The Devil counts the be verb amongst his many manifestations.

Why possess we, writing in English, the habit of so effortlessly and frequently relying upon the be verb? I recognize that, at times, “is”, “are”, or any other variant, its simplicity highlighting the nuances at hand, far better serves the author than any action verb could; however, more often than not (or so I believe), employing the be verb simply deadens even the otherwise-crispest of sentences. Perhaps more pernicious, used unsparingly, it denigrates the very concept of being.

An example: In the cover article of this week’s Leader, a Starke County, Indiana, publication, editor John Reed, writing about the 2008 Harvest Days Festival in perfidious Knox, my mother’s hometown and the county’s seat of government, notes, “The cheerleading competition will be at 10 a.m. Saturday in the parking lot across the street from the MC Smith Funeral Home” Could not Mr. Reed just as easily have apprised the reader of the relevant information without resorting to “will be”? He could, perhaps, have composed the following simple declarative: “The cheerleading competition will occur . . . .” Instead, he leaves me to fret: Heaven forfend the cheerleading competition would endure an existential crisis, realizing that the Festival’s committee has limited its time of being to one minute (or, more liberally, hour), on one day, at one place. How should we react to such misfortune whilst not forgetting to tend to the psychological and spiritual well-being of the “lots of ‘guy’ activities, including the Burnout sponsored by the Knox-Center Township Fire Department”?

Ahem, I am a manly fan of it.

Jan Freeman, in the Boston Globe:

If semicolons are masculine enough for Melville and Irving, why should they unsettle Barthelme and Vonnegut? Are today’s male writers just more insecure than yesterday’s about the manliness of their vocation?

Man-up or put down the pen; the semi-colon is beautiful, elegant sign of nuance and complexity.

On the coat-tails of the lament of the death of pub culture, the W.S.J. reminds us of further cultural debasement.

It may be hard to imagine — given our current obsessions with television shows, movies, instant-messaging, Facebook and blogs — but literature was once at the center of American cultural life. In the middle of the 20th century, novels and poems, of varying quality and aspiration, were widely read and widely talked about. And literary merit was discussed and hotly debated by critics whose essays, in Garrick Davis’s words, “courted the educated public with their elegant prose.”

James Seaton reviews Praising it New: The Best of the New Criticism. He offers a very lucid appraisal of the book, with some commentary on the New Criticism and the differences the distinguish it from the Trilling-Wilson camp — and, perhaps, surprising, the similarities between the two. Read it.

The moral relativism of the e-book reader

That’s a strange title for a post, isn’t it? More important, I allow, it’s mis-leading. How-ever, this line I scribbled on a sheet of paper after I engaged, during the mid-class break, this evening, in a not-yet-(and, probably, perpetually un-)settled debate on technology, progress, autonomy, and, as I accused my class-mate, Charles, of, ultimately, advocating, moral relativism

I started the conversation innocuously enough (or, so I should like to contend), lamenting the electronic-book storage-and-reading devices, such as that offered by Amazon and the product developed by researchers at the Universities of Maryland, College Park, and California, Berkeley, (Reminding us, as Paul M. Weyrich, writing, as part of his series on the Next Conservatism, on a Conservative New Urbanism, in a piece that I wish, later, to discuss, say, that “God knows we dare not entrust culture to the universities.”)

Researchers from this university and the University of California, Berkeley, recently released a prototype of a new e-book reader aimed to revolutionize how people read and study. [My emphasis. – NPO] (From the 17 July 2008 issue of the University of Maryland Diamondback)

I offer the seemingly out-of-place Weyrich quotation because I believe that the electronic “book” may, in fact, be more pernicious than the iPhone G3, more a sign, and cause, inevitably, of the end of Western Civilization than this damned, culture-damning, isolating cellular tele-phone-cum-mini-computer. Thus, my lament. Thus, the ensuing accusation, how-ever it arose, that by demonizing such excessive uses of technology (which I do for reasons where-about you can read in the linked piece on the iPhone G3.), and the consequent judgment of those who replace books with electronic “books”, or conversation and engagement in the public sphere with the iPod (To this day, even, now, running, semi-regularly, I refuse to own a personal .mp3 player.), I, wrongly, attempt to force my beliefs on others, wrongly make snap-shot judgments of others based on what I witness, briefly, of them, in public. Summed up, Charles indicts me for suggesting that what I believe to be problematic, wrong, even, could be, as I aver, wrong. He then denied, to my dis-may, that his rejection of such a possibility constituted any sort of moral relativism.

I admit that, on the face, my contending that Charles’s suggesting that my belief — that the electronic reader, some-thing the existence where-of he ascribed to “progress”, ought to be used by no-one — is an un-fair attempt to force my views on others amounts to moral relativism is, perhaps, un-charitable. How-ever, upon more thorough consideration, we must recognize that, first, all choices have moral components and moral consequences and that, second, ultimately, a failure to issue some, even pre-liminary, judgment on what we perceive to be maleficent actions and decision, because we wish not to “impose our views” on others, is an abdication of our moral responsibility. Finally, most important and relevant to the spark that ignited the conversation, and, thus, this rambling, barely coherent post, the electronic-book reader, truly, does pose, at least potentially, a serious threat to culture and civilization, there-by making it a device of morally questionable status.

Here, more than any-where else in this prolix philippic, I may range beyond reasonable limits and declare some-thing absurd. I dis-agree, but I may err. I aver that, the book, be it hard-, paper-, or cloth-back, represents a human and personal connection with the author, and with all of those who made possible the conversion of the author’s manuscript into some-thing in the hands of readers, that disappears when, rather than a book, a reader devours the words, paragraphs, pages, and chapters, generically, from a device that lacks the uniqueness of each book by de-personalizing each with-in the electronic confines of the hand-held device. A reader cannot smell the history of a collection of Faulkner’s novels, as I can, in the volume that I purchased at Erasmus Books, in South Bend, Indiana, when reading As I Lay Dying on a computer screen. He is in-capable of benefitting from notes that the previous owner of his copy of Aristotle’s Politics wrote in the margins of the text.

Perhaps, the most fundamental danger intrinsic in the electronic-book reader, as I tried to assert to my judicious co-interlocutor, is that it represents one additional means where-by we latch, further, on to the demon of technology that, as Patrick so astutely asseverates in the iPhone pice, threatens to separate us from the world. Further-more, echoing Wendell Berry and, to a slightly lesser extent, Wilhelm Röpke, I argue that this reliance on technology renders us impotent and incapable; it de-humanizes us.

More on Mailer: War, Concentration, Technology, and Christianity

This passage, too, from The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History has rather deeply affected me over the years, as has the post discussed here. This passage touches further on the deleterious effects of concentration (of technology and the corporation, specifically), and offers what i believe to be a rather reasonable assessment of the battle for and with-in the Christian soul. For an East Coast urban Jew, Mailer, I believe, possessed some brilliant insight into the world of the Middle American Christian.

[Mailer] came at last to the saddest conclusion of them all for it went beyond the war in Vietnam. He had come to decide that the center of America might be insane. The country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled schizophrenia which had been deepening with the years. Perhaps the point had now been passed. Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul. For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ. The average American, striving to do his duty, drove him further every day into working for Christ, and drove equally further each day in the opposite direction–into working for the absolute computer of the corporation. Yes and no, 1 and 0. Every day the average American drove himself further into schizophrenia; the average American believed in two opposites more profoundly apart than any pervious schism in the Christian soul. Christians had been able to keep some kind of sanity for centuries while countenancing love against honor, desire versus duty, even charity opposed in the same heart to the lust for power–that was difficult to balance but not impossible. The love of Mystery of Christ, however, and the love of no Mystery whatsoever, had brought the country to a state of suppressed schizophrenia so deep that the foul brutalities of the war in Vietnam were the only temporary cure possible for the condition–since the expression of brutality offers a definite if temporary relief to the schizophrenic. So the average good Christian American secretly loved the war in Vietnam. It opened his emotions. He felt compassion for the hardships and the sufferings of the American boys in Vietnam, even the Vietnamese orphans. [. . .] [America] would need a war so long as technology expanded on every road of communication, and the cities and corporations spread like cancer; the good Christian Americans needed the war or they would lose their Christ. [All emphasis mine. – NPO]

Over at the GW Patriot‘s web-log, Patrick Ford linked to the LA Times piece of Senator McCain’s “University of Spoiled Children” (And Reggie Push!) comment; a discussion of some interest on the perils of technology and modernity ensues in the comment box. Check it out here.

The peculiar — and important — conservatism of Norman Mailer

From the 2 December 2002 issue of The American Conservative, “I Am Not For World Empire” (I include only the introduction; read the interview for your-self: It’s well worth the time.):

A conversation with Norman Mailer about Iraq, Israel, the perils of technology and why he is a Left-Conservative.

On a crystalline day in October, Taki, Kara Hopkins, and Scott McConnell met at Logan Airport and drove up the Cape to Norman Mailer’s home in Provincetown, Mass. Taki is an old friend of Mailer’s; McConnell and Hopkins knew his writing well but had never met the man.

The vagaries of literary reputation are not the main beat of The American Conservative, but we were struck by how many people told us how important Mailer was at a certain time of life and how invariably that time was young adulthood—somewhere between 18 and 21. Perhaps that is the moment in life when readers are most receptive to a certain kind of bold writing.

What follows is a conversation about what most interested the four of us on that day, as well as an addendum Mailer wrote later. We spoke of the present and future more than the past: a mixture of politics (Iraq, the imperial urge, styles of conservatism) and more typically Maileresque themes (the problem of technology). After several hours of talk and the gracious hospitality of Norris Church Mailer we made our way back to normal life, not doubting that we had spent an extraordinary afternoon with the greatest living American writer.

I happened upon this interview a few years after its publication, after I had read Mailer’s The Armies of the Night: History As A Novel, The Novel as History in Steven Affeldt’s Political and Constitutional Theory, a required course in my beloved Program of Liberal Studies, and had become incredibly intrigued by what Mailer called his left-conservatism. Now, in 1999, the editors at ISI, with the assistance of various consultants, compiled lists of the fifty worst and best books of the Twentieth Century; amongst the former, they list Armies, commenting, “Fact or fiction? Not even Mailer knew for sure.” I have no interest in debating the wisdom of this decision; their pithy remark, I think, has some validity. Nevertheless, I disbelieve that we should discount what merits this book possesses. Specifically, I wish to draw attention to a passage, which I many times have re-read, that has profoundly affected me since I first experienced this work in the fall of 2004.

[Mailer] had written for years about American architecture and its functional disease — that one could not tell the new colleges from the new prisons from the new hospitals from the new factories from the new airpots. Separate institutions were being replaced by one institution. Yes, and the irony was that this workhouse at Occoquan happened to be more agreeable architecturally than many a state university he had seen, or junior college. There was probably no impotence in all the world like knowing you were right and the wave of the world was wrong, and yet the wave came on. Floods of totalitarian architecture, totalitarian superhighways, totalitarian smog, totalitarian food (yes, frozen), totalitarian communications — the terror to a man so conservative as Mailer, was that nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism.

By happenstance, I found myself reading this passage, to a friend who, last evening, perused my humble book collection, as I’ve taken up reading both Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace and Wilhelm Röpke’s A Humane Economy. Linking the latter with the Mailer passage may require a bit of effort, but the parallels, I think, between Mailer and Berry’s philosophy are unmistakably clear, and absolutely crucial for us to understand. In short, Berry, I believe, offers, at least partially, a solution to the dis-eases catalogued here by the left-conservative Mailer. This “functional disease” and the totalitarianism arise resultant of our loss of connection with the earth and humanity; losing touch with who we are, losing our understanding of our place, we capitulate to the powers that our materialistic forms of “stress-relief” and contentment, to wit, consumerism and self-interest, create and re-enforce.

And here, I think, Röpke becomes particularly relevant. Government collusion — significant as its role has been — notwithstanding, this materialism, this rampant consumerism, undeniably, has served immeasurably to promote economic concentration. Just how powerful, I’ve pondered, could the Wal*Marts of the world be if no market existed for so many of the mass-produced, ostensibly needless gadgets, gizmos, toys, and whatnot that comprise the artifice wherewith we fill our spiritually drained lives? Drawing a connection between the dis-ease that permeates Berry’s lamentations and the totalitarianism that pressed Mailer toward nihilism, the perspicacious Swiss economist offers the following:

If we want to name a common denominator for the social disease of our times, then it is concentration, and collectivism and totalitarianism are merely the extreme and lethal stages of this disease. [All emphasis mine – NPO.]

What, I think, we ought to gain from these passages specifically, and from the works of these three eminent modern thinkers more broadly, is a more profound cognizance of the relationship that links our own unwillingness to live according to an Aristotelian life of moderation; our “need” to consume, our refusal to plant roots, figuratively speaking, for whatever reason(s) guide us; and the nasty, pernicious results of our waywardness. Seeking solace in things, rather than true happiness in a life of interconnectedness in accord with God, the earth on which He has placed us, and our fellow men (and other aspects of Creation), we enable and perpetuate the Leviathans that control our lives, keep from us our liberty, and push us to the brink of nihilism.

Damn the Internet! Damn it, I say!

Nicholas Carr, in the current Atlantic Monthly writes the follow in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“.

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. [. . .]

A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. [. . .]

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Forty-five minutes ago, I had just read the first few pages of Röpke’s A Humane Economy; then, I heard Mail’s new-e-mail alert and, promptly, put the book aside to see from whom I’d received a missive, joke, or notification. I’ve yet to return to the Wilhelm. Replace “Google” with “Internet”, if you, as I, must, and then, straight-faced, tell me that you can respond to Carr with a simple “No.” I can’t.