It will be interesting to teach Emerson again after two years away

In 2016, all I had to say to get the discussion started about “Self-Reliance” —

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think–

was “Ayn Rand.” This coming spring, in the Trumpera, the discussion seems all too likely to self-start out of an indignant and rejecting silence.

Still, yes:

Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess. And, in fine, the ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim.

It’s true, as you see. Nature doesn’t contemplate the possibility of an Ayn or a Donald. In her domain there is only law, reproducing its works by contemplating itself.


Sources: Emerson, “Self-Reliance” and “The American Scholar”

Too obvious to be interesting: decor has an ideology

The New York Times article about a California man arrested for making death threats against employees of the Boston Globe:

A page from the FBI affidavit in support of an arrest warrant:


Photoshopped only for contrast and color balance, an image of the suspect’s home:

17513 Califa St - Google Maps A

The bars on the door. The spiked fence. On a grassy street, the yard seeded with sharp-needled cactus.

There really is no need to quote Robert Frost, is there?


On Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018, a man with an AR-15 rifle strolled into a high school in Parkland, Florida, and killed fourteen students and three teachers. Unusually, the event remained in the news for days afterward. In consequence, President Trump made a television appearance in which he hinted that he might be in favor of some form of gun control.

President Trump’s Republican party joined in the mourning. On March 1, Republican strategist Rick Wilson searched his language, found the word “horror,” and gave it a larger meaning by connecting it with other bad things, this way.

Trump has seen the fresh-faced, well-spoken Parkland kids, with stories of the genuine horror they witnessed, their push for strict gun control, including the banning of semiautomatic rifles, particularly AR-15s, and for a general rollback of Second Amendment liberties.

Those who witnessed the killing, Mr. Wilson’s language explained, had experienced, in the recent past, horror. But in the present, those who possess semiautomatic rifles may be about to experience rollback. Read literally, that metaphor rollback refers not to a thing, such as a statute governing the sale of firearms, but to an occurrence taking place across time: a change; something not (for instance) written down but in process of being written down. And if the language of statute teaches itself to contemplate rollback, the Second Amendment, whose “well regulated militia” originated with the slave patrols that prevented liberty and killed those who sought it, will be in peril of losing its unchanging ideal meaning as a liberty an sich. It may prove to be rollable back from that interpretation, like a rock from before a tomb.

That would be a horror far worse than anything merely genuine, for once the rock has been rolled back, what can the changeless idea of the genuine mean? In Mr. Wilson’s sentence, the word, having lost its meaning, makes the whole predication ungenuine. “The horror they witnessed,” with no modifier, would have been simple and clear, and a modifier signaling itself to be a rhetorical limiter, such as “the so-called ‘horror’ they witnessed,” would have established a unity of tone with the rest of the sentence. But in “the genuine horror they witnessed,” the nakedness of “genuine” just looks like a typo. It tells a truth that its speaker himself refuses to think. Abstracted from life and the human, it is a verbal phenomenon reduced to nothing but its physical minimum, sound. It would be a word if it had a referent, but it doesn’t have a referent. It is only a lyrical sound.

The party of semiautomatic rifles throws back its head and howls the lyric. It is a next step in the evolution of music.

Source: Rick Wilson, “When you let a closet Democrat like Trump lead the GOP, this is what you get.” Washington Post, March 1, 2018,

A grammar of myopia

Taking the shortest possible historical view, David Brooks writes:

The Bob Corkers of the [Republican] party are leaving while the Roy Moores are ascending. Trump himself is unhindered while everyone else is frozen and scared. As a result, the Republican Party is becoming a party permanently associated with bigotry.

(“A Philosophical Assault on Trumpism,” New York Times print edition 3 October 2017, p. A27)

Mr. Brooks’s verb phrase “is becoming” is in the present progressive tense. But wouldn’t an accurate grammar of the past require the historical record to include, at the least, Richard Nixon, Strom Thurmond, Rush Limbaugh, and Lee Atwater and his Gadarene pigpen of Republican operatives? Shouldn’t Mr. Brook’s sentence therefore be in the present perfect: “The Republican Party has become a party permanently associated with bigotry”?

Or even with an intensifier — “The Republican Party has long since become a party permanently associated with bigotry”?

Larry Clark and William Gedney: documentarians of the prehistory of the Trump era

A Larry Clark archive is at

A William Gedney archive is at

Forty years ago, the prophetic photographs were silent and still. We thought they were archaeologies of civilizations relegated to the archive. Now they pass among us in color and motion, telling us in their dead language what we have become and retweeting the corpus in the language of the undead. We are joining them in the archive.

A little bibliography of the never to be read again

Before the arrival of the house painters, four decisions in front of an emptying bookshelf and a filling wastebasket:

— A photoreduced edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, acquired as a premium for joining a now dead twentieth-century institution, the Book-of-the-Month Club. I’ll keep the nice big magnifying glass that came with it, and at my age I still very much use my multi-volume full-size edition of the original, picked up from the express agency on the same day (April 9, 1968) that I took delivery of my late beloved 1968 Mustang. A book still makes for the best browsing experience, reading in the rising smell of mildew. Obviously, though, the new database OED can do things that are all but impossible with ink on paper. So goodbye, intermediate technology reducing every four pages of the word-hoard to one page to make room on the shelf for one more book a month. The old printed books that remain and the new printed books that will arrive are equally antique now. My wife the librarian says not even the Friends of the Library would want you.

— A book club edition of An American Tragedy, saved from a colleague’s discard pile for the sake of its introductory essay by H. L. Mencken. The book has a place in literary history. Its author, Theodore Dreiser, was historically a man of both the nineteenth and the twentieth century, and he bestrode the boundary.

For a while during the twentieth century it appeared that the passage of time might have rusted naturalism’s cruelty and Dreiser’s ignorant greatheartedness together and created something interestingly historical, like the Antikythera Mechanism brought up from lightless depths in a fisherman’s net. But with Social Darwinism resurgent in the twenty-first century, the naturalist mechanism may now be powering itself back up, and I’m finding that thought heartbreaking. I think it anyway, though — partly because I am alive during the current events of a Republican administration but partly too just because I am alive. When the mechanism is carried into a studio, given a light-name, A Place in the Sun, and bathed in George Stevens light, its movements fascinate us into attending to the play of natural forms that they inscribe in space.

And then the film begins respeaking Dreiser’s clumsy words to us in movie-star voices articulately immortal. Having experienced that transition from the page to the double track of video and audio, I doubt that I’ll ever need to read the book again. But I think I may nevertheless remember something life-and-death tragic about its words the next time I hear the sound of a Republican noise like “jobkillingregulations” gabbling itself out in a single forced electric-chair exhale.

— James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover. Once again I stopped reading after the first few pages, but when I closed the book this time it was probably forever. This time, under a Republican administration, I had to acknowledge that the flip side of religious whimsy is death by coathanger abortion.

— Two volumes of plays by Sam Shepard. As of 2017, I seem to have been deserted by whatever once induced me to read the words of men in cowboy hats whose creator spelled their second-person pronoun ya’, with a Republican apostrophe.