghosts" - Splice Today
One might expect that this long history of terror, blood, and violence would lead Western students of the Ottomans to dehumanize them or turn them into diabolical caricatures of hate and tyrannical oppression. That is certainly what readers of Edward Said’s famous study, Orientalism (1978), would be led to expect, but it is one of Malcolm’s main points that such a representation is far too simple, if not entirely wrong. It does not begin to capture the complexity of Western responses to the Ottoman threat. There were certainly some Westerners, like Martin Luther, who regarded the new Islamic empire as essentially evil, the Sultan as the Devil’s servant, and Islam as a perverted religion of the sword. Such responses can be found throughout the three centuries covered by Malcolm’s book. But there were also many admiring responses both to the Ottomans and even to Islam.
Malcolm coins the useful term “shame-praising” to draw attention to one way that Westerners formulated positive descriptions of the great Islamic empire. To shame-praise means to praise a different culture or people as a way of shaming one’s own people and culture into better behavior. This practice has an old history in the West, going back to Xenophon’s praise of Persian monarchy in his Cyropaedia, meant to shame fractious Greek democrats,or Tacitus’s praise of barbarian virtue in the Germania, meant to shame his over-civilized fellow Romans for their lack of martial valor. The humanists of the Renaissance turned shame-praising into a light industry; the inferiority of Christian to pagan virtue was a regular theme in their pedagogy. Christian-on-Christian violence was a deplorable feature of early modern Europe, and the Ottomans, with their unswerving devotion to smiting the enemies of their faith, were constantly held up as better models of unified purpose and religious loyalty than any to be found in Christian Europe, torn apart as it was by selfishness and sectarian hatreds.
These spectacles have arrived not a moment too soon. This $5 billion not-mall is opening amid reports that the mall is dying. An army of trend forecasters have decided that millennials would rather spend money on experiences than on stuff. The retail imagination has been transposed to Instagram, and shuttered storefronts have been infiltrated by “pop-up experiences” primed to monetize the selfie. As department stores retreat, they have left “ghost malls” in their wake, complexes that lack the center of gravity to pull townspeople in but that live on in the form of eerie YouTube memorials. Meanwhile, the developers of American Dream — Triple Five, the Canadian conglomerate behind Mall of America in Minnesota — believe its gravitational pull is so strong that it will draw millions from the region, the nation, the world.
At the end of a qat party, typically close to sunset, there comes a moment when the effervescence settles, conversation slackens, and thoughts turn quietly inward. This Solomonic pause—Yemenis call it lahzat Sulayman—serves as a cue. Guests rise from their cushions; hosts slip back to their own pursuits. It is a time to be alone. Cathinone, the stimulating compound in the fresh shoots and leaves of the qat bush, at this stage induces a calm, crisp focus that drivers find useful for long trips, and students for cramming.
One imagines Tim Mackintosh-Smith retiring to the library in his centuries-old house in Sanaa, picking up a well-thumbed classic, and pondering the story of the Arabs—or rather, as he suggests in the introduction to his erudite and discursive new book, of Arabs, for as he persuasively explains, the definite article implies more solidity and cohesion than its subject may merit. Mackintosh-Smith is unusual, and not only because few English gentlemen would in this modern age choose to spend four decades living in far-off Yemen, a wildly rugged country that is now in the throes of its own darkest age. Unusual too is that although he might be called a superb Arabist, as a diligent student and ardent lover of the language, and might also be called a fine historian, as a dogged seeker of truth and a skilled storyteller, he is not a professional at either.
Since 2005, Malick’s films have been impressionistic, featuring non-linear plots, voiceovers, and almost exclusively natural light. A Hidden Life features similar lighting and attention to detail, but has a linear plot. Franz and Fani Jägerstätter live in Sankt Radegund, a village in Upper Austria, where they farm and raise their girls. Their life is close to nature and close to God. Again and again we are bathed in the warmth of hardwood walls and the cool green of misty mountains. We see the fibers of thick wool on sheep, the individual grains on stalks of wheat, water splashing down a mountain and through a wooden trough to a gristmill. Much of the film’s dialogue comes from the Jägerstätters’ letters, which have since been published. I expected the film to be the story of a man, but it was really the story of a marriage: a paean to the beauty of ordinary love and the children that are its fruit—a celebration of the goods of this world and a reminder that they are not enough.
A Hidden Life is also a powerful argument against the modern age. The Jägerstätters’ nest high above the trees is in many respects still part of the old world, on which modernity is ever encroaching. In Letters from Lake Como, the German theologian Romano Guardini revisited the Northern Italian land of his birth. That world, which the Jägerstätters shared, was a world of real culture, of “elevation above nature” due to man’s work, “yet decisive nearness to it.”
Guardini thought that through industrialization, that world of humanity was being replaced by one of inhumanity: “I saw machines invading the land that had previously been the home of culture. I saw death overtaking a life of infinite beauty, and I felt that this was not just an external loss that we could accept and remain who we were. Instead, a life, a life of supreme value that can arise only in the world that we have long since lost, was beginning to perish here.” Malick underscores the way that death is both technological and ideological. As the film progresses, the sound of the scythe is replaced by the sound of the locomotive. The traditional “Grüss Gott” gives way to “Heil Hitler.”
From Jessica Hooten Wilson:
When my daughter’s preschool teacher asked to make an appointment with me, I assumed perhaps my three-year-old had poked a hole in her classmates’ fantasy: Did she tell them that there is no Santa Claus?! The situation was much more egregious, her teacher informed me. She had told her classmates the truth: their grandparents will die, their parents will die, and one day they too will grow up and die. I was rather proud actually that my toddler had done so well confronting her mortality and thought her memento mori to be very Saint Nicholas-like.
It is not often that we pair the skull with our celebration of Saint Nicholas (as we rightly do with beloved Jerome), yet, during the Advent season, what could be more appropriate than reflecting on death? The man who invented Christmas, or rather re-invented it, Charles Dickens, gets it right, showing Scrooge’s contemplation of death as the necessary preamble to embracing the spirit of Christmas. Dickens sets “Santa” as the jolly ghost of Christmas present, couched between the past and the grim reaper. On the night before Christmas, Ebeneezer is confronted not by one spirit, for Santa Claus alone could do nothing to transform his cold heart to flesh and blood again. What was needed to convert “bah-humbug” into generosity and selflessness was three spirits, including that of the future, a spirit that forces Scrooge to look upon his own tombstone. A Christmas Carol opens with the announcement, “Jacob Marley was dead, to begin with,” foreshadowing that death will be a necessary part of this Christmas story. When Scrooge declares that he will honor Christmas in his heart, he rightly adds, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.”
Alexandra Hudson recently brought a 2018 James Hankins essay to my attention. Since I reviewed his book Virtue Politics, I thought I might share it:
Machiavelli makes the further point, however, that a healthy skepticism about the present doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past. Some people might think that to claim all times are equally happy or unhappy means there is nothing to be learned from the past. Machiavelli disagrees. Even though roughly equal quanta of goodness and wickedness have always been in the world, they have always been unevenly distributed. Some peoples are better at some things than others, and for longer periods of time. The Romans were good at domination, for example, and they dominated for a long time. It’s worth studying the causes of human excellence so we can try to replicate them and perhaps improve our own lives and politics.
Of course, in Machiavelli’s day, the default setting was to believe the ancients were better. That was what the Renaissance was all about, after all. Nowadays, however, as Rémi Brague has put it, the dominant cult of modernism has taught most intellectuals to be Marcionists. They don’t believe there is anything to learn from the Old Testament; our ancestors before the Enlightenment were deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Modern intellectuals are supersessionists; they believe, in defiance of all historical experience, that the future must always be better than the past, which can be safely discarded. Intellectuals are needed, they think, to stamp out the evils of the past, ban or burn books as necessary, and erect Great Firewalls to keep out unscientific beliefs, so that we may all be piloted safely into Utopia. They want to sail toward the Right Side of History, which nevertheless seems always to lie somewhere to port. But one of the sad drawbacks of being a utopian is that the future has no moral standards and can offer us no moral models. It has prophets but no philosophers. For those we must go to the past.
This and the forthcoming Roberto Calasso are the two books I'm most looking forward to in 2020, my own included:
This personal book explores both the public and the private dimensions of forgetting and its scary Siamese twin, remembering. Forgetting takes in our modern fear of Alzheimer's and dementia; the abuse to which such slogans as 'Remember Auschwitz!' can be put; the human need to bury the dead and our modern inability to do so; tombstone inscriptions and war memorials today; and how poets and novelists help us understand these dilemmas.
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