A Book Club of Two: The Time I Started a James Joyce Reading Group in College (Kristopher Jansma, June 14, 2024, LitHub)

Our professor seemed unsurprised that we weren’t getting into it, even after he gave us a schema that explained the themes and explained that Joyce’s contemporaries had been similarly puzzled, until he’d given them this guide. We settled in with these charts that paralleled the chapters back to Homer’s Odyssey, and perused the maps with the paths of the characters throughout Dublin on the day—June 16th—now known as “Bloomsday” in honor of this wonderful novel. He brought out a big green Gifford annotation and had us read it alongside the original text so that we could see all that was wrapped up inside.

But I couldn’t get into it. An international holiday was nice, I conceded, but what the hell is the point of a 768-page book that even the author’s closest friends needed to read with a cheat key?

it’s a fascistic exercise in an author controlling rather than entertaining his “readers’. (No one has ever actually read it)


Reading dies in complexity: Online news consumers prefer simple writing (HILLARY C. SHULMAN, DAVID M. MARKOWITZ, AND TODD ROGERS, 5 Jun 2024, Science Advances)

Over 30,000 field experiments with The Washington Post and Upworthy showed that readers prefer simpler headlines (e.g., more common words and more readable writing) over more complex ones. A follow-up mechanism experiment showed that readers from the general public paid more attention to, and processed more deeply, the simpler headlines compared to the complex headlines. That is, a signal detection study suggested readers were guided by a simpler-writing heuristic, such that they skipped over relatively complex headlines to focus their attention on the simpler headlines. Notably, a sample of professional writers, including journalists, did not show this pattern, suggesting that those writing the news may read it differently from those consuming it. Simplifying writing can help news outlets compete in the competitive online attention economy, and simple language can make news more approachable to online readers.

Good writers communicate with the readesr, not themselves.


CHARLOTTE’S WEB REVISITED (Alexander Riley, 6 . 4 . 24, First Things)

The paragraph in which Charlotte dies—and particularly its second sentence, which is so beautifully constructed that it should be carved into a monument somewhere—still staggers me with both its literary perfection and the unbearable metaphysical weight of what it conveys:

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

It is true that there is a theme of defeating death in the novel, in Wilbur’s rescue from the holiday dinner table and his continued tie to Charlotte through her children. But even as a child, I knew this was insufficient. Death remains unconquered in the message of the passage on Charlotte’s death. The crushing solitude of those words—the heroine of the novel, a noble and selfless character, is alone in the deserted fairground, to disappear forever—left me with a feeling that lurked in the background of my life for years. It was that universal feeling of unease, anxiety, and trepidation in the face of this terrible thing that can seem to have no solution.

There’s only One Story.


Tolkien’s Secret: Tolkien’s tale reminds us that we ourselves are part of the Great Story. (Robert Lazu Kmita, June 8, 2024, European Conservative)

People cannot live without true stories, without sacred texts, without myths. Here is, in a nutshell, my shortest answer to the question I posed at the outset: being woven from stories themselves, people give preference to those authors who help them, as best they can, to remember the essential story that is hidden in the anonymity of their gray lives. This is, in my opinion, Tolkien’s secret (if he indeed had one).

Reading Tolkien’s stories, the characters with whom we are primarily invited to identify are the hobbits. Neither the lives of the majestic, immortal elves, nor the harshness and grandeur of the lives of kings like Aragorn or Theoden, nor the wisdom of a Maia like Gandalf are accessible to us. Instead, the little hobbits, with whom Tolkien himself happily identified, possess all those traits that any of us, the readers, would be glad to have: hardworking and disciplined; lovers of comfort, fun, and peaceful living; joyful in friendship; prudent and reserved when it came to foolish adventures; and wise, brave, and steadfast in serving a worthy cause. In short, they have noble souls hidden beneath the mask of humor and friendliness, just as we would (and could) wish to be.


Clausewitz in Middle-Earth: Although the setting feels medieval, the War of the Ring is recognizably a modern war. (Graham Macaleer, 5/24/24, Law & Liberty)

Clausewitz recommends war planners identify “the ultimate substance of enemy strength,” to find the “single center of gravity” of the enemy’s combat power. For Sauron, this is the One Ring and its place of origin, the fires of Mount Doom. Gandalf and Lord Elrond are clear-eyed: the West’s only hope is to get the Ring to Mount Doom and have it thrown into its fires. Clausewitz approves: “In war, the subjugation of the enemy is the end, and the destruction of his fighting forces the means.” About this concept, Clausewitz writes, “A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely. It presents the most effective target for a blow; furthermore, the heaviest blow is that struck by the center of gravity. The same holds true in war.” The Ring is the center of gravity of Sauron’s army, and, for the allies, Frodo is most able to deliver the “heaviest blow.”

The rootedness of Hobbits, twinned with Frodo’s patience and open, compassionate spirit, is “where the mass [of the West] is concentrated most densely.” Rootedness secures cohesion—a property under constant threat in war—and the moral forces so basic to combat power, according to Clausewitz. This is what leads Elves to dub Frodo “Elf-friend.” Frodo sets out on his quest for love of the Shire, but it is his gentleness towards Gollum, and his ability to grasp the higher things hinted at in Gandalf’s words about Sméagol, that gain final victory. It is a strategic advantage to the West that they know Sauron’s center of gravity, but he is ignorant of theirs. He only learns of the existence of the Shire late, once the die of the war is already cast, and he takes no time to learn its character, preoccupied as he is with finding the Ring’s whereabouts. The same ignorance undermines Saruman. He mocks Gandalf for his interest in the ways of the Shirelings, but it is Hobbits that trigger the Last March of the Ents.

In a letter, Tolkien says of Frodo:

Frodo undertook his quest out of love. … His real contract was only to do what he could, to try to find a way, and to go as far on the road as his strength of mind and body allowed. He did that. I do not myself see that the breaking of his mind and will under demonic pressure after torment was any more a moral failure than the breaking of his body would have been—say, by being strangled by Gollum, or crushed by a falling rock.

Clausewitz says all war is a series of duels and it is striking that Tolkien depicts the duel between Sauron and Frodo in terms of gravity. Long time bearer of the Ring, Gollum goes about on all fours—“Look at him! Like a nasty crawling spider on a wall. … Like some large prowling thing of insect-kind”—and Frodo is drawn to the ground, increasingly hunched over by the weight of the Ring about his neck. “In fact with every step towards the gates of Mordor Frodo felt the Ring on its chain about his neck grow more burdensome. He was now beginning to feel it as an actual weight dragging him earthwards.” Ultimately, Frodo will be prostrate on the ground, unable any longer to contend with the Dark Lord. This is when Sam, the gardener—expert in raising things from the soil—lifts Frodo up and carries him to Mount Doom.

Why Reagan vs the USSR was never a fair fight.


What would Thucydides say?: In constantly reaching for past parallels to explain our peculiar times we miss the real lessons of the master historian (Mark Fisher, 5/07/24, Aeon)

Thucydides was unusual among classical writers in stating directly what he hoped his readers would gain from his work. He would be content, he says, if History of the Peloponnesian War was deemed ‘useful’ by those who wanted ‘to scrutinise what actually happened and would happen again, given the human condition, in the same or similar fashion’ (my translation). The description nevertheless leaves readers wanting. How exactly such knowledge should prove useful is underspecified, and scholars have long disagreed over what Thucydides expected the utility of his text to be.

Most assume that Thucydides tried to offer his reader a type of foreknowledge that could potentially translate into active control over the politico-historical process. Taken to its extreme, this ‘optimistic’ interpretation reads History of the Peloponnesian War as a sort of ‘political systems users’ manual’, as Josiah Ober put it, capable of creating expert political technicians. Recognising regularities in the historical process, it is thought, should lead to predictive capacity, which in turn allows for political mastery. Proceeding in this fashion, Thucydides takes himself to be training master statesmen capable of solving the fundamental problems of political life.

Others detect a more pessimistic outlook in Thucydides’ stated ambition. They suggest that the lessons on offer are insufficient to produce control over events even if they can help the reader detect regularities in the political process. Unexpected events will often upset our expectations, as the plague did in Athens, and the ignorance of non-experts will often disrupt the translation of technical insight into effective policy. This problem will be particularly acute within a democratic context, where a popular eagerness to apply bastardised versions of such insights may even make matters worse. In this interpretation, Thucydides is ‘useful’ to the extent that he can temper the ambitions of those wishing to impose rational order onto political life. The best we can hope for, it seems, is to minimise our self-harm.

At issue between these two interpretive poles is the basic presumption of applied social science: to what extent can the recognition of recurring patterns translate into effective political policy? Yet, Thucydides was not writing social science as we know it. To the extent that his text articulated anything like fundamental laws of political behaviour, it did so through exemplary instances and carefully curated parallelisms. The Peloponnesian War served as a paradigmatic event for Thucydides: a particular instance that revealed general truths. It served this representative role, however, not because it was typical. Rather, it was exemplary because it was uniquely ‘great’. The war would prove useful, in other words, not because of history’s strict repetition, but by the pregnancy of similarity and the reader’s ability to parse analogies effectively.

Thucydides schools his readers in just how difficult such acts of analogical interpretation can be. A series of carefully considered verbal parallels, or what Jacqueline de Romilly has called fils conducteurs (‘guiding threads’), extend through Thucydides’ narrative like a web, ensnaring the reader in a constant and, at times, overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Sometimes, repetitions point towards important explanatory insights. But they also suggest likenesses that can lead the reader astray. Time and again, Thucydides confounds the expectations he has created. Even upon rereading, one can feel an internal tension between what one knows to be the case and what one is nonetheless led to expect will happen. Whether it is your first or your 15th read, you can still catch yourself thinking: this time surely Athens will win.

The evident lesson behind all of this is that we must learn how to choose the right parallels if we are to judge well in politics. But Thucydides also knew that we did not have full control of the analogies that shape our deliberations, especially in public life. Our analogical vocabulary is woven directly into the cultural fabric, a product of the contingencies that shape collective memory. We choose them no more than we choose the language we speak. (Once again, Marx: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’) Some events, such as the Persian Wars in Thucydides’ day or the Second World War in our own, simply loom too large to avoid, and we are easily held captive by the emotional weight of their cultural significance. Thucydides measured this gravitational pull also in terms of ‘greatness’, a concept that he identified closely with the production of collective trauma.

The danger inherent in this, of course, is that emotional resonance is often a poor guide to explanatory power.


Dune and progressive media illiteracy (Jaimee Marshall, 3 May, 2024, The Critic)

Dune is no exception to this baffling media illiteracy. There has been no shortage of op-eds released in recent years disparaging Frank Herbert’s novel and Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptations as an orientalist white saviour story that simultaneously culturally appropriates Middle Eastern culture while erasing representations of its people. These criticisms ring hollow if you engage with the story in any thoughtful manner. Dune cannot be accurately characterised as a white saviour story when its explicit thesis is that we should be wary of self-appointed saviours, of charismatic leaders who claim a benevolent desire to liberate people from their oppression, regardless of their race.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Denis Villeneuve said, “When the first novel came out, Frank Herbert was disappointed by the way the book has been perceived. We felt that the readers were thinking that Dune was a celebration of Paul Atreides, but rightly the opposite. His intentions were to make a cautionary tale, a warning towards messianic figures.” This caused Herbert to write a follow-up book called Dune: Messiah, where the dangers of blind allegiance are spelled out more clearly. In Villeneuve’s film adaptation, he transformed Chani’s character into a more prominent, sceptical, and outspoken character. “Through her eyes, we understand what Paul becomes and in which direction he goes, which transformed the movie not into a celebration but as Frank Herbert was wishing, more of a warning,” Villeneuve explains. Chani becomes the moral centre that the audience identifies with, which awakens them to the warning signs of what Paul is about to become.


Better a slow horse than a show horse (Jon D. Schaff, March 12, 2024, Current)

Maybe literary/philosophical figures such as Jackson Lamb, Socrates, Columbo and the rest exist to puncture our pretensions. In the specific case of those I just explicitly mentioned, the enigmatic characters exist to bring down the high and mighty, those who think they are smarter, wiser, better than everyone else. That is why each of those characters has a comic element. There is an ironic twist in, for instance, a Columbo story in which the seemingly mighty are brought low while the humble Columbo is shown to be the master of circumstances, always one step ahead of the pretentious fool who believes himself to be ahead of Columbo. This makes Columbo a comedic figure, the low man brought high. Yet, Columbo never lords over the criminal, rubbing the criminal’s face in his defeat. He mostly expresses pity that someone so obviously talented has gone so wrong.

We can draw from these characters the lesson of humility. Even Prince Hal, when he rises to Henry V, expresses doubts about his rule, agonizing over the cost of his decision to make war against France. Can we be humble in our successes? Can we avoid being the objects of the Socrates’ and Columbo’s, a person of inflated ego begging for someone to bring us down a peg? It may be better to be a slow horse than a foolish horse.


The “hero’s journey” isn’t as universal as you think: Joseph Campbell argued that nearly every myth can be boiled down to a hero’s journey. Was he right? (Tim Brinkhof, 3/25/24, Big Think)

Although the study of comparative mythology is certainly worthwhile — especially in terms of coming up with explanations for common themes like apocalyptic floods, fratricidal brothers, and virgin mothers, among others — scholars who engage in this field invariably run the risk of misinterpreting or misrepresenting the narrative traditions of cultures not their own. Bond and Christensen say this frequently happened to Campbell in his studies of Asian, African, and Native American folklore, which he either generalized until they fit into his philosophical framework or, in the case of his writing on the Sanskrit concept of ānanda, accidentally mistranslated.

As story consultant Steve Seager explains on his blog, the monomyth is only one type of ancient myth. While narratives like the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus and the battle between Marduk and Tiamat in Mesopotamian mythology can be summarized as hero’s journeys, many other tales of old — from tragedies like Oedipus Rex to folktales like Rumpelstiltskin, not to mention most creation myths — cannot.

Cultures from the ancient world not only had unique gods and monsters, but unique narrative traditions also. “Indian narrative forms are radically different from Western forms,” Seager writes. “Watch a Bollywood movie. One moment the film is a romance, then a thriller, then a musical, then a martial arts movie — confusing for a Western audience but totally natural for an Indian audience.” He defines these narrative forms as “eminently comfortable with complexity, non-linearity and the non-binary nature of being.” Where hero’s journeys deal in dualities, with the protagonist abandoning one worldview in favor of another, defeating the dragon or being defeated by it, Indian stories — shaped by Hinduism and Buddhism — do not typically present their conflicts in the framework of a choice.


Human Dignity and the Politics of Dune : Dune: Part Two contains conservative truths about human nature the fate of political faiths. (Kody W. Cooper, 3/22/24, Law & Liberty)

As the story progresses so does Jessica’s pregnancy, and the audience sees Paul’s fully human sister develop with striking visuals inside the womb, portraying Alia from her embryonic to later stages. At one point on the threat of death, Lady Jessica is forced to ingest a poisonous substance that the Fremen call the “Water of Life,” which sends her into life-threatening convulsions. But the Fremen did not know she was pregnant. When they realize they unwittingly endangered the baby girl, they lament: What have we done!?

Rarely has the silver screen featured such a powerful, if subtle, moral condemnation of chemically-induced abortion. Dune sends a clear message that human life has dignity from the moment of conception.